Hollinger: Predicting how the NBA Eastern Conference’s bottom 8 will shake out

Hollinger’s 2023-24 projections: West’s Bottom 8

The soft underbelly of the NBA’s Eastern Conference wasn’t nearly as soft last season as it has been most of the last two decades. Only two teams won fewer than 34 games, and 10 won at least 40. The “Least” actually won more games than the Western Conference overall, by a full 22 games, and it wasn’t just because of the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics; even the 13th- and 14th-best teams in the East outpaced their rivals out West.

But I wouldn’t necessarily expect a repeat. A couple of East teams have willfully taken steps back — most notably the Washington Wizards — while several others haven’t retrenched so much as held their fire for a moment in the future. That’s not a bad strategy for young and still somewhat rebuilding teams, of which the lower rung of the East has many, and probably even more tenable in a conference where the Bucks and Celtics would seem to have a huge advantage on the field.

As a result, I’m expecting a relatively low bar to qualify for the Play-In Tournament — after it took 40 wins a year ago — and several East teams to factor into the draft lottery discussion as we near the end of the season. Let’s take a closer look at my projected bottom eight teams in the East, what they’re doing and where they might be headed:

15. Washington Wizards (24-58)

Finally, belatedly, the Wizards are doing what everyone begged them to do from the moment it became apparent that John Wall’s contract was dead money: Tearing it down and starting over.

Alas, by waiting so long, they not only wasted a few years wandering the 35-win desert but also wasted a lot of Bradley Beal’s trade value. (The ridiculous no-trade clause in his extension didn’t help, either.) As a result, they’re starting over with their parlay from Beal totaling just a handful of seconds, first-round pick swaps with Phoenix that might never execute (though the one in 2030 has jackpot upside) and Jordan Poole.

The Wizards took on some veterans in the offseason as well (Tyus Jones, Delon Wright, Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, Danilo Gallinari), and you can see the outlines of the overarching strategy here: They’re going Process Light, if you will, with a team that can at least be respectably bad while the next generation develops. (Whispers: At least until the trade deadline.)

In that vein, turning Chris Paul into Poole and re-signing Kyle Kuzma came with near-zero opportunity cost; they can ride them in high-usage roles and let the kids develop organically, or flip them if another team comes at them with a good enough offer. There is little risk in Poole or Kuzma being so good that the Wizards inadvertently win too much. But with $25 million in float from the tax line and two mid-size trade exceptions from trading Kristaps Porziņģis ($12.3 million) and Monté Morris ($9.8 million), Washington still has plenty of ability to maneuver Thunder-style for more draft picks.

That gets to the heart of the matter in Washington: The Wizards simply must draft better. Washington had four straight years with top-15 picks and used them on Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Johnny Davis. The first three weren’t awful but weren’t starters either, while Davis looked like a bust from the first half of his first summer league game. They drafted Avdija over Devin Vassell and Tyrese Haliburton, took Isaiah Todd at No. 31 in 2020 — he wasn’t even a good G League player last season — and selected Issuf Sanon in a 2019 draft where the next five picks all cracked the league (Hamidou Diallo, De’Anthony Melton, Svi Mykhailiuk, Keita Bates-Diop and Chimezie Metu).

Washington’s first draft foray under new management this June had a decidedly international bent, trading up for an upside leap on French teen Bilal Coulibaly in the first round, then going with European stash pick Tristan Vukčević in the second.

While we wait on them, a more interesting immediate question is who on this roster is worth keeping for the next wave? Avdija shouldn’t have been taken in the lottery and still can’t shoot, but he’s an outstanding defender who can handle the ball; is he worth extending? A similar decision awaits on Kispert a year from now; a good shooter with clear limitations, he’s a nice third forward if the price is right.

Others will likely get chances to show they can stick. I was a fan of Ryan Rollins in the 2022 draft, but he hardly played in Golden State last season; surely he’ll have more chances in D.C. after the Warriors stuffed him into the Poole trade. Patrick Baldwin and Davis looked like busts as rookies, but they too will get chances to change the narrative this year.

On the court, the most interesting dynamic will be Poole and Kuzma as leading men. Renowned as two of the league’s thirstiest players, this has the potential to devolve into some serious your-turn, my-turn ugliness. The presence of two real point guards in Jones and Wright will hopefully mitigate that to some extent, but it’s something to watch. Either way, all roads likely lead to a win total in the 25-30 range, some more draft picks at the trade deadline when they cash in expiring deals such as those of Wright, Jones and Gallinari, and a couple more years of losing before the fun starts.


Robbins: Tommy Sheppard is gone, but what he said still matters for the Wizards’ future

The Pistons spent big on a coaching change this offseason to grab Monty Williams and have a healthy Cade Cunningham back and an athletic lottery pick in Ausar Thompson. Alas, that’s about where the good news ends: My raw numbers rate this as the league’s worst roster. While those figures almost certainly shortchange Cunningham based on his struggles last fall, it doesn’t get much better even if you put your finger on the scale.

If there’s a silver lining here, I expect the Pistons to be a watchable bad team, because of all the youthful athleticism on the roster. There’s still the chance of turning this around in two or three years, and there definitely will be some cool dunks regardless.

Let’s start with the bad stuff and work our way up. The Pistons won 17 games last season, and their two best players were 33 and 31. Yiiiikes. Not that that’s anything new: Prorating to 82 games, they wouldn’t have cleared the 25-win hurdle in any of the last four seasons. Cue the sad trombones.

There’s a solid chance the streak hits five. Yes, we should expect a full season of Cunningham, but he’d need to play at an All-Star level to get this team to 30 wins.

At this point, it’s fair to question whether that’s even remotely realistic. The top pick in the 2021 draft is certainly a good player, but I like him a lot better as a secondary weapon than as a high-usage on-ball creator. He’ll shoot better than he shot his first two seasons (he’s only 30.9 percent career from 3, which seems virtually impossible if you watch his release) and will almost certainly play better than in his aborted 12-game slog in 2022-23. The underlying issue, however, is that he will labor under the strain of a Luka-esque usage rate until somebody else on the Pistons proves they deserve to have the ball in their hands, and nobody has done that yet.

Jaden Ivey and Thompson would be the two best candidates. Certainly each will put together an impressive YouTube reel this season, but both have work to do to become a viable leading man. (Or a viable starter, really, but humor me.) Ivey is 6-4 and athletic and put together a halfway decent rookie season. However, he gets stopped in floater range a lot and isn’t very effective from there (21.3 percent of his shots were from 3-10 feet, and he only made 33.5 percent of them); he also needs to become more threatening shooting 3s when opponents go under screens. I’m not yet stressing over his underwhelming summer league and preseason, but at some point in Year 2, he needs to whelm.

Thompson is another non-shooter, but his athleticism stood out in summer league with 16 stocks (steals plus blocks) in four games. He’s going up many levels from Overtime Elite directly to the NBA, and the Pistons will likely need to ride out a bumpy first half of the season with him to get to a better second half (and second season). The payoff could be worth it, though; freak athletes with legit wing size don’t grow on trees.

I’ve also been impressed with Jalen Duren and am hopeful that the weird James Wiseman dalliance doesn’t get in the way of his development. (Or Isiah Stewart’s, for that matter; it seems like they’re trying to shoehorn Beef Stew into playing four so Wiseman or Marvin Bagley can get some run at the five.)

Duren had a monstrous 19.7 percent rebound rate as a 19-year-old rookie and has genuine feel as a passer; the rest of his game has a lot of rough edges, but if his defensive awareness catches up to his physical tools, he could be a top-10 center by the end of his rookie deal.

Around the edges, adding Monté Morris should be a low-key positive, relieving some ballhandling strain on Cunningham and, perhaps more importantly, allowing the coaching staff to stop gifting minutes to Killian Hayes. (Optimists will note that Hayes has had a very strong preseason.) Joe Harris, if his legs still work, adds some desperately needed shooting. I also was a fan of late first-round pick Marcus Sasser and think he can carve out a nice career as a third guard who can knock down shots.

Unfortunately, this year’s team might be worse in other respects. If there is any logic or reason being applied, Bojan Bogdanović and Alec Burks should be on new teams by February, erasing the two players who carried the offense a year ago. (Burks is 32 and on an expiring deal; Bogie is 34 and has another partially guaranteed year left after this one.) Even if they stay, their ages suggest Detroit won’t get quite as much from either as it did in 2022-23. (While we’re here: Morris is 28 and on an expiring deal; he’s extension-eligible and may be worth keeping beyond this year.)

The rest of the roster is young, and that’s mostly a good thing. But right now, it’s a little too young. On the other hand, the one young player who had paid the most immediate dividends (Saddiq Bey) was sacrificed last winter for a moonshot on Wiseman. As far as depressing silver linings go, a Wiseman-Bagley frontcourt has huge Tank Commander potential for the spring of 2024.

Unfortunately, it’s not a great year to be terrible, as this draft class doesn’t appear to have a Victor Wembanyama (or even an Anthony Edwards). Nonetheless, the Pistons should take their lumps, develop the kids, get what they can for Bogdanović and Burks in the trade market and see what $60 million or so in cap room gets them a year from now. Hopefully they have the patience to absorb the beatings for another year.

With a new coach and a raw roster, I’m not sure why the Pistons would even be interested in winning more than 26 games, other than that they’re so sick of losing (the last time the Pistons won a playoff game, Sam Cassell played in it). Impatience, alas, is not a cure for reality; this soup needs at least one more year on the burner before the flavor kicks in.



Pistons depth-chart prediction 2.0: Will Jaden Ivey really come off the bench?

I wrote earlier how I think the Magic might underperform what many have projected for them, because I just don’t see any way this team even sniffs averageness on offense. They were 26th a year ago with 80 games of Franz Wagner and 72 of Paolo Banchero. While each could take a step forward this year, I’ll take the under on 5,000 combined minutes between the two.

Otherwise, as I already noted, there’s just no shooting anywhere, especially if you aren’t counting on career 37 percent marksman Gary Harris to hit 43 percent from downtown again. Adding Joe Ingles and Jett Howard may help at the margins, but I don’t see them playing or launching enough to appreciably change the underlying math problem.

That Orlando’s top three scorers are frontcourt players acutely underlines the key issue here: The Magic have cornered the market on guards who can’t shoot. Cole Anthony shot 36.4 percent from 3 on relatively low volume, and things quickly get worse from there. Jalen Suggs was at 32.7 percent, lottery pick Anthony Black made 30.1 percent on low volume at Arkansas, and Markelle Fultz has never made a 3-pointer (prove me wrong).

Taking a half-step back this year, however, is perhaps irrelevant in the larger picture. The Magic didn’t tear down their team three years ago so they could win 37 games and make the Play-In Tournament. Look a year or two down the line, and the picture brightens: The Magic aren’t that far away from being genuinely good and have assembled most of the necessary pieces to get there relatively quickly.

Orlando has done a great job keeping its powder dry salary-cap wise, and while that ruse doesn’t come with an infinite timeline, it is very useful during the current window when Wagner and Banchero are on rookie contracts. (I should also mention Black here; he can’t shoot yet and may struggle as a rookie, but I’m very bullish on his defense and IQ long term.)

Orlando is in position to have $80 million in cap room in 2024, enough to sign two max contracts at the same time, and the Magic can do it while still having their top three scorers plus Black, Suggs and Howard under contract. Yes, it’s probably unrealistic to expect two stars to land in their orbit, especially in a year when most of the best potential free agents are either forwards or 30-somethings. However, the fact that the Magic can also trade into this space makes it easier to imagine Orlando signing one good guard, trading for another and suddenly having a real offense.

Alternatively, they could start down that road this season by using their slew of expiring contracts and future draft choices — they have all of their own firsts plus Denver’s pick in 2025 — to add talent in-season. However, such a move might hinder the Magic from further evaluating who else they want along for the ride in the middle part of this decade.

That key piece is one other reason for being slightly bearish on Orlando’s record this year: Guys such as Black, Howard, Suggs and Caleb Houstan should and will play, even if it has a negative impact in the short term.

An offseason pick swap trade with Phoenix gives you some insight into how Orlando is seeing this: The Magic set the swap for 2026, essentially betting that by then the team will be good enough that trading spots with the lesser of the Suns or Wizards pick will still have value for them. It’s a fascinating attempt to thread a timeline needle, projecting that the Suns will be on their way down but the Wizards won’t yet be too far on their way up … and that the Magic, of course, will be better than both.

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Franz Wagner congratulates Paolo Banchero after a basket against the Toronto Raptors last season. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

This offseason, the Bulls had a choice to make between blowing it up and running it back, and decided to run it back. I have a feeling that, by the next offseason, the choice will have been made for them.

Yes, the Lonzo Ball injury was a bad break, but that situation seems unlikely to change. Chicago’s best hope at this point is a medical retirement that would wipe Ball’s $21 million off its 2024-25 cap.

One can argue the Bulls weren’t quite in a great position to blow things up this past summer, anyway. Zach LaVine was great last year, but teams have concerns about his knees with four years still to run on his deal. Moreover, better guards were available on the trade market for the win-now teams.

DeMar DeRozan’s midrange-heavy style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and letting Nikola Vučević walk for nothing was a non-starter. (Chicago extended him for three years and $60 million.) As one front-office insider noted to me, the internal optics of trading a lottery pick for Vooch and then seeing him leave for nothing in free agency were untenable; the Bulls had no choice but to re-sign him. Technically they did it as an extension, which at least makes him immediately tradeable.

The rest of Chicago’s offseason was pretty good and mostly involved players who are young enough to be relevant to a rebuild. Coby White quietly improved substantially last season, and his three-year, $36 million deal could end up a fantastic value. Jevon Carter plugs into the Pat Beverley role at a reasonable $19 million over three years, and Ayo Dosunmu is back at three years and $21 million. Depth pieces Torrey Craig and Terry Taylor are reasonable adds on minimum deals.

With another lottery pick gone to Orlando from the disastrous Vučević trade, Chicago’s draft yielded only second-rounder Julian Phillips, a raw but toolsy defender who likely needs G League seasoning. While he’s uncomfortably similar to little-used 2022 first-rounder Dalen Terry, the general rule of thumb in the NBA is that you can never have too many 6-7 guys. Also, keep an eye on two-way addition Adama Sanogo, who might be skilled enough to carve out a career as a backup five.

With all that said, the big picture gets back to the Bulls entering a year on the precipice, with a teardown looming if they can’t win half their games. Last season, as I already noted, they had incredible health aside from Ball and still managed to win just 40, although they played well after the All-Star break. This season, even that total may be hard to achieve.



Bulls set baseline for a successful season, but will it be any different?

Authorities in North Carolina issued a criminal summons for Miles Bridges last Wednesday, alleging violation of a domestic violence protective order, misdemeanor child abuse and injury to personal property, according to a copy of the summons obtained by The Athletic. Bridges also missed all of last season after pleading no contest to a felony domestic violence charge last November. Bridges is a talented basketball player, but I don’t see an endgame where the Hornets can sell having him continue to be part of the program.

An extended or permanent Bridges absence from the court would further expose what is already a paper-thin Charlotte bench. But there are some reasons for optimism in The Hive. LaMelo Ball is back and healthy after an offseason where The Discourse went so off the rails that he was compared unfavorably to the distantly third-best player on a 43-win team. (Reminder: Ball in 2021-22, was far and away the best player on a 43-win team … as a 20-year-old.) Ball needs to defend more soundly and improve his finishing package, but let’s not get carried away: He rebounds like a four, hits 3s from several feet beyond the line and is one of the five best transition players in the league. He still can get better too.

I’m not sure how high Brandon Miller’s ceiling is, and one can fairly question whether Charlotte should have taken Scoot Henderson instead — though he would have presented overlap issues with Ball — but Miller should help fairly immediately. A plus shooter with size, a solid handle and the ability to cover wings, Miller probably needs to get more air under his 3-ball to threaten Khris Middleton-type devastating efficiency with the jumper, but he should be a capable replacement for the departed Kelly Oubre.

Charlotte also used a late first-rounder on Nick Smith, a somewhat undersized two who showed some spectacular defensive unawareness in summer league, but Smith is also quick and can score; he may be pressed into minutes right away given how weak the back end of this roster is. The 2021 draft tire fire looms large on the end of the bench, where James Bouknight (woefully ineffective and currently injured), Kai Jones (already waived) and JT Thor (possibly, maybe playable?) soak up cap and roster spots. A healthy return from Cody Martin would improve the wing situation quite a bit, but the overall depth picture is … yikes.

One thing to keep an eye on this year is Gordon Hayward’s giant $31 million expiring contract, which could be used as an in-season trade chip to bring in somebody healthier and younger. The Hornets are limited by a future protected first they owe to San Antonio (top-14 protected this year and next), but they have other draft capital that could be used to spike a deal. (Also, may we interest you in a lightly used Bouknight?)

Finally, let’s talk about Mark Williams. It took the Hornets forever to play him during his rookie year, but he absolutely destroyed the G League and put up impressive numbers down the stretch once they traded Mason Plumlee. His potential emergence could be a difference-maker.

There’s a playoff upside here if a healthy Ball plays like a top-20 player, Miller is plug-and-play from day one and Williams rewards the team’s faith in him as a starting five. More likely, however, is an at-times-exciting-but-ultimately-forgettable run to almost making the Play-In.

The Pacers’ handling of the Buddy Hield situation gives you a little bit of a window into the mindset of where they are right now: Not tanking, certainly, because they tried to extend him, but not so locked in on this year that they aren’t willing to take a half-step back if it helps the future. Already they made one small move in that direction in the offseason, trading Chris Duarte for a future second after it seemed he’d be crowded out of this year’s rotation.

That’s the right approach if you look at the birth certificates on the roster. Haliburton is 23, Myles Turner is 27 and Bennedict Mathurin is 21. Their big free-agent get (Bruce Brown) is 27 and was signed in part to be a giant trade exception for anything bigger and better that might come up later. (Brown’s $23 million team option for next year makes him an instant salary match for any big-fish trade in the next 18 months.)

Several other key or hoped-to-be key players are in their early-to-mid 20s as well, with Hield, T.J. McConnell and Daniel Theis the only Pacers older than 27. Indy has Haliburton locked up for half a decade and Turner for at least two more years; now the battle is trying to find a second offensive star.

If the Pacers do part with Hield, he’ll be missed for his devastating floor spacing, but the Pacers glaring lack of size on the perimeter is something that needs addressing. If Mathurin, Haliburton and Andrew Nembhard (an impressive defender as a rookie whose offense needs to catch up) are the backcourt rotation of the future, there’s no room left at the inn for Hield unless he plays out of position. Brown is only slightly bigger but much more capable of defending up a position, but even he feels more like a stopgap than the long-term solution; the swap Indy really needs is exchanging Hield for a 6-7 guy, but finding that deal is a challenge.

The Pacers also took some steps to address an even more glaring weakness from a year ago at the power forward spot, trading for Obi Toppin and drafting Jarace Walker with the eighth pick.

While the Walker vs. Taylor Hendricks debate will be interesting going forward (he was the draft’s other highly rated power forward, whom the Jazz selected right after the Pacers took Walker), this is a solid move to upgrade what might have been the league’s worst positional group last season. Jalen Smith proved to everyone’s satisfaction that he’s merely an undersized five, while starting 6-5 Aaron Nesmith at the four is not a tenable path forward.

Toppin, in particular, is interesting because he’s so blazing fast in transition; together with Haliburton and Mathurin, Indy could juice the pace even higher than last year’s fourth-ranked outfit. The Pacers have an interesting decision coming on whether to extend him before he hits restricted free agency or play it out; historically, the Pacers have been a draft-and-develop team and haven’t plunged heavily into free agency (Brown excepted), so locking in a number for the 25-year-old could be their preferred play. The Pacers cap sheet is clean enough that realistic numbers for Toppin shouldn’t be a worry, either, though they may want to see what Hield fetches in a trade first. (Nesmith is also extension-eligible but not the caliber of player who is typically extended a year out.)

Walker, meanwhile, was an off-ball defensive menace at Houston with his shot blocking and activity and could balance out bench units with Theis at the five. (The mercurial Isaiah Jackson is also in the picture here.) The Pacers also had a late first-round pick in Ben Sheppard; he can shoot but otherwise struggled at summer league and will have to work through a crowd at shooting guard to see minutes. Second-rounder Isaiah Wong joins last year’s second-rounder Kendall Brown on the two-way roster; Wong can get downhill but needs to shoot more consistently and has three good point guards ahead of him.

Overall, I rate these Pacers similar to a year ago: good enough to stay in the playoff race for much of the season, but ultimately lacking the second star and quality forwards who would enable them to win more games than they lose. In the soft underbelly of the East, they have a good chance of squeezing out a Play-In appearance.

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Tyrese Haliburton is a clear part of Indiana’s future. Buddy Hield’s status is a bit more unclear. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

Let us stop for a moment and genuflect at the Hawks’ seemingly perfect averageness. They went 41-41 last year and were within two games of .500 in either direction for the last three months of the season; they then backed it up by going 3-4 in the postseason. Across 89 games of regular and postseason, they scored 10,522 points and allowed 10,519. Naturally, they finished eighth in a 15-team conference.

The roster is comfortably middle class as well. The Hawks are led by the league’s 15th-best player (Trae Young), give or take, and they quite plausibly have the league’s 45th-best (Dejounte Murray) and 75th-best (Clint Capela) players as the main supporting cast. They play in neither a small market nor a coastal metropolis. All their employees have 1.9 children and drive a Toyota Camry. Can we just rename them the Atlanta Median?

So … what do they do to get out of this? Atlanta thought it was positioned for something much greater when it made the conference finals in 2021, but the last two seasons have produced middling records and early playoff exits. The Hawks are under new management and brought in Quin Snyder to take over on the sideline, but roster-wise have mostly run it back.

At least we don’t have John Collins trade rumors anymore. Those have been replaced by a $23 million trade exception that might be Atlanta’s best pathway to do something more interesting with this roster. Alas, other constraints could get in the way: The Hawks can’t trade a first-round pick of their own until 2029 because of the Murray trade, and — after factoring in potential incentives in the contracts of four players — the team is just $4 million from a luxury-tax line that ownership has shown no interest in exceeding. As a result, the Collins exception seems much more likely to be a factor in the 2024 offseason than it is in the 2023-24 campaign.

The good news is that the Hawks finally ripped off this particular Band-Aid, freeing themselves cap-wise to pursue some other moves. The Hawks somewhat surprisingly were able to ink Murray to an extension, eliminating an existential threat in the 2024 offseason. While the tax is still an issue — a likely “pick one” choice looms between extending Saddiq Bey or Onyeka Okongwu — and De’Andre Hunter’s $90 million extension remains an ongoing thorn in their side, the core group now seems stable for as long as management wants it to be.

Ultimately, the larger question is, how good could the peak version of this team really be? Snyder should help maximize the on-court talent, even if his taste in offense differs markedly from the Hawks tradition of spamming Young pick-and-rolls. His track record suggests he’ll improve the main problem of Atlanta’s offense of a year ago, when the team was just 28th in 3-point frequency. A full season of Bey spacing the floor could also help, and keep an eye on the breakout potential of athletic third-year pro Jalen Johnson, who has been monstrous in preseason. On the other hand, first-round pick Kobe Bufkin struggled in summer league and may need more time before he can contribute, and the small forward spot remains shaky at best.

Yes, there’s a glass-half-full upside to be something — perhaps Snyder elevates this roster to a mid-40s win total and a top-six seed. Nonetheless, any conference finals return feels like a serious longshot. Until further notice, all roads lead back to .500 and a third straight jaunt in the Play-In Tournament.

My numbers project the Nets with 0.1 wins more than the Hawks. Either way, this would be a fun Play-In game for the final East playoff spot.

The Nets didn’t exactly fall apart after they traded Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant last season. Brooklyn finished a respectable 13-15 in its final 28 games, with Mikal Bridges averaging 26.1 points per game — just one point less than Irving! — and playing his usual stellar defense.

Yes, some of this respectability was driven by the Nets’ best six players staying healthy while other teams waved the white flag, and yes, the Philadelphia series more clearly exposed the Nets’ limitations. Nonetheless, I’m more bullish on Brooklyn than consensus: The Nets didn’t stand still in the offseason, have the assets to do work in-season and have a realistic chance of getting back to the playoffs.

I wrote about much of this in my over-under column, but let me focus on one aspect here in particular: The Nets are in the very rare historical position of owing a bunch of their own future picks, but owning an even bigger pile of picks from other teams. Even if they found their current roster hopeless, the Nets would have zero incentive to rebuild until the 2027-28 season, when their final pick obligation to Houston from the James Harden trade goes away.

Instead the Nets are sitting on a pile of future draft capital that could prove extremely valuable at the end of the decade — unprotected firsts from Phoenix and Dallas in 2029; a lightly protected Philly first in 2027 and an unprotected Phoenix first in 2027; and swap rights with the Suns in 2028. While those three teams are star-driven playoff outfits at the moment, they may be facing resets of their own in the near future, which would drive the value of those picks through the roof.

The Nets are also not hemmed in by the Stepien rule because of the future picks from other teams. That they have an unprotected 2025 first coming from Phoenix means they can trade their swapped pick with the Rockets in 2025, for instance. That’s the type of asset that could be combined with, say, Royce O’Neale’s expiring contract to upgrade the roster for the next two seasons … without touching the high-upside picks in their holster at the end of the decade. Even if they go for bigger prey and require more firsts, they could dip into the 2027 haul and preserve 2029, or involve (lightly protected) picks of their own in 2028 or 2030.

The Nets also sit on a $19 million trade exception from the Joe Harris trade, although they’d be more likely to use it after the season since they’re only $8 million from the tax line. Just around the corner is the possibility of Ben Simmons’ contract becoming a huge $40 million expiring deal in 2024.

The one potential pitfall is that the Nets will need to pay Nic Claxton next summer — the ironic punishment for signing him to such a great deal that it makes his contract functionally unextendable. But even with Simmons on the books, the Nets have plenty of wiggle room under the tax, and the two most important players (Bridges and Cam Johnson) are signed on extremely reasonable deals through 2026.

Even as a believer in the Brooklyn Bridges Breakout, and even knowing there’s a decent chance the Nets trade draft picks to improve the current roster, I’d feel better about this team winning half its games if I believed more in the bench. O’Neale is the only reliable player, and even his level of play has wobbled the last two seasons. An engaged and healthy Simmons obviously would help, but nobody is betting on that until they see it; at least consider it a wild card that could turn in Brooklyn’s favor.

After that, recent draft picks fill much of the roster. Cam Thomas has his moments as a scorer but suffers from extreme tunnel vision and gets targeted on defense. Day’Ron Sharpe is an awesome rebounder, but his minutes have otherwise been … let’s go with “uneven.” First-round pick Noah Clowney is a serious project who looked miles away from being a good summer league player, much less helping the varsity, while their other first-rounder (Dariq Whitehead), has big long-term upside as a two-way wing who can shoot but is recovering from a second foot surgery and may ramp up slowly.

Brooklyn did make two interesting offseason bets on Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV. Smith is an All-Defense-caliber defender who really struggles to shoot but could hold down the backup point guard job behind Spencer Dinwiddie (another extension candidate, by the way). Walker’s shot also comes and goes, but his athleticism may allow him to be the Nets’ fourth wing after a solid playoff run for the Lakers last spring.

Yes, it’s hard to talk yourself into any Nets outcome beyond getting squashed like a bug in the first round of the playoffs, but the floor seems relatively high. In this conference, at least, the Nets seem more likely to make the postseason than miss it, and they could trade themselves into a more impressive roster somewhere along the way.

(Photos of DeMar DeRozan, Trae Young and Kyle Kuzma: Brad Mills, David Yeazell, Brett Davis: USA Today)

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