The NBA features roughly 450 of the world's biggest basketball talents strewn about across 30 rosters, an ever-evolving group that changes with every draft choice, retirement, G-League call-up and international free agent. It is the responsibility of team executives to find the right blend of those 15 guys to best enable on-court success. There are a vast array of other factors and challenges in play, sure. But this fundamental goal highlights just how easy it is for a club to wind up with a piece or two that just doesn't quite fit the larger puzzle.
Contrary to what you might assume, this isn't just a problem facing bad teams. Sure, the league's bottom dwellers likely haven't found anything close to the right mix of talent to join the elite. But just about every team faces the continued need to tweak and rework things. Whether that means a position on the floor not being adequately filled or a glut of redundant players, just about every franchise invariably has work to do from an on-court personnel standpoint.
If it's a problem plaguing NBA teams, then it's a problem plaguing NBA players, too. The league will always be dictated by the varying levels of talent and ability to win among its players, but also important is how they fill their role and mesh with teammates. Currently, even some of the league's best players are stuck on a team where their ability is being limited and potential unrealized. There's hope for some of these players, albeit hope that is likely contingent upon moving on to another organization. For others, however, a fate of disappointment and unmet expectations appears to be set.
Let's take a closer look at 10 guys desperate for a change of scenery and a fresh start, along with eight who even a new jersey probably can't salvage.
18 Won't Help: Joakim Noah
For now, at least, it appears that Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks are stuck with each other. Both sides would love nothing more than severing all ties with one another, but the Knicks are unlikely to find a trade partner interested in taking on an oft-injured and aging big man with a massive contract and Noah is understandably reluctant to sacrifice much of the $38 million he's still owed to facilitate a buyout. And so the 33-year-old continues to sit at home and collect paycheques from the team that has banished him.
Assuming the situation persists, there is little to suggest that Noah would generate any interest when he becomes a free agent in 2020.
The former Florida Gator will be 35 by then and more than five years removed from playing anything even approaching a full NBA season. That the Knicks have gotten zero veteran leadership out of the power forward might deter other teams from even taking a cheap, one-year flyer on the two-time All-Star. At present time, it sure looks like the well-compensated Noah has played his last game.
17 Needs A Change: Dirk Nowitzki
If a "Free Dirk" movement hasn't started in the Dallas-Fort Worth area yet, maybe now is the time. It feels like a lifetime ago that Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title and the Mavs and Mark Cuban have simply failed the big German at every turn since then, in spite of his tendency to consistently take hometown discounts.
Nowitzki, a Mavericks legend and surefire Hall of Famer doesn't deserve to go out like this.
Not floundering for a rebuilding franchise while answering questions about improprieties from the club's front office staff. True to form, Nowitzki has never shown the slightest indication of being disgruntled. But imagine how happy fans around the NBA would be to see the soon-to-be 40-year-old get one last shot at meaningful basketball on a contender. Deep down, I think he'd be happy too.
16 Needs A Change: Bobby Portis
Sadly, the most notable thing about the Chicago Bulls this year came during a pre-season practice back in October when a Bobby Portis punch left then-teammate Nikola Mirotic with a concussion and a fractured face. Remarkably, it is Portis who the rest of the locker room sided with in the dispute, not to mention who continues to remain with the club. No one could blame the 23-year-old, however, if remaining a Bull doesn't exactly represent an ideal scenario.
Portis currently faces the frustrating double whammy of playing for a team mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and still not being elevated into a feature player.
A mid-season trade that sent Mirotic to New Orleans should have opened up more opportunities for the Arkansas star at power forward, but it seems that he has now been leap-frogged in the pecking order by standout rookie Lauri Markannen. Maybe Portis now finds himself envying the possibly playoff-bound Mirotic.
15 Won't Help: Reggie Jackson
Three years ago, the Detroit Pistons bought the Reggie Jackson narrative hook, line and sinker. Then a 24-year-old backup point guard on the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jackson managed to convince the Pistons that he was a budding superstar being held back by his placement behind Russell Westbrook on the OKC depth chart. His case was supported by impressive scoring numbers for a backup point guard, but those numbers have since come to prove that Jackson is more adept at padding his own stats than helping his team get better.
While the Pistons reached the postseason in Jackson's first full Motown season (they were swept by Cleveland), they haven't been back since.
Instead, the 28-year-old has spear-headed two sub-.500 seasons while taking about 13 shots per game and averaging less than five assists over that time. To be fair, he's also been hindered by a checkered injury history that has seen him miss 67 games over that two-year stretch. Unfortunately for Pistons fans, he remains on the books for two more years with over $35 million still owed.
14 Needs A Change: Tristan Thompson
To be fair, Tristan Thompson has benefitted greatly from the Cleveland Cavaliers, winning a ring and earning a fat contract from the only NBA home he's ever known. Now, amidst the circus that is the club's 2017-18 season, it might be time for a fresh start elsewhere. While the Cavs' drama headlined by LeBron James and Kevin Love has been well documented, it surely doesn't help that the big Canadian has seen less floor time than at any other time during his seven-year career.
Thompson is hardly the biggest cog in Cleveland's immediate future, given the murky status of James, whom he just happens to share an agent with.
But Khloe Kardashian's baby daddy may be better off elsewhere regardless of 'Bron's future. Should the King leave in free agency, Thompson probably wouldn't want any part of a rebuild. If James does come back, he would likely spearhead an offense that still doesn't require a traditional center like Thompson.
13 Needs A Change: Joe Harris
Haven't heard of Joe Harris? You aren't alone. Even though he plays in a borough of North America's biggest media market, Harris is a Brooklyn Net and, thus, remains fairly anonymous despite ranking 15th league-wide in shooting percentage among guards. Despite toiling for a bottom feeder and taking fewer than eight shots a game, the former Virginia star has managed to average nearly 11 points per contest and make a fan out of Bill Simmons of The Ringer.
For those in the know, Harris projects to be the league's next signature gunner in the grand tradition of Ray Allen and Kyle Korver.
He also happens to be a pending free agent, and doesn't appear poised to come cheap. With NBA executives well aware of the capabilities of the 26-year-old, he stands as a prime suspect to get a contract that prompts the average NBA fan to say "they gave this guy how much???". Not only will the money be nice for Harris, but so, too, will the opportunity to be a dangerous complimentary player alongside a star or two.
12 Won't Help: Elfrid Payton
Hard as it may seem to believe, Elfrid Payton is already a veteran of 300 NBA games. You could be forgiven for not knowing that, given how meaningless and largely irrelevant they have mostly been. True, the 2014 10th overall pick hasn’t enjoyed the greatest of supporting casts over four playoffs-less seasons in Orlando and Phoenix, but he hasn’t exactly made the most of his extended opportunities either. The point guard remains better known for his wild hairstyle than anything productive he’s done on an NBA court.
At this point, even at just 24 years of age, it’s hard to feel that Payton is anything more than what we’ve seen.
A benefit on playing for bad teams, he has averaged nearly 30 minutes a night through his career despite never scoring more than 13 points or dishing more than 6.5 assists. It took the Magic three and a half years to decide he wasn’t worth the investment, sending him to the desert for a second round pick. Phoenix hasn’t seen much more from him and now face an RFA question this summer, meaning that he could be on the move again.
11 Needs A Change: Kent Bazemore
Kent Bazemore has been an Atlanta Hawk for four seasons now. In that time, he's seen the franchise go from 60-win regular season powerhouse to a prime draft lottery contender. No one likes to play for a loser, but there is surely some added sting for the 28-year-old in going from ideal fit on a contender to awkward piece on a bottom feeder.
It wasn't that long ago that Bazemore served as part of a deadly gang of Hawks long range gunners that included DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver and Mike Scott.
All three are gone, as are interior anchors Paul Millsap and Al Horford, who helped create space for their sharpshooting teammates. Now, the Old Dominion alum has assumed the ill-fitting role of feature scorer on a roster bereft of talent. Perhaps a shooter-needy contender will take him off of Atlanta's hands this summer, but the Hawks would probably need to eat some of the $18 million he's owed next year.
10 Won't Help: Maurice Harkless
Six years into his NBA career, and it’s still challenging to get a read on just what Maurice Harkless is as an NBA player. The St. John’s product was seen by those in the know as something of a dark horse superstar when he was taken 15th overall out of St. John’s in 2012. That certainly hasn’t happened, and the Orlando Magic opted to cut the bait on Harkless after three seasons of insufficient offensive numbers. An arrival in Portland back in 2015 failed to spark what is currently a 7.3 points per game average, even as the long-armed 6’9” small forward develops a cult following in the city.
Coach Terry Stotts continues to trust Harkless enough to make him a semi-regular starter at small forward, but think about how dangerous the Blazers could be if they had another dynamic wing scorer to compliment the back court duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Harkless remains under contract for two more years, but likely won’t approach the $10 million per year he’s currently earning once this contract runs out.
9 Needs A Change: Jonathon Simmons
When it comes to costly errors and misjudgements in free agency, we tend to focus on teams who have either missed out on a coveted target or locked themselves into an overpaid bust. Often overlooked, though, are the mistakes made by players, who can be susceptible to opting for a poor fit while chasing the money. Currently, Jonathon Simmons of the Orlando Magic looks like a prime example of this.
Simmons had emerged as yet another success story coming out of the San Antonio Spurs' system, going from undrafted free agent to valued role player on a winning team. The 28-year-old shooting guard appeared to be reaching a new level when he averaged 20 minutes, started four games and boasted a double digit scoring average during the 2017 playoffs. But that summer, the Spurs, leery of spending big to retain Simmons, pulled a qualifying offer and left him to sign in Orlando for three years and $20 million. The Houston alum has since struggled in a more featured role for the lowly Magic and will watch the playoffs from home while San Antonio probably rolls into its 21st consecutive postseason.
8 Won't Help: Derrick Favors
You'd be hard-pressed to name a top NBA draft pick in recent memory who has remained as remarkably under the radar as has Derrick Favors. Some early career excitement centered around being the third selection in the 2010 NBA Draft and being involved in the Deron Williams blockbuster has dissipated into years upon years of posting perfectly adequate but unexciting numbers for the Utah Jazz.
Supporters of Favors can point to a steady and reliable consistency he has offered the Jazz. The Georgia Tech product has now spent eight seasons in Utah, emerging as a nightly starting power forward alongside Rudy Gobert over the past five thanks to steady scoring (12.1 points per game) and rebounding (7.4 per game) numbers while serving as part of the starting five for the Jazz. But even at just 26 years of age, it's difficult to see Favors as anything more than a known quantity. As he gets set for free agency, opposing teams may be leery of spending big for a slightly above league average big man.
7 Needs A Change: Justise Winslow
Is there something we're all missing with Justise Winslow? One of the darlings of the 2015 NBA Draft, the Duke alum surprised many observers by falling into the waiting arms of the Miami Heat at No. 10. After a standout rookie season and breakthrough playoff performance, however, he has now come off of an injury-riddled season and struggled to regain his footing as a front line member of the Heat.
Most notably, Winslow has lost minutes to Josh Richardson, who was drafted exactly 30 spots after him in 2015. Richardson currently holds the starter's role at the small forward spot and is averaging about nine more minutes per game than his fellow 2015 draftee. Unfortunately for Winslow, he remains locked into a very team-friendly contract through 2020. But other clubs may see more value in the 22-year-old than his current second unit standing and may be able to wrest him away from Miami.
6 Won't Help: Tyreke Evans
A near-career 2017-18 season for Tyreke Evans was, quite frankly, wasted in Memphis. Despite averaging 19.4 points per game, his best scoring average since his rookie season, his Grizzlies stumbled to a 22-60 record - the second-worst mark in the league - and then failed to facilitate a trade deadline deal that could have potentially landed him with a contender. Surely, the pending free agent will generate interest and find a better fit in his pursuit of the first championship of his nine-year career, right? Well, not necessarily.
Impressive as the former No. 4 overall pick's offensive numbers were this year, they were surely boosted by his high usage and ball dominance. Most league executives have a pretty good read on Evans, whose scoring stats can often come at the expense of a collective, team-oriented offensive flow. Known as a potential chemistry disruptor, it's not entirely surprising that Evans posted nice numbers on a terrible team.
5 Needs A Change: Kemba Walker
When Kemba Walker's name began floating about in trade rumours earlier this season, Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan was quick to state that the former UConn star would not be going anywhere - unless the team got another star back. Yes, the comment highlighted how His Airness views Walker as a star, but also acknowledged that the organization would be prepared to move in another direction if the offer was right.
And maybe a mutual separation is for the best. The Hornets' promising playoff push in 2016-17 has quickly fallen by the wayside this season and any sense of forward momentum for the franchise is all but gone. Walker will soon be 28 and still has plenty to offer if handed the keys to a new offense. Meanwhile, Charlotte may need to bottom out and rebuild around higher ceiling talent than the two-time All-Star.
4 Won't Help: Dragan Bender
The NBA would be a better place if someone with a name out of Game of Thrones were a major feature player. Sadly, that isn't the case yet when it comes to Dragan Bender of the Phoenix Suns, and it may never be. Despite the emergence of star scorer Devin Booker, the Suns remain hapless thanks in part to a disastrous 2016 NBA Draft that saw GM Ryan McDonough work to land two top eight picks, only to use them on struggling big men Bender and Marquese Chriss.
Advertised as a 7'1" deep threat and a player ideally suited for today's NBA game, Bender has looked tentative and unsure of himself even as Phoenix gives him more opportunities.
The 20-year-old still has time to develop, but hasn't gotten stronger or grown as a defender yet in a meaningful way that offsets his raw offensive game. It might seem harsh to suggest that a player just out of his teens and less than two years removed from being the fourth overall pick won't be saved by a change of scenery, but the lowly Suns organization has offered the Bosnia native an amount of rope that few other NBA clubs could afford to be so charitable with.
3 Needs A Change: Thon Maker
Why no love for Thon Maker? The high energy Sudanese big man came under scrutiny right off the hop, with critics feeling that the Milwaukee Bucks were reaching when they selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The seven footer acquitted himself fairly well for the Bucks in a rookie campaign that saw him average under 10 minutes per contest and then make an impression in an enhanced role during Milwaukee's six-game playoff effort against the Toronto Raptors.
Maker's post-season mini-breakout seemed like a sign of bigger things to come, but 2017-18 brought just a slight uptick in minutes and far fewer starting opportunities. Just 21 and looking for a chance to make his mark in the NBA, Maker remains stuck behind John Henson and Tyler Zeller on the Bucks' center depth chart, with Milwaukee leaning heavily on small lineups built around Giannis Antetokounmpo that leave little hope for future growth for the big man. Surely some other team could better make use of a two-way threat who offers boundless effort and rim protection.
2 Won't Help: Hassan Whiteside
Even Hassan Whiteside's own teammates don't always get the enigmatic Miami Heat center. They seemed just as perplexed as anyone when he openly complained about his role on the club back in March and reportedly held a team meeting to make him accountable for the comments. His objection to the team going small to match up better against opponents was especially confusing given that he averaged over 25 minutes a night in the regular season while starting all of the 54 games he played.
Whiteside's reputation as a bit of a head case is well-known and helps to explain why the 2010 second rounder only got a real shot in the NBA when Miami signed him in 2014. With Kelly Olynyk standing out and rookie Bam Adebayo emerging as an interior force, you'd have to think that Pat Riley and Heat brass would love nothing more than to shed the surly big man coming off just 12 minutes of playing time in a Game 1 loss to Philadelphia, but the two years and $52.5 million owed to the 28-year-old could make that challenging.
1 Needs A Change: Kawhi Leonard
Few people, if any, know what is truly going on with Kawhi Leonard right now with respect to his future in San Antonio. The fact that the superstar forward has remained so characteristically muted on matters regarding the only NBA team he's ever played for serve to make the situation more compelling and more frustrating. There are so many questions, and so few answers.
Leonard last saw game action on January 13, when he returned from a left shoulder injury before being sidelined indefinitely for more rehab on his previously injured right quad. Since then, he has been cleared by the club's medical staff but reportedly doesn't feel ready to return. What seemed strange at the time has turned into one of the league's biggest mysteries, only made bigger by the silence coming from both sides. What once seemed like a match made in heaven could come to an abrupt end this summer.
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