Already this offseason, we've looked for ESPN Insider at teams that could make a leap forward next year and those headed downward in the standings. Now, we're considering the issue from a different perspective. What moves might teams make--or not make--that could cause them to head one direction or the other? We'll start today by looking at possible scenarios that could spell trouble for five teams, then take the optimistic perspective tomorrow with teams that could make moves to improve.
Denver Nuggets: Losing Nene in Free Agency
The Nuggets' deep rotation was responsible for their impressive run after they traded Carmelo Anthony, which offers them some protection with three starters and two top reserves headed to free agency. But while Denver might be able to replace players like Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler, the same cannot be said of starting center Nene, the team's most indispensable cog.
Not only was Nene the Nuggets' most valuable player due to his high-percentage shooting (only Tyson Chandler, who played a smaller role in the Dallas offense, topped Nene's .657 True Shooting Percentage), he also plays a position of relatively little depth for the team. Chris Andersen, effective as a reserve, would be stretched in a starting role. He's never played more than 22.3 minutes per game in his career, and was limited to 45 games last season after knee surgery. Denver's other options at the position are Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos, neither of whom has shown the ability to consistently contribute at the NBA level. So whenever free agency opens, there's little question that the Nuggets' first call should be to Nene.
Los Angeles Lakers: Giving up too much for Dwight Howard
Should Howard make it clear that he wants to leave Orlando when his contract expires, the Lakers will be a logical trade destination because of the bright lights of L.A. and their ability to offer Andrew Bynum to the Magic. In the long run, making Howard the latest superstar center to wear forum blue and gold would be a way for the Lakers to prepare for a future in which Kobe Bryant is no longer the team's go-to player. Still, the transition would be painful in the short term, depending on what the Lakers had to deal in such a scenario.
Behind Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, post depth has long been a weakness for the Lakers. To get Howard, they'd likely have to surrender two of their three stalwarts. The Lakers have been able to survive for stretches without Bynum by playing Gasol and Odom heavy minutes, but that has taken its toll over time and going with just two reliable big men for an entire season would be difficult.
New Orleans Hornets: Overpaying David West
By opting for free agency, West has put the Hornets in a tough spot. They need the two-time All-Star to remain competitive in the Western Conference. West's pick-and-pop game is the ideal complement for Chris Paul, and he was enjoying arguably the best season of his career before tearing his left ACL in late-March.
Despite the injury, West will be coveted as one of the biggest names on the market. That's why re-signing West would present almost as big a problem as losing him. New Orleans already has more than $40 million committed to just six players, which could make it difficult for the Hornets to fill out their bench with four rotation players besides West headed to free agency.
Philadelphia 76ers: Trading Andre Iguodala
Since the 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs, Iguodala has been involved in as many trade rumors as any player in the league. Philadelphia does have a surplus of players with relatively similar skill sets. In addition to Iguodala, Louis Williams, Evan Turner and even Jrue Holiday are all best with the ball in their hands. Surely, that would be the logic behind moving Iguodala--the highest-paid player in the group at more than $13.5 million for 2011-12.
What the Sixers must remember is that Iguodala is also far and away the best of these players. Freed to serve more as a playmaker than a scorer last year, he ranked 18th in the league in assists per game (second to LeBron James among non-point guards) and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Iguodala's real value comes at the defensive end of the floor, where he was voted Second Team All-Defense in 2010-11. Philadelphia might find Iguodala difficult to replace if he is indeed dealt.
San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker injury
With an aging core of players, the Spurs won't repeat last year's 61-win regular season. Just how hard the landing is could depend on the health of their starting point guard. Parker missed just four games in 2010-11, but the three seasons before that saw him average more than 10 games a year on the sidelines. That was acceptable when San Antonio had George Hill as a capable fill-in at the position, but after dealing Hill to the Indiana Pacers to acquire rookie forward Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs find themselves thin behind Parker.
San Antonio's only other true point guard is rookie Cory Joseph, drafted with the penultimate pick of the first round. Joseph, who turns 20 next month, shared ballhandling duties with Dogus Balbay and J'Covan Brown during his lone campaign at Texas and needs far more experience before being capable of running an offense for extended minutes. The Spurs could go with a backcourt of Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal at times, but that's a stopgap solution. The dropoff from Parker to whoever else plays the point in San Antonio will be steep next season.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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