What the N.B.A.’s West Teams Need: Shooters and Shady TextsOctober 17, 2020
Finally — finally — the N.B.A. off-season is here. Sure, it’s October, months removed from when the off-season would typically begin if there wasn’t a pandemic. And of course, the Los Angeles Lakers are still trying to figure out if they can throw a Zoom championship parade after conquering the Walt Disney World bubble.
(They can. But you just know that J.R. Smith would forget to mute himself during LeBron James’s speech.)
This means that 30 N.B.A. teams are about to reload, retool or reset through trades, free agency and the draft, though the league still needs to sort out the financial impact of the pandemic and set the salary cap for next season.
The Western Conference is a particularly tough nut to crack. The Lakers won the championship and should be assumed to be the favorites to win again, given their dominant playoff run. But other teams with young stars might have something to say about that.
So for all the general managers out there, we have some suggestions for one thing every team in the West needs to do this off-season.
Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis has a player option this off-season, and if the Lakers persuade him to sign an extension, that’s a success. With Davis and LeBron James, the team would remain title favorites even with Statler, Waldorf and me rounding out the starting lineup.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were an expensive Hollywood production with A-list stars meant to win it all during awards season. But instead, they were upstaged by less established talent. In other words, they were Netflix’s “The Irishman.”
Their path forward is not ideal: They probably won’t have much cap space. Montrezl Harrell, the sixth man of the year, and Marcus Morris are unrestricted free agents. They don’t have a first-round draft pick, and their two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, can leave after the 2020-21 season.
The Clippers have to bank on one thing: fixing their chemistry. It was an issue all season, so in theory, a new coach could come along and mend that, given Leonard and George’s talent.
The Nuggets are in one of the better positions in the league: Their franchise cornerstone, Nikola Jokic, is locked up through 2022-23. He has a solid, if inconsistent, secondary player in Jamal Murray, signed through 2023-24. They have some big contracts coming off the books, freeing cap space.
But their most crucial move might be right under their noses. Jerami Grant was a solid contributor on both ends and can test the free-agent market. The Nuggets would do well to keep him.
Golden State Warriors
All the Warriors have to do this off-season is wrap Stephen Curry in cellophane. If the Warriors are healthy next season — this means a rested Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — Golden State will be a solid title contender.
The Rockets need to surround James Harden and Russell Westbrook with shooting. They showed that their miniball style can work, but Westbrook’s jump shooting woes became an issue in the postseason, and Houston needs someone to take the pressure off Harden.
The Rockets, with no cap space, will have to solve this either through trade or free agency on the cheap. Kyle Korver and Isaiah Thomas might fit the bill here offensively, but defensively — yikes.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This is an attractive franchise: a bevy of future draft picks, compelling young talent like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a head coach opening. And Chris Paul, at 35, showed he was still one of the best point guards in the game.
There is not much for the Thunder to do, other than try to hit home runs with their two late-first-round draft picks. Relax and enjoy the ride. See the light at the end of the tunnel. They do not have enough cap space to attract a top-tier free agent to play alongside Paul. The team’s most tradable asset is Steven Adams, who has a roughly $27.5 million expiring contract. But the team is best off letting it expire rather than taking on other contracts. Be as competitive as you can until 2021-22, when you will have cap space, draft picks and maybe Paul to make a legitimate run.
The Jazz are capped out, both in salary and their talent ceiling. They’re not good enough to play with the Lakers, but they’re not bad enough to get lottery picks. Rudy Gobert has a $27.5 million expiring contract, and given his pandemic-related tensions with Donovan Mitchell, it’s worth asking whether the team would be better off with a center who can space the floor.
Upgrade defensively. They’ll have their midlevel exception and a first-round draft pick to do so. They have two franchise blue chips in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, but the team was 18th defensively last season. (A caveat: Porzingis just had surgery to repair a meniscus injury in his right knee. He has had trouble staying healthy for most of his career, but he really showed his potential in the playoffs.)
Bonus: Give Boban Marjanovic more playing time. Because the world is suffering and we need a smile.
Portland Trail Blazers
This team barely got to an eighth seed, an underwhelming campaign. But if Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins can be healthy for a full season, the Blazers will be formidable. Maybe. Or Portland can hope that an opposing star insults Damian Lillard’s rap talents, fueling an aggrieved run for the ages.
Poke the bear. Constantly remind Ja Morant that one basketball writer out of 100 did not choose him to win the Rookie of the Year Award. Text him every morning. Mention it at every practice. Send him an accidental email with the subject line: “Man, I wish we had Zion Williamson. He might’ve had a better rookie year.”
Move the team’s home arena to Walt Disney World, where the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble. Aside from that, the Suns are one of the few teams with lots of cap space and a lottery pick. It’s a less top-heavy draft class than usual, but Danilo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrell are legitimate free-agent targets for them.
San Antonio Spurs
Promise Coach Gregg Popovich that he won’t have to do any more sideline interviews, and the Spurs will go 82-0. Aside from that, much of their off-season will hinge on whether DeMar DeRozan will opt in for the final year of his contract. The Spurs should hope he stays. Under the radar, DeRozan has played some of the best basketball of his career in San Antonio.
Trade Buddy Hield, who has not so subtly suggested he wants out of Sacramento, and hand the keys over to Bogdan Bogdanovic, a restricted free agent. Hield is a young, talented guard on a reasonable contract who can net the Kings some assets. If this drags on, the Kings will lose leverage.
New Orleans Pelicans
Find the right coach for Zion Williamson. Players are more likely than ever to force their way off teams, even when locked into contracts. Any year of Williamson’s prime squandered with a coach who doesn’t mesh with him is an invitation for Williamson to try to leave when he can, as LeBron James did in Cleveland.
Minnesota has the No. 1 pick in the draft, as well as a Nets first-rounder. The Timberwolves have one of the best young players in the league, with Karl-Anthony Towns, and a talented guard beside him, D’Angelo Russell. Minnesota cannot whiff on the first pick. Go get James Wiseman. His athleticism will allow him to play three positions on the floor and Minnesota needs both wing and frontcourt help.
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