Following a two-horse race that culminated in an exciting seven-game series between the league’s two best teams, the Western Conference will once again try to load up to see who can beat Golden State. For some teams, that means landing a major piece to contend next season; for others, it’s all about building toward the future so that they can take the top spot once the Warriors’ dynasty is over. Here’s what each team in the West needs the most this offseason, other than for the Warriors to disappear.
Biggest need: A big man
Mark Cuban wants the Mavs to be the Celtics so badly. Dallas has walked the line between winning now and building a winner for later the past few seasons. And why not do both if you think you can? But Cuban should know by now how tough it is to pull off what Boston has since trading its franchise cornerstones to Brooklyn. There have been rumors that the Mavericks are willing to trade the fifth pick their dreadful season wrought them, and there have been rumors that they’re interested in bringing DeMarcus Cousins to Dallas. And look, I get it—you want to send Dirk Nowitzki off on a high note. But the Mavericks are already in a hole because of the team’s attempts to do that very thing. Wes Matthews will make more than $18 million next season, and Harrison Barnes is going to get nearly $50 million over the next two years. Dennis Smith Jr. is exciting, and there’s a good chance that he and whomever the Mavs take at no. 5—be it Mo Bamba, Michael Porter Jr., or someone else—could make for an exciting tandem for the years to come. There’s no need to throw that away to get a season of Cousins recovering from an Achilles injury.
Friendly suggestion: Pass on Cousins and sign Ed Davis or Dewayne Dedmon.
Biggest need: Point guard
The Nuggets are on the precipice of becoming a true contender. On paper, they have the perfect blend of vets, young guys, and a supposed unicorn (who they may be able to lock up this summer) in a tough Western Conference. But they still need help on the margins, especially at backup point guard. I would suggest someone like Jameer Nelson, but they jettisoned him before the season to sign Richard Jefferson, who played sparingly. Jamal Murray is going to be an All-Star, but he is more of a combo scoring guard than a true point guard. When he’s on the bench, or when he has a “I’m a 21-year-old” game, the Nuggets need a pass-first ball handler. Devin Harris could be that, but the midseason addition is a free agent. The Nuggets don’t have cap space right now, but could free some of it up if they don’t re-sign free agent Will Barton.
Friendly suggestion: Get a veteran point guard.
Golden State Warriors
Biggest need: Depth
Don’t let the Finals sweep distract you from the fact the Warriors were on the brink of losing Game 7 to the Houston Rockets in the conference finals. For how dominant Golden State appeared at the end, the journey to the finish line was rockier than usual. Part of that was their lack of true depth. The Warriors had bodies, sure, but by the time they were on the ropes against Houston, they were counting on Nick Young. As teams continue to engineer ways to beat them, the Warriors need to shore up their bench by adding more wings, not bigs. Who can they convince to take cheaper deals to ring chase next season?
Friendly suggestion: Keep JaVale McGee, but find a better Nick Young.
Biggest need: A third star
The Rockets are big-fish hunting this offseason yet again. They have to given how close they were to the NBA Finals, and given how “obsessed” Daryl Morey is with beating the Warriors. Houston will now need to figure out how to improve while paying up for Clint Capela, who will be a restricted free agent. Everything seems to be on the table for the Rockets, including pitching LeBron on forming the ultimate Warriors beater. One issue: Chris Paul. As important as Paul was to the Rockets’ success this season, his year ended with an injury, reminding us that he is, in fact, 33 years old and up for a new contract this offseason. If Houston gives him one, like it’s reportedly expected to, the team would be paying Paul the max through his age-37 season. That’s less than ideal for a team hoping to take advantage of any and every edge—and one that still has $42 million on the books for Ryan Anderson over the next two seasons. Then again, I don’t doubt that Morey can jump this hurdle.
Friendly suggestion: LeBron. (Duh.) Backup plan: Paul George. Backup to the backup: Keep the status quo.
Los Angeles Clippers
Biggest need: Continuity
The Clippers are assured at least one more certain season with a roster mostly made up of their returns from the Paul and Blake Griffin trades. Montrezl Harrell is a restricted free agent this summer and Milos Teodosic has a player option for $6.3 million, but Austin Rivers, Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson, and Patrick Beverley are all heading into contract seasons. The Clippers did well by extending Lou Williams at the reasonable price of $8 million a year, but it’s tough to determine who else will be on this roster in the near future. It’s also hard to see them making any big free-agent plays unless LeBron or Kawhi Leonard show an interest in the near future. (That doesn’t seem likely for the former.) If anything, the Clippers might be better off looking to sign-and-trade DeAndre Jordan to a contender, especially if the return is substantial. Harrell is a cheaper option coming off a breakout season, and that, plus the return (hopefully) of a healthy Danilo Gallinari, could still keep them semi-competitive in order to appease owner Steve Ballmer.
Friendly suggestion: Keep Harrell. Consider the Jordan trade market.
Los Angeles Lakers
Biggest need: A star
It’s finally time for the Lakers to shine. This is the summer they’ve been building for, the summer when they can finally get into rooms with free agents and use Storytime with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s biblical metaphors to their advantage. But it all feels precarious, too, as their hopes hinge on selling stars on possibility (cap space, L.A. life, good young players, Lakers exceptionalism). Paul George has expressed an interest in playing for his hometown team in the past, and all LeBron needs to do is turn his summer houses into his permanent homes. And if both LeBron and George sign on the dotted line, the Lakers will also become a haven for short contracts and ring-chasers. If they strike out on the top-level free agents, I’m sure their fans won’t mind rooting for a player who raps on the side and another who is the subject of a diss track by one of his teammates.
Friendly suggestion: Sign LeBron and/or Paul George.
Biggest need: Shooting and youth
Can the Grizzlies go from second-worst team in the league to a fringe playoff team? Probably not, but they’re going to be a whole lot better once Mike Conley Jr. returns from injury and Marc Gasol gets excited to play basketball again. They’ll also be adding a high draft pick (likely a big man or a wing like Porter), and if it’s one that contribute right away, they’ll need to surround them with more shooting. They’ll also need to make a call on Tyreke Evans, whom they decided not to trade at the deadline, with an eye toward a new deal this summer. Conley, Gasol, and Chandler Parsons are clogging up the payroll with a total of $79 million combined next season, so it’s fair to wonder whether the Grizzlies should capitalize on any trade value (at least two of them) have left and double down on the rebuild, or go into another season with an aging All-Star and an injury-prone point guard.
Friendly suggestion: Draft Porter and gauge the trade market for Gasol.
Biggest need: Shooting
A glance at the Wolves’ payroll will spook you. They owe $15 million next season to Gorgui Dieng (and a total of $48 million over the next three years), $19 million each of the next two seasons to Jeff Teague, and $25 million to Andrew Wiggins as part of a contract that will keep his annual salary rising all the way to $33 million in 2022-23. They’ll also have the option to offer extensions to Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler this summer. The former feels like a safe bet, but the latter will be more complicated, considering Butler’s age (28) and recent knee injury. All of their free agents this offseason are restricted and largely inconsequential. It will be difficult for them to find cheap improvements to round out their already shoddy depth and poor shooting. Their only option is to run it back, hope for improvement, and maybe ponder some difficult trades to open up their future.
Friendly suggestion: Try to get someone to fall in love with Wiggins, I guess.
New Orleans Pelicans
Biggest need: Shooting and continuity
As I wrote when their season ended, the Pelicans’ offseason hinges on what they do with Cousins. They’re reportedly willing to offer him only a short-term deal, and another team (cough, cough, Mavericks) can swoop in and make a better offer. But the Pels have leverage considering Boogie will be coming off an Achilles rupture and how successful they were playing smaller and faster in the wake of his injury. Bringing back Rajon Rondo on a non-Bird exception and holding on to Nikola Mirotic as he heads into a contract year may be even bigger priorities now. If they do the former, they’ll still have the midlevel exception to add some depth, regardless of whether they keep Boogie.
Friendly suggestion: Sign-and-trade Boogie for Otto Porter Jr. and sign a cheap shooting guard.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Biggest need: Shooting that isn’t Carmelo Anthony
Andre Roberson’s defense and Steven Adams’s rebounding aside, the Thunder have to start building around Russell Westbrook like a team would LeBron and surround him with as much shooting as possible. Keeping George would go a long way toward achieving that goal, but the Thunder also need a stretch 4 who can consistently hit shots. Essentially, someone not named Carmelo Anthony (or Patrick Patterson, for that matter). Aaron Gordon would be perfect on this team, but the restricted free agent is likely too expensive. Ersan Ilyasova would also be a solid option. Oh, and the Thunder also have to figure out a way to get out from underneath Anthony’s contract. The $28 million owed to him next season will limit any flexibility they could have. It’s time for a buyout!
Friendly suggestion: Buy out or trade Carmelo, bring back Jerami Grant and/or sign Ilyasova.
Portland Trail Blazers
Biggest need: Bigs and a backup point guard
Place me firmly in the camp of not being on board with splitting up Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. I understand the thought process, but why get rid of one of two known quantities unless you can get another bona fide star? At the same time, place me in the camp of being fully on board with moving on from Jusuf Nurkic, who has been good in spurts but will command a lot of money in restricted free agency and lock Portland into this roster for the foreseeable future. The team has already seen the downside of overpaying to keep an asset with Meyers Leonard, Mo Harkless, and Allen Crabbe, and a Nurkic deal might be even worse since it blocks the path of Zach Collins. The postseason was rough for Portland, but what it accomplished this regular season speaks highly of its ceiling with Lillard and McCollum. Now, the Blazers just have to get creative in order to take it to the next level.
Friendly suggestion: Free Collins, keep Ed Davis, and let Nurkic walk.
Biggest need: Another potential franchise player
The Suns’ offseason is going to be dependent on whom they select with the top pick in next week’s draft. It’s looking more and more like that will be Deandre Ayton, who, on paper, is the best player on the board. Ayton alone would give Phoenix a bright future despite a lackluster recent draft history beyond Devin Booker and maybe Josh Jackson. A glance down the roster will show you what I mean; Marquese Chriss, Alex Len, and Dragan Bender have all yielded suboptimal results so far. But Booker and Ayton would give the Suns a deadly combo (at least on offense) for the foreseeable future. It would also behoove Phoenix to keep restricted free agent Elfrid Payton, should he come at a relatively affordable price. The Suns are projected to have about $21 million in cap space, and they shouldn’t try to use it on anything but young guys to keep the rebuilding process going.
Friendly suggestion: Don’t make win-now moves.
Biggest need: A franchise player
Bogdan Bogdanovic is very fun and De’Aaron Fox is going to be very good, but the Kings are still lacking in the superstar department, even after landing in the top 10 of the draft for nine straight seasons. This is why they should draft Luka Doncic (even though in an extremely on-brand move, it looks less and less likely that they will). Beyond the draft, Sacramento will have about $24 million in cap space that it shouldn’t use like it did last summer, when the team splurged on George Hill and Zach Randolph. Hill is gone, and though Randolph is still there, I’m not sure what he will be doing as the Kings try to play the young guys more. Any and all Sacramento cap space should be used to target young players and take second chances on high draft picks that have yet to pan out.
Friendly suggestion: Take a flyer on cheap, young players and draft Doncic.
San Antonio Spurs
Biggest need: Keeping Kawhi Leonard
For as complicated a season as the Spurs seemed to have, the offseason is fairly simple. Everything hinges on Leonard. All the franchise can do is offer the $218 million supermax extension and sit back and wait. To say that keeping Leonard would immediately put the Spurs back into contention with the Warriors is far-fetched, but San Antonio can’t even think about its second, third, and fourth moves this summer until it figures out what to do with Leonard. And take this with a grain of salt, but the two parties appear to be in the “healing stage” following the drama that ensued this season around his hamstring injury. A $218 million deal can fix a lot.
Friendly suggestion: Extend Leonard. Kick the tires on LeBron.
Biggest need: More scoring
Donovan Mitchell’s rookie year was a blast. After Gordon Hayward left for Boston, the guard proved he could be Utah’s superstar of the future. Now it’s time for the Jazz to start thinking about how to make sure he has reliable offensive options around him beyond Joe Ingles. The Jazz are a defensive fortress, and that will keep them in the playoffs for years to come, but adding a big-man scoring option would be a boon for a team that could lose Derrick Favors to free agency. Utah has all the makings of a team that could be one or two players away from title contention, which means it will need to make tough decisions on who to keep and who to ship out. Dante Exum, for instance, will hit restricted free agency this offseason. The Jazz need someone to back up Ricky Rubio, who has one more year on his deal and has battled injuries in his career. Exum has shown flashes, but then again, maybe that’s all they will be.
Friendly suggestion: Trade for Kevin Love?