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The Five Most Interesting Teams … After the NBA Free Agency Fallout

Will the Raptors commit to their aging, depleted core or make a move? Are the Sixers and Celtics trending in opposite directions? Might the Warriors, in spite of everything, still be light-years ahead? And how ’bout them Lakers, really?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA’s free agency period isn’t officially finished—well, it never really ends these days, though that’s a different column—but when the list of the best targets still available is topped by names like Kenneth Faried and Thabo Sefolosha, the major action appears to have concluded. (Famous last words, I know.) So while a trade or two could still shake things up, this seems like a good time to take stock of the new state of affairs after the league’s annual summertime game of musical chairs.

Let’s take a look at five teams left standing in fascinating places at the end of free agency, starting with the one that ended last season on top of the mountain …

Toronto Raptors

… and will now try to avoid tumbling back down to earth after Kawhi Leonard chose to go home.

Everyone knew this was possible the moment Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on the trade that brought them both Leonard and Danny Green. The reward could be an NBA championship; the risk was that Leonard and Green, both on expiring contracts, could bolt in free agency after just one season, leaving Toronto with massive holes to fill. The Raptors experienced both, and while the reward was certainly worth the risk—the whole point is winning the gold ball, right?—the franchise now has to turn the page.

What does life look like after Kawhi changed everything? What are the Raptors without him right now, and where do they go without him as the focal point of their future?

The downside of having to wait for Leonard’s decision was that by the time Kawhi went west, the roster-revamping options for an already capped-out Raptors team were pretty slim. Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are interesting buy-low candidates—a pair of physical 6-foot-7 forwards with great length (a 6-foot-11.5-inch wingspan for Johnson, 7-foot-2 for Hollis-Jefferson) who can defend multiple positions, and who should bolster an already athletic and versatile group of defenders that includes Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, and Patrick McCaw. But unless they can suddenly learn to shoot—Johnson has the lowest effective field goal percentage of any player to log at least 5,000 minutes since he entered the league, and fellow 2015 draftee Hollis-Jefferson has the fourth-lowest—the Raptors offense will probably feel a lot more congested and a lot less potent than it did with Leonard and Green spacing the floor. (Maybe second-unit pairings with Spanish league sharpshooter Matt Thomas could loosen things up.)

Barring surprising leaps from those second-draft reclamation projects, or Anunoby bouncing back to break through following a difficult sophomore season, the Raptors will likely go as far as their post-Kawhi core can carry them. But three key members of that core—franchise linchpin Kyle Lowry, plus centers Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka—are now on expiring contracts. Will Ujiri look to flip his established veterans for young talent or future draft assets to accelerate a 2020 rebuild around Siakam, fresh off a Most Improved Player campaign and now expected to author a superstar-caliber encore? (How Toronto handles coming contract talks with the extension-eligible Siakam also bears watching.) Or will Ujiri give his holdover champions the chance to defend their title, taking a one-season victory lap on the off chance that the Raptors’ remnant is potent enough to make another deep run in a reconfigured East?

The bet here: Faced with comparatively limited trade markets for a trio of high-priced 10-plus-year vets with more than 2,700 combined games under their belts, Toronto will pursue a seventh straight playoff appearance and the chance to at least make any would-be usurpers earn the crown. The line between running it back and hitting the reset button might be vanishingly thin, though; should an opportunity to kick-start the renovation present itself, it’ll be interesting to see how long Ujiri’s willing to stand on sentiment.

Philadelphia 76ers

There’s a certain poetry in the Sixers’ pivot from the creative tension that comes with Jimmy “My Name Isn’t James. Literally, It’s Jimmy” Butler to an altered approach infused with the kind-eyed, chamomile-inflected leadership of Al Horford. I’m not sure this is definitively a better team now; anyone who saw how vital a role Butler played as an offensive initiator, pick-and-roll facilitator, and isolation commander in the postseason has to wonder what the 76ers’ attack will look like during critical situations late in big games with Butler down in South Beach. It might—might—be a bit calmer, more balanced, and more settled, though … which, given Philly’s drama in recent years, doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the history of the world.

The quiet centerpiece of Boston’s success under Brad Stevens, Horford should check quite a few boxes in Philadelphia. He’s a viable frontcourt 3-point shooter to spread the floor for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and an excellent orchestrator and ball-mover who can help wring productive possessions out of the cramped spacing created by the Embiid-Simmons pairing. He’s the best possible backup to ensure Philly doesn’t fall off a cliff when Embiid sits, and to help keep the MVP-caliber center healthy and fresh for the postseason. He’s one of the league’s strongest defensive options against Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Sixers will need as many of those as they can get should they face Milwaukee in the playoffs. (Horford’s departure from Boston also dropped the Celtics down a peg toward the mushy middle of the Eastern pack, which is a pretty decent perk for Philly and its fans.)

However many questions Horford might be able to answer, though, the Sixers still have a standardized test’s worth to iron out. A new-look lineup of Embiid, Horford, Simmons, a re-upped Tobias Harris, and new addition Josh Richardson might be the best starting five in the league. Four of the five can shoot (sorry, Ben), four of the five can guard multiple positions at All-Defensive Team levels (apologies, Tobi), and all five can handle and create, and put pressure on opponents with a combination of skill and size. (This team is freaking huge.) It’s also, in essence, three centers, a power forward, and a small forward.

How will Brett Brown smooth out the rough edges and awkward wrinkles? After inking Simmons to a five-year maximum-salaried extension, the Sixers are now fully committed to their jumbo point guard, one of the most gifted and idiosyncratic players in the league; will this new roster construction prove a better fit for maximizing his talents than the one that saw him lurking along the baseline during the playoffs like Clint Capela?

Harris figures to take a step forward in the offensive pecking order with Butler gone, and Richardson’s work off the ball could help mitigate the loss of JJ Redick. Still: Does Philly have enough shooting to field a championship-caliber offense, or enough depth to avoid running that starting five into the ground? Recent young additions like Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton, and rookie Matisse Thybulle could wind up playing much more important roles than you might expect. Even if one of them pops, we might find ourselves wondering once again why such an expensive and talented team, one with legitimate title aspirations, doesn’t have any goddamn guards who can play in May.

Kawhi’s abdication, combined with roster churn that led more to middle-class consolidation than superteam stack-ups, seems to have cleared a path to the Eastern Conference finals for a Philly team throwing caution to the wind for as long as Embiid is upright and ambulatory. Getting this giant-sized lineup tuned up and ready for that long haul to the spring, though, might take some time.

Boston Celtics

With Horford moving to Philadelphia, Aron Baynes traded to Phoenix on draft night, and Marcus Morris landing in New York after reneging on an agreement with the Spurs, the Celtics will enter next season without three of their top frontcourt options from the past couple of playoff runs. While there will be opportunities for fresh blood to step into those roles—new signee Enes Kanter likely slots into the starting lineup; Daniel Theis gets a chance to move up a spot on the depth chart; the Time Lord’s time could be now—it seems much more likely that Boston will have to play smaller more often this season. I’m pretty intrigued by what that might look like, and what it might mean for Boston’s chances of staying afloat in the East. After losing Horford and Kyrie Irving, I expect the Celtics to be worse … but maybe not by as much as anticipated.

Kemba Walker steps in for Irving at point, and while you’d rather have Kyrie in a vacuum, the context of how things fell apart during Irving’s tenure in Boston combined with what Kemba can provide as a breath-of-fresh-air locker-room leader, presents the possibility of new growth for the Celtics, who had stagnated. With Walker at the controls last season, Charlotte posted a nearly identical offensive rating to Boston’s, despite Irving having significantly better surrounding talent; it’s possible that, flanked by better shooters and creators in a more egalitarian attack, Walker’s facilitation and efficiency both improve, and the Celtics nudge up the points-per-possession standings despite losing their two best playmakers.

The lack of an established option at power forward could also mean a lot of work up front for Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward, which could have a beneficial effect on Boston’s offense. (Rookie Grant Williams could also factor into the rotation as a small-ball 4.) Tatum has the talent to flourish in a more central offensive role after an up-and-down second season, and would have significant speed and agility advantages off the bounce against more lumbering bigs. Hayward, who struggled mightily in the postseason but showed flashes of reverting to his old All-Star self late in the regular season, could also benefit from the chance to work as sort of a point forward working in matchups in which any quickness and burst he’s still lacking after the devastating leg injury that began his career in Boston might be a little less pronounced. As interchangeable 6-foot-8 forwards who can put the ball on the floor, pull up for jumpers, and make the extra pass, Hayward and Tatum make for an awfully tough cover for opposing frontcourts; amid all Boston’s woes last season, lineups in which they manned the two forward spots outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Depending on how Hayward looks another year removed from his injury, it’s possible that Boston’s five best players could all be guards or swingmen: him, Walker, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. Boston’s best chance at being competitive might be running four of them out together. But without Horford or Baynes around to clean up mistakes along the back line—and with Kanter liable to make his share of messes in coverage, too—those lineups will have to score like crazy to hold up against really good opposition. Is that an approach destined to flame out even earlier than this spring’s Round 2 exit? Or could Stevens put the Celtics on the path to bigger things—and maybe find the balance that eluded Boston last season—by skewing smaller?

Golden State Warriors

A lot has happened in the month since Draymond Green warned NBA pundits that it’s “just not smart” to view June’s six-game Finals loss to the Raptors as the end of Golden State’s run. Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn. Andre Iguodala is in Memphis. DeMarcus Cousins is a Laker, Shaun Livingston’s gone, and Klay Thompson’s probably not going to be back from his torn ACL until January or February, at the earliest. Maybe it’s not smart to write eulogies for the Warriors, but this much seems fair: We are about to watch a fundamentally different Golden State team than we’ve seen at any point during the Steph-Klay-Draymond era. And that could be really, really fun to try to figure out.

The last time Stephen Curry got to be Golden State’s unquestioned no. 1 option for a full season, he led the NBA in scoring, became the first player ever to hit 400 3-pointers in a single season, and became the first unanimous MVP in league history. When pressed back into top-gun duty by Durant’s injuries in the playoffs, he averaged 33-6-6 over the Warriors’ final 11 games, icing the Rockets, sweeping the Blazers, and (briefly) evoking LeBron against the Raptors. We know Curry is capable of reverting to MVP form and raining down fire on any defense martialed against him. But three seasons removed from that lofty peak, after consecutive seasons in which he suffered injuries that put him on the shelf for weeks at a time, can Curry sustain it for six months without breaking down?

Perhaps just as importantly: Can he do it without Thompson around to command constant defensive attention? During last regular and postseason, Curry’s per-minute scoring and usage went through the roof when he played without Thompson, but his shooting efficiency dropped off, and opponents were better able to lock in on short-circuiting him; may we never forget Nick Nurse’s box-and-one. The answer could depend on how effectively D’Angelo Russell adjusts to his new life as a square peg in the round hole that is Thompson’s spot alongside Curry in Golden State’s backcourt. The former no. 2 pick and 2019 All-Star isn’t on Thompson’s level as a catch-and-shoot marksman or off-ball operator, but he does bring a level of pick-and-roll mastery and playmaking panache that the Warriors have never featured alongside Steph. Can D’Angelo and lob target Willie Cauley-Stein give defenses enough to worry about that Curry will be able to get free often enough to carry the load?

They’ll have to, because I’m not sure how the hell the Warriors can avoid a precipitous drop down the defensive rankings with Thompson and Iguodala off the board. Who will guard good wings on this team? Steph? Russell? Alfonzo McKinnie? Alec Burks? Jacob Evans? Glenn Robinson III? It seems like it will take the defensive performance of Draymond Green’s life just to drag this Warriors roster out of the bottom 10 in points allowed per possession—good thing he’s in a contract year!—and even that might not guarantee anything in a crowded West full of opponents with all sorts of ways to slice and dice shaky defenses.

If they get MVP work from Steph, a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber campaign from Green, another All-Star-caliber campaign out of Russell, and at least a couple of members of that grab-bag perimeter rotation to pan out, the Warriors should have enough to stay in the fight for a middle-of-the-pack playoff seed. Maybe that, plus Thompson returning to form by mid-April, is all they need to put the fear of God in the hearts of the rest of the Western bracket. Maybe, like Draymond said, it’d be unwise to bet against that championship core if it’s healthy come the postseason. Golden State’s got to get there first, though, and we don’t really have any idea yet what that process will look like.

Los Angeles Lakers

Whatever questions you might have about LeBron James (are all those minutes finally starting to take a toll?) and Anthony Davis (is he really the sort of superstar public persona he seems to think he is?), their on-court pairing seems practically perfect. A premier pick-and-roll ball handler gets a premier pick-and-roll dive man; a peerless table-setter gets a devastating finisher; an aging legend gets an entering-his-prime supernova capable of limiting his workload and extending his own time in the sun. Barring significant long-term injuries to both All-Stars, the Lakers should make the playoffs for the first time since 2013; if James and Davis are both reasonably healthy, they also seem well-positioned to make a hell of a lot of noise upon their arrival.

Getting there, though, could require some kludging. This year’s model of the Lakers isn’t quite as much a hodge-podge collection of misfit toys as its predecessor. (New additions Danny Green, Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, Jared Dudley, and Avery Bradley can all hit a 3, for starters.) But a roster compiled somewhat hastily by general manager Rob Pelinka after shipping out six players in the Davis deal and coming up short in the Kawhi sweepstakes still lacks the sort of harmonic convergence of roles and skill sets you’d prefer to have when you’re hunting championships.

As Ringer colleague Zach Kram cracked during our free agency exit survey, “The Lakers’ best defensive point guard at the moment is assistant coach Jason Kidd,” and arguably their best five overall includes four players who might be best suited to playing power forward or center: James, Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and holdover scorer Kyle Kuzma. The frontcourt lean helps explain those reports about LeBron entering the season as L.A.’s starting point guard, though new head coach Frank Vogel—hey, that’s right, Frank Vogel coaches the Lakers now!—isn’t ready to commit to that just yet. (A couple of weeks watching Rajon Rondo run the show might do the trick.)

Bradley, Dudley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seem like the kind of 3-and-D types you want to fill out a roster around stars like LeBron and AD. But the 34-year-old Dudley, while smart and useful, is a pretty limited player to rely on for real minutes, and it is at least possible that neither Bradley (who struggled mightily with the Clippers last season) nor KCP (who has shot above 35 percent from 3-point land just once in six pro seasons and ranked 95th out of 107 shooting guards in defensive real plus minus last season) is actually all that good. Cousins can be, and was at times for Golden State last season, but after spending most of the past 17 months working his way back from and otherwise navigating two major leg injuries, it remains to be seen how he’ll look in purple and gold. (The early indications: Pretty svelte, at least!)

As neatly as James and Davis fit together, it looks like Vogel will have his work cut out for him in building a better-than-average defense out of these parts, and that’s if his superstars stay both healthy and engaged throughout the 82-game slog. If he can, and if LeBron and AD are as potent as their promise, the Lakers might not be as far behind in the battle for L.A. as it seemed on the night the Clippers landed their pair of game-breakers. It’ll be up to Pelinka to seize opportunities to improve the roster should they arise, and on Vogel to get his MacGyver on and construct a rotation that gives James and Davis just enough support to get the job done. Doc Rivers’s squad might have better depth and cleaner fits on paper, but it’d be tough to bet against a team with LeBron and AD in a seven-game series. Vogel just needs to get them there in one piece.