It’s been said, at this point, a thousand times: This was not how anyone expected LeBron James and the Miami Heat to meet again. They reunited in Orlando, confined in a bubble filled with bad hotel snacks and mischief and adults dressed as cartoon characters. No crowds. No postgame interviews closer than 6 feet. Alex Caruso in the starting lineup! The contrast between the two sides made the already weird Finals even weirder. The Lakers are a veteran product clearly defined by two mega superstars, while the Heat are harder to label. It felt like Miami threw its own surprise party in the playoffs, showed up early, and then kicked everyone else out.
For all their differences, the Heat and the Lakers are now facing very similar dilemmas. How proactive do they need to be this offseason? What can they find in an uninspiring free-agency market? Here are the biggest questions for each Finals team:
For more questions on eliminated teams, read my piece on the Nuggets and Celtics here. And read Dan Devine on the Clippers, Bucks, Raptors, and Rockets here, and the Pacers, Mavericks, Blazers, and Nets here.
Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 52-19 (first in Western Conference, beat Portland 4-1, beat Houston 4-1, beat Denver 4-1, beat Miami 4-2)
2020 NBA draft pick: 28
Pending free agents: Dion Waiters, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, Dwight Howard, J.R. Smith (unrestricted); Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee (player option); Kostas Antetokounmpo (restricted)
Can they run it back?
Succeeding a long line of unexceptional, but essential LeBron teammates is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a slow-to-develop lottery pick received by Pistons fans on draft night with cries of “Who?” and “LMFAOOOOO WHAT.” He’s a player often referred to cheekily in Detroit as “Kid Can’t Play,” after four up-and-down seasons. And now, he’s a 2020 NBA champion. KCP was the third-best Laker in the Finals behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis: The latter two are top-five players; KCP is a guy who shot 0-for-9 in the opening game of the playoffs. His success presented an overwhelming internal conflict for me (and surely all of the Detroit metropolitan area). All I’ve ever known is Pistons and Lakers fans grumbling about Pope. Suddenly, he’s the least of a title team’s worries. Such is life playing next to LeBron.
AD and LeBron combined for more points in the playoffs (1,162) than the team’s eight next highest scorers (1,150). It’s not a sustainable model. While Davis, 27, is only starting to maximize his talents, LeBron will be 36 next season. The only opponent I’d ever count him out against is Father Time, whom LeBron currently has in a chokehold. He passed Derek Fisher in Game 6 for the most postseason games ever played in NBA history—then, after said game, won Finals MVP. The man hasn’t slowed down so much as tinkered with his playing style; if there is a half-step lost, that didn’t stop LeBron from looking livelier in Game 6 than a franchise known for its conditioning. Though with each year that passes, it’ll be harder for him to absorb the shortcomings of a team whose default Big Three includes someone like Tristan Thompson or, yes, KCP. It feels rather Baylessian to speculate about his age just days after LeBron has proved it’s not yet relevant, but here’s the thing about that chokehold: In the end, Time isn’t the one who’ll tap out.
Asking if this Lakers team can run it back unveils the real issue: Can they afford to wait and see? The trade that brought Davis to Los Angeles was undoubtedly worth it. They won a title—the Lakers’ 17th, LeBron’s fourth, and AD’s first—and hanging that banner is the entire point of the game. But the deal sent L.A.’s carton of fresh eggs to New Orleans. Now the only remaining rotation players under 26 years old on the Lakers roster are Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, and Talen Horton-Tucker. The franchise would be delusionally optimistic to count on their development to improve the team rather than understand the necessity to bring in new talent.
The issue, as with any superteam, is money. General manager Rob Pelinka pulled off a low-grade Moneyball sequel with the 2019-20 roster. Howard’s passable moments and spurts of Playoff Rondo boosted the Lakers more than most could have imagined. (Pelinka’s seventh-place finish for Executive of the Year was downright insulting, even for a regular-season award.) But the problem with cheap contracts is that their expiration doesn’t contribute much in the way of cap space. Every Lakers player that’ll become an unrestricted free agent this offseason was signed to the minimum, with the exception of Morris, who was signed to a $1.75 million disabled player exception. Now that those players have a title under their belts too, they could look for a payday larger than the two exceptions L.A. can use.
Lingering gingerly this offseason and waiting until 2021 might be the team’s best and only option. Though the 2020 free-agency class isn’t nearly as top-heavy as last summer, the Lakers still can’t afford the better options. (Fred VanVleet, for example.) Out of the blue last week, my colleague Jonathan Tjarks messaged me about a profile on Jrue Holiday that I wrote before the 2019-20 season—purely because it mentioned Holiday saying that he and Davis were still friendly. Maybe a reunion could happen in 2021, when Holiday can hit free agency, but there’s no chance that the organization has enticing enough pieces to trade for Holiday now. Finding the intersection between that kind of anticipatory planning and how long LeBron can last is like doing a cross-examination on a clock. What’s more reliable, LeBron James or the inevitability of aging? The Lakers, even freshly removed from a title, can’t pretend to not know the answer.
Record: 44-29 (fifth in Eastern Conference, beat Indiana 4-0, beat Milwaukee 4-1, beat Boston 4-2, lost to the Lakers 4-2)
2020 NBA draft pick: 20
Pending free agents: Derrick Jones Jr., Solomon Hill, Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard, Udonis Haslem (unrestricted); Kelly Olynyk (player option); Gabe Vincent, Kyle Alexander (restricted)
Should they run it back?
The polarity between Pelinka and Pat Riley’s situations couldn’t be stronger. Team narrative, too. One is spunky; the other, serious. One is built, as Yahoo’s Seerat Sohi tweeted; the other, bought. In 2018, Riley was obsessed with the word “organic.” He asked fans, who were used to his flashy, headline-dominating trades, to be patient. “Free agency and [cap] room can be overstated,” Riley said. “You can have room fatigue. Since 2010, we have been a team that has always been chasing somebody bigger and better.”
Last year, the chase momentarily resumed. Sign-and-trading for Jimmy Butler led the Heat to a 2020 Finals appearance, their first since 2014. Even at the furthest stage of the playoffs, though, Miami was still chasing somebody better. Miami didn’t just have to get back to the Finals without LeBron—it then had to face him once it got there. You never really get to move on from James. No number of humble origin stories—Erik Spoelstra starting as a video coordinator or Duncan Robinson being undrafted—negates two institutions—the King and the Lakers—colliding.
So it wasn’t their year. Oh well. Riley’s ageless suave will surely continue building, brick by brick, Butler by Butler, toward another championship. And unlike their Finals counterparts, the Heat have heaps of young talent that will improve them organically. There’s no guarantee this group will strike twice immediately with another trip to the Finals. The Celtics came close. Toronto is never far away from a perfect tweak. If Milwaukee can keep Giannis Antetokounmpo, then, well, it’ll have Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Lack of aggression could cost the Heat. Goran Dragic’s surprising return to form in the playoffs might’ve been short-lived. He could sign somewhere else. Even if he stays, he might be the Dragic best served coming off the bench again. Cashing in for someone like Holiday (the parallels!) means doing a deal with the league’s Juventas, otherwise known as Pelicans GM David Griffin. New Orleans is in the market for young talent; Miami has it. Trading Tyler Herro and a movable deal like Andre Iguodala’s ($15 million per year through 2022) or Kelly Olynyk’s ($12.2 million, if he opts in) could land the Heat a more ready player, if they can justify it.
I’m not sure that Riley wants to chase stars or superteams anymore, or whether this latest Finals has rejuvenated his thirst for big names and dramatic trades. The patience he asked of Heat fans paid off, but Riley himself doesn’t strike me as a particularly patient man. His recent years of mild inactivity are the exception in his career as a coach and team president, not the rule. The fatigue was talking, not the executive. Suddenly Miami is an easy sell again. There are few “stars” worth chasing this offseason, but still! The weather has cleared, a lane on the track is open, and the starting gun is pointed at the sky.