An unprecedented season will feed into an unprecedented offseason. While we know the 2020 NBA draft will be on November 18, we still don’t know when free agency will begin, what the salary cap will be, and when the 2020-21 season will start. Those are some pretty difficult constraints, but that won’t stop the NBA’s offseason rumor machine from churning with its usual fervor. With the Finals over and the offseason officially underway, we paneled The Ringer’s NBA staff and asked them six of the biggest questions entering this summer. Er, winter.
Who is the biggest star that will change teams this offseason?
Jonathan Tjarks: Chris Paul. This feels like the calm before the storm. Everyone is going to be positioning themselves for next offseason, whenever that is.
Dan Devine: In terms of actual NBA production and résumé? I’ll say Victor Oladipo, because all that grumbling sure seems to be coming from somewhere. In terms of broader cultural appeal and relative celebrity, though? Let’s go with LaMelo Ball, who, thanks to the family-band media machine, has nearly five times as many Instagram followers as your man Vic before even taking a single dribble in the league.
Rob Mahoney: … Andre Drummond? Fred VanVleet??? Between unstable cap projections, uncertain revenue, and a hopeful whisper of a schedule, teams seem all the more likely to play things safe this offseason. Safe, in this case, means retention, which could be enough to freeze what is already a pitiful free agent market.
Justin Verrier: Christian Wood. His production after the Andre Drummond trade—23 points, 10 rebounds, and a block per game with 56/40/76 shooting—doesn’t grow on trees (but apparently can be picked off the waiver wire?). Get my guy a max!
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Whispers in the night (message board rumors based solely on a player’s Instagram activity) lead me to believe it’ll be either Bradley Beal or Victor Oladipo. Maybe both! Between the two, the Pacers have shown more initiative on the trade market. I’m leaning Oladipo, though I wish I wasn’t. The trade that sent him to Indiana was only in 2017, and starting over can be exhausting. Self-care, Pacers fans, self-care.
Paolo Uggetti: Victor Oladipo. It feels like barring a Godfather offer, the Wizards likely want to see what they can do with Bradley Beal and John Wall healthy. That would rule out Beal, which means it’s time for the small-market debate to rage again once Oladipo asks out of Indiana. If the offseason has taught us anything, it’s that smoke usually means fire. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oladipo is wearing another jersey next season.
Matt Dollinger: Daryl Morey is a much smarter man than me, but I don’t see how Houston pushes forward again. James Harden could average a 50-point triple-double next season and I’d still take the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, and maybe even the sight-unseen Warriors over them. If Tilman Fertitta is having money issues, leaning toward a rebuild makes sense. Morey could get some of the picks back he lost in the Chris Paul trade and probably get a much better haul for Harden than he would next offseason after another disappointing year.
Which team is more likely to make the 2021 Finals: Warriors or Nets?
Mahoney: The Nets, though the Warriors will likely be the better team. The East just feels like the kind of conference where anything can happen, a looseness that favors an irrepressible scorer like Kevin Durant. Caution is always warranted where an injured Achilles tendon is concerned, but in his rehab, Durant has benefited more from the NBA’s shift in scheduling than any other player. By the time the next NBA season starts, KD could be 20 months removed from the day of his injury—and back into game-breaking form. I put a lot of stock in that player, and how far he can take a team like Brooklyn.
Uggetti: Nets. I’m sorry but one team plays in the East, while the other might have to face LeBron and Kawhi on its way to the Finals.
Dollinger: Warriors. The Nets look great on paper, but I’m not sure how great they’ll look on the court. Golden State is a lot more battle-tested and a lot more motivated to make it back to the Finals. I’ll put my trust in the NBA’s best-run organization this decade.
Verrier: The Nets, mostly because of conference affiliation. If everything goes right for the Warriors—if Steph Curry and Klay Thompson bounce back from injuries, if Draymond Green recovers from whatever last season was, if Andrew Wiggins plays competent defense, if the no. 2 pick brings them a win-now player—they still have to get through the Lakers, Clippers, Mavericks, and/or Nuggets. The East, as we saw this postseason, has more of a void at the top of the hierarchy. The Nets start next season with two of the best offensive talents in recent history and a deep supporting cast (assuming Joe Harris is brought back); is that already better than a Bucks team with no easy path to powering through the wall it keeps hitting in the playoffs, or even a tough-as-nails Heat team that relied on a 34-year-old Goran Dragic on offense? It’s close, which is the point.
Devine: I’m tempted to say Golden State. But even if Bob Myers and Co. use the no. 2 pick in the 2020 draft to its maximum effect—whether by flipping it or using it to inject new life into the veteran group—the Warriors will still wake up in the West. They’ll face an awfully tough road from last place to the Finals, even if everyone’s in full working order. I think I’d rather take a flyer on the Kevin Durant–Kyrie Irving–Steve Nash partnership climbing the ladder of chaos than on Golden State making it through that Western gauntlet. All we need is for a first-time head coach, a no. 1 option coming off the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer, and a blazingly talented but mercurial point guard with his own checkered injury history to get on the same page early, stay there, and stay healthy. What could possibly go wrong?
Tjarks: Warriors. The Nets have a deeper roster, but they have a lot more questions to answer. How will KD and Kyrie coexist on the court? Will everyone else buy into their roles? How will Steve Nash fare? Golden State at least knows who it is. Building a championship team from the ground up in one season is tough. Just ask the Clippers.
O’Shaughnessy: Brooklyn, if only because there’s less in its way. The Eastern Conference isn’t the easy path it used to be, but the recovering Warriors will be facing the reigning champions, an embarrassed James Harden, a really embarrassed Kawhi Leonard, the freshly motivated Nuggets, a year-older Luka Doncic, and/or the persistent Blazers.
Should the Heat break up their young nucleus to chase a star?
Uggetti: Yes. I’m sure Pat Riley has heart eyes for this specific Heat team given how much they embodied Miami’s culture, but the man is known to be a whale hunter for a reason. Given where their season ended up, the Heat are certainly going to do their best to add another star and they should, but only if it doesn’t cost them Bam Adebayo.
O’Shaughnessy: This is code for “Should the Heat trade Tyler Herro?” and the answer is a resounding no. (Unless Miami can get Bradley Beal, which doesn’t seem possible.) It’s less about protecting the culture and identity of the current team as it is the Heat not having enough to reap a true star. Getting rid of an up-and-comer isn’t justifiable for less.
Tjarks: Probably not. They should be one of the top contenders for all the superstars who will be available in 2021. Don’t shoot your shot too early.
Mahoney: If something works out, sure, but there’s really no need to force it. The beauty of Miami’s status quo is how effortlessly it sets up the coming era; all the Heat have to do to be the talk of free agency in 2021 is let a few contracts expire (Kelly Olynyk’s chief among them) in the meantime. I guess stasis can be sexy, too—at least for a franchise that’s already the reigning Eastern Conference champs, with multiple stars in hand, and is rooted in one of the NBA’s most attractive markets.
Verrier: Why not? The Miami boot camp has ground out enough young players that it can probably package a few together and still maintain the core of its Finals team. What’s been lost during the Heat’s surprising run, after being one of the main bullet points of the sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler, is that Butler is already on the wrong side of 30. He is also two seasons removed from meniscus surgery, and still lacking the 3-point game that would allow him to age more gracefully. Miami’s window is open now, and there’s no guarantee it’ll still be three years down the road.
Dollinger: The Heat will have to go big to make it back to the Finals. It’s not that they were lucky, it’s that the rest of the East was pretty unlucky. Giannis Antetokounmpo could win a third straight MVP next season—is he really going to miss the Finals again, too? The conference will be more robust next season, something the Heat likely already realize. We’d be foolish to assume Pat Riley isn’t two steps ahead again.
Devine: First things first: Miami should extend Bam Adebayo’s rookie contract, even though it makes the “get to max cap space in 2021” math a lot tougher, because that’s what smart organizations do when they’ve identified a franchise cornerstone. They should also take a shot at keeping Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder around on fat one-year deals (or maybe two-year deals with a team option in Year 2, like the one they gave Andre Iguodala when he came over from Memphis) and see whether they can’t run back the good vibes gang that took the East by storm in the bubble. Past that, though, I’d avoid the temptation to screw with a good thing unless the prospective addition is a certified game-changer.
Which non-Warriors lottery team has the best chance to make the leap?
Verrier: The Pelicans. Bet on the transformative talent. If Zion Williamson can play even half a season, and if New Orleans can hire a head coach to finally establish a defensive identity, there’s no reason the Pels couldn’t flirt with, say, the 6-seed?
Devine: Is it still recency bias if the most recent thing you saw was two months ago? Either way: I’ll take the Suns, whose undefeated run in the bubble shined a light on a team that had found itself. The starting lineup they found in Orlando—Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio in the backcourt, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson on the wings, Deandre Ayton in the middle—makes sense. I believe in Booker as a no-doubt-about-it no. 1 option, in Ayton’s continued growth as a defensive centerpiece and secondary scoring threat, and in Monty Williams as a coach who can make the pieces fit into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Tjarks: If we’re not going to count the Warriors, I’ll say the Suns. I think what they did in the bubble was real. Devin Booker + waves of two-way wings is a great formula.
Mahoney: I think the Bulls have a good shot at meaningful if modest improvement. Chicago had the seventh-worst record in the NBA last season but doesn’t have the seventh-worst roster. A coaching upgrade and some lineup renovation (starting at point guard) could go a long way.
Dollinger: The Knicks! I really think this is the year James Dolan finallllyyy figures it all out. For starters, there’s no reason to think Tom Thibodeau isn’t the perfect modern-day NBA head coach. If Mitchell Robinson can start hitting 35-footers consistently and the NBA bans all guards from the floor forever, I think New York can hit .500 for the first time in seven years and six head coaches.
O’Shaughnessy: Phoenix, which should’ve been a playoff team, anyway. Bubble-record 8-0 forever.
Uggetti: I believe what we saw from the Suns in the bubble isn’t as much of a fluke as it seemed. Devin Booker is a star, and the group that is coalescing around him looks stronger under Monty Williams. They should be fighting for the 8-seed next season.
Which playoff team will suffer the biggest drop-off next season?
Devine: I’m going to be really, really interested to see how things shake out in Houston after another disappointing early exit, without much flexibility to revamp the roster, and without Mike D’Antoni around to architect the all-smalls, spaced-out offense that allowed both James Harden and Russell Westbrook to thrive during the regular season. If Daryl Morey and his new head coach can’t find a way to break through, a precipitous fall could be in store.
Mahoney: The Thunder, largely by their own volition. Billy Donovan is already gone, and Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari (an unrestricted free agent) could soon follow. It’s high time for a proper rebuild. The things that carried Oklahoma City this season weren’t meant to last. Next season should be a change of pace, less about gathering rosebuds than planting seeds.
Uggetti: The Thunder. All signs point to them trading Chris Paul, and doubling down on their rebuild. In an even more competitive West, they should naturally sink to the bottom.
Verrier: Oklahoma City is preparing for a full-blown rebuild, which means it could part ways with free-agent-to-be Danilo Gallinari and the two veteran guards (Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder, both on pricey short-term deals) that powered its dynamic, clutch-as-hell three-guard lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a bright future ahead, but after a dreadful postseason, the sophomore seems much farther away from an All-NBA team than whatever an all-drip team is.
O’Shaughnessy: Much like everyone else, I’m anticipating a Chris Paul trade. The dip expected of Oklahoma City after dealing Paul George and Russell Westbrook will come a year late. Being significantly worse is a necessary part of starting over, for most teams. (Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. send their regards.)
Tjarks: The Thunder. Can a team have too many assets? We are about to find out.
Dollinger: The Heat. This isn’t a criticism of Miami so much as an acknowledgement of the reality in the East. And we won’t really see it until the playoffs. Remember, the Heat went 44-29 in the regular season, about the same as the Thunder. We’d be crazy to count out Jimmy Butler after what we just saw, but the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, and Nets could all be improved next season. If Miami runs into the wrong team in the first or second round, it could mark a pretty significant dip.
What’s one made-up trade you desperately want to see?
Mahoney: Chris Paul to the Bucks. I’m not yet sold on the trade logistics (Can Milwaukee really include enough to make this worth OKC’s while?), but the idea itself is pretty captivating. Paul has a way of agitating the dynamics of every playoff series he’s involved in. That’s welcome in an already competitive Eastern Conference field, and especially for a Bucks team that could use his half-court playmaking as much as his edge.
Devine: Victor Oladipo and T.J. Leaf to New Orleans; Jrue Holiday to Indiana. Honestly, I don’t really care too much about the “who says no?” or on-court specifics of this one. It’d just be rad to see all three Holiday brothers play together.
Verrier: Bradley Beal to the Nuggets for Michael Porter Jr. and Gary Harris. If Jamal Murray can approximate his I-can’t-feel-my-face playoff run next regular season, Denver shouldn’t wait for Porter to catch up. Beal-Murray-Jokic would instantly become the best Big Three in basketball, and vault the Nuggets from a fun young upstart to a serious title contender on the level of the Lakers and Clippers.
Dollinger: I want to see what Chris Paul can do with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not just setting him up on the court, but instilling his edge and tenacity in the Bucks star. I’d also love to see that team play James Harden just for kicks.
Tjarks: Al Horford for Buddy Hield. Philly gets a shooter who wants out of Sacramento while Sacramento gets a stretch 5 whom it can pair with Marvin Bagley III.
Uggetti: Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick to the Nuggets for Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., and whatever else is needed to make it work. The Nuggets are legit and adding Holiday to that group would flat-out make them contenders. He would slot in perfectly next to both Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, immediately be the anchor to their struggling defense, and give them a better third option than what they currently have. Getting JJ in that deal would be the chef’s kiss: a knockdown shooter that I can already see working perfectly in tandem with Jokic. On the other side, we get MPJ and Zion on the same team, #blessed.
O’Shaughnessy: Paolo Uggetti to the baseball beat. Kidding. (Am I?) Second place is relieving Buddy Hield from his misery under Luke Walton in Sacramento by sending him directly south. Because Hield signed an extension, there’s no clean salary swap for him to become a Laker. Here’s a thorough explainer from Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus on how a poison pill contract works in a trade. The basics are this: It would probably take Kyle Kuzma and a third-party team. Rob Pelinka needs to pounce on situations like Hield’s—a disillusioned player the Lakers usually wouldn’t have the pieces to trade for becomes available at a reduced price because he wants to leave—because his options are otherwise limited.