Eleven and a half months after it started, seven months after it was suspended by a pandemic, and three months after the scene shifted to a cordoned-off campus at Walt Disney World, the 2019-20 NBA season is over. The league pulled off its restart, crowned a new champion, and found a way to put appropriate punctuation at the end of the lengthiest chapter ever entered into its history books. But every end, even one so long in coming, brings with it a new beginning.
As the NBA exits the bubble, it enters a world of uncertainty. Questions swirl around the league’s load-bearing structures: where the salary cap will land, when free agency will begin, how many games there will be next season, whether fans will be able to attend them, and when, after the longest season ever, they’ll actually start. They will start at some point, though—and when they do, a lot of teams will carry an awful lot of drama and intrigue with them onto the court.
With an unprecedented offseason now underway, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams (to me!) entering the great unknown, starting with a ready-made contender, now finally ready to be made.
(A couple of notes on teams that aren’t here: I thought about the Lakers, but KOC has you covered there. Haley and I recently hit the Heat. I think the most interesting stuff about where the Bucks stand has already been well established; ditto for the Warriors. Now, on to other teams!)
Last season wasn’t meaningless for the Nets: It provided vital developmental opportunities for Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Joe Harris, and it clarified head coach Kenny Atkinson’s place in an organization that had graduated from construction to contention. (That place? Somewhere else.) In the grand scheme of things, though, it was always going to be a placeholder until The Real Team could take the court.
When the Nets next lace ’em up, Kevin Durant should be as healthy as he’s going to be after a year of rehab from a torn Achilles. So should Kyrie Irving, who was limited by a balky shoulder to just 20 games before season-ending surgery. They’ll be directed by new
coach collaborator Steve Nash, a two-time MVP and Hall of Fame floor general stepping into a new role as a first-time bench boss. After a career spent on the ball under the tutelage of Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni, and a post-retirement apprenticeship with Steve Kerr’s egalitarian Warriors, I’m eager to find out what sorts of principles Nash prioritizes when he starts running the show; which aspects of his basketball journey will come to the forefront in his coaching style?
So: What will The First Year That Matters look like? A lot of that will depend on how productive Durant can be upon his return, at age 32, from the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer. Picking up where he left off—which, we remind you, was as a 7-footer who could initiate the offense and guard all five positions in the midst of the most efficient high-volume scoring postseason ever—seems impossible; becoming something like an evolutionary Dirk Nowitzki is more plausible, but could be a high bar to clear after nearly two years away. Irving came to bristle at being a no. 2 option in Cleveland. He put up numbers but had limited team success as a no. 1 in Boston. Now, he sounds genuinely excited to suit up with Durant, whom he sees as his equal as a crunch-time performer. If KD is more limited than Brooklyn hopes, though, how might that inform the way Kyrie plays off of him? And how might that affect the dynamic between two close friends whose devotion to their craft and artistry has at times caused friction with teammates at previous stops?
Speaking of teammates: Nets general manager Sean Marks said re-signing Harris is “priority no. 1” for Brooklyn’s offseason, but the sharpshooter should be one of the hottest names on the unrestricted free agent market. LeVert shined for the injury-wracked bubble Nets, drawing praise from KD; with Durant and Irving back, how will he adapt to a smaller role on a team with two ball-dominant offensive threats? Will DeAndre Jordan, KD and Kyrie’s Team USA pal, continue to get the starting nod over Allen, who’s a decade Jordan’s junior and was more productive last season?
As it stands, Brooklyn boasts what looks like a solid nine-man rotation: Jordan and Allen at center; Durant and Taurean Prince at the 4; LeVert, Harris, and Garrett Temple on the wing; Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie at the point. But with Durant and Irving both holding player options for 2022-23, the Nets need to make the most out of a two-year window; given the urgency of the moment, then, “solid” might not seem strong enough. Will Marks feel compelled to take a big swing—perhaps dangling LeVert, Dinwiddie, Allen, or some combination of them to try to land an established third star—in pursuit of favorite status? Or will he stand pat for now, giving Nash the chance to try to marry what’s left of the core Brooklyn built to the one Brooklyn bought, and see whether what’s already on hand is enough to vault to the top of the East on its own merits?
If the Sixers were going to get rid of Brett Brown, then importing Doc Rivers feels like perhaps the best overall hire they could have made. Rivers has coaxed development and career-best performances out of a lot of different kinds of players, he’s one of seven active head coaches who’s won an NBA championship and is 11th all time in regular-season wins, and he’s a widely respected leader with experience managing big personalities (though the record’s not spotless there). And yet, even bringing in a face of the franchise like Doc can’t solve all the problems that led Philly to this point.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, the defense-first 76ers lack players who can dribble, pass, and shoot. As we have seen, such players are pretty important if you want to sniff a championship. Maybe Rivers can spur further development from some of the in-house options—Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, illness- and injury-haunted former first-round pick Zhaire Smith—to help bring balance to the roster, and provide incumbent All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with the sort of competent support they’ve largely lacked during their time together in Pennsylvania. If those pieces don’t take big steps forward, though, it’ll fall to GM Elton Brand to find ones that might better complement the stars he’s understandably reluctant to move in a deal. (Brand apparently has consolidated decision-making power after the Sixers’ “collaborative” approach didn’t bear fruit, though it’s an open question just how much has actually changed about how the team operates.)
After a pretty dismal and disappointing season to watch, scores of Sixers fans have surely talked themselves into taking just about anything a suitor offered to take the contracts of Al Horford or Tobias Harris off their hands. Given the track record of Philly’s front office in recent years, though, you’d be within your rights to have concerns about how effective any major moves authored by Brand and Co. might be, and whether the purported cure would be notably better than the disease.
A more muted approach might better serve the Sixers—maybe move Horford to the bench behind Embiid, see if you can get some value (ideally in the form of shooting and/or shot creation) for the talented and cost-effective Josh Richardson, and beat the bushes for shooters to put around Embiid and Simmons. It might also give Rivers a stronger base from which to work as he sets about his most significant task: getting through to Embiid and Simmons in a way that Brown evidently couldn’t. Only through strengthening the weak points in its stars’ own games (for Embiid, passing and conditioning; for Simmons, if not necessarily 3-point shooting, then free throw stroke and finishing on non-dunk 2s in the paint) can Philly reach the vaulted heights made possible by their towering talent.
Hey, speaking of Doc ...
Los Angeles Clippers
After the Clips concluded an embarrassing and frankly exhausting-to-watch second-round loss to the Nuggets—a series they led 3-1, with double-digit leads in games 5, 6, and 7—the go-to explanation for L.A.’s collapse was a lack of cohesion and esprit de corps. “You know, we did have championship expectations,” guard Lou Williams told reporters. “We had the talent to do it. I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it, and it showed. … A lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out. Chemistry didn’t. We’re a highly talented group and we just came up short. Chemistry is something you have to build.”
That sounds like an argument for running it back. For better aligning the scheduled rests of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George so that the two stars could play more than 37 games together. For giving a shuffled-up starting lineup that didn’t come together until after the trade deadline—Leonard, George, Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris, and Patrick Beverley—a chance to log more than 224 total minutes before making any judgments on its effectiveness. For giving Williams, Beverley, and Montrezl Harrell the benefit of the doubt after all three struggled in Orlando following excused exits from the bubble. And, most of all, for giving Rivers, the team’s venerable head coach, an opportunity to rediscover the rhythm the Clippers were playing with before the coronavirus hit next season.
And yet, less than two weeks after the Clippers’ season ended, so too did Rivers’s seven-season tenure on their bench, amid a hail of questions about why the team lacked chemistry, leadership, and solidarity. Those questions raise another: Is a new voice on the bench (whether Ty Lue, Sam Cassell, or whoever else is down to take on what might be the best job opening in the league and its most stressful) the only major change that owner Steve Ballmer and president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank think the Clips need to slough off the stink of that second-round flameout? Because there’s also the frontcourt rotation to figure out.
Harrell is a free agent, one who seemed indispensable during a regular season that earned him Sixth Man of the Year honors but frequently looked unplayable during the Clips’ bubble run; this was especially true against Denver, as Nikola Jokic essentially devoured his soul like Shang Tsung for seven straight games. So is Morris, for whom L.A. traded its 2020 first-round pick—one of its last remaining flippable assets—to the Knicks at February’s trade deadline. JaMychal Green, a versatile and sound stretch big off the bench who roundly outplayed Harrell in the postseason, can opt out of his deal. The 23-year-old Zubac deserves a promotion to more than the 18.4 minutes per game he averaged during the regular season and 24.6 minutes per game he logged during the playoffs, but he’s not suddenly going to be clocking 40 minutes a night; the Clippers need another answer in the middle against the likes of Jokic and Anthony Davis, even if they bring back the undersized Harrell.
The Clippers don’t have much financial flexibility, though—already nearly $116 million on the books for next season, over last season’s cap line and a couple of midsized signings away from the luxury tax line—and could also use another initiating option at the point besides Beverley to reduce the playmaking responsibility on Leonard and George. (Reggie Jackson, to put it mildly, wasn’t it.) The problem in L.A. might be primarily a soft-skills issue, but it’s not solely that. The Clippers also have some holes to fill, some very interesting decisions, and—with Kawhi and PG just one season away from being able to opt out and reenter the market if things go pear-shaped—not a moment to lose and no margin for error in doing so.
I picked Phoenix as the non-Warriors lottery team with the best chance of making a leap in our offseason entrance survey. As difficult as it is to properly evaluate whether what we saw in the bubble will translate once teams start playing in their own arenas again, I don’t think the Suns’ perfect performance in Orlando was just another feel-good Disney story concocted in a purpose-built “hooper’s gym.” I think the formula they found—surrounding the incendiary scoring of star Devin Booker with rock-steady table setter Ricky Rubio, ace wing defender Mikal Bridges, small-ball stretch 4 Cameron Johnson, and former no. 1 pick big man Deandre Ayton—would play anywhere. That’s partly because it didn’t just work in the bubble.
Yes, Johnson logged just 34 minutes with the other four before head coach Monty Williams placed him in the starting lineup in Orlando. But that same formula was still working like a charm when Kelly Oubre Jr. was in Johnson’s place: The Ayton-Oubre-Bridges-Booker-Rubio lineup outscored opponents by 92 points in 226 minutes, a blistering plus-20.2 net rating that ranked second best in the NBA among units to log at least 200 minutes.
There are notable differences between Oubre and Johnson. The former’s got more juice as a slasher and off-the-dribble creator, gets to the foul line more often, and can envelop perimeter players with his 7-foot-3 wingspan. The latter is a more frequent and more accurate 3-point shooter (67 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc compared to 37 for Oubre, and he drilled 39 percent of them compared to Oubre’s 35.2 percent), a sturdier defender, and a quick decision-maker who’s either letting it fly or making the next pass. Oubre’s got the sort of impossible-to-dim flash that results in calling oneself “Tsunami Papi”; Johnson, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to adopt a nickname based on a slang term for a dangerous aquatic event created by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.
In general, though, Oubre and Johnson fit the same profile: big wings who can credibly space the floor to draw a defender away from the paint, keep the offense moving once it’s got the D in rotation, and guard every perimeter position on the other end. Which is to say: the perfect complement for a high-usage shooting guard like Booker who does his best work with the ball in his hands in the midrange, a pass-first point guard like Rubio who needs finishers, and a still-developing center like Ayton who’s gotten much better at helping erase teammates’ mistakes, but who still benefits greatly from penetration-stalling defenders who leave him fewer messes to clean up.
Put some decent second-unit pieces around that top six, and Phoenix might be pretty damn frisky next season. (Aron Baynes, an early-season revelation before being limited by injuries, might be tough to keep if he finds multiple suitors in unrestricted free agency. Dario Saric will hit the restricted market; the Suns would do well to try to bring back a smart playmaking forward who shined off the bench in the bubble.) What’ll be interesting to monitor, though, is whether GM James Jones is thinking bigger than “decent second-unit pieces.”
The Suns are projected to have about $19 million in cap space this summer, making them one of the few teams with the flexibility to make a significant signing. Back in August, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Phoenix was “expected to emerge as [one of the] suitors” for Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, an excellent two-way guard who seems like he would be an excellent fit in Williams’s system, who would fortify the Suns’ rotation, and who would demonstrate to Booker that the franchise is committed to building a winner around him.
Maybe they won’t try to make a major addition, preferring to keep their powder dry, bet on what they found in the bubble, and see whether that—plus a full season from Ayton, who served a 25-game suspension last season after testing positive for a diuretic—is enough to climb into the Western playoff bracket for the first time since 2010. Maybe, though, they like the core they’ve built enough to take a big swing, and see if they can’t go from “flirt with .500 and aim for the eighth seed” to “kick in the door and shoot for 50 wins.” That’d be an awfully big leap. But if Phoenix’s brain trust believes in what it saw in Orlando, it might be exactly the sort of leap of faith this franchise needs.
New Orleans Pelicans
I could probably get away with justifying this pick without doing much more than dropping a link to a video of all the cool shit Zion Williamson did during his abbreviated rookie season ...
… and reminding you that he played only 24 of the Pelicans’ 72 games. They went 11-13 with him and 19-29 without him; they outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in just under 700 minutes with him on the court, and got outscored by 2.7 points per 100 in the 2,800-plus minutes he was off of it, according to NBA Advanced Stats. By way of comparison: A plus-5.1 net rating would’ve slotted in between the full-season marks of the Lakers and Mavericks, just outside the top five in the league, while minus-2.7 would’ve fallen between the Kings and Bulls, squarely in the bottom 10.
Maybe it’s a bit much to say that a full season of Zion, now with a couple dozen pro games under his belt, will be the difference between the Pelicans comfortably making the playoffs in the West and missing out entirely, as they did after an unsatisfying 2-6 showing in the bubble. After all, New Orleans struggled defensively all season long, ranking in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per possession. The 20-year-old thunderbolt’s not going to fix that; while the Pelicans’ overall efficiency numbers on D ticked up in Williamson’s minutes, that likely owed more to other factors (shooting lower percentages on 3-pointers and free throws, for example) than to the rookie, who, despite the occasional loud blocked shot, frequently looked lost on that end.
The Pels were bad in crunch-time situations, going 13-28 in games in which the score was within five points in the final five minutes. They lollygagged back on D overall, ranking 28th in both fast-break points allowed per game and points allowed per possession in transition. Only the Bulls gave up shots at the rim more often, and only the basement-dwelling Cavaliers were more careless with the ball. In sum, they were bad in the way that many young teams are bad. (Hiring noted defensive hard-ass Stan Van Gundy, reportedly one of the favorites for the Pelicans’ head coaching job, could go a long way toward cleaning up some of those bad habits.)
Surprisingly, but perhaps not too surprisingly, the biggest on-court/off-court swing on the team belonged not to Zion, but rather to Derrick Favors. The veteran big man’s struggles in the bubble played a large role in New Orleans’ disjointed performance, but when he was healthy, Favors served as a vital interior stabilizer; for much of the season, he and on-ball hellion Jrue Holiday frequently seemed to be the only things keeping the Pelicans functional on the defensive end. The somehow-still-only-29-year-old Favors is a free agent this offseason; it’ll be very interesting to see what kind of value Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin puts on keeping him.
The best version of the Pelicans last season featured Favors and Zion up front, Brandon Ingram on the wing, and Holiday alongside Lonzo Ball in the backcourt. What that group lacked in 3-point shooting, it made up for in defensive activity, pace-pushing oomph, and relentless attacking, as the fivesome blitzed opponents by 18.1 points per 100, third best in the league among big-minutes lineups. Zion’s the franchise centerpiece. Ingram, the newly minted Most Improved Player winner, is all but sure to get a max offer once restricted free agency opens. Ball, who’s eligible for an extension of his rookie contract, is one of the most polarizing players in the league, but also one who fits seamlessly alongside Zion; it’ll be fascinating to see how Griffin approaches his negotiations, but either way, he’s under team control through the end of the 2021-22 season.
Holiday, however, has a player option for 2021-22, which means that this will be the final guaranteed season of his deal in New Orleans. After four straight (mostly) healthy seasons, during which he averaged a shade under 19 points, seven assists, and five rebounds per game while serving as an All-Defense-caliber tip of the spear, the 30-year-old has become one of the most popular trade-machine targets in the league; every good team with designs on a deep playoff run could use precisely the skills that Holiday brings to the table. The question: Does Griffin think the Pelicans, as presently constituted and with a full(ish) season of Zion, are a good team with designs on a deep playoff run? Or does he look at the story that those other underlying numbers told, see a team with a steep hill to climb that hasn’t yet entered its real competitive window, and decide to take the long view, opening up bidding on Holiday in pursuit of a hefty return that might patch multiple holes and line up more closely with a Zion-Ingram core?
It’s a simple question that’s anything but simple to answer: Who do you think you are? Griffin’s had a while to think about it, and he’s got at least a few more weeks to mull it over before the draft and, presumably shortly thereafter, the start of free agency and trade season. What conclusion he comes to could have a major impact on the state of the playoff race—not only in New Orleans, but in every city that would love to have the chance to get into the Jrue Holiday business.