Conference finals, you keep me young. East or West, it felt like every run was commanded by someone in the 22- to 25-year-old range, old enough to partake in all legal American vices but inexperienced enough that nicknames and postseason origin stories are being assigned in real time. (Except Heat guard Tyler Herro, who at the tender age of 20 has officially replaced Jayson Tatum as the subject of “He’s only X age!” exclamations.) But these players are too young to be household names; too young for, well, such deep playoff runs. In the end, the Nuggets and Celtics lost the Western and Eastern Conference finals, respectively, on the opposite of borrowed time. They took an advance without asking, showed up without permission, and propped the door open as they left. With the right moves in the next few months, Denver and Boston could be right back here next season—and maybe advance even further. The two franchises could mirror each other’s success for years to come thanks to their young nuclei. Here are the biggest questions for each of them heading into an unusual offseason.
For more questions on eliminated teams, read Dan Devine on the Clippers, Bucks, Raptors, and Rockets here, and the Pacers, Mavericks, Blazers, and Nets here. And thanks to Dan for letting me borrow this column just in time to gush over Jamal Murray some more.
Record: 46-27 (third in Western Conference, beat Utah 4-3, beat the Clippers 4-3, lost to the Lakers 4-1)
2020 NBA draft pick: 22
Pending free agents: Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Tyler Cook, and Troy Daniels (unrestricted); Jerami Grant (player option); Torrey Craig (restricted)
Can Denver Complete Its Ambitious Blueprint?
With full acknowledgement that I might be hypnotized by Jamal Murray’s swiveling dribbles and spins to the basket, I am convinced that his and Nikola Jokic’s success in the 2020 playoffs is sustainable. Trance or not.
Denver’s overall outlook is more complicated. Last year, Mike Malone was given the chance to run it back after a second-round exit. Eleven players returned from the 2018-19 season, including the entire starting lineup. Familiarity matters. The second-round series between the Nuggets and Clippers was decided by cohesion, something Denver had and L.A. lacked. “We had the talent to [win a championship],” guard Lou Williams said after the Clippers lost the series. “I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it, and it showed.” (Of course, Denver was booted the next round by another freshly put-together Los Angeles team, but you can’t stop the gods or LeBron James, who are one and the same come playoffs.)
The front office can’t give Malone the same crew next season. It could be for the best. Replacing free agent Mason Plumlee is long overdue—if this wasn’t the franchise-wide sentiment before, it is after the Lakers series. Frontcourt partner Paul Millsap isn’t as easy to part with, but clearing his money off the books (he made $30.5 million last season) should help to find a suitable replacement for the 35-year-old, who scored in double digits just once in the West finals.
Every Nuggets’ “if” is attached to a role player. If Jerami Grant opts out, which he should after such a big postseason, can Denver find the sweet spot between convincing him to stay and not overpaying? Will Gary Harris’s temporary bounce back against the Clippers be the start of a new trend for 2020-21? Can Will Barton’s body stay intact for an entire season, and are Bol Bol’s limbs and family tree long enough to gauge a high ceiling? Most crucial is Michael Porter Jr.—at least, he thinks so—a player whom Denver’s Twitter account has already designated the third cog of the franchise’s “Big Three.”
The playoffs were the first mainstream exposure Porter has had since he was drafted. He missed his rookie year because of a back injury, then played limited minutes this regular season because of additional injuries and Malone’s general repulsion toward playing rookies. Porter impressed with his deep and isolation scoring, finishing as Denver’s fourth-highest scorer in the playoffs with 11.4 points per game. But his demanding demeanor at 22 years old was a turnoff, and if there’s any lesson to these Nuggets, it’s that chemistry is worth protecting.
Denver’s prosperity depends on a long list of names and the uncertainties attached to them. That includes the front office, which has proved deft in the draft, but not yet in the margins of free agency. For now, though, it can enjoy the assurance that Murray and Jokic aren’t just the future of the team, but the league.
Record: 48-24 (third in Eastern Conference, beat Philadelphia 4-0, beat Toronto 4-3, lost to Miami 4-2)
2020 NBA draft picks: 14, 26, 30, 47
Pending free agents: Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter (player option); Brad Wanamaker (unrestricted); Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall (restricted); Semi Ojeleye (team option)
What Does Jayson Tatum Need to Thrive?
A new contract, for one. Tatum is eligible this offseason for a five-year maximum extension that would begin in 2021-22 worth approximately 28 percent of Boston’s salary cap. I don’t know how high or low or really low the cap—calculated by the previous season’s revenue—will be next year. ESPN’s Bobby Marks predicts that a new deal for Tatum could be worth $158 million. The numbers are less important than the general idea: The years that Danny Ainge spent calling other GMs late at night speaking only the words “asset” and “future first” until they were convinced a deal with Ainge was the best for all involved—reader, it was best for Boston—manifested into Tatum. The 22-year-old is the one they waited for and traded for, and the sooner he’s promised his prime to Brad Stevens, the better the city will sleep.
Has Tatum thought about his possible extension? “That’s a tough question to answer,” he told reporters on Sunday. “I haven’t even thought about that yet.” (Again, it could be nearly $160 million. I, too, would forget about the prospect of such a miniscule paycheck.) “I was just focused on this season. As you guys know, it’s a process. The front office and my agent are going to talk. I’m not thinking about that right now.” It hadn’t occurred to me that either side would hesitate until reading the hedging done by reporters; ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said Boston will “most likely” offer Tatum the max, while NBC Sports’ A. Sherrod Blakely said Tatum would be “leaning towards” OK’ing the deal. If the front office is seen as competent, as Boston’s is, and the coach is seen as capable, as Stevens is, and the money is right—meh, $158 million will suffice—there’s really no better pitch for a young player looking for his first big payday.
Unless Tatum is looking to leverage his extension to play with a stronger supporting cast in Boston. Targeting better frontcourt pieces is essential, but it’d be uncharacteristically impulsive for Ainge to make a dramatic change after making the Eastern Conference finals ahead of schedule. With the rate that Tatum and 23-year-old Jaylen Brown have improved, Boston should be able bear another year of incremental development and cohesion with Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward. (Assuming Hayward exercises his player option for $34 million. Wilder things have happened in 2020.) Though after so many injuries with the Celtics, Hayward moves gingerly—sometimes, probably, because of a lingering ankle issue, and sometimes because of the mental confidence block that follows snapping your bone and cartilage—and the star forward they paid for has since been rendered just a role player.
Besides re-signing Tatum, Boston has to find a multidimensional big who can stretch into the center position. The roster never properly replaced Al Horford’s voice, but Boston did find success with a small-ball lineup late in the playoffs. Each current center option comes with distinct shortcomings, a positional vulnerability that should be addressed before the Celtics find themselves in a playoff series against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, Joel Embiid and the Sixers, or Bam Adebayo and the Heat once again. While we’re here: The prospect of facing a reloaded Raptors team or the Kevin Durant–Kyrie Irving Nets next season is enough for the Celtics to savor how far they came this go-round.