For the most part, the dust has settled on NBA free agency. Outside of any more salary-related trades and some minimum contracts, most contenders are set for the season. The biggest questions that remain deal with the Houston Rockets, and what happens with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Trades for those players, particularly Harden, would obviously shift the landscape of the NBA.
It’s possible that those aren’t coming any time soon, though. After all the moves that have been made, let’s take a look at the teams who have improved their outlooks, and the teams that haven’t:
Los Angeles Lakers
There’s no doubt that the Lakers will enter the season as the league’s best team. Rob Pelinka and company, aided by the machinations of Klutch sports, had a superb offseason.
Even after they won the Finals, it was clear that the Lakers were an imperfect team. They lacked shooting around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and needed some unsustainable shooting performances (Markieff Morris, Rajon Rondo, maybe Davis’s midrange game) to overcome the struggles of players like Danny Green. To their credit, they understood their imperfections and strived to improve all of them.
The best move they made was sending Green to Oklahoma City for Dennis Schroder, a ball-handler who thrived on catch-and-shoot threes last year. Schroder will be a more trustworthy and consistent version of what Rondo was last year, capable of attacking off the dribble, shooting threes, and letting LeBron work off the ball a bit. While the downgrade in perimeter defense from Green to Schroder raises some questions, Schroder should work hard on defense for a contending team. He can stay in front of guards.
From there, the Lakers essentially exchanged Avery Bradley, Javale McGee, and Dwight Howard for Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews, and Marc Gasol. Harrell, who won Sixth Man of the Year for the rival Clippers last year, will serve a clear purpose: provide regular-season offensive boosts to keep the team afloat while the stars (particularly LeBron) coast. Harrell got cooked in the playoffs last year on defense, and his fit is questionable with Davis and Gasol. In the regular season, though, he will play nice minutes as a roll man for LeBron and Schroder.
Gasol, in contrast, will be a useful piece throughout the season. He’s close to the ideal fit at center, allowing them to play Davis at his preferred power forward position for long stretches, and possibly even in clutch minutes. Gasol is aging, but he was really good on defense last year, and has been a good shooter for most of his career, some slumps last season notwithstanding.
Matthews is a career 38 percent three-point shooter, and will defend with physicality and versatility. He’s 34, but he’s an ideal fit as a veteran role player on a contender. The Lakers also managed to keep Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, an impressive bit of Klutch Sports maneuvering that secures them additional shooting, off-the-dribble competency, and perimeter defending. Morris is also back, adding floor spacing and a capable small-ball center.
Once they officially sign Davis to a max contract, they will be set. The Clippers didn’t get worse, but it seems the Lakers have surpassed them on paper in addition to on the court.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers snuck into the playoffs last year despite a series of debilitating injuries. This offseason, with the clock ticking on the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum duo, they were not intimidated by the Western Conference’s sheer number of good teams and decided to go all-in. They had a fantastic offseason, and with the full return from injury of Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood, they could have a shot at finishing in the top half.
Their most notable move was trading two first0round picks and Trevor Ariza for Robert Covington from Houston. Covington isn’t a great shooter, but he’s willing to pop them from deep, and he provides floor spacing and quality defense. He’s the presence they’ve needed alongside the two guards. Add Collins and Nurkic (the latter of which was really good upon his return in the bubble), and their starting lineup looks solid. Gary Trent Jr., red-hot in Orlando, will play a bigger role as a three-and-D guy.
Re-signing Hood and Carmelo Anthony adds ball-handling and scoring off the bench. They also picked up Derrick Jones Jr., a quality, lengthy defender who’s particularly valuable as a zone defense specialist (maybe Terry Stotts will try out some new schemes?). Portland also still has young players and picks available to trade if they start winning in the regular season.
Welcome back to the postseason, Phoenix. With Chris Paul at the point alongside a team that went 8-0 in the bubble, the Suns will be the league’s darling this season. Paul is clearly a winning player- a guy that can raise both the floor of a bad team and the ceiling of a good team, and a perfect complement to Devin Booker.
Trading Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. to make the Paul move work shouldn’t hurt too badly; the Suns look like a pretty well-rounded team as it stands. They have a pair of young guys, Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson, who will play roles. DeAndre Ayton should thrive as a roll man and continue to improve as a defensive anchor after showing more positive signs last season. They added Jae Crowder, a consistent playoff contributor all over the NBA, as a power forward. If he keeps making threes even close to his bubble pace, he’ll be a very valuable piece in Phoenix.
Add in Mikal Bridges (whom they managed to keep out of the CP3 deal), defensive specialist Jevon Carter, and the newly re-signed Dario Saric, and the Suns look like they should make the postseason.
To be determined
I didn’t know whether to put Atlanta in the “risers” or “fallers” category, but you can’t talk about the offseason without talking about the Hawks. They were the most active team in the league, adding a number of pieces around Trae Young and creating a fascinating rotational logjam. There are questions about whether these moves were worth it, though.
They brought in Bogdan Bogdanovic, a very good restricted free agent from Sacramento; Danilo Gallinari, a shooter and power forward; Rondo, who will be Young’s backup; Kris Dunn, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, but an anemic offensive player; drafted Onyeka Okongwu, an athletic big who has great defensive potential; and signed Tony Snell and Solomon Hill, adding veteran shooting and versatile defense.
These are all good players. But with Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and John Collins already there, they have younger guys who need minutes. They seemed to be locked into Clint Capela as a rim-rolling center, and that could make Collins expendable.
There are still plenty of defensive questions to answer. Young, of course, is an atrocious defensive player, and he needs a lot of support. Dunn will help a lot, but Bogdanovic isn’t good enough on that end to save Young. Gallinari is getting older and looked cooked on defense in the bubble (he also wasn’t really getting buckets, which might be an even bigger concern, though obviously the bubble introduces a lot of variables).
The question that they’ll have to answer is whether Young can be the best player on a consistent playoff team. He operates a sun king-style offense revolving around spread pick-and-rolls and deep threes. His defense offsets too much of what he does offensively. With talented teammates surrounding him, it will be interesting to see how he involves his teammates and makes the offense function as a whole. No one’s expecting them to be the Warriors, but he should take some principles from Steph Curry’s style and avoid a Harden-esque approach.
Coach Lloyd Piece will have some difficult rotation decisions, and the team will have to make a decision on Collins at some point. Rondo, given his history, might play badly in the regular season, waiting until the playoffs to start performing. Gallinari will have to play better than he did in the bubble to justify the deal Atlanta gave him. They should find a way to make the playoffs in the weak East, though.
The Nuggets didn’t take a big step back, and they should still be serious Western Conference contenders, but they lost Jerami Grant in free agency to the Pistons. Grant stepped up in the playoffs as a crucial off-ball threat and defender of opposing superstars. While former Clipper JaMychal Green can make up some of that production, Denver doesn’t have an obvious guy to take on the LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard assignment.
This could be the season that Michael Porter Jr. takes the star leap that many expect. He was a rotation player during Denver’s playoff run, but his streaky shooting and liability status on defense often forced Mike Malone to pull him from lineups. Porter’s improvement on defense throughout the playoffs should give Nuggets fans hope, though. He clearly has the frame and athleticism to succeed on that end, in addition to his potentially prodigious offensive skills.
The biggest thing to watch in Denver will be Jamal Murray, after the insanity that he pulled off during that playoff run. We’ll see if he can do something like that consistently in the regular season.
Detroit’s offseason moves raised a lot of eyebrows around the league. They overpaid for Grant, who will likely be overtaxed in a bigger offensive role, and they dropped cash on multiple unnecessary big men. $25 million for Mason Plumlee is a particularly questionable move, even though Plumlee is a legitimately good big man. His passing, mobility, and finishing will make him a nice piece for Detroit’s young guards, even though the Pistons invested way too much money in him.
It’s not clear what the long-term plan is here. It never is, really.
Let’s close with the Hornets, who made the interesting move of giving Gordon Hayward a four-year, $120 million contract. He’ll slot in at three alongside, presumably, the guard duo of Devontae Graham and LaMelo Ball (that will be, uh, problematic on defense).
This contract is classic Hornets in its obvious disaster potential — Hayward gets injured consistently and now would have to perform at a high level for years into the future — and the limits it places on Charlotte’s ceiling. While it’s understandable that the Hornets will grab a potential star any way they can, considering how undesirable they are as a destination, it’s hard to see their path to anything above the race for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Where does that get them in the long run?
It’s a positive in terms of immediate fit, particularly for Ball, who will get to play with a capable shooter and high-level passer. It also means they probably won’t trade for Russell Westbrook, which is undoubtedly a positive. Take what you can get, Hornets fans.