LOS ANGELES • Finally – finally – the National Basketball Association (NBA) off-season is here.
Sure, it is October, months removed from when the off-season would typically begin if a pandemic was not occurring.
And of course, the Los Angeles Lakers are still trying to figure out if they can throw a Zoom championship parade after conquering the Disney World bubble.
This means that 30 NBA teams are about to reload, retool or reset through trades, free agency and the draft, though the league still needs to sort out the financial impact of the pandemic and set the salary cap for next season.
The Western Conference is a particularly tough nut to crack.
The Lakers won the championship and should be assumed to be the favourites to win again, given their dominant play-off run.
But other teams with young stars might have something to say about that, so here is what every team in the West needs to do this off-season.
Anthony Davis has a player option this off-season, and if the Lakers persuade him to sign an extension, that will be a success and with him and LeBron James, the team would remain title favourites.
The Clippers were an expensive Hollywood production with A-list stars meant to win it all during awards season. But instead, they were upstaged by less established talent. In other words, they were Netflix’s The Irishman.
Their path forward is not ideal: They probably won’t have much cap space. Montrezl Harrell, the Sixth Man of the Year, and Marcus Morris are unrestricted free agents.
They don’t have a first-round draft pick, and their two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, can leave after the 2020-21 season.
The Clippers have to bank on one thing: fixing their chemistry.
It was an issue all season, so in theory, a new coach, reportedly Tyronn Lue, could come along and mend that, given Leonard’s and George’s talent.
The Nuggets are in one of the better positions in the league. Their franchise cornerstone, Nikola Jokic, is locked up till 2022-23.
He has a solid, if inconsistent, secondary player in Jamal Murray, signed up till 2023-24. They also have some big contracts coming off the books, freeing cap space.
But their most crucial move might be right under their noses. Jerami Grant was a solid contributor on both ends and can test the free-agent market, and the Nuggets would do well to keep him.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
All the Warriors have to do this off-season is wrap Stephen Curry in cellophane. If the side are healthy next season – this means a rested Curry, Klay Thompson, returning after over a year out, and Draymond Green – Golden State will be a solid title contender.
The Rockets need to surround James Harden and Russell Westbrook with shooting. They showed that their mini-ball style can work but Westbrook’s jump shooting woes became an issue in the postseason, and Houston needs someone to take the pressure off Harden.
The Rockets, with no cap space, will have to solve this either through trade or free agency on the cheap. Kyle Korver and Isaiah Thomas might fit the bill here offensively, but defensively – yikes.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
This is an attractive franchise: a bevy of future draft picks, compelling young talent like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a head coach opening.
Chris Paul, at 35, also showed in the play-offs that he remains one of the best point guards in the game.
There is not much for the Thunder to do, other than try to hit home runs with their two late first-round draft picks, as they do not have enough cap space to attract a top-tier free agent to play alongside Paul.
The team is best off letting Steven Adams’ US$27.5 million (S$37.3 million) deal expire, rather than taking on other contracts and wait until 2021-22, with the increased cap space, draft picks and Paul – if he is still around – to make a legitimate championship run.
The Jazz are capped out, both in salary and their talent ceiling. They are not good enough to play with the Lakers, but they are not bad enough to get lottery picks.
Rudy Gobert has a US$27.5 million expiring contract, and given his pandemic-related tensions with Donovan Mitchell, it is worth asking whether the team would be better off with a centre who can space the floor.
Upgrade defensively. They’ll have their mid-level exception and a first-round draft pick to do so.
They have two franchise blue chips in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis but the team were 18th defensively last season.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
This team barely got to an eighth seed, an underwhelming campaign. But if Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins can be healthy for a full season, they will be formidable.
Or if not, Portland can hope that an opposing star insults Damian Lillard’s rap talents, fuelling an aggrieved run for the ages.
Continue to build around Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, as the guard is expected to get even better in his second year.
The Suns are one of the few teams with lots of cap space and a lottery pick. It is a less top-heavy draft class than usual, but Danilo Gallinari and Harrell are legitimate free-agent targets for them.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Much of their off-season will hinge on whether DeMar DeRozan will opt in for the final year of his contract. The Spurs should hope he stays.
Under the radar, he has played some of the best basketball of his career in San Antonio.
Buddy Hield has not so subtly suggested he wants out, and hand the keys over to Bogdan Bogdanovic, a restricted free agent.
Hield is a young, talented guard on a reasonable contract who can net the Kings some assets. If this drags on, the Kings will lose leverage.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Find the right coach for Zion Williamson. Players are more likely than ever to force their way off teams, even when locked into contracts.
Any year of Williamson’s prime squandered with a coach who doesn’t mesh with him is an invitation for the forward to try to leave when he can, as James did in Cleveland.
Minnesota has the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft as well as a Nets first-rounder.
The Timberwolves have one of the best young players in the league, with Karl-Anthony Towns, and a talented guard beside him, D’Angelo Russell.
Minnesota cannot whiff on the first pick. Go get James Wiseman. His athleticism will allow him to play three positions on the floor, and the team needs both wing and front-court help.