LeBron's Decision and the Top 10 NBA Storylines That Will Dominate the Offseason

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 14, 2018

LeBron's Decision and the Top 10 NBA Storylines That Will Dominate the Offseason

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    One side effect of the NBA's nonstop news cycle is that the transition from season to offseason is mostly illusory.

    We burn calories in December thinking about July—theorizing, devising landing spots and forecasting free agency. This is why there can be no mystery about this summer's storylines. We've already thought about all of them.

    Still, no amount of preemptive consideration ever prepares you for the whirlwind of the offseason. You can think ahead all you like, but your wildest hypotheticals never measure up to the chaos that ensues in reality. So it's important to get organized before the sweeping changes and league-altering roster tweaks start. You'll need something to keep your thoughts in order during the hurricane of speculation, counter-speculation and, eventually, actual transactions.

    It's going to be a wild summer. Get prepared.

LeBron James Is in Charge of Everything

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    It's right there in the title, so you knew we were going to talk about it.

    What do we call it, though? The Decision is taken, and LeBron James has made two of those already. The Decision 3.0 is dull. Artless.

    The Selection? The Reckoning? Oh, how about The Adjudicature? That's the one. Go ahead and find me a word that sounds weightier. You can't.

    The summer's moving pieces will be on pause until James figures out what he wants to do. He can run it back for another season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, force the Houston Rockets to rejigger their roster by expressing interest in coming aboard via trade (or the much more complicated and hard-cap inducing route of a sign-and-trade), join a burgeoning contender with the Philadelphia 76ers, expand his empire in the media haven of Los Angeles or, I don't know...announce he'll forgo the 2018-19 season to pilot the first manned mission to Mars.

    Anything's in play, really.

    And nothing of significance is happening until James decides completes The Adjudicature.

Paul George's Long Road Home

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    OK, there might be one big move that happens independent of James.

    Paul George has been signaling his intentions to become a Laker forever, and though James' presence in L.A. would sweeten the pot considerably, it just feels like George has had his mind made up independent of who else might join him.

    He made it known well over a year ago that the Lakers were his preferred destination, and who knows how long that preference had been an open secret before it made the news rounds?

    It's exciting that the Lakers are relevant again, and it's also comforting to know they'll use their cap space on worthwhile expenses this time. There'll be no repeats of the ghastly overpays for Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. And while the expectation of George winding up in Los Angeles has been fun, the reality will be far more interesting, because that's when we get to start thinking about how he fits with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and whichever other big name the Lakers land with the rest of their cash.

    George signing with L.A. may not be the first move we see in free agency, but it's the one we've seen coming for the longest.

Now or Later?

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    Precious few teams have significant cap space this summer. Depending on how some nonguaranteed deals and uncertain renouncement situations resolve themselves, the safest assumption is that only seven teams can clear more than $20 million in room. But that's only if all seven renounce every cap hold on the books, which isn't remotely realistic.

    The best bet on the number of teams with significant spending power? Five...and that's only if we fudge the cutoff and allow the Dallas Mavericks and their projected $18 million into the group.

    This raises an interesting choice.

    Do the few clubs with money capitalize on a market with little competition, spending what they can now and (ideally) landing players at below-market rates because there's nobody else around to drive up the price? Or do those teams, the vast majority of which are rebuilding, use that flexibility to take on bad money with assets attached? It stands to reason that if nobody has cap space, it's precisely because they've all got crummy deals clogging the books—deals they'd like to be rid of.

    Opportunistic organizations could swoop in and absorb those bad contracts for the right price while getting ready for what could be a more enticing free-agent crop in 2019. That may be the Chicago Bulls' approach.

    There's also the possibility of simply not spending anything, staying well under the cap for most of the season and using that flexibility later in the year when teams get desperate to trade unwanted assets.

    "Is it going to be a little bit of a tough period? Yes, but we'll wake up in the summer of 2019 and 2020, when those contracts that were signed in 2016 come off the books, and there will be a lot of money again," longtime agent Mark Bartelstein told Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com back in February.

    That's something else to keep in mind. Three-quarters of the league won't be cap-strapped forever. Now may be the time to strike.

How the Champs Retool

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    Every day, you're either getting better or getting worse. That's true even when you're officially the best, which the Golden State Warriors are.

    Heading into the summer, they'll look to improve by reformatting a roster with five rotation players—Nick Young, Zaza Pachulia, David West, Kevon Looney and JaVale McGee—ticketed for unrestricted free agency. Patrick McCaw will hit the restricted market.

    "I think the safe thing to say is that we're not going to have the same look next year," head coach Steve Kerr told reporters.

    The Warriors rostered six centers in 2017-18, an imbalance they won't repeat. Kerr also added there'd be a premium on youth and energy in any new additions, a sensible call given the staleness that pervaded much of this latest championship season. Complacency set in as accomplished vets went through the motions, knowing they were good enough to flip the switch when it mattered.

    "It's harder to keep the spirit, to find the joy," Shaun Livingston told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated after the Warriors secured their third ring in four years. "And then you see it every night on the other side, with the Houstons but even the Brooklyns, because they want so badly to knock you off."

    Golden State will try to keep malaise at bay by infusing the roster with younger players who haven't proven themselves in the same way the holdovers have.

    Because so few teams have money, the mid-level exception (and even roster minimums) will attract better talent than usual. And if you're a quality player choosing between the MLE from a lottery team or the Warriors, it won't be a tough call.

    Expect the Warriors to seriously bolster the rotation with some value signings.

How the Contenders Catch Up

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    If the Warriors intend to get better, the rest of the teams trying to beat them must, too.

    "It's the only thing we think about," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said on ESPN Radio in December. "I think I'm not supposed to say that, but we're basically obsessed with 'How do we beat the Warriors?'"

    We saw the Rockets build a roster last summer with the specific goal of competing against Golden State, and it came within a pulled Chris Paul hamstring of working. Not that other contenders needed to see the Western Conference Finals to realize they'd better plan ahead for the Warriors, but we should anticipate the league's top teams doubling down on Houston's approach.

    That means the Boston Celtics will have to think extra hard about what to do with restricted free agent Marcus Smart, a versatile defender seemingly custom-built to play in switch-heavy schemes against the Dubs. It'll also mean every Western Conference team with even a remote shot at seeing Golden State in the postseason will have to give thought to every move it makes.

    Trevor Ariza, an unrestricted free agent who fits the desired archetype and showed the world he belonged in high-stakes action against Golden State, is about to get a lot more interest than you might expect for a 15-year veteran who just averaged 11.7 points per game. Because when you ask the ultimate offseason question, "Does this guy help us beat the Warriors?", the answer is "yes."

    To be fair, everybody wants rangy wings who can guard multiple positions. That player type is all the rage these days, not to mention scarce. But the very best teams will make it a point to snatch up as many as possible.

    Doing anything else ignores the reality that a title run goes through Golden State.

The Grand Cousins Conundrum

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    The DeMarcus Cousins situation is fraught.

    No, that's not getting the message across. It's FRAUGHT. FRAUGHT!!!

    Why? Because the New Orleans Pelicans have to decide what they're willing to invest in a hulking soon-to-be 28-year-old big man coming off one of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can suffer. They'll have to make this decision knowing he's had a history of suspect conditioning, and while understanding that the team coalesced in an exciting way once Cousins was out of the lineup.

    Do the Pels have to retain Cousins to keep Anthony Davis happy? Can they get away with paying less than the max, or does a lower offer risk angering Cousins, who could sign someplace else as an unrestricted free agent, or worse, take the deal and ooze discontent in the locker room.

    Given all we've seen from Cousins throughout his career—the undeniable talent and equally undeniable track record as a culture-poisoning malcontent—the Pelicans can't logically justify maxing him out. Especially with the injury issue.

    But that's what it might take to keep the key parties satisfied.

    It'll be fascinating to watch this complex mess shake out.

Something Weird with Kyrie Irving

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    It's too early to pin down the exact nature of the imminent Kyrie Irving weirdness, but it's coming.

    Irving became one of the great surprise stories of the 2017 offseason when he angled for a trade away from the Cavs, but he can do better than that. Already, Irving has reopened the debate (it is not a debate) about whether the earth is flat(it is round), and that was before he got to talking with reporters about his future with the Boston Celtics.

    There's so much fodder here.

    The Celtics nearly advanced to the Finals sans Irving, and though it'd be folly to say they're better without the All-Star point guard, that doesn't mean they're certain to commit huge dollars on his next deal. Irving has a player option after the 2018-19 season, and he's already said (wisely) he won't sign an extension ahead of free agency. With his injury history and Boston's blossoming young roster, suddenly Irving isn't the central figure in the organization's plans.

    Boston has always been proactive and unsentimental when tough decisions about players, even beloved ones, arise. Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce preemptively, breaking up an aging powerhouse before it crumbled. And he infamously dealt Isaiah Thomas after the All-Star guard gutted out a playoff run with a badly injured hip that eventually required surgery.

    Couple that business-like approach with the fact that there seems to be no limit to Boston's personnel ambitions (Anthony Davis, anyone?), and you've got a scenario where Irving's position on the team is anything but certain. And it seems like any time there's less than total commitment between star player and team, it results in a big transaction...or at least a bunch of drama.

Everyone Kicks Themselves for Passing on Luka Doncic

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    "Everyone," in this instance, isn't really everyone. More like the handful of teams that had the chance to draft 19-year-old Slovenian wing Luka Doncic, who is inexplicably slipping down draft boards. B/R's Jonathan Wasserman has him slotted fourth to the Memphis Grizzlies in his latest mock draft, which...are any of these teams in the lottery grasping what leads to winning in the modern NBA?

    The Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks (this year's top three) are all going to ignore the era of the multiskilled wing and draft big men instead? Really?

    Doncic has legitimate weaknesses. He's not a top-end athlete, and his defense leaves loads to be desired. But he's an instinctive offensive savant who also happens to be ridiculously polished for a teenager. Nobody Doncic's age has ever dominated in Europe like he has.

    So when summer league rolls around, Doncic, taken outside the top three, is going to look like a megastar. Think about it: Summer league features zero defense, and the competition level will almost certainly be below the one Doncic just experienced with Real Madrid. It's a perfect environment for him to shine. And as bigs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley wait around for fringe NBA guards to get them the ball, Doncic will be running an offense and looking like a bigger version of Ricky Rubio crossed with James Harden.

    Life will be tougher during the regular season, but we're only predicting storylines for the summer.

    Not only will the teams with picks in the top three regret passing on Doncic, all the others who could have traded up to get him will be in the same boat.

Where Are We in the Switch Revolution?

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    Switching schemes took center stage in the later rounds of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, though the trend has been gaining steam over the last several years. Most notably popularized by the Golden State Warriors, defensive strategies featuring like-sized players who can guard multiple positions are now the defensive blueprint to copy.

    The Houston Rockets nearly made the Finals because they fashioned one of the better switch schemes in recent memory, and the Boston Celtics have the bodies to excel as well. We also saw the Cleveland Cavaliers try and fail to switch everything in stretches of the Finals, which suggests, perhaps obviously, that not every team is cut out to make it work.

    But will we see more teams adopting this approach as their default anyway, even if they don't have ideal personnel? It stands to reason that if the best teams play a certain way, it makes sense to emulate it.

    And more intriguing still, will some clubs go contrarian while everyone else chases the fad?

    Maybe there's a renaissance of post-up bigs brewing, and teams will learn to use mismatches on the block to punish switching schemes. Maybe we'll see clubs drill other countermeasures to short circuit the switch, like slipping screens, which Golden State did to great effect against Houston and Cleveland.

    We're either on the cusp of a switch revolution or nearing a tipping point where the counters neutralize the trend, bringing about a return to more familiar styles. As teams build rosters and test ideas in summer league, we'll get hints about what's ahead.


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    Sorry if you thought the chatter last summer about a lack of competitive drama was trite and more than a little salty, because we're in for more of the same.

    The Warriors are so good they siphon joy from the rest of the league. Why even play the season when we know who'll be on top in the end? Woe betide us! Competitive balance is dead, the Warriors killed it and the NBA is no longer interesting because of it.

    If you are one of these miserable, moaning grousers, please grab yourself a tissue and when you're finished filling it with whiny snot, and acquaint yourself with reality. The Warriors nearly lost in the conference finals—by rights, they probably should have. Cleveland, meanwhile, gutted out an impossible postseason run that also should have ended early on more than one occasion before going down in a sweep. So yes, we did get the two teams most expected in the Finals, but their paths there were infinitely rockier than anticipated.

    Straight up: Both were lucky to reach the ultimate round.

    With Boston almost assured of a rise to true-contender status, LeBron James' team (wherever it is) always worthy of a seat at the table, Houston retooling for another run and the perennial uncertainty of injury, nothing is promised in the 2018-19 season.

    So, when the inevitable complaining starts to dominate the offseason narratives (probably after Golden State signs Trevor Ariza or Marco Belinelli or someone else that seems too good to be true), be a good basketball citizen and fight against the tide of complaining.

    The bad takes are coming, just like they have for decades. Be a soldier in the war against them.



    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

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