Why Your Favorite Team Won't Win the 2022 NBA Championship
Allow me to begin with a disclaimer: I do not hate your favorite NBA team. On the contrary, I want nothing but the absolute best for everyone's choice squad.
I hope that all of your team's players enter training camp having gained 12 pounds of muscle and ducked under 10 percent body fat. I want everyone to have a career year. I pine for your team to have more nationally televised games. I cross my fingers for each roster to enjoy perfect health, all season long, en route to obliterating expected win totals. Don't ask me for a singular championship pick. I'm wishing for every team to finish next year with a Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Reality dictates otherwise, though.
Only one team can win the 2022 title. Statistically speaking, because the championship field is so large, it won't be your team. They are going to fall short, sometimes hilariously, hopelessly so. And my mission is to encapsulate why.
The most glaringly obvious explanations will be trashed from the get-go. Twenty-nine squads will not fail to win a title because the Brooklyn Nets exist. Every rain-on-your-parade referendum will be tailored to each individual franchise, operating under the assumption that they won't be the last squad standing for factors within their control.
For the purposes of this exercise, then, I do hate your team. It's nothing personal and only temporary and I'm sorry. Sort of.
Thick skins on? Great. Let's ride.
In a nutshell: They already missed their best shot at a title.
Two wins separated the Atlanta Hawks from the 2021 NBA Finals. Whether you're of the mind they got lucky or found their new normal ahead of schedule, it doesn't change the end result: They might've just had their best opportunity to win an NBA title.
But Trae Young is only 22! Even though he looks like Grant Riller's grandpa! And John Collins is back! Clint Capela should've been All-Defense! De'Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Cam Reddish will all be healthy! Delon Wright and Lou Williams are major upgrades over a half-season of Rajon Rondo! Atlanta stole—STOLE—Sharife Cooper and Jalen Johnson in the draft! Danilo Gallinari can still get buckets! Kevin Huerter, too!
All great points. But the path back to where the Hawks just were is peppered with far more obstacles.
The Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks aren't going anywhere. The Philadelphia 76ers will be a thorn in everyone's side, the Ben Simmons debacle be damned. The Miami Heat are better equipped to match up with the tippy-top of the conference. The Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors will be healthier. The New York Knicks loom. The Chicago Bulls have boom-or-bust potential. One of the Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards could surprise.
Getting back to the playoffs is part of the battle. The Hawks will be there. But what are the odds they'll be facing a Knicks team so incontestably over its head? And then a Sixers squad that houses a superstar who no longer has the offensive range necessary to dunk? And then a Bucks unit that is missing Giannis friggin' Antetokounmpo for multiple games?
Atlanta is fun and young yet not inexperienced and still really good. It's also not going to win a title next season.
In a nutshell: They jumped through an awful lot of hoops without substantially deepening their shot creation.
Brad Stevens has been a busy bee during his first offseason as the Boston Celtics' league executive. And the majority of his activity is distinctly sensible.
Boston was opportunistic in its acquisitions without letting the payroll get out of control. Josh Richardson is a worthwhile flier, and his one-year extension arms the Celtics with salary filler if they need to pull off a blockbuster trade next summer. Tristan Thompson is gone. Al Horford is in. The defense looks stingier even if he has to play some 4. Dennis Schroder was a bargain. Both Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith showed out in summer league. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III are locked down on reasonable extensions.
This offseason goes down as a win given the Celtics' limited flexibility. But they are facing a potential shot-creation deficit.
Jettisoning Kemba Walker and punting on Evan Fournier's return (they did a great trade exception for his departure) puts an awful lot of pressure on Jayson Tatum to float table-setting duties. This is the same Jayson Tatum whose goblet squat photo-ops only include a 100-pound dumbbell and no evidence that he ever went all the way into said goblet squat. That is shameful. Today's players are so soft. Kendrick Perkins would've gone all the way down. Carry the hell on.
Horford and Schroder will help. That's...fine. Horford is a high-IQ passer. Boston should trust Schroder to run its offense as much as NBA Twitter trusted Danny Ainge to actually pull off a blockbuster trade. Jaylen Brown can pitch in, but that's not his game. Smart is an incomplete answer.
The Celtics suddenly need Pritchard's summer-league handles to hit during the regular season. That is comforting to those inebriated enough to call him "White Kyrie" and they alone. There is a chance Boston needs Richardson to revisit his Miami heyday. That is terrifying. The Celtics will make the playoffs because they are a playoff team. But their half-court offense doesn't seem set up to be any less average. Their title-contender stock will suffer, yet again, because of it.
In a nutshell: Big Threes who actually play at the same time are more intimidating than those that do not.
So many people want to pin the Brooklyn Nets' second-round exit on Kevin Durant's shoe size or the relative resilience of the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks. It's neither. Series aren't won or lost in single moments, and Milwaukee didn't ascend to a different plane of existence not heretofore known.
The Nets lost because they are a house of cards trying to stand strong amid 40-mile-per-hour winds.
Collecting megastars is fun, and Brooklyn remains the closest the NBA has to a championship formality. But the inevitability of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving loses some of its luster when their aggregative absences are just as unavoidable.
Kudos to Durant for returning to GOAT status after recovering from a torn right Achilles. He still missed more than half of the regular season. Irving has the injury history everyone thinks Anthony Davis does. Harden ranks second in total minutes through the regular season and playoffs since getting traded to the Houston Rockets, but that only means his hamstrings are operating on borrowed time.
Brooklyn's Big Three joined forces for 14 games last year. (Eight in the regular season, six in the playoffs.) That's...less than ideal. Maybe the regular season doesn't matter. Cool. The Nets—specifically, Harden and Irving—still got trucked by injuries during the playoffs. This team is not inevitable. Its combustibility is.
In a nutshell: Titles are not won by those drunk with mediocrity.
LaMelo Ball spent much of last season establishing himself as the Charlotte Hornets' North Star, a building block so potentially transcendent he provides a line, however far away it might be, to eventual title contention. The team's response to his meteoric rise is, for now, overwhelmingly on-brand and suggestive of an obsession with perpetuating its stay inside the middle.
Why go after a higher-end center in free agency, such as Richaun Holmes, when you can draft Kai Jones and trade for Mason Plumlee, who is, on defense, essentially Cody Zeller with more hair and less switchability? Why keep Devonte' Graham when you can flip him for a lottery-protected first-round draft pick from a New Orleans Pelicans franchise so adept at getting in its own way it will never actually convey as a first-round pick?
Ish Smith fits within the high-octane motif Charlotte should favor on offense. He is also, last I checked, still Ish Smith.
Sure, the Hornets aren't obligated to contend for a title in LaMelo's second year. But forking over a four-year, $97 million extension to Terry Rozier is a pretty good indicator they don't intend to legitimately chase a championship for the next half-decade or so. They could also be convinced Gordon Hayward will remain healthy enough for the next three seasons to be the second-best player on a contender, but this is just a more upbeat way of repeating the previous sentence.
In a nutshell: This team can't even improperly try to win now properly.
Coughing up three first-round picks to bring in Nikola Vucevic and a too-expensive-yet-still-good-yet-still too-expensive DeMar DeRozan is quite the price to pay for a crack at normality.
Yes, the Chicago Bulls have quality players. They might have the makings of a brilliant offense on their hands. But the fit between their primary cornerstones is iffy at best. Good luck cobbling together a league-average defense during minutes in which DeRozan, Vooch and Zach LaVine share the floor.
On the bright side, the Bulls are at least married to a direction. They might've chartered an ultra-expensive course to 41 wins, but they clearly believe they're on the cusp of something more special. And yet, they can't even mistakenly accelerate their position correctly.
Giving up Thaddeus Young, a genuinely mission-critical frontcourt player for them last season, in the DeRozan sign-and-trade was wild. They need to retain and hoard immediate help, not send it packing.
Chicago's three-team sign-and-trade that jettisoned Lauri Markkanen to the Cleveland Cavaliers is even tougher to explain. Prioritizing draft picks and Derrick Jones Jr. over Larry Nance Jr. after so firmly tethering the franchise to a win-now timeline is categorically bizarre. Perhaps the Bulls use that Portland Trail Blazers 2022 first in another midseason trade. Right now, they look like a team actively pursuing the priciest path possible to a play-in exit.
In a nutshell: Have fun playing Lauri Markkanen at small forward.
Absent a true superstar, the Cleveland Cavaliers' championship argument falls apart before it's ever made. They made Collin Sexton, one of their two best players, available simply because he's approaching the end of his rookie-scale deal. That speaks volumes about their faith in the current core.
Equally loud: The slapdash manner in which they're building their frontcourt.
Cleveland drafted Evan Mobley, who is best suited to play the 5, with the third overall pick. Then, for some reason, it handed Jarrett Allen a five-year, $100 million deal. Kevin Love is also owed two years and $60.2 million and, as of now, has no plans to accept a buyout.
Naturally, then, the Cavaliers absolutely needed to acquire Lauri Markkanen, a career power forward, on a four-year, $67 million pact.
That trade remains eminently weird. Cleveland gave away the best player in the deal (Larry Nance Jr.) while getting more expensive. If this were 2019, and Markkanen was working off his sophomore detonation, the Cavs would have the old "upside play" working in their favor. It's not 2019. Markkanen (24) is younger than Nance (28). That's the extent of his superior fit.
Juggling the mass of overlap that has become the frontcourt rotation figures to be hell on head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Mobley will have to play a ton of power forward, where he's not as much of an offensive mismatch. Markkanen should have to log some run at the 3, and Cleveland's defense is bound to implode despite Chicago's limited success with similar lineups.
We could say the Cavs are punting on next season in the name of a discernibly rosier future. We'd be lying. But we could technically say it.
In a nutshell: Luka Doncic still needs a teammate who can dribble.
Congratulations to the Dallas Mavericks. Now that Danny Ainge is no longer team president of the Boston Celtics, they as an organization get to assume the throne, unchallenged, as the King of Almosts.
Cap space is forever the Mavs' great lie. They position themselves to have it, spend it on stars and then whiff on said stars.
It was the same story different offseason this year. They turned the capacity to carve out near-max space into the return of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Boban Marjanovic and signings of Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown. (They also hired Jason Kidd to succeed Rick Carlisle, a very in-character and big-yikes decision, the complexities and sketchiness of which they, predictably, did not adequately address at his introductory press conference.)
To Dallas' credit, this wasn't the summer to go superstar shopping. Supply was limited to nonexistent. The Mavs pivoted to Plan B and beyond quite nicely.
But they didn't do anything to materially change their roster. Luka Doncic remains their lone from-scratch shot creator. Hardaway, Jalen Brunson and Trey Burke are all they've got after him. That's not a lot. They might need Bullock to dribble some. Phew.
Viewed against the loftiness of their expectations, this summer is more nondescript than underrated. Their most important addition might be Kristaps Porzingis' offseason workouts. That's great. And long overdue. And completely uninspiring.
In a nutshell: Jamal Murray's injury sucks.
Jamal Murray tore his left ACL with 18 games remaining on the Denver Nuggets' 2020-21 schedule, effectively derailing what looked not like a championship contender but a potential title favorite. League sources told the Denver Post's Mike Singer at the time his recovery would take somewhere between nine and 12 months, an absence lengthy enough to torpedo the team's 2021-22 aspirations.
Some people think Murray will beat the most optimistic projection because his work ethic is not of this galaxy. Buying into an early return is certainly...something. Murray is 24 and, along with Nikola Jokic, represents the entire future of the Nuggets franchise. This seems like a situation that could be slow-played for the sake of long-term preservation.
Let's say Murray hits the early end of the timetable. That puts him back in action around mid-January. And if there's anything we know about players recovering from torn ACLs, it's that they definitely, without question, every single time, look exactly the same and don't need any sort of grace period to re-acclimate themselves.
In the event Murray takes the full 12 months to rejoin the rotation—or misses all of next season—the Nuggets can flat-out kiss their championship hopes goodbye until 2023.
Having Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP, ensures they'll stay afloat. They might even bag a top-three seed. But he just played every game after coming off the shortest offseason in pro sports history and has yet to tally double-digit absences during a single year for his career.
Who knows whether his trend of extraterrestrial durability sticks. Even if it does, Denver is still beholden to the integrity of Michael Porter Jr.'s back and Aaron Gordon's love affair with averaging 6.0 points per game when it matters most.
In a nutshell: 2025 is more than three years away.
Winning the Cade Cunningham sweepstakes is a boon for the Detroit Pistons' future. He gives them a direction rather than the hodgepodge of depth they assembled last year that swindled some into thinking they had budding star power on the docket.
Fleshing out the roster around Cunningham still figures to be a seasons-long process. Plural. His own development should require patience. Rookies afforded carte blanche over the offense should be granted a steep learning curve, and his role within Detroit's system might be slightly more finite, at least to start, with Killian Hayes and Jerami Grant on the roster.
Perhaps Cunningham is an immediate star. It's possible. He still needs a co-star. The Pistons don't yet have one.
Grant is not that guy. His efficiency dropped off toward the end of last season, and slotting him as the No. 2 option doesn't guarantee an encore to the first half of 2020-21. Hayes has just 26 games under his belt and inspired negative-leaning hot takes during summer league. Saddiq Bey's extra layer of ball skills are worth plumbing; they do not mean he's a star candidate. Save the "Isaiah Stewart is a future All-Star" takes for the YouTube comments section.
Detroit's core is far from a joke. Don't let that get lost in the spirit of this exercise. But they're at least a year away from being two years away. And failing that, there's no way the basketball gods allow the team that gave Cory Joseph a friggin' player option on a contract signed in the year 2021 to win a title.
Golden State Warriors
In a nutshell: Klay Thompson's return won't be enough.
So let's get this straight: The Golden State Warriors watched last year as their offense died a slow, painful, eminently predictable death whenever Stephen Curry sat on the bench, and their grand response to that lack of secondary shot creation was to avoid adding any secondary shot creation.
It's an interesting strategy. Can't wait to see how it works out for them.
This is not a "Golden State should've traded No. 7 (Jonathan Kuminga), No. 14 (Moses Moody) and James Wiseman for Player X" rant. The star market needs to exist for the Warriors to acquire one. Unless they want to mortgage the next decade for the chance to grow Ben Simmons from an idea to an actual player, that avenue isn't available to them.
Working with the mini mid-level exception also capped what Golden State could do in free agency. It was never going to bag anyone eons better than Patty Mills. But the optics of not spending the mini MLE aren't great. Nor is the complete mishandling of the Kelly Oubre Jr. situation. They should've flipped him for something, anything, at last year's deadline. Or they should have tried to wedge their way into his contract with the Charlotte Hornets. Sign-and-trades need to be three years in length, but only the first must be guaranteed.
Banking on Klay Thompson to resurrect the title timeline is too risky. He is coming back from a torn ACL and ruptured Achilles, hasn't played basketball in more than two years and doesn't have a concrete debut date. When he does return, he'll join an offense to some extent reliant on a 37-year-old Andre Iguodala, two rookies, whatever Wiseman looks like, Draymond Green's aversion to taking shots and Andrew Wiggins.
Put another way: R.I.P. to another year of Steph's prime.
In a nutshell: Oklahoma City doesn't own their pick this year.
The Houston Rockets have the bandwidth to shock if everyone is healthy. The foursome of John Wall, Danuel House, Jae'Sean Tate and Christian Wood outscored opponents by a fat margin in the time they logged without James Harden and Victor Oladipo, and the roster has a good number of other rock-solid vets in Eric Gordon, David Nwaba and Daniel Theis.
This says nothing of Houston's fairly impressive draft. They left the first round with Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher. Kevin Porter Jr., meanwhile, remains a tantalizing swing piece.
To what end the Rockets can surprise is a matter of course. It's also probably a non-issue.
No rotation at the mercy of Gordon, Nwaba and Wall can count on a clean health bill. If they somehow get one, chances are they'll indulge a wee bit of self-correction. The Rockets don't owe another first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder until 2024. They have a two-year window in which they can reap the benefits of prioritizing development and, er, not actively chase wins. They need to maximize that time—even with the cadre of picks coming from Brooklyn over the next eternity-and-a-half.
In a nutshell: They have two starting centers. Still.
Consider me gobbling up this low-hanging fruit a compliment of the Indiana Pacers' offseason. They neither overwhelmingly impressed nor incensed. They just, for the most part, were. And it works.
Going from head coach Nate Bjorkgren to Rick Carlisle registers as their largest upgrade, and it's a monster one. Ponying up for TJ McConnell and not Doug McDermott was an insult to spacing, but T.J. Warren's return is their actual biggest addition, and rookie Chris Duarte might have the chops to break the rotation. Nabbing Torrey Craig gives the Pacers a strong, portable defender they didn't have on the roster last season.
Pecking-order purists might lament their lack of a No. 1 option. So many actions flow through Domantas Sabonis, but Caris LeVert and Malcolm Brogdon are their best point-of-attack playmakers. Success by committee is a regular-season darling but not as tried and true in the postseason.
Whatever. I'm not about to crap all over the Pacers' faint title hopes because they might lead the league in players who belong in the rotation. The whole "We have two starting centers" feels more damning.
Indiana's offensive rating has ranked no higher than inside the 34th percentile since 2017-18 when Sabonis and Myles Turner share the floor. Spotty availability from other key players during that stretch impacts the lackluster returns, but their malleability is capped when running dual-big combinations.
Carlisle might unlock something we've yet to see. Get ready to see Turner fire super-deep triples (I think), and a head coach with Carlisle's cachet might be more inclined to stagger the minutes of his two main bigs. But that only goes so far, and I for one am curious to see whether Sabonis is a good match for his new head coach. He might riot if Carlisle demands he start jacking shots from Kristaps Porzingis range.
Too much playable talent is never a bad thing. But overlap can be an issue. The Pacers continue to face positional, albeit not functional, redundancy at the center spot. And it will, like it always has, impose costly offensive limits.
Los Angeles Clippers
In a nutshell: Face it, Kawhi Leonard isn't walking through that door.
Kawhi Leonard's partially torn right ACL is expected to cost him most, if not all, of next season. Ipso facto: The Los Angeles Clippers are done. End of story.
This isn't a team missing its second- or third-best player. It's the Clippers missing one of the five or seven best players alive. They have no hope of navigating their way to a title without him.
Treading water in the regular season might even prove too difficult. The Clippers won the minutes Paul George played without him last season, but just barely. And while it's one thing to bask in the postseason detonations of Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann, it's another to depend on them to play at that level over the course of an entire 82-game schedule.
Los Angeles' collection of wild cards doesn't stop there, either.
Nicolas Batum just led the team in total minutes played during the regular season after a years-long vanishing act with the Charlotte Hornets. Bringing him back—at a discount, mind you—was a no-brainer, but his encore is not a given.
George deserves more respect for what he can do as the unquestioned No. 1, but he can't magically heal Serge Ibaka's back or make the Clippers any less reliant on Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow. Everything could break right for this squad, and they'd still forecast as a postseason steppingstone.
Los Angeles Lakers
In a nutshell: It's not 2012.
Props to the Los Angeles Lakers for keeping so many social media designers busy. Their roster is ripe for engagement.
Throw LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo onto one graphic, caption it something like "The Lakers are a PROBLEM 😤," and watch as it resonates with the masses, both enthusiastic and enraged.
Anyone completely discounting Los Angeles' championship candidacy admittedly snorts clicks with rolled-up dollar bills. The Western Conference is wide-open, and writing off LeBron is for masochists. But let's not pretend they're some juggernaut. Unless you have a time machine. That can take us back to roughly 2012.
LeBron is LeBron—and also entering his age-37 season. Davis is squarely in his prime at 28 but a walking "DNP - Not A Chronic Injury But Still An Injury." Melo is 37. Rondo is 35. So is Dwight. Gasol is 37 and fresh off losing minutes to Andre "I swear my rebounds matter" Drummond.
Westbrook's arrival means more than every other new addition. Combined. That's not necessarily a good thing. His bandwidth to lug an entire offense is at this point criminally underrated, but his inability to fit within a larger dynamic threatens to undermine everything.
Insist he'll learn to play off the ball at your own peril. It didn't happen in Oklahoma City. Or Houston. Or Washington. It's not suddenly happening in Los Angeles. And displacing LeBron from the rock to grease the wheels is not the answer. "Less LeBron" is never the answer, but it's an especially boneheaded move when he'd be surrendering possessions to one of the least efficient jump shooters in NBA history.
Landing Westbrook could help the Lakers elevate their no-LeBron minutes. Awesome. That doesn't mean as much in the playoffs, when no-LeBron minutes are fewer and further between. And Westbrook's recent track record speaks for itself. Among 124 players to attempt at least 200 shots in the postseason since 2016, his effective field-goal percentage ranks...123rd. The Lakers are out on a limb. They better hope the weight of Westbrook's bricks doesn't snap it.
In a nutshell: They're tired of exceeding expectations.
After two consecutive playoff berths almost no one predicted, the Memphis Grizzlies are no longer in the business of annihilating immediate forecasts.
They made that clear from the onset of summer. They shipped out Jonas Valanciunas, their second-best player last season, in favor of taking on unwanted long-term money that net them a seven-spot jump in the draft (Ziaire Williams) and next year's Los Angeles Lakers pick. That theme continued when they turned Patrick Beverley into a flier on Jarrett Culver.
All that wheeling and dealing later, the Grizzlies don't appear interested in trying to accelerate their timeline around Ja Morant. Their decision to secure as many bites at the co-star apple as possible is admirable yet no longer positions them to disarm the middle of the Western Conference.
And if they do fancy themselves playoff hopefuls, they better hope for all the right breaks.
Dillon Brooks needs to have the most even-keeled offensive season of his career or bring back an impactful return once he's traded. Jaren Jackson Jr. must stay healthy for the entire year and become less handsy on defense. Brandon Clarke has to remember how to shoot. Williams must go boom from the start. Kyle Anderson needs to turn in another career year.
Culver has to show something, anything. Ditto for Juan Hernangomez. De'Anthony Melton will need to shoot a trillion percent from deep again. Desmond Bane must bring the summer league to the regular season. And Morant will have to punish defenses from deep, in volume, for going under him in the half court. These are all tall asks. And even if they're answered in the affirmative, the Grizzlies are not anywhere close to title contention.
In a nutshell: They won the offseason by default, not on the merits of their additions.
Of course the Miami Heat were among the biggest winners of the offseason, because the offseason wanted for big winners at all. Scant few stars were available, and many of the top free-agency prizes stayed put. Any team that acquired any notable amount of talent was treated as an offseason winner. (Except Chicago.)
Miami stood out by virtue of poaching Kyle Lowry, who is 35, and P.J. Tucker, who's 36 and shot just 31.4 percent on corner threes during the playoffs. Victor Oladipo returned on a cheapo deal, as well. But who knows when he'll return from his latest right knee, or what he'll look like once he does, on a team that doesn't have the flexibility to award him an ungoverned license.
Duncan Robinson went nowhere, which is great, even at five years and $90 million, because the Heat are hard up for off-ball shooting.
Their two best players, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, don't jack threes. Their third-best player, Lowry, can smell age 36. Their fourth-best player, Robinson, doesn't create for himself and needs to be put in very specific defensive matchups. Their fifth-best player might be Tyler Herro, who probably should've already been traded for the player they hope Tyler Herro can become.
The Heat have no doubt strengthened their position in the East. That position is fragile and imperfect and doesn't include a ready-made path back to the Finals beyond disaster striking rosters in Brooklyn and Milwaukee, if not also Atlanta and Philadelphia.
In a nutshell: Title defenses are hard.
Rattling off two straight championships is difficult, and the Milwaukee Bucks haven't done anything to inoculate themselves against the field.
Depth remains a wart. Getting Grayson Allen, Rodney Hood, Semi Ojeleye and George Hill while bringing back Bobby Portis is a fine offseason on the margins. Cheaping out on P.J. Tucker erases some of those good vibes. He still packs an every-position defensive punch.
Letting Tucker walk will not be the deciding factor in any failed repeat bid. The Bucks would be top-heavy even with him. That worked out last season. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton missed, on average, fewer than eight games between them. Giannis was the only one of the four to sit out during the postseason, and those absences came against a faux-threat in Atlanta.
Standing relatively pat is never enough, not unless you're a superteam with battle-tested depth across the board already in place. The Bucks weren't that. Kevin Durant's big toe negotiated Mike Budenholzer's contract extension.
Milwaukee is a deserving champion and a threat to win it all again. But the Eastern Conference is deeper and bound to be healthier. The Bucks are assured neither.
In a nutshell: Marginally active offseasons are for teams that played at better than a 27-win pace.
Nothing the Minnesota Timberwolves have done this summer is worth intense criticism. How they snagged a second-round pick out of the Ricky Rubio trade is beyond me. Patrick Beverley is a nice fit at both ends. Selling low on Jarrett Culver is not great, but copping to mistakes has more value than trying to ignore them.
All told, it was a nice, quaint, relatively quiet offseason for the Timberwolves. And that'd be dope had they won more than 23 games last year.
Limited flexibility prevented Minnesota from doing anything seismic. The team is within a stone's throw of the luxury tax after not using the mid-level exception. But that's not the greatest excuse. The Timberwolves have designs on winning yesterday. They don't make the D'Angelo Russell trade at the 2020 deadline, in which they sent out the No. 7 pick in this past year's draft, if they were strictly planning around the bigger picture.
Next season should bring organic improvement. Anthony Edwards, in particular, exploded after the All-Star break, showcasing stellar efficiency amid a tough-shot diet and hinting, sparingly, at more engagement on the defensive end. If Jaden McDaniels' summer league is any indication, his sophomore campaign will eclipse his rookie-year coming-out party. Naz Reid, I love you.
Better health will go a long way, too. Russell, Malik Beasley and Karl-Anthony Towns all missed more than 20 games last season. But the Timberwolves aren't fast-tracking their path to contention with internal growth and cleaner health bills alone. Their rotation gets spotty after their top-seven guys, and the defense could, if not should, positively suck. Jarred Vanderbilt also still remains unsigned, for some reason.
Play-in aspirations are fair game. Unless the Timberwolves turn their obsessions with every potentially available big-name 4 (or Ben Simmons) into an actual acquisition, anything more ambitious is well outside their reach.
New Orleans Pelicans
In a nutshell: They might be worse, or the same, or only slightly better compared to last season.
Reviewing the New Orleans Pelicans' offseason doesn't reveal a prevailing theme. Their transactions bear more resemblance to a team wandering in the woods. Take a look for yourself:
- In: Devonte' Graham (four years, $47 million via sign-and-trade); Tomas Satoransky; Garrett Temple (three years, $15 million with $10 million guaranteed via sign-and-trade); Jonas Valanciunas; No. 17 (Trey Murphy III); future second-round pick (via Chicago); future second-round pick (via L.A. Clippers); $17.1 million trade exception
- Out: Steven Adams; Lonzo Ball (four years, $85 million via sign-and-trade); Eric Bledsoe; No. 10 (Ziaire Williams); No. 40 (Jared Butler); 2022 first-round pick (lottery protection, turns into 2022 and 2024 seconds if not conveyed); L.A. Lakers' 2022 first-round pick (top-10 protection)
The nicest thing I can say about the Pelicans offseason is that they scooped up Devonte' Graham for two second-round picks, because there's little chance that lottery-protected pick ever conveys to Charlotte.
Oh, and they have a fat trade exception. Trey Murphy III profiles as a great fit, too. And they somehow re-signed Josh Hart while guaranteeing him only one year.
Overall, though, New Orleans had a blah-to-yuck offseason. That's not enough for a team wrapping up a blah-to-yuck 2020-21 campaign. Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson should play well enough to keep the Pelicans on the fringes of the postseason, but this is not one of the West's six best squads as currently constructed.
New York Knicks
In a nutshell: Unknowns are still ingrained into their roster makeup.
Fans of the New York Knicks will generally push back if you suggest the team is entering a prove-it year, and that last season may have hints of unsustainability. That's their right.
Ignoring that skepticism might also be the correct call. But anyone shaming it better have a receipt from last offseason on which they wrote that RJ Barrett was going to shoot better than 40 percent from three, and that Julius Randle was going to transition from someone who didn't have the leverage to land three guaranteed years in 2019 to a second-team All-NBA selection.
New York is dripping with uncertainty yet has decided to view last year as a matter of fact. The Knicks are essentially running back the same roster, minus their most important wing defender, plus the additions of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, because that worked so well for Boston.
The slightest setback could send them into a tailspin. What if Randle isn't an All-NBA staple? Or Barrett can't shoot the lights out on set threes? Or serve long stretches as their top wing defender? What if Barrett and Randle miss more than one game between them?
How healthy is Kemba's left knee? What about Derrick Rose's entire body? How many games do they play between them? Which rookies are ready for minutes? Will Immanuel Quickley take a step forward? What about Obi Toppin? Did the Knicks acquire enough secondary creation to skirt another first-round-against-Atlanta offensive crisis? Or did they overestimate the juice left in the tanks of Kemba and Rose and the on-ball value of Fournier?
Make no mistake: New York should be good. And growth isn't linear. The Knicks can win fewer games while making progress. But they're not built to be great.
Oklahoma City Thunder
In a nutshell: Team president Sam Presti will shut down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for the next four seasons and trade everyone else, including you and me, if the Oklahoma City Thunder are still within sniffing distance of .500 roughly 15 games into the regular season.
Look, I could pump this space full of other words that indicate the Thunder have no clear-cut No. 2 for SGA and suggest they paid Kemba Walker to play for New York because they were afraid of winning too many games. But why bother?
Hardly any teams are operating on a gradual timeline at the moment. Among those select few, Oklahoma City is the most evidently disinterested in winning of them all.
Let's move on.
In a nutshell: Have you seen this roster?
Fathoming a path to the playoffs, let alone title contention, for the Orlando Magic is a fool's errand. They are in the early aughts of a transitional period that doesn't lend itself to winning.
Exceeding expectations will even be a chore. The Magic are light on established players, have two building blocks coming off torn ACLs (Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac) and employ veterans who don't significantly move the needle. Terrence Ross' microwave scoring, Gary Harris' offensive letdowns and Robin Lopez's sweeping hook shots can only get you so far.
Orlando and its fans should instead derive pleasure from player development and dunking on people for forming opinions about the team without actually watching.
Not that the Magic aren't worth monitoring. Jalen Suggs' Rookie of the Year push should be riveting and might include a 50-shot performance. Fultz and Isaac could eventually be healthy. Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton intrigue. So does Chuma Okeke, a genuine three-and-D prospect with some on-ball finickiness. Maybe this is the year Mo Bamba or Wendell Carter Jr.—or both—actualize their draft hype. Franz Wagner might stop shooting short on all his threes.
None of this is a recipe for title contention. Which is fine. When done right, there is nobility in not trying to contend.
In a nutshell: The Ben Simmons situation has become the "This is fine" meme.
Things are so not fine for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Offseason workout video extraordinaire Ben Simmons has officially requested a trade from the team and doesn't plan to join them for training camp, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey. This is quite the leverage play from someone who shouldn't technically have any.
Simmons has four years and $146.6 million left on his deal and is coming off an offensive vanishing act of epic proportions in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. That arms him with little power beyond a training-camp holdout.
At the same time, the Sixers aren't exactly teeming with advantages. Their asking price for Simmons has been deemed too high precisely because of his contract and finite, verging on prohibitive, offensive value. His attempt to force their hand only compromises the shaky position in which they already find themselves.
Settling for a so-so Simmons return is seemingly a non-option. But the idea of Ben Simmons now far outstrips the real-life basketball player, making it unlikely Philly finds a taker for its sky-high asking price. And if he's prepared to make life extra awkward leading into training camp, they have to prioritize their win-now window with Joel Embiid.
Looming over all this: The Sixers did not get a lot better over the offseason. They are still short a face-up shot creator on the wings, second-string floor general and a co-star who can spearhead their livelihood through the 21 to 82 games Embiid misses each season. Andre Drummond is now their backup center, which will either go down as a stroke of genius or devolve into utter calamity and nothing in-between.
Philadelphia hasn't earned any karmic brownie points, either. The team got rid of its longtime equipment manager and gutted its scouting department in a cost-cutting move. Now feels like a good time to remind everyone the Sixers are controlled by a trio of billionaires. Much like Simmons' made jumpers at open run, this team's immediate outlook is a sham.
In a nutshell: A team that wasn't good enough to win it all last season failed to get appreciably better.
No team did anything over the offseason to run away with the Western Conference. Good thing, too.
Because the Phoenix Suns didn't do anything to stop them.
Last year was a dream for the orange and purple. The Suns flew under the national radar despite dominating for much of the regular season only to end up in the NBA Finals and come two wins shy of a championship. (Full disclosure: They were my pre-playoffs title pick.)
That type of rise buys goodwill, and Phoenix hasn't done anything to move off its place inside the upper echelon of the West. But their offseason was thoroughly unspectacular, lacking any definitive upgrades beyond whatever developmental spikes you cake in for Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cam Johnson.
Still, after dropping four straight to the Milwaukee Bucks and retaining Chris Paul, Cameron Payne and Abdel Nader on cheaper-than-expected deals, the Suns' big splash was...using slightly more than half of their mid-level exception on JaVale McGree, trading for Landry Shamet and signing Elfrid Payton?
Paul is entering his age-36 season and is no stranger to getting banged up when the playoffs roll around. Phoenix also just ripped through a Western Conference that was far more dinged up than its own roster. This is not a team that should be so deliberately running in place. Ayton, Booker and Bridges have the upward trajectories to render this crankiness futile, but after the Suns were rewarded for their gall last offseason, it'd have been nice to see them more aggressively pursue upgrades this year.
Portland Trail Blazers
In a nutshell: Damian Lillard hates this team.
OK, so Damian Lillard hasn't actually said he hates the Portland Trail Blazers. But he did, in no uncertain terms and correctly so, declare they're not close enough to title contention. It was a stance that implied the Blazers would act with a sense of urgency (and maybe self-awareness). The results are debatable.
Portland's offseason acquisitions are sound. Without any cap flexibility, the team re-signed Norman Powell, brought in Ben McLemore, Tony Snell and Cody Zeller and acquired Larry Nance Jr., a quintessential fit, for an ultra-reasonable price.
And yet, if your best player in franchise history proclaims you're not championship-ready, this isn't exactly a series of moves that dispels his belief.
Look at the Blazers offseason through this lens: They spent $90 million on Norman Powell, gave up a first-round pick for Larry Nance Jr. with protections that might outlast general manager Neil Olshey's inexplicably Teflon job security and signed three players who each logged under 1,100 minutes last season. That doesn't move the needle near enough to title contention unless you think Portland was one Larry Nance Jr. away from party-crashing the championship clique.
Complicated still, Jusuf Nurkic intimated he wants a bigger role next season. Somebody could tell him that staying healthy qualifies as a bigger role, but is that enough to prevent potential surliness? And let's not discount the microscope the Blazers organization at large will be under independent of Lillard after hiring Chauncey Billups despite concerns expressed about sexual assault allegations he faced in 1997, which Portland failed to address at an introductory presser that couldn't have gone worse had Olshey talked out of his literal, actual butt.
Combining distractions galore, including questions surrounding Lillard's future, on top of a roster only semi-significantly better is ultimately an unstable recipe for more of the same.
In a nutshell: This team feels aimless.
Maybe congratulations are in order. The Sacramento Kings didn't short-circuit their long-term trajectory or overpay to negligibly inflate their standing within the Western Conference. Some of their moves are even likable beyond measure.
Charlotte should be fined a draft pick for letting Richaun Holmes remain in Sacramento on an Early Bird rights deal that ranks as one of the offseason's biggest, fattest, most baffling bargains. Davion Mitchell's selection at No. 9 was panned in real-time, but his summer league turned most into "Davion Mitchell forever" converts.
But that's kind of it. And it shouldn't be. The Kings needed to choose a visible direction rather than perpetuate their spot in the sub-middle of the Western Conference. They have so far done the latter.
Many will interpret this as yours truly scolding Sacramento for not taking a stick of dynamite to its nucleus. Those people are not wrong. Buddy Hield has no business still being on this team, particularly after the selection of Mitchell. (The Los Angeles Lakers are partly to blame.)
Trading Delon Wright for Tristan Thompson was a talent downgrade aimed at rationalizing the depth chart when the Kings could just deem Marvin Bagley III the backup center and call it day. Is Sacramento allergic to acquiring pure wings? Or just addicted to shoehorning should-be 4s (Harrison Barnes, Maurice Harkless) into small forward minutes? How does Luke Walton still have a job?
Opting against a teardown is not the Kings' cardinal sin. They are free to go Phoenix Suns circa 2020 offseason and mortgage part of their future for a star. Assuming they're not the team who deals for Ben Simmons, they won't go that route, either. They've chosen the course of least inspiration, a path that doesn't entirely disenchant you but also won't preclude you from tweeting "Kangzzz" every once in a while because you just know, in the not-so-deep recesses of your heart, this whole process invariably ends with their trading Fox, Haliburton or Mitchell and living, through losses galore, to regret it.
San Antonio Spurs
In a nutshell: They are either lusting after mediocrity or finally rebuilding.
Everyone outside the San Antonio Spurs locker room should be able to effortlessly admit this team isn't winning the 2022 title. Whether that's by their own hand remains to be seen.
Most will use the departures of DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay as evidence the Spurs are prepared to rebuild. But they also acquired Thaddeus Young and paid top dollar for Doug McDermott. Neither plays them out of starting over, and Young should net another asset in advance of the trade deadline. This still presumes San Antonio is trying to be bad—or at least not almost good.
Steering into a tank requires too much premeditation. The league is facing a shortage of teams that want to stink something awful, but the Spurs have too many good players even if they outfit Young in another jersey by mid-February.
A core of McDermott, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Jakob Poeltl, Lonnie Walker IV and Luka Samanic isn't setting the world on fire, but they're not out-Oklahoma Citying the Thunder. San Antonio will be even better if Al-Farouq Aminu and Zach Collins can actually play.
Push comes to shove, I lean toward the Spurs deliberately rebuilding. They drafted a fourth-grader* at No. 12 and spent real money on a stab-in-the-dark flier with Collins. Those are not the moves of a team preparing to make a raucous next year—which at once makes this a milestone offseason for the Spurs and a blueprint with real potential to go belly-up, in 11-seed territory, if they're not inclined to sell off or shut down talent over the course of the 2021-22 season.
(*Josh Primo is 18 years old.)
In a nutshell: How many power forwards can one team have?
Count me in, on some level, for whatever the Toronto Raptors are building. They are drowning in guys who stand between 6'7" and 6'9", and their defense should give other teams nightmares.
The above power forward quip is more tongue-in-cheek than anything. That's not to be confused with satire. The Raptors have used OG Anunoby to defend 5s when Pascal Siakam or Chris Boucher is on the floor but have somehow gotten their center fix by acquiring the 6'9" Precious Achiuwa and re-signing the 6'9" Khem Birch? Sure.
This logjam of frontcourt bodies isn't the least bit concerning if you trust that the Raptors have enough from-scratch shot creation to get by. I'm skeptical. Fred VanVleet is a stud, and Siakam's 2020-21 campaign flew decidedly under the radar. But the latter can still get bogged down in traffic, and Toronto isn't flush with playmaking alternatives beyond its two primary ball-handlers.
Too much is riding on Goran Dragic sticking in Canada all season while remaining healthy, Malachi Flynn making a leap, Anunoby doing a lot more dribbling and Scottie Barnes being ready to do anything at all. Maybe Gary Trent Jr. can pitch in, but his off-the-bounce game isn't particularly refined, usually stalls out before the basket and doesn't include a bunch of table-setting.
Don't pigeonhole me into the role of Raptors pessimist. I'm toiling with picking them as a top-four seed in the East if the core sticks all year. Their defense should muck up a lot of regular-season games. But last year's mediocre offense is down one of its most dangerous weapons (Kyle Lowry) without a surefire replacement. It makes you wonder whether Toronto should've selected Jalen Suggs at No. 4 rather than roll the dice on Barnes, or if it could've shown more of an overarching interest in adding conventional shot creators via free agency and trades.
In a nutshell: They're still one wing short.
Stop trying to resist the obvious: The Utah Jazz are clearly a championship team during the regular season only, a squad forever destined to fail in the playoffs, on the back of built-in excuses and a roster that's not quite good enough.
Someone paramount to their success will always miss time in the postseason, be it Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell or another player. At least one frontcourt matchup will always be too versatile. A series lead will be blown, sometimes against an opponent far from full strength.
Uninformed Rudy Gobert jokes that attach his name to a french pastry or a big man the Dallas Mavericks overpaid/tried to overpay will be recycled until the end of time. Utah has about as many athletic wing defenders as Karl Malone and John Stockton have championship rings. This team is a paper tiger.
[*turns off hyperbole font*]
Utah has, in fact, diversified its rotation ahead of next season. Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall arm the team with downsizable frontcourt options should select opponents, like last year's Los Angeles Clippers, make life too difficult on Gobert. The thing is, that's never been the Jazz's primary problem.
Tussling with starry wings is their biggest issue. With all due respect to Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic's random stretches of dominant one-on-one defense, Royce O'Neale is the best and only option to rumble with the toughest covers. Among 400-plus players who logged at least 300 minutes last season, no one spent a larger share of their defensive possessions guarding the No. 1 option than him, according to BBall Index's Matchup Difficulty metric.
Acquiring Gay and Paschall doesn't help O'Neal or Utah on that front. The Jazz are built to be one of the NBA's foremost contenders, but that status remains contingent upon their towering over the league's other bigwigs in spite of a glaring void.
In a nutshell: This is a one-star show.
Sending Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers has worked wonders for the Washington Wizards' depth, in the sense that they actually have some. They go at least two rotation-worthy players long at every position, a luxury they wouldn't have been able to afford with a $44.2 million point guard on the roster.
Granted, carving out that depth came at the expense of the Wizards' immediate peak. Westbrook left them little wiggle room over the short and long hauls, but he represented a potentially lucrative zenith, however fraught or unlikely. They no longer have that instant dark-horse upside. They've punted on it in favor of...well, I don't know.
Washington is a postseason hopeful if everyone stays healthy. You can say the same about everyone else in the East who plays outside Cleveland, Detroit and Orlando. The Wizards have also continued their recent tradition of tying the fate of their point guard slot to an injury risk. John Wall devolved into one before getting traded to Houston, Westbrook labored through a torn quad at the beginning of last year, and Spencer Dinwiddie is working his way back from a partially torn right ACL.
Puzzle aficionados will enjoy identifying Washington's third-best player. It could be Davis Bertans. Or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Or Deni Avdija. Or Rui Hachimura. Is it actually Kyle Kuzma? Or Daniel Gafford? Is it even safe to say Dinwiddie will be this team's second-best player?
Pleasantly mediocre is the best way to describe the Wizards' roster. That isn't winning any titles or playoff series next season. It may not even necessarily win over Bradley Beal's long-term affections.