Coming off an 18-month stretch that included postseason play inside a single-site bubble, extended isolation from friends and family, an abundance of injuries that were (somewhat) brought on by an atypically tight regular-season schedule and shortened offseason, dozens of players either contracting COVID-19 themselves or being held out of games and practice due to the league’s necessarily harsh health and safety protocols, NBA teams had a difficult time weighing what was real against what might not be sustainable in a normal environment.
These unprecedented factors made this offseason such a difficult one to participate in, let alone analyze from afar. Contracts that seem like a steal today may soon weigh down their team’s cap sheet. Players who excelled or struggled last year could regress back to who they really are. With that caveat out of the way, we’re handing out offseason grades for all 30 teams as we head into the NBA’s 2021–22 season. Today, we start with the East.
Atlanta’s primary tasks this offseason were to take care of John Collins, give Trae Young a max extension and upgrade at backup point guard, where the Hawks still need some type of offensive punch when their franchise player has to rest. On those fronts, mission accomplished.
Collins got his five-year, $125 million extension after a breakthrough postseason. Young was paid, handsomely, for being awesome. Then, the Hawks dealt Kris Dunn, Bruno Fernando and a second-round pick to the Celtics in a three-team transaction that landed them Delon Wright, a crafty 29-year-old journeyman guard who’s on an expiring $8.5 million deal.
The Hawks then re-signed Lou Williams and can still reach an agreement with Kevin Huerter, their extension-eligible playoff hero, before opening night. And after losing Onyeka Okongwu—their most recent lottery pick who momentarily went toe-to-toe with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals—for six months, as Okongwu recovers from a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Atlanta also used part of its mid-level exception to bring in Gorgui Dieng, another veteran who will add more frontcourt depth to a team that’s biggest issue is the fact that NBA games last only 48 minutes.
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Can everyone be happy with Nate McMillan’s rotation? That’s the biggest question. (Ripping the interim tag off McMillan’s job title and giving him a four-year contract was as obvious as it was bright.)
Sacrifice will be critical for a Hawks team that's skilled and flexible enough to make another conference finals run, though don’t be shocked if they find themselves bundling several contracts for an established star sometime in the future (which is a possibility Hawks GM Travis Schlenk recently addressed in a wide-ranging interview). Right now they’re almost too deep.
The Celtics’ significant see-saw offseason began with a series of decisions that made it seem as if they were prioritizing cap space and financial flexibility in an earnest attempt to add another max-level star via free agency. Kemba Walker was dumped with a first-round pick to the Thunder for Al Horford. Evan Fournier wasn’t worth any more than an extremely team-friendly/tradable deal and was quickly replaced by Josh Richardson in a savvy trade with the Mavericks. Then, despite needing another point guard, they refused to give Dennis Schröder anything more than an astounding one-year, $5.9 million offer.
It didn’t take a genius to look at those moves and deduce that Boston was aiming to become a major player in free agency next summer, when Bradley Beal (or Zach LaVine) may be looking for a change of scenery. But as quickly as flexibility was created, Brad Stevens, the team’s new president of basketball operations, took it away. Marcus Smart was rewarded with a four-year, $77 million extension last week, and, somewhat shockingly a few days later, Robert Williams followed with his own $54 million pact.
Cap space no longer exists, but neither extension eliminates the possibility of adding a third star. There’s a world where both contracts can be dangled alongside a younger prospect and multiple draft picks. But if no household name emerges right away that’s O.K., too. The Celtics don’t have to worry about losing the soul of their franchise next summer, and were able to retain a big whose sheer athleticism ignores the possibility of failure every time he leaves his feet.
This team now boasts a healthy mix of vets, stars who’ve yet to scrape their ceiling and compelling youngsters (Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, etc.) who are skilled enough to contribute right away; just about everyone in their rotation can, at the bare minimum, defend, pass and shoot.
Boston also somehow created a $17 million trade exception through a sign-and-trade with the Knicks for Fournier, a quality resource that can be used during or after the upcoming season.
At the onset, they also saw Stevens replace Danny Ainge, and then hired Ime Udoka to replace Stevens as head coach. Udoka is an effective communicator who already has/is willing to build strong relationships with players throughout the league. Not to suggest Stevens was ineffective in this specific role, but, for the Celtics, that not only means having someone who can cultivate a bond with their two young stars, but also be attractive to prospective free agents—or stars that have enough power to essentially choose where they want to play.
There are myriad different ways to compare the greatest teams in NBA history. These Nets should enter that debate, with an all-time great offense that’s already proven itself dynamic enough to nullify defense as a traditional prerequisite for success.
Brooklyn may have the first (Kevin Durant) and second (James Harden) most unstoppable scorers in the league, amplified by an obscenely overqualified third option (Kyrie Irving); all three are currently healthy with the comforting benefit of a training camp and preseason to even better acquaint themselves and develop on-court chemistry with the rest of their teammates.
Every important role player (except Jeff Green) was retained at a price that should have rivals begging the NBA to launch an investigation. Blake Griffin is coming back for the veteran’s minimum, and Bruce Brown will play out the year on his qualifying offer (for some reason?). Patty Mills was stolen with the taxpayer mid-level exception, and with the 27th pick, Brooklyn drafted Cam Thomas, who led all players at Las Vegas Summer League in scoring.
Defense may not matter, but the Nets didn’t ignore it. They traded Landry Shamet for Jevon Carter (a hound with the hands of a welterweight champion) and signed James Johnson, who, for better or worse, personifies the rugged usefulness on that end that keeps him in demand as a small-ball five. Nic Claxton is a year older with seemingly limitless athletic potential and please don’t be shocked if/when he spends a couple of weeks as Brooklyn’s starting center and swats 10 shots in a single game.
Locking Kevin Durant up through 2026 is quite possibly the single most important agreement this organization has ever made with a player, yet given everything that’s already been mentioned it somehow feels like little more than a cherry on top.
Imagine the PGA Tour’s longest driver just discovered a pill that instantly allows him to smash the ball 25% farther than he already could, dramatically increasing the advantage he holds on the field. Aka: the rich just got a lot richer. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2021–22 Brooklyn Nets.
The Hornets are in a sweet spot. They’re young, energetic and talented enough to easily exceed modest expectations. There’s an electric backcourt led by LaMelo Ball (one of the most aesthetically pleasing floor generals to enter the league in recent memory) and the freshly extended Terry Rozier, supplemented nicely by Gordon Hayward’s ability to contort his game in just about any context and still look like a borderline All-Star.
Throw the extension-eligible dunk monster Miles Bridges (pay Miles Bridges!), Kelly Oubre’s athleticism and whatever rookies James Bouknight and Kai Jones are able to do into the mix and this team is a League Pass golden child. Mason Plumlee’s passing will fit beautifully into a system that’s as selfless and fluid as any in the league, too. (The Hornets finished first in assist rate last year and 28th in seconds per touch.) Losing Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk deletes the 14 threes per game those two averaged last year, but Charlotte should see an upgrade on defense with whoever replaces them in the rotation.
Overall, this group can generate more GIFs than the internet will know what to do with and it may not be too long before another established All-Star ventures to climb aboard—though Rozier’s new extension and a possible one for Bridges makes that path a bit more complicated.
We already covered the Bulls in this piece about how DeMar DeRozan has become an overlooked star, but I would like to reiterate that they were aggressive in all the right ways, adding several talented players at a time in their life cycle when a leap forward is mandatory. A for effort, even if that’s not actually the grade we’re giving until Lauri Markkanen’s situation is resolved.
Minus a Ricky Rubio for Taurean Prince trade and the not-insignificant decision to draft Evan Mobley third, the Cavaliers are practically the same team they were last year. That doesn’t mean they won’t show worthwhile progress or possibly even contend for the play-in—Rubio’s teams are always better when he’s on the floor—but failing to add any other veterans to a promising young nucleus is a little curious for a team that has reportedly pined for a shorter runway.
Beyond that, their most notable move was Jarrett Allen’s five-year, $100 million contract extension, making him one of the highest-paid centers in the league. Given his age (23), clearly defined role and two-way compatibility with every other member of Cleveland’s young core (save maybe Mobley), the contract’s size is fine for where the Cavs are. It’s also a serious bet, especially if Collin Sexton also gets a major extension and eats up all the cap space they can otherwise open up next summer.
Cleveland is not a free-agent destination, though, and in order to build something that lasts, it will need to retain and enhance the talent it already has. Sexton, Isaac Okoro and (especially) Darius Garland will be better and Larry Nance Jr. is awesome (and should not be traded). Allen is a firm start as someone who can fill the same role Rudy Gobert does. Defensive backbones are important. And if it turns out he doesn’t make a ton of sense beside Mobley, there are plenty of teams around the league that would love to plug Allen in as a blooming lob threat and rim protector.
Kevin Love still doesn’t make sense here, and it’ll be interesting to see if/when he and the Cavaliers are able to agree on a buyout. (Love belongs to the same agency as LaMarcus Aldridge, Kemba Walker and Andre Drummond, three notable names who recently gave up money for the sake of finding a winning situation.)
If not, attaching Love’s contract to Sexton’s could theoretically open up some interesting trade permutations. A three-way deal that sends Ben Simmons to Cleveland, Damian Lillard to Philadelphia and SexLove to Portland could be interesting, with Philly and Cleveland each shipping a couple of unprotected firsts to the Blazers.
Landing the first pick in a loaded draft is the best thing that can happen to any franchise that last won a playoff series in 2008. Cade Cunningham won’t turn Detroit around overnight, but Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes (who may end up being Detroit’s Dennis Smith Jr.—i.e., the lottery pick who’s immediately dealt once it becomes clear he can’t play beside the team’s shiny new toy) are certainly a foundation worth exploring.
The Kelly Olynyk signing has been applauded by just about everyone because he’s a big man with gravity who should bounce back from a season in which he hit only 34.4% of his spot-up threes. As a replacement for Mason Plumlee, the Pistons could do worse. He’s a nice offensive complement to Stewart who can pick-and-pop with Cunningham and Hayes or hit a trailing three.
When at the five, Olynyk’s defensive rating has waffled from stout to soft every single season since he entered the league. Again, there are worse ways to spend your money at the bottom of a rebuild. Detroit’s cap sheet is clean, too. They can open max cap room next summer and then Jerami Grant’s contract expires the following year.
There were several head coach changes made this offseason. Few feel more noteworthy than Indiana’s decision to go from Nate Bjorkgren to Rick freaking Carlisle. There’s enough talent to shape a top-10 offense, which is something the Pacers have not had in a decade. Carlisle can help push them there.
Beyond that, getting a healthy T.J. Warren back to compete alongside Caris LeVert won’t hurt. Those two in a starting five that features Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner can go toe-to-toe with just about any starting lineup. At the same time, this roster feels like it’s in a purgatorial state so long as Turner and Sabonis are on it. A surface glance at Indy’s net rating when both share the floor suggests things aren’t exactly heading in the right direction. Please rip the Band-Aid off and trade one of them.
Retaining T.J. McConnell at the price they did was smart enough, but then watching Doug McDermott walk out the door after the best season of his career because of luxury tax worries is a bit of a bummer. The Pacers did get a $7 million trade exception out of that deal and, in drafting Chris Duarte, might have selected someone who can immediately play legitimate minutes. (Duarte is eight months younger than Devin Booker, a slight tell that they might not have the stomach for a project.)
But right now the Pacers just seem stuck. That could easily change six months from now if everything goes right, though the Eastern Conference is suddenly a bear and not even the play-in is a guarantee.
There’s an assimilation/preservation push and pull that the Heat will have to battle next season. Jimmy Butler is about to turn 32 and spent 5.25 seasons of his career under Tom Thibodeau, then two more with Erik Spoelstra. That’s ... a grind. But not scary enough to deter Miami from coming to terms on a four-year, $184 million max extension with him. That contract is a lot, and may not look terrific two years from now. But to keep its franchise player happy, it’s perfectly fine for a team that obviously wants to contend right now.
Kyle Lowry is 35 and needs to fit into a new environment for the first time since 2012. P.J. Tucker is 36. Age matters and there should be a need to conserve these bodies. The title is feasible. At the same time, building chemistry (and winning games) during the regular season is not not important. Re-signing Duncan Robinson to a five-year, $90 million contract was a luxury in the sense that losing one of the league’s best movement shooters would significantly damage an offense that may need to close with as many as three nonthreats behind the arc.
Getting a talent like Victor Oladipo back for the minimum to fill what was essentially Goran Dragić’s role the past two seasons was a possible heist, and bringing Lowry in with a sign-and-trade that didn’t ship out Tyler Herro, or require a series of damaging salary dumps to open up enough cap space, was vital.
The Heat feel like they’ve gone all in, but they sort of haven’t. Bam Adebayo is barely scratching the surface of who he can be. Herro is still around as an on-court variable/intriguing trade chip. And Oladipo lingers as a low-risk, extremely high-reward question mark. There’s more than enough complementary talent here to justify the front office’s aggression, even if the regular season may be a tougher sled than their collective ingenuity suggests it should be.
Milwaukee’s decision to let P.J. Tucker walk because of what a new contract would’ve done to ownership’s tax concerns, weeks after he helped them win a championship, still feels disrespectful to the team’s fans and Tucker’s teammates—especially someone like Bobby Portis, who exchanged a deserved payday (his two-year, $9 million contract is maybe a quarter of what he could have earned on the open market) for a chance to run it back with the team that helped resurrect his career.
On the other hand, it’s a business, and Tucker’s presence alone doesn’t make or break the Bucks as a worthy title contender. They replaced Bryn Forbes with George Hill, traded for Grayson Allen, and are praying to get the version of Rodney Hood who can stay healthy and maybe even explode in a playoff game as he did for the Blazers a couple of years ago.
Given the mountain of cash that’s invested in their three best players, coupled with the fact that they just won the freaking championship, it doesn’t seem right to be too harsh here. There’s only so much Milwaukee could do! But its title defense would’ve been more compelling had it kept Tucker around, being that he clearly wanted to stay.
New York Knicks
Some unknown percentage of the positive vibes emanating from New York’s offseason are baked into the several decades of abject dysfunction and disappointment that preceded it. The Knicks had more cap space than any other team and were coming off a Cinderella season. Would they max out DeMar DeRozan? Throw a $120 million offer sheet at Duncan Robinson? Give Dennis Schröder a key to the city?
Instead, for the most part, they were conservative and measured. Julius Randle cashed out on a remarkable (potentially fleeting) All-NBA campaign with a mutually beneficial extension that rewards his contribution without ruining their flexibility. Alec Burks, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel were retained on movable contracts designed to carry last year’s success into 2022.
Evan Fournier’s broad effect on an offense that desperately needs more shooting and shot creation will be embraced by everyone who crawled through offensive possessions on last year’s roster, especially when Randle wasn’t on the floor. Nonmax Kemba Walker and his ability to hit pull-up threes is heaven-sent. It’s hard to complain about any of this.
Even if their road to a star is more complicated than some seem to believe (which is O.K.), the Knicks should at the very least be an objectively competent, well-regarded basketball team for the second year in a row, with reason to believe brighter days are ahead. That’s a sentence nobody has written since Bill Clinton was president.
Kicking off a rebuild with two top-10 picks in a deep draft is pretty convenient! Orlando snagged Jalen Suggs (who makes more sense here than he would have in Toronto; vice versa with Scottie Barnes) and Franz Wagner. One of the larger goals this year should be, health willing, getting to see how that duo fits with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz—arguably the two other most important players in the organization.
The Magic also used about half of their mid-level exception on 33-year-old Robin Lopez, which isn’t great news for people who hold Mo Bamba stock, but investing in a seasoned veteran who can mentor and guide some of the less experienced players at his position makes enough sense. Orlando isn’t trying to win games right now; they should instead want to push and nurture Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. to earn minutes in a competitive environment (that will also earn the team another top-five pick).
Anytime a 200-mph hurricane wind like Joel Embiid wants to commit several more seasons of his career to wreaking havoc on your behalf—when one sobering alternative would be him walking out the door two summers from now—it’s a fine reason to exhale and celebrate, injury concerns aside.
In most offseasons this would be the team’s most important bit of news, but after a humiliating playoff elimination that featured another fourth-quarter meltdown from Ben Simmons, Embiid’s decision to spend his prime in a Sixers jersey is overshadowed by the organization’s need to move on from his ostensible sidekick.
The Sixers are holding out for another superstar, which is bold and their right. In the meantime they’ve made a few mild maintenance moves, re-signing Furkan Korkmaz to a tame $15 million deal over the next three years, inviting Danny Green back for another bite at the apple, convincing Andre Drummond to back up his one-time tormenter for the lowest amount of money he’s eligible to earn and adding Georges Niang’s quick trigger.
Waiving George Hill was somewhat confounding after Daryl Morey made the veteran point guard his most notable addition at last year’s trade deadline, but Tyrese Maxey’s promising production in the playoffs (and then at Summer League) make that departure tolerable.
In the end, it’s hard to grade the Sixers’ offseason until Simmons is traded with a return that better accentuates Embiid’s low-post domination. Running last year’s core back with a championship in mind would be silly, but right now that appears to be their intention.
Even though the Raptors could’ve likely received a greater return for Kyle Lowry if they traded him at the deadline, when several contenders reportedly engaged in a modest bidding war for his service, Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragić’s expiring contract was a decent haul when compared to the alternate scenario of losing the greatest player in franchise history for nothing.
Dragić could be on the move again, too, being that the Raptors may prefer to merge the mid-career stalwarts who helped them win a championship with promising first- and second-year prospects that already double as fascinating trade chips (should Masai Ujiri get frisky). Achiuwa is the bouncy, rim-running five they didn’t have last season, and incoming fourth pick Scottie Barnes should pop on flexible, fire alarm units that make terrific use of his length and instincts. Put him beside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and a big, and it won’t be long before the opposing offense is in tears.
Gary Trent Jr.’s three-year, $51 million deal gives him some time to grow with the rest of this developing roster, as someone who’s increasingly comfortable launching threes on the move. Much like everyone else in Toronto, Trent's contract is agreeable in just about any trade negotiation should they want to take a big swing.
If Dame Lillard, Bradley Beal or All-Star X officially asks out, keep an eye on the Raptors. They can make respectable trade offers without gutting themselves in the process.
Getting off Westbrook’s contract without forfeiting any first-round picks is a miracle. Replacing him with Spencer Dinwiddie, at a $29.7 million discount in guaranteed money, is brilliant. Surrounding Beal with three sensible role players who have championship/meaningful playoff experience—Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma—is propitious. Landing Isaiah Todd (an overlooked five-star prospect who played for G League Ignite) and Corey Kispert (a win-now lotto talent) in the draft is encouraging.
The Wizards may not be able to guard anyone and are due for a trade that can loosen up the 26-player logjam at power forward, but good luck stopping them. Of equal importance, this front office finally showed Beal that it really knows what it's doing. And likely took another step closer in convincing him to sign the five-year, $235 million supermax extension he’s eligible to ink next summer. Getting that deal done is the organization’s first, second and third priority.
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