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 focus on the West.
I recently wrote about Dallas’s offseason in the context of Luka Dončić’s extension and how patience can be their friend and enemy. The Mavericks have not added another ballhandler (Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley and Chris Paul, let alone Spencer Dinwiddie, and even Dennis Schröder were technically available) but did beef up their wings with Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown, two players who complement Dončić in other ways. Things could’ve gone better. They also could’ve been a lot worse. Jason Kidd in as coach is a total wild card.
The Nuggets didn’t function like a team whose star point guard recently tore his ACL, re-signing Will Barton, JaMychal Green and Austin Rivers to fair deals, then using half of their full mid-level to bring Jeff Green into the fold. If healthy, this roster could be the best in the conference.
Michael Porter Jr. is eligible for an extension and may soon receive a max offer, but given some worrisome health concerns and woeful defense throughout the playoffs, it should surprise nobody if the Nuggets opt to let him play out this upcoming season before striking a long-term commitment. There’s risk both ways.
Next season is when things really get interesting, with Aaron Gordon possibly in line for a humongous payday as one of the most attractive unrestricted free agents in next summer’s free-agent class, Porter’s possible restricted free agency and Nikola Jokić's becoming eligible for a five-year, $254 million supermax extension. The Nuggets are comfortably below the tax right now but will probably have to shoot well over it in 2023 (and beyond) if they want to keep this group together.
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Golden State Warriors
The Warriors were super busy this offseason, even if the results weren’t exactly what a majority of their fan base probably wanted. In the door on rookie-scale and veteran’s minimum contracts: Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter and Nemanja Bjelica. Out the door: Kent Bazemore, Kelly Oubre and Eric Paschall. Considering Klay Thompson will also step on the court at some point this season, that across-the-board upgrade is an incredible boon for an organization that was armed with limited resources and a nine-digit tax bill.
(Listen to anyone around Golden State talk about Iguodala and it’s clear his presence alone will be worth every penny to a team that badly needed a splash of experience. “I think when we lost him, we lost a piece of our soul,” Steve Kerr recently told The Athletic. “He just embodies everything we’re about: versatility, sacrifice, the clear defining of roles, the mentoring that he brings for the younger guys.”)
Oh, they also locked up the greatest player in franchise history with a four-year, $215 million contract extension, eliminating any doubt about his long-term status with the only team he’s ever played for. Yes, Steph Curry is 33 years old. It’s also impossible to overpay him.
When another star becomes available, the Warriors are well positioned to acquire him—especially if Jordan Poole continues to ascend before the trade deadline. If not, they can still probably contend with a roster that looks very little like the one that stumbled to reach the play-in last season.
Not even a calendar year after they were all but forced to trade Harden, the Rockets drafted Jalen Green (lucky them!) and plucked three other high-upside, positionally harmonious 19-year-olds in Josh Christopher, Alperen Şengün (who was pretty much stolen from the Thunder—more on that later) and Usman Garuba (the youngest player to ever start a game for Real Madrid, an accomplishment previously held by Luka Dončić). They can all conceivably play significant roles in what could be a shorter rebuild than it once appeared to be.
Signing Daniel Theis to a four-year, $36 million deal was smart. He’s a serviceable big who protects the rim, understands his role/doesn’t need the ball and will knock down the (very) occasional pick-and-pop three. Starting him beside Christian Wood shouldn’t be an issue. Houston also re-signed David Nwaba to a harmless three-year, $15 million contract.
It’s unclear if John Wall would ever consider taking a buyout, especially if the Rockets downshift during this upcoming season and give a heavy portion of his minutes to Green and Kevin Porter Jr. But at the same time there are $91,676,600 reasons why a trade seems unlikely. If Wall wants to contribute to a playoff-caliber team while he’s still physically able, forking over some money may be the only way.
From Houston’s perspective, there’s zero pressure here. Wall and Eric Gordon both have their contracts come off the books as those aforementioned rookies will enter their third year in the league. At that point, the Rockets will be flush with cap space and (hopefully, for their sake) a tantalizing core that some established stars will want to join.
Los Angeles Clippers
Is there a more difficult team to forecast than this one? The health of Kawhi Leonard’s knee is portentous to an entirely unknowable degree, creating questions that don’t even need to be answered yet but should at least be asked. For example: How hard would it be, and how long would it take, for Leonard to coalesce with several new faces after potentially missing an entire regular season?
Said new faces are Eric Bledsoe (along with a currently faceless $8.3 million trade exception), rookie Keon Johnson and the ever-tantalizing Justise Winslow. Outgoing are Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo. There’s a lot to say about these moving parts, but nothing may be more fascinating than Winslow, whose two-year deal (with no options) is such a clever flier for the Clippers.
Winslow has been asked to do quite a few things in his career; how L.A. actually uses him and who he plays with are two untold elements to study. If he spends some time as its backup point guard—a role he’s flirted with on both the Heat and Grizzlies—then Bledsoe might not be the greatest backcourt partner. If he works his way into the starting lineup as Leonard’s temporary replacement and becomes a key figure in switch-everything small-ball units for a team that’s extremely thin up front, he can be critical.
Winslow’s outside shot needs considerable work, especially on spot-up tries, but when healthy he can do damage elsewhere with the ball in his hands, plowing his way into the paint off a high ball screen, bouncing off and through backpedaling big men. He’s finally healthy after having to deal with several injuries over the past few years, is still only 25, and, as a rookie, looked like he’d someday make an All-Star team.
When grading L.A.’s offseason, though, what’s changed is less important than how they were able to keep most of the roster intact. Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum are coming back, which is an almost astonishing reality when you consider that L.A. was limited in what it could offer them due to early Bird CBA restrictions, and also that both should’ve been in demand throughout the league.
The Clippers aren’t a title contender without Leonard, who was somewhat predictably re-signed to a new four-year contract (apologies for burying the lede!), but if his rehab goes better than expected and he’s able to return for a playoff run, don’t rule them out. This team is as complete as any in the conference.
Los Angeles Lakers
The standout move of this entire offseason is Los Angeles’s decision to trade a quarter of its rotation (including Schröder, indirectly) for Russell Westbrook. Maybe this works out great and the former MVP is able to perform at a high level with full understanding that his new team doesn’t need someone to average a triple double or lead the entire league in midrange shots.
Despite already having LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers yearn for some offensive punch. Westbrook haymakers are relentless. Time will tell if he can sharpen them without simultaneously making life harder for his two superior teammates. The more likely reality—given his inability to shoot and his unwillingness to do much except crash the glass when the ball isn’t in his hands—is the latter, especially in the playoffs.
(Semirelevant stat: Of all the players who launched at least 150 midrange jumpers last season, Davis, LeBron and Westbrook finished with the second, third and sixth lowest field goal percentages, respectively.)
From there, the Lakers spent the rest of the offseason crippling the defensive identity that carried them through the bubble, ostensibly bolstering an offense that may not be much better than it ever has since James moved to Hollywood. Outside shooting is great. Because of who their three highest-paid players are, the Lakers will still have a difficult time putting enough of it on the court in meaningful moments. Instead of re-signing Alex Caruso to the perfectly reasonable deal he ended up taking from the Bulls, Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss decided to collect a bunch of one-dimensional sieves who won’t be able to stay on the floor in most playoff series: Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk and maybe even Kendrick Nunn.
Trevor Ariza just turned 36 and made about only 35% of his open threes last season; 35-year-old Dwight Howard is back because Davis doesn’t want to spend most of his time at center even though the team’s most advantageous lineups function with him at that position. From a team-building perspective, the goal should be to accentuate LeBron and Davis, not force them to cover holes seen up and down the roster.
Much has been made of the Lakers’ age, but they would’ve been fine had Patty Mills and Andre Iguodala (who once employed Pelinka as his agent) agreed to go there instead. They instead chose the Nets and Warriors, respectively.
On Day 1 of the postseason, this team won’t look exactly as it does today. The buyout market is always their friend. But it’s also not a great sign when you’re a championship contender that doesn’t have obvious options to form a closing five. Seriously: LeBron, Davis, then what? If we pencil in Westbrook, who are the other two players who can impact winning on both ends? Kent Bazemore and Marc Gasol? Talen Horton-Tucker and Ariza?
It’s way too dramatic to give up on any team that has LeBron, but this one needs him and Davis to be excellent for four rounds or they aren’t winning it all. That’s not their fault. But all the recognizable names that were exchanged for useful role players could make this an offseason the Lakers come to regret.
The No. 1–area Memphis had to address after last season might also be the most fundamental element of modern-day team construction: three-point shooting! They finished 20th in three-point percentage and 27th in three-point rate last year. And ... they didn’t really address it.
That doesn’t mean their offseason was a failure, but perhaps it was more complicated than it had to be. Instead of sitting still and just drafting someone who could’ve fit a need (like Virginia’s sharpshooting Trey Murphy III), the Grizzlies absorbed unwanted salary that’s owed to Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams to jump up seven spots and pluck Ziaire Williams (Bronny James’s ex-high-school teammate) with the 10th pick. Then they flipped Bledsoe for a package of Clippers that included Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo, before moving Beverley to the Timberwolves for Jarrett Culver and Juan Hernangómez.
Murphy’s frequent comp is Suns wing Cam Johnson, aka the exact type of player who’d make wonderful sense beside Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Williams can obviously still be the better choice despite not entering the league with a knockdown shot. And maybe their pursuit of Culver (who Minnesota attained by dangling Dario Šarić and the pick that eventually became Cam Johnson two years ago) pays off and he’s able to carve out a role that doesn’t feature him making only 28% of his threes.
Someone who can shoot: Grayson Allen. Half of his shots last year were spot-up threes and he made 39.9% of them. But the Grizzlies shipped him to the Bucks. Desmond Bane, by far their best shooter, will play more in his second season, and they can open up a ton of cap space next summer to go after another knockdown threat. It’s not hard to see why the Grizzlies took some of the swings they did. But maybe they should’ve been a little more focused on filling holes that can make Morant and JJJ even better.
Replacing Jarrett Culver, Juan Hernangómez and Ricky Rubio with Patrick Beverley and Taurean Prince is definitely a step in the right direction for a Timberwolves team that needs sharp teeth and outside shooting.
Prince quietly shot 41.5% with the Cavaliers before ankle surgery ended his season in April, while Beverley did a better job hounding Devin Booker in the conference finals than anyone employed by the Lakers, Nuggets or Bucks (including Jrue Holiday) could. He’s also a proven threat from the outside.
The Timberwolves still have their full mid-level exception, though using all of it would make them a taxpaying team that’s unlikely to crack the playoffs. So, that’s not happening. They didn’t really make any free-agent signings and had no first-round picks, thanks to an instantly regrettable trade for D’Angelo Russell that pushed the franchise to win sooner than it was built to. So, things could be better for a team that’s gone 27–59 ever since that deal was made and is desperate to make the playoffs—or at least show Karl-Anthony Towns that progress is possible.
Semirelated: It’s unclear how they could scrounge together enough assets to pique Philadelphia’s interest in a Ben Simmons trade, but Russell, Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels and three unprotected first-round picks could (theoretically!) help the Sixers pry Damian Lillard in a separate transaction. Towns, Simmons and Anthony Edwards make a ton of sense together.
New Orleans Pelicans
It’s been a misadventurous summer for the team that employs Zion Williamson, a player who could/should already be an MVP candidate if not for the consistently odd personnel moves being made around him.
Bledsoe and Adams: Goodbye, because we want to open up cap space to try to sign a star point guard, and need to slide seven spots down in the draft to do so. Devonte’ Graham: Welcome aboard for the cost of a first-round pick. Lonzo Ball: Sayonara, for no reason?
Tomáš Satoranský was one of the most underrated role players in the league last year, but New Orleans would have been better off just keeping Ball, re-signing Josh Hart (as they did, to an admittedly solid contract), adding the 10th pick instead of the 17th (although Trey Murphy III should fit nicely on another roster that sorely needs players who can shoot) and not worry just yet about clearing cap space for an unlikely run at a 35-year-old point guard who eventually took less money to live in Miami.
The concept of patience should be the Pelicans’ best friend, given how young their core pieces are, coupled with the number of draft picks they possess. Instead, it’s become their worst enemy. If they struggle next season and can’t get Williamson to take a max extension (something we shouldn’t yet jump to conclusions about), it’ll be hard to think of a more catastrophic three-year stretch in recent NBA history.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The critique here is maybe a little harsh, knowing it’s impossible to judge the rebuild Oklahoma City has ensconced itself in until sometime around 2036, but there were a couple of unanticipated moves that are worth pointing out.
When the Thunder swapped Al Horford for Kemba Walker to gain the 16th pick in this year’s draft, Sam Presti seemed pleased, saying “the 16th pick in any draft is really, really hard to get a hold of." As touched on in our grade for the Rockets, he then flipped that pick for two protected future first-round picks to a conference rival that is also embarking on a precipitous rebuild. That 16th pick became Alperen Şengün, who, in Las Vegas, looked like he may be a franchise-changing big man. Fully understanding that the Thunder were already adding two other first-round picks in 2021 and that the players they may select in '22 may ultimately turn out to have better careers than Şengün, this particular transaction drew attention to the Thunder’s eventual need to actually get better.
Later on, as if to contradict that very strategy, they bought Walker out instead of waiting to see whether they could find a buyer before this season’s trade deadline, or the following offseason. This isn’t at all an indictment of their strategy, especially as a small-market team that will never be a free-agent destination and can’t simply package all the picks they’ve collected for a star, then expect said star to be unruffled about it. The Horford-Walker trade wasn’t a catastrophe for OKC, and any individual decision made in any individual offseason for a team that’s currently operating without meaningful stakes for the foreseeable future isn’t worth losing sleep over.
But they now have 13 first-round picks that are not their own! They should have at least two picks in the next three first rounds. Many of what they own has nothing to do with how they perform and is instead dependent on the collapse of a few organizations that are currently in win-now mode (like the Clippers, Sixers and Heat). One way to look at those picks is as a safety net that lets the Thunder operate on multiple timelines. And in this current one, the product they put on the floor can afford to have someone like Şengün in it.
They extended Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a five-year max extension—which should mark some type of urgency—and added yet another top-10 protected first-round pick (in 2024) for the trouble of absorbing Derrick Favors’s contract. Rebuilds are dispiriting and complicated. There is no road map that doesn’t include a bucket full of hope and the need for more luck than any one team in a 30-organization league probably deserves. But given all the bites at the apple this organization already has, it’s just a bit jarring to see them make a series of incongruous decisions.
This one is pretty straightforward. The Suns didn’t lose Chris Paul. They didn’t lose Cam Payne. Landry Shamet is a nice move-and-catch spacer, acquired for someone who couldn’t crack their playoff rotation. If they had JaVale McGee in the Finals they would probably be world champs. All these moves are solid-to-awesome for a team that was two wins away from winning it all.
Elsewhere, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are both extension-eligible and don’t have extensions, yet. This grade goes up a bit if/when those two sign their next contracts. (A max extension for Ayton makes perfect sense, and something similar to what the Heat gave Duncan Robinson—$90 million over five years—should be right for Bridges.) Even before those agreements are made, it’s been a satisfying summer for the 2020–21 runner-ups.
Of course, that doesn’t mean James Jones shouldn’t still try to add the extra playmaker they didn’t have in last year’s playoffs. A trade is possible (perhaps one that includes either Jalen Smith or Cam Johnson), and they still have about half of their mid-level exception to spend. Elfrid Payton isn’t the solution.
Portland Trail Blazers
This grade is 1000% less relevant than whatever Damian Lillard thinks it should be, and, publicly, he hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic about everything he’s seen. At a stage in Lillard’s career where he wants/needs/deserves All-Star-caliber teammates, Ben McLemore, Tony Snell and Cody Zeller aren’t going to cut it.
Norm Powell’s five-year, $90 million deal was absolutely necessary after they traded 22-year-old Gary Trent Jr. for him earlier in the year. His shooting percentages dropped in Portland from what they were in Toronto, but the Blazers strapped on an afterburner whenever he shared the floor with Lillard and CJ McCollum. Their defense, on the other hand, collapsed in the playoffs against a Nuggets backcourt that didn’t have one of the league’s fiercest flamethrowers available to throw flames.
Some of Portland’s weaker defenders (like Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony) are gone, but this still isn’t anything close to a championship-caliber roster, even if Chauncey Billups can somehow squeeze more out of everyone who was already there a year ago. (Speaking of Billups, it shouldn’t be forgotten how badly the Blazers handled that coaching hire.)