The dust has settled after another whirlwind offseason, and we’re left entering next season with a deep crop of intriguing teams both in and out of the championship picture. The Suns will look to fend off the Nuggets, Jazz and a resurgent Lakers squad for the Western Conference crown, while in the East, a crop of teams are chasing the Nets and Bucks. We should see feisty play-in races in both conferences, and with the league’s talent pool as deep as ever, each night could bring a marquee matchup.
So who helped their stock and who took a step back this offseason? Let’s assess the best and worst of free agency and the draft with The Crossover’s offseason awards.
Most Exciting Makeover: Los Angeles Lakers
Will the Russell Westbrook experiment work in Los Angeles? That’s no guarantee, But we’re assured to see some major fireworks at the Staples Center this season as LeBron James & Co. look to return to the Finals.
It’s easy to forget that the Lakers sat second in the West at 28–13 on March 18, and a healthy Anthony Davis could have completely changed the course of the Western Conference playoffs. There are clear fit issues and a potentially crippling lack of depth present ahead of next season, though, from a sheer talent perspective, Los Angeles has to be considered the Western Conference favorite if James, Davis and Westbrook are all healthy.
Westbrook’s adjustment with the Lakers should be one of the dominant story lines of the 2021–22 season. He’s now a clear third option after largely running the show for the Wizards, and he even served as the Rockets’ true engine for large portions of the 2019–20 season. Los Angeles should feast in transition, and it’s easy to envision Westbrook-to-James lobs going viral on opening night. The postseason will provide a greater challenge. Can Westbrook refine his shot selection when it counts? Will he have any ability to punish sagging defenses? Westbrook finally securing his first ring would mark a satisfying coda to a Hall of Fame career. But it won’t come without a serious adjustment on both ends.
Westbrook isn’t the only new character of intrigue at the Staples Center. Veterans Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony and Wesley Matthews will scrap for minutes on the wing. Dwight Howard returns for what could be a disastrous sequel. Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk are both expected to be consistent contributors, once again testing James’s ability to mold a championship contender around an uncertain core. Bringing home another Larry O’Brien Trophy with this group would mark one of James’s greatest accomplishments.
Best Under-the-Radar Addition: Patty Mills, Nets
The 2021 free-agent class was filled with quality contributors despite a lack of available headliners, leading to a number of shrewd moves by contenders. The Nuggets added a small-ball five in Jeff Green to complement Nikola Jokić, while Utah signed a frontcourt piece of its own in Rudy Gay. Dennis Schröder should provide legitimate scoring punch with the Celtics, and Nic Batum’s return to the Clippers should stabilize the situation in Los Angeles before Kawhi Leonard returns. Yet to find the shrewdest offseason addition, look no further than the championship favorites in Brooklyn.
The Nets’ roster entering 2021–22 isn’t exactly a skeleton crew outside of its Big Three. While the Lakers may struggle to find contributors outside of their dynamic trio, the supporting cast alongside Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden should be ready to contribute when called upon, even if one or two superstars are out of commission. Joe Harris is returning after testing the free-agent waters, as are Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown. Adding Patty Mills to the fold should only augment an electric offense. The 12-year veteran still turned in a quality season with the Spurs in ’20–21, shooting 37.5% from three in 24.8 minutes per game. Mills is a solid spot-up shooter, and his zippy playmaking should add some verve to Brooklyn’s isolation-heavy attack. Mills is almost guaranteed to make a key shot in a playoff game at some point in ’22, returning to the spotlight after shining throughout the second half of San Antonio’s extended dynasty.
Bet-on-Yourself Award: Chicago Bulls
We shouldn’t ignore the obvious. The Bulls aren’t anywhere close to competing for the Eastern Conference crown, and frankly, there’s no guarantee Chicago is going to avoid the play-in tournament in 2021–22. Yet in a league that often prioritizes tanking and resets over on-court results, there’s something refreshing about the Bulls’ latest string of investments. Even if it doesn’t work, we’re sure to see some excitement return to the United Center next season.
The Bulls began their move toward contention last season, making a trade deadline move for Nikola Vučević as Zach LaVine ascended to All-Star status. And while LaVine’s COVID-19 absence—and frustrating point guard play—scuttled playoff plans in 2021, Chicago should return to the postseason in ’22 after doubling down on LaVine’s supporting cast. Lonzo Ball should bring a dose of creativity and defensive length to the backcourt, while DeMar DeRozan arrives as a late-game scoring option and additional off-the-bounce playmaker. The Bulls’ new Big Four (whether you can call it that) sports a complementary skill set, and there are additional role players of interest in Alex Caruso and young forward Patrick Williams. Kudos to Chicago for investing in a winning product, even if it’s an imperfect one.
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Shrewdest Pivot: Rafael Stone, Rockets
The line between contending for a championship and starting into a rebuild can be very thin in the NBA, a lesson the Rockets learned rather quickly last year. Houston exited the NBA bubble after the 2019–20 season still committed to its two franchise anchors, believing that the right tweaks could vault Harden & Co. over the top in a crowded Western Conference. That path was quickly erased.
Westbrook snuffed out Harden’s disenchantment with the Rockets during the offseason, and he quickly requested a trade before the Harden saga truly came to a head. The second-greatest player in franchise history showed up late to training camp, looked completely disinterested for eight games, then deemed the situation untenable after a blowout loss to the Lakers. He was shipped out of town shortly thereafter, ending a stretch of extended contention for the franchise. A rebuild marked the only step forward.
There was significant dissension regarding exactly how Houston should proceed following Harden’s trade demand. Many implored Houston to make a trade for Ben Simmons, bringing a proven (albeit imperfect) All-Star into the fold to mark more of a retooling than a full-on rebuild. The Rockets took a different route, one that now looks far more appealing than any potential path with Simmons.
Rockets general manager Rafael Stone opted to receive Brooklyn’s absolute haul of draft picks rather than trade for Simmons, implicitly kickstarting a full-on tank in Houston. Months later, the move paid off. The Rockets’ tankery landed them the No. 2 pick in the draft, and Jalen Green appears more than ready to assume the mantle of franchise anchor. Trading P.J. Tucker added further pick capital, and, on draft night, the Rockets added a quartet of 19-year-old rookies. Houston isn’t a playoff competitor in 2021–22. There will be plenty of rough stretches ahead. But Stone took the wreckage of Harden’s trade request and built an intriguing young core, one well stocked with potential building blocks. It seems as though Stone recognized the big picture more than his critics realized upon making a blockbuster deal with the Nets.
Ready-to-Strike Award: Brad Stevens, Celtics
It’s hard to see the Celtics competing for the championship in 2021–22. Brooklyn and Milwaukee project to be potential 60-win teams, and Boston isn’t exactly sporting a more talented roster than the Hawks, Sixers or Heat. The Celtics have prioritized sustainability over maximizing championship chances in recent years, and to their credit, the strategy has landed a pair of All-Stars for perhaps the next decade. Though even with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at their best, this specific Boston squad isn’t sniffing the Finals anytime soon.
We could be having a very different discussion in the spring. The Celtics enter the 2021–22 season armed with a litany of tradable contracts, including a $77 million deal for Marcus Smart and a $54 million contract for center Robert Williams. We won't ship Smart, Williams or anyone else out of town just yet, though it’s hard to ignore the potential looming scenario. Boston has the salaries to make a trade work for a third All-Star, most likely Bradley Beal. We’re currently in a bit of a lull for the Celtics in their hunt for another championship, though that could change in a hurry. A new Big Three could emerge in Boston relatively soon after Brad Stevens lays the groundwork this offseason.
More NBA Coverage:
- NBA Offseason Report Cards: Eastern Conference
- NBA Offseason Report Cards: Western Conference
- NBA Power Rankings: Where Each Team Stands
- NBA Schedule Release: Most Exciting Matchups
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