Unlike last season, the NBA Finals hangover ended before it even began. That’s largely due to the anti-climactic way the Finals ended with the Golden State Warriors making easy work of the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games. So with the 2016-17 season officially in the books, we can all start looking forward to what the 2017-18 season will bring. The first domino falls next week when the NBA Draft takes place and just as quickly, free agency period.
So what can we look forward to?
Gordon Hayward’s big decision
Danny Ainge has spent the last few seasons accumulating assets for the Boston Celtics and some of those assets will be acquired this coming offseason. The team also has enough cap room to sign a max player and early indication points to the team making a big run at Gordon Hayward, an unrestricted free agent. The Utah Jazz can offer him more money, but Boston can counter with a pitch of joining a title contender with a somewhat easier path to the Finals—it’s really a question of LeBron or the Warriors—and a coach in Brad Stevens that he’s very familiar with. If Hayward does end up leaving the Jazz, Utah is put in a precarious position of retooling its team without its best player.
Lots of moving pieces in Los Angeles
Both teams in Los Angeles are facing big crossroads in the coming off-season. The Lakers have been irrelevant for a few years now so it’s incumbent upon Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to nail their first draft as the head decision-makers of the Lakers. Free agency is less of an urgency at this point because unless established superstars like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have a change of heart and leave the Warriors—not happening, by the way—they’re not going to get anybody established enough to turn the franchise around. The smart play is to wait until next season when there are actual superstars who the Lakers can get without having to give up any of its young core.
The Clippers, on the other hand, are going to have to make some tough decisions, starting with resigning Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. A scenario wherein Paul and Griffin re-up is still the likeliest route, but it’s far from a slam dunk with all the rumors of other teams trying to make a run at CP3. The Clips have pried Jerry West away from the Warriors to serve as a consultant for the team and that’s a big coup for them. In the case of Paul, he’s going to face the legacy-defining “money or title” question. Make the superman with the Clips or sign elsewhere that has a much better chance of competing against the Warriors. All signs seem to point to the former happening, but even if he resigns, the Clips don’t have the weapons to be a serious threat to the Warriors. Griffin, on the flip-side, appears to be a lock to resign with the Clippers.
What do the Bulls and Pacers do with their franchise stars?
The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers are in that precarious position of being good enough to scrape any of the lower playoff seeds, but bad enough to not make any meaningful impression as legitimate championship contenders. In other words, they’re now in the same Twilight Zone that the Atlanta Hawks has been in for the better part of a decade. This continued run at mediocrity is the worst place to be in the NBA, so the Bulls and Pacers have some big decisions ahead regarding their respective franchise players, Jimmy Butler and Paul George. Both players are young enough to give either the Celtics or Bulls a good haul in exchange for shipping either of these two players out. The question now is whether these two teams are willing to bottom out—the easier and more sensible approach given the current state of the NBA—to do it.
Building around the Brow and Boogie
On paper, the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins front line in New Orleans should make a lot of noise now that they’ll have a full training camp to get both superstars acclimated to playing together. The Pelicans’ issue though is everything else, starting in the point guard position, where Jrue Holiday is an unrestricted free agent. New Orleans’ issue here is that it may have to pay Holiday at least close to the max to retain him because other teams will be aggressive in their own pursuit for his services. If he resigns, the Pelicans will have little to no room to make any more roster moves, leaving it with a dearth of talent on key positions. Solomon Hill and E’Twan Moore are effective as role players; less so if they’re being asked to start and log minutes. The clock is ticking on the Pelicans to become a playoff team again because if they don’t make it, a lot of heads will roll in the Big Easy.
The 4-1 spanking at the hands of the Golden State Warriors exposed the Cavaliers’ lack of versatility on the front line. That’s going to be the biggest issue Cleveland has to address this coming off-season, particularly upgrading its crop of three-and-D guys. Richard Jefferson did as good a job as he possibly could against Durant, but he’s going to be a year older. He’s not the answer. Neither is Kyle Korver, who tries hard on defense, but still gets beaten way too easily by more athletic wings. The Cavs even took a flyer on Derrick Williams, but he didn’t amount to much. The team thought they could find diamonds in the rough in that position but the guy they pinned their hopes on, DeAndre Liggins, didn’t even make the playoff roster. Cleveland needs an upgrade in that position to help ease LeBron’s load on the defensive end. There’s no clear answer on who that guy could be, but names like PJ Tucker, James Johnson, and Matt Barnes are all free agents. The trick is creating enough cap room to sign any one of those guys. It’s going to be tricky unless they trade any one of JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, or Channing Frye, and even then, the Cavs will still be over the projected salary cap for next season.
Decisions, decisions in Golden State
The Warriors have the kind of problem that 29 other teams would love to have. Both Steph Curry and Durant have made their intentions of resigning with the team known. The issue the Warriors have to face is convincing at least one of the two to take less than the max so they’ll have room to resign its other players, most notably Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Durant coming out and saying that he’s willing to leave money on the table is good news for the team, but how much? $4 million? $10 million? That final number will determine how much money the Warriors will have to spend to pay for the rest of its roster. As for Curry, don’t expect the Warriors to entertain the thought of asking to take less than he’s worth. He’s already done that in the past three years so he’s due his pay.