With the conclusion of the 2017 NBA season, it’s time to look ahead at the biggest questions of the summer.
There was a distinct feeling of inevitability on Monday night as the Golden State Warriors finished the season with a 129-120 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
The Warriors had been the best team in the league all season long, stocked with four superstars and a selflessness that other teams could only dream of. They were deserved winners of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, regardless of opinions over Kevin Durant choosing to join them last summer.
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Now that the playoffs have (mercifully) concluded, the NBA’s attention shifts to the offseason, where the other 29 teams will retool to try and pose a challenge to Golden State’s seemingly impending dominance over the league.
Here are the key storylines heading into the NBA’s offseason.
Who Will the Lakers select at Number Two?
Rumors have begun to circulate that Lonzo Ball might not be the Lakers pick in next week’s draft. Los Angeles picks second overall, and all signs point to them drafting the Chino Hills native, who played for UCLA at the collegiate level.
However, Ball isn’t as much of a lock as some anticipated. The Lakers have been giving Kansas forward Josh Jackson a ton of consideration due to his two-way upside. Jackson is an excellent defender, has a terrific motor and has both a high floor and a high ceiling. At the worst, Jackson is a defensive stopper with 3-and-D potential. At best, he’s a two-way powerhouse and a perennial All-Star.
While Lonzo certainly has an “it” factor, and game-changing playmaking ability that likens him the Lakers own Magic Johnson, his suspect defensive upside, troublesome father and his potential lack of competitiveness may swing the pick in favor of Josh Jackson.
How Will the Top 10 Pan out at the NBA Draft?
After the lottery, the top two picks were pretty set in stone, with the following eight up for intense debate. However, it seems that not even the second pick is a lock at this point.
The only certainty we have heading into the draft is that the Celtics will take Washington combo guard Markelle Fultz with the top overall pick. Fultz is a game-changing offensive talent and can play with Isaiah Thomas in the backcourt for the time being before taking over as their primary ball handler in a few years.
After Fultz, it’s anyone’s guess. The Lakers, as previously mentioned, are stuck between Lonzo and Josh Jackson. The 76ers are also anyone’s guess at number three — Lonzo and Ben Simmons together would be a match made in heaven, but if Ball gets selected at two, what is Philly’s game plan? Jackson or Jayson Tatum? Maybe De’Aaron Fox or Malik Monk?
Phoenix is also in a weird spot. They could select Fox to pair with Devin Booker in the backcourt, but a perimeter scorer like Jayson Tatum sure would be enticing.
Additionally, Orlando, Sacramento and the Timberwolves all have a multitude of needs. Who takes a chance on Monk given his defensive setbacks? How about Jonathan Isaac’s inability to create for himself, or Dennis Smith’s erratic ballhandling? Who is taking a chance on international prospects like Frank Ntilikina?
This is one of the better draft classes in the past decade, and the fact that there are so many good players at the same position (we could see five point guards and four small forwards go in the top ten) suggest that draft night should be one for the ages.
What Moves Can Cleveland Make?
Despite head coach Ty Lue saying the gap between the Cavaliers and the Warriors isn’t that big, Golden State is head and shoulders above their Eastern Conference rivals. The Warriors didn’t play particularly well in several of the 5 Finals games, and still scored 130 points twice, and 129 once. They are untouchable at present.
Cleveland needs to realize that in one year, LeBron James could very well jump ship and head to Los Angeles for a new challenge. The team will have to make a move to close the gap between them and the Warriors to keep their franchise player.
The only issue is that Cleveland’s salary total is significantly over the luxury tax, leaving them minimal flexibility — certainly not enough to make a move that will catapult them to the Warriors’ level.
The best option is probably to trade either Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson. Against Golden State’s death lineup (Steph, Klay, Iguodala, Draymond, and Durant), it is impossible to play two bigs at the same time without getting smoked.
Love is the better player, thus offering more trade value. However, would a team like Indiana or New York be content with shipping off Paul George or Carmelo Anthony and getting Love as their franchise player? Love was never able to lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs by himself, and in today’s pace-and-space NBA, pairing Love with Kristaps or Myles Turner might be counter productive.
The Cavaliers need to make a move this summer and get another perimeter oriented player who can score and defend players like Durant and Steph. However, given their lack of assets and cap space, they might find it difficult to improve their team heading into next season.
You need to remember that replacing Love or Thompson isn’t the only issue — Cleveland’s bench is an abomination. Deron Williams should not have been playing in the Finals, Richard Jefferson gave them nothing, Iman Shumpert is a terrible offensive player and Kyle Korver stopped hitting threes, which is practically his only strength.
Cleveland has too many needs and not enough wiggle room, and at some point, just saying “LeBron James” isn’t sufficient to solve every problem.
Will Chris Paul join the Spurs, or is it just a smokescreen?
Chris Paul to the Spurs makes a lot of sense from a basketball standpoint. Paul wants to win a title, and the Spurs are the only team in the West within punching distance of the Warriors.
However, the biggest concern is Paul’s negotiations with the NBA owners this past year, where he and Michelle Roberts of the NBA Players Association negotiated the super-max. Paul can get a boatload of cash by re-upping with the Clippers. Why would Paul negotiate that deal and then not take advantage of it?
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This rumor is worth keeping track of, but I still think CP3 stays in Los Angeles, and the Spurs maybe chase after Kyle Lowry instead. If I’m Chris Paul, I recognize that joining forces with Kawhi and Pop still probably isn’t enough to challenge Golden State, so I just take my money and keep getting bounced in the first round.
Who will win the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes?
This should be one of the more newsworthy free agency sagas this summer. Utah is building a competitive team out West, and keeping Hayward and Rudy Gobert together could be the start of a nice run in Salt Lake City. However, a couple of teams out East could also draw his attention.
Take the Miami Heat, for example. They finished the season hotter than anyone else, led by Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside. Pat Riley is a perennial winner, and always attracts marquee talent. Plus, South Beach isn’t a bad place to live if you’re a twenty-something NBA All-Star.
Of course, there is also Boston. The Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago. They already have two All-Star caliber players in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford. They are likely adding Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick. And they are coached by one of the NBA’s premier young coaches, Brad Stevens, who coached Hayward in college at Butler.
Everyone seems to be pointing towards Hayward choosing Boston, but it would be foolish to discount the Jazz, and it would be just as foolish to rule out another coup by Mr. Riley down in Miami.
Will Blake jump ship?
Clippers forward Blake Griffin could exercise his player option to opt out of his contract and potentially leave LA this summer. After yet another crushing playoff injury and subsequent first round exit, it might be time for Blake to move on.
When healthy, Griffin is a freak of nature, and a player perfectly equipped for today’s modern game. However, Griffin injury history is a red flag heading into free agency.
A team that could take a chance on Griffin are the Oklahoma City Thunder. Griffin played college ball at Oklahoma and could be due for a homecoming. Together with Russell Westbrook, the Thunder could make a realistic run at a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
Blake opting-out or staying is the biggest question. A lot depends on what his running mate, Chris Paul, decides to do.
Can Golden State retain their key free agents?
The defending champions could have as many as four unrestricted free agents this summer, all of whom are key players. Two of them, however, aren’t really in doubt: Stephen Curry is going to stay in Golden State, as is Kevin Durant.
The other two are Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala. Both are vital role players for Golden State. Rumor has it that Durant will take less money to give the Warriors enough cap space to re-sign both Livingston and Iguodala, but if one of them chooses to leave, Golden State will have a big void to fill.
Realistically, all four free agents will return and continue to play with arguably the best team ever assembled. However, it’s worth pointing out that the Warriors front office doesn’t have the entire summer off.
Will Kyle Lowry cause a balance of power shift in the East?
The Toronto Raptors appeared to be the team poised to dethrone LeBron James in the East before being swept in the second round of the playoffs. Now, Kyle Lowry is a free agent.
Currently, the East has two teams head and shoulders above the rest: Cleveland and Boston. Below them, we have the Raptors, Wizards and Bucks. If the Raptors lose Lowry, they will drop out of that group, and we could see Toronto tear it down and try to build around DeMar DeRozan.
Lowry’s addition to another Eastern Conference team could also shake up the balance of power in the East. The Philadelphia 76ers have the cap space to sign Lowry, who’s a Philly native and Villanova graduate. Adding Lowry to a core with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor and the third overall pick (probably Josh Jackson) could accelerate the process and thrust the 76ers into the conversation for the best team in the East (outside of the Cavaliers, obviously).
What’s good with Isaiah in Boston?
Isaiah Thomas put together one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history, and almost single-handedly led the Celtics to the top seed in the East and the Conference Finals. He also might be on the trading block.
For several reasons. At 29-years-old, Thomas is nearing the end of his prime, and as history shows, short guys don’t age well in the NBA. Additionally, he could stunt the growth of projected top pick Markelle Fultz. Thomas is going to be Boston’s primary ball handler, and his high usage rate could prevent Fultz from running the offense early in his NBA career.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge is ruthless, and makes decisions without sentiment — he shipped off Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the same trade! Thomas’ trade value has never been higher, and if it wasn’t for his season-ending hip injury against the Cavaliers, it is possible that he could have been thrown on the trading block this summer.
If Thomas comes back healthy and has another great season, and if Fultz shows real promise in year one, he could be on the move in 12 months time.