NBA Off Season Hot Takes
The Warriors are hobbled. Kawhi Leonard is the best healthy player in the NBA. Kryie Irving is ready to walk off the edge of the earth. And the Anthony Davis trade fiasco is finally over.
Here are my fearless predictions* less than 48 hours after the NBA Finals ended.
- The Raptors will wait as long as possible to announce Kawhi Leonard’s 1-year max contract, screwing up the decision-making process for every other team in the East. Danny Green and Marc Gasol will sign a team friendly deal and they should be favored to repeat as champions. With Kevin Durant injured, Kawhi is the best-two way player in the world for the upcoming season. Unless Giannis becomes a 35% three point shooter, there is no other player who can dominate a playoff series like Leonard. He already beat Kevin Durant and LeBron James in their primes to win the 2014 NBA championship, and he could do it again.
- Mike Budenholzer has proven twice that he can get a team to 60 wins in the regular season, but couldn’t get past the baddest man in the East in either case. This year, with a 2–0 lead and a double overtime loss in game 3, he came as close as possible to reaching a NBA Finals, but was unable to make the adjustments needed to counteract the ones made by Nick Nurse. Milwaukee blew at 15-point 3rd quarter lead in Game 6, and a 12-point 1st quarter lead in game 5, so the in-game work of the coaches had an effect in the game. As well as Fred VanVleet turning into a human fireball from beyond the arc in the last three games of the series. Good Lord, he shot 61.7% of his three pointers against the Bucks, and that is including his 2 for 11 performance over the first three games. If he shot “only” 40% from deep in the last two games, the Bucks probably would have won the series. That brings up the Bucks’ off season problems.
- The biggest questions will surround the Bucks. Malcolm Brogdan had the best defensive rating of any guard in the NBA who played more than 1 game and averaged at least 20 minutes. And he joined the 50/40/90 club this year. He was by far the best two-way guard in the East. I wouldn’t take him over Klay Thompson, but if I could sign one guard this off season, it would be Brogdan. In crunch time against Toronto, Brogdan was the second best player on the team after Giannis. He’s the perfect non-ball dominant “point” guard to go along with a superstar who dominates the ball like the Greek Freak. Or LeBron James. Brook Lopez helped turn the Bucks into regular season monsters, and he should look for a larger pay day. If they lose either player, Milwaukee will be playing for the #3 seed against Boston and Indiana.
- With the devastating injuries to Durant and Thompson, the Warriors will be in deep trouble next year. Just think if they simply resigned Nick Young and Javale McGee. Doesn’t 15 minutes of a Curry-Green-Iggy-McGee-Young lineup beat any group they put on the court in Game 6 after Thompson got hurt? How do they not score enough points and provide enough rim protection to at least force a Game 7? And if Young gets hot, he provides a much bigger threat than Cook, or Livingston.
- As much as people made fun of the Lakers’ front office moves, Golden State missed badly on the edges this year. The replaced West, McCaw, Young, McGee and Casspi with Cousins, Jerebko, Mckinnie, Damion Jones, and Bogut. Meanwhile, Jordan Bell went from being the second Draymond Green to being who can’t shoot, can’t rebound and can’t shoot. Even healthy, DeMarcus Cousins was never going to be able to fit in the Warriors’ defensive system. Jerebko and McKinney were unplayable at the highest level. Livingston was a shell of his former self. And Iguodala could only play 20 minutes of playoff basketball to be effective. If Kevin Durant opts in, and Klay gets a max contract, they have very little cap space to add depth. If Thompson can recover by next year’s All-Star game, they can still make the playoffs, but the Warriors will need some front office miracles to rebuild this deeply flawed roster.
- Even if the LeBron James and Anthony Davis stay healthy, the Lakers will not win the NBA Championship. However, if Rob Pelinka can sign one other key free agent,*instead of a bunch of guys who can’t defend or shoot) they will probably win the West. Look for Alex Caruso and Jemerrio Jones!!! (I’m going to treat his name the same way Charles Barkley talked about Manu Ginobli — he’s going to be the guard version of Draymond Green) to fill out a seven man roster that will include LeBron, Davis, Kuzma, Wagner, Bonga and one more free agent. Walker, Butler, Brogdan, Beverly would all have significant positive impacts on the team, while another year of KCP or Rondo, or the addition of Redick, Rubio, Collison, Dragic, Payton or Lamb would be a good reason to bring out the torches and pitchforks to storm Staples Center and demand the heads of the Lakers front office.
- New Orleans will be a very entertaining team featuring Zion, Holiday, Ball, Ingram, Hart and possibly Julius Randle. They are going to be similar to the 2018 Lakers, except with Zion taking the place of Brook Lopez/Larry Nance, and Jrue Holiday taking the place of Jordan Clarkson. Those Lakers were a top 10 defense for most of the year. Next year’s Pelicans have the potential to be a top 5 defense, with Zion and Ingram filling the lanes on fast breaks as Lonzo passes the ball ahead. They may not have much outside shooting, but they could still be a borderline playoff team.
- New York will welcome a major superstar, but it won’t be the one who helps his team win big. Look for Kyrie Irving to sign with the Nets and destroy their chemistry. They will still make the playoffs in the East, but there will be no picnics in Brooklyn.
- Free agency will turn out to be a big let down, as the only true impact superstars will stay with their teams, at least for another year: Leonard, Durant, and Thompson. Kyrie is never going to lead a team to a championship as their #1 guy. Now think about the star players who are staying put: Middleton, Brogdan and Horford. If any one of those guys leave, their team drops a notch. About the only teams that could be hurt badly by losing a key free agent are Denver (Paul Millsap was their defensive leader) and Philadelphia (Jimmy Butler was their best offensive player in crunch time). On the other hand, Walker, Vucevic, Harris, Cousins, Porzingis, Valanciunas, Gasol, Russell, Jordan, Whiteside and Randle will have little effect on their current team’s future and even less in raising the level of the team they sign with.
- Of the teams returning from last year’s playoffs, Portland will make the biggest jump, just by staying healthy. The injury to Nurkic might have cost them an NBA title. When they played Toronto at home, Portland led by 16-points in the 4th quarter and held on to win by 6. When the Trail Blazers played on the road against Toronto’s NBA Final lineup, they overcame a double digit deficit and took a 3-point lead with 1:12 left in the game before Leonard hit a game winner with three seconds left.
- Philadelphia could be the NBA’s biggest example of fool’s gold next season. Forget about Kawhi Leonard’s miracle shot at the buzzer — they still would have lost the overtime. What really killed them was giving up Landry Shamet in the Tobias Harris trade, or doing the Harris trade at all. With Shamet, they might have had enough offensive firepower at guard to win an NBA title. Without him, and the possible loss of Butler, Harris, and Redick, the door will close on the 76ers next season. With the loss of two first round draft picks, their future will also be compromised. A more seasoned Toronto team will never let them get to a Game 7, and the Bucks will remain a solid favorite to be the #2 team in the East. Philadelphia has no bench, and pretty much depended on Jimmy Butler making ridiculous fall away three pointers to win close games in crunch time. Unless Ben Simmons learns to make jump shots in an actual game, his playoff value can completely disappear. They didn’t have anyone left who could guard Leonard or Giannis throughout a game. And their coach is a walking time bomb who can be counted to screw up an inbounds play that will decide a big playoff game.
- Boston fans are in for a hellacious winter. Last summer I wrote that Celtics fans and management were insane to think that Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown would ever be better than Kawhi Leonard, and that the only shot they had was to take the risk that could lead to an NBA Finals. I also wrote about how small their window would be without getting a true MVP-level player. I predicted that Toronto would win the East before the season started (never guessing that Durant and Thompson would mostly miss the Finals). Instead, they watched Leonard win a title and lost the Stanley Cup Final. Going forward, there’s a good chance the Red Sox miss the MLB playoffs, and Tom Brady might finally lose to father time. All this will put the Celtics under the most pressure the team has felt since the Kevin Garnett heist. They will enter cap space hell with the bloated contract of Gordon Hayward, an aging Al Horford, and the approaching max contract demands of Brown (2020), Horford (2020) and Tatum (2021).
- Danny Ainge has now whiffed on the chance to trade for Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis. Watch for the torches and pitchforks assemble around Boston’s arena. Any one of the first three would have almost guaranteed a place in the Finals. The final miss was their last real chance to take a swing for the fences. Neither Brown nor Tatum will ever be superstars — they simply don’t have the ball handling and passing skills to make the jump past being very good 3-and-D players. This season, Brown and Tatum have been walking turnover machines: Brown (1.1 apg, 1.7 tov, playoffs); and Tatum (1.9 apg, 2.0 tov, playoffs). Kobe Bryant turned out to be far better at tampering than Magic Johnson. After mentoring Jayson Tatum, the young Celtic became a wildly inefficient iso player who settles for fall away mid range jump shots. Talk about working behind the scenes for the Lakers.
*If a broken clock can be right twice a day, I’m not sure what it says about my predictions coming true once a year. But here they are anyway.
Toronto had the best chance of winning the title, besides the Warriors (Oct. 6, 2018):
Why Toronto, not Boston would win the East (Oct. 18, 2018):
Anthony Davis going to the Lakers (March 18, 2017):
(This was originally a response to a Bill Simmons column when the Ringer was on Medium.)
Donald Trump sitting in the White House (May 24, 2016)