One Question: First Round Exits

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While the NBA Playoffs remain in full swing, nearly half of the league's teams have already begun to officially focus (end-of-season tanking, notwithstanding) on next season. With that in mind, over the next couple weeks we're going to take at one major question that each team will have to answer this offseason. Today's column focuses on the eight teams that were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

Eastern Conference

Boston (36-36, 7th): How will Brad Stevens handle his new role?

NOTE: This was published before a report emerged that the Celtics and Kemba Walker could be headed towards a split this summer.

Even with the Celtics being shorthanded for its first-round series against the Nets, with Jaylen Brown missing all five games and Kemba Walker and Robert Williams the final two, it came as no surprise that major changes were made in the immediate aftermath. After 26 years in Boston Danny Ainge stepped down as the team's lead executive, and Brad Stevens gave up his head coaching duties to fill that void. Not only will Stevens have to hire his replacement, but he'll also need to find a way to improve the roster.

Evan Fournier, whose arrival via trade from Orlando was derailed by a case of COVID-19, struggled to be consistently impactful, and he'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer (as will Semi Ojeleye and Luke Kornet). What makes things difficult here is that the Celtics won't have much in the way of cap space, as Jayson Tatum's new contract goes into effect next season. The aforementioned Williams has one year remaining on his rookie contract and is extension eligible, and Marcus Smart will also be in a contract year. Does Boston stand pat, betting that Brown, Walker and Williams getting back to full strength will be enough to return the team to contender status? Or will Stevens look to shake things up? We shall see.

Miami (40-32, 6th): How will the Heat retool their roster?

When Miami acquired Victor Oladipo from the Rockets at the trade deadline, he was expected join forces with Jimmy Butler and give the team one of the East's top perimeter tandems. Things didn't go as planned however, as Oladipo played in just four games before season-ending surgery on his right quadriceps tendon. That's the same tendon that he ruptured during the 2018-19 season as a member of the Pacers, so there's obviously some concern there. Oladipo will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and even though he's expected to be cleared in time for the start of next season, does Miami roll the dice?

Pat Riley stands to have a substantial amount of money to "play around" with in free agency, as Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala have team options worth a combined $34.44 million, and Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson will both be restricted free agents. Also, Trevor Ariza, Nemanja Bjelica and Dewayne Dedmon will all be unrestricted free agents. Oladipo is the biggest "name" of the bunch, but the fact of the matter is that the Heat never got to see how impactful he could be on their roster. The 2021 free agency class doesn't appear to be as star-studded as expected a couple years ago, but it isn't wise to bet against Riley figuring things out.

New York (42-31, 4th): How will the Knicks address the point guard spot?

To expect the Knicks to "break even" at the point in their first-round matchup with the Hawks would have been a bit much, even with Derrick Rose's solid play throughout the series. Elfrid Payton remained in the starting role for the first three games of the series before finally being benched, and the aforementioned Rose appeared to run out of gas due to the increased workload. Both will be unrestricted free agents, while the seldom-used (and former lottery pick) Frank Ntilikina will be a restricted free agent. While the are other veterans who will hit free agency this offseason, the biggest issue for the Knicks with regard to building on this season's success is the point guard position.

Does the team believe in Immanuel Quickley as a viable option? He didn't get much time on the ball during his rookie campaign, so some time in Summer League could help Knicks decision-makers come up with an answer to that question. And they also signed Luca Vildoza this spring, so that time in Las Vegas could be used to evaluate him as well. Also at Leon Rose's disposal are two first-round picks (and two seconds), and a substantial amount of cap room once free agency begins. Working under the assumption that they'll lock in Julius Randle for the foreseeable future with a new deal, making sure he and RJ Barrett can reach their full potential means properly addressing the point guard position.

Washington (34-38, 8th): How will the Wizards get better on the wing?

Tommy Sheppard won't have much money at his disposal when free agency begins, so he'll need to get a bit creative when it comes to improving this roster. Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal remain the focal points in the nation's capital, while Rui Hachimura showed signs of promise during the latter stages of the season. But that wasn't enough this season, and it won't be enough in 2021-22, either. The wing is where Washington really needs to get better, even with Davis Bertans and Deni Avdija both under contract. There's a need for improved perimeter shooting, athleticism and defensive ability.

The issue for Washington is that, with the team's lack of cap space, adding a player with those attributes would likely require a trade of some sort. Bertans' contract, which is guaranteed through the 2023-24 season (non-guaranteed in 2024-25), could be difficult to move. Trade-wise Thomas Bryant's salary (nearly $8.7 million in 2021-22) could be worth keeping an eye on, even though he's working his way back from a torn ACL. Getting into the postseason is never a bad thing, but the Wizards are essentially in basketball purgatory when it comes to truly being a factor. Not enough talent to be a contender, but enough to avoid falling into the lottery.

Western Conference

Dallas (42-30, 5th): Can Porzingis and Doncic co-exist?

The Mavericks managed to take the Clippers to seven games, with home-court advantage not seeming to matter until the series finale. Now, with Luka Doncic set to be offered a contract extension worth more than $200 million, Dallas has to figure out who fits best around their star point guard. And with regard to one of those pieces, is Kristaps Porzingis a good fit? Whether or not the two hang out away from the court doesn't matter; what does matter is their ability to co-exist within the Mavericks' offensive scheme. Doncic is going to have the ball in his hands a lot, but Porzingis needs his touches as well. His impact in the first round was minimal, and going stretches where he simply stood out on the perimeter may have had something to do with that.

That's the biggest question facing Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks front office, but there are other concerns as well. Tim Hardaway Jr. will be a free agent, and while the Mavs view his re-signing as a priority, he won't lack for suitors on the open market. Josh Richardson has a player option while Jalen Brunson's contract for next season isn't fully guaranteed, so Dallas' rotation beyond Doncic could have some new faces. Ultimately, how the Doncic/Porzingis dynamic works itself out could be what determines whether or not Dallas takes the next step in the West.

L.A. Lakers (42-30, 7th): How can they improve the roster?

Even before Anthony Davis went down with a groin injury during Game 4 of the Lakers' series against the Suns, it was obvious that the roster was in need of some upgrades. The center triumvirate of Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell wasn't all that effective, and the departure of Rajon Rondo had a greater impact than many expected. Especially after the Lakers acquired Dennis Schroder from the Thunder. While Gasol is under contract for next season, Schroder and Drummond will be unrestricted free agents and Harrell has a player option worth just over $9.7 million.

With Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris also being unrestricted free agents, and Talen Horton-Tucker a restricted free agent, the Lakers rotation stands to look far different next season. And that likely needs to be the case if Frank Vogel's team is to return to contender status. The league's best defensive team with regard to rating, the Lakers ranked 24th in offensive rating and 21st in 3-point percentage. Can the Lakers improve offensively while not losing much defensively? That will be the key for GM Rob Pelinka this offseason.

Memphis (38-34, 8th): How much do the Grizzlies believe in Winslow?

Memphis' rotation is essentially in place, as every player who saw a considerable amount of playing time in their five-game series with the Jazz is under contract for next season. Ja Morant is one of the league's top young talents, and how much progress he makes with his perimeter shot will impact the Grizzlies' ceiling considerably. Jaren Jackson Jr. will have an offseason where he can focus on getting better, as opposed to getting healthy, which should pay dividends for him. Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas are also under contract, as are guards De'Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen, Tyus Jones and Desmond Bane.

The issue for Memphis to address: how much they believe in Justise Winslow. Acquired from the Heat last season, he didn't make his debut for the team until late-February, and played in just 26 regular season games due to injuries. Given Winslow's struggles to remain healthy, does Memphis roll the dice and pick up his $13 million option for 2021-22? Or do they decline it, and instead look to use that money to bolster the roster with a veteran who doesn't have similar injury concerns? Just about all of the other pieces needed for the Grizzlies to become a player in the West are there. Using the money that would go to Winslow in order to add another could be what this franchise needs.

Portland (42-30, 6th): How can the Blazers get better defensively?

Prior to this season Portland made some key additions to their roster, with the hope being that the likes of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. would spark improvement on the defensive end of the floor. That didn't happen, as the Blazers ranked 29th in defensive rating during the regular season and allowed 120 points or more in each of their four losses to Denver. As a result Terry Stotts is out after nine seasons at the helm, and the question now is what Neil Olshey will do to improve the pieces around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Norman Powell is expected to decline his player option and hit the market as an unrestricted free agent, and he proved to be a solid piece for Portland after being acquired from the Raptors. While the aforementioned Covington is under contract for another season, Jones Jr. has a player option worth a little over $9.7 million, and Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter will both be unrestricted free agents. If Powell and Jones Jr. both elect for free agency that would free up more than $21 million, but if Portland wants to bring back the former that isn't going to be cheap. And with there being the need to fill out this roster around their star guards, Portland doesn't have a lot of room to work with. No matter who Olshey hires as the new head coach, he'll need to figure out how to change this roster to the point where they can at the very least be formidable on the defensive end.