Which teams improved their long-term prospects the most this offseason?

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It’s hard to distinguish a winner of the offseason that stands out from the rest this year. With the exception of a few teams, most made moves with the present in mind. Only a few made decisions that will reward them at least one year from now.

Here they are:

Washington Wizards

Russell Westbrook attempts a layup
Russell Westbrook attempts a layup

Washington has just about fully recovered from salary cap constraints of the past few seasons. While trading Russell Westbrook cannot be an easy decision after he lead the team back to the playoffs, it was a necessary step towards progressing in their timeline. The best way to look at this trade is that they liquidated John Wall's $40 million-plus salary into several productive role players on reasonable deals. The trade itself was the most interesting part of the offseason from a salary cap perspective. Washington maximized the amount of incoming salary they could receive for Westbrook with the three Lakers they acquired and Spencer Dinwiddie. He should project well going forward despite his recent injury, especially with his youth and attributes that should complement Bradley Beal. The overall talent on the roster should at the very least put them back in the play-in. The Wizards are now an extremely deep team at every position and have a ton of flexibility going forward. This is a good problem to have, especially considering the challenges they had filling up the roster while so close to the luxury tax in previous seasons. The Wizards are particularly deep with their frontcourt. They may not be able to play all their centers every night when healthy, and it's possible some of their power forwards have to slide down to small forward to get extra minutes. They are 13-deep with rotation players, which puts them in a strong position to make some type of trade. Everyone is moveable and the Wizards can both consolidate some of their players for others who fit better or offload some of them for draft picks. For the first time in a while, the Wizards have a healthy cap sheet, which has opened up the possibilities of what they can do to improve the roster.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers offseason went just about as expected having re-signed all their important players. However, they did several things to prepare the roster for both Kawhi Leonard's eventual return and for life after him. Leonard inking a four-year deal was a surprising development considering it means he left some money on the table. Now the Clippers organization can purely focus on managing the roster without needing to worry about his free agency status for at least three years. It goes without saying the Clippers got Leonard on a great value despite signing on a maximum contract. Nicolas Batum re-signing on a two-year deal for his Non-Bird amount was huge for the Clips. This wasn't shocking considering he is still owed $18 million from Charlotte over the next two seasons and it spared the Clippers their taxpayer mid-level exception, which is only $2.7 million more than his $3.2 million salary this season. They got to keep Batum while using their MLE on three players, including a low-risk flyer on Justise Winslow. They might not have enough without Leonard to reach the Finals this season, but they are in a position to when he returns in 2022. The Clippers have no incentive to punt this season since the 2022 first-round pick they owe to Oklahoma City is unprotected. They were surprisingly active in the 2021 draft despite their intention of remaining competitive. They traded up to select Keon Johnson and acquired two second-round selections in Jason Preston and Brandon Boston Jr. Investing in multiple young wing players now, along with other developing players like Terance Mann and Luke Kennard, could offset some of the lost draft equity from the Paul George trade if only some of these players hit. [listicle id=1515904]

Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis overachieved for the second season in a row, which often can be both a blessing and a curse. The Grizzlies have nailed every one of their draft picks so far since their reorganization in 2019 and already got a first-round playoff appearance after defeating the Warriors in a tough play-in matchup. Most teams that taste a bit of success like this often get carried away and choose to expedite their timeline. The Grizzlies instead continued to preach patience by remaining on their initially planned timeline. They continued their focus on the draft and moved up to select Ziaire Williams. It required taking on several unwanted salaries, but the Grizzlies are still currently in a position to have significant cap space next offseason while factoring in an extension for Jaren Jackson Jr. Memphis also chose to part ways with Jonas Valanciunas and Grayson Allen in the process. They traded two second-round picks for Santi Aldama, which they recouped by trading Allen, and they replaced Valanciunas with Steven Adams. Both Valanciunas and Allen were instrumental in their run last season but are also entering the final years of their contracts and are up for lucrative extensions. Bringing back both would eliminate their future salary cap flexibility, especially with a talented top of the 2022 free agency class. While the future is the main priority, there's a good chance history repeats itself and the Grizzlies still fight their way into the playoffs. Ja Morant could be an All-Star next season, Dillon Brooks proved he can elevate himself in high-pressure situations, and Jackson Jr. should get back into form. Perhaps Adams has a resurgence, Desmond Bane takes another step forward, and both Williams and Aldama are ready to contribute. All those scenarios are possible under head coach Taylor Jenkins.

New York Knicks

Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Julius Randle, New York Knicks

In contrast to the Grizzlies, the Knicks doubled down on their success last year and invested heavily in their core. The Knicks locked down Julius Randle for an additional four years at his maximum extension amount. His first-year base salary comes in at roughly 20 percent of this year's salary cap, which could be viewed as a bargain in comparison to the 30 percent maximum salary he could've commanded in the 2022 offseason. If he continues this level of production, that is a great value deal. Signing Kemba Walker to a two-year, $18 million deal is such a saving grace for New York's 2019 offseason considering they very well could've been the ones paying him a maximum contract. The Knicks also went ahead aligned the contracts of Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel with team options for the 2022-23 season. This makes each deal much more team-friendly than initially reported and allows the Knicks to reset in 2023 should things not work out. Barring a ton of veteran extensions, the 2023 free agency class currently is much stronger than in 2022. The Knicks still have a youth movement going on with their four draft picks and two sophomores. At this moment they are not positioned to make a trade after signing so many players in free agency. Once those players become trade-eligible in December and January, the Knicks could be in a strong position to make a consolidation trade for the next available All-Star with their veterans on moveable contracts, young players, and multiple future first-round picks. They are certainly becoming an appealing destination going forward.

Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine vs. Devin Booker
Zach LaVine vs. Devin Booker

Chicago had one of the most aggressive offseasons in terms of building the best team they possibly could right now. While they sacrificed future flexibility and many draft picks in the process, it may have been needed to convince Zach LaVine to re-sign with them next offseason. Building off of acquiring Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls sign-and-traded for Lonzo Ball to a four-year deal that can reach $84 million in total. While they gave up little to nothing for Ball, they surrendered Thaddeus Young, a 2025 first-round pick, and two second-round picks for DeMar DeRozan on a three-year deal worth $82 million and to get off of Al-Farouq Aminu. The Bulls are suddenly looking like they should be one of the league's highest-scoring teams with the amount of offensive talent in their starting lineup. The potential of losing LaVine in 2022 makes the Vucevic and DeRozan trades are risky due to the amount of draft compensation they surrendered for them. However, the 2022 free agency market projects to be relatively weak with only five teams currently able to generate maximum cap space or close to it. Of those five teams, Memphis is the only ones that was in the playoffs last season. If re-signing LaVine next offseason is their top priority, the strength of their roster as well as future market factors could bring him back, especially if he gets his first taste of the playoffs this year.

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