If the Thunder flip Chris Paul, it will be a full tank and rebuild in OKC. Now that we’re more than two weeks removed from the start of “legal tampering” (or whatever that now means), it feels like the dust has truly settled on the NBA’s 2019 free agency period. There were massive moves on both coasts as well as some retooling and resetting that should make for a much more interesting season.
With at least 20 of The Association’s 30 teams in the mix for a postseason spot, we break down the new outlook of the league. In alphabetical order, teams are divided into four distinct tiers—fighting for the top seed, in the playoffs, on the bubble and tanking/rebuilding.
The Western Conference is just going to be a bloodbath. There are so many teams that are either deep or supremely talented or both. The Battle for Los Angeles is the clear story here—LeBron-AD vs. Kawhi-PG13 should make for four incredible battles (if not more come the postseason) inside the Staples Center. The Clippers have more depth, so it feels like they have the edge right now, but a healthy King James and some buyout-market additions could always change things.
Denver is mostly unchanged, although the late move for Jerami Grant should give the Nuggets another above-average wing piece (especially with Michael Porter Jr.'s status remaining unkown). Utah, on the other hand, has two new starters in Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. The one-two punch of Conley and Donovan Mitchell would elevate any team, but certainly this Jazz group that already has an All-Defensive Team center in Rudy Gobert.
Does it feel right placing the last three teams to play in the Western Conference finals on this level? No. Each of these squads, however, have some issues to overcome. The Warriors lost Durant and Andre Iguodala, plus will likely go through most or all of the regular season sans Klay Thompson. Steph plus D’Angelo Russell is a nice pairing, just not one that feels like a No. 1 seed.
The Rockets spent all summer looking for a third piece to add to James Harden and Chris Paul, but instead swapped the latter for Russell Westbrook. That pairing certainly worked in OKC—and while it could lift the Rockets, it’s hard to expect anything from Houston until we can see how this latest edition of the Daryl Morey project plays itself out on the court.
The Trail Blazers shuffled the decks, but didn’t seemingly do anything to add to the group that got swept away by Golden State. Portland has a ton of depth in the backcourt and the wings, though. Have they improved enough in a West that just got a lot tougher? I don’t think so.
On the bubble
New Orleans Pelicans
San Antonio Spurs
This is really where depth of teams in the West separates itself from the bubble teams of the East. The Mavs could have a dynamic duo with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porizingis. The Pelicans might be close behind with Zion and Jrue Holiday, not to mention JJ Redick and the haul of players in the Anthony Davis trade.
The Kings have no real starpower, but with another year under their belts, the young team in Sacramento might not fade late like in 2019. And then the Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since 1996-97—plus, they get back a healthy Dejounte Murray and add DeMarre Carroll.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Grizzlies and Timberwolves are doing their best to break things down to build them back up—Memphis has a new young star in Ja Morant and Minnesota should be able to center things around Karl-Anthony Towns, although it still needs a point guard of the future.
If the Thunder do indeed end up trading away Russell Westbrook, it will be a full tank and rebuild in OKC. If not, they’ll have plenty of picks and cash to restart, especially once Steven Adams’s deal expires in two years. Phoenix, well, it’s not really clear where the Suns are headed…but at least there’s Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker.
Fighting for the top seed
By the end of last season, it was clear that the top three teams in the East were just a bit better than the rest of the pack. Now that Toronto is in the post-Kawhi era, the number trims to two. The Bucks no longer have Malcolm Brogdon and it’s not entirely clear how they’ll make up for his absence, but they’ve got a clear core and young pieces to grow in around that group.
The Sixers are in a similar spot, although much more of their rotation has been retooled—they’ll utilize at least four completely new pieces, including a second-year player in Zhaire Smith, who has just 111 NBA minutes under his belt. That said, a healthier Joel Embiid and a (potentially) improved Ben Simmons makes Philadelphia the most potent team in the East right now.
In the playoffs
Three of these teams made major moves. The other lost its star. In some ways, the fact that the Raptors are still in this group is somewhat incredible, but then again, so was Toronto’s run to the 2019 NBA title. OG Anunoby isn’t yet a star, but his return to form feels like a key for the defending champs.
As for the rest, Boston’s Kemba-for-Kyrie swap feels like a bit of a wash, although the chemistry element should almost certainly improve. It’s not clear how much better Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward will be compared to last season, but the ceiling feels higher for the Celtics.
The Pacers don’t have a clear star with Victor Oladipo injured, and Brooklyn should be even better than it was last season when it gave the Sixers a tough opening-round series, just not quite the monster it has the chance to be once Kevin Durant is healthy come 2020-21.
On the bubble
The Heat are certainly in some flux as adding Jimmy Butler gives them a bona fide All-Star, Goran Dragic is competent point guard and beyond that…? The Pistons picked up a nice piece in Derrick Rose to back up Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond is only 26 years old and Blake Griffin seems to be as comfortable as ever as a true stretch four.
Orlando spent a ton in free agency for a team that still won’t be expected to win a first-round series. Atlanta is the real wild card here. GM Travis Schlenk has done a masterful job putting together a group with lots of young potential (Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, John Collins) as well as veteran options (Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Jabari Parker and even Chandler Parsons). If this group doesn’t work out, the Hawks will be able to retool next summer—they have seven expiring contracts as well as two first-rounders in next year’s draft.
New York Knicks
Chicago is right on the fringe of being in the “bubble” tier. The lack of a point guard clouds the picture, so until that’s clear, the Bulls are likely out of the playoff picture entirely. The Knicks lost out on the Durant-Irving sweepstakes, yet made some moves that could put them in a decent position come summer 2021.
Charlotte, Cleveland, and Washington are all going in reverse. The Hornets and Cavaliers both need to hope for a top-five draft pick, and the Wizards will be stuck in salary-cap purgatory until at least the end of the 2020-21 season when Bradley Beal’s deal ends. John Wall is also on a huge supermax contract at the moment.