The 2020-21 NBA season is set to begin Dec. 22, just two months after the league crowned its champion in the Orlando bubble and a month after the draft and free agency were condensed into a single week. It has been a whirlwind, so we are here with the Cliff’s Notes: Our 10 things you need to know from this offseason.
Lakers win the offseason
The reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers swapped Danny Green for Dennis Schroder in a pre-draft trade, and then opened free agency by plucking Montrezl Harrell — the guy who edged Schroder for Sixth Man of the Year honors — away from the L.A. Clippers. And Rob Pelinka was just getting his offseason started.
The Lakers vice president of basketball operations also replaced Green’s production with Wesley Matthews for one-sixth the cost and upgraded from Dwight Howard to Marc Gasol. And Pelinka was still not done.
The back-to-back announcements of a two-year extension for LeBron James and five-year extension for Anthony Davis were the grand finale. Not only did the Lakers upgrade their championship core, but that core could be together into the middle of this decade. They were by far the winners of this offseason, and James stands to win the most, because the six rings that once seemed unattainable are now within reach.
Kevin Durant has not played a game since snapping his Achilles 12 minutes into Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. More than 18 months will have passed since we last saw the two-time Finals MVP. That did not stop him and fellow mercurial superstar Kyrie Irving from signing four-year, $164 deals to join the Brooklyn Nets in July 2019. Irving played just 20 games last season before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
The first $74 million of those contracts was invested in their rehab, and the last $86 million is a pair of player options, so the Nets are operating under a two-year title window that starts now. Durant declared himself healthy, telling reporters upon arriving at training camp, “I feel solid.” In lieu of speaking with the media this year, Irving issued a statement to say he is “ready to have fun, compete, perform, and win championships.”
Expect more questions from the Nets than answers this season, but they are built to contend, so long as their two stars return to their pre-injury level. Durant and Irving will be joining a team that earned a seventh seed without them. The Nets return the entirety of a talented young core, including Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen, in addition to swapping a first-round pick for Landry Shamet.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will play together with the Brooklyn Nets for the first time on the NBA’s opening night. (Matteo Marchi/Getty Images)
The Milwaukee Bucks made a pre-draft coup, agreeing to trades for dynamic New Orleans Pelicans two-way guard Jrue Holiday and sharpshooting Sacramento Kings wing Bogdan Bogdanovic. Only, Bogdanovic never signed off on what would have been a sign-and-trade deal, opting to test restricted free agent waters.
The failure to land Bogdanovic took some luster off the acquisition of Holiday, who cost the Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe, backup George Hill, three first-round picks and a pair of pick swaps. That is no small price for a player who has not been an All-Star since 2013, even if Holiday is one of the league’s most underrated players and arguably its best defensive guard. He is an upgrade from Bledsoe and an ideal complement to Giannis Antetokounmpo on a team that cruised to the No. 1 seed in the East last season.
The Bucks made several moves on the margins, adding D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and Torrey Craig in free agency, but nobody like Bogdanovic, who would have played crunch-time minutes in a rotation that has failed to meet playoff expectations. Those moves have yet to convince Antetokounmpo to sign a longterm extension. That is the biggest domino yet to fall this offseason, and the league’s two-time reigning MVP has until Dec. 21 to either commit to Milwaukee or enter unrestricted free agency in 2021.
Like Durant, Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson has not played since late in the 2019 Finals, when he suffered an ACL tear that cost him the entire 2019-20 campaign. The Warriors also lost two-time MVP Stephen Curry to a broken hand five games into last season. The result was the worst record in the league.
This season was supposed to bring the promise that Splash Brothers Curry and Thompson — two of the greatest shooters ever to live — could restore Golden State’s status as a perennial contender. Only, news of Thompson tearing his Achilles broke on draft night, undercutting their No. 2 overall selection of James Wiseman. It was a devastating blow that will cost one of the game’s most electrifying players another year.
The hope is that Curry’s return healthy return, along with Wiseman’s entrance, to a team that features Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins can still vie for a competitive playoff spot. The Warriors quickly moved to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr. and sign Kent Bazemore to fill minutes, but neither moves the needle like Thompson on the wing. There is no doubt Golden State’s ceiling fell notches below championship level.
Russell Westbrook for John Wall trade
The partnership between former MVPs Russell Westbrook and James Harden yielded a single win in a second-round playoff loss last season. That led to both players wanting off a Houston Rockets team that had been a legitimate contender for two seasons prior. Westbrook got his wish in a decidedly one-sided trade that sent him to the Washington Wizards for oft-injured All-Star John Wall and a first-round pick.
The Wizards shed the league’s worst contract, and all it cost them was a heavily protected pick. In return for Wall, who has not played more than 41 games in a season since 2016-17, they got Westbrook, who for all his faults as a ball-dominant point guard who cannot shoot was still an All-NBA player last season. He will join All-Star wing Bradley Beal, sharpshooting forward Davis Bertans and a handful of promising young players. Westbrook is enough to turn what was a 25-win disaster into a middling playoff team in the East.
Meanwhile, the Harden situation is not resolved in Houston. He arrived late to training camp and reportedly still wants out, preferably to the Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers. Neither team has offered equal value in return. Harden has at least two years left on his contract, so his unhappiness could disrupt the Rockets for quite some time. That is a shame for a Houston team that added Christian Wood in free agency and DeMarcus Cousins as a reclamation project to a roster that also still includes P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon.
The cumbersome contracts of Russell Westbrook and John Wall were traded for each other. (Will Newton/Getty Images)
The revamped 76ers
Former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was part of the exodus from Houston. He resigned, only to take a job with the Philadelphia 76ers days later. His first order of business was to acquire shooting around rising stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. It was the simplest solution to last season’s tactical mess.
Morey sent out Al Horford and Josh Richardson in favor of Danny Green and Seth Curry. Any discrepancy in overall skill was worth the floor spacing Green and Curry will provide for Simmons and Embiid. Philadelphia also added Dwight Howard, who should spell Embiid, so long as he fills a role akin to his with the Lakers.
The Sixers were one of the league’s biggest disappointments last season. They fell to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings before getting swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics, hastened by a season-ending knee injury to Simmons. A quick fix and full buy-in from Embiid could be all they need to contend.
Chris Paul to the Suns
Chris Paul just submitted the best season ever for a 35-year-old traditional point guard, carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to within a possession of the Western Conference semifinals. In the process, he transformed his contract into one of the league’s least desirable to a hot commodity. The young Phoenix Suns stepped in to secure the final two years and $86 million remaining on the All-Star’s contract.
It cost Phoenix a pair of starters from the team that turned heads in the Orlando bubble with an 8-0 record in seeding games, plus a 2022 first-round pick. In their place is Paul, the veteran who has led three different teams into the playoffs over the past four years. His leadership should do wonders for budding star Devin Booker and recent No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton on a team that has not made the playoffs since 2010.
Paul’s exit was part of a fire sale in Oklahoma City that also included the free agency departure of Danilo Gallinari and the trades of Schroder and Steven Adams. The Thunder acquired veterans Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza, but all three were salary dumps that brought draft selections with them. OKC general manager Sam Presti has sold off talent around rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in favor of a draft stash.
Hawks go for it in free agency
The Atlanta Hawks entered free agency with more cap space than anyone in a year when few teams had money to spend. They acted with a mandate to end their four-year playoff drought, pursuing and securing two of the biggest-name free agents in an underwhelming market: Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
The sharpshooting Bogdanovic is a natural fit as a secondary playmaker next to Trae Young, and the 32-year-old Gallinari brings a similar skill set to a frontcourt featuring John Collins and Clint Capela. They are upgrades to a roster devoid of veteran talent, even if they do little to improve a defense that ranked 28th.
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk also signed Rajon Rondo away from the Lakers to mentor Young and added ball-hawking guard Kris Dunn to bring some defensive energy to a backcourt seriously lacking it. All that may not be enough to guarantee a playoff spot, but it at least puts the Hawks in the conversation for one of the Eastern Conference’s final two playoff spots, along with the Wizards, Pacers and Magic.
Gordon Hayward to the Hornets
When Gordon Hayward declined a $34 million option for the 2020-21 season in favor of longer-term security, he had to have known there was a big contract waiting for him in free agency. He was right.
Hayward appeared headed for a four-year, $100 million deal from either the incumbent Boston Celtics or in a sign-and-trade to his hometown Indiana Pacers. The New York Knicks also entered the fray at a similar rate, and then Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets gave Hayward an offer he could not refuse: $120 million.
Hayward was the biggest name to change teams in free agency. The Celtics will miss him as arguably the league’s most talented fourth option, but his exit left them with the largest trade exception in NBA history. He will be a primary option on a Hornets roster featuring only a handful of promising prospects, including LaMelo Ball, the No. 3 pick this year. Hayward’s three-year tenure in Boston was marred by injury from start to finish, featuring only glimpses of his former All-Star ability, and a change of scenery could serve him well.
Neither Kristaps Porzingis nor Kemba Walker will be ready to start the 2020-21 NBA season. (Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Kemba Walker and Kristaps Porzingis aren’t ready
A pair of All-Stars on fringe contenders will not be ready to open this season, both nursing knee injuries that have carried over from last season. The Celtics announced Kemba Walker’s left knee would be reevaluated in January, when he completes a 12-week strengthening program. Likewise, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said Kristaps Porzingis would be out until “at least January” following his October knee surgery.
There is serious cause for concern for both teams. Boston lost Hayward to free agency, and Walker has been nursing his injury since February. Rest during last season’s hiatus and this offseason has done little to resolve the lingering issue. The 30-year-old Walker, who is heavily reliant on change of pace and direction, will now miss time in the first two years of his four-year max contract. The Celtics did sign Jeff Teague as a stop gap, but their status as a threat to emerge from the East is reliant on Walker playing at an All-Star level.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks signed Kristaps Porzingis to a five-year max extension in July 2019, before he had returned from an ACL tear in his left knee. His most recent surgery was to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. The 25-year-old was supposed to be the secondary star to Luka Doncic on a team close to opening a title window, but surgeries on both knees of a slight 7-foot-3 perimeter threat are worrisome.
The retooled Blazers
The Blazers were one of the most thrilling teams in the bubble, just as they had previously been when Jusuf Nurkic was healthy alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Just about everyone is back for Portland, including Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood, along with some reinforcements from a busy offseason.
Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey traded Trevor Ariza’s expiring contract and a lottery-protected first-round pick for Robert Covington. He will be joined by free-agent signing Derrick Jones Jr. on a wing depth chart that should be Portland’s best in recent memory. With Hassan Whiteside leaving, Olshey reacquired Enes Kanter, their backup center from the 2019 Western Conference finals run, and took a minimum contract flier on Harry Giles, the former No. 1 prep prospect who has been plagued by injuries.
They fill out a roster that is rife with talent, including the return of Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons. Portland should reestablish itself among the Western Conference elite after a disappointing first-round exit as an injury-riddled eighth seed. The bar for the Blazers is reset no lower than a top-four seed.
The Pistons were really weird
In desperate need for young talent, new Pistons general manager Troy Weaver had himself a day at the November draft. Point guard Killian Hayes fell to him at the seventh pick, and Weaver acquired two more top-20 picks, which he used on Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. Then, Detroit’s offseason went off the rails.
The Pistons opened free agency by overpaying middling center Mason Plumlee and signing journeyman center Jahlil Okafor. This after drafting Stewart and trading for Tony Bradley to play the same position. They have since swapped Bradley for Zhaire Smith, who has played 13 games since being drafted 16th in 2018.
The weirdness did not stop there. The Pistons overpaid to make Jerami Grant a primary option in an offense with oft-injured veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose. Grant is an upgrade in talent, as was the trade for Delon Wright, a distressed asset after a down year in Dallas. It is just a seemingly directionless rebuilding plan. Detroit’s signing of Josh Jackson — a former No. 4 pick who showed flashes of his potential for the Memphis Grizzlies last season — is more in line with what a rebuilding team should do.
Oh, and we should mention the Pistons used a training camp invitation on LiAngelo Ball, the forgotten brother to Lonzo and LaMelo. What a way to wrap up an extremely condensed and bizarre offseason.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
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