The offseason isn’t over, exactly, but the free-agent frenzy essentially is. Aside from Kawhi Leonard, who does absolutely everything at his own pace, all of the top-tier players are off the board. Here are some notes about what’s happened, starting with the remade Los Angeles Lakers:
How weird will the Lakers get?
Well, the Lakers are completely different. Just four players are back from last season’s roster, and of the eight players who were in the rotation by the end of the 2020 NBA Finals, only LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain. (Also, Dwight Howard, who was out of the rotation, has returned for his third stint as a Laker.)
Next to James, Davis, Marc Gasol, Talen-Horton Tucker and Howard are Russell Westbrook and a whole bunch of guys who can shoot 3s: Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington, Kendrick Nunn and Carmelo Anthony.
This group is divisive. James has already tweeted-and-deleted a response to those who have talked about “my squad, our personnel ages, the way he plays, he stays injured, etc etc etc.” As far as the on-court fit goes, much of the discussion has understandably centered on the Lakers’ defense, which will all but certainly decline from the elite level it has maintained since Davis’ arrival. At least in the regular season, the Lakers are going to give regular minutes to players who don’t pester guards at the point of attack as well as Alex Caruso or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and don’t have the same versatility as 2019-20 Danny Green or 2020-21 Kyle Kuzma. Their hope, it seems, is that this won’t matter all that much, since they can still put awesome defensive lineups on the floor in the playoffs.
I’m curious, though, about Los Angeles’ offense. Mainly: Is this team going to play differently? We know where Davis likes to operate, and we surely know what a James-centric offense looks like. Before injuries threw their plan off course, though, the Lakers took some baby steps toward a more balanced attack last season, mixing in Dennis Schroder pick-and-rolls and using Gasol as a high-post facilitator. Westbrook is an entirely different kind of player, though, and I wonder if he’ll change his game at all (and how creative Frank Vogel will get with him).
Two years ago, the Houston Rockets occasionally used Westbrook as a screener for James Harden, and he could surely do the same thing for LeBron. Will Westbrook finally make it a priority to move and cut when he doesn’t have the ball? James did a bit more of that last season because he wasn’t always the nominal point guard, but it wasn’t quite the same as, say, his final year in Miami.
I even have questions about how Vogel will use some of these role players. Is Carmelo going to get the ISO touches he likes on the second unit? Are the Lakers going to run stuff for Ellington to come off screens and shoot on the move? Will Nunn and Monk both be in the rotation, and how much will they be empowered to make plays? In James’ first year with the Lakers, they galaxy-brained themselves into a ridiculous roster devoid of shooting and full of players who needed the ball. Ideally, they will now be able to reduce his workload in a way that makes sense.
The best of LaVine is yet to come
Zach LaVine didn’t get a raise and a contract extension, but he could be one of the biggest winners of the offseason. I say this not only because it looks like he’ll finally make the playoffs next season, but because his new teammates will make his job easier.
Last year was a career season for LaVine. He ran more pick-and-roll than ever before, and he was far more efficient than ever before. Chicago was a slow, halfcourt-oriented team, though, so he didn’t do as much damage as he’s capable of doing in transition. It is unlikely that the Bulls are about to turn into the fastest team in the NBA — Nikola Vucevic is no speed demon — but the arrival of Lonzo Ball means they’ll run more. Ball is a top-tier rebounder for a point guard and a master of hit-ahead passes; LaVine will quickly learn he can get easy points simply by sprinting down the floor after stops. When Ball is on the court, he’ll even get some easy points out of running after makes.
DeMar DeRozan isn’t as creative a passer as Ball, but he’s fantastic at forcing the defense collapse and finding open shooters. Chicago needed someone other than LaVine who can do this, if only so he can catch the ball with an advantage once in a while rather than having to create one himself. Ideally, LaVine will get more catch-and-shoot opportunities, develop chemistry with DeRozan (and Ball and Vucevic) as a cutter and build on the strides he has made as a defender.
With less playmaking responsibility, LaVine might not score more than the 27.4 points per game he averaged in 2020-21. But I expect him to have his best all-around season.
The Kemba miracle
It turns out I shouldn’t have said anything about the New York Knicks’ offseason just a few hours into free agency. I’m sorry! I didn’t know Kemba Walker was about to fall into New York’s lap.
The Walker signing changes everything. After he is waived by the Oklahoma City Thunder, he will reportedly sign with the Knicks for approximately $8 million, which is about the same amount as T.J. McConnell will make in the first year of his new contract with the Indiana Pacers. It’s essentially a prove-it deal for a 31-year-old who has dealt with knee issues on and off since the 2020 All-Star Game.
It’s also an absolute home run for New York, a hometown discount for a player who addresses its biggest needs. After starting Elfrid Payton, Frank Ntilikina, Allonzo Trier, Dennis Smith Jr. and Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard over the last few years, the Knicks finally have a lead ballhandler who can hit pull-up 3s and bend the defense. For all of the positive vibes around Madison Square Garden, New York finished 24th in offense last season, according to Cleaning The Glass. That figures to improve with Walker’s pick-and-rolls and Evan Fournier’s secondary playmaking in the picture.
All of this comes with the caveat that Walker has to actually be on the court. He appeared in 43 games last season and didn’t play any back-to-backs. He has a longer offseason this time around, though, and he mostly looked like himself toward the end of the regular season. I can’t believe I’m saying this about anything to do with Knicks, but I’m not sure enough has been made of the upside here.
Also: New York did well to extend Julius Randle now, since he would have been eligible for a much more expensive contract as a free agent next summer. Imagine if Randle maintains his efficiency and R.J. Barrett keeps up the shooting we saw in the second half of the season.
Another prove-it situation
It wasn’t as big of a deal as getting Kyle Lowry or stealing P.J. Tucker from the Bucks, but the Victor Oladipo signing is nothing but upside for Miami. Oladipo re-signed with the team that traded for him at the deadline on a minimum contract, betting that he’ll get healthy, contribute to a winning team and increase his value.
Oladipo is just 29, but hasn’t been the same since rupturing his quad in 2019. The Heat gave up relatively little when they acquired him from the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline, and he only played five games with them before having season-ending surgery.
Even in those five games, though, you could see why Miami wanted Oladipo. Last season’s Heat didn’t have many playmakers who could get downhill consistently, and he gave them some much-needed athleticism on the perimeter. This roster is a little different, but they can still use his skill set. It would help if he could continue to make 37.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, as he did in his 35 games split between the Pacers, Rockets and Heat.
Oladipo won’t be ready for the start of the season, and the Heat certainly aren’t counting on him returning to his 2018 All-NBA form. Whatever the chances are that he’ll be a difference-maker, though, they’re more than worth this flier.
There is no Justise (on any NBA roster at the moment)
One unsigned player worth a flier: Justise Winslow. Just two years ago, he was starting at point guard for the Heat and shooting 37.5 percent on 3.9 3-point attempts a game. This is a player who has also started at center in a playoff series.
I know it didn’t work out with the Memphis Grizzlies, and I know that the shooting has not proven to be sustainable. But he’s 25, and there’s not much risk in giving him a short-term deal. Every team wants as many big, versatile defenders as possible, and almost every team is looking for more wings who can run a pick-and-roll. I’d love for a team like Denver or Utah to give him a shot.