The past two seasons have seen the NBA — like the rest of the world — deal with unprecedented circumstances.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused as much upheaval across the NBA as any sports league in North America and beyond, with the 2019-20 season ending in a bubble inside the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, and most of last season being played in front of empty arenas across the league.
By the end of the 2020-21 campaign, however, the arenas in Milwaukee and Phoenix were packed to the gills during the NBA Finals — and, in Milwaukee’s case, saw a sea of people congregating outside of them — to watch the Bucks knock off the Suns and win the franchise’s first championship in half a century.
Now, even as the pandemic rages on, the hope and expectation is that next season will see as much of a return to normalcy across the NBA as possible. And, with it, a boosting of the league’s bottom line heading into the 2022-23 campaign next summer, based off recent projections the NBA released about where the salary-cap and luxury tax lines are expected to land.
Those feelings were kicked off by the NBA returning to its typical summer league schedule this month following last year’s hiatus, with the annual showcases for the league’s incoming class of players taking place in California, Utah and, ultimately, Nevada, where the Sacramento Kings beat the Boston Celtics to win the Las Vegas Summer League title on Tuesday night.
That served as the unofficial end of the 2021 NBA offseason. Now that it’s in the books, what will next season bring? Here’s what a panel of 10 NBA scouts and executives had to say about what has transpired over the past few weeks and what it all means for the 2021-22 campaign.
Who is the best player in the NBA heading into the 2021-22 season?
After Antetokounmpo powered the Bucks to an NBA title and Durant — following his incredible performance against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals — led Team USA to a fourth straight gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics, the two of them split the voting for the honor of the league’s top player going into next season.
For those who backed Antetokounmpo, the reasoning was obvious: the way he guided Milwaukee through the playoffs and to the franchise’s first title in 50 years.
“People love to focus on his faults,” an Eastern Conference executive said of Antetokounmpo, “but he’s a hell of a player.”
Another East executive pointed to past stars who have taken another step forward after breaking through and winning a title, and he expects Antetokounmpo to do the same.
“He’s unlocked a different cheat code at both ends that gives him that spot,” he said. “You can certainly argue for Durant and LeBron [James], but between injury and age, can they consistently do it?”
Those who favored Durant, on the other hand, had an equally compelling argument: his ongoing status as the league’s most complete and dominant offensive force — possibly the greatest the sport has ever seen.
“I think he’s the best scorer in the league, I don’t think it’s close, and he’s pretty good defensively too,” a Western Conference scout said. “The things he’s able to do offensively are generational, and I don’t know if you can stop him.
“He’s absolutely lethal.”
In addition to Durant’s overall offensive dominance, several of those who ultimately picked the Brooklyn Nets superstar said the difference came down to him not having the same kind of obvious flaw in his game as compared to Antetokounmpo’s ongoing battle at the free throw line.
“A healthy Durant gives more on both ends than anybody else,” an East scout said. “Health is a big if going forward, but his combination of scoring and defense is tough to bear.”
The only other name even mentioned by those polled was James, though he ultimately didn’t receive any votes. It was clear all three stars were on a level unto themselves at this point.
The best move(s) of the offseason?
The runaway selection in this category was the Heat landing Lowry in a sign-and-trade deal, as he was the biggest name to change teams this month.
“I don’t love the money,” a West executive said, “but I just love the fit. He fits the Heat culture, and I just think he’s the piece they were missing — plus they kept him away from everyone else who wanted him.”
Lowry, 35, went to Miami from the Toronto Raptors, where he spent the past nine years, in exchange for Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa, in addition to signing a three-year, $85 million deal with the Heat.
While many scouts and execs agreed the length of Lowry’s new deal could be an issue, the current fit masked any potential problems in the future — particularly when combined with the re-signing of sharpshooter Duncan Robinson and the signing of defensive stopper P.J. Tucker away from the Bucks.
“[Lowry is] a proven playoff performer,” an East scout said. “He has a winning mentality, toughness, will fit like a glove.”
The other move to get more than one vote was the Magic landing guard Jalen Suggs with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Suggs, who led Gonzaga to the NCAA championship game in the spring, was tapped as the player who can finally return the Magic to relevancy after spending the past several years mired in the middle of nowhere in the East hierarchy.
“I think he’s the kind of player that could change the direction of that franchise,” an East executive said.
Two of the more polarizing moves of the offseason also were represented, with both the Russell Westbrook trade and the Bulls going all-in on trying to win now by acquiring Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan each getting a vote.
On the Westbrook deal, the executive who praised it was doing so not for the Lakers, but the Wizards, who got out of the final two years and close to $90 million remaining on his contract. The move allowed Washington to land free-agent point guard Spencer Dinwiddie and bring several players back from Los Angeles in the deal.
“They were trapped,” an East executive said of the Wizards. “Now, they have flexibility, and it changes the fact they don’t have this giant anchor hanging around their heads.”
As for the Bulls’ moves, after the team had been mired in a rebuild for the past few seasons, and with All-Star Zach LaVine approaching free agency, a West scout praised them for trying to take steps forward.
“I really like what Chicago did,” the scout said. “I know it’s not enough, but they had to do something. I’m a big fan of DeMar. I have not been a big Lonzo fan, but I think he fits there.
“If you’re Chicago, what else do you do? What are the alternatives? What are you waiting for? You have to do something. I don’t think they could have improved on the court more than they did. They paid too much, but I like the basketball fit.”
Stephen A. Smith says Russell Westbrook still needs a NBA championship to preserve his basketball legacy.
The worst move(s) of the offseason?
The teams that completed one of the first moves of free agency — the sign-and-trade deal that sent Lonzo Ball from New Orleans to Chicago — wound up sharing the top spot among the moves people around the league disliked.
For Chicago, the focus wasn’t on that move, but on the one that saw DeRozan come to the Bulls in another sign-and-trade deal, this one with the Spurs.
But while those polled praised the potential fit of DeRozan alongside Ball and Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine, the price Chicago paid to make the move — both in salary ($84 million over three years) and trade assets (forward Thaddeus Young, a first-round pick and two second-round picks) — was considered far too steep.
“Giving up another first-rounder to overpay [DeRozan] was the worst over-the-top move to get behind,” a Western Conference executive said.
Part of the logic behind that thinking was the pairing of the DeRozan deal with the one that saw Chicago get Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline back in March — a deal that cost another two future firsts.
“I like the fit on the court,” an East scout said, “but they’d better win, because if you don’t, you’re an expensive, bad team that can’t rebuild.”
New Orleans, meanwhile, was panned for its offseason as a whole. With the spectre of Zion Williamson‘s decision to sign a contract extension with New Orleans next summer looming on the horizon, the Pelicans moved back in the draft to shed salary before free agency began, then wound up turning Ball and a first-round pick into Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple and Devonte’ Graham in free agency.
“They were obviously going to move on from Lonzo,” an East scout said, “but then Graham is your answer?
“Nothing changes unless it changes Zion’s mind about the future there, and I don’t think any of this did.”
Others were even more blunt.
“They’re a sinking ship and reaching for a life preserver that just isn’t going to help,” a West executive said. “I don’t understand how [center Jonas Valanciunas] is going to fit. I don’t understand how Devonte’ is worth what they paid. It’s just weird.”
The only other move to receive multiple votes was the Lakers acquiring Westbrook just before the draft. And while both of those voters conceded it might ultimately not matter in terms of preventing the star-studded Lakers from winning the title, they both disliked the fit of Westbrook and James on the court.
“Look, I’m trying to give LeBron the benefit of the doubt on this,” a Western Conference scout said. “But given what they could’ve done, I don’t see that fit working out over the course of the season. I’m a huge Westbrook fan. I just don’t like the fit.”
The most surprising move of the offseason?
The move that received the most votes was the Celtics winding up with Schroder for one-year at the taxpayer’s midlevel exception ($5.9 million) after he turned down a big extension offer from the Lakers during the season.
“Two months ago, you wouldn’t have believed that would be the deal he would wind up with after what he turned down,” an East executive said.
The only other deal to get more than one vote was Walker both agreeing to a buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder and then subsequently agreeing to a two-year, $18 million deal with the Knicks.
After Oklahoma City has consistently turned players they received into further assets in recent seasons — including the player the Thunder traded to Boston for him back in June, center Al Horford — it was a surprise to some that they were willing to buy out Walker.
“They haven’t done that,” a West executive said of the Thunder. “They’ve always tried to drive up the value on the player and get something back for him.”
Meanwhile, Walker turning around and signing with his hometown Knicks was seen as a move that could work out for New York, depending on how Walker’s balky left knee holds up next season.
“It was pretty surprising to see it work out that quickly,” an East scout said, “and to be able to get Kemba on a sub midlevel deal is pretty awesome.”
Meanwhile, two other teams — Dallas and Portland — were labeled as surprises for not finding ways to do anything to upgrade their teams around their heliocentric stars, Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard.
“Can they get a healthy [Kristaps] Porzingis?” an East executive asked about the Mavs. “That’s the key. But I was surprised they stood still. They didn’t do enough to move themselves forward … they now have a clock ticking with them on Luka [after he signed a supermax extension this offseason].”
Lillard, meanwhile, has been vocal about wanting Portland to improve this offseason, and the Blazers largely stood still, retaining Norman Powell while signing center Cody Zeller and guard Ben McLemore to minimum deals. Their biggest offseason splash was hiring Chauncey Billups as head coach.
“I get the whole, ‘Don’t do something just to do something’ philosophy,” another East executive said. “But I thought they should’ve tried harder to do something to upgrade besides just bringing Norm back.”
Why are so few teams tanking now?
T1. Flattened draft lottery odds: 3 votes
T1. Recent playoff success by smaller-market teams: 3
T3. The advent of the play-in tournament: 2
T3. A lack of turnover in front offices: 2
After years of consternation about teams entering the regular season more interested in losing than winning, the landscape has completely changed this offseason. Only three teams — the Thunder, the Magic and the Houston Rockets — are seen as actively trying to position themselves to be as high in the lottery as possible next season.
While there were multiple answers given, all of them flowed back to two adjustments the NBA has made to try to change teams’ thinking in this department: flattening the lottery odds and introducing the play-in tournament. Both have made what already was a difficult thing to do — going through multiple seasons of heavy losses on the court — that much tougher to stomach.
“It’s really f—ing hard to tank,” an East executive said. “People don’t understand that. It’s easy to intellectually talk about it. Then you have to live it. That’s really hard.”
The fact that the Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies jumped up to the top two spots in the draft from the middle of the lottery in 2019 — the first year that the new odds were implemented — as well as the Lakers jumping up to fourth from 11th, was cited as another reason teams are less interested in trying to sink to the bottom.
“Seeing New Orleans and Memphis jumping up that first year for Ja [Morant] and Zion, I think that had a big impact,” an East scout said. “I think that will stick with people for a while.”
As for the play-in tournament, the chance for an extra two teams to qualify for the postseason is another incentive for teams to win, which dovetailed with another thing cited as a potential leading factor: front offices needing to show signs of progress moving forward.
“There hasn’t been a lot of turnover in front offices,” a West executive said, “so it’s put up or shut up time for some teams. They have to start moving in the right direction.”
Several people also pointed to the success of teams that have avoided tanking in recent years — including the Raptors winning the title two years ago and the Suns and Atlanta Hawks breaking into the playoffs with immediate deep runs — as indicators that a long and painful rebuilding process might be no longer necessary.
But as one West executive put it, that logic could be flawed for teams looking to emulate the Suns or Hawks:
“I think a lot of it has to do with these playoffs where teams have skirted through the playoffs and people are ignoring where guys got hurt. It’s become more of an NFL-type, win-now mindset.”
Who is going to win each conference and the NBA title?
In both the East and West, the two star-studded teams — the Nets and Lakers — received the clear edge in votes to make it out of their respective conferences and turn their Christmas Day showdown in Los Angeles into a rematch in the NBA Finals.
There was more confidence, however, in Brooklyn making it out of the East, both in terms of the number of votes the Nets received (7 to 5) and the conviction with which Brooklyn got its support. Pretty much every comment about the Nets centered around one thing: The biggest obstacle between the Nets and a title is … the Nets.
“If they are healthy, the Nets should clearly win,” an East executive said. “But as we saw this season, anything can happen.”
The defending champion Bucks, meanwhile, received a pair of votes to make it out of the East, with their championship pedigree — plus doubts over Brooklyn’s inability to stay healthy and mesh on the court — pushing them over the edge in one voter’s opinion.
“I think Brooklyn is talented,” another East executive said. “Those guys are really good. But I haven’t seen if they can complement each other and be good enough in a series. Would I be surprised [if they win]? No. But I haven’t seen it yet.
“I think those guys in Milwaukee know how to win now, and they have confidence from winning it. The Bucks have an identity. No age issues. An ability to play inside out. There’s no real way they can’t play. I think you have to give them the edge.”
The West, meanwhile, was muddled. Four teams — the Lakers, Warriors, Jazz and Nuggets — each received at least one vote. And while several people wound up ultimately picking the Lakers, a few did so after looking at a group of teams that all have flaws and ultimately decided that backing LeBron James was the best option.
“I’ll take the Lakers, but I don’t know how to feel about the West,” one East executive said. “There’s a lot of questions all the way around.”
One West executive who eventually picked the Lakers did say, however, that the mixed feelings about the Westbrook addition are overblown.
“I don’t think Westbrook is a terrible addition,” he said. “The guy is super competitive and in a situation, I’m assuming, with LeBron where he won’t be taking the most shots on the team, unless teams are forcing him to take them. He’s the third-best player now.”
Golden State, meanwhile, got a couple of votes, with the thinking that the combination of Stephen Curry remaining an MVP-caliber player, Klay Thompson coming back from missing the past two years and the franchise’s potential to be active on the trade market gives the Warriors a ceiling that could prove to be good enough to get out of the West.
“I think Golden State has enough talent, and enough assets, to make a run,” a West executive said.
Utah received two votes, with injuries to Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley cited as overlooked reasons why the Jazz fell short in last season’s playoffs and indications that the team with the best record in the NBA last year shouldn’t be discounted.
“They are deep and were the best team in the league most of last year,” said an East executive. “They had a bad series versus the Clippers, but a whole lot of people say you can’t win until you win.
“They were knocking on the door last year, and I think they get there this time.”
The overwhelming title favorites, however, are the Nets, who received six of the 10 votes to win the championship. The Lakers, with two votes to capture the title, were the only other team to get more than one.
The talent Brooklyn has amassed is expected to be enough, even if the Nets have to deal with the same injury and chemistry questions as last season.
“The only thing that can stop them,” an East scout said,” is themselves.”