The NBA season hasn’t been over for a month, yet we’re three weeks from the beginning of training camp after the league and Players Association agreed on a 72-game season that begins Dec. 22.
The union conceded to the shortened offseason for several reasons. It did not want to reopen the collective bargaining agreement, something the owners would have mandated had the players decided to push for a later start. The NBA also needs to get back to a semblance of its regular schedule. As much as the NBA bubble was a success, league officials and sponsors did not like playing during summer months, and the television ratings suffered.
Finally, the NBA wanted to capitalize on Christmas Day, when it can schedule five games featuring 10 of the league’s premier teams, generating considerable advertising money.
In the coming days, the league and union will agree on an offseason schedule that will include free agency, the draft (already scheduled for Nov. 18), and deadlines for opt-out clauses and contract extensions for players finishing their rookie contracts (such as the Celtics' Jayson Tatum).
Here are the top five stories to watch in an offseason that will last just a few more weeks:
1. Who is the top unrestricted free agent? There are players such as Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Ingram, Andre Drummond, and Mike Conley who have contract options or are restricted free agents. The top free agent with no ties is Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, one of the primary reasons the Raptors had the second-best record in the East and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Raptors have the opportunity to re-sign VanVleet, but to do so may have to sacrifice Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who are also free agents.
2. What happens with Gordon Hayward? Hayward has a $34 million option to return to the Celtics for the final season of his contract. There has been speculation about whether Hayward would agree to a longer-term deal for less money with another club or the Celtics. The impact of Hayward on the Celtics' salary cap is not dramatic. They would only get $3 million-plus to add to their midlevel exception if he leaves.
3. Max deal for Tatum? Tatum, who made the All-Star Game and an All-NBA team for the first time in his career this past season, is due for an extension of his rookie contract and he’ll likely demand the $170 million max. The Celtics have prepared for this possibility for more than a year, so negotiations shouldn’t be difficult. The Celtics realize how important Tatum is to their long-term future.
4. Will there be a major trade? The consensus is that most players with contract options will remain with their teams because of the uncertainty of the market. But could any of these players be moved? Conley did not have a great season with Utah. DeRozan apparently isn’t happy in San Antonio. Evan Fournier has been solid with the Magic but it hasn’t resulted in winning. There are players who could potentially opt in and be traded or force their team’s hand by taking that final contract.
5. Who will cash in with free agency? A player to watch who could hit paydirt is Nuggets swingman Jerami Grant. He has a player option for $9.3 million but could opt out and wait for a deal for double that amount because of his playoff performance. In his first extensive postseason action, Grant was stellar at times for the Nuggets in leading them to the Western Conference finals. He totaled 63 points in the final three games of the conference finals against the Lakers. He’s put together back-to-back strong seasons and is a 39 percent 3-point shooter, so expect at team with cap space — Atlanta, Charlotte, New York, or Detroit — to make a serious bid for Grant.
Morey ready to go big with 76ers
General manager Daryl Morey wasn’t out of work long as he accepted a position with the 76ers after 14 seasons with the Rockets. Morey, a former Celtics executive, will team with previous GM Elton Brand to try to bring the 76ers back to prosperity after a disheartening season that ended with a sweep by the Celtics in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Brand, a former standout player, was the primary front office representative with strong influence with ownership, but now he’ll have to share duties with Morey, although it appears Morey will make the final decisions.
Add to the equation former Celtics and Clippers coach Doc Rivers, and the mix is interesting, but the challenge will be to resurrect the sagging franchise. They start with two cornerstones — All-Star center Joel Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons, who was hurt during the Celtics series.
“This is a roster that has championship aspirations,” Morey said. "You can’t ask for anything more. There aren’t many opportunities where you get a chance to win and I really felt like this was the right fit. Joel is a dominant, dominant big man. I’m excited to get back to that. I worked with Yao Ming and I think we can go all the way with Joel.
“Frankly, the more you look at what Elton has put together on this roster with Joel, Ben as the headliners, and with [other] great players. I’m with Doc. He and I have been chatting a lot and the more you dig into the players that are here, the more you get excited about what this team can do.”
All was not well with the 76ers at season’s end. Embiid looked tired and discouraged. Simmons was hurt and there were serious questions as to whether the two could coexist. The Celtics simply allowed Embiid to score early, tiring him out, while the rest of the 76ers failed to offer adequate support down the stretch.
“He wants to win a championship,” Morey said of Embiid. “I’ve talked to him. He’s a smart player and knows you only have so many opportunities. He pushed everyone to improve the organization, improve the roster, and frankly I’m excited to go on this journey with Joel and Ben moving forward.”
Morey became noted for pushing his small-ball philosophy on the Rockets. It was such an extreme the club traded its only legitimate center, Clint Capela, to Atlanta and played with a 6-foot-8-inch-and-under lineup. That won’t be happening in Philadelphia.
“The best way to win in the NBA is to take your talent and figure out how to utilize them the best,” Morey said. "It’s not to take your talent and hammer in a particular system. It’s to try to get the most out of who you have. It doesn’t take much to look at when Joel is on the floor and healthy, this is an unbelievable defensive team, and the fact that he’s also an extremely good offensive player. Joel is the kind of player you win championships with, if you look back at history.
“We were trying to build the best team around our talents in Houston, but here Doc is going to take the talent we have and use them to the best of their ability.”
Celtics' best option is to consolidate
Overshadowed by the NBA bubble, the Lakers' title, and the negotiations to determine the beginning of the season, the NBA Draft is less than two weeks away,and the Celtics have three first-round picks. It’s highly unlikely the Celtics keep all three picks to add to the four picks they have on their roster from last season.
It’s more likely Boston will package those picks (14, 26, and 30) to move up to nab a better prospect or to acquire an established veteran.
“They don’t need three young guys on their roster because there’s no guarantee that whoever they draft, especially in that range, would be better than even the guys who haven’t cracked the rotation,” former NBA GM Ryan McDonough said. “When I look at Carsen Edwards and Romeo Langford, that’s the challenge.”
This is a draft that is fascinating because of the circumstances. First, there has been little in-person evaluation (only selected players for each team) because of the pandemic. Second, NBA evaluators did not have a chance to view prospects in the NCAA Tournament, when some of the best players normally shine under the intense pressure and boost their draft stock. Third, since eight teams haven’t played since March, many of their executives have had extra time to study these prospects, but it’s been mostly on tape and on Zoom interviews.
“Evaluating the draft, it’s below average,” McDonough said. "From a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say it’s about a 3 or 4. It’s not great. The good news for the Celtics is they’re not as reliant [on the draft] as some other teams. If you’re a team picking in the top 10 and had a horrible record last season, you need sweeping changes. The Celtics don’t need sweeping changes or huge upgrades.
“The bottom teams in the Eastern Conference need a lot of help and I’m not sure it’s coming in this year’s draft.”
Here’s a look at the top five prospects and an evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses:
1. LaMelo Ball: It’s been years since we saw Ball, 5 feet 11 inches, pull up from 40 feet to launch 3-point bombs in high school. He has grown to 6-7 and refined his skills, becoming the best point guard prospect in the draft. Ball is not his older brother, Lonzo Ball, in that he has a better offensive game and is likely more NBA-ready. Teams are becoming more intrigued by LaMelo because of his potential star power and ability to contribute immediately. He needs to improve at what most 19-year-olds do, 3-point shooting and defense. But he has all the skills to be a superstar.
2. James Wiseman: The former Memphis player (he played three games for the Tigers before leaving the team) was tabbed as a potential No. 1 overall pick, but the question is whether teams that play position-less ball want a 7-1 player who may take a few years to really develop. Wiseman has the ability to be a dominant big man, but his motor is in question. Also, with no college season, Wiseman did not get a chance to show himself against elite competition, which might stunt his development early.
3. Anthony Edwards: The Georgia product has drawn comparison to James Harden and looks to be NBA-ready. He appears to be a can’t-miss prospect at shooting guard because of his desire and athleticism. Edwards proved good enough to play at a high Division 1 level despite not being ranked as a high prep prospect until his senior year. His upside is vast, but he needs to improve his 3-point shooting (like most prospects) and on-court decision-making.
4. Deni Avdija: For those looking for the top European prospect in this draft, here he is. Avdija is a 6-9 power forward with point guard skills. He has played the past three seasons for Maccabi Tel Aviv and at 19 has the seasoning and skills to be an impact NBA player. He apparently blew away the Warriors in his workout and interview, and he has shot up to the top five in the past few weeks. Remember, teams are still smarting over how they disregarded Luka Doncic, so Avdija may benefit from that.
5. Obi Toppin: The former Dayton star may have catapulted to No. 1 overall if he’d had a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. But if a team is looking for a player who can contribute right away, Toppin is your guy. He is 22 years old, so his stock isn’t as high because of his age, but there have been several prospects — Malcolm Brogdon, Buddy Hield, Jimmy Butler among them — who excelled after being drafted at an “advanced” age, and Toppin may be the most NBA-ready of the group.
Since the Rockets filled their head-coaching vacancy with Stephen Silas, the Thunder are the lone club looking for a coach. One candidate who is intriguing is current Dayton coach and former Thunder assistant Anthony Grant. Grant led the Flyers to a top ranking this past season and potentially a shot at the national title before the season was wiped out by the pandemic. The Thunder may have waited on hiring a coach for financial reasons. With the start of the season uncertain until this past week, there was no sense of urgency to name a coach. But that could change soon. The Thunder will have to decide what to do with their roster as Danilo Gallinari is a free agent and likely headed elsewhere. And the club has a whopping $68 million invested next year in Chris Paul and Steven Adams, and they would like to move one of those players. Oklahoma City’s better players — besides Paul — are younger and still on rookie contracts, and with some extra first-round picks in the coming years, Oklahoma City is an intriguing spot for a young coach … Four teams have considerable cap space — Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, and the New York Knicks — and it will be fascinating to see how each team approaches this unusual offseason. It is an average free agent class at best with Anthony Davis the No. 1 target, but he’s expected to re-sign with the Lakers. These teams will also be watching which players decide to opt out of their contracts. But league executives, because of the unusual offseason and the uncertain salary cap, expect most players with significant salaries in the final year of their contracts to opt in to collect the money and avoid the unpredictable free agent market. The question for these teams with significant cap space is whether they sign players to padded one-year deals — as the Knicks did last summer — and then regain cap space for next summer when players such as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George could be free agents. Those four teams have been tough free agent draws over the past several years, with the Knicks having real trouble signing a cornerstone, and it could be the same situation in the coming weeks.