This first appeared in the Aug. 20 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
Last week, we dove into the Eastern Conference’s offseason, taking a look at all 15 teams.
This week, it’s the West’s turn — beginning with the only team in either conference that could truly qualify as both a winner and a loser for how the summer unfolded.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers got LeBron James. Duh.
Los Angeles Lakers
Wait. What? How could the Lakers be losers when they signed James?
Because of everything they did after signing him, making the least optimal moves possible to maximize James’s talents. The three other outside free agent signings for more than a minimum — Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley — all need the ball in their hands and provide no spacing when James has it. While the young players could improve, playing with James isn’t easy — and it isn’t clear they’ll be able to handle it. The collection of centers — JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and rookie Moritz Wagner — might be the NBA’s worst.
Yes, the Lakers have LeBron. But the rest of the roster is a giant question mark. The fact this team could potentially miss the playoffs even with James on its roster is not only an indication of the depth of the West, but the failure of the Lakers to improve the rest of their roster this summer.
It took an extra three years, but Dallas finally got DeAndre Jordan — and only on a one-year deal, which was the best outcome for the Mavericks. And getting Luka Doncic in a draft night trade with the Atlanta Hawks gives Dallas the chance, along with Dennis Smith Jr., to build the bridge to the post-Dirk Nowitzki Era. That’s a pretty darn good summer.
Oklahoma City Thunder
When Oklahoma City was sent home in the first round two months ago, Paul George seemed sure to leave as a free agent. But there he was, as the clock struck 11 p.m. Central on June 30, standing on a stage with Russell Westbrook declaring he wasn’t going anywhere. That alone made this summer a victory. Keeping Jerami Grant and turning Carmelo Anthony into something — even if Dennis Schroder has his issues and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is more theory than reality at the moment — was a nice piece of work by Thunder General Manager Sam Presti.
The Grizzlies desperately needed to hit with their first-round pick. In taking Jaren Jackson Jr., it appears they did just that. And the team’s second-round pick, Jevon Carter, is a perfect fit for Memphis’s culture, too. Swapping Ben McLemore and Deyonta Davis for Garrett Temple was an upgrade, and Kyle Anderson should be a nice fit, too.
Did Memphis become a title contender? No. But this was a summer full of solid moves for the Grizzlies, and assuming Mike Conley and Marc Gasol can stay healthy, should make Memphis a much tougher foe this season.
Golden State Warriors
For all of the noise signing DeMarcus Cousins created, here’s what it didn’t do: solve Golden State’s biggest problem of last season. What was that problem? Wing depth. But fixing that wasn’t as important as re-signing Kevin Durant or even keeping Kevon Looney, and the potential upside of signing Cousins still makes this a positive summer — as does the competition failing to close the gap.
But Golden State, whether it re-signs Pat McCaw (as expected) or not, is going to have to find a way to fill that gap at some point this season. If the Warriors are healthy, they are the best team and will win another title. But as Andre Iguodala’s injury in the Western Conference finals proved, the Warriors don’t have a big margin for error against the league’s elite teams. And they didn’t improve that margin this summer.
Utah was one of several teams in the West that made minimal moves this summer. So why are the Jazz the only one of those teams to be in the winner category? Because Utah has a solid foundation, a stable organization and a young superstar to build around. The Jazz didn’t make a big move this summer, but they had the ability to be patient and kept their flexibility for the future.
Deandre Ayton should be able to step in and immediately produce after going first overall in the draft. The same goes for Mikal Bridges, whom Phoenix jumped up to 10th to take in the draft. Trevor Ariza will provide some much-needed veteran leadership. And most importantly, Igor Kokoskov should provide the kind of system and structure this franchise has desperately needed for years.
There are things to question about most of these moves — Doncic is a better prospect, trading up for Bridges has some risk, and Ariza is a bit of an odd fit on such a young team. But in total, these are positive steps for a franchise that hasn’t made many recently.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s never a good summer when you lose one of the best players in the NBA, as the Spurs did in trading Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. But it wasn’t as awful a summer as many have made it out to be.
Yes, DeMar DeRozan isn’t as good as a healthy version of Leonard. But: A) none of us know if Leonard will be healthy this year. B) Leonard only played nine games last season. C) DeRozan is very good in his own right.
The combination of DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl will help San Antonio this year. Along with a healthier version of Rudy Gay, Manu Ginobili likely being back, plus continued improvement from Dejounte Murray, should allow the Spurs to stay in the mix in the West — and will mitigate the damage that comes from losing a player like Leonard.
New Orleans Pelicans
Losing DeMarcus Cousins is less of a loss than many think. Yes, he is very talented. But playing without him did allow New Orleans to play a different way last year — a way that allowed the team to have a lot of success. Adding Julius Randle also should make the Pelicans better this year, given he can play that up-tempo style they shifted to after Cousins got hurt, and he will be available all season, as opposed to the half Cousins likely would’ve been available to play.
The issue is at point guard, where Rondo — despite his faults — was a solid fit. In his place is Elfrid Payton, who still has upside, but has yet to show it can be turned into production. Jrue Holiday can obviously play there, but he was at his best playing next to Rondo last year. Those are big shoes to fill for Payton.
Los Angeles Clippers
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a real find at No. 12, and replacing DeAndre Jordan with Marcin Gortat allowed the Clippers to keep their cap space for next summer. The same goes for Avery Bradley’s two-year deal with a partially guaranteed second year and Luc Mbah a Moute returning on a one-year deal. With a roster featuring eight players on expiring contracts, the Clippers can pivot in just about any direction this season, depending on how things go.
The Rockets were so close to beating the Warriors last season. They said the plan was to run things back.
Then they didn’t retain Ariza and Mbah a Moute, both leaving on one-year deals. They didn’t use their mid-level exception to sign anyone, other than giving second-round pick De’Anthony Melton a multiyear deal. They did sign James Ennis to a minimum deal, who should be a good fit, but also signed Michael Carter-Williams and Carmelo Anthony to one-year deals, who both seem like bad fits.
So why, with all of that info, is this only a lean loser? Because these are the Rockets, and they have earned the benefit of the doubt. It was only a few years ago that Chandler Parsons was leaving in free agency and people were wondering what the Rockets were thinking. That summer, Houston signed Trevor Ariza. And things worked out just fine.
Perhaps that will happen again this time around. But right now, it looks like Houston took a big step back. We’ll see if the Rockets can prove their doubters wrong once again.
One other thing to consider: Ariza is on a large expiring contract on a team that is going to be, even with its improvements, among the worst in the West and should be nowhere near a playoff spot. That could lead to Ariza being a buyout candidate. And who could use him more than just about any other team?
That would be Houston. That is one possibility to keep in mind for how the Rockets will solve their current deficit on the wings.
Michael Porter Jr. was an inspired choice in the draft, even though he’s almost certain to spend this entire season rehabbing. Re-signing Will Barton was good, too, as was getting Nikola Jokic signed to a long-term deal.
But the Nuggets gave away a useful player in Wilson Chandler, as well as a first-round pick to dump Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried to get below the luxury tax threshold. That made the team undoubtedly worse. Denver has enough young talent to keep improving, but the cost-cutting moves hurt.
The Timberwolves largely stood pat this summer in free agency after making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, and they had a good draft getting Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop.
So why are the Timberwolves in this category? Because of the turmoil that surrounds the team. There are rumblings of discontent surrounding all three of the team’s pillars — Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns (who still, for some reason, hasn’t been signed to a long-term contract extension this summer) and Andrew Wiggins. The same could be said about Tom Thibodeau’s management style.
Could Minnesota win over 50 games and push for home court in the playoffs? Yes. Could Minnesota win 45 games and miss the playoffs, see Butler leave in free agency and fall back in the West hierarchy? Yes. Few teams have a wider variance heading into next season than Minnesota does.
Portland Trail Blazers
Yes, Portland finished third in the West last season. But the Blazers were swept out of the playoffs and proceeded to do little to change the team’s fortunes. Ed Davis was let go, likely to allow for more minutes for last year’s first-round pick, Zach Collins. Seth Curry replaced Shabazz Napier. But the Blazers failed to address the same issue they’ve had for years now: a lack of depth on the wing.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Kings, quite simply, can’t get out of their own way. In a draft class that looks like it has several potential stars in it, Marvin Bagley does not look like one of them. The Kings tried to sign Zach LaVine to a massive contract, but then were bailed out by the Chicago Bulls matching the restricted free agent’s offer sheet.
Sacramento has a lopsided roster with no clear style of play to adhere to. More importantly, the Kings don’t have their draft pick in next year’s draft — in a season when they are almost certain to be the worst team in the Western Conference and one of the worst in the NBA.
Perhaps Bagley will take strides forward. Perhaps De’Aaron Fox will, too. Perhaps Harry Giles will be both healthy and productive. But it’s still hard to see where Sacramento is headed and how it is trying to get there. Until that changes, it will remain in the same unfortunate stasis it has been for some time now.
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