Let's take a look at the remade landscape of the NBA after one of the wildest weeks in league history.
Winner: The champs
The Los Angeles Lakers got better, though it took two high-wire, last-minute moves to cinch it: retaining Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after a 48-hour game of chicken, and finagling a two-year deal for Marc Gasol.
With Caldwell-Pope back and Wesley Matthews replacing Danny Green, the Lakers have five proven perimeter players around LeBron James and Anthony Davis -- the same number they had in the bubble, and enough for multiple Davis-at-center lineups.
Ideally, one of those half-dozen would be a bigger wing with 3-point range and the ability to guard power forwards so LeBron doesn't have to. That could be Kyle Kuzma if he finds his stroke after shooting 31% from deep over the past two seasons.
Unlike last season, one of those perimeter guys -- Dennis Schroder -- is a real threat to score off the dribble. That is massive as LeBron ages, and during a compressed season in which the Lakers should ease his burden.
Schroder hit 41% of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season -- a career high, though he has nailed at least 35% in four of the past five seasons. Everyone looks better when LeBron spoon feeds them.
Schroder is a sub-30% shooter on pull-up 3s, but his pick-and-roll with LeBron, Davis, and Montrezl Harrell should still be dangerous. Chase Schroder over those picks, and he knifes into the lane -- drawing help, and unlocking lobs. Duck under, and Schroder eases into midrangers. Schroder has hit almost half his long 2s in four of the past five seasons. The Thunder scored about 1.2 points per possession when defenders scooted under picks against Schroder -- eighth among 117 ball handlers who faced that coverage at least 50 times, per Second Spectrum.
Schroder's not a star, but he's a solid, athletic player in his prime who should thrive next to superstars. Capped-out contenders rarely get chances to acquire those sorts of players.
Gasol could amplify everyone else unless his playoff performance -- 5-of-27 on 3s, painful attempts to finish at the rim in the second round against Boston -- was a harbinger. I'll bet on the larger sample of Gasol draining 38.5% from deep in the regular season and remaining a backline bulwark on defense. Gasol can be too unselfish on offense -- almost shot-phobic -- but that doesn't matter with LeBron and Davis both on the floor.
The Gasol-Davis tandem will smother the rim, as the Lakers did playing big last season. Gasol can spot up around the arc, decluttering the lane for Davis post-ups and freeing Davis to dive-and-dunk more on the pick-and-roll -- something JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard could not do. Even aging Gasol can punish power forwards in the post when opponents slot their centers onto Davis.
The Lakers' have sacrificed offensive rebounding in reshaping their center rotation, but the upgrade in spacing should compensate.
I don't love the Harrell-Davis fit as much. Harrell cramps spacing without offering the same rim protection or rebound munching. The LeBron-Davis-Harrell trio will work anyway, because LeBron-Davis-anyone works. But starting Gasol would separate Harrell and Davis, and let the Schroder-Harrell two-man game sing -- with Schroder working as Harrell's new Lou Williams. Some top-line centers expose Harrell defensively.
As the capper, the Lakers coaxed Markieff Morris back to provide some stylistic flexibility.
This team should be considered favorites to repeat.
TBD: The Milwaukee Bucks
Pretend the Bogdan Bogdanovic fiasco never happened, and ask yourself: Are the Bucks better than they were two weeks ago?
On the Lowe Post podcast before the playoffs, I asked ESPN's Kevin Pelton what Milwaukee's closing five was. In my view, it was Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and three blank spaces. They could not count on Eric Bledsoe as one. Some would have deservedly nominated Brook Lopez. But he shot 31% from 3, and there was some argument Milwaukee's best lineups featured Antetokounmpo -- not Lopez -- at center.
The exercise underscored how tough it was for the Bucks to put four reliable shooters around Antetokounmpo without kneecapping their defense.
Jrue Holiday fills one of those three blanks. Bogdanovic would have filled the fourth. The Bucks need as many players as possible who do all three of these things: run a functional pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo as screener; hit jumpers when defenders slide under those Antetokounmpo picks; hang in on defense. Bogdanovic checked all three boxes. Holiday does too, though some defenses will dare him to hoist.
D.J. Augustin can run a nifty pick-and-roll, but he won't survive on defense at the end of late-round playoff games; Milwaukee's three-year, $21 million deal for him was a little much, even if it was slim pickings by then. Bryn Forbes presents the same problem, Torrey Craig the inverse.
Bobby Portis has real talent on offense, and the Bucks will channel it the right ways -- lots of 3s, many fewer long 2s and isolations. But it's unclear if Portis has a position on defense, and something has probably gone wrong if he's one of Milwaukee's regular closers -- either in Lopez's place, or next to him.
That leaves Milwaukee dependent on Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton improving their jumpers enough to earn respect from defenses, or make defenses pay for swarming Antetokounmpo. (Both shot about 33% from deep last season.) Maybe it happens. Those guys are good.
Milwaukee's depth took a hit. Bledsoe was good in the regular season. George Hill led the entire stinking league in 3-point shooting.
But the Bucks have done, and overdone, the depth thing. Hill does not put his imprint on the game every possession.
Adding another borderline All-Star in Holiday gives Milwaukee a tick more of what wins in the playoffs. They still don't have a traditional "second-best guy on a championship team," but they have two No. 3 types.
That uptick is worth the five draft assets they forked over for Holiday -- three picks, two swaps, minimal protections on any of them -- only if it's the thing separating you from the title, or if it gets Antetokounmpo's signature on the supermax.
If that happens, the Bucks are offseason winners -- even if they didn't improve their team that much. They already kind of are, because ...
Winner by default: Miami, Brooklyn, and other East contenders who held the fort
Toronto might not fall off that much in the regular season with Chris Boucher, Aron Baynes, and Alex Len taking the center minutes from Serge Ibaka and Gasol. Baynes will learn the cadences of Kyle Lowry's and Fred VanVleet's pick-and-roll games fast. Boucher looms as an interesting weapon if he can make a mini-jump in 3-point shooting.
The playoffs might prove a different story. Ibaka over four seasons developed a beautiful, intuitive feel for playing off Toronto's guards -- and an ability to make the next play in open space. Gasol has long been expert at that. Having two bigs who steadied the offense in the middle of whirring possessions was vital to Toronto's championship.
Baynes has to show his 3-pointer is real. He cooled last season after a scorching 25-of-57 start, and he's about to turn 34 with a lot of nicks in the rearview. Lowry is almost 35. He has defied age, but the drop-off will come sometime. Toronto might have fallen from fringe title contender to solid playoff team.
The 2020-21 Celtics have a lower ceiling with less margin for injury and bad luck now that Gordon Hayward is in Charlotte. They made the conference finals mostly without Hayward, but it was a slog. His missing ballhandling, vision, and pull-up jumper began to feel essential as the Celtics scrounged for points against Toronto's box-and-one and Miami's zone (which they eventually solved).
They didn't lose Hayward for nothing, really. In his place, they gained access to the full midlevel exception, which they used on a two-year, $19 million deal for Tristan Thompson -- an overpay. (They might also end up with a giant trade exception if they execute a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets.) They can build next season's roster without fear of a crippling tax bill when Jayson Tatum's mega-max kicks in.
I'm not sure what precisely went haywire in the Boston-Indiana-Charlotte Hayward vortex. You couldn't be unless you were on Celtics-Pacers trade calls, and even some of those people might have lingering questions or divergent memories. Here's what I'm confident in:
• Boston misread Hayward's desire to leave, even for a rebuilding team. The Pacers played it right by waiting out Hayward's opt-in deadline, and forcing the Celtics to negotiate under threat of Hayward walking into Charlotte's cap space. Trade talks stalled. Boston offered something less than Charlotte. Hayward walked.
• Boston did not want Myles Turner enough to accept a Pacers package centered on him and whatever other players (and maybe picks) Indiana offered in conjunction. Perhaps Boston wanted Turner only if he came with one or two specific Pacers -- players Indiana apparently did not make available in that context. (Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe reported the nitty-gritty of the proposals.) Perhaps the Celtics thought they had more leverage to ask for the moon, confident Hayward would re-sign. Bottom line: If Boston really wanted Turner, he would probably be a Celtic.
Turner makes $18 million in each of the next three seasons. Thompson will make about $9.5 million in each of the next two. Turner is a polarizing player with murky trade value. The emergence of Domantas Sabonis marginalized Turner on offense. He can be tentative with the ball when the game is in motion. He can't post up switches, a huge problem the Heat exposed in the postseason.
But he jacked up his 3-point rate last season, and he's a fearsome deterrent at the rim on defense. He should keep improving. I'm curious to see what he does under Nate Bjorkgren, and remain curious about how Brad Stevens would have nudged Turner's game.
Time will tell how Boston's wager plays out. Internal development from Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and other kiddos might soften the blow of Hayward's departure. Maybe Tatum has another jump. Why put limits on him? But Boston's 2020-21 ceiling is a little lower.
The Heat did what they do, tweaking on the fringes with team-friendly deals that would provide grist in a sign-and-trade for Antetokounmpo next summer -- should such a scenario come to pass.
Avery Bradley addresses Miami's weakness defending waterbug point guards. Maurice Harkless is a steal at $3.6 million, but the Heat might miss Jae Crowder. Crowder and Harkless are wings with size to guard up a position, but Harkless is a reluctant and less accurate 3-point shooter. If Miami can't squeeze enough offense out of him, it will have to play smaller -- with Andre Iguodala or Jimmy Butler masquerading at power forward. The Heat did that in stretches during the playoffs, but it can be taxing in the wrong matchup.
There are skeptics around the league who consider Miami's run to the Finals something of a fluke -- the product of the bubble's strangeness. There is no question Miami's militaristic culture steeled the Heat for the isolation and all-basketball, all-the-time environment of the bubble. That environment took a toll on other teams.
But there was nothing about the way Miami played -- the style, the effort, the principles -- that shouldn't carry over into a normal season. The Heat went 12-3 against the East in the playoffs. They were the only postseason opponent to take more than one game from the Lakers, and they managed that while navigating injuries to two of their three best players. If the Heat don't make the Finals or the conference finals this season, it's not because their run was the product of luck. It is because the East is deep.
The Nets are finally here, James Harden or no James Harden. The Sixers make more sense.
I addressed the Charlotte end of the Hayward's four-year, $120 million deal in detail on The Lowe Post this week. It's not a good contract, and the downside is crippling. But how would you have reacted if the Celtics or Pacers agreed to pay Hayward something like $105 million over four years? Also: Does the luxury tax foster competitive balance if what ends up happening -- and I haven't studied how often this indeed ends up happening -- is a really good team in a more attractive market losing its fourth option, and a not-so-good team in a not-as-attractive market overpaying that same fourth option?
Winner: Players who get traded to good teams -- and good shooters
Of course, the difference is that Boston and Indiana are really good teams. The Hornets are not. Good teams are usually capped out, with no way to replace starters who bolt. They are left to pay whatever it costs.
This is what John Hollinger of The Athletic has nicknamed the Bird Rights trap, and why Marcus Morris Sr., Joe Harris, and Jordan Clarkson among others signed deals ranging from $13 million per season (Clarkson) to $18 million (Harris).
One of the best things that can happen to a solid player in the last year of his contract is being traded from a bad team to a good one. If I were an agent, I'd be trying to make this happen with several of my clients every season. It is a goldmine.
All of these deals carry some risk. This salary range is for above-average starters. Clarkson is a reserve, but he played well in heavy minutes for Utah. His game did not feel as redundant there as I had expected. He will have to prove last season's shooting numbers -- career-high marks on 3s and 2s -- were not outliers, and that his scoring punch is as valuable with Bogdanovic back.
Harris and Morris are good players who mesh with superstars. Morris is already 31, so his four-year deal, $64 million has more downside. Harris is 29, and he's one of the best shooters in the world.
Everyone wants shooting, obviously. In both the draft and free agency, you see a lot of teams adopting an, "All else equal, give me the better shooter" stance. There are few perfect non-superstars. Most have some liability. The playoffs lay those bare. Bad defenders and bad shooters become harder to play. The presence of a poor shooter infects every offensive possession. On the flip side, not every opponent is well-equipped to attack poor defenders with LeBron's relentless cruelty. At least that's how some teams conceive of it. This is how Davis Bertans gets $80 million from a capped-out team who is an underdog to make the playoffs.
I can't really get upset about the Minnesota Timberwolves lavishing Malik Beasley with a four-year, $60 million deal -- or Minnesota's alleged glut of guards and wings. Beasley averaged 21 points and shot 43% from deep on a ton of attempts after the Wolves acquired him from Denver. It's too early for Minnesota to worry about splitting minutes between D'Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio, Jarrett Culver, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, and Beasley. Play three of them at a time, if that's what it takes. Hell, get funky and play four here and there. Let them compete for minutes.
Gallinari agrees to contract with Hawks
Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down why the Hawks decided to pick up Danilo Gallinari in free agency.
Winner: The wheelin', dealin' Atlanta Hawks
After landing Bogdanovic on a decent value offer sheet, the Hawks should enter next season as the favorites to snag the No. 8 seed going into the play-in tournament. (Remember: There are seven good-to-great playoff incumbents in the East.) If things break right, they could run away with No. 8 and even chase No. 7.
I like the Bogdanovic move more than the three-year, $60 million deal for Danilo Gallinari -- though the Hawks were smart to, according to sources, guarantee only $5 million of Gallinari's salary in that third year. Atlanta needs Bogdanovic's polished supplementary ballhandling on the wing to keep the offense moving and activate Trae Young as a Curry-esque roving off-ball menace. Bogdanovic is barely 28, not that far outside Atlanta's overall timeline.
Gallinari is 32 with a worrisome injury history. Depending on several variables, including John Collins' future, Atlanta might have just used its last cap space bullet before its young core gets paid. Gallinari brings some potentially awkward positional overlap with Collins, but talent is talent. The Hawks made so much noise as to merit their own column. Stay tuned.
Winner: Two feel-good West bubble stories
Is it a comedown to say the (deserved) raves about the Portland Trail Blazers offseason are really only about player -- Robert Covington? We don't know how Rodney Hood will rally from an Achilles tear. Derrick Jones Jr. will fill gaps in the regular season, but he faded from Miami's rotation as the playoffs got tougher. He might carve out a lasting role as the lone non-shooter in lineups with Zach Collins at center -- groups in which Jones can screen and dive for alley-oops, as he did within Miami lineups featuring Kelly Olynyk as a stretch 5.
Harry Giles III is a fun flier who will benefit from Portland's buttoned-up culture, but he's merely that -- a flier.
Still: The Blazers felt one medium-sized move and some good health away from being a problem. Jusuf Nurkic looked like his old self in the bubble. Collins will be back at some point soon to toggle between power forward and center. His development, stalled by injury, is a wild card.
Covington might be the perfect piece to lock everything into its proper place. Trevor Ariza sitting out the bubble forced Portland to cobble a forward rotation from spare parts. The Blazers managed. Carmelo Anthony proved the doubters (this one included) wrong. But it was not sustainable. Portland was helpless on defense.
Covington is the prime 3-and-D guy this roster craves. Collins should grow into a plus defender. Give Nurkic more help on the perimeter, and he can stanch some bleeding.
Can Terry Stotts construct a league-average defense from this group? He has done it before. Do it again, this team could chase the No. 3 seed and -- with a speck of luck -- end up in its second conference finals in three seasons.
How good are Suns after trading for Chris Paul?
Dave McMenamin and Zach Lowe break down what adding Chris Paul means for the Suns.
The Suns, bubble darlings, are making the playoffs if they remain healthy. I loved the Crowder addition, even if his 3-point shooting comes and goes as suddenly as a summer thunderstorm. He has more heft than Cameron Johnson jostling with power forwards. With an elite shooter in Chris Paul replacing Rubio, the Suns can (if they want) exchange some shooting for defense at power forward in the starting five.
They are maybe a player and a half short of an airtight rotation unless Cameron Payne taps into whatever the hell possessed him in Orlando.
There is some opportunity cost in microwaving a fun playoff team with Paul. The Suns took themselves out of the cap space game for the next two summers, since cap holds (or new deals) for Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges (and Bridges' arms) kick in for the 2022-23 season -- right as Paul's megadeal expires.
Cap space isn't just for free agents. Smart teams use it to acquire picks, which turn into players -- via either draft or trade -- that fit more snugly into their timelines than Paul does with the Valley Boyz. But every use of cap space is harder to pull off when a bunch of teams have it -- as could be the case over those next two summers. It's fine for Phoenix to have some fun, and try to end a decade-long playoff drought.
That's not a lock. The Lakers and Clippers remain elite. The Ibaka signing filled two holes at once for the Clippers -- those left by Harrell and JaMychal Green. Ibaka knows Kawhi Leonard's pick-and-roll rhythm, and adds a combination of shooting and rim protection the Clippers did not have.
Luke Kennard offers extra playmaking and the threat of a pull-up 3. Depending on where LA goes from here, he has a chance to be part of their crunch-time rotation. The Clippers are not done tweaking.
The loss of Jerami Grant will hurt Denver in the playoffs, but he's a little overrated on defense and the Nuggets will give-and-go teams to death in the regular season. I'm bullish on Portland. Utah is rock-solid. That's five.
They might start four average-or-worse (and in some cases way worse) shooters around Curry, which could make for tough sledding in the half court and foist an enormous burden onto Curry. If they get the Kent Bazemore who blazed in Sacramento, his shooting would open breathing room.
Dallas has gone all-in on defense and toughness around Luka Doncic, but we don't yet know when Kristaps Porzingis will be back. That seems important, even if the Mavs were fine when Doncic played without Porzingis last season. Dwight Powell is also injured.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook remain Rockets. If Harden is determined to get out, it will happen eventually, but there is no easy resolution in sight at this moment. Christian Wood might be the most versatile scoring big man Harden has ever played with (unless you count Kevin Durant as a big, and he's just more of a Kevin Durant); that pairing could be really dynamic. Sterling Brown on the minimum was a canny signing. An engaged Harden is a walking playoff berth.
That's eight teams, and we haven't gotten to Phoenix. New Orleans could boom. Memphis, the No. 8 seed entering the bubble, won't roll over. Someone among the Sacramento/San Antonio/Minnesota grouping will exceed expectations, though the Kings might be low-key semi-tanking. Injuries will roil the race.
But if Phoenix stays healthy, the Suns have a pathway in.
This year's Phoenix Suns "Stupider Like a Fox" award: Detroit Pistons
Last offseason, Phoenix pulled some absolutely wild stuff that didn't really make sense and evinced haphazard, reactive cap management. And guess what? Things worked out fine! The NBA can be forgiving like that. Bad value propositions can flip because of injury, luck, or some variable of a team's own making. Drafting high every year provides some cushion.
The Pistons might end up as this year's Suns. They were the butt of jokes as free agency opened, signing center after center as if planning to face Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in the Finals. One of them -- Tony Bradley -- is now in Philadelphia, and Detroit snared the No. 38 pick for serving as Bradley's way station. Another -- Jahlil Okafor -- is a harmless flier.
Detroit ended up with three 2020 first-round picks, adding Nos. 16 and 19 from Houston and Brooklyn. They overpaid for that No. 19 pick, exchanging Bruce Brown (rounding into a nice role player), Luke Kennard, and four (!) second-round picks -- including Detroit's unprotected second-rounders in 2024, 2025, and 2026 -- for Saddiq Bey (taken at No. 19) and the league's most irrationally confident player in Dzanan Musa. Bey has to be really freaking good to justify that.
Those four second-rounders appear to have been in part the cost of Kennard's past knee issues, sources say. Kennard's camp is confident those issues are behind him. The Clippers must be too, because they adored Landry Shamet -- whom they traded to Brooklyn in this three-team deal. I'm sure other factors contributed to the Pistons tossing away those picks: their concern that Kennard's next contract didn't align with their rebuilding timetable, and their strong interest in Bey.
It's kinda bonkers to acquire players specifically to waive them and stretch their dead money as a means of paying Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant $28 million per year -- doubly so when the Pistons had an easier solution staring them in the face: paying Christian Wood! Wood is by far the most intriguing among all these players. He just turned 25, and flashed (East) All-Star potential last season. There are well-documented concerns about Wood's punctuality and reliability, but no one seems to think he's a bad character guy. A rebuilding team should want Wood at $13.5 million per year way ahead of Grant (only 26, in fairness) and Plumlee at their respective salaries-- even if Plumlee can serve a veteran mentor role.
Grant is going to play small forward amid blah spacing as long as Blake Griffin and Plumlee are around. That's not ideal for Grant's playmaking ambitions. The Pistons in recent weeks made an exploratory call to the Washington Wizards about a potential swap of Griffin for John Wall, sources said, but Detroit's real level of interest in that deal is unclear; they value Griffin, and the conversation led nowhere, sources said. Tommy Sheppard, Washington's GM, said this week he has no plans to trade Wall. The extra year on Wall's deal suggests Detroit probably would ask for draft assets in any such swap.
Delon Wright is better than he looked in Dallas. Josh Jackson is on the rebound. Stretch his limits, and see if he can find the right balance between frenzy and control. I'd have taken more fliers like that instead of paying Plumlee, but it's not as if there were a ton of great names. Detroit will replenish some of those lost second-rounders in future dump deals.
If enough draft picks pan out, this feels like one of those situations where all the messy details will recede from memory.
Winner: New York fans
It was legitimately heartening to watch in real time as New York fans realized the Knicks were not going to do the usual Knicks things. Wait ... We're getting three second-round picks for acquiring and then trading Ed Davis? Isn't this what, like, the smart teams do? Am I dreaming? They reacted as if the Knicks had discovered plutonium, and you can't really blame them.
I reserve the right to retract all this if the Knicks trade good young players and/or picks for Russell Westbrook.