A quick turnaround is far from the only challenge the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers face when the 2020-21 NBA season starts. Next season's title race figures to be even more wide open than the last one, with the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors eager to crash the party.
With the draft, free agency and a potentially wild trade season approaching, here are 11 questions that will shape how we see the title picture:
1. How does Milwaukee see itself?
Let's assume Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't simplify everything and sign the supermax before the season starts. What do the Bucks think they need to do in order to avoid a third straight playoff letdown? Do they attribute their second-round exit primarily to external factors (the bubble, bad luck) or internal ones (holes on the roster, strategy). Do they still think their conference finals loss in 2018 was mostly due to shooting variance? If they could redo last year's offseason, what would they do differently?
Milwaukee has been so dominant in the regular season that it can't be that far away from a championship. Teams like this, though, can be hesitant to make major moves for fear of the downside: It is risky to mess with chemistry, and if things go wrong the front office will look foolish for having fixed something that wasn't broken. With the burden of the back-to-back MVP's future potentially at stake, there is even more risk here.
Whatever the front office does next will tell us a lot.
2. Will the Warriors' post-Durant plan pay off?
Rather than losing Kevin Durant for nothing last summer, Golden State chose to pursue a double sign-and-trade for D'Angelo Russell. It flipped Russell for Andrew Wiggins a few months later, picked up the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 first-round pick for its trouble and is now ready to get back in the mix. If Bob Myers' front office plays this right, the gap year will look brilliant.
Thanks to Stephen Curry's broken hand and Klay Thompson's torn ACL, the Warriors have the No. 2 pick in this year's draft. They still have the $17.2 million exception from the Andre Iguodala trade, too, and they've presumably come to some conclusions about which of their younger players might be playable deep in the playoffs.
If a legitimate superstar were definitely available, there would be no debate about whether or not to trade the second pick. It's easy to say they should move Wiggins with one or both high-value picks rather than hoping he can fit in, and it's possible that this is their path to making other contenders fear them again. More likely, though, Myers will be looking at a bunch of imperfect options, and trying to choose the one that gives Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green the best chance to get back where they've been.
3. How will the Clips handle this pressure?
Years from now, I'll still be dumbfounded by the way the Los Angeles Clippers went out in the bubble. Of the elite teams, this was supposed to be the most versatile one, the one that could always fall back on its defense, the one with the stars that could generate good looks against anybody, the one that should be able to thrive under playoff pressure. Yeah, no.
Offseason pressure is a completely different thing, but the Clippers need to rise to the occasion this time. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are only signed through the end of this coming season, and the consequence of trading a zillion picks to bring them to Los Angeles is that the front office doesn't have a ton of extra stuff to make deals work.
Leonard is right that the Clippers need more basketball IQ. Specifically, they could use better passing. Maybe that means a new starting point guard, maybe it means acquiring a reserve who makes quick reads running pick-and-roll. Montrezl Harrell might still be worth more to the Clippers than he is in a sign-and-trade, and the same could be true of Marcus Morris. It's unclear how concerned the front office is about Lou Williams getting hunted defensively and how confident it is in Landry Shamet being a reliable weapon when it matters. It's hard to imagine, though, that the supporting cast will be exactly the same as it was.
4. What kind of team does Brooklyn want to be?
As long as they can avoid an outrageous bidding war, the Nets should re-sign free agent Joe Harris for all the obvious reasons. There is a case that they should hold on to the rest of the Atkinson-era holdovers, too -- Spencer Dinwiddie is a way better passer than people think, and maybe Steve Nash can talk Caris LeVert into playing the Manu role. Jarrett Allen was briefly demoted before the hiatus, but he sure played some beautiful bubble ball.
Since Kyrie Irving missed so much of last season, Brooklyn doesn't have much film of its guards working together. Even if it did, Durant changes everything, and the Nets might simply prefer to find a third proven star rather than having overqualified fourth and fifth options.
How much playmaking do you need when you have Irving and Durant on the roster? How much does the upside of LeVert and Allen matter if they can bring back a player who raises the team's ceiling immediately? These broader questions are just as important as, say, how much LeVert can develop as a spot-up shooter.
5. Who wants to chase rings with LeBron?
Now the champs must get greedy. They'll aim high if they can use their full mid-level exception, and they'll probably find a helpful role player or two willing to take the minimum. Playing with LeBron James doesn't guarantee you a ring, but recent history suggests you'll at least have a decent shot.
The Lakers will be looking for playmaking guards, especially if Rajon Rondo doesn't return. They could use some more shooting, too, and they might have a totally different center rotation next season. There's nothing wrong with bringing back a team with a similar profile to the one that just went 16-5 in the playoffs, but adding firepower would be better.
6. Could Miami make its move early?
Everybody knows the Heat want to preserve their financial flexibility, but, according to Pat Riley himself, they're open to jumping on a opportunity now if it "can really take us to another level talent-wise."
"If the next thing presents itself and helps us move the needle up, then you know us," Riley said recently. "We'll pull the trigger."
The Finals run makes Miami an even more appealing destination than it already was. But what would it take for the front office to cut into its 2021 cap room? What constitutes moving the needle? Whatever the answer is, it doesn't seem likely that the Heat will pull it off, but getting Jimmy Butler without cap space didn't seem all that likely, either.
7. Will Morey come out swinging?
Daryl Morey is in charge of the Sixers now, so the front office is no longer tied to the moves it made in the summer of 2019. It's no longer necessarily invested in making the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid partnership work, either.
But Morey's history of bold moves doesn't mean he's going to split the stars up immediately. Barring an extraordinary trade opportunity, his job is to maximize Simmons and Embiid. The Houston Rockets were extremely intentional in targeting role players who complemented James Harden, and they never would have acquired the superstar in the first place without a series of moves on the margins.
Morey isn't afraid to swing big when he thinks his team has a legitimate shot at a title. In Philadelphia, though, it might be more practical to start small.
8. What's Denver up to?
The Nuggets have their own free agents -- Jerami Grant, Paul MIllsap, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig -- to deal with, and then there are extensions (Monte Morris and Will Barton are both eligible) and trades to consider. Denver would surely love to build on its encouraging playoffs by improving on the wing.
9. Is something happening with Hayward?
The safe bet is that Gordon Hayward will pick up his $34.2 million player option and stay with the Boston Celtics, so I won't go too deep here. But if he wants a long-term deal, a fresh start or a bigger role, he has options. And unless he and one of the cap-space teams -- Atlanta, New York, Charlotte, Detroit, possibly Miami -- have mutual interest, he would have to work with the Celtics on a trade (or sign-and-trade).
10. Does Toronto have anything up its sleeve?
Much like Miami, the expectation is that the Raptors' top priority is to keep themselves in the Antetokounmpo game. Ideally, though, they'd do that without taking a step back next season. This will be tough, with Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Chris Boucher hitting free agency simultaneously. I wonder, though, whether they might temporarily compromise their cap space in certain situations, provided that it would increase their title chances and they're confident they could move contracts next summer if necessary.
11. What is Harden thinking?
Harden has a new GM and a new coach, but we don't know what else is going to be different in Houston. I'd love to know his honest thoughts on:
- What changes, if any, need to be made to the Rockets' offense under Stephen Silas
- Whether or not the front office needs to add a lob-catching center
- Which low-cost free agents he'd most like to recruit
The most important question, though: How committed is he to sticking it out with this Houston organization? Morey is the one who traded for him when he was a sixth man and let him run the show. The roster is aging. The Rockets don't have unlimited chances to get this right.