0 of 5
Matt Slocum/Associated Press
I’m stepping out on some NBA offseason limbs. Please, won’t you come with me?
Bold predictions tend to get a bad rap. They are more often considered exercises in laziness or disingenuous whimsy.
Sometimes, the knocks are fair. This Take Machine is meant to operate on a higher, more sensible level. It is spitting fireballs of various heat, but with actual aim. Each offseason prediction is the right mix of non-consensus opinion and totally plausible.
Most importantly: This isn’t a bit. These predictions are mine, and I believe in them, even though they’re the byproduct of gut feelings and tea-leaf interpretations and not presented with 100 percent confidence, let alone unflappable arrogance.
Let’s get to it.
1 of 5
Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Predicting that a might-be title contender’s second-best player won’t be traded is rarely bold. The Ben Simmons situation is something different.
His fit with franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid is miles from perfect. The Philadelphia 76ers need a more conventional No. 2 option who can shoulder more of the scoring and playmaking burdens in crunch-time postseason settings. Simmons hasn’t shown he can be that guy, and his offensive vanishing act in the Eastern Conference Semifinals rendered his future with the team fait accompli.
Philadelphia has officially “opened up trade conversations” involving Simmons, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. His departure no longer feels like a matter of if, but when.
It’s the timing to which yours truly takes exception.
Moving Simmons over the offseason wouldn’t be the most prudent move. His playoff performance is the last basketball display committed to everyone’s memory. That plus the Sixers actively making him available rather than using him to reel in a specific star (a la James Harden) suggests his value is at its absolute nadir.
Consider some of the scenarios being bandied about. The Indiana Pacers reportedly dangled Malcolm Brogdon and a first-round pick, per KRON4’s Jason Dumas. (The Indianapolis Star‘s J. Michael tweeted there was no such offer.) CJ McCollum-for-Simmons framework has also become an obligatory discussion point.
That’s…underwhelming. Simmons is supposed to be a franchise pillar, and he remains Defensive Player of the Year material as well as a high-IQ passer. Those players seldom get jettisoned in their mid-20s and with another four years left on their contract.
And yet, mention how much he’s owed ($146.7 million) or wonder aloud about what else the Portland Trail Blazers must attach to McCollum in prospective packages, and you’re likely to get pushback from parties outside of Philly. If Simmons’ contract is seen as more albatross than opportunity, then shipping him out before next season reeks of a change for change’s sake.
Maybe an offer comes along that’s more in line with the Sixers’ expectations and needs. They cannot accept a bid built around prospects and picks with Joel Embiid’s extension eligibility looming and their title aspirations intact. As one source told Charania: “[They] want an All-Star-caliber player in return.”
Getting that much for Simmons is not impossible. His All-NBA-level intrigue is not just gone. But it’ll be much easier for the Sixers to enter conversations with more leverage if they keep Simmons and let him rehabilitate his value ahead of next year’s trade deadline.
Sure, midseason shakeups aren’t ideal. Teams would rather have entire training camps and actual practice time to acclimate new arrivals. That still isn’t just cause to trade Simmons for a sub-maximum return.
2 of 5
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Forecasting a Bradley Beal and/or Zach LaVine trade goes against prevailing assumptions. The Washington Wizards do not plan to look at moving Beal, according to The Athletic’s Fred Katz, while the Chicago Bulls are only months removed from mortgaging part of their future to acquire Nikola Vucevic and extend their window with LaVine rather than ending it.
Things change, though. And both stars have the leverage to ensure they change quickly.
Beal and the Wizards are approaching an implicit fork in the road. He’s entering a contract year (2022-23 player option), and as presently constructed, the Wizards are nowhere near title contention.
This shouldn’t be a matter of his needing to request a trade for Washington to weigh a reset. If he doesn’t commit to staying beyond next season or the team is unable to dramatically improve the roster around him, the front office should go into the summer with the most open of minds.
LaVine is in a similar situation, as he is also entering the final year of his contract. Without assurances that he’ll stick around long term, the Bulls cannot let the Vooch trade cloud their judgment.
That assurance can take different forms. LaVine is extension-eligible, but he isn’t likely to sign one. A 120 percent raise off his current salary for 2022-23 (comes to $23.4 million) falls noticeably short of his projected max ($34.7 million). The Bulls instead need to see whether he’s amenable to a renegotiate-and-extend—which would give him an immediate raise and an extension on top at the expense of 2021 cap space—or if he’s just planning to re-sign with them next summer.
Verbal promises are shakier than dried ink. Beal and LaVine could pinky swear to re-signing with their incumbent squads in 2022, and their teams would still need to consider moving them against potentially losing them for nothing.
Something tangible needs to change in the status quo of both franchises. Anything can happen when stars are on the verge of hitting the open market, and with rival buyers subjected to a lackluster 2021 free-agency class, this could be the offseason in which Chicago and Washington find themselves in the driver’s seat of negotiations despite shopping stars on expiring contracts.
3 of 5
Brandon Dill/Associated Press
Landmark risk-taking is not a luxury enjoyed by most franchises in non-glamour markets. They are not the most commonly cited preferred destinations when stars request a trade, and their historically limited free-agency victories makes it difficult to take the same big swings as other franchises.
These teams are typically more guarded and methodical when building their rosters. Timelines aren’t as likely to be accelerated by blockbuster trades for stars who could leave in a year or two’s time. They don’t have the same access to insta-fixes should they fail.
Every once in a while, though, a dark-horse suitor crashes the red carpet.
The Toronto Raptors did it with Kawhi Leonard in 2018. He left after one year, but they won a championship during that season with him. The Phoenix Suns acquired Chris Paul last offseason, and while he wanted to be there, the move was not without risk. He turned 36 before the playoffs started, battled injuries prior to his layover in Oklahoma City and can leave as a free agent (player option). They nabbed him anyway and have a Finals appearance to show for it.
Some team will follow in the footsteps of Toronto and Phoenix (and OKC with Paul George). The immediate success of the Raptors and Suns after making those deals should embolden other non-traditional star landing spots to roll the dice in blockbuster negotiations.
Potential candidates abound. The Atlanta Hawks just made the Eastern Conference Finals and have an asset base ripe for consolidation. The New Orleans Pelicans have a handful of young players, plenty of first-round draft picks, short-term contracts to use as salary anchors and a sub-24-year-old All-Star in Brandon Ingram.
The Memphis Grizzlies just obliterated expectations in consecutive seasons and can assemble competitive offers around picks and players not named Ja Morant or Jaren Jackson Jr. The Minnesota Timberwolves have been anything but risk-averse under team president Gersson Rosas. The Sacramento Kings could decide to throw the kitchen sink-minus-De’Aaron Fox at the right trade target if it means ending a 15-year playoff drought. The Thunder can outbid everyone else’s draft-equity packages if they decide Shai Gilgeous-Alexander warrants getting an immediate sidekick.
The extent to which each of these teams should be contemplating all-in plays varies. But ACL injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Jamal Murray plus an aging LeBron James have opened a window of opportunity in the Western Conference. The Eastern Conference doesn’t offer the same wiggle room for imagination thanks to the Brooklyn Nets, but their Big Three isn’t what you’d call durable.
Go ahead and bet on some team trying to imitate the Suns or Raptors. It feels right.
4 of 5
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
This doesn’t even register on the Lukewarm Take meter in most offseasons. Multiple max-contract formalities always seem to be entering free agency.
Just not this summer.
Extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Jrue Holiday, LeBron James, et al. put a damper on what was initially billed as a star-studded free-agency crop. Kawhi Leonard (player option) now projects as the only max-contract lock, and no, his ACL injury will not impact how much money he gets from the Los Angeles Clippers or another team.
After him, the field gets dicey.
John Collins (restricted) seems like the only player capable of signing a four-year max, and that’s assuming admirers outside of Atlanta are prepared to tie up their cap space in someone whom they may not actually bag. Perhaps fellow restricted free agent Lonzo Ball works his way into the conversation if there’s a team dead set on getting him out of New Orleans, but that’s a longer reach. Even if it’s not, the list of candidates entering restricted free agency ends there.
Looking at the pool of unrestricted free agents doesn’t provide many alternatives. Will someone sign 35-year-old Kyle Lowry to a two- or three-season max? How about 36-year-old Chris Paul?
There is no ironclad answer. Forced to choose, Paul appears most likely to get the max payday, with Collins checking in as a semi-close second. But the who isn’t important.
All that matters is someone other than Kawhi will sign a max deal.
5 of 5
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
If anyone out there has a definitive grasp on what the Toronto Raptors plan to do this offseason, please, please, pretty please give me the 4-1-1. Because I have no idea.
Holding onto Kyle Lowry past the trade deadline would seem to suggest they’re willing to re-sign him and run it back with the No. 4 pick plus other additions. But they also came really close to moving him, which suggests he may be heading elsewhere in free agency.
If so, what happens then? Do the Raptors try treading water without him? They did win the minutes OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) and Fred VanVleet logged without Lowry, and they’ll be adding a top-four prospect to the fold.
Then again, does jumping up the lottery ladder make them more likely to embrace a quasi-teardown should Lowry head elsewhere? Anunoby just turned 25, so he can easily be part of any rebuild. But Siakam and VanVleet will both turn 28 before the end of next season. A full-scale reset should consist of trading one or both of them.
Many seem to think the Raptors will end up somewhere in the middle. Lowry will leave but there won’t be any other fireworks after they make their pick at No. 4. But team president Masai Ujiri—who, by the way, is a free agent himself—has yet to orchestrate a total rebuild during his time in Toronto and Denver. Between Lowry possibly leaving and nabbing the No. 4 pick in what’s considered a four-player draft at the top, this could be the impetus he needs to construct a team mostly from scratch.
At the same time, the Raptors were much better than this season’s record. They had a top-10 net rating prior to March and outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions with Anunoby, Lowry, Siakam and VanVleet all on the floor. Bringing back the best player in franchise history and fancying themselves major players in the East would be a totally rational angle.
And so, we land here, absent any middle ground. The Raptors will either double-down or dismantle this core. There will be no in-between.