The NBA Finals wrapped up on October 11th. The Draft just happened on November 18th. Free agency opened on November 20th. No, these NBA calendar dates are not misprints; rather, they are a display of this most topsy-turvy year. Amidst the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, athletic leagues around the world have been put to the test and forced to navigate an ever-changing obstacle course. If it were to be graded, the National Basketball Association has put together a performance thus far that is deserving of an A. One of the highlights of America’s long-awaited return to professional sports was the NBA Bubble, an isolated campus inside the Walt Disney World resort in an area neighboring Orlando, Florida. With eight regular season games remaining, 22 of the league’s 30 teams were deemed “bubble-eligible” (teams that were statistically still in contention for the playoffs), and invited into this exclusive basketball world. With strictly enforced safety precautions, the NBA was able to conquer the extremely contagious coronavirus: not a single player, coach, or staff member tested positive for the virus while within the confines of the isolated Disney Bubble. The establishment and management of this bubble by Commissioner Adam Silver and the rest of the NBA leadership was truly remarkable, and earned much-deserved praise from millions of players, coaches, and fans. Through this incredible demonstration of resilience and determination, the league proved that they are ready to fight any battle thrown their way. The Los Angeles Times even referred to this NBA restart project as “the U.S.’s best coronavirus success story” in an article published on October 12, one day after the newspaper’s hometown Lakers won their record-setting seventeenth championship.
After the Lakers soaked in the moment of winning the most unique championship in NBA history, the Association had no choice but to immediately turn towards planning for the following season, which would be starting sometime around mid-October under normal circumstances. After many rumors spread and opinions had been formulated, the league and the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) reached an agreement to hold the Draft on November 18, begin free agency two days later, and start the 2020-2021 season on December 22. With many moving parts already manifesting themselves in the league this upcoming season, the first several days of the unparalleled 2020 offseason have proven to be icing on the cake. A multitude of big name players are packing their bags and heading to new cities, some teams are engaging in full-scale rebuilds, and other organizations are hoping to make a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Here, ten days into the offseason, I give you my ‘Top 10’ takeaways thus far (in no particular order):
The champs got even better.
Going into the playoffs, many people doubted the Los Angeles Lakers’ ability to make a championship run due to a lack of depth on their bench, despite featuring arguably the most formidable duo in the league in their starting lineup. Not only did the squad silence those critics en route to capturing the NBA title, but they then went ahead and bolstered their second line. In the biggest move of the champs’ offseason, they acquired the 2020 Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell, from their foe with whom they share a home–the LA Clippers. Another big signing for the Lakers was big man Marc Gasol, who most recently played for the 2019 champion Toronto Raptors. In addition, the Lakers traded for Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder, the runner-up to Harrell for the Sixth Man Award. This trio of new additions will provide a top-tier supplement to the lethal roster the Lakers already have in place. The only thing scarier than the biggest beast around is a stronger version of it. That is exactly what the Lakers are looking like for the upcoming season.
Dub Nation’s Dilemma:
After five consecutive trips to the Finals, the Golden State Warriors finished with the worst record in the entire association. During this descension from the top to the bottom, the Warriors were forced to endure the absence of Klay Thompson, a cornerstone of their franchise’s success, who had torn his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals. Just weeks before the new season is set to tip off, Thompson suffered a torn achilles, so he will now be out for another entire season. This will definitely prove to be a huge blow down the line for a Golden State team that is looking to get back into fighting for a title. In an attempt to make that happen, the Warriors’ front office was able to snag James Wiseman with the 2nd overall pick in this year’s draft as well as trade for Kelly Oubre Jr. These two pieces’ scoring attacks will most certainly help to heal the wounds inflicted by the tragic Klay Thompson news, but will not be able to completely make up for the severe loss.
Toronto’s towers are gone.
Coming off of a pretty disappointing sequel to their 2019 championship run, Canada’s team now finds themselves without their two powerful frontcourt presences–Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. While Masai Ujiri and the Raptors’ front office were able to resign their beloved guard, Fred VanVleet, to the highest-paying contract ever received by an undrafted player (85 mil over four years), the departure of Gasol and Ibaka could wreak havoc for Toronto down the stretch. The Raptors, who will be forced to relocate their organization to Tampa for the time being, will look to the leadership of their dynamic guards (Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet) to get back to where they were 18 months ago–hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy up for all to see.
The top dogs in the East take care of business.
Heading into the new season, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are the major favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. So far, both clubs have achieved their respective offseason goals. Brooklyn’s foremost mission for this offseason was to regain one of the game’s finest sharpshooters, Joe Harris. They did just that, signing Harris to a new 4-year, $75 million contract. Harris’ hot hand will provide an important complement to star point guard Kyrie Irving, and one of the sport’s all time greats in Kevin Durant, who will be making his much-anticipated debut for the Nets in December. Out in the midwest, the Bucks’ offseason priority was to bring in a big-name point guard to work alongside the two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee got it done, trading for Jrue Holiday, a seasoned veteran point guard who will be a key piece in getting the Bucks over the hump and into the Finals.
The Knicks are. . .making smart moves?
In the most lopsided year of 2020, not many sports storylines are more bizarre than the emergence of a competent front office running the show at Madison Square Garden. With new President Leon Rose taking the reigns of a hurting New York Knicks franchise, he executed his first draft to near perfection. Blessed with a lucky draft day slide, Obi Toppin landed in the hands of his hometown Knicks, who scooped him up with the number eight overall pick. Last year’s AP Player of the Year in college basketball, the Dayton sensation will bring a much-needed fiery edge to the Garden, in addition to nightly dunk shows that will likely have the Harlem Globetrotters looking to recruit him in a couple of years. Next, New York picked up a stellar shooter in Immanuel Quickley with the 25th overall pick. Quickley will work well with new Knicks assistant coach Kenny Payne, who came to the Big Apple a few months ago from Kentucky, Quickley’s old stomping grounds. The Knicks continued to shock the world with a third reputable draft night move, signing the undrafted local star, Myles Powell, arguably the biggest snub of this year’s draft. With many rumors swirling (as usual) regarding the Knicks and their huge amount of cap space looking to make a blockbuster trade for a big-name player (such as Russell Westbrook or John Wall), Leon Rose has steered the ship in the right direction: building from the ground up with young talent. A franchise that has failed rebuild projects too many times over the course of the past twenty years, the Knicks look like they are on the right track to properly execute this one.
Houston, we have a problem.
After yet another season culminating in a second-round departure for the Houston Rockets, many have been questioning the franchise’s direction–or lack thereof. Boasting two of the league’s best individual talents in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Houston was looking to make a championship run. But then, just weeks ago, new reports surfaced, saying that both of their stars wanted out. Of course, the departure of this dynamic duo would immediately plunge the organization into a rebuild project of its own. The Rockets, according to reports, have been adamant that they are willing to keep Westbrook and Harden if they do not receive a substantial offer from another team, even if the two players are unhappy with staying. Despite solid free agent signings with Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins, Houston has some stuff to settle before December 22. These Rockets are clearly not ready for liftoff.
Suns and Sixers making notable strides.
One of the NBA Bubble’s most intriguing headlines was the Phoenix Suns, who went undefeated while in Disney World. Devin Booker has solidified himself as a bonafide star in this league, and the addition of veteran leadership from Chris Paul will definitely help the Suns get over the hump and into the playoff race. Paul has been known to be a great leader on and off the court and will bring invaluable experience to Booker, the young face of the franchise. Phoenix will be posting a lethal backcourt with these two at the helm. Across the country, the 76ers are looking to get over a hump of their own and into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001. Bringing in Daryl Morey as the team’s new President and Doc Rivers as the team’s new head coach, Philadelphia is looking to bring a new look to this season. Acquiring Danny Green and Dwight Howard, who were both instrumental bench pieces for the champion Lakers last season, will be extremely valuable down the road. Additionally, Philly’s need for shooting was addressed with Morey’s first draft pick as President, selecting Tyrese Maxey, a great Kentucky-bred player who should see a significant role on this year’s team. The supplemental trade for Seth Curry will also provide great depth for Doc Rivers this season.
Hero or hoax in Charlotte?
The Michael Jordan-led Hornets made a sizable splash over the past couple of weeks. The team landed LaMelo Ball with the third overall pick, a player whom some considered to be this year’s best draft prospect. Ball comes into the NBA with ultra-high expectations, as his family has been in the spotlight of the basketball world for the past several years. As the Hornets had begun to rebuild, they suddenly brought in Gordon Hayward on a 4-year, $120 million deal, but why? In this year’s free agency class, Hayward is a high risk, high reward option. Having dealt with gruesome injuries the past 3 years, Hayward’s greatest ability seems to be availability. Once he is on the court and healthy, he could definitely light up the scoring sheet. This Hayward-Hornets contract initially seems like a head-scratcher for an organization looking to develop a decently established young core. The looks of it indicate that the Charlotte front office is attempting to form yet another star-studded duo in the league with Hayward and Ball leading the charge towards a win-now mentality for the upcoming season. But only time will tell whether or not this pans out how Charlotte is hoping it will.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Atlanta Hawks have been on fire. Another team that is looking to develop young talent, the Hawks went out and secured not one, not two, but three big-name free agents. Arguably the most underrated move of free agency thus far, Atlanta’s acquisition of one of the league’s best veteran point guards, Rajon Rondo, will be vital to Trae Young’s development into a superstar at the same position. Coming off a title run in Los Angeles, Rondo will bring championship experience to an organization looking to level up. Additionally, the signings of Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanović will be major for Atlanta moving forward. Both players have a very high chance of being inserted into the starting five by December 22. With these new additions, the Hawks have a very high ceiling, and they should make what would be their first playoff appearance in four years.
2nd Round Steals:
If I had to pick one principal takeaway from this year’s NBA Draft, it would have to be the trio of top tier point guards that slid all the way to the late second round. Tre Jones, Nico Mannion, and Cassius Winston were three of the nation’s top talents in college basketball last season. However, not a single one of them came off the board within the first 40 picks of the draft. Tre Jones, selected with the number 41 overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs, has been blessed with a coaching sequence of Mike Krzyzewski and now Gregg Popovich. He will be set to thrive within an organization that is perfect for his skillset. Nico Mannion, selected with the number 48 overall pick by the Golden State Warriors, will be able to soak in a great opportunity to hone his skills in the footsteps of Stephen Curry, one of the game’s all-time greats at the position. Cassius Winston, selected with the number 53 overall pick by the Washington Wizards, can expect a sizable role in the nation’s capital as a spark plug off the bench. He, too, will be afforded an invaluable opportunity to learn from John Wall and Bradley Beal, who comprise one of the league’s most skilled backcourt duos. Each of these players was a major steal and will most definitely become an instrumental ingredient for their team’s success.