10 NBA offseason questions: Will Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving be traded? Zion Williamson to get max deal?
The Golden State Warriors have won the 2022 NBA championship, their fourth title in the past eight years. It would seem like a good time for a breather, but the NBA doesn’t stop these days. The draft is Thursday, June 23, and free agency opens up at 6 p.m. on June 30.
Honestly, it sort of feels like the Warriors’ title is already old news. Now it’s about looking forward as rosters are about to be shook up all over the league. So let’s get it going. Here are the 10 big storylines to follow as we enter the NBA summer.
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1. Will Lakers trade Westbrook?
The Lakers have a new coach in Darvin Ham but they still have an old problem in Russell Westbrook, who is expected to opt into the final year of his contract for $47.1 million. There’s no getting around the Westbrook issues in L.A., and anywhere else, for that matter. A few smarter-than-you people will always try to sell the idea that it’s merely a role issue for Westbrook, who could still thrive with an offense catered to his strengths. That is extraordinarily false.
Could Westbrook still put up big numbers if some team dumb enough to do so simply handed him the ball and said do whatever you want? Sure. But that team is going to stink. Next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, you can’t reasonably put the ball in the hands of Westbrook, and he can’t space the floor as one of the worst positional shooters in history. Save your “he can cut!’ nonsense. That isn’t going to happen, and you can’t survive on a transition-only diet.
So the Lakers need to get rid of him, plain and simple. Whether they will is another story. In theory, Westbrook, on an expiring deal, should have some value for a team that’s not trying to win next season and could use an extra draft pick, but the Lakers, of course, are saying they won’t give up a first-round pick as a Westbrook tax. We’ll see if they stick to that.
On Monday, Shams Charania reported that contract talks between Irving and the Nets have “gone stagnant,” which “clears the way for the seven-time All-Star to consider the open marketplace.”
Irving has a $36.9 million player option on the table. If he doesn’t pick it up by June 29, he becomes a free agent. And here we go … the Lakers are among the three teams Charania listed as would-be Irving suitors should be become available. The other two are the Knicks and Clippers.
The Lakers and Clippers would need Irving to opt in and then trade for him by matching salary as they are in no position to clear the kind of cap space required to sign Irving outright. The Knicks could clear the space if they wanted to go that route.
The Lakers could involve a third team for Russell Westbrook to facilitate an Irving deal. The Clippers have some players the Nets might want (Robert Covington, Norman Powell). I think the Heat are a team to watch. Would Miami want to deal with all of Irving’s drama and uncertainty? And where do the Heat stand behind closed doors on eventually trading for Bradley Beal?
Dallas and New Orleans also strike me as teams that would be highly incentivized to look into an Irving swap.
Obviously, keep a close eye on this story.
3. Who gets a max rookie extension?
Ja Morant is a lock to get the max from Memphis. Darius Garland should be a near lock to get the max from Cleveland; he was an All-Star in his third season. After that, there are four players from the 2019 draft class with a shot at a max extension: Zion Williamson (New Orleans), R.J. Barrett (Knicks) Tyler Herro (Miami) and Jordan Poole (Golden State). From the 2018 class, Anfernee Simons, DeAndre Ayton (who we’ll talk more about lower in this article), Miles Bridges and Jalen Brunson could be in line for a max extension or something close to it.
It would seem a near lock that the Pelicans would offer a max extension to Williamson, who has said he would sign such an offer in a heartbeat … because why wouldn’t he? The catch could be that New Orleans might not be willing to guarantee all of that contract for precaution against Williamson’s already lengthy and troubling injury history.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst had this to say in late May:
“From what I have been told, the Pelicans, at this point, are not willing to offer a full five-year guaranteed deal. And a lot of it is flowing down from ownership. Gayle Benson, the owner, is also the owner of the New Orleans Saints. And I have been told they’re going to take a football-style, Saints-style mentality with this contract negotiation. They will offer him a huge contract but will not guarantee all of it.”
Williamson is eligible to sign for up to $195M, a number that would go over $200M if he makes an All-NBA team next season, but Windhorst mentioned $100M as a number that New Orleans might guarantee. The 76ers did this with Joel Embiid, who was also regarded as a major injury risk early in his career. Embiid had to meet certain minutes-played requirements to get all his money.
As for Barrett, he played extremely well down the stretch of the season, but he was terrible in his one playoff series and has been a volume scorer for the most part. The Knicks could choose to wait and see, as the Suns did with Ayton. If they don’t sign Barrett to an extension by October, they can still match any offer he gets as a restricted free agent next summer.
As for Poole, Herro and Simons, it is a question of defense. Pat Riley, in a not-so-subtle message to Herro and his representation, said the following at his season-ending press conference: “The next step for [Herro] — and I think we’re seeing this in the league — if you want to win a championship and you wanna be a starter, you really have to become a two-way player today.”
In other words, Riley won’t even commit to Herro being a starter for the Heat, let alone giving him a max contract extension worth up to almost $190 million, because at the moment Herro only plays one end of the court. That could very well go triple for Poole and the Warriors and Simons and the Blazers.
Poole, Herro and Simons can all be electric offensive scorers/creators, but to Riley’s point, we’re seeing more and more in the playoffs how detrimental bad defenders can be. Poole was being jumped in the rotation by Gary Payton II at times, solely for defensive reasons. It would’ve been interesting if Erik Spoelstra would’ve closed with Herro in tight conference final games had he been healthy.
For all Kyle Lowry’s drop-off on offense, he remains a defender who can carry his weight, which is to say he’s not going to be targeted, and that can be worth more than a guy who can make shots in a league who isn’t exactly short on one-way bucket-getters, especially if that bucket-getter is going to cost you almost $200M and spent much of last season coming off the bench, as both Herro and Poole did, as well as Simons before the McCollum trade/Lillard injuries. We shall see.
4. Mitchell, Gobert headed for divorce?
It feels like the end of this Jazz era is near. When Quin Snyder stepped down, Donovan Mitchell was reportedly “unsettled” about what that “means for the franchise’s future.” There have been multiple reports touching on a growing speculation, whatever that means, around the league that Mitchell might prefer a bigger market than Utah.
Mitchell is under contract for the next three years for over $97M. But we know contracts are of minimal significance these days. If a star wants out, he usually gets out. If the Jazz didn’t feel like they were topped out with this roster, my guess is Mitchell’s desire for a bigger market, while perhaps still true, wouldn’t be such a factor. But it does feel like the Jazz are topped out.
Gobert seems like the likelier guy to get traded, but Mitchell would probably bring back a bigger return. I’m not sure that should be the case. Gobert gets a lot of flak for his supposed inability to defend smaller lineups, but that’s way overblown. Rim protection and rebounding are still major components of a championship equation, and he’s fine on the perimeter.
Where Gobert is an issue is on the offensive end, where he can’t punish teams that play small and thus have to defend him with small guys. He’s a great roller and an elite screener, and both those things are major contributors to an elite offense. It’s just the individual offense. It’s not there. But everything else about is Gobert elite. Arm him with a decent group of perimeter defenders who can at least do their jobs keeping drivers in front and not be forced into constant over-rotations, and Gobert is going to deliver you a championship defense.
But Utah isn’t built that way, and again, it feels like the beginning of the end there. Will a trade happen around the draft or closer to the season or at the deadline? Jazz CEO Danny Ainge, a notoriously one-sided dealer, and GM Justin Zanik aren’t going to rush into any moves. But to say this is something to watch would be an understatement. Utah is among the top handful of teams that could look decidedly different in a few months.
5. Will Blazers trade No. 7 pick?
The Trail Blazers lost out on a second lottery pick when the Pelicans scraped into the playoffs, and their own tank job only landed them the No. 7 pick. They were hoping for better than that. But this is what they have, and most people would be very surprised if they don’t package that pick up and ship it out in return for a player who can push them closer to the contender conversation.
Atlanta’s John Collins has been mentioned. Jerami Grant. A sign and trade with Phoenix for Ayton seems unlikely. Portland needs defense on the perimeter and at the rim, and front-court shooting and playmaking. Lu Dort has been hinted at as a possible target for the Blazers, who are, according to Jake Fischer, prioritizing Toronto’s OG Anunoby in return for the No. 7 pick. Toronto having any interest in that deal might be another story.
Whatever the Blazers do, the clock is ticking on Damian Lillard’s loyalty. I know he says he loves it there and wants to win there and that’s all true, I believe. But more than one thing can be true, and Lillard wants an honest shot at a title. Portland has to find a way to give it to him. It shipped out CJ McCollum and Norman Powell and got almost nothing of value back, except for a bit of financial flexibility. That only matters if the Blazers do something with it.
6. Will Hawks consolidate?
Atlanta sped up its timeline with its surprise run to the 2021 conference finals, making this season’s first-round bounce all the more disappointing. Travis Schlenk and recently promoted GM Landry Fields will be looking to make moves, and they have an abundance of intriguing assets with which to work.
There have been reports that the Hawks plan to retain De’Andre Hunter on a long-term deal. Obviously Trae Young is untouchable. Atlanta likely wants to hang onto, and create a bigger role for, Onyeka Okongwu. But after that, might everyone be available? Fischer reported “there’s been plenty of talk among league personnel” regarding Atlanta as a prime suitor for Utah’s Rudy Gobert, should he become available.
The Hawks have a stable of good-but-not-great players that could be cashed in for a single impact player. Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari can all figure into a deal — Hunter and Okongwu, too, if it’s really a home run — and Atlanta has all its draft picks moving forward. Schlenk has moves to make. If the right one materializes, it’s hard to imagine Atlanta not pulling the trigger.
7. Best move for Harden, Sixers?
Like Irving, Harden is eligible for a max extension this summer. The Sixers aren’t going to give that to him, and neither is any other team. Harden already appears to be on the downslope, perhaps a steep one, and the Sixers or anyone else tying themselves to him for the next four or five years at a number north of $200M could, and probably would, have disastrous implications in the not-too-distant future.
Fischer recently reported that “all signs point toward Harden returning to the 76ers on a shorter-term contract extension.” Whether Harden exercises his $47M player option for this season with an extension for the two following years at a lower annual number, or opts out to start fresh with, say, a three-year deal for maybe $100M-120M, this approach makes a lot more sense.
If Harden is cool with locking up more guaranteed years at a lower annual number, opting out this season would afford the Sixers more flexibility as it would lower his cap hit from the player-option number and they would have access to the full mid-level exception.
If Harden really wants to do his part in helping the Sixers contend for a title, he’ll opt out and sign for less. It’s really that simple. He says he’s only concerned with winning. Not money. That’s good, because nobody is going to give him max money anyway.
8. How will Bulls take next step?
Zach LaVine was open about wanting to “enjoy free agency” but a recent report indicates LaVine intends to re-sign with the Bulls, who would, in that case, be charged with surrounding LaVine and DeMar DeRozan with as much defense as they can muster. It will help getting Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso back together. They were one of the best defensive duos in the league when healthy last season. We all love Ayo Dosunmu. Patrick Williams coming back will help immensely, too.
That said, Williams could be Chicago’s best bargaining chip to go out and land an actual defensive whale. We just talked about Rudy Gobert’s presumed availability. Chicago would be one of the teams that would be perfect for him as a roller and rim protector, and a package headlined by Williams and future draft picks could almost certainly get a conversation started.
We know Coby White would be available, but he would do nothing for Utah’s perimeter defense and the Jazz already have enough ball-controlling scorers who are better than White. Nikola Vucevic will be on an expiring contract. Would Chicago move Dosunmu and Williams? I doubt it.
But DeRozan isn’t getting any younger. It might already be a stretch to expect him to replicate last season’s performance. If the Bulls want to re-sign LaVine at the max and get busy competing for championships right away, some of the future pieces might have to be compromised.
9. Ayton done in the desert?
The Athletic reported that it’s “more likely than not” that Ayton’s time in Phoenix is done, and Marc Stein tabbed Ayton as the most likely prominent player to switch teams this offseason. Ayton is a restricted free agent after Phoenix elected not to give him a rookie extension last summer. That surely didn’t sit well with Ayton.
The Suns have the right to match any offer Ayton gets on the open market, but the likeliest scenario seems to be Ayton headlining a sign and trade. Phoenix is not going to watch him walk for nothing. It drafted him over Luka Doncic, and it could’ve traded him at the deadline. The Suns are not going to end up with nothing.
Detroit, Indiana, Orlando, Portland, Atlanta, perhaps Toronto, all these teams would make varying degrees of sense for an Ayton sign-and-trade. What if the Jazz part ways with Gobert to bring in Ayton? Phoenix would likely have to attach more to entice Utah in that hypothetical deal. What about Cam Johnson? However it shakes out, it would be surprising if Ayton remains with the Suns.
10. Will Beal remain with Wizards?
Bradley Beal, who is expected to decline his $36.4M player option for the upcoming season to enter free agency, told The Athletic that he has made up his mind about his playing future but won’t reveal his decision just yet.
All signs seem to point to Beal staying with the Wizards, who can pay him close to $250M over five years. Let’s be serious: Beal has stayed with Washington this long when he could’ve demanded a trade at any point. At least then the Wizards, whom we know Beal cares about, could’ve gotten something in return for him. Now they can pay him a ton more money than anyone else. At this point, take the money and then demand a trade down the road if things don’t improve in Washington.
This would seem to be the logical move. But until we know that for sure, there is going to be plenty of relocation speculation, as always, surrounding Beal’s name.