Though the first round of the NBA playoffs hasn’t yet wrapped up, but three teams have already earned (or deserved) a few extra days for their offseason vacations.
The Russell Westbrook road show is on its way back to Oklahoma. The Indiana Pacers will have to await Paul George’s All-NBA status before determining how to proceed. And the good people of Portland will have to hang on to Dame Dolla’s next mixtape to get their Trailblazer fix before October. Aren’t the playoffs the best time of year?
While none of those three teams was thought to be a serious championship contender, each one had designs on making noise in this year’s playoffs. Now that their chances in the 2017 postseason are ended, the question becomes: can they make the adjustments to come back stronger next year? Let’s investigate.
Let’s Get Russ Some Help
When Kevin Durant left to join the Warriors juggernaut in the offseason, he left Sam Presti grasping for players to surround Russell Westbrook. That lack of any supporting cast did lead to one of the most spectacular seasons in recent memory, but it didn’t do any favors for the Fightin’ Westbrooks come playoff time. Presti added Victor Oladipo, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, and Jerami Grant at various points throughout the season, none of them made a significant impact during the Thunder’s first round matchup against the Houston Rockets. Worse yet, due to contract extensions given to Oladipo and Steven Adams, the team already has about $110 million invested in salaries for the 2017-18 season.
The Thunder will undoubtedly be looking at trade possibilities to improve their lineup. They also have young controlled talent in Adams, Enes Kanter, Grant, Oladipo, and rookies Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis. Barring any major moves, much of the team’s fate will rest on the development of those young guys. But Presti will have to keep Westbrook’s contentment in mind entering the last year of the superstar guard’s contract, when he holds a player option for 2018-19. Even if he does stay, Russ will be eligible for up to $40 million per year, which will only further complicate the team’s decision making. The Thunder have two options heading into next season: commit to young player development or try to make another splashy move and partner Westbrook with a second star. But the clock is ticking.
Please Don’t Run Away, Paul George
Speaking of ticking clocks, the Pacers’ front office will probably do their own share of sweating this offseason. Even before we heard rumors about Paul George’s affinity for the purple and gold or saw his frustration with a questionably constructed lineup, questions around his upcoming free agency started weighing on Larry Bird and company. Being swept out of the playoffs, even if it is at the hands of another LeBron-led juggernaut, won’t help them convince George that he can win in Indiana over the long term.
George’s unique contract situation further complicates matters. Due to new CBA language, he would be eligible for a super-max extension worth an extra $70 million with the Pacers if he is voted onto an All-NBA team this season. That, combined with his history in Indiana, might be enough to keep him around. The Pacers also have a promising young talent in center Myles Turner, but they’ll have to surround PG with better players than Monta Ellis and Thad Young to contend. Finding a point guard that clicks with PG (or resigning Jeff Teague) should be a point of emphasis. Lance Stephenson also made a surprising impact upon his return at the end of the season, but it’ll take a long bit of introspection to determine if he can be as valuable the second time around in Indiana.
Reinforcements in Rip City
Finally, we reach the other sweep victim in the first round of these playoffs. The Trailblazers have a dynamic backcourt with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But they (seemingly) overpayed Allen Crabbe in restricted free agency to avoid losing him and have money tied up in Evan Turner and Mo Harkless. Not great, but not disastrous either. More disastrous is a capped out situation for 2017-18 ($140 million, well into the luxury tax), that will limit the team’s capacity to make moves.
The trade deadline acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic (15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds in 20 games) looked like a hit before the Bosnian Beast fractured a fibula. If he can maintain that level of play when he returns next season the Blazers may have long-term starters at three positions, with the possibility of added versatility if Festus Ezeli can return to the court at some point. Otherwise, the emphasis should be on fixing a horrendous defense (24th in Defensive Rating) and helping out the Lillard/McCollum backcourt. While they won’t be able to make many additions outside of the draft, Ezeli’s health and the improvement of players like Noah Vonleh or the aforementioned Harkless may be what the Blazers need.