Analysis: Playoff outcomes suggest the NBA could see a summer of big moves
Golden State has decisions to make now. Big decisions. Phoenix does, too. And Dallas. And Milwaukee. And Portland. And more.
It’s the best time of year in the NBA — with the playoff field getting down to its final four on Sunday.
It’ll be followed by the co-best time of year in the NBA — July, when free agency time means some teams are going to wildly change.
The Warriors’ reign as NBA champions ended Friday night with a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, and it served as a reminder that nobody — not even a team with four titles in nine years — can escape the need to make changes. And if the enormous-spending Warriors need changing, then a whole lot of other teams do as well.
“I still feel like this team has championship potential,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We didn’t get there this year but it’s not like this is the end of the road. But the organization has some decisions to make and we’ll eventually get to that point.”
They’re not alone.
Consider: Milwaukee had the best record in the NBA this season, the No. 1 overall seed and home-court advantage throughout the entirety of the playoffs. The Bucks won only one playoff game, wound up firing coach Mike Budenholzer and surely will consider how much deeper they want to get into the luxury tax – while also making sure they do enough to give Giannis Antetokounmpo more title chances.
“I believe we will have a very attractive position,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “We have the best player in the world. We have a championship culture and organization. We have great facilities. I think we have great respect around the league. So, I think we’ll have a lot options.”
Expect a lot of comments like that in the coming days and weeks.
Phoenix, which trailed by 30 at halftime of home elimination games in each of the last two years — an NBA first, and a piece of history that the Suns absolutely did not want — has to decide what to do with Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, coach Monty Williams and more. New owner Mat Ishbia made an immediate splash after taking over by trading for Kevin Durant; he didn’t do that with a second-round exit in mind. Devin Booker is probably just beginning to enter his prime, Durant is obviously closer to the end than the beginning but still elite, and the Suns will have no choice but to remain in win-now mode.
“While we have a lot to be proud of this year, we did not reach the level of success all of us want, which is a championship,” Ishbia wrote in a message to fans. “We won’t win a championship every season, but it will always be the goal. The Suns will never stop working to be great both on and off the court, and we are just getting started.”
Dallas — which somehow missed the playoffs — will need to make a decision on free-agent-in-waiting Kyrie Irving and what works best for Luka Doncic. Portland has to figure out what to do to make Damian Lillard happy, meaning it has to either lure more talent to the Northwest or send him to a contender. The Los Angeles Clippers might decide to make big changes after their season ended earlier than they wanted.
For the most part, the only teams that are truly happy with how their seasons have gone right now are probably Miami, the Lakers, Denver and the Boston-Philadelphia winner. They’re going to be the last four standing.
“There’s winning, and there’s misery,” Heat President Pat Riley famously says.
He’s not wrong. Sure, some teams made big strides this season — Sacramento and New York come to mind — and the potential is clear for some young clubs like Oklahoma City and Orlando. But even some playoff teams know the current mix isn’t good enough: Cleveland was exposed by the Knicks in Round 1, Atlanta took two games off Boston and beat Miami in a play-in game but still must consider upgrades, and Memphis was No. 2 in the West entering the playoffs and went nowhere.
“Next season starts now,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said after his team was ousted by the Lakers.
Some team’s path will get a little easier on Tuesday at the draft lottery, when a lucky club wins the right to select Victor Wembanyama next month. But that won’t be the Suns, the Warriors, the Bucks or any of the other teams that made the playoffs and fell short.
They might go spending. They might make trades. They’ll all do something. Some players already pretty much know they’re getting traded; Knicks guard Evan Fournier, who fell out of New York’s rotation this season, told reporters that he expects to be moved.
“I’m already excited about next year,” Knicks guard Jalen Brunson said after New York fell to Miami in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals — by no fault of his, since he was phenomenal in that series. “It’s going to be fun.”
So will the summer. Changes are coming. Lots of changes are coming. And for some teams, they might have to be big, bold ones.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org.
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