Now that the 2019-20 NBA season, the longest in league history, has come to an end it is time to start looking ahead to next year. While it remains unknown exactly when the 2020-21 campaign will begin, with January appearing to be the earliest possible starting point, the NBA Draft is less than month away (November 18) and free agency will come shortly thereafter. Of course that all depends on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the league and the NBPA, as those talks will set both the salary cap and luxury tax numbers for next season.
Uncertainty remains but that doesn’t prohibit us from taking a look at each team and an area that they’ll need to address during the offseason. Over the next three weeks each division will be discussed, with the Northwest being the focus of this installment. Denver is looking to build on its scintillating run to the Western Conference Finals, and doing so will likely require the re-signing of a key contributor. Utah, which blew a 3-1 series lead in losing to those same Nuggets, have a glaring hole to fill in its rotation, and Portland boasts one of the NBA’s top tandems but needs more in order to become a bona fide contender in the West.
Rounding out the division Oklahoma City and Minnesota, with the latter holding the top overall pick in next month’s draft. As for the Thunder, this is a big offseason for Sam Presti as he charts the path for this franchise. Oklahoma City is still in need of a head coach following Billy Donovan’s resignation, and it remains to be seen if the Thunder will begin a rebuild or give it one more shot with a rotation headlined by veteran point guard Chris Paul.
2019-20 Record: 46-27 (1st, Northwest)
2020 NBA Draft picks: 22 (from Houston)
Area to address: Re-sign Grant
Facing a 3-1 deficit in its first round playoff series against the Jazz, the Nuggets appeared to be on their way to an offseason filled with soul-searching. Well, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and company weren't ready to go home, as they rallied to win that series and then pulled off the same feat against the Clippers. The run ended in the Western Conference Finals as the eventual champion Lakers proved to be too much to handle, but that should not diminish what Michael Malone’s team accomplished while in Orlando. Now the question to be ask is what will Denver do in order to position itself to make another deep run, with there being a need to take into account the fact that Golden State will be much stronger than it was this past season.
The frontcourt has some potential “holes” to address, as both Millsap and Plumlee will be unrestricted free agents. More important than that is the status of Jerami Grant, a versatile forward whose profile improved dramatically during the postseason. His ability to take on a variety of defensive matchups while also proving to be a capable contributor offensively has placed Grant on the radar of many teams ahead of free agency. It has already been reported that Grant will opt out of the final year of his deal, and it was reported by the Denver Post earlier this month that both sides (meaning Nuggets brass, not the paper) are very much interested in continuing their partnership.
If Denver can both re-sign Grant and address the post behind Jokic, there’s more than enough talent (both experienced and young) within the franchise to ensure that the Nuggets remain among the West’s elite.
2019-20 Record: 19-45 (5th)
2020 NBA Draft picks: 1, 17 (from Brooklyn via Atlanta), 33
Area to address: 3-and-D wing
The 2019-20 season was a bad one for the Timberwolves, who finished with the second-worst record in the West. But things may be looking up for the franchise, as “good luck charm” D'Angelo Russell delivered the top overall pick in next month’s draft. Team president Gersson Rosas has two first-round picks to work with, and with the Timberwolves also holding the 33rd overall selection there won’t be a lack for quality options. And that includes the possibility of making a trade, especially if the team does not believe that any of the projected options at the top of the draft can help them immediately.
So what area does Minnesota need to address? The same as many other teams in the NBA, and that’s to add a wing that brings both perimeter shooting and stout defense to the table. Josh Okogie is a plus defender, but he made just 26.6 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. Jarrett Culver also struggled with his shot, but he did manage to bring solid per-36 averages in both steals (1.4) and blocked shots (0.9). The perimeter shooting issues are why the team has so much interest in bringing back restricted free agent Malik Beasley, and Juancho Hernangomez’s perimeter shooting ability makes him a valuable option as well.
Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns are the clear focal points of Minnesota’s rebuild; the key now is to surround those two with teammates who can help the team defensively while also bringing solid perimeter shooting to the table. While the Timberwolves ranked eighth in the NBA in made 3-pointers per game and 3rd in 3-point attempts, they were 28th in 3-point percentage. That isn’t going to get the job done in either conference, let alone the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder
2019-20 Record: 44-28 (t-2nd)
2020 NBA Draft picks: 25 (from Denver), 53
Free Agents: Danilo Gallinari, Andre Roberson, Nerlens Noel, Devon Hall (unrestricted); Kevin Hervey (restricted); Mike Muscala (player option); Abdel Nader, Hamidou Diallo, Deonte Burton (team option)
Area to address: 3-point shooting
Last season was expected to be a rebuilding year for the Thunder, thanks to deals with the Rockets (Russell Westbrook) and Thunder (Paul George) that resulted in the franchise picking up seven future first-round picks (five outright, two swaps). The players, most notably Chris Paul, had other ideas as they not only made the playoffs but nearly took out Houston in the first round. Billy Donovan has since moved on, taking over as Bulls head coach, and Oklahoma City is still without a head coach. The big question for Sam Presti: what path will the Thunder take next season? Will they go full-on rebuild, relying on the team’s young talent to lead the way, or will veterans such as Paul and Steven Adams be given every opportunity to make another run?
Regardless of what the answer is, Oklahoma City will need to address two areas this offseason: rebounding and 3-point shooting. Not lacking for lengthy wings, the Thunder did not have too many capable of also making opposing defenses pay when they focused their attention on Paul in pick-and-roll actions. But give them credit: they didn’t waste time attempting to prove to opposing teams that they could be proficient 3-point shooters, as the Thunder ranked 27th in both 3-point attempts and 3-pointers made per game (and ranked 16th in offensive rating). If anything getting better in this area will come down to player development, especially if OKC decides to go young.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Terrance Ferguson and Darius Bazley are among the young players who will need to make strides in that area, especially if Danilo Gallinari were to leave in free agency.
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Portland Trail Blazers
2019-20 Record: 35-39 (4th)
2020 NBA Draft Picks: 16, 46
Area to address: Defense
Injuries had a significant impact on the Trail Blazers’ fortunes last season. With Jusuf Nurkic sidelined as he continued to recover from the broken leg that he suffered late in the 2018-19 campaign, Rodney Hood going down with a ruptured Achilles and Zach Collins also missing a lengthy stretch due to injury, it came as no surprise that Portland entered the bubble outside of the playoff picture. Terry Stotts’ team was much closer to full strength once in Orlando, and with the tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum leading the way they managed to reach the postseason. But the work done to get back into the race, and injuries suffered by Collins and Lillard, proved to be too much to overcome as they were eliminated by the Lakers in five games.
Looking ahead to next season, defense is the area that Portland must address through both the draft and free agency. While ranked third in the NBA in offensive rating, the Blazers were 28th in defensive rating and 27th in both defensive rebounding percentage and turnover percentage. Having a healthy Nurkic and Collins will help with the rebounding, and the emergence of Gary Trent Jr. (combined with the return of Trevor Ariza, who did not play in Orlando) should help when it comes to defending on the wing. Add in a healthy Hood, and Portland could conceivably make strides simply by having all of their major contributors in the fold.
Hood has a player option for next season, and given the injury that he’s returning from it feels safe to assume that he’ll be back in Portland. The other big free agency question for Portland: Carmelo Anthony, who seemed to fit in well with the Blazers both on and off the court. But does he fit into the front office’s plans for next season (and possibly beyond)? Anthony doesn’t offer much defensively, but having another scorer who can help take some of the weight off of the shoulders of Lillard and McCollum would be a positive.
2019-20 Record: 44-28 (t-2nd)
2020 NBA Draft picks: 23
Area to address: Wing athleticism
After ranking second in the NBA in defensive rating during the 2018-19 season the Jazz took a step back in that area this past season, ranking 13th. But due to the team’s need to make strides offensively that was to be expected, and it isn’t as if Quin Snyder’s team had completely forgotten how to defend. But two things became quite obvious during Utah’s first round series against Denver: one, they really missed the offense that Bojan Bogdanovic supplied when healthy; two they needed to become more athletic on the wing. Royce O'Neale could be used defensively in a variety of matchups, but Utah doesn’t have another player of the caliber on its current roster.
That need can certainly be addressed in free agency, and at 23rd overall the Jazz sit in a prime position to grab an athletic wing in next month’s NBA Draft as well. There are some free agency situations to address, most notably Jordan Clarkson being an unrestricted free agent. Utah holds his Bird rights, so they’ll be able to do a bit more financially if they see Clarkson as an essential member of the rotation. And given the instant offense that he supplies off the bench, it would make sense to bring him back. Mike Conley has a player option for next season, but given the expected market he may not find money approaching the $34.5 million that he stands to make by playing out the final year of his deal.
Regardless of what happens with Clarkson and Conley, Utah will need more athleticism on the wings if they’re to contend with the West’s best teams.