NBA Post-Free Agency Landscape

Now that the Kawhi Leonard deal has been completed, the NBA free agency period has basically ended. With so many new faces in new places, let’s take a preliminary look at the NBA landscape and who look to be contenders and pretenders in this new look league.

Championship Contenders

Teams: Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers.

There are only four teams that I can really consider legitimate title contenders right now. While Philadelphia struck out in free agency, they still have two young all-stars on that team. And in this new Eastern Conference, that’s enough to go deep into the playoffs. And if Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can reach their transcendent ceilings quick enough, they can easily compete right now. However, the Boston Celtics are clearly the class of the conference as long as everyone stays healthy. They have the best coach in the league, ridiculous depth, and were just in the conference finals without their two all-stars.

In the west, there are only two teams to look at as well. Many can make the argument that Houston would be the defending champions right now had Chris Paul not gotten hurt. They’ll attempt to run it back, but they’ll have to do it without Trevor Ariza. As for Clint Cappella, he’ll be back once the Rockets offer him a deal or match any offer he receives. The wild card is if they can land Carmelo Anthony. While Anthony isn’t what he used to be, he can easily cover Ariza’s offensive production. They do, however, take a step back on defense. And at the top of the mountain sit the defending champion Golden State Warriors. What did they do this summer? They added DeMarcus Cousins. If Cousins comes back anywhere near 75% or higher, the Warriors should have no problem completing the three-peat.

Playoff Contenders

Teams: Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs.

Most of the playoff teams are familiar faces, so I’ll only be focusing on a few of them. Legend has it that LeBron James can take a roster of 14 steel chairs to the playoffs in any conference. While the Lakers young cores are certainly better than 14 steal chairs, this will still be quite the challenge for the new star of Los Angeles. LeBron decided to go to L.A. without another superstar to try and build something in the Western Conference. The Lakers success will ultimately come down to the development of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart. If they can live up to the hype, they’ll be in the playoffs with enough veteran experience around them to make some noise. If not, LeBron will have to carry this team until help arrives next summer. Speaking of young cores, it should be time for Denver to make the playoffs. They had the talent to do so last season.

Out east, I believe the Indiana Pacers had the most underrated summer. They added scoring in Tyreke Evans, shooting with Doug McDermott, a back up big in Kyle O’Quinn, and their point guard of the future in Aaron Holiday. In the new look east, I look at this team as the sleeper to shock some people. Another sleeper is the Toronto Raptors. I love what they did this summer. They traded away DeMar DeRozan and got back Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. A few months ago, I called for the ‘LeBronto’ Raptors to blow it up. And essentially they did just that. This is a stealth blowup of epic proportions. I believe they lost faith in DeRozan after his lackluster performance in the postseason. So they flip him for one of the best players in the league who has a lot to prove. I know Kawhi isn’t happy about playing in Toronto, but he has to make it work and prove he can still play at a high level. Around him is a roster that had the best record in the east last season. And with the tyranny of King James over in the east, the Raptors could finally get over the hump in the east. And if things don’t work, Kawhi leaves and they’re free to start the rebuild. It’s certainly better than hanging around 45 wins without a real chance at a championship.

Treadmill Teams

Teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets

A Treadmill team is a team that is good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to with a championship. For example, the 45-win scenario I just made for the Raptors. A team like that can make the playoffs every year, but will never get that final piece due to their poor draft position or being capped out on a core that isn’t as good as they think. Most of these teams are teams on the rise. The Suns, Grizzlies, Bulls, and Clippers are all young rosters on the rise. The Bulls can easily find themselves in the playoffs in the east. The Cavaliers can go in a few directions. They can keep their team intact and make a playoff run for pride. Or, they can flip their veteran players and start over with Colin Sexton. Knowing Dan Gilbert, he’ll probably decide to make a playoff run with this roster unless they get a good deal for Kevin Love. Portland makes the list after their embarrassing outing in the playoffs last season. Yes, they can still make the playoffs, but they need another piece to move back into higher tiers on this list. The Heat and Pistons will likely be playoff teams in the east, but I can’t take them seriously just yet.

Cellar Dwellers

Teams: New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings

The teams here are clearly rebuilding or just in a bad situation. The Knicks are the team in the bad situation. I think Kevin Knox can win rookie of the year, but Kristaps Porzingis will likely be out until January. Some reports say he could miss all of next season. Either way, that knocks the Knicks down to the bottom with bad company. I don’t believe anyone knows exactly what the Magic are doing. At least Mo Bamba appears to be the real deal. Brooklyn is slowly working their way back from the Danny Ainge heist. Now they’re putting themselves in a good position to remain flexible moving forward. The Hawks are rebuilding with the Warriors blueprint in mind. Fans on their Reddit page are already referring to them as the ‘Waffle House Warriors’. As for the Kings, they’ll likely remain here for a while. It doesn’t matter if they got the best player in the draft.

And there you have it. The new NBA landscape will provide some interesting storylines to begin the next season, but we all know how this will likely end next June. But instead of looking to the conclusion, let's try to enjoy the journey. And if you’re still angry about the current state of the NBA, please note that NFL training camps will begin to open soon. And if that’s not your speed, there’s always baseball.