It’s time to hand out final grades on the 2021 offseason.
With training camp now two weeks away, we’re taking one last chance to rehash all that went down in a blur of an offseason.
Defining success is all relative when trying to gauge the success of any offseason, and it’s important to keep in mind the shifting priorities and realistic expectations weighed by each franchise. For some teams, sitting idly by and making minor tweaks is the best way to chart a course to contention. For others, sitting idly by and making minor tweaks is the surest way to the bottom of a 6-foot hole.
No two circumstances are alike, nor does roster-building exist in a vacuum. Context matters!
Could we sit back and hand out As and Bs to everyone? Of course! Taking the glass half-full approach, there’s a world in which the best-case scenario plays out for each and every team.
But we’re not doing that. Nope, not here. These grades operate on a curve and for each conference, no more than four teams can receive an A, at least four teams must receive a C, and at least one team must receive a dreaded D or F. Even if a team accomplished its primary objective, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a high grade, especially if there’s work left to be done.
Up first? The Eastern Conference. (Click on any of the teams to skip down).
- Additions: Gorgui Dieng (free agent), Delon Wright (trade), Jalen Johnson (draft), Sharife Cooper (draft)
- Departures: Kris Dunn (Celtics), Bruno Fernando (Celtics), Tony Snell (Trail Blazers)
Biggest offseason priority: Re-signing John Collins
The skinny: The Hawks flew into the offseason on a high following a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. It doubled as a “Hello, world” moment for Trae Young and signaled Atlanta’s rise into serious Eastern Conference contention. Above all else, the Hawks’ top priority was keeping restricted free agent John Collins, who could have attracted a max offer. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing between Collins and Young, there’s no question that losing the 23-year-old potential All-Star would have been a significant step back after a three-year rebuild. Atlanta locked down Collins with a five-year, $125 million contract that keeps him in a Hawks jersey through 2025-26 (player option on final year of deal). The Hawks had the NBA’s third-best record from March onward and are banking that improvement from their young core — plus the return of Deandre Hunter — will be enough to keep the momentum going.
- Additions: Enes Kanter (free agency), Dennis Schroder (free agency), Al Horford (trade), Kris Dunn (trade), Bruno Fernando (trade), Josh Richardson (trade), Juhann Begarin (draft)
- Departures: Kemba Walker (Knicks), Tristan Thompson (Kings), Evan Fournier (Knicks), Moses Brown (Mavericks), Semi Ojeleye (Bucks)
Biggest offseason priority: Establishing a new identity
The skinny: The Celtics entered last season fully expecting to contend in the Eastern Conference. Instead, a talented young roster struggled with consistency and often looked lost, falling behind early and rolling over in the face of adversity. Boston is largely betting on an organizational reset rather than a complete overhaul of the roster. Danny Ainge is out, Brad Stevens moved from the bench to the front office and first-year coach Ime Udoka takes control of the sidelines. After two ho-hum years, the Celtics moved on from Kemba Walker, trading him to the Thunder and bringing back former Celtic Al Horford. They also re-signed Marcus Smart to a four-year, $77 million contract, penciling him in as the third piece behind the talented wing tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. On paper, the Celtics should have enough top-end talent to compete in the East, especially after the bargain bin deal for Dennis Schroder. But as we saw last season, talent on paper doesn’t always translate. Will Boston’s efforts to re-establish an identity pan out? It’s too early to tell.
- Additions: Patty Mills (free agency), LaMarcus Aldridge (free agency), Paul Millsap (free agency), James Johnson (free agency), DeAndre Bembry (free agency), David Duke Jr. (free agency), Jevon Carter (trade), Sekou Doumbouya (trade), Cameron Thomas (draft)
- Departures: Spencer Dinwiddie (Wizards), Jeff Green (Nuggets), DeAndre Jordan (Lakers), Landry Shamet (Suns)
Biggest offseason priority: Re-sign Durant, Harden and Irving
The skinny: Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving all became eligible for extensions this summer. The Nets inked Durant to a four-year, $198 million deal but have yet to secure commitments from Harden and Irving, though both are ultimately expected to stay put. The Nets significantly bolstered the bench, bringing back Blake Griffin and signing long-time Spur and super-sub Patty Mills. The additions of Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge — recently unretired after receiving medical clearance — provides even more frontcourt stability. Would they have liked to keep Spencer Dinwiddie and Jeff Green? Of course. But this team is loaded. If Harden and Irving sign on the dotted line and officially commit to extensions, this grade bumps up to a perfect score.
- Additions: Kelly Oubre (free agency), Ish Smith (free agency), Mason Plumlee (trade), Wes Iwundu (trade), James Bouknight (draft), Kai Jones (draft), JT Thor (draft)
- Departures: Devonte Graham (Pelicans), Malik Monk (Lakers), Cody Zeller (Trail Blazers)
Biggest offseason priority: Build around Ball
The skinny: LaMelo Ball is the most important player the Hornets have had in decades. Not the best (not yet, anyway), but the most important. Following a rookie season that generated real buzz in the Queen City, Ball sits squarely on the path to legitimate stardom. With all due respect to Kemba Walker, the Hornets have been starving for a top-tier franchise talent to build around.
That started this offseason by inking Terry Rozier to a four-year, $97 million extension that may seem steep on the surface but is fair market value for someone who can relieve the scoring burden and play alongside Ball. This is putting the cart before the horse, but Rozier’s deal carries a big enough number that can also be moved down the line should the Hornets go after a bigger name. They snagged a lottery-protected first-round pick in exchange for Devonte’ Graham, a nice haul for a player Charlotte could neither afford to pay nor play. Kelly Oubre and Mason Plumlee should slot nicely into the rotation while rookies James Bouknight (11th overall) and Kai Jones (19th overall) offer tremendous long-term upside. Watching Malik Monk take the minimum with the Lakers stings, but neither the loss of him nor Cody Zeller impacts Charlotte’s big picture,read more news about usa.
- Additions: DeMar DeRozan (trade), Lonzo Ball (trade), Derrick Jones Jr. (trade), Alex Caruso (free agent), Tony Bradley (free agent), Stanley Johnson (free agent), Alize Johnson (free agent),
- Departures: Lauri Markkanen (Cavaliers), Tomas Satoranksy (Pelicans), Thaddeus Young (Spurs), Garrett Temple (Pelicans), Thaddeus Young (Spurs), Daniel Theis (Rockets)
Biggest offseason priority: Solidify core for playoff push
The skinny: The Bulls had two options this summer. Behind Door No. 1 was securing Zach LaVine, who has one year left on his deal. They could have renegotiated his contract and then locked him up with a brand new max extension, ensuring he stays. That would have been the safe play. Behind Door No. 2 was spending big now to add talent around LaVine, even at the risk of losing him for nothing next summer.
The Bulls didn’t just walk through Door No. 2, they burst straight through and knocked it off its hinges, spending a combined $207 million on Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso. Are there some questions about fit? Yes. Are there blaring red sirens about defense? Uh-huh. But Ball, DeRozan and Caruso provide an inarguable talent upgrade to slot alongside LaVine and Nikola Vucevic.
In a binary NBA world often predicated on a title or tank mentality, the Bulls are spending money for the sake of simply adding good players and winning more games. The jury is out on whether it works, but there’s no denying the effort here, a sharp departure from Chicago’s recent history. The Bulls might have the widest range between floor and ceiling than any team in the league. They get an A for effort, but that low floor looms large. There’s much to prove.
- Additions: Lauri Markkanen (trade), Ricky Rubio (trade), Evan Mobley (draft)
- Departures: Larry Nance Jr. (Trail Blazers), Taurean Prince (Timberwolves)
Biggest offseason priority: Nail the draft
The skinny: If Evan Mobley ends up being a stud, nothing else matters. Many draft experts pegged Mobley — not Cade Cunningham — as the top prospect in the draft with serious shades of Anthony Davis. It’s impossible to argue with drafting Mobley, and only time will tell how he pans out. Short of drafting a slam dunk future superstar, any offseason pegged squarely around nailing a draft requires a wait-and-see approach.
Everything else is a head-scratcher. Jarrett Allen is a nice player and the type of rim-running, shot-blocking anchor every team wants. That said, $100 million is a lot of coin to pay for a 13-10 big who also plays the same position as Mobley (yes, I know, the Cavs plan on playing them together). And if Mobley is your power forward, why fork over $67 million to sign Lauri Markkanen, a stretch-4 who has seemingly taken a step back in each of his last two seasons? They’re paying Ricky Rubio $18 million to back up Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, they lost Larry Nance Jr., and they have yet to resolve the Kevin Love situation, which is bordering on awkward, at-best.
- Additions: Trey Lyles (free agency), Kelly Olynyk (free agency), Cade Cunningham (draft), Isaiah Livers (draft), Luke Garza (draft)
- Departures: Wayne Ellington (Lakers), Mason Plumlee (Hornets), Jahlil Okafor (Nets), Sekou Doumbouya (Nets)
Biggest offseason priority: Draft a franchise cornerstone
The skinny: Holding the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since 1970 in a loaded draft, the Pistons offseason boiled down to one thing and one thing only: getting it right. In the end, despite listening to offers to trade down and considering Mobley or Jalen Green, the Pistons drafted Cade Cunningham. For a team that hasn’t had an All-NBA First Team selection since Grant Hill in 1996-97, Cunningham provides the do-everything high-ceiling foundational piece that Detroit desperately needs to anchor an intriguing young core featuring Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart. Unlike their Central Division counterparts in Cleveland, the Pistons actually showed restraint and didn’t go off the rails with lavish spending.
Did they need to give $12 million a year to Kelly Olynyck? Maybe not. But perhaps that’s the type of move which nets a first-round pick somewhere down the line from a contending team. It won’t happen overnight, but for the first time in a very long time, the Pistons have real hope.
- Additions: Torrey Craig (free agency), Chris Duarte (draft), Isaiah Jackson (draft)
- Departures: Doug McDermott (Spurs), Aaron Holiday (Wizards)
Biggest offseason priority: Upgrade the coach
The skinny: The 2021-22 Pacers could be a litmus test to the true value of an elite coach. Few coaches, if any, coax more out of less than Rick Carlisle, who should also inject some much needed creativity into an offense that ranked just 14th last season under Nate Bjorkgren. Adding a healthy T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert to a lineup with Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon should give the Pacers enough firepower to hang with anyone. Bringing back T.J. McConnell bolsters the backcourt, though losing sharpshooter Doug McDermott hurts, especially for a team that already ranked among the bottom half in generating catch-and-shoot 3s. But for seemingly every year since Reggie Miller retired, they enter the season in somewhat of a state of purgatory with an odd Sabonis-Turner combo that feels like it ran its course a lifetime ago. Maybe Carlisle will find a way to make them palatable, but outside of the coaching change and praying for better health, the Pacers opted to tread water.
- Additions: Kyle Lowry (trade), P.J. Tucker (free agency), Markieff Morris (free agency)
- Departures: Goran Dragic (Raptors), Precious Achiuwa (Raptors), Trevor Ariza (Lakers), Nemanja Bjelica (Warriors), Andre Iguodala (Warriors), Kendrick Nunn (Lakers)
Biggest offseason priority: Nabbing a premier free agent
The skinny: The instant Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his extension in Milwaukee last season, Pat Riley’s dream of a Summer of 2011 vanished into thin air. The consolation prize? Kyle Lowry. The veteran point guard should fit seamlessly into the vaunted Heat culture and certainly moves them close to the Bucks and Nets. The question: How much closer? Lowry is 35 years old and coming off a year in which he looked a half-step slow. Offensively, he’s not much of an upgrade from Goran Dragic who, along with Precious Achiuwa, was sent to Toronto in the Lowry sign-and-trade. P.J. Tucker played a critical role for the Bucks in their run to the title, but it remains to be seen just how effective he’ll be moving forward. While the Heat kept their main pieces, losing Dragic, Achiuwa, Nunn, Ariza, Iguodala and Bjelica isn’t insignificant.
- Additions: George Hill (free agency), Rodney Hood (free agency), Semi Ojeleye (free agency), Grayson Allen (trade), Sandro Mamukelashvili (draft)
- Departures: P.J. Tucker (Heat), Bryn Forbes (Spurs)
Biggest offseason priority: Celebrate like it’s 1971
The skinny: The deer district is still partying. Fresh off its first championship in 50 years and with its 26-year-old two-time MVP already locked up for the foreseeable future, there wasn’t much to do beyond sit back and soak in the Schlitz. Hill and Allen could play significant roles while the Bucks will also get back Donte DiVincenzo, who missed the majority of the playoffs after sustaining an injury in Game 3 of the first round. They also brought back fan favorite Bobby Portis on a very team-friendly deal. Although the departed Tucker played a large role defensively, he’s essentially a zero on offense and there are real questions as to whether he’s actually much of a defensive force any longer. He’s a household name, but I’m not sure that’s much of a loss for the champs.
- Additions: Kemba Walker (free agency), Dwayne Bacon (free agency), Evan Fournier (trade), Quentin Grimes (draft), Rokas Jokubaitis (draft), Miles McBride (draft), Jericho Sims (draft)
- Departures: Reggie Bullock (Mavericks), Elfrid Payton (Suns), Frank Ntilikina (Mavericks)
Biggest offseason priority: Stay disciplined and eye on the long game
The skinny: This summer was so uncharacteristically Knicks, which is exactly what the Knicks needed.
The Knicks took a measured approach and while their offseason may seem underwhelming at first, they displayed an uncharacteristic patience that’s long been missing in Madison Square Garden. They re-signed Julius Randle to a four-year, $117 million deal, certainly a pretty money but very reasonable for soon-to-be 27-year-old coming off an All-NBA season. They brought back Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel on three-year contracts, all of which include team options in the final year. Four years and $78 million feels like an overpay for Fournier, but that deal also includes a team option on the last year. They nabbed Kemba Walker on a bar on a bargain-bin deal after he reached a buy-out with the Oklahoma City Thunder and may have a steal with second-round pick Miles McBride who many expected to be taken much earlier. The Knicks avoided the traps of desperation that have long since plagued a franchise so often consumed with bright lights and big splashes.
- Additions: Robin Lopez (free agency), E’Twaun Moore (free agency), Jalen Suggs (draft), Franz Wagner (draft)
- Departures: Dwayne Bacon (Knicks), Otto Porter Jr. (Warriors)
Biggest offseason priority: Get lucky in the draft
The skinny: When it comes to the NBA draft, the Magic need as much help and luck as they can get. And when Jalen Suggs slid into their laps with the No. 5 overall pick, every Magic fan reeling from an endless stream of draft-day reaches, busts, and projects let out a collective sigh of relief. The Gonzaga star checks every box you could want from a high-end point guard prospect, and he’s already publicly calling out the four teams who passed on him in the draft. With the eighth overall pick, the Magic took Franz Wagner, a skilled big who in theory should be able to play right away. Again, another breath of fresh air for a team hooked on drafting long-term projects. The only reason this isn’t an A is because, well, the Magic don’t exactly inspire confidence with their draft history. Despite the optimistic outlook, there are still some “see it to believe it” vibes.
- Additions: Andre Drummond (free agency), Georges Niang (free agency), Jaden Springer (draft), Filip Petrusev (draft), Charles Bassey (draft)
- Departures: Dwight Howard (Lakers), George Hill (Bucks)
Biggest offseason priority: Resolve the Ben Simmons saga
The skinny: When I picked up my 4-year-old daughter from preschool last week, her teacher pulled me aside and said she had an incredibly difficult day: not listening during circle time, failing to clean up when prompted, making noises during nap time, and doing everything short of pulling the fire alarm, stripping down and stop-drop-and-rolling in the middle of the hallway. I profusely apologized and proceeded to engage in a stern conversation with my daughter before sitting in silence for the rest of the 15-minute drive home.
When we got home, my daughter immediately started negotiating to watch a show, play on the swingset, and eat ice cream, completely oblivious to everything that just went down both at school and in the conversation that followed. She knows that even on a good day, that type of haul isn’t a given. Sitting from a position with zero leverage, she actually had the nerve to look me in the eye and try to convince me that was fair. Shortly thereafter, she tried the same tactic with my wife, who predictably offered the exact same response I did. Who in the name of Ben Simmons and Daryl Morey did she think she was?
My daughter is both Ben Simmons and Daryl Morey. She passed up a wide open dunk and took three total shots in the fourth quarters of a seven-game series AND demanded a King’s ransom in return for said services. Until resolved, this situation is an unmitigated disaster, threatening to derail Philly’s season before it ever begins. They should be contending for an NBA title, not syndicating “Days Of Our Lives.”
- Additions: Goran Dragic (trade), Precious Achiuwa (trade), Isaac Bonga (free agency), Sam Dekker (free agency), Svi Mykhailiuk (free agency), Scottie Barnes (draft)
- Departures: Kyle Lowry (Heat), DeAndre Bembry (Nets), Stanley Johnson (Bulls), Rodney Hood (Bucks)
Biggest offseason priority: Keep Masai Ujiri
The skinny: The Raptors knew Lowry was likely leaving and were prepared for it. What they didn’t know was whether team architect Masai Ujiri — arguably the NBA’s finest front office executive — would return. As long as Ujiri is manning the wheel, Toronto remains on course long-term.
In the short term, the biggest question mark happened on draft night, when the Raptors opted to select defensive ace (and offensively-challenged) Scottie Barnes with the fourth overall pick instead of Suggs (who could have filled the void left by Lowry). Instead, the Raptors opted for more length and versatility to pair with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, creating a super switchy and rangy defensive unit. Add in Achiuwa, another bouncy 20-year-old ball of clay received from Miami in the Lowry sign-and-trade, and it’s not hard to see Toronto’s vision. While the team’s track record with player development speaks for itself, passing on Suggs for Barnes is a potential fork-in-the-road gamble that we could look back on five years from now and ask, “What on earth were they thinking?”
- Additions: Spencer Dinwiddie (trade), Montrezl Harrell (trade), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (trade), Kyle Kuzma (trade), Aaron Holiday (trade), Corey Kispert (draft), Isaiah Todd (draft)
- Departures: Russell Westbrook (Lakers), Robin Lopez (Magic), Alex Len (Kings), Ish Smith (Hornets), Chandler Hutchinson (Spurs)
Biggest offseason priority: Move off big money and create future flexibility
The skinny: The Wizards not only shed themselves of Westbrook and his $91.7 million price tag over the next two seasons, but also did so without giving up picks; AND they received three solid rotation players in Harrell, Caldwell-Pope, and Kuzma at positions of need. Dinwiddie only played three games last year but is fully recovered from his partially torn ACL and apparently looks like the player who averaged more than 20 points and six assists per game for the Nets in 2019-20. They added a solid backup point guard in Holiday, and managed to snap perhaps the best shooter in the draft in Kispert. There might not be a second star alongside Bradley Beal, but the Wizards suddenly have quality depth to once again contend for a fringe playoff spot in the East. The most important question moving forward: Will it be enough to keep Beal happy?