Now that the Los Angeles Lakers have LeBron James in the mix, it’s no hyperbole to say that the future of almost every team looks different.
It’s possible that James is coming to Los Angeles by himself and let the roster come together during his four-year contract with the Lakers. But as we have previously written, it’s more likely that notable veterans around the NBA will have interest in joining James in Southern California.
Even though the front office swung and missed on Paul George, it’s still possible that they could add free agent DeMarcus Cousins. They may not have enough cap space, however, after re-signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and adding Lance Stephenson.
Perhaps a veteran like Carmelo Anthony, who could soon reach a buyout agreement with the Oklahoma City Thunder, would join his longtime friend on the Lakers.
That would drastically change the rotation for the Thunder, who would also avoid the largest luxury tax bill in the history of the league if he is not on the books next season. Oklahoma City clearly has title ambitions after retaining George to pair alongside Russell Westbrook.
Of course, the Golden State Warriors are still angling for another trip back to win the championship after re-signing Kevin Durant. They’re still the team to beat for all intents and purposes and unless James gets serious help on the roster, Golden State could end his run of consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals.
But the fact he signed a four-year deal does give the Lakers some advantage in a potential post-Warriors universe. With so many stars on the same team, it could be a huge challenge to afford so many max contracts without one of the players potentially leaving for more money elsewhere.
Outside of Golden State, the rest of the playoff picture in the Western Conference is a bit blurry. The Houston Rockets were able to re-sign Chris Paul, which is great for their immediate future. But he is going to be making a ton of money as a 36-year-old point guard, which might not be great news for Houston’s long-term plans.
The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz both have nice young cores thanks to players like Nikola Jokic and Donovan Mitchell, respectively. But neither project as serious threats to dethrone the powerhouses, though they’ll be worth watching.
Karl Anthony-Towns and Jimmy Butler both can make Minnesota a real contender. But unless they are able to trade Andrew Wiggins or he makes serious improvements to his game, it could be a tough road for them moving forward.
The New Orleans Pelicans are not in a fantastic position, even if DeMarcus Cousins returns. It’s possible that Anthony Davis tries to maneuver himself to the Eastern Conference for a better chance at success in the postseason.
The Portland Trail Blazers have a similarly rough predicament as their star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum appear to have a ceiling. Would they continue to run it back or is it time to break up the duo?
Perhaps a young team like the Phoenix Suns could develop into a promising contender with No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton joining Devin Booker, though that could take a few years before any tangible improvements can be expected.
The Dallas Mavericks are another team that has made significant strides this offseason, adding European sensation Luka Doncic as well as trusted big man DeAndre Jordan. But even if Dennis Smith Jr. plays very well in his second year, that’s still a group that would likely not make serious noise in the playoffs.
Arguably the most interesting situation to monitor is the San Antonio Spurs, who played well even without Kawhi Leonard last season. They’re always a team to pay attention to, especially with Gregg Popovich as the head coach. But this feels different with all the drama that has surrounded Leonard’s discontent.
Leonard could end up on the Lakers with James or perhaps even the Los Angeles Clippers, as we wrote yesterday. This would drastically change the landscape of the West, especially after the Clippers lost Jordan – their last remnant of Lob City after trading both Paul and Blake Griffin.
Even though the Sacramento Kings added Marvin Bagley III and the Memphis Grizzlies added Jaren Jackson Jr. in the draft, neither team projects with much upside moving forward.
Otherwise, the West has tons of talent and a lot of teams that are only going to get better over the next few years. But now that James is playing in this conference, it’s a whole new ballgame. Opposing teams will have to account for the Warriors and the Lakers in their pursuit of a trip to the NBA Finals.
Plus, there are stars like Davis and Towns and Lillard along the way that will only make life more complicated for their opposition. As summer continues, we’ll have a more clear picture for next season. Meanwhile, the Lakers have their first clear path to success in a long time.
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