As the NBA playoffs near their end, 26 of the 30 NBA teams are already wondering how they can reload during the offseason for the 2020-21 season. While the eight teams not invited to the bubble in Orlando, Florida, have been in offseason mode since March, others recently had their championship aspirations crushed and must quickly switch gears toward addressing difficult roster and management decisions in order to continue challenging for titles. The Milwalkee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets — three powerhouse teams that failed to meet their lofty expectations — are headed toward identity-altering offseasons.
This year was supposed to end in championship glory for the Bucks. One of the best regular-season teams in NBA history, led by the reigning back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, was not supposed to be dispatched in five games by the fifth-seed Miami Heat. To make matters worse, Antetokounmpo has one year left on his contract and just about every team in the league will try to entice the 25-year-old superstar to lead their teams come next free agency. Luckily for the Bucks, Antetokounmpo seems intent on staying with the team to bring Milwalkee its first championship since 1971. However, if the Kevin Durant and Golden State Warriors saga has proved anything, it’s that loyalty can wear thin in the absence of winning.
The onus this offseason will be on the Bucks’ front office to surround Antetokounmpo with talent capable of greater postseason success. The majority of the deep supporting cast are destined to stay, but questions loom over whether the team has enough star power to complement their star. Wing Khris Middleton, the team’s only other All-Star, struggled throughout the postseason; evidently, the Bucks need another piece if they want their regular-season success to translate into the postseason. Their championship window is still open, but the clock is ticking. If Antetokounmpo believes the Bucks aren’t acting in his best interests, he will likely look elsewhere to fulfill his quest for an NBA title.
The Clippers underachieved in similar fashion to the Bucks; predicted to still be on the court when the season’s final buzzer sounded, the Clippers didn’t even make it out of the second round. Fortunately, with forward Kawhi Leonard and guard Paul George potentially under contact until 2022, the team has the ability to run it back next season with a team just as powerful — on paper.
Yet, the magnitude of their playoff collapse raises questions over whether their formula can ever produce the desired results. The Clippers didn’t just lose: they crumbled out of the playoffs in dramatic fashion after the Denver Nuggets came back from being down 3-1 to win the series. The Clippers looked completely out of sync for large stretches, and George once again could not break free of his reputation as a poor playoff performer.
The team might look at sign-and-trade options for soon-to-be free agent power forward Montrezl Harrell if they are looking to inject new life into their roster. While the idea of not trying to re-sign the reigning Sixth Man of the Year seemed preposterous during the regular season, his poor postseason defense rendered him of little value in the Nuggets series. Serious changes have already been made: former Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, now the only coach to lose three series after being up 3-1, has parted ways with the team after seven seasons in Los Angeles.
The Rockets didn’t have the same expectations of winning it all that they had had in recent years. But after yet another early playoff exit, there are doubts as to whether the James Harden era will ever result in a championship. The Rockets — after years of competing for titles with a unique, analytics-based approach — might finally be headed in a different direction. Head coach Mike D’Antoni announced he will not return to the team next season, and trade speculation throughout the roster abounds. The Russell Westbrook experiment failed in the postseason due to his inability to capitalize when defenses double Harden, and the team will not look back on trading Chris Paul for him favorably. Harden’s spectacular numbers look empty without a ring, and his chance at one with the Rockets might have already come and gone. Harden may jump ship if he feels the team is continuing to sink toward mediocrity.
The offseason decisions for each of these teams will shape the NBA landscape. If the Bucks, Clippers or Rockets can conjure up an ideal combination of talent to complement the game-breaking superstars they already have, any of these teams could be looking at championship glory next season instead of repeating the agonizing defeat of this season.