Welcome to the 2022 NBA offseason, ladies and gentlemen.
The Warriors are the oddsmakers’ favorites to repeat as champions, but, as with this season, there will be nearly a dozen teams that can lay claim to being a contender.
I don’t know if they all have a claim, but I do see three teams in the Western Conference – let the East take care of itself – that the Warriors should keep a close eye on this offseason, because they represent the strongest threats to the crown:
One could make the argument that the Grizzlies – not the Mavericks or Eastern Conference champion Celtics – provided the Warriors their biggest scare this postseason.
There is certainly an alternate universe where Ja Morant never injures his right knee and Memphis upsets the Dubs in the second round in May.
But Morant did injure his knee, and the Warriors beat the Grizzlies in six games because of it.
What stood out in that second-round series was how valuable Gary Payton II was, or, I suppose, would have been. Payton was injured in the early moments of Game 2 by a cheap-shot flagrant foul from Dillon Brooks that broke the Warrior’s elbow.
I know it feels like a decade ago, but remember: Without Payton, the Warriors had no one who could stay in front of Morant on the perimeter, and that provided Memphis with the upper hand in the series until Morant’s injury.
Memphis is young, Morant’s injury appears to be minor in the grand scheme, and with a couple of simple moves, the Grizzlies could be far enough under the NBA’s salary cap to add a clear No. 2 to the mix.
After the Warriors won the title, a number of them spent some time chirping at the Grizzlies in press conferences and on Twitter. There’s some energy for a real rivalry here both on and off the court.
Memphis is going to come strong again next season. If the Warriors want to position themselves to beat them again, they need to bring back Payton, whatever the cost.
The Warriors were able to beat the Mavericks in five games because Dallas was a one-trick pony.
Their plays include Give The Ball to Luka and Get Out of Luka’s Way. There’s not much else in their playbook.
Against the vast majority of NBA teams, Luka Dončić is singlehandedly enough to win games. But the Warriors, who harkened back to their battles with James Harden in the Western Conference finals are not the “vast majority.”
The Mavericks know there’s a big gap between them and the champions and they’ve already started working on cutting that down by trading for Christian Wood center. Wood will provide some sorely-needed rim protection and has a chance to be a nice roll-man with Dončić.
Dallas’ issue is that it needs a better No. 2 scorer. Steph had Klay Thompson and, at one point, Kevin Durant. Jalen Brunson is a nice backup point guard, but he’s nowhere near that caliber of player.
But Brunson is due to receive a new contract this offseason. If the Mavericks lock him in long-term, they will pretty much also lock in their status as contenders in theory only. Dallas does have some payroll flexibility and can play around with sign-and-trade possibilities because its roster can easily fit under the luxury tax line.
If the Mavericks make a big, bold move (or two), they could be right back in the Western Conference finals again in 2023 with an even better chance of winning.
Los Angeles Clippers
There are only a few teams that can boast, like the Clippers, that they can stand pat and be true title contenders, if not the favorites.
Yes, the Clippers were a play-in team this past season. They didn’t even make it to the real playoff tournament. But they have one of the most valuable basketball players returning next year in Kawhi Leonard. Alongside Paul George, Leonard gives the Clippers the best 1-2 punch in the league at the most important position in the game.
Wings win titles. Just ask the Warriors, who saw Andrew Wiggins have an out-of-body experience in the postseason to be, inarguably, the team’s second most important player.
Wiggins did his best Leonard impression over the last two months.
The Clippers get the real Leonard back next season.
When you pair him with Paul George, a great coach in Ty Lue, a deep roster and a deep-pocketed owner, you have a fascinating combination that might not thrive in the regular season but could be, if healthy, a wickedly tough out when the games really matter.