Three winners and three losers from the 2020 NBA offseason

After an unusual offseason, here are three teams that really improved and three others that did not do enough.

With free agency close to wrapped up and the start of the 2020-21 NBA season around the corner, I wanted to highlight the three teams improved the most this offseason and the three teams that didn’t do enough and look poised to take a step back in their development.

The winners

Philadelphia 76ers: Incoming President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey essentially did a Ctrl-Z on the Philadelphia 76ers’ previous season but that was probably the right move insofar as getting this team into the best position possible to compete. Moving on from the misbegotten Al Horford signing was the correct thing to do both in terms of how to get the most out of their roster (you couldn’t play Horford and Joel Embiid at the same time and that was a huge problem) and it also landed them Danny Green, someone who can provide both championship experience as well as shooting.

Though they had to give up draft picks to facilitate that move, getting out from under the Horford contract/pulling the plug on that failed experiment was ultimately worth it. Swapping Josh Richardson for Seth Curry also gave them more outside shooting as the younger Curry shot 49.5% from long distance last season as a member of the Dallas Mavericks, better than any player on the 2019-20 76ers roster. 

These moves, coupled with drafting Tyrese Maxey in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft, reflect this team’s commitment to addressing the lapses and failures of prior seasons when it came to roster construction and that lack of outside shooting. Looking at the 76ers now, the roster looks much better constructed to allow the talent of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to really shine. That bodes well for the 76ers this season.

Portland Trail Blazers: Probably the biggest knock on the Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum-led Portland Trail Blazers is their suspect defense as they’ve always been middle-of-the-pack throughout this period even as they’ve routinely made the playoffs. The Trail Blazers went about addressing this deficiency in perhaps the best way possible by acquiring Robert Covington from the Houston Rockets in exchange for Trevor Ariza, Isaiah Stewart, and a future first-round draft pick. 

Covington, who was voted first-team all-defense after the 2017-18 season, gives the Trail Blazers a player who can defend an opponent’s best wing and even help with opponents’ guards, making up for the ground they give up playing Lillard and McCollum at the same time.

The Trail Blazers made some other moves around the margins (signing Harry Giles and Rodney Hood) but acquiring Covington puts them, in my mind at least, on much more solid footing in the Western Conference.

Atlanta Hawks: The team poised to join the postseason party after missing out last season in the Eastern Conference is the Atlanta Hawks. Like the Trail Blazers, they were a team that needed to get better defensively, as they had one of the worst defensive ratings in the 2019-20 regular season.

Acquiring Kris Dunn, a young and strong defender while playing on the underperforming Chicago Bulls, will be a big help in that regard. They also signed Rajon Rondo, who brings toughness and a champion’s mentality to Atlanta. Drafting Onyeka Okongwu could go a long way in solidifying their rim protection for years to come as well. 

These moves, coupled with the signings of Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, puts a lot more talent on that Hawks roster. If the other young players around Trae Young continue to develop, this Hawks team could make a big leap in the standings thanks to these savvy pickups.

The losers

Utah Jazz: The Utah Jazz, in my opinion, seem primed to regress this season. Things, at least prior to the COVID shutdown, went about as well as things could for the Jazz and they still came into the playoffs as a six seed and did not make it out of the first round. You have Mike Conley, the oldest player on their roster and someone with a history of injuries, another year older and playing a position where athleticism is of the utmost importance. You have a great defensive big in Rudy Gobert but he’s a player whose offensive production, particularly in the important moments of postseason games, is wanting. While Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanović are good players, they aren’t quite good enough to make up for these issues. 

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Donovan Mitchell. A big part of this view depends on how you view Mitchell. If you see him as a player that can really lead and carry a team on his own, then you should have no problem seeing the Jazz as continuing to be at the same level as they’ve been for the past few seasons. But while Mitchell certainly is someone who can fill up a box score and have impressive highlights, I have questions about his efficiency and decision making. Mitchell takes a ton of shots but does not make them at quite the rate that you would like of someone commanding that much of a team’s offense. 

If there’s a slight step back elsewhere on the roster, I think Mitchell’s game will go from a positive to a negative and that could cause the Jazz to fall out of playoff contention.

Houston Rockets: In giving up Covington, the Rockets hurt themselves and they find themselves on the opposite end relative to my more optimistic view of the Trail Blazers. There was no attempt to improve and address the flaws that existed on this team and that have been apparent for the past few seasons.

The trade they made with the Washington Wizards, swapping Russell Westbrook for John Wall, does not do anything to change the philosophical composition of the team (and acquiring a player with a much worse injury history of late). If DeMarcus Cousins is able to stay healthy, his signing could prove to be a major coup, but unfortunately I cannot assume that will happen. Instead, it looks like bringing in a major name but a player surrounded by serious questions, both in terms of durability and what contributions he can make to a team with championship aspirations

What the Rockets should have done was keep Covington and move on from Westbrook or James Harden but also getting a non-ball dominant iso-heavy player in return. The problems that have plagued this Rockets squad for so many years now will still be there, just in the form of different players.

Milwaukee Bucks: I don’t think the Bucks had a “miss out on the playoffs”-bad offseason.I But I do think the moves the Bucks made only marginally improved the team when, after an end-of-regular-season and postseason when the deficiencies of that roster were really apparent, that’s not going to be good enough. Acquiring Jrue Holiday is a solid move and gives them a good option next to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. But they gave up a great deal and sacrificed flexibility to get a player with durability questions and who might not be as good as everything that they gave up. 

There was also the way in which they bungled the Bogdanović acquisition and who they brought in once that fell through, all of which gave me pause. The Bucks’ shortcomings were really on display in the 2019-20 postseason in that brutal loss to the eventual Eastern Conference Champions, the Miami Heat. The moves that front office made might make the team better from a talent perspective, but I do not know if it makes them better positioned to win important games in the playoffs.

While Giannis is a great player, he needs a certain kind of team with specific players around him to really succeed. I just don’t know if the moves the Bucks made this off-season gets them any closer to being that kind of a team. In that regard, especially with the prospect that Giannis could leave Milwaukee, then this was not a positive off-season for the Bucks.