Given that we are barely a week removed from the Raptors' victory over the Warriors in the NBA Finals, it's unlikely that anybody needs a reminder of how dramatically the balance of power can shift in an offseason. At this time last year, Toronto was a 40-to-1 longshot to win the 2018-19 title, putting them behind the Sixers, Celtics, Heat and Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks were even further back at 100-to-1 odds, tied with the Pacers, the Wizards and, yes, the Knicks.
One year later, the East is set for one of its wildest offseasons in recent years. While the Sixers seem likely to pursue a Plan A that keeps its starting five intact, the rest of the conference could look radically different by the time training camp begins. For the sake of the argument _ and because any other scenario would only add to the chaos that could unfold elsewhere _ let's assume that Elton Brand succeeds in his quest to retain Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. Here are four big questions that will significantly impact the Sixers' prospects in 2019-20:
1. Will Kawhi Leonard leave the Eastern Conference?
The answer to this question has a chance to alter the NBA's competitive balance in a way that few single transactions ever have. Not only would his departure make his new team an instant contender, it would force the Raptors to start contemplating a complete rebuild before they even get fitted for their rings. Kyle Lowry will be 34 in March and coming off a season in which he looking nothing like a legitimate No. 1 scoring option. Marc Gasol will be 35 in January. With $101 million committed to those two plus Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell, the Raptors would be counting on Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to take two more big steps forward in order to compete with the likes of the Sixers, Celtics, Bucks and Pacers for one of the top four seeds in the East. That's not out of the realm of possibility, but there's an argument to be made that Toronto's best course of action would be to attempt to trade Lowry and Gasol for younger building blocks. Along with the wise use of the resulting cap space, the Raptors could then hope to enter 2020-21 with a new young core and a chance to contend.
Whatever direction Toronto ended up going, the departure of Kawhi to a team like the Clippers would remove a huge obstacle from the Sixers' path (it also would be the first time an NBA Finals MVP enters the next season with a different team).
2. Where will Kyrie Irving be playing next season - and might the Nets replace the Celtics as a favorite for one of the East's top four seeds?
From an organizational standpoint, the Nets might be the conference's biggest domino. You can already feel the swells in the ocean now that they've dealt Allen Crabbe to the Hawks. Not only does the move free up the payroll space to sign two max-level free agents, it also leaves them with a formidable supporting cast to surround the yet-to-be-named dynamic duo. With Taurean Prince at the three, Caris LeVert at the two, and Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie coming off the bench, the addition of Irving would move them a stretch four and a rim protector away from legitimate Finals aspirations. It would also force the Celtics to think seriously about parlaying their war chest of assets into a significant addition on the trade market. The net result could leave the Sixers having to deal with an improved top half of the conference, particularly if Leonard remains with the Raptors.
3. Can Giannis Antetokounmpo's supporting cast get better, or is destined to get worse?
Free-agent-to-be Khris Middleton will be making double what he did last season if ends up signing a max deal. Brook Lopez might have played his way out of the Bucks' price range. Nikola Mirotic will be a free agent. Ditto for Malcolm Brogdon. Milwaukee could free up the payroll space to add a quality free agent if it succeeds in its quest to shed the $18.4 million combined they owe Tony Snell and Ersan Ilyasova, but it's difficult to envision a scenario in which the sum of the Bucks' parts is greater than it was last season. As long as Giannis is wearing green, they'll be a threat for a top-four seed, and a significant test for the Sixers. But they could lose a lot of ground after leading the NBA with 60 wins in the regular season.
4. What, if any, impact will the Warriors' postseason misfortune have on the free-agent market?
Apart from Leonard's potential departure from the Raptors, the best external development for the Sixers this offseason might be whatever the Knicks end up doing. Right up until the moment Kevin Durant ruptured an Achilles in the NBA Finals, they were a team that you had to consider as a possible threat to the Sixers. But with Durant out for the season and Klay Thompson likely sidelined for most if not all of it, the top of the free-agent market could be headed for a significant supply crunch. The Knicks have less than $30 million guaranteed spread out over a collection of easily movable contracts, which means they have the payroll space to add two or even three top free agents. But if they envision a future with KD, their best course of action would seem to be to punt on 2019-20 and add another top draft pick next June to pair with RJ Barrett, this year's presumptive choice at No. 3 overall.
Long story short, the Sixers could be one of the few teams that can count on the advantage of continuity by the time the season starts. Of course, if Harris and/or Butler elects to sign elsewhere this summer, we can all look back at the previous sentence and enjoy a good laugh.
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