The NBA playoffs are in full swing. During the 2016-17 season, upsets have occurred regularly. Only one scenario seems to be consistent among NBA pundits: the final two teams standing will be the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Many teams will try, and some may even come close, but the Warriors and Cavs each took care of business in four games in the first round and will probably do so until they meet again. It pays to have a super team, and it pays to be the team LeBron James wants to play for.

NBA free agency is still three months away, but it looms large for a variety of franchises that have faltered early in the playoffs or may do so shortly.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks fell to the Washington Wizards in a six game series. Their main contributors performed admirably throughout the series in Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroder. Schroder in particular was excellent, at least offensively, posting averages of 24.7 points, 7.7 assists, and 1.2 steals throughout the six games. Millsap showed off a new gear as well, adding 24.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.5 steals. Their prized offseason acquisition, Dwight Howard, posted a mere 8.0 points per game in just 26.2 minutes, and while his main role isn’t to score, he contributed next to nothing offensively. There were other players who rose to the occasion (Taurean Waller-Prince) and those who faltered (Tim Hardaway Jr.), but the Hawks falling in the first round with a 32-year-old in Millsap and a 31-year-old in Howard doesn’t bode well for future success.

This offseason for the Hawks will center around Millsap and his decision to stay or leave the organization. If he wants a max contract for the maximum amount of years, it will cost the Hawks 5 years, $205 million, shattering Mike Conley’s record for total amount of money and average salary. Are the Hawks willing to spend that much on a 32-year-old likely to decline soon after signing it? Should other teams be willing to sign Millsap for the maximum non-bird rights contract of 4 years, $154 million?

Very few teams have the cap space to offer such a deal. The Nuggets don’t right now, but they can create it pretty simply by renouncing Danilo Gallinari’s cap hold. The question is, should they?

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls just fell to the Boston Celtics in six games. Jimmy Butler proved his worth, while Rajon Rondo proved how surprisingly needed he was after injuring his thumb. The two games Rondo played? Two Bulls wins. The four games he didn’t? A gentleman’s sweep.

Dwyane Wade’s first playoff series with the Bulls looked really bad for Dwyane Wade. Other players struggled, but Wade’s struggles were clearest of them all. In the Bulls’ four losses, Wade averaged 14.3 points (not bad) and shot 19 of 58 from the field, which translates to a cool 32.8 percent (really bad). His defense was even worse than his offense.

Wade has a player option worth $23.8 million for the 2017-18 season that he can exercise if he so wishes. At this point, the Bulls are probably hoping he bids them adieu and opts to explore his options with other teams.

Butler’s future with the team remains in question. There’s no reasonable way that he works his way back to championship contention with the current collection of players the Bulls have assembled. The second best player on the roster is Robin Lopez, the young players have mostly floundered, and Rondo/Wade have exacerbated more problems than they have solved. The Bulls have a tough decision: build around Butler and recruit talent during the offseason to play with him, or blow it up, trade Butler for as much as they can, and rebuild the normal way. Either way, the road ahead for the Bulls is almost certainly a painful one.

Indiana Pacers

Where to start? The Paul George comments or the Larry Bird resignation?

The Pacers were close in each of their four games with the Cleveland Cavaliers, losing by a combined 16 points, tied for the lowest margin in a four game sweep in NBA history. The roster is flawed, but there are some notable pieces to surround George. Myles Turner is one of the up-and-coming big men in the NBA. He has a longer way to go than players like Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns, but his ceiling is very, very high. Jeff Teague is still a quality NBA point guard with his facilitation skills and defensive qualities, and he was ultra-effective against Kyrie Irving on both ends. Thaddeus Young is still a quality power forward. Lance Stephenson is…well, he’s back and he played well.

But, Paul George is unhappy. He’s voiced his displeasure with the way things are going down in Indiana, and his answer on whether he wanted to be a Pacer for much longer was EXTREMELY noncommittal. I don’t see him back with the Pacers next season, especially given that his contract runs out after next season. George’s interest in the Los Angeles Lakers is well-documented, and it wouldn’t surprise me if George pulled a Carmelo Anthony and forced a trade to the city of angels. If he simply wants to win long term, then the Lakers would be a poor choice. A better choice would be the Celtics, or the Milwaukee Bucks in a move surrounding Jabari Parker (more on this in the future), or even your Denver Nuggets (same).

For now, my hypothesis is that Bird did not want to be the one to trade Paul George, and that will be Kevin Pritchard’s job. The Pacers are in for a difficult offseason and one that has had the writing on the wall for some time.

Oklahoma City Thunder

How long will it take Russell Westbrook before he gives up?

He carried the load for a franchise that needed him desperately after Kevin Durant’s departure, and he put up a season for the ages. Averaging a triple-double is incredible. A 41.7 usage rate over 81 games and 2,800 minutes is even more insane. Westbrook may not be the best player in the NBA, but he certainly had the most amazing performance. Nuggets fans should be nodding their heads in agreement here.

Westbrook had THREE 50 point triple-doubles throughout the year, and the Thunder were still demoralized by the Houston Rockets in five games. Victor Oladipo didn’t show up, Steven Adams regressed, Enes Kanter was rendered unplayable during three of the games, Andre Roberson was the SECOND LEADING SCORER…and he shot 3/21 from the free throw line during the five games.

Let’s say Roberson re-signs for a standard four years, say…$60 million, a reasonable contract for his defensive prowess in my mind. That would mean that him, Adams, and Oladipo would combine to earn $61.6 million annually over the next four years. This is a problem. All three have proven to be solid, but it’s clear that Westbrook needs more help than that if he wants to ever see a conference finals again.

Believe it or not, he has the same contract situation as Paul George. If he so chooses, he could opt out of his deal next year and be a free agent in 2018. If he chooses to stay with the Thunder, he can be offered a special contract provision which will guarantee him $200 million over five years. The issue still stands though: if he’s making over $40 million annually, and the three aforementioned players combine for $61 million, how will he get any help?

If it’s about the money and commitment to the Thunder, Westbrook will sign that mega-extension this offseason. If he wants to win a championship, he might hold off on that for a little bit.

Utah Jazz

I will get to the Los Angeles Clippers in a moment, but let’s start with the Jazz.

After merely 25 wins three seasons ago, the Jazz posted 38, then 40 last year, and now 51 this year, good for a tie for fourth in the West with the Clippers. The growth of Gordon Hayward has been steady, but the introduction of defensive player of the year candidate Rudy Gobert into the fold has helped the Jazz explode onto the scene. Add in a trade for George Hill and complementary performances by Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood, Boris Diaw, and Joe Johnson, and this group has a lot to be excited about.

Except they might not.

Hayward is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. All indications are that he would like to return to Utah, but there are known ties to the Celtics and Hayward’s former coach at Butler, Brad Stevens. The Jazz cannot lose Hayward, or their quick rise into playoff contention will be matched with a quick fall in kind. Hill is also a free agent, and while he is probably less necessary than Hayward, the Jazz have shoddy point guard depth behind him. Hill posted 16.9 points and 4.1 assists, helping to unlock the capabilities of the Jazz with his playmaking and efficiency. Losing him would be…unadvisable.

Joe Ingles will also be a free agent, and if there’s a guy the Jazz lose in free agency, it’s likely Ingles. His contributions are the least necessary for the Jazz, and the more they spend on Hayward and Hill, the more likely Ingles is left to explore other options. As many know, I’m a huge fan of his game. Our own Adam Mares likes him for the Nuggets, which means Ingles is probably liked by all 28 other teams as well.

If the Jazz lose game 7 today, all three of these players may not be back. The same could be said even if they win, though it’s less likely.

Los Angeles Clippers

The most interesting team during the NBA free agency period will be the Clippers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been playing together for six seasons. Only twice have they advanced beyond the first round, and they have yet to advance beyond there. Paul, Griffin, and J.J. Redick will be highly sought after free agents this offseason, and the they hold all of the power.

It’s very possible that Paul decides to move on after being the best point guard over the course of his six seasons with the Clippers. Even at 31, Paul hasn’t slowed down in the slightest. His averages over these playoffs? 27.3 points, 10.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 steals, on 52.6 FG/41.9 3P/90.6 FT shooting efficiency. He’s been absolutely absurd, maybe the second best player in these playoffs behind Kawhi Leonard, and if the Clippers lose game 7, Paul will feel comfortable knowing he gave more than enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes ring-chasing with the San Antonio Spurs in the offseason.

Griffin is a different story. He’s dealt with a variety of injuries throughout his career, and after suffering a season ending toe injury in game 3, it’s becoming a recurring trend. He’s still an incredibly talented basketball player, and while he might not be worth the max contract he will receive this offseason, he’s uniquely gifted to be a scorer and facilitator at the power forward position. Most teams would likely welcome that, including the Nuggets.

Redick will turn 33 at the end of June, but he’s still one of the best off-shooters and scorers in the NBA. His defense has been questionable for many years, and it will likely get worse as he gets older. A contract that pays him more than $15 million annually in his third and fourth seasons will likely go poorly.

If the Clippers pay each of these players, they will not only be in the luxury tax, but they will have to pay repeater tax, a clause that attempts to prevent teams from dipping into the luxury tax regularly. The Clippers will pay upward of $95 million EXTRA if they pay out all of these contracts. For a team that has never been past the second round, that price is too steep, even for Steve Ballmer.

There are many, many directions this offseason could go that are both outrageous and sensible, but so has been the past 18 months for the entire NBA. For two teams, a game 7 could have major implications for the future of the franchise. For the other four, fate may be sealed by the intentions of their stars. The NBA is a players league, and the players will ultimately determine how most of this goes down.

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