The players, teams and decisions that matter most this offseason

Now that the 2021 NBA draft is over, it's time for the free-agency frenzy to take center stage. There are many storylines set to dominate the next few days.The Los Angeles Lakers made the right decision by opting for a blockbuster Russell Westbrook deal over Buddy Hield's reported deal. Will the Philadelphia 76ers agree to a Ben Simmons deal or will they continue with the All-Star roster?Which offseason decision could have the greatest impact on the path to the 2022 NBA championship?Our NBA insiders answer the most pressing questions and make bold predictions for the free-agency season which officially starts Monday at 6 p.m. ETMORE: Get the latest trade news and agency news1. 1. Which team could take the biggest turn this offseason, for better or worse?Tim Bontemps: It is no secret that the New Orleans Pelicans want to make Zion Williamson feel like he belongs with them long-term, and offer him a max contract extension. The Pelicans have a lot of draft picks, and lots of cap space after the Memphis center-swapping deal earlier this week. They should be busy in the next 10 days.Nick Friedell: The Golden State Warriors. Although it might not be a significant move, they could bundle their future assets, including 2020 No. James Wiseman, the 2nd overall pick, will go all in on this season for Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Klay Thompson has not played since the 2019 Finals due to an ACL tear in his left leg.Andrew Lopez: In 2022-23, the Washington Wizards opened up potential cap space with the Westbrook trade. This was in an attempt to build a future around Bradley Beal. What if it doesn't? Rumors surrounding Beal will continue to swirl, and drama could ensue if this move goes south.Tim MacMahon - Portland is in the most perilous situation because of Damian Lillard's dissatisfaction. The Trail Blazers should take a huge swing to convince Lillard they can compete. For an example of how this might go, see how James Harden was treated in Houston following the Westbrook trade. It's time to tear down Portland, which will reluctantly place Lillard on the Trade Block.Kevin Pelton: If they have $20-plus million of cap space, I believe the Dallas Mavericks can jump into the West's top echelon. Kyle Lowry, a free-agent guard, would be a great short-term addition to a team in need of a second playmaker to keep Luka Doncic healthy until the end.Russell Westbrook will be heading to L.A. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images2. Fact or fiction? The Lakers' deal is better than the one that they did not.Bontemps: Fiction. Although some might not be able to understand why Hield is considered better than Westbrook, I can tell you that he was. The Lakers had a terrible record in 3-point shooting during the past two seasons. Hield, a great 3-point shooter in the NBA, would have been a perfect catch-and-shoot partner for LeBron James. The Lakers traded for Westbrook instead, who is a poor jump-shooter and needs the ball in his hands. From a stylist perspective, among stars players, it's difficult to imagine a better fit for James than Westbrook. This is a classic example of the pursuit of the biggest name rather than assembling the best team. Hield would have been a better choice if that was the priority.MacMahon: Fiction. Hield would have made a better choice than adding a former MVP. Hield is one of the top 3-point shooters in league, which would have addressed the Lakers' greatest need. Westbrook is the league's worst 3-point shooter, and teams often dare him to shoot when he doesn’t have the ball. Although Westbrook can still cause havoc and rack up triple-doubles he must be the primary ball handler. What does this make sense to James, his teammate?Pelton: Fiction. Although I was not thrilled about the idea of Hield losing his first-round pick, the Lakers fit him well considering their need for outside shooting and his age. Hield had a better chance of keeping or adding trade value, as his salary decreased over the course of his contract. Westbrook is not like that.Lopez: Fiction. I liked the Hield deal because it would provide Lakers with some good shooting. Westbrook, who is a 30.3% career shooter from 3-point range, is second-worst among players with at least 2000 attempts. The Lakers will also have more than $120 million in their hands with just three players, Westbrook, James, and Anthony Davis. Hield would have allowed them slightly more flexibility under the cap.Friedell: Fact. Friedell: Fact. For stars, playing at home means more. LeBron & Co. will be pleased with the looks Westbrook gives them.3. Fact or fiction? Ben Simmons will be opening night a 76er.Pelton: More factual than fiction. Daryl Morey, Sixers president of basketball operations, is a sure reader of "Moneyball," where Billy Beane outlines his five rules for trading. Rule No. Rule No. 2: When you say, "I have to do this," you are in trouble. Because you're going to make a terrible deal. Simmons is not going to be traded by Morey just to get him. He will not settle for less than maximum value, even though it might not be possible this summer.Bontemps: A fact, but not without trying. I don't know where Morey will get the offer that will allow Simmons to leave this summer. We have learned a lot about Morey in his over ten years of NBA service. He is not afraid to deal with difficult situations and is focused on maximising value. He won't trade Simmons for anything less than what he believes he is worth. After Simmons' performance in the playoffs, it is hard to imagine anyone pushing for Simmons to be traded.Lopez: Fiction. I was a little worried that this would be a Harden situation in which Simmons plays the first few weeks of the season in Philadelphia. But it doesn't look like Simmons and Philadelphia can continue to make it. Morey will keep looking for the best trade package and someone will take him up -- although it may be closer to the start than the free-agency period.MacMahon: Fiction. Both parties recognize the need to start over. It is not in anyone's best interests for the divorce proceedings drag out into regular season. Morey will eventually have to give up on his request for a Harden-esque return. This is a difficult task considering Simmons was offered by the Sixers as part of a package that Harden received before his playoff performance.Friedell: Fiction. Simmons' fate was sealed in Philly, after he made that pass under the basket. Given his current low confidence, it would be difficult to bring him back. He needs to see a different scenery.Chris Paul's decision to test the market could have a significant impact on the championship outlook of a number of other contenders. Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images4. What free-agency/trade decision has the greatest impact on the 2022 NBA championship race?Lopez: Remember how I said that the Westbrook deal with Hield was better than the one with Westbrook? The title race will still be impacted by the Westbrook deal. His playmaking and shooting may not help the Lakers but they will be helped by Westbrook. Westbrook leads the NBA in assists per game in three of his four seasons. The only year that he didn’t lead the league was the one he spent in Houston with Harden. James will have less work to do with Westbrook. Although more shooting would have been helpful, Westbrook's motivation will cement the Lakers' status as the favourite in the Western Conference.Bontemps: While I am tempted to pick the Westbrook trade because it seems certain that it will hurt the Lakers chances of winning another title, I'm going to vote for Beal and Lillard regardless. The kind of move that could shake up the league as the Harden and Jrue Holiday deals last season would be if either one changes teams in the coming months. The fate of either player will determine the league's future right up to the 2022 trade deadline.Pelton: Chris Paul's decision regarding his player option. While we assume Paul will return to the Phoenix Suns, it is possible that he could create another contender and also remove Phoenix from the equation to make it back to the NBA Finals.Friedell: Where does Lillard land? Lillard's decision to leave Portland this year could have huge implications for the league. Lillard would make a great landing spot for the Knicks, which I believe would be a fantastic place. He could also form an interesting partnership with Tom Thibodeau.MacMahon - Lowry could be the one, if he chooses to play for the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, or Philadelphia 76ers. Lowry's leadership, playmaking, and shooting skills could make any of these three teams serious contenders. Lowry's biggest offer will likely be made by the New Orleans Pelicans. Will he choose to maximize his last major contract or put himself in a position to compete for another title?5. 5.Bontemps: Lonzo Ball, a former Lakers starting point guard, will receive more guaranteed money in free agency than Dennis Schroder, the Lakers' starting point-guard in 2020-21.Pelton: The contract Ball signed as a restricted-free agent will be remembered as having the highest value among all contracts worth more than $10million per season. Ball isn’t a point guard but his track record of outplaying second contracts by players of his caliber is impressive. Ball is young enough that he can continue to improve well into a new contract.Friedell: The Knicks will find the star they need in order to pair 2021 Most Improved player Julius Randle with their team.Lopez: Contracts that were once considered non-tradeable are no longer so untradeable. Russell Westbrook's albatross contract has been moved each offseason. If we are bold enough, let's suppose that Houston can find John Wall a replacement or Oklahoma City can move Kemba Walker.MacMahon - Thunder GM Sam Presti will find a way to get another future first-rounder this offseason, even though he made a draft-night deal that added to Oklahoma City's stockpile.