The Summer that Shifted the NBA´s Momentum
If you follow the NBA even in a mildly close manner, and unless you have been living under a rock for the past month, you are aware of the importance that this summer has for the NBA both short and long term. The major trades and free agent signings outlined on this post will give birth to a new (and improved) version of the NBA.
Here are the three main conclusions from a historical offseason that is bound to continue to send shockwaves during the upcoming season.
It rewarded smart, stable management
A significant portion of the teams that came out on top after these chaotic times are known for their efficient, intelligent management styles. These front office structures often combine long-term vision with win-now moves and a mix of low and high-risk operations, just like smart investors. While most NBA teams are perfectly capable of performing decent trades, the ability to land a superstar is only reserved for a few, as it requires a collection of assets gathered throughout years of planning and making right decisions. Additionally, free agents are aware of who the best managers are, and are more likely to pick a well-run organization like the Los Angeles Clippers over a sloppy one like the New York Knicks. Here are the teams that made the biggest jumps forward thanks, in large part, to their high-quality strategic thinking.
- Los Angeles Clippers: undoubtedly the biggest winners of the free agency and trade markets, the Clippers surprised everyone last season with a well-rounded roster that lacked the firepower and the stars to get them further into the Playoffs, which wasn´t even their goal at the start of the season. A few years ago, the Clippers bet on a flashy, spectacular style of play commanded by Chris Paul´s vision, and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan´s athleticism, but “Lob City” never got past the second round.
Led by Jerry West, who is expanding his legend as a player with an impressive and ever-growing front-office resume, the Clippers´ unexpected success last season came from a collection of overachieving role players: Patrick Beverley´s agressive and suffocating defensive skills, Montrezl Harrell´s energy on the boards, Danilo Gallinari´s talent, perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams´ scoring ability, and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander´s surprising boldness. All of this well -put-together-squad was orchestrated by Doc Rivers, who proved one more season to be one of the best coaches in the game.
Two of those key pieces, along with a record-setting plethora of future draft picks are now gone, with Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander heading to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Paul George.
The price paid by the Clippers in that trade is very steep, but the return (George) was the domino piece required to land arguably the best player in the world, Kawhi Leonard, who changed the narrative of California sports by joining a traditionally less glamorous Clippers franchise over the flamboyant Lakers, who tried to lure Leonard with the superstar duo formed by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: the team that gave up its two superstars is also ironically one of the franchises that came out as a clear winner this summer. Hold up, we should never say that they “gave up” neither Paul George or Russell Westbrook. Knowing that the Clippers desperately needed George, they asked for a very high price, and they got it in the form of a borderline all-star player (Gallinari), a 20-year old potential future star (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and, perhaps more importantly, opportunities for high flexibility and strong leverage in the future through the draft picks they received from the Clippers.
With George gone and the Westbrook-George experiment over, the Thunder were left with 30-year old Russell Westbrook´s massive four-year, $171M contract, and a mix of young players that spells rebuild. It was also known that Westbrook wanted to leave, ideally to the Rockets with his buddy James Harden, to chase the ring he doesn´t have.
OKC´s General Manager Sam Presti has a proven track record of making magic happen. In 2016, he traded Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and then-recently drafted Domantas Sabonis. A year after, he flipped Oladipo and Sabonis for Paul George. In other words, Serge Ibaka for Paul George. Wow.
Well, Presti worked his magic once again here. He teared the team down and traded Westbrook for Chris Paul and draft assets. Paul´s contract might even be worse than Westbrook´s (3 years left, $124M, and remember, Paul is 34 years old) but the Thunder will likely get rid of him. OKC now has a massive collection of future draft picks that sets them up for an incredible future. It looks like this (per SLAM):
- Utah Jazz: the Jazz have been a very competent team for a few years thanks to the stability that solid players like Ingles, Rubio, Favors, and Gobert provided. Donovan Mitchell emerged as a surprising star project two years ago to add to the mix. But recently the Jazz lacked that extra talent to take them to the next level, however. This summer, the Jazz upgraded the point guard position by letting go of Ricky Rubio and adding Mike Conley, perhaps one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and filled their shooting and wing voids with Bojan Bogdanovic, a life-insurance safe bet, and reliable forward Jeff Green. They also added point guard Emmanuel Mudiay (who has shown glimpses of talent but still hasn´t nearly matchedthe hype he generated when he came to the league) and the sturdy Ed Davis to replace the departing Derrick Favors. In summary, an outstanding offseason for an always scary team under Quin Snyder, one of the best coaches out there.
- New Orleans Pelicans: the Pelicans pulled off an all-time “heist” by trading their irritated star Anthony Davis to the Lakers. The Lakers could not wait and face the possibility of other teams trading for him, so they made an irresistible offer to NOLA: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and three first-round draft picks. The Pelicans, under new General Manager David Griffin, didn´t hesitate to agree. Short of settling with acquiring this enormous range of assets, and incorporating phenom Zion Williamson and highlight-prone center Jaxson Hayes through the draft, the Pelicans acquired quality pieces in sharpshooter JJ Redick and big man Derrick Favors. After being out from an NBA managerial role for two years, Griffin has come back with a bang.
- Brooklyn Nets: It is a new era in New York. Not because of the Knicks´ struggles and their disappointing offseason, which at this point is customary, but because of the resurgence of the Brooklyn Nets, a franchise that was bound to years of misery after completing one of the worst trades in basketball history in 2013. In 2016, the Nets hired Kenny Atkinson as their head coach, and the tides started to change. Atkinson soon proved to be a premier talent developer, empowering young, unproven players like D´Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Joe Harris, who all rose exponentially under Atkinson, achieved an impressive sixth place in the East, and competed against the 76ers in a five-game elimination. With free agent superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant joining forces in Brooklyn, the Nets officially become New York´s most interesting team.
It popularized two-star teams
Perhaps the main takeaway from this summer is that it democratized the NBA and stimulated better competition, distributing star power more evenly across the league. It is no longer a “Golden State vs. Everyone Else” league. The moves will likely end the Warriors´ tyranny, and they have fostered two-star teams that in paper should make up for more even competition. These are the NBA´s new “superduos”:
- Paul George & Kawhi Leonard
The Clippers now have arguably the two best two-way players in the NBA. They will obviously carry the load offensively, but their acquisition also adds a new dimension to a brutal Clippers defense that already had two defensive beasts in Beverley and Harrell.
- Kevin Durant & Kyrie Irving
With borderline star D´Angelo Russell gone, the Nets now have the legit superstars that should make them a contender in 2020–2021 (Durant will likely miss this entire season). Everyone speculated with the possibility of Kyrie and KD teaming up since they started to show great chemistry with each other in last February´s All Star weekend in Charlotte.
- Lebron James & Anthony Davis
The Lakers´ disappointing season ended with rumblings of Anthony Davis joining LeBron James in La La Land, and it was obvious that LA was the first choice for the disgruntled superstar. James and Davis are perhaps the most lethal duo in the world, but the Lakers had to give up young talent and depth to get the latter, which left them with an extremely thin roster that they nevertheless managed to strengthen more than decently with Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, and Rajon Rondo, among others.
- Ben Simmons & Joel Embiid
With Jimmy Butler gone to Miami, Simmons and Embiid are back on the main stage as the primary duo for the Sixers. Their relevance (especially Simmons´) diminished with Butler, who emerged as the team´s closer in hot moments. Now the Sixers´ two young stars are joined by a starkly different piece in Al Horford, the ultimate team player, capable of sacrificing touches and offensive load to make plays for the team.
- Stephen Curry & D´Angelo Russell
With the KD era over in the Bay Area and Klay Thompson likely sidelined for most of the upcoming season, the Warriors pulled off yet another seemingly masterful move that brought them one of the main free agents in the market, last season´s breakout star D´Angelo Russell. Curry and Russell will be an absolute headache to deal with by opposing defenses, but they´ll likely be a defensive problem for the Warriors as well. While it is unclear whether the Warriors will keep Russell or trade him for better-fitting pieces once they´re allowed to on December 15 as Marc Stein from the New York Times suggested, their combination of firepower and creativity should make these two a joy to watch.
- Russell Westbrook & James Harden
Westbrook and Harden are back together (now in Houston) after their stint in the Thunder from 2009 and 2012. Both are currently way better players than they were back in OKC, and now join to form a two-MVP explosive duo, but the reunion of these two ball-dominant, high-usage stars makes us wonder whether the Rockets will need two basketballs to play this game, and how their clear defensive flaws will affect the team. Knowing this is Harden´s team, Westbrook will likely need to adjust, take less shots, and play a smarter brand of basketball to fit with Harden.
It made the NBA better
Judging from the parity and fierce competitiveness that the offseason operations should yield, it is fair to say the NBA is entering an all-time great era in terms of evenly distributed quality on the court. There very well may be around ten teams that could easily win the title (Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, 76ers, Warriors, Rockets, Jazz, Celtics, Nets, and Nuggets), an unprecedented number in recent NBA history.
There has never been a better time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the revamped teams and their uncertainties, dissapointments, and surprises. We´re in for a treat of a 2019–2020 NBA season.