They’re fighting back.
It may amount to nothing in a year’s time, but those who would challenge the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference didn’t sit on their hands and whine about how unfair the world was. And that set up what was an unexpectedly vigorous first week of free agency and trades -- seven days that saw the West get even tougher, while the East’s collective pulse was raised by a single move of significant talent in the other direction.
It was, also, a tribute to how spooked the rest of the league is by what Golden State has done, and has become, the last three seasons.
The status quo is now inoperative in the NBA. If you stand pat, you are falling behind, and fast. Player development of your own guys is still important in the cap era, to be sure. And it will be the only way the current have-nots in Brooklyn, Atlanta and other cities can to stay afloat the next couple of seasons. But the Warriors have four of the top 25 players in the league on their roster. For those teams looking to stay above water, talent acquisition is now paramount. The arms (and legs) race is on with no end in sight.
That said, the Rockets couldn’t be satisfied with bringing back a 55-win team intact next season, with the runner-up for league MVP orchestrating a historic offense that was the living embodiment of the way Houston has wanted to play for years -- 3-pointers, 3-pointers and more 3-pointers.
The Rockets traded for Chris Paul, and in doing so gave James Harden the help he didn’t have in the playoffs this year . But they also embraced a player who’s the master of the mid-range shot, which the Rockets have likened to fungal infections the last few years. (P.J. Tucker, signed for four years and $32 million last week, will ultimately take over the Trevor Ariza role in Houston.)
The San Antonio Spurs didn’t sit on their hands and just report to camp with the same 61-win team from last season, with the league’s best all-around player leading the way. So San Antonio, the kings of efficiency, signed up the very inefficient-but-nonetheless-talented Rudy Gay, who can help take some of the scoring load off of Kawhi Leonard.
And several non-playoff teams from last season bulked up in major ways.
The Minnesota Timberwolves weren’t content with a slow and steady rebuild around its young emerging stars. It tilted the board by getting Jimmy Butler from Chicago on Draft night, then reaching deals with free agents Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. That will bring some defense and toughness to a unit that was among the worst in the league last season at stopping people.
The Denver Nuggets added four-time All-Star Paul Millsap for three years and $90 million in what became a three-team deal, which sent Danilo Gallinari to the recalibrating LA Clippers, who got a bunch of solid players (Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker) from the Rockets in the Paul trade, then added one of the best point guards in the world outside of the NBA in 30-year-old Serbian Milos Telodosic.
Sacramento went the route of the late Flip Saunders in Minnesota a few years ago. Flip wanted to have vets at every position to mentor his young charges, which included a rookie Karl-Anthony Towns and a second-year Andrew Wiggins at the time. So he brought Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller in to school the youngsters.
The Kings have done the same this year, reportedly adding vets who still have tread on their tires. George Hill (three years, $57 million) will tutor first-round pick De’Aaron Fox at the point. Vince Carter (one year, $8 million) will be there for fellow first-rounder Justin Jackson. And Zach Randolph (two years, $20 million) will show second-year forward Skal Labissiere and the Kings’ other young bigs how to play bully ball in the post.
And the Oklahoma City Thunder, a first-round team with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, somehow got back in the game, for real for real.
A year after losing Kevin Durant to the Warriors, OKC somehow pulled off the next best thing, getting Paul George from the Indiana Pacers. It may be a one-year rental or it may be the catalyst to convince Westbrook to spend the rest of his career with the Thunder. Who knows? (Well, Westbrook does.) But it beat the alternative -- sitting idly by while the rest of the West passed OKC by, like the denizens of Radiator Springs in Cars. OKC doubled up on its ante for ’17-’18 by reportedly signing Patrick Patterson away from Toronto. The veteran power forward will start and will be another, better, pressure release than Westbrook had last season.
The spending and trading has not changed the league’s basic calculus: Golden State and the Cleveland Cavaliers remain their respective conference’s dominant teams. But at least some of their challengers have given their fan bases a reason to show up and cheer next season.
Many -- not all -- NBA fans are realistic about their teams. They get that the likelihood they’ll actually see their squad win a championship in their lifetime is pretty small, unless they live in a handful of cities. They know there’s not really “competitive balance,” at least as how the league likes to describe it, in the NBA. All they want is for their team to put out a good product they don’t mind coming out of pocket for, in an arena that is amenable and whose Game Ops people know how to put on a good and entertaining show during timeouts. And a half-dozen teams in the West have done just that, and good for them.
It’s been a remarkable first 10 days. Among the many developments:
1. And Just Like That ... It’s Gone
The first coast-to-coast solar eclipse will occur in the U.S. on August 21, but much of the Eastern Conference has already disappeared under the horizon. When it will resurface is anyone’s guess.
Other than the Boston Celtics bolstering their attack with the addition of Gordon Hayward, most of the East has, at least so far, retreated to higher ground to (presumably) fight another day or spent a whole lot more money to keep the same team together that didn’t have a prayer of beating Cleveland last season. That has allowed the Cavs, still searching for a GM and having done little in free agency themselves, to continue striding atop the conference.
Atlanta went full rebuild, sending Millsap to Denver after trading Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets, and then letting restricted free agent guard Tim Hardaway Jr. go to New York, which is … well, we’re not sure what New York is doing until it resolves Carmelo Anthony’s status (which looks more and more like it will be elsewhere next year).
Barring some dramatic turn, the top half of the East will likely remain the same as it was this season.
Boston didn’t get George, but the Celtics successfully recruited Hayward from the Utah Jazz. Hayward is an emerging superstar who will make the Celtics much more diverse and difficult to guard. No longer will defenses be able to jump pick and rolls with Isaiah Thomas on the ball if Hayward is involved in the action. No one will be able to leave Hayward alone behind the 3-point line (almost 40 percent last season) and live to talk about it afterward.
One can only imagine the ways in which Celtics coach Brad Stevens will utilize his former Butler star. Stevens found ways for everyone, from Jae Crowder to Kelly Olynyk, to flourish offensively the last couple of years. He can have Hayward initiate as a ballhandler, bringing Thomas off of pindowns and curls. When Thomas is coming downhill with the ball, it will be a horror for opposing defenses.
Add to that the potential of first-round pick Jayson Tatum, likely coming off the bench but equally likely to play a lot early, with rising sophomore Jaylen Brown, and Boston’s length and potential are scary. Now, Stevens is talking about playing Brown more at the two next season, and the 6-foot-7, 230-pound 20-year-old is eager to take up the challenge.
“I’m quick enough,” Brown said Sunday night in Las Vegas at the Summer League. “I think I have good feet, quick enough to guard ones and twos. I think I’m fast enough and I’m strong enough, and it causes problems. My length, versatility, closing out, I can make it difficult for guys to score. It’s not something I’m fully used to, but I can definitely make the easy adjustment and guard whoever I need to guard.”
But there was a tradeoff for Boston even as we all acknowledge how good Hayward will be at both ends.
Even before getting Hayward, the Celtics were already hard to guard -- they were eighth in the league last season in offensive rating -- and they already shot a lot of 3-pointers, finishing third in makes last season (985) behind Golden State and Cleveland. And they already moved the ball around; they were tied for third in the league in assists per game (25.2) with Houston.
Where they struggled, relatively speaking, was on defense. Per NBA.com/Stats, the Celtics were 12th in the league in Defensive Rating, allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions, and were 15th in points allowed per game (105.4). And the Celtics, having already lost their top interior defender, Amir Johnson, to the 76ers in free agency, then had to move their best overall defender, Avery Bradley, to create the room necessary to sign Hayward.
Bradley wasn’t just a defensive stalwart, capable of guarding both guard spots equally effectively. He was one of Boston’s leaders, on and off the floor. It was Bradley who informed Thomas of the death of his younger sister, a role he correctly felt equipped to fill. He had the mental toughness to shake off an awful shooting night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals and, with the Celtics’ season on the line, rise up and knock down a game-winning 3-pointer on the road in Cleveland.
But the Celtics wouldn’t have been able to pay Bradley, an unrestricted free agent in 2018, when they would have to do the same for Thomas. Getting Marcus Morris from Detroit for Bradley will help alleviate some of the defense Boston lost in the trade.
That’s not to say Boston shouldn’t have signed Hayward. Of course the Celtics should have. But replacing Bradley in that locker room will be harder than you may think.
The other top teams in the East – the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors – are watching much of the conference crater around them. Both teams kept their core players, but got way more expensive in doing so, and we’ll see how that works out.
The Raptors re-signed Serge Ibaka for three years and $65 million, then went over the top to keep All-Star Kyle Lowry, agreeing to a three-year deal for a cool $100 million. It was a good deal for both the player and the team, giving Lowry much more money up front than he would have gotten on a longer deal while giving Toronto some potential flexibility much sooner. It also doesn’t wed the team to Lowry for five years if the 31-year-old starts slowing sooner than expected.
The Raptors then lessened their likely luxury tax bill late Saturday by agreeing to trade DeMarre Carroll, a Lottery protected 2018 first-rounder and a second to the Nets for center Justin Hamilton, and brought in one of the better free agents left on the market in Miles, who’ll replace the 3-point shooting Patterson took to OKC.
The Wizards did what they said they’d do -- match any offer for Otto Porter Jr. -- in matching Brooklyn’s four-year, $106 million max to the restricted free agent. But it forced Washington to go into the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history, leaving the Wizards to try and remake their struggling bench on a budget. They took a flier on the oft-injured Jodie Meeks for part of the taxpayer mid-level and brought in former Hawks reserve Mike Scott for the minimum.
And the Wizards didn’t figure out a way to really get in on the George discussions, despite John Wall’s public entreaties that Washington improve itself at the three. (That Porter plays the three, and played well there last season, will likely be a discussion point between the two next time they run into one another.)
2. So ... what exactly did happen with George?
Oklahoma City acquiring George, the four-time All-Star and Olympian, for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis is the kind of case they’ll be examining at business schools for a generation. Talk about asset management! No one saw Thunder GM Sam Presti coming -- which, of course, is just the way he likes it.
What did the Celtics actually offer the Pacers? We’re never probably going to know for sure. The Boston media detailed offers of three first-round picks, including the 2017 first-rounder that the Celtics got from Brooklyn and that became the first pick overall in this year’s Draft, along with two starters -- presumably Crowder and Bradley -- for George at the trade deadline in February. Other league sources, though, say that the Celtics never put the 2017 first on the table.
But it doesn’t matter now. Larry Bird, then the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, turned down whatever Boston was offering then, and he resigned in April after Indiana’s first-round playoff loss to Cleveland. That offer was no longer on the table when George’s future plans were made clear.
When Boston engaged Indiana this time, with new Pacers team president Kevin Pritchard, the Celtics never offered any of what Indiana considered Boston’s major assets -- the 2017 Brooklyn first that wound up becoming Duke forward Jayson Tatum, the 2018 Brooklyn first in next year’s Draft, or young forward Jaylen Brown, who acquitted himself quite well in his rookie season and postseason.
Meanwhile, the Lakers tried to get George immediately, rather than waiting until next summer -- “very L.A.ish,” a league source said. But they never were willing to part either with the second overall pick in this year’s Draft or their 2016 first-rounder, Brandon Ingram. Packages centered around Larry Nance or Jordan Clarkson didn’t do anything for Indiana, either.
The Pacers, genuinely, liked Oladipo and Sabonis, seeing high upside in both. That they didn’t get a future first-round pick as well for their franchise player is difficult to digest. Perhaps the Pacers’ desire to get George out of the East as soon as humanly possible overrode any notion of sitting back and waiting. One can only imagine the pressure that was on Pritchard and the front office after George, through his agent, dropped his bombshell. They couldn’t possibly get equal or close to equal value once George let everyone know he was leaving in a year’s time.
What stung double was that the Pacers were poised for an aggressive summer. They thought that George was on board for a quick rebuild through free agency and ready to be their best advocate as a recruiter. (Could Indy have taken its own crack at Hayward, the famous Butler University grad, if George was committed to staying and ready to talk up a George/Hayward/Miles Turner frontcourt? We’ll never know.)
Indy is in straight survival mode now -- waiving and stretching Monta Ellis, signing Darren Collison from Sacramento to start at the point, reportedly plucking Bojan Bogdanovic from Washington and doing a sign-and-trade of C.J. Miles to Toronto for Cory Joseph. It’s hard to seeing any of that keeping the Pacers out of the Lottery, though.
3. Restrictions (Don’t) Apply
Isn’t the idea of restricted free agency to make those players hard to pull from their incumbent teams, and to keep the prices for their services relatively reasonable? It took about six seconds for the Nets to give the Wizards’ Porter that four-year max, after the Kings had pledged much the same. Washington matched Brooklyn’s offer, but that set in motion the need to remove its qualifying offer on forward Bojan Bogdanovic, also a restricted free agent, who had come to the Wizards from Brooklyn for a 2017 first-rounder.
Bogdanovic wound up getting two years and $21 million from Indiana, and considering how tough the market was this summer, with about a third of the $900 million that was available leaguewide last summer, that was a very, very good deal for his agency, Wasserman Sports.
Olynyk got into the mix, too; after Boston got Hayward, it too had to rescind its qualifying offer on Olynyk, making him unrestricted. He wasn’t that way for long, with the Miami Heat stepping in to give the Game 7 hero of the Celtics’ conference semifinal win over Washington with $50 million over four years.
But that was just the prelude to the deal that Tim Hardaway, Jr., also restricted, got from the Knicks -- four years, $71 million.
Holy Market Overcorrection, Batman!
It is fair to say the rest of the league was stunned by what New York gave Hardaway, especially considering it was New York that traded the then 23-year-old Hardaway to Atlanta in the first place two years ago. Of course, that was under the Phil Jackson regime, and Hardaway’s skill set was found wanting for the triangle. Now, Jackson’s back home chilling while Steve Mills is running things in New York -- and, maybe, for a while, now that David Griffin has pulled his name out of contention for the GM job.
I like Mills, a smart guy who played for Pete Carril at Princeton, and if he winds up getting the gig full-time, he should get a chance to succeed or fail on his own, but … $71 million for Tim Hardaway, Jr.?
Hardaway’s numbers improved significantly last season in Atlanta; he was healthy and showed flashes of being a dynamic scorer -- 29 points against the Spurs, 33 in leading an incredible comeback win at Houston, 36 against the Cavs. He may well flourish in New York if the Knicks truly are committed to playing up-tempo and going young. But it took the rebuilding Hawks about a minute before opting not to match the offer sheet. The odds of THJr living up to the deal are daunting.
At any rate, restricted free agents have done incredibly well already, and at least a couple more -- the Spurs’ Jonathan Simmons and Dallas’ Nerlens Noel -- are still in line for big paydays. (So is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, now unrestricted after the Pistons withdrew their qualifying offer on him following their acquisition of Bradley.)
4. Detroit South
The Heat did what the Pistons did a couple of years ago -- heavy reinvestment in their existing core: $60 million for James Johnson and $52 million for Dion Waiters, after giving Hassan Whiteside $98 million and matching a $50 million offer sheet on Tyler Johnson last summer. That’s $260 million total laid out for four guys who didn’t get to the playoffs last year, and that doesn’t count the $50 million they’re giving Olynyk, the lone outsider to cash in this go-round.
It hasn’t worked out so well for the Pistons, who gave Reggie Jackson an $80 million extension in 2015, then took on the bulk of Tobias Harris’ $64 million deal in a trade with Orlando in 2016 -- Harris was in and out of the starting lineup last year -- and gave Andre Drummond $125 million last summer. (That doesn’t count your assorted Leuers, at $42 million, or Bobans, at $21.)
But Miami’s confident coach Erik Spoelstra can coach up just about anybody.
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