We just went through one of the wildest free agency periods in recent NBA history, and of course, the capper was Kawhi Leonard teaming up with Paul George on the Los Angeles Clippers.
It’s obviously a lot to process - the sheer amount of player movement alone could result in a nosebleed. That’s why NBA PH managing editor Adrian Dy decided to chat about the whole ordeal with NBA PH contributor Favian Pua to make some sense of this brave new world of hoops.
Adrian Dy: I guess we should start with the Kawhi Leonard trade, perhaps the biggest moment in free agency this year. Count me in with that group that thought he would re-sign with the Raptors, likely on a 1+1 or a 2+1 deal to attempt to defend that elusive title. But of course, that’s not what happened. Did you think he would wind up with the Clippers? And do you understand his reasons for moving there?
Favian Pua: ESPN analyst Jalen Rose came up with the term “pre-agency”, saying that a significant number of free agency moves were already decided before teams could officially talk to players. Given how much movement took place during the first few days and the total silence from Leonard’s camp, I thought it was only a matter of time before he left the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors’ title run was the greatest sales pitch that the organization could provide to make Leonard stay. So when he did not immediately commit, it came down to the Lakers or Clippers. In the end, he finds himself in LA, but under the watchful eyes of Steve Ballmer and Jerry West, not Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka.
Crafting a narrative for Leonard is convenient, but only the man himself knows his true motivations for choosing the Clippers. Going to the Clippers allows him to replicate the short-lived success he had with the Raptors, taking a team to uncharted territory. Call Leonard a basketball mercenary at your own peril. He has ended dynasties and prevented new ones from coming into fruition.
AD: I had eliminated the Clippers from Leonard’s consideration because of that FA frenzy; a lot of his potential running mates (Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant) were taken off the board after day one. No one imagined the Klaw could, well, sink his claws into a guy like Paul George and get him to demand a trade. Do you have the Clippers now at the top of the West? And what do you think of that huge package of picks they sent to OKC?
FP: Barring injuries, the Clippers have set themselves apart as the team to beat in the West, easily. NBA teams normally deploy a defensive specialist to slow down the opposing team’s best player. A three-headed monster of Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley would be enough to induce nightmares. Add the fact that Leonard and George work well both on-ball and off-ball, and Doc Rivers’s offensive sets won’t come down to a reductive “your turn, my turn” iso-heavy action.
And championships come at a cost. If you are unable to construct your team through the draft like the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, you will either have to go over the luxury tax threshold or surrender a mother lode of assets to build your super squad.
Now that the dust has settled though, what do you make of the Raptors as they begin their title defense?
AD: You said “championships come at a cost” and it looks like the Basketball Gods want the Raptors to pay up now. I was actually leaning towards “they’d be fine” given that they had a 17-5 record sans Leonard in the regular season, but losing Danny Green to the Lakers (whom we’ll get to) is a huge blow as well.
At least they got one championship?
In all honesty, if I were GM Masai Ujiri, I would contemplate blowing this team up. Their older guys, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol, are all expiring in 2020. Fred VanVleet will also be an unrestricted free agent, while Pascal Siakam will be a restricted FA. If they don’t go on an early “let’s prove everyone wrong” run, they should definitely get on the phone with other GMs, and just build around the MIP, OG Anunoby, and Norman Powell.
That’s one team directly affected by the Kawhi decision. Now let’s shift it over to your boy LeBron James and his Lakers. They’ve rounded out their squad by bringing back some guys from the Meme Team, plus Green, and Anthony Davis’s former teammates in DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook. Is that a good squad built around LeBron?
FP: Should the Lakers have settled for D’Angelo Russell or Kemba Walker, instead of pursuing Leonard altogether? Perhaps, but anytime you are in a position to land the biggest name available, you go for the whale. Clearly though, there was a sense of disarray from the Lakers after Leonard spurned them, highlighted by the hasty contracts offered to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee.
As it stands, LeBron James at full health will raise their floor, but it will be Kyle Kuzma’s growth as the third option that could ultimately determine the ceiling of this retooled roster. Don’t sleep on Cook too; he is a microwave scorer off the bench who can ease the burden on playmaking duties. I am still lukewarm on Cousins in the aftermath of his torn Achilles. Whether he regains his All-Star form remains to be seen.
With so much hoopla for the acquisitions the Clippers and Brooklyn Nets made, have these two squads usurped the Lakers and New York Knicks respectively as the toast of the town?
AD: We might remember this free agency for all the movement, but big picture-wise, this might be the offseason when the Clippers and Nets finally overtook their more famous and expensive city siblings. And you know what? I’m totally fine with it! The Lakers and Knicks have been coasting, particularly in the last decade, on their brands. Meanwhile, the Clippers and Nets had to rebuild from franchise-wrecking events (Donald Sterling, throwing a ton of picks at Pierce and Garnett), and they didn’t cut corners. From the front office, to the coaching staff, to the culture, overhauls were done, and they’re now reaping the benefits.
Let’s talk about one last team though: The Oklahoma City Thunder. What’s next for them? Is trading Russell Westbrook really the next move?
FP: Before anything else, I would like to note that “coasting” is a very generous description for everything the Knicks have done to themselves.
Russell Westbrook has always been portrayed as a tragic hero, standing for the principle of loyalty in a league where ring-chasing has become the norm. There is something special about seeing a superstar stick it out with his team through the highs and the lows, and the Thunder organization must find a way to flip all the draft picks into players who fit with Westbrook’s timeline. How about a reunion with UCLA teammate Kevin Love?
Westbrook’s contract runs until 2023 at $170 million. He will be 34 by then. It is difficult to see any team willing to take on this amount. But if this free agency has taught us anything, the possibilities are endless.
Speaking of possibilities, we are entering a year when the race to the championship is more wide open than it used to be. I don’t like to use the word parity because it assumes that all 30 teams have a shot to win the title. But how many teams can realistically call themselves a championship contender, given their current roster construction?
AD: I’d totally call up the Heat and the Knicks to see if they were interested in Westbrook though.
“Realistically” is tough criteria but I’ll take a whack at it.
In the West, there are the two LA teams, the Denver Nuggets, and the Utah Jazz. The Houston Rockets just miss out after being quiet this whole offseason (famous last words?). Out East, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers get the nod, and I have a soft spot for everything the Indiana Pacers did this offseason, so they’re on the bubble as well.
How about you, anything different from that bunch?
FP: I’ll show love for the Spurs. They were a brain freeze possession away from stunning the Nuggets in the first round last postseason. In typical Spurs fashion, they quietly inked DeMarre Carroll and Marcus Morris, and are expected to get Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV suited up. I am intrigued by what new tricks Gregg Popovich has up his sleeve.
And don’t forget about the Portland Trail Blazers! They will not have Jusuf Nurkic for a significant chunk of the season but Hassan Whiteside is a quality addition to mitigate the loss. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were four games away from winning the West and they will surely keep on trying, Jennifer.
Other than those two teams, I would agree with all of your aforementioned picks. I am disappointed that the East is now projected to be a two-horse race but I am ready to be surprised.
AD: Oh I definitely think there’s still a surprise or two out there (*cough cough* Westbrook). After all, we’ll still have to see these guys play together, and then against each other on the court. Who knows if all these new pairings fit together? And if they don’t, and that leads to some trades...well, we’ll definitely have more to talk about.
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