One summer, it turns out, can change everything.
For the last half-decade, each NBA season began with the Golden State Warriors as presumptive title favourites and the rest of the league vying for, at best, second-place. But in the fallout of Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles’ and subsequent departure as well as Klay Thompson’s torn ACL, the Warriors were no longer inevitable.
It left the NBA’s hierarchy undefined, its landscape as a whole in a state of flux, the foundation shifting like time-lapsed tectonic plates with each new Woj tweet.
Some franchises stared at that ambiguity and opted to wait for the dust to settle. Others, though, dove into the unknown and made gutsy moves to enter the title conversation now. Here are the teams headlining the latter list.
To examine the Lakers’ moves this off-season is to examine Los Angeles’ exceptionalism. Of course the next half decade of picks can be traded away, the Lakers won’t ever be bad long enough for it to matter; Of course free agents will want to come to the Lakers, which real stars don’t want to wear purple and gold? In short, the chance for greatness is assumed.
Last season James turned 34. He suffered the first significant injury of his career, being shut down by mid-April. He missed the playoffs for the first time since his 21st birthday. He didn’t appear in the NBA Finals for the first time in eight years. For the first time since at least that 21st birthday, his on-court success didn’t appear to be a foregone conclusion.
To be clear, James’ personal legacy is unassailable. He’s a four-time MVP. He’s won three titles. He brought a championship to Cleveland, a city where championships do not go. But at James’ level, where players are measured not against the league but against history, the calculus for their team’s expectations is different.
Botching the twilight of James’ prime would leave an enduring stain on a historically shimmering franchise, which makes the Lakers’ failed pursuit of Kawhi Leonard — a pursuit that came at the exclusion of all other valuable free agents, at the expense of any viable depth pieces — gutsy and disastrous and revealing.
Los Angeles knows who it is, a city of stars, for stars. This time, though, they chased a star who didn’t want to just be another amidst the masses in the sky. This time, the allure of purple and gold lost out to the team next door. The Lakers whiffed on their Big Three, and now are left with a barren roster and no assets to improve. Sometimes, exceptionalism gets the best of you.
Los Angeles Clippers
For one Los Angeles team to win, the other had to lose.
Adding Leonard to the Clippers’ already-impressive depth would have been a marked win for the franchise this off-season. Adding Paul George as well, though, elevates them into the conversation for best team in the NBA. On paper, a Leonard-George duo should form one of the most efficient, menacing two-way threats in the league.
The future cost of the best wing-tandem in the NBA is staggering, however. Los Angeles gave up three of its own unprotected first-round picks (2022, 2024 and 2026) as well as two first-rounders they had from the Miami Heat in 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (protected), plus the right to swap picks in 2023 and 2025. No such haul of draft assets has ever been moved in a single deal. All of that, too, is before considering Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari were also included in the George trade.
To stare at a future bereft of draft picks for the next half-decade is a gut-check moment if ever there was one. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer showed his mettle. Maybe he was right to. After all, as the Raptors proved last season, if you have Leonard you have the chance to hang a banner. Whatever the risk is, you take it every time.
Four bounces. That’s how close the 76ers came to making the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Toronto got its euphoria and Philadelphia was left to grapple with how to get that close — and further — again.
To sign the checks and start next season with the same core would be tempting. There is comfort in familiarity. But re-signing all of Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris would have been prohibitively expensive, both in the moment and long-term for a team that is only definitively good enough to win one round of playoff basketball.
Instead of locking into that familiarity, Philadelphia steered right into change. They committed to sign-and-trade Butler to the Miami Heat; they let Redick walk to New Orleans; they brought back Harris on a five-year, $180-million contract; they brought in Al Horford on a similarly lucrative four-year, $109-million deal.
Four bounces is how close they were. Four sweeping off-season changes will dictate how far they’ll go next.
It’s been a long, strange road to relevance for the Nets.
Back in July of 2013 they signed off on arguably the worst trade in NBA history, sending Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Gerald Wallace, a 2014 first-round pick, a 2016 first-round pick, a swap of 2017 first-round picks, and a 2018 first-round pick to the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, D.J. White and a second-round pick.
Unfortunately for the Nets, the players they went all-in on were closer to out of the league than in the title hunt. Garnett was 37, Pierce 36, and Terry 36. The Nets went on to win 44 games and peak by losing to the Heat in the second round of the playoffs before bottoming out two seasons later with few of their draft picks under their control.
The Durant risk is obvious: in NBA history, the list of players who have returned to form after an Achilles’ rupture is Dominique Wilkins. That’s it. That’s the list.
Irving is a more nebulous question mark. His departure from the Celtics came with rumblings that he had become a volatile locker-room presence and didn’t mesh with Boston’s other young stars. Jordan, barring a resurgent end to his career — doubtful given how dependent his peak was on athleticism — is likely just the friendship-tax that brings in Irving and Durant.
It took six years for the Nets to recover from their last all-in. The upside now is better than back then. The downside, though, is unsettling.
Last season, it was easy to levy critiques against Utah’s front office that they hadn’t done enough to surround Donovan Mitchell with better scoring help than what he had in his rookie season. This summer, before Day 1 of NBA free agency closed, the Jazz had acquired Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis. In doing so, they announced they see the West as theirs for the taking.
Conley is instantly the best guard Mitchell has ever shared an NBA back court with, someone who can ease the play making burden off of him and should enable more efficient off-ball scoring opportunities for Utah’s young star. Better still, Conley — who shot 36.4 per cent from three last year and 43.8 per cent overall — can play off-ball as well to help create space for Mitchell’s isolation performances.
Bogdanovic helps there too. Last season, 27.8 per cent of his shots came from catch-and-shoot threes and he made them an absurd 44.9 per cent of the time. Not only does that spacing help create driving lanes for Mitchell and Conley, it helps Rudy Gobert have more time and space on the interior.
Normally, when thinking of Gobert, defence is what comes to mind, and that’s where Davis comes in. Last season, while playing for the Nets, Brooklyn allowed a stifling 6.9 points per 100 possessions less with Davis on the floor and although he played just 18.9 minutes per night, he ended the year with the second-best defensive plus-minus in the league — trailing only Gobert.
The Jazz should have gotten Mitchell help a season ago. But now, with the Warriors’ dynasty ended, the Lakers in flux, the Houston Rockets another year older and the Denver Nuggets probably still one piece away, waiting the extra year to make a gutsy move might have been the smartest move they could make.