Some summers change everything.
Remember, if you will, the months between high school and whatever came next. Life was changing and you knew it, and it made all the moments a little heavier than they would have been otherwise, and a little more wonderful than their substance merited, and it was all over in a blink because when you know change is coming, time starts sprinting.
The 2019 NBA off-season was that.
There were late nights; there were trivial moments blown out of proportion because, against the backdrop of endings, they felt bigger than they should; the faces that cities grew to know and call their own chose new homes under the belief it was best for them and their future.
By August’s end, the whirlwind was over and everything looked different.
As the pre-season wraps up and the real games begin, re-colouring the summer with results to cite instead of expectations to anticipate, it bears reflecting on the off-season’s madness one last time for a reminder that — no matter what seems sure — the NBA’s one true constant is unforeseeable change.
From parade to plane ride: The Kawhi Saga
When Kawhi Leonard took the mic during the Toronto Raptors’ championship celebration, there was a brief and palpable feeling in the crowd that maybe — just maybe — the sweat-shorts-wearing Finals MVP would turn this spotlight into an announcement that he intended to stick around for one more year.
Instead, he laughed, and without answers Leonard’s day-to-day life turned into theatre of the absurd.
Ka’Wine and Dine, a promotion where establishments in Toronto offered Leonard free food for life if he re-signed, came into existence. Rumours circulated that Leonard had enrolled his daughter at a school in Niagara. Someone tip-toed over the line between rumour-mongering and stalking and took pictures of Leonard buying moving boxes at a Yorkdale Home Depot, inciting debate over if he was moving to Los Angeles or if he had bought a house in Toronto.
After Leonard attended a Toronto Blue Jays game, footage of him filming a Mike Trout at-bat turned into a Rorschach test: Was he filming because he was staying in Toronto and wouldn’t be able to see Trout play in-person? Was he filming because he was a Los Angeles Angels fan and so would be choosing Los Angeles to see his hometown team play more? Was he just a normal guy doing a normal guy thing of being a fan at a sporting event?
Strikingly mad as all of this was, it wasn’t even the climax. Once fans realized the Raptors’ private jet was flying from Los Angles to Toronto — presumably, but not assuredly, with Leonard aboard — news helicopters filmed the plane landing and followed a pair of black SUVs transporting the plane’s passengers as though it was a police chase.
But when the theatre ended with an early morning tweet announcing Leonard would be joining the Los Angeles Clippers, the absurdity continued because Paul George — who was not a free agent and had agreed to a four-year $137-million max contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder the year before — would be joining him.
Perhaps Leonard is unique, a blend of rarefied on-court greatness and master behind-the-scenes puppet-master, and this will never happen again.
Or perhaps the player empowerment era LeBron James started with “The Decision” reached an endpoint: A single player able to — in a four-year span — re-sign for max money, sit out a season and request a trade, leave the franchise he was traded to after one banner-raising season, convince a playoff-level team to give up their future in exchange for a superstar of his choosing, and then sign a short-term deal with said team.
The Rockets’ mad MVP science experiment
A ripple from Leonard’s league-altering relocation was that OKC had a treasure trove of future assets and also one recent-MVP in Russell Westbrook without a star to share the stage with.
Enter the Houston Rockets, who did their due-diligence after Jimmy Butler‘s availability ended with him signing a four-year, $140-million sign-and-trade deal to join the Miami Heat, nixing their rumoured plans to pair James Harden with Butler.
“Once Paul went to the Clippers, I reached out to Oklahoma City and they said they were open to talk,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently told Sports Illustrated. “So we talked.”
The result was trading Chris Paul, who helped solidify the Rockets as championship-level contenders, as well as a pair of protected first-round picks and two potential pick swaps for Westbrook to pair two of the league’s highest-usage and highest-paid players together.
“James Harden is the best half-court offensive weapon in the league,” Morey went on to tell SI. “Russell’s the best transition weapon in the league. The two together, it’s a really special combination.”
Platitudes about what they could be together on the court aside, there’s an inherent tension to marrying two high-usage players playing highly different styles that will need to be ironed out, but the early showings — both on the court and off of it — suggest that sometimes mixing two combustible elements just gives you energy.
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) October 10, 2019
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) October 10, 2019
Durant decides against The Garden
If you were to tell someone in 2015, when the Brooklyn Nets were crumbling under the weight of a failed all-in play centred around an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, that four short and very long-feeling years later the Nets would acquire Kyrie Irving in his prime and Kevin Durant — in his prime as well, but with a large ruptured Achilles’ asterisk — you would be laughed at.
Yet, here we are.
The tendrils of those signings stretch far. Boston, being forced to move on from Irving, its philosophically eccentric point guard maestro, opted for a more stable personality in Kemba Walker — freed at last after languishing in Charlotte. As part of signing Durant and Irving, the Nets had to jettison D’Angelo Russell, moving him to Golden State on a four-year, $117-million sign-and-trade to become the adopted-Splash Brother — for now.
And of course, the New York Knicks, residents of sport’s most iconic stage, Madison Square Garden, found a way to lose out in free agency once again. It seemed implausible that the Knicks would have dealt Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks — who, over the summer, despite the off-court allegations and injury concerns he comes with, signed a five-year, $158-million extension — and thrown away any pretense of being competitive without an inkling they were a favourite for one of 2019’s big-ticket free agents.
Instead they signed Julius Randle to a three-year $63-million deal and team president, Steve Mills, issued the following statement:
Statement from Knicks president Steve Mills: pic.twitter.com/2GnBHHmvT6
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 1, 2019
Implausible, sure. Yet, here we are.
Lightning round: Wait hold on, they play where now?
Even before Leonard signed, rosters league-wide were changing at whiplash speed. Midway through July only four teams were poised to bring back a roster of players who appeared in at least 75 per cent of the team’s minutes played last season.
Which is a number-based way of saying that 2019’s madness existed not just in its wildness, but in sheer volume of movement as well:
• Tobias Harris took the money and didn’t look back, signing a five-year, $180-million deal that locked in the Philadelphia 76ers’ core through the end of Joel Embiid’s current contract with the hope they can get further than four bounces on the rim away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
• Al Horford ditched Boston for Philadelphia, signing a four-year, $109-million contract to be the most versatile insurance policy available for a potential Embiid injury.
• Khris Middleton re-upped with the Milwaukee Bucks for a five-year, $178-million extension that will keep him as the running mate for reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo until the summer of 2021, when the latter is eligible to become a free agent and re-shape the NBA to his whims as Leonard did in 2019.
• Hassan Whiteside ended up in Portland as part of the four-team trade that landed Butler in Miami to become frontline depth for a Trail Blazers team whose title hopes evaporated last season when Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg.
• Malcolm Brogdon, unlike Middleton, left the Bucks to join an emergent Indiana Pacers team that seems poised to make noise in the East if Victor Oladipo is healthy, on a four-year, $85-million contract.
• Harrison Barnes stayed with the Sacramento Kings’ barely still under-the-radar high-speed youth movement on a four-year, $85-million deal that declines in value year-over-year, starting at just north of $24 million and ending at $18.3 million — a testament to always getting your money when you can get it.
• Bojan Bogdanovic signed a four-year, $73-million deal with the Utah Jazz to compliment their swing-for-the-fences summer in which they acquired Mike Conley to pair with Donovan Mitchell, forming one of the more intriguing backcourts in the NBA.
• J.J. Redick inked a two-year, $26.5-million contract to leave the City of Brotherly Love and provide floor-spacing for the New Orleans Pelicans and Zion Williamson who, so far this pre-season, seems to be as advertised.
• Terry Rozier capitalized on the Hornets’ mismanaging of Walker’s contract situation to ink a three-year, $58-million contract.
• Derrick Rose’s MVP-to-journeyman career continued with a two-year, $15-million deal to join the Detroit Pistons.
That list is, in a word, long. And it’s far from everyone. A total of 176 players were involved in free agency, according to NBA.com’s official tracker.
In a summer after which nothing was the same, what held true is that the unforeseeable happens, and something always changes.