- The draft is over, the cap is set, and free agency is coming. What comes next? We take stock of the NBA landscape.
The NBA rumor mill was churning on all cylinders last week, and this weekend the player movement will begin for real. For now, we wait.
The draft is over, the cap is set, and free agency is coming. Where do things stand? We can start with the Warriors. Over the weekend Kevin Durant was seen with a championship ring on top of his cupcake. Meanwhile, Steph Curry was golfing with Tom Brady and Klay Thompson was going viral in China. Monday night, Draymond Green was named Defensive Player of the Year at the NBA's Awards Show, where he was rocking tailored shorts and Aquaman's dinner jacket.
So, there's your Golden State update. The Warriors are still running the world.
Now let's take stock of everything else.
Paul George Pipe Dreams
When "Kevin Love for Paul George" rumors first surfaced during the Finals, it all felt a little too convenient. Yes, Indiana clearly has to move him. But if the Pacers are rebuilding, why would they want to do it with a power forward who's about to turn to 30? Not to mention, Love can opt out and hit free agency in two years. Do people really think he'd be happier than George was while he plays out his prime next to Lance Stephenson and C.J. Miles? No matter how hard basketball Twitter tried to will it into existence, the Indiana side of the deal just didn't make sense. But throw a third team in the mix...
Let's do it. The Pacers could demand something like Juancho Hernangomez, Gary Harris (Indiana native!), Malik Beasley, and/or Emmanuel Mudiay. The Nuggets could take back Love and put him next to Jokic—instead of shoring up the defense, they'll throw out a team that blinds people with 140 points of offense every night. And the Cavs get George, a superstar who's better than Love in a vacuum, and much, much more valuable against the Warriors.
This version of Love-for-George is still a dream, but at least it makes a decent amount of sense. PG in Cleveland makes the Cavs a more credible Golden State threat, the Pacers get back good young talent, and we'd turn the Nuggets into league pass heroin. I can get into this. It's easily the most entertaining option on the board.
In general, the past few weeks have made it clear that George is the most intriguing chess piece of the summer. If he goes to Cleveland, the Cavs-Warriors matchup gets a lot more interesting. If he goes to Boston, Gordon Hayward is probably next to him, and the Celtics could be favorites in the East. Or he'll go to the Lakers, and the whole league will be wondering which stars might follow. And the Wizards? The Wizards probably can't get him, but John Wall took his case to the public anyway Monday night.
For the next few weeks, everyone can dream about Paul George.
The Cavs in 2018–2019
Note 1: If LeBron signs with another team next summer, it won't be because Dan Gilbert and David Griffin couldn't agree on a contract extension.
Note 2: If LeBron leaves, the dream scenario would be to leave while Ohio blames it on Dan Gilbert's incompetent ownership. The clumsy handling of David Griffin makes this plan slightly more feasible.
Note 3: The GM situation just underscores how tenuous the Cavs future has looked over the past few weeks. Even if Paul George ends up in Cleveland next year, it'll be as a one-year rental. If George isn't enough to close the gap with Golden State, it might make sense for LeBron to regroup elsewhere.
Note 4: It's early. I don't think even LeBron, himself, knows how this will end. I'm still not sure why he'd ever want to move to the West. But it's not hard to imagine a second straight loss to the Warriors next June, in which case there would be a world of suitors waiting to help LeBron start a new chapter as he hits free agency next summer. That's still the biggest story outside of George. It started with Griffin's departure, it's continued with stray Kyrie rumors and Lakers cap-clearing, and it's probably not going away.
Late last week Blake Griffin officially opted out of his Clippers contract to become an unrestricted free agent. Outside of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, Griffin is the biggest name on the open market. He's also the most polarizing.
So prepare yourself for two different types of Blake Takes over the next few weeks. The first makes the argument that Blake is one of the most underrated players in the league, and he's the most valuable player available this summer. The second argument is that Blake hasn't been able to stay healthy for several years now, and whoever signs him this summer will be grabbing him just as he enters the Amar'e-on-the-Knicks phase of his career.
I'm not sure which side of the spectrum I'm on, but both are fair. What's important is that nobody can know for sure how much Blake Griffin has left, and some team—Clippers? Heat? Celtics?—will have to spend a lot of money to find out next season. The rest of the NBA world can argue about it in the meantime.
The Summer of Gordo
For a week or two toward the end of the playoffs, it looked like we'd head into this summer with Gordon Hayward as the off-season headliner. Since then, there's been a Jimmy Butler trade, Kristaps Porzingis rumors, the Paul George bidding war, rumors about what LeBron's wife wants, and more. The Gordo sweepstakes have been thoroughly upstaged.
Still: He's younger and healthier than Griffin, and if he leaves Utah, he's signing long-term and he'll stick around longer than George. Hayward's still the most attractive star on the market. The Celtics inaction in the trade market seems like an indication that they are confident, but he's been linked to Miami as well, and Utah has been written off by so many fans, we might underplaying the Jazz's chances in all this. In any case, don't forget about Gordon Hayward. He could alter the landscape as much as anyone else.
D'Angelo Russell, Franchise Player
"D'Angelo is an excellent player," Magic Johnson said last week. "He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also that players want to play with."
"Can't really control that," Russell said of Magic's comments Monday, "What they say. I'm gone. So it's the past. I am here now. It's irrelevant, honestly."
There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, Magic's comments look unnecessarily petty. Russell's already gone, and it's not a great look to have a Hall of Famer publicly criticizing a 21 year-old kid.
On the other hand, I'd rather Magic express this publicly than allow anonymous team sources to continue wondering about Russell's character and maturity. That had been the blueprint for the better part of two years in L.A., and it spanned two coaching staffs. Now that's it over, I'm glad someone with the team was honest enough to explain exactly how the Lakers felt.
I've been a Russell believer since he was at Ohio State, and if this were real stock, I'd buy it. The Nets did. But it's OK to admit that the his role as Lakers cornerstone never quite fit, and the maturity issues were probably real. He's been a disappointment thus far. Maybe this Nets trade will be enough of a wakeup call for him to turn a corner, and maybe that never happens if he stays in L.A. In any case, it's nice to have everything on the table. The Lakers didn't think Russell could be a franchise leader for them; let's see how he responds in Brooklyn.
"What is Danny Ainge doing?" is the question of the summer, and maybe the last two years of NBA rumors. What does the Tatum pick mean? What are they doing with all those extra picks? How much will they pay Isaiah Thomas? Are they serious about Anthony Davis? Are they serious about Terry Rozier?
This summer and forever, everything is on the table with the Celtics. I could see them getting creative with the cap and heading into next year with this starting five:
PG: Isaiah Thomas
SG: Marcus Smart
SF: Gordon Hayward
PF: Blake Griffin
C: Al Horford
Or they could swing a Paul George deal after they sign Hayward, and roll with this:
PG: Isaiah Thomas
SG: Avery Bradley
SF: Gordon Hayward
PF: Paul George
C: Al Horford
Or they could miss on Hayward, watch George go to Cleveland, and wind up betting the future on Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Isaiah Thomas, and a hypothetical blockbuster. You never know—and that's why the world spends so much time guessing.
The Future Wolves
One All-NBA player the Celtics won't be getting:
I can't wait for the Wolves. The fit with Butler and Wiggins will be tricky, sure. There's more to do this summer. They still need shooting, the best lineup is an open question—whatever. Jimmy Butler is here to play football, Tom Thibodeau is the human Oklahoma Drill, and KAT spent the second half of last year putting up 28 points-a-game with 60/40/85 splits. I don't care what anyone else does in free agency, and I may not even care what the Wolves do. When the dust settles in a few weeks, I will be putting on war paint ready to do battle with anyone who tells me this team can't win 50 games.
The Point Guard Market
There are excellent point guards all over the market this summer. Chris Paul is at the top of the heap, but there's also Kyle Lowry, George Hill, Jrue Holiday, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, and Shaun Livingston. The problem is that point guard is the deepest position in the league. Likewise, of teams without star guards, how many are ready to spend big money on an aging solution?
The story of point guards this summer could be an extreme version of what might happen to the entire free agency field. A year after the NBA went crazy, cap projections are lower than expected, and teams around the league are looking to spend carefully. Superstars will get paid, but the B+ players who want to get paid like All-Stars might find a trickier market, especially if they play point guard.
Free Agency Wild Cards
The major players in the off-season are all accounted for. But here are four dark horses who can still upend the offseason we're expecting.
1. Pat Riley. Miami has cap space, they looked great for the final three months of the season, and everything people say about the Lakers as a free agent destination is just as true with Pat Riley's Heat. Maybe that means Blake, maybe it's Hayward. I don't know. I have my guard up for Heat power plays.
2. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. It's unlikely the Pelicans would blow up the Boogie-and-Brow experiment before this season. There are too many people in New Orleans who have their own professional fortunes tied to its success. Still, the Pelicans are choosing between either a) overpaying to keep Holiday or b) losing him without a viable replacement. Either way, it gets bleak. If selling high on Davis and rebuilding is the best play available, I wonder how long it'll take for New Orleans to get there.
3. The Spurs. San Antonio's not a free agency draw like Miami, but this is a team that's been cheating death for 10 years. They are every bit as crafty as Riley. LaMarcus Aldridge could be on the move, Danny Green, Tony Parker... I don't know. The Spurs are the most credible threat to Golden State and Cleveland, and Gregg Popovich is too old to wait five years for a real shot. Everyone should be on high alert for Spurs sorcery this summer.
4. Russell Westbrook. He won MVP Monday night, and he's a God in Oklahoma City. According to today's Oklahoman, he lifted the whole state. OKC can pay him more than anyone in the league, and they'll offer him a 5-year, $200 million extension at the outset of free agency. He'll probably sign it. But what happens if he doesn't?
And speaking of wild cards...
Many years ago, there was an entire genre of basketball Twitter dedicated to awful photoshops of NBA superstars in Lakers uniforms. Look John Wall, Carmelo, Derozan, Kevin Durant, and Dwight: it's beautiful. Every month, a new All-Star was linked to Los Angeles. Then we hit the dark ages. Kobe went crazy, and Lakers hallucinations went dormant.
Now they're back. Magic has cleared enough cap space to breathe life into every Lakers rumor on earth. That means Paul George is coming. LeBron, too. Maybe Russ? Boogie will be available. I'm here for every dream, and every awful photoshop. The return of Lakers exceptionalism is my favorite development of the offseason. The entire NBA is more fun when the Lakers are awake.