The dust is starting to settle on the NBA off-season. Woj bombs are fewer and further in between. The Knicks have already handed out their annual terrible contract. And NFL writers are starting to overreact to Summer League games.
With a little distance between the present and the frantic start to free agency, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what we’ve seen this off-season.
That’s right, it’s time to rank the summer’s most impactful moves—so far.
(A few moves that won’t really move the needle but made a lot of sense for each of these franchises.)
The Kings picking up Zach Randolph and George Hill not only moves them closer to respectability, but it shows a level of maturation from the Sacramento front office. Paying rock-solid vets like Z-Bo and Hill is an investment in the youth on the roster. It takes pressure off guys like De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles to come in and do all the heavy lifting. Sacramento will be clawing for a playoff spot at best, but it seems as though the organization it’s finally getting its infrastructure in order.
Elsewhere, the Nuggets adding Paul Millsap to play alongside Nikola Jokic creates one of the most fun frontcourts in the league. Denver has a nice little core, though the Nugs are far from putting together a title team. I’m really excited to see Patrick Patterson on the Thunder. Realistically, I’m too excited. But they really needed someone who can shoot. Also, I love the Tim Hardaway Jr. contract for the....nah, I’m kidding. Let’s get to the big-time moves.
5. Sixers trade for and draft Markelle Fultz
Sixers fans are gloating at an impressive level this off-season, which seems like a dangerous way to tempt fate when 66.7% of their young nucleus is an injury risk. Process talk aside, adding Fultz may not make a huge short-term impact for Philly, but the long-term benefits make it one of the most slept-on moves of the summer. Fultz has been the clear-cut No. 1 pick for a long time, and I’m still surprised Boston passed on the opportunity to select him. Among Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Fultz seems to have the biggest chance to become a full-fledged star, both because of his all-around game (he can shoot!) and his lack of health concerns. (I hate to say this, but I’m still not sold on Embiid’s knees holding up. Please prove me wrong, Joel.) Five years from now, Fultz has a chance to be the best player in his conference. I'm not sure any other team who made a move this summer can say the same about one of their acquisitions.
4. Timberwolves trade for Jimmy Butler
I would rank this move higher if it didn’t correspond with Tom Thibodeau also bringing in Jeff Teague (could’ve had Hill for the same money) and Taj Gibson to round out the Wolves’ starting five. Butler’s benefits to Minnesota are numerous, however. He’s one of the top two-way players in the league on an incredibly affordable contract, and his presence on the court allows the Wolves’ youngsters to settle into more manageable roles. By adding Butler, Minnesota also accelerates its timeline for contention, which is important for players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who will now experience high-leverage games earlier in their careers. Off the court, Butler helps as well, particularly when it comes to recruiting more stars to Minnesota. I think this off-season has showed players will go to where the superteam is, with location perhaps mattering less than ever. With Butler, Towns and Wiggins, the Wolves are becoming more attractive for the next star who wants to take down the Warriors.
3. Celtics sign Gordon Hayward
It’s hard to judge this move, because with the Celtics, it’s almost always what could have been. Hayward is a very, very good player, but he’s a tier below Butler and Paul George. The slightly lower cap also hurt Boston, who had to lose Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk to sign Hayward into cap space. But let’s not underestimate this move either! The Celtics are adding a top-20-ish player to last year’s No. 1 seed without dismantling their core. Short term, I fully expect the C's to win the East again next season. Are they better than the Cavs? Probably not. Does this bring them closer? Definitely. Hayward is ultimately step one to building a team that can be a longstanding contender. Nabbing him from a successful Jazz squad is no small feat. Signing Hayward was a no-brainer. The bigger question comes next summer, when Danny Ainge has to decide if a Isaiah Thomas-Al Horford-Hayward three-max core is a true title contender moving forward.
2. Rockets add Chris Paul
There are some people who think this trade doesn’t dramatically change the Rockets. I am not one of them. Houston is replacing a defensive sparkplug in Patrick Beverley with one of the greatest point guards of all time. Both Paul and James Harden can play off the ball. And when games get tight in the playoffs, Harden will now have another playmaker/creator/scorer to save him from the fatigue that zapped his effectiveness against the Spurs. This is a huge move. Paul will be very fun to watch under Mike D’Antoni, and Houston can throw out some really funky lineups next season. Oh, and if Paul’s presence draws Carmelo Anthony to the Rockets? In that case, Houston will, at the very least, be the most intriguing team to watch next season.
1. Thunder trade for Paul George
Oklahoma City will probably finish behind Houston next season, but the George trade is massive for this franchise. The Russ Show was always unsustainable, and now the Thunder have a diet version of the team they had when Kevin Durant was still around. Of course now Westbrook is the unquestioned alpha dog, which should actually help George settle into the No. 2 role he is perfect for. If OKC can convince George to stay, they will have quickly reinvented themselves in the absence of Durant, and will have two in-their-prime stars to build around. (Even if George leaves, dumping Victor Oladipo’s contract made the trade worth it.) Sam Presti could have been looking at some extremely lean years if he didn’t acquire George and lost Westbrook’s faith in the process. Instead, the Thunder made a significant step toward contender status, and firmly positioned themselves as part of the NBA’s weapons race. Short term, OKC should be a dramatically more balanced team next season. Long term, acquiring George could be the convincing factor in Westbrook staying, and it makes catching the Warriors a much more realistic goal. (At the very least, those games should be a lot closer next season.)