Free Agency 2019: What’s Next?
In what arguably could be the wildest free agency summer ever (yes including “the decision”), 2019 has not failed to disappoint. 40% of the NBA was eligible for free agency in some form and didn’t fail to disappoint (unless you’re the Knicks). Woj vs Shams, all of NBA Twitter on standby, with the July 4th week ending with the fireworks of Kawhi Leonard. Some predictions were right *ehem*, and some were wrong *cough*. NBA stars jumping teams to find new teams has created a dialogue about future dynasties, failed relationships, and even conversations about the failure of journalism over the last few weeks. With chaos comes a renewal of freshness back to the NBA, as a variety of elite teams are competitively chasing after the NBA title. In terms of winners-and-losers, the conversations are more complex, with multiple teams still set to feel the repercussions of free agency 2019. Here are some of the most dynamic situations to this point in 2019’s NBA free agency.
The City of Angels
The Clippers pulled off the biggest heist in years, landing both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. In the dead of the night (link), as the news broke Kawhi was coming back West, it only was amplified as the announcement was right after the Clippers managed to successfully trade for Paul George. While it was speculated for a year Kawhi wanted to be a Clipper, no one had any idea Paul George was available to join him, especially when we are only a year removed from his re-signing in Oklahoma City. In what was the most enigmatic arrangement of recent memory, Kawhi did what he wanted, on his own terms (even after Kevin Durant said, “no”), and managed to damage the set-up of the Lakers free agency plans. Two years after breaking down the franchise, setting up a new front office (with Jerry West included), and making intelligent trades, the Clippers are rewarded, giving their beloved fans a team they can legitimately call elite. Jerry West in your front office seems to correlate eventual success, from his time with the Lakers, Warriors, and now Clippers. Sure, the Clippers gave up the largest haul in NBA history to get PG13, but this transaction has to be seen deeper than surface level. The Clippers traded away everything to get both PG13 and Kawhi Leonard, which is more than worth it. Now, Clip City has superstars, defense, along with depth needed to put them in a position not only to be competitive but legitimately compete for a title.
In the same building, while their big brothers of Los Angeles didn’t land Kawhi, they didn’t completely fail their respective free agency summer either. The Lakers still have LeBron James and were able to acquire Anthony Davis, who is arguably the best player LeBron has ever had as a teammate. Missing out on Kawhi has its consequences as the free agency market shrank up while they waited but the Lakers were still able to assemble a decent team. Notably, they were able to sign Danny Green and DeMarcus Cousins, who could be the steal of free agency if healthy in year two removed from injury. It’s not the death star line up Lakers fans imagined, but the team is already a far cry from what they were last season. LeBron is approaching 60,000 minutes at a historic rate, but this part of his career is starting to feel like Tom Brady, we know father time is going to win eventually but just not yet. LeBron and AD are going to be hard to bet against. Whether it’s the Clippers or Lakers, what’s known for sure: Staples Center feels like Hollywood again.
Nets bring stars to Atlantic Avenue
In the same sense as the Clippers, the Nets were able to pull off a heist from the big brothers in town, stealing away both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving from the Knicks. Over the next season there will surely be plenty of revisionist history on how it all went down, but what matters is the Nets were able to get their guys, even if they did have to overpay for DeAndre Jordan. It’s been quite the turnaround for Brooklyn since they made one of the worst trades in NBA history (link), but the Nets are now legitimate. It will be a year before Kevin Durant returns, recovering from his Achilles injury, but the Nets have a young core of players which will provide needed depth. There is a looming question over the Nets though: Will Kyrie and Durant finally find basketball happiness or could this be two seemingly miserable people getting into an eventual miserable relationship?
Golden State builds on the fly
The Warriors lose Kevin Durant to free agency, lost Klay Thompon to an ACL injury, and somehow were able to build on the fly. Trading for D’Angelo Russell did come at a hefty cost. Even though the Warriors only gave up a future first-round pick, to make Russell’s salary work, they had to trade Andre Iguodala to Memphis, sending a future protected first-round pick to Memphis, and now waiving Shaun Livingston. Russell future in Golden State may not last long, and he knows it. He may play substitute splash brother until Klay Thompson returns only to be traded for assets at the trade deadline, or he might be able to find a place as the newest splash brother. Vegas odds still have them curiously high to win the West, even with losing to All-Stars. What drove Durant away, is going to be evident more than ever, this is Stephen Curry’s team.
The Celtics were supposed to be the next dynasty. It was only a year ago, they were one game away from the NBA Finals. Now, Kyrie Irving is gone, and centerpiece Al Horford is headed to the 76ers. The expectations are lower, but the Celtics still have a solid core. With young talent including Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, the team addition of Kemba Walker might be perfect. Walker isn’t Kyrie, but his scoring is comparable, and this organization will be looking for him to be the clubhouse leader they seemingly didn’t have last season with Irving. With Gordon Hayward now two years removed from his injury, and still plenty of assets for Danny Ainge to use, the Celtics may not be “elite” but could be one guy away from taking the East.
New Orleans Pelicans
For an organization that was forced into trading a generational superstar, the Pelicans sure came out the best way one could reasonably imagine. With all of the players and assets acquired in the initial trade, New Orleans has set themselves up for a bright future. More than looking ahead, David Griffin has looked at the present assembling a team ready to compete now. The West is the tougher conference but Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball already have the capability of being one of the elite defensive backcourts in the league, and they have real talent with Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick, and Derrick Favors to surround Zion Williamson. The Pelicans if anything are a league pass lock for next season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Bill Simmons view of the Oklahoma City Thunder being given a “get out of jail card” is spot on. A team that finished with only a one-game difference in respective records over the last two years, and which hasn’t won a round in the playoffs since Kevin Durant was headed towards a massive and historic luxury tax bill. Sam Presti’s recognition of this has to be appreciated, and the execution of getting an incredible haul for Paul George made the trade a win-win scenario for the Clippers and Thunder. Now, in what looks be even more of a complete tear down after the Jerami Grant trade, Westbrook is the likely next guy shipped out. The good ol’ days are gone, and now watching an angry Westbrook drop 50 points while the team loses by 20 isn’t a viable option. Westbrook, now 30, is a player whose reliance on a sure to be diminishing athleticism, is now at a crossroads: Adapt and evolve, or potentially fall victim to the narrative that overshadows him: nobody wants to play with Westbrook. If Westbrook can’t adapt, it’ll be hard to move him with the guaranteed money he is due over the next four years, including $47 million (!!!) in its final year, but it’ll only take one desperate (maybe dumb) franchise to pull the trigger. There has been some buzz about Miami, but even with the stability of Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley, the obvious concern is the matter of Westbrook and Jimmy Butler eventually wanting to kill each other. Houston seems like the pick NBA execs like, but it makes little sense unless you can get a third team. Enter the Charlotte Hornets, a team with more than enough expiring contracts, draft picks, and desperation. It could be easy to see how on the surface level the Hornets would trade for Westbrook upfront, and Michael Jordan going after his Jordan Brand player. Reports state that Presti is willing to work with Westbrook, and it’s hard to imagine, Westbrook being okay being shipped to Charlotte, which is an even worse situation than he is already in. What does look a bit more realistic is Charlotte in a three-team deal, with Houston, resulting in Westbrook on Houston, and Chris Paul ending up in Charlotte, and all parties eventually hating the deal. While the Thunder surely came out losing this free agency from a short-term standpoint, Sam Presti might be able to set them up for a win in the long-run.
Update: (7/11/19–5:30 PM PST)
League sources report to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski the Rockets have traded for Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. In doing so, Sam Presti has officially dismantled one of the greatest “What if” teams in NBA history. Done without needing a third team, the Thunder and Rockets were able to come to an agreement which now reunites James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The deal includes the Rockets sending two future first-round picks and two pick swaps is a lot for Westbrook, but it’s clear Darryl Morey felt he had no other choice with the current shape of the roster. After rumors of turmoil between CP3 and Harden, the experiment continues with two ball-dominant guards. While Westbrook and Harden have played together before, it’s not 2011 anymore: Harden isn’t a sixth man anymore and is the bigger superstar of the duo. Dantoni’s offense has managed to work with two offensively-minded guards before, and this may be a sneaky upgrade. Both Harden and Westbrook have been able to carry teams alone before, and Westbrook is a bit younger than Chris Paul. In the end, this may just be delaying the inevitable for a team that a team, while talented, still may not be good enough to win a title. As for Chris Paul, he’s back in Oklahoma City, and could see a record-setting buy out deal.
If there is a big loser out of this free agency, sports journalism has to be included in the mix. Credit to Woj and Shams, the top of the class. Also credit to Chris Haynes, who was the first official insider on finally breaking the Kawhi Leonard news (link). Outside of the aforementioned parties, this 2019 free agency coverage has been an absolute sh*t show. Between almost every. single. talking head proclaiming to have the answer about Kahwi Leonard’s situation, to twitter conspiracy theorists’ various amounts of arrogance, the handling of the news before the actual news was terrible, and lacked complete journalistic integrity. Yes, predictions are one thing, people get those wrong all the time (including me) but It was impressive to see how many people who were put in front a camera/microphone get this wrong. I guess all is fair in love and ratings.
New York Knicks
Don’t trade for Westbrook.
Credit: Twitter, ESPN, Vegas Insider, NBA.com, UPROXX, KOCO