Chris Paul is (for now) a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and free agency isn’t completely over, but we’re far enough removed from the Kawhi Watch and all the madness that ensued at the beginning of the offseason that we can try to put all of this player movement in perspective. Here are some of my winners and losers:
Winner: Sam Presti
I understand that Presti was “crestfallen” — Prestfallen? — when Paul George asked to be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, but the Thunder general manager should be feeling much better now. Knowing that the Clippers felt they needed George to lure Kawhi Leonard, he extorted them to the tune of five first-rounders, two pick swaps, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. It is the job of an executive to see opportunities where others see only obstacles. George’s dissatisfaction represented the death of Presti’s plan to build around him, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams. It also represented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pivot from that plan, which was extremely expensive and possibly doomed.
The last time George asked for a trade, the Indiana Pacers acquired Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. The haul seemed underwhelming at the time, but it became clear months later that Indiana had done well for itself. This time, we don’t need the benefit of hindsight to see how, for Oklahoma City, the George divorce could be a blessing in disguise. Gilgeous-Alexander is a 20-year-old guard who is a solid starter now and could soon be a star. Gallinari will either help the Thunder win or fetch something of value in a trade. The picks — so many picks! — give them flexibility, which they haven’t had in forever. Presti could have parted ways with Westbrook for nothing and still felt good about where the franchise was going. Instead, he got even more picks and swaps. Now we’ll see what he does with Paul.
Reasonable people can disagree on how much upside Oklahoma City had before George changed everything. The forward was a legitimate MVP candidate for most of the 2018-19 season, and the Thunder’s defense was elite despite Andre Roberson being sidelined the entire time. It is within the realm of possibility, I suppose, that they could have added a shooter or two, brought back Roberson and gone on to win the West, especially if Westbrook found his jump shot. I just wouldn’t have bet on that, and it is meaningful that their co-stars were apparently on the same page. “I heard that [Westbrook] wanted out and that P.G. just beat him to the punch and neither one of them knew that the other one was thinking that way,” ESPN’s Marc J. Spears said on The Jump this week. If a teardown was inevitable, then Presti started it in the best way imaginable.
Winner? Loser? IDK: People who yell about superteams every year
The Lakers didn’t get Leonard and the Golden State Warriors didn’t keep Kevin Durant. I think the Clippers should be the title favorites, but they don’t seem completely unbeatable. Before Leonard chose them, I was among the many dorks who thought the Utah Jazz (!) looked like the best team in the West.
Maybe stars are more averse to top-heavy rosters than they used to be. Maybe there has been a collective realization that every Big 3 requires a third banana who isn’t having much fun. Or maybe this is nothing more than happenstance, a blip just as fluky as the Warriors being in a position to add Durant to a 73-win team. Regardless, for most people who are obsessed with the NBA, the sudden lack of superteams is refreshing.
I wonder, though, about the people who have been yelling loudest about this issue for the last few years. You know, the ones who said there was no point in watching the story of the season unfold because we already knew what the ending would look like. Are they winners because they got what they so desperately wanted, or are they losers because they need to find something else to scream about?
Loser: James Dolan
During a radio interview in March, the New York Knicks owner deflected a question from ESPN Radio’s Michael Kay about free-agent targets like Durant and Kyrie Irving potentially being scared off by the dysfunction of the organization. “New York is the mecca of basketball, right, and we hear from people all the time, from players, from representatives, about who wants to come,” Dolan said. “We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, et cetera, but that doesn’t stop them from telling us. And they do. And I can tell you, from what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”
That didn’t work out. Worse, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck reported that Durant and Irving had realized by midseason that, if they joined the less brash, less presumptuous Brooklyn Nets, they’d have more confidence in the team’s infrastructure than they would with the Knicks. The Athletic’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss described Dolan’s public proclamation as “a poorly received error, one that might have unraveled carefully laid plans.” If Dolan hadn’t broadcasted that the summer was going to be a smashing success, perhaps it might have been.
Hours after Durant and Irving chose Brooklyn, ex-NBA player Matt Barnes pointed to a camera on the set of The Jump and delivered a message to Dolan: “Sell the team, man. Give New York some hope. There’s no hope while you’re running that team. There’s just not.”
Winner: Zion Williamson
The No. 1 pick in the draft might already have a more coherent team around him in New Orleans than Anthony Davis ever did. David Griffin’s front office added a mix of young players on Williamson’s timeline and veterans who will make the Pelicans competitive right away. They appear to have established a foundation without sacrificing flexibility. Williamson, who just turned 19, should be able to grow as the team does.
Everyone in Las Vegas is excited about Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans’ other rookies. J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors are pros who will provide structure on the court and set an example off of it. In addition to taking advantage of the Lakers being desperate for Davis, Griffin imported stretch forward Nicolo Melli from Fenerbahce, quietly re-signed Jahlil Okafor and elected not to trade Jrue Holiday. If those rookies are ready to play, New Orleans will be one of the league’s deeper teams.
Griffin challenged Holiday to be dominant, and told him to set his sights on winning MVP. He wants the guard to be the team’s leader, even if it is Williamson who will be getting the lion’s share of the attention. Williamson has enough pressure on him without the Pelicans asking him to do everything himself. His mere presence has lifted the franchise, but he doesn’t have to carry it.
Loser: Russell Westbrook’s reputation
Fair or not, the perception will be that George played with Westbrook for a couple of years and decided that was enough. Fair or not, the perception will be that Westbrook only wound up in Houston because it was desperate to trade Paul’s contract. I worry, too, about the way he and James Harden will fit now that Harden is a superstar. Paul might have chafed at watching Harden use the entire shot clock to go one-on-one, but at least he spaced the floor. We have never seen Westbrook in a non-Thunder environment, and I’m not sure this particular team needs him to hunt defensive rebounds so he can push the ball. Houston made a risky move.
Without seeing what this looks like, I will not say that the Rockets can’t make it work. I will say, however, that if they can’t, Westbrook will get the blame.
Winner: The Fun Guy
Leonard found a way to have it all. He went home, made sure he was joining a ready-made championship-caliber team and won’t even be hated by (most of the) fans in the city he left. Leonard’s one season with the Toronto Raptors was legendary, and the only way to top bringing them their first championship would be to do the same for the Clippers a year later. No one thought of Leonard as some kind of behind-the-scenes power broker, but it turned out that the biggest move of the summer was made in silence: He made a team he didn’t play for get him a co-star who wasn’t believed to be available.
Leonard’s decision fundamentally changed multiple franchises. When it was up in the air, it felt like it was taking forever. Once again, though, it bounced just right for him.
Loser: James Borrego
Charlotte was mediocre last season, but at least Borrego had Kemba Walker and Tony Parker as his coaches on the floor. Next season, his point guards will be Terry Rozier and, um, Devonte’ Graham, I guess? Maybe Malik Monk will play more point? Maybe Nicolas Batum’s usage rate will go up? I can’t imagine this is what the coach anticipated when he was hired 14 months ago. There are going to be many challenges facing the next iteration of the Hornets, and one of them will simply be playing with purpose on offense.
Winner: Donovan Mitchell
You can probably close your eyes and picture Mitchell attacking the Rockets’ set defense in the playoffs. It was not always pretty. In each of the last two seasons, it was abundantly clear that, for all of his talent, he was being asked to do too much. Over the course of a couple of weeks, his basketball life became immeasurably easier. Mike Conley will teach Mitchell his tricks of the trade, improve Utah’s spacing and provide much-needed playmaking. Bojan Bogdanovic does everything you would hope a No. 3 option would. You (sincerely) love to see it.
Loser: The rule of law
“Everybody should have an interest in the rule of law for this league,” commissioner Adam Silver said on Tuesday, and I sort of want to leave that sentence sitting there out of context for my own amusement.
Fine: He was talking about tampering, and specifically about contract agreements being reported before teams, players and agents were even allowed to negotiate new deals. Another quote: “I think it’s pointless at the end of the day to have rules that we can’t enforce.” This is obviously true, and it is not necessarily an indication that the league is about to crack down on discussions that take place before the beginning of the moratorium period. It might just allow them to take place.
Winner: Joel Embiid
Embiid doesn’t have to play against Al Horford anymore, and the team should no longer completely fall apart when he goes to the bench. Amazing!
To be clear, I have my concerns about how the Philadelphia 76ers‘ reconfiguration will affect Ben Simmons — this team seems like it is going to be slow, doesn’t it? — and I’m not confident about their playoff offense without Jimmy Butler. I just love the idea of Embiid learning from Horford and the team being less reliant on him.