2014 NBA Offseason Awards
I wish I could say the NBA's summer of 2014 is almost over, but, unfortunately, I can't. We still have to sit through the entire month of September before training camps open, and we won't have any meaningful regular-season games to watch until Oct. 28, when the San Antonio Spurs tip off their title defense against the Dallas Mavericks.
Technically speaking, then, it might be too early to hand out offseason superlatives, what with so many days left to count down until the start of the 2014-15 regular season. But, for all intents and purposes, the most important portion of the interregnum has passed, especially now that Kevin Love and Andrew Wiggins have traded places and the rest of the league's rosters are just about set.
With that in mind, let's look at some of the "bests," "worsts," "mosts" and "leasts" of the summer, with the winners in each category chosen based on everything that's happened in the basketball world since the Finals came to a close in late June.
Winner: The Return of the King
Remember July, when the basketball world waited with bated breath for LeBron James to make his next move on the league-wide chessboard of which he's taken full control?
It wasn't just fans of the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers who wanted to know. Just about every hoops head took an interest of some sort. So, too, did the vast majority of free agents, including top-tier types like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, who were rendered mere dominoes to fall in line behind James.
Once James' carefully curated essay hit Sports Illustrated, the entire landscape of the NBA shifted. The East opened up considerably, with the Cavs instantly joining the Chicago Bulls among a handful of teams that could start to turn their attention toward the Finals. The West, meanwhile, remained as big of a bloodbath as ever, albeit one whose survivor would be in prime position to bring home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
But, really, the return was all about James and his legacy. No longer would James be derided for chasing championships in a more glamorous locale, even though Cleveland was arguably in better position to contend over the long haul. Instead, he'd be lauded for bringing to bear on Northeast Ohio the invaluable lessons he'd learned during his stint in South Beach. As James wrote, with an assist from Lee Jenkins:
Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.
Best Offseason Move
Winner: Cavs Snag K-Love
Lebron James' mission to lift up his home state may well have begun before he'd officially re-signed with the Cavs. Conspicuously absent from the part of his letter in which he praised Cleveland's "talented young guys" were the names of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the last two No. 1 picks in the NBA draft.
Those two have since been sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of a three-team trade that's landed Kevin Love in wine and gold.
Now, LeBron going back to Cleveland would better qualify as the best move of the offseason if it came more as a matter of front-office maneuvering than as a choice on the player's part. In some respects, James' apparent input into—if not control over—the process that brought Love to Rock City would seem to put this blockbuster rout out of the running, too.
But prying K-Love away from the T-Wolves still required plenty of legwork from Cavs GM David Griffin. And honestly, it wouldn't seem right to deny Cleveland of this distinction given the transformation this summer has sparked for the once-forlorn franchise's championship fortunes.
Best Under-the-Radar Offseason Move
Winner: Spurs Re-Sign Gregg Popovich
The San Antonio Spurs snagged a rare offseason headline with their hire of Becky Hammon, who became the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history. But it took the Spurs just 28 words to announce their most pressing piece of summer business: bringing back Gregg Popovich.
While the rest of the league was fixated on the immediate future of basketball's biggest free agents, San Antonio quietly retained the future Hall of Famer who'd just guided the franchise to its fifth title in his 18 seasons on the job.
Getting the proverbial band back together may not make for much of a splash during the NBA's summertime, but when such an effort pertains to a champion as dominant as the Spurs proved to be, Pop's return has to register on some radar.
Most Head-Scratch-Worthy Move
Winner: Orlando Inks Ben Gordon
The strangest signing of the summer may well have been one of the first. On the second day of free agency, word broke, via Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, that the Orlando Magic would sign Ben Gordon to a two-year, $9 million deal.
You know, the same Ben Gordon who fell so far out of favor in Charlotte that the Bobcats waited until March 2—after the deadline for postseason roster eligibility—to waive him.
To be sure, Gordon's contract, the second year of which is at the team's option, isn't without explanation. As Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler wrote:
The Magic had identified an offseason need for a veteran shooter, someone they could put on the floor in limited minutes that could knock down shots. After watching guys like Jodie Meeks land monster paydays, the Magic sensed a pricey market for shooting was coming and made the deal with Gordon.
Gordon has some history with Magic executives, who had him in Chicago and Detroit respectively. There was a real comfort level with Gordon as a person, and they really felt like he would fit into their locker room without much issue.
Still, it's tough to imagine another team dangling anywhere near as much dough to attract Gordon, who, at 31, isn't likely to see much of an upswing in his career from here on out after finding his way into just 19 games last season.
Worst Offseason. Period.
Winner: Indiana Pacers
With all due respect to the plight of the Minnesota Timberwolves, at least they garnered a hefty haul in return for their departed star and couldn't so much as sniff contention in any case.
The same can't be said for the Indiana Pacers, who've fallen from back-to-back Eastern Conference finalists to fringe playoff hopefuls without Paul George and Lance Stephenson.
Of course, the Pacers had nothing to do with the gruesome injury George suffered during Team USA's scrimmage in Las Vegas; his impending absence is entirely a matter of unforeseeable misfortune.
Stephenson, on the other hand, skipped town to sign a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets after reportedly rejecting a five-year, $44 million offer from the Pacers.
Indy's opposition to paying the luxury tax, into which the team probably would've dipped by bringing back Stephenson, might've had something to do with the front office not offering the Brooklynite a more substantial deal. So, too, might've concerns about Stephenson's maturity.
Either way, the Pacers can't be pleased with the prospect of playing C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey on the wings while leaning on Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill to keep their sinking ship afloat.
Least Endearing Comments
Winner: James Harden
The Houston Rockets haven't exactly had a stellar offseason themselves. They swung for the fences with their pursuits of Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, only to be rejected by both and lose Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in cap-clearing trades.
Not to mention Chandler Parsons' departure to Dallas, after the Rockets made him a free agent a year ahead of schedule.
Parsons ripped the Rockets on his way out, telling Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears that he was "offended by the whole process."
"They publicly said that they were going out looking for a third star when I thought they had one right in front of them," Parsons went on.
Harden responded by basically throwing most of his teammates under the bus, intentionally or not.
"Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," Harden told The Philippine Star's Joaquin Henson (h/t Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin). "The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season."
As true as the substance of Harden's retort may be, the fact that he publicly separated himself from the pack isn't exactly the best way for a star to demonstrate leadership or galvanize his teammates, to say the least.
Winner: Chris Bosh
Leave it to Chris Bosh, the NBA's resident photo/videobomb king, to register the visual sneak attack of the summer.
Granted, Bosh's appearance over the shoulder of Matthew McConaughey at Monday's Emmys might not fit the definition of a photobomb to the letter. After all, Bosh didn't seem to show up in that shot intentionally, unlike his many carefully crafted masterpieces in Miami.
Still, Internet disagreement aside, Bosh deserves some dap for making sure that, when it comes to butting into other people's picture-related business, there's no such thing as an offseason.
Best Summer Vacation
Winner: Also Chris Bosh
More impressive than Bosh's apparent commitment to creeping on celebrities is that his latest effort came on the heels of a vacation that took him and his family across the globe. The #boshfamilyworldtour included stops in Ghana, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and Sri Lanka, among a host of others.
Such extensive travels are nothing new for the Bosh clan. Last summer, the Boshes posted pictures from Morocco, the Sahara Desert, India and several other spots in Italy.
Now that Bosh has a five-year, $118 million contract under his belt, there's no telling where he and his family will be touring next. Outer space, perhaps?
Most Exciting (and Excited) Newcomer
Winner: Steve Ballmer
No offense to the NBA's impressive crop of incoming rookies, but no newbie has stirred up quite as furious of a frenzy this summer as has Steve Ballmer.
The former Microsoft CEO isn't just the richest majority owner in American sports; he's also the most energetic—and it's not even close.
That is, if Ballmer's introduction as the new steward of the Los Angeles Clippers was any indication. His debut was every bit as loud and exciting as any tech press conference he'd ever emceed, but with a crowd that was ready and eager to not only receive Ballmer's energy, but also send it right back to him.
Time will tell if Ballmer's arrival brings about a bona fide Clippers revolution, both on and off the court. For now, though, it's safe to say the franchise and its fans are breathing much easier thanks to Ballmer, who's unburdened them of Donald Sterling's unbearable reign.
Most Missed Retiree
Winner: Dick Bavetta
Again, no offense to the players who've retired (i.e. Derek Fisher, Shane Battier and Quentin Richardson), but this space would seem best reserved for someone who spent nearly four decades serving the NBA: Dick Bavetta.
The longtime referee didn't miss a single assignment in his 39 years, overseeing a record 2,635 regular-season games along with 270 playoff dates, 27 Finals contests and three All-Star Games over that impressive span.
As astounding as Bavetta's resume is, he'll be most fondly remembered for his relationship with Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley. The two went toe-to-toe in a footrace during All-Star Weekend in 2007 before going mouth-to-mouth for a quick peck.