Realistic Offseason Scenarios That Could Prevent Cavs-Warriors Round 4
With all due respect to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, we'd rather not see this exact NBA Finals matchup in 2018, for the fourth consecutive year. Third time's a charm. Fourth time's overkill.
So please, Cleveland. Or Golden State. One of you. Both of you. Either of you. Please, oh please, let another team partake in the championship round next season.
What's that? Neither of you will volunteer to bow out? Well then, I guess it's time to tear down this NBA Finals deja vu the old-fashioned way: via made-up trades and free-agency signings that bolster the league's secondary title contenders.
Some of these are multistep situations requiring more than one move. They will be highlighted as such wherever necessary. Scenarios that aren't connected to another are being presented independent of everything else, so one team can appear in separate hypotheticals—a rule admittedly implemented to accommodate the wildly flexible position in which one franchise finds itself.
View all trades as if they will be completed after July 1, at which time picks from this year's draft will have turned into players. This allows for uneven salary exchanges that take advantage of certain cap outlooks, as determined by this primer.
And now, let's see if we can build contenders with a puncher's chance of putting an end to the Cavaliers-Warriors rubber match before it reaches Round 14 4.
Option 1 for Boston: Induce Indy into Sell-Low Paul George Trade
Boston Celtics Receive: SF Paul George
Indiana Pacers Receive: PG Terry Rozier, No. 37 pick, 2018 first-round pick (via Brooklyn), 2018 lottery-protected first-round pick (via Boston)
Paul George's trade value plummeted once he failed to make this year's All-NBA lineup. If the Indiana Pacers had the option of signing him to a designated player extension, they could play up the "We're not selling low on a star we can keep" card.
That ship has sailed. George is slated for free agency next summer (player option), so suitors will treat him like an expiring contract, and his fondness for the Los Angeles Lakers curtails his value even more.
Selling somewhat low is now the Pacers' best option unless they want to risk losing him for nothing in 2018. They can do far worse than a young point guard (Terry Rozier) and two future first-rounders—one of which, from the Brooklyn Nets, should fall in the top five.
Using most of this summer's cap space to take on George prevents the Boston Celtics from getting too whimsical in free agency. But the trade-off is worth it. They land a cornerstone player without forfeiting this year's No. 1 pick or shaking up their current core. They don't even need to renounce restricted free agent Kelly Olynyk.
Slot George next to Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas, and the Celtics have one of the best starting fives in basketball. Add in Olynyk, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and, let's say, Markelle Fultz coming off the bench, and you've got a rotation that puts the Cavaliers on notice.
Option 2 for Boston, Part I: Sign Gordon Hayward
Although trading for one star might erase the chasm separating the Celtics from the Cavaliers, their five-game fold job in the Eastern Conference Finals leaves room for concern. Bringing in two All-Stars sends a more cogent message to Ohio's finest.
Donate two of your five fingers to science, and you can still count the number of teams with the pull to acquire multiple studs over the offseason on one hand. Fortunately for the Celtics, they're among the few.
Signing Gordon Hayward is Step 1 in this scenario. And depending on who you ask, this part of the process might already be done. Celtics head man Brad Stevens coached Hayward at Butler, and the two remain tight—hence why CSNNE.com's Chris Mannix believes Hayward is Boston's "No. 1 target" this summer.
Manufacturing the space to squeeze in Hayward's max—$30.3 million—is not without its cap-sheet casualties. The Celtics have to waive the non-guaranteed deals of Jordan Mickey and Tyler Zeller while renouncing all their exceptions and free agents—including Olynyk. They'll need to cut salary elsewhere if either Guerschon Yabusele or Ante Zizic comes stateside.
Inserting Hayward into the starting lineup for a departed Amir Johnson forges a dynamic unmatched by anyone else in the East. Bradley, Hayward, Horford and Thomas can all jump-start half-court sets but won't have any problem playing off one another, and there's no capping the defensive ceiling on a Bradley-Crowder-Hayward troika. There will be times when they're all interchangeable.
Pull Thomas for Brown or Smart, and the Celtics unlock all kinds of defensive combinations. They pestered LeBron James at times in the Eastern Conference Finals by throwing a vast array of defensive looks in his direction. This pushes that semi-effective, albeit still imperfect, bill even further.
Of course, there's more work to be done...
Option 2 for Boston, Part II: Trade for Jimmy Butler
Boston Celtics Receive: SG/SF Jimmy Butler
Chicago Bulls Receive: SG Avery Bradley, No. 1 pick, 2018 top-seven protected first-round pick
Once Hayward is under lock and key, the Celtics can resume their eternity-long dalliance with Jimmy Butler. They were linked to him ahead of last year's draft, and talks rekindled around February's trade deadline, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.
The Chicago Bulls' asking price has always been a bit of a mystery. Crowder was the primary hangup in February, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge, but concrete packages have never trickled out. All we know is Chicago wants the world.
"Throughout the various proposals exchanged last June, the Bulls asked the Celtics for at least three and sometimes four assets for Butler," the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson wrote. "And Butler took a jump this season, earning third-team All-NBA status for the first time."
Translation: The Bulls' asking price isn't going down. Butler is at his peak, and unlike George, he cannot explore free agency for another two years (player option). But the Celtics don't have to bend over backward. Their primary trade asset, Brooklyn's pick, is more valuable than ever now that it's the established No. 1 selection.
This package is the middle ground. The Bulls meet their three-asset quota, but the Celtics aren't forking over primo property at every turn. Bradley is expendable with Butler coming in and Hayward on the docket, and his free agency in 2018 shouldn't be expensive enough to scare the Bulls out of keeping him.
The 2018 first-rounder is a solid pot-sweetener, and Boston has some other mid-end goodies—like the Los Angeles Clippers' and Memphis Grizzlies' picks in 2019—to attach if Chicago gets greedy.
Waiting until Hayward has signed on the dotted line is pivotal to this scenario. Butler would eat into the Celtics' cap space if acquired beforehand. The salaries of the first-overall pick and Bradley will total around $14.7 million, which is enough to bring back Butler's $18.7 million hit, so long as Boston ducks the luxury tax.
Some of the Celtics' depth will be sacrificed in this scenario, but the return will justify the collateral damage. They'd enter 2017-18 fielding a starting five of Butler, Crowder, Hayward, Horford and Thomas, with Brown, Rozier and Smart coming off the pine. Sign a bargain-bin big, like a healthy Nene, and they're equipped to make life genuinely difficult on Cleveland.
Option 3 for Boston: Empty the Cupboard for Butler and PG13
This is the swan song of Boston scenarios. It's also the godfather of all hypotheticals.
A lot has to go right for the Celtics to land Butler and George with offers that don't overlap, but considering the magnitude of the undertaking, they come damn close. Tweak the parameters of previous ideas, and they can get there:
Trade No. 1
Boston Celtics Receive: SF Paul George
Indiana Pacers Receive: PG Terry Rozier, No. 37 pick, 2018 first-round pick (via Brooklyn), 2018 lottery protected first-round pick (via Boston Celtics)
Nothing changes from the initial offer. Boston takes advantage of the Pacers' weak position by grabbing George for a package that burns through picks and cap space.
If the Pacers insist on Brown instead of the Nets' 2018 first-rounder, the Celtics should oblige. They'll need to be mindful of avoiding the luxury tax for the next trade to work, so they might prefer it. But they shouldn't be give up both—not when it amounts to relinquishing two top-five picks for an expiring contract.
Trade No. 2
Boston Celtics Receive: SG/SF Jimmy Butler
Chicago Bulls Receive: SG Avery Bradley, No. 1 pick, 2019 first-round pick (via Memphis Grizzlies), 2019 first-round pick (via Los Angeles Clippers)
The Celtics technically don't have to change up their Butler offer. They needn't worry about leaving themselves without consecutive first-rounders if they wait until this year's No. 1 pick turns into a player.
But George, Smart and Thomas are up for new deals next summer. Brown will be extension-eligible, too. They'll need cost-controlled assets as early as possible with their salary obligations beginning to overflow into the luxury tax.
If they complete this trade after getting George, the Celtics will arguably become the East's prohibitive favorites. Butler, George and Crowder are basically interchangeable on the defensive end. Together, they're enough to frustrate even his royal highness, LeBron.
There will be a learning curve on offense. George fits like a glove; he's more accustomed to playing off the ball. Butler, however, has become a lead creator for the Bulls in recent years. He canned more than 40 percent of his spot-up threes this season, but they accounted for less than 10 percent of his looks.
Familiarity will take care of any potential hiccups. The Celtics generate more high-quality looks than the Bulls, and good basketball players will knock down open shots. And upon hitting their stride on both ends of floor, this squad, with Butler and George, matches up noticeably better against Golden State than Cleveland.
Denver's Face-Lift, Part I: Trade for Paul George
Denver Nuggets Receive: SF Paul George
Indiana Pacers Receive: PF Kenneth Faried, PG Emmanuel Mudiay, PG/SG Jamal Murray, No. 13 pick
From late-lottery team to fringe rival of the Warriors: The story of the 2017-18 Denver Nuggets.
Denver made a "monster" offer for George's services at the trade deadline, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. Nothing materialized, but as Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Vertical Podcast with Woj (h/t Silver Screen & Roll), this had more to do with the Nuggets' being "warned" George would join the Lakers if they dealt for him.
Calling his bluff is not for the faint of heart. George's infatuation with Los Angeles is very real, per USA Today's Sam Amick. But the Nuggets need a star to pair with Nikola Jokic, and their ability to get a third one after George can throw a wrench in the most stubbornly laid agendas.
If there's a way get this done without Jamal Murray, Denver has to find it. Some combination of Malik Beasley, Will Barton, Juan Hernangomez and another future first-rounder might pique Indiana's interest in the absence of legitimate leverage.
Whatever the Nuggets give up, their resulting depth chart is built to rattle the Western Conference without making another move. George is the feisty stopper they don't have, and opposing defenses have no hope of derailing an offense that features Jokic flinging passes to a cutting George and Gary Harris.
Running out Wilson Chandler at the 4 next to George, Harris and Jokic will do some serious damage. Granted, moving Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay leaves Jameer Nelson to shoulder point guard responsibilities. But Jokic is essentially a 6'10" floor general, and neither George nor Harris is a stranger to bringing up the ball.
Denver's Face-Lift, Part II: Sign Kyle Lowry
Acquiring George against his wishes wouldn't bilk the Nuggets of their enviable cap situation, which is why they can roll the dice on a blockbuster at all. It'll be much harder for him to leave if he's on a team that's challenging the West's elite.
Ditch Danilo Gallinari's $16.1 million cap hold in conjunction with the George trade, and the Nuggets carve out more than $34 million in spending power. Waiving Mike Miller, renouncing Mason Plumlee (restricted) or shipping out one of their other contracts pulls them past $35 million, opening enough space to sign any available free agent. (If they want to keep Gallinari, offloading Chandler into another team's space while dumping two of Miller, Plumlee and Darrell Arthur does the trick.)
Chris Paul would be the ideal addition. The thought of a George departure from a team that houses Paul is comical. But Kyle Lowry is a more realistic acquisition, and he's no consolation prize.
Shortly after the Cavaliers bounced the Toronto Raptors in the second round, Stein revealed that Lowry would consider moving west. Sources also told ESPN.com's Chris Haynes that DeMar DeRozan and head coach Dwane Casey held a meeting with Lowry in the Bay Area before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. This proves nothing, but it suggests the Raptors can sense their point guard has wandering eyes.
And if Lowry wants to face LeBron only twice a year before the NBA Finals, the Nuggets could be one of his top options, according to DYST Now's Mike Ortiz Jr. This, mind you, doesn't account for George's presence on the roster.
Does a rotation headlined by Barton, Chandler, George, Harris, Hernangomez, Jokic, Lowry and Plumlee get the job done against the Warriors? The Nuggets won't enter a series as favorites; that's for sure. But they would have enough star power and depth to join the peripheral conversation, right alongside the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.
Houston Signs PJ Tucker
The Rockets don't have a lot of wiggle room this summer. They'll start out under the cap, but they won't have enough money to poach a star without shaking up the core.
They're stuck...in a good way.
"We feel like another year with this group, we will just get better," general manager Daryl Morey said, per the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech.
This isn't last year. The Rockets wrapped 2016-17 with the league's third-best regular-season record. Do nothing, and they'll continue to be mentioned in the same breath as other second-tier championship hopefuls.
That doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't improve. They can. They should. And their adjustments have to start on the defensive end.
Replacing or, assuming he's fully healthy, retaining Nene is a biggie. But the Rockets need another gritty perimeter defender to partner with Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley.
PJ Tucker is the perfect fit. He can guard all-world scorers without getting put on posters and, at 6'6", he has no trouble sliding to power forward. His three-point stroke has been inconsistent in the past, but he buried 40 percent of his treys after being traded to the Raptors in February. That clip will fit into Mike D'Antoni's space-drunk offense.
Houston probably isn't getting Tucker for the $8.4 million mid-level exception, but Morey has a clear path to between $10 and $12 million in cap space. Offering a yearly salary in that range should convince the 32-year-old to come on as the Rockets' finishing touch.
Clippers Steer into Small Ball with Carmelo Anthony
Los Angeles Clippers Receive: SF/PF Carmelo Anthony, SG/SF Courtney Lee, PF/C Kyle O'Quinn
New York Knicks Receive: SG Jamal Crawford, Blake Griffin (sign-and-trade)
Proposing a straight-up Carmelo Anthony-for-Blake Griffin swap has always missed the mark. Anthony is almost five years Griffin's senior, and his value has never been lower. As much sense as it makes for the Clippers to deploy three shooters next to Paul and DeAndre Jordan, they would lose this deal.
Throw in Courtney Lee and Kyle O'Quinn while washing Jamal Crawford's contract from Los Angeles' ledger, and we may have something—provided Anthony is willing to waive his trade kicker to help the money work, as ESPN.com's Ian Begley deftly described.
Lee drew interest from the Clippers at the trade deadline, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman, and would be a nice replacement for Luc Mbah a Moute if he prices himself out of Hollywood. O'Quinn has two years left on a team-friendly contract (player option in 2018) and can log time at both center and power forward. And Anthony, as we know, would thrive as a three-point marksman beside a playmaker like Paul.
Losing Griffin stings. But with his health bill, the Clippers shouldn't beg to bankroll his max deal. Anthony will end up being cheaper when he hits free agency in either 2018 or 2019, and a starting lineup including him, Jordan, Lee, Paul and J.J. Redick (if he re-signs) is more versatile than anything the Clippers can run with Griffin.
Persuading Griffin to join the New York Knicks should actually be the toughest part of this deal. There is no financial incentive for him in a sign-and-trade. He'll get a four-year max, with the normal 4.5 percent raises.
Unless the Celtics, Nuggets or Miami Heat come calling, though, Griffin won't be turning down first-rate situations in this scenario. Starting next to Kristaps Porzingis carries appeal, and Griffin would instantly become the focal point for Phil Jackson's triangle offense-obsessed rebuild.
San Antonio Goes All-in for Chris Paul, Part I: Pau Gasol Trade
Brooklyn Nets Receive: C Enes Kanter, No. 29 pick (from San Antonio)
Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: C Pau Gasol
San Antonio Spurs Receive: No. 57 pick (from Brooklyn)
Paul is poised to give the Spurs "serious" consideration in free agency, according to Stein. This should scare the ever-loving crud out of the Clippers. The pitch to play for Gregg Popovich and alongside Kawhi Leonard needs no words. It's inherently attractive. San Antonio's contingent can sit down, stare silently at Paul, and the meeting will be a success.
But his interest won't mean a darn thing unless the Spurs can afford him. And as of now, they can't. Cutting ties with all their own free agents other than Jonathon Simmons leaves them with $6.4 million in flexibility—about $29 million short of Paul's max.
Two of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker have to leave for this work. Assuming the Spurs are too loyal to waive or trade Parker and too smart to abandon Green, that leaves Aldridge and Gasol.
Finding a spot for the latter is difficult. Teams will take a 37-year-old seven-footer who shot 53.8 percent from downtown on 104 attempts, but Gasol's $16.2 million salary makes for a complicated match. That's where the Nets and Oklahoma City Thunder come in.
"Brooklyn will be out there on the market looking at teams who have a bad contract they want to get off," Wojnarowski told told NBC Sports Radio's The Chris Mannix Show (h/t Nets Daily), "but only if you're willing to attach a good young player or a draft pick."
The Spurs can cut out the middle man and send Gasol to the Nets, but they'll be nice enough to find him a quasi-contender. And the Thunder need to get out from under Enes Kanter's deal anyway. Gasol is slightly cheaper, comes off the books a year earlier, has more offensive range and is a better stationary rim protector.
Grabbing another first-round pick—their third of this year's draft—should get the Nets to absorb Kanter into cap space. He'll shoot threes under head coach Kenny Atkinson, and there will be a starting job available if Brook Lopez is traded or leaves in free agency next July.
San Antonio Goes All-in for Chris Paul, Part II: LaMarcus Aldridge Trade
Denver Nuggets Receive: PF LaMarcus Aldridge
San Antonio Spurs Receive: PF Darrell Arthur, SG/SF Will Barton, No. 13 pick
Executing Step 2 of "Operation Help CP3 and Kawhi Become Best Friends" is fairly straightforward.
Pushing 32, with a player option for 2018-19, Aldridge doesn't hold the value he once did. And yet, he's not a player you just dump. The Spurs would grapple with moving him as part of a cost-cutting spree.
Talking shop with Denver is their best chance of extracting value from Aldridge without accepting too much salary in return. The Nuggets, remember, haven't traded for George in this universe. They'll still need a star, and he holds that cachet. He's also a better fit beside Jokic than any of the other bigs they've tried.
Taking back Arthur, Barton and the No. 13 pick doesn't give the Spurs $35-plus million in room. They'll need to part ways with Simmons—who becomes expendable with Barton in the fold—to approach $33 million.
Rerouting Arthur is an option if the Spurs think they can pick up quality bigs on the cheap. Sending Barton to a third team and keeping Simmons also works. There's extra money in finding new homes for Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes (non-guaranteed) as well.
Moral of the story: The Spurs would get to Paul's max—or at least close enough for the phrase "teensy-tiny discount" to be bandied about.
Yes, there's a lot of collateral damage here. But Aldridge and Gasol are probably gone after 2017-18 anyway. Entering next season with Leonard and Paul flanked by Arthur, Barton, Green, Parker (when healthy), Davis Bertans, Dejounte Murray, a late lottery pick and clearance-rack ring-chasers is a good place to be.
San Antonio just won 61 games and gave the Warriors a very, very (very) brief scare in the Western Conference Finals with less.