1 Free-Agent Signing to Help Each Contender Catch the Warriors
They ran roughshod over the Association in 2016-17—67 wins during the regular season, an all-time-best 16-1 record in the playoffs—in year one with Kevin Durant, the now-reigning Finals MVP, playing alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
The Warriors won't be without their challenges this summer. According to The Vertical's Shams Charania, the team's future financial concerns could cost them their other Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala. They'll still have to figure out how to pay their other unrestricted free agents, with Durant, Curry and Shaun Livingston chief among them.
If Golden State manages to keep its core intact and add some veteran ring-chasers to the roster, the team should be even stronger in its title defense. In that case, it's possible that no other contender will be just one piece away from knocking the Dubs off their perch.
But that doesn't mean the rest of the league can, should or will stop trying. The Houston Rockets, who succumbed to Golden State in the 2015 Western Conference Finals, have already fired off shots by bringing on Chris Paul. The Cleveland Cavaliers, now 1-2 against the Warriors in the championship series, could be angling for a game-changing trade of their own.
As far as free agency is concerned, these eight teams—all challengers to the Warriors' throne to some degree—could narrow the gap, however slightly, with the following available signees.
Boston Celtics: Blake Griffin
In some respects, Blake Griffin wouldn't do much to advance the Boston Celtics' cause against the Golden State Warriors. The defending champs have a knack for torturing Griffin on defense, putting him in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll while having Draymond Green on him on the other end.
But Boston won't ever see Golden State in the Finals if it can't get past Cleveland. And the Celtics won't beat the Cavaliers in a series until they beef up their board work. Boston finished 27th in defensive rebound percentage during the regular season and dead last among 16 teams in the playoffs. During the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, the C's came out ahead on the glass just once: in Game 5, which they lost by 33 points.
Griffin won't plug that hole all on his own, but he will help. Even if he's no longer the leaper he once was, Griffin is still bigger (6'10", 250 lbs) and stronger than just about anyone Boston trotted out in its frontcourt against the Cavs.
While Griffin may not be an ideal fit to oppose Golden State, his institutional knowledge of what makes the Dubs tick is almost unparalleled among players who've never suited up for that squad.
Cleveland Cavaliers: P.J. Tucker
Of all the issues that popped up to plague the Cavaliers in the 2017 Finals, one stood out above the rest: Kevin Durant. The Warriors' 7'0" trump card torched any and all of Cleveland's comers with 31 or more points in each of the five games—along with 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.6 blocks and sizzling shooting splits of .556/.474/.927—en route to Finals MVP honors and his first championship.
It's no wonder the Cavs were reported to be in the hunt for Jimmy Butler and may be in the thick of the Paul George sweepstakes before the Indiana Pacers make their move. For Cleveland to get back at Golden State (and convince LeBron James to stay), it will need someone who can bother, if not contain, Durant and players of his ilk on the wing.
Barring a blockbuster trade, the Cavaliers' best bet may be to pull out all the stops for P.J. Tucker. At 6'6" and 245 pounds, the 32-year-old has long been one of the league's chief perimeter irritants on defense. And after hitting 24-of-60 (40 percent) from three after a midseason trade to the Toronto Raptors last season, Tucker may yet fit the mold of a three-and-D type.
The trick for Cleveland will be convincing Tucker (or any other player, really) to take what could be a pay cut to play for a title contender. With their payroll slated to once again soar into the luxury tax, the Cavs will have only the taxpayer mid-level exception, worth just under $5.2 million per year, and veteran's minimum contracts with which to fill out their roster.
Tucker, for his part, made $5.3 million this past season. If he's willing to accept a little bit less—a tall order in today's NBA, where role players can now command annual salaries into eight figures—he could become a critical component in a fourth straight Finals showdown between the Cavs and Warriors.
Houston Rockets: Taj Gibson
For all the talk of the Houston Rockets acquiring a star wing (i.e. Paul George) to form a Big Three with James Harden and Chris Paul, what this club needs now is another frontcourt player who can shoot, crash the glass and—above all—credibly defend multiple positions. Mike D'Antoni's rotation lost two such potential pieces, in Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker, as recompense for CP3.
With only exceptions to spend after adding Paul to the roster, the Rockets will be limited in the types of players they can add. In a perfect world, their non-taxpayer mid-level exception, worth about $8.4 million, would be enough to satisfy Taj Gibson.
The 32-year-old big man has long been one of the league's toughest customers up front. Tom Thibodeau's defensive principals are practically burned into his brain, if not also his body. And while he can't quite stretch out to the arc, he's a credible threat in the pick-and-pop from mid-range.
Trouble is, to go to Houston, he would not only have to take a slice off his $9 million salary from last season; he'd also have to take an even bigger haircut from what he could earn on the open market, be it by re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder or hopping on elsewhere.
The Rockets, though, have the requisite recruiters to at least bend Gibson's ear. He's not an Angeleno by birth, but his ties to the Los Angeles area run deep, dating back to his prep school and college days. If Harden, Trevor Ariza and Bobby Brown could convince Paul to leave the Clippers, might they be able to conjure a similar pull with Gibson?
Oklahoma City Thunder: Rudy Gay
The Oklahoma City Thunder will be hard-pressed to crack the West's top four, let alone challenge the Warriors, without another reliable scoring threat next to Russell Westbrook. But with so much money already committed to Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter—and, perhaps, more yet to be handed out to Andre Roberson—they, like the Rockets, will have to start with the mid-level exception and work their way down.
Which makes the Thunder's interest in Rudy Gay, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, all the more plausible. There were rumblings early during the 2016-17 season connecting Gay to OKC. But an injury to Cameron Payne, a key piece for the Sacramento Kings, and Gay's subsequent Achilles tear put the kibosh on those possibilities.
If they had their druthers, the Thunder would probably prefer to make a bigger splash with someone like Blake Griffin, who's from Oklahoma City. But Griffin has never shown any real connection toward his hometown, and bringing him to the Sooner State would require a complicated series of transactions that includes a sign-and-trade—not to mention Blake's approval.
Gay, then, may be the more realistic option. The track record of players 30 and older coming back from Achilles injuries is hardly encouraging, but if he can score anything close to 18 points per game like he has throughout his 11 NBA seasons, he'll give OKC more of a shot to keep up with a high-octane offense like Golden State's.
San Antonio Spurs: George Hill
If not for Kawhi Leonard's sprained ankle and Tony Parker's ruptured quad, the San Antonio Spurs might've given the Warriors a run for their money this season.
At least, that's how it looked until Leonard went down in Game 1, with the Spurs up by 25 points.
"We're playing very possibly the best team in the league, we don't know what's going to happen in the East; 9.75 people out of 10 would figure that the Warriors will beat the Spurs," head coach Gregg Popovich said during a tirade between Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals, per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.
"We've had a pretty damn good season, we've played fairly well in the playoffs, I think we're getting better. And we're up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State and Kawhi goes down like that. And you want to know if our chances are less and you want to know how we feel. That's how we feel."
San Antonio can feel good about Leonard's return in time for the start of the 2017-18 season. What's less certain is when Parker will be back and how effective he'll be when he returns from a career-altering injury at the age of 35.
Dejounte Murray could be the Spurs' point guard of the future, but the 20-year-old could be a year or two (if not longer) from taking over that job full time.
Fortunately for San Antonio, there's one familiar security blanket on the open market this summer: George Hill. The one-time Spurs draftee was one of Popovich's favorites before the team traded him to Indiana for Leonard's draft rights in 2011. According to ESPN's Ian Begley, there's a belief around the league that a reunion might be in the cards.
More importantly, he's a dangerous two-way player at the point, with a threatening three-point stroke (40.3 percent last season) and the length and smarts to hound a certain two-time MVP at his position.
Hill, though, doesn't come without concerns. For one, he's missed 33 games or more in two of the last three seasons and doesn't figure to trend upward health-wise as he proceeds deeper into his 30s. Hill's price tag, too, could be steep, if his declining an $88 million extension with the Jazz during the season is any indication.
But the Spurs will have some wiggle room with Pau Gasol and David Lee opting out of their deals. If they can negotiate a number that works for both sides, the Alamo could be remembered as the place where Golden State's budding dynasty met its match.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry
The Toronto Raptors couldn't take even one game from the Cleveland Cavaliers—everyone in the East's biggest obstacle to facing Golden State—in this year's playoffs with Kyle Lowry. What good, then, would it do the Raptors within the NBA's championship chase to bring him back?
Without him, they wouldn't be in the running at all. Lowry was once again Toronto's best player in 2016-17, with career highs in points (22.4), rebounds (4.8), assists (7.0) and three-point percentage (.412) to boot.
Lowry, though, could cost the Raptors upward of $30 million per year, thereby locking them into a team that remains rungs below true title contention. And between his age (he turns 32 next season), injury history and middling postseason production, Toronto has ample reason to tread carefully with him.
But the drop-off if Lowry leaves could be steep. Even if he goes, the Raptors won't have anything close to max cap room without shedding some salary first. That's not beyond reproach for someone as clever as team president Masai Ujiri—assuming the New York Knicks don't poach him for their front office first.
Lowry isn't a perfect option, but Toronto won't so much as sniff Golden State, be it head-to-head or in the standings, without a point guard of his caliber to lead its attack and counteract the league's other top floor generals.
Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward
Like the Raptors with Lowry, the Utah Jazz are in a bit of a bind with Gordon Hayward.
They've already seen up close how far they are from challenging the Warriors, even with their All-Star wing. That the Jazz got swept in the second round, despite Hayward's averaging 29.0 points over the final three games of the series, could weigh heavily when he heads east for meetings with the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics this weekend.
On Utah's end, this is not the case of a contender hitting its ceiling and considering whether it's wise to run things back. The Jazz won 51 games during the regular season, despite suffering a slew of injuries—including one that kept Hayward out for the first six games—and succumbed to Golden State with George Hill sidelined by toe problems for most of that series.
There is plenty of room for internal improvement, between Hayward's own growth and the upward trajectories of Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood and incoming rookie Donovan Mitchell. If the Jazz can either bring Hill back healthy or snag a point guard elsewhere (Ricky Rubio, anyone?), they might really be in business.
But that's all contingent on Hayward's return. With him, Utah can continue its steady rise through the league's ranks. Without him, the Jazz would be lucky to snag a fringe playoff spot, let alone a close postseason game against Golden State.
Washington Wizards: Otto Porter Jr.
There are no more important free agents for the Washington Wizards than the ones they have in-house. That's partly due to the lack of cap space in D.C., where John Wall, Bradley Beal and the rest of the team's contracted incumbents are slated to take up nearly $92 million of a $99 million limit. Without any real room, the Wizards won't have the flexibility to nab any big names unless they make some other maneuvers.
It's possible that Washington will emerge as a major player in the Paul George sweepstakes. Wall, for one, is already in his ear.
"I am talking to some guys—Paul," Wall told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears. "I know his ultimate goal of where he wants to be. I'm trying to see if we can make something happen."
CSN Mid-Atlantic's J. Michael Falgoust has since reported the Wizards remain in the running for PG-13. Realistically, though, they'll be hard-pressed to top whatever the Celtics, Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers may be able concoct as a return for the Pacers.
Short of a stunning turnaround on that front, Washington would be wise to cast its lot on the wing with Otto Porter Jr. The former No. 3 pick has emerged as a comfortable fit next to Wall and Beal. He finished among the regular-season league leaders in three-point percentage (.434) and steals (1.5 per game) while registering career highs nearly across the board.
According to NBA.com's David Aldridge, the Wizards could run the risk of alienating Porter if they try to play hardball with him in restricted free agency. They'll need the 24-year-old's buy-in and burgeoning firepower to compete with the league's best in the years to come.