Irrational Conclusions to Draw from 2018 NBA Free Agency

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 25, 2018

Irrational Conclusions to Draw from 2018 NBA Free Agency

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    The smoke hasn't quite cleared yet, but as we enter the fourth week of NBA free agency, it's safe to emerge from the rubble and scan the league's warped landscape.

    With the conference power balance now further tilted West, superstars changing locales and a financial crunch (nobody had any money!) contributing to a wild transactional stretch, there are loads of questions to ask. Here, we're tackling the big one.

    What's it all mean?

    The safe response would be conservative. It'd involve measured consideration and a wait-and-see approach, which...NOPE!

    This is going to get bold. Half-cocked is too cocked. We want quarter-cocked reasoning at most. These are irrational conclusions after all.

    The process of remaking rosters involves so much more than offer sheets and midnight pitch meetings; trades and extensions are part of the same picture. There'll be times when we lump those in.

    Check your sensible thinking at the door.

The Eastern Conference Has Never Been Sadder

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    A dozen of the 16 active players named to an All-NBA First Team reside in the West. LeBron James, the man who represented the East in the last eight NBA Finals, is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

    The talent suck, vacuuming the league's best players west for several years now, seems to have switched into high gear.

    We've known about the conference disparity for a while. This isn't new information. But one recent free-agent move illustrated just how severely the league's power imbalance impacts teams' thinking.

    So while there are several ways to view Kevin Love's four-year, $120 million extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers, reported Tuesday by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, one of the most interesting is as a window into how the post-LeBron Cavs see themselves.

    It'd make sense for a club that finished fourth in a weak conference and managed the league's No. 13 net rating with James to initiate a total teardown without him. Maybe it's foolish for Cleveland to think so, but Love's new deal could indicate the Cavs aren't convinced they're a lottery team. Strange as it sounds, they might be right. The East is that underwhelming.

    Outside of the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and maybe the Milwaukee Bucks, there aren't any playoff locks. The Washington Wizards are a powder keg, the Indiana Pacers must prove last year wasn't a fluke and the Miami Heat are returning a roster that outscored opponents by just a half-point per 100 possessions.

    Can the Cavs beat out the Detroit Pistons or Charlotte Hornets for a playoff spot? That we're even asking the question shows how weak the East has become.            

The Warriors Will Coast Like Never Before

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    The Houston Rockets took a step back by losing Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza...then took another by adding Carmelo Anthony, one of the league's worst defenders who's never been keen on a non-star role and couldn't make a shot last season. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard left the San Antonio Spurs, and the Lakers did what they could to botch every post-LeBron signing.

    So although we just spent a few hundred words decrying the state of the East, the West has also slid backward in a critical sense: The gap between the field and the Golden State Warriors has grown.

    Knowing this, Golden State will approach DeMarcus Cousins' recovery with zero urgency. If he doesn't play until February or March, it won't matter. If he doesn't play at all in the regular season, it still probably won't matter.

    Expect Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to see a night off per week. If any of them log 70 games, it'll be a surprise. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston will get several games of rest in a row. Watch as they combine to play no more than 100 games in 2018-19, ceding rotation minutes to Jonas Jerebko, Quinn Cook and rookie Jacob Evans.

    How the Warriors label their key players' time off will be important. They'll want to avoid running afoul of the league's policy against stars resting unnecessarily. But if anybody deserves some leniency on this front, it's the Dubs, who've averaged over 100 games (regular season plus playoffs) over the last four years.

    As motivational angles go, the quest to redeem Cousins' career by getting him a title is a pretty good one. It should keep the Warriors more engaged than they otherwise might have been. But at this stage of the dynasty (yes, the label officially applies now), the Warriors would have been justified in taking the regular season easy regardless. But with the Rockets and others losing ground, it'll be even easier to justify a casual approach until May.

    Anyone frustrated by Golden State's decision to play the 2017-18 season in second gear had better get ready for an even more throttled-back approach this year.

    We may never see another team coast like the 2018-19 Warriors.

LeBron's Title Days Are Done

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    Short of adding Leonard and Paul George to the roster alongside James, I'm not sure the Lakers could have done anything to vault themselves into title-favorite territory. The additions they've made instead—Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley to name four—might make the modest goal of a playoff appearance tricky.

    James isn't making it back to the Finals this year, which'll end an eight-season streak.

    Lakers defenders will point to next summer's cap space, Leonard's imminent arrival and, perhaps, a pipe-dream addition of Durant as signs of hope. But all of that is far from certain, and let's not forget that James will be playing his age-35 season in 2019-20. By then, his odometer will have another few thousand miles on it, further bringing physical decline into play.

    James never misses the postseason, and it'll always be difficult to bet against him in a series. But these Lakers don't have the shooting or defense to scare anyone—let alone threaten a true contender. What's more, the front office's approach this summer indicates that, aside from being the destination James chose, they may not have a great sense of what kind of talent it takes to win in today's NBA.

    Exceptionalism landed LeBron, but everything since that fateful signing augurs poorly for Los Angeles.

    It's a good thing James' move to L.A. was largely about positioning himself for life after basketball because his days as a perennial championship hopeful are finished.

Rentals Are the New Norm

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    George stayed with the Oklahoma City Thunder after completing what everyone expected would be a one-year stopover on his way to Los Angeles, and now the Toronto Raptors are taking a similar risk by trading for Leonard.

    Both George and Leonard came at discounted prices because of their public desires to land in L.A., but it's telling that teams are increasingly willing to surrender assets for short-term gains. The key is selling the so-called rental on the option to buy.

    OKC retained George with its culture and a fat contract offer. Toronto will try to repeat that process with Leonard.

    As players flex their muscles more often, angling for control of their fates in a labor landscape dominated by management, we should expect to see more scenarios like the ones involving George and Leonard.

    Guys are going to feel emboldened to tell their current teams they want out, even specifying a preferred destination, because the approach clearly works. The incumbent team loses leverage the second those feelings go public and then does what it can to recoup value before the player in question leaves for nothing.

    At that point, anyone with a high enough risk tolerance can get involved.

    George's decision to stick with OKC suggests teams of all stripes and market sizes would be wise to place a call when a star wants out—even if the player's vision of the future seems set. Things change in a year. Priorities shift. Players who were certain they wanted one result desire another after a season spent on a team they didn't plan to play for.

    This is good news for parity, if you're into that.

Dwight Howard Is Playing His Last NBA Season

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Sure, Dwight Howard has a $5.6 million player option for next year that means he gets to decide whether his NBA career stretches past 2019.

    But this is a guy playing for his fourth team in four years and his sixth overall—not counting the Brooklyn Nets, who merely bought him out so he could sign with the Washington Wizards. The last two times he moved (from Atlanta to Charlotte and from Charlotte to Brooklyn), the team trading Howard had to attach assets or absorb bad money to get the deal done.

    Note too that Howard's former teams tend to be glad when he's gone.

    Suffice it to say, Howard is no longer a valued commodity.

    Dwyane Wade just got a three-year, $25 million offer to play in China, according to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel. Though it seems unlikely Wade would stray so far from Miami for the final phase of his career, it's far easier to imagine Howard going that route.

    Where better to get post touches, loaf on defense and enjoy the added benefit of terrible jokes being lost in translation. Third-grade comedy bits are weak in English, but maybe they'd sound profound in Mandarin.

    Howard's going to play in China next season. Book it.

The Toronto Raptors Are Now the Best Team in the East

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    It should seem rational to project the Raptors as the East's best team in 2018-19. That's what they were last year, winning 59 games before falling, as predetermined by fate, to James' Cavs in the playoffs. Add Leonard to a roster that already has Kyle Lowry and should expect improvement from its youth—Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and Norman Powell—and you've got a club that should comfortably push past 60 wins.

    The problem: Everyone's in on the Boston Celtics, who'll add Gordon Hayward and a theoretically healthier Kyrie Irving to a young core that should experience even more growth than Toronto's.

    Then there's the Philadelphia 76ers, who posted the league's fourth-best net rating in 2017-18 and figure to get even better performances from reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz. It's dangerous to assume anything about Fultz, but reports about his progress this summer are encouraging.

    If Fultz is back to being the player drafted first overall in 2017, the Sixers offense could join its defense in the top five.

    Still, a healthy Leonard is a better player than anyone on Boston's or Philly's roster. And he's joining a Raptors team that posted the second-most wins in the league last year—replacing DeMar DeRozan and his offense-only game. The health factor is a massive unknown for Leonard, as is his commitment to a Raptors team that, most likely, is only renting him.

    But that's what makes this a great irrational conclusion!


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