Buying or Selling NBA Offseason's Hottest Takes
Pack a whirlwind of NBA roster moves into a period devoid of actual games, and what do you get? Peak hot-take season.
Fans and media alike don't know how all the players in new places will fit. But for now, they don't care. No sooner has this player signed or that player exited than NBA Twitter than talking heads and overanxious fanatics have found sufficient ammunition to load their hot-take cannons and fire away.
Are the Los Angeles Lakers a top-four seed with LeBron James in tow? Is Kawhi Leonard the LeBron-less Eastern Conference's best player? Are the Houston Rockets about to backtrack in a big way?
We've dissected this summer's five biggest hot takes to see which might have legs and which aren't more than hot air.
Rockets Are Significantly Worse
The Houston Rockets hit a host of statistical high notes last season. Their 65 wins were a franchise record. Their 1,256 threes were an NBA record. Their 42-3 mark in games James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela all played was mind-boggling.
But a quietly critical component of their climb up the standings was a 12-spot jump in defensive efficiency. In one season, they moved from the bottom half (18th) into the top 10 (sixth). A switch-almost-everything scheme that leaned heavily on Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker made that possible.
So, you can understand the apprehension surrounding the offseason departures of Ariza and Mbah a Moute, especially when factoring in their replacements. James Ennis III theoretically offers defensive versatility, but he's had one positive defensive box plus/minus in four seasons. Carmelo Anthony's career-high DBPM is 0.0, and his minus-1.9 last season tied for seventh-worst among the 101 players who logged 2,000 minutes.
"[Houston] had enough offense-defense balance last season to turn a two-game Warriors slump into a short series upset," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "... This revamped version doesn't."
Some regression feels unavoidable. But it won't be a big-enough decline to strip the Rockets of their status as both contenders and a top-two team in the West.
Harden, Paul and Capela will anchor an elite unit almost regardless of who surrounds them. Anthony is another half-court weapon for an offense that isolates more than anyone. Ennis has the physical tools to develop into an impact role player. Houston still has a glut of shooters, too, plus the guards and coaching scheme to maximize their value.
Verdict: Mostly Selling
DeMarcus Cousins Will Be an Afterthought
This is two fiery takes wrapped in one: DeMarcus Cousins won't move the needle for the Golden State Warriors or be missed by the New Orleans Pelicans.
The rationale is easier to follow for the first take. The Warriors have claimed three of the past four titles and possibly assembled the best five-man collection in basketball history. They don't need Cousins, but that has less to do with him than the fact that they don't need anything.
"Cousins can't make the Warriors much better because it is mathematically impossible for a team this good to get much better," Lowe wrote.
As for the Pelicans, they're a one-star squad, barring a miraculous jump from Jrue Holiday, Julius Randle or Nikola Mirotic. But considering that centerpiece is the all-powerful Anthony Davis, has New Orleans found a way to survive Cousins' departure?
It's impossible to answer with certainty, since we don't know how post-Achilles-tear Cousins will play or how the new Pelicans will fit. That said, we'd lean closer to yes than no.
Shedding Cousins likely means more minutes at center for Davis, where he's basically unguardable. After Boogie went down Jan. 26, the Brow averaged 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 2.2 assists and 2.0 steals in 33 games. He benefited both from the spacing provided by Mirotic and a faster pace (from 101.48 possessions per 48 minutes to 104.50).
New Orleans will miss having a second top-shelf shot creator, but potential gains in tempo, perimeter shooting and ball movement should allow it to at least tread water, if not take a small step forward. As Jonathan Feigen wrote for the Houston Chronicle, having a healthy frontcourt should be an obvious, yet overlooked, boost for this bunch:
"Though much was made of Cousins' departure, missing half the season while coming back from his Achilles injury and then needing time to get up to speed could have hurt the Pelicans' chances to keep pace in the loaded Western Conference. ... In some ways, despite the departure of stars, the Pelicans could be better than they were a year ago if only because they will have Mirotic and Randle for a full season, something they did not get from Cousins and would not have this season."
Kawhi Leonard Is East's Best Player
After James' move to the Los Angeles Lakers, all five of last season's All-NBA first-teamers reside in the Western Conference. In fact, only one first-teamer from the past four seasons calls the Eastern Conference home: Kawhi Leonard.
Before a lingering quadriceps injury effectively erased his 2017-18 campaign, he had established himself as perhaps the Association's top two-way talent. He's won a Finals MVP and two Defensive Player of the Year awards, twice finished among the top three in MVP voting and averaged 25.5 points on 48.5/38.0/88.0 shooting two years ago in his last healthy season.
No in-prime player out East has a resume like Leonard's, leading many to crown him the new king of the conference. While his skills and stature both suggest he may deserve that title, the past year created too many questions to endorse his coronation, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explained:
"What if Leonard isn't Leonard anymore? What if the quad injury that cost him all but nine games of the 2017-18 season lingers? What if the disputed talk of a degenerative condition goes from being a worst-case possibility to reality?
"Alternatively, if Leonard was healthy enough to play last year but decided not to out of frustration/anger/whatever, can we be sure he'll buy in with Toronto as a rental? If the guy just spent a year sitting, perhaps partially out of spite, can any team trust him?"
There might not be an abundance of stars in the East, but there are still too many to anoint Leonard as the best. Between Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo and a handful of other elites, it's easier to take the field over a possibly hobbled Leonard (even if he's the best of the bunch at 100 percent).
Verdict: Cautiously Selling
Lakers Will Secure a Top-3 Seed
James hasn't missed the Finals since 2009-10 or the playoffs since 2004-05. With that in mind, some think the combination of his arrival with the growth of the young Lakers could not only snap the organization's five-year postseason drought but also have this squad hosting a first-round series.
"I have the Los Angeles Lakers finishing as a top-three seed in the Western Conference," ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said on First Take. "... The reality of the situation is that LeBron James and the impact that he's going to have I think is going to be profound."
Problem is James could have a profound impact and still not steer the Lakers near a top-three seed. A 10-win improvement would only get their victory total to 45. That would have been the 10th slot last season.
As much as James looks like a miracle worker at times, there are limits to his powers.
Remember, he's never won a title without a superstar sidekick (Dwyane Wade, Irving) and an All-Star third wheel (Chris Bosh, Kevin Love). It's unlikely James will have either in L.A. before next summer at the earliest. Instead, he'll get a group that's light on shooting (29th in three-point percentage), mediocre on defense (tied for 12th) and below average at the other end (22nd).
The Lakers presumably want to run and gun, but James and Rajon Rondo play a more methodical style. Their roster runs counter to what has complemented James before, since they don't have the spacers he needs but do have the ball-dominant playmakers he doesn't. They're also approaching potentially choppy waters with head coach Luke Walton no longer overseeing the developmental project for which he was hired.
Making enough sense of this puzzle to secure a playoff spot will be an accomplishment. Shooting for a top-three seed is begging for disappointment.
Celtics Can Catch the Warriors
Despite an almost silent summer, the Boston Celtics stand as one of the offseason's biggest winners just for getting healthy.
Gordon Hayward feels good enough to posterize people. Irving thinks he's a lock for training camp, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. Both players—All-Stars in their most recent healthy seasons before ankle and knee injuries, respectively—shared the sidelines in April and May, when the Shamrocks fell one win shy of the NBA Finals with Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way.
Those five could be the best quintet this side of the Death Lineup. The bench looks sufficiently stocked behind them. Brad Stevens is one of the few coaches with a legitimate argument for ranking ahead of Golden State's Steve Kerr.
"If any team has the combination of star power, emerging talent and depth to contend with the Warriors, it's the Celtics," Will Gottlieb wrote for Bleacher Report. "If anyone has the defensive versatility to switch with the Warriors and the length to give them problems 1 through 5, it's the Celtics. If anyone has the coach that can outscheme the Warriors, it's the Celtics."
Hot-takers will frame that as Boston has caught up to or passed Golden State. More rational minds will see the difference between the Celtics' being the Warriors' biggest threats and their actually threatening the champs.
And that's fine for the Celtics. They're in position to strike should the Warriors encounter unexpected turbulence, but they're also loaded with enough picks and prospects to potentially time their rise to coincide with Golden State's eventual fall from grace.
Verdict: Selling (For Now)
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.