LeBron and Kawhi Aside: NBA's Underrated Storylines That Will Impact 2018-19
If there's a quota on digital ink spilled and talking-head syllables spoken, we have hit it for Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, two men at the eye of the 2018 NBA offseason's hurricane.
When guys like that do something newsworthy—like change teams and influence the power balance in both conferences—we get our fill of hot takes, speculative deep dives and everything in between. So we're ditching them for a moment, taking a detour to appreciate some other summertime storylines that'll affect the upcoming season.
We'll hit key personnel moves, schematic trends and even the financial side of the league, looking for narratives that will drive NBA discussion and even shape team-building plans this year.
Carmelo Anthony's Fit in Houston
The stakes are different for Carmelo Anthony in Houston.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were good, but Melo's performance now affects a serious contender—one that lost key two-way wing depth. The Houston Rockets replaced Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute with James Ennis and Anthony, the latter of whom flopped in OKC by not providing the one thing everyone assumed he still could: reliable offense.
Melo posted the lowest true shooting percentage (50.3 percent) of his career with the Thunder and was targeted relentlessly on defense in the postseason.
Russell Westbrook isn't an easy guy to play with, though, and if Anthony is ever going to become Olympic Melo, Houston is a good place to finally do it. There, he'll get more open looks from deep than he's ever seen. If he bumps up his 37.3 percent accuracy rate on catch-and-shoot threes, he can still provide value on offense.
If, however, Anthony is the same player he was with the Thunder, it's difficult to make the case he should see any minutes that matter in Houston. The Rockets remain focused on dethroning the Golden State Warriors, and last season's version of Anthony would short-circuit Houston's sound defensive schemes and gum up the works on the other end.
Anthony was direct in criticizing his diminished role during his exit interview with the Thunder. Will that stance change, giving the Rockets a useful weapon against second units? Or will we see a repeat of last year that risks scuttling a true title threat, ultimately forcing the Rockets to search for a Plan B?
The Ticking Clock in Minnesota
Jimmy Butler turned down a four-year, $100 million extension from the Minnesota Timberwolves—a wise move for the non-risk-averse, as his potential payout in unrestricted free agency could be bigger when the salary cap rises. Still, Butler's decision not to commit to the Wolves is an illustration of the potential for trouble with the team this year.
That's because his decision may not be strictly financial. There's also Butler's reported dissatisfaction with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to consider. If there's friction between a team's best players, it's difficult to be confident in chemistry. And if Butler is objectively right about the lack of total commitment from Towns and Minnesota's other young players, that's a problem all its own—one that might mean this Wolves core is never going to compete at a serious level.
Towns also hasn't signed an extension, and he has to be wondering what's up after Wiggins, a vastly inferior player, got his own five-year, $146.5 million deal last offseason. It's faulty logic to say everyone better than Wiggins deserves a max extension just because he got one (there'd be hundreds of them floating around if that were the standard), but from Towns' perspective, Minnesota's hesitation has to be annoying. And maybe a little alienating.
Oh! And Tom Thibodeau is still task-mastering away, sure to marginalize younger players and lean on vets he trusts to the detriment of the team. You have to wonder whether his approach to minute demands and rotations, growing more outdated by the second, is going to stir up mutinous thoughts sooner than later.
The Wolves have the talent to return to the playoffs, but this offseason might also be a prelude to collapse.
The Looming Cash-In of 2019
Fueled by a lack of available cash and the allure of a richer 2019 payout, about half of all contracts signed during 2018 free agency were one-year deals.
With so many guys signed up to play in places they don't necessarily plan to stay, and with so many approaching 2018-19 like a stopgap until they sign longer contracts next summer, what might the transactional trends of this upcoming season look like?
It seems reasonable to guess there will be more player movement (via trades and buyouts) than usual. The expiring contract still has value to teams looking for cleaner books in 2019-20, which could produce an uptick in late-season rentals and cap-clearing trades. Might teams be quicker to flip newly signed parts who aren't fitting in? Might they feel urgency to sell themselves as a long-term destination to players they only managed to lock up for one season?
The dynamics are going to be a little odd across the board this year.
It's also worth wondering how much greater the challenge of establishing culture and chemistry may be. If a roster is populated with more short-timers than ever, buy-in could be harder to secure. And if teammates don't like one another, there's less incentive to work through differences if one or both parties know they're going to be elsewhere soon enough.
It's easy to isolate situations of specific interest—Julius Randle in New Orleans, Tyreke Evans in Indy, Trevor Ariza in Phoenix, and even DeAndre Jordan in Dallas—but this feels like a legitimate league-wide issue.
And that's to say nothing of all the big names nearing free agency after signing longer deals in offseasons past: Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Butler, Leonard, etc.
Throw them into the mix, and you have even more potential for intrigue.
What's Up with Switching?
The Rockets did everything they could to build a switching defense that would take down the Warriors, and it almost worked. If not for an epic cold spell in a decisive Game 7 (Chris Paul's injury didn't help, either), the Rockets might be circling a ring ceremony on their 2018-19 schedules.
Oddly, after coming that close, Houston seemed to deprioritize what worked so well in its defensive scheme. Ariza and Mbah a Moute left, replaced by James Ennis at the minimum and Anthony. It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Rockets' defensive capabilities will be greater with this new personnel.
OK, so that's just one team, and Houston had tax concerns to consider in its offseason planning. Maybe switching is still on the upswing, and we will see more copycats adopting the only strategy that produced much success against the Warriors.
Except the kinds of players who would seem to fit best in those schemes didn't get treated like desirable commodities in free agency. Sure, Ariza got a fat one-year deal for $15 million, but Ennis probably should have gotten significantly more—in both years and dollars. What about Treveon Graham, another three-and-D option who could hold his own against more than one position? He inked a minimum contract with the Brooklyn Nets.
Mbah a Moute got a chunk of the mid-level. Marcus Smart was restricted, which complicated matters. But he can guard four positions, and all it got him was four years and $52 million. Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope don't quite fit the oversized, switchy wing profile, but they're quality defenders who'd deserve time against top-tier teams, and neither got more than one guaranteed year.
The cool market explains some of this, but it's also possible switch-heavy defenses aren't going to be quite as trendy as they seemed. At the very least, it's weird that the kinds of players who'd fit well in that system didn't get overvalued in free agency. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened.
Maybe this leads to panicky trades down the road as contenders realize they're not equipped to handle the Warriors. Or maybe it means we're in for a reversion to more conventional defensive approaches. Either way, it'll be interesting to see how the rise (or fall) of last year's defensive schemes play out.
Did Everyone Drafting a Center Screw Up?
The draft counts as part of the offseason, which gives us the opportunity to hit a fascinating topic with major long-range repercussions.
In short, are we sure every team that used a high lottery pick on a big man didn't blow it?
Look at Clint Capela, perhaps the most modern conventionally sized center, getting squeezed by the Rockets for much less than his potential max. Note Towns' lack of an extension. There are several factors influencing those situations, but they underscore the idea that centers—including the best switch defenders and the elite offensive weapons—aren't being treated like star wings and guards.
This raises the possibility of a league-wide shift in talent evaluation. As teams get smaller, more skilled and more dependent on players who can hold their own at several positions, centers may not be worth nearly as much as they once were.
We have seen this coming for a while, but if it was so obvious, why were five of the top seven picks in the 2018 draft big men with mostly conventional skill sets?
Maybe the tools teams use to evaluate prospects need to be scrapped. Maybe a wing with a smidge of rotation potential is a more sensible pick than a center who can do everything you'd want at the position...by 2010 standards.
You could argue Al Horford is the Boston Celtics' best player, and Joel Embiid may hold that title in Philadelphia. But the Warriors and Rockets are guard-driven enterprises. The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers may soon be playing their best wings (Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James) at the 5. More and more, big men are role-fillers at best.
What are the chances, then, that Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter or Mo Bamba develop into the best player on a title threat? Almost zero, right? Not in today's NBA, and not even if all four reach the peak of their potential.
There's a good chance we look back at the 2018 draft and remember it as the last one in which multiple teams made the mistake of pinning their franchise hopes to a center.