The Biggest Overreactions 1 Month into the NBA Season
Let us now willingly, and dutifully, overreact to the opening portion of the 2018-19 NBA regular season.
Don't be afraid. Knee-jerk responses are good for the soul, and when packaged responsibly, they are completely and totally necessary.
Small samples are not always the enemy of substance. They can meaningfully confirm suspicions and announce revelations. Not all early-season trends and streaks are temporary.
This exercise is aimed at drawing the most essential conclusions from the most believable fits and starts. It purposely jumps the gun on select issues and situations but does so without veering into inanity.
There is a line between earmarking the Houston Rockets for the lottery (stupid!) and questioning the Utah Jazz's status as postseason mainstays (reasonable!). We're about to toe it.
Note: Overreactions to the race for year-end awards are being excluded, but feel free to peruse these ultra-unexpected MVP candidates.
This Is the KD-Era Warriors' Swan Song
"If those emotions are what caused us to lose, then it's my bad," Green following Golden State's Nov. 15 loss to the Rockets, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater. "But we're not panicking or think[ing] like, 'Oh man, we're not a great team.' We're still the best team in the league, and we're going to win more games, a bunch of games, and go win another championship, and we'll be fine."
Indeed, the Warriors will be fine. They're not fire-sale candidates. Durant has an implicit no-trade clause in his contract and can't be dealt until after Dec. 14, and they're not going to reconcile Green's future before this summer, when he's one year out from free agency and potentially eligible for a supermax extension.
More dysfunctional teams have won championships. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal rattled off three together. The Warriors will probably get another one of their own and complete the three-peat. They're too talented to fail at full strength, and the Western Conference has yet to yield a threat similar to the one Houston posted last season. (More on this in a minute.)
Beyond this season, though, no one should bet on the Durant-era Warriors remaining a thing. He was considered a flight risk before 2018-19 ever tipped off—a free-agent-to-be with eyes for a hapless situation, like that of the New York Knicks, he could revive and use to buttress his legacy in a way joining Golden State mid-dynasty failed to do. His altercation with Green only pushes him further out the door.
This was not another lover's spat Durant will just forget. Green called him a "b---h," according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. That's not something one says purely in the heat of the moment, least of all someone as deliberate as Green. This is the same guy credited with recruiting Durant almost immediately after the Warriors fell in the 2016 Finals. He knows what he's doing.
Talent tends to figure things out, and Golden State is flush with it. But this issue goes deeper. It is more ingrained. The Warriors are clearly worried about losing Durant. Nothing else explains their awkward, if ineffective, actions over the past year or so, as Sam Amick outlined for The Athletic.
Ascribing that much importance to Durant's free agency makes them vulnerable. Again: The Warriors are a championship formality, a dynasty without a budding equal, and he might've been window-shopping his next team before Green's tongue-lashing. If anything, it feels like they've already lost Durant and that reacting to the last drama as they did increases the likelihood they lose Green by way of trade demand, too.
Blow Up These Teams Immediately
Calling for the Wizards to blow it up isn't so much a drastic response to the start of this season anymore. It's something that needs to happen.
Entertaining deconstruction is different from holding a fire sale, but even loosely confronting the beginning of the end is progress for the Wizards. It shouldn't be too long before they fully recognize the hopelessness of their situation.
Wall's four-year, $170.9 million extension doesn't kick in until next season, at which time he, Beal and Porter will be earning a combined $92.5 million. Tack on Ian Mahinmi's 2019-20 salary ($15.5 million), Dwight Howard's player option, and scheduled forays into free agency for Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. (restricted), Austin Rivers and Tomas Satoransky (restricted), and Washington has no hope of keeping the band together without paying approximately up-the-wazoo dollars in luxury-tax penalties.
Perhaps the Wizards could warm up to remaining in financial ruin if they were winning. They're not. They're 29th in defensive efficiency, 25th in net rating and closer to the league-worst Cleveland Cavaliers than the Eastern Conference's No. 8 seed.
Dismantling this roster won't be easy. Far from it. But the Wizards need to try.
What do you get when you transfer Washington's irredeemable payroll to a franchise with better leadership and a superior culture?
Miami is just as difficult to tear down as Washington, and maybe even harder. Most of the Wizards' steepest contracts won't require a sweetener to offload. They should be able to flip Porter and Wall for long-term cap relief. The Heat don't have that going for them.
Josh Richardson is a bona fide asset, but trading a 25-year-old on a bargain-bin extension doesn't track with the bigger picture. Goran Dragic, who holds a player option for next season, should be a cinch to deal. After them, Miami is light on movable pieces.
James Johnson (three years, $46 million), Tyler Johnson (two years, $38.5 million), Dion Waiters (three years, $36.3 million) and Hassan Whiteside (two years, $52.5 million) are all earning comfortably above market rate. Justise Winslow will be right there with them when his three-year, $39 million extension takes effect next year. Kelly Olynyk (three years, $39.3 million) is closer to even money, but not great value.
If the Heat aren't offering to take back more expensive salaries in return for minimal pick and prospect compensation, they'll have a tough go of setting themselves up for a rebuild. That shouldn't deter them. It looked like they could bide their time for a year or two, potentially get lucky in the postseason and then confront their future a little ways down the line. They don't have that kind of pleasant delay in them anymore.
A gradual overhaul is more enticing than an exhaustive chase for seventh or eighth place in the East. And if team president Pat Riley won't lean into another project, then, well, Miami has to start thinking about finding someone who will.
Swinging at low-hanging fruit isn't as fulfilling as you might think.
Charlotte has been fun to watch under head coach James Borrego. Small-ball lineups have helped diversify the offense. Prior to his right ankle sprain, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist found his niche as a reserve power forward and occasional center. Rookie Miles Bridges is good. Cody Zeller is still Cody Zeller. Kemba Walker is having a career year for the fourth consecutive season.
And yet, while the Hornets have slightly elevated their ceiling with Borrego, their floor isn't that much higher. They're firmly in the East's playoff hunt now, but they're not above retreating into the lottery. And though not every team can measure itself against annual title contention, this franchise is once again strained to pursue a sixth-place finish in its own conference.
With Walker slated for free agency this summer and their books clogged through at least 2019-20, the Hornets should be open to building something more. So, obviously, they're not.
Owner Michael Jordan is "hellbent" on re-signing Walker, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. And hey: He sort of should be. Kemba Walker is really, really, ridiculously good, and the Hornets deserve major ups for sticking with him years ago. Remember: There were people who thought his four-year, $48 million extension was fated to be an albatross, not one of the NBA's best contracts ever.
But making hard choices is part and parcel of responsible basketball operations. Paying near-max money for the back end of a top-25 player's prime isn't enviable without a clear path out of mediocrity. The Hornets have more silver linings than Miami or Washington, but they don't have that. And to get ahead of the inevitable "They just beat Boston!" rallying cries: A mid-November win over the Celtics changes nothing.
The Western Conference Playoff Race Is 14 Deep
TIRED: The Sacramento Kings won't dance around .500 forever. Injuries will eventually derail the season for a team or four. Surprise sellers and tankers always emerge!
WIRED: Oh-me-oh-my the Western Conference is batcrap absurd, and 14 teams are going to spend the year actively trying to win games!
Elements of this overreaction will even out in drips and drabs. Squint hard enough, and we can already see which squads will consider joining the Phoenix Suns in plumbing rock bottom. (Worth noting: The Suns are sucking without trolling for losses. They are inadvertent art at its best.)
Outside playoff hopes aren't going to seduce the Dallas Mavericks, who owe a top-five protected pick to the Atlanta Hawks. Both the Los Angeles Clippers (lottery protected) and Memphis Grizzlies (top-eight protected) owe first-rounders to the Celtics they could try to keep if they tumble down the standings.
Sacramento is a feel-good story and has no incentive to tank with its draft selection headed to Boston or Philadelphia, but management wants head coach Dave Joerger to show an even deeper allegiance to the youth movement, per Haynes. The Minnesota Timberwolves will have to explore a late-season tank job if they don't bridge the gap between them and the eight seed in the post-Jimmy Butler era.
Still, the absence of certifiable loss enthusiasts has created a dynamic that's weird even for the West.
Struggling playoff formalities no longer have open-ended access to a postseason slot with the Clippers, Grizzlies and first-place Portland Trail Blazers staking their claim to playoff contention. This won't rattle, say, the Rockets. They're considered safe, because James Harden and Chris Paul won't shoot junk around the rim forever.
The same cannot be said about others. The Jazz can't hit a free throw or cobble together a reliable offensive pecking order. The San Antonio Spurs are, quite literally, slow-playing their way to league-average defense and offense but don't have the proven depth to assure themselves of either. The New Orleans Pelicans miss Elfrid Payton and have one of the NBA's most fragile wing rotations. The Los Angeles Lakers are still asking LeBron James to win with a bunch of kiddies. The Oklahoma City Thunder remain combustible.
There's a level of "Been there, done that" to this chaos. The West is famous for its razor-thin margins. But the room for error this year is dangerously narrow. Brace yourself for more than one unexpected casualty.
The Lakers Have a Chance to Reach the Western Conference Finals
Welcome to the flip side of the Western Conference's disorder: It doesn't have an obvious second in command.
That honor was sewn up early by the Rockets last season. They finished with the league's best record and posed a legitimate threat to the Warriors' reign.
Golden State no longer has to worry about a co-equal in the West. The Blazers and Denver Nuggets are the only teams placing in the top 10 of offensive and defensive efficiency. Both could be for real—they probably are—and it wouldn't matter. Neither holds the cachet of the 2017-18, 65-win Rockets. Much like the Warriors, they were a team that didn't appear beatable; not over the course of a seven-game series.
In the absence of that historically good No. 2, the West is, for the first time in a while, inviting a sleeper conference finals pick.
Any team that makes the playoffs and avoids Golden State through the first two rounds has a feasible shot at winning both series. Don't fight it. Go ahead and try spotting the other best-of-seven formality one more time. You won't find it.
This works out for the Lakers and LeBron James more than anyone else—and not just because they're the Lakers and LeBron James.
Had you polled anyone who didn't bleed purple and gold before the season, they would have told you Los Angeles was waaay more likely to miss the playoffs than make the Western Conference Finals. Some blowhard dunces (me) even wondered whether fleeing the East meant LeBron had signed away his rights to making the conference finals, let alone the actual Finals, ever again.
No one's saying the Lakers are locks to win two playoff series, or even to make the postseason. At least, they shouldn't be. But if the Warriors regain control of first place (they should) and the Lakers avoid finishing fourth, fifth or eighth, LeBron will have a not-so-inconceivable crack at making his ninth straight conference finals appearance. Cheers to the wacky, wild, wonderful, inscrutable West!
Khris Middleton Is Getting the Max This Summer—and Tobias Harris Might, Too
The notion of Khris Middleton and near-max money isn't new. ESPN.com's Zach Lowe rang the bell just before the start of the season.
"Middleton is the ideal second banana on a good team, and third banana on a great one," he wrote. "Every team that strikes out on the biggest names will come calling. The Bucks want to retain Middleton, and if he has a good year, they will have to pay up. Keep an eye on Philadelphia and Indiana."
What's unfolded thus far demands we take this one step further. Middleton isn't a near-max candidate; he's a full-max lock. And Tobias Harris, in terms of market value, is the new Middleton.
Whether either of them is worth that coin is arguable. Viewing them as a second or third wheel despite monstrous pay grades only provides so much cover. Shelling out superstar money to non-superstars is a great way to get Wizards'd.
Long-term repercussions tend to fall by the wayside in aggressive markets, though. Next summer won't compare to 2016's spending binge, but roughly half the league will have the capacity to carve out significant spending power. And some of the most flexible situations hail from glamour markets—namely New York (Nets, Knicks) and Los Angeles (Clippers, Lakers).
This wouldn't mean as much to Harris or Middleton if the superstar ranks were teeming with goners, but they're not. Klay Thompson isn't leaving the Warriors. Kevin Durant (player option) might, but his list of preferred landing spots figures to only include glitzy markets that won't make him look like a bandwagoner. Clippers, Knicks and Nets fans are free to swoon.
Jimmy Butler (player option) is expected to re-sign with the Sixers, according to Wojnarowski. Kyrie Irving (player option) has declared his loyalty to the Celtics. Kawhi Leonard remains a flight risk, but the Toronto Raptors are so good he wouldn't be able to spin his departure as a basketball decision—or, for that matter, a financial one.
All of which sets the stage for a hyper-volatile consolation-prize market. Many of the teams that get spurned by the marquee draws will turn to the best remaining alternatives. A select few smaller markets, such as Indiana or Utah, might go overboard right out of the gate to maximize their appeal.
Both Harris and Middleton will be near the top of every team's Plan B. And with the Milwaukee Bucks less inclined to let Middleton walk over dollars and cents—call it the Giannis Antetokounmpo effect—Harris could wind up soliciting near-max or max overtures from more than one, two, even three teams.
Surprise Should-Be Trade Candidates
Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
Abandoning ship on Markelle Fultz isn't easy. The Sixers gave up the No. 3 pick (Jayson Tatum) in 2017 and this year's Kings first-rounder (probably) to get him. Trading him now is an admission of failure on a grand scale.
At the same time, keeping him toes the line of irrational. He isn't turning into a semblance of the player Philadelphia thought it drafted without fixing his jumper and reinventing his offensive morale. And it'll be hard for him to do that now while he's coming off the bench and losing minutes to TJ McConnell following the Jimmy Butler trade.
Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Playing Gordon Hayward off the bench for a Nov. 19 loss to the Hornets is not the impetus for this inclusion. The Celtics have the luxury of bringing him along slowly. They've been less than superhuman to start the year, but their depth remains a potent weapon.
"It was more about getting Gordon in the right groups, for him," head coach Brad Stevens said about the switch, per Celtics Wire's Nick Friar. "We're still going to be a work in progress, so, obviously, nothing [is] set in stone with that. ... Although it doesn't change his minutes or rotations as much, but that's a good sign. I think that we're probably not done tweaking the lineups."
Again: This is fine. But the Celtics aren't paying Hayward max money to be a project or reserve. They have to view his struggles in more permanent terms if they've yet to dissipate by the quarter-pole—especially with Al Horford (player option), Kyrie Irving (player option), Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier (restricted) ticketed for free agency this summer, and particularly with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum each becoming extension-eligible over the next two offseasons.
Finding someone to take the $98.1 million Hayward is owed through 2020-21, including this year, is a tall order. It shouldn't be impossible. Capped-out teams desperate for talent infusions might roll the dice. (Hi, Miami!) Any squad that senses it's falling out of this summer's superstar free-agent tier could also be open to taking a risk.
Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns
Selling off a top-five pick during his sophomore season is typically taboo, but the Suns already seem out on Josh Jackson. The nuts and bolts of his offensive game are discouraging, and he's struggling to get consistent run on what is the league's second-worst team.
For now, Jackson retains the mystique incumbent of every high-end draft pick—the allure of the unknown. He closed last season with high-volume scoring and playmaking, albeit in inefficient fashion.
That shine won't last forever. If the Suns don't see him as an operable fit inside a wing rotation that includes Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and TJ Warren, the time to cut their losses is now.
D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
With so much cap space flying around over the summer, the market is bound to deliver some shocking overpays. D'Angelo Russell is a semi-solid bet to be one of them.
Not only does he retain the curb appeal of a No. 1 scorer, but the Nets could be due for a taste of their own medicine. General manager Sean Marks has forced a handful of other teams to overpay their own restricted free agents by crafting extravagant offer sheets. This could be the year someone else returns the favor.
The Nets are smarter than to match a bad deal. It helps that they have playmaking superiors in Spencer Dinwiddie, also a free agent, and Caris LeVert, and that Russell is hardly a sure-thing cornerstone.
Regardless, losing him for nothing shouldn't be on the table. Brooklyn could make interesting headway when combining his salary with some of their other expiring pacts.
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks
Dennis Smith Jr. is not a bust. Assigning such a label to 20-year-olds is too hot even for this exercise. But it is fair to wonder about his big-picture fit in Dallas.
Luka Doncic is already the Mavericks' best player and looks like a future MVP candidate. Taking the ball out of his hands will forever be the wrong decision. Smith has shown he can work off his teenage running mate—he's shooting 40 percent on catch-and-fire threes—but Dallas needs him to be interchangeable with Doncic rather than his complement.
Right now, Smith doesn't have the feel of a primary offensive weapon. His finishing around the rim is erratic. He's hitting under 57 percent of his attempts inside three feet and converting sub-50 percent of his layups. His pull-up jumper is a work in progress, and the most reliable parts of his game are tied to his athleticism.
Once more: The Mavericks needn't desperately gauge his trade value. But their half-court offense is almost 11 points per 100 possessions worse when he's in the game, according to Cleaning the Glass, and they have a more natural all-everything heir in place with Doncic. If they can peddle Smith as a could-be centerpiece to a rebuilding team like Orlando or Phoenix, the return might be worth a premature divorce.