The biggest domino of the NBA offseason has yet to fall, as the basketball futures of Toronto, Los Angeles, and perhaps the league as a whole are hinging on Kawhi Leonard‘s decision.
But while we wait for the Board Man to get paid, here are some takeaways from what’s already been a chaotic start to the summer.
Warriors owe KD more than he’ll ever owe them
Joe Lacob’s statement that no Warrior will wear No. 35 as long as he owns the team was met with some laughter, given that Kevin Durant only played three seasons for a franchise that’s been around since the dawn of the Association 73 years ago.
But the truth is that retiring Durant’s number is the least Lacob’s team can do.
Yes, Golden State was a 73-win juggernaut with a title and two Finals appearances before Durant came over from Oklahoma City, while the soul of the franchise’s golden era lives within Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, but Durant’s arrival lifted the team into another stratosphere altogether.
The Warriors were already great, but Durant made them inevitable. Curry’s shooting may have warped the game forever, but it was Durant who carried Golden State home in the 2017 and ’18 Finals, outdueling LeBron James and a historically potent Cavs offense the first time around. And it was with Durant on the court for 12 minutes of the 2019 Finals that the Warriors resembled their most potent selves before both superstar and dynasty came crumbling down.
Say what you will about Durant’s hypersensitivity, but he delivered for Golden State, averaging 25.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.5 blocks on 49-38-88 shooting over three regular seasons in the Bay. He poured in 29.6 points per game on a remarkable true shooting percentage of 64.2 in 48 playoff appearances. And having taken part in just one practice after a month on the sidelines – with his Achilles on the brink of rupturing – Durant returned to score 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting in those 12 sparkling minutes of Finals action against the Raptors.
The Warriors got two more championships and three more Finals appearances out of Durant. In turn, KD found the postseason success he’d craved and added two Finals MVPs to his individual resume. But in the end, he didn’t find the satisfaction or the validation he was after.
Along the way, Durant received more criticism for joining the powerhouse Warriors than the team ever did for recruiting him after losing to James in 2016. He was mocked by Green in a public feud that will never be forgotten, and he was teased by management and ownership at last year’s championship parade. He ultimately blew out his Achilles in an attempt to play through a calf injury that left many unanswered questions about how the Warriors took care of the pending free agent.
Now, Durant’s departure leaves Lacob’s franchise forever indebted to him. Ensuring no Warrior will ever wear his number is a good place to start.
Don’t count out the Warriors just yet, though
With all that said, rule the Warriors out at your own peril.
The reigning five-time West champs brought Kevon Looney back on a steal of a three-year deal before adding the ever-intriguing Willie Cauley-Stein, and while the trades and money associated with acquiring Russell don’t make much sense, the 23-year-old guard does give the Warriors another credible scoring threat to take pressure off Curry.
If Thompson returns with enough time left in the season and if Russell merely avoids regression, Curry and Green should have more than enough at their disposal to keep Golden State in the thick of Western Conference contention.
The West remains wild
Leonard choosing the Lakers would give the West one overwhelming favorite, but either way, the conference’s playoff race should be as deep and competitive as ever.
With or without Leonard, the Lakers will join the Warriors, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Thunder, and perhaps even the Spurs as teams with legitimate Finals aspirations, at least internally. That’s eight teams, and it doesn’t even factor in the Clippers, who could jump to the top of the heap if Leonard comes aboard.
The Kings, Pelicans, Mavericks, and Timberwolves, meanwhile, all have a path to playoff contention if the ball bounces their way.
So, with 13 of 15 teams looking to compete, the regular season should take on even greater meaning, with one injury, one losing streak, or one ill-timed bout of disruptive chemistry issues meaning the difference between championship contention and a trip to the lottery. That goes double if Leonard ends up anywhere but the Lakers.
Grizzlies, Suns are bad teams having very different summers
You’ll notice the only two West teams we haven’t mentioned are Memphis and Phoenix.
But while the Suns and Grizzlies are both practically assured of missing the playoffs in the short term, the cellar-dwellers have gone about their offseasons in very different ways.
The Grizzlies seem to have embraced a prudent rebuild. After dealing Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, they dealt fellow franchise icon Mike Conley for a package of players and picks meant to kick-start that rebuild, used one of those picks to select NBA-ready big man Brandon Clarke only hours after drafting potential franchise point guard Ja Morant, and took Andre Iguodala’s contract off the Warriors’ hands in order to acquire a lightly protected future first-rounder.
Additionally, reports that the Grizzlies prefer to trade Iguodala rather than buy out the veteran are yet another indication that the organization understands the value of asset-hoarding given its current position in the NBA landscape.
Meanwhile, the Suns remain an enigma; a perpetually rebuilding team that seems married to neither a long-term plan nor short-term success.
On draft night, Phoenix turned T.J. Warren, the No. 6 overall pick (Jarrett Culver), the 32nd pick (KZ Okpala), and a 2020 first-rounder into Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, the No. 11 pick, the No. 24 pick, and cash. Next, they used the 11th pick to go way off the board and select Cameron Johnson, a 23-year-old with a history of hip issues.
Signing Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51-million contract at least gives Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton the type of point guard stability Phoenix’s youngsters desperately need, while spending $5 million per year on Frank Kaminsky‘s shooting isn’t the worst gamble in the world, but giving up on Melton and Jackson in what amounted to a salary dump is a terrible look.
The Grizzlies will be bad next season, but in the span of three weeks, they appear to have developed a clear plan for the future that the Suns have spent nearly a decade tripping over themselves to figure out.
The Hornets are a gong show
I touched on this in a winners and losers column earlier this week, but it’s tough to describe how incompetent the Hornets appear at every turn.
Charlotte, which wasn’t prepared to move pending star UFA Kemba Walker at the trade deadline even though it knew he wanted a max contract, also wasn’t prepared to offer Walker that max contract in free agency. The Hornets then spent $58 million on Terry Rozier, but not before declining the $4.4-million qualifying offer on Kaminsky despite turning down a massive offer of four first-rounders for the right to draft him just four years ago.
East will be top-heavy
The bottom of the East playoff race could get depressing, and there’s a lot of mediocrity to be found beyond the conference’s top two or three teams, but those two or three might be better than any West challenger.
If Leonard re-signs with the Raptors, Toronto should enter the season as the favorite to repeat. If the reigning Finals MVP heads west, the Bucks and 76ers will be as well-positioned as any team to claim the Raptors’ throne.
A whirlwind start to free agency left Philadelphia with an unorthodox – yet formidable – lineup featuring Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson. The offensive fit of that quintet is a major question mark, but the Sixers should be a defensive terror with enough star talent to put them in the title mix.
Atlantic Division star power … and the Knicks
Divisions have become rightfully meaningless in the NBA playoff race, but it’s still a trip to consider that a division that was mocked for years as the “Titanic” now houses the defending champion (and potentially still Leonard) along with Durant, Kyrie Irving, Embiid, Simmons, and Walker.
That’s a stunning tally of star power, with just the right mix of comedic relief provided by James Dolan’s Knicks, who want you to believe they weren’t prepared to max out an injured Durant and that they pulled themselves out of the Leonard sweepstakes. This organization truly believes we’re as foolish as they are.
Don Riley understands the game
Speaking of star power, no executive and franchise seem to understand the value of that power quite like Pat Riley and the Miami Heat.
A middling team in salary-cap hell somehow maneuvered its way into signing Jimmy Butler to a max deal through 2023, and suddenly, all feels right again with Riley’s Heat.
Miami may not be better off in the short term, has surrendered a concerning number of future picks, and if Butler ages poorly, could regret committing more than $37 million to him in his age-33 season. But Riley knows that contention and relevance in the NBA begin and end with star talent, and preferably an abundance of it. That has to start somewhere, and the Heat weren’t going anywhere as a star-less team hovering around .500.
Regardless of where they end up in the standings now, the Heat have a star, and they’ll have Butler, Riley, and South Beach to pitch when the next great free-agent class arrives in 2021 – which just so happens to be when Miami could open up maximum cap space.
Riley’s best days may be behind him, but the man earned his reputation as the NBA’s Godfather for a reason.