By Chris Mitchell
Before the 2019 NBA free agency even started, it had the chance to dramatically reshape the face of the league. With names like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard all out in the wild, teams with enough cap space could sign not just one, but two of these superstars and instantly become a serious playoff contender. Now that we’re just over a week removed from the initial avalanche of moves and a stunner-type decision from Kawhi Leonard, it’s time to look at some of the biggest winners and losers so far this offseason, adjusted for their free agency moves.
THE L.A. CLIPPERS
The term blockbuster trade has a tendency to be a tad bit overused, but what the Clippers pulled off over the weekend definitely lives up to the magnitude of the term. Not only were the Clippers able to bag Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but due to the one request he made of Jerry West and the front office as a prerequisite to signing, the Clippers also added Paul George to the roster in exchange for several years’ worth of first round picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Clippers already had some solid depth thanks to players like Landry Shamet, Montrezl Hertzel and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, but now the Clippers have perhaps the most fearsome starting five in the West with potential to be killers on the wing on both sides of the ball.
Boned Index: The West is the Clippers’ for the taking. Barring any serious injury, they should have a good shot at being in the Finals next year, and set themselves up for similar levels of success going forwards. Whether or not their dynamic duo can stay healthy for a whole season remains to be seen, but if the Clippers pull it off it’ll be a move that fans will be seeing the after-effects of for years. As always, never count out the logo.
THE L.A. LAKERS
So … you kind of got played by Kawhi Leonard. Not only did he not sign with the Lakers like everyone, including Rob Pelinka, thought, Leonard kept them hanging around long enough to miss out on some good value signings at positions they desperately needed. What did they do in response? Signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to two years for $16 million. Brought JaVale McGee, Alex Caruso and Rondo back. Signed Demarcus Cousins to about as minimum as the league minimum can get. Missing out on filling out that max slot for a big impact player or using that money to get several really solid role players is going to sting, but it doesn’t immediately take the Lakers out of the playoff conversation, especially after all that talk about them forming another Big 3.
Boned Index: Any team with Lebron James and Anthony Davis is going to be threatening not just in the regular season, but the playoffs as well. As is proven for the last two or three Lebron-led Cavaliers squads, it’s just a matter of getting there. Good news is, you signed Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Troy Daniels, all of whom can shoot or at the very least play some defense. At the end of the day though, you’re still stuck with a lack of depth on a team that’s going to require some load management for the big stars, which makes this potential playoff team a house of cards that can’t afford a stiff breeze.
THE OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Bad news: Paul George is gone about 18 months after he signed an extension (happy belated Paul George Day, by the way) and Russell Westbrook and Nas threw him a party for staying in OKC. After two years of early ejections from the playoffs, PG13 decided a more optimal way out would be to join Kawhi Leonard in L.A., and somehow managed to make Sam Presti look like a total pushover in the process (though that may not be far from the truth). In addition to that, the Thunder has started fielding trade offers from teams interested in Russell Westbrook. That’s right Thunder fans, strap yourselves in because it’s time for a rebuilding period. This is the good news: What better way to kick off a rebuild than to own an insane amount of draft capital? Because that’s exactly what they got from the Clippers, including the rising star from Kentucky, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Whatever haul they get for Russell Westbrook, if they so choose to trade him, will also probably be pretty hefty, so more picks and short-term contract players are also on the way. If they strike on someone good, Thunder fans can take solace in knowing that Presti isn’t the type of general manager to just deal away talent as the wind blows, so long as you don’t look at his resumé that is.
Boned Index: Thunder fans won’t have to worry about the playoffs for a good deal of time now that Paul George and potentially Russell Westbrook are out the door. But hey, you got draft picks you can horde if you don’t want to do any big-time trades, because that has never backfired in today’s NBA. Moving on …
THE BOSTON CELTICS
Well, it turns out Kyrie Irving wasn’t the bonafide leader to finally take the home-grown Celtics squad to the Finals. After a full season of cryptic press conferences and subtle jabs at fellow teammates, the Celtics more or less helped Kyrie pack on his way out the door to Brooklyn. To plug up the hole at the point guard position, the Celtics bagged Kemba Walker, who’s fresh off his best season so far and his third All-Star appearance. He’ll be in charge of a squad that’s maybe stagnated a little bit this season but is still formidable (they made it to the ECF just two years ago, after all) and much more talented than any team he had in Charlotte during his eight-year career. What should worry the Celtics is the frontcourt that’s now missing an Al Horford-sized hole that they elected to fill with … Enes Kanter. But hey, at least they don’t have to worry about paying Terry Rozier.
Boned Index: The Celtics didn’t get much worse, but they didn’t get a whole lot better either. In a conference loaded with guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Mitchell Robinson and now Al Horford, the Celtics didn’t really do a stellar job of bolstering that frontcourt. Hayward will probably be healthier and the young core they gained will still be solid, but in the NBA Playoffs Arms Race, you’ve got to be at least a little disappointed that the Celtics weren’t able to be major players in these superstar sweepstakes.
THE CHAROLETTE HORNETS
Well, you let Kemba Walker walk straight to Boston because you didn’t want to cough up the extra $3 million you would have needed to tack on to whatever max contract you were going to give him. At this point though, eight years into his career and you still haven’t been able to provide the proper pieces around him or even a player on his level or greater to help turn this bucket of bolts into a playoff contender. It seems somewhat by mercy that you let him walk to a place where he could actually contend. So, with the Kemba Walker era officially over, who’s the big free agent signing that’ll usher in this new Miles Bridges/Malik Monk/Whoever era of Hornets basketball? Oh, it’s Terry Rozier. For three years and $56 million? Oy.
Boned Index: The good news is Miles Bridges and Malik Monk still have the potential to be pretty good and Terry Rozier is only 25, but after that…yeah, MJ is still going to have his work cut out for him if he wants to make the Hornets an actual competitive basketball team. Good luck!
THE NEW YORK KNICKS
After half a season boasting of enough salary cap space to sign two max players (preferably guys like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant), you didn’t get the superstar you wanted. Whether or not the lack of big money moves had a lot to do with Kevin Durant rupturing his Achilles in the Finals remains to be seen, but it still makes you all and your ownership look like a bunch of chumps. So now what? Well, instead of bloviating that the big names will come play for the Knicks because it’s New York, you decided to take a page or two out of Brooklyn’s playbook and take your time to develop young, home-grown talent. To do this, you signed Julius Randle, an up-and-comer who would have looked really nice playing with Porzingis, but will still complement rising star and shot-blocking prodigy Mitchell Robinson pretty nicely. You got some veteran talent for the frontcourt in Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis to help develop Mitch and also maybe get him to utilize a jump shot. You got some veteran shooters in Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington to space the court out for Mitch and RJ Barrett, who you got with the third overall pick in this year’s draft. You also signed Elfrid Payton which, if I’m Frank Ntilikina, would make me really start to feel the heat under my seat right about now.
Boned Index: The good news is you’ll probably win more than 17 games this year. All your free agent signings also have player options around the time of the next big free agency period in a couple of years, so you maintain that cap flexibility. Yeah, maybe you should have taken bad contracts for picks like *cough* the Clippers, but at the end of the day, you’re still in a pretty good position to, eventually, make your case to be a go-to for superstars by letting the product speak for itself. And you got some draft capital in case you’re ahead of schedule and want to make a trade deadline splash! All you have to do is be patient. Oh, and make Jim Dolan sell the team.
THE BROOKLYN NETS
CONGRATULATIONS, you’re no longer the bridesmaids of New York basketball. After several grueling years following the failed Big Three campaign and not owning your own draft picks, you took the long, hard road to building a potential playoff contender and actually made it there last year! Now you have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant! Granted, it’s a post-Achilles tear Kevin Durant, but anything close to 70% or 60% of Kevin Durant is pretty darn good, and Kyrie can still get buckets like he owns the place, so don’t let anyone tell you this doesn’t have the potential to be the fiercest bucket-getting duo in the East. Once both players are able to play on the court at the same time, you could be a potential Eastern Conference Title contender. Right now though, there’s a whole lot of question marks on the medical sheets of those players you signed to two max contracts for four years.
Boned Index: You took a big risk signing Kevin Durant to a max contract after his Achilles injury, hoping he could get you over that playoff hump you got stuck on against the Sixers last year. Then you got Kyrie, who isn’t a stranger to weird media encounters, and now that he’s moved to a bigger market will probably face higher levels of scrutiny than he did with the Cavs and the Celtics. Of course, you’ve still got a whole year at least until you can start assessing whether or not the KD/Kyrie experiment was a bust, but the level of talent on the rest of the Nets vs the Celtics, and DEFINITELY the rest of the Nets vs the Warriors, is something that both players are going to have to adjust to. But if this works, that’ll shut up talk about Brooklyn being the bald-headed stepchild of New York basketball for a long time. And even if it doesn’t, those Coogi trim Kyrie and KD jerseys are still gonna be fire.
Edited by Emma Moloney | email@example.com