Will Kawhi lead a new team to the promised land? Did Boogie break the league? Is LABron legit? The Bleacher Creature reveals all that and more.
News coverage in the NBA offseason typically focuses on superstar free-agent signings, which range anywhere from franchise-altering (think LeBron to the Heat), to league-disrupting (KD to the Warriors) to universe-imploding (Mozgov and Deng to the Lakers). This year, however, the biggest buzz seemed to surround a trade: two-time MVP runner-up Kawhi Leonard (along with Danny Green) shipped from the Spurs to the Raptors in exchange for Toronto legend DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round draft pick in 2019.
The deal came after Leonard shocked the basketball world by refusing to play in the latter half of the 2017-18 NBA season, even after team doctors had cleared him for action. Reports of locker room dysfunction surfaced, and Leonard made clear that he intended to sign with his hometown Lakers in 2019, even if it meant declining a “supermax” five-year $221 million extension from San Antonio. Rather than risk letting their superstar walk for nothing, Spurs brass opted to pull the trigger and trade him for something like 60 cents on the dollar.
What does this mean for the teams in question? For the Spurs, it could be the start of a soft reboot, the official death knell of the Popovich-Duncan era that’s seen 21 consecutive postseason appearances and five championships. That doesn’t mean that the playoff streak has to end this season (they made it last year with virtually nothing from Kawhi, and adding one of the league’s most gifted scorers in DeRozan certainly won’t hurt), but beyond a possible seven-seed, there’s not much else in the future. LaMarcus Aldridge only has so much left in the tank, Tony Parker is already gone, and Manu Ginobili and Pop will likely both be retired this time next year.
As for the Raptors … well, their strategy might not be all that different. Voices around the league have suggested abandoning the team’s DeRozan-Kyle Lowry nucleus for years now, insisting that the team’s consistent regular-season success would never translate into a legitimate championship contender. But while this latter fact is probably true, it was too much to swallow to blow up the most successful team in franchise history, especially playing in a market that has never attracted a big free-agent name. By acquiring Leonard, even if it’s only for a one-year rental, Toronto has given itself a way out: go for broke, then rebuild through the draft. Of course, the Raptors still stand next to no chance at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy this year. Kawhi is a better player than DeRozan in every aspect of the game, but even assuming he balls out at full capacity, the team will still be heavy underdogs to make it out of the East against a replenished juggernaut in Boston. And that’s to say nothing of the mighty Western Conference.
We can’t go any further without touching on the other huge domino to fall this offseason: LeBron James’s Decision 3.0, which brought him to the Los Angeles Lakers. King James continues to build his GOAT resume and is still the NBA’s best player entering his 16th season, but this is the first time his changing teams feels more like a business decision than a basketball one. With his primary wingman set to be either Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram or a washed Rajon Rondo, LeBron’s situation is hardly better than last season’s slog through the East with the Cavaliers. The Warriors and Rockets are almost guaranteed the top two seeds in the playoffs, and given the strength and continuity of teams like Utah, OKC, Portland and New Orleans, I’m not even sure the Lakers can count on home court advantage. Donning the purple and gold will certainly add to James’s brand and legacy, and any championship with this roster should easily vault him over Jordan, but it seems more likely that we are witnessing the beginning of his final chapter.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see anyone stopping Golden State. Fresh off their third championship in four years, the Dubs would have been the preseason favorites again even before making a big splash of their own in signing superstar center DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, $5.3 million contract. Now, if Cousins is able to return to anything close to full strength and integrate his singular rumble-tumble, outside-in game to the Warriors system, there might be nothing to stop them sweeping through the postseason.
Even so, fans shouldn’t be nearly as upset at Boogie as they were at Durant for disrupting competitive balance. An Achilles tendon tear is one of the most difficult injuries for an athlete to bounce back from, and there’s no guarantee that Cousins ever regains his explosiveness or lateral quickness, a lack of which would make him damn near unplayable in the modern NBA. That risk, plus his well-documented attitude issues, scared off most other suitors; how else do you explain an All-Star big man signing for the league minimum?
Those stories dominated the headlines, but there was a lot more movement going on behind the scenes. Dwight Howard continued his mission to play for as many teams as he has children, signing with the Wizards after being traded to, then waived by, the Nets. Carmelo Anthony landed with the Rockets after one of the most miserable seasons in recent memory with the Thunder. It’s the most talented roster he’s ever played with, but Melo’s geriatric jabstepping one-on-one antics won’t fly on a team built for every single possession to be dominated by James Harden and Chris Paul.
DeAndre Jordan probably isn’t the high-flyer he was even two years ago, but he’ll be looking for lobs from rookie Luka Doncic to help the Mavs give Dirk Nowitzki one final taste of the playoffs before retirement. Julius Randle will hope to find success in Nawlins, acting the part of a poor man’s Boogie Cousins. And finally, little Isaiah Thomas, my dear departed son, landed with the Denver Nuggets on a show-me deal worth just one year, $2.2 million. He never will get that Brinks Truck full of cash he was looking for, but here’s hoping The Little Guy puts on as good a show for the mile-high city as he did for Beantown.