Sunday Shootaround

The West isn't laying down for the Warriors

by Paul Flannery

The question we had before us this summer was how the league would react to the Golden State Warriors. Would teams simply pack it in and keep their proverbial powder dry for another day, or meet the challenge head on and deal with it on its own terms?

We got our answer even before the NBA free agency bazaar opened for business, when Chris Paul surveyed the scene and engineered a trade to Houston. This was a savvy move by the Point God. Not only did he wind up in his preferred destination, he also brought his Bird Rights with him. That leaves open the possibility of a major extension in his new home, and that, my friends, is the personification of player power.

No doubt Paul could have re-upped with the Clippers for the max had he wanted, or found a full list of suitors in free agency. But look at the market he left behind. With few viable options, the deep point guard class of 2017 was left scrambling for jobs and favorable terms. The Spurs never entered into the bidding and if you think the president of the players’ union was taking a discount at this stage of his career … well, no. He wasn’t. Nor should he.

Instead, Paul leaves a situation that had grown stale for one that is ready to bloom. The Rockets were one of the few credible challengers the Warriors had in the West last season and now they’ve added the greatest point guard of his generation to pair with James Harden. With CP3 on board, the Rockets have two top-10 players on their roster and only the Warriors and maybe the Thunder can say the same.

This is a bold move even if it does come with a potential downside. Paul is 32 years old and missed 21 games last season with a thumb injury. He’ll be looking for a massive extension next summer, thanks to a new provision in the collective bargaining agreement that Paul helped negotiate. The Rockets could wind up paying a premium price for the latter stages of his career.

The fit with Harden is an interesting one because both players thrive with the ball in their hands. Both Paul and Harden are proud and stubborn and both are franchise players who run their respective offenses through their own unique games. Both are also smart as hell, and both will benefit from working with one of the game’s genius offensive minds in Mike D’Antoni.

There seems to be mutual respect and appreciation between Paul and Harden, and there all kinds of reasons why this should flourish. Paul fixes a hole in Houston’s offense by gobbling up mid-range opportunities and Harden no longer has to do everything when he’s on the court. They can both take over while the other one sits and keep one another fresh throughout the long season. Good luck coming up with a defense to stop them when they’re together.

There’s a chance it may not work, of course, but no one’s beating the Warriors without taking aggressive risks. This is Chris freaking Paul we’re talking about. The whole point of having assets and flexibility is to make bold moves when the time is right. The only thing crazier than challenging Golden State is trying to do so while maintaining the status quo.

The interesting thing about this summer is how many other teams loaded up on stars, and how many of those teams are in Golden State’s own backyard. Minnesota decided its youth movement had run its course and added Jimmy Butler. Oklahoma City swooped in and stole Paul George to pair with Russell Westbrook. The perpetually-rebuilding Nuggets anted up for Paul Millsap. Even the Clippers elected to stay in the game after losing Paul by re-signing Blake Griffin and adding Danilo Gallinari.

Not everyone jumped on board. The Spurs stayed out of the deep end of the free agent pool and landed Rudy Gay for a team-friendly sum. The Grizzlies said goodbye to their grit and their grind. The Jazz were dealt a blow when Gordon Hayward moved East. The rest of the conference was left to scramble for relevance or bide its time with youth movements.

We may be living in the Warriors’ universe, but all of these moves are better understood through a narrower lens. In that sense, it wasn’t the Warriors that drove their offseasons as much as local concerns.

The Wolves, for example, have a 12-year playoff drought hanging over their heads and looming contract extensions for their young core to factor into their accounting. In clearing out Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn in the Butler deal, the Wolves acknowledged that extensions for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns will take priority.

That’s the problem with having so many lottery picks on your roster. Eventually, they all need to be paid and those deals will eat into cap space. It wasn’t a now-or-never scenario as much as now was a pretty good time to strike.

Adding Butler was a no-brainer, while locking down Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson means the Wolves really are Tom Thibodeau’s creation now. They will be big, they will be tough, and they will be talented. How far they go still depends on Towns’ and Wiggins’ development. That’s their margin to be special and their window is just now opening. In the interim, they figure to be really good and a playoff team at long last.

In Oklahoma City, GM Sam Presti now has a clear vision to convince Westbrook to stick around. PG and Russ should work extremely well together and they give the Thunder a viable chance to remain competitive in the West. If it clicks and both players sign on for the long haul, then Presti will have preserved Westbrook’s career in Oklahoma.

The clock will be ticking loudly. George is in the final year of his contract and the Lakers have cap space waiting for him. Westbrook has one year left before an opt-out and an extension to consider. Presti couldn’t let another MVP go without a fight and so while this is a swing for the fences move, the potential rewards far outweigh the risks. Those are the choices you have to make with a top-5 player.

Shedding Victor Oladipo’s burdensome contract in the process was already a win in terms of roster construction, and securing the ultra-useful Patrick Patterson on the cheap was slick. Defensive ace Andre Roberson looks a lot better on the wing with two premium All-Stars around him. The Thunder have gone from a middle-of-the-pack playoff team to one with a puncher’s chance against anyone in the West.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, have been looking to make a big splash for years. They’ve been a stalking horse for several major players in recent years, but haven’t been able to close the deal. They went after Dwyane Wade in free agency last summer and worked their way into discussions on a George trade.

In the end, they got Millsap to team with Nikola Jokic and it looks like a fantastic fit on paper. Millsap is a rugged, defensive-minded four whose all-around game should pair beautifully with Jokic. That Millsap has local connections to the area doesn’t hurt either.

Denver has a host of intriguing young players, but years of 30-win seasons has left the once-proud basketball city flat. The Nuggets also need to start making progress as Jokic’s dirt-cheap deal comes due in a few years. Warriors or no Warriors, Denver needed to make a move toward viability.

Then there are the Clippers, who could have folded their tent and cleared the way for an extensive overhaul once Paul left. Instead, they re-upped Griffin for the max, swung a sign-and-trade for Gallinari, and smartly scooped up EuroLeague veteran Milos Teodosic to help run the point.

Even their haul from the Paul trade was solid. Pat Beverley and Lou Williams are terrific role players, Sam Dekker has some bounce to fill that gaping hole at small forward, and Montrezl Harrell looks like a keeper as a rotation big man.

It’s hard to know what to make of the Clippers at this point, but tearing down good teams is harder than the internet chorus makes it seem. Griffin and Jordan are homegrown All-Stars. You don’t just turn them away in their prime to try and draft them again in four years. Put it another way: Steve Ballmer didn’t pay $2 billion to tank.

What we’re left with is a far more competitive landscape out West than existed previously. The specter of the Warriors hangs over everything, but that doesn’t mean teams can simply mark time and wait for their run to be over. There are challenges and expectations to be met in every market and contractual realities to address that are unique to every situation.

Player movement is a zero-sum game and while the West geared up, the East hemorrhaged talent. The Celtics were the only team to swing a major move when they signed Hayward in free agency, while the Raptors and Wizards elected to bring back their respective cores at a substantial cost. The Cavs lost their GM, but not their standing as presumptive favorites.

The top of the East will look a lot like it did last season, leaving an opening for teams like Miami, Milwaukee, and maybe even Philly to make inroads. The rest of it is wide open, if fairly uninspiring.

That presents an uncomfortable balance in a two-conference league, but ultimately, ambition is good in any form. Superteams are great, but competition is even better. With so many stars now concentrated on fewer teams, it may not be the player sharing system the league envisioned years ago, but it should make for a more engaging season. At least in the West. After the season we had, we’ll take what we can get.

The List Consumable NBA Thoughts

The Warriors entered free agency with five players under contract and marching orders to retain as much of their core as possible. General manager Bob Myers brought back all their top priorities and even added to the puzzle with a pair of free agent signings. If you were hoping for the luxury tax to weaken the Warriors roster, you’re out of luck. To wit:

Stephen Curry

There was no doubt that Curry would be offered the supermax, or that he would accept. What the deal does is reset Golden State’s contractual hegemony that had been skewed by Curry’s prior below-market extension. Steph is first among equals in their constellation of stars and that’s the way it should be. It’s interesting to note that teams have run away from the designated player exception (see: the trades of DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler). It didn’t help the Pacers keep Paul George or the Jazz retain Gordon Hayward as neither player qualified. This is another in the long line of unintended CBA consequences: a rule designed to help teams keep their stars has facilitated player movement instead. Perhaps we should call it the Curry Rule after its original signer.

Kevin Durant

When Durant signed with the Warriors last summer the expectation was that he would take a little less money this summer to help retain part of their core. KD didn’t just take a little bit less, he took about $6 million less than expected, which wound up being almost $10 million less than he could have signed for under the rules. KD’s decision has been framed in all sorts of ways, from hopelessly naive to a form of player power. Whatever the motivation, it allowed the Warriors to go the extra mile on Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, and also sign Nick Young for the taxpayer mid-level. From a team chemistry standpoint the gesture is priceless.

Andre Iguodala

Few players worked free agency better than Iguodala. He took meetings with suitors and even hinted at interest from the rival Spurs. Most people assumed he would return to Golden State, but it would have been interesting to see if he had been forced to choose between a hometown discount or the Kings’ riches. The Warriors smartly never going to let it get to that point and Iguodala got his three years at a premium price. Leverage only exists for those who choose to use it.

Joe Lacob

Whether it was because of KD’s largesse or the largeness of Joe Lacob’s ambition, general manager Bob Myers didn’t have to scrape by on the margins when filling out the rest of the roster. He signed Young to a 3-year deal and added Omri Casspi, which looks kinda genius. In retaining veteran David West and Zaza Pachulia, the Warriors luxury tax bill will push the payroll to around $175 million. That doesn’t include the $3.5 million the Warriors paid Chicago to buy a second round pick to take Jordan Bell. Including tax implications their payroll over the next few years could be over a billion dollars. That’s … a lot.

Klay Thompson

Has any non free agent had a better summer than Klay Thompson? While the Warriors were putting the band back together again, Klay scored an $80 million deal from his sneaker company and lived his best life on a promotional tour of China. Now that everyone else is in place, Thompson becomes the next important piece of the Warrior roster when his deal expires in two seasons. That will be watched intently when the time comes. Until then, this has been the Summer of Klay.

By The Numbers The stats that explain the week

3.8

In order to sign Gordon Hayward to a max contract, the Celtics needed to clear salary cap space. That cost them matching rights on Kelly Olynyk and Bird rights on several free agents. It also cost them Avery Bradley, a homegrown favorite who had blossomed into a team leader. Bradley was traded to Detroit for Marcus Morris opening up $3.8 million in cap space. Morris allows the Celtics to play positionless basketball with as many as seven players in their 10-man rotation who are able to switch defensive match=ups and guard multiple positions. Just don’t ask about rebounding. He’s also signed for an additional year at an economical $5.3 million, which also allows the C’s to defray some of their luxury tax implications next summer. This was a cap deal and losing Bradley stings. In acquiring him, the Pistons moved on from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and opened up a path for third-year forward Stanley Johnson to claim a starting job.

5

Free agency isn’t always as hectic as it seems. Of the top 20 players on my board, only five free agents actually changed teams. Gordon Hayward was the biggest name to move. He was followed by a couple of of fours — Paul Millsap and Danilo Gallinari — and a pair of points — George Hill and Jeff Teague. (Reminder that Chris Paul was not technically a free agent.) Four of those five either went West or stayed there, which helped preserve the conference’s hegemony. This will open the door to more talk that conferences are a tired anachronism and should be eliminated, post-haste. I’m on that bandwagon and I would like to think that geographic issues stemming from playoff seeding could be tweaked if that’s the only thing holding this up. (It’s not, by the way.)

2

There were only two teams that went into the luxury tax last season: Cleveland and the Clippers. There will be at least five tax teams this season and possibly more when the free agent carousel stops spinning. We all knew the Warriors would join Cleveland in tax hell and that Portland was heading there, as well. The list also includes Oklahoma City and Washington. Toronto would have been a tax team until it dumped DeMarre Carroll Until late Saturday night. The Raptors and Wizards are interesting in that they paid in full to keep teams together who stalled out in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. With so much talent going West, opportunity awaits for someone in the East. But at what cost?

38

The Kings are heading in an interesting direction. They’ve drafted reasonably well over the last few years and they seem to be heading toward a complete refresh in a post-Boogie world. To that end, the Kings used a chunk of their cap space to sign George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter for about $38 million this season. If you’re going to use cap space to lure free agents and aren’t in on the big names, this is a solid group of signings. The Kings could have tanked quite easily by doling out all those minutes to their kids. The thing about constantly rebuilding is it’s difficult to build a culture around an ever-changing cast of 20-somethings. The Kings are what you make of them at this point and it will be incumbent upon the free agent vets to provide some guidance along with their minutes.

106

We all knew that Otto Porter was going to get paid, but holy geez, $106 million is a hell of a lot of money for Otto Porter. The Wizards could have saved themselves some time as well as contractual headaches if they had just done a straight deal themselves. The Nets, as is their M.O., reportedly stuck a bunch of annoying goodies into the equation including a trade kicker and a weird “pay the man his money in October” provision. For their part, the Wizards can match and then slow play this into the middle of next week, thus tying up the Nets’ cap space. Restricted free agency: kind of a bummer.

Say What? Ramblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

“Certainly we will miss Gordon and his many contributions to our team, but I always tell our players that ‘adversity is opportunity in disguise.’ This is one of those moments and we need to live those words. We have a roster of young, talented, and resilient players. I am confident that together we will accept this challenge while continuing to strive toward our goal of individual and collective improvement. To further lament Gordon’s departure does not honor the commitment we have to our current players.”

Utah coach Quin Snyder.

Reaction: Good on ‘ye Quin.

“Grit & Grind is more than a motto to us, it has become a civic code of conduct and cultural ethos. It’s the way we do things in Memphis and at the Grizzlies. The best way for the team, the organization and for the City of Memphis to honor and respect the foundation built on Zach’s broad shoulders is to continue to Grit & Grind.”

Grizzlies statement after Zach Randolph signed with the Kings.

Reaction: No, you’re crying.

“Chris changed his life and basketball career when he came to Miami. And he changed our lives for the better, in a way we never would have imagined, when he joined the Miami Heat. We will forever be indebted to CB for how he changed this team and led us to four trips to the NBA Finals and two NBA Championships. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise. The number “1” will never be worn by another player and we can’t wait to someday hang his jersey in the rafters.”

Heat president Pat Riley.

Reaction: It’s a shame that Bosh’s career came to a halt just when people were starting to truly understand and appreciate not only his game, but also his personality. He’s one of the most thoughtful and engaging people in the sport and the league be worse off without him. Bosh’s health is far more important, so here’s to a happy and fulfilling life.

“I got loyalty inside my DNA.”

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Reaction: Understood and acknowledged Giannis, but this is the circle of NBA life and it comes around for every young player on their journey. It will revolve around Anthony Davis and in years to come it will follow Karl Anthony-Towns, Nikola Jokic, and on and on.

“He’s gonna be a pretty good player in this league for a long time. As the days pass I think I’m beyond being surprised by what he’s able to do on the floor from a number of different spots on the floor. At 19, his soul seems mature and older.”

Celtics summer league coach Jerome Allen on rookie Jayson Tatum.

Reaction: This sets the bar for summer league quotes. Let’s see if we can surpass it this week in Vegas.

Vid of the Week Further explanation unnessecary