It seems a bit daft to declare a set of winners and losers after less than a week of the NBA’s official offseason, but after a few dozen free-agent agreements and quite easily the busiest first day in the league’s free-agent history, one can’t help but stand back and take stock. Presuming your spine is straightened out after hours of bleary-eyed staring at Woj’s Twitter account.
Because more happened in the first week of July than will happen between now and October, I think it’s best to start judging. So it goes:
The league’s last great unknown struck a bit of blow for himself this offseason. This was in place even before he decided to sign with the San Antonio Spurs.
LaMarcus Aldridge turns 30 later in July. He hasn’t exactly acted as a basketball martyr thus far in his career in Portland, the team has made the playoffs five times since he’s come on board, but he’s rubbing up on the edges. Aldridge has watched as several team saviors came on board while he slogged away – Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Damian Lillard – with little payoff as the team has made the second round only once.
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He’s now doing what sports fans both ardent and ambivalent always beg players to do. He turned down tens of millions of dollars to play for a team with bigger winning potential than his current outfit in Portland. By the time of that decision LaMarcus had already dismissed the Los Angeles Lakers for being too showy – too full of "Kazaam" and not enough actual money spent on basketball know-how – and the Knicks despite their big offer and Manhattan storefronts.
LMA is still going to make his tens of millions, but he’s also giving up money for a chance to win. This is the sort of thing sports talk radio callers demand, it’s playing out in real life, and despite his early July ubiquity too few are talking about it.
On top of all that, despite being waved at by maximum offers in the literal first minutes of the negotiation process on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, Aldridge took his time. He sat through meetings. He waited nearly a week, an eternity in this climate, to consider his options. The man whom several teams, coaches and front offices deemed too soft to build a team around utilized tact, poise and reason before clinging to the best franchise in sports.
All while getting his money. This is how you work things.
Los Angeles Lakers
You heard me.
Lakers fans took a hit on Wednesday. The team was mocked endlessly after Aldridge dismissed the team’s interaction with him, with Kobe Bryant, the front office, or the team’s recent repellent history being blamed for the lack of interest on LaMarcus’ part. A second meeting, pitched on Thursday, didn’t seem to change the narrative.
As it stands, for the third season in a row, the Lakers will have lost out in their attempts to convince a superstar free agent to join Bryant and company. The Lakers will still have salary cap space in order to trade for helpers – Roy Hibbert is already in place and they could glom onto a series of midlevel types – but they will once again enter a season hoping Kobe doesn’t decide to shoot 25 times at 37 percent while also hoping he’ll finish what could be his last season in active uniform. Bryant’s last three campaigns were ended by major season-ending injuries.
Lakers fans. Listen to me. This is what you want.
Where did you think you were going with a 30-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe on no legs and one arm, and a 19-year-old point guard? Why would you think this would be anything more than a 30-win team in the West? Why in the hell would Kevin Durant leave Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka behind to join 31-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge, 20-year-old D’Angelo Russell, and a power forward in Julius Randle who plays the same position as LaMarcus?
On top of that, if the Lakers fall out of the top three in the lottery next season, the team’s first-round draft pick goes to Philadelphia. Wouldn’t the whole point of signing an Aldridge basically gift Philly that draft pick?
This is the West. The Thunder had Russell Westbrook playing at an MVP level for a heavy chunk of the season, it had Kevin Durant for long enough and Ibaka for even longer and it still missed the playoffs with 45 wins. Did you really think adding Aldridge, Russell and 37-year-old Kobe was going to make the difference between 21 and 46 wins? With Byron Scott coaching? Come on.
This offseason did you a favor, Lakers fans.
You’re going to have to be terrible again in 2015-16. You’re going to have to put up with Time Warner Cable and whatever Carlos Boozer-types the team hires for a single year. It’s going to be awful to watch Kobe go out this way, but this is what YouTube is for.
(And, seriously: Last year you signed Carlos Boozer. This year you traded absolutely nothing for Roy Hibbert. I’d say things are looking up.)
You’ll then get to enter the 2016 offseason with Randle, with Russell, with another high-end draft pick should the lottery go your way, and possibly more cap space than any other team. And all that, “Los Angeles-as-a-draw-doesn’t-matter-anymore” nonsense that was batted around in the summer of 2015 will be stomped to pieces in the summer of 2016. Los Angeles will always be a draw, and there’s a reason why Aldridge gave your crappy 21-win team two visits before deciding on San Antonio.
Just hope that your ownership group and front office takes this summer as a lesson.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, in coming years, will struggle to add helping parts because of the restrictions placed upon them as luxury taxpayers. They will act as the highest luxury taxpayers in NBA history, even without the help of Billy King or Isiah Thomas. It will take a dedicated and intense effort to identify the best players suited to fill out the team’s roster, every summer, because every miss will hurt badly. Every roster spot has to count. Every bit of playing time used up by a ninth man in the third quarter of a playoff game in June has to turn into a beast without a name, at press time.
Unlike the previous tax-paying legends, they’ll be tossing bread at LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, as opposed to Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and an aging Kevin Garnett. The Cavaliers put the 2015 champs on the ropes, the 2-1 ropes with home-court advantage in place, with Love out and Irving having played in only one (if even) of those games. When you have a chance to pay a potential champ, you pay it.
The Cavaliers could end LeBron’s second visit with zero championships, because this league is tough and the West is hale and hearty. They could also take advantage of what appears to be a declining Western bracket (are you going to be scared of the Grizzlies, Blazers, Clippers or Mavericks in 2017?) and peel off four straight championships. Either run is worth the price.
Get those role players right, though. You’ve got to nail those picks.
There is a very real chance that everything could go to hell in a handbasket with the Heat.
They will have to revisit the uncomfortable free-agent negotiations with Dwyane Wade yet again in 2016, with Wade potentially either coming off of a renaissance year or having missed half a season while making $20 million. The team will have to determine whether or not Hassan Whiteside is a guy worth leaning on, and if it determines that he’s worth committing to they’ll have to get creative in order to clear out salary cap (not payroll, but actual salary cap) space for him.
Then they’ll try to convince Kevin Durant – the man who has gone his entire career trying to act the role of the anti-LeBron – to take his talents to South Beach.
So what? This is the position you put yourself in when you can. This is why you take chances and this is why you fail, sometimes, and also why you win. This is what Pat Riley lives for.
The Heat couldn’t even make the playoffs this year in one of the worst conferences in NBA history. They’re once again betting on Wade, who will turn 34 midseason, to act as conductor and recruiter. They’re hoping that Luol Deng, who has seen this dance before, keeps up appearances despite Riley scanning the party for someone more famous to talk to.
This is how this league works.
San Antonio Spurs
Remember how, back in 2006, the New York Knicks traded for Stephon Marbury and Jalen Rose in the same winter, pairing them with coach Larry Brown? Remember literally laughing out loud at the deals, not so much because they were terrible deals, but because it seemed like Isiah Thomas was listening in on our jokes? Like, what’s the most Knicks-sort of thing we can do right now? And then he went out and did it?
The San Antonio Spurs placating Kawhi Leonard for 12 months, re-signing Danny Green, returning Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, trading Tiago Splitter home to Mike Budenholzer and signing LaMarcus Aldridge is laugh-out-loud material.
If you didn’t laugh out loud while reading the last paragraph, you need to get some rest. The Spurs are hilarious.
(lol they signed David West, too)
Few players really took the quick-shot contracts, signing for a year or maybe two in anticipation of opting out once the TV money hit. Most were more than happy to order what was on the menu, no substitutions, and take the security of as many years as they could get. That’s a sensible and understandable move. Good for the players, in this instance.
And those owners made out, securing stars and semi-stars to long-term deals that look massive right now but will act as a small fraction of the salary cap’s overall picture some 53 weeks from now.
Us NBAniks aren’t in on some marvelous secret when it comes to Khris Middleton or Tobias Harris or any other player that Bob Your Uncle hasn’t seen play. These players aren’t All-Stars in waiting or the game’s most underrated studs, bent for the hipster set. They’re just players who are going to make appropriate amounts of money, money that is there because the revenue is in place.
The players may have lost the battle during the last round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations, but at the end of June and first minutes of July these guys are still going to be able to get half that pie.
New York Knicks
Robin Lopez is a damn good center, someone whose gifts may not have been fully taken advantage of in his previous few stops. Kyle O’Quinn might be the steal of the summer. Arron Afflalo is a professional.
It has been a respectable offseason for New York, but recognition of such acts as yet another sign of how far things have fallen, provided things were ever high to begin with (after all, you don’t smoke peyote).
Phil Jackson made the best moves he could this summer. The team took a chance on Kristaps Porzingis in the draft, and depending on whom you believe it held off on offering Greg Monroe the maximum. The squad could have gotten handsy in attempting to acquire players in a deal, but outside of Indiana (with that odd and seemingly needless trade of Roy Hibbert) teams don’t feel the motivation to unload salary so quickly with the new cap approaching.
The issue here is history. Carmelo Anthony is a contract millstone, one of the few left in spite of that massive salary-cap uptick on the horizon. The team will not have its first-round draft pick next June because James Dolan decided that he wanted Carmelo RFN in 2011 (outside of just waiting until the free-agency period to sign him outright) and because the team decided to trade for Andrea Barganani (the "pair-Stephon-Marbury-with-Steve-Francis" move of the Twitter Generation) two years later.
Carmelo had to stick in 2014 to save face. Unlike the laughable Lakers, New York won’t have a cadre of lottery talents to call its own heading in to the 2016 offseason. Kobe’s contract comes off the books in 12 months, while Anthony will be making a quarter of the salary cap (the BIG cap) when he’s 34.
This is how salted this earth is. It’s been fascinating to watch Phil Jackson work with authority, brilliant basketball minds in Clarence Gaines Jr. and Derek Fisher, and all the cash he can handle. It’s also just as deadening to see such smart and inspired people be forced to pull what should be the NBA’s greatest franchise out of quicksand limb by limb.
We’ve been burned before.
In 2010, when Mike Conley Jr. signed a contract extension, I lambasted the move. Not so much because I didn’t like Conley, who was just starting to come into his own with a Memphis Grizzlies franchise that was attempting to abandon its laughingstockery, but because the NBA was at the height of the ridiculousness that would eventually lead to the 2011 lockout.
Why wouldn’t the Grizz let Conley explore restricted free agency, and create his own market? Why not use the tools that were already in place to stop you from yourselves, prior to an extended debate with labor pitched to, once again, keep the owners from themselves?
The owner in question was correct on this one, though, because Conley turned out to be a steal. My bluster was wrong, Memphis was right and we all happily skipped off into the lane together to toss up yet another runner.
We’re all gonna be right with this one, though. Hard to see a Conley, 'ere.
Signing Reggie Jackson for $80 million is a terrible move. Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower have forgotten more about basketball that we’ll ever know, but I think they’ve forgotten about basketball with this deal. Jackson cleaned up his act on both sides of the ball as a Piston this season, but he can’t shoot and still seems like a third guard. It’s understandable that you have to have someone in place with Brandon Jennings on the mend – the players-never-really-come-back-from-Achilles-tears movement is at its fever pitch, and for credible reasons – but how is this your guy?
Toss in a dodgy draft and a bit of stasis leading up to what will likely be the team’s seventh straight lottery appearance and you’ve got to admit it’s been a pretty unsatisfying summer for Pistons fans.
Next summer should be better, Detroit can always overachieve in the terrible East and there weren’t a ton of workable options for the franchise’s brain trust, but this is a rough go thus far.
There aren’t supposed to be teams like this, anymore.
Teams like the Sacramento Kings – the current Sacramento Kings, mind you – usually have their lives played out in an oral history of some sort. A ha-ha documentary. An anecdote from some columnist that you haven’t read in a while. Teams like the Kings are usually reserved for some fantastic Dave Holmes column where he informs you that people used to listen to bands called "GTR" and that watches with calculators on them used to be dope. That people used to eat steaks cooked well done and greenlight shows named "Manimal."
We’re supposed to be too damn smart for this stuff now, and yet here the Kings are. The team has blown through several coaches and general manager types and most importantly all the goodwill needed to both keep the team in Sacramento and keep the punters in place after nearly a decade in the lottery. Vivek Ranadive has turned into your stereotype bad owner, Vlade Divac is now weirdly running the show in a move that wouldn’t even deserve treatment status in Hollywood and the team is shocked beyond belief that George Karl would dare act like he’s acted throughout his three decades’ worth of professional coaching gigs.
We’re not here to tell you that any relationship between Karl and DeMarcus Cousins and Vivek and Vlade – and oh my lord, how many guys run this team – has been shot to bits. It’s a long summer, everyone here is making millions and things can still turn out. Yes, Karl could not keep it together in disagreements with ownership during the 1998, 2003 and 2013 offseasons, but who better to change his stripes on the fly than a 63-year-old ex-jock?!?
This team also just signed Rajon Rondo to an eight-figure, year-long contract despite having cable and an Internet connection. Because the last year-long trial for Rajon Rondo worked out so well. Because teams will totally fall for that fake-wraparound pass and because a non-shooter who will turn 30 midseason is well worth dealing away future draft picks to clear space for.
At least Rajon will have a coach who hates Ray Allen as much as he does.
Los Angeles Clippers
Most of this portion was written before DeAndre Jordan left the Clippers for the Mavericks. When the Clippers’ major offseason transaction involved trading for Lance Stephenson. That guy.
Then the Clippers lost DeAndre Jordan and received nothing in return. This is the sort of transaction that moved the NBA to force teams into sending compensatory draft picks to other teams after they poached a free agent 40 years ago. DeAndre Jordan may never be an All-Star and his game is full of (literal) highs and lows, but he will clear your glass and block some shots and competently take up your minutes at the NBA’s weirdest position.
If Paul Pierce’s move back to Los Angeles felt expected, then Jordan’s move away from the Clippers seemed inevitable. The Portland Trail Blazers had an idea about LaMarcus Aldridge’s leanings midseason, but you didn’t see that team hitting the post-postseason podium to stump for his return. Clippers coach and personnel chief Doc Rivers had to with Jordan, however, and yet a month and a half later DeAndre split without thinking twice.
Chris Paul is still the same guy who had Jordan and Blake Griffin hugging on the team bus after Twitter told them that Lob City was about to become a thing. Paul’s move to El Lay and Rivers’ ascension all should have been the best-case scenarios for this sad franchise, and yet even the smartest and most obvious moves haven’t seemed to help. The Clippers are on the books for the league’s fourth-highest payroll next year, and yet they have no center and just nine players. Brendan Haywood might be an option – not as a salary-clearing move but as someone to jump center with.
This is how you waste a prime (in Paul’s case) and an eventual prime (in Griffin’s Fav-heavy world). At the end of the day all the Los Angeles stuff tends to come into place. Hubris. Gladhandling. Attitude and manners and moving over slightly on the highway so the motorcyclist can make his way through the middle of the lands while you’re stuck in traffic. Someday we’re going to look back on this Clippers team, and none of this will ever make sense.
The new uniforms stink, too.
This offseason has been fun, and the 2016 offseason will be a blast. The moves made during this summer hardly remind of the ones we saw during the ones that led up to the 2011 lockout, head-scratching deals made by outmoded GMs and clueless owners who were convinced that because everyone was tied for first in July that The Next Big Deal was the right thing to do.
We’re all going to take a hit for this, though.
All of this money has to come from somewhere, and we are the “somewhere.” Cable and dish packages will never allow us to pay for certain stations a la carte, us sports fans are the only people on god’s green earth who still actually have to watch commercials, and if you can pay for good tickets to an NBA game right now then I’d like to be your best friend.
It’s good that the players are getting theirs. They’re the reasons we watch and they’re the reason we pay. Understand that the owners are also getting theirs as well, and though they might be shaking their first at what they deem the Bolshevik-styled redistribution of funds absolutely nobody in NBA ownership will have their evening out ruined (prior to that 16 percent tip that they will generously leave) by the escalating salaries.
There will be some blowback from this largesse, though, even if the players have wholly earned their future paydays. NBA owners and their representatives (read: the sainted Adam Silver) will have to tread awfully lightly in order to strike a balance to what was the brilliance of a fantastic NBA Finals, draft and free-agent turn, and the pathetic posturing of the 2011 NBA lockout.
The NBA’s 1998-99 lockout was pitched in order to come up with a middle class. An unanticipated strike for players that often had to work for the league minimum just because they weren’t represented by David Falk, and just because they didn’t average 20 and 10. The NBA is having a lot of fun right now, and it will have even more fun next summer, but it absolutely cannot afford to attempt to fill its stadiums with 20,000 fans’ worth of 20-and-10 makers.
It has to think long and hard about whether or not the fandom of millions is worth pitching against the interests of 30. Adam Silver and Adam Silver alone has just two years to formulate his battle plan.
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