By: Taylor Summers
“Stillness, like a moccasin silently slipping through dense throngs of people, can be just as deceptive as motion.” -Steve Martin
With the first week of free agency in the books, the fireworks went off quickly. Right before the 12:01 EST start time, the first explosion went off out of nowhere.
Paul George to the…Thunder? And for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis? No draft picks either?
On paper, the Pacers got fleeced. There have been a superfluity of rumors and speculation involving Paul George ever since he confirmed he wasn’t re-signing with Indiana a few weeks ago, including Boston offering a sample of their stockpile of picks and young players around draft night. Did the market really shrink that much in less than a week?
However, Sam Presti, the general manager of the Thunder, had coveted George for weeks, even months, behind the scenes of the Lakers, Celtics, and Cavaliers well-documented interest of the four-time All-Star. There had been internal pressure from Russell Westbrook, the newly-crowed MVP, that he needs more help in order for the Thunder to become actual contenders in the loaded Western Conference. (And the looming fact that he can enter free agency next summer, too.)
As fun as it was to witness Westbrook churn out triple doubles, throw down monstrous dunks and launch buzzer-beating daggers on a nightly basis last season, he doesn’t want to waste his prime years carrying a mediocre team only to get knocked out in the first round. So Presti struck the iron while it was hot, and in return he caught lightning to go along with the thunder.
There is, of course, some risk involved for OKC with this trade, albeit minimal with some perspective. Paul George can still bolt to the Lakers next summer (assuming he’s still adamant for playing in his home town), along with Westbrook. There will also be some adjustments from a basketball standpoint, similar to the ones surrounding Houston and Minnesota with their new star players. But if the opportunity to snag a top-15 player such as George is available, and for a smaller asking price in comparison to the Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler trades, you do it in a heartbeat.
Overall, the Thunder vastly improved their roster with this trade. In addition to re-signing the defensive-minded Andre Roberson, plucking the gritty Patrick Patterson from the Raptors, along with retaining their bigs in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, they will be a tough defensive team. Sure, they have some holes in reliable outside shooting (Roberson is arguably the worst offensive player in the league) and depth, but Russell Westbrook now has a budding sidekick, one that can take on the ball-handling and keep the team afloat when he rests. These are good problems to have, and now that Presti has done his job, I’m sure the players are eager to jump-start this experiment next season.
As for the Pacers, this is obviously a disappointing haul for their franchise player, despite their lack of leverage they had with this particular situation. Kevin Pritchard, the leader of Indiana’s front-office, seemed hell-bent on keeping Paul George out of the Eastern Conference, along with operating on his own terms and not the other rival teams. Perhaps these ideals were true, but is it worth being visceral (and even stubborn) instead of taking the best package available?
Boston, even with their high-level of interest, were in no rush in acquiring George. They wanted to wait out the Gordon Hayward Sweepstakes (which they eventually won), move the proper pieces (Avery Bradley to the Pistons) to sign him with enough cap space, then decipher a deal with any remaining players and draft picks. But Pritchard didn’t want to abide to any arbitrary deadlines, so he shipped George out West for pennies on the dollar. Sure, Oladipo is a tough, young local kid, and Sabonis has the potential of turning into a nice stretch-four, but the former signed a hefty extension last year, with the latter still raw and unproven. The Celtics are disappointed, but they landed their most-coveted free agent without giving up any of their assets. Meanwhile, Indiana (and to an extension Utah as well), begin to regress into painful rebuilds now that their 2010 lottery picks (who were ironically drafted back-to-back at the nine and ten spots, respectfully) have moved conferences to more suited teams to take down the Warriors and Cavaliers.
The needle keeps moving across the landscape of the league, but there is no question that the reigning champions in Golden State, along with Cleveland in the East, still remain the favorites to return to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive year. The Warriors retained all of their own free agents: Kevin Durant (at a “discount” rate of $57 million over the next two years, with a player option for 2018-2019), super-subs in Andre Iguodala, Shawn Livingston, and David West, and Stephen Curry with the first “super-max”, $200 million + contract. They even added Nick “Swaggy P” Young on a cheap, one-year deal, because why not?
As for Cleveland, they shift their focus to snagging Carmelo Anthony, the polarizing face of the Knicks. Now that the Phil Jackson fiasco is over with in New York, the Cavs like their chances of bolstering their roster via-trade (since they are capped out all across the board) for the 10-time All-Star. However, as I mentioned with their pursuit for Paul George previously, they’ll need to get creative and bring in a third team to help facilitate, otherwise they’ll hope for a buyout (which the Knicks aren’t in favor of, since they wouldn’t get anything in return). There is also Houston looming, too, the other team that Anthony is willing to waive his no-trade clause for.
Some other lower-tier teams have made some intriguing moves as well:
•Paul Millsap joins the Denver Nuggets in the wild Western Conference party.
•The Sacramento Kings have added three aging, but widely respected veterans in Zach Randolph, George Hill, and Vince Carter (the oldest active player, 40 years young!).
•The Los Angeles Clippers filled the Chris Paul void with trading for the Nuggets swing man Danilo Gallinari and bringing over star European point guard Milos Teodosic.
•Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka remain up north with the Toronto Raptors.
•Rudy Gay, still recovering from an Achilles injury, joins the San Antonio Spurs on a two year deal.
•J.J. Reddick hauls in $23 million for one year to shoot threes and provide veteran leadership to the young nucleus of the Philadelphia 76ers.
•Dirk Nowitzki, a Dallas Mavericks legend, signed for a mere and baffling 2 year, $10 million deal. (Seriously, Mark Cuban better grant him ownership rights after convincing him to take $20 million less than he would have received if he opted into his previous option.)
It’s exciting to see all these moves being made, but now there is an even bigger discrepancy in talent balance between the two conferences. Boston closed the gap on Cleveland, but they are still another player away from taking them down. And now, former threats in Indiana, Chicago and Atlanta are all rebuilding. Sure, there is still Toronto and Washington (who a lot of people are sleeping on), but the path to the Finals is still considered a cakewalk in the East compared to the gauntlet out West. Minus LeBron, the top-15 players reside in the Western Conference.
Paging Adam Silver: can we now start considering seeding the best 16 teams for the playoffs instead? It’s wishful thinking, but with all of this player movement, it’s time to consider that the conference format is outdated.But that discussion is for another time.
Teams are throwing out piles of money left and right to players of all levels of skill sets, trying to play catch-up to the big dogs. But as long as Joe Lacob and Dan Gilbert, the owners of the Warriors and Cavaliers, continue to allow the heavy luxury tax burdens of keeping their championship teams in tact, it may not change the inevitable of them meeting again next June.
Regardless, let’s see if some more late fireworks go off throughout the summer.