Since the Golden State Warriors captured their second title in last three seasons, the other 29 NBA teams have been putting in major work from the draft and prior to the start of free agency this weekend to put themselves in position to either contend with the Warriors; position themselves to for a better run or to even get into the postseason or have better chance in the future to just make the playoffs. There has been a lot of activity that has occurred and the first major move took place even before the start of free agency and it involved the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.
On Wednesday, the Rockets acquired nine-time All-Star lead guard Chris Paul from the Clippers in exchange for starting guard Patrick Beverly; forward Sam Dekker; guard Lou Williams; forwards Montrezl Harrell, Ryan Kelly, DeAndre Liggins and Kyle Wiltjer, a 2018 Top-3 protected First-Round pick and cash considerations.
The team also agreed to re-signed backup center Nene to a new three-year, $11 million deal. They also according to “The Vertical,” agreed to sign forward/guard P.J. Tucker to a four-year $32 million.
“Whenever you can add a USA Basketball member; a Hall of Famer, it’s pretty easy to make it work,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey said Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on Thursday’s edition of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” about Paul and Harden being able to play together.
“The guys who can play with James Harden are players who can defend, shoot and handle the ball. Usually we have to pick one of those three. With Chris Paul, we get one of the best of all-time and all three.”
Morey also said to Kornheiser and Wilbon during the interview segment “Five Good Minutes,” that head coach Mike D’Antoni, the 2017 NBA Coach of the Year is met with Paul that evening to talk how to make his high octane offensive style work. That by working with both during USA Basketball gives him a major advantage
According to a report from ESPN, the Clippers were determined to get something for a guy that has been the driving force behind the best six-year run in the Clippers history to get something for a guy that has led them to the playoffs for the last six seasons in succession than lose him for nothing as he declined his team option to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday morning at 12:01 a.m.
To put into perspective how big of an addition the former Wake Forest star and Winston Salem, NC native was to the Clippers since joining them in 2011-12, they have made the playoffs in all six of his seasons as their starting floor general and won 50 games or more the last five seasons. In the first 27 seasons the Clippers as L.A.’s second pro basketball team to the Lakers, the Clippers made the postseason just four times (1992, 1993, 1997 and 2006), with their highest win total of 47 wins in the 2005-06 season, where they lost in the Semis to the Phoenix Suns in seven games.
This trade came to fruition because several dominos fell into place. For starters, Rockets All-Star and this season’s runner for MVP James Harden had been recruiting Paul very hard in recent weeks to join him in Houston, TX. They now, at least on paper form one of the most dynamic scoring and playmaking backcourts in “The Association.”
General Manager Daryl Morey had been working hard to clear cap room and contracts to allow the team to acquire Paul. When Paul met with the Clippers front office of owner Steve Balmer, head coach and President of Basketball Operations Glenn “Doc” Rivers last week to hear their plans for winning a title, and even though the Clippers could offer him more money, he felt that their plan was not good enough for him and told Rivers, Balmer and new team consultant Jerry West that he was not going to be in a Clippers uniform next season and that he wanted to pursue a championship elsewhere.
He will try to make that dream a reality with the Rockets, at least for next season as he opted in on the final year of his contract, which will make him an unrestricted free agent next summer, as Rachel Nichols said on the Wednesday afternoon addition of her show “NBA: The Jump.”
In the short term, Paul is leaving close to $11 million on the table, but could collect that money back in the long term, if he does not get injured or something else crazy happens, which it has for Paul in recent years as he has missed some time in the regular season because of injury.
“It’s truly just one more year. We’re hoping to get with him when we’re allowed to get with him and talk about bringing him back,” Morey said Kornheiser and Wilbon.
“We’ve never lost a superstar in Houston. Players fight over playing here with our ownership, and the history. The second-best team record wise in the last 10 years. Two championships. Not many franchises can say they have two championships. So, we’re not worried about in a year convincing him to come back. We feel very good about that. That’s why we have multiple Hall of Fame Banners of our players up in the rafters.”
With Paul out of L.A., the Clippers now needed to focus on re-signing their other All-Star in forward Blake Griffin, who also opted out of the final year of his deal, which made him an unrestricted free agent.
Upon hearing of his now former teammate’s departure, Griffin cancelled meetings with the Phoenix Suns, and Denver Nuggets and he and the team agreed on a new five-year max deal worth $173 million late on Friday night.
“You don’t have Chris Paul. You really don’t have much. I think you have to,” former NBA forward Stephen Jackson said on “The Jump,” on Tuesday. “You need a star. You need somebody to hang your organization on. Blake is the only guy there. The only way I can see them keeping their fans happy and keeping everybody around L.A. happy is at least keeping Blake. You can’t lose Chris and Blake and expect everything to be good at home.”
The big trade that took place at the start of free agency this weekend, Indiana Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George, who had been rumored to be dealt before the start of next season to a few teams this off-season, mainly the Los Angeles Lakers, was dealt in the early hours of Saturday morning to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Pacers in return received guard Victor Oladipo and the No. 11 overall pick in last June’s draft forward Domantas Sabonis.
The recently crowned champions also made their own headlines at the start of the free agency frenzy re-signing All-Star and two-time MVP floor general Stephen Curry to a five-year $201 million supermax deal, which will make him the highest paid player in NBA history. Re-joining him in the Bay Area will be backup guard Shaun Livingston, who agreed to a three-year at $24 million deal. They also agreed to re-sign swingman and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala to a three-year $48 million deal, and according to a report from TNT and NBATV’s Insider David Aldridge, veteran forward David West agreed to re-sign a one-year deal. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Two teams that have unexpectedly have agreed to some solid additions in the early stages of free agency have been the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Philadelphia 76ers.
In an under the radar move, the defending Southwest Division champion San Antonio Spurs agreed to re-sign backup guard Patty Mills to a new four-year $50 million deal. The return of Mills and the solid showing in the postseason from rookie guard Dejounte Murray this past season puts the Spurs at ease as they are unsure when starting lead guard Tony Parker will be back this upcoming season as he recovers from surgery on a quad tendon he ruptured in the Spurs’ Game 2 victory over the Rockets in the Semis back in May.
After acquiring All-Star forward Jimmy Butler along with the No. 16 overall pick in last month’s draft in center Justin Patton, the Timberwolves agreed to sign free agent point guard Jeff Teague to a three-year deal worth $57 million.
This is on the heels of the Timberwolves trading starting lead guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz before back on Friday for a Top-14 protected 2018 First-Round pick. It has also been reported that veteran forward Taj Gibson, who played for head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau, when he was with the Chicago Bulls from 2010-2015 agreed to a two-year $28 million deal.
For the Sixers, who hope that No. 1 overall pick in point guard Markelle Fultz; last year’s No. 1 overall pick in forward/guard Ben Simmons and the No. 3 overall pick from three seasons back in center Joel Embiid, will lead them to consistent playoff appearances in the future and hopefully a championship or two, added some solid veterans to aide them along the way in agreeing to sign sharp shooter J.J. Redick and forward/center Amir Johnson to one-year deals worth $23 and $11 million respectably.
The former Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors, who were ousted in the Semifinals to the eventual back-to-back-to-back Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers, agreed to re-sign forward/center Serge Ibaka, who they acquired at the trade deadline in February to a three-year, $65 million deal.
In hopes of getting more scoring off their bench, the defending Southeast Division champion Washington Wizards agreed to sign guard Jodie Meeks to a two-year $7 million deal.
While re-signing Ibaka is a good thing for the Raptors, they hope to re-sign starting lead guard and three-time All-Star Kyle Lowry. Late Sunday night, it was reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that the Lowry announced he will re-sign with the Raptors, as the two sides agreed on a new three-year $100 million deal.
“At the end of the day, this was an easy decision,” Lowry said in a post on “The Players Tribune.” “And all of those roads… they all led me back to the same place: home. They led me back to Toronto.”
Another team hoping to re-sign their All-Star is the Jazz and their centerpiece Gordon Hayward.
The former Butler forward met with the Miami Heat on Saturday; then the Boston Celtics, where his former college coach Brad Stevens is now as the Celtics head man on the sidelines on Sunday and then is expected to meet with the Jazz today.
The Jazz hope that the addition of Rubio as well as agreeing to re-sign backup guard Joe Ingles to a new four-year deal worth $52 million will signal that they are growing as a team, especially with their seven-game victory in the opening round against the Clippers this past postseason, where they took Game 1 and Game 7 on the Clippers home court.
The team unfortunately with the acquisition of Rubio signaled that they have no intention of bringing back this past season’s starting lead guard George Hill, who had a great season and is very close with Hayward from Hill’s time as a member of the Indiana Pacers.
What the early stages of free agency has signaled is that some of the best players have taken their talents to the Western Conference and for right now the Eastern Conference seems to be the Cavs to lose again.
While the Raptors have their dynamic backcourt back in the fold in Lowry, and fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan and re-signed Ibaka, the question is, are they still in fold to compete with the Cavs for supremacy in the East. The 2016 champions swept them 4-0 in the Semis this past season and for a majority of that series they were dominant even with Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka.
Lowry, who averaged career-highs of 22.4 points, seven assists and 4.8 rebounds per game in 2016-17, said to reporters, according to a story on ESPN.com that he returned to the Raptors because he feels this is the best place for him to win a championship.
“My heart is telling me that this is the best city in the world, with the best basketball fans in the world,” Lowry wrote in his post to “The Players Tribune.” “It’s telling me that the Raptors can be a championship-level team, sooner than later.”
While the Rockets have made a big splash with the acquisition of Paul, the Warriors core of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Livingston, Iguodala and soon to be Finals MVP Kevin Durant remain intact and the Rockets will need to make at least one more move if they can to compete with them for supremacy in the West in 2017-18.
The Rockets of making that a reality will not be easy because the addition of Paul means that the team must remake itself with him being the new floor general in place of Harden who had a career-highs across the board in points, rebounds and led the NBA in assists per game and the Rockets the beneficiaries as the team made an all-time single-season high for three-pointers with 1,181 connections.
“We had a Top-10 offense ever last year, and obviously we were going to work to be better than that. So, I tell Mike, ‘no pressure.’ He’s just got to be the best offense ever now.” Morey said to Kornheiser and Wilbon.
“We think it’s going to work together great. The players that work with him. I think Clint Capela is already planning out his 450 lob dunks he’s going to have this year. When you have very multiskilled guards. It’s a guard’s league. This is today’s NBA. You got to have multiple ball handlers. Multiple shooters and Chris as you know is a tremendous defender on the top defensive team for years and years.”
With all that has transpired for the Rockets this off-season so far, have the moves they made closed the gap between them and the champion Warriors?
Morey, who has used the term “weapons race” in terms of the Rockets loading up their roster to take on the best of the NBA particularly in the West feels that the Rockets have closed that gap between them and Warriors.
While the Warriors have four All-Stars in Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green, and the Cavs have three in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Rockets have only two in Paul and Harden. As Morey pointed out to Kornheiser and Wibon, the Rockets have Eric Gordon, the Sixth Man of the Year and who made the fourth most triples this past season with 246; forward Trevor Ariza, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA as well as a fine marksman from long distance with 191 makes himself in 2016-17 and Ryan Anderson, one of the best stretch power forward in the league with the ninth most threes this past season with 204 connections.
“Normally as were planning this out, we’re trying to get into that 60-win range, which really gives you a very high probability to be the one that’s holding the trophy at the end,” he said to Kornheiser and Wilbon.
“Unfortunately, in today’s NBA, you win 60 games, your odds are usually a little longer than you want to admit. But we got James Harden in his prime. We got Chris Paul in his prime. We have to go all in at this point. That’s why we we’re to get Chris and we’re willing to keep making moves until we can get this team to give Golden State at tough as hell seven-game series.”
For the Timberwolves, their moves signal that they want to end their 13-year playoff drought, the longest currently in the NBA.
To put that into perspective, they have not made the playoffs since they had future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett was a part of the team.
The team hopes that the additions of Butler, Gibson, and Teague, who have been big parts of playoff teams in the parts of playoff teams that have made it to the Conference Finals in the East can drive home some of that wisdom and knowledge to the young talented core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Gieng.
One thing is for sure in the “Twin Cities,” Butler will be ready to go this upcoming season, particularly with the fact that he learned that he was being dealt to the Timberwolves while playing a game of spades with New York Knicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, and his former Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade on the other side of the world.
That is the same hope in the city of “Brotherly Love,” where the Sixers front office hopes that the additions of Redick and Johnson and the work ethic and habits that made them solid players in the NBA rub off on the young core of Fultz, Embiid, and Simmons players to emulate. How to practice? How to take care of your body during the season, especially on off days? How to prepare from for games from the mental aspect? All the small things necessary for a team to perform to its fullest potential.
With Griffin, back in the fold in L.A., the Clippers still have a star player to build around, even though he has missed a tone of game over the past three regular seasons and has had the last two postseasons cut short because of injury.
They will enter this next season without their starting backcourt of the last couple of seasons in Paul and Redick and the question remains, who will at the lead guard spot for the Clippers this upcoming season and going forward. For now, that will go to “Doc” Rivers’ son Austin for the time being, but with some salary coming in with the trade of Paul, they can look at the open market and see if they can find a backup or a starter if they chose to keep Austin coming off the bench.
For the Raptors, it all comes down to how much they want to pay Lowry and for how many years. While he has been an All-Star over the past three seasons and has helped the Raptors have the most successful two seasons in franchise history, he has had his struggles in the playoffs and he is 32 years old. On top of that, the market for point guards has dwindle, especially with Jrue Holiday agreeing to re-sign with the New Orleans Pelicans for five-years at $126 million, with includes a player option after the fourth year.
The hug name left in free agency that still has a big decision to make is Hayward. If he stays with the Jazz, he will still be part of a solid team, with a great young core of Defensive Player of the Year candidate this past season in center Rudy Gobert; the previously mentioned Ingles; backup swingman Joe Johnson; forward Derrick Favors; Rubio and guard Rodney Hood. If he chooses to go East to join the Celtics, he will be reunited with his former college coach as mentioned earlier in Stevens and be joining a team that has a solid chance of becoming a title contender with a mix of young players and veterans, and not to mention has a war chest of draft picks over the next four Junes. If he chooses the Heat, he will be going to a team where he could become their marquee face and one that can become a major player in the East. They showed signs of that by having the best record in the East in the second half of this past season at 30-11 and just missed the postseason. Also, Hayward would be living in a part of the U.S. that has no state income tax, and that the weather is nice all year round.
We’ve seen two major trades happen. A lot of talented players change conferences from the East to the West. The current champions agree to terms with some of their core players to keep the band together to challenge for more titles. One of their conference rivals put themselves in position to challenge them for supremacy, at least on paper. We have an emerging first-time All-Star whose decision on where he decides to go could alter the fate of the franchise that drafted him. It will be interesting to see what occurs next over the next few weeks in the off-season of the NBA and its free agency period.
Information, and quotations are courtesy of 5/5/17 cbssports.com article, “Spurs guard Tony Parker Undergoes Successful Surgery on Injured Quad,” by Jack Maloney; 6/28/17 3:30 p.m. edition of “NBA: The Jump,” on ESPN, presented by LaQuinta Inns & Suites with Rachel Nichols, Brian Windhorst, and Stephen Jackson; 6/29/17 edition of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption, with Tony Kornheiser Michael Wilbon; 6/30/17 11:30 p.m. edition of “Free Agent Fever,” on NBATV with Jared Greenberg, Dennis Scott, and Billy King; 7/1/17 8:30 p.m. edition of “Free Agent Fever,” on NBATV with Kristen Ledlow and Stu Jackson; 7/2/17 ESPN.com article, “Sources: Kyle Lowry re-signs with Raptors on 3-year, $100M Deal;” www.basketball-reference.com/teams/HOU/2017/html; www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2017_leaders.html; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Los_Angeles_Clippers_seasons; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Thibodeau and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Gibson.