People often mistakenly refer to the summer months of the calendar as the “offseason” for the NBA, but if the last several years have been any accurate indication, the NBA’s summer presents a strong reshaping of the league’s dominant teams at a yearly rate.
In the first offseason following LeBron James once again leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers—this time for some fun in the sun with the Los Angeles Lakers—it was practically an all-out sprint by NBA franchises to retool, reload, and catch the eye of stars in order to either compete with a mellowed James in the Western Conference, or Eastern Conference teams seeing a clear runway to grabbing a spot in the Finals.
First—although definitely not first chronologically—reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left the Toronto Raptors to join his native Los Angeles Clippers. While this was hardly an early move to occur on the chess board of NBA free agency, it will certainly be seen in the future as the most impactful. That could be argued if Kevin Durant entered his own unrestricted free agency this past summer as healthy, but unfortunately that was not the case.
Leonard’s western expansion move fell in conjunction with the Clippers trading for Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Paul George; yes, it was not technically a free agency acquisition, but nevertheless it was still a huge piece off the board and had to be made for Leonard, who kept quiet all through June and early July, too, to sign with the Clips.
While the Leonard-George duo landing with the Clippers may be seen as a counter to Staples Center rivals Lakers acquiring Anthony Davis, in its own self-contained way, it was a long time coming after months, nay, years of speculation that Kawhi wanted to play with former nemesis James with the Lakers. Leonard buoyed purple and gold fans’ dreams by joining Doc Rivers’ team and opened a Pandora’s box of possibilities in the East.
Without Leonard, the Eastern Conference is brimming with hopeful challenges. First and foremost are the Milwaukee Bucks, who had a relatively poor offseason. The Bucks, home for reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, lost their former Rookie of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon, who is not a “star” in the NBA but was a vastly important contributor for Milwaukee on both sides of the ball. Milwaukee, losers in the conference finals to eventual-champs Kawhi and the Raptors, replaced Brogdon with veteran swingmans Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver. Under Coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks want to surround the devastating matchup that is the Greek Freek with timely shooters.
Another challenger in the East are the Philadelphia 76ers, who also lost to the Raptors in the latter’s 2019 playoffs run. The Sixers made a relatively immense decision during the offseason by shipping Jimmy Butler—by way of a four-team sign-and-trade—and getting in return young wing Josh Richardson. Now add All-Star big man Al Horford coming from the Atlantic Division rival Boston Celtics and re-signing Tobias Harris, and Philly likely has the most talent-laden top-five lineup in the conference. Losing shooter JJ Redick could be difficult for the young team, but Brett Brown’s club will be stifling defenders come the fall, certain to pester opponents on any given night in the NBA.
Recapping the East would not be complete without talking about the Brooklyn Nets. At the cost of sending semi-homegrown star D’Angelo Russell out the door, the Nets acquired All-Stars in Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, and Durant. On a surface level it’s the grandest haul of the 2019 summer, but there could be a deeper loss when Durant returns in good health.
KD signed a four-year deal with the club, but he might not play this season; next season will be his first year back from the injury, and that could leave one or two “good” years of Durant for Brooklyn. Obviously, even an imperfect Durant is a solid boast for any team, but in the short term a lot of the Nets’ success may derive from how well Irving functions as a leader and cooperative of head coach Kenny Atkinson and a feisty team now inviting elite talent following a rebuilding phase.
Replacing Irving with the Boston Celtics is Kemba Walker, who reportedly was unhappy with the contract offer from the Charlotte Hornets, his then-only NBA organization where he earned three All-Star selections. It’s facile to say Walker will simply take over Kyrie’s shoes with Boston, but overall the Celtics are going to look very different in 2019-20, especially without Horford, replaced by Enes Kanter. Boston will look more like the Isaiah Thomas team but with improved wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Walker entering the fray will provide a clutch gene the franchise has been sorely lacking in years.
Finally, we should highlight some of the non-playoff teams in the Western Conference that look different after the offseason. The Sacramento Kings were extremely close to breaking their lowly franchise record for missing 13 consecutive postseasons. The Kings re-signed one-time champion in veteran forward Harrison Barnes and made underrated signings in big man Dewayne Dedmon and Trevor Ariza. While still a relatively young team, the Kings could finally reach the playoffs under rising star point guard De’Aaron Fox, who guides a quickly paced team that plays with intensity.
The Dallas Mavericks (re-)signed Kristaps Porzingis, who has yet to play a single game for the franchise after he was acquired last January from the New York Knicks. The one-time All-Star big man is coming off an ACL tear, but the Mavs have hopes for the EuroDuo in Porzingis and reigning Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic. While not exactly a deep team, should Dallas capture the magic in the game-bending talents of Doncic and Porzingis, they will be another challenger to make the leap into the Western Conference playoffs next year.
Free agent movement in the NBA can normally predict how teams are trending. Despite the noise, however, the top-contending teams are predicated on chemistry and low roster turnover—some semblance of continuity or togetherness, in other words. Nevertheless, if this past summer reveals anything, it’s that stars are flexible in the NBA, and until a team can lock down one or more, they will spend the rest of their days chasing the coattails of rising franchises passing by.