By Jesse Bender
“You finally, really did it. YOU MANIACS! GOD DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!”
When George Taylor uttered these words, it was in despair over finding the Statue of Liberty’s remains beach-side. When I uttered these words last night, it was in despair over the clear tampering violations, and LeBron James deciding to spend his next 4 professional seasons beachside.
Of course, we are not surprised. NBA fans, media & personnel have seen this coming for what seems to be a decade. What did surprise me is how quickly he agreed to the contract, which speaks to the theory that this deal has long been done, it was just waiting for the calendar to turn to July. In 2010, James announced July 8th that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami in the infamous “Decision” TV special. In 2014, it was July 11th when he published that Sports Illustrated piece on his return to Cleveland. The difference between those announcements, and yesterday’s announcement via a Klutch Sports Group tweet (very 2018), is LeBron’s mind was already made up before free agency began. In 2010, and 2014 he weighed all his options. This year LeBron did not take a single meeting personally, instead electing to allow his representatives to meet with Philadelphia or all together spurning Houston. The meeting with the 76ers was likely just a courtesy due to the fact Klutch also represents Ben Simmons, but why didn’t Chris Paul, one of LeBron’s closest friends, receive that same courtesy? The path to Houston was always unlikely due to their current cap situation, they would have had to trade away some important parts of its core to be able to afford LeBron. After a very successful season, I thought the Rockets had at least earned a meeting with the best player in the world. Even Cleveland got a phone call before the tweet was sent.
Houston will have to redirect. They already brought back Paul on an inevitable max contract after the wink-wink opt in and trade last June, the next step is Clint Capela (easy to do if they are ready to pay luxury and repeater taxes, they can match any contract Capela is offered as he is a RFA).
Houston has a few problems however. Last season, it was a foregone conclusion that the Rockets would face the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. This upcoming year, while I would still bet on those two teams being the last two left, you cannot count out LeBron James. The Lakers, as they are currently constructed, are maybe slightly more talented than the Cave team that Lebron left Koby Altman to deal with, but much younger and little to no playoff experience. LeBron is coming off his 8th straight Finals appearance, and the Lakers can still free up approximately $30 million more in cap space by stretching or trading Luol Deng and renouncing Julius Randle’s cap hold (which they did), and they are certainly not done building. In early January when Cleveland was in the midst of turmoil, I implored a few close friends heading to Vegas for a weekend to bet on Cleveland to make the Finals while the odds were low. Sure enough, weeks later he had new teammates and months later he was in the Finals. The Lakers are already a shoe in for home court advantage in next year’s playoffs, barring any major injuries, or random super-teams appearing.
Houston also saw Trevor Ariza leave for a fat, 1 year, $15 million contract in Phoenix. An interesting move for the young Suns team. They probably would have been better off using that $15 million on a PG, Fred Van Vleet who returned to Toronto on a 2-year $18 million deal, would have fit perfectly with that young roster. Ariza is a well-respected veteran who has had a Robert Horry-like career, and while his leadership and defense surely will benefit Phoenix I cannot see them making the playoffs next season. Even if Devin Booker takes another mini-leap and DeAndre Ayton has a 20/10 rookie season, Ariza won’t be that third piece to put them over the hump. He will be great for Mikal Bridges, who is probably still a little hurt by being traded by Philadelphia on draft night. Ariza played High School ball in Los Angeles, and attended UCLA. He went home in 2007 to play for the Lakers, helping the team win a championship in 2009. That summer, the Lakers spurned him in order to sign Metta World Peace (at the time, Ron Artest) from Houston, where Ariza ended up. The Rockets will miss Ariza, at times he was their 5th best player last season, but at 33 he certainly isn’t worth $15 million. Houston will look to replace him with veteran minimum contracts, but with Golden State & now Los Angeles becoming “destination contenders” they might be scraping the bottom of the barrel here in a couple weeks. It has been reported that the Rockets are interested in trading for Denver’s Wilson Chandler, so keep an eye out for that. Chandler would be a nice replacement for Ariza.
What about the rest of the West? Last season seeds #3 through #9 were separated by 3 games. The Lakers were the 11-seed. Looking through the entire conference, you could make an argument that 14 of the teams have the talent to compete for a playoff spot. The 3 seed last year, Portland, might be the most likely candidate of the top 8 from last season to drop out. They miraculously stayed healthy during the regular season, while every team below them dealt with a major injury to a star or starter. They got swept out of the playoffs by a Boogie-less Pelicans. Portland’s center of the future, Jusuf Nurkic, got exposed by Anthony Davis & Nikola Mirotic in that series, and they might let him walk after he allegedly turned down a “rich” contract extension last Fall. They have long been rumored to trade one of their star guards, keep an eye on Philadelphia if they fall short on the Kawhi sweepstakes.
Oklahoma City is a big winner of the off season thus far, convincing Paul George to stay on a 4-year contract. When Andre Roberson was healthy, the Thunder were the 3rd best team in the West last year and will be better in year 2 if they all stay healthy. They must find a solution for Carmelo Anthony, likely stretching his contract and letting him walk. It will hurt when he signs with the Lakers or Rockets, but the Thunder are looking at the biggest tax bill in NBA history. $130 million is just the tax, add that to the players’ salaries. Oh, don’t forget they only have 11 players under contract with the league minimum being 13. Good on Presti for retaining George, and good on Bennett for ponying up to pay the tax, but to think if they would have just paid the tax in 2012 and kept Durant-Westbrook-Harden together…we may have never had the Warriors dynasty.
Still, it’s a surprise Paul George stayed with the Thunder, after publicly flirting with the Lakers longer than LeBron has, he said “We have unfinished business” …is that referring to the storied rivalry with…. the Jazz?
The Jazz were a surprise team to many last year, and I see them trending upwards still. Snyder is a hell of a coach with a lot of smart role players at his disposal. Donovan Mitchell & Rudy Gobert are great cornerstones to build around, but I also expect Utah to be patient. They are a piece or two and a year or two away from being real competition to the Warriors, Rockets & now the Lakers. The team also just brought back Derrick Favors on a 2 year/ $36 million contract.
Another team I see improving is the Denver Nuggets. After missing the playoffs two years in a row by a single game behind a division rival, they are hungry to prove themselves. They ponied up and paid Jokic a 5-year max contract, as well as brought Barton back. A fully healthy Millsap with those two and the young talented back court of Murray & Harris is a formidable five-man lineup. Add a deep bench and a great working chemistry between all the players, veterans and young guys alike, and they look to be ready to get over the hump. The team is looking to get off a lot of salary (Faried, Arthur, Chandler, and Plumlee). If they’re able to do that, they have the assets to trade for another star. Keep an eye out on Otto Porter Jr.
The Wolves & Pelicans are probably the other most likely candidates to fall out of the playoffs. The Wolves squeaked in last season. While on paper their roster is extremely talented, it is balanced in the wrong ways and they have the wrong coach. Towns is very skilled on the offensive end of the floor, but he remains a turnstile on defense. The Wolves’ fear should be that Towns is just a better shooting Andre Drummond, or is he Blake Griffin but 2 inches taller? Jimmy Butler is a free agent next season and will be 29, looking for a big payday and to spend his last years of his prime contending. Plus, he has the best hair in the NBA. Minnesota’s biggest problem is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has shown flashes throughout his career, but Minnesota jumped the gun giving him that giant extension, he was terrible last season. It has been reported that Wiggins hated being the third option, and it essentially turned him into Harrison Barnes in the 2016 Finals. I have an inkling that a team like the Magic would trade for the upside that Wiggins has, regardless of his awful contract.
The Pelicans looked like they made a mini-leap in the playoffs without Boogie Cousins, which is a positive sign because he might not be long for New Orleans. A team full of players with constant injury problems, watching Playoff Rondo (who just signed with the Lakers), a healthy Jrue Holiday & a just-barely-25 Anthony Davis last year was a blast or everyone around the league. Still, it remains to be seen how they handle their off season. They are mostly capped out, and still a wing or two from being competitive with the top of the West. Teams like Boston are waiting for a scent of Davis wanting out to offer their chest of assets. The team just signed forward Julius Randle to a two year contract, with a player option after next season.
That leaves San Antonio. What a mess. If fans of Portland, Minnesota or New Orleans are upset about my projections of them potentially falling out of the top 8, they should at least feel blessed they aren’t in the same situation Kawhi has put Popovich and Buford in. I refuse to believe Popovich will help set up the next Lakers dynasty on his way out of the league. As of today, I fully believe Pop would rather retire early then be a part of Kawhi joining the Lakers. It is clear this is a frustrating scenario. Kawhi is under contract for one more year for San Antonio, but allegedly is threatening to sit out the 2018-19 NBA season if he is not traded to Los Angeles. Remember how Popovich reacted to the Lakers acquiring current Spur Pau Gasol in 2008? It’s clear Leonard is in violation of his contract if he refuses to play next season, and Magic Johnson is in violation of anti-tampering Laws. Chances the Spurs trade Kawhi to the Lakers with Pop in San Antonio are ~5% unless the Lakers unload all their assets (Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Hart). There is maybe a 20% chance he does get dealt to the Clippers however…Pop would love to set up some animosity between Jerry “Kanye” West and Magic Johnson in the Staples Center.
I touched on Phoenix earlier, they will be better than 21-61 this upcoming year, but they will not compete for playoff spot. Not yet. The Mavericks are in a similar spot, they will be better but will not compete even with DeAndre Jordan in the mix. I am super Team-Luka and can see him averaging 20-5-5 in his rookie year, and Rick Carlisle is a great coach for a guy like him. Mavs fans should be excited but shouldn’t expect a playoff spot for another year or two. The Grizzlies have long said they are attempting to make the playoffs, and if Conley & Gasol come back healthy they certainly have the potential to win some games, but they are in desperate need of shooting on the wings. The Clippers are also interesting. There are a lot of good players on their roster that are good at helping their teams win games, but it’s clear they are not done shaking their roster up. After letting Jordan walk, they are clearly up to something.
Shout out to Sacramento.
The parity between the two conferences is laughable. The NBA would be better off getting rid of conferences for playoff seeding. They could borrow from another professional sport for a solution, a la splitting into two leagues like Major League Baseball. Each league having slightly different rules would provide an interesting wrinkle in the season, and you could double every award, which means doubling every sponsor. They could take from Futbol, promoting and relegating teams as they succeed or falter. We could see Boston or Philadelphia getting promoted to League A and Sacramento or Memphis getting relegated to league B. Somehow the odds of making it out of the Western Conference are worse than surviving Thanos’ snap in Infinity War.