NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers

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Leonard turned the NBA on its head by signing with the Clippers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Chaos. Absolute chaos. That is the best way to sum up NBA free agency in 2019. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are teaming up with the Clippers. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined forces in Brooklyn. Anthony Davis finally landed in Los Angeles alongside LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins. That doesn’t even include Al Horford, Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker signing with new teams.

It was one of the craziest weeks in the history of the league. At the end of the day, the league’s power dynamic has completely shifted. The NBA officially runs through Los Angeles. It is time to assess the winner and losers from this wild free agency period.

los_angeles_clippers_logo_1984-2010Winners: Los Angeles Clippers
Wow. No one saw this coming. The Clippers were long linked to Kawhi, but no one expected him to go there alongside George. The former Thunder superstar forced his way out of OKC and now creates a superstar pairing with a ton of depth around them. Los Angeles has to be the title favorite heading into the season.

Russell WestbrookLoser: Russell Westbrook
This cannot be where Russ expected to be when free agency opened. The talks are already rumbling about a potential Westbrook trade so Oklahoma City can truly enter a rebuild. He finds himself without a co-star on a team that still couldn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. His days in OKC are numbered.

800px-adam_silver_281584700477129Winner: The NBA
Do you remember there ever being a more exciting free agency period in another sport? MLB is coming off a year where huge names moved, but it took so long that the fun was lost. The NBA is in a league of its own when it comes to exciting offseason drama. It is clearly dominating the headlines and will be the talk of the sports world well into the month of July, not a typical situation for basketball.

toronto_raptors-wordmarkLosers: Toronto Raptors
Leonard is gone. Danny Green is gone. That’s 40 percent of the Raptors’ championship-winning starting lineup set to play next year in Los Angeles. Toronto is far from a rebuild, still boasting Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam. The bench is deep, but this team no longer has a top-five star to lean on. The Raptors will be good, but they are no longer anywhere near the title conversation.

Nets logoWinners: Brooklyn Nets
It is easy to almost forget about the Nets given the moves the Clippers just made, but Brooklyn set itself up to be a contender from 2020 onward. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan join a team full of young talent and perimeter shooting. The Nets even made the playoffs last season without their new big three. Without Durant, they don’t have the makeup of a real contender, but when he returns, they will be firmly in the conversation.

9163126439_ba341593de_bLoser: New York Knicks
It’s hard to talk about one basketball team in New York without bringing up the other. The narrative all season was that the Knicks were poised to land a bunch of stars in the offseason. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis were all mentioned. Instead, New York’s big free agency move was to land Julius Randle. That is barely a consolation prize by comparison to what could have been. Given the fact the Knicks also missed out on the Zion sweepstakes, fans are going to be very unhappy with how this offseason went.

1280px-los_angeles_lakers_logo.svg_Winners: Los Angeles Lakers
No, they didn’t win the Kawhi sweepstakes, but it might be a good thing for the Lakers for this year. With limited cap space, the Lakers filled out the rest of their roster, bringing back Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Then they landed the floor-stretching Danny Green and continuing reclamation project DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins showed flashes of his All-Star potential in the postseason, before he suffered another injury. There is a decent amount of injury risk with this team, but if it can stay healthy, Los Angeles is much closer to an NBA title than it was a year ago.

charlotte_hornets-wordmarkLosers: Charlotte Hornets
This continues to be one of the worst run franchises in the NBA. Kemba Walker skipped town and the Hornets overpaid to bring in Terry Rozier. He might be 25 years old, but paying him over $19 million a year seems pretty steep. This team is capped out otherwise and seems to be nowhere near the playoff conversation. Charlotte will finally have more flexibility next season, but losing Walker makes it tough to qualify this as anything other than a loss.

philadelphia76ers2Winners: Philadelphia 76ers
Lost in the shuffle of all this is the fact the Sixers reloaded for another run. Signing Tobias Harris, sending Jimmy Butler to Miami for Josh Richardson and signing Al Horford makes Philly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. It will be interesting to see how this team lines up, Ben Simmons could play point guard, but it seems like this is the best positioned team to challenge Milwaukee in the East next year.

cleveland_cavaliers_wordmarkLosers: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs are undoubtedly in a rebuild and seemed poised to move high-priced veterans like Kevin Love and JR Smith. With free agency mostly over and every roster seemingly set, it is going to be more difficult to move either or both players. Cleveland had a window to reshape the roster and it feels like it missed out.

miami_heat_wordmarkWinners: Miami Heat
For whatever reason, Pat Riley never wants to go through a rebuild. Miami reloaded again by adding Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade deal with Philly. Suddenly, the Heat are in the mix to continue to build. Don’t expect the Riley to sit around idly either. He will be aggressive in acquiring more pieces to surround Butler and Dion Waiters.

minnesota_timberwolves_wordmarkLosers: Minnesota Timberwolves
There were a lot of rumors this was a likely destination for DeAngelo Russell. Not only did Minnesota not land him, they failed to move Andrew Wiggins’ bloated contract as well. Signing Jordan Bell was a savvy, but Minnesota went through another offseason without finding a way to build around Karl-Anthony Towns. In a loaded Western Conference, this team feels further away from the playoffs than they did a year ago.

memphis_grizzlies_wordmarkWinners: Memphis Grizzlies
Make no mistake, Memphis is nowhere near competing with the top tier teams in the West, but they are leaning into the rebuild. The Grizzlies sent Mike Conley to Utah and acquired Andre Igoudala and a first round pick from the Warriors as part of a salary dump. They will continue to be active, already adding Delon Wright to the list of veterans shipped out.

 

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The better finals rematch

Golden State completed one of the great comebacks in NBA history beating Oklahoma City to advance to the NBA Finals. Those finals against Cleveland began Thursday and I have to admit that I am a little disappointed.

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Steph Curry is the reigning MVP for a second straight year. (Wikimedia Commons)

I know watching Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shoot is fun and the Draymond Green against LeBron James matchup has been interesting, but there was a much better rematch I was hoping to see in the finals this year.

It wouldn’t necessarily have been between two teams as much as it would have been between two players. Think back to four years ago when James was still wearing a Miami uniform. At this time in 2012, LeBron still had not won a ring. Neither had his main adversary in that year’s finals, Kevin Durant.

Fast forward four years and Durant is still seeking that ring while LeBron is desperately trying to bring Cleveland a title. Watching those two matchup again in the finals, granted with much different supporting casts, would have been epic to see.

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James and the Cavaliers have struggled against Golden State this season, but fared well versus Oklahoma City. (Wikimedia Commons)

It was a great battle the first time around. Durant averaged over 30 points a night, while LeBron posted 28, 7 and 10 per game. It was a battle of wills that Durant lost due to having a much weaker supporting cast. He had Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, but that was no match for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in their prime.

Outside of LeBron and Durant matching up, there are a few other matchups I would have loved to see in a Thunder-Cavaliers series, one of them involving the aforementioned Westbrook. He is one of the best pure scorers in the league at this point. His athletic blend makes him a nightmare to guard. One of the players best-suited to slowdown Westbrook is Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving.

We never got to see the two faceoff in the regular season, as Irving missed the first game as he continued to recover from that gruesome knee injury last year. He played just nine minutes in the second meeting. The regular season only scratched the surface of what this matchup could have been.

Kyrie Irving
Irving only played in Game 1 last year before fracturing his knee. (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not saying for a minute that I will not be watching the finals now as a result of the Thunder not being a part of it, or that the repeat of last year’s finals won’t be interesting (especially now that Kevin Love and Irving are healthy), but I think we certainly got robbed.

I have to take what I can get though, and I might as well make a prediction. Cleveland took pretty much this same Golden State team to six games last year, despite missing two of it’s best players.

The Warriors took the first two games. I don’t think Cleveland will end up getting swept. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them snag two wins before the Warriors close it out. Repeat of last year, Golden State wins in six games and the Cavs spend another offseason wondering what went wrong.

King James turns back the clocks

LeBron JamesIt is always fun to turn back the clocks and reminisce about the days of old. LeBron James is doing that and then some right now in the NBA Playoffs. James has been on fire in the Eastern Conference Finals and is showing shades of his 2007 self. Even beyond that, this current Cavs team is starting to resemble the 2007 versions more and more as the playoffs roll on. It is slowly morphing into the LeBron show with a couple of random sidekicks jumping in every night to make an impact. The comparison is kind of scary.

The 2007 Cavaliers finished the season number two in the conference and entered the playoffs as a true title contender. James led the way and carried a team full of relatively unknown commodities. The starting lineup around LeBron consisted of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlović, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskus. None of those guys were superstars by any means, and none of them scored more than 15 points a game in the regular season.

Obviously, this year’s Cavs have some more fire power but the pieces are continuing to fall as more of the burden falls on James. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both are nursing injuries that could cost them the rest of the playoffs. The Cavaliers starting lineup now features Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov alongside James. None of these guys have average more than 14 points a game since the playoffs began.LeBron_James_Wiz

Once again, the King is forced to prove why he sits on the throne. LeBron has done a very good job of answering the call so far. In three games without Irving or Love on the floor this postseason, James has tallied 27.3 points, 11.7 assists and 12 rebounds per night. Everyone points to that 2007 squad as the team that LeBron single-handedly brought to the finals, but he only average 25 points along with 8 helpers and 8 boards. Despite being 8 years older, James is playing even better now.

LeBron_James_Defensively, James is playing like his younger self as well. After registering 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per contest during the regular season, James has turned it up a notch. The King is now posting 1.8 thefts and 1.3 rejections on a nightly basis since he’s entered the playoffs. Those numbers are identical as well to his 2007 playoff numbers.

The amazing thing is the transformation LeBron has undergone in that time. His game is very different now than it was 8 years ago but James is still proving to be productive. James is relying on his three-point shot less than ever and playing a lot more around the hoop. In fact 50.3 of James shots have come within ten feet this postseason. He continues to bang with guys in the paint and slash his way to the basket. What a difference this is now from what we saw when James relied on his jump shot and post fadeaway more often than not.

He does better with opponents around him too. LeBron has attempted 60 percent of his shots with an opponent less than four feet away from him. He has connected on 49 percent of them. Oddly enough, on the other 40 percent of his shots where an opponent is more than four feet away, James has only hit about 33 percent of those shots. This doesn’t take into account where he was on the floor but it is certainly interesting to see that he seems to relish some contact.LeBron_James_vs_Andre_Roberson

This was supposed to be a competitive Cleveland team because of the new Big 3 that was planning to take the league by storm. With only LeBron left standing of those three, they are still as viable a title threat now as they were before. Part of that is because of the three-point shooting from Dellavedova, Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Mozgov and Thompson’s rebounding certainly go a long way as well but without James this team would not have a prayer of beating Atlanta, much less winning a title.

Irving should return soon though and if he does at full strength this Cleveland team could challenge Golden State in the Finals. They would be deep enough at guard to contend with the Warriors backcourt rotation and they can answer with some three-pointers of their own. I am pulling for a Warriors-Cavaliers matchup now just because of the intensity that series could bring. James would likely faced Draymond Green on a night-to-night basis, which would be a great matchup. LeBron is hitting his stride at the right time so even Green might have trouble King James.

2007 might be long behind him but if James continues to play like he’s 23, he might just land himself another title and really turn up the heat on the conversation for greatest player of all time.

Some Love lost in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers have returned to being one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference this year with LeBron James’ return home. However, this team has its fair share of deficiencies, starting with how players fit together on the floor. It is no secret that Kevin Love has had a tough year. He has been a decent contributor but not at the level that the Cavs thought he would play when they acquired him last summer.

Love is posting career lows as a starter in attempts per game and makes per game this year. His shooting percentage is at its worst mark in a season where Love has started at least 20 games. His rebound average is the lowest it has been since his rookie year. On top of all of that, Love’s scoring has dipped by almost ten points this season. He clearly does not fit with the Cavaliers. Realistically, Love will likely leave Cleveland at the end of the season with his contract set to expire. Here are the best places that Love could land next offseason.

Minnesota Timberwolves: This would be the icing on the cake for the T-Wolves. Getting Love back and hanging on to Wiggins. Essentially, the Cavaliers would have traded for the 3-time All-star in exchange for clearing Anthony Bennett of the books. This is not the most likely scenario, as Minnesota will probably be looking elsewhere to spend their money. With a ton of youth, the Wolves could look to sign a veteran power forward instead. Either way, the Wolves have a need at the position and Love would certainly fit their system. However, Minnesota ranks as the worst defensive team in the league. Love, who is primarily an offense first player, would be benefit from playing elsewhere.

New Orleans Pelicans: With Omar Asik’s contract about to expire, he could become expendable. Enter Love and suddenly, the Pelicans have one of the best duos in basketball in their frontcourt. Anthony Davis and Love teamed up together could be scary. Love would also assuredly benefit from Davis’ shot blocking presence, negated much of his poor play defensively. Unfortunately, Love could run into the same problem that he has in Cleveland. There would be a lot of mouths to feed in New Orleans with Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Davis and Love all wanting high volume touches.

Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks are one of the best defensive squads in basketball and with Larry Sanders unlikely to return, the Bucks could use a new body in their frontcourt. Love’s addition to Milwaukee could pose some problems with Jabari Parker’s return next season and Giannis Antetokounmpo already stationed at small forward. Love would be able to take over as a lead scorer on this team though as the Bucks have zero front court players scoring more than ten points per game. Plus, with Milwaukee ranking at 25th in rebounds per night, adding Love would be a welcome addition.

Indiana Pacers: The odds that this one happens might be the highest of any team. It makes a lot of sense to me. Love is a great scorer and can play alongside one other top scorer in Paul George. He would join a team that is one of the best defensively in the league, which is a perfect fit for Love. On top of that, he would play alongside a great rim protector in Roy Hibbert and an excellent distributor in George Hill. And no one else on the Pacers requires a ton of touches except for George, which creates a nice opening for Love to come in and be an elite scorer. This moves when it is broken down makes a ton of sense and would propel Indiana into the conversation of best team in the East if George returns the same.

Love might return to Cleveland because he wants a shot at a championship but he would be smart to walk away. This is not the best spot for him and he would benefit tremendously playing elsewhere. It will be an interesting year in free agency and teams would likely be willing to spend a year in biting the bullet of the luxury tax knowing that the 2016 offseason will provide a massive boost to the cap. Getting a top offense weapon like Love in a weaker offseason will be a smart move for an offensive needy team. Now it just remains to be seen who will make a run for the former UCLA product.

What’s wrong with the Cavaliers?

Cleveland was finally supposed to have something to be proud of regarding sports. This city was supposed to see an NBA superstar team rise up with the acquisition of LeBron James and Kevin Love this offseason. Those two, paired with Kyrie Irving were expected to turn the Cavaliers into a top 3 team in the Eastern Conference and compete for a spot in the NBA Finals. However, this team has been average at best. James has not been as dominant as usual. Love has struggled to find his where he fits into the offense on this team. With Cleveland announcing that center Anderson Varejao has been lost for the year due to a torn Achilles, this team does not seem to be in good shape.

They sit fifth in the Eastern Conference through 32 games and would be set for series against Chicago in the first round if the season ended today. The Cavs’ point differential is an average +2.5 and rank near the middle of the league in both points for and points against (13th and 14th). LeBron and company rank 11th in shooting percentage but a lowly 25th in shooting percentage against. This team commits the same number of turnovers as it generates. Every aspect of this team shouts average. The Cavaliers do not seem to do anything especially well, other than maybe scoring fast break points. With all of the moves the Cleveland front office made spanning for landing James in free agency, to mortgaging the team’s future on Love, to bringing in a new head coach in David Blatt, to signing veterans Mike Miller, James Jones and Shawn Marion. This Cavs team resembles nothing of what it did a year ago. And it has drastically improved, just not to the level it was expect to reach. Now it is time to uncover what is holding them back.

The biggest issue has been Love’s contribution to the team. The power forward was good in Minnesota as a scorer and rebounder. Part of that though was due to the sheer volume of the offense that ran through the former Timberwolf. Love is taking close to six fewer shots per game this season than last season and his shooting percentage has dropped from 45.7% to 43.4% from the field. From beyond the arc, the drop is even worse as Love has declined from 37.6% to 33.8%. As a result, Love’s scoring average has dropped from 26.1 to 17.1. On top of that, the All Star forward has seen his rebounding totals drop from 12.5 to 10.2. Much of this can be explained away by James and Irving’s offensive skill while Love is trying to learn a new system but this is a fairly large decline in production. Love does not really fit in well for Cleveland. The Cavs really need a defensive presence around the basket and he does not provide it. The best thing the Cleveland brass can hope to do is trade Love away in exchange for a couple of draft picks, a little more depth and, most importantly, a rim protector.

Another major setback for the Cavs has been the lack of production from role players. Players like offseason acquisitions Miller, Jones and Marion have fallen flat while younger talent such as Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson have failed to make enough of an impact. Waiters is the only player averaging over 10 points per game. Marion is averaging just over five points and Jones and Miller are averaging less than four points per game. If we saw anything from the James’ days with Miami, it was that role players make a huge impact on a team when they play well. Without them, it is very hard to be a top team in the league.

LeBron also hasn’t been the same dominant player he used to be either. He is scoring two points fewer per game. More importantly, his shooting percentage has dropped from 56.7% to 48.8%. That is a huge drop off and it hurts the Cavaliers due to James’ overall drop in efficiency. His rebound numbers are down by about two per game as well while his assists are on the rise. LeBron is morphing slightly this season but his transformation has not been enough to benefit the Cavaliers. He also has had all of the minutes he has played catch up to him as well. LeBron has missed a few games this season and has been playing banged up throughout the entire season to date.

This combination of players has essentially been a bit of an experiment. Mixing Irving, who is a score first point guard, Love, who relies on his outside shooting opportunity and a high usage percentage, and James, who is arguably the best pure scorer in the league behind Kevin Durant does not translate to success. These three players are each talented in their own right but do not mesh well as a team. This is not a team that is capable of winning a championship with its current roster. This offseason will surely see a lot of changes for the Cavaliers. There is a reason the James only signed a two-year contract. He wanted to be sure this would all work out. Do not be surprised if he looks to leave Cleveland again when it expires unless the roster is seriously overhauled. It simply does not work right now. I do not think it will ever work. The best thing for Cleveland would be to rework the lineup and find a pure point guard and a defensive big man in exchange for Love while switching Irving to more of a scoring guard role. All of this is unlikely but that’s the only way this team will be successful while keeping its current core.