This is what happens when you get the ideal blend of certainty, optimism and cold reality in the NBA. They’ve all fallen into place since the NBA Finals ended, setting off this flurry of dealmaking that beats any trade deadline day in recent memory.
It helps to have the lottery done and the playoffs complete. The lottery teams know exactly what picks they have, and the teams that reached the postseason have a sense for their distance or proximity to a championship. For instance, the Boston Celtics found themselves with the No. 1 overall pick and decided they’d rather move down to the third sport belonging to the Philadelphia 76ers while picking up another first-round pick for next year. That kicked off this whole swap season.
Also, the pretense is gone. No more polite talk from Paul George, no more acting as if the Indiana Pacers are part of his long-term plans. He wants out, preferably to the Los Angeles Lakers. And there’s no more double-speak from the Chicago Bulls, who now refrain from calling Jimmy Butler the long-term foundation of their team and have never been more active about shopping him than they are now.
If you like offseason action it’s also beneficial to have the Lakers believing in themselves again, betting that the combination of salary-cap space and their lore and their location can attract premier free agents. Three straight summers of whiffing on the big names had made the previous regime of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak gun-shy, so they bailed on that strategy last summer and spent their dollars on Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. That change of direction turned out to be a temporary blip and went out the door with Buss and Kupchak when Jeanie Buss engineered a front-office makeover in February.
Now Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are in charge, and the Lakers are back in the business of taking big swings. They made their opinions of both Mozgov’s contract (three years and $48 million left on it) and D’Angelo Russell’s potential known by sending them to the Brooklyn Nets, with the primary prize being the expiring contract of Brook Lopez. Russell couldn’t see the writing on the wall. He had wondered aloud why the Lakers kept bringing in point guard prospects in pre-draft workouts. Now he has the answer, and we know exactly what lengths the Lakers would go to move one of their big contracts.
Getting out of Mozgov’s contract has the Lakers on their way to potentially offering two maximum contracts to free agents in the summer of 2018. It also puts them in the hunt for LeBron James.
LeBron looms over everything this summer, even though he won’t become a free agent until next year. Will the Cavaliers make a trade in an effort to win one more championship while he’s there and possibly convince him to stay? Will co-stars such as Kyrie Irving want out now rather than get left behind when LeBron leaves?
During the NBA Finals, the pregame courtside chatter kept circling back to LeBron and the belief he wants to get to L.A., where he has a house in Brentwood and an office on the Warner Bros. studio lot. It was more about the destination than the team, and with Jerry West now consulting with the Clippers, their biggest move so far this offseason, there’s a fascinating potential battle between West and Magic, two of the four Laker players immortalized by statues outside of Staples Center, competing to see which locker room inside the building will house LeBron.
It was West who engineered the free-agent pursuit of Shaquille O’Neal in 1996. That was the last marquee free agent the Lakers landed. Four years ago Dwight Howard was the first big name to leave the Lakers behind. That was now three teams ago for him. Howard was back in the news again Tuesday, part of a surprisingly nondescript trade from the Atlanta Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and a swap of second-round picks. It spoke to a variety of things: the decline of Howard, the diminishment of the center position and the Hawks abandoning the notion of contending.
The Hawks started in that direction when they let Kyle Korver go to the conference rival Cavaliers during the season. It continued with the Howard trade (no reason to keep paying him $23.5 million a year if he can’t get the team closer to a championship than before he got there) and could be finalized if Paul Millsap leaves in free agency.
It also could close out a four-year NBA cycle. If we think of the league in terms of Olympic periods or presidential elections, the NBA is in a far different state than it was in 2013. That year’s All-Star Game featured both Howard (with the Lakers) and Lopez (with the Nets). Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett participated; now they’re all retired. Deng and Joakim Noah represented the Bulls. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were all there for the Miami Heat. Kevin Durant was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, LaMarcus Aldridge with the Portland Trail Blazers. David Lee beat out Stephen Curry as the Golden State Warriors’ lone representative.
That seems like a long time ago. Last week seems like a long time ago. The NBA Finals just ended, the draft hasn’t started, free agency has yet to begin, and it feels as if the landscape has shifted noticeably. Welcome to the new swap season.