13 Jul 2019 NBA Free Agency Review: More All-Stars switched sides this offseason than any other in NBA history, the 2020 title is there for the taking
2019 NBA Free Agency Review – Lead by Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Boston Celtics won their 17th NBA title back in 2008, and in doing so, laid out the blueprint for what would come to be known as the ‘super-team’ era that has swept the NBA in the past 10 years. There have been many attempts at building super-teams, but only three sides have been truly successful.
The Miami Heat, lead by LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, won two titles and went to four consecutive Finals between 2010-2014. James then teamed up with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland and the Cavaliers won one ring and made three visits to the Finals between 2014-2017.
The Cavs appeared in another Finals a year later but this time under the guise of ‘LeBron operating without much help’ rather than super-team, as Irving was traded to Boston at the start of that season. The final and most dominant super-team in recent memory are the Golden State Warriors, who have made the past five NBA Finals and won three titles with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and later, Kevin Durant.
Heading into the 2019-2020 campaign, for the first time in a long time, there are no clear favourites in either conference to reach the Finals, creating a void in which many teams around the league have scrambled to fill this summer. There are favourites, but no clear front-runners, as has been the trend for the past nine years in at least one conference. So how did we get to this point? Here is Plugsville’s 2019 NBA free agency review.
No more clear conference favourites – 2019 NBA Free Agency Review
The Heat made four consecutive NBA Finals, winning two championships. The motto was simple, get hold of three All-Stars and as long as they don’t get injured, you’re the clear favourite to win it all.
For the entirety of James’ second tenure with in Cleveland, they ruled the East. So much so, that Toronto fans had to LeBron’s new nickname, ‘LeBronto’, to recognise that fact that the Cavs eliminated the Raptors three seasons in row between 2016-18. The Cavs faced the Warriors when they had a big three twice and won once, and faced them twice with a big four, and lost on both occasions.
Despite winning two titles and two NBA Finals MVP awards, Kevin Durant’s critics called him a luxury player in Oakland. Not a core component, but rather, a premium add-on to an already-accomplished side, as Draymond Green said to KD’s face earlier in this past season during a heated confrontation.
Durant suffered what was reported to be a ‘calf strain’ in Game 5 of the 2019 Western Conference semi-finals against the Houston Rockets and missed more than a month of action. The Warriors swept the Portland Trail Blazers and breezed into NBA Finals, but slipped into a hole without KD against the Raptors.
Down 3-1 and facing elimination, Durant then (prematurely?) returned from injury for Game 5 of the Finals. Despite being on the cusp of his next huge day and with more accolades under his belt than most superstars in league history, Durant still put his body at risk to help his team, only to suffer a devastating achilles injury after just 11 minutes of action.
With Durant, the Warriors were pretty much unstoppable, going 15-1 in the 2018 play-offs and remained on course to brush aside the Raptors with ease en route to a three-peat. And then the achilles injury happened, Klay Thompson’s tore his ACL, Toronto won their first title, Durant left for Brooklyn, the Warriors are no longer unbeatable and suddenly, the NBA is anyone’s for the taking.
For the first time in a long time, no team from either conference is considered to be an automatic favourite to reach the NBA Finals. Durant’s exit and injury means the league-wide goal has changed from ‘how do we stop the Warriors’ to ‘there is no clear favourite so why can’t it be us this year?’.
When fit, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green represent the league’s lone big-three. The trio have eight wins and ten losses in the NBA Finals games played without Kevin Durant – 4-2 in 2015, 3-4 in 2016 and 4-1 in 2019. Given that KD only played 11 minutes of one game, it’s fair to say that the big three of Curry, Thompson and Green have basically only won one out of three NBA Finals. Contenders? yes. Front-runners? Not anymore.
In the 2019 All-Star Game, there were 27 players. Eight of those players switched sides this summer, which means nearly 30% of the league’s best players will play for a new team next season, a new NBA record.
At the time of writing, Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Lakers as favourites to win their first title since 2010, followed by the Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. The Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics are also considered to be fringe contenders. Here’s a breakdown of some of the major moves this summer to round-off our 2019 NBA free agency review that levelled the playing field as teams compete to win the 2020 title:
Los Angeles Lakers give up huge haul to sign Anthony Davis
The Lakers paid a steep price for Davis but it was a move they couldn’t afford to make. Giving up two former #2 picks in the form of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three future first-round picks is a steep but necessary price to pay for one of the league’s ten best players in his prime.
The trade moved them into contention and kept them alive in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, which they ultimately lost out on. However, the duo of LeBron and Davis is arguably the league’s best. Kawhi or no Kawhi, the Lakers only needed to add a few key role to become contenders, and that’s what they did, as the likes of Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee and Avery Bradley also joined Laker nation.
Kawhi Leonard returns home
When Leonard’s relationship with San Antonio Spurs disintegrated and he demanded out, they responded by sending him to what was considered an ‘unfavourable’ trade destination. Leonard wanted a move to the Lakers but instead was sent to another country. He produced the best-case scenario during his one-year stay in the six and delivered a title, without a ‘star’ team-assemble, winning Finals MVP in the process.
Only three players in NBA history have won NBA Finals MVP for two different teams: Kareem Abdul-Jabber (Bucks & Lakers), LeBron James (Miami, Cleveland) and Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio, Toronto). There is now a race between LeBron and Kawhi to see which Los Angeles superstar can be become the first to be crowned the best player in the Finals on three different championship-winning sides.
Paul George joins Kawhi in Los Angeles
Paul George was one-year into a four-year, £108m deal with the Thunder. But when the opportunity to return home alongside the player they’re calling the league’s very best right now comes knocking, it’s hard to turn that down in favour of staying in one of the NBA’s five smallest media markets. George just experienced one of his best seasons and was a fringe MVP candidate. But for the second straight year, the Thunder were dumped out of the the play-offs in the first round.
The Clippers now boast two of the league’s best two-way players in the league with Leonard and George, one of the best defensive point guards in Patrick Beverley, have a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner on the roster in Lou Williams, talented role players and a championship-winning coach in Doc Rivers. It’s no surprise to see them ranked among the favourites to win it all.
Brooklyn Nets win race to sign Kevin Durant
In an interview with The Breakfast Club, former Warrior Andre Igoudala gave an insight into the pressure heaped upon players when injured. To summarise, Iggy recalled an example of how he had a fractured leg in the 2018 play-offs which was downplayed to the media. Some believe that Durant didn’t suffer a calf strain against the Rockets, but instead incurred an achilles injury which was downplayed, a conspiracy made more believable by Igoudala’s comments.
We can’t say for sure what it was that pushed Durant out of Golden State. Close friend and ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins said Draymond Green’s outburst, in which he called KD a ‘bitch’, a word deemed a step too far in the sporting world, was the final straw. What we do know for certain is that for the next four years, he will reside in Brooklyn, but is unlikely to make his debut until the 2020-21 season because of his injury.
KD moves to Brooklyn but instead of receiving nothing back, the Warriors sent a first-round pick to Brooklyn in a side-and-trade deal to sign D’Angelo Russell, who signed a four-year, £93m contract. Whether Russell stays in the Bay Area long-term or not remains to be seen, but at the very least, he should keep Warriors in the play-off conversation until Thompson returns from injury. Russell is one of the more under-rated pick ups in our 2019 NBA free agency review, because he gives Golden State flexibility they didn’t expect to have moving forward without Durant.
Kyrie Irving signs with his boyhood team
Joining Durant in New York is Irving, who grew up in Jersey and was a New Jersey Nets fan before their move to Brooklyn in 2012. The former #1 pick is coming off two underwhelming seasons in Boston following his trade from Cleveland. He wanted to be the main option to lead his own team to a championship, but instead of remaining in Boston, Ivring has reverted back to being a second option, with DeAndre Jordan joining as third wheel.
Kyrie and KD reportedly began discussing the idea of playing together at the 2016 Rio Olympics and both had a desire to play in New York. The city’s marquee franchise, the Knicks, were touted as the favourite to sign them both, but ultimately ended up empty-handed in the free agency superstar hunt. In just three years, the Nets have gone from having zero building blocks or superstars to having a team with Durant, Irving and multiple young players trending in the right direction after gate-crashing the play-offs last year.
Kemba Walker signs with Boston Celtics
Charlotte didn’t want to go into the luxury tax to retain Kemba Walker, so ended up doing a sign-and-trade deal with Boston and instead signed Terry Rozier to a three-year, £46m deal. If the Hornets knew they didn’t want to commit to Walker, why didn’t owner Michael Jordan move the pair earlier and get more assets in return for their best player for the last nine seasons?
Walker joins a Celtics side who as well as losing Irving, also lost Al Horford this past off-season, giving Boston a core of Walker, Jayson Taytum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward to build around in a wide-open Eastern conference.
Russell Westbrook reunites with an old friend in Houston
After the Thunder secured a king’s ransom for Paul George and kick-started a rebuild, it didn’t make sense to continue paying an ageing player like Westbrook a huge sum of £135m over the next four years. So what did they do? Take on the opportunity to pay an even older player in Chris Paul £129m over the next three years instead.
Paul’s contract is considered to be such a liability-in-waiting, that the Rockets had to give up two first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and rights to swap first-round picks in 2021 and 2025. But if the Rockets find a way to play winning basketball for the next few seasons under Harden and Westbrook, the picks Oklahoma receives are likely to be late first-round picks rather than lottery selections.
The trade injects new life into and more longevity into the Houston Rockets’ title ambitions, while also getting a horrendous contract off the books, albeit for the price of two picks and pick swaps.
Who knew that the Damien Lillard sinking a walk-off buzzer-beater to clinch the play-off series against the Thunder would be the last time we see Westbrook in an Oklahoma jersey?
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