The 2018 NBA free agency period has been one of the most eventful in recent memory. LeBron James shifted most of what power the Eastern Conference had left to the Western Conference. Some teams like the Los Angeles Lakers made major moves to improve their teams, but which teams got worse?
This is arguably the most important drop-off in the NBA. The Rockets last season were up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference before losing games 6 and 7. In free agency, the Rockets signed 33-year-old Chris Paul to a max contract of four years and $160 million. While Paul is an integral part of the Rockets’ offense, he is getting old, and injuries have taken a toll. He played 58 games last season and missed the last two games of the Western Conference Finals when the Rockets got eliminated. But what will likely hurt Houston is the loss of forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Those two are their best defenders, and in a conference with Kevin Durant and now LeBron James, long wing players who can defend on the perimeter are more valuable than ever. But the Rockets let two of them walk in order to make room for CP3’s contract. The Rockets did not make up for their forward depth with the recent signing of Carmelo Anthony. In a fast-paced Mike D’Antoni offense, Anthony is likely to drag behind considering last season he was one of the laziest players in the league in terms of distance traveled per game. The Rockets were the top threat to the Warriors, but free agency saw the Warriors get better but last season’s No. 1 seed get worse.
This one may be a little too obvious. But for the second time, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the best player in the world to free agency because they failed to keep a team around him. Granted, last season’s Cavaliers still made the Finals, but that roster was nowhere capable of competing with Golden State. Now, the Cavaliers must once again move on without The King. But this time the drop-off may not be as bad. They re-signed Kevin Love to a four year, $120 million extension. And with The Chosen One leaving for Los Angeles, the Cavaliers could find themselves remaining in the playoff hunt in the East. A roster consisting of guys like Love, Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, George Hill and Rodney Hood can still make the playoffs, but there almost definitely won’t be a Cavaliers and Warriors part five in next year’s Finals.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans were starting to become one of the league’s most formidable teams last season even with the injury to DeMarcus Cousins. New Orleans made their presence known in the playoffs with a decisive sweep of the third-seeded Portland Trailblazers in the first round. With seemingly many teams going to small ball, the Pelicans have gone a different route with the twin towers of Cousins and Anthony Davis. But Cousins left The Big Easy for the Bay Area, and Rajon Rondo, an excellent floor general, left for the Lakers. The signings of Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle bring some promising talent, but to replace a guy with as much talent as DeMarcus Cousins will be very difficult. Davis is still one of the best players in the league, and Jrue Holiday has been a very good guard, but it will be difficult to match or exceed last season’s success.
San Antonio Spurs
After months of feuding, the Kawhi Leonard saga is finally over. Now, the Spurs replace the 2014 Finals MVP with DeMar DeRozan. The former Toronto star is a good player, but his game is not as complete as Leonard’s. His mid-range game is excellent, but a glaring weakness is his three-point shot, which Leonard excels at.
DeRozan won’t be alone in this though. Three pointers are a problem for all of the Spurs starters.
The projected starting lineup of Dejounte Murray, DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol combined to make 205 three-pointers per game last season. That’s exactly 2.5 three-pointers per game over an 82-game stretch. To put it into perspective, Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz made 204 three-pointers by himself. With the Western Conference only getting tougher, the Spurs will likely once again be scratching and clawing for a playoff spot. But as long as Popovich is coaching, they’ll be in contention no matter who’s on the roster.
This summer’s free agency has been a wild one, and the Western Conference just got even tougher. The Warriors continued their front-office excellence with the signing of DeMarcus Cousins while their top competitor last season, the Houston Rockets, lost key pieces and could struggle to keep pace next season with the rise of Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz as well as LeBron James and the Lakers.