This time last year, many NBA fans were feeling disappointed. The two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors had just dominated the league for a second straight year. With Kevin Durant on a team that had won 73 games without him, the Warriors felt like they were destined to win every NBA Finals for the next three-to-five years. There was an overlying sense of hopelessness as it seemed all but sure that the Warriors were going to win the championship once again.
Yet, sports constantly shows us that it can be a cruel mistress. Nothing in professional sports truly lasts forever: leagues adapt, teams change and many things can happen over the course of a season.
This was the case for the Warriors, after two unfortunate injuries to Durant’s Achilles and Klay Thompson‘s ACL in the Finals. These two key losses paved the way for the Toronto Raptors to win their first title, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of superstar Kawhi Leonard. But even winning another championship and Finals MVP wasn’t enough to convince Kawhi to stay.
Now, thanks to the craziest offseason of player movement ever, the NBA landscape has completely changed. Instead of one team being the overwhelming, odds-on favorite to win the Finals, there are a bunch of teams that can vie for basketball immortality. Although there are some clear favorites, there are a few stealthy teams that I could see making an underdog run.
With the dust finally beginning to settle, it’s time to take a look at who are the winners and losers, as well as the top contenders in this newly balanced NBA.
Los Angeles Basketball
In a matter of a few weeks, L.A. basketball changed forever. First, it started when the Los Angeles Lakers finally traded for Anthony Davis. While the price they paid for him was heavy, they are getting a top-five player when healthy. If LeBron James and A.D. can stay healthy throughout the season, that’ll be the best duo in the league.
Then, when it looked like Kawhi might do the impossible and form a super-team with the Lakers, he decided to play for the other team in Staples Center. In the process, Leonard was able to recruit Paul George for a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers, giving the Clips one of the best defensive teams in the league.
With the Clippers and Lakers as two of the best teams in the NBA in the same arena, Los Angeles basketball has never been better. All four games between the rivals will be must-watch TV. I can’t wait to see who wins the battle of L.A between these two juggernauts.
With Durant gone, the Warriors’ grip on the NBA has loosened tremendously. This should benefit both the Eastern and Western conferences. For the first time in five years, the West seems as wide-open as ever. Teams in the West must feel that the championship door is once again open for anyone to take.
The same could be said for the teams in the East, as there is a renewed sense of hope of winning the Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers fell victim to the KD-led Warriors in back-to-back years. Even the best player on the planet could only muster one win over two Finals against the Warriors. Kawhi and the Raptors were only able to do so because of those major injuries.
In the end, 12 teams now can honestly claim to be title-contenders. While some are heavier favorites, there is definitely room for a few surprising teams to make some noise in the playoffs. It should make for a much more engaging regular season and playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The last of the major free-agent dominos to fall was the Russell Westbrook trade to the Houston Rockets. After the Thunder traded George to the Clippers, Westbrook made it clear that he wanted out. This gave the Thunder the opportunity to fully rebuild–and they will get a great shot at doing so.
In total, the Thunder received eight first-round picks (five for George and three for Westbrook), plus a promising young talent in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s quite an impressive haul that should set the Thunder up for the future. Although they lost two All-NBA stars, they certainly were well compensated for it.
New York Knicks
For months on end, the media had hyped up what should’ve been a transformative offseason for the Knicks. Although they were in the midst of their worst record year ever, the Knicks were seen as favorites to sign both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Plus, there were hopes that New York could also win the NBA Draft lottery for the first time since 1985.
Not only did the Knicks go 0-for-three in their dream scenario, but Kyrie and K.D. ended up signing with the Brooklyn Nets. This was a major spurn for New York, who have meddled in mediocrity for the entire 21st century. Seeing two of the biggest free-agents decide to sign with their hometown rivals made it sting even more so.
While the Knicks did get a great “consolation” in R.J. Barrett, their free-agency was puzzling to say the least. Although they were able to land Julius Randle, they signed a dozen more power forwards. And even though these moves will help keep their future flexible, they’re not guaranteed to make an impact. Furthermore, not being able to land a top-tier free-agent once again has got to hurt for New York.
“The Big Three”
The NBA has had a recent trend of teams forming “big threes.” From the Boston Celtics‘ fearsome threesome, to the Miami Heat‘s iconic trio, having three top-15 players was a championship move.
However, the era of three players joining forces to form super-teams may have just come to an end. Kawhi had the chance to follow in the footsteps of recent superstars and go form a big three with Lebron and A.D. But he ended up choosing to form his own duo with P.G.
The biggest reason that the big three era may finally be over is how taxing being the third-stringer can be. Players like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love were used as scapegoats whenever the team was suffering. Also, the third-star almost always sees their numbers and production decline. While their sacrifices were vital to winning championships, it is very hard to keep a group of three stars all happy.
Probably the biggest loser in the midst of all the player movement was Charlotte. Being the only team that could offer their homegrown star Kemba Walker a super-max deal, the Hornets could give him the most years and money.
Yet, Kemba chose to go to the Celtics for less money instead. This move is a huge blow for both the Hornets, as well as the super-max deal. In the past few weeks, Kawhi, A.D. and Kemba all turned down the super-max for greener pastures. It just goes to show that the super-max offer may not be the biggest priority for free-agents.
What’s even worse for Charlotte is that even without Kemba, they’re still over the luxury tax for next season. Things aren’t looking too bright for Michael Jordan and the Hornets. Right now, they’re in basketball limbo and will likely be one of the worst teams in the NBA for the next few years.