The Reoriented NBA Landscape: Has the Playing Field Been Leveled?


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LeBron James (left) of the Los Angeles Lakers backs down Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) of the Milwaukee Bucks

As the dust begins to settle from a wild 2019 free agency frenzy, fans and players are adjusting to the seismic shifts in the landscape of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Free agents moved across the league beginning on the night of June 30th with the intention of maximizing their opportunities; whether it was to join forces with other players in hopes of making a championship run or to sign affluent contracts, agreements were established in a blur.

Former NBA superstar Dwyane Wade weighs in on the 2019 NBA Free Agency via his Twitter account.

“It is like speed dating,” founder of Excel Sports Jeff Schwartz told Forbes. “[Teams and Free agents] must think through [their] moves, but [they] have to move really quickly.”

Teams also executed trades that would either aid in their championship contention or help them rebuild for the future. Fans pondered where big-name free agents like Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving would sign, but not for very long.  In a matter of hours, the league was turned upside down, prompting fans to ask the question: “where does my favorite player play now?”

The Warriors’ Dynastic Fall Gave Rise to a New Era

After ruling the league for almost five years, the super team has fallen. Being plagued with injuries and losing their finals MVPs (Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala), along with key players DeMarcus Cousins, Shaun Livingston and Quinn Cook, the Warriors are no longer the prepotent team they once were.

As the Warriors plummeted, the league was left wide open, encouraging teams and players to make moves that would give them the opportunity to seriously compete for a championship. The decisions of these free agents altered the NBA landscape, eliminating a clear-cut favorite to win it all for the first time since the 2015-2016 season.

Kirk Golsdberry from ESPN
The drastic alterations to the NBA landscape depict significant differences in the championship favorites between the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons.

The Little Brothers Steal the Shine: Shooting for the Stars

The little brothers of the NBA, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Brooklyn Nets, made quite the noise this offseason. After the New York Knicks traded away their rising franchise player, Kristaps Porzingis, they seemed to be in the clear to sign big-name free agents this offseason with room for at least two max contracts.

During the 2018-2019 season, buzz around the league hinted at the possibility of New York landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Ultimately, the two superstars did land in New York, signing with the Brooklyn Nets instead of the seemingly dysfunctional New York Knicks.

Kyrie Irving agreed to sign with the Nets on a four-year deal worth $141 million, leaving the Boston Celtics on a max deal. Kevin Durant followed suit, leaving the Golden State Warriors after 3 seasons. Although Durant is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season due to an Achilles injury suffered in the NBA Finals, Durant and the Nets agreed on a four-year $164 million max deal.

The Brooklyn Nets, led by All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell, finished in the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference this past season. With the arrival of a much more experienced point guard in Irving, the Nets no longer needed Russell.

Both parties agreed on a sign-and-trade deal sending him to the Golden State Warriors on a four-year max deal, a well deserved deal following a breakout season from Russell. Adding to their impressive offseason, the Nets were also able to attract big man DeAndre Jordan to their team on a four-year $40 million deal after his short tenure with the Knicks.

The Nets are confident that Durant will return to his elite status. If and when Durant fully recuperates from his achilles injury, the Nets will be a force to be reckoned with.

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Head Coach Doc Rivers (left) and Clippers CEO Steve Balmer (right) introduce Kawhi Leonard and Paul George during a press conference.

While both LA teams made significant moves during free agency, the little brother in town shocked the league.

After winning a championship in Toronto this past season, Kawhi Leonard tested free agency. Fans awaited his decision in hopes that he would join the LA Lakers or remain with the Raptors. Rumors surrounding Leonard hinted at the possibility of him playing in his hometown of LA ever since he was a San Antonio Spur three seasons ago.

While the Lakers made a very suitable destination for Leonard, he ultimately chose to sign a three-year deal (worth $103 million) with the other LA team: the Clippers.

Minutes before Leonard announced his decision to sign with the Clippers, the team executed a trade that left the league in awe, acquiring the Oklahoma City Thunder’s forward Paul George. The acquisition of these two stars catapulted the Clippers into the ‘top three teams’ discussion.

“The Clippers undisputedly won this year’s free agency. While the Nets may have added two All-Stars, too, the Clippers are younger and do not have to wait a year for a healthy star,” senior Kamir Larin said.

Surveying the Free Agent Landing Sites

The Nets and the Clippers were not the only teams to have a stellar off-season. Many other teams were able to either stock up on assets for the future or add stars, as well as effective, young and veteran talent.

The LA Lakers are one of the teams to have had a successful offseason while giving up young talent. In a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers gave up their young core consisting of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram, as well as future draft picks, in order to pair LeBron James with Anthony Davis. This trade benefitted both teams, as the Pelicans added young talent to surround their number one overall pick in this year’s draft—Duke phenom Zion Williamson. The Lakers now have two of the league’s top five players on their team.

The Lakers built around the dynamic duo of Lebron James and Anthony Davis by adding talented free agents such as the recently crowned NBA Champion Danny Green, Avery Bradley, DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook. Not to mention, they were also able to trade for Anthony Davis without giving up Kyle Kuzma, maintaining one of the most valuable young players to be drafted in 2017.

While so much emphasis of the NBA off-season has placed on the Western Conference, the beasts of the east in the Philadelphia 76ers had one plan: run it back. The Sixers went all in mid-season, sacrificing future assets and valuable role players like Dario Sarić and Robert Covington to get stars Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. However, the Sixers ultimately lost Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat in a stunning four-team deal. Miami, which did not have any cap space to sign Butler, pulled off a trade scenario that benefitted all teams involved.

The Sixers received Josh Richardson from the Heat—who has tremendous upside—and replaces Butler’s role in virtually every facet. Miami was also able to unload Hassan Whiteside’s contract onto the Portland Trailblazers, who could use a center of Whiteside’s caliber while their star center Jusuf Nurkić recovers from a fractured leg. The Clippers added to their solid squad, absorbing Mo Harkless’s contract from the Blazers which allowed them to clear some cap space for Whiteside’s salary; also important to note, the Blazers also allocated a four-year super-max extension worth $196 million to their franchise player, Damian Lillard.

After the Sixers lost Butler, they were quick to resign Tobias Harris to a monster five-year $180 million deal. They also extended the contract of their All-Star point guard Ben Simmons for five more years, paying him on a max deal and keeping him and Joel Embiid together for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, Philly magically added All-Star Al Horford from the Boston Celtics, signing yet another player to a maximum deal.

“I strongly believe the finals will feature both the LA Clippers and the Sixers. Both teams got so much stronger,” senior Adrian Peraza said.

While the Boston Celtics lost both of their all-stars in Irving and Horford, they were able to keep their young core and ink all-star point guard Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets to a four-year max deal. In addition, they signed a talented center in Enes Kanter to take the place of Horford. With their upward trajectories, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are expected to have a solid season for the Celtics. Overall, Boston is looking to make noise in the Eastern Conference behind their star player Gordon Hayward.

The Oklahoma City Thunder went full rebuild-mode, trading away their star player Paul George to the LA Clippers for a record-breaking number of draft picks (7), according to Business Insider. The Thunder also acquired excellent players in Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who made an All-NBA Rookie team this past season. Moreover, they traded away their franchise player, Russell Westbrook, to the Houston Rockets for even more draft picks and star point guard Chris Paul. Westbrook is now reunited with his old teammate, James Harden, on a team where skeptics question the functionality of the duo. In terms of basketball usage rate, Harden and Westbrook held the top two spots for the past five seasons and now they are on the same team, making it difficult to gauge the kind of season the Rockets will have.

The New York Times
Free agent Carmelo Anthony is still available on the market after a brief tenure last season playing for the Houston Rockets.

The Utah Jazz made a fair share of noise this offseason in their own right, as they have built what seems to be a solid contender in the Western Conference. The Jazz traded for star point guard Mike Conley to pair him with rising star Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt, also signing former Indiana Pacer Bojan Bogdonavić to space the floor and add shooting to the Jazz roster. Even though the Pacers lost Bogdonavić to the Jazz, they were able to steal Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks, who was a key player for them in the Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Raptors. Although losing Brogdon may seem to be a huge loss for the Bucks, they were able to keep their key players: Brook Lopez, George Hill, and Khris Middleton. The Bucks also added veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver and versatile players, like Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews, to maintain the depth of their team, keeping them atop the Eastern Conference.

While many free agents have already agreed and even signed contracts with new teams, there still remains an abundance of available free agents. Players like Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith, and Kenneth Faried are still on the market. While free agency is still upon the NBA, contenders can still look to make adjustments to their rosters.

A New Beginning in the NBA

So far, the 2019 NBA free agency has brought a lot of skepticism and excitement towards the upcoming NBA season. While many teams made drastic changes to their teams, like the Lakers, Nets and Clippers, other teams remained very solid over the offseason.

The Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers and Indiana Pacers are all expecting injured players to make an impactful comeback this season. Michael Porter Jr., who has yet to play an NBA game, was one of the most anticipated talents out of the 2018 NBA draft and is expected to make his debut for the Nuggets this Season. Once Jusuf Nurkić and Victor Oladipo return from their leg injuries, they will no doubt impact their respective teams positively, continuing their upward trajectories. The Dallas Mavericks are also expecting Kristaps Porzingis to return to action this upcoming season, paying him big money even after tearing his ACL in early 2018.

Without a dynasty dominating the league, the NBA is wide open with quite a few teams in the league that have a legitimate chance to win it all at the end of the season. With new talent coming in from the 2019 draft, it will be fun to watch rookies like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Tyler Herro have an impact on their NBA teams. At that, it will be entertaining to watch new combinations of players on different teams compete in this newly leveled playing field, vying for the chip at the end.