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Ten 2019 free agency moves/trades that changed face of NBA

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It seems like we say this every off-season, but this time we really, REALLY mean it:

That was the wildest NBA off-season ever.

Superstars shifted teams — and teamed up — and with that contenders for the crown rose and fell (including the team with the crown). It was a summer where elite players, the ones who have true power, flexed that muscle and forced their way to where they wanted to go — in the middle of a contract or not, to a team that had cap space or not. It was an offseason of drama that has the NBA reconsidering its free agent negotiation rules. It was everything fans have wanted.

It was a lot to digest, but here are our 10 biggest moments of the NBA offseason.

1) Kawhi Leonard chooses to join Clippers, gets Paul George to join him

That Kawhi Leonard ultimately chose the Clippers was not a total shock (at least not to anyone paying attention). The Clippers had all but stalked Leonard during last season, to the frustration of the Toronto Raptors, and sources had told me (and other reporters) all season long this was a two-team race between the Clippers and Raptors. In the days leading up to Leonard’s decision, there was tremendous confidence coming out of the Lakers’ camp —they thought LeBron James and Magic Johnson making separate pitches that they thought went incredibly well, and besides who had ever chosen the Clippers? — and they felt a little blindsided by the move. But in the end, Leonard wanted to come home to Southern California, something the Raptors simply could not compete against even though they did everything right, and Leonard did not prefer to play with LeBron on the Lakers.

The shocker was Paul George being recruited by Leonard then forcing a trade play for the Clippers. That came together fast. Leonard wielded his superstar power and tried to recruit several stars to join him — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving got calls — but George listened, liked what he heard, and demanded a trade. Nothing leaked because critical parts of the Clipper front office, starting with GM Michael Winger, came out of Oklahoma City and knew their GM Sam Presti.

Then suddenly the bombshell landed: The Clippers got Leonard as a free agent and George in a sign-and-trade (which sent a massive package of players and picks back to Oklahoma City).

No other move this summer changed the NBA landscape like this one. The Clippers are now legit title contenders, and maybe the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Lakers were left scrambling to fill out their roster. Oklahoma City got a massive haul of picks and players and is now embarking on a rebuild that likely will include the trade of Russell Westbrook at some point (they hope before the season, but it’s a complicated deal to pull off). And Toronto, when it sobers up from its title celebrations, has some tough decisions to make about what’s next, but they fall out of title contention in the East.

2) Anthony Davis traded to Los Angeles Lakers

At the trade deadline in February, this is what Davis and his agent Rich Paul had pushed for, and what the highest levels of Pelicans ownership had pushed back against — Davis being traded to the Lakers to team up with LeBron. When David Griffin came in as the new VP of basketball operations with the Pelicans he brought in a new mindset: If the Lakers put the best offer on the table, we have to take it. It’s about what’s best for New Orleans, not spite. Kyrie Irving leaving Boston meant the Celtics would not put out the offer the Pelicans most wanted, so the Lakers became the best deal available. The Pelicans got a great haul of players and picks to jump-start the rebuild — around Zion Williamson, winning the Draft Lottery cushioned the Davis blow in the Big Easy — and the Lakers got their star.

The Lakers have two of the top seven players in the NBA, pus Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins and an interesting assortment of veteran role players. The Lakers may not be a great regular season team in the deep West (four seed?), but if LeBron and Davis are healthy this team is incredibly dangerous in a playoff series.

3) Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving team up in Brooklyn. Or, will, eventually.

Four years ago, Sean Marks took over as the GM of the Brooklyn Nets and the toughest rebuild job in the NBA. The previous regime had traded away draft picks and left the cupboard bare. Marks made smart decision after smart decision — finding Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, trading for D’Angelo Russell and giving him the room to become an All-Star — and built a strong cultural organization with coach Kenny Atkinson. They got to the playoffs in the East last season without a true No. 1 option on the roster.

All that impressed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant enough to come be the elite stars Brooklyn craved. The pair had decided to team up as free agents even before the NBA season started — certainly long before Durant tore his Achilles in the NBA Finals — and while the Knicks had been the rumored destination all season, when the pair surveyed the landscape they realized the Nets were the better choice right now. They took it. Brooklyn is now a contender… or should be in a year when Durant returns from his injury. This season it’s Irving leading a young team again, which could get interesting.

4) Jimmy Butler chooses Miami, forces sign-and-trade there

Philadelphia wanted to keep Jimmy Butler for obvious reasons — at the end of playoff games last season it was Butler with the ball in his hands as the playmaker for the team, while Ben Simmons was floating around in the dunker’s spot. Butler, a wandering soul trying to find the right home for himself the past couple of years (we can safely say it was not Minnesota), decided he wanted to be in Miami. And the Heat wanted him — Pat Riley and Eric Spoelstra are grinders of the top order, and there was a great cultural fit.

The problem: Miami was capped out. This had to be a sign and trade and it became a complex four-team one that at its core sent Hassan Whiteside to the Trail Blazers, Josh Richardson to the Sixers, Maurice Harkless and a future first-round pick to the Clippers, and Meyers Leonard to the Heat with Butler. Butler signed a max contract in Miami, and the Heat are a dangerous team again (and one on the hunt for another star to join Butler).

Philly comes out of this well because…

5) Al Horford chooses to join Philadelphia

The Sixers lost Butler, but they may just have gotten better this summer. In part because Josh Richardson is a very good player — he was asked to be a No. 1 in Miami last season and he’s not that, but ask him to play a role and he will do it at a very high level, plus he’s a good wing defender — and in part because that freed up the cap space to get Al Horford.

Horford is the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well — shoots threes (36 percent last season), can score in the post, protect the rim, play a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, play the five when Embiid is resting, and be a bit of a playmaker from the elbow. He gives them versatility, as does the re-signing of Tobias Harris. This is going to be a contending team in Philly, one with a great defense, but one that has to answer a few questions over the course of the season. The big one: One minute left in a close game, who has the ball in their hands has a shot creator?

6) Kemba Walker signs in Boston

Charlotte confused the NBA. Again. They let Kemba Walker walk for nothing. If they were not going to re-sign him at or near the max, then they needed to trade him last summer or at the trade deadline (despite the All-Star Game coming to Charlotte). Or, pull a Clippers/Blake Griffin and re-sign him to the max then trade him in six months. But to get nothing for him? Confusing.

It is Boston’s gain. Walker was a Third Team All-NBA guard last season who carried the Hornets averaging 25.6 points and 5.9 assists per game, he can take over, but he’s also a smart facilitator with the right players around him — and he has that now with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. He’s a better fit culturally for Boston than Irving because Kemba is the “come on guys, you’re with me, let’s do this together” kind of leader they need. Walker is going to have a strong year in Boston and some fans are going to realize just how good he is. (The Celtics are going to miss Horford more than Irving.)

7) Warriors get D’Angelo Russell back from Brooklyn in sign-and-trade

Golden State didn’t want Durant to leave and get nothing back, and they worked out a sign-and-trade that worked for both sides. The Warriors get an All-Star point guard in Russell who can soak up a lot of minutes this season while Klay Thompson is rehabbing his ACL. While a lot of observers are not sure about the Russell/Stephen Curry fit (*raises hand*) the Warriors are committed to try to make this thing work, and they dream of a three-guard lineup where Thompson can slide down the three (he can guard that spot). If it doesn’t work, they trade Russell at the deadline or next season, but for now he keeps them competitive in the deep West.

8) Utah trades for Mike Conley, lands Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency

Utah is perpetually overlooked, and this may be too low on these rankings for the summer they had. The Jazz front office had coveted Conley for a while and now they were able to trade for him, providing a massive upgrade over Ricky Rubio and giving the Jazz a much-needed second shot creator next to Donovan Mitchell. Then, Utah went out and got Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency to play the four — he can defend, shoots threes, is 6’8″ and is one of those guys fans don’t know but front offices love. Bogdanovic averaged more than 20 points per game in Indiana last season after Victor Oladipo went down.

Utah may be the second-best team in the West going into next season, they have an elite defense and now have added offense. They are unquestionably contenders, whether fans realize they are or not.

9) Malcolm Brogdon leaves Bucks for Pacers

Indiana wanted an upgrade at point guard and another shot creator next to Victor Oladipo (when he returns, which looks to be around Christmas or after). They got it in Brogdon, who averaged 15.6 points per game and shot 42.5 percent from three for the Bucks last season. Brogdon can play on or off the ball and has the versatility that will fit well with the Pacers, making them better. The Pacers had to pay big to get the restricted free agent, but it was a smart move (especially considering the slim free agent class next year).

Just as importantly, losing Brogdon is a blow to the contending Bucks. They leaned on Brogdon for secondary shot creation in key moments. Milwaukee kept Khris Middleton as a free agent, have Eric Bledsoe (who needs to have a good playoffs now), and of course there is the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But losing Brogdon will hurt a little.

10) Knicks strike out with big free agents… then don’t do so bad

Expectations were high among Knicks fans (fueled in part by radio comments from owner James Dolan), and when Durant and Irving chose Brooklyn, and New York couldn’t get a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, Knicks fans did not take it well. At all. To the point team president Steve Mills had to put out a “relax, we’re still working on building this thing up” message to fans.

Thing is, he’s right. The Knicks were not getting the top free agents because the Nets and Clippers had built better cores, better stockpiles of young players that made up playoff teams even without a true alpha dog. Free agents liked those teams’ cultures, they liked they could step in and win now. The Knicks are not there. But the Knicks also didn’t do what the Knicks of a decade ago would have done and thrown good money after bad to sign any star free agent to save face. They kept their powder dry. They made a nice signing with Julius Randle and from there did a bunch of short deals that keep them flexible to chase the next star that comes available (they are not in the Westbrook hunt, nor should they be). That’s how to build a team the right way. The Knicks may finally be getting there, but more patience is required (not usually a strong suit of New Yorkers).

Kyrie Irving reportedly re-aggravates right shoulder, to see specialist

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Kyrie Irving missed 26 games this season with shoulder bursitis, but rather than have surgery he got a cortisone shot eight weeks ago and was able to return to the court for nine games. Eventually, a knee issue sidelined him.

Now he has re-aggravated that shoulder and, once again, will see a specialist, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson told the media on Tuesday.

There are no details on how the re-aggravation happened. Irving had been trying to avoid surgery, but that could be back on the table. The Nets may take a few weeks to make their decision on a next step.

Atkinson may not go there but the rest of us can — it would be a surprise to see Irving back this season. At this point, the smart play is to let Spencer Dinwiddie run the offense the rest of the way, play hard and see what happens in the playoffs, then return next season with a healthy Irving and Kevin Durant.

Irving has played in just 20 games this season, but without him the Nets are still the seven seed in the East at 25-28.

 

Coach John Beilein reportedly to leave Cavaliers, walk away from remaining contract

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The Cavaliers brought in Michigan coach John Beilein to install his motion offense, to develop young players, and to build a culture that could win big in Cleveland.

None of that happened. The Cavaliers are 14-40, they have the worst net rating in the league and are bottom seven in both offense and defense, their young talent — players such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — are not developing, and the Cavs’ players have clashed with Beilein and each other, and the team abandoned Beilein’s motion offense less than a month into the season. It’s been rough.

Now he’s going to walk away, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Cavaliers return to practice Wednesday and it is likely J.B. Bickerstaff — a former NBA head coach in Houston and Memphis, and the lead assistant on Beilein’s staff — will take over as head coach. Whether that is for just the remainder of this season, or beyond, remains to be seen.

Bickerstaff would be the fourth Cavaliers coach in less than two seasons since LeBron James left the organization.

Beilein struggled to adapt to the NBA coaching style — the lack of practices, the losing, the fact that good NBA players have more organizational power than the coach, and that he couldn’t treat those players the way he did his college players. He was unable to relate to players, and his relationship with them became an issue when he reportedly said they were “no longer playing like thugs” during a film session. Those NBA players were not giving a college coach the benefit of the doubt, he had to prove himself to them. He didn’t. At age 67, Beilein wasn’t able to adapt to the NBA game.

He was in the first year of a five-year contract worth more than $4 million a season (the last year of that was a team option). Beilein is unhappy enough to leave that money on the table to walk away. He could return to college coaching as soon as next season if he wanted, there would be a long line of universities interested.

Hiring Beilein is a big miss for GM Koby Altman (the first GM owner Dan Gilbert gave a second contract to; Gilbert pushed good GMs like David Griffen out the door). The revolving door of coaches is not the sign of a strong and stable organization. The Cavaliers need to develop a culture and they need a new coach who can deliver that.

 

Pistons reach buyout with Reggie Jackson, he’s headed to Clippers

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Reggie Jackson came to Detroit to be the outside to Andre Drummond‘s inside. That never panned out, in part due to a rash of injuries to Jackson that kept a lot over a couple of those seasons.

Drummond has been traded to Cleveland, and with that it was time for the Pistons to move on from Jackson as well. That has happened, the Pistons and Jackson have agreed to a buyout.

Once Jackson clears waivers, he is headed to the Clippers reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Jackson has only played in 14 games this season due to injury but has averaged 14.9 points and 5.1 assists a game when he has played, plus is shooting 37.8 percent from three. Jackson is making $18 million this season, the final year of a five-year, $80 million contract he inked back in 2015. He is a free agent this summer.

Why the Clippers? They are contenders, and Jackson is friends with Paul George.

The Clippers get two things out of this. First, they get a third point guard who can spell Patrick Beverley 10-12 minutes a night down the stretch (and fill in if Beverley suffers an injury). Second, the Clippers keep a playmaking guard away from the Lakers.

Detroit saves a little money and takes another step to clear the roster for a rebuild. They have Derrick Rose and Brandon Knight at the point guard spot, don’t be surprised if they call up a few guys from the G-League to see if they can find a longer-term option.

Adam Silver acknowledges ratings drop as NBA tries to connect young viewers to broadcasts

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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One of the NBA’s great strengths is its core audience is younger than the other major American sports.

One of the NBA’s great challenges is its core audience is younger than the other major American sports.

That means a lot of NBA fans are cord cutters — or, never had a cord to begin with — and don’t consume their entertainment the way their parents and grandparents did. Much the way we do a poor job measuring the economy by doing it the same way we did a century ago, using traditional Neilson rating measures is a poor way to judge the number of eyeballs on a game. Viewership is evolving.

But make no mistake, traditional ratings are down for the NBA, both nationally and at the regional level. Nationwide ratings are down by 12 percent, including 13 percent on TNT and 16 percent on ABC. On the regional level, the Sports Business Journal reports ratings are down by 13 percent. That is due to some big drops in certain markets (the Bay Area, for example), while the NBA says that ratings are up in 13 of the 28 markets that have reliable Neilson numbers (28 cities because Toronto and Denver are not included, the latter of which has a coverage/cable dispute that has much of the greater Denver region unable to view games at home).

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver owned the drop during All-Star weekend. He added that while the league could blame injuries to players that would be draws  — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson with the Warriors, Zion Williamson with the Pelicans, Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, etc. — the bigger issue is connecting those younger viewers to NBA broadcasts.

“It’s well-known that on one hand we’re celebrated by some because we have such a young fan base, but that young fan base is disconnecting from pay television in record numbers, and by disconnecting, not just simply not subscribing to cable or so-called cutting the cord, they’re not watching traditional paid television the way they used to,” Silver said during his All-Star weekend press conference. “They’re watching over-the-top streaming services. They’re watching screens, but it’s not essentially pay TV.

“So the good news for the league is that, when we look at all other data points, particularly what we see in social media, what we see in terms of distribution of highlights and general chatter around our games, we’ve never been more popular. But we haven’t found a way to connect those young fans to our broadcast through whatever platform they’re going to be delivered.

“Again, I think it’s a very solvable problem. Our two primary media partners, Disney and AT&T, are both very engaged in these issues…

“So it’s not an issue unique to the NBA. We may be affected by it a little bit more compared to some properties because we have such a young fan base, but I’m super confident over time we’ll work through it because there remains enormous interest in our players and our game.”

Silver also showed at the NBA’s tech summit where he thinks the broadcast of NBA games is headed, trying to bring the courtside experience into the home (with an assist from Bill Murray).

Silver isn’t alone in thinking this way. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, for one, said basically the same thing recently.

A well-respected media consultant recently told Forbes magazine he doesn’t think this ratings downturn is going to hurt the league in 2025 when it’s time to negotiate a new broadcast deal.

“This season’s NBA ratings story is silly. It is a small sample size. This is a year-round league with year-round stories,” says sports media consultant Lee Berke of LHB Sports. “The next NBA media agreements will be a substantially evolved set of deals because of streaming. There will be an increasing range of media companies that want the NBA for the U.S. and worldwide.”

The current $2.7 billion per year NBA deal with ESPN and TNT runs through the 2024-25 season, and Berke expects the next deal to roughly double in value.

That’s the vision Adam Silver sees. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to connect those young viewers to the content. Then to stop measuring viewership the way our grandparents did.