It may have been a condensed NBA offseason, but it did not lack for drama — with some of that drama still dragging on. Some teams pushed their chips in to become playoff teams — Atlanta tops that list — while other teams went all-in on the rebuild (Oklahoma City, we’re looking at you). There were more than a hundred free agent signings and a fair number of trades, all within a couple of weeks.
However, only a handful of those moves will impact the title chase this year.
Let’s break down the three big NBA offseason moves that could impact who lifts the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year.
1) MILWAUKEE TRADES FOR Jrue Holiday
That was the entire goal of this trade (as well as the botched Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade), to get Antetokounmpo closer to the NBA Finals and a title — to show the Greek Freak the franchise is fully committed to winning. The Holiday trade helps with that perception and also could help the Bucks get closer to that goal on the court.
While Eric Bledsoe has been nearly an All-Star level point guard in the regular season for the Bucks, his lack of three-point shooting and trouble running the pick-and-roll against the best defenses has become a big playoff problem. Holiday is taller and a better defender than Bledsoe, is a career 35% shooter from three, and is not going to wilt in the bright light of the playoffs. Holiday is an upgrade.
Is it enough to get the Bucks over the hump in the East? Maybe not on its own (the Bucks gave up depth this summer), there needs to be other steps — including improvement from Antetokounmpo himself — but Holiday is what the Bucks have needed in the playoffs. It is a step forward to seeing them in the Finals.
2) BOSTON GETS MASSIVE TRADE EXCEPTION FOR Gordon Hayward
Talks between Boston and Indiana about a Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade got a long way down the road, but with the deal on the table — Myles Turner and Doug McDermott or a first-round pick to Boston — Celtics’ President Danny Ainge decided he wasn’t so sure about Turner. And he wanted more. So the deal stalled, and Charlotte came in over the top with a $120 million offer for Hayward.
Ainge ultimately worked out a sign-and-trade with Charlotte and now has a $28.5 million trade exception — the largest in NBA history. Meaning, Boston can trade for a player making that much money and not have to send matching salary back, keeping the roster’s core intact.
Ainge made a bet, that a player will come available in the next year — and maybe at the trade deadline — who he will like better than Turner, and with the trade exception the Celtics can land him. Ainge bet on what might be available rather than taking a shot-blocking, three-point shooting big man better than any other center on their roster. (Granted, Turner is a divisive figure to front offices, they see the threes but also see the guy who could not punish smaller players on switches in the playoffs; and the Celtics signed Tristan Thompson to play the five.) It’s a move that could change the championship race for Boston one way or another this season — they are a little bit worse without Hayward. It just depends on what happens with that massive trade exception.
3) Dennis Schroder/Montrezl Harrell TO LAKERS
It’s two moves combined — and you could throw in landing Marc Gasol as a third — and it is No. 3 on our list, but the Lakers’ big moves of the offseason likely will have more impact on the title chase than anything else. The Lakers are the defending champions, they already have the best duo in the NBA in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and they went out and added the top two Sixth Man of the Year vote-getters of last season. Rob Pelinka killed the offseason; the Lakers got better.
Dennis Schroder finished second in that voting but may be the more important pickup for Los Angeles. He steps into the Rajon Rondo role as second unit shot creator, but Schroder brings much better shooting and improved defense to the role. He’s an upgrade, and with his catch-and-shoot skills he can play off-the-ball next to LeBron. Montrezl Harrell brings a burst of energy every time he enters the game, and paired with Schroder should be a dangerous pick-and-roll combo (just as Harrell was with Lou Williams). The Lakers’ second unit got better, and that could mean some fourth quarters off for LeBron and Davis as Schroder and Harrell put the game away. There are deep in the playoff concerns about Harrell and what he brings at that point (Denver basically played him off the floor last season), but that’s where Gasol comes in, plus that deep in the postseason the Lakers will lean more on Davis at the five.
Bottom line: The best team in the league improved. A fair amount. Making it very difficult to knock the Lakers off the top of the mountain top this season.