Eric Bledsoe

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

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

2 Comments

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).

Report: Bucks signing-and-trading Malcolm Brogdon to Pacers on four-year, $85M contract

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
3 Comments

The Bucks took care of business with Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon.

Milwaukee will let its other starting free agent – Malcolm Brogdon – get away, but only after leveraging his restricted rights into a return.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

David Aldridge of The Athletic:

This could work well for Brogdon and Pacers.

Brogdon has sounded like he’d prefer to play point guard, the position he’ll seemingly play in Indiana. In Milwaukee, Brogdon primarily played shooting guard next to Eric Bledsoe. This is also a lot of money for the former second-round pick who spent his first few seasons earning near the minimum.

Indiana will get the 26-year-old Brogdon through his prime. He can shoot, handle the ball and defend. He should fit well with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt.

But that’s still a lot of money for Brogdon considering his long-term health concerns.

So, on a value basis, it could be reasonable for the Bucks to prefer the picks to Brogdon (depending on pick protection). But Milwaukee should be aiming to contend around Giannis Antetokounmpo right now. Future picks can’t help with that. Perhaps, those picks will eventually get flipped for an actual player who helps the Bucks compete this season.

It’s impossible to overlook the luxury-tax ramifications of this move. This is the cheap route. Milwaukee might have ulterior motives other than building the strongest roster.

That’s risky as Antetokounmpo approaches his super-max decision.

The Bucks now need a starting guard. Maybe they’ll re-sign George Hill. The mid-level exception is available. But it’s still unknown just how much ownership is willing to spend.

Report: Bucks to re-sign Khris Middleton to five-year, $178 million deal

Getty
Leave a comment

The Milwaukee Bucks are running it back. First it was announced on Sunday that Brook Lopez would likely be re-signing with the team to rejoin Giannis Antetokounmpo to try to make another run at the NBA finals in 2020.

Then later in the afternoon it was reported that Milwaukee would bring back combo-guard Khris Middleton on a 5-year, $178 million deal.

Via Twitter:

This is a great move for the Bucks, who keep a backcourt running mate for point forward and 2019 MVP Antetokounmpo.

Middleton’s extension calls into question what Milwaukee will do with Eric Bledsoe. The team has his Bird rights, and can go over the cap to sign him, but whether he is valuable enough for them at this juncture isn’t clear. Giving Middleton this kind of cash could mean that Milwaukee is looking to go another direction, and away from Bledsoe.

Free agency is starting to heat up, and the best teams in the NBA for next season are starting to form — on paper, at least.

Three things Warriors must do vs. Raptors in NBA Finals

6 Comments

It seems that many believe that the Golden State Warriors are on their way to a third-straight NBA championship. They need to dispatch Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals first, but Golden State is still the overwhelming favorite in the season-ending postseason series.

The Raptors have shown surprising resilience, most recently in the Eastern Conference Finals against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Leonard and his band of merry men beat the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, and it appeared that Nick Nurse created an excellent game plan to combat the league’s likely MVP.

With Leonard on another level, and with Toronto’s coaching staff ready to take on the biggest challenge in the NBA, it’s not a given that Golden State will win another NBA title. Now is the time for maximum effort, and no doubt Steve Kerr’s squad will give it.

That being said, here are three things the Warriors need to do in order to beat the Raptors and take home the Larry O’Brien.

Set solid screens

This seems sort of obvious, but looking at game tape and analyzing Stephen Curry‘s worst performances of the year, one of the best things that the Warriors can do is set solid screens. Curry has struggled from the 3-point line this season only when players are able to effectively fight over the top of the Warriors screens.

The Portland Trail Blazers did a poor job of this over the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, and many thought that Curry’s onslaught was a result of Enes Kanter sitting back laughably low in the paint, particularly in Game 1. Instead, it was really the fault of the Portland guards and wings — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — who were hung up on great Golden State screens.

Curry doesn’t struggle from 3-point range often, but many of Golden State’s awkward losses over the regular season — Orlando, Utah, Phoenix — have come when he has shot poorly and in volume from the arc. There’s no surefire way to stop him, but Toronto’s best shot is putting pressure over the top and trying to force Curry into no man’s land around 12 feet. Golden State can’t let Toronto’s athleticism get to its shooters, and they’ll need to watch tape to see what Nurse’s staff did to slow down Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton.

Stop everyone outside of Kawhi

At this point it seems like Kawhi Leonard is inevitable. The Raptors forward is playing well, so much so that Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers compared him to Michael Jordan. Leonard has been the best player of these playoffs so far, and when the Bucks were successful against Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was because Leonard wasn’t getting any help.

Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam are all susceptible to wild undulations in performance. Just a few short weeks ago people were complaining about having to watch Toronto, with an inferior roster, potentially drag down Leonard. Now that supporting cast is playing better, and those qualms have quieted. That doesn’t change the fact that Toronto is far less talented than Golden State, and its role players less reliable.

Finding a way to stop the Raptors’ new passing and 3-point attack will be crucial for Steve Kerr and defensive assistant Ron Adams. It helps that Danny Green is already in a slump, but it could be helpful to get role players uncomfortable and out of position so they can’t fire away from deep.

Leonard can’t beat the Warriors by himself, and it’s going to be easier to shut down the VanVleets and Gasols on their roster than The Klaw himself.

Let Draymond run

That brings us to our final point, and that’s the single-man fastbreak ability of Draymond Green. Against the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Green was able to break the spirits of Portland by taking defensive rebounds deep into the opponent halfcourt all by himself.

The threat of Green’s speedy attack kept the Blazers from being able to crash the offensive glass effectively as a wing unit, and it also put Portland and a bit of foul trouble. Toronto is not the most disciplined team in the NBA, and Green could cause havoc for younger defenders in Siakam and OG Anunoby should the latter be able to return and play. That’s to say nothing of the effect Green’s running ability would have when the older Gasol or Serge Ibaka is on the floor.

Green is clearly in the best shape of any player on the Warriors roster at this moment, and he has used that to his advantage. When players have slowed down in the fourth quarter this postseason, that’s when he has shifted into his sixth and final gear. It’s unlikely that Kerr will officially program Green’s spurts into the offense, but it might be a tactic that he deploys either early in games to get Toronto off balance, or late in fourth quarters to break a tired Raptors finishing unit.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to NBA Finals

Associated Press
9 Comments

Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history DeMar DeRozan to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse mixed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays when he needed to.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments, and when he couldn’t get to the rim at will his lack of a jump shot he has confidence in showed. Those kinds of lessons come with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation — it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — and they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half, the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing in a run that got to 26-3 for Toronto, then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.