Midsummer Musings: Fireworks of NBA Offseason Set Stage for Exciting Year
Rather than try to strike a balance between present and future, it seems as if most front offices are prioritizing the former over the latter.
Last week, I took a break from talking about my favorite subject, professional basketball, for almost the first time since starting this column. However, as they say, the NBA is a year-round spectacle, and the league’s second season, the offseason, began this week at a frenetic pace. Hence, now seems as good a time as any to dive into the numerous trades, signings and contract extensions that were completed across the league in recent days.
The first conclusion that jumps out to me is that there’s never been a better time to be old in the NBA. Phoenix’s surprising run to the NBA Finals this past season was built on the back of internal development of young players and smart role player signings. However, the final piece of the puzzle — the player that made everything click — was Chris Paul, who, at 36, is certainly one of the league’s elder statesmen.
With Paul also serving as the head of the NBA Players’ Association, it may be unsurprising to learn that he capitalized on his outstanding season in free agency this summer, returning to the Suns on a four-year contract that could total $120 million. This deal will keep him secure with the Suns through his age-40 season.
This contract looks like an absolute windfall for Paul, given that it provides an unprecedented amount of financial security for a player his age. Prior to Paul’s signing, the largest contract ever given to a point guard of at least his age was the three-year, $28 million dollar pact handed to Steve Nash by the Lakers in 2012. Paul’s deal blows that record out of the water.
Paul’s contract, however, is part of what seems to be a larger trend: teams on the brink of contention following Phoenix’s model and trying to secure their final pieces — veteran hands, particularly at the point guard position.
In a similar vein, Miami acquired longtime Toronto stalwart Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade deal that brings him to South Beach for three years and $90 million. Utah chose to re-up with their starting point guard Mike Conley for three years and $72.5 million. Lowry and Conley are 35 and 33 years old, respectively, making these two more contracts that in most years would have been considered surprising, given their recipients’ age.
What these deals show are teams’ desires to aggressively capitalize on their championship windows. Both Utah — last year’s number one team by record in the entire league — and Miami — only one season removed from a Finals appearance — feel that they are firmly within their ideal window to contend for a championship. In a summer market with limited options, they chose to follow Phoenix’s example, sacrificing long-term financial flexibility to secure a steady hand at the lead guard spot, hoping that their chosen veterans can accomplish what Paul did with Phoenix this past season. As this year’s unexpected Finals matchup showed, it only takes a few lucky breaks for the advantageously-positioned team to capitalize and overpower the other team.
In the long run, though, these sorts of moves appear misguided. They create a clear championship window of somewhere from one to three years, a near future that it seems will put some juggernauts in the path of a Finals hopeful, but they also may ultimately have negative consequences further down the line.
The Bucks will return most of their championship core, most notably Giannis, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and will certainly be threats to defend their title. In Brooklyn, a clean bill of health for all of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving is the first priority and would spell danger for the rest of the Eastern Conference. Combine that with the retention of Bruce Brown, a key playoff contributor from 2020, and the signing of Patty Mills, a spark plug guard from San Antonio, and Brooklyn will be in position to avenge their relative disappointment of a season with a run to the Finals.
Some of the most drastic deals, though, went down on the West Coast, most notably in the offices of the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. completed the first blockbuster of the offseason when they traded their 2021 first-round pick and several contributors off the bench for the Wizards’ Russell Westbrook. Questionable on-court fit aside, the combination of Westbrook, Anthony Davis and LeBron James will put absurd amounts of pressure on the opposing defenses, provided all three are able to stay healthy this year. Since the trade, L.A. has bolstered the roster with the signings of *takes breath* Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn, all of whom project to bring strong wing shooting to the team primarily built around their more interior-focused superstars.
Now, one year removed from their 2020 title and following a season that flamed out in the playoffs largely due to injury, the Lakers, with their shiny new toy in Westbrook and entirely reloaded roster, will attempt to make the most of what must be the twilight of LeBron’s career and win another title while one of the league’s all-time great players is still on the roster.
There are, of course, other subplots that will create intrigue around the league this year. When will Kawhi Leonard play again, and how will the Clippers perform in what might be the final year of his partnership with Paul George? How will Denver fare with Nikola Jokic coming off an MVP season and the return of his wingman Jamal Murray? What about Chicago, in the weaker Eastern Conference and a lineup bolstered by the additions of Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan, not to mention last season’s trade deadline addition Nikola Vucevic in his first full year with the team? Will Trae Young and Luka Doncic, both highly paid young superstars, make deep runs with their teams? Can Kemba Walker find his All-Star form again at home in Madison Square Garden, and will the Knicks finally achieve some sustained success?
As of now, though, following a tumultuous start to free agency, it appears that the Bucks, Nets and Lakers still stand above the pack. This begs the question of whether it is wise — with these juggernauts and other strong contending teams positioned to dominate the title race in the coming few years — to invest heavily in a team built to win right now, or whether it would be smarter to maintain financial flexibility, collect draft assets and build for the future.
Although the best front offices attempt to strike a balance between the two courses of action, there seem to be more and more teams this summer leaning in the direction of the former. While we’re still a ways away from the start of the 2021-22 NBA season, the beginning of the offseason has set up what looks to be another highly competitive and extremely entertaining year. Only time will tell.