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Saturday, July 06, 2019

Tanking Does Not Work, and Other Things We Already Knew That NBA Free Agency 2019 Taught Us Again

In a move that surprised very few, and was announced before such things can officially be announced, Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors to team up with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn; in a move that sent shock waves through the league, Kawhi Leonard not only joined the L.A. Clippers--that is not the shocking part--but also orchestrated a deal that resulted in Paul George being traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Clippers.

You may have also heard that LeBron James has a new coach, and several new teammates, including Anthony Davis.

What does it all mean?

The only sensible answer is Chairman Mao's verdict on the French Revolution: It is too soon to tell (never mind that Chairman Mao may have not actually uttered that remark, and that if he did he most likely was referring to France's 1968 unrest, not the 1789 French Revolution).

While that is the best answer, it is not one that results in a very interesting or lengthy article. So, here is an attempt to speculate and extrapolate logically--with no hype--about what the NBA's 2019 Summer of Discontent might mean for next season, and perhaps for many seasons to come.

Make no mistake that this is indeed a Summer of Discontent: never before in NBA history have so many star players in seemingly great situations made their discontent so obvious. Let's start with Kevin Durant. Three years ago, he and Russell Westbrook propelled the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals versus the defending champion, 73 win Golden State Warriors. The Warriors looked very beatable, and in fact they subsequently squandered a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, Durant, Westbrook and company did not finish the deal. Historically, such situations have been stepping stones to future titles: Larry Bird's Celtics had to beat Julius Erving's 76ers, Isiah Thomas' Pistons had to beat Bird's Celtics, Michael Jordan's Bulls had to beat Thomas' Pistons, Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf decided that they had to break up Jordan's Bulls (that is not part of our theme, but read the article for a reminder, once again, that tanking does not work).

Did Durant embrace the challenge of beating the Warriors? No, he was unhappy and he joined the Warriors to form one of the most potent starting lineups in league history. As a Warrior, Durant won two championships, was the Finals MVP both times and emerged as arguably the best player in the league. Was he happy? No. It has been an open secret for more than a year that Durant would seek greener pastures elsewhere. He believes that he has found those greener pastures, metaphorically speaking, in Brooklyn. Will Durant lead the Nets to multiple titles, one title or no titles? Who knows? My prediction, in which I am quite confident, is that within two years Durant will not be happy--and that is sad; as Bill Walton might put it, if you cannot enjoy being arguably the best basketball player on the planet then what can you enjoy?

Durant's new running mate is another unhappy camper. Kyrie Irving hit the biggest shot in the 2016 Finals as the Cavaliers shocked the Warriors but Irving grew tired of being LeBron James' figurative "little brother" and he also did not fancy the notion of being the Cavaliers' best player after James' inevitable departure; so, Irving forced the issue and landed in Boston, where he ended up not being happy being the best player on an underachieving Boston team that had overachieved when Irving was injured and not in the lineup.

Do you want more discontent? LeBron James has made a career of it. He played for deep, balanced Cleveland teams that posted back to back 60-plus win seasons (which did not stop many commentators from constructing a false narrative about how bare the cupboard supposedly was in Cleveland) but instead of embracing the challenge of elevating his game to lead the Cavaliers to a championship he fled to Miami, where James surrounded himself with Hall of Fame talent but did not win a title until he fully embraced the challenge of being the best player on the court in championship moments. After winning two rings in four tries in Miami, James grew weary of doing things Pat Riley's way and James went back to Cleveland, leading Riley to publicly comment about "no more smiling faces with hidden agendas." James made four straight NBA Finals appearance in his second run in Cleveland, winning one championship before bolting to Los Angeles last summer.

Anthony Davis has made his discontent known for at least a year. While the New Orleans Pelicans were hardly a well-run franchise during his tenure there, Davis did not look like a player who would do anything and bear any burden to win a title. Also, the very public way that he made it clear while he was under contract with New Orleans that he would only consider playing for the Lakers was not a good look for the league and cast a pall over both franchises last season.

Would you like more discontent? This story is not complete without the saga of Kawhi Leonard, who rose from little known player to 2014 Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs, widely viewed as the league's model franchise. Just three years later, he was completely discontent with the Spurs and he was dealt to Toronto. Leonard led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title, winning his second Finals MVP. Is he happy and content? No; he is the first Finals MVP to ever go play for a new team right after winning that award.

What does all of this discontent and player movement mean for next season? The 2019 Finalists, Toronto and Golden State, will still likely be playoff teams but they are not championship contenders. Milwaukee, led by 2019 regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, should be the best team in a wide open Eastern Conference as Durant rehabilitates his torn Achilles. Philadelphia will get a lot of hype but I don't trust their best players in key playoff moments. Losing Jimmy Butler will hurt the team's defense and focus.

Speaking of hype, the all-hype, little results Rockets will no doubt be all hyped up again but they are not going to win a playoff series against a Lebron James-led team, never mind a Kawhi Leonard-led team. Much depends on how the supporting casts are constructed--and injuries, as we saw during the 2019 playoffs--but Kawhi Leonard is the modern NBA's dynasty killer, and if he ever stays in one place long enough he could be a dynasty maker. Leonard shut down the "Heatles," he shut down the Spurs (by leaving) and then he shut down the Warriors. He epitomizes the saying, "Real bad boys move in silence." He does not say much but his game screams and yells. We also just found out that you don't have to spout off in the media and dominate the news cycle in order to flex your power; Leonard decided that he wanted to play with Paul George in L.A., and Leonard made it happen without most people having a clue about what was taking place. James' right hand man Rich Paul has admitted that he had no idea the Leonard-George pairing was in the works.

George is an interesting player. He has the size and skill set of a player who could lead a team to a title but something just seems to be missing; he is most comfortable as the second banana, as we saw last season when he flourished alongside Russell Westbrook with Oklahoma City. Never mind that the media--whose disdain for Westbrook is perhaps only exceeded by his disdain for them--considered George a top three player in MVP voting; Westbrook was that team's engine, and he was the focal point of criticism when the Thunder lost. By the way, what sense does it make that the media touted George as an MVP candidate and then spent all season blaming Westbrook for the team's perceived failings? If George is the best player then shouldn't he get the bulk of the praise and the bulk of the criticism?

You can be sure that Westbrook will be blamed for George's departure, much as he was blamed for Durant's departure. Where are the articles blaming Stephen Curry for Durant's departure from Golden State? Is it possible that Durant is just, by nature, not satisfied and someone who constantly seeks change? It is understandable why George hitched his fortunes to a superstar who is bigger and younger than Westbrook--though I would respect George more if she stayed where he is as opposed to tagging along with Leonard--but that does not mean that Westbrook did anything wrong. Westbrook's nature is such that he probably still wants to play with the Thunder, and his mentality is such that he probably thinks that he can win a title playing alongside four G-League players but the reality is that the Thunder will probably trade him and hit the reset button. It will be fascinating to see how Westbrook performs with a different coaching staff and a different supporting cast, if that happens. It would be great if Westbrook spends his entire career with one franchise, like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and a select few all-time greats.

Leonard has chosen a sidekick who likes being Robin and is happy to have someone else be Batman. Leonard just won a title with Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry as his second and third options, so from Leonard's standpoint Paul George is a major upgrade--not to mention the other talent on the Clippers' roster.

Notice that Durant/Irving and Leonard/George maneuvered their way to franchises that did not tank and that shrewdly put together winning programs. It seems that the so-called "Clipper curse" was named Donald Sterling and with the meddlesome, incompetent owner out of the way real basketball minds transformed the team. It is interesting that those minds got rid of the flash and dash of "Lob City" to construct a team built around defense and scrappy play. Similarly, the Nets recovered from Mikhail Prokhorov's blundering and bombast to emerge as a playoff team after he stopped interfering in the day to day management of the franchise. Note to the New York Knicks: the problem lies not in bad fortune but in the ownership suite.

From that standpoint, I am happy that two well-run franchises are reaping rewards, while the Knicks and other tanking teams are left scratching their heads. On the other hand, Toronto and Golden State are two well-run franchises that just lost their best players. It does not seem that the Raptors could have done anything to keep Leonard, and that is sad. It would have been wonderful to watch this scrappy team try to defend a title. The Warriors' story is a bit more complicated. Durant and Draymond Green openly feuded, and the seemingly hyper-sensitive Durant probably grew tired of the media coverage suggesting that the team is better without him (though that coverage is not the team's fault, and no one from the team publicly fed into that preposterous notion). The Golden State medical staff did not have a great 2019 playoff run; they either deliberately downplayed injuries publicly to gain a competitive edge (which is problematic for many reasons, including its impact on legalized sports betting) or they misdiagnosed Durant's injury (and possibly Andre Iguodala's injury, which was publicly reported as a bone bruise but has now been revealed to be a fracture). If Durant left the Warriors over his medical treatment, that is perfectly understandable--but reports of his discontent far predate his injury woes.

What about the Lakers? Remember several years ago when the media made a big deal about (1) Kobe Bryant's big contract supposedly ruining the team and (2) the notion that no stars wanted to play alongside Bryant? James was unable to convince any stars to join him last year, and then he presided over yet another non-playoff season for the Lakers. This summer, Durant, Leonard, George and Irving all went elsewhere without seeming to give the Lakers much consideration. Yes, Davis wants to play with James but does he want to play there because he is represented by James' buddy Rich Paul or is he represented by James' buddy because he wants to play there? Davis hopefully understands that he will be blamed for any real or imagined Lakers' shortcomings, while James will get the credit for any success that the Lakers have.

James had the first semi-serious injury of his career last season and he is at an age where he will be increasingly prone to getting injured and increasingly less able to recover quickly. He has been pacing himself on defense for quite some time as well. Davis is a "stat guru's" dream but has yet to prove that he is durable or that he can be a key player for a championship team. Sure, if all goes well this team could be very, very good--but the bench will be thin, and James' championship window is shrinking rapidly if it is not already closed. I am a Lakers' skeptic for now--meaning, I expect this team to have some very good moments but I do not expect the Lakers to win a championship.

The Clippers look scary on paper, and they will likely back that up on the court as well: Leonard is a beast, George is a very good second option and the role players embrace their roles. Doc Rivers is an elite coach. The Clippers are the big winners this summer: they acquired two star players who are in their primes, they gave up very little to do so and they are in position to be a championship contender for the next several seasons.

As for the Nets, they are obviously not a championship contender this season while Durant recovers. They should certainly be a playoff team, and a playoff team that could at least scare a top four seed, depending on matchups. The real question is 2020-21: what will that squad look like? Assuming that Durant makes a full or nearly full recovery, we know that he can be the best player on a championship team. We also know that Irving can be the second best player on a championship team. However, much like James' health--which was never a question for most of his career--is a valid question now, health is a valid question regarding the Durant-Irving duo. Durant's injury has ended more than a few careers and it has drastically changed other careers. His full return to health is not a given. Just as important, Irving has been an injury-prone player dating all the way back to his college days. No one can blame the Nets for signing these two players but it is entirely possible that we will not see both of them on the court together at full strength for a sustained enough period to win a title. Either life with the Warriors was worse than anyone imagined for Durant, or he has made a very risky choice to leave a dynasty while relying on Irving to be healthy and on unproven players to step up in the playoffs.

Regarding this whole process, I do not begrudge any player the right and opportunity to decide where he wants to live and work; that is a normal part American life and it is a collectively bargained part of the NBA business model. That being said, as a lifelong fan and as an ardent student of the game, it saddens me to see Durant jump from team to team, to see James manipulating the fortunes of multiple teams, players and coaches and to see Leonard leave a country, city and team that fully embraced him. These men have every right to live their lives as they see fit, just as I have every right to wish that Durant still played for the Thunder, that James did not leave Cleveland twice and that Leonard--who appears to have had a legitimate gripe with San Antonio's handling of his quad injury--still played for the Raptors.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to watch these teams fill out their rosters, and I am sure that the 2019-20 season will be exciting, competitive and memorable.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:41 PM



At Sunday, July 07, 2019 4:01:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Fearless Prediction; Western Conference 2020 final standings
1. Jazz (best and most balanced team)
2. Clippers
3. Nuggets
4. Lakers
5. Rockets
6. Warriors
7. Blazers
8. Spurs or some young team like Kings, Pelicans

The Lakers have to decide between two approaches for next season:

One. go all out, treat every game like a deathmatch, and end up with the best record in the league. 60-65 wins. But they'll be dead-legged and worn out come playoff time. Second round upset.

Two. Load management for regular season. Settle for the fourth seed. 50 wins. Then turn it up during money time. Win the title.

Also. Once Durant left GSW the Era of the Superteam is over. 2008-2019. The arms race has thawed out, mooting the need to stockpile max players just to beat GSW. Means the league is hitting the reset button for a few years as the playing field is a lot more level

Until the next big trade or the next great free agent class.

At Monday, July 08, 2019 10:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I will make my official predictions shortly before the season begins and after the rosters have been set but based on what we know now I would rank the Clippers first in the West.

I doubt that the Lakers with an aging LeBron James and little depth are going to try to win 60-65 games at all costs. I am not sure that they could do that even if they tried and I would be surprised if they tried.


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