Friday, July 22, 2016

The Hard Way

  Just 3 days after the end of the NBA season the annual draft was held which led to player movement as some teams tried to move draft picks for players and other teams tried to move draft picks for players while still other teams tried to move up, down, and around in the draft. The most notable trades to my mind was the Brooklyn Nets trading useful veteran Thad Young to the Indiana Pacers for the 20th pick in the draft and the Orlando Magic getting center/forward Serge Ibaka from the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 11th pick and Victor Oladipo (the #2 pick in the entire draft three years ago). The Nets-Pacers trade is an example of the new Nets GM Sean Marks betting on himself to draft a better player than Young. I don’t understand what the Pacers see in Young that other teams don’t since they have a very good history of developing draft picks. The draft pick turned into Michigan guard Caris Levert and while the results of this trade won’t be known for a few years at least the Nets will save about $10 million a year for not having to pay Young. The Ibaka trade seems like a prelude to more Magic moves since they have already have a center in Nikola Vučević while the Thunder are trying to rebuild on the fly by trading Ibaka a year before he becomes a free agent and commands a huge chunk of the salary cap. Thunder GM Sam Presti has a good track record of drafting and picked center Domantas Sabonis with his pick and this will be another trade that will take years to judge.

  The New York Knicks General Manager Phil Jackson has won 11 titles as a coach but has had a rough go in his first two years running a team. His handpicked coach Derek Fischer didn’t make it through two seasons. Jackson seemingly hit a home run when he drafted Kristaps Porzingas at #4 last year. To my eyes Porzingas is talented but was hurt a lot in his rookie season. If Porzingas turns out to be injury prone he will fit right in with the Knicks new acquisitions Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, who were both with the Bulls last year. Rose was the 2011 NBA MVP but has been plagued by knee injuries since. He played a total of 49 games in three seasons (2012-2014) although he has made it into 117 games the past two years. Noah followed his 2014 Defensive Player of the Year performance by playing in 96 games the past two years and is coming off shoulder surgery. Joining Porzingas, Rose, Noah, and max contract all-star Carmelo Anthony in the starting lineup is 30 year old Courtney Lee who is joining his 7th team proving that while he is a good enough player to be coveted by other teams he is not good enough for a team to resist letting him leave via trade or free agency. Jackson is one of my favorite coaches but as a General Manager he has proven to not be up to the task and this assemblage of all star players from 5 years ago looks like the same old quick fix that every Knicks general manager has failed with in the past 20 years.

  There are trades every year and the Knicks load up on yesteryear's all-stars every few years but it is very rare in the NBA that an MVP caliber player in his prime switches teams yet that is what happened earlier this month when superstar Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors. The only comparable movements of star players to my mind was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forcing a trade from Milwaukee to the Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal leaving the Magic to join the Lakers as a free agent, and LeBron James leaving Cleveland for Miami and then heading back to Cleveland. I was too young for Wilt Chamberlain's moves from Philadelphia to California and back again which I assume were seismic in nature.

  It was widely expected that Durant would sign a short term deal with the Thunder and go into free agency for real next year but he chose a short term deal with the Warrior team that came within a few minutes of winning a second consecutive championship. At his press conference Durant said that he wanted to move on to a new chapter in his life by moving to California and thinks it is going to be a lot of fun to play in the Warriors winning culture with all-stars Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson.

  In order to get salary cap room to sign Durant, the Warriors had to part with five members of their championship rotation: centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, forwards Harrison Barnes and Marresse Speights, and guard Leandro Barbosa. Of these five Bogut and Barbosa will be missed the most. Bogut provided height, defense, and off the ball offense while Barbosa was often the fastest player on the court even at the age of 33. Durant will be a direct replacement and a considerable upgrade for Barnes while Ezeli had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.

  I find Durant’s decision very courageous. He signed a 2 year contract for $54 million when he could have gotten 5 years and over $130 from the Thunder. This is a lot of money to leave on the table. If the Warriors win at least one championship with Durant he will undoubtedly sign a long term deal but if the Warriors fail to win a championship the Durant will be pointed to (justly or not) as the reason for the failure, not being a championship caliber player, and I could see him accused of spoiling the camaraderie of the team by causing half the roster to be jettisoned in order to pay him. And don’t forget Durant is just one year removed from missing over half a season (including playoffs) with three foot operations. It appears to me that Durant is assuming large risks to his wallet and legacy in order to play on the Warriors. It would have been easy to collect the extra money and security with the Thunder but Durant took the hard way by taking a short term deal to play for a new team where he will likely get the lion’s share of the blame if the Warriors fail to win a championship and minimal credit for any of the teams future success.

  Do I think the Warriors will win the championship now that they have Durant? Probably, but they should have won the championship this past year and didn’t due to their injuries and their arrogance. Forward Draymond Green gives the Warriors a lot of their attitude but he spend the postseason punching and kicking opposing players in the groin, culminating in a suspension that cost the Warriors a chance to close out the series in 5 games. Green found himself arrested for assault in the off season. Green is starting to remind me of Dennis Rodman, a supremely talented hustle player that couldn’t stay out of trouble on or off the court. The team has no center, the bench is comprised of marginal veterans playing for minimal salaries, and there is no guarantee that Curry’s lower leg issues or Durant’s foot injury problems won’t resurface. The factor that mostly concerns me is the Warriors don’t have a quality center. When Bogut went down in Game 5 of the finals the Warriors were markedly worse defensively. Now Bogut is gone to clear the salary cap room for Durant with no replacement. This is not going to be much of a factor in the regular season but it is hard for me to see a team winning the championship without an above average center so matter how good the rest of the team is.