Friday, July 14, 2017

Congratulations Are In Order, I Suppose

  I have no doubt that NBA basketball is taking over as America’s number one sport. The 2016-2017 season ended over a month ago yet the NBA has been front and center of the sports pages ever since with pre-draft trades, the actual draft, and the free agency period. Twenty years ago baseball and the upcoming football season would have been at the front of the sports sections and talk radio – now it is the NBA off season. Most of the experts I listen to and read expected very few teams to pick up high salaried players because there is seemingly no possibility of competing with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers teams that have won their conferences the past three years.

  It didn’t quite work out that way since good teams are not easily dissuaded from trying to take the step to greatness and as good as the Warriors and Cavaliers have been they are always just one major injury from falling back to the pack. The Houston Rockets have not had a losing season since 2006 and have won 50 games in three of the past five years since acquiring all-star James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder, making it to the conference finals in 2015. After a promising regular season ended in a disappointing second round playoff loss to the Spurs, Rocket General Manager Daryl Morey managed to get Los Angeles Clipper All-Star Chris Paul to come to Houston as a free agent. Normally the team that currently employs a player can offer them the most money in free agency but Paul won’t have to sacrifice any money because the Clippers arranged a sign-and–trade deal with the Rockets in which the Clippers signed Paul to the contract he had agreed to with Houston and then traded him to the Rockets for starting guard Patrick Beverly, former sixth man of the year Lou Williams, and a pair of rotation players (Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell).

  This looks like a great fit. Morey is known for his pioneering use of basketball analytics and the Rockets were one of the first teams embrace the philosophy of taking either three points shots or close range shots like lobs and layups that would either lead to a high percentage of baskets or foul shots. Paul just had his career high in three point attempts and percentage. He also gives the Rockets a second all-star which will allow Morey to try to convince another top 20 player to head to Houston for a realistic chance to compete for a title.

  I don’t like this deal for Houston. In getting Paul, they sacrificed a lot of depth (even if the trade to Clippers wasn’t made, signing Paul would have led to the release of most of the same players to create salary cap space). Paul is 32 years old which seems pretty old to me (Harden is 27) and his performance and durability could tail off drastically at any time. And if Paul’s effectiveness doesn’t drop off he will be eligible for a max extension at the end of next season. The Rockets just gave Harden a $228 million dollar extension and if Paul gets something even close that will be their team for the foreseeable future. Another thing I don’t like about this deal is that both Paul and Harden seem to have the ball in their hands a lot on offense so either or both players will have to change their game to accommodate the other superstar which could make either or both players far less effective.

  I can’t see the Rockets being able to beat the Spurs or Warriors even with Paul. The only way I see this deal working for the Rockets is if Morey is able to obtain another superstar and make a title run. I can’t rule it out and it seems LeBron James is looking to leave Cleveland next year. If he does Houston may be a promising destination for him. I look at the Rockets acquiring Chris Paul as a home run swing that has a small chance of paying off.

  The Boston Celtics were another big player in free agency. The Celtics had the best record in the eastern conference this year and made the conference finals but were blown out by the Cavaliers in 5 games, two of which were 30+ point losses. The Celtics had the top pick in the draft by virtue of their trade with the Nets in 2014 which gave them the Nets #1 pick by swap or outright for five years. The Celtics traded the top pick to the 76ers for a future #1 pick and the #3 pick which they used to select small forward Jayson Tatum of Duke. Then the Celtics were able to sign free agent Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz to a $128 million dollar 4 year deal. In order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to renounce the rights to center Kelly Olynk and trade guard Avery Bradley to the Pistons for power forward Marcus Morris for a salary cap savings of three million dollars.

  I like the Celtics getting Hayward more than the Rockets signing of Paul but not much more. Hayward is young at 27 and has been in the league six years. He made his first All-Star team this past season leaving open the question of whether his all-star status is proof of his hitting a new level or a fluke. While Paul’s best years are not ahead of him it is possible that Hayward is ready to ascend to a new level.

  Even if Hayward is an all-star and the Celtics other all-star Isiah Thomas successfully recovers from the hip injury he suffered in the playoffs last year I can’t see this team challenging the Cavaliers for the eastern conference championship. I’m not even sure if Hayward is better than Avery Bradley who was dumped in order free up the salary cap space to pay Hayward.

  Is this move going to lead the Celtics to a championship of a Finals appearance? I don’t think so but James decides to leave the Cavaliers after next season this is probably the best team in the East by a small margin over the Wizards and Raptors. The Warriors are on another level but if they should get upset it is not impossible to see this group of Celtics become champions.

  While no teams vaulted themselves into championship contention in my eyes during free agency the Thunder and Timberwolves have improved themselves the most. The Thunder picked up perennial all-star Paul George from the Indiana Pacers for an overpaid Victor Oladipo and 2016 first round pick Domantas Sabonis. It was a steal except for the small detail of George becoming a free agent next season and already telling the Pacers that he wants to play for the Lakers. Even so, this is a great gamble by the Thunder. George is an immediate upgrade and shows MVP Russell Westbrook a season before he can opt out of his contract that the team is willing to take risks to add talent. The Thunder aren’t championship contenders because of this move but are markedly better and if all the pieces fit just right could beat anyone in the playoffs.

  The other big move I like is the Timberwolves acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Bulls for 2016 first round pick Kris Dunn, slam dunk champion Zach Lavine (coming off a knee injury), and a swap of the 7th and 16th picks in the NBA draft. Butler is under contract for two more years at $20 million and while not the high flyer that Lavine is has proved to be a durable hard-working player. Butler will either infuse the Wolves young stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins with his work ethic and defensive intensity or be ostracized and tuned out by the young talented core. I expect the Wolves to return to the playoffs for the first time since they traded Kevin Garnett.

  It seems like the entire NBA press is congratulating the Rockets, Celtics, Thunder, and Timberwolves for signing or trading for their All-Star player. I'll hold off on my congratulations until I see how these new acquisitions mesh with their teams. For now, all that has been won is the right to pay each of these players 20 million dollars of more. Everything else is the hope that future performance will outweigh the risk of under-performing players with large contracts or fractured team chemistry.