The 2016-2017 NBA season ended with one team hoisting the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy and 29 others searching for ways to overcome the dominant champions. The Golden State Warriors defeated LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers by a game score of 4-1 to give the Warriors their second title in three years, capping off an epic trilogy with the Cavs. All eyes were on Kevin Durant in the finals and KD delivered, earning the title of finals MVP and his first NBA Championship.
Durant’s decision to join Golden State completely altered the landscape of the league. The combination of Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green proved to be one of the most deadly groupings of talent of all-time. The rest of the league has spent the summer trying to assemble a lineup that can stand toe-to-toe with the proverbial giants in Oakland. Blockbuster trades and the recruiting of top free agents shifted power in the league to challenge Golden State. Combining this with the rise of young talent (trust the process, anyone?) and the emergence of new talent in the draft provided fans with one of the greatest NBA off-seasons ever.
HELLO AND GOODBYE
It would be remiss to exclude the names of those who have recently left the league when speaking of the overall landscape of the NBA. Headlining the retirees riding off into the sunset is none other than The Truth himself. Paul Pierce debuted in 1998 as a member of the Boston Celtics and stayed with organization through 2013, including a championship alongside Ray Allen, Rajon Rando, and Kevin Garnett in 2008. Allen, despite not playing since 2014, announced his retirement from the game this season as well. Other notable players we will no longer see on the hardwood are three-time champion James Jones as well as former champion and four-time NBA All-Defensive second team player Tayshaun Prince.
Though fans are always saddened to see players hang up their shoes, the influx of new talent gives hope for the new generation of basketball stars. This year’s crop of talent was no exception. Headlining the class of 2017 was Washington standout Markelle Fultz. The 6’5” guard averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds as a Husky and hopes to continue his success with the Philadelphia 76ers. Fultz joins a promising group of young players in Philly such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons that look to yield results of “The Process.” Fultz’s athleticism and handling gives hope to a team that finished dead last in transition points per possession.
Lonzo Ball also made headlines (whether they be good or bad) by joining the Los Angeles Lakers as the second overall pick. Fans are buzzing over the big baller, and he has brought attention to a Lakers team that has not made the playoffs since 2013. Ball has already been compared to legendary point guards Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd. Ball’s floor-spacing and passing are desperately needed on a Lakers squad that was 28th in assists.
The Sacramento Kings look to end the league’s longest playoff drought with their acquisition of young talent. The Kings picked up Kentucky standout De’Aaron Fox, 2017 National Champion Justin Jackson, and Harry Giles of Duke all in the first round. The Dallas Mavericks had the steal of the draft by picking North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr., who has already made waves alongside the Dunking Deutschman Dirk Nowitzki. The preseason can only tell you so much about a player, leaving many fans itching to see these rookies and more make their professional debuts.
OLD FACES, NEW PLACES
The Charlotte Hornets made the first big trade of the off-season, just eight days removed from the season. Charlotte sent Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli to Atlanta in exchange for Dwight Howard. The reunion of Howard and Hornets coach Steve Clifford gives the franchise direction after a disappointing 36-46 season. Howard looks to rejuvenate his career in Charlotte following stints with the Rockets and Hawks that didn’t quite live up to expectations.
The first true blockbuster trade of the off-season saw another reunion between player and coach when Jimmy Butler was traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota had been in rebuild mode for the last few years and the acquisition of the three-time All-Star Butler shows the organization is ready to compete. The trade did not come without loss for the T-wolves, giving up promising guards in Zach Lavine and Kris Dunn in addition to the number seven pick in the 2017 draft, which took place just hours after the trade was announced. Butler joins standouts Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns as the Wolves prepare to brave the tumultuous Western Conference.
Less than a week later, the LA Clippers announced star point guard Chris Paul had been traded to the Houston Rockets. CP3 joins MVP finalist James Harden in Houston, and it will be interesting to see how the two distributors mesh. Harden led the league in assists last season while also averaging 29.1 points. Paul may prove to be the catalyst that pushes Houston into the title picture.
Continuing the theme of Western Conference teams stockpiling talent, debatably the biggest off-season acquisition took place when Paul George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. PG13 shocked the Pacers’ organization when he said he would leave the team in the summer of 2018 as a free agent. Speculation ran wild, as scenarios were presented that would send George to Boston, LA, or even Denver. George eventually found his place in OKC alongside the MVP Russell Westbrook. The Thunder continued to build its arsenal by adding Carmelo Anthony, who waved his no-trade clause with the New York Knicks to join George and the recently re-signed Westbrook.
While the West was stockpiling talent to take down Golden State, two Eastern Conference powerhouses swapped talent. Kyrie Irving requested to be traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers in July. The former first overall pick explained his request on ESPN’s First Take: “As a 25-year-old evolving man, coming in to perfect my craft every single day, I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential and see how far I can go.”
Similar to George’s situation, Irving’s trade request yielded numerous offers from around the league. Irving expressed interest in Phoenix, San Antonio, Miami, and New York, but ultimately the decision was out of his hands. Nearly a month after the Boston Celtics signed free agent Gordon Hayward, the C’s agreed to trade Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2018 first-round pick, and a 2020 second-round pick in exchange for Irving.
Despite being the conference’s number-one seed in last year’s NBA Playoffs, Boston came up short against Cleveland in the conference finals, 4-1. The Celtics hope their off-season moves are enough to lift them over the Cavs. However, Cleveland made additional signings to defeat not only the Celtics, but bring a second NBA Championship to ‘the Land.’ Derrick Rose signed with the Cavaliers and will start in place of Thomas while he recovers from a hip injury. Cleveland was also able to recruit three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade. Wade and James won two championships together in Cleveland and hope this off-season prepared them for a third as a pair and fourth overall.
SO CLOSE BUT YET SO FAR
Boston, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City were some obvious winners of free agency. However, not every team experienced the same success. The LA Clippers always seemed one piece away from reaching their potential, but never got over the hump. At a time when the team needed to either attract more superstars or start over with young talent, the stubborn Clippers spent lots of money on an injury prone Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari while losing Chris Paul and J.J. Reddick.
The New York Knicks were the poster-child for dysfunction this year. Phil Jackson’s comments on Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis didn’t do the Zen Master any favors. The Knickerbockers failed to attract Irving, while losing Anthony to OKC. Porzingis is one of the most promising young talents in the league, but will need more than Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr.
This may be cheating, but one of the biggest losers this off-season was the Eastern Conference. While obtaining Hayward, most of the best players in the league (with the exception of LeBron James) now reside in the Western Conference. Butler, George, Anthony, and Paul Millsap emulated Lewis and Clark by taking their talents west. Most of the Western Conference’s top free agents, including Griffin, Paul and Curry, elected to stay in the conference. With the NBA desperately trying to make the regular season interesting again, it doesn’t help that, barring a basketball anomaly, it is a two-team race to make the finals in the East.
With another off-season come and gone, the time for speculation is coming to an end. How will players mesh in their new environments? Can anyone defeat the Warriors? Which rookie will have the biggest impact? How many fake Twitter accounts will Kevin Durant use? All this and more will soon be answered, with the NBA regular season beginning October 17th as the defending champion Golden State Warriors host the Houston Rockets. The 17th also features a rematch of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals with the new-look Boston Celtics taking on 2017 runner-up Cleveland Cavaliers.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith