The NBA Off-Season has turned the League on its head, and the № 1 beneficiary are the fans.
There’s no easy way to unpack what happened this NBA off-season. The predominant narrative suggests that the 2019–20 season is the return of the heralded duo. Shaq and Kobe, Jordan and Pippin, Payton and Kemp, Stockton and Malone. These tandems defined the teams on which they existed, so much so, that Redditors still get a kick out of seeing Washington Wizards Michael Jordan defend Portland Trailblazers Scottie Pippen. If they aren’t wearing the same Bulls’ red, it looks weird.
Of course, the NBA’s current era — the social media era, the player empowerment era, the, “Man, I just can’t beat LeBron era,” whatever you want to call it — carefully shoved the idea of a two-man core aside. Realistically, NBA players forming one-two punches didn’t go anywhere (see the Washington Wizards, Portland Trailblazers, Utah Jazz etc.). They were just drowned out by the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers’ success for the better part of the last decade.
When those teams weren’t stomping down the crowd, the League was dominated by the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, teams whose identities quieted the rebellions any pairing of players could produce. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce didn’t just face off against Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals. The city of Boston fought with Los Angeles in a battle of pure basketball supremacy.
This summer’s player movement has somewhat undermined the NBA’s institutional structure. The Brooklyn Nets’ feel-good story about turning a little league franchise into a 2019 Eastern Conference sixth seed while churning out an All-Star has been discarded in favor of a screen play starring Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. We fawned over the thought that D’Angelo Russel and Caris LeVert might blossom into the perfect representatives for Brooklyn’s in-house curation, only to have that stripped away by the collaboration of two basketball demigods.
The same can be said about the Los Angeles Clippers, who have leapt into the immediate future by joining Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, or of the Houston Rockets who brought together a pair of triple double monsters in Russell Westbrook and James Harden. These teams traded in what-if scenarios for realistic attempts to make the NBA Finals.
If NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had any qualms about parity, he could finally take a deep breath this summer. During All-Star weekend the Los Angeles Times reported that Silver saw the league trending in the right direction.
“So, from where we came historically as a league — remember, this is a league where, if you look at the last, I think, 11 years, we’ve had seven different teams win championships. But if you look back to the first 60 years of this league, I think three teams – the Lakers, Celtics, and the Bulls – won 60 percent of all championships.”
In exchange for curating die-hard fandoms that can say, “I remember when the Brooklyn Nets/Los Angeles Clippers/Houston Rockets sucked!” the NBA has become fun for the everyone. The League Pass warriors and the casual Friday Night ESPN bar crowd will be equally entertained, as there will be no shortage of entertaining matchups that (hopefully) don’t feel too one-sided. The path to the Larry O’Brien trophy has finally been cleared of lingering debris.
I look forward to the 2019–20 season, perhaps more than I have for any season since 2010–11, and it’s not just for the excitement of seeing old faces in new places. Super teams provided a level of comfort. Having three or more, top level players meant that at any given time one of the team’s best guys was on the floor. The term “second-unit” fell out of favor. Was it really fair to call Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and David West the Warriors backup? They might not have run up the score as high as the Death Lineup or Hamptons Five could, but they surely weren’t losing games while Steph Curry or Durant were on the bench.
That sense of familiarity or continuity largely ends this season. A few teams still boast deep rosters (the Milwaukee Bucks still have one of the best starting 5s in the league and Utah’s trio of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert will be a riot egged on by Joe Ingles), but for many of the teams in position to make plays at the title, there is a big disparity between the top two players and the rest of the roster. Who is the Brooklyn Nets third best player (once Durant is healthy)? Jarrett Allen? Joe Harris? Spencer Dinwiddie? At their best, the Nets have plenty of complementary players, but figuring out at what point these players will be playing their best is a bigger challenge that super teams didn’t have to deal with.
Come October, the resulting strategy might be a familiar one. In 2017–18, Scott Brooks worked to stagger Bradley Beal and John Wall’s minutes as best he could. That meant whichever five guys he put on the court had a full-fledged, All-NBA level guard! Brooks’ creativity helped Beal improve as a point guard (which has quickly become something of his natural position while Wall is injured) and Wall could still take over games as he had pre-Beal. Win-win.
Houston becomes instantly better if they can wield Harden and Westbrook together and separately. Maybe Clint Capella regains his spark having to run end to end after Westbrook yanks the defensive board away from him (a lá Steven Adams). Then Harden could indulge in iso sets without worrying about a disengaged Westbrook. The same goes for Los Angeles, who will have an All-NBA, All-Defensive wing on the floor at all times.
This uptick in player movement could also have exciting institutional outcomes. The NBA has been kicking around the return of the Seattle SuperSonics for some time, but there never seems to be a perfect time for these league expansions. (The league needs the Sonics, if only for their fantastic green and burgundy color scheme).
When the Charlotte Bobcats opened for business in 2004 the team had just missed out on one of the most front-loaded draft classes of recent memory. Charlotte traded the fourth and 33rd selections in the 2004 NBA Draft to the Los Angeles Clippers for the second overall pick. They used that to choose Emeka Okafor.
It was a smart move at the time. Okafor was a giant in the post, similar to Dwight Howard who was selected ahead of him. He entered the league after a stellar, three-year career at the University of Connecticut. He was even good enough to win rookie of the year. Barring injury (Brandon Roy) or questions of motivation (Steve Francis, Tyreke Evans) that’s usually a good metric for success.
In the long run, Okafor’s selection was O.K. at best. He never scored more than he did in his first season, and an ankle injury in 2005–06 did little to help the Bobcats legitimize their franchise. Though the 2004 draft class wasn’t loaded with stars, plenty of players had moderate to great careers — Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, J.R. Smith, Trevor Ariza — that could have been the foundation for future success. The Bobcats were locked into an awful name, awful color scheme (baby blue and orange, really?) and a tough break with their star rookie. They didn’t have experience any of the magic that the Hornets did as an expansion team in 1988. They had no hopes of getting a Larry Johnson or Alonzo Mourning. They didn’t have a rocking colorway (purple and teal for life). The Bobcats were at the bottom of a league with no way to catch up.
When the Bobcats filled out their roster in the expansion draft in 2004, they best player they could get was Gerald Wallace. At the time, with guys signing four- and five-year deals and then following through with extensions, Charlotte threw a low cost six-year deal at Wallace, to have him stick around and help build up the franchise with Okafor. Spoiler alert: no one painted Wallace (or Okafor) murals in the Queen City, and the team didn’t become a free agent destination as the front office had thought.
(Just for some added wound salt: Bernie Bickerstaff once called Theron Smith the steal of the Expansion Draft. He played 53 games, averaged 2.8 points and ended up somewhere between the D-League and Europe for the rest of his 10-year career).
It won’t be easy for a start-up team in 2019 and beyond, but it may be easier. More player movement means more roster flexibility. A new team could have a shot at securing a Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving level talent faster than ever. Expansion teams can’t sign unrestricted free agents the year of an expansion draft, but they can speed up the roster development time by having more summers loaded with more quality free agents. Shorter player deals and more team hopping means more chances for an expansion team to become successful sooner (drafting high school players, which seems to be right around the corner is an added sweetener for these start-up organizations).
But it’s not just the franchises and players that are experiencing a potential reformation. Coaches are too. Capping off the jersey swap summer was the NBA’s introduction of the coaching challenge.
Plenty of people are annoyed at the new mechanic. After the NBA did plenty to improve upon basketball’s pace two years ago — universal timeout lengths, shorter halftimes — throwing flags on plays seems like a step backwards. (For the record, there won’t be literal flags, rather, coaches will call a timeout and signal a challenge with a finger twirl. I imagine it’d be hard to have a universal flag color/style give the diversity of arena and court designs).
Immediately contesting in-game actions is a boon to referee accuracy at the expense of fluidity. Can coaches take advantage of the program? Like Jason Kidd trying (and failing) at spilling a drink to get a timeout when he had none, isn’t there’s a chance for this to backfire?
Phooey to all that. If coaches want to be malicious, they’d find other ways to do it. I’d reckon it’s possible that the new rule creates a new dynamic between player and coach. With a slight head nod or a wave of a finger Kawhi Leonard might signal to Doc Rivers that something was amiss on the last play. Doc calls a time out and challenges. Turns out Kawhi was right. New bonds are formed. Fresh tactics emerge. Fans get both a more accurate game, and the chance to see the minutia of professional athletes and coaches at work. How cool was it to see LeBron rattle off a sequence of plays after Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals? The coaches challenge will give the interested fan a glimpse into the NBA eye test. We’ll get to peek into the thought processes of some of the smartest basketball minds. How is that a bad thing?
There are almost too many reasons to anxiously await October. Zion Williamson. The perpetual circus that is the Knicks. Coaches challenges and new player pairings. There’s something for every fan — the analyst, the Instagram highlight compiler, the game goer or the bar watcher. For the first time in a decade, casual conversations won’t devolve into Warriors or LeBron James Finals talk (maybe LeBron’s still on the discussion board with this tuned up Lakers squad). But by and large, there’s no excuse not to watch.