Despite LeBron James standing as the lone, gargantuan obstacle impeding passage out of the East, many of the top available free agents decided to remain in the nightly death match known as the Western Conference. Although the salary cap is expected to rise next summer and skyrocket in two years, most players — or perhaps their commission-hungry agents — elected to forego signing short-term contracts and instead opted for the security of four- and five-year deals.
[Update: Clippers keep Jordan at 11th hour]
Few huge surprises have developed, but the Sacramento Kings made one of the more bizarre trades, sacrificing future draft picks and talent to free up enough salary cap room to acquire a rather mediocre haul (Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos and Marco Belinelli). And Paul Pierce and David West, two 30-something veterans, passed on big money from their teams for a chance to play at home and chase a ring, respectively.
But two moves in particular have a chance to dramatically influence the balance of power in each conference — DeAndre Jordan’s decision to leave the Los Angeles Angeles Clippers for Dallas (we think) and Dwyane Wade’s decision to stay in Miami on a one-year deal.
Leaving Lob City
At the height of the Clippers’ Lob City glory two years ago, Jordan threw down one of the filthiest and demoralizing slams this millennium. Jordan caught an alley-oop pass from Chris Paul and turned a poor, unsuspecting Brandon Knight into a crash-test-dunk-dummy. Feeling somewhat guilty about the slaughter, Jordan couldn’t bare to look at the fallen Knight and then scrunched up his face as if he had just smelled a pot of chitterlings.
In his haste to leave behind Paul and chase the chance to become a star, Jordan has treated the Clippers as he once did Knight, leaving them stunned and on their backs. Jordan’s crushing exit was hardly surprising to those close to the situation, since it was well known that his relationship with Paul wasn’t copacetic. And, despite Coach Doc Rivers’s failed public campaigns for Jordan to be an all-star and to win defensive player of year, the dynamic, 6-foot-11 big man never seemed to trust the support would translate into a prominent role in the offense.
The Clippers have watched talented young players bolt the franchise in free agency or force their way out for decades — from Danny Manning to Lamar Odom to Elton Brand. But this situation was different because the Clippers were one of the league’s best teams, possessing a smooth coach with a championship ring and a big-pocket owner who is “hardcore” about doing whatever it takes to win. They also had two of the league’s best and most marketable players in Paul and Griffin, who hogged most of the endorsements and all-star accolades.
Jordan’s move makes the Clippers worse in more ways than he improves the Mavericks, a franchise that is preparing for an eventual future without Dirk Nowitzki. Recovering from the defection won’t be easy, since the Clippers don’t have the salary cap space to find a remotely comparable replacement. Tyson Chandler has already committed to Phoenix, eliminating any sign-and-trade possibilities with the Mavericks. The Lakers took on Roy Hibbert, leaving the comedic stylings of JaVale McGee as an alternative.
Rivers’s past, self-sabotaging blunders as an executive — using a first-round pick to get rid of Jared Dudley, signing Spencer Hawes instead of Pierce last summer — have raised more doubt how the Clippers can avoid throwing away another season in a highly-competitive West. They will possibly have about $30 million in salary cap space next summer, when Kevin Durant will be the grand prize, but also face a tenuous situation in which both Paul and Griffin can become free agents in 2017.
The Mavericks perhaps are more optimistic in Jordan’s potential as a go-to guy than most teams — Mark Cuban earned a $25,000 fine when he said Jordan would be “a franchise player for the rest of his career” and compared him to Shaquille O’Neal in a radio interview on Friday. Dallas observed how the Clippers remained successful last season when Blake Griffin was out with injury because Jordan was able to sprinkle in 20-point scoring games with his impressive rebounding and shot-blocking totals.
The mutual belief that Jordan could be a star led the Houston native and Texas A&M alum to return to his home state and abandon the only team he has known over the first seven seasons of his career. Jordan is a young, more physically imposing version of Chandler, but the Mavericks have two major concerns before they can be considered a serious threat in the West — or even better than the Clippers. Small forward Chandler Parsons, the man who can now take credit for recruiting Jordan and Dwight Howard to Texas, is still recovering from knee surgery, and free agent shooting guard Wes Matthews was signed despite a ruptured Achilles’ tendon from which few have been able to fully bounce back.
San Antonio, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Houston and Memphis are the teams with the best chances of representing the West in the NBA Finals next season. With Jordan, the Clippers would’ve made that list. The Mavericks remain a bit of a mystery.
Of course, Wednesday brings reports that Jordan may be reconsidering his move to the Mavs. Wherever he finally lands, Jordan’s outsize impact will be felt in full.
Wade’s return fuels Heat’s leap back into relevance
Wade’s threats to leave Miami always felt unseemly and unrealistic because he wouldn’t look right in anything but a Heat uniform and no other team in the NBA was willing to meet his salary demands. After a few weeks of bluster, the two sides finally agreed to a one-year, $20-million deal that postpones the situation for another year but completes an offseason that elevated the Heat back into the elite in the East.
James’s unexpected homecoming to Cleveland and Chris Bosh’s season-ending blood clots contributed to Miami’s precipitous fall from the NBA Finals in 2014 to the lottery in 2015. But the Heat experienced some good fortune in the draft when Justise Winslow slid all the way to 10th — a place where other talented prospects (Pierce, Joe Johnson, Caron Butler, Paul George) have somehow been available and blossomed into stars. Winslow, a lefty swingman considered by many executives as one of the top five players in the draft, gives Miami a much-needed infusion of youth and athleticism to provide some balance for a veteran-laden roster.
Heat president Pat Riley, never one for idle seasons, is determined to make his franchise relevant again. That Riley was able to get a meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge, despite not having any salary cap space or a means to acquire him, spoke volumes about his persuasiveness and sent a message to future free agents about his refusal to settle. Riley brought back point guard Goran Dragic and Luol Deng decided to pick up his option, but retaining Wade was important on two crucial fronts. It kept the best player in franchise history — and a possible mentor for Winslow — from leaving in an ugly split, and it kept the Heat in position to make a run at Durant next summer.
The Cavaliers are a prohibitive favorite to win the East, which would allow James to make a sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. But the rest of the conference is wide open, with the Atlanta Hawks losing DeMarre Carroll, the Chicago Bulls leaning on a rookie coach from college, the Toronto Raptors re-shuffling their roster and the Washington Wizards watching a veteran leader leave for a warmer locale. The Milwaukee Bucks remain young and relatively inexperienced even after the addition of Greg Monroe.
With his age and balky knees, Wade certainly isn’t able to carry a team as he did 10 years ago, when he was preparing to lead the Heat to the 2006 NBA title. Wade has missed at least 13 games in each of the past four seasons because of injury or maintenance. But he remains one of the top shooting guards in the league and provides a stabilizing presence for an organization that has been at or near the top for most of his 12 years in Miami. Riley still needs to make a move or two to improve the team’s perimeter depth and assist whenever Wade is forced to sit. By letting him go, though, the Heat would’ve put too much pressure on Bosh to quickly rebound from a life-threatening ailment and Winslow would’ve needed to assume the responsibilities of a star before he was ready.
The Heat was overwhelmed by injuries last season but should be back among the top four teams in the conference with some health and a determined Wade eager to prove he is worth a longer, more lucrative commitment beyond this season.