Welcome to the wide-open NBA. Welcome to the whacked-out NBA, too. After a decade in which many fans feared super teams built in Miami and Golden State, there’s an opportunity to spread the wealth in a manner that rarely occurs in this league of dynasties. It’s a fun twist, I guess.
And so a major shift has begun. This one could be quite remarkable. Thursday night’s draft was supposed to mark the opening of the NBA offseason, but the official pro introduction of Zion Williamson and his talented class had to compete with a few major trades.
Before the Pelicans could select their new franchise player, they agreed to trade Davis, their incumbent superstar, to the Lakers. Then the Jazz, already a 50-win team despite some offensive deficiencies, traded for Mike Conley Jr. While the Lakers are scrambling to shed more contracts and build out a roster with only LeBron James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma certain to be on the team, the Jazz have a more complete team right now with a more flexible roster situation. If Durant leaves Steph Curry and the Warriors, no team will have a better 1-2 punch than King James and AD, but unless a tribe of high-caliber role players sign minimum contracts to come to Los Angeles, it’s impossible to imagine the Lakers having ideal depth for the 2019-20 season.
The drama and decisions of several big-ego stars will capture the most attention over the next month. The NBA soap opera is now the most fascinating aspect of sports, at least among the major American pro leagues, during the summer. But there’s a fine line between all the interest in player movement and the perception of instability. That’s where the league must be careful during this era. What’s good for jaw-dropping headlines and social-media banter can be detrimental to the actual on-court product, especially if players start abandoning great, championship situations — listen up, KD and Kawhi — for the hype of the new and unknown.
It also doesn’t do much good if teams such as the Houston Rockets fall apart while chasing glory. The Rockets appear to be a strange train wreck right now. They won’t commit to Coach Mike D’Antoni despite his success; Chris Paul and James Harden have beef. Owner Tilman Fertitta is applying pressure. All the while, General Manager Daryl Morey is trying to keep his core together for another run and add a significant player to put the Rockets over the top. It would be a shame if the Rockets succumbed to doubt and infighting at this time, when the Warriors are injured and possibly out of contention for a year. The Rockets should be thinking they can be next season’s Toronto. The Raptors capitalized on James moving west. This is the Rockets’ chance to overtake the Warriors without having to beat them. But they have to find a way to put up with each other.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver likes to talk about “parity of opportunity” as the NBA’s aspiration. As he correctly points out, parity for the sake of parity is foolish. If it takes mediocrity to foster competitive balance, then people will complain about that even louder than they did the Warriors’ invincibility. For my tastes, excellence is the essential ingredient; variety is further down the list. Without question, there are limits to watching one team or a couple of teams win all the time, but it also focuses the league and stirs varied emotions. And, in theory, it diminishes complacency. These are important, if underappreciated, factors in sustaining a sport.
Remember this, too: Nothing lasts forever. In today’s NBA, nothing lasts for long. The league operates in cycles of three to five years. Prolonged dominance requires an approach that only the San Antonio Spurs have really mastered during this century. It’s a hard system to copy. You need an all-time great who plays for almost 20 seasons, and you need to be diligent in finding the pieces to complement that anchor. Oh, and a couple of those complementary pieces need to be Hall of Fame-caliber players discovered with late first- or second-round picks. And employ a coach who can guide the franchise through various roster overhauls without nose-diving into irrelevance.
It’s a compelling time for parity in the NBA. The Raptors aren’t assured of keeping Leonard. The Warriors may never be the same. The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers must spend a lot of money this summer to keep their contending squads together. Several teams seemingly next in line, most notably the Rockets and Celtics, seem to be in crisis. And there’s a horde of big-market teams pushing to re-enter the conversation, including the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.
The NBA’s current story is best told by considering the Pelicans. They just granted the trade request of a top-tier player, but somehow their situation feels more hopeful than it did a week ago. That’s because Williamson is arriving, and the pieces David Griffin acquired in the Davis trade have given New Orleans an exciting young nucleus around their new potential superstar. If Williamson is the real deal and New Orleans makes a few more good moves this summer, it’s not ludicrous to think the Pelicans could vault quickly into the status of the NBA’s most promising young team.
And the Lakers? Well, they have championship star power again. But they have much work to do to win a title. They need more shooting, more versatile defenders, more depth, more ingenuity to position-less basketball. A couple of superstars still can take you far, but the league is too balanced for a team to survive with them doing too much heavy lifting.
That’s the influence of the Warriors, by the way, a team once considered bad for the NBA. Crazy how quickly things change. And mostly, it’s for the better.