Last season in the NBA was wild, but it was nothing compared to the summer.
Rumours. Leaks. Tracking private planes. Ultimatums. Late nights. Blockbusters. Superstars on the move. The off-season of 2019 had it all. When the dust finally settled, the league looked totally different. For the first time in a long time, it seems like things are wide open. Sure, there are front-runners, but no clear favourites. At least not yet.
In part, it’s because of a redistribution of talent that makes a half-dozen teams – if not more – capable of winning the title. Six players who made All-NBA honours switched teams via free agency or trade this off-season. According to USA Today, that’s the highest number since the previous mark of three from 1998. Last off-season, there were only two.
With a new year just around the corner, TSN.ca takes a look at the highlights of the off-season and how it all came together to form the wildest summer in NBA history.
LeBron gets his co-star
That’s how long it took for the NBA balance of power to shift after the Toronto Raptors won their first ever championship June 13. On June 15, the league looked totally different.
Last season was the first time since 2005 a team led by LeBron James failed to reach the playoffs. Change needed to happen and it happened fast. After months of rumours and speculation – much of it caused by Anthony Davis himself – the New Orleans Pelicans finally agreed to end the standoff with their superstar by trading him to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and three first-round picks.
Like much of the summer’s moves, the superstar at the centre of the deal was in control from the get-go. According to multiple reports, Davis gave the Pelicans an ultimatum of a trade to the Lakers or New York Knicks. The Lakers were always the more likely destination given their combination of draft picks and prime young assets they could send to New Orleans to play alongside eventual No. 1 pick Zion Williamson. The Knicks had the third pick, one higher than L.A.’s at No. 4, but not much else. So to the Lakers he went.
It appeared, at least on the surface, that everyone got what they wanted. The Pelicans got future assets galore. The Lakers became the betting favourites to win the 2020 NBA Championship. Davis landed on a contender. James got a second true superstar for the first time since the Kyrie Irving days. Plus, having two bonafide superstars and a max contract slot still available was going to do wonders for their recruitment of other topflight free agents like Southern California-native Kawhi Leonard later in the summer. Or so we thought.
One seismic shift after another
The NBA’s move to shift the free agent negotiating moratorium from July 1 at midnight ET to June 30 at 6:00 p.m. ET took effect for the first time this summer, setting up a whirlwind evening on the first day of free agency. It didn’t disappoint.
Al Horford (76ers), Kemba Walker (Celtics), Derrick Rose (Pistons) and Jimmy Butler (Heat) all joined new teams just minutes after the clock struck 6 p.m. as reported by various media outlets. That’s 15 combined All-Star appearances changing teams in the blink of an eye. And none of them were even close to being the story of the day.
That’s because all eyes were on Kevin Durant, maybe the class of 2019’s biggest crown jewel. At 3:25 p.m., Durant posted on Instagram that a decision was coming later in the day. It didn’t matter he was expected to miss all of next season because of an Achilles tear, the basketball world was at a standstill. Would the two-time Finals MVP stay in the Bay Area and try to win a third ring? Would he bolt to Brooklyn to team up with Kyrie Irving? Or would he try to save the Knicks from two decades of misery under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden? For months leading up to free agency, it looked like he was headed to the Knicks. Some even said it was a “done” deal. But as June 30 got closer and closer, buzz around the Nets grew louder. Irving, one of Durant’s best friends, was long linked to Brooklyn and ended up reportedly committing just before the start of the free agency process. Not long after, so did Durant. DeAndre Jordan, too.
In a league where change can happen both drastically and suddenly, the Nets pulled off a heist in a matter of minutes that could make them one of the league’s powerhouses for years to come. Maybe not right away considering the injury, but their summer haul sets them up as well as anybody long term.
Durant’s departure left the Warriors something they hadn’t been for several years – vulnerable. Well, as vulnerable as any team could be with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green still around. But general manager Bob Myers didn’t stand by and left Durant walk for nothing. Later that night the Warriors pulled off a deal with the Nets built around Durant’s move to Brooklyn and acquired a new star in D’Angelo Russell.
Meanwhile, while the Nets were getting rich and the Warriors were re-tooling, the Knicks – who traded Kristaps Porzingis earlier in the year to open two max contract slots – weren’t in the mix for any top free agent. In fact, they didn’t even offer Durant a max deal.
“The Knicks and owner Jim Dolan were not prepared to offer Kevin Durant a full max contract due to concerns over his recovery from the Achilles injury, league sources tell me and [ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski]. Knicks officials are in Los Angeles tonight, meeting with free agents such as Julius Randle,” tweeted ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
So much for a done deal.
1:53 a.m., July 6
By July 1, almost every free agent superstar had found a home. Except one.
In true Kawhi Leonard fashion, there wasn’t much to go off. Only rumours and speculation, of which there were lots. After all, he did more or less hold the future of the league in his hands.
As we know now, teams were given strict instructions by Leonard’s camp to contain leaks. For the first few days, there was radio silence. But that changed on the afternoon of July 3.
In the early afternoon, a private jet thought to be owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment touched down at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and multiple reports indicated that Leonard was on it. After the passengers made their way into nearby SUVs and started toward downtown Toronto, a local news outlet tracked the vehicles’ routes via helicopter all the way to a Yorkville hotel where dozens waited to catch a glimpse of someone they didn’t know for sure was inside. It was surreal, intrusive and overblown all at the same time. But it was clear fans in Toronto desperately wanted their star to re-sign.
Jalen Rose of ESPN said he was 99 per cent sure Kawhi was coming back to the Raptors. The Athletic’s Frank Isola upped it to 99.9 per cent. But no deal with the Raptors was reached on airplane day. Or the next two days, for that matter.
While the Raptors seemed like front-runners in the eyes of some, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers revealed after the fact to the Los Angeles Times he had a hunch Leonard may join the rival Lakers and form possibly the best three-player duo in NBA history. When the Clippers hosted Leonard for a meeting at Rivers’ Malibu, Calif., home, the star free agent told them exactly what he wanted – Paul George.
But trading for an MVP finalist isn’t easy and when they finally did strike a deal with Oklahoma City, the return was unprecidented. Heading to OKC was – deep breath – five first-round picks, two pick swaps and former first-rounders Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. But George was heading to the Clippers, and once the dust settled, Kawhi Leonard was, too. At 1:53 a.m. on July 6, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes dropped the news. Wojnarowski confirmed it one minute later.
Leonard’s potential interest in the Clippers was mentionned for months. Some even wondered if George’s days in OKC were numbered after the team capped a disappointing season with a first-round loss. But nobody predicted the duo would join the Clippers almost in unison – let alone in the middle of the night.
One more blockbuster
Both Los Angeles teams made their moves. The Nets made theirs. Milwaukee was able to keep most of their core pieces. The Celtics and Warriors brought in star guards. The 76ers re-tooled. The Jazz got even better. Pretty much every contender made significant moves. But perhaps the team most in need of one – the Houston Rockets – stayed pretty much silent until the middle of July. But this is the NBA after all. Change happens, usually in a big way.
Rumours had been circulating for a while that 2018 MVP James Harden and point guard Chris Paul didn’t always see eye to eye. It also made sense that once the Thunder decided to move George, a Russell Westbrook trade would follow. According to ESPN’s Tim McMahon, Harden and his former teammate previously decided they wanted to re-unite in Houston after spending three seasons together in Oklahoma City. As it turned out, there was fire to go along with the smoke.
In yet another blockbuster deal, the Rockets acquired Westbrook in exchange for Paul, two first-round picks and two pick swaps. Like the Clippers, Houston mortgaged the future to acquire a second superstar. And, also like the Clippers, the trade makes the Rockets one of the favourites to come out of the Western Conference. The deal ended an impressive 11-year run for Westbrook in Oklahoma, dating all the way back to when the franchise first arrived following their move from Seattle.
General manager Daryl Morey cited internal calculations saying the trade increases the Rockets’ championship odds “by about 30 per cent.” According to Odds Shark, the Rockets have the fifth-best title chances, trailing the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and 76ers.
For this to work, Harden and Westbrook are going to have to find a way to co-exist with their ball-dominant playing styles. Morey isn’t concerned, and neither is Harden, telling reporters the duo trusts each other and that talent “works itself out.”
For the Rockets’ sake, they better hope so.
What about the Raptors?
Everything hinged on Kawhi Leonard. Once his fate became clear, so did Toronto’s.
Like Kawhi, Danny Green bolted to L.A. around 2 a.m., also on the night of July 6, announcing on Twitter he would sign with the Lakers who suddenly had a bundle of cap space in wake of Leonard’s decision.
There was a feeling other veterans could go, too. Without their superstar, would the Raps hang on to Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka? Masai Ujiri and Co. held tight, electing to make marginal tweaks around the roster rather than jettisoning their stars for fifty cents on the dollar. In came Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Cameron Payne and a few others with training camp invites. Out went Leonard, Green, Jeremy Lin and Jodie Meeks.
It wasn’t an enormous haul, but consisted of multiple players aged 25 or younger with upside that could benefit from playing time in a well-coached system. Will they be enough to deliver the Raptors another championship next year? Unlikely. But could they help complement a team in transition looking to build around budding star Pascal Siakam? Absolutely.
Things may have been different if the Thunder weren’t willing to move Paul George in the middle of the night. Or if the Clippers didn’t have the assets to get it done. Regardless, the Raptors have their ring. Leonard has his. He’s moving on, and the Raptors are doing the same.