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Who Should the Lakers Take with the Seventh Pick?

The Los Angeles Lakers are drafting in the first round for the first time since 2009 and have a wide variety of options to consider.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Lakers are set to draft a player with a top-20 pick for the first time since picking Georgia Tech point guard Javaris Crittenton with the 19th pick in 2007. Back then, the Lakers were coming off a 42-40 season, and Kobe Bryant was demanding to be traded. However, the Lakers, as they seemingly always do, managed to trade for another star player (Pau Gasol), keep Bryant and turn the team around immediately.

Things are a little different this time, however. The Lakers are coming off their second-worst season in franchise history (27-55), Bryant is coming off of two major injuries over the last year, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is more restrictive, the team is searching for a new head coach and the roster is in complete flux. The Lakers used a significant chunk of its cap space to sign Bryant on for two more seasons before calling it a career, and now the team is in an odd position where there is an urgency to win now, but to also build for the future when Bryant is gone.

The Lakers are constantly being linked to players like Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony, however, the Lakers lack the assets to execute a trade for these players. There are other teams that can make more competitive offers and have more complete rosters to compete with.

Fortunately for the Lakers, they have the seventh pick in the upcoming draft, which is loaded with talent. The Lakers were hoping to secure a top-three pick at the NBA lottery, but all the luck belongs in Cleveland these days when it comes to the lottery. The good news is that there will be solid options to pick from at seven.

Here we examine the players that are most likely to be available, and which would be the best choice for the Lakers as they rebuild their roster for next season, and the long-term.


1. Marcus Smart (Point Guard, Oklahoma State University, 19 years old)—

After having a very strong freshman season, and projecting as a top two pick in the 2013 draft, Smart decided to return for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State University. In his sophomore season, Smart posted 18 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.9 steals per game.

Smart is a strong, athletic and skilled player. He measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-3 ¼ in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan and weighing in at 227 pounds. He uses his size and strength well in transition, and is very good at cutting into the interior of opposing defenses and finishing at the rim. His jump shot is a work in progress however (29.9 percent from beyond the arc), and it is something he will need to continue working on moving forward.

Also, Smart is a fiery competitor and will not back down from veteran guards on the defensive end. He has the physical tools to compete at a high level in his rookie season, and has room to develop into one of the most physical, imposing point guards in the league. In a league where almost every team has a standout point guard, the Lakers would do well to take on Smart, who is a nice package of ball-skills and physicality to contribute now, and the upside to become one of the best point guards in the league.

There is a question of character, however, as Smart shoved a Texas-Tech fan that was heckling him. While it is seemingly unfair to ask players to not respond in some way to the terrible things that fans sometimes say, it is simply unacceptable for a player to get into a physical altercation with a fan.

Still, Smart is a complete package, and with so many skilled point guards in the league today, the Lakers need a point guard to build around. With two seasons learning from Kobe Bryant, Smart could end up as a major asset for many years in Los Angeles, though he may be off the board by the time is their turn to pick.


2. Julius Randle (Power Forward, University of Kentucky, 19 years old)—

Randle is a versatile forward who showed a well-rounded skill-set in his one and only season at Kentucky. Randle averaged 15 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 blocks and 2.5 turnovers per game.

When watching Randle play, it is easy to see why some have compared him to Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph. Like Randolph, Randle is left-handed, can score the ball well around the rim, is a strong rebounder and has a good feel for the game. However, Randle is much more explosive and agile than Randolph. In fact, Randle is deceptively good in transition, a result of his above average ball-handling ability for a big man.

In addition, Randle’s combination of strength and quickness allows him to get to the rim often, and finish through contact. He is also very effective using pump fakes, and spin moves to get just enough space to get shots off around the rim against longer defenders. One of Randle’s most effective moves is when he fakes a spin to his left, and turns back to his right, finishing with a soft hook shot with his left hand. Again, there is a reason so many people compare his game to Randolph.

However, what separates Randle from Randolph is that his physical tools allow him to be a more effective defender. It took Randolph many years in the NBA to become an above average defender. Randle is not great on the defensive side of the court yet, but he has the physical ability to be much more effective than Randolph has been the majority of his career. Randle measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-9 in shoes, logging a 7-foot wingspan, and weighing in at 250 pounds. He is not a natural shot blocker, but Randle can body up big power forwards well, and still has a lot of room to improve with more experience.

This past season, the Lakers had Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, and Ryan Kelly take up the majority of minutes at power forward. Gasol may leave in free agency this summer, Hill made it clear he is open to joining another team as a free agent, Johnson was inconsistent, and Kelly had a promising rookie season, but is far from ready to take over as the starter at power forward. Randle would be a solid backup off the bench to fill in for Gasol (if he is signed to a new contract), or could compete as a starter throughout the season. There would be growing pains, but Randle is a relatively polished offensive player, and an all-around competitor. If Randle does drop and is available when the Lakers are up to pick, they would be getting a big time prospect, and a big man to start building around in the future.


3. Noah Vonleh (Power Forward/Center, Indiana University, 18 years old)—

Vonleh is another promising big man. He has good size and a massive wingspan that helps him on both sides of the court. In his one and only season at Indiana, Vonleh posted 11.3 points, nine rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game.

Offensively, Vonleh has a developing and promising game. He is effective on the interior, showing the ability to finish well around the rim, even when defenses are swarming him. He also can run the court fairly well. He also attacks the offensive glass aggressively, often getting second chance points on put-backs around the rim. In addition, he can stretch the court and make shots from beyond the arc. While this isn’t the focal point of his offensive game, it can be a major weapon on the next level. Chris Bosh added three point range as a way to help spread the floor for LeBron James and Dwayne Wade so they could attack the rim. With solid mechanics, and more practice, Vonleh should similarly be able to spread the floor in the NBA.

Defensively, Vonleh can psychically match up with strong opponents, and can alter and block a lot of shots. He doesn’t jump extremely high, but his long arms make him tough to to score around. He has the strength to body up bigs down low, and the mobility and length to disrupt interior passing lanes.

With no big man to currently build around, the Lakers would be getting a big man with huge offensive and defensive potential. Despite his three point range, and underrated ball skills, Vonleh is still very raw. As he gets more experience, he will likely become a more skilled defender, and put more pressure on defenses with his interior scoring ability. However, it may be unrealistic to expect him to make a significant difference for his team in his rookie season as he will struggle at times against NBA size and length. Still, Vonleh is an investment for the future, and could fill in off the bench in his rookie season.

4. Aaron Gordon (Small Forward/ Power Forward, Arizona, 18 years old)—

Any conversation about Aaron Gordon tends to start with his athleticism. At the NBA Combine, Gordon measured 6-7 ½ without shoes (likely 6-8 ½ to 6-9 with shoes), logged a 6-11 ¾ wingspan, and weighed in at 221 pounds. In his one and only season in Arizona, Gordon registered 12.4 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and one block per game.

Gordon is an elite athlete. He has a quick first step, is very explosive, and is very effective at catching and finishing lobs at the rim. This is why Gordon draws some comparisons to Blake Griffin, who is also an elite athlete at the forward position.

Gordon uses his athleticism effectively on both sides of the ball. He uses his quickness to stay in front of wing players, and has the size and strength to body up bigs in the post. This versatility is especially valuable since Gordon still needs to add a little weight to really be able to guard some of the bigger front court players in the NBA. Still, Gordon works hard on defense, and is surprisingly good at contesting shooters on the perimeter. In addition, Gordon is a very strong rebounder. He relies on his athleticism a little too much, sometimes missing easy box-outs, but he competes hard on the glass.

Offensively, Gordon is a weapon in transition. He runs the floor well and often leads the break himself, either finishing at the rim, or setting up a teammate. Also, he is an underrated ball handler, which allows him to drive the ball from perimeter to the rim in halfcourt situations. While his jump shot is not a major weapon yet, Gordon is a hard worker and will likely develop more consistency rather quickly.

One of the questions surrounding Gordon is what position he projects to play long-term at the next level. He is not a good enough shooter yet to play small forward, but has the ball skills and work ethic to potentially someday. However, Gordon may find that his natural position is at power forward and look to add more weight in order to bang down low with the bigger power forwards and centers in the league.

Gordon would be an especially good fit for the Lakers long term. He is a hard worker, very young, has huge upside, is a good team defender and is unselfish. He doesn’t have the length of Vonleh, or the same scoring touch around the rim as Randle, but Gordon has the athleticism and work ethic to one day be one of the best two-way forwards in the league. When Blake Griffin joined the Los Angeles Clippers, his relentless work ethic rubbed off on the other young players around him, especially DeAndre Jordan.

If the Lakers decide to rebuild through the draft, as more teams are doing these days, Gordon would likely lead the young core by example, and would motivate his teammates to work as hard as he does, similar to Griffin. Gordon is the most likely of the players mentioned so far to be available at seven.

5. Dario Saric (Small Forward/Power Forward, Cibona (Adriatic League), 20 years old)—

Saric is an international player with great versatility. At 6-10, Saric is a gifted offensive player, and has a natural feel for the game. He currently plays for Cibona of the Adriatic League. This season he averaged 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. Cibona won the league championship, led by Saric, who won MVP of the finals.

Saric is a good ball-handler, allowing him to lead fast breaks, and break down defenses from the perimeter in halfcourt sets. He has an improving jump shot and post-game, which altogether makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft.

In addition, Saric is a good passer, often setting up his teammates for easy finishes at the rim. He has shown flashes of point-forward potential in the NBA, which is often a huge asset for teams (think of the impact Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari often have as play-makers).

Where Saric may have problems in the NBA is on the defensive side of the court. Saric does not currently have the strength to stop the bigger forwards in the NBA, and may struggle against some of the quicker wings. Still, Saric has good timing and always competes hard defensively. He uses his length to contest shots and crash the boards. However, Saric played at power forward a lot this year, and it is difficult to envision him slowing down the better post players like Zach Randolph, Tim Duncan or Blake Griffin.

If the Lakers select Saric at seven, it will be an investment for the future. It is unclear when Saric will actually make the move to the NBA, but the long-term payoff could be huge. With pro level experience, a great feel for the game, and a huge variety of skills, Saric could be a major piece in the near future.


Wild Card: Dante Exum (Point Guard/ Shooting Guard, Australian Institute of Sport, 18 years old)—

Dante Exum would be at the top of this list if it were at all likely that he would be available when the Lakers pick. However, the further we move through the draft process, the more it seems like Exum is likely be a top-five pick.

At the NBA Combine, Exum measured in at 6-6 in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan. His size is solid for a shooting guard, and excellent for a point guard. While he can play both positions, teams are focusing on his future potential at the point guard position.

Exum has shown that he can get to the rim and finish using his length and athleticism. Exum said he tries to mimic Derrick Rose in the way he attacks the rim, which should excite general managers. In addition, Exum is a solid passer, often setting up teammates by putting pressure on opposing defenses by attacking the basket to create opportunities. He is perhaps most dangerous when he is leading the fast break, as he can either use his athleticism to finish at the rim, or dump off to a teammate under the basket.

Also, Exum’s defensive potential is huge. He needs to add more muscle to his thin frame, but that will happen naturally as he physically matures. His length and athleticism will allow him to stay in front of the quicker point guards, and body-up the bigger ones.

If Exum drops, which is looking less and less likely, the Lakers need to pick him. He would be a major piece to build around moving forward, and would likely end the rumors about the Lakers making a play for Kyrie Irving. Some project that Exum could one day be the biggest star to come out of this draft, which is saying a lot with players like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Jabari Parker in the mix. With Kobe Bryant set to retire soon, the Lakers need to swing for the fences to find the next big star in Los Angeles, and Exum may be the best shot at that, if he falls in the draft.

The Lakers have a lot of options heading into the draft, including trading the pick for an established star, if the opportunity presents itself. However, the Lakers need to start preparing for the long-term and life after Kobe, as winning a championship in the next two years does not seem realistic. As of now, Smart and Randle seem like the best case scenarios for the Lakers. Both are big time prospects that can contribute now, and be cornerstones for the Lakers moving forward. After that, Vonleh, Gordon and Saric are nice pieces that could become big time players in the future. Exum is the dream scenario, but it just does not seem likely that he stays on the board long enough to land in Los Angeles. Fortunately for the Lakers, whoever they pick will likely have a big impact now, or in the near future.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?

Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.

Steve Kyler

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No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions

The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.

The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.

Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.

One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.

In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.

For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.

The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.

The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.

The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.

The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.

Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.

The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.

Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.

The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.

The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.

Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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