For the NBA, July has been quite the month. And the month is barely half over.
In 17 days, the league has watched its best player move to arguably its most high-profile market. It has witnessed one of its top five players demand — and receive — a trade from one of its most stable franchises. It has seen an already strong and competitive conference get stronger and more competitive. And it has glimpsed a free agency market so barren of money that many of the players accepted one year deals in a hope to hit the market and try again next summer.
Oh. And DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Golden State Warriors.
In the meantime, the league’s popularity has resulted in all 30 teams participating in the Las Vegas Summer League for the first time. The New York Knicks may have actually had a good NBA Draft, and a potentially great draft class saw their first returns from Las Vegas, Sacramento and Salt Lake City, where the Jazz held their own summer league.
With a little over eight weeks remaining until training camp, who are the winners of yet another entertaining NBA offseason? Who are the losers? Who are the teams that progressed? And who regressed?
Here are some answers:
Los Angeles Lakers
Duh. They signed LeBron James to a four-year contract. With that kind of security, it means the Lakers didn’t have to make a hasty trade for Kawhi Leonard. They can keep their host of developing young talent such as Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball around James and strike in 2019 when a terrific class of free agents hits the market. The Lakers will have a really good shot at being title contenders from 2019 through whenever James’ tenure ends.
James Harden, left, and Houston will still win a bunch of games and be near the top of the Western Conference. But, Trevor Ariza is in Phoenix and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute is back with the Clippers. The Rockets have lost the defensive versatility that allowed them to push the Warriors to seven games. Their title window may have only been for one season. And they still haven’t signed restricted free agent Clint Captela.
LeBron left the Eastern Conference. With Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, the Celtics have five players who either have or will at some point play at an All-Star level. And the two who haven’t — Brown and Tatum — may end up being the best two players of the group. That’s how talented this Celtics team is going to be next season. Boston is the team that will have the best chance at taking the Warriors down next year.
Talent-wise, it’s a joke. And, it didn’t get any better during the draft. DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley, four of the top five picks in a loaded draft were all selected by Western Conference teams. The Celtics are title contenders, the Raptors are within hailing distance with Kawhi Leonard, the 76ers are intriguing and the Pacers and Bucks are good teams. But the overall depth of the conference will be sorely lacking.
General Manager Sean Marks has done a phenomenal job of asset-accumulation, cleaning up the mess the organization made long before his tenure and putting his team in position to strike next summer in free agency. The Nets will have money for maybe two max slots after next season under their salary cap. And Marks has stockpiled multiple first-round picks in salary dump trades. Brooklyn’s record won’t say so this coming season, but the future is bright.
Veteran role players
Trevor Booker and David West and Marcus Smart and Greg Monroe and Jamal Crawford and Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter are still on the market. Not to mention Clint Capela and Rodney Hood, left, both of whom hoped to strike it rich in restricted free agency. The free agency boon of 2016 has rendered the 2018 market dry. A lot of this will clear up next summer. But for now, the lack of cap space and money is real for a lot of good players.
Golden State Warriors
They won their third title in four years and then signed DeMarcus Cousins. Yes, he’s coming off an achilles tear. No, he probably won’t be ready to play by the start of the regular season. But, the Warriors only need him healthy for the playoffs. And if he is, he gives them a post presence for the first time in their dynasty. That’s a scary thought for you.
San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard
No matter how this played out for Leonard and the Spurs, neither side looks good. One thing is for sure: Some level of communication could have helped avoid all of the acrimony. While the Spurs will remain a playoff contender, they aren’t a title contender by any stretch of the imagination without Leonard around.
San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors
Yes, the Raptors will probably lose Leonard next summer in free agency. But with Leonard’s acquisition, the Raptors remain an Eastern Conference title contender. The Spurs won almost 50 games without Leonard last season. Getting DeMar DeRozan ensures they don’t take a huge step back. You can do a lot worse than DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.
THE WAY TOO EARLY NBA POWER RANKINGS
1. Golden State Warriors • Adding Cousins and Jonas Jerebko to an all-time great team.
2. Boston Celtics • Next year could be their most talented roster since the Larry Bird era.
3. Houston Rockets • Loss of Ariza, Mbah A Moute, strip them some of their defensive identity.
4. Utah Jazz • Could be the deepest team in the league with a healthy season.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder • Keeping Paul George was massive. Getting Andre Roberson back from injury could be just as big.
6. Toronto Raptors • LeBron’s gone, so that’s going to help them in absentia. Oh yeah, they also traded for Kawhi Leonard.
7. Philadelphia 76ers • Yes, with Simmons and Embiid, they can dominate the east along with Boston and Toronto.
8. Los Angeles Lakers • LeBron is still amazing. And, now, he has a core of young and exciting teammates to work with.
9. San Antonio Spurs • DeRozan and Aldridge are enough to keep the Spurs relevant in the Western Conference.
10. Indiana Pacers • Fortified a deep roster with the signing of Tyreke Evans. They will be a good team next season.
11. Portland Trail Blazers • Lillard and McCollum are still one of the best backcourts in the game.
12. Milwaukee Bucks • It’s time for them to truly break through with all of their talent.
13. New Orleans Pelicans • Losing Rajon Rondo is significant, but gaining Julius Randle is significant as well.
14. Denver Nuggets • Provided they stay healthy, they could be very good.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves • Butler turned down extension offer, could become free agent after next season.
16. Memphis Grizzlies • Could be the most improved team in the league next season.
17. Washington Wizards • Dwight Howard and John Wall and Markieff Morris in the same lockerroom. What could possibly go wrong?
18. Miami Heat • The NBA’s ultimate treadmill team. Not going backwards, but not forward either.
19. Detroit Pistons • Casey will get the most out of this roster.
20. Dallas Mavericks • Another team that could be much improved.
21. Cleveland Cavaliers • If they keep Love, they could still vie for playoffs in the weak east.
22. Los Angeles Clippers • They will be competitive, but will that be enough now that LeBron is in the market?
23. Charlotte Hornets • Trading Howard = addition by subtraction.
24. Brooklyn Nets • Time for Russell to step up and be a leader.
25. Chicago Bulls • Adding Parker could be a great gamble….or spectacular flop.
26. Phoenix Suns • Still not ready, but additions of Ariza, Kokoskov, have them trending in right direction.
27. New York Knicks • Appear to have drafted well, selecting Knox and Robinson.
28. Orlando Magic • Frontcourt is young and talented.
29. Atlanta Hawks • Young played much better as summer league progressed.
30. Sacramento Kings • Shouldn’t have passed on Doncic.