The 4 Free Agency Storylines That Will Define The 2019-2020 NBA Season – Four Point Play

So, it seems the dust has finally settled in the NBA, for the most part.

In what may have been the wonkiest and most transformative month for the league since the ABA-NBA merger in ‘76, we saw a 5 year long dynasty crumble, 3 of the top 5 players in the league switch teams, multiple other all stars switch teams, all tampering rules go out the window (finally), the crowning of the next “team of the future” (the Pelicans), and, least surprisingly, the Knicks tripping on their own untied shoelaces and falling flat on their face, for what feels like the billionth time since Patrick Ewing missed that gimme-finger-roll.

Of course, as we went to publish this article, Woj dropped ANOTHER bomb on us all- Russell Westbrook is heading to the Rockets for Chris Paul, along with some draft picks and pick swaps. In addition to that, there’s the real possibility that Masai Ujiri finally gets to do the “Raptors Rebuild” he’s been itching to do for half a decade. So there’s probably still big changes to come. Actually, there definitely is, the NBA never sleeps. Chris Paul might end up on the Lakers by the time you’re reading this. Who knows? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But, in any event, I, Nick Zablocki, have reached out to one half of the illustrious Mac & B’s podcast, Bogart Lipe, about forming a new dynamic duo–as is in vogue right now–and trying to sort through this crazy month of transactions. Let’s begin.

 

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1) The KD Ruptured Achilles Ripple Effect

Zablocki: I feel like so much of what has happened this past month revolves around KD’s ruptured Achilles. So let’s start there. KD was in the middle of asserting himself as the bonafide best player in the league. While the rest of GS was lollygagging through the first two rounds, Durant was putting numbers on the board every night. It looked like he was on route to a third straight Finals MVP, perhaps finally snatching the “Best Player in the World” title from LeBron, and then, if you buy the past year’s buzz, signing with the New York Knicks. Then, in Game 5 of the WCSF, he allegedly “strained his calf.” So I ask you this first Bo, did you ever think that that was actually a calf strain? 

Lipe: Seems fitting to start with what has to be the all-time “What Ifs” in NBA Finals history and one of the biggest in general. I figured, like practically everybody else, that KD at a MINIMUM had aggravated his achilles based on how he reacted. Every moment following the initial injury pointed to an achilles. I figured he was guaranteed to miss the rest of the playoffs, so I was obviously stunned when he eventually came back in the Finals.

Zablocki: It always looked like an achilles injury to me too. The way he reacted, where he was grabbing his leg. Go back and watch the initial clip, even the announcers were instantly saying it looked like an achilles injury. I remember being very nervous the afternoon of Game 5 in the NBA Finals, I couldn’t understand how he was fit to play. He was worlds away from playing in Game 4, now all of a sudden he was ready to go for Game 5. I was very nervous about him popping his achilles. 

Lipe: That’s a deeper level too. Three days earlier he wasn’t close to playing then all of a sudden he’s playing in Game 5, and it looked as though if he didn’t re-injure himself the Warriors did not plan on having a minutes restriction. Just a very eerie situation and one that we may never really learn the full details about.

Zablocki: Do you think KD can come back and be reasonably close to his old self? I imagine we don’t see him until the start of the ‘20-’21 season. 

Lipe: Call me crazy, and I’m likely in the vast minority here, but I think he can. Although this is quite possibly the worst sports injury to suffer, I think he has the capability to and will be taking what will end up being close to 16 months before he sees NBA action, so there is no risk of him coming back too quickly. The rust will be incredible when he comes back, but I think he has the ability to. I just point to him coming back from the Lisfranc fracture, which has a history of derailing careers, especially careers of taller players. I’m hoping, as is everyone else I imagine, that he comes back and contributes to what looks like a new era in the NBA all over the country.

Zablocki: I’m in that minority as well. Even if the explosiveness is somewhat sapped, he’s still going to be 7 feet tall with a perfect shooting stroke. I think Dirk aging gracefully is the model. And even with a repaired achilles, KD is probably more athletic than Dirk ever was. This leads us to…

 

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2) Brooklyn Nets Two Big Time Free Agents

Zablocki: Lemme start with this: did you ever buy into the KD-Kyrie to the Knicks hype? 

Lipe: 100%. I felt that way up until a week or two before Kyrie signed with ROC nation. I fully thought that KD was going to the Knicks, and that Kyrie would join him. When I heard rumblings of Kyrie to Brooklyn intensifying, and then him signing to the ROC, then it seemed that the Nets had the upper hand. Especially once they started clearing cap space, since teams usually don’t so clearly and desperately do that unless they know they have a great shot at landing a superstar (well..except the Knicks of course…in their case they clear space and then look like idiots).

Zablocki: It just never made sense to me. James Dolan is universally regarded as a fucking dunce. It never made sense why the potential best player in the league would sign up for that. I’ve honestly never understood the allure of the New York Knicks. I get that they’re in New York, but other than that, what’s the “legacy” of the Knicks? I swear, you always hear the Knicks lauded in the same reverence as the Celtics and Lakers and they’re not even fucking close. They won 2 titles in the weirdest decade in the history of the league and haven’t done shit since then. Patrick Ewing was like the fourth best big man of his generation. I don’t wanna sound like I’m retroactively patting myself on the back, but all season I was like “If KD & Kyrie wanna play in New York, why go to the Knicks when the Nets are in a much better position moving forward?” You get all of the New York glory with none to the Knickerbocker nonsense. So it’s unsurprising to me that it played out that way. Were you surprised by the move to Brooklyn?

Lipe: At the end of the day, the decision in a vacuum doesn’t surprise me. For all the reasons you listed, the Nets are the better option in terms of basketball. The allure of the Knicks is MSG, “The Mecca”, and the knowledge of basketball there. Nothing to do with the team, which likely proved to be the difference. The Nets have shown they know how to put together a team, and have a front office that is infinitely more stable and capable than their cross town counterparts. The Nets have positioned themselves to strongly compete for titles starting in the 2020-2021 season while the Knicks are outwardly keeping their cap flexible for Giannis when he hits free agency in 2 years! What could go wrong?!

Zablocki: This isn’t a sure thing though. Not by any means. It seems more likely they win zero titles then they win any titles. Kyrie has a few knee surgeries on the board already. KD’s coming back from the single worst possible injury for an athlete. Kyrie has now left two franchises on weird terms. Now, I don’t think Kyrie is as much of a “fake woke loon” as most people following the league seem to think he is, but by all accounts he seems like a weird and moody dude to be around. And, given everything we saw happen in Boston this past season, it has to be considered that this could all blow up in the next year and it’s a disaster before KD is even able to suit up.

Lipe: This is huge for Kyrie. He absolutely demolished the Celtics last year. No one in Boston wanted him back. He needs to prove he can lead a team (or at least help lead a team) to the promised land. The Game 7 shot to beat the Warriors seems so long ago, and the overwhelming opinion of him is that he’s volatile and overall a complicated, and frequently, a bad teammate. The team’s odds to win rely on KD’s health, I believe if he comes back and is able to look like the KD we know (which I cannot emphasize enough, is a MASSIVE “if”), they’ll have to be the favorites in the East for both stars’ stays in Brooklyn.

 

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3) The Fall of Golden State

Zablocki: KD joining Brooklyn consequently means that he’s no longer on the Golden State Warriors, who suddenly aren’t even a lock to make the playoffs next season, let alone a lock for the Finals, for the first time since the 2015 season. KD left, which everyone thought he would, but the sketchiness with how his achilles popped left a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths I think. Especially in light of what Andre Iguodala said about how his fractured leg was handled during the 2018 WCF with the Rockets. He got traded to the Grizzlies, who’ll probably flip him to a contender for assets. Then there’s the Klay Thompson injury. That one was more of a fluke, just bad luck. Now he’s out till February or March with a torn ACL.

Suddenly, Golden State, who looked drastically thin during the Finals, is looking at relying solely on Steph Curry to win them games. And that’s not a good place to be. His ankles are still shaky. Draymond isn’t what he used to be. Plus it’s one thing to have him be your fourth best player, but when he’s suddenly you’re number 2, you’re in trouble. Of course, they made the most of losing Durant, arranging a double sign-and-trade with the Nets which landed them 23 year old, one time All Star D’Angelo Russell. But, most people seem to think that’s more about flipping him pretty soon hereafter. So, all that said, what do you make of Golden State next season, can they make it much higher than a 5-seed?

Lipe: I won’t be the one to count out the Warriors. I’ve seen too much from Steph, who incredibly has become criminally underrated and hated on by fans across the country, to bet against him. When you look around the conference though, it’s going to be very difficult for them, especially before Klay comes back. Russell does provide support, no matter how short-term it is, and he does still provide upside at that age where the Warriors can even decide to keep him and unleash him with a Draymond pick and roll with Steph and Klay spacing. Who knows? But when you consider the Clippers, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, and arguably the Rockets and Blazers look in better shape over the entire season, it’s going to be a challenge. I still believe the Warriors make the playoffs and think if Klay comes back at the All-Star Break, they have a realistic chance at the 4 or 5 seed. And then how could any of us bet against them in the playoffs if everyone is healthy? Many people may, but I won’t be.

Zablocki: One interesting thought I had, come February, what if Bradley Beal becomes disgruntled, and he asks out of Washington. What if Golden State flips them D’Angelo Russell, Draymond Green’s expiring, and some other filler pieces. Maybe Golden State takes back Ian Mahinmi’s expiring. I don’t know. There feels like there could be something there. And I feel like we’re gonna see Golden State really test the market for Draymond. I’m not sure they’re going to resign him, it’s not something a forward thinking team would do. Might as well flip him for something. If nothing else, some potential contender might send Golden State a decent role player and a 1st rounder for one playoff run of Draymond. 

Lipe: This is tantalizing from the Warriors perspective, but it would depend on the Wizards and if they think Russell and Wall could coexist. Which could, and probably would, end badly. If the Wizards think Beal is gone when he becomes a free agent, it may be enticing for them to try to replace him with another high upside young guard.

Zablocki: The few steps back by Golden State has left a superteam vacuum. And it feels kinda nice. We instead have probably 8-9 teams that 11 months out, you could see winning the 2020 championship. Bill Simmons keeps saying 12 teams, but that seems too high. In no order of likelihood, the teams that I could see potentially winning the championship in June 2020, right now in July 2019 are the: Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Philadelphia 76ers. A few of those teams are probably a move away from being serious contenders, but I can see a path for those 9 teams. Would you amend that list in anyway? 

Lipe: That list seems correct right now, with the Warriors, Nets, and Pelicans surely providing drama and interest as well. The NBA is so wide open, and nearly half the league is going to be interesting on a nightly basis.

 

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4) The Battle for Staples Center

Zablocki: Left in the wake of the Golden State dynasty collapsing, the two L.A. teams are poised to dominate the media landscape this upcoming season. I mean, the Lakers have always had a knack for being the lead story, even in the midst of missing the playoffs and being irrelevant. So now that they’ve landed Anthony Davis to pair alongside LeBron James, they’re going to be a bigger media circus than ever before. 

Lipe: Screw Anthony Davis. Screw LeBron James.

Zablocki: Not to be outdone, the Clippers blew up NBA twitter July 5th-6th–depending on your timezone–by swinging a tremendous overpay for Paul George in order to then sign Kawhi Leonard. By my estimation, that’s 3 top 5 players in the league, and another top 10 player in the league in Paul George–who did just finish 3rd in MVP voting–all playing in L.A. The last time there was this much contention between the two Staples Center tenets was in 2004 when Kobe Bryant almost signed with the Clippers. This is going to be so fun, all that spice floating around the building everyday. Think about how awesome a WCF series between these two teams would be, no traveling, even better rested players between games. 

Lipe: Can we talk about Kawhi successfully (1) keeping his moves a secret from “sources” and reporters, (2) sabotaging the Lakers’ offseason plans, and (3) flexing possibly the hardest that any free agent has in years?? No one knew what he was going to do, he kept the Lakers waiting so they had to settle for Jared Dudley, Javale McGee, and KCP (!!!!!!!) in free agency, and he helped force a player out of ANOTHER team and city so he could play with him. BIG flex and it worked! And all of a sudden, the Clippers could be the NBA favorites! And half the country was asleep when it happened!

Zablocki: My cousin Kitchell texted me the other night and asked me, gun to my head, who would I pick to win the 2020 NBA championship. I said the Clippers. I think we’ve seen enough of what Kawhi can do with a decent, hard-working team around him. We saw it in 2014. We saw it in 2017–before Zaza robbed us of a good WCF that year–and we just saw it in 2019 for the Raptors. Now he has Paul George, his best teammate since late career Tim Duncan. He has a decent 7-8 man rotation around him already. And, the Clippers are the exact kind of competent, well run team to sign 1-2 good buyout guys in February. 

Lipe: If the Clippers win, and Kawhi wins on 3 teams, including the Raptors and Clippers, he would vault into very serious discussions about his career legacy. And the same can be said about KD, LeBron and AD, Steph, Harden and CP3, etc. The NBA is fun again and I can’t wait.

Zablocki: Do you think the media and the collective NBA following is underrating the Lakers, specifically, Anthony Davis?

Lipe: He is uber talented. Literally a special, all-time talent. But we have never seen him compete for a title in the NBA, and we have no idea how he will respond to playing with Bron in LA. Despite his talent, he is an “if” in some regards for the Lakers. Did I mention screw Anthony Davis? You won’t hear me pitying him if the Lakers lose early in the playoffs after how he and Rich Paul ruined the Pelicans’ season last year.

Zablocki: I feel like this time last year, we were talking about Davis as “The Guy.” He decimated that 2018 Blazers team. I think we all thought he was going to be MVP this past season. Now it feels like the media is forgetting how dominate Davis can be. I also feel like we’re actually for real for real going to see LeBron cede power over. He’s certainly acting like it, the whole gifting him #23 and everything. I feel like LeBron knows his best chance at multiple titles moving forward is pacing himself and feeding the fuck out of Davis. Sounds like LeBron will be starting at PG this upcoming season too. I’m telling you, LeBron is trying to make Davis the MVP and have him earn the “Greatest Player in the World” title. I just feel like there’s about 15% too much clowning of the Lakers. For what they had available, they’ve formed a decent rotation. They’re not the prohibitive favorites, but is anyone in this league right now? I just feel like we’ve seen LeBron pull off more with less than this. And Davis might be his best teammate…ever? I feel like the Lakers are going to surprise some people.

Lipe: Decent rotation for sure, but I will never refrain from making fun of a team who employs KCP. As for AD, he is certainly top 2 in terms of LeBron teammates, maybe only second to D-Wade in the early Miami years. They’ll be exciting to watch, especially when they match up against the Clippers. It’ll be interesting to see the LA dynamic this year. Paul George and Kawhi are going to be the best defensive duo since possibly MJ and Scottie, and they’ll have Beverley suffocating opposing point guards. The Clippers and Lakers are going to battle for LA, and it’s going to be outstanding. Except for the fact that I’ll be losing sleep next winter from staying up to watch the late games in LA.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Zablocki: We’re gonna cap it off there. There’s so much more we could discuss, Philly reshuffling their roster (again), the Russell Westbrook-CP3 trade, Utah’s high upside, the young Pelicans, etc. The 4th of July weekend may be over, but I’m sure the NBA still has some fireworks left to deliver to us. 

 

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