By Shawn Dennis
Since the official start of free agency on November 22, the league has changed quite dramatically, as expected. Names like Russell Westbrook, Gordon Hayward and Chris Paul are just a few of the many players that’ll be repping new jersey’s when the season opener comes on December 22. With how rosters are shaping out currently, it’s been difficult to predict who’s been the real winners and losers of free agency. One thing is for sure, teams who are rebuilding have clearly shown their intentions of the upcoming season and those who are chasing a ring have made their moves. However, there are a few puzzling teams as to what they are trying to do.
Let’s take a look at the GM’s who’ve put their teams in the best and worst positions for what their aim is for this upcoming season.
Lakers: To get the obvious one out of the way, the Lakers are the frontrunners to go back-to-back. It’s crazy to think that when you lose veterans like Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee, Dwight Howard and Danny Green, the chances of being contenders have actually increased with the additions they’ve made. What did the Lakers need the most during the bubble playoffs? Bench scoring. Rob Pelinka made sure that wouldn’t be an issue for Lebron and company by adding the Sixth Man of the Year from last season, along with the runner up to replenish their weak spot. Dennis Schroder and Montrez Harrell are a force to be reckoned with, as either can be inserted in the starting lineup if injuries follow them as they did last season.
You can make the arguments that Wesley Mattews will be more productive than the under- performing Danny Green and a former Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol can fill the shoes of Javale or Dwight. The fate of Kyle Kuzma on the team is still questionable, but with his desire for a contract extension, along with being the third highest average scorer in the 2017 draft class, they may have to either give him more money or trade for another veteran. We’ll see what happens in the next two weeks.
Thunder: Sam Presti must have Joel Embiid’s famous quote “trust the process” hanging up in his office somewhere. The Thunder are the definition of what a rebuilding team looks like. Having 22 picks spanning out over the next 5-years, the odds of them not drafting an all-star are pretty slim, especially knowing that they’ve drafted three MVPs since 2007. Regardless of where they ended up now, that fact alone is insane.
By being able to trade away Chris Paul, receiving a first round pick for him and then trading away two players from the exchange for more first round picks, Presti has made the best moves for the franchise’s future. Regardless of if they decide to trade or keep Al Horford, he is their only player making more than $12 million per season in front of George Hill. I doubt Presti is done making moves, and depending on if a contending team wants to take a chance on either Horford or Hill, he certainly won’t turn down an offer if picks are involved.
This team will be scary within the next 4 to 5 seasons when players like Lebron, Curry, and KD will be either retired or in their last season.
Hawks: From being the second bottom team in the East with a 20-47 record and missing out on the opportunity to compete in the bubble, Atlanta proved this offseason that they’re ready to get over the hump. The Hawks needed depth and acquired exactly what they were lacking last season with defensive backcourt presence, veterans and players who can thrive around a high-scoring point guard in Trae Young. Danilo Gallinari, who just came off of one of, if not his best season in OKC around CP3, was a high-marketed player that a bunch of teams wanted to grab. Likewise with Rondo, he is the leader and ideal veteran that Trae needs to learn from, as his defensive rating was the worst in the league last season.
They also held onto Clint Capela, who will go along nicely with John Collins in the front court. With the Bucks failing to acquire Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Hawks swooped in and gave him a cool $72 mill over 4-years. Teams like the Magic, Knicks, Pistons and Bulls will be easy to surpass and grab one of the bottom seeds. The East has definitely become stronger, however, with the welcoming of Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, and Durant who will make his first appearance in Brooklyn on opening night.
Winning Honorable Mention:
Suns: Going undefeated in the bubble, Phoenix showed a spark of promise with the league’s youngest roster having an average of 24.49 years-of-age last season. Not having Kelly Oubre Jr. in any of those games, they made the best possible trade-decision by including both him and Ricky Rubio for Chris Paul. Paul being the player they needed to make the playoffs, a feat they haven’t done since 2010, when they had none other than Steve Nash as their point guard. Jae Crowder was the best three and D vet they could’ve got with who was available, but I still don’t see this roster being more than a 7th seed with really only the Thunder and Rockets, depending on if they lose Harden, becoming weaker. You could also make an argument that the Nugget’s may be weaker, but if they performed like they did in the bubble, don’t count them out.
All and all, they’re heading in the right direction and doing what they can to keep Booker and Ayton around for years to come.
Celtics: It’s not what Danny Ainge did to get the Celtic’s over the Eastern Conference Finals hump, it’s what he didn’t do. Boston was swirling around with rumors like a high school girls bathroom, but figuring out what was simply a rumor from the truth is next to impossible. If Ainge really did turn down Turner and McDermott for Hayward, who already opted-out of his contract, I don’t know what better value he thought he was going to get. Anyway, Hayward clearly made the best move out of any player in the league this offseason with his ridiculous contract, but what’s more important here is that another high-caliber player decided to leave Boston in free agency yet again. We already know about the Celtic’s history with players leaving, which is what makes them a loser this offseason.
Don’t get me wrong, Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague are two vets that will get a ton of usage throughout the season, but with Ainge not having many options with that trade exception MJ gifted them, it’s hard to imagine them beating teams like Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and even Philly if Simmons and Embiid manage to stay healthy. Looking at the Celtic’s roster, it’s difficult to determine what head coach Brad Stevens will do with the starting lineup, while having guys like Carsen Edwards, Tacko Fall, Semi Ojeleye and Tremont Waters probably not getting much playing time but being on the bench anyway. Perhaps there’s one last move they can make that’ll get them out of the losers bracket during free agency, but it doesn’t seem likely.
Rockets: Houston appears to be crashing their rocket at the moment. Pulling off one of the most confusing and strangest trades ever seen with Westbrook for Wall and a 2023 first-round pick, it’s tough to tell what new GM Rafeal Stone has planned. Taking a chance on DeMarcus Cousins I think was worth the veteran minimum, but for what cause? Harden has shown nothing but disinterest with the team between his cryptic “no cap” Instagram video, not being at the teams first practice on Sunday, and literally demanding for a trade to either the Sixers or another contender.
Losing both Morey and D’Antoni I believe was necessary to happen at the same time, but only if they plan to start a rebuild. Newly appointed head coach Stephen Silas is extremely undervalued and was by far their best move possible, but this roster isn’t going to get them any further than last season. Especially with Wall returning from the worst injury a player can have and the high likelihood that Harden is gone.
The Rockets will continue to be in the same boat as they have been since ‘95 if they stay stuck in this “almost complete” roster that they’ve had for over 20 seasons now. The West isn’t getting weaker anytime soon.
Pistons: Having the most confusing roster in the entire league, I don’t think anyone knows what GM Troy Weaver is expecting with this strange lineup. Similar to that of the Rockets, the Pistons are in this awkward point where they should be rebuilding their team with young guys, but went out and signed players who make great additions for contenders like Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, and Delon Wright. Oh and to accommodate that, not resigning Christian Wood and instead, going out and getting Josh Jackson and Jahlil Okafor. Not sure what that’s all about.
It seems that Detroit wants to make a playoff run while rebuilding, which is what happened to OKC last season with their surprising run. It could be possible to do in the weaker East, but not when you only have practically two point guards that are capable of getting serious minutes and that’s including Killian Hayes, who they have high hopes for, as they should.
I just don’t see the point in keeping both Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose with what their realistic goals are right now. Aside from DRose, who else is capable in crunch time situations of scoring in a hurry? They don’t have anyone that’s going to go out and give you consistent buckets and in a league where the 3-point line is so valuable, nobody on this team has the ability to consistently hit threes. Saddiq Bey, Hayes, and Grant have a ton of promise in their future, but they shouldn’t have their minutes taken away from guys who have reached their highest potential.
I’d love to see both Blake and DRose be traded to teams that are in the Finals conversation. Finishing out their careers giving everything they have left in the tank and being recognized for it rather than being stuck in Detroit barely making it to the playoffs. Hopefully some sort of trade happens, but it seems unlikely as of right now.
This mentality of being undecided towards either rebuilding or going all in has haunted franchises from winning a championship. Accepting the fact that losing is a part of rebuilding is something some coaches and GMs seem to have a hard time dealing with, but I believe it’s so necessary.