Five other story lines from a strange summer
The Year of Russell Westbrook is upon us. Within minutes of Kevin Durant's decision, the most entertaining question in the NBA centered on the guard he left in OKC. Westbrook (above) has already shown that in Durant's absence—KD missed most of the 2014--15 season—he's more than capable of unleashing triple doubles and a world of pain on the league. Now we get to watch him do it for an entire season. Guessing how many games the Warriors can win will be a popular exercise, but I'm more interested in guessing Westbrook's numbers. 36-12-11? 38-14-12? Can he carry the Thunder to the playoffs? Will he win MVP? Will he spontaneously combust on national TV?
That's only half the story. Westbrook's also a free agent after this season, and just as Durant had half the league dreaming this summer, he will be the source of constant speculation. Having been burned by Durant, GM Sam Presti could trade Westbrook rather than risk losing him. Or he could keep him, making Westbrook everyone's favorite underdog.
Whatever happens, wherever it happens, the Year of Russell Westbrook will not be boring.
Dwyane Wade is in Chicago, and nobody knows why. This is his "Joe Montana on the Chiefs" phase. After years of sacrificing his earning power to help the Heat front office maintain flexibility, the 34-year-old Wade saw the contracts being signed during the most lucrative free agency period in NBA history, and he wanted his share. When Heat president Pat Riley refused to give it to him, Wade went home to Chicago and got paid: $47 million over two years. The decisions in this case make sense for both Wade and the Heat.
But how do you explain Chicago's thinking? The Bulls traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks last month but then held on to Jimmy Butler, rejecting a full-on rebuild. Now they have added Wade, who'll soak up possessions for the next two years, along with point guard Rajon Rondo, who also dominates the ball. It's actually impressive how little sense this makes. As GM Gar Forman said last week, "We didn't want to go into an absolute rebuild, but we wanted to get younger and more athletic."
Enter two free agents who peaked four years ago. Got it. Go, Bulls.
Consider the contract numbers this summer: $80 million for Ryan Anderson in Houston, $94 million for Chandler Parsons in Memphis, a combined $145 million to Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe in Portland, etc. It's all breathtaking, but it's also an indication of financial health. The NBA has a TV deal worth $24 billion over the next nine years, and the CBA is working for everyone. If players are getting paid like this, just imagine what life is like for the owners this summer.
But free agency also weaponized a 73-win team. With the collective bargaining agreement up for renegotiation this year—both the players and owners can opt out before July 1—Kevin Durant's move to the Warriors may change the calculus among ownership.
It's one thing to spend historic amounts of money, but spending it without a prayer of competing is a proposition that will rankle many owners. Durant's departure from Oklahoma City represents a kind of doomsday scenario that the current CBA was supposed to prevent. The angst among owners probably won't lead to another lockout, but it's something to watch as the two sides try to make a deal.
C's Get Closer
The bright side in Boston: Al Horford is a Celtic. GM Danny Ainge signed the four-time All-Star to a four-year, $113 million deal. Horford threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game last week and posed for pictures with David Ortiz afterward, and everything was lovely. This is progress. Horford should make the Celtics the second best team in the East.
Another bright side: The NBA has never seen three straight Finals matchups featuring the same two teams. If we assume the Warriors will make it through the West, history says the Cavs are due for a letdown, and Boston is perfectly positioned to capitalize.
Of course, when arcane Finals trivia is your best case for making a title run, there's probably still some work to do. Right now the Celtics look like Horford's Hawks—well-coached, full of useful players, but one or two stars short of a real shot at the best teams in the league. They came close with Durant, but now we return to a stage called DEFCON: DANNY. There will be new trade rumors every two weeks, talk of grand free agency plans, a close eye on the Nets' pick, which the Celtics own.
And we will all watch one more time as Ainge tries to turn three quarters into a dollar.
When the Kings entered the draft with the eighth pick and left it with Greek center Georgios Papagiannis, DeMarcus Cousins tweeted, "Lord give me the strength." He later explained that the tweet was merely a coincidence. "Bad timing," he said. "It sounds ridiculous, but I was in a hot sculpting class." Whether you believe this explanation or not is immaterial. What's important is that it's one of the top five alibis in NBA history.
Also important: The NBA's constant churn of player movement has turned pro hoops into a year-round sport, with fans following every move and teams angling for stars years in advance. As attention turns to next summer, plenty of names will be discussed: Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward, Paul Milsap, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony. But marooned on rudderless Sacramento, the 25-year-old Cousins is younger than all of those players, with more upside than any of them.
He needs the right team, and better teammates, but he could terrorize a league that's going small. He's also a free agent in 2018, and the Kings may have to trade him sooner. All of which is to say, the 2016 off-season is over. Now it's time for teams to find their way into that hot sculpting class.