Culture of Hoops

2016 NBA Free Agency Preview

Screen capture courtesy of the NBA/YouTube.

Screen capture courtesy of the NBA/YouTube.

Ah, NBA Free Agency … The one time of the year where even the most plugged-in individuals in the NBA have no fucking clue what’s about to transpire over the course of the two or three weeks that follow. Sure, the Woj’s, Chris Broussard’s, and Ramona Shelburne’s of the world will eventually be racing to break all of the big stories before the ink has dried on the newly signed contracts, but right now they’re in the same boat that we’re in: twiddling their thumbs, speculating what the league will look like in a month, and pondering the answers to biggest questions looming as we head into NBA Free Agency.

Here’s the thing: I, like the experts, don’t have the slightest clue what the answers to those aforementioned big questions will be. But I do know what the questions that really matter are, and I am inclined to offer a guess as to how things will play out. And frankly, that’s the best you can get from anyone right now.

Question #1: How will Cleveland improve as they prepare for their title defense? 

Since LeBron took it upon himself to squash any and all questions about whether or no he’d be staying in Cleveland next year, that leaves six crucial questions to be answered over the course of the next few weeks (And let’s get real for a second: LeBron was never, ever leaving once Cleveland won the title. He’s not going to not defend the title. He’s not going to miss out on the ring ceremony on opening night at The Q. The only type of person who was claiming LeBron would leave Cleveland were loud-mouth blowhards that were looking for headlines. Hi Stephen A.

So now we’re left to wonder how the Cavs will bolster their roster to ensure that they make a third straight Finals appearance. The Cavs have roughly $75 million committed to players on their roster next season, so even with the rising cap there isn’t a whole lot they can do in terms of maneuvering. Timofey Mozgov is the highest paid player that we can safely assume won’t be back next year. J.R. Smith will almost certainly be retained so long as he promises to someday where a shirt (or more importantly for basketball purposes, a jersey) again. Richard Jefferson has picked the most opportune time to retire, and James Jones will be brought back for end of the bench chemistryA reasons. That will leave Cleveland maybe $10 million to spend on free agents this summer. There won’t be a single team in the NBA with less cap space than the Cavaliers this summer.

A contrarian would suggest that the Cavs can address any possible depth issues by dangling Kevin Love like trade bait. Love’s role was diminished against Golden State and he absolutely would have been the scapegoat if the Cavs lost in the Finals. It’s not so easy to trade a guy who unselfishly came off the bench, accepted a diminished role, and played an increasingly underrated Game 7 (nine points, 14 boards and surprisingly effective defense on a switch on Stephen Curry with less than a minute to play). My take: don’t be too eager to move Love right away. Is he overpaid? Perhaps. But he’s not the unplayable scrub many have made him out to be by any means. Remember, Love was widely regarded as one of the ten best players in the world just two years ago, and in his two seasons in Cleveland he’s averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds a game and he’s shot 36 percent from distance. The problem isn’t Kevin Love; it’s how Kevin Love’s talents are being maximized and utilized.

Here’s the truth: Cleveland is the unequivocal favorite in the Eastern Conference, and one of the three favorites to win the title so long as LeBron James is healthy and in a Cavaliers uniform. The Cavs so-called chemistry issues were clearly overstated last year. There’s no need to shake things up in a major way in the offseason. As a Cavs fan, my offseason wish list is short: a capable back-up shooting guard (like, more capable than Iman Shumpert) and a capable back-up big (like, more capable than Channing Frye). The good news is Cleveland could, and probably will get both of those two types of players despite limited cap room. I’m giddy for next season.

Question #2: What’s the Warriors best course of action?

I’d offer the same advice to the Warriors as I would the Cavs … it might not be best to shake things up in a major way this summer, though there is much more flexibility in terms of what they can do. Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli are the only two rotation players the Warriors have to worry about losing, and they’re both restricted free agents, so the Warriors could theoretically keep both. Even though Barnes was undeniably a disaster over the final three games of the NBA Finals (Barnes hit just 5-of-32 shots and shot only four free throws in the last three games of the Finals), he’ll still get offered an obscene amount of money by a team other than Golden State, and the Warriors will have the tough decision of whether or not to match the offer.

If the decision were up to me, I’d let both Barnes and Ezeli (depending on the price) walk in free agency, and that’s not because the Warriors couldn’t use either of them. Spending multiple tens of millions of dollars on Barnes and Ezeli seems like a fool’s errand, especially when Stephen Curry still needs to be paid next summer, and at that point the Warriors would have big money tied up long term in Curry, Barnes, Ezeli, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

The money that the Warriors would need to spend to keep Barnes in particular, around $20 million a year, could be spent on a guy who is something more than league average at his position. We still have no clue whether Golden State, Oklahoma City or unknown team X has the edge in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, but there are other notable free agents that the Warriors should pursue even if Durant proves to be nothing more than a pipe dream.

I’ve seen it mentioned only a few places, but Al Horford feels like he’d be a perfect fit in Golden State. Horford is an unselfish rim protecting Center that moves well and hits open jumpers at a more efficient clip than any other big man in the league. Horford’s college teammate Joakim Noah wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize either. Noah is a goner in Chicago and I imagine he still has plenty left in the tank; playing for a title contender in the Bay Area would be all of the rejuvenation Noah needs after a disappointing final season as a Bull.

Of course, Durant will be option No. 1 for the Warriors, and based on what I’ve heard from every individual with “sources,” it does appear that Durant’s decision will come down to either Oklahoma City or Golden State. Two months ago I hesitated when anyone asked me if the Warriors should pursue Durant. Now there’s no hesitation: if you have an opportunity to employ four of the ten best basketball players in the world, you do it, even if it means Steve Kerr has to come out of retirement and be the fifth starter on the team.

Question #3: Did Oklahoma City improve their chances to keep Kevin Durant by trading Serge Ibaka

Of course they did! It’s been beaten to death over the last week, but I’ll quickly rehash the details of the trade anyway: Orlando shipped Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the 11th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft (Domantas Sabonis) for Serge Ibaka, who, A) has one year left on his contract and B) wasn’t even closing every game for the Thunder during the postseason. Remember how I said I didn’t think Cleveland should trade Kevin Love this offseason? Well if they could have gotten this haul for Love I can’t sit here and pretend I wouldn’t have been at least a little intrigued by it.

Question #4: What’s the best move for Kevin Durant?

What’s best for Durant is ultimately what I suspect Durant will do: re-sign with the Thunder with an opt-out after one year, and run it back with a slightly improved roster that came closer to making the NBA Finals without actually making the NBA Finals than any team in recent memory has. If things go awry Durant could always recalibrate and search for a change of scenery next summer, when God knows how many teams have enough cap space to bring in Durant AND Westbrook, or Durant and a superstar to be named later.

On the flip side, I can’t shake the feeling that Durant to the Warriors is a real possibility (way more real than Durant to LA or NY or Boston or San Antonio, and slightly more real than Durant to Miami), and a possibility that would turn the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors into the most polarizing team in the history of the league. The Warriors won 73 games last year, overcame a 3-1 deficit against Durant’s Thunder in the West Finals, and then surrendered a 3-1 advantage in the NBA Finals to LeBron, Kyrie and a rag-tag bunch of Cavaliers. Durant’s never been able to get over the hump, in terms of winning a title or dethroning LeBron James as the best player in the NBA. Steph’s Warriors toppled LeBron in the Finals two seasons ago and Steph briefly sat at the NBA mountain top until LeBron emphatically removed him from said mountain top.

Adding Durant to a group that already features insane firepower and a handful of two-way stars feels fundamentally unfair. More unfair than it felt when LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in Miami. And I’m in no way, shape or form against Durant joining the Warriors if that’s the way I’ve made it sound. I don’t really have any skin in the game. Here’s what I know for sure though: as a fourteen-year LeBron James fan, the Cleveland title meant significantly more than two Miami titles did. Maybe that’s the case because I enjoy the city of Cleveland more than I do the city of Miami (you read that correctly; I’m actively encouraging my girlfriend to move to Cleveland for graduate school because I’ve been in love with that city since I was ten-years-old … the sole purpose of Miami for me has always just been a place to get disgustingly drunk).

In reality, the reason why the Cleveland titles meant more than the Miami titles was because that was where LeBron started his career. It’s not solely because of the beautiful redemption story, nor does it feel like the Miami titles are diminished because of the whole “LeBron needed Wade and Bosh” narrative which conveniently forgets that LeBron was hitting his prime in Miami and Wade and Bosh’s primes had already come and gone. It’s because if you’re a fan of a particular player, or if in this case, you are that player, you don’t want to feel like anything was left on the table.

Question #5: What teams are in the best position to break into the top tier this summer? 

For the sake of this question, let’s call Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio and, for the time being, Oklahoma City the top tier teams in the NBA. If you’re trying to argue than any team, as currently constructed, is on the level of the Cavs, Warriors, Spurs and Thunder, I’m walking away from you and ending the argument. I don’t care if you keep talking. I just won’t be there.

Again, the question at hand is what team that isn’t the Cavs, Warriors, Spurs and Thunder has the best chance of contending for a title next year? Since I’m a nice guy, I’ve even narrowed it down to four choices for you:

Choice #1: Toronto Raptors 

They won 56 games last year and came within two wins of making the NBA Finals. No, they never really had a pulse in that Cleveland series, but we can’t discount the fact that the Drake’s have increased their win total each of the last three seasons, should re-sign DeMar DeRozan, and have been linked to a possible deal with the Atlanta Hawks that would bring Paul Millsap to the Six. Of all four choices, Toronto is admittedly the biggest long-shot … I just enjoy Niagara Falls, Ontario so much, I just wanted to show Canada some love.

Choice #2: Boston Celtics 

They have all sorts of future draft picks (namely, the rights to a pick swap with Brooklyn next year and the rights to Brooklyn’s 1st round pick in 2018) and young assets that they turn into a superstar, and they’ve already secured a meeting with Kevin Durant.

Choice #3: Los Angeles Clippers 

Like the Celtics, the Clips have already secured a meeting with Kevin Durant. Plus, there has to come a time when things will break their way, right? Like take this year for example: less than 24 hours after we find out that the Warriors were going to be without Stephen Curry for two weeks, Chris Paul breaks his hand and Blake Griffin re-aggravates a quad injury and out of thin air the Blazers are in the 2nd Round and the Clippers are just that LA team that never catches a break. For 24 hours it looked like the Clippers window was open wider than it ever had been. In less time than it would take to watch all seven Saw movies, the Clippers window for the 2015-16 season had closed.

Choice #4: Miami Heat 

Pat Riley is a shrewd fucking magician in the offseason. Somehow he’s gonna end up with Kevin Durant, a healthy Chris Bosh, a once again rejuvenated Dwyane Wade and someone stupid like 1994 Hakeem Olajuwon and the Heat are gonna be awesome again. I just know it.

It feels safe to assume the Clippers will be the 4th best team in the Western Conference, and maybe they’re due in the karma department. Toronto will have a nice year, but unless that unlikely Millsap deal comes to fruition I’m not buying the Raptors as a title contender. Boston and Miami are the two teams to keep an eye on since they’re the two teams that can find ways to really improve their position even if they aren’t the eventual Kevin Durant landing spot.

Look, I hate to give you this kind of answer, but right now we don’t know nearly enough for anyone to make a call on this. I’ve talked you in circles for two thousand words and given you no concrete answers about anything. Normally I’d apologize for that kind of behavior, but NBA Free Agency doesn’t start for another 60 hours or so. This is the best you can get for right now.

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