Who Dodged the Biggest NBA Offseason Bullet?Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
This was one of the craziest NBA offseasons since 2000. It wasn’t just the names flying around, but the way it was all woven together. Every big move had unintended consequences that led to a different big move. And it all happened one-by-one, right up until the Cavs finally dealt Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. It was like watching the butterfly effect ripple across an entire league. Flip Saunders flaps his wings here, Steve Kerr falls into a potential dynasty there. Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler cost too much here, Melo destroys the Knicks there.
And then, for all the moves that did happen, the most interesting part of last summer were the ones that didn’t. It’s spawned one of the best running questions of this NBA season, and it’s something I’ve been asking myself since November: Who dodged the biggest bullet this summer?
The way I look at it, there are six candidates.
Think about how Minnesota’s summer could have gone. Saunders was all set to trade Love for something like Klay Thompson, David Lee, Harrison Barnes, and maybe a low first-round pick. To really appreciate how depressing that would be, you have to remember that Love would not be struggling like this in Golden State and, more importantly, Thompson would not look anything like the budding superstar he’s become if he’d gotten stuck trying to carry the Wolves. He’d be more like a slightly better version of Gordon Hayward — a good, underappreciated player stuck on a team that’s going absolutely nowhere.
That’s where the Wolves were headed the week before the draft.
Instead, both sides got cold feet in the Warriors-Wolves talks (we’ll probably never know exactly what happened), LeBron opted out and started sending secret messages to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert (we’ll probably never know exactly what happened), and then somewhere along the way, Gilbert and Wolves owner Glen Taylor agreed in principle to flip Andrew Wiggins for Love. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened. But instead of locking themselves into irrelevance, the Wolves landed the one player from the 2014 draft who looks like a potential superstar.
Wiggins dodged a bullet, too. There will be all kinds of revisionist history about the Love-Wiggins deal. But just for the record, Wiggins wouldn’t be having the season he’s having if he were stuck between LeBron and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. There was an idea that LeBron could have brought out the best in Wiggins, but from everything we’ve seen from LeBron on the Cavs thus far, patiently extracting the best from struggling players is not a specialty. Going to the Wolves was the best thing that could have happened to Wiggins, and I’m not saying that just because I wrote as much at the time. Playing in Minnesota is forcing him to be assertive, and we’re seeing the dividends.
The team is still awful, but that’s probably a good thing at this point. If Minnesota can luck into a top-three pick somehow, it can maybe land Karl Towns and join him with Ricky Rubio and Wiggins for the next 10 years. Either way, the Wolves were front-runners for “most depressing team in the league” when Saunders decided to name himself coach in June. Nine months later, they have as bright a future as anyone.
This one is tricky. In November, it looked like the Bulls had dodged two enormous bullets. First, they refused to give up Butler, Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic for Love. Bullet dodged. Instead of giving away the mysterious stashed draft pick (Mirotic) who now looks like one of Chicago’s four best players, the young shooting guard (Butler) who turned into a superstar, and the most versatile bench weapon in the league (Gibson), the Bulls kept everyone and used their extra money to sign Pau Gasol, who looked dominant the first two months.
The other bullet Chicago dodged is more complicated. They hung on to Gibson and Butler and didn’t have the cap room to make a competitive offer with the Knicks. In November, this looked brilliant. In February, it’s not so simple. Would Melo be taking sporadic knee injury sabbaticals all season if he were playing on a title-contending Bulls team? We’ll never know for sure. But would you rather bet on Melo coming alive on a winning team or the Bulls coming out of this current funk to win the East?
It’s been a rough six weeks for Chicago. While Gasol looked like the biggest steal of the offseason a few months ago, he’s now being called the new Boozer. He’s the defensive liability who’s fooling people with empty stats, and he’ swallowing minutes that should be going to Mirotic. He can still help the Bulls, particularly if he comes off the bench, but it’s definitely a longer conversation now. Meanwhile, Butler’s coming back to earth, and a team that could’ve revolved around Melo as the scorer is instead watching Derrick Rose do his best impression of Nuggets-era Iverson. Rose looks the same, but it’s not the same, and it’s depressing. The Bulls would have been the clear answer to this question before Christmas, but losing Melo isn’t quite as satisfying as it once was.
But hey, no matter what happens from here, they didn’t trade the three best young players on their roster to add Love.
This can’t be emphasized enough: James Harden deserves the MVP. He just does. He won’t win it, because he’s James Harden, and the combination of his gunner reputation and bad defense will keep voters from making him the face of the league, even for a fleeting, symbolic second. Steph Curry will win, and that’s fine. I have no complaints. In 10 years it would be bizarre to look back and see Harden’s name as an MVP winner; it won’t be weird at all to see Curry there.
But I don’t see how anyone can argue that Harden hasn’t been more valuable than any player in the NBA. The numbers are pretty clear, as Kirk Goldsberry outlined last month. Even beyond the numbers, just think about the broader context: The Rockets are working with a broken-down version of Dwight Howard, and that’s when he actually sees the court. The rest of the roster is filled with overachieving spare parts like Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer, and Donatas Ihavenoideahowtospellhislastname. Thanks in large part to Harden, they’re still on pace to finish top four in one of the toughest conferences in NBA history. They would be a lottery team without him. (While the Warriors might have still been able to make the playoffs without Curry.)
So … What does this have to do with dodging bullets?
Imagine MVP Harden with Chris Bosh. Now imagine MVP Harden with Bosh and Chandler Parsons, who the Rockets would have kept if Bosh had committed. Paying Parsons would have been worth it if a title was on the line.
Suddenly you’re giving Harden one of the best big men in the NBA, a wing who’s better than anyone Harden’s played with all season, and the chance of a healthy Howard putting it all over the top by the playoffs. The Rockets and Daryl Morey evangelists will always be a pain in the ass to deal with, but I’m just saying: To anyone who hates Moreyball, this season was almost the apocalypse.
They are the accidental winners of the Bosh sweepstakes. Houston lost Bosh, decided Parsons wasn’t worth it, and went for Trevor Ariza as a cheaper replacement … saving the Wizards from overpaying for four years of Ariza and locking up their entire salary cap in a roster that would never make it past the second round. It also kept hope and cap space intact to potentially chase a Big Name Who Shall Not Be Named in 2016.
Instead of expensive Ariza, the Wizards got cheap Paul Pierce — one of the ten coolest NBA players of the past 15 years — for at least this season and maybe next. Until the Wizards fire Randy Wittman and actually get serious about winning anything, this counts as one of the greatest days of my life as a D.C. basketball fan. Completely serious.
This was like a Sliding Doors scenario, only half of the movie is this scene from Blow, and the other half is one of the Saw sequels. Have you ever in your life made a decision as good as Steve Kerr did when he chose the Warriors over the Knicks? I definitely haven’t. I probably never will.
It’s hard to say how close Kerr came to landing in New York, but if you think back to May, it took a long time for the Knicks to get serious and put any of the wheels in motion. That gave the Warriors just enough room to go after him — right as Stan Van Gundy was reportedly refusing to take the Dubs job if he didn’t get GM powers, too. By the time New York had upped the ante, it was too late. I refuse to believe that Kerr’s decision was actually that difficult once he weighed life in the Bay Area with better players against life with the New York media, Carmelo, and a roster of sadness. No amount of loyalty to Phil Jackson was ever going to make Kerr crazy enough to choose New York over Golden State.
However, if Joe Lacob doesn’t fire the coach his best players loved, if Van Gundy doesn’t turn down the Warriors and choose the Pistons instead … Kerr is probably in Manhattan right now watching Jose Calderon and Shane Larkin, listening to Amar’e Stoudemire brainstorm documentary ideas while Melo sits at the end of the bench debating his hat strategy for All-Star Weekend. Instead, Kerr’s got this look on his face.
Right. The best team in basketball. Golden State feels like the obvious answer to this question. For some perspective, let’s take it back to the spring and summer.
Washington Post: “What makes less sense is why the Warriors have ‘taken Thompson off the table,’ as ESPN’s latest headline suggests. The 24-year-old Thompson is a fine shooting guard, one of the best three-point shooters in the league and a fan favorite, but nowhere close to being one of the NBA’s best perimeter players.”
Sports Illustrated: “Thompson may be improving, but it’s highly unlikely that he will ever be as good as Love. Love’s free agency, while alarming in theory, could be resolved before a trade or settled soon after. And his situation is somewhat balanced by Thompson’s potential restricted free agency in 2015 if the 6-foot-7 sniper doesn’t sign an extension this offseason. … There is no question that Thompson and Curry are a formidable pair. But how much is Thompson really worth? Is he so valuable that he could justify turning down a deal for Love (which would also unload the $30.5 million owed to David Lee over the next two seasons, offset somewhat by the likely acquisition of Kevin Martin’s three remaining seasons)?
True Hoop: “Thompson is not, however, an untouchable asset for Golden State. … were Love not an option, the Warriors would be happy to move forward with him. On the balance sheet, though, this is trickier. Thompson is still on his rookie contract and is eligible for a qualifying offer in 2015. With Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Curry and [Andre] Iguodala all making eight figures per season moving forward, there just isn’t much room for Thompson.
Me: “If they don’t get Kevin Love, there’s still a chance that they keep Klay Thompson and, long-term, turn into a team that can contend with anybody in the league. But there’s a much better chance that Love will land in Cleveland, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut will break down over the next few years, Golden State will overpay to keep Klay next summer, and Warriors fans will spend years cursing those few weeks before the draft when this team somehow turned Klay Thompson into a franchise cornerstone.”
WE WERE ALL SO WRONG.
Maybe the Wolves got cold feet, maybe the Warriors really refused to part with Thompson. The only thing that’s certain is that Juliet Litman, the original #Klaytheist, is the only person on the Internet who definitely believed the Warriors should keep Thompson. Everyone else, at best, hedged their bets, and more often, treated the Warriors like they just gave away the best chance they would ever have at becoming a real contender.
This dodged bullet is even bigger because it changed the careers of Curry, Draymond Green, and especially Thompson. The Warriors would have been good with Love, but they would definitely not have the best defense in the league right now. Curry would be great regardless, but he would not be an MVP candidate while he tried to carry the scoring load with Love and defend Western Conference backcourts with Kevin Martin. Green never starts if Love is taking up space at the 4, and suddenly he’s not a candidate for the most amazing max contract in history. And if Green’s coming off the bench, Marreese Speights probably doesn’t have the opportunity to become the most inexplicable bench weapon in the league.
Then there’s Thompson. If he’s in Minnesota, instead of becoming America’s favorite cold-blooded killer, he’s literally left in the cold with Nikola Pekovic and Saunders. He’s not announcing his first signature shoe in New York City next weekend, he’s not playing in the All-Star Game, and he’s not seeing the playoffs for a long time. He wouldn’t be that different from Martin with better defense. Instead, he’s the breakout star of the NBA season, and the theoretical max deal everyone mocked in May looks very smart in February.
That non-trade changed things for everyone. The entire Warriors roster is better off because absolutely nothing changed this summer.
Right now, the winner has to be the Warriors.
Morey haters have a very good case if you think about the all-consuming dread a Rockets super-team would inspire, but all of that’s rooted in hypothetical dominance. Every single Warriors game is a real, tangible reminder of how crazy that Love trade would have been, and how lucky/smart it was to turn it down.
On the other hand, the Bulls would’ve have won this argument two months ago. Maybe Chicago jumps back in the lead if it wins the East and re-signs Butler this summer. What if the Warriors get bounced by the Thunder in the first round?
What if the Wizards land the Big Name Who Shall Not Be Named in 2016, and everyone gets to look back at not signing Ariza as the move that made it possible? Or what if Wiggins turns into the next Tracy McGrady, the Wolves luck out in this June’s draft, and Minnesota turns into a juggernaut three or four years from now?
That’s the best part of the bullet-dodging question. The answer has changed three or four times since the summer, and the butterfly effects will probably continue to look different for the next several years. Amazing happens. Or sometimes amazing doesn’t happen, and that’s even better.
Filed Under: NBA, Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers, Flip Saunders, Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr, Houston Rockets, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Trevor Ariza