Off-season shakeups make for an intriguing NBA season
The start of the NBA season got lost between the commotion of the World Series and the overwhelming attention-grabber that is the NFL.
With an off-season that saw more marquee players switching teams than any in recent memory, the NBA landscape is entirely different from the one last June when the Miami Heat won its second straight NBA title.
Most NBA teams have separated themselves into two categories for this upcoming season: Those who will tank in an attempt to get a high draft pick in next year’s draft and those who can win it all.
The 2014 draft class has long been touted as one of the best since the 2003 class produced All-Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony. Led by Canadian standout Andrew Wiggins, many teams see the next draft class as an opportunity to draft one of the game-changing talents necessary to win a title.
Many teams, such as the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, have traded many of their top players for draft picks and cap space.
The demarcation between the tankers and the winners has actually caused many to question the integrity of a sport that condones these sort of fire sale seasons.
Basketball has dealt with these issues before when the Houston Rockets were accused of intentionally losing to get a better pick in the 1984 draft. To discourage teams from purposefully losing, the NBA implemented a weighted lottery to determine the top three picks. The teams with the worst records had the highest chances of getting the number one overall pick.
The Miami Heat were actually one of the few contenders that stood pat during the off-season, being hamstrung by the massive contracts of James, Bosh, and Wade. Their one major acquisition was signing former first overall draft pick Greg Oden. Oden has suffered knee problems since entering the league and hasn’t played since the 2009–10 season, but Miami hopes he can stay healthy and provide the team with the large inside presence it has been missing.
The Celtics, who just last season were playing the Heat for a chance to win a trip to the finals, underwent the largest dismantling effort. With former Big Three member Ray Allen going to the Heat the previous season, Boston blew up the rest of its nucleus that won a title in 2008 and earned a finals trip in 2010.
All-Star forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded to the Brooklyn Nets as part of a massive blockbuster trade that unloaded some of the Nets’ overpriced bench players onto the Celtics along with first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Coach Doc Rivers was also released from his contract and allowed to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, leaving young point guard Rajon Rondo as the last beacon from the Celtics’ title days. Boston replaced Rivers with former Butler University coach Brad Stevens.
The other major domino in free agency was former Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Laker center Dwight Howard. After a nearly two-year saga with Howard trying to make up his mind where he wanted to play, Howard finally chose to sign a long-term deal with the Houston Rockets, joining rising star James Harden and former New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin.
The Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, and the Lakers were all holding out hope that they would land Howard and had to quickly formulate a Plan B.
The Hawks lost their own major free agent, forward Josh Smith, to the Detroit Pistons and only had restricted free agent Jeff Teague left to try and build a team around, missing out on most of the better free agents.
After winning the 2011 title, the Mavericks gutted their roster, letting their defensive anchor Tyson Chandler walk in free agency as they attempted to clear up cap space to land a bigger free agent. They hoped to sign point guards Deron Williams or Chris Paul as well as Howard, but all players signed elsewhere. During the offseason, the Mavericks were left to sign two high-level guards in José Calderón and Monta Ellis to try and get longtime All-Star Dirk Nowitzki another championship ring.
The Golden State Warriors, who surprised everyone by taking the San Antonio Spurs to six games in the Western Conference Semifinals, signed former Denver Nuggets forward Andre Iguodala to firm up their defense. At the same time, the Warriors were unable to re-sign former backup point guard Jarrett Jack and forward Carl Landry, key players from last year’s bench.
The perennial powerhouse Lakers suffered the largest blow by losing Howard. While he was trouble in the locker room, he represented the future franchise players with Kobe Bryant on the decline recovering from a torn Achilles and playing in his 18th season. They are finally giving up their position at the top of the Western Conference and can no longer lay claim to being the best team in their home arena, with the Staples Center being shared with the significantly better Clippers.
This NBA season will be unusual to watch, to say the least. Expect many blowouts as the difference between the intentional winners and losers has led to a massive talent gap. What may ultimately decide who’s still playing in June, however, will be how well each contender integrates its new acquisitions and how well these acquisitions will mesh into each team.