Before free agency even actually began it was over. There are still players unsigned, including Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith, but for the most part players already decided where they’re playing basketball for the near future. Nearly every team signed at least one player. Some teams looked like they got better, while others looked like they might have taken a step back. Cleveland and Oklahoma City now have to pay the luxury tax, while Brooklyn has officially escaped it with a little help from Deron Williams.
It’s easy to figure out the main contenders in the NBA. It usually doesn’t vary year from year. Golden State winning last year sort of came outta nowhere, but it wasn’t completely random. Golden State had the pieces; Golden State just never put a complete offense around their top defense. Based on the offseason, there are five contenders in the West, and maybe two in the East. It’s tough to measure the East, honestly. Yeah, Miami looks solid on paper. They have five of the top 90 in PER, added Gerald Green, Amare Stoudemire and Justice Winslow and brought back Josh McRoberts from injury. It could be foils gold, though. I can’t put them in the same bracket of Title Contenders as the Titans of the West. They just haven’t done anything together to validate that.
Atlanta really has to figure out whose replacing DeMarre Carroll on the wing. They obviously upgraded inside with the addition of Tiago Splitter, though. Atlanta will be there in the East, but Cleveland’s repeating. Chicago remains interesting, especially since they now have an offensive-minded coach. The Bulls have so many intriguing offensive options, especially with capable post passers, but can we really count on Chicago to compete with Cleveland? Milwaukee’s seriously building something with their core, and Giannis has put on some muscle, which is scary for NBA teams. Jabari Parker’s a stud. They built a strong defense in Jason Kidd’s first year. The Bucks have so much length at guard and forward, and maybe that’ll make up for Greg Monroe and Parker’s defensive shortcomings. Monroe going to Milwaukee is big time, especially since they didn’t overpay him. When he plays center, Milwaukee can space the floor with Parker at the four. I’m not worried about Milwaukee taken a step back, similar to how Charlotte took a step back following their unexpected playoff appearance two years ago. Milwaukee has a much strong nucleus, and more definitive offensive strategy. Look for Milwaukee to host a playoff series, or maybe two, next year. They’re definitely a force in the East.
San Antonio appeared to be one of the winners of free agency. They have a legitimate chance to win this year’s championship because of what they did in free agency. LaMarcus Aldridge is a flat-out difference maker on offense, and he’s not terrible on defense, either. He can guard speedy fours like Blake Griffin and also bigger fours like Zach Randolph. The Spurs relied on Boris Diaw to play power forward when Miami and Oklahoma City went small two postseasons ago. They had to remove Splitter from the line-up. They don’t have to do that with Aldridge. He’ll start. He’ll score the most points. He’ll rack up assists and rebounds, too. He can be a ball stopper, but he won’t need to be with all of the off-the-ball movement San Antonio does so well. What San Antonio did this offseason allows them to compete for championships, which is why they’re one of the winners of free agency. They did give up Splitter and lost Cory Joseph and Marco Belinelli, but the Spurs still have depth. Kyle Anderson might give them time, assuming Kawhi Leonard can stay healthy, he’ll give them even more minutes and Patty Mills will be there the whole season.
Another winner has to be the Los Angeles Clippers, who managed to keep DeAndre Jordan and brought in three serviceable wings (Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson) and Josh Smith. Stephenson’s definitely intriguing, but he has to prove himself before labeling him any sort of asset for the Clippers. I don’t know if Doc Rivers assumed he’d get Paul Pierce when he included Matt Barnes in the trade for Stephenson, but if he didn’t, the Clippers were most likely going to roll with Lance at starting small forward. With The Truth, Johnson and Jamal Crawford, Stephenson won’t see as much time as first anticipated. Having Pierce gives Doc Rivers viable options at power forward. The Clippers actually have rotational pieces to change line-ups against the randomness of the Western Conference. The Clippers did choke against Houston last season, but they also didn’t have the right players to defend Houston’s attack at times. Now, the Clippers are much deeper. They don’t have to play to other teams strengths like they did at times last postseason. The Clippers haven’t proven themselves in the postseason yet. Sure, they beat San Antonio last season, but Clippers might have regressed following that blown 3-1 lead against Houston. No one will believe in them until the Clippers make it to the conference finals. Despite how talented the Clippers look on paper, they still might be the FOURTH best team out West. That’s absolutely crazy.
Dallas and Portland look like they’ll be worse, more so Portland. I think Dallas will be fine, especially since they were the no. 1 offense in basketball pre-Rondo last season. I know losing Monta hurts, but Rick Carlisle runs a phenomenal offense that, as long as everyone stays healthy, should make Dallas a playoff team. Despite Portland not looking like a playoff squad and Dallas having less talent than before, the West might be more difficult than ever before.
If I had to give you the eight playoff teams in the West right now, it goes (in order): OKC, GS, LAC, SA, HOU, MEM, NOP, DAL. But Utah, and maybe Phoenix and Denver, will fight hard to overtake the Mavericks. The West’s tougher for several reasons. Last year, without San Antonio playing after the first round and Kevin Durant having season-ending surgery, Houston and Golden State made it to the conference finals. Golden State was no mistake. They earned those 67 regular season wins, along with the 16 additional ones to be champions. Houston might not be a conference finalist without San Antonio and Oklahoma City’s injuries, but they got there, so they have to be considered a top team out West because they bring back nearly everyone, plus add healthy guys.
So, the West features the Thunder, who just got astronomically better by adding the second best player on the planet, the Grizzlies, who will never go away and added a nice back-up big man, the Golden State Warriors, who just won 67 out of 82 freaking games, the San Antonio Spurs, who have LaMarcus Aldridge, the Clippers, the Rockets and Anthony Davis’ team. That’s an absurdly stacked Western conference. I have the Thunder winning the most regular season games out West. I don’t know if people forgot how good Kevin Durant is, but he won MVP in 2013-2014. He’s the best pure scorer in basketball, still. He’ll be hungry, and people will quickly remember his dominance.
The NBA’s free agency period seems to get crazier and crazier every year. Teams badly overpaid guys with the upcoming cap rise in mind, but still, guys got paid this summer. Only the Spurs added a guy that makes them a contender. The other contenders only retained free agents, or added solid rotational guys.
But free agency wasn’t just a time for mediocre teams to add above-average talent to barely make (or miss) the playoffs. Orlando getting back Tobias Harris allows that young team to continue to grow together. I already talked about the Bucks, but that deal showed guys want to play in winning situations. Not every team can draft or sign LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but what Golden State showed last year was, if you have some really talented players who shoot and defend well, you could win a championship, especially if major injuries happen to major players. Milwaukee is in a great position because who knows what’ll happen if Cleveland has an injury if they face each other in the playoffs. Milwaukee adding Monroe gives them a chance in the East. For a team that won 15 games two years ago, that’s all they need.