By Matt Citak
This year’s NBA offseason has been a roller coaster ride of emotions. From the strongest draft class in recent years, to multiple superstars getting shipped out west, to a couple of significant free agent signings, we have gotten a little taste of everything this summer. Now with Summer League done and the dust finally beginning to settle on free agency, we are starting to get a clearer picture of how this upcoming season will shape up. Let’s take a look at the biggest moves of the offseason and how they might affect the landscape of the NBA, for this season and for the future.
76ers move up to select Markelle Fultz
There were several potential franchise-altering prospects selected in last month’s NBA Draft. The Lakers got their point guard of the future in Lonzo Ball. The Celtics drafted the wing they wanted all along, Jayson Tatum. Even the Kings made a smart decision by picking De’Aaron Fox, the talented guard out of Kentucky. While these picks, along with many others in the first round, could change the future of an organization, none will have the same affect as Philadelphia’s trade for the first overall pick and Washington point guard Markelle Fultz.
The Sixers paid a hefty price to get Fultz, surrendering either the Lakers 2018 first-round pick or the more favorable selection between Philadelphia’s and Sacramento’s 2019 first-round picks, to move up two slots in the draft. While the price may have been high, the trade was absolutely worth it for Philadelphia. In Fultz, the 76ers picked up a special offensive talent, a great shooter that does a tremendous job of finishing at the rim. Philly fans received a glimpse of their star prospect during the Summer League, as the no. 1 pick sprained his ankle during his second game in Utah, but his brief appearance was more than enough to get fans excited. Fultz averaged 20.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.5 blocks in only 24.5 minutes, and looked electric on the court.
Even with the strength and depth of this year’s rookies, Fultz remains the gem of the class. The 19-year old joins a 76ers core consisting of former No. 1 picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, along with Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and newly-acquired veteran JJ Redick. “Trust the Process” has been the slogan in Philadelphia for the last few years, and if everyone can remain healthy, the 76ers might finally reap some of the benefits of their patience this season. Either way, Philadelphia has built a strong, promising nucleus of young players that are sure to wreak havoc across the NBA for years to come.
Celtics land Gordon Hayward
Danny Ainge deserves a round of applause for his patience this offseason. Many questioned Boston’s President of Basketball Operations for not using a few of his many assets to complete a deal that would have netted the Celtics one of the stars made available this summer on the trade market. But at the end of the day, Ainge was able to add Hayward, considered by most to be a top 25 player and the prize of this summer’s free agency, while keeping the core of players that earned Boston the one seed in the East last season intact.
In Hayward, Boston acquired a franchise-altering talent who is yet to reach his full potential. The 27-year old’s stats have improved each year he’s been in the league, culminating with his career-high 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this past season. Hayward can play on and off the ball, is a good shooter (as seen by his 47.1 field goal percentage and 39.8 three-point percentage last season), and can defend multiple positions. There is no doubt Hayward makes the Celtics significantly better, as he provides head coach Brad Stevens even more flexibility when attempting to use a positionless lineup.
The real question is, does Hayward move Boston ahead of Lebron James and the Cavaliers? Doubtful. However it certainly gets them a lot closer. More importantly, the Celtics’ ability to add a talent like Hayward while preserving its future assets helps the franchise compete now while still trending in the right direction for the next few years. So while they may not beat Cleveland in 2017-18, it puts Boston in great shape to compete beyond next season.
Timberwolves trade for Jimmy Butler
The night of the NBA Draft tends to produce a couple of big moves that catch the rest of the league off-guard. During last month’s draft, it only took a few picks into the first round for a big bombshell to drop. The long-anticipated reunion between Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau was finally taking place as the Bulls traded the three-time All-Star and the 16th overall pick to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick.
Butler is one of the top two-way players in the league. The 27-year old averaged career-highs in points (23.9), rebounds (6.2), assists (5.5), and steals (1.9) last season while on his way to his third All-Star appearance and first All-NBA honor (Third Team). Butler joined James, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard as the only five players with a score of at least 50 in the defensive portion of the NBA Math’s TPA and a grade above 300 in the offensive one. The shooting guard is also on a very affordable contract after signing a 5-year, $92 million contract with the Bulls prior to the 2015-16 season, which allowed the Timberwolves to bring in additional talent during free agency (Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson).
By adding Butler to a roster already consisting of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves went from a team that could be good down the road to a team ready to make some noise right now. While they are unlikely to compete with the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets, this Minnesota team has an incredibly talented, young core that will only improve as they get more experience under their belts. With a big three of Butler, Towns, and Wiggins, the Wolves could also look a lot more attractive to the next star wanting to join a super team.
Rockets acquire Chris Paul
Heading into the offseason, many reports discussed Paul leaving the Clippers and heading to their Western Conference rivals in San Antonio. While the point guard did end up jetting from Los Angeles and moving to Texas, he wound up with the team a little further east from Greg Popovich, Leonard and the Spurs. After having one of the most productive offensive seasons in NBA history, the Houston Rockets added one of the best point guards to ever play the game in Paul.
Paul missed out on an All-Star appearance for the first time since 2008 this past season, despite averaging 18.1 points, 9.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in 31.5 minutes per game. The 32-year old shot 47.6 percent from the field and a career-best 41.1 percent from the three-point line, but did miss 21 games due to injury and rest. To those that argue losing defensive sparkplug Patrick Beverley could actually hurt the Rockets, keep in mind that Paul has been named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team seven times, including the last six seasons.
Combining Paul with the ultra-talented Harden creates one of the most fascinating one-two punches in the NBA. Both guards can obviously bring the ball up, but both excel off the ball as well. One of Houston’s big weaknesses in 2016-17 was the team’s struggles when Harden was on the bench. Well head coach Mike D’Antoni has already publicly stated that there will never be a time when both Paul and Harden are not on the court, which raises the potential of this Houston team significantly. Adding the nine-time All-Star to a roster with Harden, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon will make the Rockets one of the most fun teams to watch next season. And don’t forget, Paul’s banana-boat buddy Carmelo Anthony is still trying to force his way to Houston as well.
Thunder shock everyone, acquire Paul George
George surprised a lot of people by openly telling the Pacers and general manager Kevin Pritchard that he would definitely be leaving the team when his contract ran out in 2018. Although rumors have been swirling about the small forward’s desire to play for the Lakers in Los Angeles, many believed a team like the Celtics or Cavaliers would make the big splash for George. But at the end of the day, it was Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder that pulled the trigger on a trade for the four-time All-Star, helping Thunder fans forget about Kevin Durant’s departure just one year ago.
The 27-year old forward had a career year last season, averaging a personal-best 23.7 points on 46.1 percent shooting from the field. George showed the ability to make shots from all over the court, finishing the season with a 39.3 shooting percentage from long-range and a career-high 89.8 percent from the free throw line. George also proved he can do a little bit of everything, averaging 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.6 steals in his 35.9 minutes per game. In addition to adding George, getting rid of Victor Oladipo and the three years, $63 million remaining on his contract is huge for the Thunder, who did not have to sacrifice any draft assets to acquire the All-Star.
It’s hard to imagine a better fit for George than the Thunder. George and Andre Roberson provide Oklahoma City with two athletic, shutdown wings, while Westbrook now has one of the game’s best two-way players running up and down the floor with him. After spending the first seven seasons of his career as the alpha dog of the Pacers, settling into the No. 2 role on the Thunder could do wonders for George, as he and Westbrook will help to alleviate a lot of the stress (and defensive pressure) from each other. If Presti and the rest of Oklahoma City can convince George to stay for more than one season, it would give the Thunder two stars in the prime of their careers to build around. While they might not have the pieces to compete with the Warriors, the Thunder took a big step towards becoming a contender with this trade.