Free agency in the NBA is unlike any other sport. Any team can trade any player and any player can jump to any team. That being said, not all years in NBA free agency are made equal. The level of excitement for a free agency period is directly correlated to the number of superstars that are available in the market, and this year is exceptionally powerful. Superstar players can make or break a team, as we've seen this year with the Toronto Raptors, and in many cases can completely change the landscape of the NBA. I took a moment to look back and reflect on one of the biggest free agency periods in recent memory.
1. The Brooklyn Nets Rule New York
Before this season, the Brooklyn Nets were probably most known for their disaster of a trade with the Boston Celtics in which they have up three first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 with the right to swap picks in 2017 as well as five players in exchange for a 37-year-old Kevin Garnett and a 36-year-old Paul Pierce. The deal went down in 2013 and after two playoff seasons, the Nets basically fell off the face of the planet.
Very quietly, however, the Nets began slowly building their new team post-Pierce & Garnett in a much slower and deliberate manner when they hired a new general manager in 2016. No one in the league really paid them any attention, but it's almost as if we blinked and suddenly the Nets were a playoff contender.
Swiping Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant from the New York Knicks has been the cherry on top of an incredibly successful rebuild that took less than a decade. I fully expect Kevin Durant to sit out the entirety of the upcoming NBA season, but by all accounts, the team improved, to say the least. With a potential starting five in Kyrie, Caris LeVert, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris and DeAndre Jordan (another free agent signing) the Nets now have a stronger claim in the east.
2. James Dolan Needs To Sell The Knicks
The New York Knicks continued suffering is the reason I know the Basketball gods exist. I just want to say that if you're a New York Knicks fan and you happen to be reading this, I'm sorry for your pain. However, if you are a Knicks apologist, you deserve everything that's happened to you. The entire season, Knicks fans have been screaming from the rooftops on how the tank is on for Zion with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving following suit. Knicks fans bought in because that's all they have, a vague sense of hope that maybe a superstar will have the audacity to not only meet the expectations of Knicks fans but Knicks ownership as well.
The situation is so bad that the New York Times recently published a story trying to address that very question: why won't superstar players sign on to play in Madison Square Garden in the basketball capital of the world? The answer is simple: James Dolan.
He's addicted to hitting the reboot button and his tenure which has stretched over two decades has been marred with chaos and incompetence. The Knicks haven't had a winning season since the 2012-2013 season and their long list of former GMs, Presidents, and coaches has been just as telling. Teams like the Pelicans, Raptors, and Nets have seen immediate, year-over-year benefits following a restructuring of the front office or ownership. Maybe the Knicks should consider because I don't know how much more fans, or the league for that matter, can take.
3. Kawhi Leonard Is A Genius
No one has had a greater turnaround from last season than Kawhi Leonard. Usually known for his quiet demeanor and aversion to typical NBA drama, Leonard suddenly found himself in the midst of injury complications and a deteriorating relationship with the San Antonio Spurs. Push came to shove, and with his relationship with the Spurs beyond repair, Kawhi demanded a trade and found himself in Toronto with his teammate Danny Green.
Who would have thought that Kawhi would have turned around and found himself with a championship and Finals MVP? Very quietly, as he's oft to do, Kawhi made history as the first player to ever win the Finals MVP in both conferences in NBA history. Suddenly, his draft stock is at an all-time high in a free agency year that was already pretty stacked.
Word eventually got around that Kawhi was only considering three teams: the Raptors, Clippers, and Lakers. Very early on, word got around that the Clippers were out of the running, leaving the Raptors and Lakers to bid against each other. At least that's what everyone thought. Suddenly, Kawhi announces on a random midnight that he'll be signing with the Clippers only because they gave the biggest haul of draft picks to the Thunder for Paul George.
Honestly, leave it to Kawhi to pull a fast one over the entire NBA world. I keep a pretty close ear to the NBA and I don't think I heard anyone theorize that Kawhi would try and parlay a three-team operation to land another superstar with him. I know sports fans suffer from recency bias, especially how fast the news cycle works, but Paul George was an MVP frontrunner for a large portion of this season and statistically had one of his best years ever. The Clippers will be very exciting to watch this year.
4. The Thunder "Dynasty" Is Over
At the beginning of this decade, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the most promising team in the country. Built around a young core that had quickly made its way to an NBA Finals, it was beginning to look like the Thunder had the foundations of a dynasty already built. I'll say this though, not giving James Harden more than the 4-year, $55 million extension the Thunder offered him should haunt Sam Presti forever. The Thunder have seen three MVPs pass through their organization, each a member of that young core in the early 2010s, and now they have none. I'd consider that a failure.
By trading away both Paul George and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder now control up to 15 first-round picks for the next seven upcoming drafts. The potential for the Thunder is unparalleled, but so was the cost. Whether or not the Thunder are able to flip Chris Paul is almost irrelevant at this point. The Thunder are in complete rebuild mode and we may have to wait until 2026 to evaluate the full scale of these trades. Regardless, the Thunders future is as much of a "what if" as their past was a "what could be."