It's Going to Be a Bonkers NBA Offseason: A Theory
Truly, anything is possible. Get ready for a wild six months.
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Last night’s dramatic and pettiness-filled Celtics-Sixers game proved that the upcoming NBA playoffs will be an insane couple of months, filled with all kinds of emotional tension, competitive chippiness and mind-blowing basketball. But it also raised the bar for the coming off-season, which is probably going to be the most unprecedented off-season in league history.
So many stars—full-blown stars—could be on the move, from boldface MVP-caliber names like Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard to less heralded (but increasingly important) secondary stars like Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton. As everyone in the NBA has watched LeBron James and the Lakers prove that you can’t build a playoff team around one player, no matter who that player is, the chess match of who goes where—and with whom?—has been playing out behind the scenes. From Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant palling around at All-Star Weekend to the Lakers’ thirsty pursuit of Anthony Davis, the league’sconstellations are about to shift. But how, exactly?
Last night’s Sixers game—as well as the Sixers’ nationally televised showdown with the Bucks on Sunday—gave us a working example of the current power dynamic. If the Sixers, and their top-heavy team alignment, handle both those teams in the playoffs, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Boston or Milwaukee go back to the drawing board. Today, we’re highlighting a few under-the-radar story lines that will serve as important undercurrents for the NBA’s equivalent of Avengers: End Game.
Jimmy Butler, Closer
The Sixers went all in to create the most dominant starting five in the league, and the results so far suggest it was probably worth it. While the Sixers lack depth, the acquisitions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have given the Sixers—who already have two of the brightest young stars in the game—another dimension, from Butler’s murderousness down the stretch to Harris’s sustained status as a walking bucket. In both last night’s game and the Bucks game over the weekend, Butler took over when they needed him to.
Butler is older than many of the star free agents in the class, and a long contract is more likely to carry him past his prime. But he’s proving to have an intangible value as someone who wants the ball when it matters the most.
D'Angelo Russell, a Man Who Will Be Paid
While it wasn’t surprising that the Brooklyn Nets didn’t extend D’Angelo Russell earlier this year—their wide-open cap space situation is one of the team’s greatest selling points—he’sbeen playing out of his mind, especially lately. A former Lakers prospect who was given away too soon for too little, his status as a high lottery pick portends a huge extension. If the Nets end up paying Russell, their situation all of a sudden becomes a little less enticing for a big free agent.
While many of the big-market teams—the Lakers, the Clippers, the Knicks—are attracting all the buzz, the Nets are in position to be a dark horse in the market. They’ve got a playoff team in the weaker conference, and the addition of a star could plant them in the top four of the Eastern Conference. But is Russell already that star? Will extending him jeopardize their status as a dark horse for the highest tier of free agents? Whatever Brooklyn decides to do is going to be fascinating and ripple across the rest of the marketplace.
Kyrie Irving, Prime Mover
Based on how it went down last time, it would be easy to assume that Kevin Durant’s free agency decision would be the event that set off a chain reaction around the league—after all, he’s arguably the league’s best player, in his prime, fresh off duplicate titles (and a likely triplicate is on the way). While KD joined a Warriors team already loaded with stars, the perception is that he won’t be fully satisfied until he wins in a situation of his own invention.
This is why it’s fascinating to see that the most important player in the forthcoming free agency apocalypse is... Kyrie Irving. Irving has won a title before as a second star, and consensus across the league suggests that you need one if you’re going to do anything good. While the Knicks offer a completely customized situation that’s rumored to be attractive to Durant and Irving, it’s hard to bank on any kind of decision from the mercurial Irving.
As stars pair off in the hopes of contending for an NBA title—in a major media market, preferably—the events of March have further clouded the future. This season’s playoffs will be the end of the line for a few teams; we just don’t know who those teams are yet. If the Bucks lose earlier than the conference finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo could begin to doubt his situation there. If the Celtics crap out, they might just blow it up and see what they can get for young players.
Implications! Get out your Pepe Silvia drawing boards—this is going to be a wild six months.
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