For the first time in years, the NBA does not have an odds-on favorite to win the title. The dual impact of the Golden State Warriors falling in the NBA Finals then losing Kevin Durant in free agency (along with the expected loss of Klay Thompson for most of next season because of a torn ACL) created a power vacuum teams rushed to fill.
“This was a year where everybody saw the Warriors finally opened the door,” a Western Conference executive said, “so the teams thought they could win.
“And they’re going for it.”
The collective chase to do so produced a truly frenetic offseason. Star duos have since formed in Los Angeles (twice!), along with Brooklyn and Houston. A constellation of big names — including reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Al Horford and Mike Conley — have changed teams, including half of the starters from last season’s All-Star Game alone.
The result is a landscape where six to eight teams will enter next season with realistic dreams of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of it. And while the LA Clippers landing both Leonard and George was the talk of the summer, there was more than enough other action to keep the NBA buzzing. So ESPN asked 20 coaches, executives and scouts from across the NBA about what happened — and what lies ahead — on topics ranging from who is the best player in the league to which team will win next season’s championship.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. Who is the best player in the NBA?
Nick Nurse shares his thoughts on Kawhi Leonard signing with the Clippers, and how it will affect the Raptors next season.
Why Leonard, and not either of the past two MVP winners?
“Did you watch what just happened?” one Eastern Conference executive said with a laugh.
Another summed it up this way: “Because if he plays every game in the playoffs, he’s the best player in the world. And if you can be good enough the rest of the way to get there, then great.”
Leonard’s dominant playoff run led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title. And while he got the most votes in our survey, there was plenty of hemming and hawing. Several people said they would’ve at least considered Kevin Durant — if not outright picked him — had he been healthy and not recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Others also gave strong consideration to LeBron James, although ultimately no one selected him.
The arguments in favor of Antetokounmpo and Harden, meanwhile, go back to the same debate that was held throughout much of last season over their respective candidacies for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
“He’s the best two-way player,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said of Antetokounmpo. “He gives it to you at both ends.”
“His scoring is just special,” an executive said, when asked to explain why Harden was his choice. “His ability to elevate a team with his offense as a passer and scorer is as good as it gets. To rely on him to carry an offense every night and stay healthy, he’d be my No. 1 guy.”
And, not surprisingly, even among some of those who chose to ride with Leonard, there remains an expectation that Antetokounmpo — still only 24 — will soon put himself atop the heap for a long time to come. The one thing holding him back? His still inconsistent jumper.
“Giannis is coming strong,” said a Western Conference assistant who picked Leonard. “I think he’s gonna get that jump shot. He’s going to be improved. I think he’s that dude.”
2. What move from the summer did you like the most?
Clippers getting Leonard/Paul George – 10
Jazz getting Bojan Bogdanovic/Mike Conley – 2
Pelicans overall offseason – 2
Josh Richardson/Al Horford to Philadelphia – 2
Bobby Marks explains how Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will affect the Clippers next season and what the rest of the roster will look like.
The Clippers received praise from people across the spectrum for their summer. Some praised the obvious: that getting Leonard, along with Paul George, vaulted the Clippers into title contention. Others, though, gave the Clippers credit for retaining the depth that made them so interesting last season. Despite all the picks they gave up, they still have considerable roster balance — unlike, say, their co-tenants at Staples Center.
“They were a nice little team without him and Paul George,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Getting them gets them into another stratosphere.”
“The Clippers are pretty impressive with how they finagled that,” a Western Conference assistant coach said. “The [number of] picks are kind of crazy [to give up], but to get Kawhi and Paul George, that’s what it cost.
“To contend, that’s what it was going to take. That’s what matters.”
For Philadelphia, it was for the way the franchise managed to pivot from the potential loss of Jimmy Butler and recover to not only get Richardson in a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat, but also to get Horford as a free agent to play alongside Joel Embiid in the 76ers’ frontcourt.
“With Jimmy walking, to be able to scramble around and get Tobias [Harris], Josh, Horford … I think they made something out of a tough situation,” a Western Conference scout said. “They couldn’t bring back both [Butler and Harris]. They weren’t good enough.”
Now, in the eyes of some, they are.
“I think they’ve got the most talent,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “I think they’re huge. I think those guys are going to be better.”
Others receiving votes: Brooklyn getting Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving 1, Oklahoma City trading away Paul George and Russell Westbrook 1, Chicago getting Tomas Satoransky 1, Dallas re-signing Dorian Finney-Smith 1
3. What was the worst move of the summer?
Richard Jefferson contends that the Knicks missing out on Kevin Durant might be the best thing for them.
The criticism of the Knicks came on multiple fronts. First, after they struck out on superstar signings, they settled for middling players, rather than using their cap space to take on bad contracts and add draft assets.
“Some people were like they did a good job keeping their powder dry, but I don’t even like [Julius] Randle, so I don’t get what they did,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “I guess it was better than spending $80 million on two free agents. But that’s like saying you’re eating healthier because you didn’t go to McDonald’s for lunch and Burger King for dinner.
“Yes, you’re eating healthier — but only because you couldn’t eat worse.”
Additionally, the Knicks were knocked for signing several players — Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris — who all play power forward. The glut of big men could potentially stunt the growth of last year’s No. 9 overall pick, Kevin Knox, and second-team all-rookie selection Mitchell Robinson, who plays center.
“The Knicks’ five-big attack is confusing to me,” one Eastern Conference assistant coach said.
Phoenix, meanwhile, was both docked for the three-year, $51 million contract it handed to Rubio, but also for the price it paid — De’Anthony Melton and two second-round picks — to dump Josh Jackson‘s contract to clear the space to sign him in the first place.
“They paid him a lot of money, and he isn’t very good,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Maybe it was the best they could do to finally get a point guard, but you’re designed for less than mediocrity.”
Rozier, meanwhile, was the beneficiary of Charlotte losing Walker, as Boston agreed to a sign-and-trade to send him to the Hornets and making him their new starter in his place. The price for doing so — three years and $58 million — was richer than many thought the Hornets should’ve paid.
“I thought that was a huge overpay without enough short term to justify it,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “I think that’s going to be a disaster to be a bottom-end team and throw that money around. I don’t see how that’s going to work out.”
Others receiving votes: Wizards giving up Tomas Satoransky 1, Sacramento’s offseason 1, Jimmy Butler to Miami 1, Russell Westbrook to Houston 1
4. What was the most surprising move of the summer?
Max Kellerman argues that Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson won’t be worth their contracts if they don’t return close to form.
A stipulation off the top: Given how truly shocking the combination of Leonard and George going to the Clippers in one fell swoop was, those polled for this survey were not allowed to give that answer so as to make this category somewhat interesting.
As a result, the two runaway leaders instead were Horford winding up with the division-rival Sixers, and Russell being part of a sign-and-trade to go to the Golden State Warriors. For Horford, it was both leaving the Celtics and joining the Sixers that surprised people. Horford had been expected by most people to stay put when the season ended — and few, if any, would’ve guessed he would be playing alongside Embiid in Philadelphia next season.
“I really thought he’d be a Celtic still,” an Eastern Conference executive said.
“I didn’t see Miami giving up Richardson to sign Jimmy Butler,” an Eastern Conference executive said, “and I didn’t see the Sixers punting on Jimmy to replace him with Al Horford.”
Russell’s move to the Warriors, meanwhile, was equally surprising to people. The idea that Durant would leave, and even go to Brooklyn, was somewhat expected. But that he would be included in a sign-and-trade sending Russell back to Golden State was not.
“That did not seem like a Warriors-type move,” a Western Conference scout said.
A West executive, however, could at least understand it while being surprised it happened.
“There’s always two ways to look at those things,” he said. “They didn’t want to give [Durant] up for nothing, but then, while they got [Russell], they gave up that first-round pick and Iguodala.
“I think they had to look at all those things. That surprised the heck out of me, but I thought it was an appropriate move.”
Redick, meanwhile, was one of the first free agents to agree to terms on June 30, and his move to New Orleans — both that he chose the Pelicans and that he signed for two years and $26.5 million — was a stunner.
“For a guy who could’ve picked anywhere to play and who had been looking to be contending teams, then he goes to New Orleans?” a Western Conference assistant coach asked.
Others receiving votes: Nikola Mirotic going to Barcelona 1, Boston signing Kemba Walker 1, Marcus Morris to Knicks 1, Kevin Durant to Nets 1, Overall fiscal discipline 1, So many first-round picks being traded 1
5. Why are teams moving first-round picks more than before?
Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down how the Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul trade came to be, and how it will affect Paul’s future.
After the Boston Celtics acquired basically this entire decade’s draft capital from the Brooklyn Nets back in 2013, there was a period of time when teams were hesitant to move first-round picks in trade.
Those days are over.
Over the past few weeks, the Los Angeles Lakers (three first-rounders and one swap right), the LA Clippers (five first-round picks and two swap rights) and Houston Rockets (two first-round picks and two swap rights) sent out loads of draft assets in trades for Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
Why the change? Because teams have decided that winning now is worth potentially mortgaging the future. The combination of shorter contracts and increased player movement has shortened title windows — and created a sense of urgency to strike when they arrive.
“Shorter-term contracts for the star players gives them the leverage, and so now there is pressure that these stars want better players, not young rookies that are great for team building,” said a Western Conference executive, who pointed at the lack of young players on teams with LeBron James over the years as an example of this playing out previously.
There was one other rather obvious thing that changed this summer, as well, that was pointed to as a possible catalyst: the fact the Warriors are no longer ruling over the league as a seemingly unbeatable foe, keeping teams from thinking it was the right time to swing for the fences.
“Would this have happened if the Warriors are still the Warriors?” an Eastern Conference executive wondered. “There are five to 10 teams that are really, really good, so those teams are thinking, ‘Why not us?'”
“You basically would have been stupid to do that a couple years ago.”
The other factor given credit for the surge in picks being traded are the changes in the last collective bargaining agreement that increased the salaries for rookie-scale contracts — removing them from being the big-time bargains they were previously, and making the risk for taking on a “second draft” player taken with a lottery pick a more costly one. No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson will make more than $8.1 million in his rookie season, while the non-taxpayer midlevel exception is set at $9.2 million.
“I think the value of first-rounders might not be as high as it once was partly because those picks aren’t quite as valuable contracts,” a Western Conference scout said. “Now those contracts are [near] the midlevel exception for the top guys, so I think you’re now not seeing guys get their options picked up if you can’t come in right away and make strides.”
Others receiving votes: Teams getting away with it 1, Draft being random chance 1, Big market teams doing it 1
6. Who will be the conference champions? The NBA champion?
East: Milwaukee Bucks 12, Philadelphia 76ers 8
West: LA Clippers 16, Denver Nuggets 2, Utah Jazz 1, Houston Rockets 1
NBA title: LA Clippers 13, Milwaukee Bucks 2, Philadelphia 76ers 2, Utah Jazz 1, Denver Nuggets 1, Houston Rockets 1
Ryan Hollins doesn’t see any team besides the Lakers or the Clippers capable of winning the NBA championship this upcoming season.
In the East, those surveyed see it coming down to a two-team race between a pair of teams that were knocked out of the 2019 playoffs by Kawhi Leonard and the eventual champion Raptors: the Bucks and the 76ers, with Milwaukee getting the slight edge.
“[The Bucks] have the best player in the conference,” a Western Conference executive said, referring to Giannis Antetokounmpo, “and it’s Year 2 with [coach Mike Budenholzer]. Losing [Malcolm] Brogdon hurts, but Giannis will take another step forward, and they’ve proven to be a good regular-season team.”
In the West, Leonard’s new squad was the runaway favorite, although several of those polled, while choosing the Clippers, indicated that this will be very difficult field of competitors.
And while the Lakers came up as several people debated who their ultimate choice to win the conference would be, they were not among the four West teams picked by at least one person to reach the Finals — let alone win the title.
“I’m going to say the Clippers right now,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Certainly I’d understand why someone would say the Lakers, but I don’t trust the Lakers to get anything right.”
Not surprisingly, the Clippers — the team with the reigning NBA Finals MVP, Leonard — got the lion’s share of the votes to win the title next season.
“If you can get to the end of the season with those two guys [Leonard and Paul George] on the court, with the guards they have and some solid vets coming off the bench, they do it,” an Eastern Conference executive said.
However, they were one of just six teams to get votes in this survey, a far cry from last year, when it was virtually impossible to find anyone picking a team other than the Warriors. Four Western Conference teams were picked as potential NBA title winners — including the Rockets, who’ve been knocked out of the playoffs by the Warriors each of the past two years.
“They have two of the last three MVPs,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “One is in his prime, the other just averaged a triple-double for a third straight year. I’m making a point because they’re somehow being overlooked.”