Article Length: ~1,100 words or about 6-8 minutes of reading.
We are now into the fourth day of free agency, and already the entire NBA landscape has changed. Fringe contenders like Portland have fallen, while other teams like the Spurs have viciously scrambled their way to being favorites in the West. So far, it seems like the East will probably stay the weaker of the two conferences, but for today, I’d like to focus on just how the West has changed in the last week. The four teams that I’m going to focus on are the ones that have been the most dramatically affected: the Clippers, Mavericks, Spurs, and Blazers.
In my year-in-review, I stated that the Clippers had the best “big three” in Paul, Griffin, and Jordan. I thought this was a team that was always a solid role player away from making the championship, but now that Jordan bolted for Dallas, the Clippers are in trouble. Sure, now the Clippers have more cap room to pick up more role players like they have been with Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson, but none of them can fill the 7 foot gap that grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked 2 shots a game. Griffin’s rebounding fell about 5 rebounds per game because of Jordan’s Rodman like boarding presence, so I don’t doubt he’ll be able to jump back up to 12 or so a game. Hopefully that brings Griffin closer to the basket so he can keep focus more on in the paint scoring rather than looking at midrange jumpers.
Still though, what will they do about a missing post player? Griffin is plagued by a mortal’s wingspan, and doesn’t defend the paint as well as his athleticism would indicate. They need another rim-protector that can cover Griffin’s mistakes. The only player left in free agency that I can see doing that is Roy Hibbert. Now before you laugh me out of the building because of his incredibly awful showing in the 2014 playoffs, and because he stands at 7’ 2” weighing 275 pounds and has never averaged 9 rebounds per game, you have to remember that Hibbert is the best or at least one of the best players at protecting the rim, which is different from just blocking shots. According to Kirk Goldsberry in this 2013 Grantland article, NBA players made 48% of shots within 5 feet of the basket when being defended. When Hibbert was that defender, players made 38% of their shots. Think about what it takes to make an NBA player miss nearly 2/3 of their shots from 5 feet away. Hibbert’s value is very high. If the Clippers can’t pick up someone like Hibbert though, I’m afraid they’ll be relegated to the 7/8th seed and a first round exit. Sorry LA fans, but neither of your teams will be contending for a championship next year.
Jordan choosing Dallas’ 4 year 80 million dollar contract over LA’s 5 year 109 million dollar tells us a couple of interesting things that other free agents are feeling about signing with a team. First, meshing with personalities is apparently more important to some then money or championships. There were talks during the year that Jordan and Paul weren’t getting along due to Jordan’s refusal to work on his free-throws as much as Paul demanded. How dare a team leader want his teammates to shoot over 40% from the free throw-line!
That is a bone-headed play if I’ve ever seen one.
Dallas looked like they were in trouble once Tyson Chandler and Ellis bolted (to Phoenix and Indiana respectively), but then they went ahead and signed Jordan, Wes Matthews, and are front runners in signing Jeremy Lin. This year could look like Lin/Matthews/Parsons/Nowitzki/Jordan versus last year’s Rondo/Ellis/Parsons/Nowitzki/Chandler. I honestly don’t know what to think about it. Jordan is a definite improvement over Chandler, which is not a shot at Chandler, but mostly a statement about age. Matthews brings more shooting and defense over Ellis’ speed and straight scoring, and Lin brings less…personality than Rondo. It will take a quarter of the season to really see what happens with them, but I can see it going both ways, but I can assure you that they won’t be above a 6th seed in the West. Plus, Nowitzki is closing in on the last couple years of his career.
Who knew that Wes Matthew’s Achilles injury would spell doom for the Blazers’ chance at contention in the foreseeable future. Before he went down, the Blazers had a legit chance of challenging any team in the West. They still would’ve been knocked out before the Western Conference Finals, but their nucleus would’ve stayed together, building a cohesiveness that could’ve competed for a championship for another 5-8 years. But then they traded Nicolaus Batum for Gerald Henderson and the young power forward Noah Vonleh, Matthews signed with Dallas, Robin Lopez signed with New York, and Aldridge signed with the Spurs. The Trailblazers lost everybody in their starting lineup (including Arron Afflalo who replaced Matthews in the starting lineup), and only have Vonleh and Henderson to show for it. I’m so sorry Blazers fans. Your sad history of Bill Walton’s injuries, to drafting Sam Bowie over Jordan, to drafting Greg Oden over Durant, to losing five of your six best players is one that competes with just about every other franchise in the “worst luck” contest. I guess Lillard is still fun to watch?
The Spurs have somehow prevented the inevitable collapse of their franchise. Since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997, they have won over 64% of games every season, and haven’t lost less than 50 wins in any season (not counting lockout shortened years). They have also been to the Finals six times, losing only one of those matchups. Kawhi Leonard was hailed to be the one that Duncan/Manu/Parker passed the torch to, but nobody really believed he would lead them to such astronomical heights. After losing in possibly the greatest first round matchup in NBA history, we all thought 2015 marked the end of the Spurs dynasty. And then, as if fate herself won’t allow an unsuccessful Spurs season, the Spurs signed perennial 20-10 (points/rebounds) post-presence LaMarcus Aldridge to a 4-year 80 million dollar contract. Not only does this catapult them to a top 3 team in the West again, it allows Duncan and Manu to retire peacefully in the next couple of years knowing that their hand-built dynasty will be in the abnormally large hands of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Man, I have a feeling this series will last a couple more installments. I didn’t even touch Rondo signing a 1 year 10 million dollar contract with Sacramento, Chandler going to Phoenix, Rockets and Warriors essentially keeping their full teams, or the entire Eastern Conference! Let’s hope the wildness of the offseason has just begun.