This NBA off-season has been arguably the most league-changing in the history of basketball. After nearly a decade of so-called “superteams,” the sport seems to be in a newly realized state of balance. An unprecedented amount of stars were shipped to new locations, and this has left next season’s title race historically accessible.
However, at the end of the day, some moves are simply going to shape the NBA landscape in more drastic ways than others. Not all players are created equal, and thus each of them shifting teams is going to come with its own unique set of shockwaves. Today, we will be counting down the 5 most impactful moves of the offseason. Before we dive in, it’s important to set some ground rules. These moves will be ranked based upon their effect on the team, player, and championship picture as a whole. For example, the Phoenix Suns signing Ricky Rubio may be a big deal for their franchise, but considering the Suns are still one of the league’s worst teams, it wouldn’t have a huge effect on the rest of basketball as a whole.
Today we will also be exploring an interesting free agency concept: the snowball effect of certain moves, or one deal directly causing another. For example, we will not be individually discussing the Russell Westbrook trade, because it was directly caused by Paul George being traded away. Therefore, we will instead discuss it under the umbrella of the George/Leonard acquisitions. The amount of moves directly caused by one deal will also be taken into consideration when ranking their impact.
Without further delay, let’s get to ranking.
1. The Leonard/George Bombshell
Snowball Effect: Westbrook and OKC Break-up
Our list starts off with one of the later revelations of the Free Agency period: the Los Angeles Clippers landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the span of one late night. This move counts as one because the 2 acquisitions truly were tethered together. Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, had chosen the Clips as one of the final 3 teams he was considering signing with. However, without a second star to pair with him, Leonard didn’t feel comfortable choosing the Western Conference 8th seed over the L.A. Lakers or Toronto Raptors. After Kevin Durant balked at the idea of joining Kawhi on the Clippers, he told Steve Ballmer’s squad that if they pried George, an MVP Finalist, from the OKC Thunder, that they would land him as well.
They may have given up an enormous bounty of draft capital, but the Clippers landed George and, subsequently, Leonard. This superstar duo has catapulted them into the spotlight, with many proclaiming them as next season’s championship favorite. George and Leonard are perhaps the two best 2-way players in basketball, and when combined with the rest of the elite defensive talent on L.A’s roster, the team will be a nightmare on that side of the ball. Neither player has reached the age of 30 either, which means this duo could be dominating the league for some time.
We also have to consider the fact that this move directly brought on Russell Westbrook’s departure from Oklahoma City. After his co-star went South, Westbrook, who was, at the time, OKC’s longest-tenured player, realized it was a fitting time to say goodbye. He and the Thunder organization worked together on a deal, and the 2017 MVP was shipped to Houston to form a new lethal backcourt with former teammate James Harden. The effects of this saga will be felt in future drafts as well, as the picks stockpiled by Thunder GM Sam Presti could allow Westbrook and George’s old franchise to find championship relevance without them.
Additonally, after being spurned by Leonard, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers’ in-house rival, signed many of the remaining quality role players, potentially luring them away from other teams offering less cash.
Acquiring two of the league’s most talented players in one fell swoop is historically impressive, but the many other reverberations the Leonard/George saga had throughout the league earns it the top spot on this list.
2. Kyrie and Friends Choose Brooklyn
Snowball Effect: Boston and Golden State Re-tool
The title of this entry may, at first, seem demeaning to the talent levels of Kevin Durant and Deandre Jordan. It is not intended to be that way. It is instead intended to speak to the true motivation behind the trio of Kyrie Irving, Durant, and Jordan all joining the Brooklyn Nets within the first 24 hours of Free Agency.
Despite Irving publicly declaring his allegiance to the Boston Celtics many months ago, the general consensus was that, after a rocky 2019 campaign, Irving would be parting ways with the 17-time champs. He had been linked to several different teams, but after signing with RocNation Sports, an agency founded by former Nets owner Jay Z, Brooklyn was widely considered the favorite to sign the electrifying floor general. What wasn’t a sure thing though, was that they would procure a second star to pair with Irving, let alone a former MVP.
After a season marred by controversy, injury, and disappointment with the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant’s intentions were difficult to read going into the offseason. Many had him going to the New York Knicks, Brooklyn’s more prominent in-city counterpart. However, the Knicks refused to offer the 2-time Finals MVP a max contract on account of his torn Achilles, and Irving, Durant’s close friend, was on his way to Brooklyn. These 2 factors drove the dominant scorer to Barclays Center, and Nets brass didn’t even have to meet with KD beforehand. Jordan is the cherry on top, as he may not be on the same level as Durant and Irving at this stage of his career, but he will still be a valuable asset moving forward.
The 3 bonded on the 2016 Olympic team, and had bounced around the idea of playing with one another in the NBA ever since. With each of their contracts expiring this summer, there was never going to be a better time, and Brooklyn just happened to be the best spot for the reunion to manifest itself. The Nets will likely not contend for a championship next season, as Durant will most of, if not the entire campaign with the aforementioned Achilles tear. However, with budding young talent surrounding the superstar duo, Brooklyn will likely be dangerous challengers to the throne from 2021 onward.
Like the Clippers deal, this sequence also set off a chain reaction throughout the rest of the league. Without a lead ball-handler, the ever-changing Celtics were free to sign Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker. After losing Klay Thompson to an ACL tear, the Warriors had a gap at Shooting Guard, which allowed them to parlay Durant’s departure into a sign-and-trade for 23-year old All-Star D’Angelo Russell. The Nets’ official contending years may not begin for another season or two, but they certainly made their mark on this blockbuster summer by nabbing this trio of pals.
3. The Lakers Finally, Finally Land Anthony Davis
Snowball Effect: 76ers, Jazz lose veterans
In a continuation of the trade deadline’s most enticing storyline, the Lakers finally got their wish: they successfully traded for Anthony Davis. When the deal was originally negotiated, there was a sense of extreme distrust between New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps and Lakers President Magic Johnson. It seemed the Pels weren’t willing to budge on what they wanted out of the deal, and Johnson wasn’t willing to give it to them. However, after Demps was canned and Magic stepped down, the two organizations entered the summer ready to discuss the deal once more.
After lucking into the right to select college phenom Zion Williamson in the draft, newly hired Pelicans President David Griffin was ready to end the Davis era and build around their new young star. The Lakers, after unexpectedly missing the playoffs, had a new sense of urgency and desperation, especially given the inevitable aging of LeBron James. Just a few days after the Finals concluded, both sides got what they’d been looking for since January. Los Angeles got another star to pair with James, and restored the illustrious Laker brand in the process. New Orleans received a bounty of young players and draft capital that should allow them to contend for a championship in the near future.
It’s difficult to gauge how successful the Pels will be, but by acquiring a player of Davis’s talent level, the Lakers have certainly joined the ranks of the league’s elite. Their depth outside of James and Davis is suspect, but not to the point where it will prevent arguably the league’s best duo from uncorking a deep playoff run.
The new promise in New Orleans also drove several veterans to the Big Easy, namely Derrick Favors and J.J. Redick. Their absence will hurt both the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers respectively this upcoming season, both of whom are also attempting to compete for the Larry O”Brien trophy. With their young role players elsewhere, the Lakers also had roster spots to fill. After losing out on Kawhi Leonard, they used their remaining cash to snap up a bevy of cheap, quality free agents, offering them more money than any of their incumbent franchises.
Many have expressed concerns that James will force Davis into more of a spot-up shooting role, similarly to the way he transformed Chris Bosh in Miami and Kevin Love in Cleveland. However, with James likely regressing soon and Davis just entering his prime, their dynamic will likely be very different than that of James and previous big men. Hopefully James can lend AD, a relatively inexperienced playoff performer, some tips to prevent him from folding when the lights are brightest. With the combined talent between the two, it’s safe to say they’ll be performing under some immense pressure.
The first move of this wild offseason was a memorable one, and it’s unique in the fact that it helped set up one of the league’s most promising young teams. There’s a legitimate possibility that, when adding together the elite talent of the current Lakers and the potential of the Pelicans, this deal could eventually impact the NBA just as much as any in league history.
4. Jimmy Goes South, 76ers Takes Advantage
Snowball Effect: Horford ditches Boston
The Jimmy Butler-Tobias Harris saga in Philadelphia could’ve ended up in one of two ways. Firstly, if both chose to leave the Pennsylvania town for a potentially larger role elsewhere, their story could be seen as a cautionary tale for midseason trade aggression. The Sixers acquired the duo knowing full-well that they were both on expiring contracts, and they would each be looking for max money when it came time to sign a new deal. However, if they stuck around, it could be an example of a win-now gamble that paid off, even if the team in question didn’t make it past the second round. With Butler leaving for Miami and Harris inking a new $180 million deal, it ends up as a little bit of both.
In the grand scheme of things Elton Brand and co. may have overpaid Harris, whose production dropped upon arrival in Philly. There were even questions surrounding whether or not Butler was worth a max contract. However, it would’ve been worth it to resign both of them, perhaps purely to ensure all the assets they gave up to acquire the pair hadn’t been for nothing. Losing Butler wasn’t ideal, but it left the Sixers with some money to play around with. They used that money to make one of free agency’s most unexpected moves: nabbing veteran big man Al Horford. Horford has been the nemesis of 76ers star Joel Embiid since the day they first faced off. Al brings a new versatility to the Sixers’ starting lineup, both offensively and defensively, that could allow them to get over the hump this upcoming season.
The 76ers were one of the team’s most affected by this year’s free agency period, and yet they managed to stay around the same level of overall talent. They lost Redick to New Orleans, but replaced him in the starting lineup with Josh Richardson, a nice offering from Miami in exchange for Butler. They may have lost their most impactful playoff performer, but used the cash he turned down to sign another postseason veteran in Horford. It certainly wasn’t a perfect outcome for Philadelphia, but their ability to make up for their losses has allowed them to remain one of the east’s most elite teams. With Kawhi Leonard in L.A., the new-look Sixers have a very real chance of earning the franchise its first Finals berth since 2001.
Butler joining the Heat also creates another likely playoff candidate for the fringe contenders to compete with. Miami was the leading candidate for Westbrook in the fallout of the George deal, and their prominence may have driven up the eventual asking price for the star PG. Without another elite player to run with Butler, the Heat likely won’t be much trouble for any true championship contenders. On the bright side, it will be interesting to see if Butler, one of the league’s most combustible personalities, can finally mesh with the culture of a team looking to win.
Luring Horford away from Boston is an indirect win for Philadelphia, as it ensures that the Celtics take a small step down in talent level. Swapping Irving for Walker isn’t a terrible downgrade, but Horford to Enes Kanter is. Boston will likely not be on the same level as Philadelphia or the Milwaukee Bucks next season, but Brad Stevens has shown us repeatedly that it’s unwise to count them out.
The 76ers’ saga of moves and losses is mostly contained within the Eastern conference, but it will without a doubt be one of the most noticeable storylines of next season. The Sixers themselves solidified their place as one of basketball’s top dogs, and the pieces they gave up have helped shape the east’s fringe contenders. Regardless of how far they go next season, Philadelphia’s footprint on the league as a whole is undeniable.
5. Bucks Spend Big On Middleton, Lose Brogdon
Snowball Effect: Pacers make moves to remain elite
Finally, we have the interconnected dealings of Philadelphia’s biggest Eastern rival: the Milwaukee Bucks. After winning 60 games in the regular season and storming through the 2 opening rounds of the playoffs, many picked them to continue their dominance all the way to the championship. On the back of 24-year old MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee found themselves up 2-0 over the Toronto Raptors in the ECF, and it seemed like they were truly invincible.
Unfortunately for Mike Budenholzer’s squad, Toronto stormed back, sending the NBA’s top seed home in 6 games, marking the first time the Bucks had faltered all season long. Their lapse came at the worst possible time, and it sent them moping into an offseason in which several of their key supporting pieces around Antetokounmpo were set to hit the open market. Khris Middleton, a first-time All-Star in 2019, was expected to stay with the team, but many anticipated that they could be forced to overpay him. Brook Lopez, the team’s sharpshooting Center, and Malcolm Brogdon, a former ROTY, were also on expiring deals, and their futures were more up in the air. If they could retain all 3, they would surely enter next season as the favorites to come out of the East. However, resigning them all would be a very expensive task, and perhaps a risky one, considering Antetokounmpo hits free agency in 2021.
The Bucks went with the most cost-effective option, and it’s difficult to find a reason why other than an unwillingness to pay the luxury tax. They signed Middleton to an enormous, 5-year $178 million deal early on June 30th, and brought back Lopez shortly thereafter for about $13 per season. This left them starved for cash, and it left the door open for another team to offer Brogdon more money than Milwaukee could without going over the cap. The Indiana Pacers proved to be that team, forking over a 4-year, $85 million contract to the 26-year old. Brogdon was a restricted free agent and ended up with the Pacers via sign-and-trade, but it’s tough to fathom why the Bucks were willing to pay up for Middleton and Lopez but had reservations about keeping Brogdon. A member of the exclusive 50/40/90 club, he was crucial to the Bucks’ perimeter success, especially during their playoff run. Few teams have claimed an NBA championship without dipping into the luxury tax, and it seems Milwaukee’s refusal to do so may hamper their chances of winning it all.
Regardless of how much losing him hurts the Bucks, adding Brogdon is huge for Indiana. After losing Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic, they needed to procure some talent to pair with Victor Oladipo when he finally returned. In addition to Brogdon, they also signed Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren, both of whom should help them be one of the East’s dark horse contenders next season.
The Bucks paid 2 out of their 3 budding free agents big money, but refused to spend what it took to retain the third and arguably most talented. They are still a bona fide championship contender, but after losing Brogdon (and Nikola Mirotic), they may have left the door open for other franchises to overtake them in terms of title promise.