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The NBA offseason rarely disappoints, and the 2018 iteration has been no exception.
The transaction log may have outpaced the rumor mill, as one bombshell after another reshaped the hoops landscape.
Even with internet access and social media alerts, it’s been exhausting to keep up with.
But looking back at everything that’s happened, we can now zero in on the teams and players that stand as the clearest summer winners. We’ll celebrate their accomplishments here with a group of awards highlighting offseason excellence.
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It goes without saying, but we’ll present the argument for the sake of being thorough.
The Los Angeles Lakers—a headliner among the Association’s marquee franchises—have needed a superstar to steer them out of their post-Kobe Bryant rut. Given the market, the exceptional expectations and the accompanying pressure, only a select number of larger-than-life megastars could possibly qualify.
But even among that rarified group, LeBron James is in a different galaxy than the rest.
He’s one of only five players to ever win at least four MVP awards, and that’s without all the hardware he lost to “voter fatigue.” He’s only 33 years old and already a top-15 career producer by points (seventh) and assists (11th). He has transformed his two previous employers into annual NBA finalists, possessing the ultra-elite ability of elevating everyone around him.
The Lakers were (relatively) struggling to retain relevance before James aligned his future with theirs. They’ve been the talk of the basketball world ever since.
“It’s gonna be completely nuts, but it’s also gonna be awesome,” head coach Luke Walton told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “The whole city’s gonna be behind us. We’re gonna be on SportsCenter every night. If we lose, it’s gonna be the end of the world. If we win, it’s gonna be wild. But no matter what, it’s gonna be fun.”
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Save for LeBron, most of this summer’s star free agents opted to stay put. That makes this honor fiercely contested.
But Paul George edges out the field for not only rewarding the Oklahoma City Thunder’s gamble but also giving them the security of a four-year max agreement (player option after three). OKC had an uncertain path forward without George. With him, this could be one of the best teams in the West.
“The Thunder hit a winter groove after a rocky start and might have continued apace had Andre Roberson not ruptured his left patellar tendon,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote. “The [Russell] Westbrook/George/Roberson/Steven Adams foursome was among the nastiest and best four-man groups in the league.”
Lazy analysis says the Thunder were barely better after their 2017 makeover, finishing with only one more win and the same first-round exit. Digging a little deeper shows OKC sported a 4-3 record against Houston and Golden State, and the aforementioned quartet compiled a bulldozing plus-13.5 net rating.
While Kevin Durant is a superior talent, George’s three-plus-option contract seems a safer investment than KD’s one-plus-one. Since George is only 28, his deal also figures to age more favorably than 33-year-old Chris Paul’s will. And the fact that George is an asset at both ends of the floor pushes him past offensive star Nikola Jokic.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Don’t overthink this.
Sure, DeMarcus Cousins is a bit of a wild card less than six months removed from his Achilles tear. And yeah, he’s had some wince-worthy moments in his past.
But those were concerns to weigh for a major-money deal. The Dubs got him for $5.3 million. The potential reward is so rich, this becomes a no-risk investment.
Cousins is a four-time All-Star, and even that label fails to capture his talent level. Before the injury derailed his season, his stat line read 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.2 threes, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks. No player had ever cleared even the first four marks, let alone supplied them while also forcing turnovers and blocking shots.
There aren’t other players cut from this cloth. He’s a 6’11”, 270-pounder who can create off the dribble, pass well enough to be an offensive fulcrum and impress with both three-point efficiency and volume.
He’s as uniquely gifted as the Warriors themselves, and his presence—even if it’s delayed a bit by his recovery—strengthens what was already the best team in basketball.
“A healthy Cousins now makes them video-game unguardable,” Joe Morgan wrote for Sporting News. “No matter what lineup the opposing teams puts on the floor, the Warriors will have an answer. There is no room for error on the other side.”
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The Denver Nuggets entered the offseason with an obvious need for point guard help. A second itch—this one for reserve scoring—emerged once Wilson Chandler was sent packing, presumably promoting Will Barton to the opening group.
Oh, and they only had minimal funds available after extending Nikola Jokic and retaining Barton.
Denver spent only the veteran’s minimum and somehow inked a 29-year-old who is one season removed from finishing third in scoring and fifth in MVP voting. Granted, injuries have hampered Isaiah Thomas since—hence why the ballyhooed Brink’s truck never arrived—but, like with Boogie, the pay rate has removed all risk, and the possible reward is astronomic.
“Denver couldn’t possibly have gotten a more talented point guard than Thomas, who is…barely more than a year removed from earning All-NBA second-team honors in 2016-17,” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote. “If the Nuggets somehow get that version of Thomas, this contract is the bargain of the summer.”
Hip problems sapped Thomas’ efficiency last season (37.3 percent shooting), but it’s worth noting he still managed per-36-minute averages of 20.3 points and 6.4 assists. He also expressed optimism about arthroscopic surgery in March perhaps putting that issue behind him.
The Nuggets already have a starting point guard (Jamal Murray) and a collection of capable shot-creators, so they aren’t overly reliant on Thomas’ recovery. They’re just ready to rake in the profits if this low-cost lottery ticket hits.
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Good luck convincing Clint Capela of this, but restricted free agents have quietly done all right for themselves considering market conditions.
Remember when we weren’t sure how the new Orlando Magic front office felt about Aaron Gordon? They had a four-year, $84 million agreement with him the same day free agency opened. Slowly but surely, fellow restricted free agents started finding their money.
Zach LaVine made 24 appearances last season, posting a 38.3/34.1/81.3 shooting slash during his return from an ACL tear. Neither those numbers nor his previous failures at the defensive end stopped him from finding a four-year, $78 million deal. Jabari Parker has been through two ACL tears, and the contract he signed could give him an annual $20 million salary if the Chicago Bulls pick up his 2019-20 team option.
Was anyone else bidding on Jusuf Nurkic? Because the Portland Trail Blazers deemed him worth $48 million. Kyle Anderson’s funky skill set—how many other wings are effective without outside shooting or athleticism?—still landed him a four-year, $37.2 million deal. Patience proved virtuous for Marcus Smart and the Boston Celtics, who finally came together on a four-year, $52 million deal, per Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania.
The Toronto Raptors had two other point guards in their rotation and still gave Fred VanVleet $18 million for two years. The Utah Jazz spent $33 million over the next three seasons to make sure Dante Exum doesn’t become the next Penny Hardaway on someone else’s roster. Davis Bertans, who’s averaged 13.2 minutes in two seasons, scored $14.5 million for the next two from the San Antonio Spurs.
Julius Randle got yanked around a bit, having his qualifying offer rescinded on the second day of free agency. But the end result wasn’t bad—a two-year, $18 million contract and a chance to flourish alongside all-world big man Anthony Davis.
Maybe no one hit the jackpot, but there isn’t a gross underpay in the bunch, either. That will probably remain true whenever Capela, Rodney Hood and Montrezl Harrell find their next contracts. As slowly as this market has moved, the money looks fair from all angles.
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Golden State Warriors
Getting Cousins for the taxpayer mid-level exception is silly. This is star power we haven’t seen in 40-plus years. It’s also enhanced by another summer of smart shopping. Jacob Evans looks like a plug-and-play two-way wing, Jonas Jerebko meets a need for bench shooting and Kevon Looney keeps this defense at its switching best. If Patrick McCaw comes back, it’s hard to see even a possible misstep in these moves.
Oh, and let’s not forget what happened elsewhere. The Houston Rockets lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. The San Antonio Spurs cut ties with Kawhi Leonard. The Philadelphia 76ers never found a third star, and LeBron James took a solo trip to L.A. All good news for Golden State.
Los Angeles Lakers
If you sign the best player on the planet, you’re guaranteed a spot among the offseason winners. That said, it speaks volumes about the Lakers’ other moves that they could land LeBron and not stand alone as the summer’s victor. There’s a method to L.A.’s madness, but James needs spacers around him, and the Lakers put Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee there instead.
That said, having James on a four-year deal gives L.A. a little time to build something formidable around him. So, the Lakers get bonus points for maintaining 2019 cap space and not making a panic trade that cost them a top prospect. With flexibility to sign a second star or the trade chips to acquire one, the organization is primed to pounce whenever the right James sidekick surfaces.
The Raptors wanted a new direction. Firing the Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey, proved as much. Ditto their willingness to “explore all options” with the roster, as Ryan Wolstat reported for the Toronto Sun in May.
Landing Leonard is as dramatic a change as the organization could have made. Who knows how long he’ll stay north, but he should at least be there next season—the first of the LeBron-less Eastern Conference. This was a top-five team on offense and defense last season. If Leonard pushes it over the top (i.e. into the Finals), maybe that gives him something to think about ahead of 2019 free agency.
If Leonard walks, Toronto can trigger its rebuild having already wiggled free of DeMar DeRozan’s contract (three years, $83.2 million). Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas would all be off the books by 2020 or perhaps traded earlier. Plus, the Raptors have a head start with several intriguing youngsters on the roster, including VanVleet, whom they were smart to keep around.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.