Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 14, 2019

Winners And Losers And The Knicks

Perhaps someone should tell the stars of the NBA that the offseason is not supposed to have more drama than the months when their game is actually being played. This year’s free agency period is only two weeks old, and already next season’s prospects for multiple teams have been upended, in some cases more than once. The list of purported winners and losers of the offseason might as well be written in chalk, so often have the predictions of any number of sage pundits had to be revised.

The fun began two Sundays ago, the very first day that free agents could make commitments for the 2019-20 season. Kyrie Irving, late of the Boston Celtics, announced his decision to sign with the Brooklyn Nets, which would have been big news all by itself but was easily topped by word that after three years wearing a Warriors uniform Kevin Durant was changing coasts to join Irving in Gotham. The Nets, who just made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and posted a winning record for the first time in five, were immediately deemed the team to beat for the foreseeable future. This even though Durant is unlikely to play next season as he rehabs from an Achilles tendon injury that has derailed the careers of some NBA players.

Then All-Star point guard Kemba Walker left Charlotte, the only NBA franchise he had known, in favor of Boston. Celtics fans immediately decided that they never really thought Irving was all that great, and that he might well have been solely responsible for the disappointing season that only recently finished playing out at TD Garden.

All that turned out to be but prelude, when in the wake of Independence Day word came word that Kawhi Leonard, who certainly looked like the best player on the planet during the recently concluded playoffs, would depart Toronto after giving the Raptors their first title to join the “other” team to call the Staples Center home, the L.A. Clippers. But as with Irving and Durant in Brooklyn, Leonard’s move became even more dramatic when fans learned it wasn’t made in isolation. Paul George, the six-time All-Star forward who has toiled the past two seasons in Oklahoma City, forced a trade from the Thunder to join the MVP of this year’s NBA Finals in Los Angeles.

That twosome heading to southern California wasn’t entirely surprising, except that their assumed destination had been the Lakers and LeBron James, not the Clippers. Soon enough many of the same pundits who had so recently anointed Brooklyn as the next dominant franchise updated their predictions, with the Clippers now favored to win it all for the next several years.

Just when one might dare to think the flurry of huge offseason moves had ended came the news that the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, league MVP in 2017, was being traded to the Rockets, where he will join James Harden, the winner of the same award in 2018. In return for Westbrook, Oklahoma City received the veteran Chris Paul, who’s likely to be moved elsewhere, and four future first-round draft picks, on top of the five the Thunder received from the Clippers in exchange for George. One wag suggested that there was now a thirty-five percent chance that every teenager in the country capable of dribbling a basketball would be drafted by Oklahoma City sometime in the next several years.

All these machinations reflect two realities about today’s NBA. One is the belief that championships are won by combining at least two stars on one roster. So Durant and Irving, Leonard and George, Harden and Westbrook, and let’s not forget James and Anthony Davis, who forced a trade from the Pelicans to the Lakers in mid-June – each of these pairings is supposed to form the nucleus of a super team that will supplant the recent Golden State dynasty. The other is that to a far greater extent than in any of our other major sports leagues, the superstars of the NBA now dictate not just where they will suit up, but also which other stars will be wearing the same uniform. Fans can debate whether that’s a good idea, though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has made clear he’s not a fan. The one certainty is that it’s a profoundly different and player-friendly weighting between the wishes of players and management than is the case in the NFL, NHL, or MLB.

With virtually all the name free agents having found new homes, the consensus is that the Clippers won the offseason, unless of course the Nets did. Or maybe it was really the Rockets or the Lakers, though both of those teams might also be among the big losers. The one certainty is that the Warriors time in the spotlight is over and done, at least until Golden State wins fifty-eight regular season games and rolls to another title next spring, in which case all the recent punditry will be forgotten.

That laughable confusion does make a point, namely that winning in July is no guarantee of success in the season that follows. In a game that involves constant close teamwork, with only five players on the court at any time, personal chemistry is a crucial element of NBA success, one that is often undervalued until its absence becomes glaringly apparent. The challenge of pairing superstars is that there is only so much oxygen in every arena, only so many touches and looks at the basket during a game. Pairing two or more players who are used to sucking up most of the air and being the headliner can produce a dominant franchise if they can adjust to their new reality, or a toxic locker room if someone can’t.

So perhaps it’s best to pass on the temptation to avoid anointing any team as the next NBA dynasty and instead let the new season, when it finally arrives in October, play itself out. On the other hand, while the ultimate winner of this summer’s big moves will take time to determine, there looks to be one obvious candidate for the unwanted title of biggest loser.

Four months ago, amid one more season turned to dust, Knicks owner James Dolan did a radio interview in which he all but guaranteed huge free agent signings this month. “Look, New York is the mecca of basketball. We hear from people all the time, from players and representatives about who wants to come,” Dolan told the Michael Kay Show. At the time he teased fans by saying the league’s anti-tampering rules prevented him from being more specific. Dolan’s comments quickly led names like Durant, Irving and Davis to be bandied about, with no attempts by the Knicks front office to shoot down the rumors that one or more of those stars would soon take up residence at Madison Square Garden.

Now long-suffering Knicks fans must contend not just with the reality of their team missing out on all this offseason’s big names, but also with the ignominy of seeing two of those players choose Brooklyn instead. Of course, the center of basketball gravity in Gotham moving to the other side of the East River doesn’t prove Dolan wrong. Fans just didn’t realize the mecca he was referring to wasn’t the World’s Most Famous Arena, but the Barclay’s Center.

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