We’ve hit mid-July in the NBA’s never-ending season, which means, well, not much is due to happen. Admittedly, there may still be some deals on the table, but for the most part the league is taking a modest break. The major free agents have signed their deals, the Las Vegas Summer League has run its course, and vacations are starting up in earnest. (Yes, I’m aware the Kawhi trade happened this same week a year ago.) We settle in now and wait for late September when the wheels start to turn once again.
In that spirit, it’s time to take stock of what went down over the past few weeks (after the Raptors won the 2019 NBA Championship). For clarity, and because it’s where the Raptors play — and to keep this post down to a reasonable length — we’ll focus purely on the Eastern Conference (and try to document only moves that are likely to have an impact this season). The landscape of the East has changed considerably, and we need to know where Toronto fits in now.
We’ll do this run down based on last year’s standings and append some sense of which direction each team is trending. Again, this isn’t to suggest a hardline here, we’re just trying to get a feel for the mood surrounding each squad for the coming season.
Last Year’s Playoff Teams
In: Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez
Out: Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic
I’m sorry, there’s just no way the 2019-20 Bucks can be said to be better than they were last season. Yes, it’s possible to believe the Giannis Antetokounmpo will improve upon his MVP winning season, and re-signing the heady Khris Middleton as his number two was a sharp decision.
But the squad after that relies quite a lot on Eric Bledsoe, a human runaway train, and the play of Brook Lopez, an on-again-off-again miracle of science. Without the steadying hand of Brogdon, easily the most under-appreciated player on the team, the Bucks are due to take a modest step back (sorry Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez). They’re still the favourites for the no. 1 seed, and with, uh, their most obvious rival out of the way, they could very well go to the Finals. But Milwaukee is still trending down — sorry!
In: Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis
Out: Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard
There’s just no two ways about it, the defending champion Raptors will definitely be worse next season. Losing both the regular contributions of Danny Green and the spectacular play of Kawhi will lower Toronto’s win total for sure, and cap them as, at best, a second-round playoff team. Tested by their run to the title, there’s no reason to believe they won’t win 50 games and give a team or two the business in the playoffs, but their ultimate ceiling is considerably lower — even with the inevitable Pascal Siakam improvement coming.
Toronto is trying though. They added a pair of young defensive wings, and they still have their veteran players (for now) holding down the fort. Any team led by Kyle Lowry will still find ways to get things done, and I for one am interested to see coach Nick Nurse spread his wings without the safety net provided by Leonard. Still, reality is real.
In: Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Raul Neto, Kyle O’Quinn
Out: Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick, T.J. McConnell, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe, Amir Johnson, Furkan Korkmaz, Jonathon Simmons
Bringing in Horford to hedge on the health of Joel Embiid is an interesting gambit for the Sixers. He gives them defense, a touch of outside shooting, and some gamer attitude they lost with the departure of Butler. But truly the last thing Philly needed was another big man, especially after losing what they needed most: shot-making.
Look, you can pay Tobias Harris like he’s a franchise player, but that doesn’t change the fact that Butler was much more important to this team’s success than Harris was. And when you subtract the shooting and spacing Redick brought to the squad, I’m not sure if Richardson is necessarily the best replacement. Philly did add an actual point guard (Raul Neto), yet it still feels like they’re missing something, or that the pieces they do have all clash with each other. Yes, Ben Simmons and Embiid in particular can win you a lot of games — but what else can they do together?
In: Enes Kanter, Kemba Walker
Out: Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, Guerschon Yabusele, Terry Rozier
Imagine spending years carefully plotting out your team’s ascension up the Eastern Conference rankings, as Boston’s general manager Danny Ainge has, and then watching it all come so casually apart. The trade for Anthony Davis? A pipe dream. The re-signing of central star Kyrie Irving? Fell off the face of the (flat) Earth. Maintaining an identity around Al Horford? No dice. The Celtics finished first in the East once, made it to two straight Conference Finals, and will now begin their inevitable slide back down the hill.
Do I take pleasure in reporting this? Well, I don’t not. Luring Walker to Boston is a nice bit of business for the Celtics, and he’ll likely fit in emotionally better than Irving ever did. But there’s no way to suggest that this team is not about to continue its slow collapse. There is still no solution for their glut at the wing, the frontcourt has been extremely hobbled (sorry Enes), and there’s really only so much Kemba can do to change that. (And they dropped French Draymond too! The hits just keep coming.)
In: Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren
Out: Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young, Kyle O’Quinn, Wesley Matthews, Tyreke Evans
This may strike some as a tad counter-intuitive, given the players the Pacers just lost, but I like their squad going forward. The combo of a returned Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon will be quite good, and the Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren pickups are decidedly underrated. Losing Bogdanovic’s scoring and toughness along with Young’s know-how hurt, but there’s an addition by subtraction vibe at play here. The Pacers have an identity and have the tools in place to keep it going.
I’m also of the opinion that they will not miss any of Joseph, Collison, Matthews, Evans, and O’Quinn. There’s a lock-it-down defensive identity forming here, and a bit of inside-out ability coming together, especially when one factors in the continued improvement of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Look for this squad to come back with a vengeance.
In: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, Taurean Prince
Out: D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Allen Crabbe
Obviously, on paper, Brooklyn is the team that has improved the most for the coming season. In fact, if Durant was healthy on day one — instead of rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles, only one of the most devastating basketball injuries — it would be extremely easy to pick them as the consensus number one seed. In Irving and Durant, the Nets have elite shooting and scoring, and in players like Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie they have energy and IQ. Factor in the probable growth of Jarrett Allen, and not even the presence of DeAndre Jordan could derail this Nets train.
Ah, but Durant will not be able to play for some time, and we still don’t know how he’ll look when he returns (or if he’ll be able to stay healthy). That puts a lot of the onus on Irving, who, it must be said, is better than Russell but still kind of out there. It does not take much to imagine the Nets finishing, like, fourth, and then being the absolutely scariest team heading into the playoffs.
In: Al-Farouq Aminu
Out: Timofey Mozgov
The Magic will head into the 2019-20 season as essentially the same team as they were the year before. They’ll still count on the post mastery of Nikola Vucevic. They’ll still have a lot of bouncy length in Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. And Terrence Ross will still be on hand to shoot a lot of shots. Congrats on all of that, Orlando.
They added Al-Farouq Aminu, which gives them one more useful wing, a guy who can absolutely shore up the team’s perimeter defense and hit a few threes. But they still totally lack any sort of point guard. The Magic could very well be better than last season thanks to improvements from their young roster — except D.J. Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams, and the mysterious Markelle Fultz do not scare as a backcourt trio. And that’s where their ceiling hits.
In: Derrick Rose, Tim Frazier, Markieff Morris
Out: Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Zaza Pachulia, Glenn Robinson III, Ish Smith
I will continue to just feel sad for the proud institution we call Dwane Casey. Never has a coach had so much to offer and so few on whom to bestow it. Is there anything he can do with this squad? Yes, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are still there, but so is Reggie Jackson. And so far this summer, that’s it, that’s all that’s happened. They added two outright awful free agents — Derrick Rose and the remains of Markieff Morris — and a journeyman guard (Frazier) and appear content to just take their chances.
Spoiler alert: an eighth seed strikes me as once again the best possible outcome for Detroit. Could Casey be in for yet another playoff sweep to add to his career record? It sucks to even think about that right now.
Last Year’s Bubble Teams
In: Terry Rozier
Out: Kemba Walker, Tony Parker, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb, Shelvin Mack
Going from Walker to Rozier sums up everything you need to know about the Hornets in 2019-20. There is no escaping disaster in Charlotte. This team is due for a massive regression back down into the black hole from which they so briefly emerged. We will not miss their presence.
In: Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard, not Chris Paul
Out: Hassan Whiteside, Ryan Anderson, Josh Richardson, Udonis Haslem(?), not Goran Dragic and Kelly Olynyk
The Heat tried to move on from Dragic and Olynyk but for now seem saddled with whatever the pair have left in the tank. (They remain two of the more annoying players in the league, which continues to fit right into the Heat’s ethos.) Miami also got out from underneath that doofy Hassan Whiteside contract, finally, and only had to welcome doofy Meyers Leonard to do it. This of course opens the door to more Bam Adebayo minutes, who fits right into what the Heat are trying to do, e.g. playing players who appear to give a crap.
Which brings us to Jimmy Butler. With him on the Heat (and with maybe Chris Paul on the way?), Miami has a higher ceiling than they had before. Unlike during his ill-fated time in Minnesota, Butler’s killer attitude and furious playing style fit right in with the wild maniacs in South Beach. And you can count on coach Erik Spoelstra to maximize their collective talent, especially with a top-flight leader like Butler in charge. The Heat are still likely only a cagey first round team, but that certainly beats where they were last season.
Last Year’s Failures
In: Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith, Davis Bertans, C.J. Miles
Out: Tomas Satoransky, Jonathon Simmons (again!), Dwight Howard, Sam Dekker, Jabari Parker, Trevor Ariza, Bobby Portis
Just an absolute joke of a team, with one lone bright spot (Bradley Beal, likely to be traded), and almost nothing else of value on the roster, talent-wise (Thomas Bryant and, I guess, rookie Rui Hachimura are the extent of that). They also still don’t have a general manager, and are just now getting around to paying John Wall his massive four-year deal, starting at $37.8 million for the coming season.
None of the deals they’ve done lately have made any sense, really. And the players they’ve brought in this season will not move the needle for them at all. This team is bad, and is just getting worse. Frankly, I am laughing at all of this.
In: Jabari Parker, Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe
Out: Solomon Hill, Miles Plumlee, Taurean Prince, Dewayne Dedmon, Vince Carter(?)
Two years of Parker is an interesting if random look, but the rest of the Hawks’ moves are easy to understand. They’re betting it all on their young guys: Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre’ Bembry, and the newly acquired Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. (The two different DeAndre spellings really do astound.)
The Hawks will likely be bad again this season, as almost any squad made up of rookies and second-year guys would not be enough to turn Atlanta into a playoff team. But the plan is in place nonetheless, and the players the Hawks have acquired or jettisoned are non-entities either way — worth more as trade ballast (e.g. Hill, Plumlee, Parsons) or short-term minute-eaters (Parker) than as part of any future in Atlanta.
In: Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young
Out: Robin Lopez, Wayne Selden, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
The Bulls have something of a likeable squad now, with Satoransky coming over and Young supporting the team’s backline. Chicago is obviously hoping for more improvement from Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter too. The Kris Dunn-Zach LaVine backcourt is likely not going anywhere (I’m not sure LaVine will ever get it, even as he continues to put up numbers), but their deficiencies may be overcome by a team-wide rise in talent. Having Otto Porter, one of the more talented glue guys (for lack of a better term), back will no doubt help too.
Yes, Jim Boylen is still the coach, and there is no reason to be too optimistic, given that Jim Paxson and Gar Heard are still in charge. But the franchise tanked to get assets, and is now doing what they can to develop those young players into something of a winning team. It won’t work — but they’re trying.
In: Who knows?
Out: Who cares?
The best part about LeBron James leaving Cleveland a second time is that we never have to write about the Cavaliers ever again.
New York Knicks
In: Reggie Bullock, Marcus Morris, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Julius Randle
Out: Luke Kornet, Emmanual Mudiay, Mario Hezonja, Henry Ellenson, DeAndre Jordan, Noah Vonleh, Any sense of dignity
New York has a roster full of actual NBA players now — even if they all play the same position — so they’re bound to be better than last year, record-wise. In that spirit, I gave the Knicks a just barely passing “up” vote.
But the disaster of their off-season (not getting a big-name free agent, missing out on the number one pick, etc.) continues to cement the Knicks as the laughingstock of the league. Whatever 70s or 90s mystique the franchise brain-trust thinks it has is gone. James Dolan will never sell the team. And we know we’ll do this all over again next summer, and the one after that, and so on, when it all happens again to New York. Hmm, maybe the joke is on us?