Its been less than a week since the free agency period began, but there have already been seismic shifts in the Western Conference
Free agency isnt even a week old and we may have already seen the smartest decision of the offseason, at least from a players perspective. Being successful in the NBA, and pretty much all sports really, involves putting yourself in the best possible position to win. Case in point: the Utah Jazzs Gordon Hayward making the wise decision to hightail it out of the Western Conference and signing with the Boston Celtics on a four-year, $128m contract.
While Hayward was mulling over whether to stay with the Jazz or sign with the Celtics or Heat, there was a flurry of activity in the Western Conference. Starting with the Minnesota Timberwolves surprise trade for the Chicago Bulls Jimmy Butler, teams in the West have been making moves as if this were some escalating arms race. Its been a wild stretch of signings, speculation and instant-analysis as teams attempt to put together a roster that might not get their butts completely kicked if they have to face Golden State.
Lets start with the Oklahoma City Thunder. While it was awe-inspiring to watch Russell Westbrook carry the entire team by himself, that was never going to be a long-term solution (it was barely a short term one). Or even a part-time one, so they traded for the Indiana Pacers Paul George, instantly strengthening their roster while depriving the Eastern Conference of yet another Top 15 player.
The Houston Rockets have also improved their roster, although it mainly came at the expense of the Los Angeles Clippers, one of the few playoff-caliber teams in the Western Conference thats going backwards. The Rockets signed all-world Chris Paul to a one-year, $24.2m contract. While that move garnered the headlines, Houston also quietly wooed underrated role player PJ Tucker away from the Toronto Raptors. Heck, even the Denver Nuggets, not normally a major player when it comes to free agency, did their part in stripping the West of its most valuable assets, handing a three-year,$90m contract to the Atlanta Hawks Paul Millsap.
Oh, and the defending champion Warriors re-signed Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, which honestly is probably the most important piece of news to come out here the Warriors are as strong as ever, and added Nick Young from the Lakers but is also the least interesting. Then theres the San Antonio Spurs, who were the second-best team in basketball last season and could very well be that again as long as Gregg Popovich stays head coach and Kawhi Leonard doesnt get hobbled.
This brings us back to Hayward. If youre him, and youve seen how quickly things have escalated since the draft, why sign anywhere else but the Eastern Conference? Yes, making it to the finals requires beating LeBron James in a seven-game series. Its a tricky assignment, obviously, but it sure beats the alternative of having to outlast nearly everybody else.
Its a frustrating period for Jazz fans, and quite possibly Hayward himself. This was the time when Utah were supposed to make the leap into being a contender, yet the rise and proliferation of super-teams has shut a window that was only barely open to begin with. Its like watching a show get cancelled in the middle of a pilot episode.
Basketball fans in general have the right to be skeptical about the current status quo and whether this trend is good for the NBAs long-term health. Theres a chance that Eastern Conference games will have a distinct minor league feel to them and theres a 100% certainly that most of the leagues stars will play in entirely too many games that dont start until 10pm on the east coast.
Lets end this on an optimistic note, however. Throughout last season, especially during the postseason, we hoped that teams would at least come up with a strategy to remain competitive against the Warriors. It didnt happen, and the result was one of the more dreadful stretches of basketball in recent memory. This time around, teams will be prepared. Granted, if you cant beat them, join them isnt a particularly complicated or novel strategy but at least its something.