This year's wild post-NBA Finals period didn't give us any one moment as indelibly absurd as the DeAndre Jordan "hostage crisis," but we will always remember it for the relentless, overwhelming cascade of action: the Boston-Philly trade, Paul George speculation, Jimmy Butler, David Griffin, Phil Jackson, Chris Paul, Sam Presti off the top rope, Gordon Hayward monopolizing the Fourth of July, and so much more.
Let's scan the NBA's new landscape.
Winner: Boston Celtics
Hayward is perfect for Boston. Had the Pacers waited five days, the Celtics might have Paul George, too. When the league lowered its cap projection from about $101 million to $99 million, it became trickier for Boston to acquire George before free agency and leave enough space for Hayward.
With Hayward aboard, Boston would have at least revived its draft-day offer: two starters and three picks from among Boston's own first-rounders and protected selections coming from the Clippers and Grizzlies. They might have even shoved in one of their golden chips -- next season's Brooklyn pick or the Lakers-Kings pick they snagged in the Markelle Fultz deal -- to get across the goal line. Indiana will never know.
Brad Stevens prefers a democratic offense. He wants Isaiah Thomas taking a handoff on the right wing, zipping toward the middle of the floor, sucking in help defenders, and flinging the rock to Hayward on the weak side -- in time for a second pick-and-roll against a scrambled defense. Each action flows into the next. It will be liquid. There will be no buffering.
Hayward is a crafty scorer with a sneaky explosiveness and a deep bag of leaning midrange shots. He adds something to his game every summer. Last season, he weaponized an off-the-dribble 3-pointer that will be even more dangerous as he rockets off picks from Al Horford; Hayward hit 41 percent of his pull-up 3s last season, fourth-best among 57 guys who jacked at least 1.5 such shots per game.
He is a rugged, willing defender who can stick with shooting guards and put up a fight against some power forwards -- a must-have for Boston's crunch-time small-ball units. He should be an automatic All-Star in the weak sister conference. That had to appeal.
Boston earned this with one of the greatest rebuilds in sports history. The Celtics aren't even supposed to be here now, eyeing LeBron. Fleecing Brooklyn was about Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and those extra picks. It was about 2020 and beyond. Along the way, they nailed the side moves too many teams neglect -- or fail to notice at all. They stole Isaiah Thomas. They insisted on Jae Crowder as a throw-in to the Rajon Rondo trade. Boom: Forty percent of the starting lineup on a conference finals team, from found money.
Being good drew Horford. Getting better drew Hayward. Now Boston can play for 2018 and 2022. Hayward is a half-decade-plus older than Tatum and Brown, but their presence -- and those future picks -- factored into his calculus, even if players so young are rarely ready to win alongside a prime-aged star. Maybe those two are, though; Brown looks it. And if Hayward sticks in Boston, they represent successors ready to carry him into his 30s.
Hayward will cost Boston some depth. Kelly Olynyk, Mr. Game 7, is gone to Miami, and Boston probably needs to dump one of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart to fit Hayward. The Celtics are staring at an expensive future. Thomas will be a free agent next summer, and re-signing him would bring Boston close to the luxury tax line. Keeping just one of the trio into 2018-19 would launch them over it.
Each of those three has represented a crucial bridge between the veteran stars and the kiddos. Bradley is a free agent next summer; Crowder's cheapo deal runs two years longer, which gave him the most trade value. But it also made him the one Boston could most realistically afford. Boston is also thin up front, and Crowder can log a lot of time at power forward.
As built now, Boston needs one of the two remaining players from this trio on its roster two seasons from now. Who will it be?
[Update: It is down to Crowder and Smart after Boston agreed Friday to flip Bradley to Detroit for Marcus Morris, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Boston loses some shooting and one key starter, but in Morris, they get back another switchy wing capable of sharing some power forward duty. Morris is also on a ridiculous under-market deal that pay hims $10.3 million combined over the next two seasons. The trade could mean the end of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in Detroit, thought the Pistons still have enough room under the hard cap to match an offer sheet starting around $16.5 million.]
Loser: Utah Jazz
Utah did everything right over a slow-and-steady rebuild, save perhaps staying healthy enough to convince Hayward it was sustainable. (One caveat: Their decision three years ago to let Hayward find a max offer sheet elsewhere, instead of handing it to him themselves, hovered over this drama.)
They stayed patient until the time was right, and finally flipped a first-round pick for George Hill -- Hayward's friend and occasional training buddy. That was the long-term vision: Hayward the franchise player, Hill the heady point guard comfortable working off the ball.
It came undone over the second half of the season. Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks battled endless injuries. Hill's toe acted up, and he turned down a massive extension. Utah moved away from the Favors-Rudy Gobert twin towers look, but Trey Lyles, the would-be stretch forward to play alongside both, lost minutes to geezer stop-gaps.
Ricky Rubio was Utah's Hail Mary to stabilize the point guard spot, and prove to Hayward they would never relent in upgrading the team. They (slightly) overpaid Joe Ingles, Hayward's friend and a multi-positional glue guy.
Utah is stunned, and reeling. It must feel so unsettling to walk a straight path, destination glowing in the distance, only to have a storm obliterate the path and knock you into the wilderness. All that spending designed for a Hayward-centric team has them projected with less than max-level cap space next summer before even including potential cap holds for Favors and Dante Exum. It will be too good for high lottery picks.
The Jazz will trudge forward. They are pragmatic, and ultra-competitive. Donovan Mitchell is beasting Summer League. They hope Rubio can be their Jason Kidd -- a cultural touchstone who makes everyone better. They just don't know quite where they are headed anymore.
Winner: Teams with cap room next summer
Winner: The 2016 free agency class
Loser: Most other players
Last summer, almost the entire league had an easy route to $20 million-plus in cap room. Next summer, we could enter free agency with only three or four teams hoarding that much space. Last summer's spending orgy, amid a one-time-only mega-spike in the cap, soaked up more of this season's space than anyone expected -- especially when the league's projected cap fell from $107 million a year ago, to $101 million, and then finally to $99 million. (The league's most recent projection for the 2018-19 season, sent to teams last week, sits at $102 million, per league sources -- a tiny uptick.)
Imagine being Patrick Patterson. You watch your bench partner, Bismack Biyombo, an inferior player, sign for $17 million per season last summer to be a backup. You smile, knowing your payday is coming. Then free agency starts, the limited cap room dries up, and you sign for less than $17 million combined over three seasons.
The failure of the union and league to agree on a cap-smoothing proposal benefited one group of free agents -- last summer's class -- at the expense of almost everyone else. We are now back in the old, forgotten cap environment, where room is sparse. Even teams that look cheap now -- the Hawks, Kazoos (after their ludicrous Tim Hardaway Jr. offer sheet), Kings, Mavs, and Magic (with potential extensions for Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon) -- could spend themselves out of max cap space for next summer's derby over the next days and months. (The Hawks were willing to offer Hardaway a four-year deal in the $48 million range, league sources said. The Knicks blew that out of the water with a four-year, $71 million monstrosity.)
Player options for 2018-19 that looked sure to be rejected are more tempting now for a heap of guys: Austin Rivers, Kosta Koufos, Wesley Matthews, Garrett Temple, and many more. A rash of opt-ins would put more teams up against it.
The consequences ripple in every direction. Almost a dozen quality restricted free agents sit untouched, their reps crossing their fingers that Atlanta, Indiana or Brooklyn -- once the Wizards match on Otto Porter -- comes calling. Members of the 2014 draft class, up for extensions now, face a barren landscape if they chance it in free agency next summer. Do they settle for extensions below their now-outdated expectations? Do their teams play hard ball, daring them to gamble in a year? How did that work out for Utah and Hayward?
The Celtics are eyeing all of this, confident they can retain Thomas on a deal well below his max.
The disappearance of cap room should empower the few who will have it. Most of those teams are bad, with Utah, San Antonio and even Houston (if the Chris Paul experiment fails) lurking as exceptions. Stars don't go to bad teams unless they can join up -- a rare double the Lakers clearly believe they have in the bag. Will everyone else blow room now on extensions and salary dumps -- as the Hawks just did by effectively paying $17 million in Jamal Crawford salary for a bad first-round pick and Diamond Stone?
Meet the new NBA, same as the old NBA.
Teams will have to get more creative, and perhaps take on more risk, in swaps of players making big money over multiple years. Internal development matters more than ever; teams can go over the cap to re-sign their own players, and for most of the league, that will be the most accessible path to improvement. Expiring contracts will regain some of the trade value they lost.
Winners: Fringe guys who moved fast
Kudos to Tony Snell, Ben McLemore, Langston Galloway, Cristiano Felicio, Ron Baker (!) and their agents: They read the market, and jumped on the first good offer. Even Justin Holiday could end up looking smart for agreeing early to a two-year, $9 million deal from the Bulls.
On the flip side, both Andre Roberson and George Hill lost money by turning down extensions.
Winner: The heinous, bloody, impossible West
Loser: The embarrassing, sad East
My god, look at this:
• Nabbing Paul Millsap on a three-year deal, with a team option in Year 3, is a home run for Denver. The Nuggets nearly traded Gary Harris and a protected first-round pick for Kevin Love, and instead filled the same position without losing anything. There is no opportunity cost beyond making it a bit harder to extend Nikola Jokic, as covered here.
• Oklahoma City won the offseason with its deals for George, Roberson and Patterson, a power forward with range and playmaking ability who can switch across a bunch of positions. These guys are going to be a terror on defense.
(I don't love Roberson as much as most seem to. He is a fierce, annoying defender. He might be the worst shooter in the league, including from the foul line, and guys who are almost complete zeroes on one end just aren't that interesting. They become borderline unplayable in the postseason, though Roberson has found ways to make an occasional impact. This contract is fine, though.)
• Minnesota revamped its roster with Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. As I wrote here, the fit will be awkward at first. Minnesota doesn't have enough 3-point shooting, and the backup wing situation is a disaster zone. Tom Thibodeau targeting former Bulls is indicative of classic coach/executive narrow-mindedness that will eventually hurt the Wolves if they don't install some checks and balances.
Kyle Lowry promised a cleaner fit than Teague, but he would have soaked up almost all of Minnesota's post-Rubio cap space. Ditto for Millsap, an ideal tag-team partner for Karl-Anthony Towns. There is also no evidence Lowry would have considered signing there. Minnesota chose two players (plus a first-round pick from Utah) over one, and in Gibson, it chose upgrading at power forward over a wing like C.J. Miles.
Overall, this is good work. A team in Minneapolis approaching a 15-year playoff drought doesn't get to be picky. The Wolves will be rude, physical and unpleasant -- a major playoff threat.
The East, umm, did not fare quite as well. The Nets, Knicks, Pacers, Bulls and Hawks are all going to be bad. The Magic, entering Year 6 of an interminable rebuild, have done nothing. The Pistons, Hornets and Heat won almost by de-fault -- the two sweetest words in the English language. The Eastern Conference: Where standing still is winning.
Three seasons ago, Suns owner Robert Sarver proposed seeding postseason teams 1-16 by record regardless of conference. Mark Cuban pitched a temporary realignment plan.
"The commissioner's office was not interested," Sarver emailed ESPN.com this week. "The Eastern teams don't like it." The league has argued that schedule imbalance and over-long travel make a 1-16 system too cumbersome.
The issue is not going away. Other West teams have suggested tweaks during informal talks with the league office, sources say.
"It needs to be addressed," Cuban emailed ESPN.com on Thursday. "Seven of the 10 smallest markets are in the West. I really believe Eastern teams know they can get by doing less, and [in some cases] make the playoffs. Because they are larger markets, they will sell tickets and advertising, and get viewers. They get the best of both worlds."
Winner: Early Waiters Island investors
The party is still going at The Step-Back, our local pub.
(Psst: Four years and $52 million is too much for Waiters, and after Thursday's flurry of deals the Heat face a clogged cap sheet with two future first-round picks out the window. They should be a solid playoff team filled with nifty ball-movers who will thrive in Erik Spoelstra's positionless drive-and-kick style. Since when is solid enough for Pat Riley? If a star free agent wants to bolt for Miami, the Heat will have a hard time shifting money around in this climate the way Houston just did for Paul.)
Winner: The Process
Joel Embiid needs to last, like, half of one season before we anoint Philly the next great dynasty. If that happens next season, the Sixers should compete for a playoff spot. It might be a disappointment if they don't get in. J.J. Redick addresses their biggest need, and the inevitable Jahlil Okafor deal will unclutter the frontcourt.
They stayed lean for next summer by refusing to dole out multiyear deals, and that has the rest of the league wondering: What exactly are the Sixers up to?
Loser: The priced-out Blazers
Standing still in the West is like pulling your hamstring in a road race and watching everyone whiz by you. The Blazers are coming off a .500 season, and at least two teams below them -- the Wolves and Nuggets -- are primed for a leap. Utah and the Clippers should hang in the playoff race. Portland could have more than $130 million, and perhaps much more, committed in each of the next three seasons.
Reminder: The Blazers were in a use-it-or-lose-it situation with their cap space a year ago. They bet big on Evan Turner, and matched even bigger on Allen Crabbe. They wagered both would be movable in a league starved for wings.
Nope. Portland would need to sweeten the pot with a first-round pick to flip either of those guys right now. In hindsight -- and you know what they say about hindsight -- they probably should have picked one. Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu have trade value, but only because they are on good contracts Portland would rather keep. The Blazers have upside. Their best players are young, and they went 14-5 with Jusuf Nurkic in the starting lineup before he broke his leg. But the landscape has changed.
Winner: Golden State/boredom
There is no response beyond mealymouthed muttering about ill-timed injuries to the non-fan who dismisses next season as decided. Roster continuity -- the power of more reps -- would by itself have made the Warriors better. They added more talent anyway.
Nick Young is a luxury. What is the point of Swaggy if he's just going to launch open catch-and-shoot 3-pointers? Once every few games, he should pump fake, take one useless dribble inside the arc, and heave a dumbass fadeaway long 2-pointer. Every artist has to perform the old standards.
(One downside: Using their full midlevel on Young leaves only the minimum for Jordan Bell, and minimum deals can run only two years.)
Omri Casspi at the minimum is criminal. The league, for whatever reason, has never properly valued him. There were mitigating factors this summer: Casspi was coming off injury, and when New Orleans waived him, he lost his Bird rights -- and the ability to make more dough in sign-and-trades. He also wanted to play for a ring; Casspi turned down a one-year, $4.5 million offer from a likely lottery team, according to a league source.
Golden State got the guy it wanted in the draft, David West came back on the minimum because the Egyptians discovered you can't take it with you, and the team will add a couple more bigs -- the Zaza Pachulia/JaVale McGee duo, or suitable replacements.
The Finals begin in June.
Losers: Runners-up standing pat
The Cavs drafted no one, cheaped out on a GM LeBron likes, sniffed around trading one of their few plus defenders (Iman Shumpert), and got a year older. LeBron is a free agent in a year. Dan Gilbert remains Dan Gilbert. This doesn't seem great.
The Spurs had grander plans than signing Rudy Gay, coming off an Achilles tear, and bringing back the rest of the band. Gay could unlock more Warriors-specific small-ball lineups, but it doesn't feel like enough to compete with Golden State.
(A certain Spurs assistant coach will throw this in my face when they win 60 games next season.)
TBD but probably not great: LA Clippers
It's too easy to label the Clippers' offseason a bust: President Doc, to the degree he's still empowered, tossing away a future first-round pick L.A. owned for less than a week -- still possibly a Doc-era record -- in a desperation retool around an almost-29-year-old with an ugly injury history who plays Blake Griffin's position.
They risk stasis in the middle of the Western Conference bloodbath. Including DeAndre Jordan's cap hold, the Clippers already have almost $120 million in payroll committed to 2018-19. Re-sign him, and this is their team through 2020.
But a superstar free agent leaving usually wreaks devastation. The Clippers reaped a haul for Paul. Credit Houston if you'd like; the Rockets leapfrogged the Clippers in the conference hierarchy, coaxed Paul, and supplied salary-matching contracts when the Clippers were helpless. But L.A. got capable players who double as trade chips. Milos Teodosic, an absolute delight, can play alongside both Austin Rivers and Patrick Beverley. The Clips are also one of many teams that talked with the Celtics about three-team deals in which they would snag one of Boston's cap casualty wings, sources say.
Gallinari is really good, even if he'll struggle to chase wings as he ages. He might have been the best player the Clippers could have obtained without cap space. He and Griffin can run pick-and-rolls together, flipping between screener and ball-handler, and post up mismatches. If you can't compete with Golden State on its terms, you might as well try something different: go big, and bludgeon. (Stop laughing!)
The Clippers could in theory reboot by flipping Jordan for picks, and sliding Griffin and Gallinari up a position. Rivers will have to do that some anyway to maximize Gallinari's value. But that lineup would bleed points on defense, and the market for centers -- even All-NBA centers -- is rough.
Winner: Love the Drakes!
What looked like the league's most fraught offseason became a no-brainer when the market tightened, and point guards ran out of suitors. Three-year deals for Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka take them to ages where they should still approach present-day productivity -- and no further. Toronto can hit eject at the right time, instead of bailing early on a 50-win pseudo-contender early. And if LeBron really goes West, you can lop off that "pseudo," at least when it comes to the East.
By the time Toronto plunges, Boston and Philly will be nearing their apexes -- meaning Toronto could be timed to rise as East rivals fall.
Being good for a long time has value. It changes the perception of a franchise. It opens up possibilities -- foundational trades, superstar power moves -- that don't materialize for bad teams.
Toronto might have a tougher time pouncing on those opportunities if it gives up a future first-round pick, key trade currency, to get off of DeMarre Carroll or Jonas Valanciunas in a tax-reduction move.
Sloughing away Valanciunas would mean sliding Ibaka to center, and with both Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker gone, a void would open at power forward. The Raptors could play small, with Carroll there, but relying on the broken-down player you'd most like to trade isn't a great outcome.
And, yeah, they are probably stuck with this team for three years. It will be hard to move Lowry, Ibaka, or DeMar DeRozan for anything but equivalent money if they suffer a downturn. It's unclear if they will have the flexibility to re-sign Norman Powell, their best young player, next summer.
Still: Their roadmap is clearer than it would be with Lowry and Ibaka on five-year mega-deals.
Winner: Nostalgia for bygone teams in Atlanta and Memphis
Pour one out for two NBA nerd all-timers: the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies, and the 60-win, Spurs East Hawks.
It was time for Memphis to pivot from Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. The Grizzlies can part on good terms. JaMychal Green is a decade younger than Randolph, and a cleaner fit for the modern game David Fizdale envisions.
Memphis will have depth issues if its young bigs don't improve -- and if Chandler Parsons is unplayable again -- but capped-out teams have to make hard choices. For old time's sake, close your eyes, and imagine Marc Gasol hitting Randolph on a high-low.
The end in Atlanta was haphazard, from the politics upstairs to the blown plan to trade Paul Millsap a year ago and re-sign Al Horford. Those of us who live and breathe this league will never forget the 2014-15 Hawks. Falling to LeBron shouldn't render them irrelevant. The league, in real life, doesn't live by the binary RINGZ-OR-BUST standard.
For a few glorious months, those Hawks reminded us that when a group of unselfish, complementary players who care for each other come together at the right place, at the right time, under the right coach, magic can happen. Those Hawks lifted each other to a higher place than their on-paper talent suggested was reachable. They created basketball art, and invigorated a dormant market.
Winner/checks paperwork to be sure: The Kangz!!!
Lots of folks bashed the Kings for paying Hill and Randolph almost $30 million per year combined: Why not play the kids, tank, and use their cap space to snag draft picks in salary dumps!?!?
Look: I get assuming everything the Kings do is dumb. They've earned skepticism. These signings, including Thursday's one-year deal for Vince Carter, are not dumb. You cannot rip the tanktastic Sixers for failing to surround their baby bigs with a veteran point guard who could, you know, set up the offense, and then rip the Kings for signing Hill.
These deals may thread the needle in bringing veteran mentors who won't produce enough wins to derail the tank, or clog Sacto's cap sheet beyond this season. The Kings are still going to be really bad.
It's fair to ask whether the Kings really needed to sign both Randolph and Carter, in addition to Hill. They will now carry only something like $7 million in cap space into the season, not enough to serve as a major salary-dumping ground. If both Koufos and Temple opt in for 2018-19, the Kings will have $90 million on the payroll for that season -- leaving them with only $12 million in space next summer. Considering Sacto is every veteran's leverage play, maybe that isn't so bad, either.
Loser (maybe): The Pellies, over a barrel
We end with the league's most fascinating experiment -- and maybe its most volatile, with a svelte DeMarcus Cousins heading into the last year of his contract. In this icy point guard market, $25 million per season is just too much for Jrue Holiday, even if he had the Pelicans over a barrel given the paltry cap space -- about $12 million -- they'd have had to replace him.
Holiday is just 27, with limited mileage thanks to leg injuries the team is confident are behind him. Anthony Davis likes playing with Holiday, and the Pelicans need to be in the business of keeping Davis happy. The two sides could structure Holiday's deal so that it declines year-over-year or stays flat to ease the future cap burden. Holiday is a solid shooter, and a very good defender across multiple positions.
But if he doesn't make a jump, this deal is a cap-clogging problem. The Pelicans still don't have enough talent on the wing to space the floor for their twin towers, and it's unclear how they'll get it barring a return to health for long-lost Quincy Pondexter.
The Cousins-Davis pairing could work in the right setting. They bring enough playmaking and shooting between them, and Davis can hang with most opposing power forwards on defense. They found a rhythm on offense after an ugly first half-dozen games. They have to hit that rhythm from Day 1, and it helps that Holiday will go through camp for the first time in three years.
They cannot afford a slow start. The West is unforgiving -- as always.