The Least Gets Leastier
Just a few days into the 2018 free agency period, it’s clear that this will be yet another offseason dominated by the Western Conference. Beyond the solidifying moves by some of the Western Conferences upper echelon (eff off, Golden State), the teams occupying the bottom of the West have also made significant moves towards contention, while their peers in the East have been content to reside in mediocrity, even with the conference wide ass open with the departure of reigning conference demi-god LeBron James.
The Lakers are the most clear-cut case of a team from the bottom of the West looking to make a jump. Along with the much-heralded signing of LeBron James, they’ve been linked to Kawhi Leonard and have added a multitude of…uh ... interesting veterans on one-year deals to supplement their young roster. Even if these one-year signings are hedging against disaster and a sign the club isn’t going to go completely all-in, they also show the Lakers have every desire to make the playoffs in the coming season. The same is true in the case of the Mavericks’ addition of DeAndre Jordan in free agency on a one-year deal. Adding the big man to augment their addition of Luka Doncic in the draft gives the team a chance to finally give Dirk Nowitzki a competitive season in the twilight of his career, while allowing them the cap flexibility to add more star talent from the 2019 free agent class.
The Phoenix Suns also maintained flexibility while making a serious move towards improving next season when they signed Trevor Ariza to a one year pact in a move that enhances the team’s versatility. Phoenix can now trot out lineups with Devin Booker at point flanked by three interchangeable wings in Ariza, Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges with DeAndre Ayton at center. With such a young core and Ariza’s complementary role, it’s unlikely this addition pushes Phoenix all the way to the post-season but adding him to their developing nucleus should at least push the Suns closer to 30-35 wins.
In Memphis, the Grizzlies are mostly relying on improved health, but the lack of murmurs around Marc Gasol and Mike Conley indicate Memphis hopes to be back in the Western Conference playoff picture after a disastrous campaign last season. Their signing of Omri Casspi is an uninspiring, yet solid move that adds needed shooting and toughness off the bench, while the drafting of a big in Jaren Jackson who should complement Marc Gasol well reveals Memphis isn’t ready to give up on this core yet. The Nuggets similarly retained their pricy, talented core with the re-signings of Nikola Jokic and Will Barton. Like Memphis, they hope a talented rookie, Michael Porter, can help raise the roster’s ceiling as they hit the luxury tax.
The Clippers could have tanked with the departure of DeAndre Jordan, but their signing of Avery Bradley and their continued presence in the Kawhi Leonard trade rumors mean Los Angeles appears intent on remaining competitive. The Clippers have a prudent leadership group that may tank on this season if things look bleak near the trade deadline, but for now, it appears they want to remain competitive on the court as they compete with the Lakers for stars off the court. The Sacramento Kings have been the Western Conference team most content to ride out their youth movement. Despite owing their pick to the Celtics next season unless it is the number one overall selection, Sacramento has been unaggressive in pursuing free agents, although they did attempt to snare Zach LaVine away from the Bulls with a gaudy offer sheet that Chicago surprisingly matched.
Sacramento’s offseason strategy is somewhat unique in the West, but it mirrors the actions of most of the worst teams in the East. They who have made little effort to capitalize on the departure of LeBron James and the opportunity to move into the playoff picture leaving the bottom of the East facing yet another year of lottery-bound basketball. The Atlanta Hawks have done nothing despite their excess cap space in a tight financial market. Instead, the Hawks have held onto their cap space and will likely attempt to use it similarly to the Brooklyn Nets, absorbing other squad’s bad contracts in return for extra draft picks or young players. In a similar show of hesitancy, the Bulls stood pat while negotiating with restricted free agent Zach Lavine, although they did match when the Kings offered him a deal. If anything, though, paying a 23 year old close to $20 million a year in the hope he develops to justify the cost still signifies Chicago’s commitment to rebuilding.
In New York, the Knicks have taken a flier on Mario Hezonja but appear content for a year of mediocrity and rumors of stars angling to go to New York as they await Kristaps Porzingis return from a torn ACL. The Brooklyn Nets have also abstained from aggressive with backup big man Ed Davis representing their only free agency signing. They continue to make moves with an eye towards the future now that they’ll finally own their own draft picks after three years of sending selections elsewhere as a result of the disastrous Boston trade. The Cleveland Cavaliers will now be joining this group of Eastern Conference bottom feeders as well thanks to their loss of LeBron. A Kevin Love trade looms over the franchise’s near future as the team looks to rebuild around the overpaid roster James left behind. Every other Cavs contributor outside of Colin Sexton and Cedi Osman will likely also be available to any team wishing to have them, and it’s not like this roster could compete without LeBron regardless.
Even the teams that made moves in the East with eyes on playoff contention made their moves on the fringes and in low-risk scenarios. The Magic have had interest in makeing a move to remedy their atrocious backcourt situation by taking a leap of faith on Isaiah Thomas. A return to form from him could propel the team back into contention after years of post-Dwight Howard misery. Still, his form last season in Cleveland and LA was far from encouraging, and it’s doubtful he could handle the type of load the Magic would need him to carry for the team to contend for the playoffs.
The Charlotte Hornets have been oft rumored to want to unload their star point guard in Kemba Walker, a clear sign they have no designs on the playoffs. They also have already shed Dwight Howard, although that will probably make them more of a contender than last year. Seriously, I hope Dwight Howard never tries to get a job as a math instructor after his playing career, because he’ll only be able to teach addition by subtraction, which is not actually a very useful math skill. Regardless of Dwight, the Hornets have shown no intention of pushing for serious contention in the East.
Detroit added Jose Calderon and Glenn Robinson III, which should lift the team into the playoffs if their core of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson stays healthy but hardly strikes fear in any of the teams at the top of the conference hierarchy. Looking at the contract situations and injury histories of the Pistons’ top players, it seems just as likely that this team will be looking to rebuild at the end of the season as it is that to compete for a playoff berth.
As a whole, the Eastern Conference will still have a solid group of playoff teams, and most of the squads who made the postseason last year made decent moves to solidify their rosters. However, the discrepancy between the East and West will be most evident next season in looking at the teams outside the playoff picture, where the West could have several teams missing the postseason with above .500 records while the Eastern teams dominate the competition for the #1 overall pick.