We’re about a month out from the 2018 draft, which means the offseason, for all intents and purposes, has already begun. How will the NBA follow up one of the craziest summers in recent history? Here are the moves our staff wants to see in the coming weeks:
LeBron and KD Team Up in L.A.
Justin Verrier: This is as much LeBron’s fantasy as it is my own. Because with the first pick in this year’s All-Star draft, James passed over seven other potential elite teammates—including presumptive MVP James Harden—and selected Kevin Durant as the inaugural member of Team LeBron. If every team James plays for from here on out functions in the same way, with him getting final cut on most of the players he lines up alongside, and since KD is also technically a free agent this summer, why can’t they run this back in real life? Let’s say, on the Lakers, who have the cap space to accommodate both.
The Cavaliers’ up-and-down postseason slog has underlined James’s need to begin the twilight of his career elsewhere, but finding a new set of up-and-coming players to fuel his title runs may be more difficult than it was in 2010 and 2014. The fit next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is far from ideal; the cap gymnastics involved in getting to Houston while keeping the guts of its 60-win roster intact appear tricky; and the Lakers’ current core is half-baked at best, even if Paul George joins them. Maybe the best solution all along has been teaming up with the guy splitting his Uber fare.
Durant will be a tougher sell, because there’s nothing wrong with his current team … except for the fact his goodwill is currently the only thing keeping it together. KD took almost $10 million less than his max last summer in order to fit new deals for Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston into the Warriors’ overstuffed books. And while recent reporting indicates that Durant won’t be as considerate this summer, and that Klay Thompson is leaning toward a pay cut on an upcoming extension, the financial crunch of paying four all-world players is bound to start eating away at the team on the margins. If it doesn’t happen this season or next, then perhaps two seasons from now when a 30-year-old Draymond Green is due an extension. If Durant wants to stay light-years ahead of the curve, how about a starting five of Durant, James, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma? Or, if you really want to go deep on this Reddit conspiracy thread I’ve concocted, flip some of the Lakers’ young talent into Kawhi Leonard and trot out a five of Durant, James, Leonard, Lonzo, and Nerlens Noel (signed for the veteran’s minimum).
The optics of such a move, just seven years removed from LeBron being flambéed for teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, might be too zeitgeist-crippling to exist. Then again, what have Durant and James showed us with their free-agent decisions if not that what they want most is to do whatever the hell they want?
The Sixers Trade Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric to the Bucks for Delly and a 2018 First-Round Pick
Jason Concepcion: Draft picks are the cheapest way to improve. But drafting is hard; it’s an inexact science and dependent on incomplete data and the vagaries of youth. You just never know. Sometimes the 15th player selected becomes an MVP-level world eater. Sometimes the no. 1 pick attempts to rework his jump shot for no apparent reason then suffers an alleged crisis of confidence that results in a possibly nonexistent injury. Stuff happens. Which is why—as Danny Ainge, Sam Hinkie (Rest in Process), and Sam Presti when he was good showed us—it behooves a team to get as many bites at that draft apple as possible.
Which brings us to Mr. Fultz. Could he be a starting-level NBA contributor? Maybe. He has shown flashes in the [squints] 17 total games, including playoffs, that he’s appeared in when he hasn’t looked absolutely terrified to shoot the ball. The Sixers already have Ben Simmons, who shoots like he [extremely Kevin O’Connor voice] shoots with the wrong hand. Philly needs players who can create space and offense for themselves. A Markelle-Ben pick-and-roll would look like two electrons orbiting a nucleus. So, let’s hit the reset button.
Philly foists Fultz on the Bucks, who get last year’s top pick and his beguiling potential. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s new shot-caller, had success transforming underwhelming assets (HELLO, Tim Hardaway Jr.!) into actual contributors. If he can do the same with Fultz, the Bucks have a shot of going up a level in the Eastern Conference rat race. The Sixers have to part with Process Member Dario Saric. But they also get Milwaukee’s 2018 first-rounder (no. 17)—which will need to be swapped after the draft per the Stepien Rule, as Phoenix now owns the rights to the Bucks’ protected 2019 first—to go along their no. 10 pick. Philly also takes Matthew Dellavedova’s contract and thirst to injure.
Guys, Bryan Colangelo with two first-round draft picks … WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Rick Carlisle to Toronto for a 2020 First-Round Pick
Kevin O’Connor: A report earlier this month said that Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle had interest in coaching the Bucks, which Carlisle called “completely inaccurate” and team owner Mark Cuban said is “absurd.” That’s nice. But it wouldn’t change the fact that if I were Raptors president Masai Ujiri, I’d still make a call about Carlisle’s availability.
Coaches have been traded before. In 2013, the Clippers traded a 2015 first-round pick to the Celtics for Doc Rivers. In 2007, the Heat dealt Stan Van Gundy to the Magic for two second-round picks. Coaches in other sports—Bill Belichick, Lou Piniella, and Michel Bergeron—have also been traded. The Raptors already interviewed Mike Budenholzer, who ultimately signed with the Bucks, and Jerry Stackhouse, who coaches their G League team, but neither of them (or any other coach on the market) has Carlisle’s experience and skill.
The Sixers Trade Up for Luka Doncic
Danny Chau: For the past month, I’ve been fixated on the idea of Luka Doncic in Philly and what that would look like. I think it’d be a mutually beneficial union: A rapidly accelerating playoff team acquires a young talent with the presence of a steely veteran. His shooting numbers aren’t particularly encouraging (he shot 30.7 percent from 3 across all leagues this season), but his form is mechanically sound, and arguably more importantly, he has full confidence in it. There is no situation in which he isn’t comfortable letting the 3-ball fly: on spot-ups, off screens, in isolations on the stepback, on pull-ups in transition. His vision and penchant for mind-bending passes, à la Ben Simmons, makes him an ideal fit in Brett Brown’s pass-happy system. Even the defensive issues that arise from Doncic’s lack of athleticism would be smoothed out on the Sixers, where he’d play alongside two unique defenders in Simmons and Joel Embiid. His size alone allows him to narrow the gaps in space. Everything else can be funneled to one of the league’s most imposing forces around the rim.
I don’t doubt Doncic’s fit with the team, but I have some trouble figuring out how the Sixers would make a trade work. Obviously the Sixers’ upcoming no. 10 pick would be involved, but what else? Would they include Markelle Fultz, or would that signal a premature loss of faith? Would their endless assortment of second-round picks be enough to sweeten the deal for one of the teams in the top five? I’m not sure how the Sixers pull it off, but they need to do something to keep up with a Celtics squad that will look more frightening by the day with Irving and Hayward back. Acquiring Doncic would help; adding Paul George into that mix would be the cherry on top.
LeBron Pushes Kyrie Out of Boston
Jonathan Tjarks: This is actually Shea Serrano’s idea, but it’s so diabolical that I’m going to steal it. LeBron says he wants to play in Boston, he opts in to the last year of his contract (à la Chris Paul last summer), and Boston trades Kyrie Irving, cap filler, and one of its first-round picks back to Cleveland for him. It makes sense for every side. LeBron needs to build the best team possible to beat Golden State, Boston adds LeBron without gutting its roster, and Cleveland gets a franchise player and a pick to start its rebuild.
The lineup the Celtics could throw out as a result is just obscene: LeBron, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward. That group would have to be the favorite to win it all. Plus, LeBron would get the added benefit of screwing over Kyrie. It would be a Godfather-level move, one that you know Boston would do in a second. This is a franchise that traded away Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics aren’t losing any sleep over doing Kyrie dirty.
Chris Paul Returns to New Orleans
T.C. Kane: CP3’s New Orleans Hornets tenure was pre–NBA Twitter, and therefore a relic of a bygone era. In those days, he was, if not beloved, something closer to a fan favorite than what the roasts over his playoff failures would indicate. If the Rockets can’t overcome the Warriors, it’s conceivable that the perpetually banged-up 33-year-old guard would dream of simpler times in the bayou.
For the Pelicans, the move makes too much sense. Letting DeMarcus Cousins walk in free agency is a bet on the core of Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, and Anthony Davis that pushed New Orleans past Portland in the first round of the playoffs. Paul could step into Cousins’s spot on the payroll (he’d be taking a pay cut, but he may not have a max offer on the table anyway) and into Rajon Rondo’s role on the court. Replacing Rondo’s meticulous offensive style and sky-high basketball IQ with Paul would be the superstar upgrade that could take New Orleans past the second round for the first time since—actually, the franchise has never been to the conference finals. All the more reason to bring newly minted Conference Finals Expert Chris Paul back to his first NBA home.
The Kings Don’t Screw This One Up
Riley McAtee: If Deandre Ayton goes to the Suns at no. 1, Sacramento will have a few options, though they all come with red flags. Behind Door No. 1 is a physically gifted forward with as much talent as anyone in the draft ... but who needed surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back and failed to dominate in college in the brief time he spent on the court. Behind Door No. 2 is an athletic and relentless big man ... but one who is also a tweener and might not be big enough to play center or skilled enough to play power forward. Behind Door No. 3 is a skilled big with the acumen on defense and offense to help any team right away ... but who never really wowed in college. And finally, behind Door No. 4 is a hoops savant who just earned the MVP award in the second-best basketball league in the world at age 19 ... but, like, European dudes bust sometimes.
The Kings do not need to overthink this one. If Luka Doncic is available when the Kings pick second overall, their selection of him would be a fantasy for Sacramento fans who have waited more than a decade to see this moribund team move up to a position to draft a potential superstar. Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr., and Jaren Jackson Jr.—the “American frontcourt players” the team has been speculated to be considering in lieu of Doncic—may turn out to be great players, but the European star is the no-brainer pick. The Kings finally had the luck to move up in the draft lottery. Now they just have to not screw up the pick. It shouldn’t be that hard—really, I’m not asking for much here!
Mario Hezonja Signs With the Warriors
Zach Kram: One of the many delights of watching the Warriors in recent seasons is their penchant for transforming lovable internet goofballs into lovable internet goofballs who also contribute to a championship-caliber team. JaVale McGee, NBA champion, is a real thing now, and Nick Young, NBA champion, soon will be.
Mario Hezonja doesn’t fit that profile to the letter because he’s not a veteran like McGee or Young, but that’s all the more reason for Golden State to sign the Magic forward—and pending unrestricted free agent—this summer. Hezonja is just 23 years old and was the no. 5 pick just three years ago—there’s talent there, and it burst in flashes with Orlando this season. Hezonja sank eight 3s in a 28-point outing against Detroit; he put up 21 and 10 against the Hornets; he ended the season averaging 14 points over his final 10 games, while also shooting 38 percent from range in that span.
Writing about Hezonja in January, Danny Chau called him a “low-res” Klay Thompson. What better place to learn how to transform his latent offensive abilities into on-court production than at Thompson’s side by the bay? Young is a free agent after this season, with his $5.2 million salary leaving Golden State’s ledger. Fill that role and salary slot with Hezonja, and watch him blossom into the kind of highlight hawk he’s been destined to become ever since he was a swagger-inflated teen condescending to Lionel Messi in Spain.
Kawhi Leonard Goes to the Eastern Conference
Paolo Uggetti: The East needs more elite teams. The Cavs are going to fade sooner rather than later, the Bucks still need work around Giannis, the Pacers are a fun story but have only one star, and the Raptors, well, let’s just not talk about them anymore. The Celtics and Sixers have promising futures, but it’s about time we got a superstar from the West to balance the conferences out in talent. Even if all signs appear to point to Kawhi wanting to go further West (if he doesn’t stay in San Antonio), I’m ready to fantasize about him turning a mediocre East team into a juggernaut.
South Beach needs to be relevant again, and it has the infrastructure and top market to draw someone like Kawhi. Making it work as a trade is a bit trickier. Miami’s doled out a lot of money to players like Tyler Johnson (small mistake), Dion Waiters (decent-sized mistake), and Hassan Whiteside (big mistake), among others. But if you think Pat Riley isn’t already scheming to get off those contracts in search of a superstar, then you clearly haven’t watched enough Riley pressers (which are so long that they have to be broken up into multiple parts). Kawhi in Miami is a perfect fit, and he could draw more talent to play alongside him as time goes on.
There’s already a few budding stars in Washington, D.C. Add Kawhi to the Brad Beal–John Wall pairing in place of Otto Porter, and the Wiz immediately become contenders. (Don’t ask about depth; we can figure that out later.) The point is: Get Kawhi to the East. I’ll Photoshop this movie poster and get the campaign going now.