You know a sports league’s in a nice place when it’s enjoying a genuine cultural moment, without anyone actually playing the sport. That’s where we find the NBA in late June, 2017, a few days before free agent hysteria has even started on July 1. Sure, the NFL off-season, anchored by the draft and player migrations from team to team, makes regular hay. Most baseball winters, some player signs a ludicrously rich free agent contract that carries a news cycle (e.g. Zack Greinke’s six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, December 2015).
But can anyone remember a sports league causing an off-season conniption like the NBA is doing this June? The Golden State Warriors had barely finished their championship parade, when the NBA Draft intrigue began in earnest. On June 16 the Boston Celtics traded their top slot in the draft to Philadelphia, in exchange for Philly’s number three pick this year, and other future first-round picks. This enabled the 76ers to take the top player in the draft for the second consecutive year: this time around, the Sixers snapped up point guard Markelle Fultz. Philly’s been rebuilding and selecting lottery picks, it seems, since the Liberty Bell cracked. But the Sixers now have Fultz, last year’s No. 1 Ben Simmons — who missed the 2016-2017 season with an injury — and the third pick in 2014, Joel Embid, who looked like a generational player last season, his first in the NBA, before another injury shut him down early. The infamous “process” might just pay off.
Then we had the Balls. Would the Los Angeles Lakers select Lonzo Ball, who brings with him gifted passing skills, a $495 signature shoe, and his dad, LaVar, who yaps like a boxing promoter? Draft day arrived on June 22, and yes, the Lakers took the hometown prodigy who grew up in a suburb east of LA. And yes, LaVar said Zeus decreed it so.
Phil Jackson, who won 11 titles as an NBA coach but had a 80-166 record as president of the New York Knicks, suddenly went on the offensive against his franchise’s most exciting player, Kristaps Porzingis, the 7’3″ star out of Latvia. Still peeved that Porzingis, in response to the team’s chronic dysfunction, skipped an exit interview back in April, Jackson announced right before the draft that he’d listen to trade offers for Porzingis. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a player over 25 years of coaching not coming to an exit meeting,” Jackson said in an interview. Personnel directors almost never publicize their dissatisfaction of a player. Or trade plans. Jackson held onto Porzingis through this year’s draft. But Knicks owner James Dolan, who granted Jackson a two-year contract extension in April — despite his awful record in New York— dismissed Jackson on Wednesday. The Porzingis mess was too much.
Somehow, the player who was Jackson’s shining accomplishment as Knicks president — New York selected Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 draft — wound up toppling him. Typical Knicks. At least Knicks fans, for once, seemed elated.
Then, soon after Jackson’s departure became public on Wednesday, news broke of a blockbuster trade. Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, a nine-time All-Star, was shipped to the Houston Rockets for seven players, Houston’s 2018 first round draft choice (as long Houston doesn’t pick third or lower), and $661,000. The Clips risked losing Paul in free agency for nothing, so the trade makes sense: their current core of Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, though supremely talented, weren’t a match for the Warriors. Houston enters the superteam business, pairing Paul with James Harden, who lost the MVP award to Russell Westbrook at the NBA’s inaugural awards show on Monday (as counter-programming, LaVar Ball shed his shirt in a WWE broadcast on the same night.) Harden thrived as point guard in Houston this season, as he led the NBA in assists. Despite Harden’s success, does Houston return him to the shooting guard position, and let Paul do most of the distributing? Will these moves disrupt Houston’s high-scoring flow? Or will Paul and Harden ultimately meld like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in Golden State?
So many questions. The NBA’s wacky off-season is too much fun. All this maneuvering just builds anticipation for tip-off in October.
Meanwhile, what’s new in baseball?