Well, that was a wild summer.
In perhaps the most eventful NBA offseason in history, three bonafide superstars changed teams in an unprecedented flurry of trades. Jimmy Butler and Paul George both went West as Minnesota and Oklahoma City scrambled gain ground on the Warriors. Then, Kyrie Irving stunned the Cavaliers by requesting a trade — and ended up on the team he beat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Carmelo Anthony trade was the icing on the cake for the Thunder, as the 33-year-old completes the Thunder’s formidable Big 3.
The Timberwolves, Thunder and Celtics all got their guys. But the hauls that their trade partners got in return varied significantly in quality.
Jimmy Butler to Timberwolves for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the No. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen)
The first domino to fall was Jimmy Butler, traded to the Timberwolves in a draft night blockbuster.
In return for the two-way superstar, who is under contract until 2019 with a player option for 2019-20 and finished third in win shares last year, the Bulls got second-year point guard Kris Dunn, flashy but injured scorer Zach LaVine and the seventh overall pick, which they used to draft Finnish power forward Lauri Markkanen.
Dunn struggled during his rookie year (3.8 points per game on 37.7 percent shooting), but it may be too soon to write him off, even as a 23-year-old.
“I would kind of dismiss what happened in Minnesota last year,” said ESPN analyst and former Nets executive Bobby Marks. “I don’t care if you’re an 18-year-old point guard or a 22-year-old, there’s going to be a huge transition coming into the NBA. Minutes were sporadic there with [Ricky] Rubio, and I think the situation in Chicago fits him better.”
However, the Bulls are clearly banking on Dunn being their point guard of the future, which means he’s going to have to be a lot better than he was in his NBA debut. There were certainly appealing point guard options on the board when Chicago picked at No. 7, including summer league standouts Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell.
But Chicago opted to forgo guard insurance for a seven-foot shooter with suspect rebounding and defensive ability. Markkanen may fit the Bulls’ desperate need for shooting, but many around the NBA have questioned whether the pick was a reach.
“Can he be more than just the guy who’s standing in the corner?” Marks said. “If he can’t develop into more than a perimeter-oriented big that can knock down shots, then at pick 7, that is certainly a stretch.”
“When you draft more on need, then you’re in trouble. If we look back three or four years from now and Markkanen fails, while Smith and Mitchell succeed, that pick could turn out to be a huge mistake.”
Markkanen did play well in the EuroBasket tournament, averaging 22.6 points per game and hitting half of his threes.
“The most impressive thing is how well he played down the stretch,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of Markkanen to the Chicago Tribune. “He has put up great numbers but his best basketball has been played in crunch time.”
LaVine finished 2017 with a bottom-50 defensive rating and may not see the court for months as he heals from an ACL tear.
The timing was probably right for Chicago to trade their best player and start over. But in return, they got three huge question marks questionable superstar potential. Not an ideal way to start a rebuild.
Paul George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis
Oklahoma City came out of nowhere to steal Paul George from the Pacers, adding an elite two-way wing to pair with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
In turn, they gave up Victor Oladipo – whom they owed $84 million over the next four years – and second-year big man Domantas Sabonis.
“When it came out that George was likely to go to Los Angeles, the Pacers lost all leverage,” Marks said. “In that situation, a trade really is an uphill battle.”
The Pacers’ return didn’t do much to bring hope to Indianapolis. Oladipo, the centerpiece of the trade, is entering his fifth NBA season with his third team. The Indiana product has averaged 15.9 points per game throughout his career. At the moment, he may be the second-best player on the Pacers, behind Myles Turner.
“The question I would have asked [Pacers GM] Kevin Pritchard – take out Paul George not wanting to play there – is, if Indiana had cap space this summer, and Oladipo was a free agent, would they pay him four years, eighty-plus million?” Marks said. “I think they probably wouldn’t.
“He’s a nice player, but at that number, at that price tag? I don’t think he’ll ever be a number one option, at least on a good team.”
Sabonis offers decent scoring ability as a stretch-4, and he’s still only 21. Big men take a few seasons to develop, and this trade could look better down the line if he turns into a strong rotational piece.
Still, if Oladipo and Sabonis was truly the best offer Indiana received for George, they may have been better served waiting out the final year of his contract and saving cap space.
It’s similar to what the Thunder gave up for Anthony — Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott — two rotational pieces for a potential star.
Kyrie Irving to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zicic, the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick and the Heat’s 2020 second-round pick
The shocker of the summer was the Kyrie Irving trade. Elite 25-year-old point guards rarely change teams via trade, and even more rarely end up on a rival contender in the same conference.
Like Indiana, Irving’s desire to leave Cleveland was a hindrance. The Cavaliers needed to boost their championship credentials for the coming season to have a chance to keep LeBron James beyond, while also build for the future if James follows through on his threats to leave.
In his first month on the job, Cavaliers GM Koby Altman may have checked both those boxes. If — and it’s a big if — Isaiah Thomas can get healthy; he’s an explosive scorer that can spell LeBron for stretches just as Irving did.
“From a scoring standpoint, they’re both explosive scorers. You lose some height there, there’s a four-year age gap, but both played in some big games,” Marks said in his comparison of Irving and Thomas, who is coming off hip surgery.
Jae Crowder was a highly-sought-after asset for a reason. He’s a strong two-way wing with a team-friendly contract, owed only $21 million over the next three seasons. Ante Zicic and the Brooklyn pick, which could be very high, add to a future in Cleveland that suddenly looks a lot less bleak if James walks.
“I can’t say the team right now is better than what it would have been had the group returned with Kyrie,” Marks said. “But the future certainly is, and I think that was the main purpose of the trade. To line yourself up post-LeBron, if there is a post-LeBron life.”
This trade could fall apart if Thomas can’t get healthy. The Cavaliers are hopeful he will be back by January, until then Cleveland has to rely on Derrick Rose and his shaky knees. It’s unclear what it would take to convince James to stay in Cleveland. Another loss to the Warriors? Beating the Warriors?
But all things considered, this was a clinic on how to trade a superstar, and Cleveland’s return far and away dwarfed what Chicago and Indiana got for Butler and George.
“They did as well as you can do when you trade an All-Star,” Marks said. “You get a top-15 point guard who can play now, you get a wing on a controllable contract, you get another player and you get a great draft asset. You checked all the boxes there.
“Could you have gone into win-now mode and targeted a team like San Antonio, who had more veterans? Probably. But you would have been left with nothing if LeBron left.”
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