Most of the big moves are done for NBA Summer 2018, so let’s take stock at the most interesting ones so far…
Golden State Warriors
Sign DeMarcus Cousins
Certainly DMC can really help the Warriors if he’s healthy but this is not the seminal moment where the NBA needs to declare Golden State in violation of antitrust law. The facts are pretty clear….Cousins was not someone that teams wanted to invest in when he was healthy because of his volatile temper. The Kings’ return for Cousins was only a solid prospect in Buddy Hield and a mid-first-round pick (ended up being Zach Collins).
Now throw in the Achilles tear and the market for Cousins this summer was going to be really weak. Just to underscore this point, Tim Cato of SB Nation wrote an excellent article recently breaking down how poorly NBA players have done post Achilles tear. In short, Cato found that most players have been quite diminished afterwards. Moreover, the closest comp in size and age to DMC, Elton Brand, was never better than 60% of his peak after coming back.
For the Warriors, if Cousins can comeback at 60% at some point next year, he would be a better backup center than the departed Javale McGee. If Cousins can’t return next season, the Warriors paid a relatively modest sum for the chance of improvement. If Cousins does beat the odds and returns to near his pre-injury form by the playoffs, the Warriors have a chance to be ridiculously good. But that chance is remote and the signing is not really a cause to question the whole free agency process that some claim it is.
The more interesting question is whether Cousins made the right move for his own career. Cousins claimed that he signed with the Warriors because he had no other offers. But this isn’t quite true. Rather, it seems teams were interested but were very cautious and offering two-year deals (New Orleans offered him two years and $40 million allegedly). Cousins is gambling that he’ll be himself soon and command a huge deal next off-season. The data doesn’t support this decision but we shall see.
Trade Marcin Gortat to Clippers for Austin Rivers
Sign Dwight Howard
So, is the aging Howard really an improvement over the aging Gortat? Let’s review the numbers:
-Gortat: 25.3 MPG, .518 FG%, 8.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 14.7 PER, 4.9 WS, 0.3 BPM, 1.2 VORP
-Howard: 30.4 MPG, .555 FG%, 16.6 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 20.5 PER, 6.8 WS, -0.3 BPM, 1.1 VORP
Neither player looks too impressive. Gortat’s efficiency has dipped and Howard can’t shoot or help spread the offense. When taking shots of more than three feet from the rim, Howard shot under 40%. So, Howard either clogs the post for the guards or he can be ignored if he is not in the block. This accounts for his negative BPM (he was -2.0 OBPM and a solid 1.7 DBPM). The market reflected this knowledge, as Howard got only the mid-level (about $5.3 million) to come to DC. He’ll help the defense a bit but this will be offset by his offensive limitations.
Los Angeles Lakers
Sign LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee, and Lance Stephenson
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka landed the big fish. Unlike past LeBron tours, it did not appear that there was quite as much competition. James no longer had to chase a title to validate his career or to return to Ohio to leave a good taste in the mouth of Cleveland fans. This time, James just wanted to live in a warm weather city that his kids liked. If title chases were still the big motivator, James would’ve signed with an Eastern contender, where he could renew his annual Finals matchup with GS (Philadelphia seemed to be an obvious spot). Instead, LBJ will likely have to play the Rockets or Warriors in the second round in a series where the Lakers should be underdogs.
Yes, LeBron’s mere presence turns any team into a 50-win team but the Lakers do not appear competitive with the best teams. The Lakers do have an opportunity to fill in around him and make that team even better. Early returns are not encouraging though. Rondo and Stephenson can’t shoot and are ball dominant (and both mercurial personalities at times). According to Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne on ESPN.com, the moves were made because what “[Magic] Johnson pitched to James was a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers like Stephenson and Rondo who could free up James to finish in the lanes and from the post, rather than having to create the lion’s share of the offense himself.”
How exactly would having players who shoot poorly free up LBJ to finish in the lane? I have no idea. On top of that, these moves totally ignore the Lakers existing problems. L.A. was already above-average defensively (12th) and poor on offense (23rd) and 29th in 3-point shooting, with only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shooting effectively at a high volume. It’s great that this plan landed the Lakers James (or at least didn’t annoy him enough not to sign) but the Lakers don’t have enough players to help LBJ at this point. On the bright side, if Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram continue to improve as young players, that my provide an internal means to make the Lakers better. Combine that hope with the long term plan is to grab another star next summer (Kawhi Leonard?), and the Lakers are looking at 2019-20 as the year to go for it.
But how much time do the Lakers have with LeBron? James is turning 34 and has a ton of mileage on him. There are really no other players who have played 39 minutes a game from age-19 to age-33. Even some of the other high schoolers or young stars took a few years to play as much as LeBron did as a teenager. In fact, through age 33, here are the most minutes played and how they fared thereafter:
1. LeBron James, 44,298
2. Kobe Bryant, 42,377: Kobe was playing great at age-34 before he tore his Achilles and was never the same again.
3. Kevin Garnett, 41,695: KG had already declined at age-33 but remained solidly an All-Star until cratering at age-36.
4. Oscar Robertson, 38,672: Robertson played two more seasons but was only very good for one of them.
5. Joe Johnson, 38,483: JJ had declined quite a bit by age-33 and was a reserve by the next season.
6. Dirk Nowitzki, 38,314: Dirk was still pretty good through age-36 but Dallas kept his minutes way down. Nowitzki hasn’t played 3,000 minutes in a season since 2009-10 when he was 31. By contrast, LeBron led the NBA in minutes last season.
On average, most of these comps had only one or two good years left. The counter argument is that James is a freak and can’t be compared to mere mortals like Joe Johnson or even Kobe. Indeed, James, though not quite the same player he was at his absolute peak, had his best stats season in 2017-18 since he was in Miami. I’m not sure what will happen but it does seem that the Lakers window with LeBron as a superstar is about two seasons and they shouldn’t waste even one of them.