The 2018 NBA free agency period is entering its third day, and…some things have happened.
The biggest thus far has been LeBron James choosing to relocate to LA and join the Los Angeles Lakers on a reported four-year, $154 million contract. The arrival of James returns the Lakers to relevance if not yet prominence and positions the team as a prime destination now and into the future, with Kawhi Leonard or a bought-out Carmelo Anthony potentially joining him. With or without help, though, he’ll likely drag the Lakers to the playoffs much the same way he did the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, single-handedly turning the team into a force.
That news was followed by the decidedly more shocking report that center DeMarcus Cousins would be joining the back-to-back NBA Champion Golden State Warriors on the taxpayer midlevel exception of $5.3 million. If Cousins, who is coming off a ruptured left Achilles, can regain his pre-injury form, he gives the juggernaut Warriors a four-time All Star who was averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds before he went down Jan. 26. Most importantly, the Warriors and general manager Bob Myers can breathe a sigh of relief at securing a replacement for departed free agent center JaVale McGee.
Outside the seismic events reshaping the Pacific Division, there were other moves of consequence as well. The Dallas Mavericks agreed to terms with DeAndre Jordan on a one-year deal in the range of $24 million after Mark Cuban got Jordan to pinky promise that it was for realsies this time. Rajon Rondo, like Cousins, left the bayou for the beach, jumping on the LA bandwagon with the Lakers. And Julius Randle bolted the LeBron and Lonzo Show for a deal with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant (Warriors), Chris Paul (Houston Rockets), Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic), J.J. Redick (Philadelphia 76ers), and Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz) all chose to re-up with their teams from last season.
The important takeaway? The concentration of talent in the West continues.
It started on Draft Night, when the top four selections all headed to Western Conference teams. Now James, the dominant force in the Eastern Conference for the last eight seasons, has elected to go west as well. That means the 2017-18 MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year runner-up, Sixth Man of the Year, and two-thirds of the players on the All-NBA Teams now reside in the Western Conference. Furthermore, the only active player to have won an MVP — regular season or Finals — who still plays out East is Dwyane Wade (2005-06 NBA Finals MVP).
It’s as though the NBA’s elite are all agented by Horace Greeley.
And that’s not good news for the Phoenix Suns. By virtue of residing in the Pacific Division, the Suns are guaranteed of facing both Showtime LeBron and Oakland’s Big Five four times next season. Then there’s Houston, which hasn’t gone anywhere and was arguably the best team in the NBA last season when it won 65 games. Utah should be improved as Donovan Mitchell grows into a star. The same for Dallas, with them adding Jordan to a young core of Harrison Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr., and Luka Doncic. Minnesota and Oklahoma City still have solid foundations spearheaded by All-NBA talents. New Orleans still has MVP finalist Anthony Davis. San Antonio might never die, with or without Leonard. And youthful Denver could have been a playoff team last season with a healthy Paul Millsap.
So how has Phoenix prepared for this meat grinder? They shored up center by drafting Deandre Ayton, traded for rookie small forward Mikal Bridges, then threw a wad of cash at small forward Trevor Ariza despite already having T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson at the three. Watching the Suns stockpile small forwards has had the distinct feel of the “You get a car!” episode of Oprah, except instead of her pointing at different people, she pointed at the same person over and over. Unless general manager Ryan McDonough’s plan was to use his glut of small forwards to form Voltron, the Suns are in for a world of hurt — again.
The Suns still don’t have that upgrade at point guard, and with their cap space gone — poof! — they must now resort to salary-matching trades in an environment that hasn’t exactly been freewheeling if they wish to make that upgrade. There is still time, as training camp is almost three months away, but as teams’ plans crystallize, there is an increasing chance the Suns enter training camp selling fans on a resurgent Brandon Knight.
Phoenix has been more active than last summer in trying to improve the roster, which is commendable. But the harsh truth is that adding Knight, Ariza, Ayton, and Bridges to a team that went 21-61 last season isn’t enough to compete for a playoff berth, especially with the improvements made by the competition in the über-competitive West.
It’s hardly Day 3 of free agency. The moratorium hasn’t even lifted. But the 2018-19 campaign out West is shaping up like the Twelve Labors of Hercules, only in Phoenix’s case, Hercules has been replaced by Randy, the operations manager at Bed Bath & Beyond.