With the Rockets knocking on the championship door and the Lakers seemingly within reach of a LeBron-led super team, this NBA summer was supposed to be about closing the gap between the Warriors and the few teams in a position to actually threaten them. Instead, within the first few hours of the 2018 free agency period, that gap, somehow, has widened.
First, Kevin Durant re-signed with Golden State on two-year, $61.5 million deal. Obviously the Warriors getting Durant back is a victory, but that part was expected. What perhaps wasn't expected was Durant, once again, taking a pay cut to help the already filthy-rich Warriors. Under his new deal, Durant will make $30 million next season. He was eligible to make $35.7 million.
So, what's a little less than six million bucks to some Silicon Valley billionaires? Not much in real life. But it sure makes salary-cap life easier on the Warriors, who can now effectively use that same amount to offset the addition of a taxpayer mid-level exception player like, say, Jamal Crawford or maybe even Avery Bradley.
So Golden State gets the second-best player in the world to return on a discount, probably saves close to $20 million in tax penalties in the process, and potentially positions itself to add a meaningful bench player for good measure. That was the first victory of the night.
From there, word came down that Paul George was going back to the Thunder, who are now sitting with a tax bill that could choke a hippo while being back to the same team that couldn't get out of the first round last year. It's not to diminish the significance of that move for the Thunder, who took the risk in trading for George last summer when they knew he could be a one-year rental and should be applauded for creating a team and culture attractive enough to lure him back. But the Thunder, as currently constructed, do not pose a realistic threat to the Warriors.
On the other hand, had George gone to the Lakers, who were all along thought to be the favorite to land him, to play alongside LeBron James? Now that would've been a threat. Throw Kawhi Leonard alongside them, and now you're looking at a team that might actually be favored to beat Golden State.
Instead, there is no such superteam to worry about.
Let's point out the obvious: The Lakers still got LeBron, which means they're immediately relevant and much more than that if they find a way to get Leonard, which they figure to do either this summer or next. But that LeBron-George-Kawhi triumvirate would've been the holy grail. That's the trio that would have really scared the Warriors, who were only really scared by one team a season ago: The Rockets.
Oh, yeah, about those Rockets.
In what can only be categorized as a perplexing move for both sides, Trevor Ariza left Houston to sign a one-year, $15 million deal with the Suns. Ariza isn't as sexy a name as LeBron or George, and as such, this move won't be talked about that much during the next few days. But Ariza was a major, major reason the Rockets were able to push the Warriors as far as they did in the conference finals. Chris Paul and James Harden are the headliners, but the real reason Houston gave Golden State so many problems was its defense. Specifically, its ability to switch all screens against all of Golden State's shooters with like-sized, tough, athletic defenders like P.J. Tucker and TREVOR ARIZA!
Seriously, Ariza was the perfect player in that Houston system -- a spot-up shooter to make defenses pay for collapsing down on Paul and Harden, and a versatile defender who can guard multiple positions and at least makes things difficult on a guy like Kevin Durant. That's where this really hurts the Rockets -- specifically against the Warriors, who have to be defended a certain way. The Rockets might be fine, more or less, without Ariza through the regular season. But they don't care about the regular season. The only thing they care about is beating the Warriors. And their chances of doing that just got a lot slimmer without Ariza.
I'm sure more news will come out on how the Rockets let Ariza get away, but whatever it was (likely money, plain and simple), it wasn't smart. The Suns gave him only a one-year deal, for crying out loud. It's not like they threw $60 million at him. They gave him $15 million. Maybe that's a bit more than Houston felt he was worth, but you're seriously going to balk over a few million bucks when you're already spending a small country's GDP on your roster?
Bear in mind, Houston just gave Chris Paul four years, $160 million, and being that there's a real chance that contract looks pretty heavy on the back end when Paul is north of 35 years old, don't you have an obligation to make sure you absolutely maximize the front end? For his part, couldn't Paul have taken a discount as Durant did for Golden State to keep a title-contending team together? Either way, didn't Daryl Morey say Houston was "obsessed" with beating Golden State? Apparently not that obsessed.
So, to recap: The Warriors got Kevin Durant back on a discount; the Lakers, who were supposed to be building a superteam to knock off the Warriors, struck out on Paul George; and the Rockets, the only team that was even remotely close to competing with the Warriors last year as currently constructed, got worse.
Just another day in the life of the rich getting richer.