It was hard to catch a breath this summer. The dust hadn’t cleared from the Jimmy Butler trade when Chris Paul and Paul George were dealt. Then, free agency started, and Gordon Hayward left. Derrick Rose joined LeBron James. Breathe in, and — Kyrie Irving wants out? Say WHAT?!?! He got flipped for Isaiah Thomas, and we still had a month to relax before training camp. Nope. Carmelo Anthony teamed with George and Russell Westbrook. Dwyane Wade joined LeBron and D-Rose. OK, breathe out.
All in all, 15 former All-Stars changed uniforms. That’s a lot to digest, and when you tune in for the start of the season, there will probably be a few “Oh, I forgot that guy was on this team” moments. So, as a refresher, in addition to breaking down all 30 teams in our season preview series, we ranked all 15 of those former All-Stars in terms of how big an impact they will have on the league this season:
You’ll hear that Howard has changed. You’ll be told a reunion with former Magic assistant and current Hornets head coach Steve Clifford could revitalize his career. And you’ll see Howard go coast-to-coast. And you will think, Hey, maybe Howard *could* be that guy again — the one who won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards and led a team to the Finals at age 23. Let this be a warning.
They said the same thing in Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta, and he played his way out of every rotation. Howard turns 32 in December. He is who he is, and that’s someone who the Hornets will wish they didn’t have to pay $47 million for two more years. Howard averaged a double-double on 63 percent shooting last season, but this isn’t about stats. It’s about a guy disinterested in fitting a system. He wants the system to fit him, even though he can’t carry the team and the game is phasing out his ilk.
14. Rajon Rondo signs with the New Orleans Pelicans. July 15, 2017.
• The Bulls waive Rajon Rondo, ending a very weird partnership after one year
• Rajon Rondo signs one-year deal with Pelicans
• BDL’s 2017-18 Season Previews: New Orleans Pelicans, an odd NBA experiment
I was on Rondo Island as long as anyone — through his ACL surgery in Boston, even after he quit on Dallas. I stopped defending him when he slung a homophobic slur at a referee. And once you’re off that island, you have a whole new perspective on the four-time All-Star who was electric at his best. Rondo’s no longer quirky; he’s a petulant stat-chaser who ruffles coaches and teammates alike. Oh yeah, and now he has another injury that required surgery.
But he played like a wizard in Chicago’s first-round series against Boston before injuring his hand, the Bulls voted Rondo their best teammate, and Taj Gibson thinks Rondo could be president. And I don’t know what to make of the Pelicans signing Rondo. Could he steer Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins to the playoffs? Or will his inability to shoot shrink that towering tandem’s workspace? I lean toward the latter, and I can’t believe it’s almost been five years since his knee injury. I’m getting old, and so is he.
13. Zach Randolph signs with the Sacramento Kings. July 4, 2017.
• The Kings need vets like George Hill and Zach Randolph, even in rebuilding mode
• The Grizzlies aren’t waiting until Zach Randolph retires to retire his No. 50
• BDL’s 2017-18 Season Previews: Sacramento Kings, feeling the joy of starting over
An old-school power forward complete with old-man moves, Randolph was an invaluable part of the Grit ‘n’ Grind era in Memphis, bringing rugged toughness alongside Marc Gasol in the frontcourt and unleashing an array of offensive moves in the post and midrange. Even at age 35, as he finally made the transition to a bench role, Randolph was an effective player, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes per game.
Randolph has seen it all in this league, getting his start with the Jail Blazers and making stops on terrible Knicks and Clippers teams before emerging as a two-time All-Star in Memphis. He knows how to find his way in the NBA, and it is for that reason that his signing in Sacramento made so much sense for the Kings. The Kings will still struggle with Randolph on the roster, but his value will come as a been-there-done-that mentor to young bigs Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Harry Giles.
12. Derrick Rose signs with the Cleveland Cavaliers. July 24, 2017.
Rose was better for the Knicks last season than he was for the Bulls the year before, but he still wasn’t good — and nowhere near the player he was before tearing his left ACL in 2012. What made him so special was his explosiveness off the dribble and at the rim, and we miss watching that guy. The Cavaliers, of course, insist he’s much improved in training camp, but we’ll believe it when we see it.
Rose showed flashes of brilliance in New York, but he still can’t shoot. And if he’s expected to be a starter when the season opens, as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue suggests, how does he fit into an offense with LeBron James dominating the ball? And how does he share a backcourt with Dwyane Wade, another non-shooter? Rose seems better suited as a backup point guard, capable of sparking the second unit for short stints when (if?) Isaiah Thomas gets back. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to Thomas, too.)
11. Brook Lopez is traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. June 20, 2017.
Lopez is good. He’s not great defensively, but he’s a big body and gave the Nets 20 points a night for almost the entirety of his nine years in New Jersey and Brooklyn, earning a trip to the 2013 All-Star Game in the process. He even added a 3-point shot last season and could have been a helpful player on a playoff team, if he weren’t playing for one of the sorriest organizations in recent NBA memory.
The Lakers haven’t been much better in recent years, but they’re on their way up, with a young roster that features a trio of recent lottery picks, all of whom should benefit from playing with a veteran who knows what it’s like to be the good soldier on a rebuilding team. And they might help Lopez, too, as Lonzo Ball looks like the kind of playmaking point guard who will reward a savvy big putting in work.
10. Dwyane Wade signs with the Cleveland Cavaliers. September 26, 2017.
This isn’t the Wade we remember. Let’s get that out of the way up top. Granted, he averaged 18.3 points per game for Chicago last season, but his true shooting percentage barely eclipsed 50 percent, and he battled an elbow injury after years of knee problems in Miami. The Bulls thought enough of the 35-year-old to essentially pay him $16 million to play for a conference rival this season. So, there’s that.
But we’re only a year removed from Wade submitting a sublime playoff performance that nearly pushed the Heat to the 2016 Eastern Conference finals. He’s now playing on a roster that can afford to limit his minutes, alongside LeBron James, whose love for Wade seems to have rejuvenated the future Hall of Famer. Wade probably won’t make much of a difference against the Golden State Warriors, but he gives Cleveland one more arrow in its quiver to help hold off the rest of the East contenders.
9. Jeff Teague signs with the Minnesota Timberwolves. July 1, 2017.
Teague replaces Ricky Rubio in Minnesota. He may not be the playmaking wizard the young Spaniard is, but the former Pacers and Hawks point guard isn’t much of a drop-off defensively. And he brings a scoring dimension to the position that the Timberwolves haven’t had maybe since Sam Cassell in the early 2000s, which perhaps not coincidentally is the last time the Wolves were in the playoff hunt.
The question is whether Teague can orchestrate an offense that will require touches and high usage for Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and another guy we’ll get to on this list. He found ways to make that work on a Hawks team boasting three other All-Stars that won 60 games in 2014-15, and he placated Paul George to a point in Indiana last year, so he certainly has experience massaging egos.
8. Isaiah Thomas is traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. August 22-30, 2017.
• Isaiah Thomas’ hip may be the key to the Cavs-Celtics blockbuster
• Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, alternate timelines and the impossibility of grading the trade
• BDL’s 2017-18 Season Previews: Cleveland Cavaliers, for whom nothing is certain
If this were the Thomas of 2016-17 — the 5-foot-9 point guard who scored 29 points per game, owned the fourth quarter and emerged as an MVP candidate on the Celtics — he would jump a few spots on this list. That guy, paired with Jae Crowder, might represent an upgrade in the Kyrie Irving trade, regardless of what becomes of the draft picks in the deal. But this is not the Thomas of last season.
This is the Thomas whose re-aggravated chronic hip injury held up the trade for a week and will cost him at least the first three months of the season. If he returns anywhere close to the player who carried Boston to the conference finals before the Cavs’ 2018 playoff run, he, along with Crowder, make Cleveland a formidable contender. Without him, though, questions in Cleveland abound. That is the risk.
7. Carmelo Anthony is traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. September 23, 2017.
The Thunder made a bigger move this offseason, which we’ll get to, but the acquisition of a volume scorer who’s been to 12 of the last 13 All-Star Games (including 10 straight) shouldn’t be shortchanged, even if he is 33 years old. Anthony copped to losing motivation as his New York Knicks tenure came to a bizarre close, complete with the team president publicly criticizing his ability and will to win. Even then, he was a top-25 scorer, and he’s telling anyone who will listen that he’s re-energized in OKC.
Anthony will start at power forward, where he enjoyed the best year of his career in 2012-13, and the Thunder are banking on him becoming more Olympics Melo than Blackhole Melo. He has created the Hoodie Melo persona this summer, so who knows how effective he will be in Oklahoma City, or if he’ll play any defense, but it’s all gravy when he comes for the price of Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott.
6. Paul Millsap signs with the Denver Nuggets. July 3, 2017.
Millsap may be a 32-year-old who ended last season gutting through a knee injury on the Atlanta Hawks, but he’s built like a brick you-know-what house and is remarkably consistent, averaging right around 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three combined blocks and steals for each of the past seven seasons. Don’t expect that to be much different in Denver, where he’ll benefit from the eye-popping playmaking skills of young Serbian center Nikola Jokic at the helm of a potent offense.
The real benefit will come if Millsap pays it forward to Jokic on the defensive end, where the veteran was a rock on the Hawks. The Nuggets were a disaster defensively in 2016-17, and two-way brilliance is what earned Millsap four straight trips to the All-Star Game, so he should be a bonus on both ends for a team that relied heavily on old-school power forward contributions from Kenneth Faried a year ago.
5. Kyrie Irving is traded to the Boston Celtics. August 22-30, 2017.
Irving is an other(flat)worldly talent. He looked every bit Stephen Curry’s peer in consecutive Finals appearances for the Cavs, dropping 40 points on multiple occasions and showing the stones to knock down one of the most clutch shots in basketball history and deliver Cleveland its first NBA title. He’s also 25 years old and supremely confident he’s capable of so much more beyond LeBron’s shadow.
So, why did Cleveland trade him, and why isn’t he higher on this list? Well, Boston cashed in considerable assets for Irving’s services, dealing Thomas, Crowder, an unprotected first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets and more in return. That may temporarily disrupt the chemistry that propelled the Celtics to 53 wins and the Eastern Conference finals, but Irving remains under contract for this season and next, and the possibility he could become a transcendent talent was well worth the risk.
4. Jimmy Butler is traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. June 22, 2017.
Butler has improved every season, transforming from the last pick in the first round of the 2011 draft to one of the league’s 15 best players by age 27. Much of his ascension came under Tom Thibodeau’s watch in Chicago. And the Bulls figured it was a good idea to gift Butler to Thibodeau in Minnesota in exchange for a rehabbing Zach LaVine in the final year of his rookie contract, underwhelming 2016 top-five pick Kris Dunn and possibly even more underwhelming 2017 top-10 pick Lauri Markkanen.
We don’t know what will become of those three in Chicago, but we know what Butler was for the Bulls: a player capable of putting a playoff scare into the top-seeded Celtics almost all by himself. So, we have a good handle on what he’ll be for the Wolves: someone who should help mold a fun, young roster into a postseason staple. The only reason Butler isn’t higher on this list is the fact that the next three guys have a real shot to propel their teams to the conference finals this season.
3. Gordon Hayward signs with the Boston Celtics. July 4, 2017.
Maybe it’s the hair. Maybe we’ve frozen Hayward in time as the underdog who nearly knocked off Duke. Whatever the reason, we severely underrate Hayward. A high-volume 40 percent 3-point shooter who can break defenses down in the pick-and-roll and finish over defenders at the rim, Hayward led the Jazz through the Western Conference gauntlet to 51 wins and the second round of the playoffs.
There isn’t much Hayward can’t do on a basketball court. He’s not LeBron, but as one of the league’s most efficient playmaking quick forwards and an above-average defender, Hayward can mirror a large percentage of what the four-time MVP can do, and that’s no small concession for a Celtics team hoping to unseat the Cavaliers in the East. Neither is the fact Hayward will be joining his old Butler coach Brad Stevens, who might be able to unlock another level to the 27-year-old’s game.
Before Irving arrived in Boston, Hayward was the most important free-agent signing of the summer and represented a massive upgrade, even if it cost the Celtics Avery Bradley in a cap-clearing move.
2. Chris Paul is traded to the Houston Rockets. June 28, 2017.
Paul’s partnership with the Los Angeles Clippers ended after six seasons. In that span, he established himself as one of the great point guards in league history, even as the Clips endured playoff heartbreak after playoff heartbreak. The nine-time All-Star now joins fellow floor general James Harden, who just submitted one of the best offensive campaigns ever, only to have it end in embarrassing fashion.
It’s an odd partnership, to say the least — one that could end in a breakup after one season — and it didn’t come without a price. Houston sent a third of its playoff rotation back to L.A. for CP3’s services. But Paul’s arrival provides myriad possibilities for the Rockets, the most important of which will be the team’s ability to play an elite playmaker for 48 minutes and still keep each fresh for the playoffs.
1. Paul George is traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. June 30, 2017.
• Thunder go all in with stunning trade for Paul George
• Paul George deal shows how serious Thunder are about Russell Westbrook
• BDL’s 2017-18 Season Previews: Oklahoma City Thunder, the West’s looming threat
George played with two All-Stars during his Indiana Pacers tenure. The first was Danny Granger, whose knees started giving out on him in 2009, before Paul George was Paul Freaking George, and the second was Roy Hibbert, who played his way out of the NBA by age 30. George will now share the court with two future Hall of Famers this season, including the reigning MVP. Which is a longwinded way of saying we have no idea how good George could be when he’s not the sole focus of every team’s game plan.
He went toe-to-toe with LeBron in back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances before breaking his leg, and he’s actually been more productive and efficient in the two years since his return. It’s just that he’s been playing for a team that relied heavily on Monta Ellis and Lance Stephenson in the playoffs. Swap them for Westbrook and Anthony, and there’s no telling what heights George might reach now that he’s motivated by both a thirst for winning and impending free agency.
Meanwhile, the Thunder traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to get him, which is like dealing a pair of McDonald’s hamburgers for a filet mignon from Ruth’s Chris. Not only will OKC enjoy George’s added value for at least one season, they also avoid the pit that Oladipo’s contract leaves in your stomach.
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