Basketball free agency opened with the first minute of Saturday morning, but even before that piranha frenzy began, the NBA already had won the offseason — again. This league holds the deed to summer. Owns it.
Like a rich man counting all of the money he makes on interest alone, commissioner Adam Silver revels in a new golden age for his sport. Who needs games? The more interesting competition is watching the chess pieces move, seeing the power shift.
Football continues as the more popular sport. Baseball hangs on to its National Pastime nomenclature. But basketball is where the players are the show, where one or two stars aligning just right can change the galaxy.
And 2017 reminds us it doesn’t take the seismic shift of a whale changing teams, a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant, for the NBA to stay all over the air and in headlines between seasons.
This NBA’s blockbuster summer started with the June draft that saw Boston trade the overall No. 1 pick — the draft hijacked by LaVar Ball, his son, Lonzo, and their $499 sneakers. Not since LeBron in 2003 has a rookie entered the league with more searing heat on him than the kid the Lakers chose second overall.
Then, as an appetizer to free agency”
Houston adds Chris Paul to James Harden via mega-trade to try to challenge the Golden State juggernaut. Steph Curry re-signs with the Warriors with a record contract. Chicago deals Jimmy Butler. Atlanta trades for Dwight Howard. Cleveland sacks its general manager. The Knicks fire Phil Jackson. The ghost of Carmelo Anthony is there for the taking. Oh, and Kevin Durant is a free agent — though everybody knows he’ll stay with Golden State. Right?
And Friday — Bam! Bam! — Paul George is traded to Oklahoma City to join Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin re-signs with the Los Angeles Clippers.
(Top that, free agency!)
The latter two moves underline the Western Conference’s ever-lopsided advantage over the East.
The two moves also clear a path and fine-tune what Pat Riley and the Miami Heat must now do.
Sign Gordon Hayward. Get him. Win him. Period.
That is now the litmus test for summer success. Miami had wanted Hayward but with Griffin there as a possible Plan B, a safety net. Now it’s all in on Hayward.
The George trade helped the Heat. Boston — Miami’s main competition for Hayward — had hoped to trade for George partly to entice Hayward to wear green. Now that large bargaining chip is lost to the Celtics.
Golden State’s dominance, Houston adding Paul and OKC getting George has the power skewing even further to the West, but free agency is the East’s chance to fire back and close the gap, however modestly, as Miami and Boston go head to head for the biggest remaining prize, Hayward.
Landing Hayward, a versatile in-his-prime forward who averaged 22 points and can score the three-ball, would be Riley’s biggest summer score since LeBron in 2010 — the basketball weight of it accentuated by purely personal reasons.
Riley and Celtics president Danny Ainge — now direct competitors jousting for Hayward — have an animus for each other dating to the 1980s. Most recently it flared publicly in 2013, when Ainge complained about LeBron complaining about officiating.
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the f--- up and manage his own team,” Riley scolded in a statement issued by the club — expletive and all. “He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing, and I know that because I coached against him.”
Ainge shot back, saying, “I don’t care about Pat Riley,” and then poking fun at Riley’s “Armani suits and all that hair goop.”
What other sport gives you that kind of public venom between such prominent club executives? Executives who now just happen to be going one-on-one for a prize both covet? Riley vs. Ainge is the most interesting thing yet to come in this extraordinary NBA summer.
Miami hopes to join Hayward with Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic, then retain at least one of its own top two free agents, James Johnson or Dion Waiters. (Miami’s big hope: That the market for Johnson and Waiters proves modest enough that the Heat might be able to afford to keep both.)
Boston can offer Hayward a team that was No. 1 seed in the East last season, and has his old college coach in Brad Stevens. The Heat parry with a team that went 30-11 the second half of the season.
The thing is, in today’s NBA, a reframing of hopes and expectations is realistically required.
Curry’s Warriors won a championship, then won more games than any team ever, then added Durant, then won another championship. No team in any sport is better-positioned (presuming good health) to stay on top for the foreseeable future.
So what is a Miami fan to think?
It’ll take more than this-plus-Hayward to beat Golden State. But maybe not to get to Golden State.
Winning the East should be the Heat’s privately held next goal, and that will require two things of Riley.
One: Beating Ainge, whom he palpably dislikes, to win Hayward.
Two: Beating LeBron, who shocked, hurt and angered Riley the way he left, to win the East.
What, short of another parade down Biscayne Boulevard, would make Riley happier than first topping Ainge and then toppling LeBron?