Bucking The Trend? Time Will Tell for the NBA
The House That Giannis Built
The Milwaukee Bucks 2021 NBA Championship showed a path to an NBA seen on and off in the league’s history: front office discipline.
Of course, there was no veering from a star-driven course. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a generational talent and it’s only fair to currently call him the best player on the planet. After all, he was just NBA Finals MVP, including 50 points in the close-out game on the heels of back-to-back regular-season MVP seasons. However, the Bucks' dedication to acquiring very specific players around Antetokounmpo ultimately allowed them to break through.
Looking at the ensuing free agent frenzy through the lens of the Bucks makes it all the more interesting. Which teams targeted certain skillsets and which teams simply accumulated talent, hoping that it gels together into an overwhelming product?
The most obvious example of the latter is the Lakers. This is not only incredibly on-brand for the flashiest franchise in the league but for LeBron James, who has gone down this path before. James can get away with this in a way almost no other player in league history can because he’s the most complete player we’ve ever seen. He’s essentially a 6’9”, 260 lbs point guard with elite passing, rebounding, and post-up skills who is capable of guarding one through five when he sets his mind to it. While his defensive prowess has regressed as he nears the end of his career, his jump shot has become more reliable over time including 36.5% from deep last year.
In other words, who can’t James play with? While a much younger James figured it out with Dwyane Wade, we will see if he can do the same with Russell Westbrook. The former league MVP is essentially a smaller version of James stylistically with a motor that never stops. Can the two, traditionally ball-dominant triple-double machines, co-exist? Where does Carmelo Anthony fit with them? How does Anthony Davis, who at this point in their careers might be the best player on LA when all are healthy, get his touches and be most effective?
The Lakers bet is simple — these are high IQ players who have been around a long time and they’ll figure it out. There are good options. Pick and rolls with James and Westbrook could be devastating as well with either with Davis. Anthony’s role will likely be bench scorer while the others are resting.
The Washington Wizards
On the other end of the Westbrook trade were the Washington Wizards, who decided on an extremely pointed strategy to surround Bradley Beal. This was enough to keep the league’s second-leading scorer in 2020-21 happy and not request a trade and the question now is just how good can a Beal-led team be?
The Wizards' pieces compliment him perfectly. Spencer Dinwiddie is a defensive-minded, long, and athletic point guard who can score but doesn’t demand shots the way Westbrook did. Daniel Gafford was a revelation at center last year as pick and roll big and Thomas Bryant showed real potential as well in 2019 before missing last season with a torn ACL. Wings Deni Advia and Rui Hachimura will determine how good this team can be by how much they grow in years two and three respectively. Is this a team that can challenge Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee? Likely not, but it’s a worthwhile team-building experiment by GM Tommy Sheppard that could be instructive to other teams moving forward.
The other, less sexy force in this year’s free-agent decisions was continuity. After years over the last decade that saw over a quarter of the league’s players change team regularly via signing or trade, teams put an emphasis on staying put this year.
That notably includes the Golden State Warriors, who should vault back to the top of the Western Conference if Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Steph Curry (signed to a 4-year extension last week) stay healthy. Between their two lottery picks and Andrew Wiggins contract, the Warriors had ammo to make a major move and technically still do, but have instead decided to march forward with their veteran core and an army of young talent in support supplemented by versatile wings Otto Porter, Nemanja Bjelica and a returning Andre Iguodala.
So far this also includes the Philadelphia 76ers, though this could change after signing Joel Embiid to a supermax extension.
The Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers may provide us the ultimate test in the value of continuity versus fit. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid anchor a defensive monster in Philly, but their offensive skillsets leave much to be desired when put together. This almost entirely falls on Simmons's lack of willingness to shoot and his lack of efficacy when he does so. He’s said he’s dedicated to working this off-season to correcting that but is the damage already done to his relationships to Embiid, Doc Rivers, and others in the organization?
If so, there will be a fresh start and Philly will have to decide how much they value raw talent versus a perfect fit with Embiid in return. They will have options.
Then once all the dust settles, we watch and wait. Was Milwaukee’s dedication to continuity and fit a blueprint for future success or will teams like LA and Brooklyn, who stockpiled talent with the knowledge that there would be some bumps in the road, rise again to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy?