The NBA season is large-scale, cyclical desquamation, gradually shedding teams and possibilities as it marches toward determining a single champion—and then suddenly rebooting itself. In the months leading up to October, all 30 teams theoretically have hope—sure, it’ll take some imagination and/or delusion to believe that the Houston Rockets will be good, but I guess Christian Wood is the kind of frisky all-terrain big that teams covet and Jalen Green will do some good dunks. Come February, the fine people of Cleveland and Sacramento spend their Tuesday night gathered around the TV for the new episode of NCIS or something like that. Around Easter, Portlandians and Indianapolitans fire up the Trade Machine on their phone while watching the second-round of the playoffs on their TVs. But now, all 30 teams are back in business, ready for their hot vaxxed and luxury-taxed summer. Accordingly, the opening hours of free agency can be interpreted as a mission statement of sorts, for teams, announcing what kind of year they want to have and what kind of franchise they think they’ll be.
In the boldest note of the offseason’s first stanza, the Los Angeles Lakers let the Washington Wizards gazump the Sacramento Kings’ Buddy Hield-centric proposal and traded a sizable chunk of their rotation for Russell Westbrook because, why not? The reasons this could fail are obvious: Westbrook, a point guard who treats NBA basketball games like VC-collecting stat binges in MyPlayer in 2K, seems unlikely to be a chill third banana; the combined salaries of Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis alone exceed the salary cap, making it difficult and maybe prohibitively expensive to build out a roster of legitimate NBA players; James and Westbrook both command—nay, demand—hefty usages and sources say there’s only one ball.
Betting on the Lakers’ failure, however, ignores a fundamental micro-change within the sport’s more macro-trends. Because shooting is universally regarded as the most important skill, it has become the most abundant skill—it’s nearly impossible for a role-playing wing to get minutes without meeting a certain threshold of shooting ability. As such, the Lakers easily added wings like Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington and Kent Bazemore without much effort on the first night of free agency; even beyond these signings, notable players of all ages are lobbying to come to LA. By making it a priority to add a disruptive, ball-dominant star to their cosmic gumbo rather than some flavorless shooter-type, the Lakers revealed an inefficiency in the way that NBA players are perceived: there’s so much emphasis placed on finding guys who facilitate the doing of stuff that people have lost sight of the necessity of guys who actually do stuff. No matter how good they are in their role, low-volume off-ball wings are the neckties of basketball, only having as much utility as their context allows.
Westbrook—flaws and all—gives the Lakers’ offense a third defense-distorting presence. Although Westbrook’s perimeter shooting stinks, it’s easy to stock the roster with enough three-point gusto to offset any one player’s waywardness, especially when that player provides world-historically great rim-pressure and playmaking. Like the Lakers in 2020 or the Bucks in 2021, these Lakers have a clarity of purpose and are seemingly poised to bash their way to a title by mere dint of being so oversized and so over-athletic that they ultimately become overwhelming.
Similarly, the Miami Heat have maneuvered themselves into becoming a putative contender. Coming off a disappointing post-bubble campaign, the Heat kicked-off free agency by signing PJ Tucker, and adding Kyle Lowry in a complicated sign-and-trade that they supposedly negotiated with the Toronto Raptors and Lowry’s agent in only 38 tamper-free minutes.
Despite Lowry being 35 years-old and short, he’s a much-needed salve for a Miami roster bereft of two-way players outside of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. Whereas last year’s rotation was cleaved between scorers/shooters (the freshly mega-rich Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro) and defensive specialists (Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza), Lowry excels at all aspects of the game. While he’s a creative offensive player with some off-the-dribble pep, his primary contribution is the osmotic intelligence with which he plays—no other point guard besides Chris Paul fosters such steadiness and competency in any lineup. Lowry creates instant synergy—his screen-setting and cutting will make him an excellent dance partner for Robinson; his pull-up shooting and passing will fit snugly in pick-and-rolls with Adebayo. Together, the trio of Lowry, Butler and Adebayo could be the purest distillation of that fabled Heat Culture, divining success from smarts and toughness rather than natural ability. The Heat clearly need more than Lowry to be an elite team, but, amidst hazy offseason positivity, demonstrating an intention to contend is akin to actually contending.
Whereas the Lakers and Heat sought to bolster their championship bonafides, the Chicago Bulls made a minor, more accessible declaration: they don’t want to be a joke anymore. For years, the Bulls operated with the cohesion of a small child’s story about their day at school, cursed by the two-headed, zero-brained beast known as GarPax. After a new front office was mercifully installed last year, the Bulls have made strides towards shedding their reputation as clowns and frauds. More, by tossing such a mammoth bag at Lonzo Ball, the Bulls firmly signaled that they plan on becoming a perennial playoff team. To a degree, they seem like they’re a tad behind schedule having missed last year’s play-in tournament, but this should be an honest-to-God good team; Zach Lavine and Nikola Vucevic are legitimate All-Stars and new additions like Ball and Alex Caruso will fit alongside Patrick Williams, Coby White and Thad Young to form the bones of a talented auxiliary group.
As a result, the Bulls are representative of the democratization of basketball hope: contracts are so short and the pool of gifted players is so deep that no season feels pre-destined for doom. While Chicago’s machinations don’t have any league-defining implications, the Bulls are proof of the delicate, sustaining possibilities that free agency offers. Survey the league—only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic are devoid of immediate promise. The advent of protracted trade demands and the play-in tournament and reshuffled lotto odds have conspired to incentivize goodness and punish intentional foulness. This kind of metatextual meddling from Klutch Sports and Adam Silver is hardly rhapsodic, but it’s practical and effective, pushing teams toward respectability. Every season carries excitement--now, it’s up to the teams to realize it.