Go ahead and blame the Timberwolves for this one.
Their draft-night trade with Chicago for three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler was the first thunderbolt transaction from which everything else tumbled in a dizzying summer when eight All-Stars switched teams and the NBA’s balance of power largely continued to shift from East to West.
Butler, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Millsap all went west. Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas stayed in the same conference. Gordon Hayward was the only one to buck the trend, moving from Utah as a free agent to Boston in the East.
“That’s crazy,” Timberwolves 18-year veteran Jamal Crawford said. “It’s an interesting time. I thought the West was tough when I came over [to the L.A. Clippers] five, six years ago. It’s, like, unbelievable right now.”
The irony is that a summer of such stimulation and intrigue preceded a regular season in which crowning Golden State as champion once again appears a foregone conclusion.
Turner Sports NBA analyst Reggie Miller calls Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the Warriors a “super-mega team” unto itself.
“If they stay healthy, I hate to say it’s not close,” Miller said. “It really isn’t even close. It’s not even close, people.”
But the chase to keep up made much of the summer as eventful as an NBA regular season, another of which starts with two games Tuesday night. Included is Irving’s Celtics debut against his former team, the Cavaliers.
“In my 30 years, I’ve never, ever seen a summer with so much NBA buzz, arguably the most ever,” said Miller, a Basketball Hall of Famer who played 18 seasons and has done television commentating for 12. “Major players and superstars changing teams to rookies and a draft class with so much buzz and potential, you could not go a day, two days, a week, a month without a new story line. The ball got rolling with Jimmy Butler on draft night, and it has just been remarkable.”
’Round and ’round they went. Here’s where the biggest of the eight stars were sent:
Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves
The Wolves’ June trade with Chicago that reunited Butler with his former Bulls coach, Tom Thibodeau, started this summer of stars on the move.
When last season ended on a spring night in Houston, Thibodeau referenced his franchise’s 13 consecutive seasons missing the playoffs, saying he was sick of it after just one.
Butler’s acquisition sparked a series of moves — Crawford, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague added alongside young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — for a team seeking experience and leadership, all with the goal to at least reach the playoffs in a cutthroat Western Conference.
“I would be surprised if they do not make the playoffs with the talent level on that team,” Miller said. “I would be really surprised. The West is loaded, but Coach Thibs is pushing all his chips to the center. That was the big surprise on draft night, and it set a lot in motion. They’ve got to make the playoffs for this to be successful.”
Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston
The Celtics won 53 games a season ago and beat out NBA champion Cleveland for the Eastern Conference regular-season title before they lost to the Cavaliers in the conference finals.
Then they went out and brought back only four players from that team during a summer when they first signed free-agent Hayward and later traded for another All-Star: unhappy Cavs point guard Irving.
Gone is the grit — not to mention defense — that players such as Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson provided.
But they’ve gotten bigger by adding Irving for Thomas, by keeping Jaylen Brown and by drafting Jayson Tatum without sacrificing much in the name of speed and quickness.
Will it be enough to overcome Cleveland when it really matters in the East?
“I really like their team,” ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “They’re much better equipped to have long-term playoff success now than the team last year. That team last year, man, they were so impressive and they overachieved and I loved the individual seasons they got out of Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Crowder. But I just think for matchup purposes, they’re in a much better situation right now.”
Chris Paul, Houston
The L.A. Clippers traded the nine-time All-Star before he could walk as a free agent, and now the Rockets, with Paul and James Harden, have not one but two superstars who thrive with the ball in their hands.
But if you’re wondering how two such players will share the ball and the same moment late in games, maybe you’re asking the wrong question.
Which is: How much will Paul’s verve and resolve help lighten the load on Harden, who thrived as a point coach in new coach Mike D’Antoni’s system but appeared to tire at season’s end?
“You add a guy like Chris Paul and it takes the pressure off James Harden,” ESPN/ABC analyst and former Golden State coach Mark Jackson said. “Now you’re not forcing him to be great and making plays for himself and his teammates every single night and every single possession. The end of last season he physically was worn out because of the demand that was put on him, and rightfully so. If you’ve got him, you’ve got to use him.”
Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, OKC
The Wolves and Rockets went out last summer and added their All-Stars. Like Danny Ainge in Boston, Thunder GM Sam Presti went out and got two potential future Hall of Famers.
But will it work on a team where a third All-Star, Russell Westbrook, had to do everything in an MVP-winning season just to get the Thunder to sixth place in the West?
George gives Westbrook a much-needed second scorer alongside him. Anthony gives Oklahoma City a third, but he’s also a defensive liability in matchups against teams such as Golden State and Houston.
Miller calls the remade Thunder “must-watch TV,” if only to see how the ball will be distributed among the three stars.
“The one criticism about OKC down the stretch last year was they were a one-man band,” Miller said. “It was all Russell Westbrook. [Andre] Roberson couldn’t knock down threes, [Enes] Kanter couldn’t play down the stretch. Who is he going to throw the ball to? Now he has weapons, but chemistry takes time. That’s something why, as well as these other teams have reloaded, Golden State is head and shoulders above.”