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The NBA Is Getting More Interesting, If Not More Competitive

As we near the end of a weeklong frenzy of NBA signings and dealings, our NBA braintrust discusses which teams made themselves better and which got worse. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): OK! The draft is over and most of the major free agents have signed on the dotted lines. (Although I know we’re all waiting with bated breath to see if Washington matches the offer to Otto Porter.) So we thought now would be a good time to survey the NBA landscape and take stock of the biggest offseason moves.

First, I wanted to ask: Which team improved themselves the most in the offseason thus far?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Oklahoma City made a massive trade for Paul George that at least puts them in the conversation again. Maybe not for a title, but at least they’re interesting enough that I want to talk about them again. Minnesota also made some nice moves.

kyle (Kyle Wagner, senior editor): Yeah, it’s between OKC and Minnesota, but I’d go with Oklahoma City. Nate wrote that the Wolves are threatening to enter the Western Conference elite, but that’s based on a lot more hypotheticals than Oklahoma City returning to the mix. We’ve already seen the Thunder look like a championship-level team when they had Kevin Durant and the rest of the roster was largely the same. Paul George obviously isn’t KD, but the fit is similar enough that we have proof of concept. The Minnesota team looks much better, but we still have to see them play.

chris.herring: I would’ve been all in on the T-Wolves if they could’ve landed J.J. Redick. They still would’ve been light on defense, but all they really need is a shooter to be able to score with anyone.

kyle: Speaking of J.J., the 76ers are a good answer if we’re defining improvement as “Who’s going to see the biggest bump in win total?” It’s not nearly as hard to add wins from the bottom of the pile, but it’s good to see Philly fielding an actual team.

neil: I think that was an interesting comment Chris made earlier about what “the conversation” is: These are all teams that have become fun again, though not necessarily teams that are likely title contenders. Is that one of the themes of this offseason? That NBA junkies like us are looking for reasons to find teams interesting, but it’s less clear whether anyone is closer to knocking off the Warriors?

kyle: If anything, teams are getting further away from competing with the Warriors. San Antonio, for instance, beat the hell out of Golden State for two and a half quarters before Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza’s size 17s, but they haven’t fared well this offseason. They whiffed on a rumored swing at bringing on Chris Paul; they’ll be missing Tony Parker; they don’t seem to know what to do with LaMarcus Aldridge; and they haven’t locked up key rotation guys like Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon, who are in talks with other teams. (Simmons in particular is a flight risk, as he’s the kind of wing defender/scorer a lot of teams need and a long shot to take a San Antonio discount at age 28, having been one bad D-league tryout away from getting his barber’s license just a few years ago.)

Meanwhile, the Cavs haven’t yet been able to pull off a trade to bring in an extra star. Melo would help, but it’s hard to say how much, even when looking at the projections, since their sleepwalked regular season threw their projection off so much this past year.

chris.herring: And the Warriors very quietly added more talent while keeping all their main guys on totally reasonable deals. Not even sure how you’re supposed to compete with them when Durant takes a deal that’s worth $9 million less than market value.

Because of that, the free agent conversation begins to feel a bit academic. Who is realistically beating the Warriors over the next two years?

kyle: Right! The biggest key to building a championship team is finding stars who give you surplus value, whether it’s talented young guys on rookie deals and second contracts or superstars worth far more than even the max. With the Warriors, they have Steph projected to be outperforming his $201 million deal for the next five years and KD taking less than the max.

neil: And I think that whole feeling of league-wide ennui was fueled a little by this year’s free-agent class not necessarily being very star-packed. Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign with Boston received a lot of attention this week, but even he is only classified by CARMELO as a “borderline All-Star.”

(Ditto Paul George, who wasn’t a free agent but was, as you mention, maybe the biggest name on the move.)

This wasn’t KD and LeBron changing addresses.

chris.herring: There are two teams that intrigue me a bit, that could be in the playoffs now but weren’t before: Denver and Minnesota.

Denver got an absolute steal in Paul Millsap on a three-year, $90 million deal. The last year of the contract is a team option. One of the best contracts of the summer thus far. That Northwest division could be tough.

kyle: Yeah, Hayward and George have near-identical five-year projections just about in line with what they can be paid on a max deal, prorated for four years. That’s obviously very good, but simply living up to a max deal traditionally hasn’t been good enough for the best player on a championship team. For now, Boston still has a ton of young talent on cheap deals (and Isaiah Thomas playing for a little more than $6 million in his final season before unrestricted free agency), but the Celtics still have no one creating value at the top end.

Oklahoma City, meanwhile, has Russell Westbrook projecting to produce about $80 million in 2017-18 alone. Westbrook’s projection is a little nutty because of his preposterous MVP season, and his game will change a ton now that he’s not the only gun in the valley, but it’s a more promising starting point for the next few seasons. But even then, OKC is capped out enough that adding pieces to truly challenge Golden State (such as Rudy Gay) remains a long shot.

neil: OK, so it sounds like little has been done to close the gap between Golden State and the rest of the West. But while we’re speaking of Hayward and the Celtics, are they (or anybody else) closer to being competitive with Cleveland in the East?

chris.herring: The Celtics might be the future of the East, depending on what happens after this season with LeBron. Though I have to think he’d avoid going west given how much of a free ride the Eastern Conference will be for the foreseeable future. That said, I’d be beyond shocked if Boston takes out Cleveland unless they add one more star.

kyle: Boston’s problems in their series were what to do when Isaiah wasn’t firing and the offense breaks down, and Hayward doesn’t solve that. He was a strong pick-and-roll scorer last season, but the Celtics offense runs on movement and passing — when things go bad, they haven’t been equipped to hustle up an impromptu high screen. And if the Celtics are going to rely on Hayward to just muscle up some buckets, they may be disappointed — he was a middling isolation player last season, scoring 82 points per 100 plays, according to Synergy.

neil: I was stunned to plug Boston’s depth chart — including Hayward — into CARMELO and get a 45-win projection back out. I’d still probably take the over on that, but it underscores how much work these other teams have to do.

kyle: Yeah, and this goes back to a pillar of Boston plan, which has been to hoard “assets” who are good rotation players, but not much better than any other playoff team’s average starter. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are good players, but at some point your roster full of 45-win talent isn’t a pile of assets — it’s just your roster.

chris.herring: I’ll one-up you, Kyle. What about a 55-win roster that can’t win anything past a first-round series? Because that’s what you have with the Clippers. Only now they don’t have Chris Paul, either.

They are paying a whole lot of money to be decent these next few years. Huge, $173 million payout to Blake Griffin. Big money for Gallinari, who I love, but who also can’t stay healthy. They’re spinning this as the best frontcourt in the league, with DeAndre Jordan. But what about their backcourt? And why is Doc still in charge of personnel?!

neil: Yeah — while most teams in recent years have been trying to get out of the no-man’s land between contending and rebuilding, the Clippers seem like they just locked themselves in that zone for a while.

chris.herring: I have a feeling Toronto just did the same thing. Although I’d have a hard time blowing everything up if LeBron might be leaving Cleveland in a year, too.

kyle: Yeah, the Clippers’ frontcourt will be amazing for the 20-odd games they’re on the court together. I do love Gallo, though, who’s a really underrated player and drives the lane like he’s running from the cops on stilts.

But I respect teams not just immediately tearing down. This is the first extended run of success the team has had in god knows how long. It’s a bummer that they’re not sniffing the Warriors’ contrails, but putting out a basketball team that doesn’t raise Clippers fans’ depression rate is an OK place for them to be.

neil: And just to bring it back to the “interesting” (if not championship-level) teams angle, maybe that’s an encouraging sign for the league next year. Between the Chris Paul experiment in Houston; these new free agents; Denver; and maybe the most compelling future team, the Pelicans, who scarcely made a splash this offseason, it seems like we’ll have plenty of interesting teams and rosters, even if the Warriors are heavy favorites again (and again, and again).

chris.herring: The NBA’s got me addicted. I can’t quit now, even if we pretty much know how this will end this time next year.

kyle: And the rookies! This year’s lottery class will add a bunch of entertaining League Pass teams, and CARMELO has a bunch slated as great prospects. Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball at the top are both on interesting young teams (the Sixers more so than the Lakers, obviously), but teams like the Kings (with De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles and second-year Buddy Hield) or Hornets (with Malik Monk pairing with Kemba Walker, who’s become a legitimate star) will be a lot of fun.

neil: Lonzo in L.A. alone should be worth the price of admission.

kyle: Without the Warriors, this would be one of the most entertaining, wide-open eras the league has ever seen. With them around, the season should be a hell of a party before the scheduled execution.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Kyle Wagner is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.