Let the NBA’s Silly Season begin

If you love spectacle, the 2023 NBA Draft delivered spectacularly — from impossible height by Victor Wembanyama to bejeweled smile by Scoot Henderson to blinding flash of Gradey Dick’s blazer. If you enjoy suspense, you’ve got Cam Whitmore’s mysterious, agonizing plunge, from presumed top-10 pick to 20th overall selection. If you’re into raw, human emotion, the night provided enough hugs, tears and gasps to last the summer.

And for the history buffs, there were plenty of amusing footnotes: Wembanyama, the first Frenchman to go No. 1 overall (to San Antonio); twins Amen and Ausar Thompson, the first siblings in the top five (Amen to Houston, Ausar to Detroit); and in the clearest sign yet of a rapidly changing landscape, five of the first seven prospects came either from overseas or from an American developmental league rather than the college route.

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But if you’re a transaction-devouring, rumor-mongering, Twitter-obsessed drama hater, well, you probably got away sadder than the Hornets mascot. FYI: Damian Lillard was not traded. Neither was Zion Williamson. Nor Paul George or Pascal Siakam or any of the highly speculated picks in the upper part of the lottery. Almost every team stood pat — and mostly took the players they were expected to, in roughly the order the pundits predicted.

It was, in many ways, a surprisingly humming wood night – but perhaps just a momentary lull before the summer storm. This is the modern NBA, after all, where disillusioned superstars are forever seeking better teams and bigger stages, and the next blockbuster is forever on the way.

“It’s going to be an active summer,” an Eastern Conference team executive confidently assured me over the weekend. Fireworks are coming. Not Fourth of July level fireworks, but maybe a notch below. “Like Memorial Day,” he said.

The pyrotechnics began in the days leading up to the draft, with the Washington Wizards shipping star guard Bradley Beal to Phoenix, in exchange for Chris Paul, who was later dealt to the Golden State Warriors, who in turn sent Jordan Poole to Washington. The Wizards also sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Boston Celtics in a three-team deal that saw defensive ace Marcus Smart move from Boston to Memphis. And if you believe the rumors, there’s a lot more to come, possibly involving luminaries like Lillard, Williamson, Paul George, Karl-Anthony Towns and Pascal Siakam, among others.

Of course, the NBA rumor mill almost always outpaces the actual number of marquee trades and signings. But a crazy off-season – which officially begins on Friday at 6 p.m. ET, with the opening of free agency – feels inevitable. We just witnessed one of the tightest seasons in modern history, followed by one of the wildest postseasons ever, punctuated by a Finals where a perennially underrated underdog beat an eighth seed.

More parity means more belief, and more belief means more teams striving win now. Few teams sacrifice wins for draft positioning anymore. Some team leaders suggest that dynamism can handle it harder to make trades. But it also increases the need to keep up with your rivals.

On top of all that, there’s a new labor deal that comes into effect on July 1, offering draconian new penalties for big money spenders who have half the league on the line to reduce their wages – which could mean more wage dumps as those involving Beal, Paul and Poole. On Monday, it was the Atlanta Hawks who shed payroll by trading veteran John Collins to the Utah Jazz for the cheaper Rudy Gay and a second rounder. according to ESPN.

“The teams that are very close to winning aren’t going to do it,” one Western Conference team manager told me about contract dumping. “But any team that’s methodical, that thinks long term, they’re going to do it.”

So get ready for a wild ride. All eyes around the league right now are on the Pacific Northwest, where the Blazers and Lillard are embroiled in an awkward battle over the franchise’s direction and decision-making. Considered the greatest player in franchise history, Lillard has been vocal (and public) about wanting immediate, veteran upgrades to the roster to end a two-season playoff drought. He turns 33 next month. He can’t afford to wait for another crop of neophytes to bloom.

And yet on draft night, the Blazers kept their No. 3 pick and used it to nab Henderson—a superb talent who could eventually become a superstar and the new face of the franchise. Press on finally. A ball-dominant guard, Henderson might not be the easiest fit next to the ball-dominant Lillard either. But the Blazers either didn’t find a trade that appealed to them, or didn’t try very hard — it’s not entirely clear. (They briefly discussed a trade for Henderson with Paul George, according to a rival executive. “If they were really set on giving up Scoot, they could have gotten a really good return,” the Western Conference executive said. don’t think they were dedicated enough to do so.”) What is clear is that the Blazers are no better positioned to make a deep playoff run now than they were two months ago.

Conventional wisdom among rival teams is that both Lillard and the team would be better off parting ways. But Blazers officials don’t want to trade the greatest player in franchise history unless forced to. And Lillard, who has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to Portland, doesn’t want to force anything.

“It’s a marriage of convenience where both sides, Dame and the team, don’t want to ask for a divorce,” is how another Western Conference team official put it. “Both sides want it, both sides will welcome it, but neither side wants to say it, so we continue to dance.”

And yet, the rival executives seem certain that a divorce is on the way, whether it’s sometime this summer or early next season if the Blazers get off to a bad start. The expectation is that he will either land in Brooklyn (to play with close friend Mikal Bridges) or in Miami (to team up with close friend Bam Adebayo). “I think they end up trading him,” the Eastern Conference executive said. “The time has come.”

A Lillard trade might be the match that sets off the fireworks show. “Everybody’s waiting for Dame,” said the first Western Conference manager. “Once the Dame situation is cleared up, that’s the domino that has to fall for everyone else to move.”

Rivals are eyeing Towns (Minnesota), Williamson (New Orleans), Deandre Ayton (Phoenix) and Zach LaVine (Chicago) as potential marquee trade pieces, though there is skepticism that any of them will be moved this summer. The Clippers, after gauging the market for George in recent weeks, now appear intent on keeping him. Team executives expect to see big moves from Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago and New Orleans, along with a continued decline in Washington.

Meanwhile, the free-agent class is lacking, in part because most of the big names are expected to stay put. James Harden has flirted with Houston, his former team, but appears to be staying in Philadelphia. Draymond Green opted out of his contract but is widely expected to re-sign with the Warriors. The same goes for Bucks free agents Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez. Russell Westbrook looks set to stay with the Clippers. And everyone expects Kyrie Irving to re-sign in Dallas, in part because no one else seems that eager to hire him. If all that holds, then the most prominent names to switch teams could be a Fred VanVleet, or a Kyle Kuzma, or a Grant Williams, or a Jerami Grant.

That would be consistent with what we saw on draft night, where the teams with the most enticing picks all stood pat and the biggest names traded were Richaun Holmes (Sacramento to Dallas) and Davis Bertans (Dallas to Memphis ).

“It’s not going to be a dud, but it’s not going to be an incredible summer either,” predicted the first Western Conference leader. “It will be a little, a little more active than woodchucks.”

Then again, this is the modern NBA, where James Harden can force two blockbuster trades in 13 months; where Kevin Durant can make, withdraw and reinstate a trade demand (and actually be traded!) over the course of eight months; where the next splashy deal is just a superstar mood swing away.

If in doubt, expect fireworks. But keep your own supply of sparklers and bottle rockets nearby, just in case.

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