Now that the Wolves and Cavs have officially completed the trade that will send Kevin Love to Cleveland, the landscape around the league seems clearer. There are only two relatively big chips left to fall - Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe - but unless there's an unexpected trade to one of the contenders, this off-season has gone better than the Spurs could have imagined.
The Spurs dodged two bullets with Love and Bosh staying in the East
LeBron James leaving Miami undeniably shaped how the off-season progressed and it directly affected the fates of Kevin Love and Chris Bosh. Once LeBron made his intentions clear, it seemed inevitable that Bosh would leave the Heat. The Rockets made cap-clearing moves and seemed in prime position to bring the native Texan back home, then match an offer sheet Chandler Parsons had signed with the Mavs and become a true contender. Given those possibilities, perhaps Houston would've emerged as the favorite to win the West.
Bosh was a perfect fit in Houston. Over the past few years he changed his game to become a fantastic floor-spacer who can do damage without the ball, which would have suited a squad already boasting two high usage, high-efficiency players perfectly. And the underrated Bosh would have signified a gigantic upgrade on defense over Terrance Jones at power forward and would have backed up Dwight Howard at the five. The Rockets would have been a match-up nightmare, a deeper and much more adaptable team.
Fortunately, Bosh decided that loyalty (and more money) mattered to him more than a chance to contend in the short term. Whether Morey's penchant for dehumanizing players and treating them like assets or the reputations of Howard and James Harden were factors is unclear but the Rockets couldn't make a significant upgrade despite having assets. And that's fantastic news for all of the Southwest division.
But Bosh wasn't the only power forward who could have changed the balance of power out West had things gone differently. For a stretch there, the Warriors were considered to be the front-runners to land Kevin Love. Flip Saunders was allegedly so high on Klay Thompson's potential that he preferred him over the younger Andrew Wiggins. The outline of the trade would have been Thompson and David Lee for Love and Kevin Martin.
Allegedly what had the Warriors worried was how their defense would have looked like with a Martin-Curry backcourt and that's a legitimate concern. But there are reports that the front office inexplicably rejected a simultaneous proposal from the Magic which would have sent Arron Afflalo to the Bay area for Harrison Barnes. So at least at one point, a lineup of Curry, Afflalo, Andre Iguodala, Love and Andrew Bogut was a legitimate possibility.
That starting lineup would be up there with anyone's in term of talent and fit. It would have been a huge challenge to keep the core together, since everyone is highly compensated. But at least for a year or two the Warriors would have been a legitimate contender, one of the two or three teams out West who has a realistic shot at the title. Instead, they will be a darkhorse at best, a team that is relying on Barnes to make a leap that he seems not destined to make or on Bogut rediscovering his offense to truly reach the upper echelon.
There is a terrifying reality in which the Spurs would have to battle two other bona-fide contenders who have exactly the type of power forward that presents undeniable challenges to their defense. But fortunately, it's not this one.
The other contenders didn't improve
Let's start with the East. It looks like, just like last year, there are one-and-a-half contenders. The best team is the one being led by LeBron, just like last year. And it will lack rim protection, just like last year. But the talent, just like last year, is there for it to win it all. The other would be contender is a team that relies on defense and the individual efforts of a star to win, just like last year. In 2013-14 that team was the Pacers and Paul George; now it's the Bulls and Derrick Rose.
That's it. There are no other great teams in that conference. The Wizards, Raptors, Hawks and Heat are fine teams but are far from elite.
Back West, the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers, in that order, are the conference's best, at least on paper. There are other teams, like the Warriors and Grizzlies, who could make the conference finals but things would have to align perfectly for that to happen. It will likely be a combination of those aforementioned three squads that will be in the conference finals.
The good news for the Spurs is that neither the Clippers nor the Thunder actually improved significantly this off-season.
The Clippers had a successful summer only in the way that they got rid of Donald Sterling. Spencer Hawes is a fine player and an upgrade over what they had last season on their bench. But his defensive deficiencies make him a bad fit with both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. He's not mobile enough to check power forwards next to DeAndre and doesn't offer Blake that elite back-line protection he needs. On offense he will be an asset but the Clippers were the best offensive team in the league last season.
I can't blame the Clippers for addressing their biggest need (frontcourt depth) but what could doom the team is that there is no length and athleticism on the wing. The Thunder lit up the Clippers in the playoffs with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining for 60 points per game on good efficiency. And there was no adjustment made to prevent that from happening again, unless Jordan Farmar somehow becomes a perimeter stopper.
The Thunder, for their part, only added Anthony Morrow, who will help with his dead-eye shooting. But they will go into the season without playoff-tested depth on the perimeter. Morrow has yet to appear in a playoff game in his six-year career. Jeremy Lamb was unplayable last post-season, averaging nine minutes a game and receiving DNPs in the process. Andre Roberson is a fringe NBA player. Perry Jones seems better suited to play power forward. The same happened last season, which is why Caron Butler and Derek Fisher got minutes.
It's hard to explain how a contending team like OKC couldn't get someone to sign below market value or even attract a veteran like Vince Carter. I guess it's possible the front office has chosen to go this way on purpose, to force Scott Brooks to give Lamb minutes. They let Thabo Sefolosha go and didn't bring in the type of veteran that could claim the spot permanently, so it's sink-or-swim time for the third-year player Lamb. If he pans out as a solid 3-and-D guy, the experiment would have proven worthy. But if he doesn't, it will be back to the waiver-wire for veteran help for the third year in a row. And Fisher is coaching the New York Knicks now, so he won't be around.
Now, all of this doesn't mean the Spurs are guaranteed to repeat as champions or even come out of the West. Far from it. The Spurs have their own flaws they didn't address and they are still very fragile when it comes to health. But the status-quo was maintained and that always benefits the people on top. Last season, with virtually the same roster they will have this upcoming year, the Spurs were undoubtedly the best team in the league. And it seems like none of the teams that could be a real threat to unseat them has improved that much over the off-season.
The path to a repeat won't be easy. But the way things transpired in free agency at least signal that, at least on paper, the title is the Spurs' to lose.