Jimmy, Paul and Chris: How the West Might Be Won

by Zach Mitchell


Technically, the NBA’s offseason started the day after the NBA Finals were concluded. And officially, the next NBA season won’t start until late October…which means, as basketball fans, we should be taking it easy.

Yeah, right.

Within a couple of weeks, the whole NBA landscape was tossed and turned over. With three trades, our expectations of a Cavaliers-Warriors 4-peat might have been thwarted. LeBron James is cheering as he gets ready to waltz through the Eastern Conference yet again (how many times have we said that?).

But out west? Something is brewing.

During draft night, the Chicago Bulls sent over multi-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for electric (but injured) Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn, and the draft rights to Lauri Markennan. That’s it. No future picks (the Bulls actually gave the T-Wolves the 16th pick in the 2017 draft, which was used on athletic center Justin Patton), just a few young players and a plan to rebuild. The trade was blasted at the time. No future picks? No dynamic young talent? Jury is still out on Lavine. Just three players for Jimmy Butler, one of the best wings in the league? What gives?

The Wolves, for the first time in 13 seasons, might be playoff participants. Even better, they might make some noise. Get ready to howl, Wolf fans.

That trade carried us up through the eve of free agency. Then Chris Paul opted into the final year of his contract, thereby sending him from Los Angeles to Houston for Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Louis Williams, and some used car parts. The Point God is teaming up with the Beard, and it’s going to be wonderful. They might average 120 points a game next year. One basketball might not be enough for them. Who knows? But we do know that the Rockets, the 3-seed in last year’s playoffs, have improved (they also signed defensive stalwart PJ Tucker, and tenured center Nene). With San Antonio in flux (for them at least), the Rockets are on the rise. They’ll have a shot at the champs, and in today’s NBA, that’s all you need.

Perhaps the most surprising trade, in terms of destination, if not player involved, was Paul George heading to OKC. George, who for the past season has been in trade discussions with every team but the Harlem Globetrotters, finally got to move from Indiana. Perhaps the best player traded so far, PG13 will become 1B to Russell Westbrook’s 1A.

In a turn of events, Sam Presti basically traded Serge Ibaka for George (Ibaka was traded last year for Victor Oladipo and the pick that became Damatas Sabonis, and both of those players were traded for George). That’s an amazing trade. With Andre Robertson and Steven Adams, the Thunder have a phenomenal defensive core that can go toe-to-toe with anyone, even the Warriors.

Who will be their fifth guy? Who will come off the bench? Eh, that doesn’t matter. The Thunder have Paul George! The Wolves have Jimmy Butler! And the Rockets have State Farm Salesman Cliff Paul!

Which is to say, I feel very comfortable expressing the idea that the Warriors will not sweep their way through the Western Conference playoffs this year. Yes, they still have Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Yes, they brought back Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Patrick McCaw will improve. They’ve got a few other young players that might give them solid minutes. They are the defending champs, and they will be the heavy favorites going into next year.

But next year will be so much fun. If Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns make the leap, the Wolves have as good of three stars as anyone. If Paul and James Harden mix, they’ll be as dynamic of a backcourt as anyone has ever seen. The Thunder will be fun again, and not just because of Westbrook’s triple doubles.

Then again, does any of this really matter? LeBron will walk into the Finals like he’s buying eggs at a grocery store. Durant might win MVP next year. The East has lost two of its limited stars. We are look at as of imbalanced of conferences as there has ever been.

These trades were made to make the league more competitive. The West is reshuffling, and we are destined to get two consecutive bloodbath-filled rounds in the Western Conference. Can you imagine? T-Wolves and Thunder in the first round to see who gets to fight the Warriors. That’s what the NBA is all about: stars competing against stars.

Sure, George and Westbrook might bounce to the Lakers in 2018. Maybe Wiggins doesn’t make the leap, making the Wolves the next Clippers instead of a real contender. And maybe Chris Paul, at age 32, doesn’t have enough in the tank to help the Rockets make a run.

Maybe the Warriors ascend even higher. Durant is knocking on the Hall of Fame elite club. He knows it, and I think he’s good enough to get there. If that’s the case, then good luck stopping him. He’s 28, and still improving. Unless the NBA makes the Knicks and Bulls buy out Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade so they can sign with the Cavs, I don’t see anyone stopping the Warriors.

But the Rockets, Wolves and Thunder are sure gonna try.

The Golden State Warriors have been NBA champions for three weeks, as of this article. They’ve had their parade, their parties, and celebrations. But now, that’s all over.

Just because you’re king, doesn’t mean you can’t lose your crown. The NBA is morphing into a game of chess. There are moves, counter moves, and mind games galore.

The greatest thing about chess? Even a pawn can dethrone a king.

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