The summer of 2019 was unlike any other in NBA history. Forty percent of the league’s players were free agents, including several superstars. In addition, nearly half of the league’s teams had cap space. That led to a summer of change we’ve never seen before. Ten signings and trades helped shape the 2019-20 season and beyond more than any others. With half of the NBA season behind us, it’s time to check in on how each of those moves is working out. We’re going to give each transaction a preliminary pass/fail grade for now and will check in again as the season comes to a close. Here’s Part I, featuring a big trade and three connected signings/swaps.
1. Anthony Davis traded from New Orleans Pelicans to Los Angeles Lakers
After months of back and forth, the Lakers sent the Pelicans a giant trade package for Anthony Davis. L.A. traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first-round picks, swap rights for another first-round pick and a second-round pick for the All-NBA big man. It’ll take years before we know the full outcome of this trade, but so far it seems to be a winner for both teams.
The Lakers currently have the second-best record in the NBA and come out of the All-Star break with a four-game lead for the top spot in the Western Conference. Davis has stayed relatively healthy and has played at an All-NBA level alongside LeBron James. The acquisition of Davis also allowed Los Angeles to fill out the roster with some smart veteran signings.
As for New Orleans, its half of the trade still has a lot to be decided, but the known factors have been pretty good. Ingram became an All-Star and is an ideal long-term fit alongside Zion Williamson. Ball has played the best basketball of his career, while Hart looks like the type of role player all good teams have. With multiple picks still to come, this one looks like a winner both now and potentially down the line.
Leonard signing with L.A. was contingent on the Clippers also trading for Paul George. We’ll evaluate that one separately, but the two transactions are very much tied together. On its own, Leonard’s return to Southern California has been a hit. The Clippers are currently third in the Western Conference, despite some aggressive load management for Leonard and others, in addition to some other injuries. L.A. is playing this regular season to get it over with and to get to the playoffs. That’s a risky strategy, but coach Doc Rivers and Co. saw just how much it paid off for the Toronto Raptors last year. Leonard has been outstanding when he has played, as he’s got career highs across the board with 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game to go along with his always terrific defense. Leonard was the first recipient of the Kobe Bryant MVP Award at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game and that might not be the only trophy he wins this year.
3. Paul George traded from Oklahoma City Thunder to the Los Angeles Clippers
When the Clippers were given an ultimatum by Leonard to trade for George if they wanted him to sign with L.A., team president Lawrence Frank and staff made it happen. The trade cost the Clippers two good players in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, along with five first-round picks and swap rights in two additional seasons. With the way Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed and as many as seven picks changing hands, L.A. literally traded its future for present success. But it’s paid off. It took George awhile to get on the floor following shoulder surgery, and he’s missed some additional time as well, but he’s been very good when he has played. He’s the ideal running mate for Leonard because both are virtually interchangeable on the wing.
If you thought it might be awhile before we know how New Orleans made out in the Davis trade, it’ll be over half a decade before GM Sam Presti is done cashing in chips for Oklahoma City. But in the present, the trade looks great for the Thunder. Gilgeous-Alexander is knocking on the door of making the All-Star team, while Gallinari gives them a scoring component in the frontcourt. OKC has been one of the real surprises of the season and this trade, along with another mega-swap, is a major reason why.
4. Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook swap between Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets
On the heels of trading Paul George, Sam Presti decided to double-down on his unexpected rebuilding efforts and send franchise icon Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul. In addition to his stash of picks coming from the Clippers, Presti added Paul (and the $124 million owed to him through 2021-22) and two more first-round picks, along with swap rights in two other years. That’s potentially four more picks changing hands, bringing Presti’s stash in two trades up to 11 total picks. On top of all that draft capital, it’s possible Chris Paul is a better player than Westbrook. Both turned in All-Star seasons in 2019-20, but Paul has missed just one game compared to Westbrook’s nine absences. Paul has also remained remarkably efficient in his age-34 season. And with one less year of salary owed to him, Paul’s contract no longer looks as questionable as it once did.
Westbrook’s time in Houston started off a little bumpy. His fit with James Harden wasn’t great initially, as both are used to being ball-dominant players. Westbrook’s usage rate is actually up from his last season, at 34.2 percent compared to 30.9 percent. That’s coincided with Harden’s usage rate dropping from a league-leading 40.5 percent in 2018-19 to 36.6 percent this season. Less usage seems to fit Harden however, because he’s still putting up a league-leading 10.1 Win Shares and 35.3 points per game. And anything that can keep Harden fresher come playoff time is welcome. As for Westbrook, he’s curtailed his 3-point attempts since a 0-for-8 performance on Christmas. He’s taking just 2.2 threes per game since that point, compared to 5.1 triples per game through Christmas. That’s a good thing because he’s shooting under 24 percent for the year from deep. Westbrook has returned to an attacking style vs. settling for jumpers, and that’s seen his overall shooting percentage climb nearly 10 percentage points. Can that attacking style continue as Westbrook ages? That’s the question for evaluating this trade long-term, and possibly for the rest of this season as well.
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