Welcome ladies and gentlemen to a new era, and a new column, The Hot Streak!
This is your friend and fellow ball-a-holic, Chris here. I promised at some point I would be back with a new column. And with the dawn of the NBA season fastly arising, we’re back from the proverbial rebuilding process with a basketball-focused column with unique takes on the latest news in both the NBA, NCAA (if that ever starts up) and the WNBA.
In the first edition of The Hot Streak, we’re running it down the court with some explosive news in the Western Conference. So rip off your warmup uniform, do your stretches and let’s get checked in at the scorer’s bench. First stop: the dusty but now exciting destination of Phoenix, Arizona.
CHRIS PAUL GIVES PHOENIX A BRIGHT FUTURE
As The Ball Out reported early Monday, the Oklahoma City Thunder have officially traded All-Star point guard Chris Paul and Abdel Nader to the Phoenix Suns for Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 first-round pick.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. The Thunder literally made a similar deal last season with the Los Angeles Clippers when they traded Paul George for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a bunch of other role players and assets. That deal, coupled with the addition of Paul (17.6 ppg, 6.7 assists and 5 rebounds at age-35), bolstered the Thunder as they made a surprise appearance in the NBA Playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference, taking the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round before losing in the final seconds. With the addition of the Dennis Schroder deal to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder have officially made the signal they are in full rebuild. However, this doesn’t mean the Thunder are in terrible shape.
Between now and 2026, Oklahoma City has 14 first-round draft picks and two pick swaps, putting them in a prime position to make a move for a star player if they decide to make the move. By trading Paul, they also avoid the massive $41.3 million he was owed this season and a $44.2 million player option for the 2021-22 season (y’all ain’t stupid, he was going to opt-in. You would too no matter how sorry that team may be). And it’s not like the team is going to be an absolute garbage fire; along with Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder still have mainstay center Steven Adams, playoff sensation Lu Dort to add with Oubre and Rubio, who helped Phoenix become a surprise last-minute contender last season.
Phoenix, however, is the ultimate winner in this deal. Not only are they adding a future Hall-of-Famer as a floor general, this also frees budding stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton to shine more – as Booker won’t have to carry the load as both distributor and scorer. Ayton, who has proven to be a valuable contributor in his first two seasons (17 ppg, 10.7 rpg average) will definitely benefit from a seasoned point guard like Paul who knows how to feed big men inside the paint (remember Lob City). Booker, who has already been highlighted as the future of the franchise, will now have another proven scoring threat who can also take the load off him from time to time. But don’t get this twisted: Paul does win out in the end as well. He’s still getting paid handsomely while also getting to be a starter with a coach whom he has a good working relationship with in Monty Williams, one of the most respected coaches in the league.
HOUSTON, WE HAVE NEGATIVE IMPACT
If you had told me that you predicted the Houston Rockets were going to implode on themselves this off-season, I would’ve given you the benefit of a doubt, even if I didn’t really think it was going to happen.
But even the most devoted of basketball fans couldn’t have seen this implosion happening. Within days after the NBA season came to a victorious end, the Rockets parted ways with head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey (now in Philadelphia). The Rockets hired Stephen Silas as their head coach with input from their franchise stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook – then within a matter of days after the hire, rumor came out that they were concerned about the accountability and ability to contend for a title. Then last week, the first bomb fell as multiple sources reported that Westbrook asked for a trade. At first, it didn’t seem like there was reason for worry as reports were coming out the same day that Harden was still committed despite rumors that the Brooklyn Nets were calling his name.
Enter Monday, November 16 and the major bomb that dropped over the city of Houston:
You read this right. James Harden, who has been the linchpin of the Rockets franchise for the last eight seasons and without question the best player to suit up for the franchise since Hakeem Olajuwon, turned down the opportunity to becomes the FIRST-EVER player in league history to earn $50 million in a season because he wants to go to Brooklyn that bad. Now, I can understand the mouth-watering potential of teaming up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving – if both were completely healthy. Granted, it is very well possible that KD will fully recover from the Achilles rupture that not only cost him the bulk of the 2019 NBA Finals but the entire 2019-20 season (even though he was considered healthy in July) and Irving will manage to stay healthy for this shortened season. That being said, history has proven not to be so kind when it comes to the injury Durant suffered. And in the case of Irving, he has never played a full season in his entire career and over the last three seasons has only played in 62 percent of available games played (147 out of 236).
You’d also have to consider the potential chemistry issues that could occur, especially with a first-time head coach in Steve Nash. He is highly respected around the league and many are comparing him to Steve Kerr when he first started with the Golden State Warriors in 2014-15. Something to note though: the Warriors team Kerr inherited did not have the egos that Nash is inheriting in Brooklyn – and that’s not accounting for the potential acquisition of Harden. Irving said earlier in October after the hire that he didn’t really see the team as having a head coach (then again, are we really surprised?) and while you can see it as Irving being taken out of context, that he said it undermines the authority of the coach before they have even shared a court with him. And while Irving hasn’t been a problem in Brooklyn yet, his issues in the locker room with both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers are well-documented. We’ve seen Durant and Harden together from their time in Oklahoma City and they reportedly worked out together over the summer (which is how this began), so they won’t be an issue as much as it could be with Harden and Irving since they both play similar positions and both want the ball at all times.
In regards to Russ, finding a trade suitor will be more difficult with his injury history, age (32) and contract status (over the next three seasons he is owed $41.4, $43.2 and $47 million before he becomes a free agent). It’s not often you look at a guard that has had THREE seasons of averaging triple-doubles (2016-19) and say that you’re going to pass on him but that’s just it – those three seasons, even in his physical prime, came at a cost. And considering that for a guard he suffers in two of the most important areas necessary in today’s game (last season he shot 76 percent from the free throw line and 26 percent from three-point range – which made him the Rockets’ biggest offensive liability in the playoffs), you can see why the market has been cool if not non-existent for him. I’m not saying that Westbrook isn’t capable of being a contributor, that’s far from true. But at this point he’s too much of a liability for a team on the rebound (LA Clippers, Oklahoma City, Washington Wizards), and you don’t want to see him waste what is left of his productive years on a crap team (New York Knicks). And unfortunately, he is too expensive to have him come off the bench, which just makes trading him more of a problem than a solution for Houston.
Houston has the option of keeping both of them on the team to start the season and they are well within their rights to. However, if your two main stars are unhappy and they decide not to play nice, it’s only going to trickle down to the rest of the team and you don’t want to do that to Silas. No matter what happens, it is likely we have seen the end of Houston as a perennial contender for the foreseeable future.
MILWAUKEE IS OFFICIALLY ON THE CLOCK
The beginning of NBA trade season may have started with a bang from Phoenix but ended with a massive splash from the Milwaukee Bucks as they acquired guard Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans and forward Bogdan Bogdanovic from the Sacramento Kings in a pair of late Monday deals that damn near broke the Internet.
Now, if you’re just a casual basketball fan or you don’t pay attention to the sport, you’re probably asking yourself, “why should we care about Milwaukee, Wisconsin?” If you are a basketbal junkie, then you already know the answer so just stay quiet and let the non-junkies guess. You give up? Don’t worry, I got you: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokoumpo, fresh off back-to-back MVP seasons where he also became only the third player in league history (Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan) to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the year in the same season (2019-20), is set to become a free agent at the end of the 2020-21 season and he has been the affection of almost every general manager in the league with a pulse. The Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and the Miami Heat have been the teams most brought up in regards to luring this generational talent away from the small market of Milwaukee. When I say generational, I’m not pulling punches: he is far and away the best player to don a Bucks uniform since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975 (no disrespect Ray Allen).
After the Bucks finished the season with the best record in the league and the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, they finished in the most disappointing of manners, getting mollywhopped by the eventual conference champion Miami Heat in five games in the semifinals. After Antetokounmpo missed the final game with an ankle sprain, the NBA media hype train went off the rails with talks that he was not going to re-sign after the 2020-21 season, forcing Giannis to go out and say that he was committed to staying. Both Giannis and Milwaukee met up to discuss what it was going to take to keep the star in town and the team said they would put a team worth contending for him. They knew that the clock was ticking and made some pretty bombastic moves.
Holiday is one of the best two-way guards in the league and Bogdanovic will help with the long distance game so Giannis doesn’t feel pressured to take so many outside shots. But to see why this may be a bit concerning for Milwaukee, I’ll break down the overall haul and giveaway for you:
Milwaukee gets: Jrue Holiday, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justin James, 60th pick in 2020 NBA Draft via Pelicans
New Orleans gets: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, 2020 1st round pick, 2024 right to swap, 2025 1st round unprotected, 2026 right to swap, 2027 1st round unprotected
Sacramento gets: Donte DiVincenzo, D.J. Wilson and Ersan Ilyasova
This point has been made all throughout league circles: Milwaukee wouldn’t have made all those moves if they did not feel confident that Antetokounmpo was going to leave. They truly believe that these moves will make it all the more easier for Giannis to sign the five-year supermax extension when he becomes available for it next season. They also must be pretty confident that these trades would make them the absolute team to beat in the East.
Now, let’s play devil’s advocate: Holiday becomes a free agent after next season just like Giannis. The Eastern Conference, while not as stacked as the West, is not anything to sneeze at: teams like the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors are still teams that you have to look over your shoulder for. We also have to account for the Brooklyn Nets since we don’t know what they’re going to look like with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the same court at the same time. The road to the Finals is not getting easier for Milwaukee and I personally do not feel even 75 percent comfortable that Giannis will stay if they fail to reach the Finals again. So, if I’m the Bucks and all these moves don’t result in your franchise star staying, you might as well blow it all up and rebuild.
Thank you guys so much for checking out The Hot Streak, and I look forward to giving you your weekly dose of unfiltered basketball content. Also, don’t forget to check out The Ball Out NBA Pod with me and my co-host RJ Saunders on Facebook. We’ll be starting Season Two tonight with a special Draft edition as well as discussing this wild NBA trade season.
Before joining The Ball Out, Chris Bullock was part of SB Nation’s Swish Appeal for nearly three years, covering everything women’s basketball. Chris has had the honor of doing live coverage of the WNBA Finals, the NCAA Tournament, and also was given his own column, “The Triple Double”. A self-described “foodaholic”, Chris lives in the San Diego area with his wife and two daughters, and also hosts his own podcast, “Conscious Cravings”, where he speaks about his experience as a mental health advocate.