Which NBA offseason in recent memory has been the craziest?
There was something profoundly foreboding about Damian Lillard’s trade request, even if it took him 11 years. The league has established a certain cadence when it comes to play transactions over the previous decade and change. This summer’s free market featured virtually little star power, so the Blazers All-Star filled the need. It usually works out like that. A star finally finds a new home after a team consistently fails him. Although the names alter, the trend hardly ever does. A select few prominent stars making significant moves make headlines each summer.
There is a distinct boundary set here. The most significant changes in 2009 were… Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon are travelling to Detroit? Are Western Conference contenders Trevor Ariza and Ron Artest trading places? When LeBron James released The Decision in 2010, ushering in the star movement era, everything changed. Although the precise processes by which those stars migrated have altered over time, it is simple to follow the fundamental path from James to Lillard. There was once a time when the offseason was dull. Now? They are not at all.
But in this brand-new, post-Decision universe, whose offseason stands out? When did the most elite player movement occur? When were we least visible? When were those moves most enjoyable for outsiders to watch? Which of those decisions affected the league in the long run the most significantly? Let’s compare the excitement, quantity, and calibre of star movement during each offseason since The Decision.
You’ll see that the offseasons from more recent years are ranked lower on this list. A lot more high-level player movement occurs during the trade deadline these days rather than over the offseason, whether it’s an anomaly or an increasing pattern. The year 2021 is a prime example of a deadline triumphing over an offseason, which may be a sign of the league’s decreased emphasis on free agency. Following this summer, trades of James Harden, Ben Simmons, Tyrese Haliburton, Kristaps Porzingis, Domantas Sabonis, and a number of other star role players were made before the 2022 deadline.
But what about the 2021 winter season? Only two of the All-Star Game participants from the previous three seasons switched teams. While Kyle Lowry contributed significantly to Miami’s run to the 2023 Finals, it’s safe to conclude that, at the very least, he has not upheld his end of the bargain. One of the worst blockbuster trades in NBA history, Russell Westbrook’s cataclysmic stay with the Lakers was fortunately cut short at the 2023 trade deadline. Since this offseason, we’ve seen two winners, neither of them had a strong reliance on decisions taken in the summer of 2021. Poor results were generally experienced by lower-level pricey signings like Lonzo Ball, Devonte’ Graham, Evan Fournier, and Spencer Dinwiddie.
DeMar DeRozan’s three-year deal with the Bulls was the only relatively successful star acquisition in 2021, although despite his exceptional play, Chicago has only averaged 43 victories since signing him. In reality, hardly much got done in the off-season of 2021.
Only two players met our “made an All-Star team in the previous three offseasons” requirement for a star in the 2020 offseason, and Al Horford, who was cap-dumped on Oklahoma City, was one of them. Chris Paul, on the other hand, guided the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals. Both transactions were significant, but the Jrue Holiday deal that took place this offseason was the reason the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 Finals.
After that, things start to feel a little bare because free agency is dominated by athletes like Gordon Hayward and Jerami Grant. A Bogdan Bogdanovic tampering incident gave us some entertaining drama. Teams appear to have learned their lesson. If the simple act of negotiating such a move would be illegal, don’t reveal it in advance.
The actual player calibre in 2020 likely surpasses that of 2015. This offseason, four “All-Stars” were traded, but only LaMarcus Aldridge is still competing at that level. The additional three? Tyson Chandler is moving to Phoenix, David Lee is being released by the Celtics, and Rajon Rondo is joining the Kings. Aldridge contributed to the Spurs’ 67-game winning streak, but no other future champions were significantly harmed by senior offseason moves. Most of the time, it was a dull offseason.
The word “most” is key here because the DeAndre Jordan storyline, which took place over the 2015 offseason, was by far the most exciting event in NBA free agency history. Jordan signed a contract with the Dallas Mavericks early in the July moratorium, for those who don’t follow NBA Twitter. However, only verbal agreements, not written contracts, are permitted during the moratorium period, which at that point ran until July 8. Prior to officially *signing* in Dallas, Jordan had second thoughts and thought about going back to the Clippers. The epic emoji wars of 2015 so began, and Blake Gryphon redecorated Michael Jordan’s house to cap off one of the funniest basketball days ever.
2011 cannot match with any year above it in terms of volume. However, the quality more than makes up for it. We received two huge moves, each of which was a major upset. The real kicker is that the same player was engaged in both. The first occurred when Paul was traded to the Lakers; however, David Stern, the Hornets’ acting governor at the time, promptly cancelled the agreement.
Paul finally did travel to Los Angeles, but he did it while playing for the Clippers. Due to Stern’s choice, the Lakers were in the wilderness for the majority of the next seven years. With Paul supporting him, Kobe Bryant may win his sixth championship. Or maybe Paul feels pressured to leave Los Angeles sooner than he actually does because of Bryant’s advanced age. It’s tough to say, but the Paul fiasco is probably near the top of the list of decisions that didn’t directly result in victories.
The actions won’t be as significant for the teams concerned as 2011 was in and of themselves. For example, Rudy Gobert probably won’t help Minnesota win a championship, while Dejounte Murray’s future in Atlanta is unimpressive. Although Donovan Mitchell’s Cleveland Cavaliers have a better chance of long-term success, the continuous rumours that he wants to play for a team in a major market might doom any contender from the start.
However, the Gobert transaction has enormously massive long-term effects on both sides of the equation. Gobert unintentionally spoiled all subsequent superstar trade negotiations by bringing in such a record-breaking windfall. Even though Lillard is a considerably superior player to Gobert, Portland will almost definitely receive a lower offer for Lillard than they did for Gobert. In some ways, it marked the end of an era. Teams are simply too frugal with their resources and money in the new, second-apron environment we inhabit to execute another Gobert swap.
Meanwhile, Utah became the first team to genuinely and purposefully adhere to the model Oklahoma City created in 2019: trade your players a year early rather than a year late and take advantage of the far higher rewards. The success that the Thunder and Jazz have had with it will encourage more clubs to take this route, and it will have an impact on many upcoming offseasons.
So far, the names have been… ok. Paul, Porzingis, Bradley Beal, and Jordan Poole all well-known athletes, but only Beal can genuinely be considered a star in his prime, and even he just finished two of his worst seasons ever. Grant signed a free agent contract worth the highest money overall. The highest annual average value was earned by Fred VanVleet. Again, good players, but in comparison to most of what we’ve dealt with, supporting guys. However, the upside of this offseason is greatly increased by the two studs who are still available.
Lillard has taken the star trade demand to a new level. He has three years left on his deal, but he wants to sign with the Miami Heat as his next team. He and his agent, Aaron Goodwin, have previously received a warning from the NBA about doing just that, but there isn’t much the league can actually do to stop him. Teams facing similar challenges in the future will only become weaker if Lillard is successful in squeezing into Miami. The Blazers have so far resisted his insistence that they play the Heat. The rest of the league is keenly observing them.
James Harden, who may have been the first superstar to enter the trade market without actually being treated like one, is next. The Clippers could likely acquire him tomorrow if they had a serious interest. Young guard Terence Mann, two first-round selections, two swaps, and their best offer are almost surely a fair deal for Philadelphia. There is no evidence that the Clippers have even approached that offer as of yet. At this time, no additional potential suitors are known. What happens to a superstar when no one else in the league believes he is one any longer? We’ll soon find out. We’ll probably see more instances like his in the years to come because player movement has grown so commonplace in recent years.
2012 can be referred to as the offseason of disappointment. In the three-year period, five All-Stars switched teams. Ray Allen with the Heat was one of them, and it worked out rather nicely. Two of them changed teams once more in free agency the following year when Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala left the teams that had signed them in 2011. Finally, with the Lakers and Timberwolves, respectively, Steve Nash and Brandon Roy combined to play 70 unimpressive games.
Why then does 2012 rank so high on this list? The Houston Rockets were involved in both of the relevant trades. You’re probably familiar with the first. After trying to persuade the future MVP to accept anything less than the maximum on his rookie agreement, the Oklahoma City Thunder moved James Harden to Houston for pennies on the dollar less than a week before the start of the 2012–13 season. The transaction marked the beginning of the end for a budding dynasty in Oklahoma City while establishing a decade-long challenger in Houston. Despite Harden, Houston was unable to go to the championship. The decision was a letdown in its own right.
That offseason, the Rockets took part in a more fruitful deal, but they ended up on the losing end. They exchanged Kyle Lowry for a draught selection with the Toronto Raptors months before they acquired Harden, and the pick eventually went to the Thunder in the Harden trade (where it became Steven Adams). Unlike Harden, Lowry brought home a championship with his new squad. Without the pick they received in exchange for Lowry, could the Rockets have gotten Harden? Although it can’t be predicted, it’s difficult to think of a finer back-court partner for Harden than Lowry. In Houston, it was a significant chance lost.
Our weakest summer was also our first with LeBron. Yes, he brought Kevin Love to Cleveland, but Tyson Chandler was the only other All-Star in recent memory to switch teams, moving from New York to Dallas. In Chicago, Pau Gasol would eventually make a few more All-Star teams, but aside from those transfers, we’re mainly relying on deals that didn’t seem substantial at the time. For instance, Isaiah Thomas joining the Suns or Shaun Livingston joining the Warriors.
However, placing one of James’ free agents any lower would be sacrilege since every move he makes is so seismic. If you really want to go into the weeds, there’s a fascinating tale concerning the guy who nearly took his place in Cleveland. Gordon Hayward would have been signed by Cleveland to what was basically a three-year maximum offer sheet in restricted free agency if James had not chosen to join the Cavaliers. Because Utah wouldn’t pay the full five-year maximum, Hayward eventually agreed to that deal with the Hornets. They would pay for that three years later when Hayward, who might have stayed under the team’s control longer, left at the first chance. If it weren’t for the fact that James and Dan Gilbert reconnected during the offseason, I’d say the lesson here is to avoid messing with your athletes. So, occasionally, there isn’t a single, overarching lesson.
We begin 2013 by fixing some of the errors made in 2012. Howard is going to Houston, where he at least enjoyed more success than he did during his first stay with the Lakers. More importantly, Iguodala becomes a member of the Warriors and one of the cornerstones of their future dynasty. The enjoyment doesn’t end there. Earlier that day, Danny Ainge set the stage for Boston’s current contender by trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for, among other things, the draught picks that would become Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, kicking off The Process with a bang by sending Jrue Holiday to New Orleans.
These were merely the actions we were aware were crucial. What if bland role player Paul Millsap joined the Hawks and was subsequently selected to four All-Star Teams? Or the Bucks and Pistons trading Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight, but Khris Middleton, a young, unproven forward, ended up in Detroit instead. Heck, we can even link a seemingly insignificant offseason deal to some of LeBron’s future trends. In order to save money on taxes, the Miami Heat waived Mike Miller using their amnesty policy. James made it known that he would not put up with such cost-cutting gimmicks when he became a free agency the following offseason, and he only signed short-term contracts in Cleveland to enforce it.
Speaking of James, this is his second entry on the list and his last switch to a different squad thus far. But this time, he’s followed by a couple more well-known figures. Kawhi Leonard, one of them, might have easily joined his group. The Spurs instead traded him to the Toronto Raptors. The only superstar in his heyday to amass a 100% title rate with a single team, he won them a championship and then left a few weeks later.
Sadly, the Spurs did not have enough money left over after the Leonard trade for DeMar DeRozan to genuinely give him a winner. DeMarcus Cousins came much closer to winning a championship with the Warriors, but when he signed with Golden State, it appeared as though he would win multiple championships. Despite appearing to join one of the few teams with a chance to stop him, Carmelo Anthony only played 10 games in Houston. The 2018 offseason has seen a wide variety of moves, including those that were long-lasting successes (James, Lakers), long-lasting failures (DeRozan, Spurs), short-term successes (Leonard, Raptors), and short-term failures (Anthony, Rockets). Few offseasons fulfil all of those requirements.
It’s true that when Kevin Durant joined the 73-win Golden State Warriors, that signing helped to build the best team in history. Yes, the 2016 cap hike resulted in the cavalcade of terrible contracts we now have (Joakim Noah! Evan Turner! SPLAT BIYOMBO!) We even had a few entertaining transitions, including Al Horford’s move to Boston and Dwyane Wade’s switch to Chicago. In reality, 2016 saw a lot of events that had an immediate impact. I’d rather talk about the first of three steps that would ultimately result in one of the greatest transactions in NBA history. I want to discuss the transaction that the Thunder made that included Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, five first-round selections, and two first-round swaps for Serge Ibaka.
Mind you, it wasn’t blunt. It resembled one of those dated online tales about someone who keeps exchanging a paperclip for ever-slightly more expensive stuff until he acquires a mansion. Sam Preseti exchanged Ibaka for Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo in 2016. He acquired Paul George in 2017 in exchange for Sabonis and Oladipo. He exchanged George for his prize in 2019. Just remember that this deal was the catalyst for all of the Thunder’s future championship wins. One day, we might look back on this summer and conclude that the Thunder’s Kevin Durant loss was the best offseason in franchise history.
This offseason ranked as the second most chaotic in the post-Decision era by our “All-Star within three years” criteria. Eight All-Stars in all relocated during the 2017 offseason. The issue is that none of them ever made it to the Finals with their new team, let alone won a championship. Like 2012, the majority of these decisions backfired. Gordon Hayward was injured in his first game for the Celtics and never fully recovered. Insurrection against Tom Thibodeau by Jimmy Butler. The less that is said about Kyrie Irving’s departure from Boston, the better. Isaiah Thomas was also injured. With the Thunder, Anthony and George were never the series champions. After less than a year, Wade went back to Miami. Paul’s relocation to Houston is the only success tale in this situation. The Rockets might have won the championship if he had stayed healthy during the 2018 postseason. He obviously didn’t.
One decision did, in fact, result in multiple championships during the 2017 offseason. Simply put, it’s not the one you’re picturing. The 2020 champion Lakers set the stage for their roster makeover in June when they acquired Brook Lopez back from the Nets and traded for D’Angelo Russell to the Lakers. Unintentionally, this agreement produced three straight championships. The Lakers were given the cap space they would eventually require to capture the 2020 title. Lopez lost his stable home as a result, but he was able to move to Milwaukee for the bi-annual exception the following year and eventually assist the Bucks in winning the title in 2021. Finally, Russell’s relocation to Brooklyn made it possible for him to be traded for Durant in 2019. That made it possible for the Warriors to trade him in 2020 for Andrew Wiggins, who was crucial to their 2022 championship success. This one deal, which at the time seemed to be among the less significant offseason moves, was crucial to the success of three successive championship teams.
If we were only considering quantity, 2019 would come out on top. In retrospect, it was just jaw-dropping. Nine All-Stars in all switched teams, and several of them came from teams that had previously been in contention. Leonard was lost by the reigning champion Raptors. The Warriors, who were their Finals victim, lost Durant. After the Celtics won 55 games, Irving quit the team. After getting the closest to defeating the Raptors of any team, the 76ers made the deliberate decision to let Butler leave to Miami.
No one was secure. In a shocking move, the Clippers managed to wrest George away from the Thunder in order to create their current contender. With Anthony Davis’ acquisition, the Lakers completed their championship team. The pairing of Harden and Westbrook would have been the most significant move in most offseasons, ill-advised as it was. In 2019, it falls short of the top five.
Because of this, 2019 is the only year that can truly challenge 2010. Never before have high-level stars moved around more throughout the offseason. For the team with the largest market in the league, Julius Randle has made two All-Star teams, and only now is he being mentioned! The Westbrook deal led to Paul’s surprisingly enjoyable season with the Thunder. The list is never-ending. The 2019 offseason marked the beginning of the current period in league history. Naturally, the same might be said about our winner as well.
The names themselves fall short of what 2019 has to offer. Although you could make the case that five players from 2019—Leonard, Durant, Irving, George, and Butler—were all superior to any other free agent who switched teams in 2010—James outperforms any of them individually. Despite being a member of the Hall of Fame, Chris Bosh played a supporting role for Miami. The Knicks received one season of health from Amar’e Stoudemire. One of the better signings of the summer of 2010 was David Lee, who joined the Warriors primarily because the Knicks preferred making a “splash.”
However, this offseason was surprisingly lengthy. Tyson Chandler was perhaps the Mavericks’ second-best player in 2011, and Dallas signed him here, right in front of everyone. In 2010, Tony Allen relocated to Memphis and became a crucial part of the Grizzlies. Even better, Lowry joins us for a humorous sliding door moment. He signed an offer sheet in Cleveland following The Decision, and Houston eventually matched it. If Lowry joins the team right away, do the Cavaliers manage to get three consecutive No. 1 picks and convince James to return? Knowing is challenging. The Rockets and Cavaliers can’t really gripe about the outcomes.
You are aware of our purpose, nevertheless. LeBron was the player of the summer, and when the league’s power structure is fundamentally altered by a single act by probably the greatest player in the history of the sport, he will be at the top of any list of this nature. 2019’s decisions had an impact on championships. The decisions made in 2010 had a direct impact on how NBA franchises operated moving forward. Because of James, Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon won’t ever again be the focus of the offseason.