The 2020 free agent class is noticeably devoid of perennial All-Stars and All-NBA performers. The class represents the proverbial calm before the storm, which will come when Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard could be on the market a year later. Despite the lack of stars in this year’s free agent class, there are still a number of under-the-radar contributors who will be available this summer. At the top of that list sits Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.
For the undrafted VanVleet, his journey to becoming one of the most sought-after players in the 2020 free agency class began last season during the Raptors championship run.
The first step to solving any problem is identifying that there is, in fact, a problem. The Detroit Pistons recognized their roster was not set up for long-term success and attempted to remedy the situation in February by trading away their franchise mainstay, Andre Drummond, which signaled the beginning of a rebuild. The initial reaction around the league after the Pistons traded Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Brandon Knight, John Henson, and a second-round draft was one of bewilderment.
There was no confusion as to why the Pistons would trade Drummond; in his first seven seasons with the Pistons, the team never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The puzzling part of the trade was that on the open market, the two-time All-Star, and three-time rebounding champion, was worth no more than a single second-round pick and two journeymen veterans on contracts that made the finances of the deal work.
Drummond’s lack of trade value furthers the ideology of the limited impact that a traditional paint-bound center can have in the modern NBA. Post-up, rebounding centers, like Drummond, were once thought of as the necessary ingredient in any championship recipe. 2,495 3-pointers later, Chef Curry has cooked up a new recipe for success. The analytics approach to basketball has led to more spacing and, subsequently, more 3-point shots. The Pistons recognized that they would never become an elite offense with Drummond as their fulcrum.
Trading Drummond not only represented a stylistic overhaul for the Pistons but also conveyed their willingness to escape the self-induced purgatory they have been stuck in for the entirety of the Drummond era. By trading Drummond, the Pistons ensured that he could not pick up his player option this summer, worth approximately $28 million. But the trade was not solely predicated on finances, as it was not long ago when the Pistons believed that they could construct a contending roster around Drummond.
To properly understand why the Pistons were willing to part with Drummond for such an insignificant return, it is paramount to examine the 2018 blockbuster trade in which the Pistons acquired Blake Griffin from the Los Angeles Clippers.
The NBA is facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty, as is most of society. The league is thinking about resuming at some point in the future, or skipping ahead to playoff games. Rather than project timetables for when NBA action could return, or sulk in the disappointment of a conceivably lost season, it is paramount to celebrate the terrific season that was unfolding.
Here are three of the most intriguing stories from around the league that have us all anxiously awaiting the return of the NBA.
The dominance of the “Washed King”
It seems unimaginable that after nine NBA Finals appearances, 34,807 points, three championships, four MVP awards, and a “regrown” hairline that anyone would doubt LeBron James. And yet, last season, after James failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons, the rhetoric of James being a “washed king” began to circulate. When James’ adversaries for the “unofficial best player in the world” title sensed a vulnerability, they attempted a basketball coup d’ é·tat. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the favorite to take home back-to-back MVP awards, and Kawhi Leonard, have both made substantial claims.
James, for his part, is unwilling to concede the throne. In two different matchups that saw James go head-to-head with his most prominent competitors for basketball supremacy, the King walked away victorious, with the crown still in his possession.
While it is excessive to place an extensive amount of importance on one regular-season game, this is not a new development; James has been on a mission since the start of the season. James is leading the NBA in assists for the first time in his storied career and has the Lakers atop of the Western Conference standings.
While it is easy to marvel at the individual numbers and accolades that James has put up over the years, his durability is sometimes forgotten. As the miles on his body continue to pile up, James shows no signs of slowing down. Antetokounmpo or Leonard may have their day soon, but for now, LeBron James remains the “King” of basketball royalty.
When the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Anthony Davis this past summer, they instantly vaulted themselves firmly into the championship discussion. For Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram, the trade to the Pelicans presented an opportunity for a fresh start. Playing for the Lakers, one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, comes with an added weight of expectations. Then when you factor in the arrival of LeBron James, arguably the most polarizing athlete of his generation, that weight gets so heavy it can feel like being submerged by Zion Williamson’s entire mass. During their lone season serving as loyal subjects to King James, all three young players experienced the highs and lows that come along with playing an 82-game season.
This season, Ingram has blossomed into an elite scorer and was selected to his first All-Star game. Hart has continued to flash the two-way ability he showed with the Lakers, playing reliable defense and knocking down open three-pointers. Ball, however, has arguably benefited the most from his move from the City of Angels to Bourbon Street.
For Ball, the trade to the Pelicans redefined his career trajectory in a lot of ways, but none were more important than getting out from the loud and often obnoxious shadow that his father LaVar Ball cast. LaVar recently found himself back in the headlines thanks to his claims that Lonzo and the Pelicans would defeat James and the Lakers in a potential first-round playoff matchup. Compared to the precedent he had set during Lonzo’s first two seasons, LaVar has remained relatively quiet this year.
For the first time in his young career, Lonzo’s play on the court has dictated the narrative in the media rather than LaVar’s big mouth.