Saturday, July 30, 2016

More Things In Heaven And Earth ...

The NBA offseason always feels like a race to drop the first and most incisive hot takes on every new development.  We get buried in a deluge of trades, free agency signings, and retirements, and we immediately dissect it all on a granular level.  There are endless internet symposiums on cap space and new rotations and team dynamics and legacies.  This summer has been no different.  All the conceivable digital ink in the world has already been spilled on a wide range of subjects and characters.  We've parsed the minutiae of every decision, speculated on the ramifications, and screamed at each other about who got paid too much for too many years.  We've sorted and catalogued and analyzed it all to death on a case-by-case basis.  But step back with me for a second, here.  Zoom way, way out and contemplate everything that's happened from a league-wide vantage point.  Then ask yourself: have you ever seen an NBA landscape as totally alien as what we'll be looking at when the 2016-17 season tips off? 

It's just utterly surreal.  All the tectonic-shift-level, paradigm-shattering occurrences ... man, this isn't even staring back at Earth after accidentally waking up on Mars.  Nah, B.  We just went down a wormhole to a quadrant and temporal pocket of the universe that is recognizable to our tiny, pathetic consciousness only because we've seen stars before and we know we're on a rock somewhere in space.   

Let's start with the absentees.  Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant began their NBA careers before I took the PSATs, and each played for (and to a large extent defined) a single franchise for his entire career.  They are arguably the two most accomplished and important post-Jordan players in NBA history.  (LeBron: pending.)  Amar'e Stoudemire has been around since before I graduated college, and has been a vibrant and important figure in the league for most of his very laudable tenure.  For the first time in ages, none of them will be in uniform next year.  And while I suspect he has one more year in his pathologically competitive tank, Kevin Garnett is on the fence about joining them.  Hell, even if KG sticks around for another season, that's a proportionally insane amount of transcendence that won't be on the court this fall.  It's an actual, honest-to-god end of an era. 

Couple those momentous departures with all the players whose new uniforms will require some viewer processing time before they even begin to look normal.  In terms of on-court impact, KD signing with the Dubs is the obvious "HOLY F***?!?!?!" example, but far from the only out-sized bafflement we'll see.  Flash and Rondo will be coming out of the home tunnel in Chicago next season; about which: 1. how is that team even going to function on either end of the floor? and 2. Wade wearing anything other than a Heat jersey seems completely crazy even if he did "go home."  And speaking of the Bulls, former franchise lifers D-Rose and Jo Noah WON'T be coming out of that same tunnel because they're both on the friggin' Knicks now, yet another team whose basketball identity is going to be a mystery until we see it in real time. 

On a somewhat lesser scale, we'll watch Pau Gasol fulfill what seems like an inevitable destiny in hindsight as he dons a Spurs jersey.  And, please let me indulge some personal heartbreak here: Jeff Teague is on the Pacers and Alfred Joel Horford, my most beloved of all Hawks since 'Nique (no offense intended to Mutombo, Steve Smith, etc.) will be wearing Celtics green, which just ... goddamnit everything is terrible.  Compounding the misery: in Al's place will be Dwight Howard, another big name who changed teams, and whose fit in Atlanta's motion-predicated offense and team culture makes zero sense.   (Though, as a very faint silver lining, the Hawks stunk at rebounding last year, and Howard will probably bolster that shortcoming.) 

Then, there are the salaries being dished out to every other free agent.  We can talk Mozgov's Lakers deal, or Mike Conley now being the highest-paid player in history, but the bottom line is: shit got weird with NBA money this year.  It seems like front offices around the league have lost their minds, but this is actually the most "normal" aspect of the offseason insanity.  Right now, there are the deals which were signed under the prior cap limitations and those signed under the new, TV-revenue-augmented structure.  As the old ones cycle out, this will all rejigger itself back to a world in which the salaries are relatively commensurate with the talent.  You can know that, and understand why it happened and project the long-term recalibrations, but it doesn't make the current situation feel much less ridiculous when you're checking the numbers, right? 

Lastly, there are the teams who look ready, finally, to turn some kind of corner and/or forge new identites.  Hoo boy, are the Wolves and Jazz gonna be entertaining next year!  Raise your hand if you're enthralled by the concept of Buddy Hield and a (hopefully) healthy Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans!  Stand up for a fury-driven Westbrook to lead the new and fascinating OKC roster! 

Everything is different now.  Well, almost everything.  The game is still the beautiful, amorphous symphony it always has been.  The participants will just be coming at it from wildly different vectors than last year, is all.  Good Gawd, this is going to be such a strange, delightful fever dream of a season.  I can't wait for October 25th. 

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