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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Many of the NBA‘s most important trades have taken place over the offseason. That’s no accident.
Super-impactful deals are struck during the middle of the year, because blockbusters no know timeline (other than the trade deadline). But seismic shake-ups are easier to complete when teams aren’t laboring through a regular-season’s worth of games.
And with the Association now entering yet another offseason (in October, no less), it makes sense to brace ourselves for the splashiest moves.
Maybe the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic results in an unusually quiet hiatus. But also: maybe not.
And what better way to prepare ourselves for the consequences that could befall the league in the coming months than by revisiting the most important, impactful, noteworthy offseason blockbusters in recent history?
Only deals struck in 2000 and later are eligible for consideration. Draft-day trades built around prospects will also be stricken from the ledger. We’ll get lost amid the many Luka Doncic-, Rudy Gobert-, Kawhi Leonard- and Donovan Mitchell-type rabbit holes if these transactions are in play.
Sign-and-trades are similarly off the table. Apologies to the Miami Heat front office, which has signed-and-traded for Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Jimmy Butler since 2010. And finally, we’ll allow the inclusion of any blockbuster that was completed before the start of the regular season. This can be referred to as the “We are obviously going to find a way to talk about James Harden” rule.
But this isn’t just about identifying marquee names, though that’s part of the process. This is about finding the deals with supersonic fallout—the offseason trades that preceded championships, fueled other huge moves, left a trail of what-if scenarios in their wake or consigned a team to unintentional ruin.
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J. PAT CARTER/Associated Press
Miami Heat Received: Shaquille O’Neal
Los Angeles Lakers Received: Caron Butler; Brian Grant; Lamar Odom; 2006 first-round pick (Jordan Farmar); 2007 second-round pick (Renaldas Seibutis)
Shaquille O’Neal‘s July 2004 exit from Los Angeles was a flash-point moment for two franchises and is not any less meaningful with the benefit of hindsight.
For the Heat, this marked the opening of a championship window. Miami-era Shaq wasn’t prime Shaq, but he still gave Dwyane Wade, then a 23-year-old sophomore, a superstar running mate. And though his time with the Heat was peppered with limited availability, Shaq lived up to the billing.
Through three seasons with the team, he averaged 20.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.9 blocks per game while connecting on 59.9 percent of his field-goal attempts. And in 2006, when the Heat won a title after Pat Riley returned to the bench, he was clearly the team’s second-best player during the postseason—though he did turn in a less-than-dominant performance against the Dallas Mavericks, which included a sub-30 percent clip from the foul line.
For the Lakers, this trade marked the beginning of Kobe Bryant‘s attempt to win a title without his Shaq-sized safety net. He eventually succeeded, in 2009 and 2010.
More than a new beginning, though, this blockbuster signaled the end of the Kobe-and-Shaq dynamic, a partnership as tumultuous as it was fruitful—and damn, was it fruitful, to the tune of three titles and four Finals appearances, an actual dynasty.
That divorce overshadows everything else, which is saying something, because it raises the question: How many titles, if any, did Shaq and Kobe leave on the table?
O’Neal said during a 2015 appearance on The Rich Eisen Show (via CBSSports.com):
“I think we could’ve either tied Michael [Jordan] or surpassed Mike. Mike has six. You know, everybody talks about Bill Russell’s 11. No player will ever come along and get 11 championships unless they reduce the league to 10 teams. So now Mike, when it comes to the pinnacle of championships, you always got to go with Mike. Mike has six. I think we could’ve either tied that or got that.”
Doubling their total is ambitious. Or maybe not. We’ll never know.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
Trade No. 1
Boston Celtics Received: Ray Allen; Glen Davis
Seattle SuperSonics Received: Jeff Green; Wally Szczerbiak; Delonte West; 2008 second-round pick (Trent Plaisted)
Trade No. 2
Boston Celtics Received: Kevin Garnett
Minnesota Timberwolves Received: Ryan Gomes; Gerald Green; Al Jefferson; Theo Ratliff; Sebastian Telfair; Boston’s 2009 first-round pick (Wayne Ellington); Minnesota’s own 2009 first-round pick (Jonny Flynn)
Blockbuster trades seldom amount to a championship the following season. This pair from the summer of 2007 did.
The Celtics won 66 games during their first season with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett before surviving an absolute rock fight of a playoff bracket. All four of their series went at least six games, including their NBA Finals bout with the Lakers, and their first two rounds went the full seven-tilt distance.
That alone is enough to land them on the list. The immediacy with which the Celtics won is a genuine anomaly. But their case is propped up further by an extensive shelf life. They reached another Finals in 2010, again versus the Lakers, and continued to provide resistance to the Big Three-era Heat when their own core was on its last legs.
One win separated them from another Finals appearance in 2012. That doesn’t come close to dynastic—though, the 2008 Celtics have milked the hell out of that one title—but the acquisitions of Allen and Garnett changed the championship landscape.
And beyond that, landing Garnett specifically gave Boston the recipe to pull off one of the greatest offseason heists in league history. The Brooklyn Nets don’t mortgage their future and then some in 2013 if they’re not getting back both him and Paul Pierce.
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Danny Moloshok/Associated Press
Los Angeles Clippers Received: Chris Paul; 2015 second-round pick (Arturas Gudaitis); $350,000
New Orleans Hornets Received: Al-Farouq Aminu; Eric Gordon; Chris Kaman; 2012 first-round pick (Austin Rivers)
Chris Paul‘s December 2011 departure from New Orleans is both a tale of what could have been and what was.
On the one hand, we have the “What if he was traded to the Lakers?” factor. They had agreed to acquire him from the then-Hornets in a three-team deal with the Houston Rockets, paving the way for a CP3-Kobe partnership that vaulted the Lakers from fringe contenders to patented powerhouses.
But, you know, “basketball reasons” happened.
Then-commissioner David Stern vetoed the deal, as was his right, since the league controlled the New Orleans franchise at the time. No singular driving force has ever been credited for his decision—”basketball reasons” covers a lot of ground—but Cleveland Cavaliers chairman Dan Gilbert’s letter definitely played a role in the NBA’s quashing this deal.
“I cannot remember ever seeing a trade where a team got by far the best player in the trade and saved over $40 million in the process,” he wrote, per Howard Beck, then of the New York Times. “And it doesn’t appear that they would give up any draft picks, which might allow to later make a trade for Dwight Howard.”
Lakers fans have every reason to still be salty about the verdict. Netting Paul would’ve drastically altered the next half-decade or more of their franchise. Maybe Kobe wins a sixth ring alongside CP3. Perhaps the Lakers still acquire Howard in 2012, except this time it doesn’t end poorly and they’re not compelled to surrender two first-round picks for a 38-year-old Steve Nash.
Whatever, though. This isn’t all about the Lakers.
Paul’s arrival put the Clippers on the map in a way Blake Griffin‘s stardom couldn’t yet do. No way does Doc Rivers end up as head coach in 2013 if the future Hall of Fame point guard isn’t part of the equation. And while the Clippers never made it out of the second round during Paul’s time in town, they did run off six consecutive playoff berths and post the league’s third-best regular-season record over that span, trailing only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
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Reed Saxon/Associated Press
Los Angeles Lakers Received: Dwight Howard; Earl Clark; Chris Duhon
Orlando Magic Received: Nikola Vucevic; Arron Afflalo; Christian Eyenga; Moe Harkless; Al Harrington; Josh McRoberts; Denver’s 2013 second-round pick (Romero Osby); Denver’s 2014 first-round pick (Dario Saric); L.A.’s 2017 second-round pick (Wes Iwundu); Philadelphia’s 2018 first-round pick* (Landry Shamet)
Denver Nuggets Received: Andre Iguodala
Philadelphia 76ers Received: Andrew Bynum; Jason Richardson
*This pick was eventually traded back to Philly
Not all megatrades unfold according to plan. This August 2012 swap is one of those.
Dwight Howard was supposed to serve as the Lakers’ bridge from the present to the future, the star who would maximize what was left of Bryant’s career and be the franchise’s lifeline to relevance after it. He instead wound up staying in Los Angeles for a year, during which time he openly feuded with Kobe while the team demonstratively underachieved.
Injuries played a part in the Lakers’ belly flop. Pau Gasol and Nash missed significant time, and Howard never looked like Orlando-era D12 while trying to play through a shoulder injury. A 34-year-old Kobe was left to ferry a monster burden, and he suffered a ruptured Achilles in the third-to-last game of the regular season, a setback that altered not only L.A.’s playoff push (it was swept in the first round) but also the rest of his career and, by extension, the team’s capacity to contend during it.
Perhaps things for the Lakers would’ve gone differently long term if Howard didn’t bolt for Houston the following summer. Counterpoint: probably not. Dwight was never really Dwight after that, and Kobe was certainly never really Kobe.
In retrospect, this trade became the reset point for three franchises. Bynum would never play a game for the Sixers, opening the door for extreme “trust the process” measures, and the Magic have yet to win a playoff series since unloading Howard. Meanwhile, Denver was a one-year layover for Andre Iguodala, who would join what became a dynastic Warriors nucleus in 2013.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Houston Rockets Received: James Harden; Cole Aldrich; Daequan Cook; Lazar Hayward
Oklahoma City Thunder Received: Jeremy Lamb; Kevin Martin; 2013 first-round pick (Steven Adams); 2013 second-round pick (Alex Abrines); 2014 first-round pick (Mitch McGary)
Is there a more important trade since 2000 than this October 2012 swap? Perhaps. Cases can be made for a handful, most notably the deals that resulted in championships. But the sudden, unceremonious razing of Oklahoma City’s core stands as a contender and maybe the odds-on favorite.
Nearly a decade later, Harden’s relocation to Houston is still viewed as the derailment of a budding dynasty. It might even be fair to say that sentiment is stronger than ever. He has turned into one of the five- to seven-best offensive players of all time, and neither Kevin Durant nor Russell Westbrook remain with the Thunder.
Though moving Harden kept in theme with Oklahoma City’s extend-him-or-trade-him motif, it hardly sat right at the time. The return was viewed more favorably compared to what it became, but the Thunder were working off a Finals appearance. Harden was 23. Durant was 24. Westbrook was 23. They were set up to run the tables on the Western Conference, if not on the entire league, for the next five to 10 years.
Punting on that opportunity for luxury-tax reasons was hardly defensible in the moment, and it remains a point of contention. Nobody knew Harden would become an all-time great, but Oklahoma City was already knocking on the door of sustained title contention. There was no scenario in which the team’s on-court future improved without him.
To the Thunder’s credit, they notched a top-four record in the four seasons between the Harden trade and Durant’s free-agency departure. If not for ill-timed injuries to Durant and Westbrook in the years to come, they might have a title. And who knows, from there, maybe Durant never leaves.
Some might argue Oklahoma City’s dissolution was inevitable. Championships aren’t guaranteed, and who’s to say Harden would be Harden—an MVP—if he continued as the third wheel to Durant and Westbrook. Still, for the Thunder’s purposes, it’d have been nice to find out. Instead, they went on to become a great team besieged by unknowns.
The Rockets, on the other hand, made out like bandits. Along with Harden, they have become a punchline at different times, but success is relative. They may not have a title, but they were among the few teams to challenge the dynastic Warriors. Harden was the basis for the fight they showed during Golden State’s run of inevitability, and he remains Houston’s line to championship contention.
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Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
Brooklyn Nets Received: Kevin Garnett; Paul Pierce; Jason Terry; D.J. White; 2017 first-round pick (Kyle Kuzma); 2017 second-round pick (Sasha Vezenkov)
Boston Celtics Received: Keith Bogans; MarShon Brooks; Kris Humphries; Kris Joseph; Gerald Wallace; 2014 first-round pick (James Young); 2016 first-round pick (Jaylen Brown); 2017 first-round swap (Markelle Fultz); 2018 first-round pick (Collin Sexton)
Looking back at this 2013 blockbuster is an acid trip this side of the 2019 offseason.
Billed as one of the worst trades in NBA history on behalf of the Nets, it has not aged as poorly as once expected. Brooklyn has since traveled a peak-then-valley-then-peak trajectory.
It was celebrated in the moment, even at a steep cost, receiving the “Who wants a piece of them?” treatment. And then the Nets played the games. It was rarely pretty. They lacked cohesion, both on and off the court, and racked up just 44 victories. That they won a playoff series was a borderline miracle; it happened almost in spite of themselves.
Rock bottom came swiftly thereafter. Brooklyn won 38 games in 2014-15 after Pierce left in free agency, and the team blew the whole thing up by the start of 2015-16. (Garnett was traded to Minnesota during the 2014-15 campaign.)
Hampered by the loss of so many draft picks, the Nets went on to rattle off three consecutive 20-something-win seasons from there. Out of that stretch, though, came a rebrand. General manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson reinvented the franchise’s image by prioritizing player relations and mining diamonds from underexplored caverns, making and saving careers in the process. (See: Harris, Joe; Dinwiddie, Spencer.)
Revamping the culture from top to bottom has since turned Brooklyn into a destination—for Durant and Kyrie Irving, at least. The Nets signed both superstars last offseason, in the New York Knicks’ backyard, a coup that represented how far they’d come, with so little, over such a short time.
That success remains symbolic. Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season recovering from a ruptured right Achilles, and a shoulder injury limited Irving to 20 appearances. The Nets only complicated their future by showing Atkinson, one of their primary culture-setters, the door and hiring first-time head coach Steve Nash in his stead. Their decision to sign DeAndre Jordan and then, eventually, promote him over Jarrett Allen is yet another harbinger of changing times.
Whether these gambles will pay off is unclear. The Nets enter next season as one of the most combustible contenders in recent memory. They’re probably not here at all without the time they spent wandering in the Association’s wilderness, but they can’t yet be sure exactly what that means.
As for the Celtics, ransoming Brooklyn laid the groundwork for the contender they have now. Two of the picks they received turned into Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and they used the draft selection that became Collin Sexton to swing the Irving trade. Losing him to free agency after just two seasons should’ve stung—it is objectively hysterical he landed with the team whose first-rounder enabled Boston to get him—but the blow is softened by the presence of two cornerstones. Getting Kemba Walker to replace him helped too.
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Boston Celtics Receive: Kyrie Irving
Cleveland Cavaliers Received: Jae Crowder; Isaiah Thomas; Ante Zizic; 2018 first-round pick (Collin Sexton); Miami’s 2020 second-round pick
In the interest of full disclosure, the Irving-to-Boston deal almost didn’t make the top 10. It felt immensely important when it happened in August 2017, but the big-picture ramifications haven’t quite lived up to the instahype.
Armchair general managers were begging the Celtics to parlay their many assets into a star for what seemed like forever and were, by and large, ultracritical of team president Danny Ainge for not doing so. Jimmy Butler and Paul George, two ostensibly perfect fits, were shopped and shipped out. Boston failed to win either sweepstakes despite having the juice to outbid everyone else.
Bringing in Irving was the type of all-in play the Celtics had resisted for so long. The price isn’t mountainous in hindsight, but it was considered substantial at the time. Jae Crowder was on one of the league’s best contracts, Isaiah Thomas was their emotional bellwether and the Nets pick that became Collin Sexton was, incorrectly, deemed a prime-time asset.
That Boston was willing to give up so much implied a great deal, including a lack of faith in Thomas’ recovery from a hip injury. Mostly, it reflected a sense of urgency and belief in itself—feelings buoyed, no doubt, by the signings of Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in consecutive summers.
And yet, this aggressive play from the Celtics loses some of its luster knowing Irving left after two seasons, the latter of which devolved into a public-relations hellstorm. This deal would actually carry more weight if Boston didn’t land so cleanly on the heels of his departure. Brown and Tatum ensure an open-ended line to contention, and the Celtics’ rebound point guard is Walker, a top-25 player when his knees aren’t bothering him.
Irving’s exit from Cleveland winds up outpacing his arrival in Boston. LeBron James was hardly thrilled with the decision to trade him and even less OK with his destination and the Cavaliers’ return. We could suggest that this ordeal sealed the King’s future in Cleveland—that he might’ve stuck around beyond the 2017-18 season if the Cavaliers didn’t sell off their second-best player, the superstar responsible for drilling one of the biggest shots in NBA history. Let’s agree not to suggest or infer or declare any of it, though.
LeBron’s decision to sign with the Lakers was likely fait accompli, a move he had pondered long before Cleveland flipped Irving to Boston. That the Cavs moved Kyrie knowing they could soon lose LeBron is the bigger deal. The point guard had two years left on his contract. He was just 25. Perhaps the relationship was truly beyond repair, making him an eventual flight risk. He did leave the Celtics, after all.
But he still would’ve had another season left on his pact when LeBron went to Los Angeles. The Cavs could’ve tried selling him as the future of the franchise, again, and then moved him if he remained insistent upon leaving, when he actually had leverage one year out from free agency. Either outcome seems preferable to where Cleveland ended up: still searching for a blue-chip cornerstone in the aftermath of LeBron’s second exit.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
Toronto Raptors Received: Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs Received: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, 2019 first-round pick (Keldon Johnson), $5 million
Where were you when the news broke that the Toronto Raptors traded for Leonard in July 2018? If you live on the East Coast, you were probably sleeping. (That’s how Leonard operates, apparently. It was the same story during his free agency in 2019.) If you live on the West Coast or were just awake, you probably remember where you were and what you were doing.
It was that kind of moment.
Perception of two franchises changed that night (morning?). The Spurs’ illusion of infallibility was shattered; it was already teetering on the edge given that Leonard requested a trade at all, but the idea that they couldn’t keep a franchise player happy, that they were no longer a portrait of stability, became a fact when he left.
San Antonio is still recovering from the fallout. It mustered a postseason bid in 2019, but its 22-year playoff streak ended this year. Prioritizing a win-now return, in DeMar DeRozan, seemed incredibly shortsighted then. It is even harder to reconcile now. The Spurs had a chance to assemble a sturdier asset base for the future. They instead chose a more immediate path, a decision that has facilitated their tenure in the middle, with no clear or imminent path to title contention or a full-tilt reset.
Toronto is rather easily the winner of this deal. It doesn’t matter that Leonard left after one season. He led the Raptors to their first championship, and his arrival didn’t cost either of their two best prospects (OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam).
By landing Leonard, Toronto also dispelled the notion it couldn’t compete on the grandest stage. His arrival was team president Masai Ujiri’s excuse to shake things up—to trade a franchise face and fan favorite who capped the team’s ceiling. The Raptors had outgrown the DeRozan-Kyle Lowry pairing. Constant unsuccessful run-ins with James’ Cavs proved as much. Even with that bugaboo out of their way, they still profiled as a regular-season feel-good story that topped out as a conference finals steppingstone.
This says nothing of the opportunity for Siakam born from this move. His fit beside Leonard was far cleaner than that with DeRozan. And when Leonard left, it gave Siakam license to assume primary influence over the offense—agency he never would’ve been afforded next to DeRozan, who had two extra years on his own deal.
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Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press
Los Angeles Lakers Received: Anthony Davis
New Orleans Pelicans Received: Lonzo Ball; Josh Hart; De’Andre Hunter; Brandon Ingram; L.A.’s 2021 first-round pick (protected Nos. 9 to 30); L.A.’s 2023 first-rounder pick (swap rights); L.A.’s 2024 first-round pick (option to defer until 2025); $1 million (via L.A.); $1.1 million (via Washington)
Washington Wizards Received: Isaac Bonga; Jemerrio Jones; Moritz Wagner; 2022 second-round pick (more favorable from L.A., Detroit or Chicago)
So few trades are memorable for both the right and wrong reasons. Anthony Davis made sure his July 2019 exit from New Orleans was among the exceptions.
Requesting a trade 18 months before hitting free agency was an overstatement of his position. His agent, Rich Paul, tried to spin the move as transparency, but the Pelicans were notified of Davis’ intentions inside two weeks of the 2019 trade deadline, giving them no time to scour the league for a palatable deal.
Not that they needed to scour. Davis’ wish list included one team—and at most two. His open desire to join the Lakers drove down his value to every other interested party. Most franchises won’t empty their war chest for a rental.
Restricting his trade market did little to simplify the process. Almost no one came out the other end looking good. Then-Lakers team president Magic Johnson claimed the Pelicans operated in bad faith when they didn’t move him. The league threatened to fine New Orleans if it didn’t play Davis. Pelicans fans booed him. Lakers players knew they were being dangled in talks and, in Josh Hart’s case, weren’t thrilled about how they found out after the trade went through.
Somehow, everything worked out—for both teams. The Pelicans won the draft lottery and the right to select Zion Williamson, a should-be generational star to succeed the one who left. And the Lakers moved up the draft order themselves, arming them with the assets necessary to compensate New Orleans as if it weren’t negotiating in a market of one.
Many still wondered whether L.A. overpaid. Did the Lakers really need to give up that 2024 (or 2025) first-rounder? Where else were the Pelicans going to send Davis? Sure, he’s a top-10 star, but they had leverage. It felt like they underplayed their hand.
That may still be true. It just no longer matters.
Waiting for Davis to hit free agency was rife with risk. The Lakers tried that approach with George and came up empty. If you have the chance to get a 26-year-old superstar, you get him, at almost any expense—particularly when you already have a then-34-year-old LeBron James and are coming off a lottery appearance.
The opportunity cost of landing Davis is even more immaterial now. The Lakers just won a friggin’ NBA title during a playoff push in which Davis was at times, and for long stretches, their most valuable player. He will never be a conventional 1A megastar. That role is reserved for primary shot creators, an archetype he will never typify. But he is the next-best thing: someone who can be the 1B to that 1A, without that 1A playing at their peak every second of every minute of every game.
In acquiring Davis, then, the Lakers didn’t merely win themselves this title and the chance to get more with LeBron. They assured themselves of a blueprint of a future without him.
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Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
Los Angeles Clippers Received: Paul George
Oklahoma City Thunder Received: Danilo Gallinari; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; Miami’s 2021 first-round pick; L.A.’s 2022 first-round pick; L.A.’s 2023 first-round pick (swap rights); Miami’s 2023 first-round pick (lottery protection); L.A.’s 2024 first-round pick; L.A.’s 2025 first-round pick (swap rights); L.A.’s 2026 first-round pick
Feel free to push back against the PG-to-L.A. inclusion following the Clippers’ second-round flameout…after jumping out to a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets. The Cavaliers’ acquisition of Kevin Love in 2014 invariably shaped a title campaign. CP3’s trade to Houston in 2017 created a near-equal to the Durant-era Warriors. This selection is not unimpeachable.
At the same time, George’s July 2019 trade to the Clippers was essentially a package deal. They don’t bag Leonard without him. Kawhi recruited him without actually having joined the team for crying out loud.
Any blockbuster that nets an aspiring championship contender two of the 15-best stars in the game—one of whom kind of, sort of remains in the conversation for best player alive—is important beyond measure. Plus, we cannot forget about the Thunder’s side of this show-stopper.
George’s departure didn’t just guarantee the end to Westbrook’s careerlong tenure in Oklahoma City. It brought in a fringe All-Star (Danilo Gallinari), a could-be All-Star (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and five—five—additional first-round picks…and then two swaps, because why not?
Oklahoma City is laughably, ludicrously stocked for the rebuild it has yet to start. And Los Angeles is leveraged to the hilt for what has since become a one-year title window before George and Leonard enter free agency (player options). That’s a ridiculously, endlessly important end result if you ask me.
Honorable Offseason Trade Mentions: Kevin Love to Cleveland (2014); Chris Paul to Houston (2017); Paul George to Oklahoma City (2017); Russell Westbrook to Houston (2019)