As the free agency season nears its end, here’s the harsh reality for the rest of the NBA: The defending champions got better, too.
While the Houston Rockets were loading up by trading for Chris Paul to put him alongside James Harden, the Oklahoma City Thunder were landing Paul George as a Russell Westbrook co-star, and teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves (the Jimmy Butler trade) and the Denver Nuggets (Paul Millsap signing) were making significant strides at cutting that competitive gap, the Golden State Warriors were doing everything right in free agency – again.
One year after the Warriors landed Kevin Durant and took their super team to a whole new level, it was Durant himself empowering the Warriors to get even better after they entered July with 10 free agents. Durant’s decision to take much less than a maximum salary contract this time around opened the door for all of it to happen, with the Finals MVP expected to sign a deal that starts around $25-26 million despite the fact that he could have demanded a starting salary of $34.5 million.
That move allowed the Warriors to avoid losing super sixth man Andre Iguodala (three-year, $48 million deal) and key reserve point guard Shaun Livingston (three-years, $24 million). It led to the additions of bench scorers like Nick Young (one year, $5.2 million) and Omri Casspi (one-year minimum deal), with the expectation that center Zaza Pachulia will still be re-signed as well. Last but certainly not least, two-time MVP Stephen Curry agreed to sign a five-year, $201 million deal that includes no options and put him on track to be in The Bay until at least 2022.
But can any team in the West catch up by then? We shall see. They’re certainly trying.
Yes, the Paul trade comes with curious questions about Xs and Os. How will Harden and Paul fit together? How will coach Mike D’Antoni handle having two of the league’s best point guards, with egos like the rest of them to boot?
But general manager Daryl Morey and his staff didn’t stop with the blockbuster Paul trade, adding a tough and reliable big man in forward P.J. Tucker (four years, $32 million) while re-signing center Nene (three years, $11 million). The loss of point guard Pat Beverley to the Clippers in the Paul deal hurts, but Houston – which went 55-27 last season and fell to San Antonio in the second round of the playoffs – is even more in the hunt than before.
While the Warriors’ dominance is forcing rival teams to consider the kind of high-risk-high-reward moves that could cut the competitive gap, Thunder general manager Sam Presti found a way to improve without putting much on the line at all in the George deal.
The two players he gave up to the Indiana Pacers, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, were acquired in June 2016 for Serge Ibaka as he entered the final year of his deal. In essence, then, he swapped a player who would have become a free agent for an MVP-caliber talent in George, who will be a free agent next summer. George has a year to decide if Oklahoma City is the place for him (or, as has been widely reported, if he’ll sign with the Lakers as so many expect).
Like Morey, Presti didn’t stop there. After losing 32-year-old veteran forward Taj Gibson to Minnesota (two years, $28 million), he came to terms with a 28-year-old forward in Patrick Patterson (three years, $16.4 million) who offers the kind of shooting range the Thunder badly need. Oklahoma City is still expected to retain restricted free agent shooting guard Andre Roberson as well.
The Timberwolves, who haven’t been to the postseason since 2004, look poised to end the league’s longest playoff drought. Not only will Butler work well with Karl-Anthony Towns & Co. after he was reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau via trade recently, but Thibodeau – who also serves as the team’s president of basketball operations – traded point guard Ricky Rubio to Utah in exchange for a 2018 first round pick, then added point guard Jeff Teague (three years, $57 million) and Gibson.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.