For several seasons, the NBA has been dominated by the Splash Brothers and Golden State, with few teams able to contend. Though several teams beat the Warriors during the regular season, only an elite few have matched their talent in a playoff series. However, with a couple of costly injuries in the NBA Finals and the loss of Kevin Durant during free agency, the Warriors may have lost some potency.

After several high-profile free agency signings around the league, the NBA looks to produce a more competitive product next season, one in which the Warriors may find themselves one among several elite teams. While this isn’t the best news for Golden State, it’s great news for fans across the country, as it promises more meaningful matchups and more possibilities for teams who’ve struggled in previous seasons.

Going into the NBA Finals, Golden State was yet again a favorite to win the title. Then, after returning in Game 5, Durant ruptured his Achilles, rendering him unable to finish the Finals and likely unable to play most of next season. Following Durant’s injury, Klay Thompson—arguably the best three-point shooter in the league—tore his ACL in Game 6. Without Durant and Thompson, Golden State stayed competitive but lost the series to the Raptors. With Golden State’s injuries, Toronto’s first title, and talk of KD leaving Golden State, the Warriors suddenly appeared human: vulnerable, beatable. Meanwhile, uncertainty and hope permeated, as free agency was just around the corner.

 

The Pursuit of Free Agents and New Horizons

Once the confetti settled in Toronto, analysts and fans turned their eyes to the free agent market, with rumors swirling about several big-name moves (and with the inevitable hype and conjecture at full throttle well before the opening bell for free agent signings).
On June 30, teams darted out of the gate, quickly signing marquee free agents to very healthy contracts. Though the dust hasn’t completely settled, we’re starting to get a glimpse at what the NBA landscape will look like in the upcoming season, particularly now that Kawhi—one of the last superstar free agents to sign—has officially made his move to the Clippers. Leonard’s move was a stunning one with immediate effects on the outlook for next year, but in its wake, we have a clearer sense of the power balance.

While Golden State lost KD to the Brooklyn Nets, they retained Thompson and signed D’Angelo Russell. KD is a big loss, but the Splash Brothers remain intact, keeping the Warriors among the top contenders. That’s nothing new. What’s changed is that now the Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, and 76ers are all favored over the Warriors to take down the championship next year—and with reason. While it’s tough to argue that anyone has constructed as impressive a package as the Warriors did in 2016, these teams have added elite talent and have filled roles that make them viable contenders. And even outside of the favorites for the title, teams such as the Nets have sparked energy and hope as fans imagine what possibilities lie ahead.

 

For the Fans

As free agency brewed all the drama fans could want, draft picks and summer league prospects only sweeten the deal, prompting fans to consider the potential of young, up-and-coming stars. With so many moving parts, the calculus can be daunting, and there is no definitive “answer” when it comes to predicting which teams will mesh and which prospects will shine this summer. This is exactly where the NBA needs to be during the off-season: riddled with unknowns but leaving fans excited and hopeful that next season could offer opportunities for redemption.

Now the talent is spread a bit more evenly among a handful of teams rather than two or three. More fans may feel invested in their team, follow their team’s performance more closely, and perhaps swarm to sites such as Oddschecker throughout the season to check the latest projections for their team. All of this is good news for the NBA and Adam Silver. Not only does the balanced competition make for a more interesting regular season, but it also sets several marquee matchups in both conferences.

Beyond the logistics, what’s critical is that fans are talking shop, engaging in the goings-on of the league, and feeling that what happens in the offseason really matters. If the NBA wants fans invested in the entire season, fans need to feel that every trade, every deal, and every game is somehow meaningful. While the outcomes of free agency, injuries, and player performance are clearly out of the league’s control, fortune has been on their side since the end of the season. The only question now is how they’ll manage it. And with fans wide-eyed and attentive, they’ll certainly be watching with high expectations.

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