SSB’s 2016 NBA Offseason Gradebook

Well, we’re mostly through the NBA offseason. Trades may still occur and guys like Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are still looking for a team, but the heavy lifting has been done for teams not looking to move a large contract (i.e. Rudy Gay or Greg Monroe). So now’s as good a time as any to release our offseason grades for all 30 NBA teams from the start of the summer to now. It’s been a period in which several teams have made real strides in improving their rosters, which will make for a lot of compelling subplots next season.

One big subplot – who actually wins the NBA title – was kind of ruined when Kevin Durant chose to sign with the Golden State Warriors as a free agent. They’re now arguably the biggest title favorites going into a season in modern NBA history. No drama here (barring an injury to Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, or Durant). But to keep the sads away, let’s talk about something else! Back to those subplots…

Many teams happen to find themselves in the stage now where they will not come particularly close to competing for a championship, but will be in the heart of the playoff mix. Several teams might fancy themselves one or two seasons away if they have a young core that has been developing together (such as Milwaukee, Detroit, or Utah). Other teams have also just decided to go for it through trades and free agency (Orlando and New York) after years of inconsistent adequacy or consistent losing. A few teams have opted for a third way (Washington, Chicago, and New Orleans) through making some significant changes to their rotation to try to return to the playoffs after a year away.

It all adds up to a ton of layered mediocrity, which is by no means a dismissal or slight. The NBA is the most fun when there is the most parity. Sure, there is a massive favorite for the title itself, but with the overwhelming majority of teams maintaining focus on the present and no teams in Tank Mode, the playoffs races should be very competitive and tight throughout the year. A couple of teams will undoubtedly underperform and overachieve, but it’s a good time for the NBA, and should only improve as perennial losers like Minnesota and Sacramento take steps toward functionality and recently awful teams like Philadelphia and the Lakers start learning how to win again.

After the past couple of months, the table has been set. Let’s dive right in.

NBA offseason grades:

Atlanta Hawks: C+. After a couple of years of superb coaching and front-office strategy combining to help the Hawks realize their respective ceiling (which still wasn’t high enough to bother LeBron James’ Cavaliers), the Hawks seemed to lose some steam in expressing what they look to accomplish in the long-term. Some elements, as Zach Lowe reported, were out of their control: Al Horford opting to leave, keeping free agent Kent Bazemore for nearly $18 million a year after paying him $2 million this past season, and not being able to move Paul Millsap in the wake of Horford’s exit. But then there are other front-office decisions that increase the inevitable tension between loading up for the present and preparing for the future. Such as signing Dwight Howard and trading your starting point guard in the same offseason. Very rare.

I do understand and appreciate the logic behind the latter move: Jeff Teague came off a slightly below par season that can certainly be attributed to persistent injury woes, but the Hawks chose to move him because they were happy enough with handing the keys to Schroeder if it meant gaining an additional first-round pick. In taking Taurean Prince with the pick that they ultimately acquired in the Teague trade, they effectively swapped a mid-tier 28-year-old starting point guard for a 22-year-old small forward prospect. In terms of contract and positional value (where defensive flexibility has never been more important), that’s actually pretty good! The Hawks got flak for taking him at 12, but if Prince can – at the least – sustain his 3-point shooting accuracy rates from Baylor in Atlanta, then he will be well worth the pick, especially when you consider the extremely goofy and bottom-heavy qualities of this past draft.

Prince, DeAndre Bembry (the team’s other first-round pick), Bazemore, and Schroeder would ideally play and develop together with a couple of similarly young bigs. But then the camera pans to the current starters, Millsap and Howard, who are 31 and 30, respectively, and very much nearing the tail end of their primes. Dwight said upon signing that he wants to bring a championship to Atlanta (Lol!). They’re certainly not interested in rebuilding. You don’t think the Hawks could – at this point – swap Millsap for a future first-round pick, bad contract, and young player (or even for Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and a future first if you’re Toronto and looking to gain ground on Cleveland for Eastern supremacy)? Or for Kevin Love? Hard to imagine they couldn’t, but unlikely at this time. Dwight doesn’t need a reason to sulk and giving him one (i.e. surrounding him with young guys) before his contract starts would be tough to manage for even someone like Mike Budenholzer.

The Hawks could certainly be in worse places. They added some secondary play-making in Bembry, added a much-needed 3-and-D player in Prince who will try to fill Demarre Carroll’s former role in Coach Bud’s system, and got a bit younger. But Howard replacing Horford actually constitutes a downgrade at the center position and when you combine that with the slight downgrade in depth at point guard, it’s hard to imagine that the Hawks have gained any ground in the Eastern Conference, even if they are now slightly better positioned for the future and have more wing depth. Paul Millsap will likely never have higher value again and would certainly net one or two additional young players or draft assets in any trade.

Dwight’s market was very limited this summer and it will be even more so if Atlanta looks to trade him in a year or two. His signing looms over any future moves that the team makes to get younger, which makes it all the more puzzling – even for its likely symbolic attempt to try to persuade Horford to re-sign there. So effectively, I like what Atlanta did in the draft and in moving Teague, but signing Dwight anchors the team to feebly contending in the East so long as Millsap remains there too. Sad!

 

Boston Celtics: B+. Winner of the Silver Medal Sweepstakes, aka the signing of free agent Al Horford. Horford gives the Celtics’ swarming perimeter defense a viable post presence and will stretch the floor on offense. He’s a great two-way player who has the presence to elevate Kelly Olynyk on defense and Amir Johnson on offense. You can bet Celtics fans everywhere turned to their fellow New Englanders and said, “Imahgine what Brad Stevens is gonna do wit Horfahd?”

And rightly so. They got the best center on the market. This doesn’t bring Boston to Cleveland’s level, but Toronto suddenly feels the heat for the illustrious prize of finishing second to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference hierarchy.

As for the draft picks…I don’t think they will push the needle much for Boston this season. Jaylen Brown will need time to learn what he can add to a playoff team that is looking to take the next step. At the third pick, the clear top two prospects were gone, but the Celtics clearly wanted Brown, so good for them. Again, I doubt he have too much of an impact this year – he doesn’t have the offensive skill set and will endure bumps in defending top shooting guards and small forwards – but I’m certainly excited to see how creative Stevens gets with his versatility. Demetrius Jackson is a sneaky good pick-up who could have been drafted earlier. As Brown will probably back-up Jae Crowder, Jackson will back-up Isaiah Thomas at point guard.

While he will stay in Europe for at least another season, Guerschon Yabusele – the team’s other first-round pick, seems like he can develop into a better shooting Jared Sullinger with a lot more energy. If his rebounding tenacity comes anywhere close to the recently departed Sullinger, he will certainly find a place in the rotation upon joining the Celtics whenever that happens.

Losing Evan Turner in free agency is a blessing in disguise: additional minutes for young guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier had to come from somewhere. Marcus Smart should become the main beneficiary, but that depends on him making big strides with his shot (which he seems well aware of) next season. As a top perimeter defender, Smart might just be a respectable jump shot away from bringing this team closer to Cleveland’s level. Despite the current crowded roster, there is plenty of room for internal improvement.

This team doesn’t fall into the A range though unless it finds a way to trade some of its young players and draft pick stash for current elite talent. Young players for Boston were struggling to get burn in this past Summer League. What the heck will they do once the actual season starts? There’s a problem of too much good, but not great youth for the Celtics and the problem will get exacerbated the longer it takes for GM Danny Ainge to bring another top player to Boston.

 

Brooklyn Nets: B. Jeez, this grade doesn’t feel right, but it doesn’t make sense to penalize this team’s offseason with all the stupid decisions that it has made over the past several years. If they had signed Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson, by God, they might almost have bordered on respectable this upcoming season. For the Nets, based on how much Billy King had mortgaged their future, “borderline respectable” would be their equivalent of a non-Cavaliers/Raptors Eastern Conference team making the Finals.

After the Trailblazers and Heat matched the respective offers for their restricted free agents, however, there’s not a whole lot of wing depth, especially with Caris LeVert out to start the season. Signing Jeremy Lin and buying a second round pick to select Brooklyn native Isaiah Whitehead were smart moves that will at least give a bit of excitement to arguably the least entertaining basketball team on the East Coast last season (and there was some tough competition! But at least 76ers promised upside and more unpredictability and Knicks had Porzingis.). Assuming he returns to full health, Greivis Vasquez will be a nice addition as well; he and Lin should actually form a half-decent backcourt if new coach Kenny Atkinson chooses to start them together.

Brooklyn probably could have afforded to buy another second round pick, but that’s a minor issue. Trevor Booker makes sense: he provides some much-needed experience, has a decent mid-range game, and should pair pretty well with Brook Lopez. For analysis on the Luis Scola signing, just re-read the previous sentence (not sure why they signed him, frankly). Signing the 2013 first overall pick/current bust Anthony Bennett makes marginally more sense: he still has upside to become an adequate stretch-4 if he develops a more reliable outside shot and can be merely respectable on defense. *shrugs* But now the Nets have an incomprehensible logjam at power forward with second year player Chris McCullough also deserving time, since the only takeaway from this upcoming season should be developing the talent currently on the roster. Joe Harris will also be on this team, which is literally something.

God, this is depressing.

New GM Sean Marks’ arguably best move was flipping Thaddeus Young to Indiana for a first-round pick (a win-win), which was used to draft LeVert. Young probably has more value than a lower-mid first-round pick, but Brooklyn doesn’t exactly have much leverage, and the pick serves more purpose for the franchise than a starter currently in his prime. LeVert and Whitehead are very different players: while LeVert (when healthy) is a sweet-shooting wing who was sometimes at fault in Michigan for his waning activity level, Whitehead is a guard who attacks the paint, but sometimes can’t buy a basket. Along with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and McCullough, they hope to prove that the cupboard isn’t totally bare for Brooklyn, but significant development from a couple of the young guys is vital to avoiding the feeling that All Is Lost in Brooklyn (especially since Boston can switch its first-round pick with Brooklyn next year as yet another awful consequence of the Pierce-Garnett-Terry trade from 2012).

I’m expecting a Brook Lopez trade to transpire at some point in the next year. I understand why Marks is not looking to move him now: the former Stanford man will once again put up substantial numbers for a team with limited talent around him and the value for big men is not exactly peaking at the moment, between teams looking to optimally play small next season and with the current lull following the busy start of free agency. A team like the Celtics (even with Horford, since they have too many assets and he can play at power forward) or Charlotte could certainly have interest as the season progresses; maybe even the Trailblazers kick the tires, seeing as Lopez would be the one type of big man that Portland doesn’t currently employ. With Lopez being the one guy still on the Nets who has decent trade value, it makes perfect sense for Marks to declare him as a building block and ignore questions regarding the incumbent center in attempts to keep the little bit of high ground he has at his disposal (even if he totally plans to move him eventually).

By the way, who would hire Billy King for anything after his time in Brooklyn? If he were a car salesman, he’d probably offload new models for some Bitcoin and a book of soon-to-expire Groupon deals.

 

Charlotte Hornets: B-. Ok, so good news first: They were able to re-sign Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams for a bit below their inflated market value (due to the bloated salary cap), thus keeping two of their most important players from this past season in Hornets’ uniforms. Very nice!

Now the bad: instead of potentially having four first-round picks (reportedly including this past draft’s third overall pick) from the Celtics and another young player like Malachi Richardson or Demetrius Jackson, Charlotte has netted Frank Kaminsky and Marco Belinelli, respectively, from the past two drafts. I am but one man with one humble opinion, but that’s a contrast that looks fairly awful now and will only get worse with time. This is assuming that Frank the Tank does not take a quantum leap in production to become a nightly double-double threat with 36%+ 3-point shooting range, but I feel pretty comfortable making that bet.

Turning down the Celtics’ Godfather offer (they loved Justise Winslow) for Kaminsky is probably the single move that would have had the potential to elevate Charlotte out of the lower/mid-tier playoff level in the East. I understand that this happened last summer, so it does not account for my grade for this offseason, but a year looking back on the draft night trade that didn’t happen has done no favors for the Hornets. The trade for Belinelli is more defensible (by default), but the Italian shooting guard is already 30 and this team had no real reason to not get younger, especially since veterans Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson were always going to move on in free agency. The core is still young – they should have drafted a guard project like Patrick McCaw or Richardson, or even Jackson, who could have given Kemba Walker some needed support in the backcourt now that Jeremy Lin is off to concrete pastures. It’s not that hard!

In the midst of puzzling draft moves and lost rotation players, there were a couple of positive, albeit seemingly insignificant, moves that GM Rich Cho made this summer. The first was signing Roy Hibbert to a one year deal. Hibbert will be the team’s first above-average rim protector since Bismack Biyombo (which seems like a lot longer ago than two years) and might even come close to returning to the level he was at when the Pacers were the Heat’s biggest challenger in the East. Steve Clifford is one of the league’s best defensive coaches and an ideal candidate to resurrect the former Hoya’s career. Christian Wood was a nice low-cost signing as well; he spent last year yo-yoing between the 76ers and their D-League affiliate and played well enough in the past Summer League to garner interest from a few teams around the league. The team didn’t necessarily need another big man, but he has some potential as a floor-stretching big and can challenge shots better than Kaminsky or Cody Zeller. It’ll be surprising if he doesn’t carve out a role in the rotation at some point next season.

Charlotte will probably be a playoff team again, but it’s tough to argue that this team will take a step forward next season, despite the (hopefully healthy) return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, their best defender and biggest hope – along with Kaminsky, I guess – to improve the team internally (they’ll both still only be 23 next season). Kidd-Gilchrist is a mediocre jump shot away from being a very good player in this league; having him and Batum playing together for a full season will probably be enough to keep Charlotte in the playoff picture. With that said, Lin, Jefferson, and Lee will be missed, and the past two summers of missing opportunities to retool with young players will likely hurt this team in a couple of years when they find worse coached, but more talented teams passing them by.

 

Chicago Bulls: C-. I can’t imagine this team lasting a full season without some Kings-level off-court drama going down at this point. Formerly elite players in Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade with chips on their shoulders, a current top player in Jimmy Butler who has been in trade rumors throughout the summer and thus has a chip on HIS shoulder, several young players who hope to touch the ball a few times a game, and second year coach/possible kitten Fred Hoiberg.

If it were Wade or Rondo, fine. Between the two of them, there will be a lot of dribble-heavy possessions and mid-range jumpers. For the sadists who miss the gross style of offense preferred a decade ago, the Bulls will be a fun relic; for normal people who don’t casually think about bathing with their toasters, it will probably not make for great entertainment.

Trading Derrick Rose was a great move; Jerian Grant is a young guard with starting-caliber talent, Robin Lopez is an above-average defensive center who sets good screens and finishes around the rim efficiently, and Jose Calderon is a point guard who could have set the table for Jimmy Butler and keep defenses honest by stretching the floor (unlike Rose, who defenses sagged off on all season). Heck, keeping E’Twaun Moore would have been smart too. Moore showed excellent outside shooting and very solid perimeter defense this past season for Chicago, but they chose to let him go to New Orleans. The Bulls brain trust ended up declining either good option and decided to take another point guard who can’t shoot (Rondo) and move Calderon on to Los Angeles.

It’s hard to hate on the Wade signing for sentimental reasons, but this isn’t a winning basketball move. Wade will sell jerseys and put fans in the seats in the wake of Rose leaving Chicago, but if this team surpasses its .500 record next season, I will be very surprised. Without Rondo, this would be a good summer for the Bulls. Denzel Valentine was a slightly surprising, but very good draft pick: he possesses great vision and outside shooting, and can be a surrogate point guard, even though Rondo mitigates that need (Reason 11 why signing Rondo was dumb).

If there was one thing this team needed to do (besides get rid of the guys it got rid of), it was to alleviate the logjam at the forwards positions. Wade pushes Butler to small forward, meaning that an existing problem has now gotten worse, even with Mike Dunleavy gone to Cleveland. Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, and Taj Gibson are all deserving of 15+ minutes, and I have no idea how that’s going to work out barring a trade.

If Chicago hadn’t signed Rondo, I would grade their offseason as B-. But they did, so full letter grade drop.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers: B-. Not really much to base my grade on without context, outside of re-signing Richard Jefferson and drafting Kay Felder. Trading for Mike Dunleavy has been the highlight: provided he stays healthy, he will have a significant role in the rotation and gives Cleveland some additional defensive versatility and perimeter shooting. Always a good thing.

With context, however, every move needs to be assessed on how well it will serve against the Warriors. If you consider that jumping the gun, fine, but it’s not. It will almost certainly happen barring injuries to LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Draymond Green (probably still the Warriors most important player, as much as it sickens me to say it). My biggest issue is that the Cavs need to stir the pot in order to keep up with the West Coast Joneses now that Kevin Durant gave up and changed alliances.

What do I suggest, you ask? *reaches for low-hanging fruit* Trade Kevin Love. For…hmmm…Paul Millsap and Taurean Prince? That would make perfect sense. Love returns to being a primary option on offense in Atlanta while having his defensive frailties mitigated by playing beside Dwight Howard. The Cavs get a big defensive upgrade with Millsap and hardly lose anything on offense, simply due to the limited role Love has had in Cleveland in playing beside LeBron and Kyrie. He can even stretch the floor nearly as well as Love! If Prince were to become anything like a next-gen Shane Battier over the next couple of season, it would be a perfect fit around the likes of the Cavs’ top two scorers.

At the end of the day, staying put will not be enough to combat the retooled Warriors. Millsap and Tristan Thompson would be able to bother an undersized Warriors squad on the glass without giving up as much on defense and this team cannot have enough good perimeter defenders. By firing David Blatt midway through last season despite having the best record in the Eastern Conference, the front office showed its willingness to take big risks in order to (let’s face it) be as competitive against the Warriors as possible. As of now, they need to take another leap.

 

Dallas Mavericks: B+. It was nice to see Dirk finally get paid after years of taking discounts to help Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson go after top free agents who never came. It was also nice to see him finally get some adequate help. While Durant going to Golden State makes the NBA worse, a positive effect is that it has given Harrison Barnes a chance to shine in Dallas.

From his origins as a hugely hyped high school star, Barnes has since had underwhelming stops at UNC and in his first few years in the NBA with Golden State, despite having a fairly prominent role in the team’s great success over the past few seasons. The idea of “untapped potential” has followed him throughout his career, even though it’s very likely he will never be a star in the league.

And that’s cool with Dallas. Just as they overpaid to wrestle Chandler Parsons away from Houston two years ago, they were fine with throwing excess money at Barnes so Golden State would have to carefully consider matching the big offer even if Durant hadn’t chosen to give up. They got who they wanted; trading basically nothing to get another Golden State throwaway – Andrew Bogut – only sweetens the deal.

So is effectively letting Parsons go to get Barnes a net positive? Probably, given how often Parsons dealt with injuries during his two years with the Mavericks. Barnes isn’t the playmaker that Parsons is, but when you consider that Barnes is currently only a few months older than Parsons was at the end of his rookie year, you can understand why the Mavericks are confident in the former Tarheel’s ability to flourish with a bigger role in the offense.

In trying to project how he does in Dallas, the first instance that comes to mind is when the Rockets signed Trevor Ariza after winning a championship with the Lakers to be their primary scorer. His scoring average increased while his efficiency dipped. It would be reasonable to expect the same trend with Barnes. I can see him averaging 15-17 points a game next season, but shooting in the low 40s%. While the very limited data on Harrison Barnes’ drives suggest that he gets tunnel vision (not many turnovers!) and finishes at the rim reasonably well, he needs to take a page from DeMar DeRozan’s book and learn how to get to the free-throw line more often than he has to this point in his young career.

Second round pick A.J. Hammons should develop into a pretty good back-up center and the team’s perimeter play should improve as Wes Matthews enters his second season removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon and Justin Anderson enters his second season. Re-signing Dwight Powell was a smart move and retains frontcourt depth. All in all, the Mavericks are a slightly deeper, slightly more athletic team entering next season.

 

Denver Nuggets: B+. The Nuggets have depth at every position and it has been accomplished almost exclusively through the Carmelo Anthony trade (draft picks, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler), the Arron Afflalo (Will Barton) and the draft. That’s damn impressive. If anything, my question is: when will all these guys play?

You have to imagine rookie Jamal Murray will play some point guard (he certainly thinks so), even though he is definitely better in a combo role, since Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Malik Beasley will all try to fit at shooting guard (Barton and Beasley will likely see some time at small forward when coach Mike Malone plays small ball). Then Juancho Hernangomez will play behind Gallinari and Chandler (who will likely all also play as small ball stretch power forwards). Finally you have Kenneth Faried, Jusef Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, and Petr Cornelie (if he leaves Europe), fighting for time at the big positions. Whew.

This team likely won’t be challenging for a playoff spot yet, but they will surprise a few teams throughout the season. Definitely one of my teams to watch this season, even if Malone will need to perform one heck of a juggling act to keep all the players happy. Denver is in prime position to nab a star in a trade, which would also serve to alleviate the excess of riches they currently have at multiple positions.

***See Oklahoma City Thunder’s section for trade idea***

 

Detroit Pistons: A-. Henry Ellenson is a rookie who I can’t wait to see play meaningful minutes. Based on the Jon Leuer signing ($10 million a year! If him beside Drummond didn’t make so much sense, I would be outraged), however, that probably won’t be for a while. I would also have guessed that Leuer will get some time behind Drummond at center, but then Lord Stan Van Grundy signs Boban Marjanovic. Ish Smith is a decent back-up point guard who will relentlessly go downhill on pick and rolls while missing 3s and dribbling the air out of the ball. Can’t wait!

But going back to the big man signings, I love these moves by SVG. For better or worse, he is sticking his chin out at the small ball revolution and daring the revolutionaries to take their best swing. No better way to double down than to load up on size in free agency when it probably was not as big of a need as playing someone other than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard occasionally (in the wake of Van Gundy trading the oft-injured Jodie Meeks to Orlando, second round pick Michael Gbinije and Reggie Bullock will have the prime opportunities to do so).

Depth is no longer an issue for this Pistons team, especially if Stanley Johnson improves his outside shot and Bullock/Gbinije can combine to hit a few open looks throughout the year. This team has built on its first playoff appearance in several years; finishing in the top 5 or 6 teams in the East is certainly not out of the question for Detroit next season.

 

Golden State Warriors: A.

*sigh*

Let’s get this $h*+ over with.

The Warriors signed Kevin Durant (who gave up) and, in doing so, will probably put league title contention in a sleeper hold for the next few years. Moving on…

Ok, a few more words. Signing Durant, as Zach Lowe explained better than I can, exposed problems created by the previous collective bargaining agreement that also failed to account for the unprecedented jump in the salary cap. But Durant also chose to go there, so we have to respect the primary role of individual agency (imagine that!), which brought this issue to the forefront to begin with.

Golden State has done what all teams want to do, which is make as good a team as possible. Try not to be pissed at Golden State for how events unfolded. I will certainly root for their opponent into the foreseeable future, but dammit if the Timberwolves were that good, I would probably quit my job and start my own church of Karl Anthony-Towns. They play a fun style of basketball that I would love if I were not so busy loathing them and players around the league either envy them or want to play with them. I hate their happiness!

Anyway, apart from signing Durant, they’ve done very well in building up the rest of the roster despite the severe cap restraints that come with signing Durant (who gave up).

It helps that guys like Zaza Pachulia and David West were all too happy to give up additional salary elsewhere to jump on the favored ticket. Drafting two guys with first-round talent also helps. Damian Jones – who I thought would go earlier in the first-round – will help to make up for the loss of Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut; Patrick McCaw, one of the draft’s precious 3 and D perimeter guys who I prayed would not land with the Warriors, is probably too raw to contribute in a meaningful way, but will get time at the end of many runaway victories throughout the season. The Warriors, like much of their Silicon Valley fan base, are the 1%.

 

Houston Rockets: B. First off, points for getting rid of Dwight Howard, even if he chose to opt out of his deal and enter free agency again. That locker room last season must have been the personality equivalent of a bleach-pesticide cocktail, and the Rockets are better off for having only one (freshly re-signed!) head case now.

After drafting Chinanu Onuaku at 37, I think the Rockets are stacked in the department of “young athletic bigs who have no offensive game whatsoever” between him, Montrezl Harrell, and Clint Capela. Stockpiling defensive-minded players makes sense, however, when the likes of Donatas Montiejunas (he tries, to his credit) and Michael Beasley are playing alongside them. It makes even more sense when GM Daryl Morey signs Ryan Anderson in free agency.

Ryan Anderson is ideally a rotational stretch-4 who was always going to get starter money and a starter role from some team this summer. Between his real weaknesses as a defender, inconsistent shooting, personal issues, and injury woes, the Pelicans had no problem letting him leave. As is often the case with one person’s trash, however, the Rockets were more than happy to sign him to a big deal. He will need to stay healthy and find his shooting form again for the Rockets to not experience buyer’s remorse, but he theoretically makes a ton of sense beside James Harden and in new coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.

Houston doubled down on its good shooting/poor defending investment by also signing Eric Gordon to a four year deal. Gordon, the former centerpiece of the trade that sent Chris Paul to the Clippers and Anderson’s teammate in New Orleans, has had even more severe injury problems throughout his time with the Pelicans. Gordon is an undersized shooting guard who will either come off the bench as a 6th/7th man (likely) or platoon with Harden in interchangeable guard positions.

Gary Payton II was a good signing as an undrafted free agent as a back-up for Patrick Beverley. Drafting Zhou Qi a few picks after Onuaku was probably as much of a ploy to sell more Rockets jerseys in China as anything else, but he will likely spend a year or two in China before coming over. If last year’s first year pick, Sam Dekker, stays healthy after effectively missing his entire rookie year with back problems, it will be a valuable boost to the team’s bench.

Final thought: it’s comforting that in a time when so much has changed in the NBA over the past several years, D’Antoni’s team will still be fun to watch and defensively limited. Death, taxes, and Mike D’Antoni. God, it’s great to have him back as a head coach again.

 

Indiana Pacers: B+. Larry Bird did little to hide his belief that the team’s offensive potential was being under-utilized as the past season wore on, so people around the NBA were hardly shocked when he chose to let the well-respected Frank Vogel go at the end of his contract. His supposed new era of scoring innovation got off to what seemed to many of those same people as an inauspicious start with the hiring of Nate McMillan – not exactly the face of free-flowing offense – but perhaps he was just looking for a new voice to lead the locker room.

Either way, he has certainly made progress in realizing a more attack-minded basketball collective this summer. Trading the team’s first-round pick for Thaddeus Young (who is still somehow only 28) was an excellent move; perhaps a handful of players from 20 onward in this past draft will develop into the quality-level player that Young has been, and the Pacers found a willing seller in the Nets that is (understandably after the Billy King era) addict-level crazy for assets of any kind. He has some of the quickest hands for any player his size and up in the league, he has very good defensive versatility, and he is a crafty player on offense with some range.

Effectively replacing Ian Mahinmi with Al Jefferson is an excellent example of swapping defense for offense (while saving some money) and has little risk, especially if Jefferson will come off the bench behind Myles Turner to school opposing back-ups in the post (which he said he enjoyed doing last year with the Hornets).

The Jeff Teague trade is another example of such a trade-off, even though the outgoing George Hill is actually a better outside shooter than Teague. You have to figure Bird wanting to play faster was the impetus of such a move, which has a larger stylistic impact for Indiana than a quality one. If it’s what they want to do, fair play to them: Teague is a great downhill dribbler, particularly in pick-and-roll situations, and will attack opposing defenses more often than Hill did. Indiana will miss Hill’s length on the other end of the floor, but again, trade-off.

If Bird correctly gambles that assistant coach Dan Burke, not Vogel, is the main man responsible for the team’s defensive prowess over the past several seasons, then the team has certainly improved this offseason. The team’s lack of outside shooting, particularly with Solomon Hill’s departure, will be problematic, but its a more athletic team returning to the floor next season, which should be able to at least partially amend for the likely spacing issues. Turner’s ability to hit the odd 3 would certainly make the dribble drives of Teague and Paul George a bit easier with fewer bodies clogging the paint.

 

Los Angeles Clippers: B. Em, Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford got paid too much for the next few years, but with Rivers finally on the verge of becoming a slightly above average back-up and Crawford still producing off the bench at a high level, it’s tough to criticize money spent by a team that might be the Warriors’ biggest challenger in the West at this point.

Yikes.

Well, Jeff Green’s gone now after yet another underwhelming brief spell with a playoff team that decides to take a chance on him. There’s still no good option to start at small forward on this roster, but on a positive note, Brice Johnson was a steal at 25 in the draft. At the least, he will be a good back-up for Blake Griffin. Speaking of good back-ups, Doc Rivers managed to sign Maureese Speights and Brandon Bass as well. This is new! The team has lacked good frontcourt depth for years; now all of a sudden, the Clippers have five quality bigs.

But no quality small forwards. Versus Golden State, that’s like having seven knifes for a bowl of soup. Wes Johnson will be getting paid $6 million for the next three seasons to stay with the Clippers and hopefully be a reliable 3 and D option; you hope he’s at least up for that. Luc Mbah a Moute will be back as well. The problem with having them as your two primary options at small forward is that Doc doesn’t want either of them dribbling the ball, let alone trying to create their own shot. Hence last year’s desperation heave in the form of trading for Jeff Green.

So what do you do? Probably a big move. As is the case with the Cavaliers, staying pat is effectively awaiting destruction against the Warriors. Blake Griffin is the Clippers’ most talented player. So why would Los Angeles want to trade him while their championship window remains open? His off-court and injury issues certainly complicate matters, but the most important reason is that he doesn’t necessarily make the team much better. First, he’s not a great help defender or rim protector. On the other end, while he’s a very good scorer and passer, his inability to stretch out his jump shot to the 3-point line prevents optimal floor spacing when DeAndre Jordan can’t extend beyond six feet from the rim. The team’s best run of play last season took place during his injury (from an off-court incident), which didn’t exactly cement his future status as face of the franchise.

Just as important as anything else is that he is also a free agent next season and multiple teams will be going hard after him. Since Chris Paul will be a free agent next summer as well, not to mention turning 32, it’s highly conceivable that the team’s best opportunities to win will already be passed, leading him elsewhere. If this is the case, Los Angeles needs to get something in return, since losing Griffin would leave the team’s future outlook looking quite bleak. It’s not Doc Rivers’ style to make waves when the team still has a window to compete, but the Clippers might need to do something. While they are – besides Memphis – the only conceivable team to challenge Golden State in a seven game series, there has never been a larger gulf between the 1 and 2 seeds in the West and only a big move that capitalizes on Griffin’s value would have a sizable impact in at least somewhat addressing this chasm.

***See Oklahoma City Thunder’s section for trade idea***

 

Los Angeles Lakers: C+. Firing Byron Scott was overdue by however many days he was the head coach, but he’s gone now, which is a huge net positive. Not sure how Luke Walton will do, but assuming he doesn’t try to mentally break his young players and allows them to shoot 3s on a regular basis, he will be significantly better than Scott. If the team kept Scott, the offseason grade would have been an unequivocal F. This team was appalling to watch over the two year Viking funeral known as the end of the Kobe Bryant era; the amount of nationally televised exposure they received was inhumane for any sane non-Laker fan.

But that’s over now and speaking of sanity, Brandon Ingram was a no-brainer at the second pick in the draft. He’s very Durant-y, even if Durant was probably ahead of where Ingram is now prior to their respective rookie seasons. Ivica Zubac, the team’s second-round pick, is a skilled bruiser who fills a need and could have gone in the first round. Ingram projects to be a player the Lakers will build around: it will be particularly interesting to see how much he embraces contact on offense and how well he holds his own on defense as a rookie. Assuming Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell improve their finishing as they enter their second seasons (Randle missed his entire rookie year with a broken leg) and Walton actually tries to utilize the athleticism and passing ability present on his roster, this team might actually be a couple of notches above watchable next season!

While Los Angeles did very well to re-sign Jordan Clarkson for under $13 million a year for the next several seasons, the Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov signings were stupid for different reasons, or least to different degrees. We’ll start with the less incomprehensible of the two: Deng. After several years of getting run into the ground by the hand of Tom Thibodeau, Deng went to Miami. He suffered through numerous injury spells and runs of bad form before ending this past season strong, primarily as the team’s power forward following the recurrence of Chris Bosh’s blood clots.

He’ll likely split time between the forward positions and will serve as the team’s anti-Nick Young (positively mentoring the team’s young players). On the court, however, it’s tough to imagine that he’ll hold up particularly well over the four year, $72 million  deal. He’s somehow still only 31, but the Lakers are maintaining their tradition of paying players for past performance with this deal. Again, he’s an ideal role model for the young guys, particularly after the Scott era, but anything over an average of 65 games a year for him would be brilliant.

Then there’s the Mozgov deal, which was among the first reported as soon as free agency commenced on July 1st. Four years, $64 million. “But he barely touched the floor for the Cavs over the past several months,” many of us thought. “But you watch,” others responded, “this is simply a sign for what is to come.”

And it kinda was. The extravagance of contracts distributed this summer is unprecedented, to be sure. Yet, this is still on the shortlist of worst deals of the summer. Maybe Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak think a player becomes literally twice his worth once he wins a championship. Maybe they saw his impressive stats as a roll man on offense and stopped reading his player report after that. Maybe they read how the Cavs gave up two first-round picks for him and were determined not to be outbid by the past. Who knows?

$16 MILLION A YEAR for Timofey Mozgov. God, think about that despicable fact. If the Lakers didn’t make an offer, you have to wonder what the next best bid would have been. Well, by any measure, he IS a center and the Lakers did need one of those. Is he worth three times what their last center, Roy Hibbert, is worth (one year, $5 million with Charlotte)? Probably not, but he has more scoring flexibility than Roy and maybe the Lakers were really…looking for that? Sorry, that’s all I got.

Jose Calderon joins Marcelo Huertas – who gained Internet fame/notoriety last season for his severe struggles against NBA athletes – as another defensively challenged point guard with good court vision, but he can at least shoot. Neither will probably play much next season anyway, but if they somehow end up on the court together at any point, they will instantly be in the running for worst defensive backcourt since the Syracuse Nationals were a professional team.

$136 million will be spent on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov over the next four seasons and it couldn’t happen for a better franchise. But no more Byron Scott and fun basketball might actually return to this team, so not bad!

 Update: (8/18/16) In light of Kupchak deciding to pay former bust Yi Jianlian (otherwise known as the Chairman) $8 MILLION to play basketball next season, I have bumped down the Lakers’ offseason grade from B- to C+. Even if this is primarily an expensive ploy to sell Lakers jerseys in China, this move makes no damn sense. You already have a power forward in Julius Randle who can’t play defense, but at least he’s young; maybe in a few seasons, he’ll be merely adequate on that end. Jianlian was, is, and always will be awful on defense. Lord have mercy if he starts beside Mozgov. I could probably execute a successful pick’n’roll against them with any NBA center. Give me Aaron Grey – we’d still score on Yi or Timofey. It’s one year, so the damage is inherently limited and this team will be awful anyway, but still a terrible move.

A small-ball line-up of Calderon-Russell/Huertas-Nick Young/Ingram-Randle-Jianlian would get diced up by teams from the ’60s (like the aforementioned Nationals); it would break scoreboards against modern NBA opponents. Teams might score on the Lakers during time-outs next season. It will at least be funny to watch Luke Walton try countless combinations to engineer stops on defense, only to slowly realize that every attempt is as futile as the last. He might lose his mind. If this were any team besides the Lakers, I would suspect this signing of being an expensive tanking move; since it is the Lakers, my guess is that it’s Kupchak actually (and hilariously) trying his best. He might be the Tommy Wiseau of unintentionally funny roster moves.

 

Memphis Grizzlies: A. Memphis seemed to see its rail-thin window opening of championship opportunity finally close with the crushing cavalcade of injuries endured this past season. Then they enjoyed perhaps the best possible string of circumstances in the draft and free agency.

First, the draft: Wade Baldwin is a combo guard/condor with a 6’11” wingspan (!) who, even as a rookie, should provide desperately needed outside shooting and decent perimeter defense in the wake of Courtney Lee’s departure midway through last season. Deyonta Davis, a power forward/center who I had anticipated to go in the late lottery but went in the second round, could be a heist. Between him, JaMychal Green (who improved significantly as the team’s main beneficiary of all the injuries last season), and a healthy Brandan Wright, the Grizzlies will have better depth behind Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol than ever before.

Then, free agency: Mike Conley re-signed with the only franchise he has ever played for (for an ungodly amount of money – $30 million a year!), keeping the long-term core together. But then, in hearing from Conley that he’s planning to re-sign with Memphis, Chandler Parsons chose to sign as a free agent, spurning Portland in the process. He instantly became the team’s biggest free agent signing ever and gives the team some reason to believe that the dream is not dead in Memphis (even if chances are still quite slim).

Apologies for going into narrative mode, but it’s really exciting for a team like Memphis – small market, on wrong end of fortune in some big moments over the years, always with the same core of throwaway pieces (Tony Allen, Randolph, Gasol) who became greater than the sum of its parts (it writes itself) – to finally net a big catch.

In other news, the team also signed James Ennis to a two year deal. He played well for the Pelicans at the end of this past season and is probably a better 3-point shooter than, say, Wayne Ellington (more on him soon) for half the price. This could have sleeper impact for a Memphis team that is nearly unrecognizable from the feeble group of School of Hard Knocks legends (Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson, Chris Andersen) that got decimated by the Spurs in the first-round of this year’s playoffs.

Memphis won’t sneak up on teams as in years past; they’re a legitimate top-4 team in the West now, even if Allen (turns 35 in January) and Randolph (turned 35 in July) continue to marginally slip in production.

 

Miami: C. Of all NBA GMs/team presidents, Pat Riley would possibly be the best suited for transitioning to an NFL front office. Exhibit A is much of his coaching career, when he prided toughness in his teams’ make-up, best exemplified by the Knicks in the ’90s to the mid-aughts Heat (prior to his move to Miami’s front office). Exhibit B is his “Itsabusiness” mentality, in which back-end compensation has no room in the tight ship. In other words, he’s the opposite of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak in Lakerland.

Normally, I understand this viewpoint in the NBA’s case (where there are at least guaranteed contracts. In the NFL, I am far less receptive to the thankless system in place that woefully undercompensates its on-field employees), but without Dwyane Wade, this franchise probably never wins a championship. He almost singlehandedly won the 2006 NBA Finals for Miami against the Dallas Mavericks and he was the architect behind LeBron James and Chris Bosh coming to Miami, a period during which they won two more titles in 2012 and 2013.

Wade has already built an outstanding individual legacy and has been well-compensated throughout his career, but he had also consistently taken pay cuts to help Riley and Co. reach their roster objectives. Refusing to folk over an additional $5-10 million over the next couple of seasons now to the best player in franchise history (not to mention the best player in this year’s playoffs for Miami) seems a bit ridiculous, particularly when Riley then opts to pay Tyler Johnson almost $13 million a year after he averages a whopping 8.7 points a game. True, Tyler Johnson has upside, but how much? Unless he takes a massive leap forward in his development at age 24 (not too likely), he tops out as a better shooting Austin Rivers, no?

Then, wait, THEN Riley goes out and signs Wayne Ellington – who has been statistically below replacement level his entire career – to a two year, $12 million deal. I think signing James Johnson, Dion Waiters (second year is a player option), and Derrick Williams to one year deals is very good business, but how is Wayne Ellington getting paid more than any of them for the upcoming season? They can all potentially have significant roles this upcoming season and bring more to the table than Ellington, who might shoot at a league-average clip from beyond the arc this season. There’s the Wade money right there, going into Ellington’s pocket! If you’re a Heat fan, I don’t know how you’re not sick with how easily Riley let Wade leave. I don’t see how you’re not better off paying Wade what he wants, then calling up someone like Von Wafer in whatever country he’s playing in right now, and offering him the veteran’s minimum to move to Miami.

But you might say, giving your best Bill Belichick impersonation, “Letting Wade go maintains future cap flexibility and frees up minutes for younger players.” Fine, imaginary Devil’s advocate, I will grant you the second point, but what ultimate good does cap flexibility serve for the next two years? Re-signing Hassan Whiteside, Johnson, and Josh Richardson keeps a fairly talented youngish core together, but they probably won’t even get to the second round of the playoffs next season. They probably don’t even make the playoffs if Bosh remains out indefinitely with his recurring and scary health issues, no matter how much Justise Winslow improves in his second season.

Without Wade or Bosh, this team will lack a clear alpha on and off the court. With so many young guys on short-term deals and eyeing a big contract next summer, there is also a danger of players looking to assert themselves to the team’s detriment – D-League style. Luol Deng and Joe Johnson are also gone – those are a lot of locker room leaders going out the door, which should not be understated. While so many teams have marginally improved this past summer, some teams will inevitably take small steps back and a couple will face significant regression. Without a healthy Bosh, I think Miami is in danger of falling into the second category.

***See Philadelphia 76ers’ section for trade idea***

 

Milwaukee Bucks: A. I predicted Milwaukee drafting Jakob Poeltl in this year’s draft, and I’m glad I was wrong. This Bucks team, with 6’11 Giannis Antetekounmpo manning the point, is too weirdly wonderful to take a center who’s that conventional. Enter Thon Maker: a Sudanese-Australian 7 footer who is either 19 or 21-23, depending on who you want to believe (he’d be the most baby-faced 23-year-old I’ve ever seen), has at least some 3-point range, and wavered between looking clueless and totally comfortable in Summer League. Now that’s more like it, Milwaukee.

Maker being selected by Milwaukee as the tenth overall pick was the surprise of the draft. The Bucks were predictably blasted by most pundits in the countless analyses that followed. My logic was at least sound in guessing what they were looking for; I just didn’t account for their appetite in taking a risk. But they did it with Antetekounmpo, so why not drink from the crazy potential well again?

Malcolm Brogdon was a great pick too (36th overall). He, along with free agents Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavadova, will have a big impact in improving the spacing issues that held the Bucks’ offense back last season. If Rashad Vaughan can improve off of a brutal rookie campaign (he has to, right?), that would be gravy and effectively turn weakness into a strength within a year. For a team as athletic and defensively sound as Milwaukee, that could be scary if Antetekounmpo and Jabari Parker take the next step in their respective developments.

It remains to be seen what the Bucks’ GM John Hammond manages to do with Greg Monroe. One year after signing with Milwaukee and being lauded as a perfect fit for a team coming off a surprisingly good season, he is seen as a square peg for a round hole. The market for a center who struggles with help defense and can’t stretch the floor beyond 12 feet or so is tepid and it remains to be seen whether the Bucks will even be able to move him. It’s been a disappointing turn of events for both Monroe and the team; while a quick divorce would probably be best, it’s more likely that he stays around and coach Jason Kidd tries to make Monroe work in a more reduced role.

But the main storyline is that this team is locked and loaded for the Point Giannis revolution. Especially if he or Parker adds a league average level 3-point shot to his respective game, this team is poised to bounce back into the playoffs next season. No matter what, they will be with the Nuggets, Suns, and Timberwolves as among the most compelling young teams to watch next season. Speaking of…

 

Minnesota Timberwolves: B. Ho hum, it’s been a quiet offseason after the Tom Thibodeau hiring. With his hiring comes fears about being rigid to the types of players he likes to have and running his favored players into the ground. Yet it was awfully hard not to view this as a coup for the franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since Kevin Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics, spots and all. Then, after persistent questions and whispers about Ricky Rubio’s place on this team, the Timberwolves selected the widely perceived top point guard prospect in this year’s draft: Kris Dunn.

As I had promised in my mock draft, I briefly considered putting a foot through my television at the news, but after quickly imagining the roommates’ likely reactions (NOT GOOD!), I settled for quietly denting a chair. Ricky’s out, I mourned. Thibodeau didn’t even give him a chance, in which case he would surely realize that he loves the Spanish Maravich. What’s so special about Kris Dunn that Thibs and Scott Layden select him when 1.  the Wolves already possess a quality point guard, and 2. the team could really do with outside shooting and wing depth?

But then I watched Dunn in the two games he played in Summer League. Yes, he’s a very active defender. Well, so is Ricky. Different styles, but good defense is good defense. On offense, however, I saw the magic. The lateral quickness that has evoked the far-too-premature Derrick Rose comparisons (Rose was two-and-a-half years younger coming out of college), the shimmying, Shamgodding, and bullying to elude or go through whoever was marking him, and even the semi-respectable mid-range/outside game that Rose or John Wall lacked when coming out of college. A complete package for a prototypical point guard, who finished his time in Las Vegas as one of the most impressive players, certainly so among rookies.

He hardly created for others and struggled running the offense, but that is by no means a big issue. From the start, he will be able to get his points against NBA competition when opposing defenses also have Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns to worry about, and he will certainly be able to find his feet with Rubio drawing in the defense and finding him for open looks. I’m guessing that the Timberwolves see him as their point guard in the long-term, even if he should definitely start the season as a shooting guard, and I’m still wondering how things will all fit together. But Minnesota has nabbed another very talented young player, and that is enough to make the long-term picture even brighter.

Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill will be adequate back-ups. I don’t understand why the team didn’t opt for someone like Terrence Jones as a stretch-4 option and I don’t care much for Hill as a player, but it’s depth and it won’t make or break this team. The team’s decision not to make further moves in free agency means that the team probably still lacks depth. It would be surprising, to say the least, if Adreian Payne makes progress in his awareness and becomes more consistent as a perimeter shooter at this stage. Nemanja Bjelica, on the other hand, is probably the best bet to be the team’s dark horse difference maker next season. He was a top player in Europe before coming to the NBA and had enough good moments in his first year with the Wolves that he can conceivably find a role similar to the one that Nikola Mirotic has carved out in Chicago.

How Rubio plays along Dunn is a big storyline, but the continued improvement of Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl Anthony-Towns on both ends of the court will be the biggest key for Minnesota to approach .500 ball this season. I don’t think that the Wolves quite get that far, but substantial improvement is expected, and reaching 40 wins would certainly be encouraging for the Minnesota faithful.

 

New Orleans Pelicans: B+. Anthony Davis was the rare sympathetic superstar by the end of last season: he was banged up, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson all dealt with persistent injuries and/or faulted to perform to the level that befits their reputations, and no real additional help looked to be in sight.

Looking at the roster now, the team looks leaner, deeper, and more well-adapted for pushing to get back into the playoffs. Out with the big names of Gordon and Anderson – who both struggled mightily to stay on the court (particularly Gordon, who played only 45 games this past season) and are defensive sieves – and in with the likes of Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore.

I’m serious – this is a good thing for New Orleans. Not only are the new guys more consistently durable, but they contribute on both ends. Moore and Hill  were regularly tasked with defending the opposing team’s best perimeter players last year. If last season was any indication, the Pelicans may not even lose any outside shooting in the trade-off, which is the supposed calling card for the outgoing Anderson and Gordon. Hill hit 58% of his 3s in the playoffs while Moore hit 45% of his attempted 3s this past season. If they come anywhere close to duplicating that sort of accuracy next season (even if they merely shoot slightly above league average), the Pelicans will be very happy with their investments.

Buddy Hield will also boost the team’s outside shooting. He had one of the most prolific shooting seasons in NCAA history as a senior at Oklahoma and should transition into a 38%+ shooter at the NBA level. At the worst, he’ll be Jodie Meeks 2.0,  which certainly wouldn’t equal bust, but New Orleans is undoubtedly hoping for more from their lottery pick. He needs to find some success in attacking the basket and creating for others off the dribble in order to realize that potential and only time will tell if he’s able to do so.

Terrence Jones was a great no-risk signing who somehow hardly garnered any interest this summer. He had a poor injury-plagued past season, which followed a strong 2014-15 campaign, but the lack of interest expressed by the same market that is paying Timofey Mozgov $16 million a year and Tyler Johnson $12 million a year was surprising. That lack of interest is the Pelicans’ gain: Jones will be reuniting with Davis, with whom he won a national championship at the University of Kentucky; if anything brings the best out of the 24 year-old stretch-4, it should be playing beside Davis. Despite only getting the veterans’ minimum for this upcoming season, he could have a significant impact in the rotation if he develops a more consistent outside shot.

It remains to be seen whether these moves are enough to bring New Orleans back into the position of competing for a playoff spot next season. I think they are if Jrue Holiday can play at least 70 games and Hield makes All-Rookie First Team.

***See Philadelphia 76ers’ section for trade idea***

 

New York Knicks: B. I understand that this is not 2013. I am aware that Derrick Rose is a shell of his former MVP self and that Joakim Noah is a 31-year-old center with injury issues who is getting paid $18 million a year for the next four seasons. None of this sounds great; I sympathize with the potential for disaster that will linger with this core.

Yet, as someone who also values clear strategy in roster building, I appreciate Phil Jackson’s commitment to Carpe Annum at a time when many teams are methodically improving with an aspired contending window that is anywhere from 2-4 years away.

It’s totally understandable to struggle stomaching all the risk assumed with this particular collection of players. But it’s also only fair to recognize the upside that the group offers if they are all still standing by the start of the postseason next year. Forget seeding: that can hardly be the priority for the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Noah (as long as they’re not paired with Cleveland in the first round). This core is good enough to knock out Toronto, probably Boston too in a seven game series.

By that measure alone, the Rose trade (a rare win-win) and the investments in Noah and Courtney Lee – an ideal backcourt partner for Rose – have to be considered worthwhile, right? Signing Brandon Jennings, re-signing Sasha Vujacic (primarily important when playing beside non-shooters Rose and Jennings) and Lance Thomas, and coming to terms with former international draft pick Willy Hernangomez (a somewhat skilled big bruiser who played with Kristaps Porzingis in Spain) theoretically forms a pretty good bench group with incumbent back-up bigs Kevin Seraphin and Kyle O’Quinn. French international Maurice Ndour and Lithuanian international Mindaugas Kuzminskas are unknown variables who will likely have little impact on the rotation, but Kuzminskas just might fill a need as a rotational combo forward if he proves to have a consistent mid-range game.

Once it became clear that Anthony was not leaving (probably the last summer where he still has close-to-top trade value), the option of rebuilding around Porzingis and Jerian Grant went out the window. Jackson demonstratively made it clear by trading Grant (one of the two valuable young assets that the team possessed) for Rose. This left New York with taking the win-now route, and Jackson – to his credit – has done close to as well as possible in filling out this roster to give Anthony a final shot at competing in the East. The window is only open for one season, maybe two, but with the luck of a coin-flip, this team will have a genuine chance to push Toronto, Boston, and even Cleveland. That’s all Carmelo could have asked for at the beginning of summer.

 

Oklahoma City Thunder: A-. Losing Kevin Durant is the ten thousand pound gorilla in reviewing Oklahoma City’s offseason. I already wrote about it, so I won’t say any more on the matter, except to repeat that this team can no longer aspire for a championship this season. In their brave new era, it’s unclear what exact route GM Sam Presti will take, but re-signing Russell Westbrook was monumental. While he has only committed to the franchise for an additional season before being able to exercise his player option in 2018, he improves the Thunder’s leverage in the future event that he does want a trade AND gives Presti some time to show his lone standing superstar what further moves he can make to quickly return this team to contending level.

The optimist would say, even with Durant gone, this team is not too far off. It’s true, even if it’s unlikely that this team will be able to accumulate the talent level that the roster would have had if Durant chose to return. Part of that is due to the trade made on draft night: Presti moved long-time power forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to Orlando’s draft pick, Domantas Sabonis. While Ibaka’s defensive prowess will be missed, he is a free agent next year and rumors suggested that he was less than ecstatic with his role this past season.

The return they got was pretty excellent. Ilyasova might have most of his value as a future trade piece, but he’ll get some time as a stretch-4 off the bench. Sabonis and Steven Adams – in theory – could be really good together. Sabonis has a developed post game, tenacity for hauling in rebounds, and a high playing IQ; he will benefit from Adams’ defensive presence. Victor Oladipo has improved every season in the league and might finally add a league-average 3-point shot to his arsenal next season (if his upwardly trending percentages and the end of last season are any indication).

He might be better served as the Thunder’s 6th man, since Andre Roberson doesn’t offer much on offense and is probably not capable of heavily contributing as a bench scorer. However, if Cameron Payne takes strides next season in regularly exhibiting the scoring ability he exhibited in flashes as a rookie last year, coach Billy Donovan might have the confidence to start Oladipo beside Westbrook. If Oladipo can keep defenses honest from the perimeter, it’s exciting to wonder how electric that backcourt will be. He’s a big upgrade over Dion Waiters – who signed with Miami after Oklahoma City renounced his rights as a restricted free agent – and it’s hard not to ruminate on this squad’s potential if Durant had chosen to stick around for at least one more year.

With him gone, the team’s priority is acquiring a small forward who is not Kyle Singler. Former second-round pick Alex Abrines, who has made a name for himself while playing in Spain over the past few seasons, will probably soak up some minutes there even though he’s slightly undersized. While he was primarily a perimeter shooter for Barcelona, he’ll have no shortage of opportunity to assume a larger role for the Thunder. Maybe second-round draft pick Daniel Hamilton gets some time as well, if only to prevent Singler from touching the floor more than he has to. For the rest of the solution, either a trade or hanging tight until next year are the options in play.

It’s hard to look at Enes Kanter and see him as a long-term fixture on this team’s roster, especially now that there is no great defender who can play beside him at power forward to at least to try to cover for him. While he’s very effective in the post and mid-range and rebounds well, he basically surrenders on defense whatever he contributes on offense. With the spike in the salary cap, the extension that he signed last season looks less egregious and he’s probably moveable for the right price. His market would certainly be limited, but one possible destination (besides the one mentioned in my trade scenario below) would be Portland. They have expressed interest in him in the past and could offer multiple pieces in return, especially given their current logjam of big men. If Portland offered Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis/Meyers Leonard for Enes Kanter and a future pick, would Oklahoma City bite? It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t, though it’s also fair to wonder if Portland even wants another center on its roster.

At any rate, the Thunder’s work is not done. Recovering from Durant’s sudden departure, which left them with nothing in return, will take some time. The team has recovered some depth, however, and Abrines could be a pretty good rotational piece. The team’s current potential is also still considerable: most of the team is 25 or younger and thus has some potential for improvement. They will be fun to watch with Westbrook having full control on the court and with Presti sure to shake every tree for further potential moves off the court. If Westbrook makes it through the full season healthy as the one-man wrecking ball without Durant, this team will make the playoffs, but it is likely that this upcoming year will be one of transition, with a sharp eye toward next summer.

TRADE IDEA!

Oklahoma City receives PF Blake Griffin and C Jusuf Nurkic .
Los Angeles receives F Danilo Gallinari, SF DeMarre Carroll, SG Andre Roberson, and OKC’s 2017 first-round pick.
Toronto receives PF Kenneth Faried. 
Denver receives PF Domantas Sabonis, C Enes Kanter, SF Wesley Johnson*, and Toronto’s 2019 first-round pick.

* this trade could only take place after the season starts, since Johnson signed a new contract with Los Angeles this summer.

My logic: What would be a fair package for Blake Griffin, a supremely talented player on a team that is totally in win-now mode? It’s tough. Future assets have mitigated value due to the team’s strong priority on the present, yet it’s difficult to find excessive talent at the Clippers’ weakest position – small forward – that other teams are willing to give away. Throw in Doc Rivers’ aversion to giving young players (who don’t share his last name) any sort of meaningful playing time, and Los Angeles seems to be in a tough position in terms of trying to attain fair value for Griffin.

What to do!?

But wait. Denver is in a roster quandary as well, with too many figurative mouths to feed and not enough minutes to distribute. That’s one issue. Another is that they have a few players who are in their prime while the rest of the roster is very young. It’s hard to see them sticking around for the long haul.

As I’ll elaborate upon further in Toronto’s section, the Raptors still needs a long-term solution at power forward after signing Jared Sullinger: he is not their savior. They do have good guard depth, on the other hand: Norman Powell was a great second-round find, Delon Wright will probably have a bigger role next season, and Corey Joseph is a great defensive back-up point guard. All of this points to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross spending more time at small forward next season.

This, of course, was how things played out last season for Toronto, since Carroll dealt with multiple ailments throughout his first year as a Raptor; the team hardly missed a beat, however, as evinced by winning 55 games and securing the 2 seed in the East. To top it off, Bruno Caboclo – the team’s first-round pick in 2014 – is no longer “two years from being two years away” from having an impact in the league. He might not even be a full year away, although he will almost definitely start next season back in the D-League. All of this adds up to Canada’s Team not needing Carroll as much as they thought they did a season ago.

Oklahoma City, of course, is desperate to pair their incumbent superstar,  Russell Westbrook, with another star player since Durant quit on the franchise. Griffin checks all the boxes: talented enough to placate Westbrook’s sure desire to have top players around him, fills a need at forward for the Thunder, and is even from the Sooner State, starring for the University of Oklahoma for two years before going to the NBA. His fit beside center Steven Adams on offense would be a bit more flexible as well; Adams is more comfortable in possession and is a better passer than Jordan.

Of course, they would only make the move if they had some strong vote of confidence that Griffin would stay here once he hits free agency next year, but it’s certainly conceivable that he would. He’s lived in Los Angeles for his entire career and, while he is likely by no means sick of rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, he has star power that travels, in no small part because he enjoys the spotlight. While Durant got sick of being singled out as the guy to lead, Griffin welcomes it. He seems, at least upon first and second glance, to be an ideal candidate to join Westbrook in leading the Thunder back to Western Conference contention for the next few seasons. 

The possibility can’t be ignored that Oklahoma City simply waits until next summer to try courting Griffin in free agency, but if Los Angeles looks for a marginally lower trade price for their star and Presti firmly believes that giving Griffin an additional window for playing beside Westbrook and in his hometown will significantly boost the chances of keeping him in free agency, there would certainly be reason to make such a move.

Finally, for Los Angeles, it gets perimeter depth, and plenty of it. Danilo Gallinari will be a free agent next season, true, but so will Chris Paul, and the championship window is probably this year or bust anyway. Gallinari is a very good stretch-4 and would be an ideal fit beside DeAndre Jordan. DeMarre Carroll would lead the charge in defending Kevin Durant – because someone has to – come playoff time, and Andre Roberson is effectively J.J. Redick’s foil: can’t shoot, great defender. If there is an exchange in which you lose your best player and get better, this is it. Not that Doc Rivers has any time for them, but the Clippers even get two first-round picks as well so that the future may not be a complete dumpster fire.

More perimeter shooting and defending is what you need to beat Golden State, no matter how much you already have. This trade would give Los Angeles to at least have a shot at matching up with the Warriors, which is all any team can conceivably ask for at this point.

 

Orlando Magic: C+. I personally dislike what GM Rob Hennigan did this summer. Arguably his best move was hiring coach Frank Vogel, which happened serendipitously when Scott Skiles quit at the end of last season and required Hennigan to look for an upgrade. Objectively, I see the merits of his moves: Orlando is now a better team, with significantly improved big man depth,  cleaner fitting roster pieces, and more quality talent.

“But Kevin, this all sounds quite good,” you might counter, “why the poor rating?”

The answer lies in the team’s gradual deconstruction of its future in order to get to its improved present. It started with trading Tobias Harris – a good, not great combo forward on a great contract that runs through the next few seasons – for Brandon Jennings, whose contract expired in the summer and is now with the Knicks, and Ersan Ilyasova, an injury-prone 28-year-old stretch-4. Whether or not this was requested by Skiles (they were two of his former players on the Bucks) hardly matters: the team failed to receive any assets of significant value for a young, team-controlled player. That counts as a failure on Hennigan’s part.

Fine, so that doesn’t count as offseason. On draft night in June, Hennigan and Co. traded Victor Oladipo, Ilyasova, and the rights to Orlando’s draft pick, Domantas Sabonis, for Serge Ibaka. The reports of Ibaka’s decline are overstated and he is still a top defensive player in the league AND only somehow 27 years old next season. Yet the Magic still lost this trade by giving away their draft pick AND arguably their best player in Oladipo, who has incrementally improved each season. While Ibaka improves the team’s interior defense and the power forward position (even though it puts Aaron Gordon in the same logjam predicament as before the Harris trade), the Magic will have to pay up (to $20 million a year) to keep him in Orlando when he’s a free agent next summer in order to justify what they traded away for him.

Signing Bismack Biyombo to a four year, $72 million deal also improves the frontcourt, but at what (other) cost? In this new age of NBA free agency, that’s key rotational piece/starter money. So what is to become of Nikola Vucevic, who – upon his hire – Frank Vogel argued can be made into a defensive anchor? I doubt they trade him, since saddling to a Ibaka-Biyombo starting frontcourt forfeits a lot on offense, especially if Ibaka isn’t hitting from mid-range or behind the arc. They probably keep the Montenegrin and hope Frank Vogel can placate egos and juggle minutes adequately, since Orlando still needs his scoring chops.

Interior defense has improved immensely through these roster moves, but the internal potential within this roster has been capped. Unless Elfrid Payton finds a mid-range game from somewhere and Mario Hezonja takes advantage of the additional minutes in the wake of Oladipo’s departure, the rebuild that has transpired since the Dwight Horward trade will likely peak with a second-round exit, if that. For any team that has endured years of losing, a ceiling of mid-tier mediocrity is certainly an improvement, but hardly enviable.

Hezonja and the newly re-signed Evan Fournier will have a big scoring burden to carry next season. It will be particularly fun to see what the fifth overall pick of last year’s draft will offer, but he could be one of the most improved sophomores after an unsteady rookie season (not helped by Scott Skiles’ aversion to giving young players much responsibility). To repeat, I think this team makes the playoffs, but scoring points will probably be an issue next season if Hezonja and Fournier aren’t up for leading the charge.

 

Philadelphia 76ers: A-. Jerry Colangelo joining the 76ers’ front office, hiring his son Bryan as the team’s new GM (effectively undermining the incumbent chief decision-maker, Samuel Blake Hinkie), and then slithering out the back door again was the most sinister league-condoned personnel activity since David Stern famously vetoed the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade during the 2011-12 season. Hinkie, upon his hire in May 2013, acquired the reigns to a team deeply mired in mediocrity and proceeded with the most furious asset acquisition strategy in league history. The center to this  plan was losing. Historical losing. The team’s better players were moved for future picks, young players received more playing time than they could handle, and the team positioned itself near the top of the past several drafts as a reward of sorts for playing such consistently bad basketball.

The first overall pick in this past draft, and the ensuing rights to Ben Simmons, was a crown jewel of sorts. The fact that Colangelo was the man who got to draft him – effectively profiting from Hinkie’s efforts – leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many Sixers fans, but doesn’t change the fact that Philadelphia has a potential franchise-changing talent. Otherwise in the draft, the Sixers did very well: Timothe Luwawu and Furkan Korkmaz (who will stay in Europe for at least another year) were two of the draft’s better wing prospects and both ended up with Philadelphia.

If Joel Embiid can remain healthy, the team’s outlook instantly becomes among the brightest in the league. Embiid might have been selected before Andrew Wiggins two years ago in the 2014 draft if not for his well-founded injury concerns. A healthy Embiid and Simmons would be in stiff competition with Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the top 22-and-under duo in the league and lines up Philadelphia for a sea change in performance in the next couple of seasons.

But there’s plenty of work to be done. For one, the team’s roster is still out of wack. Too many big men, as a result of drafting by best player rather than greatest need over the past few years (a fair criticism that detractors can contend about Hinkie), makes trading either Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel not just advised, but necessary within the next year in order to avoid hindering development and fostering locker room resentment. Since Noel is a restricted free agent next summer and theoretically fits better beside Embiid, Okafor may seem more likely to go, yet Noel’s defensive ability might have higher market demand so it’s tough to guess who will end up moving. Darko Saric – coming from Europe two years after being drafted – and Simmons are also point forward types who can play with either one or two traditional bigs, mitigating the need for all three centers even further.

Jerryd Bayless was a smart signing in free agency. He’s a better shooter than the outgoing Ish Smith and, by extension, is more effective without the ball – important with Simmons likely running the offense in spurts throughout the season. Sergio Rodriguez, returning to the NBA after years in Spain, is more of a pure point guard who can also stretch the floor and possesses excellent court vision. When Smith came over from New Orleans last December, he made a difference simply by being an adequate point guard who can attack defenses and run the pick’n’roll. With Bayless, Rodriguez, and Luwawu now all in the fold, the team finally has some much needed guard depth.

The team’s priorities and biggest franchise game-changers, however, will be getting a decent return for Noel and/or Okafor and keeping Embiid on the court. Until those things are taken care of, everything else – sans drafting Simmons – is marginal in impacting the team’s eventual trajectory.

TRADE IDEA!

Philadelphia receives Omer Asik, Josh McRoberts, Josh Richardson, and New Orleans’ 2017 first-round pick
New Orleans receives Jahlil Okafor and Briante Weber
Miami receives Tyreke Evans

Hmmm…ok fine. This is the inevitable Jahlil Okafor trade, in which Philadelphia will receive cents to the dollar since the 76ers have negative leverage due to their 16 or so big men on the roster and very limited time to move any of them.

My logic: If you’re Philadelphia, this would be pretty good as far as returns go. Josh Richardson and Josh McRoberts come from Miami to stretch the floor, which will be desperately needed with the big men and Ben Simmons all lacking range. The former still has some room to develop and could turn into one of the league’s top sharpshooters if his rookie year was any indication; McRoberts is a veteran big who would be a positive in the locker room full of players who can’t legally rent a car yet. The first-round pick adds yet another asset to the mother lode assembled by former GM Sam Hinkie over the past several years. After the rough rookie year that Okafor endured (where he had off-court issues and struggled mightily to play well beside Nerlens Noel), you can’t really expect to get more in return for a rookie whose strengths are undervalued and whose weaknesses are routinely exploited in today’s NBA, where the league-average team’s pace is equal to the league-leading Suns’ pace from a decade ago.

Miami lands the best player who moves in this trade. Tyreke Evans is coming off of what has easily been his most injury-plagued season as a pro and, as a result, probably has slightly deflated value. He can run the offense in a pinch and defend positions 1-3 at a fairly high level; he even showed flashes of an improved outside shot when he was on the court last season. The main impetus for Miami is that they need to try to get their age ranges sorted: they’ve gathered some young talent over the past couple of seasons and spent copiously to retain two such players – Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson – this summer. The target to compete for the East seems to be in the next two or three seasons.

If Chris Bosh is able to come back healthy and with his recurring blood clotting issues in the rear view mirror, however, all bets are off. With him and Goran Dragic nearing the tail ends of their respective primes, next season would be the year to play for. Either way, Evans fits the window. Evans would help to fill the Wade void that Dion Waiters does not and is the same age as Whiteside, the team’s current top player (especially so if Bosh is unable to return). Evans/Whiteside pick’n’roll situations would be painful for opposing defenses; on the other end, he would give Miami another above-average perimeter defender beside Justise Winslow. This team is pointed south or flatlined in its trajectory for the next few seasons, depending on how much you think Winslow, Richardson, and Johnson can improve. Evans would be a great move for Miami and there is probably no better time to make a move for him than now.

Then there’s the New Orleans angle. After they drafted Cheick Diallo and signed Terrence Jones for next to nothing in free agency, you might wonder whether there is a need to go after Okafor, a slow-footed, below average athlete who lacks good shooting range and can’t really protect the rim. If this were the 90s, teams would be fighting to acquire him. In the current NBA landscape that prioritizes defensive versatility and good spacing on offense, his trade value is reportedly bargain bin. He projects to be a cross between Al Jefferson and Greg Monroe, the latter of whom Milwaukee has been trying to move all summer due to his awkward fit in the team’s defense. So why would New Orleans want Okafor?

The answer is that the team has gone a ways in re-molding itself to become better defensively. Free agent signings Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway, and E’Twaun Moore are going to markedly improve the Pelicans’ perimeter defense next season. Among them and first-round pick Buddy Hield, they’ll have boosted outside shooting options as well (especially considering Eric Gordon’s inability to stay on the court over the past couple of seasons). Anthony Davis is one of the league’s best defenders. What the team does need, however, is an additional player who can create his own shot – a need that has been exacerbated by Jrue Holiday’s own injury woes.

Davis frequently looked like a man on an island last season, as a ruthless case of the injury bug decimated the already middling help that was on the roster. Okafor – for all of his weaknesses on defense – would have them mitigated by good defenders surrounding him. On offense, Okafor and Davis could develop into a terror. The former Blue Devil already possesses an elite post game and would instantly slide in as the team’s third scoring option behind Davis and Holiday. Okafor also would give coach Alvin Gentry more flexibility in using Davis: with Jones, he can play at center and wreck havoc from the perimeter on offense against any center; with Diallo or Okafor, he would have no problem dominating any poor defender tasked with guarding him at the top of the key or in the post.

Note: New Orleans could be a potential destination for Monroe either for same reasons.

Losing Omer Asik in this trade would be no small additional benefit either: he’s useless on offense and protects the paint at a slightly below average rate. His whole purpose has been to protect their superstar from constant wear-and-tear at the center position at both ends, but the team clearly needs to upgrade from him at this point to reach a new level of team success (a la the Kendrick Perkins conundrum that Oklahoma City suffered from before Steven Adams burst onto the scene).

 

Phoenix Suns: A-. When you’re weak at a position, one good tragedy for remedying the situation is drafting the two best players at that position. Phoenix opted for that exact bold and daring strategy (note: sarcasm) in taking Dragen Bender at 4, then trading back up to draft Marquese Chriss at 8. That alone warrants a top grade for Phoenix, especially considering the marginal price of a late first-round pick.

It will be the main storyline in Phoenix this season: how coach Earl Watson, in his first full season, will mix-and-match the two youngsters (both only 19 years old next season). Bender has the handles, shooting stroke, and agility of a much smaller player, along with experience playing in Europe’s top level; Chriss – on the other hand – has one of the longest journeys ahead, even among rookies, in terms of realizing his potential. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself to be among his biggest believers, but at 8 in this draft, he was completely worth taking a chance on, considering his already solid shooting range and ferocious athleticism.

Suddenly the Suns are stacked with young talent at every position and the veterans of the starting 5 are Eric Bledsoe (26) and Brandon Knight (24), assuming they both start. For good measure, Tyler Ulis adds depth for an already crowded backcourt. With that in mind, signing Leandro Barbosa makes little sense, unless it was primarily to add a respected veteran in the locker room beside Tyson Chandler. Things have changed very quickly in Phoenix, as a team that looked rudderless a season ago now has among the brightest futures in the league.

 

Portland Trailblazers: C. If you’re a Trailblazers fan, it would have been hard not to feel optimistic about the future when watching your team play Golden State tough in the second round of these past playoffs. The team was one Stephen Curry superhuman performance away from pushing the series to six games, and understandably felt that losing in five was a disservice to the competitiveness of the series. The recipe for future improvement seemed pretty clear: upgrade at the small forward position and consolidate the bigs currently on the roster, preferably through trade.

Nope.

Ok, Evan Turner makes sense on paper. On paper, I love Evan Turner, even if his jump shot is as shaky as my 14-year-old Jack Russell/corgi mix. If you’re starting him at small forward, and thus increasing his usage, while paying him $18 million a year, it’s no longer paper love. Even with the lack of good outside shooting around him in Boston, coach Brad Stevens seemed to ideally use him as an off-the-bench and down-the-stretch go-to option. In Portland, Turner has the handle and good decision-making to occasionally take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s and C.J. McCollum’s hands and turn them into catch-and-shooters either while running the offense or on isolated drive-and-kicks.

This should actually work in taking some pressure off the two guards, provided that this takes shape in small doses. If Turner takes shots away from the Lillard/McCollum duo in any meaningful way, however, things will go south for Portland’s offense in a hurry. With Turner presumably starting at small forward (because there’s no way GM Neil Olshey is paying Turner and Allen Crabbe a combined $36 million per year to be back-ups on the wings, right?), there will actually be a downgrade in outside shooting, since Al-Farouq Aminu improbably managed to shoot 36% from 3-point range last season. Turner’s an underrated defender, so there shouldn’t be much decline – if any – on that end, even if a bit of size is given up in the trade-off. Aminu presumably then plays behind Turner at small forward and sees time at power forward, perhaps even starting there if he is able to sustain his league-average 3-point shooting from last season.

There is then a trickle-down effect of further congesting the rotation of power forwards and centers if Aminu is getting significant time there. Another contributor to this logjam at the big positions? Signing Festus Ezeli (a Lakeresque “This guy has championship experience!” move) to a two-year deal. It made no damn sense, especially since the team already has a big who has no range, but rebounds really well and protects the paint adequately in Ed Davis. Then re-signing Meyers Leonard, a 7’1 NBA unicorn who took over 50% of his shots from 3-point range AND defends the paint at a league-average clip, almost as an afterthought seems to suggest a diminished view of Leonard’s stature on the roster. Moe Harkless – who signed the same four year, $40 million deal as Leonard to stay with Portland – also played best as a stretch-4 last season, making it incredibly difficult to fathom how coach Terry Stotts finds playing time for even most of these players. Outside of a trade or two, I frankly don’t know how it’s possible.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that Stotts should start Leonard beside Aminu or Noah Vonleh – or even play him behind Mason Plumlee – and create a free-wheeling, well-spaced offense that rivals Golden State’s in shooting proficiency, especially when Allen Crabbe is on the floor instead of Evan Turner. This seems to be all but out the window now with Ezeli, Plumlee, Davis, and Vonleh (who at least seems to be working on becoming a stretch-4) all clogging up the roster (and paint for the foreseeable future). We’re being deprived of fun!

I’m not sure if there’s a trade in the works, but it sure seems like Olshey might be looking to move – at the very least – Plumlee or Davis now with too many bigs and not enough minutes to distribute. Portland has seemed to willingly back themselves into a corner when giving the group it had another year to develop probably would have been the better option.

 

Sacramento Kings: B. GM Vlade Divac said Georgios Papagiannis could be the next Marc Gasol. Now, with Summer League in the rearview mirror, that certainly does not seem  likely, but it would be very hasty to write off the 19-year-old Greek rookie who many pundits have said was drafted way too high. After all, if Sacramento had taken Skal Labissiere at 13 and Papagiannis at 28 – rather than the other way round – the criticism would probably have been much tamer in scale and volume.

That aside, it’s hard to fault what the Kings have done this summer. They reached an agreement with coach Dave Joerger almost immediately after he was let go by Memphis. This was a great hire that already seems to be resonating positively with multiple Kings players. They swapped Marco Belinelli for an additional first round pick that they used to draft Malachi Richardson, who they hope will break the streak of underachieving guards recently drafted by the franchise in the first round (Jimmer Fredette, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas). They also signed veterans such as Arron Afflalo and Anthony Tolliver, who will have just as big of an impact in keeping the locker room functional as they will have on the court.

I don’t foresee this one happening (at least significantly) this summer, but the next step would seem to be to move players from the “old” era, namely McLemore (who desperately needs a carte blanche), Kosta Koufos (what role can he possibly have on this roster?), Rudy Gay (who’s reportedly on the trading block), and, yes, Demarcus Cousins. With the team targeting size in the draft and Willie Cauley-Stein seemingly still in the team’s plans, what purpose does keeping your superstar – who has never experienced a winning season in his six-year career and is very much in his prime – around the new foundational players serve?

While the other players who I listed have varying, middling amounts of value on the market, trading Cousins would require a massive return. Maybe the Celtics would enquire, even if acquiring Horford at least dilutes their interest considerably. Cleveland would probably love to at least kick the tires on getting Cousins, even if it meant moving both Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson in a three-or-more team trade. The Lakers could probably do it by mid-season, even if it means that they would have to move at least two of their prized young players, as well as their beloved Timofey Mozgov (for cap purposes).

It’s hard not to feel as if the Kings are stuck between gears at this stage, even if they clearly will not be ready to compete for a playoff position for at least another couple of seasons. It seems, more than anything, to be a matter of when – rather than if – players from the past regime get moved; the sooner that happens, the better for all parties. With that said, the Kings have done well this offseason, and you just hope than progress becomes a constant for the long-suffering franchise.

 

San Antonio Spurs: B. It’s tough to grade fairly when your all-time best franchise player (and still one of your top three most important players) retires AND the best team in your conference acquires one of the league’s best players. What can you possibly do to combat such an incredible dual blow?

Nothing, really. Stay the course and hope for some serious luck. Pau Gasol, at this stage in his career, still has value and will probably even be an upgrade on offense over Old Man Riverwalk, but he’s not the same defender. Frankly, who is? Duncan’s on/off court splits  and advanced stats on defense were still excellent and it’s impossible to imagine that they won’t miss his leadership.

The Philadelphia 76ers effectively trolled the Spurs into paying Manu Ginobili entirely too much money next season (read Woj’s report for full story), which then prevented them from being able to match Boban Marjanovic’s offer from Detroit. What’s more, they had to trade Boris Diaw (to Utah) in order to have the money to pay Gasol and free agent David West twisted the multiple knives by signing with Golden State.

It’s been a cruel summer, to be sure, for San Antonio. A small reprieve was getting Dejounte Murray in the draft. He’ll probably be a combo or shooting guard in the NBA who adds much needed athleticism to the squad, even if he’ll likely need a season to be in a position to readily contribute.

Greg Popovich is still the coach, and they’re still the Spurs, but it’s hard to feel that they’re the same threat without Tim Duncan, no matter how old he was. This team still makes the playoffs next year, but they’re no longer a title contender, even if it’s through little fault of their own. They will make the playoffs, but I think the 5 or 6 seed is the best that this aging roster will manage.

 

Toronto Raptors: B-. I would be lying if I said that the Raptors look closer to taking down the Cavs than they did at the beginning of the summer. They lost Bismack Biyombo when the Magic lured him down South with a massive offer and replaced him with rookie Jakob Poeltl, an agile big with who showed good scoring mechanics around the rim and much-improved defensive instincts during his two years at Utah.

As of now, however, it’s a downgrade. In one of the two games that the Raptors beat the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, Biyombo effectively won it for them. Poeltl will probably never develop into the rebounder and shot-blocker that Biyombo is and while he has a superior offensive game, his game therefore overlaps more with the strengths of incumbent center Jonas Valenciunas.

The team still has a hole at the power forward position, which I refer to further in my proposed trade.*** Jared Sullinger is a great rebounder, but he will actually be a shooting downgrade from Luis Scola (who shot surprisingly well from mid-range and the perimeter last season), he can’t defend on the perimeter, and will combine with Valenciunas for a very slow frontcourt. Although they are both plodders by nature, Sullinger will likely get some time starting beside him, as well as backing him up at center (Poeltl probably won’t be a significant contributor to the rotation this season and Lucas Nogueira hasn’t shown much to suggest he will either).

GM Masai Ujiri has done plenty between his respective times in Denver and Toronto to prove that he knows what he’s doing: recent draft picks Delon Wright (after his return from shoulder surgery), Norman Powell, and even Bruno Caboclo have all shown signs that they’ll be ready to contribute to the rotation next season and re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a massive contract was a must-do after unprecedented team progress in the regular season and playoffs, regardless of his clear limitations. Becoming even a league-average 3-point shooter would probably be enough for DeRozan to be designated as a “great” player, but right now, he’s a very good volume scorer on a very good team.

The team’s other first-round pick, Pascal Siakim, will probably have little to no impact on the rotation this season, but he’s a versatile defender, energetic rebounder, and even possesses enough confidence in his shot to distinguish him from the likes of players who fit his mold like Luc Mbah a Moute. He joins a young group of rotational players that will theoretically be decent rotational pieces in a season or two, but do not push the needle for a team that desperately needs to take another immediate step in order to conceivably challenge Cleveland for the Eastern Conference throne next year.

If anything, the recent draft picks’ collective ability to fill out the rotation will determine whether they can maintain their stranglehold on second place in the conference. I, for one, am not entirely convinced. I can even see Toronto falling to the third or fourth seed in the conference next season, barring a significant move.

***See Oklahoma City Thunder’s section for trade idea***

 

Utah Jazz: A-. Going into the offseason, I would have liked Denzel Valentine with this team. He would have given Utah a relatively NBA-ready secondary ball-handler and outside shooter that currently only had Rodney Hood and Alec Burks as threats from beyond the arc. But GM Dennis Lindsey opted to be smarter than me and traded the team’s first round draft pick for George Hill in a three team trade with Atlanta and Indiana. Hill is a veteran point guard with a very reliable outside shot AND perimeter defense who will provide ideal mentorship and insurance for Dante Exum. Exum – who is returning from an ACL injury that robbed him of his entire second season – was projected to start, but now the pressure is no longer there for the young Australian, and he will now be able to adjust at his own pace.

This move demonstrated that the franchise feels like the time is now to move up in the Western hierarchy. It’s hard to fault them: they have a relatively young core that will be too expensive to keep together in the long-term and depth at every position after trading for Boris Diaw and signing Joe Johnson to a two year deal. Johnson and Diaw were ideal pick-ups for this young core: they add valuable veteran experience, outside shooting, and an additional late-game option in Johnson. There will be less consistent pressure and attention paid to Gordon Hayward on offense, and his efficiency could improve as a result.

The Jazz were among the hardest match-ups for Golden State last season; expect that to remain as the case. If they had not endured injuries to star center Rudy Gobert, Exum, Burks, and Derrick Favors throughout last season, they would have at least passed the Rockets out for the 8th seed in the playoffs. The 2016-17 Jazz will be deeper and more experienced; especially if Exum and Trey Lyles improve from their respective rookie seasons and Hood takes a mini-jump in his development going into his third season, Utah will probably contend for the 4th or 5th seed. After the fall of the Thunder and Spurs, this is the team that will experience the greatest gains.

 

Washington Wizards: B-. Meh. Scott Brooks is an upgrade as coach over Randy Wittman; that was an overdue change. They hired him in hope that he can develop Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre further; this team’s biggest hope for improvement is internal, even without a first round draft pick this season (traded for Markieff Morris near last season’s trade deadline – a good move). If Oubre picks up where he left off to end his rookie season and if Porter can continue to marginally boost his contributions on offense, the team’s wing options suddenly look pretty decent, albeit somewhat lacking in depth.

One of the team’s biggest keys is for Bradley Beal to stay on the court, especially after signing a mammoth extension this summer. If he can play 75+ games, that may have the biggest single  impact in making this team better (good health helps teams – who would guess?!). This is at least partially because the Wizards have lacked – and continue to lack – good back-ups for John Wall and Beal. That only continues with the acquisition of Trey Burke – an undersized, inefficient former lottery pick – from Utah for a 2037 (or something like that) second-round pick.

Ian Mahinmi (4 years, $64 million – Mozgov money!) is a good defensive center who will form a solid center platoon with Marcin Gortat (and provide quality insurance in the event of injury) after starting for Indiana last season. Andrew Nicholson makes sense as a skilled scoring power forward who plays behind Morris and beside Mahinmi, a defending and rebounding specialist. The Jason Smith signing is insignificant, but you could do a lot worse than him as an end-of-rotation PF/C.

Will all of this be enough to help return Washington to the playoffs? I’m not so sure. The East has grown stronger over the past couple of seasons while whispers of Durant wanting to return to his home area (Maryland) seemed to turn Washington’s head. New York’s and Orlando’s roster improvements have further obscured the pole positioning in the Eastern Conference, pushing past Washington in the process. While Washington has a pretty resolute defense (which should only improve as Oubre does) and some very good talent, Miami, Atlanta, and/or Charlotte will probably need to take steps back and another team (*coughs* New York) will need to catch the injury bug, because it does not seem like Washington moved far enough forward this offseason to make it back without outside help.

 

References: basketball-reference.com, ESPN, and nba.com.