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.

En Memoriam: The Death of a Dream in OKC

Kevin Durant going to Golden State kills me. The rich in the Bay get richer while Oklahomans pick up the pieces and move on. It hurts that the league gets worse from this move (cue the “Jordan’s Bulls grew the NBA globally” argument), that Durant changed and got tired of being The Guy, and that Oklahoma City – a franchise that did everything right in terms of drafting, making trades, and consistently keeping a competitive core around its stars (and had to, simply to get as far as it ever did) – ends up suffering through little fault of its own.

Agony!

And hey, this isn’t a sob story about the poor Thunder. They had a chance to take down the almighty Warriors, even withstanding Klay Thompson’s otherworldly shooting performance in Game 6, but just couldn’t manage to do so. Durant’s shooting woes aside, if Andre Roberson had not been in foul trouble, maybe Thompson doesn’t get off one or two of his miracle treys down the stretch to send the series to Game 7. If someone else was able to step up, maybe Durant wouldn’t have needed to assume the hero role once again (and thus hears the echoes of his shortcomings one less time). But that wasn’t how things went down, so here we are.

The Thunder franchise had nine years of enjoying and appreciating a transcendental player who matched his uniqueness on the court with his off-court identity as an adopted Oklahoman. That’s pretty cool. Durant seemed to genuinely relish the small market ethos and repeatedly expressed defiance to the contrary, most famously signing his extension when LeBron James first went south to Miami.

And then, as Royce Young eloquently and intuitively narrated in his ESPN piece, Durant changed. Why? Maybe it had to do with that same defiant streak. He seethed when MVP discussions drifted from him so soon after he won the damn thing in 2014 and when the Thunder drifted from the perceived Western Conference hierarchy with the emergence of Steve Kerr’s Warriors.

Being forgotten seemed to resonate more with Durant as time went on, even when he claimed it was only about basketball.  After his tough journey to get back to where he was after multiple foot surgeries during the 2014-15 season and after another failed attempt to return to the Finals after losing to LeBron’s Heat four years ago in his only trip, maybe he just got tired of fighting the same fights: fading relevance in the public eye with Stephen Curry and LeBron dominating, enduring cycles of young talent in exchange of stars like James Harden and Serge Ibaka (even if both moves were good for the franchise, which Durant has acknowledged), always having one other team in the way of Finals prominence, and being The Guy who dutifully leads the perennial second/third horse in the race.

Duty played a part. For those who thought Durant had a responsibility to go back to Oklahoma City and lead with Westbrook once again, he probably scorned the premise. As for his image of the superstar who would never turn his back on his surrogate home, perhaps watching other stars who were never before on his level – such as Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala – steal the spotlight over the past several Junes gave him a new sense of determination to change the script.

But speculating about the rationale of a man whom I do not know, as engaging as it might be, does not impact the outcome: Kevin Durant has joined the Golden State Warriors. This team will probably be the best team in league history, and the only hope that opposing teams will have on a nightly basis is poor shooting from multiple Warrior stars and a dual effort of great perimeter defending and stellar rebounding.

What the Warriors and Durant joined together to do was totally fair, well-executed (using the crazy jump in the salary cap and the foolish cap on max contract amounts in their favor), and terrifying for the rest of the league. It’s a whole different ballgame than LeBron going to Miami, where he had a young coach, unfamiliar new teammates, and imperfect fits in Wade and Bosh (who eventually evolved around LeBron). Durant, one of the best players in the NBA, is joining what was already one of the best teams in history. His crazy wingspan and shooting stroke will probably fit right into the Warriors’ style of play with little effort, sealing up the few cracks that they had.

A question for Durant down the line will be whether it was all worth alienating the only professional fan base he has ever had (as well as many other neutral fans) in the pursuit of title glory. The Warriors will likely become the ultimate team for the casual fan, who primarily watches to be entertained and rarely feels strong emotional investment. Their style of basketball will be beautiful and – simply put – it will be the biggest surprise in league history if they don’t come away with at least two titles in the next few seasons.

If individual legacy was Durant’s main objective, he will never realize it with Golden State in the way he would have with Oklahoma City. Being part of the greatest team ever has its own esteemed place in the history books, but letting go of the reins will diminish his personal place within the fraternity, whether he admits it or not. But again, I do not know the guy. Team success seems to be his main objective, so signing with the team already favored to win next year’s title certainly makes sense by that measure.

But for now, Durant’s choice to stop leading (he certainly did NOT choose the hardest road) interests me less than a point to which I want to return: the Thunder franchise, fan base, and city were fortunate to host the simultaneously flawed and wonderful Durant, Westbrook, and Co. iteration for as long as they did. The sheer amount of success that they experienced during their brief spell in the Panhandle State is far more than other franchises have enjoyed in their entire respective histories.

*camera pans out to me in my tear-stained Michael Beasley Timberwolves jersey*

We can mourn them for never getting as far as we may think they should have gotten (I’m of the opinion that the requisite bit of luck needed in a title chase never resided with them), but we should do so with an acknowledgement to what they accomplished and provided to the NBA: an organically fostered, well-run, young, athletic team that made its own of whatever luck it had in a small market and sparked the fan’s imagination of what could be (not including Kendrick Perkins) as often as any other team since its relocation from Seattle.

The fans knew what they had and cherished the franchise. The area around the arena is called Loud City and the home crowd has been reliably among the league’s best. There was even a movie starring Durant called…any guesses? They will be among the many who rue the failures that led to the team’s several postseason exits that betrayed its talent and tantalizing potential. With one or two fewer injuries along the way (or even one or two fewer unlucky bounces for Durant this past spring), it’s likely that his decision may have been different.

But to extensively retrace and ruminate over the steps that paved his exit would stymie the fun and celebration of the NBA that was this Thunder team. Again, it kills me to watch the dream in Oklahoma City die just like that, but they still have wiz GM Sam Presti, a young group of complementary pieces, and Westbrook, should he choose to stay (unlikely, based on reports).

There are certainly other teams that started, developed, and blossomed like this Thunder team. The Warriors, for one, simply did it better. What made the Durant\Westbrook Thunder so compelling was in part the context: how the team grew up in a new NBA city that embraced it so passionately and how players like Durant seemed to appreciate and reciprocate that love. Their draw was also in part what also held them back: the lack of perfect fit that has made the Warriors such a deadly force. You just hoped that they would figure things out while the opportunity existed.

And they almost did. It felt like this was finally Oklahoma City’s time when they had seemingly delivered a knockout blow to Golden State in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. As we know, however, it was not. Little to our knowledge at the time, it was set to be the final scene for Durant in a Thunder jersey.

It was while growing up through my teen years and beyond with the Thunder that I grew to love the NBA. Just like the Durant move sets forth a new chapter in the NBA’s history – one which will certainly impact the next collective bargaining agreement – it has me looking ahead as a fan to the next team that manages to excite like this Thunder team did (Please God let it be the Wolves! I don’t ask for much!).

May the next incarnation of this now gone Thunder team find some of that elusive luck and enjoy the dream ending that Durant searches for as he heads West. But for now, pour one out for this Thunder team and appreciate what we were all fortunate to witness for the time it was there.

Blood Everywhere: The Kevin Love Trade Proposal That Drinks Your Milkshake

So, Kevin Love is definitely leaving Minnesota in the next few months. At least that’s what we’re hearing. If he were to stay next season, I believe that Minnesota would finally attain a playoff berth, but that appears to be increasingly wishful as we trudge through the offseason.

Perhaps it’s because the “Star wants to leave only team he has  ever played with” song has been played ad nauseam over the past few seasons as the E! aspect of the NBA has become more prevalent, but the speculation has been underwhelming. Many of the trade rumors – a great deal of them, in fact – has been incredible in the sense that not even Minnesota could yield so much leverage (as proposed) and accept what would equate to loose change and an expired coupon on the dollar.

While it’s very unlikely that Cleveland would offer its 1st overall pick to acquire Love at this point, proposed units for exchange like Asik, Parsons, Lin, and a couple of future 1st round picks by Houston; rights to the 6th overall pick and God knows what else by Boston; Boozer’s expiring contract, the rights to Nikola Mirotic, and its two 1st round picks by Chicago are even less likely at this time.

The Love saga is a strange situation in the sense that there is a dearth of clear-cut fits for the All-Star power forward. There is no New York or New Jersey – as was the case a few years ago when Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams were looking to move – with a wealth of young talent or draft picks (back when the Knicks had tricked the world into thinking that it had learned anything about roster cultivation).

While there are a few teams with adequate pieces to offer, such as Cleveland, Washington or Orlando, it is a case where there is either too great a disparity between an untouchable asset (such as the first overall pick in Cleveland’s case) and all other assets and, thus, a trade would always not work for one side in negotiations OR a trade would work: Love simply would not commit to staying there for the long-term (likely in case of Washington and Orlando).

In conclusion, this leaves us with few candidates, three of which are listed in my last post: Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. If Sam Hinkie was willing to part with the 3rd overall pick (which he most certainly is not), the 76ers would seem like a great fit for Love (rim protector in Noel, budding star in MCW, cap space). The Pelicans’ pick at 10th overall has good value in this draft, but its not a centerpiece asset and the team lacks other substantial units of value, apart from space to take on a bad contract or two.

Chicago, as mentioned in my previous post, would have to offer at least both 1st round picks, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler (possibly taking back Corey Brewer or Chase Budinger) in order for Flip to rationally accept any approach made. Again, not saying that’s good value for Love – it’s not – but it would be where negotiations would have to start. At this point, it’s a fair question as to whether Chicago will take that step at this time.

That leaves us with Boston. In retrospect, the Boston trade proposal included in my previous post probably yields the lowest returns for Love: the Celtics, as currently constructed, have among the lowest level of talent on any NBA roster. The war chest of draft picks is Boston’s saving grace. That’s well and good for a team that plans to rebuild, but not for Minnesota.

Especially as signified by the disappointing appointment of Flip Saunders as Minnesota’s head coach, the Timberwolves are certainly not looking to extend their severe playoff drought with another exaggerated rebuilding project.

Long story short: I don’t see how a straight trade between two teams will work in Kevin Love’s case. This is what I came up with. Throughout the process, I also make a few necessary assumptions, which I will elaborate upon below.
*Disclaimer* I clearly do not think that this trade would ever happen, but rather that – as trades are supposed to do – it would satisfactorily address each respective team’s priority. Thanks for reading and I appreciate any feedback.

THE TRADE

Teams Involved: Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knickerbockers.

Boston receives: PF Donatas Motiejunas and Omer Asik from Boston; PF Kevin Love and SG Kevin Martin from Minnesota; SG/SF Iman Shumpert from New York.

Houston receives: C Vitor Faverani from Boston; the rights to the 2014 40th overall pick from Minnesota; F Carmelo Anthony and PG Pablo Prigioni from New York.

Minnesota receives: the rights to the 2014 6th overall draft pick and PF Jared Sullinger from Boston; SF Chandler Parsons and SG Francisco Garcia from Houston; PF Amar’e Stoudemire and PG Raymond Felton from New York.

New York receives: SF Gerald Wallace’s radioactive contract, F Jeff Green, PF Brandon Bass, the rights to Brooklyn’s 2014 and 2016 1st round draft picks and the Clippers’ 2015 1st round draft pick from Boston; PG Jeremy Lin and the rights to the 2014 25th overall draft pick from Houston; SF Corey Brewer and G J.J. Barea from Minnesota.

waits…

The Case for Boston: Well, this is easy. You get Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo, both in their prime, playing together for the next few seasons. Omer Asik gets a starting role again; between him and Love, opposing teams will have a torrid time on the glass. Even though he’s still only 23, Iman Shumpert seems desperate for a fresh start after a couple of seasons of undulating performance and extensive injury recovery. Playing for a winner (remember, this is the Eastern Conference) could revitalize him and provides Boston with necessary perimeter defense, whether or not the team retains Avery Bradley.

Donatas Motiejunas gets an invite to the party for cap reasons, but provided quality minutes for Houston, particularly in the open floor. He would likely have a role in the second unit (although the low-post defense between him and Olynyk would be potentially atrocious). Boston takes on Martin’s salary, but he’s still an excellent scorer and should hover above 16 points a game for the duration of his contract.

What’s not to like? They give up four 1st round draft picks, which sounds like a lot, but the Clippers’ pick will be near the bottom of the 1st round next year and the Nets’ pick this year is mid-round. The 6th overall pick in what’s considered to be a strong draft is valuable, but if it’s not high enough to get one of the three top-tier players (Embiid, Parker, Wiggins), it is certainly a necessary evil to acquire a top-7 player and substantial roster upgrades.

The Case for Houston: Morey gets his 3rd star, alongside Harden and Howard, at the expense of losing Chandler Parsons and a handful of rotation players. Carmelo played some of the best ball of his career this past season in spite of his woeful team, but his trade value is not as massive as it was a few seasons ago, for no reason other that he is older (just turned 30).

That says nothing of his game, which should age very well based on his skill set. Regardless, his departure commands hefty sacrifice by Houston, which loses Lin (a platoon starter at the point AND a big international revenue stream, but he’s a free agent after next season anyway), Asik, and the occasionally summoned reserve duo of Motiejunas and Garcia.

As a fit beside Harden, I would argue that Anthony is better than Rondo. Harden is a better shooter off the dribble than on spot ups (around 38%, per NBA.com); Rondo has a notoriously adequate shot, especially in catch-and-shoot situations. At least, in the half-court, this pairing would potentially throw a wrench into Houston’s offense rather than add another level of potency.

Anthony, conversely, shot around 46% from the field and 44% from 3 range off the catch-and-shoot this past season, per NBA.com. That’s really good. While Harden and Anthony are infamous as black holes on offense, they have decent playmaking ability that has developed over the past couple of seasons and should not be overlooked.

Anthony and Terrence Jones would be able to change freely at forwards positions on both sides of the court. While neither is a great defender nor possesses great size at the 4, they are both decent rebounders, stretch the floor very well, and would maintain the flexibility on offense that Houston enjoyed over the past few seasons. Simply put, Houston’s offense would be scary.

The inclusions of Pablo Prigioni and Vitor Faverani are certainly not throwaways. In his episodes of extended playing time before his injury, Faverani posted impressive numbers per 36. After the drama that accompanied the highly paid Asik’s relegation to the bench last season, Faverani would provide quality insurance behind Howard and a fraction of the cost.

Prigioni would replace Lin as Beverley’s back-up. His basic stat line is humble at best, but his pesky on-ball defense and high on-court IQ were valuable – yet often overlooked – aspects of New York’s success two seasons ago. New York’s overall net production went up by over six points when he was on the floor during the 2012-13 season. Especially with three iso-heavy players in the team’s starting unit, Prigioni would be a valued inclusion in Houston’s rotation as a very good P’n’R ball handler and reluctant shooter.

The Case for Minnesota: As Houston and Boston ride up on the escalator by virtue of this trade, Minnesota descends. Houston has gone from the 3rd to the 4th floor, Boston has risen from the 1st floor to the 3rd, and Minnesota travels from the 2nd to a more familiar spot on the 1st floor (yet not as familiar as the basement and yes, we’re in a shopping mall).

Assuming that Love is as good as gone, the case is that this would be as good of a returns as Minnesota could reasonably expect to attain for Love. Chandler Parsons upgrades the small forward position, Raymond Felton sadly counts as an upgrade to Barea as Rubio’s back-up (runs the offense better), Garcia makes the numbers work.

If Amar’e Stoudemire stays healthy, he and Sullinger would actually serve as a very good power forward platoon to complement the rock solid center combination of Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng. What’s infinitely more likely, however, is that he gets injured early and often, Sullinger takes over as the main power forward option on the roster, and STAT simply serves his role as a not-yet expired contract to a tee. For a team like Minnesota, the sad truth is that overpaying is the typical reality to draw free agents and, thus, there is a higher premium on drafting well, which brings us to…

The 6th overall pick, which Minnesota uses – in this alternate reality – to combine with the 13th overall pick to trade up past Utah and draft Noah Vonleh. Vonleh proceeds to win Rookie of the Year, Shabazz picks up Most Improved honors, and the Wolves squeak in as the 8th seed in the playoffs next season.

*wipes drool off chin, straightens up, adjusts monocle*

Getting rid of Martin’s bloated contract would be a additional plus for a team that would likely look to give second-year player Shabazz Muhammad more playing time after Love’s departure removes the pressure for postseason qualification. Working out a sign-and-trade for Parsons (who Morey is reportedly willing to let walk as part of his ploy to open enough cap space for another top-tier player such as Anthony) would be required for the Wolves to take Parsons as part of the ultimate package for Love.

Clearly, the Wolves would take a step back in the wake of losing the services of Love, but the strength of its frontcourt, a fortified bench, and development of its young players would (finally) paint a bright picture for the team’s future.

The Case for New York: In a blatantly romantic turn of events, Jeremy Lin returns to the Knicks…

Aside time: Lin returns to a standing ovation at MSG where he stands tall among the wretches – zombie Gerald Wallace, Andrea Bargnani (‘s expiring contract), J.R. Smith – that serve as present sacrifices for a better future. He quickly realizes that he is but a cog in the Zen triangle. Linsanity and the associated controlled anarchy of Mike D’Antoni that allowed Lin to flourish is but a relic to a bygone era: the Studio 54 of New York sports, if you will.

It turns out however, regardless of system, Jeremy Lin is still better than Raymond Felton. Hooray! Only problem now is that the team is basically half-zombie. Plus, Melo’s gone now, which is good for Lin, but sucks for the Knicks.

The Knicks, despite their constant self-sabotage, improbably are able to sign-and-trade Carmelo instead of a simple loss in free agency, which makes sense as well since it earns him at least $20 million more in total money. The sign-and-trade nets them Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Corey Brewer, J.J. Barea, and whatever’s left of Gerald Wallace. Serviceable players in the stop-gap (namely, until next few summers: big free agency periods), but also zombies.

Why would the Knicks take on all this money though, if the books are set to be liberated if Anthony leaves – and NY doesn’t pay him $25 million per annum until he’s 35 – and STAT and Tyson Chandler leave after next season, clearing another $35 million off the books)? The answer is that the roster would then be half free agents, half players that the Knicks wish were free agents (Bargs, Smith, Felton). The team has alternating years without a 1st round pick until approximately 2160 and thus, will struggle mightily to achieve roster stability in the foreseeable future apart from a couple of godsends in the form of big names (Dolan’s M.O.).

Jackson’s tenure, as things are currently going, will be marked as an invariant failure if he cannot persuade LeBron James or Kevin Durant to come to New York. He is serious about wanting to craft the team by his own philosophy (as evinced by his ongoing attempts to purchase a 2nd round pick in the draft). The Knicks have cap space and Durant, as it stands, should be their only major target (becomes a free agent in 2016).

Taking on these contracts would help prevent the team from being abysmal in the next couple of years (and thus undesirable for top free agents). The team constructed by this trade won’t be good, but at least it won’t star 2nd round picks, Lance Stephenson, and Kenyon Martin (who never retires).

Much more importantly, however, is that New York receives four 1st round draft picks over the next three years in this trade proposal, partially for taking on the contracts and from trading Anthony.

While no acquired pick would likely amount into a lottery selection, besides the Nets’ 2016 1st round pick (depending on how sharply the core regresses), they would provide a tremendous amount of roster flexibility and upside that the team currently lacks. At the very least, a few of the players might develop into important trade assets if some other star player is available (as was the case with Mozgov, Chandler, Gallinari to acquire Melo).

No player that the team receives has a long-term future with the Knicks and some would argue that New York surrenders one in Iman Shumpert (as disappointing as he was last season), but the team needs to give Jackson the opportunity to at least mold the team in his image. That was, after all, why he was hired in the first place. This trade would give the Knicks that chance to organically build a roster, you know, kind of like any other functional organization.


Too many big names, but a trade that – at least in my opinion – works on a number of levels. Thanks for reading.

 

 

…For a Horse? The Price of Love.

Bill Simmons came out with a few trade scenarios early in the week, not surprisingly involving Kevin Love.  He contended that if Mr. Love is not traded by this time next year, he will surely leave in free agency in summer 2015.  While I know far less than the the Grantland editor, it seems that – at this point in time – lack of attractive options the likes of Houston and Dallas (big market, adequate surrounding talent, etc.) from last summer will prevent his departure from being a guarantee.

The son of Stan isn’t a dummy. He hails from California, but that won’t incentivize him to play with studs like Shawne Williams, MarShon Brooks, and Ryan Kelly.  Odds are that this Lakers team will have an entirely different look next season, but unless it drafts a future superstar in June, different will not necessarily mean good, or even better, if Kobe breaks down again.

While it would be difficult to blame him, Love does not seem fed up by the incompetence of the past Wolves regime.  Flip Saunders has done a commendable job in the new David Kahn-free era, (re)building bridges and luring talent. While Adelman deserves some blame for rotation struggles, such as the narcotic-nightmare worthy pairing of Shved and Barea in the 4th quarter, he remains as one of the most highly-regarded coaches in the league (even though he will probably only remain on the sidelines for the next couple of seasons, at most).

As for the talent, it almost definitely ranks in the top 7 or 8 of the Western Conference.  Corey Brewer was a great signing…Chase Budinger is slowly returning to form…you have to take Kevin Martin’s passive defense with his off-ball movement and uncanny scoring ability…Rubio could be a top-12 point guard if he improves his finishing around the basket (far too much is perceived about his game by his stat line, shooting issues)…Pekovic is not a good fit beside Love, but Love really likes him and he is one of the league’s best offensive rebounders.

The team is set in stone to a great degree going forward, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  While the team’s recent high draft picks and other young players (granted, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph may not be great examples) have fizzled out at an alarmingly high rate, that has no bearing on the progression of Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad.  I was part of the camp that clamored for Adelman to play the two rookies when the bench was tanking early in the season, but the injuries to Pekovic, Martin, and Ronny Turiaf have recently carved out some time for Dieng and Muhammad.

Aside: The fact that the two rookies have clear-cut positions at this level reduces uncertainty and allows them to focus on their particular roles.  They, along with whoever the team drafts this year, will likely provide the main source of upside for Minnesota for next season.  Even as memories of Kart Rambis’s main victims of his unforgiving and ill-fated triangle offense – Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson – remain fresh in the minds of Wolves Nation, it’s encouraging that each rookie – Shabazz with offensive rebounding and shot creating ability, Dieng with excellent interior defense and underrated offensive fundamentals – has definitive skills that he can build his game around.  Anyway…

In summary, there is a lot of talent on the team’s roster and Love knows that.  Although it seems likely that Love will be on the outside looking in for a 6th straight season, missing the playoffs this year is probably not a deal breaker for the former Bruin as the team moves closer to snaring a spot.  It will, however, make the postseason a requisite for next season.  Furthermore, a one-and-done result will also probably push Love toward non-frozen pastures.  As a result, the team needs to take a big a step next season as it took in the current campaign.  Meaning…

That unless Dieng can become the long-term answer as rim protector that the team desperately needs, Ricky’s shot starts falling more regularly, Barea bounces back (or the team finds an upgrade to back up Ricky), and Shabazz and Bud develop into a killer 1-2 scoring punch off the bench, Kevin Love is likely gone.

-which would be really bad for Minnesota.  In case that point needed to be driven home.  It would probably totally suck, as a matter of fact.

Other factors could come into play that lead to substantial team improvement, but when I sat down to write this post, I wanted to explore the worst-case scenario, namely that the Wolves continue their historically disappointing trend of underachievement next season and Kevin Love tells Flip Saunders that he might be Outty 5000 in the summer.

But that doesn’t make me a pessimist. I already said that I believe that the talent is there.  If I were a gambling man or lived near a casino or something, I would even make a modest-to-substantial wager that Minnesota will make the playoffs next season.

If it wasn’t clear before this season, Kevin Love is a top-7 player in the NBA.  If he was to get traded sometime next year, his trade value would at least match Carmelo Anthony’s right before he left Denver.  We’ll assume that the Knicks exhibited rational behavior and exchanged fair value when it traded its entire wealth of young players for the former Orangeman.  Before further ado, it’s time to answer a question posed by Arcade Fire: “When Love is gone, where does [he] go?”

Trade Idea 1: One of my main beefs with Simmons’s proposed Celtics deal for Kevin Love is that its worth is comprised almost exclusively in draft picks.  I think Flip would be sure to get at least one tested sure thing as a part in Kevin Love trade negotiations. Jared Sullinger would be a requirement if Love did go to Boston.  Throw in Avery Bradley with that 2014 6th overall pick,  Brooklyn’s 2014 and 2016 1st round picks via Boston, give them Barea, and that’s another story.

Even though switching Love for Sullinger would exacerbate an already poor defensive fit, trading Love would swing the priority to stockpiling young talent.  Bradley, a RFA after this season, will likely see his salary bumped to $6 or $7 million in the summer; throwing in Brandon Bass or Keith Bogans would make the numbers work.  If you’re a pessimist, you’re getting a throw-in for Love, a couple of picks, a shorter, better shooting Tony Allen, and a slightly undersized power forward for Love. If you’re an optimist, you’re getting a few long-term rotation options, a very good draft choice in possibly one of the best drafts in the past decade, and getting rid of J.J. time in the 4th quarter. Check please.

Aside: Another issue with Simmons’s prognosis is that while Love may value ‘Celtic Pride’ ad nauseum, he also values Rubio.  The prospect of playing with Rondo after playing with Ricky would not have nearly as much allure as it would for someone like Carmelo, who has Raymond Felton, who is totally not fat.

Trade Idea 2: We go from Shaq’s last destination to his first: Orlando, a team stocked with decent players and desperate for a star in the post-Dwight era.  The question whether Love would want to go there is irrelevant for our purposes; Rob Hennigan, just one of the Spurs’s legendary brood, would be more likely to balk at the prospect of giving up the metaphorical farm. Let’s overlook these details and ponder why it might work.

The team has a wealth of pretty good young players and two 1st round picks in this year’s draft.  To get Love, you have to figure that anyone but rookie Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic are on the table. That’s cool, you have players like Mo Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, and Tobias Harris.  Wait…

Ok, so there isn’t much exciting about this team, and they need to strike gold in this draft in order to avoid becoming the future undead Bobcats of now.  So if the Wolves demanded Orlando’s pick or drafted player as part of a package for Love, it would merit serious consideration, even for GMs who live and die by the fruits of homegrown talent.

In this scenario, Minnesota would trade Love for Orlando’s 2014 4th overall pick, as well as its 2016 1st round pick (lottery-protected), the Lakers’ 2017 1st rounder, Tobias Harris (the combo forward who, besides Oladipo, probably has the highest ceiling of any player on Orlando’s current roster), and Jameer Nelson for cap reasons (Barea would subsequently get dealt).

Would Love like the move?  It would rely on how good Oladipo gets and who Orlando drafts (using the Nuggets’s increasingly valued 1st round pick, which could even roll into the top 10).

Aside: Holy hell, it’s gone downhill quickly in Denver. A mere 12 months ago, it was the most exciting team to watch in the NBA.  We all saw it coming once Ujiri left his GM post and took the same position in Toronto and George Karl got fired, but it doesn’t make the reality any less depressing. Ty Lawson’s wasting a great season, Javale McGee and Danilo Gallinari are out long term, every player on the roster has seemingly hit his respective ceiling. The only saving grace is the Knicks’s 1st round pick this year, which will likely end up around the 6 to 9 range.

But yeah, in the weaker Eastern Conference, a Magic team led by Love, Afflalo, Oladipo, and Vucevic would be a definite playoff team. It would be pretty good to watch as well. High scoring, already adequate depth in place (at the very least, Mo Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn look like long-term rotation players) and another 1st round lottery pick in the kitty.  This option would make more sense than going to the Lakers, who – like Minnesota – are mired in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. The Betty and Veronica of migration options, respectively.

Before I go on to the next idea, here are my thoughts on the other three Bill Simmons trade proposals involving Love:

1. Phoenix: After its two 1st round picks, the team’s best current trade chip is Alex Len. Not happening.

2. Chicago: Taj Gibson is still improving and I would take him over Boozer against almost any opponent, but, at age 28 and with at least $24 million owed to him over the next three seasons, he’s not the type of player that would help Minnesota in the long run. With that said, Nikola Mirotic is a rather intriguing piece and the Bulls have two mid-1st round picks this year.

While the draft pick value would not necessarily incentivize Flip to push the big red button in a vacuum, this is the only option among Los Angeles, New York, Houston, etc. that makes sense because, as a currently decent/good team, Love will already prefer Chicago as a landing spot. As a result, this could cause Flip to dig deeper and look for other takeaways beyond immediate building blocks: namely, future cap space. The unfortunate Dante Cunningham off-court developments ruined his chances of re-signing in the offseason and, thus, creates a need for Minnesota to acquire two power forwards in the wake of a Kevin Love trade.

As Trade Idea 2.5, I could see Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Alexey Shved going to Chicago for Charlotte’s 2014 1st round pick via Chicago, Chicago’s 2014 and 2016 1st round picks, the rights to Nikola Mirotic once he comes to the NBA, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, and Carlos Boozer.

Gibson is a solid starting 4 who would project to fit well beside Pekovic, especially as his mid-range shot has improved. When healthy, Boozer would be Gibson’s back-up in his lone season with the Wolves. Mirotic (a bigger, faster Doug McDermott, albeit probably less complete as a scorer) could become an ideal stretch 4 in the team’s second unit alongside Dieng. Dunleavy would be a stop-gap starting shooting guard for Shabazz or (more likely) whoever the team has drafted.

The dual 1st round picks would give Minnesota hefty negotiating leverage in the draft, providing that it keeps its own top-13 protected selection following the lottery. Combining the picks would tempt the thin rosters of Detroit, Cleveland, or even/especially Los Angeles to trade their respective top-10 selection.

I wouldn’t hate the returns for Love & Co., but it would be my least favorite of the four detailed scenarios. Tom Thibodeau would probably share my dislike, as he would lose the hard-nosed Gibson and the deal would force him to engage Martin’s defensive lethargy on a regular basis. The athetic defensive forward Mbah a Moute, rather than Chase Budinger, would be the inclusion as a precautionary measure to preserve Thib’s sanity.

Aside: With Chicago’s uncanny recent reputation as a haven for back-up point guards, I see the Bulls as one of the very few places where Alexey Shved, who needs to be the ball handler in any offensive set, could salvage his career. J.J Barea could also fit in as the final throw-in piece. Either way, it’s addition by subtraction for the Wolves.

3. Los Angeles: I don’t think Kevin Love’s presence in Los Angeles would be nearly enough to pull Durant out of OKC even if he did sign with them as a UFA next year. Thinking more immediately, what do the Lakers trade besides its lottery pick in this year’s draft? Swaggy P? MarShon Brooks? Sadly, with L.A.’s current roster configuration, both of those players would have to be traded, along with Steve Nash’s contract, in order for a trade to work.

A couple of extra 1st round picks would sweeten the deal to the extent that a few pinches of sugar would sweeten a full grapefruit, but it still would not be nearly enough to get Love in a trade. Maybe 50 cents on the dollar. Not to mention that he would only have old Kobe around him for a full season. For a guy desperate to make the playoffs, I’m sure that prospect delights him.

Moving on

Trade Idea 3: This is the hinge, the point at which the weirdness sharply escalates.  We try to excavate what the 76ers GM Sam Hinkie regards as priority and filter it from the periphery, which solely consists of 2nd round pick acquisition schemes and falling Jenga towers.

In the most blatant of tanking efforts in NBA history, Hinkie has constructed a roster that has only been thwarted in Tankfest 2014 by the Milwaukee Bucks, which is giving an honest effort, God bless ’em.  While it’s probable that the 76ers plan to build from the ground up in the most extensive way imaginable, could it be that some of the pawns, knights, and rooks at Hinkie’s disposal are available to get a star to put alongside MCW and whoever they draft in the lottery this year?

Trading for Kevin Love would set up an absurdly abrupt about-face.  MCW looks like a lankier, more athletic Jason Kidd 2.0, even considering his drop in play over the past several weeks (understandable due to the rookie wall and lack of surrounding talent) and pairing them with whoever they draft (barring a lottery slip and if they declare for the draft, Parker or Wiggins will be almost definitely available), Nerlens Noel, and signing a couple of second/third tier free agents such as Shaun Livingston and Trevor Ariza would allow Philly to bounce back into the playoffs immediately.

So what would it take? Thaddeus Young, swapping Jason Richardson for Kevin Martin (two fewer years on deal, less money), Hollis Thompson for Luc Mbah a Moute, the 76ers’s 2015 and 2017 1st round picks (unprotected or top-5 protected), and the Pelicans’s 2014 1st round pick, owned by the 76ers from the Jrue Holiday deal.

Noel would be nice to get, but Hinkie would be keen to keep him beside Love. Besides, there wouldn’t be a big roster spot for Noel in Minnesota unless he played at the 4, which would be problematic for spacing purposes on offense. Personally, I think he’s Theo Ratliff with Tyson Chandler’s athleticism, which would be a greater service to Philly than Minnesota. The Pelicans’s pick would give Minnesota an opportunity to trade up to the 5th or 6th spot, assuming they keep their own 1st round pick (by finishing in the top 13 of the draft).

Would Love like it? Yes, since it would bring him into the Eastern Conference and all but guarantee immediate postseason arrival.  While Minnesota would arguably get less than it would receive in the Orlando scenario, this would enable Minnesota to make a few crafty moves to move away from the luxury tax line while having space to extend Rubio after next season. Not being in a position to win and paying the luxury tax is a double hell.

The two swaps are very modest, but nothing about Mbah a Moute fits in for the Wolves. He’s an overpaid luxury player at the moment and this would be the case to an even greater extent with Love’s departure, since it would create greater needs. Thompson is adequate, but advanced stats back him up as a good isolation defender and he rounded into a very good spot-up shooter as the season progressed (he came out of Georgetown with the reputation as one of the best shooters of his class). Shane Battier potential.

Aside: If this trade were to go down, by the transitive property, Minnesota’s 2nd overall pick will have amounted to Hollis Thompson. The ghost of David Kahn still lingers. So much vomit.

***********************************************************************

These would be the three four scenarios in which Kevin Love makes his way over to a winner, three of which Minnesota gets at least 80 cents on the dollar. Note that all four scenarios bring Kevin Love to the Eastern Conference. A storyline that will inevitably have massive reverberations and one that I hope ends sooner rather than later.

Thanks for reading!

KD’s 2013 NBA Season Reveries: The Sequel

What’s interesting about the gap in quality between the two conferences is that some teams that do not make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference will likely be in worse shape than some lottery teams in the West.  A couple of teams who make the playoffs in the East will probably be in worse shape than a couple in the West that fall short of playoff ball, yet the latter teams will get a better draft position due to the league structure. By laws of probability, it is not a structure that will alleviate the talent disparity; rather, it might actually increase the gap.

Anyway, with that aside, let’s get started on Part 2.

Miami Heat: Michael Beasley’s return as a contributing member to the NBA has made Miami even more dangerous.  The two issues that followed Miami last season – rebounding and Dwyane Wade’s health – will probably be the questions asked going into the 2014 playoffs. LeBron James is still the world’s best player, 3-point shooting is still a strength, and if Greg Oden can return as a player who averages 20 minutes a game, Miami will be scary good.

What I like: stability, great chemistry, confidence. Look of a two-time champion.

What I don’t like: the ability to battle with the likes of Detroit – yes, Detroit – and Indiana if Greg Oden cannot return to form this season.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo has improbably become the face of the Milwaukee Bucks by virtue of his name, the team’s dearth of any other seat-filler, his age (just turned 19), and his ongoing growth spurt (expected to reach 7’0 in the next couple of years, currently 6’10).  In the meantime, however, Khris Middleton and John Henson have stood out in the young season in the absence of Larry Sanders.  However unlikely, Bucks fans should dare to dream about a starting line-up of Brandon Knight, GA, Middleton, Henson, and Sanders.  Forgetting the dire lack of offensive firepower in that combination, the amalgamated lankiness would become story of legends. While the team does not have much cap space for another few years, a top-3 draft pick of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Marcus Smart in the upcoming 2014 draft will give the Bucks the best chance since the Ray Allen days to become a top-4 team in the East.

What I like: the last few draft choices. While fit can be argued, their potential to develop into roster players for a future playoff team is definite.

What I don’t like: the imbalance of the roster. Luke Ridnour and Nate Wolters (yikes!), not Brandon Knight, are the best playmakers on the roster. There is very little backcourt depth, apart from O.J. Mayo.  Did I mention Nate Wolters regularly plays over 15 minutes a game? Even if Wiggins and Parker are the top two talents, Marcus Smart would be a better fit as the roster stands.

Minnesota Timberwolves: As I said over the summer, signing Nikola Pekovic was the NBA version of crossing the Rubicon.  Signing him with the biggest financial commitment after Kevin Love would compromise free agent signings – and interior defense – for years. Primarily due to Pekovic’s weak shot-blocking ability and coach Rick Adelman’s aversion to playing rookies, the Wolves have been one of the worst teams in terms of allowing points in the paint (dead worst in away games). Two of the team’s most severe issues – bench scoring and paint defense – could be assuaged if Adelman played Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While overly simplistic, one of the team’s main issues, as suggested in an excellent piece by Steve McPherson last week, seems to be Rick Adelman’s rotation choices. Chase Budinger’s return will surely help the bench, but that simply won’t be enough to save the least effective bench in the league. The roster is set for next few years. The way the roster is used needs to change if there is any hope of becoming more than a 7 seed in the next couple of seasons.

What I like: Kevin Love has been transcendent, getting more defensive help (Luc Mbah a Moute) in the Derrick Williams trade.

What I don’t like: the least effective bench in the league (lowest shooting percentage, fewest free throw attempts, 28th in bench ppg). Low post defense, the paltry use of necessary shot blocker Gorgui Dieng.

New Orleans Pelicans: New Orleans went for broke this summer, depriving the league of one of the greatest potential shot-blocking duos by trading its 2014 first-round pick and Nerlens Noel for Jrue Holiday, then brought on Tyreke Evans in a sign-and-trade to be a Ginobiliesque super sub. Results of these attempts to accelerate the building process have been mixed: scoring has not been a problem, but defensive efficiency has. Part of this is likely attributed to the replacement of Robin Lopez with Jason Smith at center. Anthony Davis is really good already, but needs Pelicans brass to continue to build around him. Finding a willing trade partner for the overpaid Eric Gordon would be a good start. It’ll also be interesting if Pelicans re-sign Al-Farouq Aminu at SF or go in a different direction. Time will tell if this core can evolve into a top 4 or 5 playoff team, but it would necessitate upgrades for the bench, small forward, and center. I’m not sure if Anderson and Evans – as the two main bench players – would be affordable in that situation, but if the Pelicans can re-sign Aminu and sign a center like Kosta Koufos next summer, they will be moving in the right direction.

What I like: Ryan Anderson has been an offensive juggernaut…Tyreke Evans as a bench player.

What I don’t like: Eric Gordon’s contract, Aminu’s failure to improve his offensive game. Austin Rivers.

New York Knicks: If James Dolan was a rational being, this would be the end of the experiment of building around Carmelo Anthony. The best case for a Melocentric team was realized last season; this, on the other hand, has been the worst. The proposed Blake Griffin-Carmelo Anthony trade that made its rounds on the Internet last week would be fascinating and probably beneficial for both teams.  Without a first-round pick next season and JR Smith signed for two more seasons after this one, the only way the Knicks can ruin their future any more is by trading away their 2015 first-round pick or re-signing Carmelo to a max deal after the season. Starting in 2015, the team will have a nearly clean slate (JR will still be clinging on); paying Carmelo approximately 40% of the salary cap as he progresses deeper into the wrong side of 30 would be asinine. I can’t see how even Dolan could rationalize such a move, but I can’t see the Knicks letting him walk either, simply because going for big names is how the Knicks operate.  In other matters, Iman Shumpert has marginally regressed as a scorer, while Andrea Bargnani is – and stats from last season support this – a slightly worse, more expensive version of Chris Copeland who the Knicks gave away a first-round pick to acquire.  Big names will trump sound strategy as long as Dolan has a say, which does not bode well for the team’s future – regardless of the next big name they manage to lasso.

What I like: Tim Hardaway, that’s pretty much it.

What I don’t like: the Bargnani trade, Chris Smith getting a roster spot, the essence of JR Smith.

Oklahoma City Thunder: It’s hard to argue against the way that Scott Brooks handles his young players, seeing the way that Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, Maynor, and now Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have developed during his time as coach, but I find it difficult to understand why Derek Fisher continues to play when he is not even hitting 1 of every 4 3-pointers taken. Like Adelman, I think Brooks needs to get more creative with his line-ups, particularly in constructions that play Durant at the 4. Perry Jones III may still be an anomaly as to what he actually brings to the table, but he has shown improvement from last season in the limited time he gets. Playing Lamb or Jones III at small forward would be an extra opportunity for the second-year players to gain experience and play with the team’s two superstars.  Fisher will be of little use when playoffs come around, which Brooks should be mindful of as he gauges his roster in the new year.

Update: Westbrook’s third surgical procedure within a year sets off red flares to his future health, but based off his terrific play this season, he should have no problem hitting the ground running upon his return.  In the meanwhile, Brooks has seemed to recognize the opportunity and has allotted Westbrook’s 35-40 minutes among Jackson, Lamb, and Jones.  Increased game experience among his young players will reap future rewards.

What I like: the integration of Lamb and Adams into the rotation this season, the latter of whom will probably supplant Perkins as starting center once the former Celtic’s contract expires. Durant keeps getting better.

What I don’t like: Scott Brooks’s personnel decisions at times, which have been altered by necessity in the wake of the Westbrook injury, but will effectively cause Durant to lead the league in minutes until the All Star point guard returns.

Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo will be a pretty good player to go along with the myriad other pretty good players that grace Orlando’s roster. I think Tobias Harris has a chance to be the best out of all of them, but the team needs a star player in order to avoid peaking as a 5 or 6 seed. Even if Jameer Nelson is gone after the season, I think the Magic will look to draft Julius Randle or Noah Vonleh (both power forwards) if either of them declares.

What I like: the depth accrued by the team over the past few seasons.  A couple of seasons and a good draft pick away from challenging for a playoff spot in the wasteland East.

What I don’t like: Front-court heavy roster, likely to become even more so after the draft.

Philadelphia 76ers: Marked by two of the six or seven starter-level players drafted this year, this team’s potential could be the highest in the league with the help of a lucky draw next June. Michael Carter-Williams looks like the second coming of Jason Kidd, plus two inches in height and several in wingspan.  Evan Turner has put together an excellent season, yet it wouldn’t shock me if GM Sam Hinkie took advantage of his high value and traded him in this unprecedented tanking effort (Turner’s in for a pay raise, Hinkie may not be keen on being the employer for that). Same goes for Spencer Hawes.

Crazy trade idea: Philadelphia trades Hawes to New Orleans, Turner to Dallas. New Orleans trades Eric Gordon to Charlotte. Charlotte trades Gerald Henderson and Blazers’s 2014 top-12 protected pick to Philadelphia, Ramon Sessions to New Orleans. Dallas trades Shaun Marion and 2016 top-5 protected pick to Philadelphia, Shane Larkin to Charlotte.

Explanation: Hawes might make Ryan Anderson superfluous, but adds steel to center of Pelicans defense. Evan Turner becomes necessary young centerpiece for Mavericks.  Eric Gordon provides 3-point shooting, Shane Larkin provides cover for Kemba. Philadelphia gets cheaper at shooting guard, acquires two more draft picks to parlay (also gets worse, supplying nitrous in the race to the bottom).

What I like: The key pieces are already in place, other pieces may be yet to move. The drafting and tanking process has been on-point.

What I don’t like: The scope to which Hinkie has orchestrated the roster demolition. Unfair to fans and players alike.

Phoenix Suns: The new stomping grounds of the elder Plumlee, who has exceeded (my) expectations as the team’s starting center. Speaking of exceeding expectations, Dragic and Bledsoe have played together better than most people could have reasonably expected as two point guards. Channing Frye and Gerald Green have made grand returns to relevance as 3-point shooters. Alex Len and Emeka Okafor aren’t even in the picture, yet the team has entrenched itself in the playoff hunt.  I’m not sure how the team primarily expects to improve apart from the assumptive development of Len (not really off to a great start), but…

What I like:…$20 million in projected cap space certainly helps if it can bring in Trevor Ariza or *recoils* Rudy Gay (if he opts out). The Morris twins: can play both forward positions, shoot well, defend pretty well. Great pieces to have. Good balance of veterans and young players.

What I don’t like: Len’s absence. He’s the likely X-factor for the team’s improvement, the other being Archie Goodwin.

Portland Trail Blazers: Even bigger surprise team than the Suns. Aldridge has been fantastic, Lillard’s picked up where he left off. Getting Robin Lopez to replace J.J. Hickson has helped the defense. Gives up the most points in the paint, but the starting unit’s defensive rating is pretty good; when Mo Williams comes in for Damien Lillard, it’s excellent (per basketball-reference.com). As in the case with the Clippers, trouble starts when the 2012 5th overall pick Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland come into the game – particularly in the case of the former (per NBA.com). The interesting thing about the Blazers’ defense under Terry Stotts is that restricting 3-point attempts is priority: the team gives up the most 2-point attempts, but the fewest 3-point attempts (basketball-reference.com).  Conversely, on offense, shooting 3’s has premium value: the team averages the most attempts in the league.  While the bench is a bit better with the summer signing of Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum set to return within the next few weeks. It will hurt the Blazers that Robinson has been abhorrent; they will hope that Meyers Leonard can play a bigger role.  If not, lack of depth will be their undoing in the playoffs.

What I like: the first six members of the rotation

What I don’t like: what comes after. Check the stats, massive drop-off.

Sacramento Kings: The last thing that Sacramento needed, regardless of its scoring woes, was probably Rudy Gay.  I had thought Greivis Vasquez would have a bigger impact after a breakout year in New Orleans last season, but Isaiah Thomas, to his credit, played the best ball of his young career to make the  Venezuelan expendable.  Ben McLemore hasn’t been very good, but Mike Malone – a big improvement over Keith Smart – has given him plenty of playing time. The former Jayhawk needs to get to the line more often in the second half of the season.  If Derrick Williams can’t qualify for a part on this roster, he’s a lost cause.  He needs to see consistent playing time to build confidence and salvage his career. Can’t help but feel for DeMarcus Cousins at this point.  Hopefully 2014 will be their last year in the high lottery, but probably not. Defense is terrible…the team needs to find an answer at both forward positions. Rudy Gay is not the answer, neither is Jason Thompson.

What I like: Cousins and McLemore as building blocks, Williams and Thomas as key roster pieces, albeit probably not starters.

What I don’t like: Most other players on the roster. Marcus Thornton has had a rough year…if he’s not shooting well, there isn’t much else he can provide.  I would like him at $3 or $4 million, not over $8 million. If Rudy Gay opts out, the Kings should take the hint and move on.

San Antonio Spurs: One man goes down, another steps up. A common mantra in sports, but nowhere is it as much a testament as in San Antonio. Gary Neal leaves, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli step in.  System is often used to describe why the Spurs succeed regardless of who’s on the court, but that’s because nothing changes: same play calls, same expectations. The future is another matter, but for now, the window is still open: it’s simply a matter of how far this team can go.  Kawhi Leonard was arguably the best player in the 2013 NBA Finals and should produce more of the same in the 2014 playoffs. In order to return to – and win – the Finals, Ginobili will likely be the X-factor and need to perform more consistently en lieu of another Danny Green explosion.

What I like: players who have gotten it done and still can. The best coach in the NBA. Development of Kawhi Leonard.

What I don’t like: Blend is a bit heavy on veterans. You don’t want to bet against the Spurs, but it will be interesting to see where they are in two years.

Toronto Raptors: The team has improved since trading away Rudy Gay. As was the case in Memphis last season, once Gay left, the shots that he took were replaced by shots from more efficient players: last year it was Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, this year it has been Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross.  The team will probably win the Atlantic Division, barring a vast defensive improvement by the Nets (not impossible, but rather unlikely).  The reverberations of Masai Ujiri’s hiring as GM have already been felt, as he’s found takers for the albatross deals of Gay and Andrea Bargnani.

What I like: the track record of Masai Ujiri. The slow improvement to Demar Derozan’s overall game. Jonas Valanciunas. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson as bench players.

What I don’t like: Landry Fields and Tyler Hansbrough, especially the former, as part of any team’s rotation. Bakersfield Jam would be a better fit.

Utah Jazz: When the team can only hope for its young players to improve this season, I don’t understand why Tyler Corbin has recently restricted Enes Kanter’s minutes (even though he has struggled) and has given rookie Rudy Gobert little playing time all season, while Richard Jefferson – who is all but gone next season – averages 27 minutes a game. I don’t expect Corbin to return as head coach next season.  Alec Burks will be a solid rotation player, probably not a starter…Derrick Favors has improved his efficiency around the rim, but has to continue progressing to validate his $49 million extension.  Gordon Hayward has struggled as the team’s primary offensive threat, his shooting percentages – particularly from 3-point range – have taken hits.  Getting Parker or Wiggins in the 2014 draft would take pressure off him. He probably will never be an All-Star, but he’s a player that has improved since his rookie season and should eventually average 18-7-6.

What I like: Trey Burke’s impact on the team.  The team – hapless at the point before he returned from injury – has looked significantly better with him at the point. Jeremy Evans has been one of the team’s best defenders and rebounders this season. A lot of cap space next year, even after Gordon Hayward is re-signed.

What I don’t like: Enes Kanter’s play, particularly on the defensive end, so far this year. Rebounding numbers have also been below what I expected. Thought he was more ready to succeed Jefferson at center. Lack of depth at point guard.

Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal have been one of the league’s best backcourt tandems this season. Injuries notwithstanding, I like John Wall more than Derrick Rose because while he’s not quite the scorer Rose is, he is a bit more balanced as a passer/scorer than Rose and has more active hands on defense. Marcin Gortat was a good trade acquisition and I like Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza as wing players, particularly on defense.  Washington could win a round in the playoffs, but will likely not get further than that.  They need Otto Porter to become a part of the rotation in the new year, especially since Ariza will probably be gone via free agency next summer. Same might go for Gortat.  Whether he stays or leaves (but especially if he leaves), acquiring a rebounding big man will have to be high on the list in the 2014 draft, since there won’t be much spending money for free agency.

What I like: Bradley Beal’s shooting stroke, the starting unit, especially with Nene and Ariza at forward positions.

What I don’t like: The team could use an improvement over Trevor Booker in its rotation and there is some deadwood on the roster, namely Kevin Seraphin, Garrett Temple, and Chris Singleton.

KD’s 2013 NBA Season Reveries: Part 1

Increasing inequality has not only permeated our society, but even the NBA landscape. Before we pity the Eastern Conference team owners as they wallow in their millions, let us remember that we are in a new frontier, where the NBA middle class has become a damned fate indeed, and the only goals in that case (theoretically), are to contend or prepare to contend.  The latter, of course, entails evading bloated long-term deals like the plague, trading away veterans for draft picks, expiring deals or cap relief, and building around the draft.

The few teams who have successfully bucked the trend and resisted the implosion itch, yet lack the pieces to challenge for anything beyond second round playoff nirvana (the dwellers!) primarily exist in the Eastern Conference. Due to the widespread tank craze or inability to effectively buy a winning roster (New York, Brooklyn), these brave soldiers have been rewarded with adequate game attendance and playoff positions by default. While their playoff participation will likely provide little more service than participation trophies in this duopolistic conference, it’s good to see reaped rewards for some teams that were considered afterthoughts prior to the beginning of the season.

With that aside over, I will provide a few thoughts on every NBA team so far in the season. Can’t think of any banter, so let’s just get started:

Atlanta Hawks: One of the aforementioned soldiers, Atlanta is in that awkward position where it had cap space, but no one really wanted to go there. Its two best players from last season aside from Josh Smith – Al Horford and Jeff Teague – are in their mid-twenties. The building blocks are not just at ground level; unless they struck gold with a blue-chip rookie in the middle of the first round in the draft, another couple of players of similar caliber and experience would be necessary to propel the team out of its middle-of-the-pack status. The route Atlanta ultimately took was probably the right one. I don’t like re-signing 32-year old Kyle Korver to a 4-year deal worth $24 or $25 million, but the Millsap deal was one of the summer’s best. Getting Demarre Carroll was a decent addition as well. They had a nice team, still have a nice team and will continue to have a nice team for the next 30  years (probably). As white picket fence and private house middle class as you can get in the NBA.

Update: the serious Horford injury gives the Hawks an exit strategy: namely, to improve draft position in a great – potentially historic – draft class by finishing with a worse record. Over a season, according to basketball-reference.com, Horford is responsible for approximately nine wins. I would argue that his effect is even larger, unless Pero Antic and Mike Scott step up in a big way.  I think that Atlanta will still be a low-seed playoff team, but chances of getting a long-term starter in the upcoming draft have increased as a silver lining effect of Horford’s pectoral tear.

What I like: Jeff Teague keeps getting better. Paul Millsap.

What I don’t like: The play of the past few draft picks. John Jenkins is unadulterated meh, and I expected more from Dennis Schroeder.

Boston Celtics: Brad Stevens seems to know what he’s doing. Too well, if you asked Danny Ainge off the record (probably). Jared Sullinger has been sublime, performing far beyond his limited below-the-rim capacities from last season. Jordan Crawford’s emergence as a playmaker has been surprising, and a healthy Avery Bradley has shown off a more efficient offensive game, aided by much reduced point guard responsibilities. Once the deadwood leaves, namely everyone who came over from Brooklyn in the summer and Brandon Bass, it will be interesting to see how the young core improves. I would like to see Jeff Green traded to a team that is closer to a finished project – like the Cavs or Suns (can’t believe I just wrote that) – and I think he will eventually move because it will hurt the Celtics’ bid for a playoff spot, the prospects of which will improve with Rondo’s return, thus giving them a better draft spot. They will also get (at least) another piece to the puzzle (another draft pick!) to possibly parlay into an even higher pick.

What I like: the progress made by the young players from last season to this one. Sullinger looks like a future 20-9 guy. Plays a bit like Kevin Love, should see him as a model. Also, Vitor Faverani.

What I don’t like: Kelly Olynyk’s hair or ability to finish around rim. Their ability to draft a necessary star if they remain in the playoff hunt. Potential to become a dweller will be rather high if this is the case.

Brooklyn: Not much that I want/need to say about this one. I predicted them to challenge for the Eastern Conference title. Was undeterred by slow start to season. Became very deterred when Brook Lopez broke his foot. When healthy, I firmly believe that this team could have given Miami a run for its money, age and terrible 3-point defense be damned. Unless the blonde Plumlee breaks from the Plumlee mold and develops an actual skill set in a matter of months and if Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans can provide a defensive upgrade significant enough to somewhat offset the scoring loss caused by Lopez’s injury, it might already be time for Prokhorov to start planning his wedding.

What I like: the competitive spirit of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to an otherwise plastic, lifeless franchise. Andray Blatche.

What I don’t like: the salary of the backcourt, Deron Williams’ ankles, the blonde Plumlee, Alan Anderson as a rotation member. Jason Kidd in post-game conferences or anywhere else, for that matter.

Charlotte Bobcats: The offense continues to suck, but the defense has improved dramatically until Steve Clifford (one of the league’s in points allowed in paint and defensive rating, according to Hoopdata.com). I would like to see more from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in his second season; hopefully he can have a bigger role in the offense after he returns from injury. Kemba Walker is probably the best player drafted by the Bobcats since Gerald Wallace; he and Gerald Henderson are a good backcourt going forward. Al Jefferson was a great signing; hasn’t been a defensive pariah and really filled a need in low-post scoring. MKG is the X-factor on the team: the team won’t get significant future help from draft as a future playoff team (even with two probable first-round picks in 2014 draft), so will rely on improvement primarily from Cody Zeller and MKG. Desperately needs shooters. James Southerland should get more time, but answer is more likely in next draft or free agency.

What I like: Cody Zeller, he’s getting better, I think he will become a 15 and 8 player. Josh McRoberts’ surprisingly good impact on defensive units this season (per NBA.com).

What I don’t like: Bismack. The laughably bad impact of Anthony Tolliver on defensive units, only plays for shooting purposes (per  NBA.com).

Chicago Bulls: Truth be told, a team that I have hardly followed this season. I didn’t think that they were going to seriously challenge the Heat, even with Rose at 100%, but we’ll never know either way. I thought they should have kept Nate Robinson after he played so well against Miami, and I still think that. I’m not a fan of Hinrich, definitely not of D.J. Augustin. Dunleavy would have been a nice fit beside Rose, now has too big a role in the offense from what I’ve seen. This team will be lucky to tread water until Rose comes back next season; in a perfect world, upgrades will be made from Mohammed and Teague. The team has done as well as you could hope for seeing as its best player has been out for over a year. Good coaching, defense is still pretty good. It will be interesting to see if Luol Deng gets traded or re-signed.

What I like: the present core of Joakim Noah, Deng, and Jimmy Butler. Intense, energetic, intelligent. Great fits for Thibodeau’s system. Pity to waste on team built around injured superstar.

What I don’t like: Carlos Boozer’s slow decline, which is probably not helped by added defensive attention without Rose. Will be 33 by the time Rose is healthy again. The possibility that Deng is gone next year.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Trade proposal: Cavaliers trade Anderson Varejao, Earl Clark, and a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Celtics for Jeff Green and Courtney Lee. Celtics get necessary upgrades at wing positions: Lee is a very good spot-up shooter, Green would draw attention away from Kyrie Irving. Varejao is a favorite in Cleveland, but he has a team option for next season that’s unlikely to be exercised and  it would be required sacrifice in order to mercifully take away minutes from Earl Bennett, Alonzo Gee, and CJ Miles.

The signing of Jarrett Jack suggests that the Cavs front office expected a bigger step forward this season. I don’t know how much more Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, or even Kyrie will improve: another lottery pick might help the cause, but how many more does this team need? I think the best bet is to give Tyler Zeller more time on the court by trading Varejao, hope Bennett can provide 6-8 points in 14-16 mpg.  The development of the past draft picks and the 2014 pick – projected to be top 10 – will determine whether the team becomes a perennial 6-8 seed until Kyrie leaves or a 2-4 seed in the next few seasons; it would behoove Mike Brown to accept that going forward.

What I like: improvement from Thompson over past couple of seasons. fit of Andrew Bynum.

What I don’t like: no marked improvement from any young player so far in this season; Dion Waiters should get to the line more, for the kind of player that he is; the plan with/play of Anthony Bennett. Amount of time that Zeller gets.

Dallas Mavericks: When 5 of the team’s 9 biggest contributors are 32 or older, you can probably assume that this team has a couple of lottery selections in its future, one which depends on the success of the current squad (OKC owns its 2014 top-20 protected pick). Like Atlanta, they were also prepared with cap space for a major free-agent signing.  Since Dwight, Chris Paul, nor Deron Williams came, Monta Ellis is now a Maverick and, to his credit, part of a formidable duo alongside the almost-immortal Dirk Nowitzki. Unless a major trade can change the team’s fortunes, the team will be a 7 or 8 seed for the next couple of seasons before bottoming out.

What I like: the second life of Vince Carter continues, as he’s putting together another decent season at age 37. Same goes for Shaun Marion (35), who’s a free agent/possible retiree after this season.  Brandan Wright is one of the game’s better back-up bigs: efficient, decent shot blocker.  The cap space. Not too much going on next summer in free agency, but Trevor Ariza, Luol Deng, and Jordan Hill could all be potential targets.

What I don’t like: Jae Crowder’s ceiling (watch your head) and the point guard situation. A wealth of options, but no particularly good one. Jose Calderon has shot the ball very well and runs the offense at a high level. But he’s 32. Carlisle should try to see what Shane Larkin can do in 2014.

Denver Nuggets: The construction of last year’s team was one of my favorites. With a healthy Danilo Gallinari, this team probably would have made more noise in the Western Conference playoffs. This team is undoubtedly worse and is seemingly unsure what it wants to be. Last year’s version was younger, yet more equipped to win. This team seems like it’s ready to settle into 8-to-10 seed purgatory for the foreseeable future. It’s clear that JaVale McGee is just overpaid and has likely peaked. Gallinari’s return will help, but the team with  George Karl at the helm had a vision that is much more opaque with Brian Shaw.

What I like: Nate Robinson, even though he could provide a greater service for a team like the Lakers or Bulls. More time for Timofey Mozgov, who’s a pretty good center.

What I don’t like: loss of Kosta Koufos for pennies on the dollar. The combined $26 million paid to Randy Foye, JaVale McGee, Anthony Randolph, JJ Hickson, and Andre Miller ($29.5 if Darrell Arthur exercises his player option, which is likely)…Any of those players, especially Randy Foye. This team has too many power forwards. Too many. I don’t know what the plan was, unless it was to emulate the Milwaukee Bucks roster blueprint…Josh Kroenke.

Detroit Pistons: I really like what Joe Dumars did, for once, last summer. Fit fell secondary to talent acquisition and, in that regard, he succeeded. Jennings is a better player on both ends than Knight, and Josh Smith completes the ultra-big frontcourt that the Pistons have employed so far in the season.  While it has its weaknesses and critics, I think that this sort of line-up could have big benefits against certain teams, including Miami. Jennings’ commitment to sharing the ball more upon joining Detroit has been encouraging for the team’s prospects.

What I like: the ability of Monroe and Drummond to complement each other, particularly on offense. Ability to address back-up frontcourt and shooting needs through $15 million or so of cap space (per Hoopshype.com).

What I don’t like: current bench depth, beyond Singler and Stuckey. Kentavious Cantwell-Pope needs to take better shots and improve at hitting open ones. His ability to become a 3-point threat will go a long way in determining the starting line-up’s ability to space the floor. 4, which is the number of 3-point attempts that Josh Smith takes per game.

Golden State Warriors: This team’s reliance on hot 3-point shooting and the health of its big men, particularly after Jermaine O’Neal’s potentially season-ending wrist surgery, strongly suggest that an extended playoff run is not in the cards. I think the team really misses Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack.

What I like: the balance of the starting five. The fit of Andrew Bogut and David Lee: one is a good scorer (Lee), the other a good defender (Bogut), both very good rebounders. The emergence of Klay Thompson as a top-7 shooting guard. Good perimeter defense.

What I don’t like: the reliance on small-ball if either Lee or Bogut went down for any significant amount of time. No first-round pick in the 2014 draft.

Houston Rockets: Less than two years ago, Daryl Morey had a roster comprised of decent young players, talented veterans like Luis Scola and Kevin Martin, and a glut of draft picks.  Fast-forward to the present, where you have a team with title aspirations. Neither point guard is a great fit: Lin is best with the ball in his hands, Beverley is a defense-first guard.  My friend was spot-on when he said that Kyle Lowry, who Houston traded away a couple of seasons ago, would be an ideal backcourt partner to Harden (average 3-point shooter, but has good court vision, defends well, and protects the ball better than Lin).  I like Terrence Jones as a fit beside Dwight Howard and I expect him to improve at the starting power forward position. The Rockets do as well because, if he does not, there is no other answer on the roster.

What I like: Center depth when Omer Asik returns. Asik is not a particularly good defensive center, contrary to reputation, but he’s an excellent defensive rebounder, which could spell success for Houston in addressing its rebounding struggles.

What I don’t like: Houston’s steady concession of second-chance baskets and turnovers. Trying Asik and Howard together could reduce the issues caused by the former, albeit at the cost of offensive efficiency. Omar Casspi and Greg Smith do not cut it as back-up power forward.  Would be a good target for 2014 draft.

Indiana Pacers: If Danny Granger can give Indiana 9 to 12 points and shoot at least 38% from the 3-point line, the Pacers will be a complete team. The Scola trade was just what the doctor ordered: the elder Plumlee is playing well in Phoenix, but was not the type of player that Indiana needed. I believe that the Pacers will represent the East in the 2014 NBA Finals if Danny Granger can remain healthy and provide a much-needed scoring boost from the bench.

What I like: C.J. Watson, Danny Granger, Luis Scola, and Ian Mahinmi coming off the bench. Paul George and Roy Hibbert’s evolution as stars in the league. The value of David West.

What I don’t like: Rasual Butler or Orlando Johnson ever coming into the game on a team that hopes to contend for a title.

Los Angeles Clippers: What is DeAndre Jordan? He blocks shots, rebounds well, and finishes alley oops, but after watching Nikola Pekovic have his best game of the season against the former Aggie, I wonder if he can be characterized as a great defensive center.  It doesn’t help that Blake Griffin, who got equally embarrassed by Kevin Love, isn’t a particularly good defender.  With that said, it gets worse when they come out. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and Jared Dudley have all had below-average success in their 3-point shooting; by law of averages, they should improve as the season progresses. Darren Collison is no Eric Bledsoe, on either end. Acquiring at least one defensive big man in free agency or the draft is a requisite.

What I like: the depth at the wing positions, Doc Rivers

What I don’t like: Chris Paul is the team’s third-highest rebounder…same old Blake: puts up good numbers, but can’t be given the ball and relied on to score, especially at the end of games… the back-up big men, Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullins, who are statistically horrific on defense (per NBA.com).

Los Angeles Lakers: With almost any other coach, this Lakers team, an island of misfit toys and forgotten lottery selections, would probably be among the worst in the league. For Mike D’Antoni, a coach who laughs at pretensions like superior talent and watches the world burn, this team has been one of the league’s most entertaining. Anyone on this roster can score 20 or 2 in a given game.  Nick “Swaggy P” Young has played point guard out of necessity, Xavier Henry has (occasionally) shown why he was a former No. 1 high school recruit, and Chris Kaman never plays. In this alternate universe where Jordan Hill regularly outplays Pau Gasol, Shawne Williams, Wes Johnson and Jodie Meeks have all regained relevance, and Steve Blake has enjoyed a career year when healthy, this team should be way worse, but somehow has hovered near .500. The future is not very bright, particularly with 2 of the next 4 first-round draft picks in the possession of other teams, but if there was any team that could work its black magic to get back into contention, it’s the Lakers. Stay tuned.

What I like: Almost everything, apart from Kobe’s injury issues. This is D’Antonian anarchy at its finest.

What I don’t like: The team’s rebounding is abysmal. Assist numbers are similarly terrible, but that’s probably attributed to injuries to the team’s first 7 point guards. It’s sad that Chris Kaman is wasting away on the bench, but that’s the price of trusting in D’Antoni for minutes.

Memphis Grizzlies: While I usually don’t delve into hypotheticals, one of my favorite what-ifs of the NBA season has been, “what if Lionel Hollins was still coach?”  Even before Marc Gasol got injured, Memphis had taken a big step back from last year’s Western Conference Finals success.  Tayshaun Prince should be nowhere near the court at this stage in his career and injuries have not helped, but the team’s defensive ratings has dropped precipitously, from 2nd to 25th this season (per basketball-reference.com).  The team’s PPG allowed is good, but that is primarily due to the team’s sluggish pace, good for worst in the league. Kosta Koufos was essentially gift-wrapped by the Nuggets in the offseason and Mike Miller was a necessary influx of shooting/scoring efficiency. The team, by most accounts, improved, yet the team’s vaunted defensive efficiency has plummeted.  Changing coaches might have ruined the team’s faint chances of challenging for the Western Conference title. Rebuilding is not necessary, but revamping is. Joerger, GM Chris Wallace, and majority owner Robert Pera deserve more blame than the players do.

What I like: Mike Conley is really good, I think Ed Davis and Zach Randolph can be one of the league’s best power forward platoons for the next couple of seasons. Kosta Koufos is an excellent back-up center. Being able to re-sign him would be a very good thing.

What I don’t like: the team’s production from the wing positions. Quincy Pondexter is not a good shooter. Let’s accept this and move on. The team needs to draft a shooting guard or small forward who can shoot well.  Glenn Robinson III , James Young (if he declares), or Rodney Hood could be good fits. How the heck is Tayshaun Prince making nearly $8 million next season? What did the Pistons have to do to get Memphis to take him in the Rudy Gay trade?

Nikola Pekovic: The Rubicon of the Minnesota Timberwolves

So far, so good in free agency for the Timberwolves.  Minnesota signs Chase Budinger – who only played for a quarter of last season – for three years and attain Kevin Martin’s services for four.  If they stay healthy, the acquistions should deliver Los Lobos de Timber from last in the league in three-point shooting (officially) and in off-ball movement (unofficially).

On the adverse side of things, namely the other side of the court, defense has taken a step back.  While Malcolm Lee was by no means a mainstay in Minnesota’s rotation, he was one of the team’s better perimeter defenders (along with French mercenary Mickael Gelabale, who is also gone from the team).  Martin will consume their minutes, as well as take time from Barea and Ridnour, who both played exorbitantly at the off-guard spot throughout the season.

If you have watched Kevin Martin play throughout his career or experienced his subpar defensive awareness via NBA 2k, you know that Martin is a code yellow to many a team’s man-to-man defensive scheme.  He appeared to step up his defensive intensity last season on the contending Oklahoma City Thunder, but that was likely an aberration due to the outstanding team defense, which essentially elevated his own defensive standards.

On Minnesota, however, where there is no Ibaka to guard the paint, nor Durant or Westbrook to aggressively hedge screens or clamp down on switches, Martin will likely regress to his statistical norm.

This is a bad thing, yet with two of the best perimeter defenders/least efficient wing scorers from last year’s squad out of the picture, the net improvement on offense through free agency and the drafting of Shabazz Muhammad should heavily mitigate, if not offset, the defensive loss.

Minnesota was middle of the pack in defense last season and, if anything, struggled more to score consistently.  Since Kevin Love and Budinger were out for nearly the entire season and Rubio only started looking near 100% from February onward, this makes sense.  Assuming that the three players are at full health, with the addition of Martin, the team’s PPG should be at least 99-100, good enough for top-12 in a normal season.  Key phrase” at least.”  Scoring will not be a problem if the team stays (relatively) healthy.

Middle of the pack defense and top-12 scoring.  Sounds like a playoff team, right? No reason why not.  Unless, however, you recall that Andrei Kirilenko has also left the team.  While his advanced stats portray an average defender, they do not serve AK-47 justice, as he dealt with incredible instability within the starting lineup, a subpar defender in Derrick Williams (who started alongside him for much of the season), and injuries that cost him 18 games.

While I applaude the front office’s decision to let Kirilenko find another team (Kahn probably would have locked him up with a 3 year, $25 million deal), it leaves the team without its three best perimeter defenders and defensive leader going into next season.  Assuming that the team does not sign another guard/forward and resigns restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota’s starting lineup will probably be Rubio, Martin, Budinger/Muhammad, Love, Pekovic.

Whoops, emergency.  The proposed lineup has one average/borderline above average defender in Rubio, two if Budinger starts over Muhammad.  The rest of the lineup, however, is capable of getting lit up on almost any given night.

For this reason, I believe that the Wolves have to bite the bullet and either decline to match other teams’ offers for the Montenegrin center or move him in a sign-and-trade.

This will not happen.  I understand that.  The Wolves’ front office saw how Pekovic, when healthy, was one of the only sources of consistent scoring for the Wolves amid all of the casualties throughout the season and, as a result, will overlook his inability to challenge shots or rebound at a good, let alone great, rate on the defensive end.

With that said, wanting the Wolves to match the highest offer for Pekovic (which, based on the going rate, will likely be around 4 years, $46 million) is indirectly settling for long-term NBA mediocracy.  Signing Pekovic to such a deal will clog up any significant cap space in the foreseeable future, even if Minnesota declines to exercise Williams’ $6.7 million team option for next season. This is not even considering the inevitable Rubio extension (which will probably bump the Spaniard’s salary to at least $9 million per season).

Such an extension disables the team from seismic activity in the offseason outside of trades and freezes the roster with its same core for at least the next three years.  This core is talented enough to make the playoffs, maybe even to win a playoff series, but not to contend. Goodness, no.

Contending teams do not have starting big men who are both mediocre defenders.  Unless a team has exceptional talent or team defense (like the Miami Heat), inferior defense by a team’s big men gets victimized in the postseason as pace slows.  Three of the final four teams in the past postseason had exceptional defensive anchors at center: Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, and Tim Duncan.  Chris Bosh, while not in the same tier as the other three big men on the defensive end, has been vital to the team’s success as center.

With Pekovic, Minnesota resigns itself to the upper tiers of NBA purgatory: trapped in middling draft positions, capable of winning a postseason series by the might of the team’s current offensive weaponry, but doomed to ultimately fall short of conference championship territory due of the team’s enormous defensive frailties.

George Karl’s Denver Nuggets and the Nash-led Phoenix Suns evinced the limits of potent offense if the defense cannot consistently keep a team below 100 points.  Even if the currently constructed team reaches its offensive potential, lack of a defensive leader will be the source of Minnesota’s inability to ever permeate the second-round threshold.

As much as I desperately want to see the Timberwolves return to the playoffs, I do not want the climax of the team’s return to glory to be a second-round exit at the hands of Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, or Memphis.  If this is the case, Kevin Love will almost certainly leave the Target Center three seasons from now.

Whether by sign-and-trade (to OKC for Kendrick Perkins, Perry Jones III, and a 2015 first-round pick, for instance) or (more likely) declining to resign Pekovic and starting rookie Gorgui Dieng alongside Love, Minnesota would undoubtedly be taking a massive risk in losing a very talented inside scorer and offensive rebounder; perhaps as importantly, it would further alienate its franchise player, but it is a necessary step if the Timberwolves realistically aspire to emerge as contenders in the Western Conference.

Yes, Dieng may not be the answer and the team will likely take a step back in terms of inside scoring (although Love’s return would lower Pekovic’s usage anyway).  But scoring is not what this reincarnated Wolves team needs its center to do. It needs the center to protect the rim and lead the defense first and foremost.  Pekovic cannot fill that role, and if Flip Saunders and the rest of Minnesota’s front office fail to realize this fact, the long rebuilding road will have a disappointing final destination.