In case you haven’t heard yet, the NBA is becoming a 12-month sport. This year’s offseason cemented its around-the-calendar status with some of the biggest names in basketball changing locations. That leaves one big question: from A-Z, who won this year’s offseason and whose GM has to sit in the corner?
Oklahoma City Thunder: Winners
Leading off the third and final installment of our series is one of the biggest winners of the offseason. The overarching goals of all the moves that OKC has and will make this season are to help keep Westbrook in OKC or begin preparing for life without him. Sam Presti may never live down his Harden trade but this offseason showed he is still a canny trader.
After draft night, many felt that the heist of the summer would inevitably be Jimmy Butler, who only yielded the Bulls a first-round pick and two former lottery picks. All the players in that deal were still on their rookie deals at the time of this writing (Zach LaVine is up for a new deal after this year). Oklahoma City only gave up two lottery picks total for Paul George and even that may oversell the two players they gave up in the deal. The kicker is that VIctor Oladipo is getting paid more than Paul George will be this this and Domantas Sabonis was the 11th pick in what could be an historically weak draft from a year ago.
Presti had allegedly been working the phones for months to lay the groundwork for the deal. His persistence paid off in a big way by getting a player who is not only an All-NBA caliber player but also a perfect fit for Westbrook. The most important characteristics of Westbrook’s co-star is his ability to play off the ball (check), his ability to defend in space and switch onto Westbrook’s man (check), and most critically, the ability to shoot so Westbook has driving lanes (check). George can play anywhere besides point guard and center and can defend 1-4. Fortunately, the two best players on the Thunder happen to play center and point guard.
While the single year left on George’s contract appears ominous, it could be a blessing in disguise. Should the Thunder underperform and see George leave, it will likely also be the end of Westbrook’s tenure. While short-term that is a painful outcome, it will put them in excellent position for a rebuild without any onerous contracts except Enes Kanter’s. Even Kanter could decide to opt out but it does seem increasingly unlikely. The move unloads Oladipo’s contract and ultimately if the experiment goes south, the Thunder might even recoup the same amount of assets at the trade deadline as they sent to Pacers in the initial trade, particularly if a contender starts off strong. It is a win-win for the Thunder who can let things come to them next season before making any long-term decisions and it also boosts their changes of keeping Westbrook.
The other moves are mostly at the fringes of the roster but it is hard not to love the moves for Patrick Patterson and Terrance Ferguson. Ferguson was born in Oklahoma and likely would have gone higher had he gone to college in America versus playing overseas in Australia. Nonetheless, it was stunning to watch a player with a jump shot as pure as his drop into the bottom third of the draft. Assuming Westbrook stays, he could end up being a killer floor spacer as his game fills out. Patterson is also capable of spacing the floor as well. The 3 years and $16.4 million price tag for a solid defender who can shoot and fill in a front court spot was grand larceny. Billy Donovan will have a lot more lineup options than a year ago although it’s hard to know what Raymond Felton will bring as a backup point guard. The West looks wide open after the Warriors and the move to get George puts the Thunder in the thick of the race for No. 2. With the team this close, do not be surprised if Presti is not done dealing.
Orlando Magic: Winners
The Magic are a team of the future in the purest sense. Their present is amorphous and unclear like a ball of clay. No two people see the same finished product. This offseason was no different. Orlando still does not have a defined identity as a team. The team should be building around the talents of Aaron Gordon but instead got someone who plays virtually the same position. That said, they continue to add talent and there is no such thing as having too many über athletic wings who can defend in space. They now have three of those players so it will be on head coach Frank Vogel to figure out a way to get them all playing time.
The number one reason that the Magic “won” in the offseason is that they did not make any silly short-sighted moves. They are patiently waiting for one of their young players to pop. If that happens this year, they could make the playoffs in a watered down Eastern Conference. Adding Jonathan Isaac was a great move even if his skills overlap with Gordon. Dynamic wings of their nature are one of the most sought-after commodities in today’s NBA, especially if they learn to shoot. Gordon’s 3-point percentage did dip a bit last season but it was on almost twice the number of attempts. He may never be Ray Allen but if he can kick that up to 35%, he becomes a major weapon as a stretch-4. If defenders have to respect his shot, he can use his handle and athleticism to zoom by them on forays to the rim. Isaac is not the athletic specimen that Gordon is but his stroke looks cleaner and some have even envisioned him as a stretch-5 although that will not be happening as long as the Magic have (and are paying outrageous sums of money to) Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. The key to unlocking this team will be finding a way to deal one, or ideally both, of those players in order to get some more spacing on offense.
Outside of the draft, the Magic stayed quiet by getting veterans on short deals like Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo, and Marreese Speights. They did make a splash by getting Jonathan Simmons on a 3-year $20 million deal. Simmons demonstrated the ability to be a lockdown defender and initiate some offense. He did not see as many minutes a year ago because he was flanked by Kawhi Leonard who was an athletic wing who also needed the ball. Sound familiar? The Magic now have three of those guys on the roster and a logjam all over the roster.
The offseason was a success but it would be nice to see the Magic move on from some of their veteran players to give their young guns a chance. Elfrid Payton is never going to be a knockdown shooter but they owe it to him and themselves to at least surround him with floor spacing to see what they have. If not, it’s time to move on. Attaching Payton to Biyombo’s dreadful deal could even attract a few suitors but that will depend how much teams have soured on Payton and traditional bigs. The Magic clearly see the way the league is moving as evidenced by their draft picks but they need to commit that direction or all the great moves they have made will be undone by their inability to pave the way for those players.
Philadelphia 76ers: Winners
This offseason was the payoff for the Process. The acquisition of Markelle Fultz was the first of a few moves that signaled Philadelphia’s desire to win both now and later. Fultz can pair with Ben Simmons as the primary creators for this young squad. His ball-handling and shooting ability make him a nice fit in the Sixers’ young nucleus. He plays like a veteran already. His tape is filled with hesitation moves and show his ability to dictate pace in open court situations as well as half-court once things slow down. He also has the length and quickness to potentially develop into a future two-way star. The Sixers had to part with an additional first round pick but Fultz is exactly the type of player that a team like Philly should use their cache of assets to acquire, particularly given his age and ability to fit within their timeline.
The other moves this offseason included the acquisitions of both JJ Redick and Amir Johnson. Both are players who can help the team now. Redick is an obvious fit. He is an elite shooter in a league that is gravitating towards shooting heavy lineups to maintain versatility and keep offenses humming. Redick has done a masterful job in improving himself as a defender within the team concept. He will never be a lockdown guy on the perimeter but he has dramatically improved in terms of being in the right place. Given how bad the Philly wing rotation has been, he should be a massive improvement. In addition, since several their other players are non-shooters, he should help the Sixers avoid the same spacing issues from a season ago and can even help lead bench units if Brett Brown designs some actions for him.
Johnson is a different type of player at this stage of his career. Given the existing logjam in the frontcourt, Johnson will hopefully be in Philadelphia primarily for a mentorship role. If fully recovered from his past injuries, he can provide defense and rebounding but given the trajectory of this team, the hope is that he will not be playing many minutes. If he sees a lot of minutes this season, it likely would be due to injuries to players ahead of him. The move also would seemingly put a final nail in the coffin of Jahlil Okafor who barely saw the floor for chunks of last season.
Jahlil Okafor does not fit the team as currently constructed and should be moved if Philly can get anything for him, particularly since it could open up more minutes for small ball lineups. Richaun Holmes showed some promise last season and good be a nice backup. He and Johnson can be the emergency reserves but Dario Saric, Simmons, and Joel Embiid need to be getting the lion’s share of the frontcourt minutes. None of them are proficient enough shooters to truly space the floor. If the three of them share the floor, there will likely be spacing issues. That means Brown needs to be proactive in staggering minutes. Perhaps Saric can play the role as 6th man? Could they go super small and play Saric and Simmons as the two bigs on the floor? Those lineups would likely hemorrhage points on defense but could be destructive on offense if surrounded by shooters
The biggest takeaway from these moves in the decision in the Philadephia front office to shift gears and move towards contention. The pressure is going to be on Brown as there is an expectation to finally get some wins from the many moves over the past few years. Given the number of teams that have fallen out of the playoff picture and the general weakness of the Eastern Conference, the Sixers should make the playoffs. Brown has not been expected to do more than grow and educate his young players. Can he get this team into the playoffs this season? If not, it’s not hard to imagine him looking for a new job after this year. His biggest challenges are going to be managing minutes and dealing with injuries. The latter have sunk the Sixers the last few seasons. With expectations so low, that was never an issue in the past but it will not be tolerated now that the team is trying to win. The flip side is going to be that the team is overloaded in the front court. Some of those players could be moved to give minutes to younger guys but until that happens, Brown is going to need to assuage concerns from players like Okafor. Last year, Nerlens Noel was not happy with his role. Will Okafor be next? Meanwhile, if they do take some of the players out of the equation and Embiid or Simmons get injured, then they are suddenly short-handed. Brown has a lot of talent on the roster but it will be up to him to push the right buttons. Few coaches have more pressure on them to succeed. The Process is over. Long live the Process.
Phoenix Suns: Winners
The Suns were another one of the less active teams during the offseason. However, they earn the winners label by sticking put. They should finish near the bottom of the Western conference and can save their powder for next season when they will have a better chance to compete.
The move to pick up Josh Jackson also made a ton of sense for them. Jackson might have the highest ceiling of any player in the draft. He has the athleticism and quickness to be a lockdown defender from day one and showed an ability in college to play up a position. That versatility combined with his freakish athletic gifts should make him a great defensive player but his lack of a shot could limit him on the other end. While his 3-point shooting percentage was not bad in his lone season at Kansas, his mechanics and free-throw shooting gave reason for concern. His performance in summer league back that up. Jackson will need to remake his shot a bit. Fortunately for Phoenix, they have time to let him develop.
Portland Trailblazers: Winners
Portland should feel pretty good about themselves. Coming into the offseason, their main concerns were their upcoming tax bill and the lack of upper echelon players around the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum pairing. They made some potential progress in accomplishing both.
They managed to move on from Allen Crabbe without giving up a first-round pick. While they did have to swallow Andrew Nicholson’s deal, that one is much more manageable and will not hurt them as much from a tax perspective. They plan to use the stretch provision to stretch out his contract after waiving him so his money will be stretched out and count even less. Admittedly, this was cleaning up a past mistake but it was impressive to see them move on from it so painlessly.
The Blazers also took two high-upside players. Zach Collins played sparingly at Gonzaga and many thought he should stay another year and would have been able to boost his draft stock by doing so. He is a project but could be a solid big man for the Blazers if he develops, particularly given his defensive instincts, touch, and athleticism.
The other player they nabbed was Caleb Swanigan. Swanigan has most of the tools to be a productive NBA players and earned a lot of comps to Zach Randolph. He has a great post game, could stretch his range to the NBA 3-point line, and has a great wingspan. The reason he fell to the 26th pick is a combination of his previous weight issues and lack of quickness. He does not project to be a player who can switch on pick and rolls or defend on the perimeter. That said, if he can work on his defense and get in better shape via an NBA conditioning plan, he could be a potential star. Do not be surprised if Swanigan ends up being the steal of this draft.
Portland GM Neil Olshey also managed to get his team in position to trade for Carmelo Anthony. Anthony would “raise Portland’s risk profile” to borrow Houston GM Daryl Morey’s phrase but could also transform them into an even more dynamic offense. He could be a problem for an already weak defensive team but alongside their dangerous backcourt, Nurkic, and one of their long and athletic wings, Anthony could be a force. If the Blazers can acquire him without giving up too much, it could move them into the tier below Golden State. Portland is locked into contention although it currently seems more like pseudo contention given the strength of the rest of the conference. Without transitioning to a full rebuild, Portland did a great job of moving themselves into position if teams above them falter.
Sacramento Kings: Winners
Perhaps I am too optimistic but I love what the Kings managed to do this offseason. They transformed themselves back into a functional NBA franchise.
They started by adding heaps of young talent in the draft. First, they got De’Aaron Fox who had as much talent and athleticism as anyone not named Josh Jackson. He also came without the character concerns (theme alert). They followed up by getting Justin Jackson. Jackson was the best player on the national title team and still fell all the way to 15. He is a long wing who can shoot the ball. That is amongst the most desired archetype of player in the league and he has all the intangibles off the court. The parade of talent continued with Harry Giles who many considered the best prospect of this class prior to the college season. He may not pan out but Giles was a tremendous value pick at 20. If those three were not enough, the Kings then got the national player of the year Frank Mason. Mason is undersized for the NBA but as Isaiah Thomas has shown, size does not always matter. That would be a great haul for any team but the Kings also got the good news that Euro Star Bogdan Bogdanovic would also be coming over. The Kings could essentially form a starting five with just these guys. It is possible that they miss on these picks but they have given themselves a lot of chances with the players they selected.
While most observers agreed and applauded the Kings’ draft strategy, their decisions in free agency drew a good deal more criticism and calls of “the same old Kings” re-emerging. Those moves included adding Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. Both of those players are over the hill. Both were on Memphis last season and contributed but were bench players. While it is true that they will take some of the minutes earmarked for younger players, it should be worth their while since they can limit those minutes and have both be mentors on an otherwise very young squad. The only question is whether those two are the right guys for that type of role. Carter has shed his reputation as a player who got by on talent alone and Randolph has clearly cleaned up his act. However, both of those players experienced those evolutions as part of highly organized and functional organizations with other tent poles in place to prop up the system. The Kings are wagering on those players having learned the lessons from their previous stops. They better be right.
The Kings also let go of a lot of players (Take a deep breath: Darren Collison, Rudy Gay, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Ty Lawson, Ben McLemore, Arron Afflalo, and Anthony Tolliver). None of these players fit into the new Kings mindset or timetable, although the same could be said of Randolph and Carter but it remains to be seen if those players are truly there to play or just to mentor.
The last veteran added deserves a separate description because he is clearly there to play. George Hill was expecting a big deal and the Kings gave him one even though it was well less than what he had been expecting during the season. Hill is built for the modern game and seemed like a fit for a lot of teams around the league. Once the point guard musical chairs ended though, Hill was out of suitors and ended up in Sac town. He is a great complement to Buddy Hield and could probably play alongside Fox as well. Unless Sacramento plans on playing three guards though, it is taking minutes from one of their young guards. That makes this move confounding. The Kings are not competing for the playoffs, even if owner Vivek Ranadive thinks they are, so Hill’s contributions in the wins and losses column is negligible at best and damaging at worst as the Kings try to rebuild. They had no need to get Hill in the first place and this felt like a classic Kings move. It will not be surprising if they end up having to move on from him prior to the end of his contract.
The Kings did not have a perfect offseason. In general, they did not need to get the veterans that they did, particularly Hill who simply does not fit their timeline or the presumed goal of rebuilding. Still, they behaved like a normal organization and not a dysfunctional mess. What is more, they managed to add a lot of young talent to a promising nucleus. That means progress for the Kings.
San Antonio Spurs: Losers
As usual, the Spurs mostly sat out the offseason. They made a few minor moves, which they presumably will nail. It was a return to business as usual after rumors of pursuing Chris Paul and the previous pursuit and eventual acquisition of LaMarcus Aldridge.
The offseason started with the Spurs adding Derrick White, who could be Tony Parker’s replacement. He is not a household name but watching him play makes him seem like a perfect Spur and a steal that late in the draft. He has size, feel, and shooting touch, which should serve him well to play in the Spurs system
After the draft, the Spurs resigned a few players but the big surprise was letting go of Jonathon Simmons. The presumption was that he may have been asking for more than they were prepared to offer but his final contract number in Orlando seemed low if anything given his level of play in the playoffs. He has the defensive acumen and ball-handling to be an upper echelon 2-way wing in the NBA. The Spurs have been right on these types of moves in the past so they deserve the benefit of the doubt but it certainly seems like a strange move on the surface.
The Spurs also re-signed Patty Mills and Pau Gasol. The Mills move was classic Spurs in getting their man at below market value while keeping Gasol was puzzling, especially since they extended his contract. Looking at the roster, the Spurs should be aiming to add young talent and players in their prime to play alongside Leonard. Gasol fits neither of these criteria.
Rudy Gay was also added but like Gasol felt out of place on this team. Moreover, the nature of his deal means that if he does play well next season, he will simply opt out and end up somewhere else or getting a good deal more money. If the Achilles injury is still bothering him, he will happily sign on for another season and cost the Spurs more money than he is worth.
In the end, the Spurs also let Dewayne Dedmon go. Dedmon got overpaid but the theme of the offseason initially felt like the Spurs returning to their standard operating procedures but at the end seemed more like a run of the mill team that goes for win now moves. The moves to get Gasol and Gay seemed like overpays but also do not have much upside. The Spurs are not in the same class as the Warriors and may have been passed by Houston and OKC. Had the Spurs stayed the course, kept Mills, kept Simmons, and continued to build, then they could have waited out the Warrior storm and tried again next offseason. While these moves do not preclude them from chasing a star next season, it will make it more difficult, particularly if Gay opts into his deal. It is never wise to count out the spurs but Buford and company may have out thought themselves this time.
Toronto Raptors: Winners
No team was more primed for a disastrous offseason than these Raptors. Instead, Masai Ujiri deftly captained the ship and steered them out of danger and back into calm seas. The Raptors came into the offseason with most of their roster set to leave or get paid in free agency. Ujiri found the middle path and kept the Raptors in contention in the Eastern Conference without overpaying for his best players.
Ujiri retained Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry on shorter deals and by not handing them the extra years on their deals, maintained flexibility for Toronto. 3 year deals like those have limited risk, particularly for a player like Lowry who should be an all-star next season. The third year becomes an expiring contract and becomes a trade asset. As long as neither player regresses heavily in next year or two, Ujiri can still flip either player for additional pieces down the road.
It was painful to see PJ Tucker and Patrick Patterson go but neither moves the needle and are role players. It was never going to be palatable to go deep into the tax to keep them and neither could get the Raptors to a place where they could challenge the Cavaliers anyway. Getting rid of DeMarre Carroll was critical to saving money. It hurts to lose a first rounder but that pick is not going to be too high in the draft given the other moves so that should mitigate the loss for the Raptors.
Last but not least, the Raptors added CJ Miles for Cory Joseph. That feels like a win for the Raptors who could use another wing that can shoot. Add him to OG Anunoby who they acquired in the draft and their wing rotation could be formidable. Anunoby missed a good chunk of last season at Indiana due to injury but flashed potential as a versatile defender. If he can develop a shot, he could be the exact 3-and-D type of player the Raptors need. They also have Normal Powell on the wing to pair alongside their dynamic backcourt.
The reason the Raptors are winners is that tearing it down does not always yield results. Ask the Kings about that. Their success could help them get another player looking to play on a contender. The major obstacle will be Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas still has a large cap hold and his sagging play was a big reason for Toronto’s inability to compete with the Cavaliers a season ago. He is not a player who can move his feet on defense and does not fit the small ball game of today’s NBA. Meanwhile, his cap hold hamstrings the Raptors in terms of financial flexibility and would likely need at least one, if not two, first round picks attached to dump his salary.
The Raptors are sure winners this offseason as Ujiri enabled them to remain flexible for the future. Should the Raptors fall into the middle of the Eastern Conference, he can deal the veterans on his team to get younger. Meanwhile, he also watched the remainder of the conference take a step back, which makes their path into the playoffs that much easier. If some of their young players pop, Toronto could be a move away from the Finals even without considering the loss of Kyrie Irving. At the start of the offseason, the Raptors were suck but with some masterful maneuvering, Masai Ujiri managed to keep them in the playoff hunt without surrendering any significant future assets and retaining a few of his own to acquire future assets if things go south. This was textbook NBA General Managing and helps keep the Raptors out of a hole going forward. Outside of Boston and OKC, no team did a better job of improving their position from the start to the end of the offseason.
Utah Jazz: Losers
The offseason started on precipitous footing for the Jazz. Unfortunately, the concerns they faced were justified as Gordon Hayward, the one free agent they could not afford to lose, ending up leaving for Boston. There were a lot of other moves but that was ultimately the only one that matters.
Hayward was the type of player the Jazz had been rebuilding to find and seeing him leave just as the Jazz hit their stride is a major blow. He is the type of player the Jazz could have eventually built around given his mix of shooting, playmaking, and defense. With him gone, it will be interesting to see how Quin Snyder revamps the offense given the lack of a true star. Snyder is a great coach and should keep the Jazz in playoff contention but that does not mean quite as much when the 8th seed yields a ticket to play Golden State in the first round.
The Jazz did manage to acquire Ricky Rubio, who should offset the loss of George Hill. Rubio is a generational passer and an even better defender than Hill. The offense will run through him and his passing. It should make life easier for Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert with Rubio at the controls. The problem is that Hayward and Hill were not just the best playmakers for the Jazz, they were also the best shooters and Rubio is one of the least capable shooting point guards in the NBA. The Jazz already had spacing issues before replacing a knockdown shooter in Hayward with Rubio who they will dare to shoot. It will make it all that much harder for them to play Gobert and Favors together as well. Perhaps that shifts them to go small, particularly with Trey Lyles now gone. Either way, Snyder is going to have his hands full making this an NBA caliber offense.
The trade for Lyles helped the Jazz grab Donovan Mitchell who would have been the star of summer league in virtually any other season. Lonzo Ball stole the spotlight this time but people took notice of Mitchell and his ability to score and lockdown opponents. The Jazz are still young with most of their core in their 20’s so Mitchell should have time to develop but the pressure is going to be on immediately to contend.
The Jazz face a difficult situation this year. They can compete for playoffs but are not true contenders without Hayward. They do not have much financial flexibility and will have big new contracts coming for their other young players. If they keep those players then they end up right where they were before dealing Deron Williams and triggering the rebuild. If they do not then they end up right back at square one without a centerpiece and in the middle of another rebuild. Utah is not New York and ownership was not keen on a rebuild the first time making it even more unlikely that they would go through a second one so quickly. Complicating matters even further is that the Jazz do not have clout in free agency and have traditionally been unable to lure big stars. All that likely means that the Jazz will have to hope and work for internal improvement and hope they can trade for a star to add to their team. If not, like so many other small market teams, Utah could find itself stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity yet again.
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