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?
Atlanta Hawks: Winner
The Hawks officially join the Bulls, Celtics, and Pacers on the list potential challengers that LeBron has dismantled. While it is unlikely that the Hawks win more games than they did last season, they are winners for hitting the reset button. Apart from Dwight Howard last year, the Hawks have not been able to lure big time free agents to the ATL and that caps their ceiling with the existing core. They could have run it back like the Raptors but for what? If they couldn’t beat LeBron and company with Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver then how would they be expected to beat them now with the Cavaliers even stronger?
Travis Schlenk talked about asset collection as a strategy and he is walking the walk. The decision to let Millsap go is a tough pill to swallow for the Philips Arena faithful but it was a necessary one on their path to a rebuild. Millsap will turn 33 in February and likely needs another star (or two) to be a championship contender. Without cachet as a free-agent location, that was not a feasible path for the Hawks. The Dwight decision leaves them on the hook for Miles Plumlee’s salary, which may be hard to move in the short term given the market for big men. However, getting Howard out before the youth movement commences without attaching picks was a coup given his dysfunctional history.
Beyond the moves the Hawks didn’t make, they also had a shrewd pick up by adding John Collins in the draft. Collins had slipped because he does not fit the Warriors archetype of a 3-and-D player. If the summer league means anything, the Hawks found a gem. Collins thrived in college as a throwback big man who did most of his damage around the rim. However, he has been showing range and touch during summer league and could be a dark horse ROY candidate as Mike Muscala and Ersan Ilyasova seem to be his primary obstacles to playing time.
Last but not least, the decision to let some of the veterans go should open playing time for promising younger players like Taurean Prince. While it is unlikely that Atlanta will see itself in the Conference Finals as it did in 2015, this move paves the way for them to get back to what made that run possible in the first place by developing younger talent from within.
Boston Celtics: Winner
My biggest winner of the offseason was Danny Ainge and the Celtics. It was shocking to hear the criticism regarding their pursuit of Paul George. While it would have been nice to add a player of his caliber to the treasure trove that Ainge has assembled, let’s face an uncomfortable truth: They are still not beating the Warriors and possibly even the Cavaliers this year. Another important note is that they have the youth and assets to build a contender the way those same Warriors did: by grooming and developing young players on discount contracts. George could walk next summer as most expect him to and then the Celtics are left with nothing.
The Gordon Hayward signing was a coup. Every team wants 3-and-D players but the most, less talked-about ingredient is ball-handling. If your perimeter player cannot attack closeouts, he can quickly turn into Kyle Korver in the finals who lacked the playmaking chops to hurt the Warriors when they ran him off the 3-point line. Hayward is the full package and has added to his game every season. He plays selflessly and should fit perfectly into Brad Stevens’ system. The only thing not to like about the move was the loss of Avery Bradley. Bradley was going to get paid next summer and the Celts wanted no part of that but his absence leaves a hole in the starting lineup. Not everyone can play next to the undersized Thomas and while Smart can cover for Thomas’ defensive deficiencies, he is an abysmal shooter who leaves Boston playing 4-on-5 when they have the ball. Stevens has expressed that he is ready to embrace position less basketball with his long wings but Jaylen Brown and newly drafted Jayson Tatum will need to improve their 3-point shooting to make that a reality.
The trade down to get Tatum was a risk. Ainge got additional assets but without Bradley in the fold, the move seems even more curious. Tatum had better turn out to be a stud because if Markelle Fultz shines in Philadelphia, there are going to be a lot of questions about the move to slide down for Tatum. That said, Tatum can flat-out score the basketball. That is a hard skill to teach and Ainge put his money on Tatum’s ability to fine tune the other aspects of his game The second pick coming from the trade is much tougher to evaluate because of the unique protections. It cannot be a number 1 pick and could transmit next season or the one after. Either way it will be an asset and do not be surprised if the Celtics do not end up making the pick at all. With many speculating about LeBron’s potential move to the Western Conference, Trader Danny could decide to move that pick next year if his competition in the Eastern Conference evaporates. For now, another day and another asset for the Celtics.
Brooklyn Nets: Winner
The D’Angelo Russell trade single-handedly makes the Nets one of the big winners of the offseason. Quite frankly, they were facing an impasse with Brook Lopez’ contract. Lopez is a Great offensive player. He can shoot, post up, pass, and even take slower big men off the dribble. He is one of the most versatile and complete offensive big men in basketball. However, he rebounds like a small forward, cannot move his feet when switched onto perimeter players, will turn 30 next season, and had a $23 million-dollar contract for next season before becoming an unrestricted free-agent. The Nets were going to either pay him well into his 30’s or lose him for nothing. By trading him they opened space for younger players and somehow managed to finagle the 2nd pick from the 2015 draft. They had to eat Mozgov’s albatross of a contract and send the 27th pick back to LA but that is a bargain for someone of Russell’s pedigree. For a team like the Nets who have been mostly devoid of draft capital, this is the best way to potentially acquire a superstar. If they can develop Russell, they will have him for this season and next on team-friendly deals before controlling his future with restricted free agency.
The other moves made by the Nets have a clear vision but they are not likely to bear fruit until a few years down the road.
They got Jarrett Allen at pick #22 who fits as a high-risk pick. He is an incredible athlete who was knocked in his lone season at Texas for low basketball IQ and rawness. He is the exact type of player the Nets should be taking swings at but it must have been hard for Nets fans to see a guy like OG Anunoby go with the very next pick as he was another player in that mold. Allen does seem conspicuously like an NBA dinosaur. He has the athleticism and size that teams covet but he lacks most perimeter skills. If his defense does not develop, is he another Anthony Randolph or JaVale McGee?
The other notable move was adding DeMarre Carroll in a salary dump from Toronto. The Nets nabbed a first and second-rounder for their troubles. Like Mozgov, they facilitated the salary dump for a shot at a future pick. However, there should be concern as to whether Carroll and Mozgov can be veteran leaders. The second Carroll was out the door in Toronto, he could not help himself but to bash his former team. Are Mozgov and Carroll going to be happy going to the lowly Nets after being on playing on contenders for good chunks of their careers? Mozgov seemed to be a model citizen in LA but both players may end up getting paid to sit on the bench in suits with the youth movement in Brooklyn. Minnesota was praised under Flip Saunders for bringing in good veterans like KG and Tayshaun Prince to mentor the younger players. What effect could these two have if they are unhappy with their situation? Adding Russell to the mix after his own issues in LA will mean that Kenny Atkinson has his work cut out for him next season.
Charlotte Hornets: Loser
The Hornets were quiet this offseason as they have a lot of cap room tied up after inking Nicholas Batum to a big contract last summer. They did a trash swap with Atlanta to get rid of Miles Plumlee’s contract in exchange for Dwight Howard. Howard has the bigger contract at nearly $50 million over the next two years while Plumlee is signed through the 2019/2020 season for $37.2 million. The front office hopes coach Steve Clifford can redeem Howard and turn him into a devastating pick-and-roll partner for Kemba Walker. Clifford has managed to craft solid defensive units throughout his time in Charlotte. Last year they finished near the middle of the pack so Clifford will hope Howard can become the missing guy in the middle. Good luck.
They also made some smaller profile moves by signing Michael Carter Williams and drafting Malik Monk. Monk was a bit of a steal as he was projected to go earlier in the lottery. He will have to step up his defense if he wants to get minutes under Clifford but could eventually form a devastating offensive combo with Kemba Walker. It would be easy to see how he could space the floor for units with Howard and Kidd-Gilchrist who both have limited range.
With the exodus of talent in the eastern conference, the Hornets are going to have a great shot at a lower seed. With their lack of financial flexibility, it is hard to tell whether that is a good thing. Do they want to be Hawks 2.0? They have a few nice pieces and a great head coach but without a clear vision for their future they are firmly planted on the treadmill of mediocrity.
Chicago Bulls: Loser
The Bulls are losers but after seeing the haul that Indiana managed, they must feel a lot better about the package they received for Jimmy Butler. Unfortunately, that does not save them from being losers. Butler still had time on a very affordable deal and wanted to stay in Chicago. The hardest thing to find is a superstar so trading one away signals a full rebuild in Chicago. If Zach LaVine is not fully healthy to start the season and Dwayne Wade gets bought out, Robin Lopez could enter opening day as the best player on the Bulls. Yikes.
The return for Butler was Kris Dunn, LaVine, and 7th pick Lauri Markkanen. The Timberwolves also conned the Bulls into handing over the 16th pick. The players the Bulls got are typical for a superstar in the sense that they got three lottery picks. However, Dunn was remarkably ineffective in limited action last season despite being hand-picked by Tom Thibodeau to take over as point guard. To see Thibodeau willing to move on so quickly after selecting and coaching Dunn must send shivers down the spine of Bulls fans. LaVine is on the last year of his rookie deal and coming off a major injury. That puts the Bulls in an awkward spot of having only a single season to decide whether they want to pay him what may end up being a maximum contract.
The Bulls made minor moves by getting Justin Holiday and Cristiano Felicio and seem likely to keep Nikola Mirotic onboard but the most egregious move seemed all too familiar to Bulls fans. Embattled owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been criticized as preferring the White Sox over the Bulls, particularly in terms of financial commitment. On draft night, he sold the Bulls second-rounder to the champion Warriors. Given his reputation, the move stunk of choosing money over the team (again). The Warriors selected Jordan Bell whom many had pegged as a sleeper and potential second-round steal, which only twisted the knife for Bulls fans who now brace for rebuilding with one less asset.
The Bulls should be happy Indiana has a basketball team so they are saved the embarrassment of having the worst offseason in the NBA.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Loser
The Cavaliers were another of the quietest teams during this offseason. They kept Korver, added Jeff Green, and got Jose Calderon. Five years ago those moves may have made a difference but Cavs fans are holding their heads after seeing Golden State’s offseason and hearing news of LeBron’s potential departure. One might assume that the Cavaliers GM was buying time to sign LeBron’s old banana boat buyout candidates in Wade or Anthony until they realize that the Cavs don’t have one. Having a rudderless ship in a crucial offseason before the best player on the planet has an opportunity to leave for greener pastures hardly sounds like a prudent move, especially when most people expected the Cavs to answer the Warriors salvo with a big move to get them back on top of the Golden State juggernaut.
In a vacuum, Cleveland’s offseason seems fine but in this NBA where the Warriors are light-years ahead, they did nothing to close that gap. After losing four times in the finals series after only one loss in the previous three, the Cavs lost to the Warriors yet again.
Dallas Mavericks: Winner
The last time the Mavericks refrained from making big offseason splashes, they managed to win a title. Safe to say that will not happen this year but it is hard not to like what the Mavs pulled off this summer. By adding Dennis Smith, they filled one of the biggest holes on their roster. Smith was sensational during summer league, and some are speculating that he already would have gone higher if the draft was held today (sorry Knicks fans). With Nerlens Noel expected to stay put, the Dallas core is quickly developing into a team full of complementary pieces should a superstar decide to move via free agency in the coming years. With a clear hierarchy above them in the Western Conference, it was judicious for the Mavs to stand pat and get ready for a future where Cuban might be able to add the final missing piece. The bigger question might be whether Cuban can stay patient.
Denver Nuggets: Slight Winner
The main move by the Nuggets was adding Paul Millsap in free-agency. He fits in perfectly with the team they have. He can function as a secondary ball-handler, spaces the floor, and is a great defender. His quickness and ability to guard perimeter players on switches should help mask some of their defensive issues from a year ago. He also meshes well with Nikola Jokic and doesn’t need the ball to be effective, which lines up with coach Mike Malone’s share the ball mentality.
They also let Danilo Gallinari go and added Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon. Lyles is a nice young player who is leaving one logjam to enter another. The same goes for Lydon who is going to be hard-pressed to get minutes if things stay as is. With all the big men on the roster, the Nuggets might not be done dealing. The loss of Gallinari hurts but make no mistake, Millsap is an upgrade. Gallinari has not played a full season in the NBA yet. Availability is one of the greatest skills. Millsap has never played less than 64 games in a season while Gallinari has managed the feat in 6 (!) of his 8 seasons in the league.
Your opinion of Denver’s offseason likely lined up with your view of them coming into it. If you saw them as contenders last year with an exciting star then you likely loved their moves by moving up a level in the West. If you saw them as a team who has a chance to make the playoffs without having a realistic shot at winning a championship then their moves likely didn’t change that view. I tend to lean towards the latter in saying that the moves improved the roster but do not really move the Nuggets much closer to competing for a championship. This could easily propel the Nuggets to the 6th seed where they would be sizeable underdogs to a team like San Antonio or Houston and if they do win then they get the pleasure of facing the other team in the next round before having to beat the final Western Conference super boss in Golden State.
Detroit Pistons: Loser
Detroit came into the offseason with a few holes to plug and big decisions to make. They ended the offseason by likely putting themselves in a similar position next year
They let KCP walk and replaced him with Avery Bradley, who will need to get paid soon as he becomes a free-agent after this season. Bradley is mostly an older and better version of Caldwell-Pope. They are both known for their defense but Bradley was significantly better when on an island. He allowed .63 points per possession to KCP’s .81. The Pistons replaced KCP with the player they hope he will become. However, the financial commitment that entails means that they are largely going to be locked into a core that cannot compete in the top tier of the Eastern Conference.
Part of getting Bradley meant losing Marcus Morris, who had one of the best deals on the team. They are over $100 million in salaries for this year and all the major deals run into next year. Are Tom Gores and ownership really going to want to pay the luxury tax to keep Bradley and run it back as an 8-seed? It is possible but hard to imagine and subsequently this move may be a sign that Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson will be on the move. None of their other additions, whether in the draft with Luke Kennard or in free-agency with role players like Langston Galloway, are going to shift them up a class and that will necessitate Stan Van Gundy to make moves if he wants to keep the team below the tax.
This looks like a team that should have considered blowing it up but with Van Gundy coaching and buying the groceries as GM, that was never a likely outcome. If he ends up going into the tax without turning the Pistons into a contender, he might not have a choice… or a job.
Golden State Warriors: Winner
It’s rare to see a team be king of the regular season and the subsequent offseason. Pat Riley talked about the disease of more and other contenders are always looking to pry someone away from the reigning champ. Thanks to Kevin Durant, Bob Myers, and players willing to take less to win, the Warriors may actually improve next season.
It’s difficult to put the Warriors’ dominance into perspective. Last year they had one of the all-time great point differentials before running roughshod over the Western Conference and eventually the champion Cavaliers. The Cavaliers turned it into a series but the Warriors dismantled them over the first two games with Durant laying his claim to the title of best player alive. That came off the heels of a loss in seven games to a team with one of the best three players of all time after setting the regular season record for wins. The season before that, they were the champs. It was astonishing to see a team that good add a transformational superstar like Durant but it is even more amazing to see that same team can run it back and even add pieces.
Durant took less, Steph Curry got paid, and Andre Iguodala got something near his market value. After that, things get really interesting, or frightening if you are a fellow Western Conference team. They bought Chicago’s second round pick and nabbed Jordan Bell who drew comparisons to… Draymond Green, then got Nick Young and Omri Casspi on cheap prove-it deals. Their ability to add a guy like bell in the draft while also being able to surround their stars with even more shooting was a coup.
Those moves don’t give the Warriors a chance at the title. They reduce the already infinitesimal chance of anyone else kicking them off the throne.