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?
Houston Rockets: Winners
The Rockets came into the offseason as an overachiever. In the regular season, no team further exceeded their expected win total after suffering through a long and dysfunctional year with Dwight Howard the season before. Despite being projected as a .500 team coming into last season, the Rockets soared to 55 wins and were in many circles considered the preeminent Western Conference challenger to the Warriors. The Rockets were then summarily undressed in the playoffs and the same old questions about D’Antoni’s system and its viability in the playoffs came back to light. The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue was obvious: Are the Rockets a genuine contender?
The beginning to this year’s offseason gave us the answer for the man making the decisions for Houston. GM Daryl Morey clearly believes in the core of the Rockets and that the huge jump in wins was sustainable, so he doubled down and brought Chris Paul to Houston. Together Paul and James Harden form one of the best passing backcourts in the NBA. They are both historically great guards at this stage of their careers who can do it all on a basketball court. Outside of Harden’s defense, it is hard to poke holes into either player’s game.
Many outside of the organization wonder how ball-handling duties will be distributed just a year after Harden surged to the top of the MVP conversation after getting a chance to be the focal point of D’Antoni’s offense. Chris Paul, the Point God so named for his ruthless efficiency in commanding an offense has never ceded control of an offense to a fellow offensive contributor. Can Harden wrest that control away from Paul? Despite the prevalence of this question, it may be a moot point once the season starts since the minutes can be split among the two. In addition, without many other ball-handlers on the roster, they should both get their touches.
The more intriguing question is how Paul will adapt to playing in D’Antoni’s style of offense. Paul is a great player nearing the twilight of his career. He has always been a half-court player while D’Antoni’s run and gun style of up-tempo basketball can often resemble the playground. It will be interesting to see how Paul and D’Antoni coexist, particularly in light of new expectations after 55 wins a season ago.
The trade will almost certainly end up being a win for Houston, despite giving up some depth by losing Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, and a bevy of others in the swap. D’Antoni is famous for his short rotations and backup point guards abound in today’s NBA. Morey should be able to fill the back end of the roster with bodies capable of playing spot minutes. Will it be enough to make a run at the Warriors? Time will tell but it is safe to say that the Rockets and Morey will keep looking for another deal to push them over the hump. In Houston, it’s clear that the mission is championship or bust.
Indiana Pacers: Losers
The Pacers came into the season of Kevin Pritchard’s loathed treadmill of mediocrity years after he used the term at a sports conference to describe the conundrum of many NBA teams. Facing the dilemma, he made the move to trade Paul George. This, in a vacuum, is understandable. What he received in the trade will send the Pacers back to rebuilding for the near future.
The centerpiece of the trade is Victor Oladipo, an ex-Indiana Hoosier who has regressed since showing initial promise in his first couple of seasons in the league. His outside shot remains a work in progress and his defense has not lived up to expectations. He is a solid starter but might not make an all-star team. With all that said, he is a solid player who the Pacers can pair with Myles Turner to build around. However, the biggest issue is that he is already getting paid more than George. That in and of itself makes this move hard to comprehend from an outside perspective. Indiana could seemingly have thrown that same type of money at another young burgeoning player in free agency if they traded George for picks and expiring contracts. Instead, they have Oladipo locked into a deal that is paying him over $20 million a season before he even plays a game in Indiana.
They also acquired Domantas Sabonis in the trade but it’s hard to evaluate what they have in him. He came into the NBA as a big man with a good post-up game, he then emerged as a capable outside shooter to help space the floor for Russell Westbrook, and then in the second half of the season, he went ice-cold. Who is Sabonis? More importantly, can he play next to Turner? Both have potential to be good outside shooters but neither has shown the ability to consistently hit 3’s at an above average rate, which will be a crucial step in their development. As teams move away from playing two traditional bigs, this also becomes a huge gamble on Sabonis’ ability to improve defensively. Defense was not his calling card at Gonzaga and his measurables are all average. He is never going to be the fastest, strongest or longest player on the court but will have to improve on the defensive end if the Pacers have any hope to play him alongside Turner.
The Pacers finished the offseason by losing Jeff Teague and letting go of Monta Ellis. Those moves even more than the George trade function as a divining rod in seeing the direction of the franchise. Both players were veterans who could have contributed to winning. Seeing them go will open up minutes for younger players and trigger a full rebuild. The obvious problem is that the roster is largely devoid of young talent, particularly anyone who could be considered a future star. On opening day Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison, and Bojan Bogdanovic are all projected to be starters. The Pacers have not hopped off the treadmill of mediocrity. They only lowered the speed and slowed their gait. It could be a long next few seasons for Pacers fans.
Los Angeles Clippers: Losers
Many people around the league believed the Clippers would shake it up this offseason but no one expected things to play out this way. The Clippers moved Paul in a blockbuster deal that brought them back Dekker, Beverley, and Williams. That move clearly brings additional depth to the Clippers who will need it since they also brought Blake Griffin back and signed Danilo Gallinari. Both are players known for their injury histories as much as their all-star level production. They finished off the offseason with a flurry of moves adding Milos Teodosic while also losing Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Raymond Felton.
There is certainly a lot to digest with this moves but the Clippers are not a better team than they were three months ago. The depth will hopefully help the Clippers pace themselves and make it to the finish line after repeatedly having strong regular season that led to postseason flameouts. Team owner Steve Ballmer and head coach Doc Rivers clearly decided against moving towards a rebuild, but these moves could prove to be costly. If Griffin and Gallinari miss time during the year, this team could fall to the bottom half of the playoff bracket. or even out of the playoffs picture entirely. Meanwhile, their salaries balloon the Clippers into a position where they lack much flexibility.
The biggest problem with the moves made by the Clippers is that when looking at the roster it is hard not to notice that the three best players on their roster play frontcourt positions. None of the Gallinari, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan trifecta can consistently threaten a defense with their 3-point shooting. Gallinari is easily the best of the bunch but will need to mimic his shooting from last season where he hit nearly 39% of his triples. More likely, he will regress towards his 37% career number. If that is the case, it could be hard for the Clippers to space the floor on offense.
There is a lot to like with the players the Clippers added. Beverley, Dekker, and Williams can all step in and immediately provide good minutes to Rivers. Williams will give some pop to bench units. Dekker and Beverley can be two-way players for the Clips. All three are nice players. Unfortunately, none of them are Paul.
When the dust settles, the Clippers are going to be a team heavy on guards and big men as the league shifts towards versatile wings. Even if everything goes right this season, it is hard to imagine the Clippers getting anything above the 4th seed. More likely, they will be in the 5-8 range. They had to make a move after being clearly out of contention for the title but this offseason felt like it forestalled the inevitable rebuild. They have positioned themselves squarely in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture with limited upward mobility and few players on the roster who have the potential to make a leap and carry the Clips back to contender status.
Los Angeles Lakers: Winners
According to Magic Johnson, the Lakers are back after winning the (Summer League) Championship. The Lakers are not the biggest winners of the offseason but the moves they made did propel them back to respectability. Hiring Magic Johnson, drafting Lonzo Ball, and luring Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free-agency show a team that is back on the right track.
One of Johnson’s first big moves in charge was moving D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn in exchange for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick (Kyle Kuzma). It will be hard to evaluate the move until we see how Russell develops but it did enable them to get rid of Mozgov’s terrible contract and position them for next year’s free agency. It also got them a big man who can space the floor while the pick resulted in Kuzma, who lit up summer league next to Ball. The most impressive thing about the move was the clear sense of direction it showed. The move was made with an express purpose in mind. The purpose of the move and the effectiveness of its ability to achieve it can be debated but it showed that the Lakers finally have a plan after the Kobe Bryant farewell tour and last year’s season that was mired in mediocrity with a strange combination of veterans and young players. It also paved the way for the drafting of Ball.
Ball was the most electrifying player in Summer League. It is especially promising since his style of play seems perfect for Luke Walton’s sharing-oriented up tempo style of play. Coming into summer league, many of the questions surrounded his shots and while those persist, he proved that he doesn’t have to be Ray Allen to shift the game every time he is on the floor. His passing and general unselfishness on the basketball court played a huge role in the success of the Lakers and bodes well for the upcoming season and the future of the team.
KCP could also be a part of that future and will get a chance to prove himself on a one-year deal where he will need to show an improved ability to put the ball in the basket after posting poor shooting percentages in Detroit. He will also be asked to be the team’s defensive stopper. He had some success in Detroit but never lived up to expectations on that end of the floor. The Lakers sorely lack defensive playmakers so he will have to adjust to that role quickly. Things should be much easier for him on the other end as he moves to a wide open offensive system in LA and a pure point guard capable of putting him in good positions for easy baskets.
The Lakers added several new players this offseason who should help improve the club with an eye to the future. Lopez might not stick around but could be a good veteran leader and gives them a player who they can keep should they lose out on their star-studded dreams for next year’s free agency. KCP, Ball, Kuzma, and even Josh Hart could also find themselves getting minutes in the Lakers young core. Unfortunately, given the improvements by other teams in the West, the Lakers are likely still going to miss the playoffs. However, with LeBron James , Paul George, and others being called by the incandescent light of LA, the future might be just as bright.
Memphis Grizzlies: Losers
The Grizzlies offseason has been uneventful and the biggest domino to fall is still standing in JaMychal Green. They lost Vince Carter and Zach Randolph to Sacramento but added a few veterans in Mario Chalmers, Tyreke Evans, and Ben McLemore. They also re-signed Wayne Selden. Lastly, they added a few nice values in the second round of the draft, including Ivan Rabb who was projected as a potential top-ten pick last year before falling all the way to 35 this year.
The most intriguing of the players they got are Rabb and McLemore. McLemore could provide some shooting and is the right type of gamble for Memphis. He never developed in Sacramento but Memphis’ coaching staff will try to coax some of the latent talent out of him and turn him into the 3-and-D player many people envisioned while he starred under Bill Self at Kansas. Rabb on the other hand could have a chance to get significant minutes with the departure of Randolph, particularly if Green follows him out the door. He is long, athletic, and can rebound. If he can translate the first two traits into NBA-level defensive acumen then he should get minutes from the jump.
Ultimately, the Grizzlies biggest move will be seeing if they can hold onto Green who could leave in free agency. If he does, the cupboard is bare in Memphis. Tony Allen is expected by some to leave unless he takes less money in Memphis. Either way, they are capped out due to the big contracts for Chandler Parsons, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol. If they lose Green and Allen, they could risk missing the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. The big questions for the Grizzlies lie ahead as they decide how to move forward. If they struggle out of the gate, it might be time for the Grizzlies to stop grinding and start thinking about blowing it up.
Miami Heat: Losers
While Miami did not get crucified the way that Indiana did, they had just as bad an offseason if not worse. The Heat basically re-signed the players that could not get them to the eighth seed in a pitifully weak Eastern Conference on larger contracts and then overpaid Kelly Olynyk.
It was great to see Dion Waiters and James Johnson play well but there was a reason both were on “prove-it” contracts. Johnson got in great shape but he will have to stay that way and he is still not a knockdown shooter. Ditto on the shooting for Waiters who thrived in an expanded role. The Heat need to be realistic and ask themselves how far they are going if Waiters is one of their key players. It was a great move to get them on short and cheap contracts but these could be disaster contracts given the length and money involved and it largely caps out the Heat.
Even less forgivable than re-signing those two was the addition of Olynyk. He will be getting over $12 million next year. As a player, he is fine but his ceiling is well established. He is a good shooter who really doesn’t do much else at a high level. He is never going to be a great defender, rebounder, or ball-handler. Giving him $50 million is a massive overpay.
The one move that made sense was the decision to get Bam Adebayo. He might never be an all-star but at the slot they selected him, they know they can count on him to be a hard-nosed defender and a great rebounder. At that pick, he could turn out to be a huge steal.
Overall, the Heat spent a lot of money to accomplish virtually nothing. At best, they are a lower seed that earns the right to be slaughtered by one of the more talented top seeds.. At worst, they are now capped out, miss the playoffs, and have no avenue for improvement. Pat Riley better hold onto his rings because at this rate, he will not be winning another one any time soon.
Milwaukee Bucks: Even
Milwaukee did nothing of note this offseason. They kept Tony Snell on a contract that is an overpay for a player who does not have any above average NBA skill outside of shooting. The Snell deal made some sense given their cap situation and their desire to stay competitive. The only other move was selecting DJ Wilson in the draft.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Winner
Minnesota had one of the most active offseasons in the league. They are undoubtedly one of the most improved teams as well and their moves could propel them into the Western Conference playoff picture. They certainly got better but might find themselves regretting the decision to shift into win-now mode.
The Jimmy Butler move was a slam dunk. They got a top-15 or 20 player and may not have dealt away a single all-star. Kris Dunn was not that guy in Minnesota. Hopefully he can improve in Chicago and become the player he was projected to be. Zach LaVine is great but after this season, his salary will likely be higher than Butler’s and he is one of the worst defenders in basketball. That rendered him unplayable next to Andrew Wiggins, who was also defensively deficient. Lastly, they did lose the 7th pick in the trade but managed to recoup the 16th. Getting an all-star player for what they traded while he still has years on his contract is a coup for a team that has been looking to return to the postseason for the first time since the KG years.
Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson were also brought in to get Minnesota back to the promised land. They are all fine signings who will positively influence the wins and losses of the team next year. The question is whether they make sense in a larger context. Gibson and Crawford likely won’t be the same players by the time Minnesota hits its peak. Meanwhile, Teague was possibly the most puzzling signing because it is incredibly difficult to see how he will fit on this team. There is an overload of ball-handlers and a sore need for defenders and great shooters. Teague is a ball-dominant point guard who is an average shooter and defender. After adding Butler, he feels largely redundant on this team. The Wolves do not need a true point guard and may have been better served going after a guy like George Hill who could space the floor and play solid defense. Likewise, someone like Patrick Beverley might have been a great fit for a sign and trade.
The Timberwolves will certainly improve via these moves but the fit does not make sense. Tom Thibodeau is a great coach but looks to have fallen into the trap of great coach/bad GM. The players added do not necessarily fit together. Wiggins, Butler, Teague, and Karl Anthony Towns need the ball. If all four of them are in the starting lineup, who is going to sacrifice their offense or move off ball? Defense could be a huge problem for the team as well since going from Ricky Rubio to Teague is a major downgrade and Jamal Crawford is a liability. It is unclear whether their best five players can play together and complement one another. The moves also have Thibs’ fingerprints all over them since all of the players are veterans who will help the team win now. Minnesota will be better next season but let’s hope that they didn’t sacrifice their future to do so.
New Orleans Pelicans: Even
Is it possible to be winners and losers at the same time? The Pelicans cannot be declared winners for overpaying Jrue Holiday but they didn’t have another choice. They pushed in their chips to unite Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins and that means doing everything possible to win enough games to keep them. The Rajon Rondo signing does not move the needle but he could provide a veteran presence and is likely there to help keep Cousins since the two apparently got along well in Sacramento. Make no mistake, these moves were both to keep Cousins. Losing Holiday would have likely meant losing Cousins. Without Cousins, Anthony Davis could easily be the next player out the door and then the Pelicans are staring at a long painful rebuild without a young player to build around after sending Buddy Hield and this year’s pick to get Cousins.
Holiday is a nice fit in New Orleans but his deal is unquestionably an overpay. Down the road, they may regret the deal but only if they lose one of their other centerpieces. The problem for New Orleans now is that Cousins could still leave. If that happened, the nightmare scenario above is only worsened by the fact that the Pelicans will have no cap flexibility until 2020, which could be the year Davis leaves if he opts out of his player option. The deals for Omer Asik, and Solomon Hill would likely need draft picks or young players attached to be shed given how poorly both have played. They are well over the cap this year and would need to trade contracts to open enough space to sign a difference maker next year even without Cousins. The Pelicans did what they had to do but they better hope the team starts well this year or they could find themselves having to trade both of their star big men.
New York Knicks: Losers
The Knicks are the only team on this list whose moves did not matter in terms of grades. The Knicks cemented their spot as losers by turning themselves into Kings east. They became the laughingstock of the NBA with their antics and then fired the ringleader in Phil Jackson. They passed on several established American players in the draft to pick a virtual unknown from Europe, although that seemed to work out pretty well last time around.
Obviously, the biggest move of the offseason was the decision to fire Phil Jackson. Jackson made some bad moves in his tenure but it appears the reason he was let go was his stance on Carmelo Anthony. His desire to buy Anthony out and move on was not palatable to James Dolan and led to his firing. Jackson’s tenure was filled with ups and downs. His selection of Porzingis was inspired while his decision to give Anthony a no-trade clause and to sign Joakim Noah to a massive deal were not. Jackson was largely just an average front office player. He took a fair number of swings and hit one home run, a few singles, and struck out spectacularly a few times. He certainly did not hit 1.000 but find a GM who did. Either way, his personnel moves were not what got him fired. His antics were clearly the deciding factor and New York is better off without him given those antics but by enabling him in the first place, they still end up looking like a second-rate organization.
The moves certainly did not improve once he left. The remaining Knicks brain trust apparently decided to see if they could one up the Zen master by giving out a contract worse than Noah’s. Tim Hardaway Jr. is a good basketball player but they are paying him like a star. It is exceptionally unlikely that he develops into the quality of defender and playmaker to make that deal look good. It looks like even more of a head-scratcher when juxtaposed next to the reality that the Knicks will be in full rebuild mode if Carmelo ends up leaving.
There were not many other moves by the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina could be a good player but we will have to see him play first. They also chose to keep Ron Baker on a contract that seems a few million too rich for someone who may have had trouble staying in the league with last year’s production. They also moved on from Justin Holiday after acquiring him in the Rose deal.
The Knicks had about as bad an offseason as one could imagine. Thankfully, they still have Kristaps Porzingis. They have Anthony for now but he might be wearing a different uniform by opening night. The Knicks will need to get assets for Anthony but it may be in their best interest to be bad before they are good. They need a full rebuild to start surrounding Porzingis with young talent. If they wait too long, the Latvian big man might not stick around to see how the newest chapter of the New York soap opera ends.