We are officially halfway through the NBA offseason. Six weeks ago, the basketball world was still wrapping its collective head around LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent. Six weeks from now, training camps will open across the country as the 2018-19 season gets underway.
That makes right now – the in-between place, when those whose lives revolve around basketball take a deep breath before diving back in for another 10 months or so of constant insanity – the perfect opportunity to assess all that has happened since the Golden State Warriors closed out the Cleveland Cavaliers to claim a second straight championship.
We’ll break down teams into four categories – clear winners, lean winners, lean losers and clear losers – to account for the entire spectrum of how the offseason played out.
I understand if Raptors fans were upset over the firing in May of Dwane Casey, a good man and a very good coach. I also understand if Raptors fans were upset over DeMar DeRozan, a good man and a very good basketball player, being traded back in July.
But there isn’t a single thing that matters more, when it comes to winning basketball games, than talent. More than in any other sport, thanks to the outsize impact one player can have in a basketball game in which only 10 players are on the court at once, the team with more talent often wins. And the Raptors have ended the summer with far more talent than when it began.
That, again, is not a knock on DeRozan, who I think has been criticized too harshly for what he isn’t good at and underappreciated for the skills he does have. But the last time Kawhi Leonard was healthy he was, in my opinion, the NBA’s MVP. If that kind of talent re-emerges, the Raptors could make the NBA Finals this season.
Potential problems could easily emerge. Nick Nurse, in his first season as an NBA head coach, has a big job on his hands. There’s no indication that Kyle Lowry and Leonard will be capable of handling the spotlight as leaders of the team in a big media market like Toronto. But the Raptors took a big step forward in the talent department this summer. In the end, that is all that matters.
In a joking sense, the Nets are winners simply because they can officially move on from the ill-fated trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce that has hung over the franchise like an anvil for the past several seasons.
But the Nets truly were winners this summer thanks to shrewd moves by general manager Sean Marks. They managed to move on from the final year of Timofey Mozgov’s salary for the cost of a few million in salary and a couple second-round picks – a very fair price – and managed to get a first-round pick for taking on Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried from the Denver Nuggets.
They then flipped Arthur for Jared Dudley and a second-rounder in a deal with the Suns, meaning in the aggregate it cost them only one second-rounder to dump $16 million in salary for next year – when the Nets could potentially sign two max players. So yes, the Nets still have a long way to go to become relevant. But they are well-positioned to become relevant next summer.
The Celtics are winners because they saw LeBron James leave for the Western Conference and they kept all of their main pieces.
So why aren’t they clear winners? Because Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both are recovering from multiple surgeries, and until they are officially on the court, we’ll take a wait-and-see approach. Irving’s impending free agency will hang over the franchise for the next year. The Celtics could’ve gotten Leonard but instead saw him go to the Raptors, maybe their chief competition to reach the NBA Finals. Even if all of their players are healthy, it will be quite the juggling act for Boston to make all of them happy.
Yes, the Celtics are in fantastic shape. But there is much work to be done.
New York Knicks
The Knicks appear to have possibly hit on both of their draft picks, with first-round pick Kevin Knox and second-rounder Mitchell Robinson turning heads during the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League. David Fizdale also should be an excellent hire as Jeff Hornacek’s successor as head coach. But Kristaps Porzingis is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, so they will likely be one of the NBA’s worst teams this season (though that will net them another high pick) and they still have several ugly contracts on their books.
But things are looking up for a change at Madison Square Garden.
The Wizards essentially traded Marcin Gortat and Mike Scott for Austin Rivers, Jeff Green and Dwight Howard. From a talent standpoint, that is a win. Troy Brown Jr. looks like a nice pickup in the first round, too.
But how will an already combustible locker room handle the introduction of Rivers and Howard? That will determine, more than anything, whether this offseason was a winner or loser in Washington.
The way Detroit handled the beginning of its offseason – specifically waiting six weeks to fire coach Stan Van Gundy – was odd. But given how limited Detroit was in what it could do this offseason, the Pistons did about as well as they could. The picks of Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown in the second round give them a couple of intriguing wing players. Getting Glenn Robinson III was a nice flier on another wing player who, if he can stay healthy, should be effective in Detroit. And hiring Casey will give Detroit the ability to create a strong, stable foundation moving forward with a veteran team.
We’ll see if the troika of Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond can stay healthy and be effective together. But with what they had to work with, the Pistons did just fine.
Wendell Carter Jr. looks like he might be the steal of the draft after the way he played in Las Vegas, while Jabari Parker’s contract was worth a flier for a Bulls team still short on talent.
So why not a full win? Well, Chicago matched Zach LaVine’s contract, which, until proven otherwise, was bad business. Beyond that, the Bulls have handed coach Fred Hoiberg a roster full of players that can score, but of whom there is no clear indication they can actually score as a unit. And good luck to them trying to stop anyone; this roster defensively, outside of Kris Dunn, is the equivalent of dumping gasoline on the court and lighting a match.
There may not have been a team that was more active this offseason than Atlanta. General manager Travis Schlenk made the move that will define his tenure, one way or the other, by passing on Luka Doncic and trading down two spots to take Trae Young. The pairing of Young and Kevin Huerter has drawn comparisons to the backcourt Schlenk used to work with in Golden State: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. We’ll see if it works out that way.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. By being willing to take back Carmelo Anthony, the Hawks were able to move off Dennis Schroder’s money and get a potential first-round pick back (while not taking on future money). But essentially taking Jeremy Lin from the Brooklyn Nets – while more understandable with the full context of the summer – seemed like a missed opportunity, as it allowed Brooklyn to make the deal with Denver instead.
Personally, I’m a fan of what Atlanta did. But the true answer won’t be revealed for a few years, when we have a better handle on how Doncic and Young pan out.
The Sixers didn’t do much this summer. They kept JJ Redick, traded for Wilson Chandler and largely kept their powder dry to take a swing in free agency next summer. But remember: The Sixers entered this summer hoping to try to land a big fish to play alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Instead, they didn’t get a meeting with Paul George, didn’t get LeBron James and saw Leonard go to the Raptors.
Yes, there is plenty to like in Philadelphia. And if Markelle Fultz gets back to where he was when he was the No. 1 overall pick, he’ll be a huge addition. But now Philadelphia has only next summer to get that big outside star to go with their young core. If it doesn’t happen then, it might not happen at all.
The Pacers were one of the feel-good stories of last season. Victor Oladipo exploded into stardom, and Indiana was a surprise playoff team that pushed James and the Cavaliers to the brink in the first round. So why are they losers? Because they may have bought too much into what happened last year.
Instead of using the potential flexibility they had to be significant buyers in a weak market this summer, Indiana largely stood pat, keeping Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic, and then signing Kyle O’Quinn – meaning Domantas Sabonis likely will play more power forward – and Tyreke Evans, who was great last season in Memphis but could be an injury risk. They also signed Doug McDermott to be a shooter off the bench.
Maybe this will pan out. But if the Pacers were wrong about betting on their success last season, their work this offseason might not look so rosy in a year.
The Heat are in a strange place. They will basically have the same team back from a year ago. That roster was just good enough to scrape into the playoffs and doesn’t have a lot of room for upward mobility. And Miami still is stuck with Hassan Whiteside, who the Heat would clearly love to move on from.
For so long, the Heat have been a franchise defined by hunting for the next star. But for the next year or two, they essentially are stuck in purgatory.
Like Miami, Orlando appears stuck in neutral. The problem for the Magic is it is going to take a lot of digging to get out of the hole they find themselves in.
Orlando hopes Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba are the frontcourt of its future. The problem is that Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic play those positions, too, and are better present-day players. Evan Fournier is the only average or better wing player on the roster, and Orlando may have the worst point guard rotation in the league. The work has only just begun for President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond – though hiring coach Steve Clifford was an inspired choice.
Coach Mike Budenholzer will bring a level of organization and discipline the Bucks need in the wake of Jason Kidd’s departure last season. Will that be enough to lift Milwaukee to a new level?
It will have to be, at least if this season is to be an improvement. Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez are solid vets who will help in the short-term, but signing Ilyasova eats into Milwaukee’s 2019 cap space – which the Bucks will need to try to attract another star-level player to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not keeping Parker is understandable; it was clear as far back as March he wasn’t going to be back if he got any kind of sizable offer.
But Milwaukee’s path to finding a second true star is no clearer than it was two months ago. That needs to change for the Bucks to take another step.
This one is simple: Any team that loses LeBron James is a clear loser. Collin Sexton is a big personality and will give fans a fun player to root for, but he also – at least for now – looks to have a lower ceiling than multiple players taken behind him. Kevin Love’s contract could work out well for the Cavaliers but also could look ugly if he falls off or suffers more injuries.
Cleveland wants to make the playoffs this season, and it might – but if it does, it loses its first-round pick, which it could really use to continue rebuilding its roster. There are few bright spots here – and a long rebuild ahead.
It was understandable for new general manager Mitch Kupchak to move on from Dwight Howard. But why didn’t the Hornets just buy out Howard instead of taking on an extra year of dead salary, in the form of Bismack Biyombo, to do so? Meanwhile, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was sitting there at No. 11 in the draft and could’ve given the Hornets the bridge to the post-Kemba Walker future, but Charlotte passed on him. And by hanging on to Walker rather than trading him before last season’s trade deadline – as Charlotte should’ve – his value now diminishes by the day.
The Hornets now can either deal him as a rental this season for not much return, re-sign him to a contract that will age poorly or watch their best player leave as a free agent for nothing. None of those options are good. This is one of many reasons Charlotte has as bleak a future as any NBA franchise.