It’s getting close to the start of the season, which means it is time to go over the off-season that truly set some major short-term and long-term storylines which will have a major impact on the NBA as we know it. As is tradition for me, I go from the worst team off-season to the best, taking everything into account (draft, free agency, coaching changes, etc).
Denver Nuggets– Let’s see: How about we take the worst defensive team in the NBA and remove their best defensive player and only reliable big man? That’s the ticket! A fun game to play is to guess how many players who ended last season in Denver will be there at the beginning of the 2010/2011 season. My guess? Two (Nene and K-Mart). I can’t wait to watch this team in action- they’re like the Kansas City Chiefs with a ton more offensive talent and less effort.
Golden State Warriors– I have written a ton on the Dubs, and much of it going into this offseason centered on the idea that they needed to choose to be a serious contender either in the next 2-3 years or a little further off in the future. Unfortunately, they chose the ubiquitous “Neither” option out of the bin, choosing to shoot their cap flexibility on Corey Maggette. Yeah Mullie, an up-tempo system really needs to spend that kind of money on a swingman, especially with SJax on roster. Don’t get me wrong- Corey will put up good fantasy numbers for Golden State in the next few years, but that will not translate well into wins, and it is incredibly hard for this team as presently constituted to swing assets into pieces that can make this franchise a legit contender at some point. Well, I guess we have to deal with another Bay Area team clawing to make the playoffs for the next 5 years…
Memphis Grizzlies– Has any team ever had a bigger discrepancy between their perimeter talent and their big man talent? [Yes, I’m the one who asked this in the Thorpe chat last week] They have a slew of guys I like, but OJ Mayo’s defensive abilities are much more limited when he is guarding SG’s instead of PG’s, and I doubt he’ll spend a ton of time on them when the Grizz have Conley and Kyle Lowry manning that spot. Still love Rudy Homosexual and Marc Gasol could be a helpful player on a good/great team, which sadly his Memphis squad will not be for some time, if at all. I will never understand why they made Mike Miller a throw-away in the T-Wolves deal and the trade makes me consider how Adriana Lima will like Memphis, a thought I didn’t want to entertain.
Sacramento Kings– I have used the term the “76ers Zone” with my friends for years now. It refers to a team that is just good enough to not be able to get the resources to make their team dramatically better so they linger in the late lottery/low seed playoff range. Ironically, it transferred from Philly to Sacto this offseason with the insane contract they gave to Beno Urdih (who I like fine, but it’s too much). Between Kevin Martin, Beno, Spencer Hawes, Francisco Garcia, and John Salmons, the Kings have over $30m committed through the 2010/2011 season, and while they are all decent players with upside, it just good enough to be in 76ers Zone for those years.
Charlotte Bobcats– Surprise, surprise: The Bobcats mess up another offseason. Just like last year could have been Spencer Hawes and a ton of cap space (avoiding the J-Rich trade and not signing Matt Carroll to that insane contract), this year had the Bobcats passing on Brook Lopez (the second or third best player in the 2008 Draft) for DJ Augustin, who needs a ton of work and does not have the PG abilities to justify his insanely high draft spot. The other side effect of the Augustin trade was that it changed the market for Raymond Felton both in terms of Charlotte’s bargaining position and the fact that it made personnel guys re-evaluate Felton and realize that he is not doing as well in terms of development. To make matter even worse, they drafted Alexis Ajinca, who will be a good player but is a long, long way off of getting there. On the plus side, I like Okafor’s extension and Larry Brown on the sidelines should work wonders with this roster- they are a sleeper playoff team this year. They just could be so much better.
Boston Celtics– It was a tough offseason for Boston. Basking in the much-deserved glow of their championship, Ainge made some very good moves in the form of the downright theft of Bill Walker and Mr. Giddens could end up being a solid addition down the line, probably a rotation player on a good team. What will define Boston’s chances to repeat is whether any of their non-KG bigs can step up. If one of Perkins, Powe, Big Baby, or O’Bryant can be a reliable starter and one of the others becomes a strong #1 big off the bench, they may have enough to make up for losing Posey. I understand why they didn’t re-sign the king of the man-hug, but they have to come to grips with the fact that they are now wholly at risk of a big collapse record-wise if any of their core players goes down for a period of time. In this year’s East, a two-week injury to Pierce or Allen could mean the 2 or 3-seed, and Boston’s path to the Finals gets harder as they play more games outside of the Garden.
Dallas Mavericks– Sarah Palin’s favorite team is a hard one to grade since they did not have any flexibility to change their roster around after the Jason Kidd trade. Their biggest problem is that lack of ability to change their roster even after Kidd expires, and while I love our blog mascot DeSagana Diop to death, Cuban overpaid to bring him back. As a side note, has any NBA team since the advent of the salary cap had more mediocre swingmen? It’s like the Boulevard of Broken Dreams on their bench.
Washington Wizards– It is hard to feel anything but pity for the Wiz and their fans. They have a good (but not great) group of players together but have just been ransacked by injuries the past couple years and this one will be no different. Caron Butler is one of my five favorite players in the NBA (other 4: Chris Paul, Lebron, Kevin Love, and Deron Williams), but he can only do so much to keep this team afloat until Jamison and Arenas return. It’s noble that they tried to keep the core together, but they dramatically overpaid for Gilbert Arenas, who needs a very particular group of players around him to succeed (Hint: Having a defensively limited SG next to him causes problems) and the fact of the matter is that this team just isn’t good enough to be a serious contender for the Eastern Conference championship. They reached on JaVale McGee, but I love the Big Secret so I’m OK with it. What they need to do is get a bruiser C who can play limited minutes and just rough some people up- they don’t really need scoring from the position when their perimeter guys are healthy. I will never understand why they gave up Bill Walker- second round picks don’t cost much, even with the luxury tax. One thing to watch for from them this year is the minute distribution for Nick Young and DeShawn Stevenson- two talented guys who aren’t ready to take a backseat to the other. We may see them take some of the backup minutes behind Caron Butler too, which would make some sense.
Atlanta Hawks– They got incredibly lucky that the Restricted Free Agent market was as tough as it was so they could get Josh Smith on the cheap. Losing Josh Childress will hurt them as one of their biggest problems was their inability to stretch the floor from the swingman spots by guys other than Joe Johnson. What I’m hoping for from Atlanta this year is to try and establish some real roles for their future SF/PF rotation in Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Marvin Williams. Getting those guys in line would allow them to put some resources in to draft or sign a solid C (I’d love Andrew Ogilvy there) and finally get some depth on the inside in terms of rotation players too. One thing to keep in mind is that Joe Johnson only has two years left on his deal, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see his eyes start to wander if they struggle more than expected.
New York Knicks– A hard team to grade this off-season. Of course, the improvement in coaching will help, but it is going to take a long time to transition the roster from the utter disaster it is right now. Not only do they have guys like Curry, Randolph, and Jerome James that are terrible fits for their system- they take up any flexibility that the Knicks need to get talent that does work. What they need to do from here is move Marbury and Rose’s contracts for guys with another year on their deals, picking up some young talent and clearing minutes in the process. One potential team to work with is Cleveland- they have some salaries coming off the books in 2010 and would not need the money to re-sign LeBron (thanks to Bird rights). A deal involving Curry, Crawford, Pavolvic, and Ben Wallace could help both teams. I like the Gallinari pick fine (he could very well become a point forward in the Suns’ system), but I don’t get why they didn’t buy a late first to get a developmental big (DeAndre Jordan, Alexis Ajinca). We know Dolan is willing to waste money, so they should work diligently to spend it wisely and just build an arsenal of assets like the Blazers have done. The Knicks have numerous advantages and they need to use all of them to get out of this hole.
Milwaukee Bucks– Like so many off-seasons in Milwaukee, there is a strong mix of the bad and the good. First things first, they picked up a ton of talent without much of a cost in terms of lost assets. Retaining Bogut for the actual price they paid was a very good deal for them, as he is a talented player who is surprisingly easy to complement (think athletic defensive PF). All they gave up for Jefferson was some cap space they aren’t going to use. I worry that some early troubles will dishearten him. The major factor for the Bucks right now is PG play- they have two decent ones in Ridnour and Sessions, but neither is good enough to make them a legit playoff contender in the stronger East. I do like where they are going with this team, and the Joe Alexander/Luc Richard Mbah a Moute combination could pay dividends in the future.
Oklahoma City Robber Barons– Maybe I’m just not seeing it, but it is hard to get where Sam Presti is going with this roster. Russell Westbrook is a good young player with high upside, but he is not a true PG and while he has a role in the NBA, he is not the type of guy for a young team to look to as their stud PG of the future with as much up in the air personnel-wise as the Non-Sonics do. They could have moved down (Clippers, Bucks, etc) and gotten a guy like Brook Lopez who could have locked down their barren C spot and some other pieces, but they stayed put and now they still have long-term holes at C, SG, and PF. Two key points for Presti: First, Kevin Durant is a pure SF- don’t let PJ play him anywhere else, at least for the majority of his minutes. Two, free agents won’t want to play in Oklahoma City so clearing cap space (especially at the expense of talent) is a dangerous game to be playing. I love Kyle Weaver though, and he can make a living as a SG/PG stopper off the bench and DJ White should grow into a solid rotation player role. Getting two more developmental guys in DeVon Hardin and Serge Ibaka makes a lot of sense considering how bad they will be the next few years.
Phoenix Suns– Hard to make a definite verdict on the offseason. I love the Robin Lopez pick for them- he is a great energy guy now who should be able to grow into a starting role with good coaching. Another key benefit of that move is that Amare shouldn’t have to guard C’s too much, which strengthens them in the paint. On the other hand, they still need to get more dynamic players next to Nash on the wings, particularly guys who can finish well. The major thing that the Suns did not do this offseason is work to find the heir to Nash’s throne. Granted, this will take some luck and hard work, but it needs to be done soon.
Orlando Magic– A total grab bag here. There is so much to like about the Magic, from Dwight Howard to Hedo to Ron Jeremy’s twin who happens to be the most underrated coach in the NBA. What kills me about them is that they have zero big-man depth behind Dwight. It is absolutely deplorable that they don’t have another PF or C on roster that would even be a rotation player on another team. Rashard Lewis does do some things well on the offensive end at the slot, but their team rebounding and overall defense suffers as a result, both from Dwight not having a safety net inside and the times when he is out. What makes their offseason decent is that they finally solidified their swingman quality by adding Pietrus and Courtney Lee. Now Orlando has the manpower to keep teams on their toes on the outside, even if I still don’t like Jameer Nelson (especially in that offense). They will be a good to great regular season team again, but they are just begging to be exposed by a team with depth.
Miami Heat– I have been a harsh critic of Michael Beasley throughout the process because I don’t see him as someone who has the desire to be a key player on a great team instead of a guy who puts up the gaudy stats. He is incredibly lucky to be on a team with both a strong leadership presence on the floor in D-Wade and a figure in Pat Riley who will not tolerate the attitude even though he is not on the sideline anymore. It will be a fascinating case study to see the differences between Beasley’s development and Carmelo’s at the same age- will structure help? Let’s hope. Beyond the Beasley pick, they did a solid job with Mario Chalmers, who like Jerryd Bayless is put in a great situation next to a ballhandling SG so he can spend some time off the ball as he grows. The Heat still have a gaping hole at Center, but I like that they have Shawn Marion (and possible Haslem, though I like him) to wave around as trade bait to potentially grab one. I would not be remotely surprised to see Miami in the mix for the playoffs and possibly even grabbing a spot if a team stumbles.
San Antonio Spurs– Sigh, yet another very good SA offseason. Even though they will be hit hard when Duncan slows down/retires, the Spurs front office has done a fantastic job of keeping very good players coming in at a variety of positions. Roger Mason was a downright theft for them and they should get some production from a high proportion of their bench. Will Tiago Splitter ever come over? He could help keep them afloat a few years from now much in the way Scola could have if everything had worked out.
Chicago Bulls– A team with a ton of talent that has the challenge of converting it into players that actually fit together well. Hinrich, Rose, and Gordon are all very good players, but I don’t like how any of the player combinations work in games, most notably Hinrich and Rose. The same is true in the front-court, where they don’t have a starter that can score points reliably. Luol Deng is a great player, but I have no idea how he fits with Tyrus and Noah. What the Bulls need to do is convert Ben Gordon and Hinrich into a self-sufficient SG like Michael Redd and/or a big man who can score points reliably. If they can put everything together, the team could be dangerous- Rose will be like an improved Tony Parker, but he needs his Tim Duncan and Manu for this team to be what they should be.
Detroit Pistons– Dumars said that he was going to make big changes, and it is probably for the best that he didn’t yet. I absolutely love what the Pistons have in play, and they have worked very well to grab pieces for the long-term while staying a top-tier team in the immediate. Trent Plastied will become a rotation big for them who fits well with their stable of PF’s. The X-Factor this season is Sheed- I firmly believe that he could decide both conference champions by either staying in Detroit and being happy or necessitating a move to a contender much like he did for the Pistons’ title. There are numerous destinations that make sense for him should he be moved, with my favorites being Charlotte, the Clippers, and potentially a return to Portland as a changed man (just think about Oden/Sheed/Aldridge getting all the big minutes). All that aside, the Pistons are a top-tier team in the league and having Rodney Stuckey as their 6th man stud to take minutes off of their swingmen should leave them with more tread on their tires before a brutal playoffs.
LA Lakers– They are rolling the dice on the Odom/Pau/Bynum frontcourt working, and that is totally fine with me. There will definately be some cloggage as they get used to each other on the court in actual games, but one huge benefit is that they can slide Odom and Pau up when necessary so their appalling lack of C depth behind the starters gets masked. One change they should make is using Farmar on the starting unit because that should allow their offense to get started more quickly off the boards and also help get more easy buckets for the other talents. They could use a tough big man off their bench if they can scrounge one up (I nominate Lorenzo Mata-Real as a banger for the practice squad to bruise them up a little).
LA Clippers– In effect, this all depends on perspective. Losing Elton Brand was terrible and took the Clippers out of the high-end conversation for this year. However, I actually like the Baron/Kaman/Camby core for the next little bit and Eric Gordon should be able to do some damage with Baron at the point in the future. By the way, Gordon has one of the five prettiest shooting strokes in the league right now- I spent one whole Summer League game watching the kid shoot. If Camby and Kaman can play together, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them make some noise and win some games in the playoffs either this year or next.
New Orleans Hornets– Some teams get solid grades for not making a whole lot of changes, and the Hornets get that distinction. Adding in Posey should help their perimeter D and overall swagger, and while I’m still bitter they traded their pick away and could have grabbed some (any!) big man depth, they are a serious title contender. Watch Julian Wright’s role this year- it could be huge for the direction of the franchise in terms of what talent they look for to keep improving their depth down the line.
Utah Jazz– My favorite under the radar off-season. They didn’t have a whole lot of pieces to do anything with, but they did very well. Kosta Koufos should end up being a rotation player at the least as long as he stays in the NBA, and he has the potential to be a starter. Quite the steal near the end of Round 1. Getting Brevin Knight made a ton of sense, though having a PG who is not a great shooter makes the pick and roll a little bit harder. In short, they kept a very good team in tact while adding in a few boom/bust Euro’s at low cost. I’m hoping we see them trade Boozer at the deadline (Miami? Orlando for Hedo + something?) and go to more of a fast-paced team after Sloan heads out- they have the right players for it in Deron, Brewer, AK47, Okur, and Koufos.
Houston Rockets– The most interesting 15-man roster in the NBA. They have 4 PG’s (five if you count Steve Francis) and five PF’s who can’t play a lick of Center. My unflinching personal distaste for Joey Dorsey could have been offset by Maarty Leunen actually getting a chance too, but that was too much to ask apparently. I love getting Artest- he has the guts to make it work as a SF/PF and his swagger could actually help on a team that needs to shift in attitude after their playoff troubles. Brent Barry could end up being an X-factor too, especially if something happens with Battier.
Cleveland Cavaliers– Hey hey! It’s a year that the Cavs actually got better! Mo Williams will work incredibly well next to LeBron as he hits open shots and can handle the offense when need be. It is bizarre that they spent money on Delonte West with Mo and Boobie already locked in, especially when they have a gaping hole at SG and need a PF to replace Joe Smith as well as more depth everywhere but PG. I’m going to keep wondering why they don’t play more of a run and gun offense (and why they didn’t grab CDR), but that’s part of the reason why they are probably going to be looking for another superstar in two years.
Indiana Pacers– A very good offseason for a team that needed it. TJ Ford should be a PG that can run Obie’s system and put up some very good stats if he can ever stay healthy, and Jarrett Jack is a solid safety valve for that inevitability. Brandon Rush should fit in fine and it is great that he can come off the bench at the start thanks to Dunleavy and Granger’s established roles. I have no idea how Hibbert fits in a run and gun team, but he has looked great so far in the pre-season so we’ll see if that continues. Indy now has the pieces to make teams work hard day in and day out and that should manifest itself in terms of wins. Another sleeper playoff team that should be better in the future as long as they make sure they don’t lose Granger to the Blazers.
Toronto Raptors– Colangelo did an amazing thing with the Jermaine O’Neal trade- he took a risk, but only gave up players that did not have as high a utility for Toronto as they did for the Pacers. Hooking up Jermaine to the Juvenation Machine (TM- Simmons) will make Toronto a totally different team and could very well also help the development of Andre Bargnani as he and Bosh will actually have a guy who can rebound and block shots in the front-court. The Raptors’ swingmen still need a ton of work, but they have a Top-5 PG in the game and a newly-solidified big man rotation, so I can see them making some great strides.
Portland Trailblazers– Pritch, how I love you so… Getting a guy in Jerryd Bayless who will be put in a circumstance that maximizes his abilities is just astonishing, and I love Nicolas Batum for them in the future- he has oodles of potential. All they need to do now is get Danny Granger next offseason and they’d be ready to roll. It’s also great that they have two amazing former Pac-10 big men in Channing Frye and Ike Diogu coming off their bench- either could end up helping out in their contract year.
Minnesota Timberwolves– Just a compelling off-season for McHale and Hoiberg. Even though it seems like a disaster on D, Love and Jefferson are both great players with upside to spare. What’s more, they did a phenominal job signing Telfair, Gomes, and Craig Smith to reasonable extensions that both preserve their long-term flexibility and retain some great talents. What I love so much about Minnesota’s situation is that they have more players who are rotation-level guys on their roster for the future than any team not named Portland. I count eight (Jefferson, Love, Foye, Miller, Brewer, Telfair, Gomes, Smith, and maybe McCants) and they will have more picks locked up for cheap in the next 2-3 years as they build there base even more. If they play Brewer more at SG since he defends them better and grab a bruiser C in the 2010 Draft, the Wolves could be dangerous sooner and later.
New Jersey Nets– Simply put, I love what they did this summer. They did dump Jefferson, but he would have probably grown into a bigger malcontent as the team took a hit in terms of record and moving his contract helps the team immensely in terms of the pivotal 2010 offseason. The Nets have built a core in Devin Harris, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson, Sean Williams, and CDR that would be great with any true #1 player, and they will be able to add in a solid lottery pick this year and have the cap space to lure one of them (LeBron, Joe Johnson, D-Wade) with a max contract. It is scary to me how good the Nets’ young guys fit with King James if he chooses to go there. Either way, they have the pieces in place now to be a contender down the road, and that’s awfully impressive considering where they were a year ago.
Philadelphia 76ers– One of the best off-seasons I have ever seen. The Elton Brand signing makes Andre Iguodala the #2 option he always should have been and opens up Thaddeus Young for an absolutely monster year. I also love Marreese Speights coming off the bench and learning from Brand as he develops, both in terms of motor and tools to go in his toolbox. Don’t be surprised to see a Powe-esque jump from him over the course of the season. Management also did well to re-sign Lou Williams who should be a very good 6thman for them, especially against teams in the East that can’t defend quick PG’s well (Charlotte, Washington, and Atlanta to name a few). I just hope that Cheeks doesn’t do what D’Antoni did in Phoenix by giving Willie Green minutes over the young guys- they will need confidence for what is to come. The other key thing with the Sixers’ offseason is that they match up incredibly well against the Celtics now. Looking position by postion, the only spot that I give the Celtics the advantage at is Power Forward, and putting Dalembert on KG for periods of time could help minimize that. Philly is a team that has great potential now and should get better over the next few seasons as they build even more depth along the perimeter.
Western Conference (Regular season record, not team quality):
1. LA Lakers
2. New Orleans Hornets
3. Utah Jazz
4. Houston Rockets
5. San Antonio Spurs
6. Portland TrailBlazers
7. Phoenix Suns
8. LA Clippers
9. Dallas Mavericks
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
11. Golden State Warriors
12. Sacramento Kings
13. Denver Nuggets
14. Memphis Grizzlies
15. Oklahoma City Robber Barons
Eastern Conference (Regular season record, not team quality):
1. Philadelphia 76ers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
4. Detroit Pistons (#5 seed)
5. Orlando Magic (#4 seed)
6. Toronto Raptors
7. Miami Heat
8. Atlanta Hawks
9. Charlotte Bobcats
10. Washington Wizards
11. Indiana Pacers
12. Chicago Bulls
13. Milwaukee Bucks
14. New Jersey Nets
15. New York Knicks
MVP: Chris Paul, Hornets
Coach of the Year: Mo Cheeks, Philadelphia
Rookie of the Year: Greg Oden, Blazers
6th Man of the Year: Lamar Odom, Lakers
Most Improved: Marvin Williams, Hawks
First team All-NBA: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan
First team All-Rookie: Greg Oden, Kevin Love, OJ Mayo, Michael Beasley, Rudy Fernandez
Lakers over Clippers in 6
Hornets over Suns in 5
Blazers over Jazz in 6
Spurs over Rockets in 7
Lakers over Spurs in 6
Hornets over Blazers in 6
Western Conference Finals
Lakers over Hornets in 7
Sixers over Hawks in 5
Celtics over Heat in 4
Cavs over Raptors in 6
Pistons over Magic in 7
Sixers over Pistons in 5
Cavs over Celtics in 6
Eastern Conference Finals
Cavs over Sixers in 6
Lakers over Cavs in 7
Finals MVP: Kobe Bryant