DA's Offseason Rankings: The Middle 10
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) dunks over Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren (12) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
The chase is on.
The Golden State Warriors have put a marker way, way out there for the rest of the league with their second title in three years, with the possibility of several more now that they’ve re-signed their core group for a while. No one figured out a way to slow down, much less stop, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and teammates, even as coach Steve Kerr again missed time with the physical ailments that have plagued him for almost two years.
Compounding the rest of the league’s dilemma is that there was far less money in the system -- about a third -- than there was a year ago, when most everyone in the game lost its collective mind and threw money at any free agent with a pulse.
Also, the league is about to tip over, it is so imbalanced at present, with a significant majority of the game’s elite talent in the Western Conference.
Paul George, Paul Millsap, Jimmy Butler, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were among the better players who went from the Eastern Conference to the West, with only Gordon Hayward waving at them in the other direction. That leaves easier egress in the East, but the east also has the game’s most immovable object in LeBron James -- who’s made seven straight NBA Finals and counting, but whose Cavaliers are in the midst of a tumultuous summer.
This is where we come in with our offseason grades.
Every year, we rank how all 30 teams have done since the end of their respective seasons. We look at everything -- how they drafted, what trades they made, what players they signed in free agency, and for how much -- or if they didn’t participate in free agency much at all. We look at if they’ve changed coaches, executives, owners, or if they’re moving into a new building that can generate big revenues. And you have to decide which ones you liked the most.
Here's what these rankings ARE NOT:
- A predicted order of finish for next season.
I do not expect the Kings, for example, to have a better record than the Spurs. It is not a ranking of the teams in order from 1 through 30 right now; I do not believe the 76ers are a better team than Rockets. This is just one person’s opinion about offseason moves -- offseason moves only. Is your team better now than it was before?
- If your team is ranked in the top 10, it doesn't mean I love your team.
- If your team is ranked in the bottom 10, it doesn't mean I hate your team.
It's an opinion that seeks to answer a question: is the team better now than at the end of last season? The ranking reflects the belief on whether, and how much, that is so. (I liked certain guys who were in the Draft more than others, so if your team took them, I probably weighed it more positively. Doesn't mean I'm right.)
What plays into the rankings:
- This isn’t science. It’s an educated guess, weighing the impact both of the Draft and free agency, but also assessing whether teams got value in their free-agent signings. Overpaying the right player is as much a sin as signing the wrong player. A good new coach can coax some more wins out of a roster. But if a team’s players don’t believe in the system their team uses (I’m looking at you, Knicks), the best Xs and Os on earth don’t matter.
- Teams that are rebuilding obviously have different priorities than teams making a championship push. That's factored in. It’s why, even though I may think Atlanta was right to push the reset button and start over, losing Millsap and the other players who’ve departed in the last two years is a bigger deal -- and, thus, the Hawks’ offseason can’t be viewed as a success when determining if they’re better now than they were in April. They’re not. And a team like the Warriors that shows it’s willing to go deep into the luxury tax -- which most teams try to avoid -- in order to keep winning has to be commended, and its rankings reflect that commendation.
- Continuity matters here as well. The most successful teams usually not only identify a core group of players, they keep them together for a while, finding that sweet spot: everyone doesn’t get a max contract, but most get paid well enough to keep the train moving down the tracks. That reflects both good roster construction and good financial management -- and, again, is rewarded. The explosion in the cap means everyone has to spend; keeping your powder dry for another day doesn’t have as much cache as it used to. But you still have to manage your money wisely.
Salary numbers, with a couple of exceptions, come from Basketball Insiders, whose Eric Pincus does the best job of anyone in the game of keeping track of all the moving financial parts, quickly and accurately -- which is why we use him at NBA TV during the Draft and free agency to tell us what the hell this all means.
The Middle 10
11. ORLANDO MAGIC
2016-17 RECORD: 29-53, did not make playoffs
ADDED: F Jonathon Simmons (three years, $18 million); G Shelvin Mack (two years, $12 million); G Arron Afflalo (one year, $2.3 million); F/C Marreese Speights (one year, $2.1 million); F Khem Birch (two years, $2.1 million); F Jonathan Isaac (No. 6 pick in 2017 Draft); F Wesley Iwundu (second round, 33rd pick overall, 2017 Draft); named Jeff Weltman President of Basketball Operations and John Hammond General Manager
LOST: F Jeff Green (signed with Cleveland); G Jodie Meeks (signed with Washington); F Anzejs Pasecniks (Draft rights traded to Philadelphia); F Ivan Rabb (Draft rights traded to Memphis); F Damjan Rudez (renounced); F/C Stephen Zimmerman (waived); G C.J. Watson (waived); G Patricio Garino (waived); fired former GM Rob Hennigan, assistant GM Scott Perry
THE KEY MAN: Assistant coach Chad Forcier. Forcier was in San Antonio for nine years as one of Gregg Popovich’s top development guys; if Spurs assistant Chip Engelland was directly responsible for fixing then-rookie Kawhi Leonard’s jumper after the 2011 lockout, Forcier was on the front lines of developing Leonard’s post-up game and improved handle. In his second season with the Magic, Forcier has an equally big task: helping to identify and develop someone in the Land of the Mouse who can make a three. The Magic was 29th in the league last season in 3-point percentage (.328) and 25th in made threes with 701 - or eight fewer than Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant combined to make by themselves at Golden State.
THE SKINNY: For a team that didn’t have a whole lot of cap flexibility going into the summer, Orlando got a lot done. Simmons earned more money and minutes with good work last season in San Antonio, and for less than a lot of teams spent for one middling talent last summer, the Magic added three more solid vets in Mack, Afflalo and Speights. All but Speights are familiar with the defensive end of the floor that is Coach Frank Vogel’s bailiwick. Isaac has a chance to be a real menace at both ends with his length. There’s still some roster imbalance with which to deal, but Weltman and Hammond have gotten off to a good start.
12. LA CLIPPERS
2015-16 RECORD: 51-31; lost in first round
ADDED: F Danilo Gallinari (three years, $65 million via sign and trade with Denver); G Milos Telodosic (three years, $20 million); C Willie Reed (one year, $1.5M); G Patrick Beverley (acquired from Houston); G Lou Williams (acquired from Houston); F Sam Dekker (acquired from Houston); F/C Montrezl Harrell (acquired from Houston); G/F DeAndre Liggins (acquired from Houston); G Sindarius Thornwell (No. 48pick in 2017 Draft; Rights acquired from Milwaukee); G Jawun Evans (No. 39 pick in 2017 Draft; Rights acquired from Philadelphia)
LOST: G Chris Paul (traded to Houston); G Jamal Crawford (traded to Atlanta); F Diamond Stone (traded to Atlanta); G J.J. Redick (signed with Philadelphia); G Raymond Felton (signed with Oklahoma City); F Luc Mbah a Moute (signed with Houston); F Paul Pierce (retired), G Darrun Hilliard (waived) F Kyle Wiltjer (waived); F Brandon Bass; G/F Alan Anderson
RETAINED: F Blake Griffin (five years, $171 million)
THE KEY MAN: Jerry West. The Logo is back in L.A. in an advisory role that no one believes will be a sedentary one for owner Steve Ballmer. With Friday’s announcement that the team has stripped Doc Rivers of his general manager duties, West will be able to cleanly evaluate how Rivers does on the bench and how executive VP of basketball operations Lawrence Frank does with the front office. You don’t bring in West to be a shrinking violet (not that Jerry has ever been shy about expressing his opinions). Everyone under Ballmer is on notice. The Clippers will go after LeBron James and every other impact free agent next summer, but West is the only guy guaranteed a seat at the table right now.
THE SKINNY: Usually, losing someone as good as Paul would doom you to the Bottom 10. But the Clippers had gone as far as they could with the group led by CP3 for six seasons. It was time to move on. And given that most around the league knew it was time, L.A. did very well in essentially building a new team in a month. It won’t contend for a title, but the Clippers will be able to put a good product on the floor around Griffin if Gallinari can put anything approaching a full season in -- something that’s been a problem throughout his NBA career (and which won’t be helped by his brain lock last week playing overseas). Telodosic and Beverley are vastly different talents who should combine to give Doc Rivers solid point guard play in Paul’s absence. The Clippers might have to play Griffin at center and go small ball to put their best lineup on the floor. Now a veteran, Griffin has to be there in all ways for his team, on and off the floor.
13. MIAMI HEAT
2016-17 RECORD: 41-41, did not make playoffs
ADDED: F Kelly Olynyk (four years, $51 million); C Bam Adebayo (No. 14 pick, 2017 Draft); G Matt Williams; F A.J. Hammons (acquired from Dallas)
LOST: F/C Josh McRoberts (traded to Dallas); C Willie Reed (signed with Clippers); F Chris Bosh (waived); F Luke Babbitt (signed with Atlanta)
RETAINED: G Dion Waiters (four years, $52 million); F James Johnson (four years, $60 million); F/C Udonis Haslem (one year, $2.3 million)
THE KEY MAN: General Manager Andy Elisburg. He remains among the top two or three execs in the game -- creative, wicked smart, forward-thinking. No one knows the cap better or has a better understanding of how to work within its confines. After all the deals the Heat made this summer, Miami looks pretty locked in cap-wise both this year and next, which normally wouldn’t make sense for a team that didn’t make the playoffs last year. But you can bet if the Heat doesn’t like how the pieces fit together, they’ll be quick to make a move. Their leadership troika of Elisburg, Pat Riley and Coach Erik Spoelstra still works seemingly seamlessly together.
THE SKINNY: Miami aimed high for Gordon Hayward, and came up just short. But the Heat moved on to a productive summer, mainly by keeping two of its most important players from last season’s incredible turnaround -- Waiters and Johnson. Olynyk will start at the four and will be a good fit moving without the ball; Goran Dragic will find him. Miami’s just one salary dump away from having max room again in the summer of ’18, when Riles will pull out the rings and go after the next big fish. Eventually, he’ll reel in another one.
14. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
2016-17 RECORD: 49-33, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals
ADDED: G Jodie Meeks (two years, $6.7 million); F Mike Scott (one year, $1.7 million); G Tim Frazier (acquired from New Orleans)
LOST: F Bojan Bogdanovic (signed with Indiana)
RETAINED: F Otto Porter (four years, $106 million)
THE KEY MAN: G John Wall. He opted to stick around and take the Wizards’ designated veteran player exception for four years and $170 million, which will kick in with the 2019 season. That will keep Wall in D.C. through at least 2022. Wall has proven he’s an elite point guard the last two years and now it’s time to do even more. He’s got to become more than occasionally disruptive on defense. Some nights, he does too much playing from behind, trying to poke the ball away instead of staying in front of his man. Great players always find something to get even better at doing. Wall can pass like almost no one in the game and he’s become a strong scorer. But when he’s locked in defensively, Washington’s a real tough team to beat.
THE SKINNY: The Wizards are not exactly stuck -- a lot of teams would like to have three players 26 and under to build around like Wall, Bradley Beal and Porter. But to beat Cleveland (and, now, Boston) in the East, Washington feels a Draymond Green short. Doesn’t mean the Wizards were wrong to match the Nets’ offer sheet for Porter ... you can’t let a 23-year-old just entering the beginning of his prime years walk. It’s up to coach Scott Brooks to get Porter, who was a top five in the league as a 3-point shooter last season, more looks going forward. The starting five is as good as anyone’s outside of the Bay, but the question will be whether Frazier, Meeks and Scott can improve a bench that was awful for the first two months and became, basically, Jason Smith with dabs of Kelly Oubre the rest of the way.
15. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
2016-17 RECORD: 61-21, lost in Western Conference finals
ADDED: F Rudy Gay (two years, $17.2 million); F Joffrey Lauvergne (two years, $3.1 million); G Brandon Paul (two years, $2.1 million); G Derrick White (No. 29 pick, 2017 Draft)
LOST: F Jonathon Simmons (signed with Orlando); F/C Dewyane Dedmon (signed with Atlanta)
RETAINED: F/C Pau Gasol (three years, $48.8 million); G Patty Mills (four years, $50 million); G Manu Ginobili
THE KEY MAN: G Dejounte Murray. Kawhi Leonard is the most important player, of course, and if he hadn’t gotten hurt in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals ... well, the Warriors would have still won the series, but it would have been a lot closer. Going forward, though, the Spurs will need their second-year point guard to play at an even better level than he did as a rookie. With Tony Parker out until January recovering from a quad injury and likely done as an elite player, San Antonio will increasingly be in Murray’s hands.
THE SKINNY: The Borg will assimilate another regular season’s worth of inferior opponents, but hopes for challenging Golden State will depend on when/if Gay can fully recover from his Achilles’ tear. When that happens, the Spurs could put some interesting small ball lineups on the floor, with Leonard, Gay, Kyle Anderson and Gasol. But losing Simmons and Dedmon (and, presumably, David Lee, still unsigned as of this writing) off the bench will hurt. They brought athletic chops that gave San Antonio a real chance at matching up favorably against the Warriors’ reserves. The new bench will need Davis Bertans, Paul or Bryn Forbes, maybe, to make a major leap. Still, pencil the Spurs in for their usual 50-60 wins, depending on how long it takes Parker to get back and if Manu Ginobili has anything left in the tank, and then we’ll see about the playoffs.
16. BROOKLYN NETS
2016-17 RECORD: 20-62, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G D'Angelo Russell (acquired from Lakers); C Timofey Mozgov (acquired from Lakers); F Allen Crabbe (acquired from Portland); F DeMarre Carroll (acquired from Toronto); C Jarret Allen (No. 22 pick, 2017 Draft)
LOST: C Brook Lopez (traded to Lakers); C Justin Hamilton (traded to Toronto); F Andrew Nicholson (traded to Portland); G Archie Goodwin (waived); F K.J. McDaniels (renounced RFA rights)
THE KEY MEN: Assistant coaches and player development coaches Jacque Vaughn, Chris Fleming, Bret Brielmaier, Adam Harrington, Jordan Ott, Matt Batiste and Travon Bryant. The Nets will get better the way the Hawks and Spurs get better -- through outstanding player development with their assistants. It’s what coach Kenny Atkinson did in Atlanta and it’s already paying dividends with the Nets, where young guys like Caris LeVert have gotten better quickly.
THE SKINNY: The Nets took reasonable gambles to improve their talent level -- moving their best player in Lopez and taking on the last three years of Mozgov’s huge contract to get a look at Russell, the second pick in the Draft just a couple of years ago, while also taking on the bulk of the $75 million deal they gave Crabbe just last summer via offer sheet. They used the first they got from the Wizards in the Bojan Bogdanovic deal on Allen, who could be a terrific rim runner/shot blocker in the Clint Capela mold. Taking on all that salary (including Carroll’s remaining $30 million) eats up a little of Brooklyn’s future cap flexibility, but no one was coming there via free agency, anyway. So why not win a few more games this coming season, endure the last of the disastrous trade with the Celtics (one more first-rounder goes to Boston in 2018) and see if Russell becomes the talent the Lakers hoped he’d be?
17. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
2016-17 RECORD: 34-48, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G Rajon Rondo (one year, $3.3 million); G Ian Clark (one year); F Darius Miller (two years, $4.3 million); G Frank Jackson (No. 31 pick, 2017 Draft; Rights acquired from Charlotte)
LOST: G Tim Frazier (traded to Washington); G Quinn Cook (waived); F Axel Toupane (waived); F Dwayne Bacon (Draft rights traded to Charlotte); G Edmond Sumner (Draft rights traded to Indiana); F Dante Cunningham
RETAINED: G Jrue Holiday (five years, $125 million)
THE KEY PEOPLE: Bobby Rosenthal and Mary Rowe, trust overseers. The two San Antonio attorneys are in charge of the trusts set up by Pelicans owner Tom Benson to handle the ownership transfer of both the Pelicans and the NFL’s Saints after the 89-year-old’s death. They will handle the transfer of the teams after Benson and his children settled a long-running legal battle last February, during which time his children sought to have Benson declared incompetent to maintain control of the shares of multiple trusts, which he wanted to give to his third wife, Gayle, instead of his daughter and her children. A judge ruled in Tom Benson’s favor in 2015, but the two sides continued negotiations through this year. Rosenthal and Rowe said in a statement after the settlement was announced that “keeping these two teams in New Orleans and ensuring their future vitality has always been the highest priority for the family beneficiaries and the trustees. We are optimistic about the future success and prosperity of these two franchises.”
THE SKINNY: Yes, $25 million per is too much for Holiday, but this league left “worth” at the train station a long time ago. Holiday is a good, occasionally very good, point guard, and he was a free agent, and a team like the Pelicans can’t let its best players walk for nothing. So Holiday gets legacy money, with New Orleans now talking about Holiday playing the two next to Rondo -- giving the Pelicans two seemingly incompatible sets of players, along with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins up front. Still, getting Clark for next to nothing and making a sneaky-good acquisition of Jackson on Draft night should improve the Pelicans’ bench. There’s another shoe or two that has to be dropped for this roster to make any sense, but there’s more talent here now than there was last year, and that’s a start at least.
18. CHARLOTTE HORNETS
2016-17 RECORD: 36-46, did not make playoffs
ADDED: C Dwight Howard (acquired from Atlanta); G Michael Carter-Williams (one year, $2.7 million); G Malik Monk (No. 11 pick, 2017 Draft); F Dwyane Bacon (No. 40 pick, 2017 Draft; Rights acquired from New Orleans)
LOST: G Marco Belinelli (traded to Atlanta); C Miles Plumlee (traded to Atlanta); G Ramon Sessions (signed with New York); G Frank Jackson (Draft rights traded to New Orleans); G Briante Weber (waived); F Christian Wood (declined team option)
THE KEY MAN: F Nicholas Batum. In the midst of a five-year, $120 million deal signed in 2016, Batum has to recover from a subpar shooting season last year, when he fell to 40 percent shooting overall and 33 percent on 3-pointers. The Hornets fell from 11th in the league in scoring in 2015-16 to 16th last season. Part of that was due to Jeremy Lin’s departure to Brooklyn, but Batum has to take some of the burden as a secondary ballhandler in Lin’s absence to help Kemba Walker make plays in the halfcourt.
THE SKINNY: Howard’s a good fit for coach Steve Clifford's team at both ends. He can still block a shot every once in a while, does a solid night’s work on the glass and is still an effective diver on screen and rolls, the mother’s milk of All-Star Walker’s game. Monk can flat-out shoot it, and the Hornets were pretty good a couple of years ago when they had a bunch of shooters on the floor with Walker, Jeremy Lin and Nicolas Batum orchestrating things. Not exactly sure, then, how the non-shooting Carter-Williams will fit into that mix effectively at either guard spot, especially when Charlotte already has a guy in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who doesn’t stretch the floor (in this NBA, how is it possible for a starting small forward to only attempt nine -- nine -- 3-pointers in an entire season?).
19. DALLAS MAVERICKS
2016-17 RECORD: 33-49, did not make playoffs
ADDED: F Josh McRoberts (acquired from Miami); G Dennis Smith (No. 9 pick, 2017 Draft)
LOST: C A.J. Hammons (traded to Miami); F Jarrod Uthoff (traded to Houston); F DeAndre Liggins (traded to Houston); G Nicholas Brussino (waived and claimed by Atlanta)
RETAINED: F Dirk Nowitzki (two years, $10 million)
THE KEY MAN: C Nerlens Noel. As of this writing, the 23-year-old restricted free agent had not yet reached agreement on a new deal with the Mavs. As we’re now in August and there’s next to no chance a team with room will make him an offer that the Mavs won’t match, it’s a matter of time before Noel is back in the fold, if only on a short deal that gets him to unrestricted free agency quickly. (Dallas obviously isn’t going to negotiate against itself for Noel when it doesn’t have to; every dollar saved now will be available next summer, in the traditional “Dallas will have a ton of cap room and be able to go after the top free agents”.) When that gets done, Noel will assume the starting center spot and give Dallas the best chance of improving its middling defense with his length and lateral quickness. Otherwise, there will be a lot of Nowitzki at the five. No one wants to see that, starting with Dirk.
THE SKINNY: The Mavs are in the middle of the pack only because of Smith, the N.C. state rookie. Period. Like the Kings, Dallas has been looking for a permanent solution at point guard for years, since Jason Kidd’s last days in town. Smith will end that search. He has a chance to be the best point guard in a top 10 full of them. Smith’s potential gives the Mavs a chance to build for the future, along with Harrison Barnes (and, one assumes, Noel). But with the big bucket list item finally checked off in Smith, the Mavs will be significant free agent players in 2018. The preceding 12 months will be to get Smith up to speed at the game’s hardest position.
20. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
2016-17 RECORD: 42-40; lost in first round
ADDED: F D.J. Wilson (No. 17 pick, 2017 Draft); G Sterling Brown (No. 46 pick, 2017 Draft; Rights acquired from Philadelphia); named Jon Horst General Manager
LOST: G Sindarius Thornwell (Draft rights traded to Clippers); former GM John Hammond (hired by Orlando as General Manager)
RETAINED: F Tony Snell (four years, $44 million)
THE KEY MAN: Horst. At 34, he and Cleveland’s Koby Altman are the youngest GMs in the league. There’s not a ton for Horst to do now with most of Milwaukee’s core signed for the next two years. But the Bucks will have to make a call on Jabari Parker, trying to return from a second ACL tear at 22, in the next couple of years. He'll be a restricted free agent after 2018-19 and eligible for an extension after next season. You could make an argument for or against one for Parker and be on solid ground either way. It will be up to Horst to decide.
THE SKINNY: It’s not a criticism of the Bucks to note they mostly stood pat this summer, other than locking up Snell and drafting Wilson, who fits their long, athletic big man pedigree. Milwaukee’s improvement will come from within the absurd remaining upside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a full healthy season from Khris Middleton, more experience for Thon Maker and additional seasoning for Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon. The Bucks didn’t find a taker (at least not yet) for Greg Monroe, but a guy in his walk year tends to be pretty good, as long as you don’t have a team full of guys walking. Milwaukee does not. The 414 is a good NBA place to be these days.
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