Welcome to part 4 of my 6-part series of NBA Offseason Grades. Let me take a moment to break down the gist of what I’ll be doing here in case you’re new to these articles:
I’ve taken it upon myself to evaluate each team’s offseason transactions. I’ve given each team a weighted letter grade based on whether or not I thought they made good moves considering their respective situations. This includes the draft, resigning period, free agency, trades, firings/hirings, and anything else I deem important (or make up as I go along). Most importantly, I answer the one pivotal question: Are they better for making these moves?
We’ve finally made it to the (Wild Wild) Western Conference! Today we take on the Northwest Division.
If you missed it:
- (R): Rookie
- (DnS): Draft-n-Stash – players drafted, but playing overseas next year
- (D): Draft-n-Stash player joining the team
- Bolded Names: Particularly notable players
And we start with our reigning Northwest Division Champions:
Portland Trail Blazers: F
Re-signed: Damian Lillard
Lost: Arron Afflalo, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake, Joel Freeland, Alonzo Gee, Brendan Haywood, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Dorrell Wright
Acquired: Cliff Alexander (R), Al-Farouq Aminu, Pat Connaughton (R), Ed Davis, Dani Diez (DnS), Moe Harkless, Gerald Henderson, Luis Montero (R), Mike Miller, Mason Plumlee, Phil Pressey, Noah Vonleh
Drafted: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (traded)
Other notable moves: N/A
In July of 2014 LaMarcus Aldridge turned down the opportunity to sign a 3-year contract extension worth $55 million, promising he would re-up with the team in 2015 when he could get a 5-year max contract. LMA was adamant that it was strictly a business decision, and that he liked the direction the team was headed in. LMA declared that he not only wanted to retire a Trail Blazer, but that “I want to be the best Blazer — ever.”*
*NOTE: Aldridge holds the record for most rebounds in Trail Blazers history. He’s second in points and total field goals, and top five in blocks, games played, and minutes played. He was well on his way to being the best Blazer of all time.
The next June LMA severed ties with a few local endorsements and put his Portland condo up on the market. All but signaling the end of his tenure in Portland. LaMarcus would end up agreeing to sign a 4-year/$80 million contract with the Spurs. When asked what changed from last summer, he told ESPN’s Marc Stein,
I felt like they were kind of in that middle role where they kind of wanted to make a change, kind of go a different direction. You know they definitely told me that they wanted me back, but I kind of felt like we both were kind of in that limbo. They wanted to go young.
And so the exodus begins.
On the eve of draft night the Blazers traded Nicolas Batum to the Charlotte Hornets for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. Batum, who’s entering the final year of his contract, had a down 2015 after a two-year stretch of versatile production. Gerald Henderson is a decent shooter, but doesn’t exactly space the floor; but his defense will be welcomed to a back court that features the defenseless Damian Lillard at the point. Vonleh was the 9th overall pick in 2014, and while he may have had a disappointing rookie campaign, he showed some flashes of potential in the final month of the season.
The Blazers drafted Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, whom I like as a prospect, and then flipped him for Mason Plumlee and rookie Pat Connaughton. Plums is entering year 3 and should compete for a starting spot, but he’s no prized big man. Meanwhile Connaughton is a fairly intriguing does-it-all sort of prospect, which is increasingly gaining value in the contemporary NBA. However, I would’ve rather seen them keep RHJ as a rebuilding chip.
Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Arron Afflalo would eventually follow LaMarcus’ lead and leave the team, leaving Damian Lillard as the lone returning starter from last year’s squad. The players they brought in, guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, and Moe Harkless, are decent in their own right; but they’re merely a band of spare parts that would otherwise be used to deepen a contender’s roster.
I vehemently disagree with this youth movement. This team had won 105 games in the last two seasons, and were actually considered a legitimate title contender before the Wesley Matthews injury. If his decision to leave was more than what LaMarcus was leading us to believe, then so be it. But for management to let this core break-up before reaching it’s potential is something Blazer fans have to feel angry about.
If the Blazers came back healthy next season, and maybe added one or two more pieces, we would likely be talking about them as one of the top teams in the West. Instead, they decided to blow it all up and re-build around Lillard. My how things change over the course of a year.
The Blazers still owe the Denver Nuggets a future first round pick due to the Arron Afflalo trade. If there’s a silver lining in any of this mess, it’s the fact that General Manager Neil Olshey had the foresight to lottery-protect that first round pick for 2016 and 2017. Which is good, because this team will not make the playoffs next season.
Are they better?: No
Oklahoma City Thunder: B
Re-signed: Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler
Lost: Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb
Acquired: Josh Huestis (R)
Drafted: Cameron Payne, Dakari Johnson
Other notable moves: Fired Head Coach Scott Brooks; hired Head Coach Billy Donovan
I’m going to do my best to NOT talk about Kevin Durant’s 2016 free agency. You know, after this last sentence of course.
The Thunder kicked-off their offseason by firing Head Coach Scott Brooks (better late than never, I suppose). His stagnant offensive scheme and indefensible strategic decisions were the main reasons for the firing. Give Brooks some credit, though. He managed to turn a team of lottery picks into an absolute juggernaut. But the Thunder didn’t believe that he’s the coach that can push this contender over the top; and frankly, neither did I. Good move.
In comes Billy Donovan; yet another rookie head coach that doesn’t have experience coaching on the professional level. And now he’ll be tasked with coaching 2 of the 5 best players in the NBA, in a 2016 Western Conference that might go down as the deepest conference in NBA history. Just throwing that out there.
What Donovan does bring to the table is an analytic-friendly offense with a keen eye for defense, and his reputation for player development precedes him. He can also hang his hat on his proven ability to change systems over the years to compliment the players on his roster. I personally like Donovan’s coaching prospects, but I can’t definitively say this team is better for having a rookie head coach on their staff; especially considering this teams’ dynamics and lofty expectations.
The Thunder’s infatuation with Murray State point guard Cameron Payne was the worst-kept secret of the NBA draft. You can’t argue with the pick, though. Payne is a solid two-way point guard who can score, create for others, and defend on the other end. That combined, with the fact that he’ll make $12 million less than Reggie Jackson next year makes for a great value pick at the back-up point guard position.
The Thunder resigned Kyle Singler for 5-years/$25 million. $5 million/year for a career 37.8% 3-point shooter sounds like the correct value for Singler; especially considering OKC’s struggles spacing the floor last season. He should get plenty of open looks next season with Durant and Westbrook assuming their roles at full health.
The Enes Kanter deal (4-years/$70 million) has gotten mixed reviews from fans and NBA pundits. Kanter is a walking double-double, and is the franchise’s best offensive center since moving to Oklahoma City. Kanter finally brings a low-post presence to this Thunder core, while also demonstrating an ability to hit jump shots from mid-range. At last, someone who can take some of the offensive load off of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
So why isn’t this Kanter-fellow worth $17.5 million per year, you ask? Because he doesn’t play a lick of defense.
Of the 20 forward/centers who played at least 28 minutes per game last season, Kanter ranked last in blocks per game at 0.4. And chew on this tweet. DBPM stands for Defensive Box Plus/Minus, by the way:
He literally hurts teams on the defensive end of the court.
Serge Ibaka may be able hide some of Kanter’s deficiencies down-low; and perhaps Billy Donovan can teach him how to at least try to be a good defender. Keep in mind, Kanter is only 23 years old and entering year 5 of his career, so there is hope he at least can learn how to stand in front of the rim.
But there’s no hiding players in the playoffs, especially when elite strategists like Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, and now Steve Kerr are lurking on the other sideline.
The Thunder had no choice but to match the offer. They knew this exact situation would happen, and there was no point in trading for Kanter for just a half-season rental. It was a good choice to match the offer; it’s just a bad contract. What else can you do?
It’s now up to Donovan to decide how/when to use him.
Are they better?: No (But they’re still damn good!)
Utah Jazz: B
Re-signed: Joe Ingles
Lost: Jeremy Evans
Acquired: Raul Neto (D), Tibor Pleiss (D)
Drafted: Trey Lyles, Olivier Hanlan
Other notable moves: N/A
Not much to see here. The Jazz elected to stay relatively quiet in free agency, which is a bold move considering they finished 7 games back of the 8-seed in the West last season.
As far as roster spots go, the only loss the Jazz will have to endure is Jeremy Evans and his 7 minutes per game in 38 games played in 2015. The real loss, however, comes in the form of Dante Exum tearing his ACL playing for the Australian national team. Exum was supposed to assume a larger role at the point this season; but the return of a healthy Alec Burks should help soften the blow.
The Jazz managed to sign two of their draft-and-stash players this summer to beef up their roster. Raul Neto (point guard) and Tibor Pleiss (center) should add some needed depth at their respective positions. Neto could see a sizable role next season with Exum being sidelined and Trey Burke just not having a great career so far (I’m sorry, but it’s true!).
The Jazz drafted Kentucky forward Trey Lyles with the number 12 pick. Most may not remember Trey Lyles on that 38-1 Kentucky Wildcats team due to the embarrassment of riches Coach John Calipari boasted on his squad; especially in the front court. But Lyles is a good passer who can space the floor and win rebounding battles – a nice fit for Jazz Coach Quin Snyder’s scheme.
To be honest, I don’t totally know how to grade the Jazz’s offseason. Part of me wants to give them an incomplete due to the combination of the Exum injury/Trey Burke doesn’t fit the system/they have $10 million in cap space. But these are offseason grades; therefore, I must grade what they’ve done this offseason.
But the Jazz not only finished their 2014-15 season with a 19-10 run, they also registered the number one defense in the NBA post All-Star break, allowing only 94.8 points per 100 possessions during that stretch. This was in large part because of the trade that sent starting center Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder (see previous section), allowing second year center Rudy “The Stifle Tower” Gobert to anchor the defense.
Trey Burke defensive rating with Enes Kanter was 110.1. With Rudy Gobert was 99.7. Lots of Trey bad defense was who he was with
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) August 5, 2015
They figured their 15th ranked offense should improve with Alec Burks returning from injury, and they expect their young players like Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, and Rodney Hood to continue to develop.
I can’t tell if the Jazz are merely rolling with their young guys in hopes that they continue their development by virtue of being competitive, or they actually think that their end-of-season run last year will continue into next season and compete for the 8-seed.
I think the answer falls somewhere in-between.
I’ll give them a ‘B’ for their effort and the fact that they stayed true to their plan. They didn’t overpay a free agent, but I do wish they added another point guard.
Are they better: Yes.
Denver Nuggets: C-
Re-signed: Darrell Arthur, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Jameer Nelson
Lost: Ian Clark, Jamaal Franklin, Ty Lawson
Acquired: Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson, Nikola Jokic (D), Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni
Drafted: Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Radičević (DnS)
Other notable moves: N/A
Up and down offseason for the Denver Nuggets.
On the plus side, they saw Emmanuel Mudiay drop to them at number 7. Great value considering he was the projected number 1 overall pick coming out of high school. Not playing college ball in the states was a buzzkill for his draft stock; but Mudiay seems happy to be in Denver, and Denver should be happy to have Mudiay.
Bringing back Jameer Nelson was a good move not only because he’s a positive mentor for Mudiay, but he should serve as a quality back-up point guard as well. I also really like 4-years/$46 million for the well-rounded Wilson Chandler. Great value, especially when the cap jumps.
Now on to what I didn’t like…
Drafting Mudiay meant that the Nuggets could finally move on from their troubled point guard Ty Lawson. After flirting with teams such as the Kings and Nets, the Nuggets finally pulled the trigger on a trade that would send Lawson to the Houston Rockets for Nick Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Joey Dorsey, and a lottery-protected 1st round pick in 2016.
I mean, yea, Johnson and Papanikolaou are young prospects who got lost in the shuffle in Houston; but neither exactly move the needle as far as potential goes. Prigioni and Dorsey are decent veterans on their good days; but the only utility Denver gains from those two is the fact that their combined $1.4 million in contracts expire after this season. They might be able to flip Prigioni for a 2nd rounder or two, much like the Knicks did last February. But the best part of this trade is getting a 1st round pick that’ll likely end up in the mid to late-20’s.
Granted Lawson did acquire his second DUI in one calendar year about a week before the trade, and that probably had a lot to do with his trade value diminishing. But eventually April will roll around, and the Nuggets will be in the running for the top pick while Ty Lawson is running the point for a championship contender. It’s there that the Nuggets will undoubtedly question whether they
could’ve should’ve gotten more in that trade.
By the way, just throwing this out there:
The Sacramento Kings (who had a major interest in Ty Lawson pre-draft night) unloaded Carl Landry and Jason Thompson’s contracts onto the Philadelphia 76ers, while also giving them Nik Stauskas, a future 1st round pick, and the right to swap 1st round picks in two future drafts for their trouble.
You read that correctly. Not only did the Kings not get anything back in that trade, they paid to not get anything back in that trade.
Wouldn’t that trade look 10x better if the Kings offered that to the Nuggets for Ty Lawson? Yes. Is that a far better return for Denver than what they got from Houston? Hell yes. Not a bad way to start a rebuild either.
I don’t really know if this is more of an indictment of the Kings or the Nuggets. What I do know is that Denver lost that trade to Houston big time. As much as I love Mudiay for Denver’s future, you gotta admit, they missed a great opportunity to pick up some assets.
Are they better?: No.
Minnesota Timberwolves: A+
Re-signed: Kevin Garnett
Lost: Chase Budinger, Justin Hamilton, Robbie Hummel, Gary Neal, Arinze Onuaku
Acquired: Nemanja Bjelica (D), Andre Miller, Tyus Jones (R), Damjan Rudez
Drafted: Karl-Anthony Towns
Other notable moves: N/A
On a serious note, Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Ops./Head Coach Flip Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma this offseason. The prognosis is positive. I wish him and his family the best, and I hope Saunders has a speedy recovery. Click here if you’d like to read more about this situation via ESPN.com.
Can I just say Flip Saunders has been on a heat check since last summer’s blockbuster Kevin Love trade? I know, venturing outside of this offseason is against my made up rules, but bear with me for a moment.
Here’s a re-cap of the last year:
- Flip Saunders drafts Zach LaVine, who went on to win the Slam Dunk Contest and was named to the All-Rookie 2nd Team
- Saunders elected not to trade Kevin Love to the Golden State Warriors for a package of decent rotation guys.
- Better Kevin Love-trade falls onto Saunders’ lap via the Cleveland Cavaliers; acquire Andrew Wiggins (pick 1, 2014), Anthony Bennett (pick 1, 2013), Thaddeus Young, and a trade exception.
- Saunders trades Young to the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Garnett, who’s the greatest player in franchise history.
- Warm welcome home proves that Garnett may actually have a heart after all.
- Andrew Wiggins wins Rookie of the Year
- Ping pong balls are fortuitous to the Timberwolves; first team to win NBA Draft Lottery with the worst record since 2004.
- Saunders selects consensus number one prospect Karl-Anthony Towns with the 1st overall pick of the draft.
- Saunders maximizes the value of his two second round picks (and one future second rounder) and trades for hometown hero Tyus Jones.
- Saunders re-signs Kevin Garnett to a 2-year deal.
- Garnett assumes mentor role for young Wolves players at the Las Vegas Summer League.
- Saunders brings in reigning Euro League MVP Nemanja Bjelica
It’s no secret that I loved every move that the Timberwolves made this offseason. It’s so rare that an NBA team finds a new identity within a year of trading away their franchise player.
They have the perfect mix of high-ceiling prospects with knowledgeable veterans. They may not compete for a playoff spot next season; but at last T-Wolves fans have something they can cheer about. They’re heading in the right direction.
Are they better?: Yes.
That’ll do it for the Northwest Division. Stayed tuned, as next I give my grades for the Southwest Division.