NBA Offseason Grades: Central Division

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Welcome to part three of my six part series of NBA Offseason Grades. Let me break down a few things in case you’re new to this series:

I’ve taken it upon myself to evaluate each team’s offseason transactions. I’ve given each team a 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. Most importantly, I answer the one pivotal question: Are they better?

Today we tackle the Central Division.

If you missed it:

Atlantic Division Grades

Southeast Division Grades

Key: 

  • (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 Central Division Champions:

Cleveland Cavaliers: A

Re-signed: Matthew Dellavedova, LeBron James, James Jones, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert

Lost: Brendan Haywood, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson*

Acquired: Cedi Osman (R, DnS), Richard Jefferson, Mo Williams

Drafted: Sir’Dominic Pointer

Other notable moves: Did not fire (Figure) Head Coach David Blatt

*Note: The Cavs have been in talks with Tristan Thompson and his camp in regards to a new contract. Both sides have mutual interest in Thompson returning to the Cavs; but a deal has yet to be reached as of today.

There was no hour-long broadcast from a Boys and Girls Club, there was no letter in Sports Illustrated; it was merely LeBron James informing the Cavaliers that he intended to sign a two-year deal to stay in Cleveland. Some will point out that LeBron always knew he would be back in Cleveland next year. But then again, who exactly expected LeBron to leave Cleveland in 2010; or Miami last summer? Therefore, rule number one comes into play: any team that signs LeBron James in free agency is guaranteed at least an ‘A’ on their report card.

It’s worth noting that a big reason why LeBron left Cleveland the first time around was because team brass failed to build a legitimate contender around him. It’s also worth noting that a big reason why LeBron left Miami last summer was because owner Micky Arison was more concerned about saving money than deepening their roster.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert heard this message loud and clear. Which is why LeBron James has Gilbert’s checkbook by the balls.  Check out Cleveland’s projected 2015-16 payroll via basketball-reference.com:

(Image from Basketball-Reference.com)

 

 

And that’s without Tristan Thompson and his expected $16 million income for next season. Cleveland also has $10.5 million and a $2.85 million trade in exceptions they can use next season via the Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller trade. The salary cap is expected to boom to $108 by the 2017-18 season; Cleveland may exceed that number NEXT season! Which could result in a $75 million luxury tax for Gilbert and the Cavs.

Image from Associated Press) “You get a new contract. You get a new contract! And you get a new contract!,” LeBron says in his best Oprah Winfrey impression.

From the outside, LeBron merely looks like the ex-girlfriend who took the ungrateful boyfriend back, and now the boyfriend is spending all of his money as if to prove to her that he’s a changed man. Actually, this sounds about right.

The moves do make sense, though. Cleveland brought back everyone from a team that finished the regular season on a 34-9 run and was two wins and two less injuries away from winning the NBA Finals. That’s not to say they don’t have holes, though.

The Cavs picked up Mo Williams on a super-cheap 2-year/$4.3 million deal. Meaning if Kyrie Irving gets hurt again, you won’t see Matthew Dellavedova running the point for 36 minutes per game. Some will scoff at the Williams signing; but at the end of the day he’s a point guard who can score and make plays for those around him. But most importantly, he’s a point guard that LeBron trusts.

The Cavs could use another center on the roster considering Anderson Varejao always seems to be an injury waiting to happen (he’s only played in 172 of 410 games in the last 5 seasons). Perimeter shooting depth seems to be another hole the Cavs have yet to address (a possible JR Smith return?)

Assuming everyone is healthy by opening night, the Cavs are undoubtedly the best team in the East. So their really isn’t a huge rush for them to address their remaining holes. They have time to wait and see how their team and the market develops, and they have those two trade exceptions in their hip pocket in case they need to make a move. But until they address those holes, I’m capping their offseason grade at an ‘A’.

Are they better?: Yes.

Chicago Bulls: B-

Re-signed: Aaron Brooks, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy

Lost: Nazr Mohammed

Acquired: Cristiano Silva Felício (R)

Drafted: Bobby Portis

Other notable moves: Fired Head Coach Tom Thibodeau; hired Head Coach Fred Hoiberg

There’s a new sheriff in town.

I’m not here to grade the morality of firing Thibs or how they went about it. Instead I’ll point out that they replaced a proven NBA coach with someone who’s only coached on the collegiate level. Throw in the fact that he brings a polar-opposite system to a team full of established veterans, and you got yourself a learning curve. But he does bring an analytic-friendly offensive mind to a team that really had no clear plan on offense last year. I think Hoiberg will end up being a solid NBA coach; but the transition in the short-term may not be as seamless as other rookie head coaches in recent years.

As far as the players go, there’s not a whole lot to see here. Management is bringing the band back together for another year. The Bulls really had no other choice. Once they locked up Jimmy Butler to a 5-year max contract (good move) they pretty much tossed this summer’s flexibility out the window. So it only made sense to bring back Aaron Brooks (veteran’s minimum) and Mike Dunleavy (early bird rights).

The Bulls drafted Bobby Portis out of Arkansas with the 22nd overall pick. Portis just feels like a Fred Hoiberg-type player. He has a high motor and he brings a lot of offensive versatility to the team.

The Bulls still have a lot of questions to be answered. How will Hoiberg go about playing Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah? Is Noah officially in decline? Will Taj Gibson be traded? Is Hoiberg prepared for an Aaron Brooks/E’Twaun Moore-combo to run the offense if Derrick Rose gets hurt?

Still more questions than answers with this team; 50 wins last season be damned.

Are they better?: No.

Milwaukee Bucks: A-

Re-signed: Khris Middleton

Lost: Jared Dudley, Ersan Ilyasova, Chris Johnson, Zaza Pachulia

Acquired: Chris Copeland, Greg Monroe, Greivis Vasquez

Drafted: Rashad Vaughn

Other notable moves: N/A

Greg Monroe snubbed not one, but two big-market teams en route to signing a max contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. And I don’t think it was because of the cheese. Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck elaborates:

Score one for small-market teams everywhere!

The Bucks will pay Monroe about $16.5 million per year over the next two seasons (three if he chooses to opt-in to the final year of his contract). Which really isn’t that steep of a price considering he was a 16-10 guy last season while playing out of position and sharing the front court with Andre Drummond (13.8 points and 13.5 rebounds per game).

This is good news for a Bucks team that has been in search of a franchise center ever since Larry Sanders’ exodus from the team last season. Also, the Bucks haven’t had a center that’s averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game since Andrew Bogut in 2010*.

*NOTE: Only four Buck centers have averaged 15 and 10 in a regular season in franchise history: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6x), Vin Baker (2x), Andrew Bogut, and Elmore Smith. **
**NOTE: Marques Johnson averaged 15 and 10 as a small forward.

Khris Middleton cashed in on a 5-year/$70 million deal, making him the second highest paid player on the Bucks behind Monroe. If that contract strikes you as a gamble, well, you’re right.

For those of you who have never heard of Khris Middleton (I imagine there’s a lot of you out there), he’s a very good “3-and-D” type player at only 23 years old. He was the Bucks’ second leading scorer and was arguably the their best defender last season. His shooting splits were 47-41-86, and he can guard the 2, 3, and 4 very effectively.

I roasted the Raptors for overpaying DeMarre Carroll (comparable stats and comparable contract) and lauded the Hawks for letting him walk. The situation is slightly different in Milwaukee, though. Middleton was a restricted free agent and would have undoubtedly garnered a max contract offer from somewhere else had he allowed others to court him.

And of Milwaukee’s young and promising small forward contingent, Middleton is without a doubt the most polished and well-rounded of the bunch. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a hotbed of potential, but he’s still very raw as a player; and Jabari Parker is coming off a torn ACL and is not near the defender that Middleton is.

The biggest difference between Middleton and Carroll is that Middleton turns 24 on August 12th, and is only entering the 4th year of his career. He still has a lot of growing to do; whereas what you see is likely what you’re going to get out of Carroll, who’s about to enter year 9 of his career and is 29 years old. The contract is a big gamble given the years and the money, but given the circumstances it was one the Bucks had to take. So with that, I’m OK with it.

The Bucks remain one of the biggest, longest wingspan-ed teams in the NBA. They brought in the lanky Chris Copeland to deepen their bench, and I like the trade for 6’6 combo guard Greivis Vasquez as a hedge-bet in case Michael Carter-Williams’ jump shot is forever broken.

The Bucks drafted Rashad Vaughn out of UNLV to bolster their perimeter shooting. Vaughn was an elite shooter on the collegiate level and should provide the Bucks some scoring depth off the bench.

Are they better: Yes.

Indiana Pacers: D

Re-signed: Lavoy Allen, Rodney Stuckey, Shayne Whittington

Lost: Chris Copeland, Roy Hibbert, Luis Scola, Damjan Rudez, Donald Sloan, CJ Watson, David West

Acquired: Chase Budinger, Rakeem Christmas (R), Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill, Glenn Robinson III

Drafted: Myles Turner, Joseph Young

Other notable moves: N/A

Not a good look for the Indiana Pacers this summer.

It was pretty obvious Roy Hibbert’s time in Indiana was drawing dead; especially when team President Larry Bird and Head Coach Frank Vogel insinuated that Hibbert’s role would be diminished in favor of a faster, potentially smaller line-up. Some believe that the ulterior motive of these comments were to get Hibbert to opt-out of the final year of his contract, valued at $15.5 million. I guess you could say I’m one of those conspiracy theorists.

Hibbert did not end up taking the hint, or flat-out ignored the hint depending on whom you ask, and opted-in to his final year. Two weeks later Hibbert was salary-dumped onto the Lakers for a second round pick. The trade was actually beneficial for both sides; it cleared cap space for the Pacers and it allowed Hibbert a fresh start with a new franchise.

And I imagine Pacers fans weren’t all that disappointed with the trade either….

Alllllrighty then.

The Pacers drafted Myles Turner out of Texas to succeed Hibbert. He’s a capable jump-shooter, and with a standing reach of 9’4, there’s a lot of potential for being elite rim protector. But at 6’11 and 243 pounds, he’ll need to add some bulk before he can really hold his own down in the low-post. Turner will have to grow and learn on the fly, because he’ll likely be their opening night starter. Expect growing pains.

While Bird was hoping Hibbert would opt-out, he was also hoping that veteran power forward David West would opt-in to the final year of his deal ($12.6 million). West shocked the system by opting-out and taking the veteran’s minimum to play for the San Antonio Spurs, spurning the Pacers and leaving $11 million on the table.

West took a couple of shots at Bird and the organization after he left, saying that the he didn’t think the Pacers were in a position to contend (despite Paul George coming back from injury) and that he did not appreciate the way Bird and the organization treated/scapegoated Roy Hibbert.

Another key loss that did not get the same notoriety as David West was Luis Scola. Scola’s stats don’t jump out at you (9.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game), but he’s very consistent and actually a very good one-on-one defender in the paint. Scola’s presence on the court would have made for a nice compliment to Turner’s expected deficiencies.

The loss of CJ Watson also hurts their point guard depth.

With their newly acquired cap space, Bird chose to assemble a new squad on the fly instead of entering a rebuild. An admirable decision, but not one he executed properly. He gave Monta Ellis 3-years/$32 million to assume the play-making responsibilities from George Hill (Monta Ellis likes to shoot the ball, by the way). He acquired Chase Budinger from the Timberwolves to help spacing; but the oft-injured forward has only played 131 games in the last 3 seasons. Myles Turner will need a defensive presence at the four to compliment his rim protection, so Bird signed Jordan Hill and resigned Lavoy Allen who do the opposite of that.

I really don’t think the Pacers will be better next season, despite George coming back from injury. To me, I see a starting line-up that will have two players playing out of position (Monta Ellis at the point and Paul George at the four) and a center (Turner) who’s not ready to defend veteran NBA centers 30+ minutes per night. This team will be able to space the floor, but they’ll be a trainwreck on defense.

Are they better?: No.

Detroit Pistons: C-

Re-signed: Joel Anthony, Reggie Jackson

Lost: Caron Butler, John Lucas III, Greg Monroe, Quincy Miller, Tayshaun Prince, Shawne Williams

Acquired: Aron Baynes, Steve Blake, Reggie Bullock, Danny Granger, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris, Adonis Thomas

Drafted: Stanley Johnson, Darrun Hilliard

Other notable moves: N/A

The Detroit Pistons getting nothing for Greg Monroe will not be counted against Head Coach/President of Basketball Ops. Stan Van Gundy. Like a relief pitcher coming into a baseball game, he is not responsible for his predecessor’s transgressions. By the time SVG took office, the Pistons organization had already expressed that they were Team Andre Drummond and the situation with Greg Monroe was irreparable. Hence the Pistons signing him to the qualifying offer as opposed to a long-term deal. By the way, good luck trading Monroe on a one-year qualifier.

With that said, let’s get down to grading the Pistons.

First and foremost, the Reggie Jackson resigning for 5-years/$80 million. *Face palm*

Pundits expected Reggie Jackson to flourish under SVG’s offense. By not being in Russell Westbrook’s shadow anymore, Jackson saw increases in minutes per game (28 to 32.2.), field goal percentage (43.2 to 43.6%), 3-point percentage (27.8 to 33.7%), rebounds per game (4 to 4.7), assists per game (4.3 to 9.2), points per game (12.8 to 17.6), and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.39 to 2.63); all in just 27 games with his new team. Given that Jackson will have had a whole training camp and pre-season with the Pistons by the start of next season, it’s reasonable to believe that his efficiency will continue to improve.

(Image from USA Today Sports) Should Reggie Jackson be more thankful to his agent or Stan Van Gundy for his 5-year/$80 million contract?

Even with the increase in his numbers, Jackson got overpaid by a long shot. He’s still an inefficient scorer who turns the ball over a little too much. And don’t get me started on his defense. Meanwhile, the Pistons paid him a max contract on the hopes and dreams that’ll he’ll continue to improve in those areas.

I’m not saying SVG shouldn’t have resigned him, but he should have taken advantage of Jackson’s restricted free agency and let the market decide his worth; then match the offer. Poor execution for a player you’re hoping turns into a franchise point guard.

I like the other moves SVG made to bolster the roster, though. 3-years/$19.5 million seems a bit much for Aron Baynes, but he’s a pretty competent big man who’s an excellent rebounder, and shoots 85.6% from the free throw line. He was stuck behind Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and even Boris Diaw in San Antonio; but he’s improved every year and should provide the Pistons with some quality front court depth.

Detroit also picked up Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris, Danny Granger, and Steve Blake in exchange for what comes out to be a second round pick and some spare parts. Ilyasova is a bit of a gamble due to his inconsistent shooting; but Marcus Morris (the worse of the twins) is a capable power forward who could end up starting some games next season. Danny Granger may be out of his prime, but he’s a great locker room presence who should serve as a positive mentor to Detroit’s young wings. Steve Blake is a pretty good 3rd point guard, especially at $2.1 million; but they’ll have to upgrade from him if Brandon Jennings gets hurt again.

The Pistons took Stanley Johnson out of Arizona with the 8th overall pick. “The Stanimal” is an athletic, two-way player that should contribute right away to this roster. Great pick.

Are they better?: Yes


Alright, that does it for the Central Division section of my NBA Offseason grades series. Later this week I begin my journey to the Western Conference; more specifically the Northwest Division!

Thank you very much to basketball-reference.com, espn.go.com/nba, and hoopshype.com for the stats and information used in this article.