The last installment in this series covered the teams the Suns will struggle against for Pacific Division dominance this fall. This next episode will take a look at 3 Western Conference playoff teams from this past season as well as two more with aspirations of taking a step up next year.
Extensive BSotS draft coverage continues to provide a look at players the Suns may select with their 13th pick, but this preview series will take a brief glance division by division (6 total) to offer insight on the machinations of the Suns' opponents in preparation of the impending free agency period. In our continuing effort to be your primary provenance for all that is NBA, and especially Phoenix Suns, the subject of this offering will be a look at the Northwest Division with a slant at how the actions of these teams may affect the maneuverability of the Phoenix Suns.
The precocious Oklahoma City Thunder fell just short of the ultimate prize, the Nuggets, Jazz, and Timberwolves all have talented cores they intend to build around, and Portland looks to completely reshape their roster this offseason. Propel yourself forward to peer into their possible plans.
Special thanks to contributors from SB Nation sister sites that were gracious enough to provide input.
***Updated to include answers from Minnesota***
**Only guaranteed contracts and player options are being computed into cap numbers for the purpose of this analysis. Cap holds, exceptions, etc. haven't been figured into this number to determine an exact value. This is just to get a general idea of where each teams stands relative to the salary cap, which is expected to be in the neighborhood of $61 million. Salary information courtesy of Shamsports.
Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19)
Draft Picks: 1st round 28th overall
Cap Number with Options: ~$62.2 million for 12 players (Durant, Perkins, Westbrook, Harden, Cook, Sefolosha, Collison, Aldrich, Maynor, Ibaka, Jackson, and Hayward).
Free Agents: Mohammed, Fisher, and Ivey (Unrestricted).
J.A. Sherman from Welcome to Loud City answered the following questions:
Where is the interest level with Fisher from both parties, is it likely that he's back next year?
I do not think Derek Fisher will be back next year. Fisher was added to the team primarily because OKC's backup PG Eric Maynor tore his ACL and was lost for the season, and rookie PG Reggie Jackson showed promise but did not reach a reliable level where the team felt it could trust him for a deep playoff run. Fisher filled the role competently but not in a way where he makes you go, "wow, we need Fisher on this team next season." Eric Maynor appears by all reports to be on schedule for a return next season. On top of that, I believe Reggie Jackson showed enough talent that he should be able to help lead the 2nd unit for a few months if Maynor needs some additional time for recovery. It makes little sense to keep Fisher on the team when the Thunder will be three PG's deep and looking to carve out cap space for contract extensions.
Besides Fisher, all the major components are under contract for next season. Is the idea to bring the team back intact, thinking that another year under their belt will give them a very good chance at taking the last step towards a championship, or can you see minor tweaks to the roster?
I think that the team will continue to add by subtraction. What I mean is, I think we'll see Fisher move on so that Maynor and Jackson can play substantive roles as stated above. I also think that veteran backup center Nazr Mohammed will probably move on as well, making way for 3rd year player Cole Aldrich to provide some better defense and bench energy. The Thunder team concept has always been about removing barriers the young players face so that they can learn on the fly, and I think that concept will continue into the 2012-13 season. Barring some major injury, I do not see OKC adding any additional players over the off-season or the course of the next season.
A large part of the improvement for the Thunder will be from the maturation of their fledgling roster. Another year to grow together can probably only help, and let's face it, they're already pretty good. I also get the sense that Fisher may be expendable because the Thunder would like to give the playing time to Eric Maynor. My takeaway from this is that the Thunder, who were just in the NBA Finals, already have young players on the roster ready to fill the spots that will soon be created by their expiring veterans. A strategy that develops continuity without disrupting chemistry is probably wise for this team.
Denver Nuggets (38-28)
Draft Picks: 1st round 20th overall, 2nd round 38th overall, 2nd round 50th overall
Cap Number with Options: ~$49.5 million for 12 players (Afflalo, Harrington, Chandler, Andersen, Gallinari, Mozgov, Brewer, Koufos, Lawson, Faried, Hamilton, and Stone).
Options: Mozgov (Partially Guaranteed) and Stone (Unguaranteed).
Free Agents: Miller (Unrestricted). McGee and Fernandez (Restricted).
Nate Timmons and CombatChuk from Denver Stiffs answered the following questions:
Is Andre Miller expected to test free agency in search of a starting role elsewhere? What is the Nuggets plan at back up point guard if Miller decides to leave (or Denver lets him go)?
Nate - For some people, the answer as to what the Nuggets will do for a backup point guard will be answered on Thursday. If the Nuggets pass on an available point guard, like Marquis Teague, in favor of a big-man or wing player - then some will think Andre Miller is still in Denver's plans. However, if Miller leaves, I believe Denver will sign or trade for a veteran point guard to backup Ty Lawson. Second year player Julyan Stone is expected to be back and could see a larger role with the team, as well.
As for my thoughts - I think Miller will definitely be back with the Nuggets. George Karl values Miller and it would be crazy if Miller decided to leave a coach that will put him in a bigger role than most. Sure, he could leave for a starting job and might test the market, but I think he'll be back with the Nuggets.
What is the Nuggets interest level in retaining rfa McGee, and what kind of contract (dollars and years) do you expect him to receive? What is the pecking order for McGee, Koufos, and Mozgov?
CombatChuk - Masai Ujiri (Nuggets' GM) has stated that he will match any RFA tender offer made on JaVale McGee. Now if some team foolishly offers him a max contract, Masai may balk. But after his performance against the Lakers in the postseason and his steady upward trend since acquiring him in the Nene trade; I'm 99% sure he's going to stay as a Nugget. I'm bracing for a DeAndre Jordan type deal 4yr/40 million dollars.
Kosta Koufos was awarded a 3-year 9 million dollar contract extension last season, so the Nuggets do like him (plays excellent pick and roll defense). But he was completely ineffective against the Lakers in this past postseason (and against bigger Centers). Timofey Mozgov was the starting Center at the beginning of last year. He had a promising start, but was derailed by injuries. He never really got back into that groove from the beginning of the season. He showed flashes again against the Lakers in the postseason, but nothing to get excited about. So I expect McGee to start, followed by Koufos or Mozgov (I could see one of them get traded this offseason, Mozgov is an expiring contract).
Denver has a deep roster pullulating with talent, and appears poised to bring it back basically intact. It seems to me that they might still be missing a piece to legitimately contend, but with 8 rotation players 26 years old or younger, there is still plenty of room for improvement. If the team isn't able to make the progression this season, they will still have plenty of tradable assets.
Utah Jazz (36-30)
Draft Picks: 2nd round 47th overall
Cap Number with Options: ~$53.7 million for 11 players (Jefferson, Harris, Millsap, Favors, Kanter, Bell, Hayward, Burks, Watson, Tinsley, and Carroll).
Options: Tinsley (Team Option) and Carroll (Unguaranteed).
Free Agents: Miles and Howard (Unrestricted). Evans and Ahearn (Restricted).
AllThatJazzBasketball and clarkpojo from SLC Dunk answered the following questions:
The Jazz have a good mix of young talent and players in their prime, but the roster still seems a little unbalanced and as it stands now they currently have zero guaranteed contracts (4 team options for 2103-14) after the 2012-13 season. What exactly does the plan seem to be moving forward?
AllThatJazzBasketball - Utah Jazz General Manager Kevin O'Connor seems to be leading the Jazz towards fiscal responsibility, which may or may not lead towards on-court wins. The last Jazz core was anchored down by the overpriced contracts of Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Matt Harpring. Yes, even Harpring made way more money than he should. By having no big albatross contracts in the near future the Jazz retain the flexibility that they did not during the last prolonged era.
This time around the Jazz are rebuilding by the draft, and have four lottery picks on their rookie deals still. The Jazz will need that flexibility if a) more than two of the four become as good as Jazz fans hope, and b) the Jazz attempt to keep them in Utah. Of course, you can't just pay/play four players. The Jazz need everything else in the long term. Let's just hope that the Jazz do not ditch the slow growth plan to over-pay another group of free agents in 2013-14. This slow growth plan seems to be the only thing moving forward, bringing the youth along slowly, and being able to pay them the money we hope they demand when their rookie contracts end. In a way, learning from Oklahoma City's examples/challenges.
Is Utah looking to get more playing time for their young bigs? Is Millsap the most expendable piece and what would the Jazz hope to garner in return for him?
Clarkpojo - I think the Jazz would like to get more playing time for both Favors and Kanter. I would imagine that they would like both of them to combine for 45-60 minutes of playing time. Obviously there are 96 minutes at the power forward and Center position, so a remaining 36-50 minutes probably isn't enough time for both Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, unless the Jazz think Millsap can play 15+ minutes at the small forward position. But the Jazz aren't the type of team that ever feel pressured to deal a guy just to give another guy playing time.
They have shown this time and time again, even just a couple years ago when Carlos Boozer was obviously on his way out and Millsap was there to step in and the Jazz turned down all trade offers for Boozer and expected him to honor his contract and play hard. They let Boozer walk for nothing but a trade exception even though they had several options to trade him for lesser talent and cash savings.
I think most Jazz fans would prefer that the front office does trade away Millsap or Jefferson to make more time for Favors and Kanter. Every fan has their different idea of that scenario. I would prefer to trade away Jefferson, even though Paul Millsap will bring more value back in a trade, with his equal production and 40% cheaper paycheck. So to answer your question, I actually think Jefferson is more expendable, as far as replaceable, but Millsap is easier to trade and probably more likely to be traded. A lot of this will depend on the discussion that the Jazz have with Millsap and his agent this July to see if what type of money it would cost to extend Millsap.
If the Jazz do end up moving Millsap, I personally hope it will be sooner than later, before the draft, because I think the Jazz could get a decent lottery pick and/or some increased cap space with a Millsap deal. For instance Millsap to New Orleans for the 10th pick makes some sense, or to the Trailblazers for the 11th pick. I even wonder if the Jazz could trade Millsap to the Sacramento Kings for John Salmon's crappy contract and the 5th pick, if Michael Kidd Gilchrist doesn't fall to 5. I don't know who the Jazz would covet at the 5th spot though. I think if they moved Millsap for a pick, they would target a point guard. This is all just my opinion. I don't have inside knowledge of the team's thinking.
What two words best describe Utah Jazz basketball if not "fiscal responsibility". Actually, that seems to be a leitmotif for teams across the league. I can see more teams practicing sound financial judgment under the new CBA, then again the free agency period tends to procreate absurdity. The upcoming period may be a good gauge.
From this account, it appears that Millsap may still be available for the right price. Any of the trades mentioned above have the capacity to adversely affect the Suns in a bifurcated manner. I could see both teams improving in any of those moves, which would be doubly detrimental to the Suns. Should the Suns look into forestalling this possibility through their own interest?
Portland Trail Blazers (28-38)
Draft Picks: 1st round 6th overall, 1st round 11th overall, 2nd round 40th overall, 2nd round 41st overall
Options: Crawford and Shawne Williams (Player Option).
Free Agents: Felton, Thabeet, Flynn, and Oden (Unrestricted). Hickson and Batum (Restricted).
Dave from Blazers Edge answered the following questions:
What are the Blazers intentions regarding their rfa's Batum and Hickson? Assuming they intend to keep them, what kind of money can you envision Portland spending (dollars and years)?
The Blazers will be insistent on keeping Batum, interested in keeping Hickson. The actual dollar amount is complicated by the market, as both are restricted free agents. Hickson has a $6 million cap hold. If the Blazers keep him they will not offer that much, so they'd be interested in doing that deal early to reduce their cap burden. Batum's cap hold is similar but his contract will be more, meaning they'll want to sign him after other free agents. Best guess is that they'd like Hickson at $4.5-$5 million and Batum at $8-9, but those numbers could vary. They could also renounce Hickson to save cap room.
Portland is positioned to be one of the most active teams in the league the next few weeks. Are the Blazers poised to make an offer to Nash? Will they be drafting a point guard next Thursday regardless? Who else might they be targeting in free agency?
The Blazers could be active in going after Goran Dragic, bidding up the price for Houston to match. Failing that, they could well draft Damian Lillard. They'd love Nash at the right price but the chances of the Hall-of-Famer taking a discount offer to play for a team he wouldn't push to a title seems small. Why not just stay in Phoenix? The Blazers also need centers and scoring. Chris Kaman is a possibility, though not an attractive one. Restricted free agents like Roy Hibbert and JaVale McGee would look tempting, but chances are their teams would match offers and the Blazers can't afford to mess around.
They could look for amnestied big men too, Brendan Haywood or even Elton Brand. Eric Gordon or another scoring guard would merit a look if the Blazers don't draft a point-producer. It seems more likely they'd fulfill their needs using their cap space to facilitate imbalanced trades than on free agents straight up though.
It almost sounds to me like the Suns and Blazers could buy groceries off of each other's shopping lists - lots of similar interests there. Batum seems like a promising young player, I wouldn't be surprised if he ascends into double digit millions. Hickson is a player the Suns showed interest in at one time, but it seems unlikely they will pursue him at this point based on their current power forward logjam.
Brand has been discussed on BSotS recently, but priority for waiver claims starts from the bottom up, so the Suns might ultimately be too good (hahaha) to exploit this tactic.
Minnesota Timberwolves (26-40)
Draft Picks: 1st round 18th overall, 2nd round 58th overall
Cap Number with Options: ~$58.0 million for 12 players (Webster, Milicic, Miller, Love, Williams, Pekovic, Barea, Johnson, Ridnour, Rubio, Ellington, and Lee).
Options: Webster and Miller (Partially Guaranteed).
Free Agents: Tolliver (Unrestricted). Beasley and Randolph (Restricted).
Jon Marthaler from Canis Hoopus answered the following questions:
Where do the Wolves stand with respect their rfa's Beasley and Randolph?
I don't think either Beasley or Randolph will be a Timberwolf next season. There have been a ton of rumors about the Wolves pulling a sign-and-trade with Beasley - the Lakers are involved in almost every one of these rumors, mostly because they almost traded for Beasley at the deadline last year. Getting Chase Budinger today probably seals Beasley's fate (and, if we're lucky, relegates Wes Johnson to practice-time duty.) As for Randolph, I get the sense the team feels that he's incredibly talented but inconsistent and therefore maybe not worth making a qualifying offer. Sign-and-trade for Beasley, unrestricted free agency for Randolph seems the most likely scenario.
Does Minnesota plan on shedding their minimally guaranteed contracts and using that cap space to address the team's deficiencies at the 2/3 spots (which seems to be a frequent problem across the league)?
As for the cap space and the 2/3 situation - they traded the 18th pick for Budinger, and they're rumored to be interested in signing Brandon Roy and his no-longer-cushioned-in-any-way knees to a multi-year deal. Safe to say they're interested in getting a 2/3, whatever the price.
I think that the Wolves would probably be best served to sever ties with their options and free agents (except possibly Randolph if he comes cheap). Beasley's inability to pull it together in a contract year further illustrates that he just doesn't get it, and it probably isn't worth risking good money on the gamble that he one day will.
They have a good core of Love, Williams, Pekovic, Johnson, Rubio, and Barea (and now Budinger) to build around. The team appeared to be ready to compete for one of the final playoff spots last season before Rubio's injury. I think they may still be a scoring wing from contending.