Summertime in the NBA is a season full of hope, where everyone except Sixers fans has something to look forward to as they count down the days to opening night.
Every team made changes and most changes look great on paper this time of year, before the actual product is revealed on the floor and the unexpected inevitably happens. Some can't-miss signings will indeed miss, and some players that are being completely overlooked at the moment will suddenly make a name for themselves.
While we can't predict who will be this year's Hassan Whiteside or Khris Middleton, we can still have a little fun with the whole thing and act like we know what we're talking about. For this, I enlisted the Walter Matthau to my Jack Lemmon, Bright Side of the Sun's noble scribe Jim Coughenour, as we pick apart the summer moves that every NBA team has made since their season ended.
This week we take on the Southwest Division, where every team went to the playoffs last year and are poised to do the same this year.
2014/15 record: 50-32 (impoloded but still made playoffs, squashed in the first round by HOU)
Arrivals: Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Justin Anderson
Departures: Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis, Rajon Rondo, Amar'e Stoudemire, Al-Farouq Aminu
Rollin: There's no point in rehashing the DeAndre Jordan fiasco. Through the miracle of the internet, it was perhaps the most entertaining off-season day in NBA history, and by now we all know the details. One morsel of info that went relatively unnoticed, however, was that Jordan's decision to backpedal to the Clippers invoked an agreed-upon term of the Wesley Matthews contract, being that the refugee from Portland suddenly went from a guaranteed $57 million to $70 million over four years.
Wes seems like one of the most genuine, affable dudes in the league, and I wish nothing but the best for him, but that might've been the single worst contract given out over the summer. Achilles injuries are devastating to basketball players; there is no way around it. The chart below is from Chris Towers at CBS Sports, and it details the severe drop in production that NBA players tend to suffer after returning from a ruptured Achilles.
As you can see, this particular injury is often the answer to "hey, whatever happened to that guy?"
If being on the hook for $70 million isn't troubling enough, the Mavericks will need Matthews to contribute right away -- unless they're counting on Deron Williams returning to 2009 form. There just isn't enough firepower on this roster to keep up anymore. Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are good role players, but who's supposed to help Dirk carry the offense enough to buoy this poor defensive team (106.4 DRtg) that just lost their best defenders in Chandler and Aminu?
If there's an NBA team overdue for a rebuild, it's the Mavs. Since drafting Josh Howard in 2003, the closest they have come to nailing a draft selection was Rodrigue Beaubois in 2009, who flamed out dramatically after a promising rookie season. It wouldn't make much sense to go into the tank now, since their 2016 draft pick is owned by Boston courtesy of the Rajon Rondo disaster, but eventually Mark Cuban is gonna have to settle for what he needs and forget about what he wants.
Rollin's grade: Dampier'd Expectations
Dallas has managed to construct a starting lineup with four plus three point shooters. That would have looked pretty good around a big like... let's say DeAndre Jordan.
Jim: I share your concerns about Wes Matthews. If he can play, the Mavericks can contend for a playoff spot. If he can't, they're in danger of giving a top 10 lottery pick to the Celtics next year (top 7 protected).
Matthews (healthy) and Deron Williams is an upgrade over Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo (malcontent), so that could still be a backcourt upgrade, but I agree that the loss of Chandler does not bode well. While Matthews was more of a pest last season, I don't see this team being in the top half of the league in DRtg.
In terms of the brave new world, Dallas has managed to construct a starting lineup with four plus three point shooters. That would have looked pretty good around a big like... let's say DeAndre Jordan. They should have probably considered making a run for him in free agency.
More than just sneaking into the playoffs, though, I think this is a big year for Dallas to find out if Chandler Parsons can step up and become more of a face of the franchise type of player. Parsons is one of those fringe players just on the outside of being an All-Star that might be able to impose his will more with the composition of this roster. If Parsons does become that player and Matthews isn't a shell of his former self the Mavericks still have a chance to reload around the duo next summer. If they don't, Dallas is probably screwed.
Jim's grade: An avatar away...
Rollin: "The Mavericks still have a chance to reload around Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews." Even if the two are healthy, that's a bizarre sentence.
Jim: Check out who's on the cover photo of the team USA basketball website (Parsons).
Rollin: He's only keeping Devin Booker's seat warm.
The Rockets' biggest need of the summer was finding someone to help Harden run the offense, and Morey went yard.
Rollin: Oh man, Houston's offense will be ridiculous with Lawson on board. They already had a healthy ORtg of 107.0 in 2014/15, and that was with Harden swinging the ball over to Patrick Beverley when he was double-teamed. Now, defenses will have to account for Lawson's career .369 3P% and .561 TS%.
The Rockets' biggest need of the summer was finding someone to help Harden run the offense, and Morey went yard.
Of course, all this is assuming that Lawson can lay off the sauce, which none of us are equipped to guess on, so I'm gonna shrug that off for now.
They have enough versatility at PF to balance out the backup center quandary, with Terrence Jones, Montiejunas (hi, Jacob!) and Montrezl Harrell, and if Capela can build on the promise he showed in the playoffs, the question of why Tyler Ennis was drafted by Phoenix in 2014 will only get louder.
The only real fly in the ointment I see here is Kevin McHale, who hasn't done much of anything to impress as a strategist. Perhaps I'm unfairly focusing on that rancid egg the Rockets laid in the first round versus Portland in 2014, but I have trouble envisioning any McHale-coached team making it to the Finals. However, this team might be talented enough that he can't help himself.
Rollin's grade: Keep dreaming, Kieff
Memphis is starting to feel like the monster in the closet that we forgot all about when we grew up.
2014/15 record: 55-27 (succumbed to Warriors 4-2 in WC Semifinals)
Arrivals: Brandan Wright, Matt Barnes, Jarell Martin
Departures: Kosta Koufos, Nick Calathes, Jon Leuer
Jim: The Grizzlies offseason was similar to their playing style in some ways, plodding and unspectacular, but a contrast in others, lacking efficiency. Minting Marc Gasol to a new five year, $110 million dollar contract has to be considered a win, even though he turns 31 next season, but they failed to add anything potent to their nucleus.
The plodding, defensive minded approach built around All-Star center Gasol has been stymied in the playoffs each of the last five seasons, with a lone Conference Finals appearance in 2013. It's not like they just have a nemesis they can't overcome, either. The last four years have been exits at the hands of the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder and Warriors... all of which have more dynamic offenses than Memphis boasts.
To address their lack of a more forcible scoring option the Grizzlies did... absolutely nothing. With the brutal nature of the Western Conference I just don't see the plan of stasis pushing Memphis over the top. Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright seem like fairly Grizzlyesque players, but neither of them makes an offense that scored 86 points or less three times against Golden St. in the playoffs any more diverse. The youngest returning rotation player, Mike Conley, will be 28 before the season starts and none of the younger players appears poised to climb the depth chart.
I'm predicting a wasted year of aging for a team one move away from breaking through.
Jim's grade: Singing the blues.
Rollin: Memphis is starting to feel like the monster in the closet that we forgot all about when we grew up.
I envy Grizzlies fans for getting to watch playoff basketball for five straight seasons, but I wonder if they're having difficulty getting excited for what already looks to be another by-the-numbers season in Memphis. The organization has done an excellent job of establishing their identity and never wavering from it, but at some point that empty cupboard of young prospects is going to become alarming.
Honestly, I don't know what else to say about the Grizz. They'll grind, they'll win 50+ games, they'll beat the Suns four times, they'll scare the piss out of a higher seed at some point in the playoffs, and they'll eventually bow out due to a lack of firepower.
I got nothing else to add here. It's the Grizzlies. We all know what's coming.
Rollin's grade: Grit N' Grind, Rinse N' Repeat
2014/15 record: 45-37, LAST PLACE IN THE SOUTHWEST (lost to GSW in first round)
Arrivals: Kendrick Perkins, Alonzo Gee
Departures: No one of consequence (guess I could've said the same thing about the arrivals)
Rollin: I love the hiring of Alvin Gentry in New Orleans. What an offensive guru like him can do with a generational talent like Anthony Davis will be one of the more interesting subplots in the NBA this year.
Unfortunately, the roster maneuvering since Davis has been on board in NOLA have been overwhelmingly meh, and very little was done this summer to improve the superstar's supporting cast.
Jrue Holiday is a very nice player, but has only appeared in 74 games since the Pelicans traded Nerlens Noel plus an additional first-rounder for him in 2013.
Eric Gordon has yet to play more than 64 games in a season since New Orleans mercifully saved Lance Blanks from himself and matched the Suns' offer of 4 years, $58 million in 2012. Even when healthy, his production has declined each year since (although he did scorch from downtown last season at .448).
Tyreke Evans can contribute offensively in a number of ways, but his 26.7 USG% is quite an eyesore when his .508 TS% is factored in.
It was puzzling enough when the Pelicans rounded up this motley crew of ball-dominant players in 2013. How is that all three are entering the third season of this bizarre backcourt experiment? New Orleans is another great example of the "better to be lucky than good" theme that runs throughout NBA front offices. They were gifted a player that might easily be the very best in the league before he turns 25, and instead of patiently drafting a young core for him to grow with, they cashed in their chips for the weirdest NBA roster of the last couple seasons.
As long as I'm ranting here, re-signing Omer Asik at $60 million instead of making the obvious transition to putting Davis at the 5 and setting the horses free was nothing short of maddening as a basketball fan.
Rollin's grade: No smoothies for you
This kind of platitude doesn't give me much confidence in [Demps'] ability to construct a championship roster around Anthony Davis... instead I'm left questioning his sanity.
Jim: The Pelicans have to be considered a winner this summer by virtue of inking Davis to a five year, $145 million max extension (5th year player option). Now all they have to do is find a way to build a winner around him.
That plan is still pending deployment.
NO had a litany of injury issues last season with four key cogs missing substantial time - Davis (13 games), Holiday (42), Anderson (21) and Gordon (21). The Pelicans could be more formidable with a full complement, but is there a realistic expectation for this group to stay healthy moving forward? The enigma of keeping these guys on the court would likely befuddle the Suns training staff...
Gentry seems like a solid pickup and I can see him getting along swimmingly with the team's franchise player, but this team isn't a coaching change away from contending. Asik seems like a misfit with this team and Gentry's stylistic approach, so big ups on that deal. Gordon finally falls off the books next summer after earning every penny of his lucrative contract, so maybe that opens up a spot for someone who can actually contribute in a meaningful way. As far as that goes, after basically stealing money off the top of the Pelicans dresser for the last four years maybe Gordon should play pro bono for the team after his deal runs its course.
Dell Demps seems to be pretty happy with the job he's doing based on an interview on the Pelicans NBA.com page. "When free agency started, I felt like Jake and Elwood from the Blues Brothers, when they said they were going to bring the band back together." This kind of platitude doesn't give me much confidence in his ability to construct a championship roster around Davis... instead I'm left questioning his sanity. Even his reference is asinine, because the movie ended with Jake and Elwood in prison.
The Pelicans were gifted Davis, so they get no credit there. Resigning him is a great coup for the franchise, but doesn't speak to any kind of brilliant artifice. Over the last couple of years they've managed to surround him with a supporting cast of players that can't stay healthy and just really aren't that good when they are.
Maybe Davis will be able to lure premiere talent to come play with him over the next few years, but that will likely have more to do with Anthony than anyone else in the organization.
Jim's grade: Down in the Demps
San Antonio Spurs
2014/15 record: 55-27 (lost to LA Clippers in one of the most entertaining first round series ever)
Arrivals: LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, Ray McCallum, Jonathon Simmons, Bobjan Marjonovic, Jimmer Fredette
Departures: Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Aron Baynes, Tiago Splitter, Jeff Ayres
The Spurs continue to be the horror movie villain that refuses to die.
While my seething hatred from years past has been tempered to a mixture or jealousy and admiration, at some point it just gets a little bit old watching the same narrative unfold again and again.
This summer gave Suns fans another chance to feel like the Spurs punching bag after being teased into entertaining the proposition that Aldridge was actually giving the Suns serious consideration. Those of us who have been paying attention to this one sided rivalry knew better than to believe that chimerical fantasy.
Jim: So the Spurs, who despite losing in the first round were definitely championship contenders, have undergone a fairly dramatic facelift in their effort to win a sixth championship in the Tim Duncan era.
While the magnitude of the Aldridge acquisition shouldn't be understated, the Spurs lost five good to very good role players this summer and might not have the depth they've enjoyed in recent years. Then again, they might just be able to plug in fans from out of the stands and stroll along to 55+ wins, like they've done 18 times in the past 22 seasons (shortened season adjusted).
I do worry about the team's lack of size being exploited in some matchups, but Golden St. just won the title with Draymond Green playing center, so I'm probably just splitting hairs.
You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and the Spurs definitely won the summer.
Jim's grade: Once you Pop, the fun don't stop
Popovich picked a hell of a time to lure the most coveted available free agent to the Spurs -- something they've never had to do before.
Rollin: This could have been the summer in which the empire finally crumbled, with so many players either entering free agency or possible retirement. Popovich picked a hell of a time to lure the most coveted available free agent to the Spurs -- something they've never had to do before. Good thing, because he really needed to sharpen up that resume.
If this was a normal team under normal circumstances, I'd be wondering about certain things. Like, is Aldridge even a good fit next to Duncan? Who besides the 87-year-old Manu Ginobili is gonna provide scoring off the bench? Will that giant twosome up front be exposed by all the small-ball lineups in today's NBA? Is this the year that all that fine wine finally turns into vinegar? Kawhi Leonard is a special player, but is he capable of handling a larger role as the zombies shuffle off?
But since it's the Spurs, I'm not gonna waste my time. Things will be just aces for Spaceball One. Pop won't allow otherwise.
Rollin's grade: The Schwartz