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 Southeast, where three teams have a more or less equal chance of divisional supremacy -- which, due to recent developments, doesn't really mean anything anymore.
2014/15 record: 60-22
Arrivals: Tiago Splitter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jason Richardson (!!!), puffy Doritos uniforms
Departures: DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic
Rollin: Poor Hawks. They spin in the hamster wheel for years, always making it to the postseason but never considered more than bracket filler, then they finally break through out of nowhere and bag 60 wins ... and still no one is taking them seriously.
No wonder they overhauled their uniforms to what Paul Lukas of Uni Watch best described as "nuclear-irradiated Ronald McDonald". This is classic attention seeking, born from a history of neglect.
I don't think you'll find anyone outside of Atlanta that thinks the Hawks can reach 60 wins again in 2015/16, but more importantly, have they done enough this summer to help themselves come playoff time?
Well, they let their best performer from the 2015 playoffs -- DeMarre Carroll -- bolt to Toronto and resigned Paul Millsap instead to virtually the same dollar value ($60M for Carroll, $58.9M for Millsap).
They were smart to pounce on Tiago Splitter, salary-dumped by the Spurs, who will form a solid frontcourt trio with Millsap and Al Horford, as Pero Antic will be taking his .301 3FG% to Europe. I think the upgrade here is obvious enough.
Splitter should fit in seamlessly with his familiarity of the
Spurs Hawks system, but their most glaring weakness unfortunately wasn't addressed -- there is still no one on this team that can go get a bucket when defenses tighten up.
To be fair, that's about the toughest thing to find since it basically serves as a crude descriptor of a star player, but nevertheless there's no reason to think the Hawks won't run into the same problem as they did in these last playoffs, where Jeff Teague led them in scoring while posting a .507 TS%.
Their crisp passing and deadeye shooting will lend to plenty of blowout wins in the regular season again, but unfortunately I don't see Tiago Splitter lifting them past LeBron James.
Rollin's Grade: Perfect Attendance
Splitter's relocation might hurt the Spurs more than it helps the Hawks. Isn't it great when everybody loses?
Jim: The 2014/15 Hawks were probably one of the least respected 60 win teams in NBA history. After building up a formidable regular season resume, including going 11-5 against Western Conference playoff teams, they proved their doubters right by looking pedestrian in the first two round of the playoffs before getting broomed by the Cavaliers.
2014/15 record: 33-49 (that's an Eastern Conference 33)
Arrivals: Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Hansbrough, Frank Kaminsky
Departures: Bismack Biyombo, Mo Williams, Gerald Henderson, Lance Stephenson, Jason Maxiell, Noah Vonleh
Jim: The Hornets were really active this summer as they basically turned over half of their roster, but at the end of the game of musical chairs I'm not sure they really made any progress.
Several of the incoming players, headlined by Batum, are solid, but none are spectacular. Of note among the departures is that the Hornets gave up on two of their last five lottery picks (Henderson and Vonleh), not including incoming Frank Kaminski (who I am skeptical about to say the least).
The Hornets did just ink 21 year old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a four year extension, basically pairing him with point guard Kemba Walker as the core of the franchise for at least the next few years... but I don't how much confidence that should inspire. While Kidd-Gilchrist is somewhat of a defensive phenom, and might join with Batum to terrorize the perimeter, I like my small forwards to attempt more than zero three point attempts in a season (a rather impressive feat he accomplished last year). Add in the low efficiency Walker and it's no surprise that Charlotte was 28th in the league last year in ORtg.
Come to think of it, after Batum struggled through the worst offensive season of his career last season he should fit right in.
The Hornets are trying really hard, instead of just embracing the tank, and just about any team in the Eastern Conference has a shot to make the playoffs... but I'm just not seeing the big picture materialize.
Jim's Grade: Not feeling any buzz
Basically they ended up taking a power forward in the lottery for the third straight season because scouting is hard.
Rollin: Well the Hornets were 6-21 last season without Kidd-Gilchrist, so I have no problem with his extension. Generally it's a good rule of thumb to hold onto players that your team sucks without. I like the additions of Batum and Lin, but I don't love them. They feel kinda like Olive Garden breadsticks to me -- serviceable enough, but you know the main course is gonna let you down anyway.
I have the Hornets battling for a final playoff spot in my imaginary summer prediction bracket, because a) Eastern Conference, and b) they can really defend and might have added just enough offense to reach 40 wins. But I'm still puzzling over why they apparently are bigger Frank Kaminsky fans than anyone outside of Madison, WI.
Not only did they reportedly turn down an offer of four first-round picks (including an unprotected pick from Brooklyn) from Boston so that the Celtics could draft Justise Winslow, but the Hornets didn't draft Justise Winslow.
So basically they had three options:
A) Take the Celtics' offer
B) Take Winslow
C) Take Kaminsky
Perhaps we'll all have a laugh over this when Frank Kaminsky is being inducted into the Hall of Fame and Winslow is selling used cars, but for now it is utterly befuddling that they went with option C.
The silver lining: it facilitated one of my favorite quotes of the summer, courtesy of vice chairman Curtis Polk on why they didn't take the Celtics' offer:
"You have two minutes to decide: ‘Do I want to do this trade?'" says Polk, one of five men atop Charlotte's decision tree. "You don't have a day. You don't have hours. After all the intelligence we'd done, we were comfortable with Frank. But now you have two minutes to decide if you make this trade, who you're gonna take at No. 16, or maybe No. 20, and we haven't been focusing on that range. In fantasy basketball, it sounds great: ‘Oh my God, they could have gotten all those picks.' But in the real world, I'm not sure it makes us better."
Is he ... is he saying that they didn't scout outside of their range? Because that is amazing.
So basically they ended up taking a power forward in the lottery for the third straight season because scouting is hard.
Rollin's Grade: Hiding from the draft day phone
2014/15 record: 37-45 (missed playoffs)
Arrivals: Amar'e Stoudemire, Gerald Green, Justise Winslow
Departures: No one important
I guess we're giving Miami a mulligan for their first year without LeBron, which is fair given their injuries. There wasn't much for Riles to do this summer except bring the gang back and hope to finally see what a healthy core of Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside looks like.
As for Dragic, we'll get to see how Riles does when it comes to taking risks. Things like trading for a still-in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal and forming a superteam with LeBron James were surefire successes, but giving $85 million to a 29-year-old point guard who has only played like a star player in short bursts is a horse of a drastically different color.
The only point guard of at least 30 years of age that played at anything close to a star level last season was Tony Parker, so for Dragic to pull off a similar feat at this stage in his career would be something of a small miracle to me.
There's also a glaring lack of shooting in this starting lineup. Dragic will be the resident three-point shooter at a career 36.1%, and both he and Wade need spacing for their slashing games to be at their best. Dragic and Bosh have the potential for a deadly pick-and-pop game with Whiteside holding down the fort in the paint, but they'll have to deal with an extra defender when teams leave Luol Deng open on the perimeter -- which they will.
This is a really weird team that also might be really good. It will probably work out fine, because bad things don't happen to Pat Riley.
Rollin's Grade: Straight Outta Brylcreem
The roster is like a patchwork of players that work better in different systems.
Jim: I don't think I share your concerns about the Heat's three point shooting since Bosh and Josh McRoberts are two of the best bigs in the league at stretching the floor. Getting McRoberts back after missing nearly all of last season is practically like adding another free agent this summer.
The team's actual free agent acquisitions, Stoudemire and Green, should definitely help an anemic offense (21st in ORtg), but tend to give up as many (or more) on the other end. These new additions seem to contrast from the team's style last season (29th in pace) and the roster is like a patchwork of players that work better in different systems. Perhaps this will allow them to throw different looks at teams, going big/small and fast/slow, but it also might cause them to struggle to find an identity. Sometimes it's better to focus on one thing to be good at.
Getting Winslow at #10 might end up being the steal of the draft if he becomes the versatile lockdown defender some project him as, but I never really expect rookies to contribute much right away. Hopefully they did get something special since they've already frittered away all their future first round picks for the next decade.
Dwyane Wade will almost surely miss 20-30 games, as has been the case for the last four seasons, but if the rest of this team stays relatively healthy it's pretty easy to see them as a top four team in the Eastern Conference. Even if the Heat can't make a deep run in the playoffs next season they will be poised to reload in free agency, with just Bosh, Dragic, McRoberts and Winslow under contract.
Jim's Grade: South Beach Suns
2014/15 Record: 25-57 (missed playoffs)
Arrivals: Jason Smith, C.J. Watson, Melvin Ejim, Mario Hezonja, Shabazz Napier
Departures: Kyle O'Quinn, Luke Ridnour, Ben Gordon, Willie Green, Maurice Harkless
Jim: The Magic are still looking to gain traction since Dwight Howard's departure as their 25 wins last season was the most in three years.
They've done a good job of compiling some pretty nice assets through trade - acquiring double-double machine Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris. The Magic inked Harris, who just turned 23, to a new four year, $64 million dollar contract this summer. I really like Harris's potential as a 20+ point per game scorer who isn't afraid to take big shots.
Orlando is also flush with recent lottery picks - Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon and Hezonja, but the group is still largely (or completely) unproven.
Last summer's big free agent acquisition, Channing Frye, didn't pan out quite the way the team had hoped. While Frye made the second most three point attempts per minutes played of his career, the Magic surely expected more than 7 points and 4 rebounds per game.
This summer the team doubled down on veteran leadership by adding Jason Smith and C.J. Watson (a sneaky good pickup) to the fold. These moves aren't enough to move the needle from 25 wins to the playoffs, though, so Orlando will need to count on internal improvement from their youngsters if they're going to rise in the standings. While this is possible, I expect the team is still a year or two away... which is fine since the Magic appear to be committed to their rebuilding strategy.
Jim's Grade: Channing Frye: Avoiding getting bit by a shark since July 9th, 2014
Watson was a guy I was hoping to see in purple and orange (and gray...and black) this season. But hey, who says no to Ronnie Price?
Rollin: Orlando is another team that is basically playing The Waiting Game. I like their strategy of peppering veterans in with the youngsters, and Watson was a guy I was hoping to see in purple and orange (and gray...and black) this season. But hey, who says no to Ronnie Price?
They have twice the amount of promising young players that pretty much any other team has, but have yet to unearth anyone with true star potential. But at the very least they have amassed an impressive cadre of trade chips and Orlando has proven in the past to be an enticing free agent destination (McGrady and Hill).
If we're talking about W's and L's for 2015/16, though -- which I think is supposed to be the point of these articles -- Scott Skiles will probably move the needle more than anything else. I found it amusing how widely his hiring was mocked by internet experts. The guy has a track record of turning lottery teams into playoff teams wherever he goes, and even had the Phoenix Suns ranked 2nd overall in DRtg.
Ok, so that was back in 2001 and the game has changed a lot since then, but this team has a lot of athletic, rangy types that could wreak all sorts of havoc defensively, at least in the backcourt. And while they're enjoying the fruits of Mr. Frowny Pants' tutelage, they can kick back and see if any of their young thoroughbreds can show any glimpses of star talent.
They've chosen the long road to rebuilding, and this will be the most interesting season yet.
Rollin's Grade: Escape From Tomorrow
2014/15 record: 46-36 (seemed like they were a better team than that), lost to ATL in second round
Arrivals: Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson, Gary Neal, Kelly Oubre
Departures: Paul Pierce, Kevin Seraphin, Rasual Butler
Rollin: Raise your hand if you knew that the Wizards were ranked fifth in DRtg last year (103.0).
For the record, I'm raising my hand but it's only because I looked it up for the purposes of this article.
The Wiz lost the bravado and shotmaking ability of Paul Pierce, and while on paper he's being replaced by Jared Dudley, what they really need is a breakout season from Bradley Beal. John Wall's ascension has been impressive over the years, but few star players have so sorely lacked a co-pilot more than he has.
Beal has shot the lights out as promised (.400 career 3P%) but injuries have mitigated his development and there's a strong sense that there is a really special player waiting to surface. His development in 2015/16 will probably decide the Wizards' chances of battling for more than homecourt advantage in a 4/5 matchup.
There are a lot of good role players around Wall but this team is starving for another true impact player. Kelly Oubre, as much as you and I both like him, is about as raw as they come. Otto Porter has finally shown some usefulness, but I don't know if another leap can be expected.
Everyone else on this team is either old or about to be old.
So again, everything circles back to Beal if the conversation is about the Wizards' ceiling as contending hopefuls.
No pressure, Bradley.
Rollin's Grade: We Bealieve
Even with Beal taking a leap next season the Wizards probably aren't good enough to win the East, but they might pique the interests of the 2016 free agent class.
Jim: I agree that the Wizards need a breakout season from Beal, but not in the same constraints you mentioned. Even with Beal taking a leap next season the Wizards probably aren't good enough to win the East, but they might pique the interests of the 2016 free agent class. They'll need some help there, because even with the very serviceable Polish Pillow manning the five the frontcourt is very unspectacular.
Washington played their hand conservatively this summer, opting for only one year deals in free agency. Their strategy returned them one year contract quality players. While Dudley certainly enamored himself with the fans during his stint in Phoenix his social media presence is more forceful than his presence on the court.
The Wizards have a weird mix where their best two players are young, but there is very little other young talent on the roster. Porter and Oubre seem like marginal talent... and that's it. One would think they would have compiled more assets during their recent five year span where they never reached 30 wins. I guess that's what you get when you draft Jan Vesely over a Morris twin.
The Wizards are an easy team to cheer for due to their completely non-threatening nature... I mean, they haven't reached 50 wins since 1978-79... but I wouldn't count on this season being the slump buster.
Instead it feels a lot more like they treated this offseason like a bye week.
Jim's Grade: 1979 was 36 years ago