Summertime in the NBA is a season of hope, where even Sixers fans now have 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.
2016 marked the first free agency of the Rising Cap Era, as middling role players got filthy rich and the best team in the NBA pulled off a major coup before the CBA could catch up to the new figures. To help me sort this out, I was able to pull noted sage of Bright Side of the Sun, Jim Coughenour, out of mothballs as we try and get a handle on which teams nailed their summer transactions and which teams did not.
We'll try to judge each team on their own merit since the question of "is it enough to get past the Warriors/Cavs?" is going to be a negatory across the board.
We start with the Atlantic Division, where two legit teams are lumped together with the Three Stooges of the NBA.
2015/16: 48-34, eliminated 2-4 by Atlanta in the first round
Arrivals: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Ben Bentil, Guerschon Yabusele, Demetrius Jackson
Departures: Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger
Rollin J. Mason: It's hard to consider Boston's draft a particulary successful one, considering what they entered with and what they left with. Just like they showed last summer when they tried to package half the farm to move up for Justise Winslow, the C's are trying to make a move to the big kids' table and had little use for another onslaught of Beantown Babies. Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter and James Young are already toiling about on the roster, as they combined to play 825 minutes in 2015/16 whilst buried in a rotation stocked with veterans and quasi-veterans that are too valuable to scuttle.
Danny Ainge has been sitting on a mountain of assets for three years now and either he is incredibly stingy or perhaps the other GM's in the league are a bit hesitant towards lending a hand in building the next Celtics dynasty.
Either way, instead of cashing in his stockpile for a single difference-maker Ainge had to settle for bringing in four more rookies to training camp, led by one of the more polarizing prospects of 2016, Jaylen Brown.
(I have already spent plenty of time trying to wrap my head around Brown's game and I'm not any closer to forming an opinion on him now. Nothing would surprise me with that kid.)
It was in free agency that the Celtics made their splash, signing Al Horford to $113 million over four years. Horford will be a seamless fit in their system with his cerebral style of play and defensive prowess, but on the same token he doesn't address many of their weaknesses.
They still need a go-to scorer that stands taller than 5'9", which has never been Horford's strongsuit (the go-to scorer part; he's definitely over 5'9") and will likely get weaker now that he's creeping into his thirties. In fact, in the last two seasons he has only scored 30 points in a game on two occasions.
He's a hell of a lot better than Jared Sullinger ever will be, but I'm not sure how the void of Evan Turner will be filled. I know, I'm not used to not making fun of him either, but Turner was quite valuable as a playmaking sixth man last year and I don't know how much pressure Horford will take off of Boston's guards on offense. Isaiah Thomas has to work harder than anyone on the court in order to produce at a high level, and at last glance Marcus Smart -- despite being one of my favorite youngsters in the NBA -- was still a work-in-progress at quarterbacking a team.
Turner was a stablizing force for that roster and he might be truly missed for the first time in his NBA career. On the other hand, Brad Stevens is probably the best NBA tactician east of the Mississippi so I'm pretty sure he'll figure out how to squeeze 50 wins from this bunch.
Grade: 99 assets but a star ain't one (did one of us use this joke last year?)
Jim Coughenour: The evaluation of the Celtics' summer largely lies with how high one decides to set the bar from a victim of their own standards mindset.
In a vacuum, it would seem like adding a 30 year old four time all-star (Horford) and the third overall pick (Brown) to a team that just made the playoffs and won 48 games has to be worthy of some form of praise. But we don't live in vacuums... even though the architecture of my Dyson Ball makes the thought sound not terribly unpleasant. In a league where only 2-4 teams a year have any kind of realistic chance of winning a title, Boston failed to enter the pantheon. That's probably especially frustrating to long suffering fans who have had to wait patiently since the team last won a championship in 2008.
While I can accept that most people see me more as a member of camp doom merchant than team Pollyanna I'm just not completely aghast with Boston's present situation.
There was no blockbuster on draft night and Tom Terrific's pitch to KD fell just short, but I really do think it's just a matter of when and not if Boston is back in the Finals in the next few years.
To a certain extent I'm not surprised that Ainge is having a hard time pinpointing his next victim. If I was a GM from one of the other 29 teams I wouldn't take his phone calls. Hell, I probably wouldn't take his phone call now. I like my stuff.
It's been three (whole) years since Trader Dan violated the Brooklyn Nets in what has turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in NBA history, but he has held his own in other transactions since. After all, in the course of two moves he essentially turned a second round pick into Tyler Zeller and all-star Isiaiah Thomas. Just check out his executive profile on basketball-reference.com (http://www.basketball-reference.com/executives/aingeda01x.html)
Most people would be happy to turn a second rounder into just Tyler Zeller. Getting an all-star like Isaiah on one of the best contracts in the entire league is a pretty good throw in.
Brad Stevens has the makings of a special coach. He was extended this summer in addition to PBO Ainge. I think this alone has more value than the best moves some teams made.
Last year the Celtics were fifth in scoring, fourth in pace and fourth in defensive rating. That can be nice for people who like watching entertaining basketball. Points and defense are cool. Al Horford should fit seamlessly into that system, plus his dad's name is Tito... so there's another good conversational piece.
So let's check off the boxes... Head coach, front office, talented roster with current and future all-stars, draft pick war chest, storied franchise, growing team that's fun to watch and plays an entertaining brand of basketball.
Not so bad through that lens.
Grade: On a scale of plagues to unicorns, I think the Celtics are at least a tasty burrito... with a really yummy tortilla - a soft one, not too crunchy.
But what if there was a plague of unicorns...
2015/16: 56-26, lost 4-2 to Cleveland Cavaliers in Eastern Conference Finals
Arrivals: Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam
Departures: Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola
Jim: The Raptors just followed up the most exciting season in franchise history with the most vapid off-season in franchise history.
Now everyone in Toronto knows how I felt the first time I watched Die Hard 2. I mean really, Masai Ujiri couldn't come up with a better plot than this?
Unfortunately, Toronto was one of very few teams that didn't have a surfeit of money to spend this summer. Especially not after factoring in five years and $139 million for DeMar DeRozan. That's right, one hundred and thirty-nine large for a guy who's a pretty solid second option.
Instead the team was in a position where it couldn't afford to keep Bismack Biyombo. Let that settle in for a minute.
Jakob Poeltl will have an opportunity to play right away with Biyombo's departure, but I'm not even going to try to pretend to know whether he'll be ready to make a significant contribution. My guess would be no, since most rookies aren't. Jared Sullinger is a nice cost effective upgrade over Luis Scola, but upgrading the ninth guy on the depth chart only moves the needle so much.
Toronto was a very good team last year, but I never got the impression they were a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers. The injury situation with Jonas Valanciunas certainly didn't help Toronto's chances in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Raptors were outscored by 114 points in their four losses during the series. It puts a slightly less competitive spin on a six game series when the defeats are by an average of 28.5 points.
Kyle Lowry (who can opt out next summer) and DeMarre Carroll are both 30, so it's not like Toronto can just hope to wait out LeBron, who is 31 himself. Toronto has a win now roster with a conference finals ceiling. Nothing they've done this summer makes me believe the team is poised to take the next step. I'll actually be kind of surprised if they don't take one back.
One can make an argument for keeping a group together and improvement through continuity, but I just don't see that much room for improvement on this roster because no amount of money given to DeRozan will actually make him worth it.
Grade: Think of your favorite line from Die Hard 2... yep, that was the Raptors summer. Not exactly a yippee ki yay motherf*cker to the rest of the league, was it?
Rollin: The numbers suggest that DeMar DeRozan is a very good basketball player. But for some reason, he has an uncanny ability to play rather horribly every time I'm watching. While I am no doubt a textbook narcissist, I've seen similar opinions proffered by people who are much more well-adjusted than I am, so the only possibility I can fathom is that the dude feasts voraciously on mundane occasions like a home meeting with the Magic on Alvin Williams bobblehead night (Google him).
Ujiri is probably one of the smartest GM's in the league, but you know how Suns fans lament that the unicorn 2013/14 season only sidetracked the rebuilding plans of Ryan McDonough? This is kind of the same thing, but it's the Eastern Conference edition wherein the unicorn is able to masquerade as a contender instead of bowing out to Vince Carter's Mavericks for an 8th seed in the last week of the season.
(If you don't mind I'm just gonna keep running your unicorn metaphor until it sprains its fetlocks)
Masai actually got some serviceable NBA players in return for Rudy Gay (Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez) and a fistful of draft picks for Andrea Bargnani, so clearly he knows how to exploit incompetence and strike a deal. But it looks like he's now handcuffed by his own success and resigned to the futility of trying to topple LeBron James, who is still in his prime.
Replacing Biyombo with a rookie is not going to help that cause, especially when Valanciunas has never averaged 30 MPG for a season (26.0 last season).
It says a lot about the landscape of the NBA when neither of us are enthralled with a 56-win team, but I guess that's a problem for the owners and the commish to figure out. This is a rather mundane team, regardless of their achievements, and I'll set the over/under at January 2017 for when the first report of their desire to trade DeRozan comes out and we all softly chuckle.
Grade: A guy in a dinosaur costume, biffing it on rollerskates. Except not in a funny way.
2015/16: 21-61, missed playoffs because they are a horrible team with no future
Arrivals: Jeremy Lin, Luis Scola, Randy Foye, Greivis Vasquez, Trevor Booker, Caris LeVert, Anthony Bennet
Departures: Thaddeus Young, Andrea Bargnani, Jarrett Jack, some other people maybe
Rollin: Do we really have to do this? Is there anything sadder than a bad team that has no incentive to tank? Is it a coincidence that they wear solid black uniforms that can best be described as the visual representation of nihilism?
I guess they're showing signs of progress, albeit in the same way that Donald Trump shows signs of diplomacy. They finally broke up with Billy King and replaced him with Sean Marks, whose best attribute at present is not being Billy King.
They hired Kenny Atkinson as head coach, who apparently is a guy that was recently hired by the Brooklyn Nets as head coach.
They gave contracts to guys like Luis Scola and Randy Foye because obviously they aren't going to retire as long as people keep paying them.
These aren't what I would call good moves, but they also don't feel entirely like Nets moves.
But then on draft night they decided to remind us all that they still exist and traded Thad Young (who was unnecessary in Brooklyn and might be just as unnecessary in Indiana) only to reach for a college senior (LeVert) that only played 33 games in his last two years at Michigan due to the kind of injuries that would normally give teams pause.
The Nets, however, still haven't found the pause button. Such things are hard to locate when wandering through a black void of nothingness.
Grade: I am become death
Jim: The Nets always remind me of the story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for decades and when he woke up still owed Danny Ainge all his future first round picks.
I feel bad for the Nets fans, though. Some teams find themselves mired in despair by way of parsimony or apathy... but the Nets chose the path of numskullery. Even the built in protections in the CBA meant to save teams like the Nets from themselves weren't enough to withstand the profligate nature with which they shipped off their draft picks.
29 other teams can take solace in knowing their team is in better shape than Brooklyn and the Nets can only hope a rebuild can actually begin in earnest in 2019.
Brooklyn's signings this summer seemed to be focused on pushing the team to 23-24 wins. I don't really have many thoughts on them except why give Lin a player option. I guess because who cares?
Now the Nets roster consists of Brook Lopez and a bunch of other guys who at best should be eighth on a real NBA team's depth chart.
At least the Barclays Center is awesome, and affordable for now... since the Nets don't project to improve much on their 27th ranked attendance from last season.
The best thing the Nets did this summer was not set back the franchise any further... and for a team that still owes Deron Williams $22 million that has to count for something.
New York Knicks
2015/16: 32-50, missed playoffs, but hey... Kristaps Porzingis!
Arrivals: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Brandon Jennings, Courtney Lee, Guillermo Hernangomez, Justin Holiday, Mindaugus Kuzminskas, Maurice Daly Ndour
Departures: Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jose Calderon, Jimmer Fredette, Derrick Williams, Langston Galloway, Jerian Grant,
Jim: After a flurry of offseason moves Las Vegas has now made the Knicks the prohibitive favorite to win the 2011 NBA Championship.
The trade that sent Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant to the Chicago Bulls for Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday was one of the bigger stories of the summer. Not because it will necessarily have all that much impact on the league's power structure, but because Rose (like new teammate Carmelo Anthony) seems to get far more press than he deserves based on his on court production.
I mean, it's been a long time since Derrick Rose was Derrick Rose.
While the Nets are a Shakespearean tragedy, the Knicks are more of a dark comedy. Think Death to Smoochy, but insert "ever having a chance to win a title again" for Smoochy.
Somehow, Phil Jackson's brilliance at having the opportunity to coach Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal hasn't translated to success as a general manager yet, but the sole feather in his cap to this point, drafting Kristaps last year, may turn out to be an impressive plume. He didn't get another stab at the lottery this summer, though, because Glen Grunwald sagely traded away that pick for the services of Andrea Bargnani.
After acquiring Rose, who used to be a super good player, Jackson decided to give Noah $72 million of monopoly money. Potentially not a great idea for a guy who's 31 and averaged 6.3 points in the 96 games he played over the last two seasons. Noah has missed at least 15 games in six of the last seven seasons. I'm sure he'll get healthier now that he's pushing further into his thirties. Rashad Vaughn was the only player in the NBA last season with at least as many minutes and a worse TS% than Noah's (.406). But at least he used to be a super good passer!
I can't imagine that giving Noah $19 million four years from now won't still seem like a good idea.
I guess I don't hate the Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings signings quite as much, but what's the deal with giving Lee, who turns 31 before the season starts, a four year deal? I guess at least the core of Noah, Lee and Lance Thomas are all locked up until 2020...
The thing I might worry the most about if I was a Knicks fan is that starting 21 year old Porzingis alongside four 30 somethings might stunt his growth. Not that Rose or Anthony has ever had a reputation for dominating the ball. After averaging 14 points and seven rebounds a game as a rookie he could be poised to have a breakout season. This roster minus Kristaps is pretty much garbage. They should be building around him, not building a retirement community.
Grade: At least they'll probably be entertaining... just in a mostly bad way.
Rollin: I can't be too hard on the Knicks. It's not like they could've just magically signed a center that has played in all 82 games in three of the last four seasons, posted a PER of 17.6 and a TS% of .574 in 2015/16, led the league in ORtg in 2013/14, is a smart and competent defender and does all the little things a team needs from a big man, all for $30 million less in guaranteed money than Noah.
Unless of course they already had that player in Robin Lopez and traded him for Rose, who posted an ORtg of 96 and a DRtg of 110 last season.
I thought they were on the right track this time last year. They had a young building block in Porzingis, made a few harmless signings in Lopez and Arron Afflalo, even made a smart trade when they sent Tim Hardaway Jr. to Atlanta for Jerian Grant, and now all signs of restraint and pragmatism have been replaced with the kind of roster building displayed by a 13-year-old in NBA 2K -- provided that said 13-year-old hasn't followed basketball since 2012.
I get that maybe there's an incentive to try and win now with Carmelo Anthony still on board, as teams with superstars are ostensibly supposed to be relevant. But let's be real -- Anthony is basically the Nicolas Cage of NBA superstars and he is not worthy of appeasement.
Now that I think of it, perhaps this is some form of psychological warfare intended to drive Anthony into an early retirement. In that case, well done.
Grade: Jeff, you poor bastard
2015/16: 2-0 against the Suns, 8-72 against the rest of the NBA
Arrivals: Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Sergio Rodriguez, Furkan Korkmaz, Timothe Luwawu, Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, Joel Embiid?
Departures: Ish Smith, Sonny Weems, JaKarr Sampson, Isaiah Canaan
Rollin: Now that the pixie-dust of The Process has settled and the Sixers are going to field a team of young players actually meant to grow into good players, it's time to take a census.
We have two point-forwards in Ben Simmons and Dario Saric.
We have two centers that can't score beyond 10 feet in Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor -- one of which will presumably always be on the floor with Simmons, who also can't score beyond 10 feet.
We have a two-year veteran big man in Joel Embiid who has never played a minute in the NBA. Also, he might not be able to score beyond 10 feet.
I'm operating under the assumption that there will be a significant trade before opening night, because this frontcourt is so clustered it makes the Suns' backcourt during the last few years look streamlined.
Once that all gets sorted out, this has the makings of a fun group of players -- depending of course on who stays and who goes. Chances are it'll be Okafor on his way out, as Noel is too valuable a defender to be moved -- and interior defense will be kind of important with Simmons entrenched at the 4. Of course, shooting will also be important with Simmons at the 4, which Noel will struggle to provide. Even summer league teams knew to pack the paint against Simmons and cut off his passing lanes, and one can only imagine how easily actual NBA defenses will exploit this weakness.
Speaking of Okafor, has the collective NBA audience ever been less impressed with a rookie that scored 17.5 PPG? Are we smarter now -- spotting his so-so efficiency and deducing that someone had to account for the points on last year's Sixers teams? Or are we getting too cute for our own good, dismissing a unique talent for failing to fit in with current trends?
Or maybe he should take a season off from fighting people in the streets and see if his reputation improves.
It's probably for the best that the Sixers are now signing veteran players in free agency instead of just absorbing their contracts for future assets. Sam Hinkie would've had nothing to do with the likes of Jerryd Bayless or Gerald Henderson aside from shaking a second-rounder loose for them and cutting them a check to go away. This is still a very young and raw team, obviously, but paying decent basketball players money to play basketball decently is a requisite to resembling a basketball organization and at the very least it's less confusing now that there are 30 actual teams in the NBA again.
Things will still be a bit messy in Philadelphia, but Simmons, Saric, Luwawu, Korkmaz and the return of Sergio Rodriguez all add up to quite an interesting cadre of basketball talent. It's beyond me how a cohesive basketball unit will be formed out of this crop, but at least there's a reason to tune in this year.
Grade: Better than an M. Night Shyamalan movie
Jim: 30 actual NBA teams again? How quickly you forget we just got done discussing the Brooklyn Nets...
Winning the lottery and being able to draft a fairly solid consensus number one has to be a win for this organization. After all, at least the draft class wasn't so muddled that they ended up doing something completely asinine like drafting Anthony Bennett.
My thoughts are that, if nothing else, having a #1 overall talent playing on a team gives the fans a sense of hope and a reason to tune in. The Sixers actually have more than just that to look forward to. Although this team is still a jumbled mess, as you alluded to, there is a glut of talent and future draft picks (including that oh so sexy Lakers selection) that gives Philly myriad opportunities to build this into a winner over the next few seasons.
Bayless and Henderson both resemble real NBA players, but neither is good enough to lift this team above 30 wins next season... which is perfect since Philly could still use a few more top five picks to round out their roster.
The 76ers are still about $27 million under the cap floor according to my latest calculations (that tends to happen in this brave new world when a team has zero players making $10 million next season). They're going to need to address this is some fashion... like that trade you were mentioning.
Philadelphia spent a summer staying the course. The team is far enough down this path that there really shouldn't be any other option. Good for them.
It will be really interesting to see what people have to say about the Abrams job Hinkie pulled off if this actually works out for him... and it's starting to look like it might.
Grade: It's still going to be a work in progress, but at least it's finally a work in progress.