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 enlisted the help of noted BSOTS sage Jim Coughenour 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.
In this edition, we tackle the Central Division -- the home of beer, brats, and whatever it is the Bulls are doing.
2015/16: 42-40, missed playoffs
Arrivals: Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan, Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser
Departures: Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich (he'll be back), Mike Dunleavy, E'Twaun Moore
Rollin: It would be easy enough to copy and paste the Knicks' recap and just change the names as needed, except the Bulls are playing drunken tightrope without a Porzingis-sized safety net.
After pulling off the unthinkable and prying the Derrick Rose contract from the books a year before it expired, the Bulls had given themselves a head start on rebuilding. They only needed to bid adieu to free agents Pau Gasol and Mike Dunleavy, flip franchise stalwart Taj Gibson for whatever offer they could find as long as it didn't include taking back any bad salary, and let the likes of Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant feel their way through a 30-win season while pocketing a decent draft pick for 2017.
The Bulls already have a young coach in place that allegedly has a signature offense to be implemented, and with the shuffling corpses of Rose and Joakim Noah swept from the court, it was time to regroup and unleash whatever youth they could put together -- plus Robin Lopez -- while preparing for the next era.
Talks of a Jimmy Butler trade dominated the Windy City in the weeks leading up to free agency, and it seemed that after a fitful season under a roster that was broken in some places and mismatched in others, management was indeed able to read the writing on the wall, emblazoned in giant bubbly letters that screamed "THIS TEAM WILL NOT CONTEND."
Butler is a fine player, but he's already 26 years old and is best as a second or third option. The Bulls desperately need to get younger and paying Butler $76 million over the next four years makes no sense if there isn't a better player on the roster for him to complement.
Faced with the unpalatable prospect of trading their best player, Bulls management shrewdly found an alternative. They simply convinced themselves that it was still 2009 and signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
In the world of free agency splashes, this was a cannonball in a jacuzzi.
I was prepared to go into detail about why a backcourt of Wade and Rondo is a terrible idea, but I'm not going to waste my time or anyone else's. I assume that everyone who intentionally clicked on this article in the first place has seen both men play basketball at some point and is somewhat familiar with their strengths and weaknesses.
That's all you need to know.
So the plan, I suppose, is to hope to keep Wade patched together enough for him to defy the effects of aging, hope that Rondo suddenly rediscovers the passion for playing defense (or even basketball in general) that has apparently evaded him since 2014, hope that Butler finds a way to keep producing despite being saddled with two elderly teammates who don't really need to be defended away from the ball, and hope that someone in the Nikola Mirotic/Bobby Portis/Doug McDermott group has a Butleresque breakout season in 2016/17 -- and that's just what they'll need to snag an eighth spot in the East.
They were tossed a rope when the Knicks agreed to take on the Rose deal, and they immediately tied it into noose.
It's almost impressive.
Grade: Saturday, in the park, wishing it was 2009
Since nothing has seemed to work for the Kings in a decade or so copying their strategy from last summer may not be a sound idea.
Jim: Welcome to the treadmill, Bulls fans.
I'm actually fine with the Bulls keeping Butler around. That $76 million is fairly Illinois avenuish in the brave new world of salary cap monopoly money. In fact, the $56 million that is actually guaranteed to Butler over the next three years (fourth is a player option) is far less than the $67 million that Miles Plumlee and Jared Dudley will earn over the same period. You could probably convince me to take Butler over that dynamic duo.
While Butler may be best suited as a second option, he's still one of the 20 best players in the league. The problem is that there are only a handful of "first options" in the league... which poses a problem for the vast majority of the league.
The real problem is trying to find a way to build around Butler and the Bulls seem to be failing miserably at the task. I guess it's kind of hard for them to give up the ghost since they seemed like they were so close to making a run to the finals on several occasions. What happened to Rose was probably even more demoralizing than recent similar career altering/ending injuries to established stars in their prime like Amare Stoudemire and Brandon Roy.
What's befuddling is that the Bulls actually seem to think that forming a Rondo/Wade backcourt is a lucid idea.
The whole Rondo thing didn't roll along so swimmingly in Sacramento last season. Since nothing has seemed to work for the Kings in a decade or so copying their strategy from last summer may not be a sound idea. Rondo did lead the league in assists, but there's a reason he's been pinballing around the league for a few years now. What's hilarious is that Rondo becomes easily the best three point shooter in the Bulls starting backcourt. Wade, unfathomably, managed to shoot a measly .159 from three point range last season. It practically defies logic that a player as gifted as Wade can't shoot. Considering Butler is also a terrible three point shooter, the Bulls might have actually convinced themselves it's 1989.
Rondo/Wade/Butler hit 133 three pointers combined last season. Stephen Curry made 402.
It's a little sad that Wade couldn't finish off his career in Miami, but I think that shows the Heat were actually thinking more about on court performance than legacy... which means the Bulls are thinking about? Yeah.
Wade is on a steady decline and based on his injury-addled career he could fall of the ledge of being a positive impact player at any given moment. And while inventing a time machine to bring back the version of Wade that could actually make this Bulls team a legitimate threat is theoretically a very difficult project, adjusting Rondo's attitude might be an even more monumental task.
I actually like some of the Bulls younger other pieces. I think Chicago could have actually supplemented them with some other younger pieces and built a team that probably wins just as many games, but is more prepared to transition towards the future.
The Bulls obviously aren't winning a title this season and I don't see how these moves could be envisioned as part of a two year or five year plan to get back to that point.
Grade: At least they'll sell a few jerseys
2015/16: 44-38 played deceptively well for getting swept in first round by Cavs
Arrivals: Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, Ish Smith, Henry Ellenson, Lorenzo Brown, Michael Gbinije
Departures: Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jodie Meeks
Jim: Detroit must have thought they needed help up front, because they will now be able to give opponents all kinds of different looks with floor stretching Leuer, bruising Ellenson and behemoth Boban.
And all this was in addition to inking All-Star center Andre Drummond to a max five year contract.
Leuer got himself paid after playing a very serviceable role on the Suns as an athletic four who could stretch the floor a little. Marjanovic had the highest WS/48 (.325) of any player in the NBA who played more than one game in the NBA last season. Some guy named Stephen Curry was second. Although Ellenson may not contribute right away, being 19 and everything, but eventually (hopefully) he will give the team another option as a more traditional four.
Ish Smith makes his 10th stop on his tour of all 30 NBA teams, but I kind of like him so even that signing doesn't seem bad. He's a good locker room guy that knows his role and doesn't have aspirations of usurping the starter and causing internecine issues.
While these are all auxiliary pieces, the core of the Pistons squad is all between 23 and 26 years old. Beyond Ellenson the Pistons also have Stanley Johnson (20) as a developmental project. It would be nice for him to improve on his rookie season by not being the worst player on the team again.
Though my subjective criteria has allowed me to be captious of other franchises of not making obvious changes that steer a team in the right direction, I actually like the Pistons plan. Stan Van Gundy is a good coach and the minor tweaks they made should keep them in the playoffs while the team gets a chance to see what they really have with this core playing together for a year. Tobias Harris was only there after the All-Star break, so now they have a full season for things to coalesce.
This will be a big season for KCP, considering he'll be done with his rookie contract, and despite salient talent, appears to be headed into that dreaded group of shooting guards that can't shoot.
The only real blemish I see is that the Pistons cap situation might strangle their ability to take the next step in terms of adding a missing piece. Salary cap gymnastics and timing seem to have way too much impact on building winning teams these days (case in point the Golden St. Warriors). It doesn't help that they'll still be paying Josh Smith in 2020.
Grade: Detroit might actually host a first round playoff series next year
...it can only be a good sign if Marcus Morris doesn't have to play 35.7 minutes per game in 2016/17
Rollin: The fact alone that Van Gundy has turned the Pistons into a playoff team with room to grow in only two seasons is a magnificent accomplishment.
The Pistons' bench was pitiful last season -- 27th in scoring (25.7 PPG) and dead last in minutes (15.3). Ish and Leuer should help there, along with development from Stanley Johnson, and it can only be a good sign if Marcus Morris doesn't have to play 35.7 minutes per game in 2016/17. This is a very clean looking roster up and down, with the complementary players having clearly defined strengths and a young pair of alphas in Drummond and Jackson.
The obvious wildcard is Harris, who put up a robust 125 ORtg in his 27 games in Motown and could transmogrify the Drummond/Jackson duo into a power trio if he can wrest enough touches from the ball-dominant Jackson (29.1 USG%).
The Pistonians will probably need to shoot better if they're thinking about taking the next step (.345 3P%, 22nd in NBA) and within their list of summer transactions, only Leuer (.375 career 3P%) fits that bill. What would really help tip the scales is if Johnson and Caldwell-Pope could at least improve their accuracy to Brandon Jennings-type levels.
The brickfiring duo tossed 574 bombs from downtown, connecting on only 176. That's a 30.6% mark, and according to my cursory attempt at mathifying, it would mean that the Pistons scored 91.9 points per 100 possessions off of long-range attempts by these two players. (For a point of reference, the 76ers scored 96.6 points per 100 possessions last season)
This shouldn't be alarming for the 19-year-old Johnson, but as you touched on, Caldwell-Pope has been given ample opportunity to develop into the 3-and-D player he was purported to be, and if he can't pull it off in a contract year, the Pistons should probably look elsewhere to provide Jackson with the backcourt-mate he needs/deserves.
Still, there is a very nice mix of youth, veterans and high-level talent in Detroit. After the mutant rosters conjured up by Joe Dumars over the years, it's nice to see a Pistons team that actually looks as if someone put thought into its assembly.
Grade: Stan Van Gundy, in a hoodie, on a bicycle.
2015/16: 45-37, lost in first round to TOR (3-4)
Arrivals: Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson, Thaddeus Young, Aaron Brooks, Jeremy Evans
Departures: George Hill, Jordan Hill, Solomon Hill, Ian Mahinmi (but let's call him Ian Hill)
Rollin: Larry Bird is one of the greatest players ever to grace the hardwood, and has also found success as a head coach and an executive. It's not hyperbolic to declare him one of the best basketball minds that has ever existed.
That said, I have no idea what he's trying to do with the Pacers.
It wasn't that long ago that the Pacers were the best team in the Eastern Conference under the steady hand of Frank Vogel, the dominant paint presence of Roy Hibbert, the profound two-way magnificence of Paul George, and the crazy but effective contributions of Lance Stephenson.
Bird was smart enough to see through the holes in the faux powerhouse that he had built, and jettisoned the fragile Hibbert and Stephenson, who are both clinging desperately to their NBA careers only two and a half seasons later.
George stayed magnificent, even after snapping his leg into two pieces, and Vogel stayed steady, always keeping the Pacers competitive no matter what makeshift roster he was given to work with.
Heading into 2015/16, Bird decided that the Pacers needed to keep in step with the rest of the league and crank up the tempo, and the team surged from 19th to 11th in the NBA in pace. Unfortunately it isn't as easy as just swapping Stephenson for Monta Ellis, as the team placed 25th in ORtg.
Vogel famously was not offered an extension -- which is very different than getting fired, as we were reminded -- due to a purported difference in philosophy. One could assume that this difference in philosophy was management's preference to play fast, which added up to 45 wins and a first-round exit, as opposed to Vogel's preference to slow it down and play to the team's strengths, a strategy which resulted in 56 wins and a trip to the conference finals.
So to usher in the post-Vogel era of Pacers basketball, Nate McMillan was dusted off and given the head coaching job. McMillan's last head coaching stint was in Portland, where he had success but also regularly ranked near the bottom of the NBA in pace.
Then, George Hill was swapped for Jeff Teague. I'm sure one of these players is better than the other, but forgive me if I don't spend any minutes of my life getting to the bottom of this transaction. On the surface, it seems like the most lateral move seen since before crabs were invented. I'm just gonna go with that.
Then they signed 31-year-old Al Jefferson to 3 years/$30 million, which looks like a bargain in today's market until you realize that his production steadily decreased in each of his three years in Charlotte (because he's getting old), culminating in the Hornets breaking slightly less than even when he was on the floor in 2015/16.
It probably is still a bargain, but finding people who will care about that notion in 2019 will be a difficult task.
This is a team that apparently is being pulled in multiple directions, and there seems to be a first round exit at the end of every road -- if everyone stays healthy, of course.
They seem to be okay with that, as they tossed out their 2016 first-rounder for the services of Thaddeus Young, who is already 28 and was one of the most aggressively average rotation players in the NBA even at 24.
Thad is set to make about $43 million until 2019, and when the departed first-rounder is calculated into the equation, this might take the title of the most aggressively average transaction that took place over the summer.
Grade: Slightly more interesting than Tim Kaine, but slightly less interesting than Mike Pence
...obviously Vogel, who took the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals a few years back, must have been the problem.
Jim: It's always an uncomfortable dynamic when a team topples around a superstar player in his prime. The Pacers have managed to surround George with the most average cast of characters one could possibly hope to find. It's hard to make an argument that any of them could be considered more than a mediocre player, with the possible exception of Teague. To make matters worse, every single one of them is older than George (26). Not much hope for internal improvement.
Even someone as myopic as me can see that this doesn't adumbrate auspiciously for Indiana's long term goal of keeping George in tow past his current contract. George still has two years left on his deal, but unless Indiana can make marked improvement next summer, because this season has already been defenestrated, it seems rather likely he'll troll around the free agent market... it's en vogue these days.
It's hard to envision the coaching change is going to help, either. I mean, obviously Vogel, who took the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals a few years back, must have been the problem. I'm pretty sure McMillan is going to be the missing piece.
I actually like the Teague deal. He's a much better distributor than Hill was (you know which one I'm talking about). I would have liked it a lot better four years ago. I always thought the Pacers needed a better facilitator during their back to back losses to the Heat in the playoffs. Doesn't really do too much good now, though.
I guess it's possible that the Pacers improve incrementally, but that still sounds like a squandered season given their situation. Of course, Indiana is no stranger to stumbling just short of the pinnacle, losing in seven Eastern Conference Finals and one NBA Finals in the last 23 years. If they follow pattern George will be gone at some point in the next two years, the team will be bad for 4-5 seasons, then they'll be right back to losing to someone in the ECF's again.
What's especially lachrymose, though, is that the Pacers have managed to field a team around Paul George that will likely be one of the least exciting to watch in the league.
Grade: Rik Smits, because this team could really use a little Dunking Dutchman
2015/16: a disappointing 33-49
Arrivals: Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon
Departures: Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, Johnny O'Bryant, Greivis Vasquez, Damien Inglis
Jim: Milwaukee is a really curious team. Mostly the bad kind of curious.
I thought they were on the way up after the 2014/15 season. The team scrapped it's way to a playoff spot under new coach Jason Kidd and budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even better, Jabari Parker was set to return from a season ending injury to add to the team's momentum heading into 2015/16.
Then the team's fourth ranked defense fell to 23rd and they crapped their way to 33 wins. I guess Greg Monroe wasn't the missing piece after all.
The Bucks decided to reach for a lower first round talent, Thon Maker, with the 10th pick in the draft. I'm pretty sure he's somewhere between 19-24 years old, though, so that was probably the deciding factor in the war room.
Then the team shored up the bench by inking Teletovic and Dellavedova to long term deals. These seem like better moves for a playoff team needing to fill out a rotation than for a 33 win squad. Miles Plumlee must have also impressed the Bucks down the stretch, since he was rewarded with a 4 year/$50 million contract after averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds a game for the season.
While Teletovic and Dellavedova might help with Milwaukee's three point shooting woes, 30th in the league in attempts and 21st in percentage, they aren't exactly bulwarks on the other end of the floor... which means it's going to be tough to implement a defensive team identity again.
To make things worse, the culmination of doling out over $30 million a year to these three is that Milwaukee already has over $90 million on the books next summer BEFORE re-signing Giannis.
I guess the rebuild must be over.
On another cap related note, the Bucks will still be paying Larry Sanders until 2022. Remember him? Seems like a shrewd investment.
The good news is the Giannis and Jabari are both young enough that Milwaukee can re-sign them to deals past their rookie contracts and have some time to see what they have. The bad news was this summer.
...they should put themselves in time-out until they complete a course on market economics.
Rollin: Plumlee's agent must be Luca Brazzi. That's the only theory I can come up with.
The Bucks are a good example for the dangers of excessive tinkering. On February 11, 2015, they were 30-23 and had shocked the NBA with their stable of young and rangy athletes. Then they got pulled into Ryan McDonough's Guardmageddon and sent away their leading scorer in Brandon Knight for an even more flawed replacement in Michael Carter-Williams.
Since then the Bucks have gone 44-67 and they still haven't filled the scoring void left by Knight, although Khris Middleton has stepped up admirably.
The front office was validated in their hesitation to commit long-term to Knight, but they are now set to give $35 million to Greg Monroe over the next two years, $44 million to John Henson over the next four years, and now $50 million to Miles Plumlee over the next four years. They have completely lost the benefit of the doubt and they should put themselves in time-out until they complete a course on market economics.
And it's a shame, since they have one of the most exciting youngsters in the game in Antetokounmpo. Here would be an interesting poll -- which team has surrounded their young star with a worse supporting cast: New Orleans with Anthony Davis or Milwaukee with Giannis? I'd give the nod to NOLA for now, but the Bucks are nipping at their heels. Here's hoping that the next superteam features those two together in the frontcourt and it occurs in a place far removed from front office incompetence.
All my griping aside, I think the Bucks will improve by a handful of wins in 2016/17 -- mostly because Dellavedova can sort of hold a team together for small stretches and that will be important as the injuries/ineffectiveness of Carter-Williams inevitably strike. But to return to pre-Guardmageddon form they'll need a serious breakout season from Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker. Sadly, I don't see it happening with this supporting cast.
Grade: Smell the dairy air.
2015/16: 57-25, won the whole chimichanga
Arrivals: Mike Dunleavy, Chris Andersen, Kay Felder
Departures: Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith?
Rollin: There aren't many takeaways to be had from the first summer of a Cleveland title defense since Beatlemania was a thing. The team might miss Mozgov and Dellavedova in small doses -- especially if injuries strike -- but it won't matter as long as everyone's healthy come April.
J.R Smith is still unsigned well into August despite nailing 40% of his threes in 2015/16, which seemed odd until I realized that he's a client of Klutch Sports. Expect them to break bread on an $80 million deal sometime in September.
LeBron James signed his umpteenth free agent contract in a row, this time actually committing to a full 3 years at $99 million, which still feels like a bargain.
Mike Dunleavy was swiped for an Anderson Varejao trade exception when the Bulls had to make room for Dwyane Wade, and will give LeBron yet another shooter to work with. Finally, Chris Andersen was signed to the vet minimum because why the hell not.
A few minor adjustments have been made, but the game is the same. The Cavs will rain down threes in droves, LeBron will amaze and dominate, Kevin Love will be a superstar in the trade rumor section, Tristan Thompson will somehow still be underrated, and no one in the East will make this team lose sleep.
Keep rocking, Cleveland.
Grade: Shirtless J.R. Smith > Corona-drinking Matthew Dellavedova
...the re-signing of J.R. Smith would actually be an infusion of youth to this wizened roster.
Jim: While it's hard to fault a Cavs team reveling in their city's first championship since the Crunch dominated the NPSL in 1999... who also just re-signed the best player in basketball (yeah, it's still that James dude)... it would have been nice if they hadn't taken steps to make an aging roster even older.
If you don't count DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae and Kay Felder (and I'm not sure why you would) the Cavaliers only have four players younger than LeBron (31) on the roster.
Dunleavy turns 36 before the season starts and his slipping production the past few seasons means his days of being a productive player are probably in the rearview mirror.
Going down the list is Frye (33), Jefferson (36), Williams (33), Jones (35) and Andersen (38).
The good news is that the re-signing of J.R. Smith, who turns 31 before the season starts, would actually be an infusion of youth to this wizened roster.
More good news is that even if they have to rest their way through a few losses during the season to keep their legs fresh it probably won't even cost them home court advantage in the Eastern playoff bracket. While the conference isn't quite the putrescent pile of trash it was in recent years, it's still not that strong at the top.
Still, if the Cavs get upset in the playoffs or fade in the Finals I predict that age will be primary factor.
In the grand scheme of things, the Cavs just won a title and are overwhelming favorites to return to the Finals... giving them a chance at a repeat.
So not a terrible summer.
Grade: Did I mention they're getting kinda old?