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 move on to the Northwest Division, which features only one team that actually plays in the Northwest.
2015/16: 33-49, missed playoffs
Arrivals: Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez, Petr Cornelie, Malik Beasley
Departures: D.J. Augustin, no one else of note
Rollin: When we talked about the Nuggets last season, I was quite emphatic about how boring and aimless the franchise had become, even sinking into fart-joke territory to make my point.
It's amazing what a difference it makes when a team strikes gold late in the draft.
Nikola Jokic might already be one of the best and most versatile centers in the NBA, and 40 players were taken ahead of him in 2014. At 21 years old, he posted a PER of 21.5, a TS% of .582, had a ridiculous ORtg of 118 to go with a very respectable DRtg of 104, knocked down 44.7% of his jumpers from 10-16 feet and 33.3% of his 3-pointers, and per 36 minutes he registered a line of 16.5 points, 11.6 boards, 1 block, 3.9 assists, 1.6 steals and only 4.3 fouls.
21 years old.
He was so good last season that it didn't matter when Emmanuel Mudiay registered double-digit turnovers or shot 2-15 from the floor, or that Kenneth Faried started 64 games, or that no one in Denver turned away from the Broncos for long enough to notice (dead last in attendance).
He was also so good that it's totally fine and dandy that the Nuggets haven't done a damn thing since draft night, because they don't have to. This roster is still probably too young to crack the playoff bracket, but there is size and shooting up and down the lineup and all they need to do in 2016/17 is chill back and let the team coalesce.
They feature a young backcourt rotation of Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton; and a young frontcourt rotation of Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Juan Hernangomez and Joffrey Lauvergne.
Just step the hell back and don't mess with this team for a while. In fact, just have the GM take a sabbatical. Call him back in on draft night 2017.
Or if anyone wants Faried.
Grade: The choice of a new generation (get it, cause they play in the Pepsi Center)\
the Nuggets are following the same template for rebuilding as other teams... only they're doing it worse.
Jim: I'm a little more reticent to give them too big of a pat on the back just for not doing something dumb.
The Nuggets prize acquisition this summer was Jamal Murray, a guard from Kentucky taken #7 in the first round. I'm not sure whether I'm impressed that they managed to spirit him away from Ryan McDonough's obsessive grasp or worried that Denver took the only Kentucky guard ever that Ryan didn't covet enough to add to the Suns roster. Hopefully Murray can help buoy the Nuggets 26th ranked 3FG% from last season, because the team didn't add any other shooting.
Juan Hernangomez (#15 overall) sounds like he'll probably maybe I think be with the team next year... don't ask me to verify that since Denver Stiffs didn't seem 100% sure. Of course he's only 20 and won't be making an immediate impact. Juancho is a pretty cool name, though, so he's got that going for him. My favorite tidbit while digging up dirt on him was that nbadraft.net compared him to Victor Claver and Jonas Jerebko.
I didn't know that nbadraft.net was making a habit of trolling the Nuggets.
While Jokic did turn heads last season I don't know that I see him as a franchise player. Mudiay and Jokic do at least give Denver a foundation to build on, but past that the roster is bereft of elite level talent. So possibly maybe I'm not sure the Nuggets have a future all-star on their roster?
The Nuggets offseason abulia may have been a major reason the ESPN summer forecast picked them to go all the way up to 34 wins... from 33. But at least they have them dropping down to 12th place in the Western Conference (from 10th).
The entire core of the Nuggets team consists of players 22 and under so there is plenty of room for growth. Watching these young guys develop should give the team's fans a reason to be engaged over the next few years.
Unfortunately, I think the Nuggets are following the same template for rebuilding as other teams... only they're doing it worse.
Hard to get too excited about a team that might win a playoff series some day if everything falls into place.
Grade: Sunshine almost always makes me high
Oklahoma City Thunder
2015/16: 55-27, choked away a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the WCF
Departures: Kevin Durant
Arrivals: Does it really even matter?
Jim: OKC had the worst summer of any team by far. It was Nets bad (yes, ridiculing the Nets is going to continue to be a recurring theme).
The good news for Thunder fans is that Russell Westbrook has a pretty good chance to win another scoring title while leading the league in assists and, why not, average a triple double... before he leaves too.
Of course that's if he's not traded before the deadline.
I can empathize with their situation though - exciting team that seems destined to win a title but falls short after a few close calls and some bad luck then eventually disintegrates right before your very eyes leaving you empty and hollow. That sounds vaguely familiar.
OKC had made what I thought was a pretty good move in shipping out the underperforming Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the #11 pick Domantas Sabonis. I can definitely see the reasoning.
Steven Adams and Enes Kanter were both deserving of more playing time and Sabonis is billed as an NBA ready player (at least in spot minutes). Oladipo could emulate some of what Westbrook brought to the game, helping implement the same offense when the two weren't sharing backcourt minutes. Oladipo could also provide a much needed scoring punch at the shooting guard spot... I mean he's a below average three point shooter, but compared to Westbrook marksmanship he's great. At least he's a guy that can give you 15 a game as a third scoring option. Ilyasova could help stretch the court the way Ibaka wasn't.
If the Thunder had completed this trade, which they did before the free agency period, AND re-signed Durant I would have thought they had a great summer... putting them right in the mix of the championship conversation.
Heck, even Durant said the trade was good on June 28th. "It's a good move," Durant said, via the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps. "I like Oladipo. He's a good buddy, a friend of mine, and I'm definitely going to miss playing with Serge. He contributed so much to our organization and to the city, and he's a pioneer for what he's done for us and it's always going to be remembered in OKC what he's done for the community and his hard work on the court, so we wish him the best."
That's a whole lot of our, us and we for a guy with one foot out the door.
Ultimately, though, Durant decided that he would take the easier, softer path to a championship by joining the team the Thunder collapsed against... with Kevin "Heart of Glass" Durant being the main culprit for the collapse.
In the wake of his apostasy the Thunder still look like a playoff team next season, barring a fire sale, but have been eliminated from the championship sweepstakes.
The ominous outlook, however, is that things are about to get worse.
Grade: No more Thunder Buddies
Is Michael Beasley available?
Rollin: Well, since we began corresponding on this Thunder team, news broke that Westbrook agreed to an extension to stay in OKC.
While they no doubt suffered the greatest defeat an organization can suffer in an offseason -- losing a superstar player and getting zilch in return -- securing the stay of Westbrook puts a happier primer on their summer. Now the fans can put their Russ alone on the pedestal he used to share with Durant and hail him as the small town saint who won't be enticed by brighter lights or the lure of a superteam.
You know, like they did with Kevin Durant.
We deride teams for foolishly clinging onto their single star player when history tells us that just one star player won't suffice -- in lieu of biting the rebuilding bullet and cashing in while there's still value on the table -- but I can't fault the Thunder for doubling down on staying competitive, even if by "competitive" we're probably talking 45 wins max.
But now that they're retaining one of the best players in the NBA, they'll have to do one thing that they haven't been able to do since James Harden bolted: find another star player. If Harden's departure led to a comical carousel of Kevin Martin, Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, Randy Foye and finally Victor Oladipo, what kind of "replacements" for Kevin Durant are we about to see? Is Michael Beasley available?
Like you, I loved the Ibaka trade at the time and I love it even more post-Durant. Oladipo should be twice as fun in OKC as he was in Orlando, and perchance we'll actually get to see some offensive sets from purported mastermind Billy Donovan now that KD's 30.6 USG% is out the door and not even Russ can fill that on his own.
On a personal note, I find myself in an odd place. I've been eagerly awaiting the demise of the Thunder ever since they burst onto the scene -- attributed to a combination of SonicsGate and my own bitterness that they rose to prominence right as the SSOL Suns collapsed -- and now I find myself rooting for them, if only just a little bit. The Russ Soloman 5000 show is gonna be electric dynamite.
Grade: Too late to change the team name to "The Russlers?" Asking for myself.
Jim: It was hard not to fret over the minatory implications of the Thunder entering this season with Westbrook on an expiring contract, but his extension does appear to buy Presti some time. I think this shows that Russ is still considering staying long term as long as Oklahoma City can put the pieces around him to help the team contend.
Basically, Sam is on the clock.
OKC also has a little more leverage in trade talks now, which is probably good since it appears Westbrook was pretty close to being a Celtic before pen went to paper.
New Grade: Kick save and a beauty?
Portland Trail Blazers
2015/16: 44-38, lost in second round to Golden State (1-4)
Arrivals: Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli, Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier
Departures: Gerald Henderson, Brian Roberts, Tim Frazier
Rollin: Ever since that protracted Jail Blazers era that saw Portland miss the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, the Blazers have shown a remarkable ability to weather the everpresent injury bug and rebuild with remarkable speed.
After the Brandon Roy/Lamarcus Aldridge/Greg Oden teams fell apart at the knees, they sat out the playoffs for only two seasons before reloading around Damian Lillard (courtesy of Billy King) and posting back-to-back 50+ win seasons.
And when Aldridge bolted, they didn't skip a beat. Despite an almost entirely new rotation, Terry Stotts was able to mold a 6th-ranked offense with an oddly-fitting group of castoffs consisting of NBA luminaries like Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless.
They even started Noah Vonleh in 56 games.
The problem is that every time they rebuild they end up building a team with a ceiling of being the fourth best team in their conference. They seem to be mostly okay with that heading into 2016/17, since their only changes of note were to sign Evan Turner to 4 years/$70 million and Festus Ezeli to 2 years/$16 million.
Apparently the plan is to cover up the hole at power forward with Al-Farouq Aminu, who can defend anything on two legs, and use Turner to bolster the offense at small forward, where Harkless scored only 12.3 points per 36 minutes last season.
According to this piece from Blazer's Edge, Portland had a net rating of +4.7 when Aminu played the 4 instead of the 3, so this alone could be enough to notch a few more wins. While people haven't been particularly excited with the Turner signing -- since no one has been excited about Evan Turner news since he was drafted -- the Blazers really needed a third ballhandling option behind Damian Lillard (31.3 USG%) and C.J. McCollum (27.1 USG%).
It's hard to see Turner being a bad signing in Stotts' system.
In restricted free agency news, the Blazers matched the Nets' offer of 4 years/$72 million to Crabbe. I think Crabbe is a fun player, but as a rule of thumb I don't think I'd pick up the bill on any contract that the Nets thought to be a good idea. Even in today's market that looks like an awful lot of cheddar for a scoring wing who has produced exactly one productive season, and posted a PER of only 12.2 in that season.
Damn shame for Gerald Green that he didn't hit free agency a year earlier.
Finally, Leonard was retained for 4 years/$41 million. These days that's quite a bargain for a guy who is basically the Northwest version of Alex Len -- theoretically good at a lot of things but plagued by inconsistency. It's unfortunate that he couldn't get some of that Timofey Mozgov money.
It all adds up to another Blazers team with a ceiling of being the fourth best in their conference, and with McCollum due for a gigantic payday next summer, they'll probably have just enough cash rolling around to keep things that way. While it might not sound enthralling, consistent playoff basketball is what every fan deserves and there are enough pieces here to ensure it.
Grade: Keep Portland Moderately Competitive
It's also not unthinkable that a 50 win team finds a way to make a major move and step up to the next level.
Jim: The good old Jail Blazers moniker... that takes me for a spin in the way back machine.
Do we have a cool nickname for the Suns six season suckfest we've just endured? How about 7SOS (seven seasons of suck) after Phoenix misses the playoffs again next year?
Despite fairly imperceptible changes to the roster makeup the Blazers were actually pretty busy this summer. Of course activity doesn't necessarily correlate to achievement.
In addition to the Turner, Ezeli, Crabbe and Leonard contracts you mentioned Portland also doled out 4 years/$40 million to Harkless and emptied the oinker to lock up C.J. McCollum for the next four years for the price tag of $106 million. Lillard and McCollum are now both signed through 2021.
Paying C.J. seems prudent after his ascendance last season was vital to the team moving past Aldridge's departure and actually advancing just as far into the playoffs as the team he left them for. Plus, guys that average 20+ points while shooting over 40% from three are a fairly rare commodity. In fact, the only players in the NBA who scored more points per game than McCollum while shooting a better percentage from three were some guys named Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Whoever they are.
While I really like Lillard as a player he is only the fourth best PG in the Western Conference (Curry, Westbrook, Paul). While the Lillard/McCollum tandem will be a lot of fun to watch and will win plenty of games it's hard to see them pushing through the ceiling you mentioned.
Still, the Blazers shoot the three (4th best) and rebound the ball by committee (5th best) and there's no reason to think those trends won't continue. Like you alluded to, Portland actually has a lot of good pieces and a nice team.
It's also not unthinkable that a 50 win team finds a way to make a major move and step up to the next level.
Grade: Hoping to take the Warriors to 6 this time around.
***Yeah somehow I missed the news about the McCollum and Harkless contracts. Research is always negotiable with me. - Rollin
2015/16: 40-42, collapsed over their last five games and finished in 9th place
Arrivals: Dante Exum (ACL), George Hill, Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson
Departures: Trevor Booker, Trey Burke
Jim: I must admit I'm a little confused by Utah's strategy this summer.
The Jazz traded their reward for missing the playoffs by a game (the 12th overall pick) in a three team deal and got back George Hill from the Indiana Pacers. While fleecing the Wizards out of a 2021 second round pick for the paltry price of Trey Burke freed up a few minutes at the point I'm not quite sure that Hill is really the answer there. Hill, while a quality player, is 30 years old, a career starter and on an expiring deal.
With Dante Exum returning, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, I just don't see the need for a one year stopgap since Hill really doesn't seem to be a viable long term solution... unless perhaps he transitions to backup on a new contract. I guess the team wasn't infatuated with the idea of Raul Neto or Shelvin Mack playing heavy minutes again next season, which seems fair enough if they actually want to make the playoffs, but if that's the case why not use that 12th pick on a new backup down the road and fill the hole in free agency?
Perhaps one year cost control?
Since the Jazz only has one player signed past 2018 (Alec Burks) and a bunch of young players needing to get paid soon (headlined by Gordon Hayward next summer) maybe it wouldn't be smart to throw a bunch of money/years at someone during the FA bonanza, but there were plenty of veteran backups to be had on bargain deals. Is one year of George Hill really worth a lottery pick? Wouldn't that lottery pick provide cost control for a team needing to dispense big deals to its nucleus in the coming years?
I'm not sure I love the other "veteran leadership" added to the roster, either.
35 year old Joe Johnson has zero discernible basketball skills left and has already made $200 million during his career, so it's nice to see him squeeze another $21.5 out of the Jazz. He'll be joined by the player who once replaced him in Phoenix, Boris Diaw, who also used to be pretty good at basketball.
If Utah makes the playoffs next season I think it will be because of Exum's return, not because of these moves. If Utah is ready to try to win now, they needed more impactful additions. If Utah is still trying to build to that point, then why are they basically selling off lottery picks...
At least I should get to watch me some Dante Exum this season. So that's good.
Grade: Still a bubble team.
while the Suns imploded in ways that challenged the brain to comprehend, the Jazz plateaued in ways that challenge the brain to stay interested.
Rollin: The Jazz felt like an exciting up-and-coming team a couple years ago, just like the Suns did after the 2013/14 season, but while the Suns imploded in ways that challenged the brain to comprehend, the Jazz plateaued in ways that challenge the brain to stay interested.
The narrative might be different had Exum not missed an entire season, but this roster is full of players who were initially enticing but have struggled to find another gear. Rudy Gobert suffered a dip in production on offense, going from a .627 TS% in 2014/15 to .582. His DRtg stayed stellar at 99, but it would be really nice for Utah if he developed into more of a two-way big, considering their ho-hum 105.9 ORtg (16th in NBA).
Hayward retained his claim to being the Eric Bledsoe of wings, managing to produce at a high level but also stagnating in that frustrating tier of almost being a star player. His shooting percentages dropped slightly in 2015/16 despite a lower USG%, and at some point it's fair to wonder what kind of damage Hayward could do if not for Utah's seemingly systematic refusal to adopt anything resembling a properly spaced offense.
This brings us to Derrick Favors, who is a rare power forward these days in that he has made exactly one 3-pointer in his career to date. However, he allowed opponents to shoot only 47.8% at the rim last season (according to Nylon Calculus) which is frustrating because most teams in the NBA have figured out by this point that the best thing to do with a large human being that can't shoot but can protect the paint and can finish at the rim (71.4%) is to play him at the 5, especially when the other option at the 5 is an even worse shooter.
But this is Utah -- home of the slowest pace in the league (91.0).
This is a throwback team in a rather cruel way. While Memphis plays a muddy brand of grinding basketball, it suits the players on the team and on most nights it tilts the odds in their favor. In Utah, it seems to handicap what looks like a possibly fun team on paper and instead turns it into a chore. It's like having a kid who is crazy talented at the guitar but forcing them to play the clarinet instead.
The signings of Johnson and Diaw and the trade for Hill signal a defiant determination to keep things bloody boring in Salt Lake City, and if this keeps up any longer they should be petitioned to change their name from the Utah Jazz to the Utah Coldplay.
Unless by "Jazz" they mean the Kenny G kind of stuff, in which case it's perfect already.
Grade: Make Basketball Fun Again
2015/16: 29-53, missed playoffs for 12th straight season
Arrivals: Tom Thibodeau, Kris Dunn, Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush
Departures: Andre Miller
Rollin: The question with the Wolves isn't whether they will make a leap, but rather how far that leap will be. Are we talking a leap like the 2009/10 Thunder, who went from 23 wins in 2008/09 to 50 wins and an eighth seed in a ridiculously stacked West? Most likely they're still a year away from that, but I wouldn't fall off my chair if it happened in 2016/17.
Mostly it will depend on two things: how ready the youngsters are, and how quickly new coach Tom Thibodeau can establish the defense. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Kris Dunn will give him a tyrannical trio with which to torture opposing offenses, and the last time he took over a new team he had them ranked first in defense in his first season.
Of course, that was back in 2010/11 and his schemes have since been widely copied and thusly adjusted to across the NBA, so it's possible that Minnesota isn't getting quite the ahead-of-the-curve visionary that Chicago landed six years ago.
But when your team sports a talent like Towns, there isn't much to niggle over.
The Wolves signed Cole Aldrich to 3 years/$22 million because NBA teams still need large bodies to move people around in the paint, and Brandon Rush came aboard for 1 year/$3.5 million to theoretically shore up the shooting from the wings a bit.
Jordan Hill was also brought aboard for 2 years/$8 million for reasons that are very sound, I'm sure. That gives the Wolves approximately 19 players on the roster who can play either the 4 or 5, so it's safe to consider that area properly addressed.
All just details, though. It has taken way too long to build a proper foundation in Minnesota since KG headed to Beantown, but golly jeepers this is one hell of a foundation. Basketball is fun again in the frozen north.
Grade: Yer darn tootin'
Jim: The Wolves had an extreme organizational makeover this summer, not only with the hiring of Thibs that you mentioned, but also bringing on former Spurs assistant GM Scott Layden. I've heard the Spurs have had a modicum of success running a basketball franchise.
Thibodeau might have his work cut out for him reinventing Minnesota's defense, though, since they ranked 28th in the league in DRtg last season. At least adding defensive stopper Jordan Hill to the mix should help on that end. Plus, he'll probably fit right in with Thibodeau's mentality. If there is one word I would use to describe Hill's style of play on the court... it's intensity.
I like the Kris Dunn pick and will like it even better if it culminates in the transition away from Ricky Rubio in the near future. The oft-injured Rubio has never lived up to his potential, mostly due to the fact that he can't shoot a basketball... which is generally a good skill to possess if you're an NBA player (and especially a guard). Speaking of players that can't shoot, that especially applies to those two new 4/5 hybrid players signed this off-season. Do either of those guys (Hill/Aldrich) even really count as "additions" since they immediately become tied for last on the depth chart at their position.
The organizational shakeup just gives this franchise so much new legitimacy that it's hard not to celebrate this as a great transition into a (hopefully) sustained era of winning basketball. While Minnesota is probably still a year or two away from battling the big boys at least they don't appear to be a year or two away from being a year or two away anymore.
Which might be a little bit of a downer for Suns fans, because once Minnesota makes the playoffs only the Kings will be mired in a longer drought of playoffless basketball than guess who... Hint: the team's first name is Phoenix.
Even incremental improvement this season will be a step in the right direction, since all the Wolves have to do to have their second best season in a decade is win 33 games. Ouch.
It's interesting to note that 40 year old KG is still a thing here, but the Suns just had no time for Amare...
Grade: Are the Wolves really headed in a direction where they could sign a big name FA next summer?