The trade deadline brought moves both expected and unexpected, including two truly fascinating trades in the Golden State/Milwaukee swap and the Washington/Denver/Clippers deal centered around Nene and JaVale McGee. In the bigger picture, the three teams head and shoulders above the rest of the league stood pat, the Celtics couldn’t find a deal to their liking and will give the Big Three one last ride, and Dwight Howard stuck around, leaving the Nets scrambling to execute Plans B-Z.
It’s time to take our annual look at which players and teams are newly on notice after Thursday’s roster changes. We’ll skip the implications of Howard’s decision for front offices in Orlando, New Jersey, Dallas and elsewhere, since we covered those in-depth on Thurdsay morning. On we go:
When they complete the Wilson Chandler deal, the Nuggets will have 11 players guaranteed money next season, with an incoming first-round pick that will make it an even dozen. That number does not include any of their restricted free agents, including McGee, who reportedly sees himself as worth Nene/Al Horford-level money — surely a reason the Wizards cut bait on him now in their stunning deal for Nene.
Among those 12 roster players are Timofey Mozgov (on a partially guaranteed deal) and Kosta Koufos, two other project centers who have spent considerable time already working with Denver’s well-regarded player development guys. In other words: While Denver surely wants McGee to be a key long-term piece, it’s not as if he is guaranteed Nene’s vacated salary slot.
McGee is a giant, stretchy center with potential to be an anchor on defense, only the defense he anchored has ranked among the league’s half-dozen worst in each of the last two seasons. He’s a long-armed rebounding machine, only Washington has ranked 29th in defensive rebounding rate in back-to-back seasons, and they have rebounded considerably worse – by a huge margin – with McGee on the floor in both campaigns. Opposing big men shot 49 percent against him on post-up chances last season, and they’re up to 51 percent this season, per Synergy. He goal-tends everything in sight, chases blocks at the expense of sound rebounding, regularly fails to box out, and his positioning on pick-and-rolls and away from the ball is (let’s be kind) inconsistent.
McGee is the league’s ultimate “if he can put it all together” guy, but we’re four years into this, and he’s running out of time to put it all together. McGee’s only 24 and he has improved. He has slowly developed a semi-reliable hook shot, and he is posting a career-best Player Efficiency Rating this season. But he still rates more as a project than a known commodity.
Mozgov and Koufos are also on notice here, since Nene’s departure should open up more minutes for two big men who have been unable to grasp consistent playing time. George Karl loves to play small, and his affection for the Al Harrington/Nene front-line pairing often attached Denver’s centers to the bench. Karl can lean on the Harrington/Kenneth Faried pairing more now, but that is a dangerously undersized duo.
After a rough start, Wall has started to show the development the Wizards hoped to see in Year 2, at least on the offensive end. In his last 15 games, Wall is averaging a 20-9 line, shooting 48 percent (compared to 43.8 percent for the season), getting to the line a bit more often and scoring a much higher percentage of his points from within the paint, per NBA.com’s stats database.
In Nene, he finally gets a big man capable of running a sound pick-and-roll on offense and (when engaged) defending one on defense. Wall has struggled defending that play, though he has gotten little competent help from his big-man partners. On offense, he hasn’t quite figured out how to run opposing point guards into picks, but again, he has never had a veteran big near Nene’s level. Nene is also an accomplished passer and cutter, removing a bit of the creative burden from Wall’s shoulders.
Wall has already upped his efficiency without using up more of Washington’s possessions, and having done so surrounded by a cast of misfit gunners, his sophomore season can probably already be considered a success. He is the Wizards’ future, and that was never going to change. But for the remainder of the season, we get to see if he can learn a thing or two from an experienced big.
This pertains to next season, since we likely won’t see Andrew Bogut on the court until then. If Bogut is healthy, we will finally get to test the premise that Lee can be part of an effective NBA defense if paired with a top defensive center trusted to play big minutes.
Lee gets better and better on offense every season. He has long been able to space the floor with his mid-range jumper and score on the pick-and-roll, but this season, he’s isolating more and working more often from the post — especially the left block. He has been very effective on both fronts, per Synergy Sports. A power forward with these kinds of skills should be an enormously valuable player, but the Warriors are allowing a whopping seven more points per 100 possessions with Lee on the floor this season, according to NBA.com’s stats database.
The same thing happened last season. Lee has played the bulk of his minutes in Golden State with two sub-par perimeter defenders in Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, and one center with a broken spirit in Andris Biedrins. But teammate flaws alone do not explain what’s going on; Lee has slow feet and a limited wingspan, and for a guy known for his off-court generosity with teammates, he can look surprisingly unenthusiastic about help defense on the court.
Even more damning: The Warriors, a very bad rebounding team overall, actually transform into an average defensive rebounding club when Lee hits the bench, continuing an annual tradition of Lee’s teams rebounding better without him — despite his gaudy individual rebounding numbers. The same teammate flaws come into play here, too, but the only evidence we have suggests Lee gives back on defense what he provides on offense.
That has to change for Golden State to make a leap, given Lee’s massive contract. Can Bogut’s presence mitigate Lee’s flaws enough for his offense to be as valuable as it should be?
The Jackson/Richard Jefferson swap came as something of a surprise, despite Jackson’s decade-old cult hero status in San Antonio, the Spurs’ flirtation with using the amnesty provision on Jefferson before the season and the fact that the Spurs cut their luxury-tax payments by tossing T.J. Ford into the trade.
Once a capable attacker, Jefferson has aged into a three-point shooting specialist, but that skill is important to a Spurs offense that relies on spacing, movement and the corner three. Jefferson has shot nearly 44 percent combined from long-range over the last two seasons and has played starter-level minutes for an offense that ranks fourth overall in points per possession this season.
Jackson, on the other hand, has shot better than 35 percent from three just twice in his career, and hit just 28 percent of his triples while driving coach Scott Skiles insane in Milwaukee this season. Jackson is about to turn 34, and while he might still be a better defender than Jefferson, the gap between their reputations as defenders is larger than the gap between their actual defensive abilities at this point. The Spurs are an average defensive team, and they need to be better in May and June if they want a real chance at the ring.
Jackson has Jefferson beat when it comes to slashing, creating off the dribble and dishing productive passes, but at his worst, he also stops the ball in order to isolate and jack contested two-point jumpers. The Spurs’ offense could use a dose of creativity, especially given Manu Ginobili’s continued health issues and the number of inexperienced wings they play, but that creativity could come at the cost of bad long-range shooting and occasional selfishness. The Spurs are confident Gregg Popovich can tilt the equation in the right direction — or that if he can’t, the guys on hand can do the job this season and next, when Jackson’s contract comes off the books and the Warriors will be paying Jefferson $11 million.
Some quick-hitting thoughts on a few other names on notice:
• Kobe Bryant: Bryant is a career 33.6 percent shooter from three-point range. In other words: Bryant is a below-average three-point shooter.
In related news, the Lakers acquired an actual pick-and-roll point guard on Thursday in Ramon Sessions, a career 18 percent three-point shooter before suddenly going 26-of-62 (42 percent) so far this season. There is little point in acquiring Sessions, a shaky defender, if he can only work his pick-and-roll skills when Bryant is resting — especially since Bryant won’t rest as much in the playoffs. Having Sessions float around the perimeter is a waste.
Kobe is a really skilled off-the-ball worker. He’s a smart cutter who varies up his cuts, knows how to get to his spots on the floor and can set some mean cross-screens under the hoop. But all that movement usually ends with him catching the ball, holding it and either shooting or passing out of a double-team. Can he dial things back a bit and give Sessions a chance to boost a so-so offense?
• Indiana’s Inconsistent Guard Brigade: Meet your newest member, Leandro Barbosa. He’s not as good or valuable to the Pacers as Darren Collison, Paul George or George Hill, and even Dahntay Jones brings some things — especially on defense — that Barbosa cannot provide. But all these guys, even the ultra-skilled George, have nights where they look surprisingly passive and unproductive. Frank Vogel’s leash on some of those nights can be a bit shorter now, though George especially almost has to play huge minutes in the playoffs because of his defense.
• DeMar DeRozan: DeRozan is the only shooting guard left on Toronto’s roster now, and while coach Dwane Casey has dialed back DeRozan’s off-the-dribble responsibilities amid his general failure to live up to them, Barbosa’s departure could mean more creative duty for DeRozan over the rest of the season. Next season is the last year of DeRozan’s rookie deal, meaning he’ll hit restricted free agency in the summer of 2013. And the Raptors will want to know by then what kind of player he really is.
• Portland’s Young Players: Amid the stinking, flaming wreckage lies some opportunity for the combination of intriguing young players and misfit cast-offs the Trail Blazers have assembled for the stretch run of tanking. Will we actually get to watch Hasheem Thabeet play NBA basketball, given the departure of Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace from Portland’s front court? The only downside is that lots of these youngsters are guards — Jonny Flynn, Elliott Williams, Nolan Smith — and thus face competition from two veteran holdovers, Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, who have their next contracts to think about. But if the young guys play enough, it might actually be worth checking out an occasional Blazers game.