We covered free agency’s winners on Thursday, and next week, we’ll touch on the most intriguing team offseasons and teams that mostly stood pat. Today: the teams that have left us concerned.
• Chicago Bulls
I covered the state of the Bulls last week after center Omer Asik’s departure for Houston, so I won’t belabor things too much here. The Bulls have replaced four bench players — Asik, swingman Kyle Korver and guards Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson — who would have been due about $17.6 million next season with five due a combined $8.5 million. Only one of those players, guard Kirk Hinrich, has a contract that runs beyond next season, but the $4.1 million that he will earn in 2013-14 jeopardizes Chicago’s ability to use the full mid-level exception again next offseason.
Chicago now has about $71 million committed for 2013-14, factoring in the minimum $1 million guaranteed on shooting guard Richard Hamilton’s deal and power forward Taj Gibson’s cap hold. Gibson, of course, is even more critical now that Asik is gone, especially given that center Joakim Noah and/or power forward Carlos Boozer seems to suffer a 20-game injury every season. Gibson will be 28 next July, much older than a typical player coming off a rookie deal, but he’ll have suitors around the league and he’s firmly in Chicago’s core, especially if this team will seriously consider using the amnesty provision on Boozer at some point.
The Bulls can shave $1 million off that $71.1 million number by dumping Hamilton between now and then, a move they’ll likely explore midseason if they’re sputtering because it would get them under the tax. But the league’s new rules prohibit teams from using the full mid-level exception and spending past a line $4 million above the tax threshold in the same season. If the Bulls bring back Gibson at market value, they’ll likely have to rely on the lesser mini mid-level exception to add a much-needed veteran piece. That’s a problem, particularly because Watson could have duplicated much of Hinrich’s production on a cheaper expiring deal. There would seem to have been a way to mix one or two holdovers with the new bench players, though that might have left the team a bit shallow and a tad more expensive.
There are some serviceable bench players among Chicago’s new crew, but the Bulls would have taken a significant step back even if point guard Derrick Rose and small forward Luol Deng were healthy.
• Los Angeles Clippers
This almost feels unfair. The Clippers re-signed power forward Blake Griffin to a five-year contract — the longest one possible — in what would have to qualify as one of the two or three biggest things this franchise has ever done. They used the biannual exception on Grant Hill, filling a huge need for a backup small forward and nabbing a guy you could easily argue was the fourth-best player at his position on the free-agent market. They got creative, using a trade exception to acquire shooting guard Willie Green and earning one (plus a second-round pick) by signing-and-trading power forward Reggie Evans to the Nets.
Dealing Mo Williams for Lamar Odom makes sense in theory because the Clippers have an abundance of combo guards and zero big men beyond Griffin who are remotely competent offensive players. You could do worse than the minimum-salaried big-man combo of Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf, though the Clippers will be in trouble (again) if coach Vinny Del Negro’s trust in center DeAndre Jordan is so shaky in May that one of these guys has to be on the court in big moments.
And it’s not as if the Clippers had an abundance of flexibility. They had no cap room. Their only easily tradable assets (guard Eric Bledsoe and Jordan) are considered core pieces. Their only mid-sized contract was attached to a player (small forward Ryan Gomes) who couldn’t get off the bench last season. They had no Dan Gadzuric-sized non-guaranteed deals on which to build an easy sign-and-trade.
Still, using the full mid-level exception on shooting guard Jamal Crawford just feels like the classic appeasement of a star free-agent-to-be (point guard Chris Paul) — the use of the only major weapon in the team’s offseason arsenal on a known commodity popular around the league, with a false reputation as a clutch shooter. There had to be a more creative use of resources here. Chasing Courtney Lee or Lou Williams would have been an obvious path. But with Evans, Chauncey Billups, Gomes and two small deals (Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie), the Clippers could have butted their way into some crazy sign-and-trade — a Jarrett Jack/Gustavo Ayon package from the Hornets, something from the desperately active Timberwolves, something with the wheeling Rockets, Delonte West on the cheap, etc.
It’s not a crisis, but the Clippers now have $13 million committed to Crawford and small forward Caron Butler in 2013-14, and that $13 million is the difference between having significant cap room next summer and having none once you factor in Paul’s cap hold. The Clippers will be better next season, but unless Jordan makes a leap, they remain a tier below Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
• Philadelphia 76ers
Everyone has beaten up on Philadelphia for using the amnesty provision on power forward Elton Brand and then filling the massive empty space with big men Spencer Hawes and Kwame Brown, small forward Dorell Wright and shooting guard Nick Young. That’s justified, to some degree.
Brand is a better two-way player than either Hawes or Brown, and if the Sixers are really starting those two players together next season, the team is going to take a step back. Young and Wright add badly needed three-point shooting and don’t need to handle the ball, which frees up point guard Jrue Holiday and shooting guard Evan Turner to take on more creative responsibility in the wake of Lou Williams’ departure. But neither youngster has shown consistently that he is ready to run a team full time. That’s not a huge deal, since both are improving and swingman Andre Iguodala is still here, but on balance, the Sixers look to have dropped off a bit after an exciting season.
What’s especially puzzling: The Sixers could have had something near $20 million in cap space after the Brand move had they renounced all their own free agents, but they punted that chance to sign this lot. They obviously didn’t see anyone else worth chasing, and the one restricted free agent who changed teams without a fight (Ryan Anderson) has major positional overlap issues with forward Thaddeus Young, who may well be starting by the end of next season.
Also puzzling: By signing Hawes to a two-year deal and giving Brown a player option for 2012-13, the Sixers have potentially limited themselves to only a nominal amount of cap space next summer once you include Holiday’s cap hold.
That could change if they unload Iguodala between now and then, and I suspect the Sixers have a few possible next steps in mind. They’ve replaced Brand’s single massive contract with several mid-sized ones that might be easier to fit in package deals and mostly expire after this season anyway. Let’s see what they do.
• Washington Wizards
Look, I get why the Wizards dealt Rashard Lewis’ non-guaranteed deal for small forward Trevor Ariza and big man Emeka Okafor in June, effectively capping themselves out this summer and next when they could have as much as $10 million in room this summer and max-level room a year from now. They’re sick of losing, and they know former No. 1 pick John Wall is sick of losing, and of playing with young guys seemingly uninterested in learning the nuances of defense and basketball in general. Okafor and Ariza bring defense, and the easiest way for a marginal team to jump into the playoff race is to play top-10 defense every night. Ariza has dialed back his shot selection, which makes his egregiously bad shooting less egregious, and he fills a giant hole at small forward ahead of Chris Singleton.
The Okafor/Nene combination will present some mild floor-spacing issues, and Okafor will take minutes from the trio of young bigs who need them — Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Trevor Booker. I’m not sure Okafor is guaranteed a starting spot over Serpahin as things stand now, but the competition for minutes will be tight regardless.
You can bet some who panned this deal will laud the “culture change” it engendered if the Wizards are tied 2-2 against Boston or Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs next season. But I still wouldn’t have done it. The upside just isn’t high enough to justify the loss of flexibility — freedom to chase free agents at the max level (Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard) and the next notch below; to collect extra assets by facilitating trades; to kick the tires on Iguodala, whose deal is roughly equivalent to Okafor’s; and to make life difficult for Oklahoma City (Serge Ibaka, James Harden) and/or Chicago (Gibson) and others in restricted free agency next summer.
Washington looked at all of those options and chose this, and you can understand why. Lots of the top free agents over this summer and next are either point guards or big men, and the Wizards — who have Wall, Nene, Seraphin and Vesely — rightfully believed they were well-stocked there. But you never know what opportunities might have become available that aren’t quite as available now.
Quick-hitting thoughts on a few others:
• Dallas Mavericks: One of the league’s savviest front offices built a very nice two-way team by cobbling together free agency leftovers over a 48-hour span. But it’s not a championship team, nor is it the foundation of one. The Mavs will have space for one max-level star next summer (not two), so they’ll continue to explore every potential opportunity. But this roster was obviously not the one they hoped to put around Dirk Nowitzki during one of his final prime seasons.
• Orlando Magic: They still have an unhappy candy addict at center and all the bloated contracts they’d like to ship along with him. They overpaid for Jameer Nelson, an average point guard on the decline, but that will sting much less if and when they conjure up some cap flexibility by unloading Dwight Howard and several burdensome deals. Rookie big men Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn looked good at summer league, so they’ve got that going for them.
• New York Knicks: We’ve written about this team entirely too much, and this piece on Jeremy Lin’s departure to Houston encapsulates lots of the main concerns. Calling them a free agency loser is a bit much, even if it’s strange to pay the combination of point guards Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd, forward Steve Novak and center Marcus Camby nearly as much in 2014-15 as they’d have paid Lin under the terms of Houston’s offer sheet. All those guys will help next season, and landing shooting guard Ronnie Brewer on a one-year minimum deal was a masterstroke that will make it easier for the Knicks to go small, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, more often next season.
Bottom line: Offseason moves matter less than the fact that Anthony and power forward Amar’e Stoudemire make between $40 million and $48 million combined in each of the next three seasons. If the Knicks can’t find a way for the stars to function well together, the fringe stuff is just fringe stuff.
• Phoenix Suns: No strong feelings either way here. The Suns signed point guard Goran Dragic at a fair price (four years, $34 million). Though power forward Luis Scola is in the decline phase of his career, he’s still a productive offensive player who should age nicely with this training staff and teach the younger players a lot about NBA-level toughness.
The concerns come down to two things, one big and one minor. The big one: Paying forward Michael Beasley $6 million per season. The small one: I’d rather have center Robin Lopez on his new, partially guaranteed (and already affordable) deal than shooting guard Wesley Johnson, even if Marcin Gortat is here blocking Lopez’s way. Having Lopez would have given the Suns more leverage when Gortat hits free agency in 2014-15 — a seemingly distant summer in which the Suns, as constituted now, would have about $51 million on the books (factoring in Gortat’s cap hold), leaving them with so-so cap room instead of max-level cap room. Beasley’s $6 million bill hurts in that sense, too. Yes, he can score, but he does so inefficiently, without much in the way of free throws, passing or that pesky part of the game called “defense.” He’ll have to play some small forward with all the bigs around, and he has historically been worse at that position.
Beasley and Johnson might turn things around, and Phoenix does need help on the wing. The Suns had room to spend and dumped power forward Hakim Warrick in the Johnson deal, so the damage isn’t major if these two sputter. But dead money is never good.