It’s offseason evaluation time, and I’ve already covered the winners and those teams that have me a bit concerned. Here, I look at the seven teams that left me most intrigued with their July work, both because of the sometimes-dramatically different paths between which they had to choose, and because of the varying directions they could still go after those initial moves.
• Boston Celtics
No team outside the Dwight Howard Nexus of Horror had a more interesting offseason than the 17-time champions. Boston had carefully set up its books so that this could be a rebuilding summer, with deals for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen expiring and the potential for more than $20 million in cap room. But then something funny happened: Garnett, 36, hung on as the team’s top all-around player and one of the league’s three best defenders, and the Celtics came within one victory of a third NBA Finals trip in five seasons.
Even that success brought questions. Was it the lucky result of injuries to Derrick Rose and Chris Bosh? Or was it a signal of Boston’s strength, winning with a hobbled Allen, a crippled bench and without Avery Bradley, the menacing second-year guard whose midseason insertion into the starting lineup transformed the Celtics?
The starting lineup with Bradley in Allen’s place outscored opponents by an unthinkable 20 points per 100 possessions and scored at a rate that would have edged the Spurs for the league lead. Such success might suggest that the way Bradley’s cutting fits within Boston’s spacing could solve the team’s long-term scoring decline and save another offense-first player (Jason Terry, now) to prop up bench units. But that lineup played fewer than 350 minutes together all season, meaning we know very little about it in the big picture.
Meanwhile, Boston got a first-hand look at Miami’s frightening emergence as a small-ball team with an emboldened and post-savvy LeBron James, a trend that firmed up in the Heat’s Finals win over the Thunder.
Add all of it together, and the Celtics faced an enormously complex set of questions this offseason. Were they contenders? How serious of one? And if they were, could they spend in such a way as to improve prospects for a ring in 2012-13 while remaining relatively flexible and finding a young asset or two?
The consensus around the league is that Boston did about as well as possible, especially because a mammoth cap hold attached to Garnett — who is still too good to let go — soaked up nearly all of its cap room. After Allen’s departure, the Celtics worked a three-team sign-and-trade for 26-year-old shooting guard Courtney Lee, a career 38.6 percent three-point shooter and hard-working defender. That move followed the use of the full mid-level exception on Terry, an efficient guard who can score both off the dribble and as a spot-up three-point shooter. Boston hasn’t had that kind of guard in years, one reason the team’s offense has dropped off so badly.
Boston brought back power forward Brandon Bass on a fair deal (about $7 million per season) and signed three solid minimum contracts in point guard Keyon Dooling, power forward Chris Wilcox and center Jason Collins. The reported four-year, $36 million deal for forward Jeff Green isn’t done yet but it’s coming, a contract that will represent an overpay for a backup whose teams have consistently been much better with him on the bench.
The Celtics have clearly given themselves a puncher’s chance at winning the 2012-13 title and the ability to put out much better small lineups against the Heat. They will be massive underdogs as long as Miami is healthy and motivated, but they are much better equipped now to take advantage of a tiny break, such as some chemistry malfunction among the Heat stars or a poorly timed tweak to Dwyane Wade’s knee. But as things stand now, they need that kind of break.
Was that worth all of this spending? Boston is capped out for 2013-14, with an anticipated payroll so high that it might not be able to use the full mid-level exception to attract another veteran. The Celtics already have about $57 million committed in 2014-15 (including estimates for draft picks between now and then), though the bill gets a little lighter if Garnett’s $12 million deal for that season is only 50 percent guaranteed, as several sources around the league claim. And Green’s deal will likely have some partial guarantees built into it.
Still, Boston might end up paying Lee, Terry (already almost 35), Bass and Green about $27 million in 2014-15, meaning it’s clearly punted some future flexibility in exchange for a small — but much-improved — chance of a title next season. Some of these assets, especially Lee, Bass and Paul Pierce, whose deal for 2013-14 is only partially guaranteed, are tradable if things go badly.
Just a fascinating offseason, with ownership’s addiction to winning surely playing a role in some of president Danny Ainge’s decisions.
• Minnesota Timberwolves
Step back from general manager David Kahn’s series of unexpected moves this summer, and I mostly see an enormous load of pressure on point guard Ricky Rubio (and perhaps forward Derrick Williams, the second pick in the 2011 draft) as power forward Kevin Love’s three-year max contract begins ticking. Minnesota was all over the place in July, fighting with Portland over small forward Nicolas Batum, signing shooting guard Brandon Roy out of “retirement,” enticing two versatile Russian players (forward Andrei Kirilenko and guard Alexey Shved) and dumping another lottery bust (Wesley Johnson), among other transactions. Those moves came after the June acquisition of small forward Chase Budinger for a first-round pick.
Almost every league executive I spoke to over the summer said that, on paper, this is a playoff team — provided Rubio rediscovers his peak game in relatively speedy fashion after returning from ACL surgery. I agree. Minnesota was in hot pursuit of the No. 8 seed last season before a devastating run of injuries, and Kahn has remade one of the worst wing rotations in recent NBA history.
But what’s the ceiling, and what comes next? If Kirilenko picks up his option in the second year of his two-year, $20 million contract and the second year of Roy’s $10 million deal kicks in, the Wolves will have about $56 million in salary committed for 2013-14 before factoring in center Nikola Pekovic’s cap hold. In other words, they’re effectively capped out.
And a question not enough folks are asking: What if the 31-year-old Kirilenko has a successful season and follows the Gerald Wallace path, opting out of one year of guaranteed money in exchange for a long-term deal? If that happens, the Wolves might spend themselves out of meaningful cap room through the summer of 2014. It’s true this team doesn’t have much history of attracting free agents, but it has to make the jump to championship contender somehow, and it likely won’t be via the draft. The Wolves won’t be bad enough anymore to collect high picks, and they have blown so many first-rounders (Johnson, Jonny Flynn, the Ty Lawson trade, etc.) over the last three years as to have nearly cost themselves a chance for Thunder-style group upside.
Rubio and Williams represent the only hope left for that kind of development, and Williams has Love blocking his best NBA position, power forward. If Rubio is great and Minnesota gets help elsewhere, such as the Thunder’s losing James Harden or Serge Ibaka, the Wolves could reach the point of being able to make some serious noise. But those are big “ifs.”
• Memphis Grizzlies
Small picture: A team with no cap flexibility brought back two key frontcourt players (Marreese Speights and the forgotten, but essential, Darrell Arthur); used the mini mid-level exception to sign a player (Jerryd Bayless) who could fill two needs: backup point guard and three-point shooting, the latter if last season’s 42.3 percent accuracy from deep (44-of-104) wasn’t a fluke; and dealt a power forward deep in the rotation (Dante Cunningham) for a player who can shoot three-pointers (guard Wayne Ellington).
Sensible moves all, even if the reserve wing rotation of Ellington, Quincy Pondexter and rookie Tony Wroten (and perhaps Bayless, splitting time between guard positions) is dicey and lacks a long small forward type. Depending on how some of the newcomers perform, outside shooting and spacing could be issues without guard O.J. Mayo, who signed with Dallas. But they’ve been issues for years.
Bigger picture: The Grizzlies project to be about $4 million over next season’s tax line and already right at the projected tax line in 2013-14, and they have an average of nearly $60 million annually committed to four players — power forward Zach Randolph, center Marc Gasol, point guard Mike Conley and small forward Rudy Gay — for the next three seasons. The Grizz have done well enough on the fringes to push Thunder, whom they always push, if everything goes right. If it doesn’t, will Memphis look to deal Gay or Randolph to gain some future flexibility? It feels like a “last chance” season for these four, though the team’s new owner, tech billionaire Robert Pera, and the league’s new revenue-sharing system might affect the course of the franchise.
• Indiana Pacers
Let’s be honest: It’s probably not ideal to pay center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill $22 million combined (and going up) in each of the next four seasons, particularly after the Finals and Miami’s late-series blitzing of Indiana in the second round appeared to signal an evolution away from slow-footed size. But Indiana’s decision to pay Hibbert at this level despite the fact that he has never averaged 30 minutes per game amounts to the recognition of two realities:
1. Being good, but perhaps not great, is just fine for an ownership group that typically loses money on the team and thus needs some good community vibes and two rounds’ worth of playoff gate revenue.
2. It’s nice to trumpet the NBA’s anti-big man evolution, but the two teams held up as the primary examples of killer small-ball play also happen to have arguably the league’s two best players — LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom can conveniently play power forward for extended minutes (or in LeBron’s case, entire games). If you don’t have one of those guys, possessing a big man is basically essential. Remember: Indiana outscored Miami in the playoffs when Hibbert was on the floor, and even if the Heat reversed that trend over the last three games of the series, the Pacers were still miles better in that stretch when the big fella played.
If the ultimate goal is to get a star player, these moves hurt. The Pacers have an estimated $51 million committed in 2013-14, but cap holds for power forwards David West and Tyler Hansbrough (whom the Pacers would love to deal) will take them over the cap.
This is where ownership demands and basic NBA realities come into play. The Pacers’ front office clearly hasn’t received the star-or-bust mandate that Houston’s ownership has allowed for there, and without that mandate or any history of attracting outside free agents, it’s hard to see any viable alternative other than remaining flexible for flexibility’s sake. That would have been fine, but it would also have involved a step back that the franchise was justifiably unwilling to take, especially with the books relatively clean after 2013-14, when small forward Danny Granger’s deal expires.
The Darren Collison/Ian Mahinmi deal was a bust on the surface, in large part because the Pacers had about $10.5 million in temporary cap space while Hibbert and Hill remained unsigned (and with only their cap holds on the books). Why couldn’t Indiana have just signed Mahinmi — or Chris Kaman, or Carl Landry — outright instead of dealing an asset for a $4 million backup big man?
For one, the Pacers had limited time. Hill and Hibbert weren’t going to sit around waiting to sign theoretical contracts forever. The Pacers badly needed a backup big man capable of playing both power forward and center, and they apparently didn’t believe they could get one via free agency before the Hill and Hibbert deals obliterated their cap room. They kicked the tires on a number of scenarios but couldn’t quite pull the trick. They probably could have done better for Collison or later via the full mid-level exception, but dumping Dahntay Jones in the Collison deal freed up an extra salary slot that the Pacers used to sign swingman Gerald Green in addition to point guard D.J. Augustin.
Green now faces a heavy burden of replacing both Leandro Barbosa and Jones, though Lance Stephenson could help if he becomes reliable enough for coach Frank Vogel to pair him with Hill.
• Brooklyn Nets
I’ve written about many of their moves (including here and here) and their place within the Howard Nexus of Horror (here and here), so I’ll be brief. The Nets put themselves in the conversation for a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they spent enormously to do so, and left us with three big questions:
1. Can they guard anyone?
2. Can they get Howard once center Brook Lopez becomes trade eligible again on Jan. 15?
3. If they can’t, how can they upgrade the team while committing roughly $65 million annually to four players — point guard Deron Williams, shooting guard Joe Johnson, small forward Wallace and Lopez — for the next four seasons?
• Utah Jazz
Covered at length in this Western Conference analysis, the incumbent No. 8 seed will be a team to watch on and off the court all season. The acquisitions of Mo Williams and Marvin Williams make sense. Marvin beefs up what was a weak wing rotation and spares Gordon Hayward the burden of being a full-time small forward — good things if the Hayward/Marvin Williams pair can work, and if there are enough minutes for second-year shooting guard Alec Burks. The other Williams isn’t really a point guard, but he makes sense as one in a post-heavy Utah system that requires outside shooting, entry passes and active cutting from its point man instead of high pick-and-rolls. Devin Harris struggled to fit that system, though the Jazz reached some of their highest levels of two-way play during his hottest streaks.
The frontcourt is both loaded and loaded with questions. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors all need big minutes, and Jefferson and Favors bring almost diametrically opposed skill sets. Jefferson is a post hub who can’t guard the pick-and-roll and earns few free throws, while Favors is emerging as a mobile defensive crusher with an inconsistent and tentative offensive game (outside of some off-ball cuts). Coach Tyrone Corbin played the three together with great success in limited minutes last season. But if that super-big lineup remains only an occasional experiment, Corbin will have to sort minutes in a way that maximizes two-way productivity — even it means starting Favors alongside Jefferson for offense/defense purposes.
In the big picture, every player on a non-rookie deal other than Marvin Williams and Jeremy Evans has an expiring contract, and Millsap has already reportedly turned down an extension offer. Utah has decisions to make — and the future flexibility to be a major trade player.
• Houston Rockets
Another team I’ve covered to death, from its trade of point guard Kyle Lowry to its signings of point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik to its amnestying of Luis Scola and pursuit of Orlando’s Howard. The Rockets want a star, and they’ve assembled an army of young forwards and an extra likely lottery pick from the Raptors to build an offer. Even after wresting Lin and Asik away from New York and Chicago, respectively, via poison-pill offers, the Rockets still have about $9 million in cap space and shooting guard Kevin Martin’s expiring deal to offer the Magic for Howard. If they miss on Howard, the Rockets likely will be bad enough to earn their own lottery pick and be flush with cap space next summer.