I’ve named the offseason’s winners, teams that left me a bit confused or concerned and the seven most intriguing clubs. Now I’m on to the rest: teams that mostly stood pat or left me without a hot or cold reaction to their July moves. Today: five teams in the Eastern Conference.
• Toronto Raptors
If there’s a team from this group that belongs on the “intriguing” list, it’s probably Toronto, which landed its franchise point guard in a fascinating trade with the Rockets after improving from cover-your-eyes awful to league average on defense in coach Dwane Casey’s first year. Kyle Lowry will serve as the team’s major free-agent prize because the Raptors reserved their rather significant cap space for a two-pronged pursuit of Steve Nash, a strategy that included both a sizable offer to the two-time MVP and a crazy offer sheet to Landry Fields designed to block the Knicks from a sign-and-trade deal for Nash.
Fields will make just shy of $6.5 million annually over the next three seasons, a drastic overpay for a wing who shot 25.6 percent from three-point range last season and struggles to defend quick shooting guards. Fields will likely begin the season as the starting small forward for a team that had one of the NBA’s worst wing rotations in 2011-12, when the likes of Rasual Butler and a slightly out-of-position James Johnson mostly started there. The 24-year-old Fields will represent an upgrade if he can shoot a league-average mark from deep, and his cutting game generally functioned much better before the Knicks dealt for Carmelo Anthony, the sort of dominant, ball-stopping scorer not present in Toronto. And it’s not as if Toronto missed an obvious gem in free agency; the small-forward market was top-heavy, with the prime options being either restricted (Nicolas Batum) or aging/potentially overpriced (Gerald Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko), and the Raptors used the draft to find a potential replacement (Terrence Ross) for DeMar DeRozan at shooting guard.
The Fields deal will hurt the Raptors’ flexibility, but not fatally. Toronto is set to have about $11.5 million in cap space next summer before factoring in DeRozan’s $8.4 million cap hold. DeRozan’s future is one of the interesting questions that Toronto faces. Ditto for the frontcourt, where the anticipated debut of Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas will make for a crowd of players who all want minutes. Andrea Bargnani is obviously a heavy-minutes starter, and he played the best ball of his career early last season before suffering a series of nagging leg injuries. The Raptors, who had the second-worst offense last season, actually scored at a league-average rate when Bargnani was around to spread the floor.
After that? Nothing but questions, with Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, Valanciunas and fellow Lithuanian Linas Kleiza, who can swing between both forward positions but probably works best in the NBA as a small-ball power forward. (The Raptors’ salary dump of Johnson to Sacramento cleared that precise role for Kleiza). And we haven’t mentioned Aaron Gray, a burly center for whom Casey has an affection.
Bottom line: With some internal growth and Lowry on board to upgrade the defense at the top of the arc, the Raptors have a chance to make some noise in the race for the No. 8 spot — especially if the Sixers slip after their own offseason makeover. Toronto also will be a team to watch on the trade and free-agency markets because of its glut of big men, decent cap flexibility, still-available amnesty provision and point guard Jose Calderon’s expiring deal.
• Milwaukee Bucks
Talk about a crowded frontcourt. The Bucks just signed Joel Przybilla, beloved NBA tough guy, to join Samuel Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh, Ersan Ilysaova (re-signed to a five-year deal worth about $36 million in guaranteed money), Drew Gooden, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders, John Henson and Tobias Harris in the forward/center rotation. Of those players, only Harris, the 19th pick in the 2011 draft, appears ready to thrive at small forward rather than power forward, though Mbah a Moute can and does defend just about every position.
That situation will put major pressure on Sanders, the 15th pick in the 2010 draft, who is probably last among this group now and an obvious candidate for a trade and/or Milwaukee’s declining his $3 million option for 2013-14. Udoh is more of a proven commodity, but his rookie deal is more expensive and his cap hold in the summer of 2014, combined with a market-value deal for point guard Brandon Jennings a year from now, would limit the Bucks’ ability to get max-level cap space in two years.
The defense fell apart last season after the Bucks acquired shooting guard Monta Ellis for center Andrew Bogut. With Jennings and Ellis on the floor, Milwaukee allowed nearly 108 points per 100 possessions, a number that would have rivaled Charlotte for last in the league. Milwaukee addressed the issue by drafting Henson and dealing spare parts for Dalembert, and there should be enough big men here to plug the holes Ellis always opens on the perimeter. But coach Scott Skiles will have a tough job finding the right minutes distribution among all of these big men, particularly if the Bucks sign another wing player (Carlos Delfino?) to fill out that part of the roster and join guard-forward Mike Dunleavy in giving Harris competition for small-forward minutes. Harris looks like a potential low-post bully at small forward, but it’s unclear whether he can space the floor from there, or how he’ll hold up at power forward.
There are lots of questions to answer here, with Jennings’ value high on the list. He made noise last season about wanting to play in a larger market, and his cap hold will leave the Bucks next summer with an estimated $8 million in cap space, a middling number.
• Cleveland Cavaliers
They have done almost nothing, save for the divisive selection of Dion Waiters with the No. 4 pick in the draft, and that’s fine. There is a long list of bad teams with cap room that have used it for the sake of using it and regretted it almost immediately, like Will Ferrell jumping into the bear pit. Signing C.J. Miles made sense because Cleveland is desperate for wing production after Omri Casspi’s disappointing season, but none of the Cavs’ transactions moves the needle.
The Cavaliers are going to be cheap and bad (again) with their current roster, but they have a pile of extra first-round picks and the ability to obtain another one pretty easily by trading center Anderson Varejao. They also have one of the league’s best young players in Kyrie Irving, the rare point guard who combines elite shooting with sound distribution skills, and enough cap space to take on Lakers center Andrew Bynum as a facilitator in a Dwight Howard trade. That cap space isn’t going anywhere, but as the Mavericks found out last month in the Deron Williams sweepstakes, free agency isn’t a fail-safe when a star’s incumbent team can offer more money and an extra year. That’s what will make the Cavs interesting to watch over the next year: Will they stay patient, watch Tristan Thompson’s development and collect another high lottery pick? Or will they essentially use their cap space via trade, dealing for a star who may or may not fit well with Irving’s pick-and-roll game? These are the choices that define the course of a franchise.
• Charlotte Bobcats
They didn’t win the Anthony Davis lottery, losing a chance at the kind of centerpiece player every champion needs, but No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is poised to fill a starting wing spot for at least the next four years. Now Charlotte just has to learn what it has in the rest of its young pieces, including two 2013 free agents in center Byron Mullens and shooting guard Gerald Henderson. Wipe away their cap holds, and the Bobcats could have as much as $12 million or so in cap space a year from now. They could achieve much of that same savings (or tack on $8 million more, for max-level room) by using the amnesty provision on power forward Tyrus Thomas, a move they held off on after missing out on Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries in free agency. (An offer sheet for Lopez would have required amnestying either Thomas or center DeSagana Diop.) Lopez would have made for a nice offense-first building block alongside Bismack Biyombo, a budding defensive menace. (Note: None of these nearly made moves represent much of a vote of confidence in Mullens, a shoot-first and shoot-second big man who struggles on defense away from the rim.)
The cap sheet is clean for next summer and will be much cleaner in 2014, when newly acquired guard Ben Gordon’s deal will have expired. The Bobcats did well to obtain a possible future lottery pick from Detroit in the Gordon-Corey Maggette exchange; they had so little future money committed that flipping an expiring contract for two (expensive) years of Gordon didn’t make much difference. Signing free-agent point guard Ramon Sessions at $5 million per year over two seasons is a no-harm, no-foul move that eases the burden on Kemba Walker, who looked both overwhelmed and promising at times as a rookie last season — sometimes within the same possession. Getting center Brendan Haywood on the cheap (about $2 million per year) via the amnesty scrap heap has the same basic effect, minus the Walker mentorship.
This team will be a little better in 2012-13. The Bobcats have used almost all of their cap room for that season, meaning they do not have the same immediate in-season trade flexibility as the Cavaliers. But Charlotte gets that flexibility back in July.
• Detroit Pistons
There are really only two certainties here:
1. Greg Monroe is a monster offensive player who gets better and better.
2. This team is set to have major cap space for the first time since the disastrous signings of Gordon and forward Charlie Villanueva in July 2009. The Pistons will need to make some moves to create max space next summer, but they have some tradable assets at the forward spot, they could renounce their rights to Austin Daye (does any player need even just a run-of-the-mill bad season more than Daye?) or use the amnesty provision on Villanueva to get there. The protected pick they traded to Charlotte to acquire Maggette’s expiring contract was the price for that space, and it could be a heavy one; it’s lottery-protected for next year’s draft, but only top-eight protected in 2014 and top-one protected in 2015.
Beyond that? It’s a mystery roster loaded with combo forwards (Kyle Singler, Maggette, Daye, Jonas Jerebko, Villanueva) and light on guards. There are some bits of promise here: Brandon Knight shot 38 percent from three-point range during an otherwise-scattershot rookie year; the team’s defense improved dramatically in the middle of the season; and the turnover rate, third worst in the league, figures to come down as everyone gets some experience. Lawrence Frank is an accomplished coach who made inroads in teaching defense last season.
No one knows what to expect from center Andre Drummond, the ninth pick in the draft, and it’s hard to look at this roster and see a ceiling much above .500. More changes are on the way, and they’ll have to be big hits.