We’ve looked at the offseason’s winners and losers, the teams that have us most intrigued, the landscape in the aftermath of the Dwight Howard trade and the Eastern Conference teams that mostly stood pat. It’s time for the last group of offseason evaluations: the Western Conference teams that, some drama aside, mostly stood in place.
• San Antonio Spurs
On a very superficial level, it must look like the Spurs are doing what Danny Ainge swore he’d never do in Boston: clinging to an over-30 core past its championship prime instead of “blowing it up” and hitting the reset button. But standing pat by re-signing Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, Danny Green and Patty Mills was the only sensible path for San Antonio this summer, especially because it still leaves them able to work the trade market and carve out max-level cap room over the next two summers if they want.
Two basic realities likely governed the Spurs’ decision-making this summer:
• They were very, very close last season. The Thunder swept the last four games of the conference finals, but most of those games were nail-biters, and the Spurs spent the rest of the season as the class of the NBA. This is not a team that flipped a postseason switch or lucked into a conference finals appearance after some injury breaks or a series of unusually favorable matchups. The Spurs were historically great, at least by the numbers, over the last 30 games of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. It’s not easy to blow up that kind of team, even in a vacuum devoid of cap rules and other variables that exist in real life.
It’s true the landscape has changed since the midway point of those conference finals. The Thunder figured out how to leverage their speed and athleticism to torch a Spurs defense whose only slightly above-average work — bad by San Antonio’s standards — had worried the team all season. The Heat achieved basketball (and small-ball) self-discovery on a national stage. The Lakers just acquired one of the league’s top three players.
But the Spurs were so close last season that going for it again was really the only option. They can likely count on internal improvement from several places: a full season of Diaw; run-of-the-mill development from small forward Kawhi Leonard and center Tiago Splitter; an upgrade at the back of the guard rotation via some combination of Mills, Cory Joseph and Nando de Colo; and perhaps a deal involving a surplus asset such as Gary Neal, Matt Bonner or DeJuan Blair. A bit of internal improvement, plus some good health and luck, and presto — you’re in the Finals. The odds might not favor it, but unless you’re Miami at this point, the odds don’t necessarily favor you making the Finals. That doesn’t mean you just pack it in when there’s still a small but decent chance at a title.
• The Spurs’ cap situation practically demanded this path. San Antonio could have created about $8.5 million in cap space, but getting there would have required renouncing their rights to Duncan (as well as Diaw and Green). And what’s the point? To make a run at Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilyasova or a restricted free agent you’re not going to get? Future flexibility is still there if the Spurs want it. Deals tied to Splitter, Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili (among others) expire after next season, and the Spurs could open up max cap room next summer by renouncing their rights to those players. The fully guaranteed portion of Tony Parker’s deal expires a year later, leaving the Spurs with all sorts of choices going forward — max cap room, short-term deals for the older stars, workable trade scenarios, etc. And even more room would pop up two summers from now if Duncan declines the player option for 2014-15 at the end of his deal and retires.
The future is uncertain, but it was always going to be. The present is pretty damn good.
• Oklahoma City Thunder
There’s really not much to say. The future is about tough tax decisions linked to coming new deals for James Harden and Serge Ibaka. The present is about tweaking the fringes without adding too much long-term money, which would increase the tax hit if and when the Thunder blow by the tax line in 2013-14 and 2014-15 via those Harden and Ibaka payouts. Things get clearer after that with the expiration of Kendrick Perkins’ deal, but the Thunder in at least one scenario — keeping all three of Harden, Ibaka and Perkins — must brace themselves for at least two years of tax payments.
And so they have, by (so far) punting most of the mid-level exception and all of the biannual exception, worth about $2 million per season, to instead load up on cheapie backups who might fill Nazr Mohammed’s vacated fourth big man spot. Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton are here to push Cole Aldrich for that tiny role, neither on deals that carry any guaranteed money after this season. In an ideal world, the Thunder would have found a veteran small forward type to play behind Kevin Durant and add some size to both bench units and small-ball units, but filling that need was easier said than done. Players such as Brandon Rush and Gerald Green got more money and more years than Oklahoma City was likely wiling to give, and even Grant Hill, nearly 40, received a two-year biannual deal from the Clippers. The Thunder can still pounce on someone like Mickael Pietrus by clearing a roster spot for a one-year deal, but the need isn’t urgent; rookie Perry Jones may end up adding this sort of roster versatility in his own way.
• Portland Trail Blazers
There are probably some Blazers fans who feel let down after a potential bonanza in cap space — something like $25 million — turned into Nic Batum on an overpay and a bunch of small contracts tied to players who have been playing overseas (Joel Freeland and Victor Claver) and players who shouldn’t be playing much of a role on even a .500 NBA team (Jared Jeffries, Ronnie Price, Sasha Pavlovic). And, truthfully, I wouldn’t be stoked about paying Batum and Wesley Matthews nearly $20 million combined over the next three seasons, especially if the Timberwolves really offered a package of multiple first-rounders and Derrick Williams in a sign-and-trade for Batum. (Note: I’m a bit skeptical such a package was ever formally on the table, and given the bad blood between Portland and Minnesota, sussing out what really happened in the Batum catfight is difficult.)
But it’s not as if the Blazers weren’t out there working, or that they’ve capped themselves out going forward. They went hard after Roy Hibbert, an interesting move given some (shaky) evidence that the team might be better off with LaMarcus Aldridge at center. That evidence was borderline powerful in 2010-11, when Gerald Wallace provided an almost ideal small-ball power forward for Aldridge, but it fell off last season, when the team actually played better with a true big man alongside Aldridge and eventually dealt Wallace at the trade deadline.
Regardless, Aldridge is here, one of the league’s only true under-30 franchise centerpiece players, and a big challenge for the Blazers’ future is finding the right set of big men to put around him. They’ll get a cheap one-year look at whether J.J. Hickson’s hot late-season play was a fluke. Beyond that, they have a giant pile of young guys big and small on sub-$3.5 million deals, including Freeland, Claver, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Elliott Williams and Will Barton. Most of those deals will carry varying options over the next two seasons, making them easy to trade or dump outright if the Blazers want to create serious cap space. The size of the Batum deal, plus the possibility of lottery picks in each of the next two seasons, means that the Blazers will have to do some juggling to open up the kind of space required for a splashy move. But this is easy juggling — three tennis balls, not flaming swords.
Even with all of these players on board, Portland is still on pace to slide easily under the cap in each of the next two summers. In the meantime, they get to look at everything: Batum’s improvement, rookie point guard Damian Lillard’s potential, the ongoing mystery of Hickson, all the youngsters and whatever trade possibilities become available. That’s not a bad place to be as the Thunder, Lakers and Spurs jostle atop the West, with the Nuggets, Clippers, Grizzlies and Mavericks not far below.
• Sacramento Kings
There’s really no harm, no foul in any of their offseason moves. The real harm came a year earlier, when Sacramento inexplicably traded for John Salmons and the right to move down three spots in the 2011 draft — a deal that added a useless $7.5 million to its 2013-14 cap figure. Combine that $7.5 million with little deals for Travis Outlaw and a couple of other recent signings, and the Kings are set to be very nearly capped out next summer once you factor in salary for another lottery pick and Tyreke Evans’ cap hold.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lottery teams can cripple themselves overspending on so-so free agents just to make a splash, and the Kings have to answer a bunch of internal questions before they know which kind of free agents to target. Still, having some flexibility is always better than having none.
The Kings are now crowded up front after drafting Thomas Robinson, re-signing Jason Thompson at $6 million per season and dealing a second-round pick to Toronto for James Johnson, a combo forward who probably works best as a small-ball power forward. The same description probably applies to Outlaw, an amnesty pickup bust. Chuck Hayes and DeMarcus Cousins are in the mix, too. It’s fair to ask whether the Kings should have gone after Harrison Barnes in the draft, with the frontcourt packed and Evans’ ability to play small forward one of the central questions facing the franchise. But that’s a hard question to answer. We haven’t seen Robinson or Barnes play a meaningful minute of NBA basketball, and the Nuggets have recently (and repeatedly) shown the value of re-signing assets at tradable prices rather than simply letting them walk because of some short-term positional crowding.
There’s just a ton to sort out here, and nothing the Kings did in this offseason was really going to change that. Can Evans find the right combination of off-ball cutting, defense and on-ball skills to play small forward? Can he fix his broken jumper? Is the Marcus Thornton/Isaiah Thomas backcourt the long-term answer, despite the rather glaring defensive limitations? And speaking of defense: Will Cousins’ development on that end match his progress on offense, where he dialed back his shot selection, cut his turnovers and upped his efficiency? Cousins is a monster rebounder, but he has struggled to contain the pick-and-roll and defend in space; his feet look heavy, his effort middling, and he’s prone to bad reaches and lunges.
The Kings developed into a decent offensive team last season, but their defense remained embarrassingly porous. Another year under coach Keith Smart should help, as should internal progress and good health for Hayes. But if Cousins stagnates on that end, how do the Kings adjust the roster to compensate?
The offseason was never going to provide any easy answers. What happens on the court will, though.