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David Aldridge

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Tony Parker (left) and James Harden will shape how much of a contender the Spurs and Thunder are.
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Guard play a common, crucial issue among middle teams


Posted Aug 6 2012 12:02PM - Updated Aug 7 2012 2:03PM

LONDON -- Finally, after two years, I can get back to gradin'.

You may recall The Unpleasantness around this time last summer, when we were in the midst of a lockout that go on until Christmas (and who was this fellow that so presciently predicted a season opener on Dec. 25, 2011, back on July 4, 2011?). And once the lockout ended, and the mad scramble followed, there was no time to digest your Thanksgiving turkey, much less who had had the best "offseason" improving their respective teams.

But this summer there is labor peace, a defending champion in the Heat that hardly sat on its laurels, a Thunder team that still looks formidable, but plenty of Old Heads still around -- in Boston and San Antonio, especially -- that still believe an inside straight is possible, and that age and injury can be held off one more year. One more try. One more time.

This summer, after players gave back 12 percent of their salaries, and the richest teams agreed to start giving up some of their profits to help the poorer teams, there are no more excuses about market size or local television contracts. You either get it done, or you don't. Putting together a contending team should be no harder in Milwaukee or Charlotte than it is in New York or Los Angeles, if you draft the right people, trade for the right people and pay the right people the right amount of money. (That includes coaches and management, by the way.) And it also includes how well you did in getting rid of players, through amnesty or other means, who were hurting your team.

So, there's ample and fair ground by which to assess how each team has done since the conclusion of its season in improving its team. The 30 teams are divided into three categories, ranging from the obviously good top 10 to the obviously poor bottom 10. And, just as obviously, should Orlando move Dwight Howard in the next couple of weeks, many of these rankings, including the Magic's, would have to be reassessed.

As ever, the ground rules: my 30-team rankings are only for offseason moves, the things teams have done since they last played a game, taking into account the Draft, free agency and trades. It is not a predicted order of finish for next season; I do not expect New Orleans, for example, to have a better record than the Thunder, nor do I think Washington now has a better team than Chicago. It's relative.

It is as much art as science, weighing the impact both of the Draft and free agency, but also assessing whether teams got value in their free-agent signings. Overpaying the right player is as much a sin as signing the wrong player. New coaches, new GMs, new owners and new arenas are also significant factors in judging a team's summer success, for a good coach can coax some more wins out of a roster, and a new building can generate the kind of revenue necessary to let a team be aggressive in pursuing free agents and trades -- if not this season, then in future seasons. Also, teams that are rebuilding obviously have different priorities than teams making a championship push. That's factored in.

And, in the wake of the lockout, it is not necessarily a sin to "do nothing" and preserve cap space and/or flexibility in order to be able to make unbalanced trades down the road. I had to make a call with teams that took that approach this summer, factoring in their past record of aggressiveness when they had the opportunity to bolster their rosters. For example, Dallas might (and does) get the benefit of the doubt in signing players to short contracts this summer because Mark Cuban has usually spent money in the past when he's had it, and he's likely to have lots of cap room in the summer of 2013. On the other hand, the Kings may not (and don't), because the Maloof Family has been very reluctant in recent years to pay a lot of money to anyone, whether it be players or coaches, and the hopes of generating new revenues from a new downtown arena appear to be dead. Not assigning blame for that here; just taking into account the lack of a deal, and the consequences of that.

So, here it is:

The Top 10
Heat, Sixers, Mavs, Nets, Clippers, Lakers, Celtics, Rockets, Pacers, Hornets.

The Middle 10
Spurs, Knicks, Wizards, Nuggets, Bobcats, Suns, Timberwolves, Raptors, Thunder, Warriors.

The Bottom 10
Hawks, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Cavs, Bucks, Magic, Pistons, Kings, Bulls.

The MIddle 10

No. 11 -- SAN ANTONIO SPURS

2011-12 RECORD: 50-16, first place, Southwest Division; lost in Western Conference finals.

ADDED: G Marcus Denmon (draft); G Nando de Colo (Valencia Basket).

LOST: None.

RETAINED: C Tim Duncan (three years, $30 million); F Boris Diaw (two years, $9 million); F Danny Green (three years, $11 million); G Patty Mills (one year, $915,000).

THE KEY MAN: G Tony Parker.
There was
a collective shudder in the Alamo City when Parker suffered eye damage after being hit in the head with a bottle during a brawl at a New York club. Miraculously, he seems to have suffered no permanent damage, though he's playing in the Olympics for his native France with goggles. San Antonio's remaining title window is being held up by the now 30-year-old Parker, who had his best season last year, finishing fifth in Most Valuable Player voting, and has to continue to lead this team in all facets.

THE SKINNY: Duncan was either going to retire or re-sign in San Antonio, and he opted for the latter, so the Spurs' franchise can continue operating for the next three years. As long as Duncan is around, and still the lynchpin to everything that franchise is about, no matter if he's not the MVP-level player he was, the Spurs have a chance. So they quickly brought back the other members of the band to play on yet again, like Diaw and Green. Why wouldn't they? With a deep and resourceful team, they had the league's best record in the regular season and were two games away from the Finals when Oklahoma City suddenly found its legs. But the Spurs will come knocking again. De Colo, a 2009 pick that spent the last three years playing in Europe, signed a two-year deal in San Antonio and will play right away, likely to join the ranks of others like Manu Ginobili who supposedly come out of nowhere but who have been in the plans for years.

No. 12 -- NEW YORK KNICKS

2011-12 RECORD: 36-30, second place, Atlantic Division; lost in first round of playoffs.

ADDED: G Jason Kidd (three years, $9 million); G Ray Felton (sign-and-trade from Portland, three years, $10 million); C Marcus Camby (sign-and-trade from Houston, three years, $13 million); F/C Kurt Thomas (acquired from Portland); G Ronnie Brewer (one year, $1.14 million); G James White; G Pablo Prigioni (Caja Laboral); F Kostas Papanikolaou (draft).

LOST: G Jeremy Lin (declined to match offer sheet from Houston); G Landry Fields (declined to match offer sheet from Toronto); G Toney Douglas (traded to Houston), F/C Josh Harrellson (traded to Houston); F Jared Jeffries (traded to Portland); C Dan Gadzuric (traded to Portland); C Jerome Jordan (traded to Houston).

RETAINED: G J.R. Smith (two years, $5.6 million); F Steve Novak (four years, $15 million).

THE KEY MAN: G Raymond Felton.
Which Raymond Felton will show up in New York for a second tour of duty: the guard who played brilliantly for half a season for Mike D'Antoni, getting serious All-Star consideration, before getting traded to Denver in 2011 as part of the Carmelo Anthony deal? Or the out-of-shape, listless one whose poor play helped get a good man, Nate McMillan, fired in Portland, where Felton played last season? As most New Yorkers appear to be somewhat distressed that Lin will not be returning, their patience with Felton will likely be somewhat short

THE SKINNY: The Knicks may well have done the right thing in not matching Houston's sheet for Lin. He did play only three week's worth of brilliant basketball last season. New York certainly has three solid, cheaper alternatives in Felton, Kidd and Prigioni, the Argentine veteran. But one of them better take the reins quickly, because the Knicks missed out on Lin and Steve Nash, who opted to play in L.A. rather than New York, which wanted him badly. Smith wants to come off the bench but with Fields gone Smith may have to start. Camby brings much-needed center depth back to New York, where he, too, once played. A full training camp for Coach Mike Woodson, a return to health from Amare Stoudemire and continued attention to detail on defense could make the Knicks formidable by season's end. But somebody has to solidify the point. Point blank.

No. 13 -- WASHINGTON WIZARDS

2011-12 RECORD: 20-46, fourth place, Southeast Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Bradley Beal (first round, third pick overall); G Tomas Satoransky (second round, 32nd pick overall); F/C Emeka Okafor (acquired from New Orleans); F Trevor Ariza (acquired from New Orleans); G A.J. Price (one year, $915,000).

LOST: F Andray Blatche (amnestied); G Roger Mason, Jr. (signed with New Orleans); F Rashard Lewis (traded to New Orleans).

RETAINED: F Cartier Martin (one year, $992,000), head coach Randy Wittman.

THE KEY MAN: G John Wall.
The Wizards will only escape their perpetual cycle of dysfunction when Wall stops flashing occasional great plays and produces every night. The third-year guard simply must become a bigger perimeter threat if he's ever going to be able to use his speed to its greatest effect. A stat: Wall made three of 42 3-point attempts last season. That's .071. Which is horrible. And that surely impacted a Player Efficiency Rating of 17.77, which isn't bad, but was only 18th among point guards. Either he has to shoot way fewer threes next season, or he has to get way better at shooting threes. He should pick the former, because he's so fast he is a near-certainty to score if he can get into the paint, so he needs to shoot more in the paint. But that will only happen if he comes up with a jumper inside the 3-point line he can actually make. Another stat: he's still just 21, and he's harder on himself than anybody else.

THE SKINNY: The fumigation of the Wizards' locker room is finally complete, with owner Ted Leonsis writing a $23 million check to send Blatche on his way. Now Washington can get back to the business of building a team. The Wizards will give Wittman a full season's chance to show the team's season-ending surge wasn't a typical Fools' Gold Bad Team April. With Beal joining Wall in the backcourt, the makings of a dynamic twosome are possible. Ariza has stalled since his days with the Lakers, but he can still attack the rim effectively. But the Wizards will go as far as their big man quintet Okafor, Nene, third-year bangers Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker, and second-year forward Jan Vesely will carry them. Seraphin looked like a comer the second half of last season. Vesely's extreme athletic ability made the highlight reels, but he was lost when he had to guard in space, and his jumper was worse than mine. He's working to rectify that. But Washington's addition by subtraction of the knucklehead factor that permeated the locker room the past few seasons should make competing a more regular occurrence. That's a good place to start.

No. 14 -- DENVER NUGGETS

2011-12 RECORD: 38-28, second place, Northwest Division; lost in first round of playoffs.

ADDED: G Evan Fournier (first round, 20th pick overall); F Anthony Randolph (three years, $5.2 million); F Quincy Miller (second round, 38th pick overall); C Izzet Turkyilmaz (second round, 50th pick).

LOST: G Rudy Fernandez (signed with Real Madrid); F/C Chris Andersen (amnestied).

RETAINED: C JaVale McGee (four years, $44 million); G Andre Miller (three years, $14.6 million).

THE KEY MAN: F Danilo Gallinari.
He's still just 23, and he had some really productive stretches last season. But he got hurt and stayed hurt for long stretches as well. And he hasn't shot better than 42 percent from the floor since his rookie season in New York. He knows how to play and he's getting better at just about everything. And he can guard Kobe Bryant! Kidding!

THE SKINNY: Good teams don't need to make big, splashy, sexy moves. They just need to keep their core together as long as they can. Check that box in Denver, where the Nuggets had to pay a little more per year than they wanted to keep the high-flying McGee from testing free agency a year from now, but McGee seemed to thrive with better players and coaching and everything surrounding him. Playing next to the hyperkinetic Kenneth Faried, McGee's only going to get better. Denver also got Rip Van Miller back to continue playing the best point guard you'll never hear anyone talk about for some reason. Next up will be extending Ty Lawson, and then the Nuggets can see if they can build on that seven-game slug out with the Lakers and establish themselves as a legit top-four team in the west.

No. 15 -- CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

2011-12 RECORD: 7-59, fifth place, Southeast Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (first round, second pick overall); G Ben Gordon (acquired from Detroit); G Ramon Sessions (two years, $10 million); C Brendan Haywood (amnesty claim from Dallas); F Jeff Taylor (second round, 31st pick overall), Coach Mike Dunlap.

LOST: F Corey Maggette (traded to Detroit); G D.J. Augustin (signed with Indiana).

RETAINED: None.

THE KEY MAN: C Bismack Biyombo.
He struggled mightily at the start of last season, as many thought someone so relatively young and inexperienced as he was when drafted in 2011 would be. But as the year went on he appeared to find his footing and get busier on the glass. A team as porous as Charlotte was has to end opponents' possessions as often as possible. Biyombo may be the only player on the Bobcats' roster who can do that on a nightly basis, though he'll get help from Haywood, late of the Mavericks.

THE SKINNY: Staring from the abyss after setting the all-time mark for worst win percentage in a season, the Bobcats couldn't make out stars, sky, horizons, anything. Any collection of 12 basketball players, randomly selected, would likely do better than Charlotte managed last season. Improvement is inevitable. But it's good to start with a piece as energetic as Kidd-Gilchrist, who figures to be Michael Jordan's kind of insatiable defender. Taylor is a potential second-round steal; many teams had him rated much higher. There will be no confusion about Gordon's role or position with the Bobcats as there was when he signed with the Pistons while Rip Hamilton was still very much the incumbent two guard. In Charlotte, he already has the green light. Sessions wanted a little security and he got it 3,000 miles from Los Angeles. Coaches rave about Dunlap's intensity, but there will still be a lot of losses this season, though at a slightly slower rate. Dunlap will accept nothing less than max effort, but when the results don't go the way he hopes, discretion may be the way to go.

No. 16 -- PHOENIX SUNS

2011-12 RECORD: 33-33, third place, Pacific Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Goran Dragic (four years, $30 million); F Michael Beasley (three years, $18 million); F Luis Scola (amnesty claim from Dallas); F Wes Johnson (acquired from Minnesota); G Kendall Marshall (first round, 13th pick overall)

LOST: G Steve Nash (sign-and-trade to Lakers); F Grant Hill (signed with Clippers); C Robin Lopez (sign-and-trade to New Orleans); F Hakim Warrick (traded to New Orleans); F Josh Childress (amnestied); G Aaron Brooks (signed with Sacramento).

RETAINED: G Shannon Brown (two years, $6 million).

THE KEY MAN: Trevor Bukstein, Director, Basketball Administration.
Last week the Tip detailed the many moves the Suns have made since July 1, when it became clear that Steve Nash wanted to move on. Bukstein, you may recall, was team president Lon Babby's right-hand man when it came to all the various scenarios Phoenix had in the air in those first few frantic days. The Suns were able to put a credible team together in no small part to Bukstein's calculator and spread sheets. And the Suns are likely to be players again next summer, perhaps for bigger stakes. A guy like Bukstein (or Andy Elisburg, Miami's senior vice president of basketball operations, who showed Riles the way you could corral the SuperFriends on an NBA budget) can be a lifesaver, especially with the new CBA rules and looming tax limitations on the horizon.

THE SKINNY: It's not a good day when the face of the franchise leaves, especially for a hated division rival (while also watching Hill depart for a less-hated but nonetheless division rival). But that was the hand Phoenix dealt itself by keeping Nash while jettisoning many of his best teammates over the last few seasons. The consequences dictate a slow rebuild, bolstered by as many as 10 Draft picks over the next three years, along with easy to trade contracts. With Eric Gordon back in New Orleans after the Hornets matched Phoenix's offer sheet, and O.J. Mayo opting for Dallas, Johnson will get a shot at the Suns' starting two spot. Scola and center Marcin Gortat could be very effective playing together. And Dragic will get his chance to run a team. It would be best not to constantly remind him who had the job before he did.

No. 17 -- MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

2011-12 RECORD: 26-40, fifth place, Northwest Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Brandon Roy (two years, $10 million); F Andrei Kirilenko (two years, $20 million); F Chase Budinger (acquired from Houston); C Greg Stiemsma (two years, $2.6 million); G Alexey Shved (CSKA Moscow); F Dante Cunningham (acquired from Memphis).

LOST: C Darko Milicic (amnestied); F Michael Beasley (signed with Phoenix); F Wes Johnson (traded to Phoenix); F Anthony Randolph (signed with Denver); G Wayne Ellington (traded to Memphis).

RETAINED: None.

THE KEY MAN: F Derrick Williams.
We all know that the team's executive VP David Kahn is not shy about making moves or changing horses mid-stream, as evidenced by his quick cashiering of Johnson, the fourth pick in the 2011 Draft, to the Suns. Williams, the second pick in the 2012 Draft, assuredly knows he's also on notice after an inconsistent rookie season in which he neither nailed down the starting three spot or did enough to back up Kevin Love at the four. When a team offers another guy $46 million to play your position, as Minnesota did in signing Blazers forward Nicolas Batum to an offer sheet, that's a shot across your bow. And that was after Minnesota traded for Budinger, but before bringing Kirilenko back to the NBA after spending last season in Europe. Williams, whose name was in all manner of trade rumors, has to pick it up, and he's already dropped 15 pounds in anticipation of next season.

THE SKINNY: The Wolves started out strong but faded badly toward the end of last season, and that was before Ricky Rubio's knee injury. Minnesota jettisoned much of its younger, unproven depth for older, less nimble but much more experienced depth. Roy's return to the game after a brief "retirement" (there is some question as to whether this actually happened now) from the Blazers will be watched around the league. A return to anything approaching the form that made the 28-year-old Roy a three-time All-Star in Portland would shorten the building process significantly, but it's hard to count on that happening; bone on bone grinding doesn't usually get much better. Love, the team's current All-Star, spoke openly in recent weeks about wanting to see more substantial moves from Kahn. But that was before the Blazers matched the offer sheet for Batum, leaving Kahn to pony up for the 31-year-old Kirilenko, who was showing signs of significant slowing before the lockout. But Kirilenko's been in a bunch of playoff games. Love, as he pointed out, has yet to play in one.

No. 18 -- TORONTO RAPTORS

2011-12 RECORD: 23-43, fourth place, Atlantic Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Kyle Lowry (acquired from Houston); G Landry Fields (three years, $20 million); G Terrence Ross (first round, eighth pick overall) C Jonas Valanciunas (Lietuvos Rytas); G John Lucas III (two years); F Quincy Acy (second round, 37th pick overall).

LOST: F Gary Forbes (signed with Houston); F James Johnson (traded to Sacramento).

RETAINED: C Aaron Gray (two years); F Alan Anderson.

THE KEY MAN: C Jonas Valanciunas.
He's just 20 and he'll certainly have his ups and downs as a rookie adjusting to the NBA game, but Toronto needs its young center to get his feet wet in a hurry. His skills are substantial, though, and when he does figure things out, Toronto will be a much different team. His presence should end the Andrea Bargnani can play some center discussion once and for all, allowing Bargnani to play the four, his more natural position. Valanciunas is going to be a good one.

THE SKINNY: The Raptors stopped hemorrhaging points with first-year Coach Dwane Casey putting in his defensive structure, and that should continue with more weapons at his disposal next season. Toronto didn't get native son Steve Nash, but wound up a lot deeper and younger than it would have been had Nash taken its three-year, $36 million offer. Lowry and Lucas will combine for a little more than half of what Nash would have made alone. Signing Fields was part of the lure to get Nash (the offer sheet gummed up a potential Knicks sign-and-trade opportunity), but Toronto has him now and will need to figure out how he, DeMar DeRozan and Ross, the University of Washington rookie, can divvy up all of those minutes at shooting guard. Someone will move over to the three. But someone could also be potentially packaged along with incumbent point guard Jose Calderon, who will be dealt.

No. 19 -- OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

2011-12 RECORD: 47-19, first place, Northwest Division; lost NBA Finals.

ADDED: C Hasheem Thabeet (two years, $1.93 million); F Perry Jones (first round, 28th pick overall); C Daniel Orton (one year, $885,000).

LOST: G Royal Ivey (signed with Philadelphia); F/C Nazr Mohammad (signed with Chicago).

RETAINED: Coach Scott Brooks.

THE KEY MAN: G James Harden.
OKC's run to its Finals date with Miami was fueled by the Sixth Man of the Year, who not only averaged 16.8 points off the bench but was the Thunder's de facto backup at point guard once Eric Maynor went down for the season with a knee injury. But Miami held Harden to 37.5 percent (18 of 48) shooting in the Finals. Or, maybe, Harden just missed shots he'd made all year. Either way, the difference in Oklahoma City when Harden is making and when he's missing was obvious, and it seemed to drag him down as the series went on. Even if Maynor is back in his old role next season, OKC needs Harden at his best. And he needs to be at his best with his impending restricted free agency coming after next season.

THE SKINNY: It's incredible that someone as talented as Jones could fall all the way to the Thunder, but concerns about Jones' knee and his inconsistent effort and production at Baylor were disqualifiers for many teams. Of course, most teams don't have the firepower that OKC does with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, so the Thunder can be patient with Jones, whose talent is lottery ready. With major financial decisions looming on both Harden and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have to have low-priced alternatives on the roster. Enter Thabeet, who has never lived up to the expectations of being the second overall pick in '09. There are no expectations for him in Oklahoma City, so he can relax, learn and work on what made him a prospect in the first place -- incredible shot-blocking potential. (Management also has high hopes for center Cole Aldrich.) But the biggest order of business was getting Brooks a deal before other teams could make their pitches July 1. His four-year, $18 million deal puts him among the league's top-paid coaches after he was toward the back of the pack last season.

No. 20 -- GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

2011-12 RECORD: 23-43, fourth place, Pacific Division, did not make playoffs.

ADDED: F Harrison Barnes (first round, seventh pick overall); C Festus Ezeli (first round, 30th pick overall); F Draymont Green (second round, 35th pick overall); G Jarrett Jack (acquired from New Orleans); F Carl Landry (two years, $8 million).

LOST: F Dorell Wright (traded to Philadelphia); C Kwame Brown (signed with Philadelphia); G Nate Robinson (signed with Chicago).

RETAINED: G Brandon Rush (two years, $8 million).

THE KEY MAN: C Andrew Bogut.
With Jack on the roster the Warriors can survive if Steph Curry's ankles continue to be a chronic issue. With veteran Richard Jefferson still capable of starting, Golden State doesn't need Barnes to come in right away and produce. Rush can try and pick up the slack if Klay Thompson gets in a shooting funk. But the Warriors won't have a chance at improving if Bogut doesn't make a full recovery from the ankle surgery that kept him from playing a game in the Bay after being acquired from Milwaukee. There's no other big on the roster with anything approaching Bogut's skills at both ends of the floor, and almost no one his size passes the ball as well. That could pay huge dividends for Golden State, which can put a whole bunch of scorers on the floor. And improved offensive execution should help the Warriors be a better defensive team; Golden State's 106 points allowed per 100 possessions was fourth-worst in the league last season.

THE SKINNY: Golden State's roster is different than it was at the end of last season, but is it dramatically better? Correctly, management saw no need to go anywhere near the tax with a team that's certainly no threat in the west, and concentrated on realistic deals (the Warriors finally abandoned their Quixotic pursuit of Dwight Howard) that could provide gradual improvement. To that end, Landry and Jack are excellent value additions. They didn't expect Barnes to fall all the way to them at seven, though, saving them from having to reach on a big. Barnes will be, at the worst, a solid pro, but the Warriors need someone to become great in a hurry, or they'll be looking at another trip to the Lottery next spring.

<< OFFSEASON GRADES: THE TOP 10 | >> OFFSEASON GRADES: THE BOTTOM 10

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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