Posted Aug 7 2012 2:00PM
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.
2011-12 RECORD: 40-26, second place, Southeast Division; lost in first round of playoffs.
ADDED: G Lou Williams (sign-and-trade from Philadelphia), G Kyle Korver (acquired from Chicago); G Devin Harris (acquired from Utah); G Anthony Morrow (acquired from Brooklyn); G DeShawn Stevenson (sign-and-trade with Brooklyn); F/C Jordan Williams (acquired from Brooklyn); C Johan Petro (acquired from Brooklyn); G John Jenkins (first round, 23rd pick overall); F Mike Scott (second round, 43rd pick overall).
LOST: G Joe Johnson (traded to Brooklyn); F Marvin Williams (traded to Utah); G Kirk Hinrich (traded to Chicago); G Willie Green (traded to Clippers); C Jason Collins (signed with Boston); G Jerry Stackhouse (signed with Brooklyn); F Vladmir Radmonovic (signed with Chicago).
THE KEY MAN: General Manager Danny Ferry.
It took him about a week after coming to Atlanta from San Antonio to take a blowtorch to the roster. Ferry surmised the Hawks had gone about as far as they could with their current roster, and he was probably right; how much better could you expect either Johnson or Williams to get in the next couple of years? Having rid the franchise of the albatross that was Johnson's contract, Ferry is now free to reshape and/or gut the roster further, and his own six-year deal gives him considerable time and authority.
THE SKINNY: This is where people start to misinterpret the rankings. I understand why Ferry did what he did. I'm not being critical of it. But these rankings assess whether a team is better or worse than it was when the offseason began, and it's hard to see an argument that Atlanta is a better team now. Two years from now, the Hawks could be in the conference finals; with a lot of short, cheap contracts on the books, they now have the flexibility to be players for Atlanta native Dwight Howard if he opts for free agency next summer, or anyone else that can be teamed with center Al Horford, do-everything Josh Smith and third-year guard Jeff Teague. This season, though, is likely going to be a step backward for a team that has been a solid playoff team the last half-dozen seasons.
2011-12 RECORD: 41-25, third place, Southwest Division; lost in first round of playoffs.
ADDED: G Jerryd Bayless (two years, $6 million); Tony Wroten (first round, 25th pick overall); G Wayne Ellington (acquired from Minnesota).
LOST: G O.J. Mayo (signed with Dallas); F Dante Cunningham (traded to Minnesota).
RETAINED: F Darrell Arthur (three years, $9 million), F/C Marreese Speights (two years).
THE KEY MAN: Robert Pera.
The 34-year-old billionaire, who founded a communications company that makes and distributes Internet access products both domestically and to developing countries, is poised to buy the Grizzlies from longtime owner Michael Heisley, which should enable the team to maintain its high payroll and retain its core group. But Pera will have to convince the league that his financial fortunes are solid -- his Ubiquiti Networks stock has fallen more than 60 percent in the last few months -- and that his company did not knowingly violate federal laws by selling equipment to businesses in Iran. Pera told the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal last week that his company's "financials and ... fundamentals" are solid and that Ubiquiti has been profitable every financial quarter since he founded the company in 2005. He did not go into detail about the potential purchase of the team, citing the NBA's ongoing vetting of him. The Memphis Commercial Appeal has reported that Pera has already reached out to some of the team's current minority investors, including Pitt Hyde, the founder of AutoZone.
THE SKINNY: With its core of Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley all signed to long-term deals, the Grizzlies just had to work around the margins this summer. They hope to replace Mayo's scoring off the bench with Bayless, who was allowed to leave Toronto when the Raptors went into full-Nash mode. Wroten has long-term potential both as a scorer and backup point guard. Keeping Arthur, who missed all of last season after tearing his achilles', was huge; Arthur had a terrific postseason in 2011 and his inside presence was missed last season. Speights helped fill that void last season after coming from Philadelphia in a deal. Memphis has everything a contending team wants and needs. The window is wide open. So being ranked 22nd in offseason moves is not a catastrophe.
2011-12 RECORD: 28-38, fourth place, Northwest Division; did not make playoffs.
ADDED: G Damian Lillard (first round, sixth pick overall); C Meyers Leonard (first round, 11th pick overall); G Will Barton (second round, 40th pick overall); F Victor Claver (Valencia); F/C Joel Freeland (Unicaja Malaga); F Jared Jefferies (acquired from New York); G Sasha Pavlovic (acquired from Boston); G Ronnie Price (one year, $1.22 million).
LOST: G Jamal Crawford (signed with Clippers); G Raymond Felton (sign-and-trade to Knicks); F/C Kurt Thomas (traded to Knicks); G Brandon Roy (signed with Minnesota).
RETAINED: F Nicolas Batum (matched offer sheet from Minnesota, four years, $46 mllion); F J.J. Hickson (one year, $992,000).
THE KEY MAN: F LaMarcus Aldridge.
For the first time since he came to Portland in 2006, there is no doubting that the Blazers are Aldridge's team. Roy is off to Minnesota and Greg Oden, sadly and finally, was released last season after suffering another knee injury. So Aldridge will have to lead and carry the load. But first he has to recover from hip surgery last spring to repair a torn labrum. He also came down with a blood virus that became quite serious in June.
THE SKINNY: It took new general manager Neil Olshey a few years with the Clippers, and not a small amount of luck, winning the lottery when Blake Griffin was the prize, to amass enough assets to be able to make a credible trade offer to the Hornets last December for Chris Paul. Olshey is about where he was in 2008 in Los Angeles with Portland. The first step was getting rid of Felton and giving the ball to the talented Lillard, who'll start at the point. Leonard isn't quite ready to take over in the middle, but he's the very definition of potential. Olshey tried to give Leonard some help by dropping a $56 million offer sheet on Roy Hibbert, but the Pacers wasted little time before matching. Until then, Portland could use some help from Freeland, the '06 first-rounder who's been in Europe and who is playing for Great Britain's Olympic team. Batum gets the expectations of his new deal thrust upon him at small forward. Meanwhile, Olshey has to hire a coach, having pared his candidates down to finalists Kaleb Canales, the current interim head coach, and Mavericks assistant Terry Stotts, who's had previous head coach stints in Milwaukee and Atlanta. No matter who gets the job, this is a long-term deal. Pass the coffee and granola. This is going to take a while.
2011-12 RECORD: 36-30, third place, Northwest Division; lost in first round of playoffs.
ADDED: G Mo Williams (acquired from Clippers); F Marvin Williams (acquired from Atlanta); G Randy Foye (one year, $2.5 million); G Kevin Murphy (second round, 47th pick overall).
LOST: G Devin Harris (traded to Atlanta); G C.J. Miles (signed with Cleveland).
RETAINED: F Jeremy Evans (three years, $5.5 million).
THE KEY MAN: F Derrick Favors.
The third-year forward really started coming on last season, finishing second on the Jazz in rebounding (9.5) and fourth in scoring in (11.8) while playing just 29 minutes a game. If Favors continues the upward tick Utah will have the flexibility to bundle some of its cachet of guards and either Paul Millsap (who appears to be looking at free agency) or Al Jefferson, who's on an expiring contract, to try to make a bigger splash via trade in the next few months. Former GM Kevin O'Connor, who was promoted to executive vice president on August 7, believed in Favors before the 2010 Draft and made sure he was the centerpiece of Utah's haul from the Deron Williams trade.
THE SKINNY: There's another shoe that's yet to drop in Utah; O'Connor is way too smart to not know exactly who's available out there, and what combination of his young group will get it. He'll work closely with new GM Dennis Lindsey, who comes to Utah from San Antonio, on whatever is next. Until that big deal goes down, though, the Jazz will have to get scoring from Williams, who expected to run the point last season for the Clippers until Chauncey Billups was claimed off of amnesty. Foye will also help keep Utah among the league's more potent offenses, and Williams could help at both ends of the floor, giving Utah a solid one-two at small forward with Gordon Hayward. But the Jazz are stuck as a good-but-not great team until that next big thing comes to town.
2011-12 RECORD: 21-45, fifth place, Central Division; did not make playoffs.
ADDED: G Dion Waiters (first round, fourth pick overall); C Tyler Zeller (Draft night trade with Dallas); G C.J. Miles (two years).
LOST: F Antawn Jamison (signed with Lakers).
THE KEY MAN: F Tristan Thompson.
The Cavs surprised many around the league by taking Thompson with the fourth pick last year rather than taking center Jonas Valanciunas, who wound up going fifth to Toronto with the next pick. But the Cavs have been unwavering in their belief that Thompson's upside is off the charts and well worth waiting for him to gradually improve. Thompson actually played center most of last season after Cleveland lost Anderson Varejao to injury, but the Cavs want Thompson back at the four, which is one reason they went out and got Zeller in a deal with Dallas for their three Draft picks. With Jamison gone, the four is all Thompson's now.
THE SKINNY: With their low payroll the Cavs are mentioned as a potential trade partner every time a complicated deal is proposed. But the Cavs are determined to rebuild through the Draft. They tried to move up in the first round from fourth to second, and most believe that was so they could take Florida guard Bradley Beal. They nonetheless believe Waiters, whom most teams had going a little lower, is going to be an explosive compliment to Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving, and they took him over Harrison Barnes even though there's a need at small forward. The uncertainty of whether Waiters lives up to those expectations makes this a risk. Doesn't mean Cleveland was wrong to take it. But it is a risk.
2011-12 RECORD: 31-35, third place, Central Division; did not make playoffs.
ADDED: F John Henson (first round, 14th pick overall); C Samuel Dalembert (acquired from Houston); G Doron Lamb (second round, 42nd pick overall).
LOST: F Jon Brockman (traded to Houston); F Jon Leuer (traded to Houston)
RETAINED: F Ersan Ilyasova (five years, $45 milliion).
THE KEY MAN: Owner Herb Kohl.
The 77-year-old U.S. Senator made it clear in May that he wants and has to have a new arena to replace the Bradley Center. He has committed to spending a lot of his own fortune to make that happen, but is looking for public funds to help as well. To his credit, Kohl told reporters back then he understands that there are a lot of other priorities for the city of Milwaukee to spend money on than a basketball arena. So far, Kohl has kept spending, as his green-lighting of Ilyasova's big deal suggests. But if there is an impasse between the team and a municipality about spending money, that's almost always followed by cutting salaries. We'll see if Kohl spends, for example, to retain either Coach Scott Skiles or GM John Hammond, both of whom are in the last year of their respective contracts.
THE SKINNY: The Bucks were increasingly attacked by opponents down the stretch last season after Andrew Bogut's departure for Monta Ellis, so they went for size and making teams hear footsteps in trading for Dalembert and taking Henson, the two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year and second all-time in North Carolina history in blocked shots. They'll both help, and Lamb is a good bet to stick in the backcourt, but Milwaukee's been passed by Indiana in the Central Division, and even without Derrick Rose Chicago is still better. The Bucks' only hope for rapid improvement is an arc of improved interior D meeting up with a full season's worth of scoring from Brandon Jennings and Ellis in the backcourt.
2011-12 RECORD: 37-29, third place, Southeast Division; lost in first round of playoffs.
ADDED: F Andrew Nicholson (first round, 19th pick overall); C Gustavo Ayon (acquired from New Orleans); general manager Rob Hennigan, coach Jacque Vaughn.
LOST: F Ryan Anderson (sign-and-trade with New Orleans), former coach Stan Van Gundy, former GM Otis Smith.
RETAINED: G Jameer Nelson (three years, $25 million).
THE KEY MAN: Take a wild guess.
THE SKINNY: We remain where we've been with this franchise for the better part of two years -- in limbo. But this version of limbo seems even worse than the one depicted in Inception, where no one remembers how long they've been there, thoughts of a bright future are long since forgotten, everyone is old and infirm or dottering ... hey, come to think of it, that's exactly what it's like for the Magic! Hennigan is determined to follow the OKC/San Antonio model, which makes sense, since that's been his upbringing. But hiring the untested Vaughn to run things is a gamble, even if Vaughn also comes from the Popovich Tree. And what if, heaven forbid, the Magic don't find a deal that's to their liking in the next two months, and they have to go to training camp with Howard's uncertainty still ingering? How fair is that to Vaughn? There's no future here until Howard is in the team's past.
2011-12 RECORD: 25-41, fourth place, Central Division; did not make playoffs.
ADDED: C Andre Drummond (first round, ninth pick overall); F Kyle Singler (Real Madrid); C Slava Kravtsov (BC Kyiv); F Corey Maggette (acquired from Charlotte); G Kim English (second round, 44th pick overall).
LOST: G Ben Gordon (traded to Charlotte).
THE KEY MAN: G Brandon Knight.
The Pistons wasted no time giving him the rock and putting him in the starting lineup, and he responded with an All-Rookie First Team season. But Knight needs to be more careful with the ball and more efficient to continue his development. His 13.77 turnover ratio (the amount of possessions a player has that end up in a turnover) was 49th in the league last season among point guards rated by ESPN.com's John Hollinger. As Knight brings that number down, the Pistons' win total will likely start rising up.
THE SKINNY: This is all about Drummond, whose obvious defensive abilities are there but who is a project in extremis at the other end. Big guys take longer to develop offensively, of course; think Rik Smits, for example. Playing next to emerging Greg Monroe will no doubt help Drummond adjust but it will be years before the Pistons know exactly what they've got. High risk, high reward. Kravtsov, who got two years and $3 million to come over, is a 7-footer Ukranian who doubles down on Detroit's commitment to improving its perimeter defense. English could stick as well after a strong postseason before the Draft, and Maggette will do what he's done throughout his NBA career -- score.
2011-12 RECORD: 22-44, fourth place, Pacific Division; did not make playoffs.
ADDED: F Thomas Robinson (first round, fifth pick overall); G Aaron Brooks (two years, $6 million); F James Johnson (acquired from Toronto).
RETAINED: F/C Jason Thompson (multi-year deal).
THE KEY MAN: G Jimmer Fredette.
The Kings made a lot of moves to get him on Draft night last year, but Fredette struggled to make an impact his rookie season, while second-rounder Isaiah Thomas had a brilliant first year. Fredette shot just 38 percent, making less than three field goals per game in nearly 19 minutes a game off the bench. Among the Kings' many personnel decisions in the next couple of seasons is whether they have a long-term solution for their point guard problem. Can Tyreke Evans play there, or does he have to be moved off the ball permanently? Is Thomas the real deal? The signing of Brooks would seem to indicate they're not sure if Fredette is the answer, either.
THE SKINNY: Another Cruel Summer for Sacramento fans, again waiting for what now seems again inevitable -- the announcement that the Kings are moving, somewhere else, soon. There can be no long-term planning until you know where you're going to live, and the Maloof Family's torpedoing of a downtown arena deal that everyone from David Stern to Kevin Johnson thought was agreed upon during All-Star Weekend would seem to be the death knell. At least Robinson, who fell into Sacramento's laps at five in the first round, will provide energy and occasional excitement this season, and DeMarcus Cousins should use his Select Team snub to great effect. But overall, there's not a lot to look forward to in the Capital City.
2011-12 RECORD: 50-16, first place, Central Division; lost in first round of playoffs.
ADDED: G Kirk Hinrich (sign-and-trade from Atlanta); G Marquis Teague (first round, 29th pick overall); G Marco Bellinelli (one year, $1.06 million); G Nate Robinson (one year, $1.22 million); F Vladmir Radmanovic (one year, $1.35 million); C Nazr Mohammad (one year, $1.35 million).
LOST: C Omer Asik (declined to match offer sheet from Houston); G Kyle Korver (sign-and-trade to Atlanta); C C.J. Watson (signed wth Brooklyn); G John Lucas III (signed with Toronto); G Ronnie Brewer (signed with New York).
THE KEY MAN: Rob McClanaghan.
The basketball skills trainer, whose grueling workouts helped Kevin Love lose 20 pounds last summer and get Russell Westbrook's and Al Horford's games honed even further, is among the legion of people that are working to get Derrick Rose back on the court as soon as possible. Rose's torn ACL has everything on hold in Chicago, and while the Bulls are hopeful he'll return before the end of the season, no one knows how a knee will respond. That's where people like McClanaghan, a former walk-on at Syracuse, can make a difference. Rose and his circle have full trust in McClanaghan, whose client list includes many of the NBA's elite, and so do the Bulls.
THE SKINNY: Chicago's offseason could be a fascinating case study some day of extenuating circumstances changing everything. The Bulls had the confluence of Rose's knee injury, combined with the beginning of his max contract extension kicking in, combined with changes in the rules that limit teams whose salaries exceed the luxury tax threshold from adding more players, combined with having almost all the members of their deep bench last season come up as free agents this summer. Bottom line: Chicago punted, letting all of its free agents leave (including Asik, who had the same $14 million third year bump payment that the Rockets gave Jeremy Lin), with a potential opportunity in the summer of 2014 to give Rose a superstar teammate. The Bulls have not yet used the amnesty provision, and it seems clear they're planning on using it on Carlos Boozer, either in the summer of 2013 or '14; if it's the latter year, Chicago could get low enough under the cap to add a star in free agency or trade, and the Bulls did get a trade exception in the Korver deal with the Hawks. Until then, though, it's hard to call this summer a good one -- though Tom Thibodeau will coach up what he's got.
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