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Many non-players dictate fates of teams in the NBA's middle


POSTED: Aug 5, 2013 12:17 PM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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The familiar San Antonio standbys aside, a new face on the bench may affect the Spurs.

Let me get this straight -- this was the quiet summer?

Sandwiched between the Summer of 2012 (Dwightmare Part I, the Olympics) and the Summer of 2014 (basically, a rerun of the Summer of 2010, with LeBron James and a cast of thousands in free agency, the World Cup in Spain, plus the best potential Draft since 2003), 2013's offseason was supposed to be relatively drama-free. Dwight Howard would certainly stay with the Lakers, Chris Paul would stay with the Clippers, and the Draft was supposed to be Meh.

We fall for it every time, don't we?

Howard, of course, defied the conventional wisdom that no one important ever a) takes less money in free agency in order to find happiness, and b) leaves the Lakers in his prime. Those seeds have been in place for the past few years, of course; James and Chris Bosh took less than the max to play in Miami. But they were going to Miami, which had already won a title with Dwyane Wade and was, well, Miami. (Before you send hate Tweets, I think Houston is a great town. Honest.)

Howard's end in Los Angeles came after the Cavs shocked just about everyone by taking Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall in the Draft. The Cavs' move came after the Celtics traded their coach and the remaining 2/3 of their '08 championship core in separate deals -- but only because the Commish told them they couldn't do them in one big deal.

And so, with the offseason slowing down, and enough of the impact free agents and Draft picks now on their respective teams, there's enough intel on the ground to assess who had the most productive offseason, who did okay with what they had, and who came up a little short.

And after this week's Tip, I'm gonna disappear for a while. Been a really long season. But I've got some great guest Tippers lined up for you and I hope you enjoy reading their takes.

As ever, the ground rules:

• Rule No. 1: These 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 Sacramento, for example, to have a better record than the Bulls, nor do I think Charlotte now has a better team than Miami. It's relative.

• Rule No. 2: This 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.

• Rule No. 3: Continuity matters here as well. The most successful teams identify a core group of players and keep them together several seasons; teams that re-sign their own players (at reasonable amounts) get good marks from me. The bottom line, though, is how much better is a team after its offseason moves than it was before? That is what is being ranked here: improvement.

• Rule No. 4: With more and more teams terrified of paying luxury tax, a team that stands pat much be viewed in the context of preserving cap space and/or flexibility in order to be able to make unbalanced trades down the road. Was Atlanta wrong not to blow all its cap space this summer, once it was clear that neither Dwight Howard nor Chris Paul would go there? I had to make a judgment on that. Same with Dallas, which obviously had other, bigger plans than what the Mavericks wound up doing.

The Top 10

Rockets, Nets, Pacers, Cavs, Clippers, Warriors, Hawks, Bobcats, Wolves, Kings

The Middle 10

Pistons, Grizzlies, Mavs, Spurs, Pelicans, Bucks, Wizards, Blazers, Lakers, Nuggets

The Bottom 10

Suns, Bulls, Knicks, Celtics, Raptors, Heat, Thunder, Magic, Jazz, Sixers

The Middle 10

No. 11 -- DETROIT PISTONS

2012-12 RECORD: 29-53, fourth place, Central Division; did not make playoffs

Pistons Acquire Jennings for Knight

ADDED: Coach Maurice Cheeks; G Chauncey Billups (two years, $5 million); G Luigi Datome (two years, $3.5 million); G Brandon Jennings (three years, $24 million); F Josh Smith (four years, $54 million); G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (first-round pick, 8th overall)

LOST: G Jose Calderon (signed with Dallas); F Jason Maxiell (signed with Orlando); G Brandon Knight (traded to Milwaukee); F Slava Kravtsov (traded to Milwaukee); F Khris Middleton (traded to Milwaukee)

RETAINED: G Will Bynum (two years, $5.7 million)

THE KEY MAN: Cheeks. First, he'll have Rasheed Wallace on his bench as an assistant coach, which will be worth the price of admission every night as 'Sheed cusses at the refs in a suit. Then, Cheeks has to figure out how to utilize Smith's four skills at the three (and pray Smith doesn't start jacking up 3-pointers), although the Pistons will surely play small on occasion and move Smith to power forward. Then, Cheeks has to figure out how to create spacing when there isn't a proven shooter on the roster outside of Datome, who just arrived from Virtus Roma. But Cheeks was pretty good at dealing when he had the ball with the 76ers.

THE SKINNY: Given a second -- perhaps, last -- chance to re-shape the Pistons' post-championship roster, team president Joe Dumars targeted Smith or Andre Iguodala as Detroit's top free-agent priority. He got Smith, who will play small forward (for now) alongside the Pistons' two talented young bigs: Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Dumars also re-shaped the backcourt, drafting Caldwell-Pope and engineering a deal to upgrade the point with Jennings. Dumars did all that while keeping the expiring contracts of Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey available for trade-deadline deals or to take them off the books next summer, putting Detroit in line for a run at a franchise-shifting free agent. Or, with a legit starting point now on the roster, Dumars could potentially float a Jennings-Monroe-expiring contract-first-round sandwich the Celtics' way at the trade deadline if Boston wants to unload Rajon Rondo. The disruptive defensive possibilities of a potential Rondo-Smith (at the four)-Drummond team are frightening.

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No. 12 -- MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

2012-13 RECORD: 56-26, second place, Southwest Division; lost in Western Conference finals

ADDED: Coach Dave Joerger; F Mike Miller (one year, $884,000; signed after clearing waivers via amnesty); C/F Kosta Koufos (acquired via trade from Denver); G Jamaal Franklin (second-round pick, 41st overall)

LOST: F Darrell Arthur (traded to Denver); F Austin Daye (signed with Toronto)

RETAINED: F Tony Allen (four years, $20 million); G Jerryd Bayless (picked up player option); F Jon Leuer (three years, $2.9 million)

THE KEY MAN: John Hollinger, vice president of basketball operations. The former ESPN.com columnist was an early believer and developer of advanced stats to better determine player value, and new Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien made it clear the Grizzlies were going to go that route when he plucked Hollinger from ESPN. The team's new braintrust, which includes former agent Stu Lash (now the team's director of player personnel and player development), has won the war, ousting coach Lionel Hollins despite the team's success under the winningest coach in franchise history in favor of Joerger, who also believes in the New Math. If Hollinger and Co. have re-invented the basketball wheel, we'll find out soon enough.

THE SKINNY: For a team with little interest in spending big bucks, and without a first-round pick, the Grizzlies had a very good summer. First, they kept Allen in the fold; the veteran swingman embodies the "Grindhouse" style that is such a hit with the team's fan base. Shipping Arthur for Koufos, who lost his champion in Denver when coach George Karl was fired, gives the Grizz legit size behind Marc Gasol. And Memphis was also able to steal Franklin, whom most scouts and personnel types had as a late first-rounder, well into the second. Memphis capped things by convincing Miller to come back to where he played from 2002-08 rather than hooking up with the Thunder. Miller will surely be used sparingly during the regular season, so he can be healthy for the playoffs. It will all give first-year NBA coach Joerger more weapons to work with, and the Grizz need help: they were last in the league in pace and had painful scoring droughts throughout the season.

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No. 13 -- DALLAS MAVERICKS

2012-13 RECORD: 41-41, fourth place, Southwest Division; did not make playoffs

ADDED: F DeJuan Blair (one year, $1.4 million); G Jose Calderon (four years, $29 million); C Samuel Dalembert (two years, $7.5 million); G Wayne Ellington (two years); G Monta Ellis (three years, $25 million); G Gal Mekel (three years, $2.25 million); G Shane Larkin (first-round pick, 18th overall)

Mark Cuban Interview

LOST: F/C Elton Brand (signed with Atlanta); G Darren Collison (signed with L.A. Clippers); G O.J. Mayo (signed with Milwaukee); C Chris Kaman (signed with L.A. Lakers); G Anthony Morrow (signed with New Orleans)

RETAINED: F Shawn Marion (does not exercise ETO); C Brandan Wright (two years, $10 million); C Bernard James (one year, $884,000)

THE KEY MAN: Forward Dirk Nowitzki. He's been The Man for 14 years in Dallas and nothing's changed this summer. If Nowitzki is convinced there's a way to get back to being a true contender via Dallas' "Plan B," the Mavs can continue building their roster in small steps. But if the Diggler believes he's only got a season or two left after 2013-14, Dallas will have to make the same hard call that Boston had to make with its most recent Big Three -- when do you call it a day and start over? (In his latest blog post Saturday, Mark Cuban insists he will never trade Nowitzki, a free agent after next season.)

THE SKINNY: "Plan A" was getting Dwight Howard (Cuban's amazing post Saturday, showing how to effectively use a blog to promote thoughtful discussion, deconstructed the franchise's thought processes the past several seasons -- and pointed out that no one believed, at the start of the 2010-11 season, that the team which wound up winning the title would amount to anything special. Cuban also includes an introductory video the Mavs made as part of their pitch to Howard). But, again, the Mavericks were unable to land the big free agent. So they started giving out years as well as money, hoping that Calderon and Ellis can form chemistry and that Dalembert can be the defensive presence he was in Philly before tailing off in Milwaukee. After its point guard disaster last season, the Mavs may have overcompensated a bit, bringing Mekel over from Israel and taking Larkin in the Draft to back up Calderon. But three point guards are better than two, and if you could sign a fourth, most teams would. The Mavs still have the expiring contracts of Marion and Vince Carter to use at the trade deadline if there's a big, expensive fish to pry loose.

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No. 14 -- SAN ANTONIO SPURS

2012-13 RECORD: 58-24, first place, Southwest Division; lost in NBA Finals

ADDED: G Marco Belinelli (two years, $5.6 million); F Jeff Pendergraph (two years, $3.5 million)

LOST: F DeJuan Blair (signed with Dallas); G Gary Neal (signed with Milwaukee);

R.C. Buford Talks Spurs Direction

RETAINED: F-C Boris Diaw (picked up player option); (G Manu Ginobili (two years, $14 million); G Patty Mills (picked up player option); C/F Tiago Splitter (four years, $36 million)

THE KEY MAN: Assistant coach Jim Boylen. The longtime assistant and former University of Utah coach comes to San Antonio after two seasons with the Pacers. He'll replace Gregg Popovich's longtime right-hand man, Mike Budenholzer, who left for the Hawks' top job. Finding chemistry on the bench is just as important as it is on the court. Popovich, as well as general manager R.C. Buford, trusted Budenholzer immensely, as evidenced by his 17 seasons with the Spurs before moving on. He was a strong voice in player-acquisition discussions and in the Draft. Boylen is widely respected in the coaching fraternity and he'll do well in San Antonio. But change is always hard after so many years of having that institutional rhythm which allows for discussion, argument, and often, disagreement -- but, finally, resolution.

THE SKINNY: The Spurs' offseason moves are fine. Belinelli took getting better on defense seriously while in Chicago and didn't embarrass himself, though it took him a while to pick up things, just as it probably will in San Antonio. Bringing back Ginobili at such a high number surprised some league execs, but once he decided he was going to keep playing there was no doubt where he'd go (or, more accurately, stay). And his value and legacy in San Antonio cannot be measured strictly by dollars. The only issue San Antonio has is whether it can recover mentally from being five seconds away from a title. You will hear all the brave, tough talk during training camp about how the Spurs are "past" Game 6 and 7 of The Finals. I won't believe it. Getting that close to a fifth ring, six years after winning the last one, and not coming away with it is a gut punch ... even for an organization as tough as San Antonio's. There's no guarantee the Spurs will ever get as close, even though they're always in the mix, and probably will be again.

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No. 15 -- NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

2012-13 RECORD: 27-55, fifth place, Southwest Division; did not make playoffs

ADDED: G Tyreke Evans (four years, $44 million via sign and trade from Sacramento); G Jrue Holiday (acquired from Philadelphia); G Anthony Morrow (two years, $2.1 million); C Greg Stiemsma (one year, $2.6 million); C Jeff Withey (Draft rights acquired from Portland)

LOST: F Lou Amundson (rights renounced); G Xavier Henry (rights renounced); C Robin Lopez (traded to Portland); Roger Mason Jr. (rights renounced); G Donald Sloan (signed with Indiana); F Lance Thomas (rights renounced); G Greivis Vasquez (traded to Sacramento)

USA Basketball Mini-camp: Anthony Davis

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Carlos Daniel, strength and conditioning coach. It's Daniel's job to help Anthony Davis build his body up to take the pounding of an NBA season. Davis doesn't have to put on 100 pounds ... he just has to be able to hold his position on defense and not get pushed off his spots offensively.

THE SKINNY: Time will tell if New Orleans was smart on passing up Nerlens Noel, whose Draft rights were sent to Philly for Holiday, the All-Star guard who'll team with Eric Gordon and Evans in a dynamic three-guard rotation (or with Evans taking over at small forward). But even so, how much better will the Pelicans be in the brutal West? Davis played well as his rookie season went on, but he had injury problems playing in the hole. New Orleans couldn't entice Greg Oden to come in and take minutes in the middle, leaving Steimsma and rookie Withey to get playing time. But getting a 23-year-old low maintenance All-Star will help a franchise rebuild much faster.

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No. 16 -- MILWAUKEE BUCKS

2012-13 RECORD: 38-44, third place, Central Division; lost in first round of playoffs

ADDED: Coach Larry Drew; G Carlos Delfino (three years, $9.75 million); G Brandon Knight (acquired from Detroit); G O.J. Mayo (three years, $24 million); G Gary Neal (two years, $7 million); C Zaza Pachulia (three years, $15.6 million); F Giannis Adetokunbo (first-round pick, 15th overall); F Khris Middleton, F Slava Kravtsov (acquired from Detroit)

LOST: F-C Gustavo Ayon (waived and signed with Hawks); F Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (signed with Chicago); G Monta Ellis (signed with Dallas); F/C Drew Gooden (waived via amnesty provision); G Brandon Jennings (traded to Detroit); F Luc Mbah a Moute (traded to Sacramento); G J.J. Redick (sign and trade with L.A. Clippers)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Owner Herb Kohl. The 78-year-old now former U.S. Senator gave GM John Hammond some leeway to spend this offseason and the Bucks did, bringing in several free agents and trading for Knight to run the point. And Kohl said at the end of June he remains committed to paying a large chunk of the money needed for a new arena. But getting approval for a new building to replace Bradley Center has always been difficult in Milwaukee, and remains so. Sacramento's template for keeping the Kings in town surely will be the one that every team uses going forward: if we commit to a building, no matter how lucrative offers are from other cities, the NBA will back us. That hasn't happened yet in Milwaukee, and until it does, the Bucks are vulnerable.

THE SKINNY: Hammond took a cleaver to the roster that got swept by Miami last spring, letting Ellis walk to Dallas and dealing Jennings to the Pistons for Knight, who'll step in and start for Drew's Bucks. There's no telling if Milwaukee is going to be any better next season, but the Bucks will certainly be younger, most evidenced by the selection of Adetokunbo. Many scouts think he is several years away from making a big contribution in the NBA at either end of the court. As the weather is still cold and bleak in the winters, there's little chance Milwaukee will get a free agent to come there. The Bucks need to develop a star of their own, and they're hoping the 19-year-old Nigerian will fit the bill.

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No. 17 -- WASHINGTON WIZARDS

2012-13 RECORD: 29-53, third place, Southeast Division; did not make playoffs

ADDED: G Eric Maynor (two years, $4.1 million); F Otto Porter (first-round pick, 3rd overall); G Glen Rice, Jr. (second-round pick, rights acquired from Philadelphia)

LOST: None

RETAINED: F Trevor Ariza (picked up player option); C Emeka Okafor (picked up player option); G Garrett Temple; G Martell Webster (four years, $21.9 million)

Wizards Re-Sign Wall

THE KEY MAN: Guard John Wall. Wall got the max deal from the Wizards at 22, despite the team's 72-158 record and zero playoff appearances in his first three seasons. The gamble is big, but Wall certainly did play extremely well when he recovered from his patella injury. He finished sixth among point guards in PER last season (and was 22nd overall in the league), and he did improve his perimeter game and decision-making, occasionally slipping into second gear to find the open man. He had great chemistry with Bradley Beal as well, and Washington's backcourt looks like it could be one of the best in the league in due time. Whether Wall ever becomes as good as the game's other point guards that have broken the bank will be his test going forward.

THE SKINNY: The Wizards were an outstanding defensive team last season, allowing only 100.6 points per 100 possesions, good for eighth-best in the league. They were the only non-playoff team in the top 13 league-wide. Porter should be able to contribute there immediately, though he looked a little overwhelmed on offense on the Wizards' Las Vegas Summer League team. But Washington didn't do much via the personnel route to address its significant offensive problems (the Wiz were last in the league in 2012-13 in offensive rating and points per game). The hope in D.C. is that a full, healthy season of Wall, Beal and Nene playing together goes a long way toward addressing that problem.

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No. 18 -- PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

2012-13 RECORD: 33-49, fourth place, Northwest Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: C Robin Lopez (acquired from New Orleans); F Thomas Robinson (acquired via trade from Houston); G Earl Watson (one year, $884,000); F Dorell Wright (two years, $6.1 million); G C.J. McCollum (first-round pick, 10th overall); G Allen Crabbe (second-round pick, 31st overall)

LOST: F/C J.J. Hickson (signed with Denver); G Eric Maynor (signed with Washington); G Ronnie Price (signed with Orlando); C Jeff Withey (Draft rights traded to New Orleans).

Real Training Camp: Damian Lillard

RETAINED: None.

THE KEY MAN: Head Athletic Trainer Chris Stackpole. The Blazers hired the 26-year-old in June to replace longtime Head AT Jay Jensen. Rightly or wrongly, Jensen was heavily criticized in Portland after the team's investments in both Greg Oden and Brandon Roy went sour because of injuries. (Full disclosure: Jensen was never anything but accommodating with me over the years as he explained, over and over, how many different avenues and areas the team explored to try and heal both Oden and Roy. I liked Jensen, and I still do.) So, rightly or wrongly, Stackpole, who is highly regarded as an up and comer in his business by many, will have to fight history and perception as he puts his own best practices into place to keep the Blazers healthy and strong.

THE SKINNY: Portland had to address its gaping hole at center, and plugged in Lopez as a short-term solution. If the Blazers are going to keep Cousin LaMarcus happy, though, they have to have a long-term answer at that position, where they tried and failed to get Roy Hibbert last summer. Until then, the Blazers will get buckets from their three-guard rotation of Damian Lillard, McCollum and Wes Matthews. They also are hoping they improved the league's worst bench last season with the additions of Wright, Robinson and rookie Crabbe, who was a solid value pick early in the second round.

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No. 19 -- L.A. LAKERS

2012-13 RECORD: 45-37, third place, Pacific Division; lost in first round of playoffs.

ADDED: G Jordan Farmar (one year, $884,000); G/F Wesley Johnson (one year, $884,000); C Chris Kaman (one year, $3.1 million); G Nick Young (two years, $2.3 million)

LOST: F Earl Clark (signed with Cleveland); C Dwight Howard (signed with Houston); F Metta World Peace (waived via amnesty, signed with New York)

GameTime: The Lakers

RETAINED: G Jodie Meeks (picked up team option); C Robert Sacre (three years, $2.6 million)

THE KEY WOMAN: Executive Vice President Jeanie Buss. In charge of the team's business side, Buss no doubt has had to put out a lot of fires in the last month after the team lost Howard, the expected lynchpin to the franchise's next bag full of championships. The Lakers centered their new network's coverage on Howard and Steve Nash, and Nash is going to be 40 next February. While brother, Jim, makes the on-court basketball decisions, the well-respected Jeanie Buss still holds a lot of sway behind the scenes (and has Snoop Lion, the former rapper-turned-Reggae singer, in her corner). And, she can get a meeting with Phil Jackson at a moment's notice.

THE SKINNY: What a revoltin' development this is. The Lakers are the Staples Center tenant scrambling to fill out their roster, while the Clippers have the telegenic coach and superstar players. But this is reality for the Forum Blue and Gold these days. Even if Kobe Bryant returns earlier than forecasted following surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles', and even if Pau Gasol and Mike D'Antoni squash their problems from last season, this is not a team that can contend for anything as is. Nor will it have the millions upon millions of dollars people seem to think it will have in cap room next summer. The only way that happens is if it were to renounce Bryant, a free agent next summer with a $30 million-plus cap hold, and clear him from its books. That will not happen.

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No. 20 -- DENVER NUGGETS

2012-13 RECORD: 57-25, second place, Northwest Division; lost in first round of playoffs

Brian Shaw Interview

ADDED: Coach Brian Shaw; F Darrell Arthur (acquired from Memphis); G Randy Foye (via sign-and-trade with Jazz, three years, $9.1 million); F/C J.J. Hickson (three years, $15 million); G Nate Robinson (two years, $4 million)

LOST: F Corey Brewer (signed with Minnesota); F Andre Iguodala (signed with Golden State); C Kosta Koufos (traded to Memphis)

RETAINED: C Timofey Mozgov (three years, $14 million)

THE KEY MAN: Team president Josh Kroenke. It's been Kroenke's team for the past three years, since he took over for his father, Stan -- and that includes the green light on making the Carmelo Anthony deal that rebuilt the roster posthaste. But now it's public. Josh Kroenke made the call on letting coach George Karl go, not paying to keep GM Masai Ujiri from leaving for Toronto and on bringing in Shaw. And, Kroenke publicly made keeping Iguodala a priority. So Kroenke has to live with what happens now. Were last season's franchise-record 56 wins an outlier, or is Kroenke just getting started?

THE SKINNY: Despite all the unusual tumult for a team that had such a good season, the Nuggets might not be as bad off as people think. Robinson, Arthur and Foye are all sneaky good, low-cost bench additions who should help keep the pedal to the medal when the starters need a blow. That means Denver should still be as dominant offensively as it was last season, when the Nuggets were fifth in the league in offensive rating and led the league in points per game. Karl blanched at giving JaVale McGee normal starter's minutes; it wasn't at all surprising that Denver moved to unload Koufos so quickly, clearing the decks for Shaq's Favorite Player Evah to go do that voodoo that he do so well. But the Nuggets' chances of staying a top four team in the West will only return when Danilo Gallinari's ACL returns to normal.

>> 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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