2016 NBA Offseason
The NBA offseason is well underway. The draft is complete and free agency is almost two weeks old with almost all the big names signed to new deals and to often new teams. Summer league has started giving coaches, GMs, and fans a chance to see their newly acquired draft picks in action. This offseason has been anything but off- it has been wrapped in surprise and intrigue and the moves taken won’t just affect the upcoming season but may shape the NBA landscape for years to come.
There is one main reason for all this drama, the salary cap increase. The salary cap increased from $70 million last season to $94.1 million for the 2016-17 season, largely due to the new national TV deals.[i] This $24.1 million increase coupled with star free agents and a draft class that appears to have some future stars has made this offseason non-stop entertainment. As a result, enormous sums of cash have been handed out and huge deals have been given to not only stars but roll players as well. At a singular glance a lot of these deals appear like terrible values for the team but this is just the reality of a bull market. For example Timothy Mozgov, who rode the bench for much of the year in Cleveland and played only 75 total minutes in the playoffs, got a 4-year $64 million dollar contract with the Lakers.[ii] Players with similar value got similar deals as well (you can see entire list of free agents and their contracts here: http://www.sbnation.com/nba/2016/6/30/12052290/nba-free-agent-signings-tracker-2016-rumors).
However large contracts aren’t the most significant outcome of the new salary cap. With the extra room to spend teams can now sign three possibly four players to a max contract, meaning teams can have three or even four superstars on their roster- where in the past teams could sign only two or maybe three stars at a discount. Well, that is exactly what happened as the best team the Golden State Warriors (GSW) was able to sign the best free agent this year, Kevin Durant. The rich just got richer. The Warriors arguably have 4 top-15 players in the league after becoming the most successful team in league history during the regular season. Signing Durant was momentous not just for the Warriors who won the offseason with that deal, but for the league as a whole. With more and more superstars joining together in their quest to win the Championship, there is a risk of having no semblance of parity. With only several teams having any real chance of winning small market teams will have even a tougher time competing, tanking could become even more common place, and worse viewership may drop due to the lack of intrigue. A few owners have already expressed these fears.
Still, Durant deserved to make his decision and his decision should not be met with scorn or hatred. Just like after Lebron James’ infamous decision, Durant’s own decision to join GSW was met with similar vitriol. This type of sentiment I don’t understand. Durant didn’t leave for the money but left to win Championships- the one award he hasn’t won. Winning the Finals has become so important- largely due to pundits over emphasis that winning it is everything and never winning means you’re a loser and somehow incomplete- that players feel an unreasonable amount of pressure to become Champions. This desire that is causing players to create super teams is sports pundits and fans own doing. Besides Durant gave eight years to his team and OKC and deserves the right to decide what is best for him. If fans really want to get upset they should be mad at owners who move whole teams away from cities and fan bases, like OKC owner Clayton Bennett, they are the real villains. Durant is not a villain, though The Warriors might become the Evil Empire…
Golden State won the offseason with the shocking signing of Durant, but I want to acknowledge three other teams that I think improved the most this offseason either through the draft, trades, and/or free agency.
The Celtics did not make a lot of moves this offseason but their one big signing was huge and addressed their biggest need. Signing center Al Horford to a 4-year $113 million contract was a tremendous move and probably will have the biggest long-term impact outside the Durant deal.[iii] Horford is a perfect fit for the city and team. Bringing in the All-star at a reasonable price makes Celtics not only a threat in the East but also makes Boston a prime destination for future free agents now with two All-stars (Horford and PG Isaiah Thomas) on the roster. Also GM Danny Ainge let Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger walk giving Boston financial flexibility to be a major player in next year’s Russell Westbrook sweepstakes. (There are also rumors of a Blake Griffin trade.) Letting Turner walk instead of overpaying him was a smart move now and in the future, saving money and allowing the young backcourt of Thomas, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to grow.
Another savvy move by Ainge was picking up the player option on versatile big man Amir Johnson, who is reliable on offense and great defensively. Johnson is more valuable and comes at a better price than Sullinger. Yet, what could make Boston’s already great offseason really extraordinary is their draft performance. Boston shocked almost everybody when they selected freshman SF Jaylen Brown out of California with the 3rd overall pick. Most experts had them picking G Kris Dunn out of Providence who is a more pro-ready and polished player but Ainge went with the more athletic Brown who is better fit (small forward was more of a need than guard). Actually Boston had a plethora of draft picks and used them to take F Guerschon Yabusele from France 16th overall (a good physical athlete with 3-point range), C Ante Zizic from Croatia 23rd overall (a strong raw athlete with a high motor who will likely be stashed overseas for a couple years), junior PG Demetrius Jackson from Notre Dame 45th overall (a productive and athletic combo guard who for some reason slid in the draft), F Ben Bentil from Providence 51st overall (the top scorer in the Big East and a solid rebounder), and senior SF Abdel Nadar from Iowa State 58th overall (a 3-and-D type player). Boston also drafted C Deyonta Davis and SF Rade Zagorac but traded them to the Memphis Grizzlies for the Clippers 1st round pick in 2017, meaning they will again have a surplus of picks next year. With all the draft picks Boston selected they are likely to hit jackpot on one, or two, or maybe even three; which would make this offseason really one to remember. Time will tell.
Indiana’s offseason has been highly contentious- pundits either love it or hate it, and I obviously like their moves. Indiana made headlines by basically swapping George Hill for Jeff Teague as part of a three-way trade with Atlanta and Utah. I believe Teague is an upgrade from Hill (especially if he returns to 2014 form) and might be a better fit with Paul George being a more natural point guard. Indiana continued their bold moves by signing Al Jefferson instead of starter Ian Mahinmi for one less year and less money. Financially this is was a great move as it maintains some flexibility and they get a better player in the short-term, regardless of how well he fits schematically. Then, to improve their athleticism, versatility, and size they traded for F Jeremy Evans, a young athletic big man, and F Emir Preldzic for cash considerations. The only loss that Indiana has not replaced or upgraded and might miss is the underappreciated Solomon Hill.
For the draft Indiana made most of their late selections. They traded their late 1st round pick Caris LeVert to Brooklyn for F Thaddeus Young. I have always been a fan of Young- he is an undersize forward but always productive and a great team player. He will be a great glue guy and big when the team goes small. Young can play either forward position and will give the team much needed versatility. The trade makes them more competitive now but doesn’t jeopardize their future either. In the 2nd round they selected Georges Niang 50th overall from Iowa State who is also an undersize forward but is very skilled and productive during four years in college earning All-American 2nd Team honors.
With a healthy Paul George, Indiana boasts a complete roster ready to compete in the East.
I had a hard time choosing between the Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies as the third team with the best offseason. Memphis was able to keep PG Mike Conley- signing the biggest deal in NBA history with a 5-year $153 million contract- and was able to add SF Chandler Parsons (4-year $94 million) to improve their floor spacing.[iv] Couple these two and versatile draft class (Wade Baldwin and Deyonta Davis) with the strong inside presence of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and you got a tough team to beat. However I chose the Houston Rockets over Memphis because I believe they got better value from their additions and will improve their overall record more.
Houston brought in Mike D’Antoni as their coach which appears to be a nice fit for the newly extended James Harden. The extension of Harden, like the Horford deal, will make Houston a favorable destination for star free agents. GM Daryl Morey continued to make smart investments by letting troublesome C Dwight Howard walk for big money (3-year $70 million) and picked up Nene on a one-year $2.9 million deal at a fraction of the cost. At this point in his career Howard is getting overpaid, and although Nene is not as good defensively he is comparable and more versatile offensively than Howard. The move also gives the team great financial flexibility in the future and Houston will be in the hunt for next year’s prize free agents.
The Rockets then added guard Eric Gordon and stretch forward Ryan Anderson whom are perfect fits for Mike D’Antoni’s system. Eric Gordon, if he can stay healthy, will be a great compliment to Harden as an outside scoring threat and a great value at 4-year $53 million contract. Anderson will also be a great compliment for Harden as pick-and-pop big for multiple years. The main reason why I like Houston’s offseason over Memphis is the value of the free agent signings. Houston didn’t break the bank and has more short-term and long-term financial flexibility. GM Morey also signed veteran PG Pablo Prigioni to solidify the backcourt to a short-term team friendly deal.
If Houston is able to sign another big man, like re-signing Donatas Motiejunas, they will add the necessary size and their offseason will be complete. Holistically, Houston will look very different next year under D’Antoni- they will be scary offensively, questionable defensively, absolutely fun to watch, and considerably improved.
Before discussing teams who went backwards into free agency I just want to briefly mention several other teams that had a solid offseason. The 76ers could finally be back to winning basketball after winning the draft by selecting point-forward Ben Simmons with the #1 overall pick. Simmons plays like Lebron and has the potential to be a superstar. The Timberwolves also had a nice offseason- hiring coach Tom Thibodeau is an upgrade and they got a gift when G Kris Dunn fell to them at No. 5. Minnesota is improving incrementally with a young up-and-coming team that will be fun to watch, and you got to admire their patience. Finally I have to give credit to the San Antonio Spurs who once again proved they are perhaps the best franchise in the league. The Spurs, even after losing the great Tim Duncan to retirement, re-upped and should be competitive again with the signing of F/C Pau Gasol. They also might have gotten the steal in the draft with PG Dejounte Murray who is an amazing athlete but raw and has probably found himself in the best position to learn from Tony Parker and Greg Popovich. Unfortunately not everyone can have a winning offseason and here are two teams that I believe regressed the most (besides OKC who lost the offseason when they lost Durant).
Atlanta had a make or break offseason and they failed. They lost Al Horford and replaced him with an overpaid declining Dwight Howard for only $4 million less a year. Howard is also older and harder to play with, meaning Atlanta won’t have the same appeal to future free agents that Boston now has. I also don’t see much compatibility between him and PF Paul Millsap. They re-signed Kent Bazemore who is a fine player but not at a $17.5 million value.[v] The Hawks then traded away star Jeff Teague for the 12th overall pick in what was not considered a deep draft. With the pick they selected SF Taurean Prince out of Baylor. Prince might become a great player but that is unknown and a huge risk giving up a proven star. With these moves it is hard to imagine Atlanta doing anything but regressing next year.
I was tempted to pick the Chicago Bulls who signed aging veterans that would have been spectacular 5 years ago but now looks like a hope and a prayer to in all actuality a rebuilding team. Nevertheless I decided to select Orlando because their offseason moves are confusing for the short-term and long-term. I really don’t know what to make of this team, they have good assets in almost every position but I don’t know how they fit together and I don’t think the front office does either. They appear to be a team without any direction (I mean at least the 76ers had a directive of losing…).
This offseason they traded away their young star SG Victor Oladipo, PF Ersan Ilyasova, and rookie PF/C Domantas Sabonis (11th overall pick) to Oklahoma City for aging PF Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is a great player but not worth all those assets, and the move appears to be for short-term success yet Orlando isn’t going anywhere in the short-term. The move is perplexing; however a great move by the Thunder (who I thought would retain Durant due to the move). Orlando then went and signed PF/C Bismack Biyombo to a big 4-year $70 million contract. Again Biyombo is a fine player and the value is acceptable but Orlando went out and signed another PF in Jeff Green to 1-year $15 million contract. Add these three bigs to a roster that already has C Nikola Vucevic and PF Aaron Gordon (who really needs minutes) and your left scratching your head. I have no idea how these players fit together and I doubt Orlando does either. The only move that made since to me was re-signing promising shooting guard Evan Fournier to a long-term deal, yet still I have no idea what to make of this team. Perhaps CBS sports staff said it best: “The Magic’s offseason wasn’t disastrous, but man was it weird.”[vi]
Weird, that is what this upcoming season will be. Durant moved to the best team in the league, San Antonio will no longer have their star of the last 19-years, Dwayne Wade is now in his hometown Chicago, Chicago’s own Derrick Rose is now in the Big Apple, and the Celtics could be relevant again (soon). It was a crazy offseason that no doubt will lead to a crazy regular season only to result in a Finals rematch between Cleveland and Golden State for a third year in a row…