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Give and Go: NBA's offseason losers

Give and Go: NBA's offseason losers Photo:

Give And Go is a recurring feature in which Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.

On Thursday, we examined the NBA's biggest offseason winners. Today's topic: the losers.

1. Which team was this offseason's biggest loser?

Ben Golliver: Lakers. It's high time we had a referendum on Kobe Bryant's brash defense of his monster two-year, $48.5 million contract extension. Remember when, back in November, Bryant said that fans needed to "learn the sports industry" and pointed out that the Lakers still had "max cap space and then some" after splurging on a rehabbing Bryant. He even called the team's front office executives "sharp." 
 
Eight months later, that vaunted cap space and optimism produced a scattering of Carmelo Anthony rumors, zero shot at landing LeBron James, a total whiff in landing an A-list, B-list or even C-list free agent, the departure of Pau Gasol without compensation, a vast overpayment of Jordan Hill, an unfortunate four-year contract for Nick Young, a headline-grabbing but not earth-shattering play for Jeremy Lin, and a nonsensical but still totally predictable amnesty claim of Carlos Boozer. Considering L.A. had been selling its fans on the power of its 2015 cap space since Dwight Howard's departure, that haul looks like a "Make it up as you go along" disaster that has simultaneously created positional log jams and giant holes. 
 
Other than a nice value pick-up in Ed Davis and some hope in the form of 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle, the Lakers' summer was flat out depressing. Watching this team try to play defense is going to be hilarious.
 
L.A. is in danger of taking a step even further back after one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Even if that doesn't happen, it's hard to see how this cast of characters, even with a healthy Bryant, will become close to relevant in the West playoffs. It's not fair to expect Bryant to walk back all his post-extension talk from last fall, but he's kidding himself if he thinks this group is anything but an afterthought. Maybe the many critics of Bryant's contracts understood the "sports industry" after all.
 
Reports Friday indicate that the Lakers are ready to consummate a partnership with Byron Scott, an uninspired end to a hiring process that dragged on forever because the job just isn't that desirable.

Rob Mahoney: Kings. To be clear, I don't find any team's workings this summer to be all that disastrous in total. There are moves I don't quite understand and those I wouldn't make were I in a position to run a team, though most are at least somewhat defensible and tempered by their short term. Front offices, now further protected by the CBA, are generally smart enough to prevent out-and-out offseason disaster. Generally.

With that framing in mind, Sacramento's summer strikes me as the worst in the league, even if not at all fatal. There is nothing the Kings fell into over the last few months that cannot be undone -- no significant opportunity lost and no move that will really haunt the franchise in years to come. The Kings' path, though, seems relatively fruitless. There is an aim here: The Kings as a franchise are upfront about their intention to become competitive quickly. I just don't at all see how trading away a productive player while netting nothing more than a trade exception in return and signing an inferior player at the same position out of preference provides the means to that end.
 
That exchange -- through which Sacramento shipped Isaiah Thomas to Phoenix after agreeing to terms with Darren Collison on a three-year, $16 million deal -- is not a move that will accelerate the Kings' competitive timetable. Collison is significantly less effective than Thomas on offense and, somehow, an inferior defender despite a relative height advantage. He will be paid just around $1.5 million less than Thomas per season on average, making any financial tradeoff negligible. Collison is slightly older. He was cast off by the Pacers and Mavericks and let go by the Clippers, who had the spending power to offer Collison a deal in this same range. He has proven rather emphatically this point that he is not a lead guard on a winning team, wheras Thomas -- who has only known the on-court dysfunction of the Kings -- may yet establish himself as just that kind of piece.
 
2. Which team's moves have given the most reason for skepticism?
 
Mahoney: Nets. Brooklyn's summer showcased just how difficult it can be to add or even maintain talent when wading so deep into luxury tax territory. Mikhail Prokhorov may have his team playing by an entirely unique set of rules when it comes to acceptable financial loss, but Brooklyn's payroll situation has proven binding since last summer's trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett
 
By virtue of being above the luxury tax apron, the Nets have lesser means than most when it comes to making competitive free agent offers. After Pierce decided to sign with Washington for the full mid-level exception ($5.3 million), Brooklyn was without much recourse. The loss of Pierce in itself is huge. The Nets surrendered three first-round picks (only one of which has been conveyed) along with the right to swap first rounders in the deal for Pierce and Garnett, and currently Pierce is the far more effective player. It will be painful for Brooklyn to go without his shot-making, playmaking and defensive versatility, which in all made Pierce one of the most important Nets players last season.
 
Brooklyn's financial situation also capped a potential offer to Shaun Livingston, whose insertion into the starting lineup changed the trajectory of the Nets season. He chose to sign with the Warriors at a price greater than what the Nets could offer. Alan Anderson was brought back in part because the Nets had so few other choices; had Brooklyn simply let Anderson go, its only wing alternatives would be those willing to sign for the minimum salary. The taxpayer mid-level ultimately went to Bojan Bogdanovic, an unproven 25-year-old wing who could help fill the void. It remains to be seen what can be done with Andray Blatche, who is a free agent after turning down a player option for this coming season.
 
Without the freedom to spend in free agency, the Nets flipped Marcus Thornton's expiring contract to get some action in a three-way deal with the Cavaliers and Celtics. The arrangement landed Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev in Brooklyn -- not a bad haul under the circumstances, but indicative of just how stuck the Nets are. On balance this team swapped out Pierce, Livingston and perhaps Blatche for Bogdanovic, Karasev and Jack. Yet the payroll still registers over $94 million in commitments, all before accounting for tax payments or revenue sharing. That's a problem even if money is no object, as the logjam contributes -- whether directly or indirectly -- to quality players leaving for more promising situations. 
 
Brooklyn won't likely be a bad team in this coming season, though the veteran core ages, Lopez's availability remains an open question and the roster on the whole is noticeably worse. The rest of the conference, by contrast, strengthens in the middle. These are not bright times for the Nets.
 
Golliver: Pacers. After Indiana spent years fighting to compete with Miami at the top of the East, this summer briefly seemed like it could be the Pacers' chance to take over conference supremacy. That could still happen, but they will have to do it without Lance Stephenson, who escaped to the Hornets on a fairly reasonable contract. What the heck happened here? 
 
Personality management and ego management are both part of roster management, and the loss of Stephenson likely goes back months. The second-best player on a title contender should be fully in step with his organization, and yet Stephenson was allegedly involved in a practice fight while also pulling all sorts of crazy stunts during the playoffs. Remember all that talk about Stephenson feeling a special loyalty to the Pacers for taking a chance on him? That looks like a bunch of hot air. The Pacers' ability to shape his behavior appeared to dwindle, and frustration with Stephenson spilled out of the locker room via the infamous "selfish" accusations. Finding some method to keep Stephenson in line could have translated into keeping Stephenson in Indiana.
 
Writing this off as a volatile player making a surprising decision is too simplistic. We likely won't ever know the full ins and outs of the negotiations, but Indiana was primed to bring back the entire core of a roster that went to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals. If ever a small-market team should have been willing to spend to keep a winner together, this would have been it. This wasn't an insane luxury tax situation, like the one facing the Nets, and it's pretty inexplicable that talks with Stephenson broke down to the point that he bailed for $27 million over three years (with a team option). Where was Indiana's negotiations "closer" on this one?
 
The Pacers' braintrust at least added a shooter in C.J. Miles and a poor man's backcourt replacement in Rodney Stuckey, but this wasn't the time for contingency plans, not when a proven formula was right there ready to be maintained. It's one thing to see a team break up because one of the core pieces gets comically overpaid. It's another to watch Stephenson go to a team with no history of winning for a much smaller salary than expected.
 
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3. Which long-term deal will look the most regrettable by its conclusion?
 
Golliver: Marcin Gortat. The scope of offseason regret has been meaningfully narrowed because a vast majority of the league's free agents are taking deals that are four or less years in length. Not only were six-year contracts dumped in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, five-year contracts were a rarity this summer: Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Marcin Gortat received them, but other big names did not. Kyle Lowry, a near All-Star, received a four-year deal. LeBron James, the best player in the world, took a two-year deal instead of five years. It's hard to really regret a deal that will be over before you know it.
 
Of the five-year contracts that were handed out, Gortat sets up to be the most prone to long-term second-guessing. He's a solid center but not an All-Star level player, and his new contract will run past his 35th birthday, with no options, at $12 million per year. The Polish Hammer has proven to be durable and the money involved isn't outrageous, Wizards fans can be forgiven if they are feeling a little itchy about committing that last season to a seven-footer.
 
Washington ultimately forked over the dough because the roster is in position to make some real noise in the East over the next few seasons. A lot can change between now and the final year or two of this contract: Gortat's miles will accumulate, and the Wizards must either spend more to take the next step or reload around their big salary players. Will this deal stand the test of time?
 
Mahoney: Gortat. I'm in agreement -- multi-year deals in the NBA ain't what they used to be. This may have been a generous summer across the board in terms of contract values, but no deal was outrageous or even long enough to be truly damning. 
 
Ben is right to single out Gortat's deal, particularly when he'll earn some $13.6 million in the final year of his deal. That may simply be the price of bringing on a quality two-way center at this stage in his career, though, and Washington faced a steep drop in attempting to replace Gortat were he to sign elsewhere. It's an expensive deal, but one dictated by the market.
 
On a smaller scale, I could see reason for regret in Nick Young's contract: A four-year swing with the Lakers for $21.5 million in total. Even in coming off of a strong season, that's an awfully long time to commit to Young. Just last year Young was a minimum-salary acquisition, risky enough in playing style and approach as to ward off suitors. He absolutely played his way into a raise, though this is a significant leap of faith in a one-way player coming out of a system that favors shooters. There's nothing wrong with paying to keep Young, particularly when this year's Lakers need all the help they can get. Four years, though, is a lifetime to be attached to a player like Young.
 
Debating Eric Bledsoe's ceiling

On Monday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix and NBA writer Ben Golliver debate Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe's worth in free agency.

 
4. Which player made the biggest mistake in selecting his home for the 2014-15 season?
 
Golliver: Pau Gasol to the Bulls. The Spanish big man can't really be faulted for picking Chicago, where he will get more than $7 million per year for three guaranteed seasons plus the chance to compete for the East's top spot next season. A player in Gasol's position -- past his prime, health questions -- can't ask for a better situation than that if he wants to maximize his earning power. 
 
This has less to do with Chicago, though, and everything to do with the possibilities in San Antonio. It's too bad that basketball fans aren't allowed to start a Kickstarter to cover the difference between the Bulls' offer and what Gasol could have been paid by the Spurs with their mid-level exception. 
 
Had Gasol passed on a few million dollars per year, he could have helped take an international juggernaut and the odds-on 2015 title favorite to a whole new level. Can you imagine a team with an all-bases-covered big man rotation consisting of Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Pau Gasol? Can you imagine an explosive, unpredictable, pass-happy second unit featuring Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Diaw and Gasol? 
 
For parity's sake, it's probably better for the NBA that Gasol headed East rather than joining the Spurs or the Thunder. That fact doesn't stop the "What could have been?" daydreams. PS: How many extra years might Duncan have played if Gasol was there to help keep the Spurs in contention while easing Duncan's load even more than it has been already? 
 
Mahoney: Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. This is easy for me to say when I don't have a comically large bag of money on the line, but I do feel like Anthony missed out on a tremendous basketball opportunity in Chicago. I've already explored that particular fit at length, though the mistake here has just as much to do with re-upping in New York. The Knicks' reshaped front office is off to a fine start, though overall this is still a team several years and many moves away from high-level competition. Anthony shrugged off a chance to play for a ready-made contender to re-sign under those circumstances. I hope that he doesn't look back in a few years, his prime slipping out from under him on merely good Knicks teams, and come to regret that choice.
 
5. Which team left the biggest need unaddressed?
 
Mahoney: Pacers. Indiana was a truly dreadful offensive team last season, held back by a dearth of ball handling, playmaking and continuity. The latter can only be fixed in systemic terms, but the Pacers lost a valued source of off-the-dribble creativity -- the conduit for efficient offense -- in Stephenson. 
 
For a team already so stagnant to give up a player as dynamic as Stephenson could do incredible harm. Stephenson was wild, clearly. Yet his audacity breathed life into stale possessions and helped to carry the Pacers' second-unit offense. All the Pacers can do now is cross their fingers and hope that the acquisitions of C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey (along with some schematic redesign) will smooth things over. Contention within the East is still within reach given the strength of Indiana's defense, though the offense (which ranked among the worst in the league over the second half of last season) could soon collapse in Stephenson's absence.
 
Golliver: Pacers. Not to harp too hard on Indiana, but Stephenson's departure does hit hard in the play-making department. Evan Turner's move to the Celtics might have been addition by subtraction, but the Pacers still desperately need some offensive creativity to aid Paul George. Indiana's signature elite defense might be enough to get the Pacers out of the East next season, but they will be chopped liver in the Finals if they can't find a way to add a dynamic offensive talent by the deadline.

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