|Offseason Grades: Northwest Division|
Four of the five Northwest Division teams won at least 50 games and a minimum of two more in the playoffs last season, so massive rebuilding this offseason was limited to the Timberwolves, the lone also-ran.
But that doesn't mean the status quo reigns everywhere else. The Jazz will have more than one new starter. Denver has added mobile power forward Al Harrington to stretch opposing defenses. Last year's undrafted rookie surprise, Wesley Matthews, cashed in big time by trading jerseys within the division from Utah to Portland. And the Thunder did some draft-day maneuvering to address two needs: a classic big man and outside shooting.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
|Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images|
The Birdman can fly again
A shot-blocker with a bum wheel is in for a world of hurt in more ways than one. Chris "Birdman" Andersen, who fought through knee problems and other injuries last season, had surgery to repair a torn right patella tendon in June (he also had finger surgery last month). He should he healthy and high-flying when it counts this season.
Karl poised to come back
The Nuggets' immaturity came to the fore after coach George Karl was lost for the season in March because of throat and neck cancer. Provided Karl can sustain his vow to return, he has ample leverage to apply the obvious lessons about discipline and commitment to be gleaned from his absence.
Al Harrington increases their flexibility
The 6-foot-9 Harrington, signed to a five-year, $34 million deal, can stick the open jumper out to three-point range (where he's a career 35.5 percent shooter), grab rebounds and run the floor playing small ball with the go-go second unit, and, as a fellow large wing player, lighten some of the load on Carmelo Anthony.
WHAT WENT WRONG
No Carmelo extension yet
The Nuggets have reportedly offered the potential 2011 free agent (pictured) a maximum extension of $65 million over three years. If he doesn't sign by the opener, the Nuggets will reprise the distracting uncertainty endured by Cleveland last season, as the teams in the league's biggest media market (the Knicks and Nets) stoke the intrigue.One wonders if executives Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman would have been let go this week if the superstar's signature was already in place.
Harrington increases their knucklehead quotient
The last thing the Nuggets need is another player who allows his emotions to overcome his common sense. But that's what they have in Harrington, who fouled out of an overtime game the Knicks eventually lost last season and then skipped to the bench happily high-fiving teammates and playing to the crowd because he'd scored 42 points. Then there was his gaffe two seasons ago when he received a technical foul in crunch time for hanging on the rim and slapping the backboard after a dunk, a crucial factor in another Knicks loss.
Harrington is not enough of a splash to convince Anthony that the Nuggets are in Lakers/Heat territory.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
|John W. McDonough/SI|
Acquired Beasley for two bags of chips
As the Heat completed their "Miami Thrice" free-agent coup, the Wolves pounced on Pat Riley's cap-clearing aftermath by acquiring talented but star-crossed forward Michael Beasley (pictured), the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, for two second-round picks and cash considerations.
Discovered actual athletes to play on the wing
Last year, the Wolves discovered that a triangle offense without dynamic wing players will get you 15 wins. The addition of No. 4 pick Wesley Johnson of Syracuse, Martell Webster (acquired in a trade from Portland) and even Beasley sliding to small forward in a big frontcourt with Darko Milicic and Kevin Love provides a better fit for coach Kurt Rambis' system.
Cap room, draft choices to continue makeover
Don't like the makeup of the Wolves? Well, expect more changes under president David Kahn. After recent trades with Utah and Cleveland, the team is below the $43.5 million minimum team salary and has a boatload of first-round picks in the next two years.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Small return for Big Al
Al Jefferson didn't fit the triangle and is overpaid on the current market. But in sending their top scorer to a division rival for seldom-used center Kosta Koufos and two likely mid-first-round picks, the Wolves will have more than a few embarrassing moments this season.
A potentially costly fallout from Darko infatuation
Blame Rambis, not Kahn, for making the re-signing of Darko Milicic a top offseason priority. The deal itself isn't exorbitant (four years, $20 million), but it compelled the Wolves to ignore DeMarcus Cousins in the draft and risks further alienating Kevin Love, who went to the bench so Milicic could start late last season and must wonder why an older, less-productive player gets better treatment from management.
Too much churn
Last year's top free-agent acquisitions, point guard Ramon Sessions and center Ryan Hollins, have both been jettisoned. One of last season's league leaders in rookie minutes, Jonny Flynn, is a placeholder until Ricky Rubio arrives from Europe. What's the plan and who are the cornerstones?
Kahn is better at creating opportunities to upgrade the roster than he is at maximizing those upgrades. But the Wolves' roster is still better than it was a year ago -- without hurting future flexibility.
|A-||Oklahoma City Thunder|
WHAT WENT RIGHT
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Durant commits for the long haul
As the "where will LeBron go?" hype ran amok, Kevin Durant (pictured) modestly pledged his loyalty to his small-market team by announcing on Twitter that he signed a five-year extension worth nearly $86 million. Such perfectly timed moments are how a once-unassuming club like the Thunder could become America's Team in the next year or two.
Presti also gets an extensionAldrich in the pivot, shooters beyond the arc
Sam Presti, the architect of the Thunder's 27-win improvement last year and one of the game's top general managers, joined Durant in getting his contract extended.
The value of Presti's front-office acumen was on full display during the June draft, when he turned four draft picks outside the top 20 into center Cole Aldrich -- exactly the kind of unsung banger the Thunder will need in certain matchups down low -- and outside marksmen Morris Peterson (career 37.4 percent from three-point range) and Daequan Cook (35.8 percent) to help remedy the team's 25th-ranked three-point offense. (Not to mention three other decent, long-shot hopefuls drafted by OKC and the acquisition of a future first-round pick from the Clippers.)
WHAT WENT WRONG
The brain drain has begun
Presti and reigning Coach of the Year Scott Brooks lost their most valuable assistants this offseason. Just a few weeks ago, Rich Cho was hired to replace Kevin Pritchard as general manager of the Trail Blazers, his credentials as a salary-cap guru solidified by the Thunder's shrewd acquisition and subsequent contract extension for Thabo Sefolosha and the trade for Eric Maynor. And in June, the man many credit for the team's huge improvement on defense last year, assistant head coach Ron Adams, was hired away by Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls.
No more ambushes
Not really "wrong," but part of a tougher reality: The Thunder went from 23-win doormats to formidable playoff foes for the Lakers in just one season, taking the league by surprise in the process. Nobody is going to take Durant and his lightly this season.
Locking up Durant and Presti, coupled with the draft-day dealing, is the sign of an organization smart enough to retain the good and fix the vulnerable.
|B-||Portland Trail Blazers|
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Camby settles in
Fourteen-year veteran Marcus Camby is a superb fit with Portland's slow pace, deliberate half-court offense and coach Nate McMillan's ongoing desire for a rigorous defense that protects the rim. The Blazers were 10.5 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the court after coming over from the Clippers at the trade deadline last season, and even if Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla come back healthy this season, Camby can slide to power forward on occasion. His contract extension, signed during the playoffs in April (making it essentially an offseason move for our purposes), is expensive (about $21 million with another $5 million in incentives) but short term (two years).
The good glue of MatthewsA healthier roster
Giving $34 million over the next five years to last year's overachieving, undrafted Jazz rookie is steep, but Wesley Matthews (pictured) is another player tailor-made for McMillan's no-nonsense style. He won't need a lot of touches on offense and can defend the entire gamut of wing players.
Thirteen Blazers players combined to miss 311 games because of injury last season, the second most in the NBA behind the Warriors' 501. The odds of it happening again are astronomical.
WHAT WENT WRONG
A coup in the boardroom
After weeks of rumors and not-so-subtle messages (like the firing of his right-hand man, Tom Penn), Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard was let go on draft night. Maybe Pritchard is as arrogant as his detractors claim, but his roster-building -- except for the classic second-guessing that can be made about choosing Oden over Durant -- was close to impeccable. And now that billionaire owner Paul Allen and his minions have started meddling, who tells them to stop?
Reports of Rudy Fernandez being unhappy with his subsidiary role in Portland have been pervasive almost since the day the Spanish Olympian and Euroleague star came to the Blazers. He regressed while Jerryd Bayless developed last season and would seem to be the odd man out on a deep roster. Portland needs to move him (or Bayless) before the opener.
Allen can afford the pricey upgrades Camby and Matthews provide. But getting rid of Pritchard -- who made the erstwhile "Jail Blazers" respectable -- is a bad omen, even if he did find a capable replacement in Cho.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
|David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images|
Jefferson for Boozer
After losing top scorer and rebounder Carlos Boozer to Chicago, Utah adroitly regrouped by dealing for Jefferson (pictured), who is three years younger and is getting paid less annually on a shorter contract. Yes, there are legitimate questions about Jefferson's passing and defense (where Boozer, too, has had his problems). But he's also never had a decent supporting cast, let alone a point guard like Deron Williams or a versatile help defender like Andrei Kirilenko alongside him.
Bell for Matthews
Another ingenious plug-in for Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor. Instead of matching Portland's five-year, $34 million offer for last year's feel-good story in Matthews, O'Connor signed Raja Bell to a much cheaper, shorter deal of three years and $10 million. Bell, 33, is older and has less upside, but he remains a quality defender who has performed well deep into the playoffs and whose career 41.1-percent three-point field-goal accuracy also takes some of the sting out of Kyle Korver's departure.
Credit Paul Millsap for willingly coming off the bench behind Boozer last season and backing up his big contract with stellar play and no complaints. With Jefferson able to play some center, especially as Mehmet Okur recovers from his Achilles injury, Millsap will play more and the Jazz will be better for it.
WHAT WENT WRONG
A strip-mined roster
Despite O'Connor's agile recovery plans, the Jazz hemorrhaged too many players during the offseason. Starters Boozer and Matthews and a top reserve in Korver made up three of the top eight in Jerry Sloan's rotation. Add in the deadline trade of Ronnie Brewer and the uncertainty of Okur's return to full health, and the number of experienced hands that can be counted on is further diminished.
No upgrade behind Williams
Williams is more of a bruiser than a finesse-oriented point guard. His rugged frame is well-suited to Sloan's style of multiple picks on offense and plentiful fouls on defense -- as long as he stays healthy. It's a steep drop-off from Williams to Ronnie Price and Sundiata Gaines, but the Jazz stood pat with their backups through the draft and the first month of free agency. Sacrificing Maynor to get under the luxury-tax threshold last year could come back to haunt them.
This could be a straight "A" if Jefferson blossoms with better support, Bell hasn't lost too much and Butler sharpshooter Gordon Hayward is more NBA-ready than his body suggests. But Jefferson and Bell, in particular, are worthy gambles that cost less and are a better fit with the existing personnel.