Offseason grades: Southeast Division
With most of the summer already in the books, SI.com is grading each team's offseason performance as well as examining their best and worst moves. Chris Mannix reviewed the Atlantic Division on Monday. Today, Ben Golliver breaks down the Southeast.
Best move: Re-signing Dwyane Wade.
Worst move: Losing LeBron James.
Analysis: The good news: Heat president Pat Riley displayed impeccable crisis management skills. The bad news: The crisis he faced is one that no executive, no matter how talented, could reasonable salvage in one summer. Losing LeBron James is a death blow to the Heat’s championship hopes, and his defection to the Cavaliers brings revised expectations to South Beach, which has played host to four straight Finals.
Riley deserves a lot of credit for the moves he made following James’ departure, even if he wasn’t able to sweet talk the four-time MVP into staying around. Miami inked the aging Dwyane Wade into a reasonable, short-term contract ($31 million over two years) and locked in Chris Bosh for the next five years, carrying the All-Star forward through his prime. Luol Deng will also hop aboard as a James replacement; while a big downgrade, Deng boasts plenty of playoff experience and is capable of playing huge minutes. The pass-happy Josh McRoberts was one of the summer’s better under-the-radar names, and he will bring a new dynamic to a Heat frontcourt that has been patched together in recent years. Fans of potential will also welcome rookie guard Shabazz Napier, who made quite the name for himself at the NCAA level.
Finishing with a top-four seed in the East in 2014-15 is an achievable goal, but so much more was expected. That whole “Not three, not four…” speech turned out to be true, just not as James initially intended.
As Kevin Durant wisely observed during USA Basketball’s training camp in Las Vegas: “One guy can change it all.”
Best move: Drafting Adreian Payne.
Worst move: Signing Thabo Sefolosha for three years.
Analysis: With both Miami and Indiana crashing back to Earth, this summer could have been a time for bold investments for the Hawks, whose salary cap sheet is completely lacking in any major deadweight salary. Instead, Atlanta chose the quiet route, trusting that its core group of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver will be enough to compete in an Eastern Conference that looks headed for parity at the top.
All of the Hawks’ moves qualify as “minor.” Their biggest outlay was $12 million over three years to Thabo Sefolosha, who established himself as a reliable defender and an unreliable offensive threat over the last five-plus seasons with the Thunder. At 30 and coming off of a poor shooting season, Sefolosha has some bounce back potential, especially given that he’s moving to a weaker conference. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will welcome Sefolosha’s experience, size, defensive mindset, and ability to contribute occasionally on offense without needing the ball, although fully guaranteeing the three-year deal will look regrettable if Sefolosha continues to decline. After trading away Lou Williams to the Raptors in a salary dump, the Hawks spent $4 million over two seasons on Kent Bazemore, a 2013 Summer League star still searching for the right rotation fit. Bazemore should provide some punch and energy off Atlanta’s bench, even if his bargain bin salary fairly represents his current abilities.
If there’s one newcomer to get excited about, it’s rookie forward Adreian Payne, selected with the No. 15 pick in June’s draft. The 6-foot-10 power forward averaged 12.5 points and seven rebounds in Summer League, and he seems to be a nice fit in Atlanta’s preferred spread offense. Payne will offer some frontcourt depth behind Horford and Millsap; at 23, he looks ready to contribute as a role player in the short-term.
Best move: Adding Lance Stephenson on a team-friendly contract.
Worst move: Losing Josh McRoberts to the Heat.
Analysis: Riding a wave of positivity after a popular name change and just the second postseason appearance in franchise history, the Hornets entered the summer anxious to make a splash. Like many of their conference foes, Charlotte was able to look around the new landscape and wonder, “Why not us?” With a well-respected coach in Steve Clifford at the helm and cap space to burn, the Hornets eyed a major step forward in their multi-year rebuilding project, which began in 2011-12 with a seven-win season.
Despite their best efforts — which included an eye-popping max offer to restricted free agent Gordon Hayward and the signing of Lance Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million contract that includes a team option — it’s not yet clear whether owner Michael Jordan was able to take his team to the next level. The Jazz elected to retain Hayward, even at the $63 million price tag, leaving Stephenson as the highest-profile newcomer. The 23-year-old guard brings tenacity, name recognition and more than a little baggage, but Charlotte did well to avoid overpaying him and keep his contract at a reasonable length to help keep his eccentricities in check. A strong auxiliary option in Indiana, Stephenson will enter a somewhat similar situation in Charlotte, where No. 1 scoring option Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker can both do damage. How Stephenson fits in, and how much his responsibilities ramp up in his new digs, will ultimately determine the success of the Hornets’ summer.
Losing Josh McRoberts — a skilled passer and defender — removes some of the gleam for the Hornets, who attempted to patch up the hole by signing Marvin Williams. The veteran forward is more of a three than a four, but he will likely log minutes at both spots given the youth of Clifford’s other power forward options, 2013 lottery pick Cody Zeller and 2014 lottery pick Noah Vonleh.
Best move: Drafting Aaron Gordon.
Worst move: Signing Ben Gordon.
Analysis: “Befuddling” is really the best word to describe the Magic. The phrase “spinning their wheels” doesn’t really apply here, as it implies the organization is clearly attempting to move forward. Really, Orlando seems more like a spinning top, aimlessly rotating around in circles without a clear set of guiding principles.
Clearly, the organization’s top priority is accumulating young talent, and they did that by using lottery picks on Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. In Gordon, they added a freak athlete who has All-Star potential down the road. In Payton, they addressed a glaring need at the one, tabbing one of the draft’s late risers as their potential point guard of the future. But even those picks came with questions. Should Orlando really have passed on both Marcus Smart and Dante Exum with their first pick? How far away is Gordon, 18, from being an impact player, and how many more years can the Magic afford to wait for one of their youngsters to truly break out?
Unfortunately, those aren’t even the serious questions. The most confounding decisions include the signing of Ben Gordon, a non-factor for years, to a insanely generous contract. What possible value does Gordon have on a team so deep into its rebuilding? Then, there’s the trade that sent Arron Afflalo to the Nuggets for a less-than-inspiring return package. Afflalo was a borderline All-Star candidate last season who can shoot the ball and play quality perimeter defense; after months of Afflalo rumors, Orlando acquired only a modest return on that asset. The Magic’s other big move — a four-year contract to stretch big man Channing Frye — is totally lacking in upside and will presumably cut into the roster’s young players at that position. What’s the plan here, exactly: are they trying to win, are they trying to develop, or are they trying to save a little face after back-to-back rough seasons?
Analysis: This summer set up as a potential danger zone for the Wizards, a team that surprised many observers by advancing to the conference semis in the weaker East. Facing contract decisions on key players after such an anomalous and positive campaign can set up a team for failure, as investing too heavily in career-year performances can sink a franchise’s long-term outlook. Washington looks to have reached the right conclusions on both of its biggest free agents: center Marcin Gortat and small forward Trevor Ariza. Finding a suitable replacement for Gortat was going to be essentially impossible in a barren big man free agency landscape, so making him the top priority was a logical call. Centers are always costly, and Washington plunked down $60 million over five fully-guaranteed years. The per-year price is fair; the only concern is whether the Polish Hammer will hold up through the end of such a long deal. Given a lack of available alternatives and limited depth behind Gortat, biting the bullet on the fifth year wasn’t the worst outcome.
Allowing Ariza to leave for the Rockets likely involved some cringing, given how well he shot the ball from outside last year, but the Wizards have Otto Porter waiting in the wings, and they were able to snap up Paul Pierce on an affordable contract as a stop-gap solution. Washington now looks covered in the present and the future, and it avoids owing Ariza big money, which could prove helpful when it eventually needs to extend Bradley Beal and make a decision on Nene’s future.
Washington’s other moves fit in nicely with a “gear up to make some noise” approach. In particular, the additions of Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair to a frontcourt that badly needed depth look like sensible and affordable moves. All told, there is plenty to like about Washington’s summer, and nothing to truly hate.