SALT LAKE CITY—If there was ever any doubt that San Antonio—San Antonio—was the most desirable free-agent destination in the NBA, the events of the past week put it to rest. Not only did the Spurs convince LaMarcus Aldridge, arguably the best power forward in basketball, to leave an extra year and $30 million on the table, outdueling the Trail Blazers and late surging Phoenix to sign the big man, but they turned around and talked David West—who walked away from a $12 million contract in Indiana—to surrender the maximum amount of money he could and sign a one-year, $1.4 million deal to come off the bench in Texas.
Such is the power of Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and the rest of the San Antonio machine. Instead of rebuilding in a post Tim Duncan/Manu Ginobili era (both have declared their intentions to re-sign), the Spurs have suddenly reloaded with an All-Star, floor-spacing, post-pounding big in Aldridge and a veteran power forward who made 48.9% of his shots from 15-19 feet, per NBA.com, in West. To call San Antonio anything less than a co-favorite next season would be foolish.
San Antonio was, by far, this week's biggest story—and the most popular one at Utah’s return to the summer league ranks this week—but it was far from the only one. Some thoughts on the wild start to NBA free agency.
Hey, look: A good off-season in Dallas!
[Editor's note: DeAndre Jordan reneged on his commitment to sign with the Mavericks and re-signed with the Clippers early Thursday morning.]
It’s become something of a summer tradition: The Mavericks go after the big names; the big names say no thanks. From Deron Williams to Chris Paul to Dwight Howard, Mark Cuban and Co. have had problems selling free agents on the Mavericks experience. It was always perplexing. Great owner, smart G.M., Hall of Fame-caliber coach; what was Dallas missing? They were able to outmaneuver Houston and land Chandler Parsons last summer, but as the calendar turned towards July there was little reason to believe the Mavs would be more than an outside threat for the marquee names.
Then, just like that, the Mavericks swooped in to land DeAndre Jordan and suddenly Dallas is a free-agent destination again. The Jordan signing was preceded by the Mavs locking up Wesley Matthews with a four-year deal, adding a three-point shooter and an elite perimeter defender to the backcourt. Achilles injuries are scary—see Billups, Chauncey; Bryant, Kobe—and there will probably be concerns about Matthews's explosiveness and lateral quickness until deep into the season, but Matthews was 60 games into his second straight strong season in Portland when his Achilles blew, and at 28, youth is on his side.
Jordan, however, is the big fish. Whatever reasons Jordan had for defecting from Los Angeles—a frosty relationship with Paul, a desire to be featured more offensively, the pull of returning to his home state, Parsons's high school crush-like courtship, a combination of all of the above—the Mavs scored big here. Jordan is arguably the NBA’s best interior defender and a rebounding machine. He will give Dallas’s defense (No. 20 last season) and rebounding (No. 23) a jolt. He’s an in-his-prime Tyson Chandler who will clean up many of Dirk Nowitzki’s defensive mistakes.
Will Jordan regret his decision? With Jordan, the Clippers were right there among the best teams in the NBA, a title contender for years to come. The addition of Paul Pierce shored up the small forward position and if anyone could resurrect Lance Stephenson, it was Doc Rivers. Dallas is good, but as of today its starting point guard is Raymond Felton. The Mavs are hot after Jeremy Lin, but Jordan will learn quickly the easy buckets he picked up from Paul won’t come quite so easily from someone else. As for an enhanced role in the offense, well, Jordan will have to devote significant time this off-season developing his post moves and even more on his free throw shooting to bump it above the eyeball gouging 39.7% he shot last season.
A byproduct of Dallas’s off-season haul: I’m told the Mavs now believe they are legitimate contenders in next summer’s Kevin Durant sweepstakes. Quite the turnaround in Big D.
Big decisions loom in L.A.
Many have weighed in on the Clippers' disastrous off-season, but none more succinctly than J.J. Redick, who was asked to grade L.A.’s off-season during an appearance on Bleacher Report Radio.
“F. Is there an F-minus?“ Redick said. "Listen, we had one priority this summer, and that was to re-sign DJ, and we missed out on that. Barring some miracle, the makeup of our team is completely different now.
“He was such an integral part of what we did, not just defensively, but offensively with the screening, his rolling, his offensive rebounds. His presence down low essentially made teams either commit to the three-point line when Blake [Griffin] or Chris [Paul] penetrated, or commit to him, and that either opened up lobs to him or threes for guys like me and Jamal [Crawford] and Matt [Barnes].
• MORE NBA: Free agent tracker | Grading every deal | Top FA still available
“So he was a huge part of what we did and missing out and having him leave for Dallas gives us a failing grade.”
Wow. Unfiltered truth from a Clippers player—one with two years remaining on his contract, too. Redick is dead on, by the way. Jordan is irreplaceable. Asking Blake Griffin to log heavy minutes at center is a terrible idea and there is no one on the roster that can come close to doing what Jordan does. The Clippers will scramble, perhaps replacing Jordan with JaVale McGee, maybe flip Jamal Crawford for Brendan Haywood’s contract, which could then be traded for something else. Whatever. The plain truth is the loss of Jordan is crippling, at least in the context of the Clippers being conference contenders.
Which begs the question: Could Doc Rivers turn the roster over? Which, translated, means, could Rivers look to trade Paul? Paul is 30. He has two full years left on his contract and a player option for a third. He is still one of the top-three point guards in the NBA. His value is sky high. It would take an unbelievable offer to extract Paul from L.A....an offer like, say, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.
This isn’t a rumor. At least not yet. But several NBA-types I have come across in recent weeks have posed this hypothetical: Paul for Irving—which team says no? Irving is an All-Star and the best young point guard this side of Stephen Curry. And he is only going to get better. But if you are the Cavs, you are looking at a five-year window to win championships. And you have to expect, perhaps dread, that you are going to get San Antonio in the Finals. Which player, over the next few years, is a bigger asset?
For the Clippers it’s a no-brainer. You get Irving who, at 23, can grow alongside Blake Griffin, 26. You reboot the team without losing much talent. And you head into the Summer of Durant (heretofore known as S.O.D.) with an All-Star point guard and power forward just entering their respective primes. Makes for a heck of a presentation.
It’s an interesting scenario. I wonder what LeBron James thinks.
Strange times in Sacramento
It was a weird week for the Kings, who watched Monta Ellis and Wesley Matthews say thanks, but no thanks to bigger offers and sign elsewhere, bid against themselves in signing Rajon Rondo to a one-year, $10 million pact and were swindled by Sam Hinkie and Philly in a deal that effectively shipped Nik Stauskas—last year’s lottery pick—a future first-round pick and swap rights for two more for the cap space needed to sign Rondo and Kosta Koufos.
The word you are looking for is ‘Huh?’
The Kings need to settle on a rebuilding plan and stick to it. Splurging on a few veteran free agents—or at least trying to—just to be competitive when you move into a new building is incredibly stupid. Vlade Divac is an intelligent guy but there is a steep learning curve when it comes to running an NBA team. Consider: After the draft, Divac said the Kings took Willie Cauley-Stein over Emmanuel Mudiay in part because Mudiay refused to work out for Sacramento. What? Denver didn’t work out Mudiay, but G.M. Tim Connelly and coach Mike Malone were practically dancing through LoDo when they saw Mudiay still on the board at No. 7—and they didn’t work him out, either.
There could be a bigger issue with Cauley-Stein. DraftExpress.com reported before the draft that teams were nervous about Cauley-Stein’s injury history, specifically his surgically repaired ankle. That report was dead on. One lottery team took him off its board completely. Two more told me their doctors medically cleared Cauley-Stein to be drafted—but just barely. Foot and ankle injuries have become what ACL injuries used to be, particularly with big men. If Cauley-Stein’s past problems come back, it will severely hurt Sacramento’s rebuilding effort, more so if Mudiay develops into the star many believe he can be.
But back to the front office. Vivek Ranadive will always be loved locally as the man who stripped the franchise from the Maloof’s and kept the team in Sacramento. But right now he has turned the team into a laughingstock. First he runs off Mike Malone, who had cracked the code that is DeMarcus Cousins and was actually winning until he lost Cousins to viral meningitis for a few weeks early in the season. Then Chris Mullin and Pete D’Allessandro were moved out. He brings in George Karl, empowers Divac, then is somehow surprised when Karl pushes his own agenda. He then attempts to undermine them both when, according to Yahoo! Sports, he explores bringing in John Calipari to run the whole thing.
Here’s what great NBA owners do: They hire smart people—then they get the hell out of their way. San Antonio’s Peter Holt is the best example. Clay Bennett in Oklahoma City, Wyc Grousbeck in Boston and Les Alexander in Houston are, too. The modern owner wants to be Mark Cuban—visible, hands on, the public face of the franchise. But Cuban is unique. There may never be another Cuban. Moreover, Cuban has Don Nelson and Rick Carlisle working for him, and lets them make the basketball decisions. Until Ranadive learns how to run a successful organization, the Kings will never be one.
Next step for the Celtics
It had to have been a maddening couple of weeks for Celtics G.M. Danny Ainge, who made trade offer after trade offer on draft night only to be rebuffed by everyone, then became basically a bystander during free agency. The Celtics did land Amir Johnson, who is an upgrade over Brandon Bass and comes to town basically on a one-year deal. And Ainge plucked David Lee from Golden State for Gerald Wallace, flipping a player who did nothing last season for one that could start. Lee will slide right into the Jared Sullinger/Kelly Olynyk/Tyler Zeller/Johnson frontcourt rotation and, if history is any indication, will be more productive than all of them. Plus, Lee’s $15.5 million expiring contract could be a nice chip for Boston to play with at the trade deadline, in case an All-Star suddenly becomes available.
Boston had hoped to have more to show for the draft picks they have stockpiled the last few years, but this is the hand they have been dealt. Now, Ainge has to show his drafting chops. Radio hosts and talking heads bemoan being in NBA purgatory—that middle of the pack range where the likelihood of landing a difference maker in the draft significantly diminishes—but guess what: Those players are there. A big reason the Bucks were appealing to Greg Monroe this off-season is because the long-limbed talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo was plucked by Milwaukee GM John Hammond at No. 15 in 2013. Draymond Green (No. 32 in ’12) was a huge reason Golden State celebrated a championship last month. The future of the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard, went No. 15 in 2011.
For Boston, the next step is identifying those diamonds in the rough and developing them. That means second-year swingman James Young needs to go from shooting prospect to a complete player. That means rookie Terry Rozier—a surprising pick at No. 16—needs to pan out. You need stars to win championships, no question. But to acquire said stars via trade or to lure them in free agency, you need to fill out the roster with desirable players first. Ainge has a strong history when it comes to drafting; this is his chance to really shine.
One other note about Boston: A few years ago, when the Celtics were taking first-round picks from the Nets and Clippers, the value of those picks was pretty high. It was believed then that Boston would have little trouble packaging those picks down the road and turning them into a veteran piece or a high lottery pick. But one G.M. told me recently that he felt the first-round pick bubble was going to burst, and the events of draft night—specifically Grievis Vasquez, a backup point guard, fetching a first-round pick for Toronto and Tim Hardaway Jr. netting a first-rounder for New York—reinforces that thinking. There is still plenty of value in a top-10 pick. Beyond that, though, the value may not be what it once was.
• Utah should compete for a playoff spot next season. Before twisting an ankle late in his summer league debut, second-year guard Dante Exum racked up 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in a matchup with Boston’s Marcus Smart, showing an aggressiveness going to the rim that he seemed to lack last year. The Jazz have an enviable young core and a coach, Quin Snyder, who knows how to develop it.
• The Bucks refuted a report earlier this week that head coach Jason Kidd would replace John Hammond as the team’s G.M. Lets hope they mean it. Hammond is one of the most respected executives in the NBA who has done a terrific job rebuilding the Bucks.
• Speaking of Milwaukee, are we getting close to wondering if the Bucks could be moved out of town? Negotiations between the team and the state over public funding have reached an impasse and team president Peter Feigin warned lawmakers that if a deal isn’t reached soon, the NBA—which has a buy back provision in the Bucks' purchase agreement to purchase the team if an arena deal isn’t reached by a certain date—will move the team out of town. For its part, the NBA seems fine letting that statement hang out there—an email to NBA spokesman Mike Bass requesting clarification on the league’s position was not returned.
• Dan Gilbert is worth close to $5 billion, per Forbes, and owns a team in a league that negotiated a very owner friendly CBA and has billions of television revenue about to flow in. No one is going to sympathize with Gilbert for having to pay a hefty luxury tax bill. But he is going to pay a hefty luxury tax bill. Give Gilbert credit: He’s sparing no expense in making sure the Cavaliers win.
• The NBA fined Mark Cuban $25,000 for publicly commenting on the soon-to-be-announced signings of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews this week. I have no idea why they NBA cares about teams commenting on deals everyone in the world knows are happening. These are agreements players are talking about in interviews and on social media. It makes zero sense.
• All quiet on the Joe Johnson trade front. The Nets had preliminary talks with the Grizzlies and Cavaliers about a deal, but those talks went nowhere, per a source. Brooklyn did speak to Cleveland last week but its most recent conversation wasn't about Johnson--it was about acquiring Sasha Kaun, the 30-year old Russian center who is interested in playing in the NBA next season. Cleveland owns Kaun's rights; Brooklyn is interested in acquiring them.
• Good to see Danny Ferry talking about the situation in Atlanta, his now former team, in this interview with NBATV. Ferry’s not a racist. I don’t know him well, but I have not come across anyone in the league who believes he is. He made some unfortunate comments. He owned them. He paid the price. Bet on Ferry—who is in Salt Lake City for summer league—winding up with a front office job sooner than later. And bet that team will benefit from it.