Who took the biggest steps forward (and backward) in NBA free agency?
Aside from perhaps Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie—who appears content recycling Philly’s “garner picks, draft high, tank and repeat” strategy—every NBA front office has made an effort to improve its roster via free agency.
As a poignant example, the San Antonio Spurs traded away big man Tiago Splitter to free up enough cap space to court LaMarcus Aldridge. The Phoenix Suns pulled the trigger on a similar salary dump by moving Marcus Morris, Danny Granger and Reggie Bullock to Detroit in order to have the space for the former Texas Longhorn.
But San Antonio and head coach Gregg Popovich eventually came away with the prize and are the clear winners this off-season. Aldridge is one of just three players in the league who has averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds dating back to the 2013-14 season.
Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are the only other guys who have notched 20-10 for two straight seasons. Add in the retention of Kawhi Leonard on a max contract and Danny Green for a relative bargain (four years, $45 million), as well as commitments to return from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and the Spurs are absolutely loaded heading into next season.
Oh, right, they also landed veteran power forward David West on a minimum deal to help solidify depth and they still have a roster spot left to fill (perhaps with a veteran guard like Jameer Nelson or Jason Terry).
So which teams joined the Spurs by taking the biggest steps forward in their march to a championship? Conversely, which squads floundered through the off-season and fell back in the pack?
Taking Steps Forward
Retaining one of the best ‘three-and-D’ wing players on the market (restricted free agent Khris Middleton) and adding 25-year-old center Greg Monroe has Milwaukee on fans’ radars as a young team on the rise.
Monroe’s skill set clearly wasn’t a fit in Detroit, where Andre Drummond patrolled the painted area. And as a big man who doesn’t have the lateral quickness to defend the pick-and-roll as a power forward or block shots (career 0.6 swats per game), Monroe’s fit was seen as a bit of an enigma.
Clearly the Georgetown product’s mid-range game still needs a lot of fine-tuning. He’s been at his best offensively when he’s planted firmly in the post, but what team could maximize his interior scoring chops while simultaneously covering his complete lack of rim protection on defense? Well, the answer is where he ended up: the Bucks.
With a ridiculous amount of defensive length via Michael Carter-Williams, Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the perimeter defense in Milwaukee should be more than enough to cover Monroe’s weaknesses. Those three guys rarely get beat off the dribble, and even when they do, they have the wingspans necessary to recover in time. Add Jabari Parker’s potential as a stretch four and John Henson’s shot-blocking prowess and Monroe should be able to focus on maturing as an offensive stud once again. This young core could be something special.
Mark Cuban and super-recruiter Chandler Parsons weren’t messing around during the off-season, and the results netted Dallas two of the biggest names in free agency: DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews.
There are still big-time questions facing those pickups. Critics don’t believe Jordan can function offensively without an elite point guard like Chris Paul running the show. It’s also totally warranted to wonder how Matthews will recover from the torn Achilles he suffered last season—an injury that is incredibly difficult to bounce back from.
Still, Jordan has developed into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Matthews is one of the best three-point shooters in the game. Those are impactful moves even with the risks attached. Throw in J.J. Barea’s bargain two-year, $6 million deal and the Mavs could make huge strides next year. Now it’s just up to Rick Carlisle and the coaching staff to get the new pieces to gel.
Teams around the NBA are continuing to place emphasis on defensive improvement. It’s no shock that the Golden State Warriors (the top-ranked defensive team in the league) went on to win a title, after all.
The Raptors and head coach Dwane Casey were one such team looking to get better defensively. So while Toronto let Amir Johnson and Lou Williams walk as free agents, it retooled by signing DeMarre Carroll, Bismack Biyombo and Toronto-native Cory Joseph. All three of those additions have displayed defensive know-how throughout their careers, but the biggest prize is clearly Carroll.
The 28-year-old showed up big in the playoffs for Atlanta, particularly in the first two rounds. Against Brooklyn and Washington, Carroll combined to score 17.1 points per game on 52.5% shooting from the field and 43.7% from three-point range. He showed that he’s made huge improvements on the offensive end while maintaining his defensive tenacity. He’ll be a really solid complement alongside DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, especially if he can take pressure off their shoulders in the scoring category.
Taking Steps Backward
Sacramento whiffed on a variety of free agents before opting to bring in ornery point guard Rajon Rondo on a one-year deal that will pay the former All-Star $10 million. SI’s Ben Golliver hit the nail on the head with his analysis of the signing, calling it a marriage of convenience between a toxic player and a toxic team.
Just what exactly are the Kings trying to do here? It’s difficult to imagine Rondo had a variety of suitors in free agency, so why would Sacramento’s brain trust shell out $10 million for him? Especially since, statistically speaking, it already has a better floor general on the roster.
Even if Rondo returns to form, creates a rapport with DeMarcus Cousins and avoids a seemingly inevitable shouting match with head coach George Karl, he may just use the experience to springboard himself into a more lucrative, long-term deal elsewhere.
Add the befuddling signing of Marco Belinelli at three years, $19 million, and it’s difficult to see any long-term vision here from the franchise.
Los Angeles Clippers
Doc Rivers’ crew was already thin in the frontcourt before Jordan decided to pack his bags for Dallas. Now it appears small-ball is the Clippers’ only viable option.
Lance Stephenson (alarming regression in Charlotte) and Paul Pierce (age) are two wildcards at this juncture. If one of L.A.’s marquee stars—CP3 or Blake Griffin—misses time again due to injury, the Clips will be in big trouble.
Paul and Griffin could still keep this team competitive, but it’s no longer championship-caliber without DJ dominating the interior.
Portland Trail Blazers
If you take a glance at Portland’s 2014-15 starting five—Damian Lillard, Matthews, Nic Batum, Aldridge and Robin Lopez—the last man standing is the point guard out of Weber State. Even late addition Arron Afflalo left town to join the hapless New York Knicks.
The Trail Blazers tried to do some patchwork early by signing Al-Farouq Aminu to a four-year, $30 million deal, but that contract was met with ire and mockery from the Twittersphere. The 24-year-old is a good rebounder, but banking on his potential after five lackluster seasons feels like a lost cause.
There’s a lot more to like about the Ed Davis signing, provided that he has yet to find a favorable situation in the NBA. But this has swiftly become a rebuilding situation for Lillard and Co.
Long term that might not be a bad thing. A core of Lillard, Aldridge and Matthews still never seemed to have championship potential. But in the short term, this is a gigantic step backward for a team that may very well find itself out of the playoff picture in the loaded Western Conference.
More from Ben Leibowitz:
- Re-Picking the Historically Awful 2000 NBA Draft
- 2015 NBA Draft Grades for Each First-Round Pick
- Ranking the Best NBA Finals MVPs of All Time
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