Off-season grades: Southeast Division
With most of the summer already in the books, SI.com is grading each team's off-season performance as well as examining their best and worst moves. Today, Rob Mahoney breaks down the Southeast Division.
Best move: Nabbing Tiago Splitter for an irrelevant, top-55 protected draft pick. It pays to have cap room at the right time—and to have a long-standing relationship with a franchise looking to unload the salary of a quality player.
Worst move: Bidding high to acquire Tim Hardaway Jr., a player with no discernible record of passing or defending at an NBA level.
Analysis: In a way, the Hawks became the victim of their own shrewd negotiating in past summers. Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll both entered the off-season as unrestricted free agents just two years after coming to Atlanta. Both had significantly outperformed their modest contracts (Millsap earned $19 million over two years and Carroll just $5 million) and proven their value to the organization. Yet Atlanta was faced with a complicated proposition: Due to the fact that Millsap and Carroll had only been with the team for two years, the Hawks didn’t have full Bird rights for either player and would thus need to dip into their cap space to re-sign them at competitive rates.
There wasn’t the room. Signing two free agents of this caliber to market deals would have demanded breaking up the core of the team. Instead, the Hawks brought back the more indispensable player of the two (Millsap) after Carroll had committed to a contract elsewhere that would have been far out of their price range. One of the best, most prolific starting lineups in the league last season lost its go-to perimeter defender and beating heart.
Carroll won’t be easily replaced. Part of the effort to do so, however, came preemptively; weeks before Carroll agreed to join the Raptors, Hawks coach and newly named team president Mike Budenholzer traded the team’s first-round pick for Knicks wing Tim Hardaway Jr. You’d be hard-pressed to find a swingman less like Carroll. Hardaway is a problem defender who yearns to create and holds the ball much longer than he should. Carroll was effective for the Hawks precisely because he worked hard, channeled his energies well, and didn’t have any presumptions about role or touches. It’s going to take some serious developmental work before Hardaway looks like a piece that could fit comfortably in Budenholzer’s system, making him a strange acquisition even before considering that the Hawks gave up more to acquire him than most any other team would have.
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Whether Hardaway, Kent Bazemore, recent addition Justin Holiday, or a recovered Thabo Sefolosha ultimately winds up filling Caroll’s spot in the starting lineup, the Hawks know they’ll need to compensate for the difference elsewhere. Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Teague will all be integral in that effort. So, too, will Tiago Splitter— a quality two-way center on a bargain deal (Splitter will make $17.4 million over the next two seasons) who cost the Hawks no real asset to require. When San Antonio needed to clear Splitter’s salary from its books to make room for LaMarcus Aldridge, Atlanta jumped at the chance. Getting a player this good on a contract this friendly would likely not have been possible through other means. Only by way of the Spurs’ specific need could Atlanta land a third big who could support Millsap and Horford with stout defense in space and hard rolls to the rim.
Best move: Maintaining their well-balanced starting lineup by re-signing Goran Dragic (whose exit would have been a sunk cost disaster) and Dwyane Wade (who has been the face of the franchise since 2003).
Worst move: Failing to unload other flotsam for luxury tax savings and instead bailing early on second-year guard Shabazz Napier.
Analysis: There is an alternate version of Miami’s off-season that ended in disaster. The potential for the departure of Goran Dragic after only a few months with the team, Dwyane Wade’s defection after 12 years in South Beach, Luol Deng declining his player option to sign elsewhere, and Chris Bosh’s health taking a turn for the worst put the Heat in a precarious place. All, instead, worked out for the best. Dragic didn’t just re-sign but did so at a relative bargain on the front end of his deal. Wade was made whole with a one-year, $20 million contract. Deng picked up his option without so much as a stir and Bosh appears to be well on his way to a full recovery after last season’s blood clot scare.
All of that broke right for Miami, as did draft night. Most well-sourced mock drafts had Duke wing Justise Winslow slotted to go somewhere between the fourth pick in the draft and the seventh. Miami landed him at No. 10—a coup of a selection from a value perspective and a means to bring youth to a veteran roster. Winslow might not play big minutes in his rookie season. That won’t be a problem in the slightest if he eventually turns out to be the kind of big-time player many scouts suspect he might. We can’t yet assume that Winslow will be a star, though there’s something to be said for giving a smart, well-run franchise the right kind of raw materials. Prospects of this caliber don’t often fall into the lap of a team sitting patiently at No. 10.
Regardless if Winslow plays a significant, immediate role, Miami stands to be a noticeably deeper team this season. Better health alone would go a long way in providing that; few teams could survive the rash of injuries that cost Bosh 38 games, Wade 20, Deng and Whiteside 10 apiece, and a fully functional Dragic. A new season brings that group a cleaner bill of health, the full-time return of 2014 signee Josh McRoberts, and a few other savvy additions. Amar’e Stoudemire is a bothersome defender but could make good sense for Miami on the minimum. Gerald Green fulfills every bit of the one-way-player archetype, though his value as a spot scorer should give the Heat some nice punch off the bench. Considering how cost-conscious Miami was made to be by its expensive roster, these are solid—if also implicitly imperfect—gets.
To offset their summer spending, the Heat attempted to find takers for Chris Andersen’s $5 million salary and/or Mario Chalmers’s $4.3 million salary. Both are quality players, still, yet more costly for Miami due to its luxury tax positioning than they would be to some other team. The Heat never found a taker. As a more desperate means of trimming its tax bill, Miami ended up trading 2014 draftee Shabazz Napier. This isn’t exactly a devastating loss. Napier is a 24-year-old point guard coming off a rookie season in which he showed little demonstrable value. What the Heat sacrifice, however, is the ability to see Napier’s development through—the luxury of discovering whether his shooting and confidence off the dribble could be translated into something lasting. That’s worth more than a season of Chalmers or Andersen in terms of absolute value. Yet the tax compelled Miami to bail on Napier in a deal that returned no real basketball assets.
Miami will live. This entire roster has been structured to make a run at the present, positioning the Heat to compete for the conference finals or better in the case that Cleveland falters. Napier, then, is a mere concession to appease the Heat’s need for both basketball immediacy and financial relief.
Worst move: Losing Paul Pierce and the shot creation, lineup versatility, and leadership he provides.
Analysis: This was a relatively tame summer for the Wizards, who will return much of the same roster under revised guiding principles. We can expect more small ball now that head coach Randy Wittman seems finally to have relented to it; spacing the floor with shooters made the Wiz a different, more potent team in the playoffs, a jolt that should help this roster of shooters and athletes get where it has long needed to go.
The kink in that plan is the loss of Paul Pierce—the savvy wing-turned-stretch-four who made Washington’s transition possible. Pierce had the strength to make him a credible physical challenger to opposing bigs; bodying up Pierce is never as fruitful an endeavor as it might seem. Pierce also defends the floor well after years of employing zone principles in Boston, supporting his physical ability with conceptual understanding and learned rhythm. Many stretch fours do their teams a disservice by defending like a wing. Pierce was a clear and effective exception.
Fortunately, Washington acquired a player who just last season fit that same, uncommon mold. Jared Dudley was a vital cog in the Bucks’ defense on similar grounds: Body type and know-how made Dudley a candidate to shift up, positionally, without suffering the kind of liability that would offset his floor-spacing value. In no way is Dudley the creator, the facilitator, or even the shot-maker that Pierce was. If you squint, though, you’ll find a player who occupies a similar space on the floor, fares even better defensively, and converted 38.5% of his three-pointers last season.
How healthy and effective Dudley will be this season is an open question. Washington acquired him via trade at no real cost but will have to endure his recovery from back surgery (still expected to sideline him another month or two) and any lingering pain or complications thereafter. If the procedure addressed Dudley’s herniated disc successfully, Washington should be positioned to continue apace with the former Buck and Otto Porter Jr. functioning as combo forwards. Otherwise, Washington might need to experiment with alternatives or revisit their more traditional alignment.
The signing of Alan Anderson and Gary Neal suggests that the Wizards would take the former option seriously. A team can’t go small on any kind of consistent basis without the necessary wing talent. Anderson and Neal (along with rookie Kelly Oubre) bolster those ranks with varying skills and positional flexibility. Bringing back Drew Gooden, who gave the Wizards serviceable minutes last season as a rebounder and perimeter-shooting big, also serves the same end. Washington was due for a conceptual update. Its roster now seems well on its way, even if the prospect of replacing Pierce with Dudley and co. is in itself a net loss.
Best move: Moving on from Lance Stephenson, who had been an outright disaster in his single season as a Hornet.
Analysis: Charlotte continues to scrap desperately—and at times too desperately—for the East’s eighth seed. Such is an ignoble aim in a championship-or-bust league, but it’s one the Hornets have chosen for themselves all the same. The approach isn’t without its merits; every unproven franchise has to start somewhere and most don’t have the luxury of playing the Sixers-style long game. Playoff qualification is as reasonable a goal as any for a franchise looking to make gradual, distinguishable improvement in season over season.
Where matters get more debatable are in the Hornets’ specific methods. Committing to be competitive here and now is all well and good until it leads a franchise to draft a purportedly NBA-ready big man rather than accept a lucrative offer of future draft picks. The equation gets dicey, too, when dealing away the team’s own 2014 lottery pick (Noah Vonleh) and a quality young player (Gerald Henderson) in exchange for a quality wing contributor (Nicolas Batum) on an expiring deal. Now, not only does Charlotte have a burden of proof to its ownership and its fans, but also to Batum in light of his impending free agency. Giving up lasting assets to acquire a player like Batum creates the expectation of his retention. That can manifest in overpaying or short-order departure if all doesn’t go according to plan—an unfortunate reality for many teams in Charlotte’s position.
More clear was the need to trade Lance Stephenson as soon as possible for the health of the locker room. The literal return for Stephenson wasn’t terribly important; Matt Barnes was flipped for the interesting but unproven Jeremy Lamb and Spencer Hawes, while potentially useful, is by no means a significant get. Benefit comes, instead, through absence. Stephenson’s play and body language had become a drag that the Hornets couldn’t bear. To shuffle him along the way is a release in itself that could help Charlotte to regain its quiet, unassuming competence. Adding Tyler Hansbrough and Jeremy Lin in supporting roles works toward that same ideal.
Locking in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a four-year extension, too, feeds into that ethos. Some will get hung up on Charlotte paying $52 million to a minimal scorer without fully realizing the many ways that Kidd-Gilchrist has made himself indispensable. Defenders like him don’t come around often. Persistence, athleticism, and spatial intelligence make MKG one of the best all-around defenders working—a preferred counter to elite scorers with an ability to guard (and rebound) bigger than his default position. That’s a player worth building around and, given Kidd-Gilchrist’s commitment to building out his game, one worth investing in.
Best move: Hiring Scott Skiles to sort out a disorganized defense.
Worst move: Passing on a reasonable deal to bring back then-restricted free agent Kyle O’Quinn and facilitating his exit via sign-and-trade without getting back any assets beyond a modest trade exception.
Analysis: Over the last three seasons, the Magic have collected a mess of young talent without much sense of internal order. Any fit thus far has been shaky; Orlando’s players haven’t yet learned to apply their skills in a cohesive way, yielding the fourth-worst offense and sixth-worst defense in the league last season. Intrigue, on its own, doesn’t guarantee wins.
This is why the Magic have entrusted the next stage of their development as a team to taskmaster coach Scott Skiles. It took all of one season for Skiles to elevate Chicago’s defense from league-average to league-elite in the mid-2000s. Ditto for his near-identical impact in Milwaukee over his first two years at the helm. Skiles has a way of instilling a young team with a sense of defensive responsibility and identity—both of which are very much needed in Orlando.
It should be especially interesting to see what Skiles makes of an offense short on standout defenders in its frontcourt. Nikola Vucevic returns as does a re-signed Tobias Harris—neither of whom has been in any way an effective NBA defender to this point in their careers. Aaron Gordon, athletically gifted and intuitive though he may be, has just 47 games under his belt and a malleable defensive skill set. Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, and veteran addition C.J. Watson give the Magic a nice trio of pressure guards, though few defensive systems can be anchored sufficiently from the outside in.
Rookie wing Mario Hezonja also seems to have all the makings of both a brilliant NBA scorer and the bee in Skiles’s bonnet. Players of flighty defensive attention and spotty offensive discipline don’t tend to be Skiles favorites. As such, it’s possible for Hezonja to be both a compelling prospect and a virtual irrelevant for the Magic should Skiles trust primarily in the same kinds of players he has previously. The same concern could be extended to Harris given that Skiles didn’t seem to be a fan when the two were both in Milwaukee, though as the coach of the Magic, Skiles now has $64 million reasons to find Harris’s game more appealing.
In all, Skiles arrival makes this a formative off-season for the Magic—even if many of their roster modifications were subtle. The one point of confusion in it all is why Orlando felt compelled go give away decent players; important as depth chart clarity may be, was it really necessary to trade away Maurice Harkless to Portland for nothing and facilitate Kyle O’Quinn’s exit to New York?