NBA off-season grades: Duncan's departure won't soften Spurs' grip on Southwest
- While the loss of Tim Duncan could drop the Spurs from title contention, their stronghold on the Southwest Division remains intact on the strength of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
With most of the NBA summer already in the books, SI.com is grading each team’s off-season performance and examining their best and worst moves. Today, we take a close look at the Southwest Division, which will take on a different look with Tim Duncan retiring, Anthony Davis returning to full health and Dwight Howard moving on from Houston to Atlanta.
Best move: Small-market, big fishing. Whether or not you think Mike Conley is making too much money, the Grizzlies’ off-season began and ended with keeping the top point guard on the market in place. Whether or not you think Chandler Parsons is making too much money, finally addressing the team’s eternal need for a small forward—with Conley doing the recruiting, no less—is a victory. There’s no telling how unstable things could have gotten in Memphis had Conley bolted. Sometimes you have to spend to stay relevant, and the Grizzlies opening up the checkbook should do exactly that. — Jeremy Woo
Worst move: Putting off the rebuild. Staying relevant and making the playoffs every year is a noble goal, especially for a small market team like the Grizz. But Conley is making huge money at a loaded position, Parsons is injury prone, and Marc Gasol is also making beaucoup bucks on the wrong side of 30 while dealing with his own injury issues. I never want to see the Grit N' Grind Grizzlies end (and neither does this kid from the greatest NBA gif ever), but Memphis will eventually need to look hard at rebuilding a team that still struggles to play modern NBA basketball. Making big signings could put off the rebuild for longer than what’s ideal. — Rohan Nadkarni
The Skinny: Memphis’s summer didn’t receive enough positive attention for two major reasons: 1) Mike Conley never seemed all that serious about leaving so the basketball community at large never really dwelled on just how screwed the Grizzlies would have been if their point guard bounced, and 2) Conley’s quiet return, even at a max contract number, was immediately overshadowed by free agents like Kevin Durant and Al Horford, whose decisions to change teams rather than stay put shook up their respective conferences.
Make no mistake, the Grizzlies would have been in super duper trouble had Conley not agreed to stay on a five-year, $140+ million contract. Memphis would have been stuck turning over the point guard keys to rookie Wade Baldwin or chasing a veteran downgrade in free agency. Their experienced frontline pairing of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph would have needed to build rapport with a new floor general after years of getting fed by the affable Conley. And Chandler Parsons almost certainly wouldn’t have chosen to sign in Memphis given the organization’s dim outlook sans Conley. In short, Memphis would have had a huge hole at the one, another huge hole at the three, and a four/five pairing whose effectiveness easily could have taken a major step back. Oof, oof, and off.
Instead, the Grizzlies did what the Thunder and Hawks could not do: keep their guy by throwing bags of long-term money at him. With that mission accomplished, they then turned their attention to recruiting Parsons, who when healthy is a perfect positional fit given his shooting, secondary playmaking skills, and two-way game. After years of striking out in pursuit of wing talent and floor-stretching options, Memphis took a calculated risk by paying Parsons $94 million over four years after he missed a quarter of last season with a knee injury. While Parsons’s health might have scared off many teams, Memphis needs to make the most out of the Randolph/Gasol golden years and it has very, very little else on its wings at this point. If Parsons stays healthy, the Grizzlies should have one of the best starting lineups in the West and, given Memphis’s roster life cycle, that’s enough at this point to justify the investment.
The Grizzlies’ other moves were, obviously, much less expensive: they signed forward James Ennis and guard Andrew Harrison, while also adding Baldwin and Deyonta Davis through the draft. First-time coach David Fizdale will welcome the newcomers as they bring some much-needed youth to the organization’s talent pipeline.
By moving on from Dave Joerger in favor of Fizdale, a former Heat assistant, the Grizzlies set themselves up for a transition season. By keeping Conley, however, the franchise avoided a radical transformation and handed over a solid, proven core to its new coach.
Much like Portland, who spent big to keep its up-and-coming roster intact, Memphis is well-positioned to capitalize if second-tier teams like San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Clippers regress in the standings after taking some offseason hits. The Grizzlies’ relatively quiet summer turned out to be a pretty good one. — Ben Golliver
Best move: Adopt-a-Warrior. Andrew Bogut. Harrison Barnes. Seth Curry. Not quite the 73–win Warriors, but the Mavericks stand to stay competitive in the West, even if they aren’t getting much younger. At some point you gotta respect Mark Cuban’s commitment to staying afloat with Dirk, who’s now 38. Bogut looked revitalized in the Olympics, and Barnes is almost surely closer to his early-2015 self than what we saw in the Finals. It’s not a totally sunny outlook in Dallas, but it’s not a dumpster fire. — J.W.
Worst move: Not holding a top free agent hostage. You'd think the Mavs would have learned from last year and invaded the house of a top free agent and squatted there until they signed on the dotted line. Instead, they picked up the scraps the Warriors brushed off the table to make room for Kevin Durant. In all seriousness, Dallas didn't really have a bad move this off-season. Is Barnes really going to be a max player? What does max player even mean anymore? Barnes is a nice injection of youth to an old roster, and Dirk’s golden parachute was a nice touch from Cuban. — R.N.
The Skinny: Don’t let the Mavericks’ most polarizing and attention-grabbing off-season signing overshadow their many other under-discussed quality moves. Yes, that’s much easier said than done.
Giving small forward Harrison Barnes $94+ million over four years is the type of deal that is guaranteed to melt the Internet. Barnes never posted an above-average Player Efficiency Rating during his four years in Golden State, he famously faltered on numerous occasions during the 2015 and 2016 postseason, and his personality screams “complementary guy” rather than “max player.”
Nevertheless, his decision not to sign an extension last fall paid off handsomely this summer once Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was desperate to find a replacement for Chandler Parsons at the three. If both players are healthy, swapping Parsons for Barnes is a clear downgrade, leaving Dallas with a shooting guard in Wesley Matthews and a small forward in Barnes who are both limited playmakers and need to be set up to contribute offensively.
Look past Barnes’s mega-offer, and the very real possibility that he fails to live up to his new contract number, and you will find a number of savvy moves. For starters, Dallas was able to bring back Deron Williams on a one-year, $9 million deal—a low-risk, budget-friendly contract that looks even better given that he just posted 14/6 in a contract year. Yes, Williams missed nearly 20 games last year, but he fit in well enough to help get Dallas into the postseason.
Next, Dallas was able to take care of an important piece of business by re-upping Dirk Nowitzki on a two-year, $50 million contract. While Nowitzki has slipped noticeably from his prime years, he’s still providing reliable, efficient production as a lead offensive option while commanding plenty of extra defensive attention. His new contact represents payback for his previous financial sacrifices and it includes an option for next season should Dallas be in position to change course and add a major talent in free agency.
From there, Dallas took on center Andrew Bogut from the Warriors in a salary dump. While Bogut’s health is seemingly at the point where he’s day-to-day for 365 days a year, his rim-protection and passing ability make him a strong fit alongside Nowitzki when he’s healthy. Dallas received the Australian center with just one year remaining on a deal that will pay him $11 million, which seriously reduced the risk involved in taking him on. With Zaza Pachulia heading to Golden State on a big-time discount, Dallas did well to fill its hole in the middle without committing long-term cash to one of the many free agent centers who signed lucrative four-year deals this summer.
Further down the roster, the hopeful and optimistic among us will be glad to see Dallas giving Seth Curry, younger brother of Stephen, a lifeline out of Sacramento. The Mavericks added the scoring-minded guard on a two-year, $6 million contract, and while he’s already 25, there’s still a strong sense that his best NBA work is ahead of him given how little opportunity he’s received up to this point.
The only non-Barnes move that really raises an eyebrow is Dallas’s re-signing of Dwight Powell to a four-year, $37 million deal. While Powell’s production to date has been modest, the Mavericks opted to lock up the restricted free agent, betting that the 25-year-old energy big man will be able to scale his strong per-minute production (15/10 per 36 minutes) as his role increases. If Powell settles into life as a third or fourth big, his new contract terms could wind up looking quite team-friendly. If not, the potential damage is manageable, as the Mavericks will almost certainly have bigger problems to worry about as Nowitzki nears the end.
With the Barnes move earning top billing everywhere, Dallas doesn’t really have the feel of an off-season winner. Yet a move-by-move assessment reveals that Cuban and company accomplished numerous goals without being wasteful. The Mavericks are absolutely in “tread water” mode this year, as they have been virtually every season since their 2011 title run, but they again seemed to do just enough to avoid a long-anticipated implosion. — B.G.
Best move: Uhh… I guess the default answer is drafting Buddy Hield, which beats out signing Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore and Terrence Jones…catch my drift? The biggest addition the Pelicans will make is getting Anthony Davis back healthy. Hield will make sense on this team in the future, but right now there are too many guards and a not a lot of frontcourt talent beyond the Brow. It has to get worse before it can get better, right? — J.W.
Worst move: Keeping the backcourt together. The Pelicans have quite frankly been wasting Davis's time so far, and sooner rather than later need to change up this roster dramatically. The Tyreke Evans-Jrue Holliday combo has mostly been a bust, and New Orleans needs to find a way to grow. Perhaps this wasn't the off-season to do so because Evans and Holliday are hard to trade. At least the team didn’t hand out big money just for the sake of doing so. But the Pelicans have reached a fairly low ceiling with their current group, and Davis is in dire need of a roster actually built around his talents. — R.N.
The Skinny: Considering the pressure that management and the coaching staff are surely feeling after an unexpectedly depressing 2015-16 season, New Orleans deserves some love for avoiding the big mistakes this summer.
When the seats get hot, or even just a little bit warm, it can be hard to let big-minute contributors walk out the door for nothing. But that’s what happened with both Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who were lured to Houston with monster four-year offers. The Pelicans reached the correct conclusion in both cases: Gordon and Anderson weren’t worth overpaying given their health struggles and limited defensive abilities. Both players were letdowns during their tenures in New Orleans, which probably helped GM Dell Demps decide to move on rather than agree to fork over significant raises. Once burned, twice shy, after all.
In Gordon’s case, the calculation was pretty simple: Would you rather pay Gordon $53 million over four years or Buddy Hield, his rookie replacement, less than a quarter of that price? Even if Hield has some bust potential and looks like he will struggle in his first year, that’s a no-brainer.
As for Anderson, who received $80 million over four years, the Pelicans were able to add Solomon Hill for a little more than half of that price ($48 million over four years). Given that Hill is three years younger and boasts better defensive impact numbers, New Orleans again seems to have made a prudent assessment.
The problem, however, is that New Orleans’s “Moneyball” off-season didn’t result in the meaningful influx of talent that the franchise so desperately needs. For years now, franchise forward Anthony Davis hasn’t had enough help and that doesn’t appear to have changed heading into 2016–17. Picking up E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway should help coach Alvin Gentry better manage point guard Jrue Holiday’s recurring injury issues and hit-or-miss availability, but those moves don’t really do much to improve the Pelicans’ ceiling.
Ditto for New Orleans’s budget-friendly pick-ups like Terrence Jones (a Rockets cast-off), Alonzo Gee (the journeyman of all journeymen) and Tim Frazier (a well-liked former back-up to Damian Lillard in Portland). Remarkably, none of the new Pelicans mentioned—Hill, Moore, Galloway, Jones, Gee and Frazier—posted a Player Efficiency Rating above 14 last season. They’re all willing to sign in New Orleans, as opposed to bigger markets or better teams, on affordable deals for a reason.
The Pelicans’ summer can be summed up like this: they didn’t get much better, but at least they decided not to stick with a costly losing formula that could have crippled their long-term outlook. Their sober approach should prove helpful in 2017, when the Pelicans will face a defining summer with both Holiday and Tyreke Evans hitting free agency. Paying and paying and paying to keep this off-key band together would have been a fantastically dumb way to waste Davis’s rookie extension. Thankfully, that’s off the table now. The next plan, however, has yet to materialize. — B.G.
Best move: Respect the shooters. Sure, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson cost a boatload, but at least they should create more room for James Harden to dribble around and get fouled and stuff. This is still a bit of a clunky roster, and it’s not clear if the Rockets are ready to run in D’Antoni fashion, but at least there will be space, if not pace. Houston’s attack will ideally be more diversified, and Dwight Howard won’t be there soaking up post touches, but the key here will be establishing scoring flow and meshing quickly enough to hang in the standings. At least Gordon and Anderson are a step in a clear direction. — J.W.
Worst move: Mostly giving up on defense. Possession stats have been kinder to D'Antoni's Phoenix defenses than they were viewed at the time, but it's hard to see how Houston will stop teams this season. Harden is still a sieve on that end, playing Ryan Anderson big minutes won’t help, and the departure of Dwight Howard will likely have an impact. Woo is bigger on the Gordon/Anderson signings than I am—can Gordon share the court with Harden? Can Anderson not miss 20 games? The Rockets seem more committed now than ever to out-scoring opponents, and they’ll still probably finish behind the Warriors, Spurs and Clippers in offense. — R.N.
The Skinny: This summer saw some good, some bad, and some ugly. Let’s take each in turn.
The good: Houston used its excess cap space to sign James Harden to a renegotiated contract extension that keeps him in town through at least July 2019. For a franchise set adrift by a disappointing 2015–16 season, an abrupt coaching change, and the split between Harden and Dwight Howard, the certainty that comes with keeping Harden out of free agency was easily worth the extra money.
Also positive: Hiring Mike D’Antoni, an experienced coach whose offensive style of play should suit Harden’s game and make the superstar guard’s life a little bit easier. One last positive: Snagging oft-injured center Nene off the “old and slow” scrap heap to add some badly needed interior depth.
The bad wasn’t surprising in the slightest. After three mixed seasons, in which he helped Houston make a conference finals but eventually grew tired of a limited offensive role, Howard opted to sign with the Hawks as a free agent. While Clint Capela, 22, appears ready to handle a significantly larger role, Houston had much higher hopes for the Howard era after expending so much energy to recruit him in the first place. The Rockets did advanced to the 2015 conference finals, but all those posters and billboards featuring Howard alongside Yao Ming and Hakeem Olajuwon seem awfully silly now.
The ugly could be found in how Houston reallocated its resources once Howard was no longer in the picture. Armed with plenty of spending power and holes up and down the roster, GM Daryl Morey targeted Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, a pair of one-way players whose extensive injury histories were a major factor in New Orleans’s underwhelming performances in recent years. But Houston didn’t just sign Anderson and Gordon, they broke the bank to the tune of $132 million combined over the next four seasons. Aside from the fact that Anderson hasn’t played in 70+ games since 2013 and Gordon hasn’t played in 70+ games since he was a rookie in 2009, the two players do real damage to their team’s defensive performance. Last year, Gordon ranked 41st among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and Anderson placed an eye-popping 87th among power forwards.
While D’Antoni is notoriously lenient when it comes to his team’s approach to defense and the pair does bring some valuable floor-spacing to the table around Harden, Houston lacks the depth and the defensive talent to compensate for their new additions’ glaring weaknesses. The signings don’t make Houston particularly fearsome in the short-term, and the moves could prove disastrous if serious health issues arise as their four-year contracts unfold.
Houston’s coaching change and major additions raised its ceiling from an entertainment value perspective. But if the Rockets want to win a series in 2016, they will need to pray for absolutely perfect health, immediate and excellent chemistry on offense, and some meaningful contributions on the defensive end—which is asking a lot. There’s a difference between potent and scary, and the new-look Rockets seem to fit firmly in the former category. Without the Harden extension, this would have bordered on a total failure. — B.G.
Best move: Cashing the international chips. Tim Duncan is gone, and Pau Gasol is a nice temporary fix, but the Spurs’ lower-profile decisions hold future upside. With its roster ripe for added turnover, San Antonio brought in two young draft stashes and role guys on the cheap (Latvian shooter Davis Bertans and French swingman Livio Jean-Charles). They also added undrafted free agent Patricio Garino, who starred at George Washington and started for Argentina in the Olympics. The Spurs’ willingness to try these guys out now suggests they have an eye on the future as well as the Warriors-clouded present. You may not know much about these guys now, but their international scouting success suggests there’s a payoff coming. — J.W.
Worst move: Not signing Kevin Durant. Seriously, there was not much San Antonio could have done to tip the scales this off-season once Durant left Oklahoma City for the Warriors. At least the Spurs probably won’t lose to the Thunder in the playoffs this year? The departure of Duncan will hurt from a culture standpoint, but LaMarcus Aldridge is obviously the much better player at this stage. Gasol is certainly a nice piece to have in the frontcourt, though his defense will need to rise to Popovich’s demands. This feels like a wait-it-out year for the Spurs, who will lurk in the 50-win shadows until they find a weakness in the Golden State juggernaut. — R.N.
The Skinny: The Spurs’ brass sent Tim Duncan off into retirement with a dignified, understated series of tributes that saluted the future Hall of Famer’s magnificent impact without going overboard in a way that would have felt inauthentic. Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable end to one of the greatest careers in league history, and their heartfelt tributes hit all the right notes when the sad day finally came.
San Antonio selected a first-round pick, imported multiple international players, signed two well-known free agents and re-signed a franchise icon, and yet all of those moves combined pale in comparison to the emotional and psychological impact of Duncan’s departure. Popovich will move forward with a reshaped roster that has A-list talent and title experience, but it will take months at minimum for it to truly sink in that No. 21 is done and not coming back. The 2016-17 Spurs, even with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, are doomed to play in Duncan’s shadow.
All told, the Spurs will lose four key members of their frontcourt rotation: Duncan, David West (signed with Golden State), Boris Diaw (traded to Utah) and Boban Marjanovic (signed with Detroit). Remarkably, that leaves Aldridge, who signed with San Antonio last summer, as the only power forward or center returning this season. This is a full-scale overhaul, with Aldridge and Leonard being asked to carry the Spurs through this transition period.
Stepping into that playing time void is Pau Gasol, who arrives on a two-year, $31 million contract after spending two years in Chicago. Signing Gasol was better than not signing Gasol, as his scoring ability and passing skills remain sharp at age 36, but he makes for a somewhat awkward pairing with Aldridge, especially on the defensive end. San Antonio played at a bottom-five pace last season, making a point to milk possessions with its passing game, and that approach should continue with the aging Gasol in line for a large role.
Popovich’s other veteran frontcourt newcomers—power forward David Lee and center Dewayne Dedmon—came on the cheap. San Antonio will look to maximize Lee’s abilities as a pick-and-roll scorer and volume rebounder while limiting the impact of his matador tendencies on the other end. Dedmon, 27, was a bit player in Orlando for the last two-plus seasons who should bring some length and interior defense to a frontcourt rotation that can certainly use both. Both players are sensible additions given their modest price points and San Antonio’s lack of returning bodies.
Perhaps the most surprising move of San Antonio’s summer came when 39-year-old franchise icon Manu Ginobili leveraged interest from Philadelphia into a one-year, $14 million golden parachute. Although Ginobili will be hard-pressed to play enough minutes next season to deliver on those terms, San Antonio surely didn’t blink at the price given Ginobili’s previous contract sacrifices and the short-term nature of the deal. This is a franchise that has long taken care of its guys: Ginobili’s contract continues that tradition without compromising San Antonio’s flexibility next summer, when he will likely retire.
San Antonio’s latest round of international imports includes 23-year-old Latvian forward Davis Bertans (a 2011 second-round pick who was playing professionally in Spain) and 22-year-old forward Livio Jean-Charles (a 2013 first-round pick who was playing professionally in France). Joining those two in scrapping for minutes is 19-year-old first-round pick Dejounte Murray, a scoring-minded guard who spent one season at Washington.
Long story short: the Spurs, sans Duncan, are still in position to beat a vast majority of their competition thanks to their star duo, their collective basketball intelligence, and the continuity that exists between Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green. They’re more intriguing than the average team, too, given the sheer quantity of new blood.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Spurs will come back to Earth quite a bit following a 67-win season and it’s hard not to ask whether this is a team that should still be viewed as a title contender. Even with Duncan, San Antonio was eliminated in the first round in 2015 and the second round in 2016, and the age-related decline that should hit the likes of Parker, Ginobili and Gasol could serve as a ceiling on this year’s group.
Although the Spurs’ front office made no major, lasting mistakes and plenty of smart plays this summer, there was no way for the franchise to offset or overcome Duncan’s retirement. San Antonio had no choice but to bite the bullet and get on with what’s next. — B.G.