We’ve almost reached September, which means we are officially one month away from being one month away from real, live basketball. That also means we’re all one year older than we were one year ago, when we were waiting for last season. If that last sentence screams “obvious setup for some sort of age-related analogy to launch into this column” to you, you’re right. The off-season is long for writers, too.
Anyway, behind every superstar is at least one, usually more than one, savvy veteran. There’s no Death Lineup without Andre Iguodala’s commitment to defense and timely shooting. There’s no Miami Heat 2013 championship without Ray Allen getting his shot off from the right corner. These guys tend to end up in important spots more often than not. To aggressively highlight this season’s potential drama and decidedly not sweat the eight-ish months until the playoffs, let’s consider some of the vets who changed zip codes this summer, and what their new shares of the spotlight may look like.
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Warriors: David West and Zaza Pachulia
Let’s start with Golden State, who after adding Kevin Durant and totally restructuring their salary situation netted two of this year’s better free-agent bargains to fill out the rotation. West and Pachulia combined will make less money than Shaun Livingston, and play on one-year deals. It’s worth noting that literally every Warriors role player will hit free agency next off-season, and with a max extension surely coming for Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant opting back in, the Golden State role player situation could be in an annual state of flux. Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green sure are nice, but the Warriors will need to be every bit as clever on an annual basis to keep some continuity.
It’s funny to see West (who once explicitly said he’d never chase rings) do exactly that for a second straight season, going from a cushy job playing 18 minutes a night in San Antonio to increase his championship odds in the Bay. He remains a productive, low-usage option and has shown little drop-off in his jump shot at age 36, shooting 48.6% from mid-range. The Warriors won’t be running many post-ups for anyone not named Durant, so it’s a philosophical fit. West is likely bound for some variation of Mo Speights’s old role, as it’s tough to see Golden State playing him alongside a taller big and retaining the overall pace they prefer. He should be a cheap, efficient upgrade from Speights. His odds of winning a title have certainly increased.
The Warriors’ real bargain is Pachulia, who’s coming off his best season in a decade and will turn 33 in February. He’s playing for less than $3 million and should slide nicely enough into Andrew Bogut’s starting center spot. A legitimate starting-caliber center at that bargain was a beautiful coup for Golden State, but also leads to perhaps the biggest question mark for this roster, which is interior defense. Neither West nor Pachulia (who has never averaged more than half a block per game) addresses the void Bogut will leave with his shot-blocking. Incumbent Anderson Varejao likely isn’t the answer there. Damian Jones, a rookie from Vanderbilt, could Festus Ezeli his way into playing time, but nothing he did in college suggests he‘s ready for an nightly role right now.
Draymond at center is potent, but better in calculated spurts, as the Warriors have learned. If the Olympics were any indicator, Kevin Durant doesn’t love doing the dirty work inside. While their toughness should take the Warriors part of the way, it’s the one flaw on paper. Pachulia and West will have to get by on toughness, communication and team commitment for this to work—that and the fact that few teams have the stones to try to out-small-ball Golden State.
Cavs: Mike Dunleavy and Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen
The defending champs didn’t tinker much, and J.R. Smith is still in contract limbo. Second-rounder Kay Felder looks set for some of the backup point guard minutes. The rumor mill suggests Mo Williams is mulling retirement. It’s definitely easiest to sum up the Cavs’ off-season by saying they stayed put, but sneaking Dunleavy away from the Bulls for the low and adding a playoff-tested body in Andersen might be more impactful than you think over the course of the season.
Dunleavy will turn 36 before the season and averaged 7.2 points in 31 games for the Bulls last year after returning from back surgery. More importantly, he shot 39% from three. He was a reliable locker-room guy in Chicago and hasn’t shot below 38% from deep since 2009–10. His decision-making will help on the offensive end and in crunch time, though his defense may not. It’s possible he sees important playoff minutes. At the very least, he can ease Cleveland’s reliance on almost-retired Richard Jefferson and offers an alternative to J.R. Smith on Sunday afternoons.
Also, Birdman at age 38 screams bench filler, but he’s definitely going to have to play. Channing Frye is the only other nominal big man behind Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. It’s better than paying up for Timofey Mozgov, which was untenable to begin with, but could be an issue over the course of the season, with Andersen coming off a knee injury. He’s a LeBron favorite and overall good guy to have around, but it’s easy to envision the Cavs needing help in the post to get through the full slate of games. Bolstering depth could be an ongoing process here.
Spurs: Pau Gasol and David Lee
Without Tim Duncan for the first time in Justin Bieber’s life, the Spurs are in fine shape to cruise to another 50-win season. It’s going to be weird, but their bench may actually run deeper this season with Duncan and Boris Diaw gone. Gasol, Lee and Dewayne Dedmon will assume a big chunk of those minutes. Kyle Anderson can give San Antonio more perimeter-oriented looks, There are some new international guys. It’s probably going to be fine.
Even then, it kind of sucks that even the most measured of NBA lenses are obligated to consider how the best teams stack up to the Warriors these days. The answer for the Spurs is still not great, and both Gasol and Lee will have issues staying on the floor when Golden State spreads it out. Gasol blocks shots, but has declined night in and night out as a rebounder and help defender and can be a total liability. Dedmon’s mobility makes him the most likely solution to that problem. End of tangent.
This was still valuable patchwork from San Antonio. They’ll adjust, as usual. Gasol thrives in the same mid-range areas Tim Duncan and David West used to and is twice as dangerous on the block. His passing ability gets pleasantly magnified playing with this group. But then again, it’s been two early playoff exits in two years for the Spurs. We all appreciate their consistency, yet at some point it’s fair to demand more. Gasol and Lee aren’t the keys to getting them over the hump, but when push comes to shove, the lower-key off-season might sting a bit.
Jazz: Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson
Somewhere between July 1 and now, the Jazz became everyone’s favorite pick to blossom into an upper-echelon team. Exactly how accurate that assessment might be is up for debate. Utah got deeper and more talented but remains reliant on the sum of promising parts, though a weakened Northwest division should provide ample opportunity. Diaw and Johnson should be helpful over the course of the year off the bench, and if everything breaks right, will have big roles to play in the postseason.
Focusing less on the abstract, Johnson is the type of secondary scorer the Jazz could really use for stretches. They can play him and Hayward together with Rodney Hood for shooting-oriented lineups. He continues to make big shots late into his career, and upped his efficiency when playing a lesser role with the Heat for the last 24 games of the season (51.8% shooting, 41.7% from three). The fact he even picked Utah is a nod to what the Jazz have going (more on that in a second). He’s a valuable complementary part on a contract that should be movable if necessary.
In a crowded frontcourt, Diaw is a bit of a wild card here, but the good news is he won’t be tasked with any added minutes, given the promise Trey Lyles showed as a rookie behind Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. What Diaw consistently does well isn’t a stat-sheet thing—it’s the way he unlocks certain lineup combinations as a passer and rebounder, even as he’s exited his statistical prime. Concern about his motivation and weight post-Spurs should also be tempered: he was dinged up at the end of last season.
The Jazz have quietly become the NBA’s second destination du jour for international, team-centric players. All it takes is a quick glance at Utah’s roster to notice the diversity—there are seven international-born guys, by my count. Quin Snyder’s résume includes a stint as an assistant with European power (and NBA coaching funnel) CSKA Moscow that earned him some kudos overseas. It feels like the Jazz have finally built something sustainable, and that matters. How’s the espresso in Salt Lake City?
Mavericks: Andrew Bogut
Nobody is under any impression the addition of Bogut takes the Mavericks back toward the top of the West, but anyone who watched Australia in the Olympics has to be duly encouraged. Bogut appeared more mobile and spry two months removed from his left knee injury than he’d looked in years, and gives the Mavericks their first quality defensive compliment to Dirk Nowitzki since Tyson Chandler. This was a good move for both parties, assuming Dallas can afford to stretch his minutes over the course of the season.
As noted above, the Warriors are really going to miss Bogut at times. The point guard-strapped Mavericks would be wise to better utilize him as a passer. It seems safe to say his offense should take a small uptick as well, given how he was understandably marginalized in Golden State. He turns 32 this season, which is probably less old than you thought he was one paragraph ago. The rest of the Mavericks raise a bunch of other issues, but this feels like a well-planned marriage.
Bulls: Dwyane Wade
Saving the highest-profile move for last here, let’s get past the whole “this is weird” aspect of Wade leaving Miami and think a little harder about what this is actually going to look like. After trying to avoid the awfully misnomered “three alphas” thing for a month or so, I think I‘m finally ready to do that. Your 2016–17 Chicago Bulls are probably going to have some issues. We’ll get to Wade himself in a moment.
Let’s just assume everyone gets along here for a second and humor ourselves. The biggest issue here is obviously the collective ball-neediness, with Jimmy Butler at his best off the dribble and Rajon Rondo and Wade also playing that role frequently for much of their careers. The Bulls will have to try really hard not to pound too many possessions into mid-range oblivion and find a mix of lineups that lets all three guards utilize their strengths. It’s a hefty task in a deeper conference. Three-point shooting is a glaring problem when all three share the court, and all three are going to have to share the court for important stretches.
So, did you know that last season, Rondo was actually the best shooter of the Bulls’ new trio? He shot a respectable 36% on 170 attempts from distance with his best spot being the right corner (15-of-30). This is a small sample size, but his shot’s not totally useless. The Bulls won’t want him to function as a shooter, but he’s going to have to be able to keep people honest. Playing next to Butler and Wade could and should affect how much room Rondo has to make plays, which is the main thing Chicago really needs him to do. So that’s a problem.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler saw his three point shooting slip from nearly 38% down to 31%, on almost the same number of attempts. He was actually also at his best from the right corner, shooting 10-of-18 there as opposed to just 3-of-17 from the left corner (again, small sample size—he went 12-of-22 from there one year prior). This doesn’t mean a whole lot, other than affirming our assumption that there are definitely going to be spacing issues if the Bulls’ stars aren’t locked in enough at all times to extend the defense. Staggering their minutes will surely help. Butler will probably need to pare down his shot selection at times for anything to start making sense.
Wade, who turns 35 in January, seems the most likely of the three to accept a more situational role. We saw him willingly rest plenty of games in Miami the last couple years, then turn it on in the playoffs as necessary. How much of that mentality carries over in Chicago is unclear. He’s already said that he’s a better shooter than he showed last season, and for the Bulls to consistently deploy crunch-time lineups using all three stars, he’ll need to be. He attempted just 44 threes last season and made a career-low 15.9% of those shots. At his peak, he was in the 30% range from deep. One sliver of optimism lies in the fact Wade shot 52% (12-of-23) from deep in the postseason. But again, sample sizes are everything.
There’s zero chance Wade gets back to shooting 200 of them per season like he used to, but how he adjusts and prepares to the demands of his new situation will play a big part in the success of the Bulls’ ill-conceived experiment. Fred Hoiberg has the frustrating task of spacing and staggering a roster better suited for 2006 than 2016. You would hope Butler decides to adjust as well, and that Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic take their production up a notch to facilitate the guards’ chance of success. If Wade can reinvent his own role as he changes teams for the first time, it would be another remarkable career chapter. The Bulls’ playoff aspirations may hinge on it, unfortunately.