Let's answer a few questions from readers about offseason hot topics:
Are you just being a contrarian in saying that the Sixers are having the best offseason among 2013 Eastern Conference lottery teams, or do you actually believe that?
-- Willie P., Monroe, La.
I do believe it, though it's true in part because there's no definitive offseason winner of that bunch. The teams that have added the most (Cleveland and Detroit) have done so at clear risk, while other teams (Orlando, Toronto and maybe even Charlotte) have plodded along with decent deals that don't drastically change their direction. Philadelphia, though, very much needed a significant change and started on that path with the hiring of general manager Sam Hinkie, the departure of coach Doug Collins and the stripping down of a middling roster.
As constructed last season, the Sixers didn't have much room for upward mobility, save the distant hope of injured center Andrew Bynum's return to the lineup. Point guard Jrue Holiday improved, but not so much so that he could anchor a team on his own. Forward Thaddeus Young is still getting better, but he is a supporting part at best on offense. Guard Evan Turner is undone by his strange skill set and ball-dominant style. The team's young big men -- Arnett Moultrie, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen -- are low-ceiling players. There was just enough in place for Philadelphia to be a pretty bad team without the potential to either grow into a playoff-caliber club or bottom out for a high draft pick -- a stagnant state that's just brutal for an NBA franchise.
Hinkie gave Philadelphia some direction by trading Holiday to New Orleans for injured No. 6 pick Nerlens Noel -- who could miss a chunk of this season with a torn ACL before becoming one of the steals of the 2013 draft -- and a first-round pick (which is top five protected) in what should be a deep 2014 draft. The Sixers will be bad this season, and hold no pretense otherwise; they've yet to hire Collins' replacement even though he resigned nearly four months ago, and they've made only a few low-level additions despite a woefully incomplete roster. But a slide deep into the lottery was unfortunately what this team needed, as there wasn't enough talent to rise in the standings and not enough cap room (or cachet) to make a high-level free-agent play. I like that the Sixers hired a smart GM who made that tough call -- even though I do like Holiday as a player.
There's room here to note that Philadelphia won't win many games this season while also acknowledging that a transition year wouldn't be such a bad thing. So in the traditional sense of a team using the offseason to improve its standing, the Sixers have unequivocally failed. But they've done so by design, creating a clear trajectory based on Noel's latent potential, a likely second first-round pick in next year's draft and the patience of seeing through this rebuilding process.
Do you see the Lakers as a playoff team?
-- Conrad, Santa Clara, Calif.
I don't. This year's Lakers have the makings of a miserable defensive team without the firepower to compensate. That combination likely won't be good enough to pull L.A. through the crowd of playoff-viable teams in the Western Conference. Defensive coverage and rotations were already huge issues last season, and the departures of both the team's top interior (Dwight Howard) and perimeter (Metta World Peace) defenders should compound those problems. Add the fact that big men Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman and guard Nick Young -- all limited defenders, at the least -- will largely be responsible for filling those roles and minutes, and the tradeoff looks to be even more brutal. The opportunity to build up defensive chemistry from training camp could help the Lakers mitigate some of their disadvantage, but I see little reason to hope for even a passable team defense this season.
Things should go more smoothly on the other side of the ball, but the Lakers would need to be amazingly efficient to make up for all they surrender on defense. I don't think that's possible with or without Kobe Bryant in the lineup. Healthy seasons from Gasol and Steve Nash will help tremendously, but the Lakers' supporting cast -- excepting Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks -- is flimsy enough for opponents to overload on the stars without consistent penalty. A solid, top-10 offense is still within reach. But with as many as 12 teams competing for eight postseason slots, the Lakers don't make a particularly compelling case.
Why did the Wizards rush into a max extension with John Wall? Why not wait to see whether he's improved some of his weaknesses?
-- Mike Rogers, New York
In theory, agreeing to a max extension early, as the Wizards did in signing Wall to a five-year, $80 deal last week, comes with no real reward. The Wizards could have matched any offer for Wall next summer when he became a restricted free agent, meaning that with an extension Washington is consenting to paying the highest possible price. The timing of such an arrangement makes it difficult for the team to negotiate down and also comes with the risk of the player in question suffering a significant injury before the extension even kicks in.
But I can understand why a long-suffering team like the Wizards -- who are trying hard to exorcise their demons and foster a positive team culture -- would want to do right by a franchise cornerstone. Flaws and all, Wall has had a nice start to his career. Washington ranked 13th in efficiency differential last season after Wall returned from a knee injury in January, and his offensive impact (as measured by adjusted plus-minus) compares favorably to that of young stars such as the Clippers' Blake Griffin and Cleveland's Kyrie Irving. The warts in Wall's game (perimeter shooting, defense, leaving his feet to make plays, etc.) are so obvious that he's easy to criticize, but overall Wall's feel and athleticism helped him make a notable mark last season.
The Wizards wanted to keep him around and send a message about how this franchise treats valued players. They've done that, and while there's admitted risk in extending Wall so early, his current value may not be as far below what the soon-to-be 23-year-old received as people think -- all with his best years still ahead.
I'd be interested in your thoughts on Tyreke Evans. Do you think he's worth the four-year, $44 million deal he got from New Orleans?
-- J.D., Patterson, N.J.
I'm optimistic, if guardedly so. Evans badly needed some fresh air after four seasons in Sacramento, and he still does enough interesting things to warrant an opportunity in a different kind of role. New Orleans gives him just that; Holiday is flexible enough to initiate the offense regularly while still surrendering control in spots, a situation that should give Evans the freedom to create without the pressure to do so every trip down the floor. Evans has a lot to learn in incorporating his game into a more functional offense, but the learning curve should be eased in New Orleans by a greater sense of order and a talented core. It won't be easy to sort out a high-level offense from three perimeter players accustomed to handling the ball with regularity, but between Evans, Holiday and Eric Gordon, I see the potential for an explosive balance.
The contract is a bit rich for my taste, but the Pelicans at least front-loaded the deal to make it easier to bear as Evans, who turns 24 next month, grows with the team. (Evans will make $11.8 million in the first year of the deal and $10.2 million in the last year.) Regardless, New Orleans was in a position to gamble with this kind of big-salary commitment thanks to its past cap-clearing efforts. Using that same space could have been put off for another season or two, but I don't have much of a problem with the Pelicans acquiring such an intriguing talent to see how he might fit.
-- Silas, Columbus, Neb.
That depends on how you define "better." In terms of general competition against the field, the Heat still have a pretty significant edge. Keep in mind that Miami was 12 games better than Indiana in the regular season last year, along with the fact that the top end of the Heat's rotation will give them critical advantages against most every opponent. The defending champions are a juggernaut built to beat all comers, which they've done in three consecutive postseasons with but a single exception.
As a head-to-head matchup, though, Indiana has done well to create new points of leverage and managed to close the gap on the champs at the very least. There's nothing crazy about noticing improvement in a team that took the Heat to seven games just two months ago, particularly when the Pacers' bench figures to be drastically improved after the additions of point guard C.J. Watson and forwards Luis Scola and Chris Copeland. There's still a lot to work out for both teams (Dwyane Wade's health; Paul George's growth; Danny Granger's role; Greg Oden's impact; the introduction of a few lacking defenders into Indiana's rotation; etc.) before we make any definitive claims about where they stand in relation to one another, but Indiana has to like its chances after adding so many useful pieces to its crummy second unit.
What are the Bucks doing?
-- Confused Fan, Milwaukee
They're giving up on a gamble (the backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis) and moving forward in a somewhat ambiguous direction. It's tough to build out a roster without a standout talent to use as a focal point, but GM John Hammond has done nice work in general this summer to jettison problematic pieces while obtaining movable assets. That Milwaukee is floating near the top of the East's lower tiers was somewhat inevitable given the turnover. Now it's up to Hammond to make good use of the pieces acquired to complete an asset-driven rebuild. That's obviously easier said than done, but Milwaukee has room to add another piece next summer (on top of a likely extension for big man Larry Sanders) and could cobble together a decent trade package if the right target emerges.
What makes this directional shift so odd, though, is that the Bucks -- in typical fashion -- can't seem to fully commit. In February, Milwaukee dealt an interesting prospect in forward Tobias Harris for guard J.J. Redick, who was then marginalized by interim (and now former) coach Jim Boylan and driven to leave as a free agent. A good chunk of money ($16 million over three years!) and cap room was committed to a limited 29-year-old center coming off an Achilles injury, Zaza Pachulia, one of seven big men on the roster. Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a great defender and seemingly valuable trade asset, was sent to Sacramento for a mere pair of second-round picks. As much as I'd like to give Milwaukee credit for balking on a long-term deal for either Jennings or Ellis, its big-picture outlook is still awfully muddled. There's room for a rebuild without tanking, but the Bucks have seemed to miss that mark with their indecision over what kind of team they hope to be this season.