Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Weighing the short- and long-term improvements of various 2012-13 lottery teams.
1. Which of last season's lottery teams did the most this summer to push itself into the 2013-14 playoff picture?
Rob Mahoney: Dallas Mavericks. Once the bid to acquire Dwight Howard fell through, the Mavericks shifted into contingency overdrive. They signed Jose Calderon as a clear upgrade at point guard. With that spot secure, the Mavs used the room mid-level exception on shooting guard Wayne Ellington and persuaded guard Devin Harris to sign for the veteran minimum. Guard Gal Mekel, 25, a two-time Israeli League MVP, signed a three-year deal for the cheapest salary possible. Guard Monta Ellis was added for his capacity to create offense and get things moving off the dribble, despite the clear caveats he brings with him. Dallas then picked up center Samuel Dalembert to round out its probable starting five, re-signed big man Brandan Wright (and in waiting to do so, maximized its cap room) and nabbed former Spurs big man DeJuan Blair for the minimum.
Add in the drafting of waterbug point guard Shane Larkin and a promising wing in Ricky Ledo, and it's been a pretty full summer for the Mavs, with most every move designed to make this team more immediately viable. Dallas had its experimental phase in 2011-12 and its concession season in 2012-13. But after chasing superstars as trade and free-agent targets for the last few seasons, owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson opted for a very different strategic bent this summer. In all, it should get the Mavs at least into the thick of the playoff race. Dallas was only a few wins (or a few more games from Dirk Nowitzki) away from the postseason last year, and this team will be deeper and more talented. The Mavs have completely reshaped their roster while still leaving room to maneuver in future seasons.
I'm still not a huge proponent of the contracts for Calderon (four years, $29 million) and Ellis (three years, $25.1 million), if only for the burden they may carry in two years' time and the degree to which they limit Dallas' 2014 plans. But Dallas couldn't wait for the next available superstar forever, and even then it has shown that clearing max-contract cap room around Nowitzki's $22.7 million salary leaves the rest of the roster rather barren. This shift puts more pieces in play for a franchise that has historically done rather well in its roster tinkering. It also creates the potential for an explosive, efficient offense. The combination of Nowitzki's all-around brilliance, Calderon's shooting and playmaking and Ellis' work off the bounce should form a stable scoring core on which the Mavs can pin legitimate playoff candidacy.
Ben Golliver: I suppose this hinges on whether "doing the most" is a measure of activity, perceived progress or spending. If you like pure volume, the Trail Blazers flipped nearly half their roster, adding seven new players, five of whom are expected to see rotation minutes. If you like progress, the Cavaliers added some badly needed talent, in the form of Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, while also taking the summer's biggest flier, on Andrew Bynum, a franchise-changing talent if healthy. Cleveland's additions greatly outweigh the subtractions (Ellington, Marreese Speights, Omri Casspi). In terms of spending, the Timberwolves' signing spree should probably have gotten more attention. New president Flip Saunders handed out $117 million (!) to Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. I'm not sure Saunders wound up "doing the most" to push his team into the playoffs, but he was definitely, as Snoop Dogg might say, doin' too much.
If we're combining all of these measures -- and taking into account how much easier it will be to climb from the lottery to the playoffs in the East as compared to the West -- I think the Detroit Pistons are the choice. To be clear: This is not necessarily an endorsement of their decision-making this summer. Still, after finishing nine games out of a playoff spot last season, the Pistons landed one of the summer's biggest fish in forward Josh Smith; upgraded from Brandon Knight to Brandon Jennings at point guard via sign-and-trade; brought back franchise legend Chauncey Billups; went overseas to snag Italian forward Luigi Datome; re-signed guard Will Bynum; and drafted three intriguing rookies (guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Peyton Siva and forward Tony Mitchell). In short, they were very busy, they took a step forward talent-wise and they were generous ($78 million combined to Smith and Jennings), all in the same summer.
The questions -- shooting, front-line fit, etc. -- are glaring, but Pistons president Joe Dumars pretty much followed the blueprint for taking a below-average team into the bottom of the playoffs.
2. Which 2013 lottery team has the most optimistic long-term outlook?
Golliver: Welcome to the NBA's version of Star Search. So many of the 2013 lottery teams are either spinning their wheels in futility or trying to chart a new course during a rebuild. The best way to address this question, then, is by simply ranking the top emerging talents and then gauging what's around them.
Among the 14 teams that missed the playoffs last season, at least eight young players (excluding rookies) have a chance to develop into perennial All-Stars: Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, New Orleans' Anthony Davis, Detroit's Andre Drummond, Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas, Washington's John Wall and Bradley Beal, Portland's Damian Lillard and Utah's Derrick Favors. Others should emerge over the next year -- and some observers might add Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio and Kings center DeMarcus Cousins -- but that's the short list of franchise building blocks.
From that group, three stand out as true prodigies: Irving, who made his first All-Star Game in 2013 at age 20; Davis, a 20-year-old two-way talent whose 21.7 Player Efficiency Rating as a rookie was up there with that of the likes of Blake Griffin and David West; and Drummond, a 20-year-old traditional center whose nickname should probably be "Per-36," as he averaged 13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes in a reserve role last year. Out of that trio, it's hard to argue against Irving, who has adapted to the NBA game faster than anyone could have reasonably expected while possessing all the attributes -- on and off the court -- that you want from a franchise guy.
Even so, I'll go with Davis and the Pelicans, largely because they've wasted no time in assembling talent around him and have therefore given themselves more time to tinker with the equation to get it right. Although his rookie season was dampened by injuries (to himself and shooting guard Eric Gordon), Davis can look forward to a much better sophomore year. Holiday is in place at the point. Another newcomer, Tyreke Evans, can score and make plays for others. Take into account those additions, a better season from Gordon and another year of growth from Davis, and it's easy to see how New Orleans (which ranked No. 15 on offense and No. 28 on defense last season) should be better on both sides of the ball.
Two factors will determine just how bright New Orleans' future can be. First, Gordon, who is entering the second year of a four-year, $58.4 million contract. He will either be: a) the perimeter scoring complement to Davis that solidifies the Pelicans' status as a playoff team year after year; b) the trade chip that gets flipped to surround Davis with even more young talent, or c) the chronically injured player with a big-dollar contract who keeps this whole show from ever really launching. Gordon's deal, worth about $15 million annually over the next three seasons, represents roughly one-quarter of the NBA's salary cap. There's no way for a cost-conscious team to make meaningful progress with that much dead-weight money holding it back.
The other issue: Can New Orleans locate a beefy, effective traditional center to keep some of the wear and tear off of Davis? Last year's starter, Robin Lopez, was dumped to make room for Evans, and his replacements -- Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma and Jeff Withey -- are fine for a bridge year but not for an extended window. Davis should be able to function very well as both a power forward and center as he progresses, and he's expressed a willingness to play either position, but a little extra protection would go a long way.
Mahoney: Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving has the game and trappings of a legitimate franchise player and is further along in his development than many of the other stars-in-waiting who could eventually claim the same. He alone makes Cleveland a threat on a nightly basis. His ability to attempt good, balanced shots from all over the floor opens up a world of possibilities, as opponents are forced to respect the threat of a pull-up jumper or floater at virtually any time. That he hasn't shared the court with many quality NBA players yet only makes his potential that much more daunting, because his game complements different types of offensive players.
Because Irving's rare talent for creating offense was identified so early, the Cavs are in position to make moves while he's still under his relatively inexpensive rookie deal. (He'll be paid only $5.6 million this season and $7.1 million next season before a potential contract extension would kick in.) As a result of that flexibility, the Cavs were able to sign Bynum, Jack, No. 1 pick Bennett and Clark this summer without nearing the luxury-tax line.
If Bynum is able to give Irving proper (and consistent) support, their pairing could provide the basis of a potential contender. If Bennett or fellow forward Tristan Thompson pans out as an All-Star-level player, that could propel Cleveland along a similar path. If any of second-year guard Dion Waiters, second-year center Tyler Zeller or rookie forward Sergey Karasev improves significantly over the next few seasons, their development would solidify Cleveland's supporting cast -- particularly if they do so before their rookie-scale contracts run out.
Irving might be the only sure thing in the bunch, but I see plenty of reason for hope in a core featuring Irving, an All-Star-caliber big man, a top pick in the draft and a handful of workable young pieces.
3. Which 2013 lottery team is due for the most constructive season without playoff contention?
Mahoney: Utah Jazz. The pairing of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap was good enough to guarantee mediocrity. Their presence also hedged against some of the developmental opportunities that otherwise would have been granted to Favors and Enes Kanter, among others. But those two productive, well-meaning big men are inadvertent obstacles no more after departing as free agents.
Though the Jazz have forfeited their chance at keeping up with the other bubble teams in the West, they've gained in both assets and opportunity. In addition to Favors, Kanter and the persistently underrated Gordon Hayward, Utah added two talents worth cultivating in point guard Trey Burke (No. 9 pick in the draft) and center Rudy Gobert (No. 27). With third-year shooting guard Alec Burks holding the potential to be a solid pro, too, we could be seeing the long-awaited beginnings of Utah's next iteration.
Much of that hinges on Favors, the key acquisition in the 2011 trade of Deron Williams to the Nets. Favors' size, athleticism and raw contributions (defense by feel, volume rebounding, basic finishes) allow him to put up some impressive numbers (14.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes), but he needs the kind of long-term learning experience he'll be afforded this season. His minutes are expected to climb dramatically with Utah's stark change in direction, bringing more direct opportunity to integrate feedback from the coaching staff and learn from the natural trial and error of game play.
Gifting a prospect playing time can be counterproductive in certain situations, but Favors has paid his dues and waited his turn over the last three seasons. (He's averaged 22 minutes in 164 games with Utah.) Now is his chance to improve the more technical aspects of his defense and grow more comfortable with the ball in his hands -- both clear points of emphasis for the 22-year-old big man.
All of the above generally applies to the 21-year-old Kanter, too, because he's played just 1,952 NBA minutes in two seasons and was deemed ineligible during his one year of college basketball. Despite that lack of playing time, though, Kanter already has a much better feel for operating from the post than Favors. Once set up on the block, Kanter generally does a good job of identifying mismatches and working over smaller defenders, using a good variety of basic post moves to select a scoring angle. His footwork -- often the bane of young bigs looking to exploit a size advantage -- is actually quite good. His rebounding is already NBA-ready.
Kanter, however, definitely needs a crash course in how to maximize his movement -- an unfortunate reality for a big man who isn't so athletically gifted. His execution of pick-and-rolls can still seem a little awkward for that reason, and defensively he hasn't figured out yet how to take the kind of optimal angles that would allow him to maximize his influence. Those things should come in time, and Kanter will see plenty of it soon enough after averaging 13.2 minutes as a rookie and 15.4 last season.
Utah has plenty to look forward to beyond the big men. Hayward will have an even greater opportunity to broaden his game, particularly in working with the ball. Burke is the most promising Jazz point guard since the acquisition of Devin Harris in 2011, though hopefully he winds up as a better fit for the Jazz than Harris ever did. Burks still needs to work through the pains of being an overeager defender and having some decision-making issues on offense, both of which can be addressed with stretches of engaged playing time.
Golliver: Determining which also-ran will have the most constructive year probably starts with an analysis of who has the most work to do (and the desire to do that work). In a number of rebuilding situations (Orlando, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Utah), this year's heavy lifting was done during the offseason. In each of those situations, long-terms salaries have been moved out, prospects and picks have been acquired and the decks have been cleared for young players. Any constructive progress for those teams will be taking place on the court. A few other weaker sisters (Charlotte and Sacramento) tried to improve this summer without making much headway; they're more or less stuck with the results of those decisions until the draft.
Eliminating those six teams from the conversation leaves a whole bunch of teams that should be in contention for the postseason unless something goes badly wrong (Minnesota, Dallas, Portland, Detroit, Washington and Cleveland) and two others that are tougher to peg, New Orleans and Toronto. A lot would have to go right for the Pelicans to emerge as a true playoff contender after finishing 18 games behind the No. 8 seed in the West last season, but they made so many major additions this summer that it would be sensible to let the new group marinate together before pivoting again. By process of elimination, that leaves the Raptors, my choice here.
New Raptors GM Masai Ujiri should be able to see opportunities for potential progress at virtually every turn. On the court, Valanciunas will have the chance to emerge as a threat capable of scoring reliably and dictating an offense from the post, while DeMar DeRozan -- last year's big investment -- has improved during his four seasons and is still just 24. At the very least, this should be a year of progress from those two, and perhaps 2012 lottery pick Terrence Ross and intriguing summer pickup Dwight Buycks, too. It's also more than reasonable to expect bounce-back years from guards Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields. The real construction work, though, should result from Ujiri's own hand. The 2013 Executive of the Year began that process immediately after arriving from Denver, dealing Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks in a trade that was both necessary and tone-setting. Even after the move, though, the Raptors' payroll isn't that far removed from the luxury-tax line. Given that the vast majority of a 34-win team is back, Toronto's talent-to-cost ratio stands as among the league's worst. The personnel cycling we saw from Ujiri in Denver feels inevitable in Toronto, too, and it will take some time. Ujiri just isn't one to waste any opportunity.