Today's topic: Which players and teams are this offseason's biggest winners?
1. Outside of the Cavaliers, which team was this offseason's biggest winner?
Ben Golliver: Spurs. And I don't think it's that close. The best way to approach this question is: Whose championship hopes were bolstered the most by the dismantling of the Heat? The logical answer would seem to be the defending champions, who posted a league-best 62 wins during the regular season, thrashed through the playoffs with a 16-7 record, and belted Miami in five games in the Finals.
The Spurs faced three troubling scenarios this summer: 1) Heat president Pat Riley finding a way to totally reload, 2) Thunder GM Sam Presti conjuring up some magic to significantly upgrade his cast of characters around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka and 3) Spurs reserves Boris Diaw and/or Patty Mills deciding to take the money and run in free agency. None of those three things happened, leaving San Antonio sitting pretty. The combination of a wide open East and a Spurs rotation that will return intact perfectly sets the table for the possibility of the first back-to-back titles of the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era. Unless a serious injury strikes or one of the second-tier contenders makes a franchise-altering trade later this summer, it's difficult to envision anyone besides the Spurs or Thunder coming out of the West at this point.
Rob Mahoney: Bulls. Even after missing out on Carmelo Anthony and (perhaps) falling behind in the Kevin Love derby, Chicago has significantly improved its championship prospects. The exchange of an amnestied Carlos Boozer for the recently signed Pau Gasol is a monumental upgrade; not only is Gasol the far more useful offensive player at this stage in their careers, but his defensive issues are more manageable and perhaps more transient. We've seen Gasol, when engaged, work to legitimate defensive advantage. He just didn't have reason to do so with the sinking ship Lakers last season and ran up against injury, positional alignment issues and general discontent the season prior.
Gasol can do better and the Bulls will improve on those grounds alone. Bringing over Nikola Mirotic, too, gives the frontcourt impressive depth and firepower. A four-man rotation of Gasol, Mirotic, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson is championship-caliber both in its potency and its balance.
To further improve their roster the Bulls drafted Doug McDermott (if at the steep cost of two first-rounders and two seconds), who has the potential to register a clear and immediate benefit to Chicago's offensive spacing and flow. D.J. Augustin (who was ultimately signed by Detroit for $6 million over two years) was let go and replaced at the minimum salary with Aaron Brooks. Carmeron Bairstow, who had a fine showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, was brought in on a non-guaranteed deal. The only move I'm lukewarm on is the re-signing of Kirk Hinrich, though I've long since abandoned trying to gauge the Bulls' love of Hinrich through any logical lens. Regardless, he's not a terrible get at that price, and if the worst of your offseason is a slight overpay for Hinrich then all went well.
2. Which player scored the best contract considering his abilities?
Golliver: Gordon Hayward. The Utah wing was a big winner by virtually any standard. Outside of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, no free agent pulled in more total dollars than Hayward, who signed a four-year, $63 million offer sheet with the Hornets that was eventually matched by the Jazz. Although Hayward was a top-10 player in this summer's class, that price included a good 20-30 percent inflation on a generous read of his value at this point of his career.
Mechanically, Hayward did very well compared to fellow restricted free agents Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe, who are still waiting on their contracts. The restricted free agency process can be unpredictable, and yet Hayward still found a way to get big money early in the summer, guaranteeing a strong pay day. Clearly, Hayward's agent more than earned his commission.
Perhaps most impressive is that Hayward received max money even though there was tons of movement at his position. Consider: James, Luol Deng, Chandler Parsons, Trevor Ariza, and Paul Pierce were among the small forwards to change teams this summer. That's a lot of big name guys playing musical chairs, and yet Hayward still found a seat. And it's a good seat, too. Hayward was always a natural fit in Utah, on and off the court, and GM Dennis Lindsey maintained throughout the process that retaining Hayward was a top priority, no matter the price. Now, the team/player match is officially sealed for the next four seasons, giving the Jazz an important roster building block as they continue to rebuild.
Mahoney: Kevin Seraphin. After drawing little interest on the open market, Seraphin fell back on the Wizards' qualifying offer: A one-year, $3.9 million stay on an improving team empowered with the ability to veto any trade he's involved in. That's a lot of coin and a lot of pull for a player who registered 11 minutes per game last season, some due to injury to Washington's starters.
That deal was only really available to Seraphin due to the uncertainty of the Wizards' offseason. Coming in, Washington faced the free agency of big men Marcin Gortat and Trevor Booker, complicated by the concurrent free agency of Trevor Ariza. When the smoke cleared, however, Gortat was re-signed, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair were added and Ariza had been replaced by the power-forward-eligible Paul Pierce. Why the Wizards didn't just withdraw their qualifying offer (as was an option prior to July 23) to Seraphin is a bit of a mystery, though he'll earn a nice salary with control over his future as a result of that decision.
3. Which conference fared better this offseason: East or West?
Mahoney: East. There's a fair case to be made for either conference here, but I think the East on the whole gets the nod because 1) Cleveland landed LeBron James and 2) Every non-Cavs team in the East benefits from LeBron leaving the Heat. James' decision to split ways with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade has created a power vacuum in the conference, leaving a wider range of teams in position to gun for the conference finals or better. The teams themselves may not have improved radically but the conference itself shifted toward parity; are any of the Bulls, Cavs, Pacers, Hornets, Wizards or Raptors decisively better than the rest?
Golliver: West. At first glance, one might be tempted to say that the East did better because there are roughly five or six teams that could finish with the No. 1 seed next year. Even 2014 lottery teams like New York and Boston surely think their current positions and future outlooks are better now than they were before Miami's "Big Three" broke up.
Digging deeper, though, it seems unlikely that increased parity will help the weaker East against the West. If anything, the West's stranglehold on the league's power should continue unabated, as the East just went from having two teams capable of winning the 2014 title to having zero ready-made 2015 title contenders (barring a major Kevin Love trade).
If we're pitting the two conferences against each other and labeling the Spurs and Thunder as the 2015 favorites, with the Clippers, Warriors and others in the mix, how can the East really feel all that great about spreading out its talent? The departure of Lance Stephenson takes Indiana down a notch, but it doesn't make Charlotte a title contender. LeBron James' decision to go home to Cleveland kills Miami's 2015 title hopes, but it comes with no guarantee that his new team will be in the mix in June.
Looking at the top playoff teams in the West, the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Warriors and Blazers all managed to escape the offseason without major impact players leaving town. That makes this summer look like a case of the NBA's rich Western Conference getting even richer.
4. Which team had the most underrated offseason?
Golliver: Raptors. GM Masai Ujiri didn't ink any contracts that made you go, "Whoa! What a fleecing!" but he did pound out a series of B/B+ moves that kept his rotation together while adding minor players around the edges. Because the Raptors lost in the first round, it's easy to forget that they finished with the East's third-best record last season. The two teams above them -- Indiana and Miami -- must deal with the departures of Lance Stephenson and LeBron James, respectively. Meanwhile, Toronto's postseason foe, Brooklyn, is suddenly without Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston (not to mention coach Jason Kidd). With so many teams falling back to the pack, the Raptors calmly treaded water by retaining Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez. The addition of Lou Williams has the potential to be an under-the-radar steal too.
Let's not overlook the fact that Ujiri also brought back coach Dwane Casey, who oversaw last year's surprising campaign and created a defense-first culture that helped the Raptors overcome their lack of A-list starpower. Casey will be tasked with keeping the positive mojo going for a second season, but he approaches that job without any major new roster holes to fill.
Mahoney: Suns. Phoenix could easily have swallowed a max deal for Eric Bledsoe and been done with it, but instead wisely waited out restricted free agency to the point where only a few teams could even maneuver to create cap room for a max offer sheet. This positions Phoenix to get Bledsoe back at a relative bargain; every dollar saved is profit, provided the team doesn't damage their relationship with the star guard in the process. We can't evaluate the Bledsoe situation with certainty until we see final contract terms and Bledsoe's reception of them, though from a teambuilding perspective Phoenix is handling this aspect of its offseason prudently.
Beyond Bledsoe, the fact that the Suns landed the productive Isaiah Thomas – himself a restricted free agent – for $27 million over four years is outstanding. Luring away such a player typically requires a team like Phoenix to either tender a cumbersome contract offer or trade some assets in return. Here the Suns did neither, ultimately getting Thomas on a declining, team-friendly deal to fill minutes behind Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Opportunity knocked, Suns GM Ryan McDonough answered.
Phoenix also returns P.J. Tucker, a defender and corner shooter who did well for the Suns last season. The total value of Tucker's deal ($6.5 million over three years) might seem a bit rich, but its final season will be largely unguaranteed (per Sham Sports) and the Suns' cap sheet is plenty flexible in the interim. The loss of Channing Frye is big, but paying out $32 million to the sweet-shooting big man over four years (as Orlando did) might not have been wise for a team in Phoenix's position. Instead, the Suns have tabbed Anthony Tolliver – a similarly rangy, if less versatile forward – as Frye's functional replacement. Tolliver will cost Phoenix just $3 million this season with only a marginal portion ($400,000) of that same salary amount guaranteed for next season.
All of which ignores the additions of intriguing first rounders T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis, along with the eventual addition of the drafted-and-stashed Bogdan Bogdanovic. Even without making waves the Suns have been awfully busy and awfully productive.
5. Which team pulled off the biggest steal of the offseason?
Golliver: Mavericks. The Big German's three-year, $25 million contract is so far outside the bounds of reasonable compensation that "steal" doesn't even come close to doing it justice. After a season in which Nowitzki posted the league's 12th best Player Efficiency Rating as the No. 1 scoring option on the NBA's second-most efficient offense, the future Hall of Famer agreed to a deal that will pay him just a hare more than Marvin Williams. Get out of town. When you're significantly undercutting Tim Duncan's hometown discount deal with the Spurs ($10 million per year), you're entering uncharted waters.
Here's a partial list of power forwards that will make more than Nowitzki next year: Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Josh Smith, David Lee, Carlos Boozer (given the amnesty rules), Nene, David West, Zach Randolph, Kevin Garnett and Andrea Bargnani. Outside of young studs still on rookie deals, like Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, you just don't see this type of production per dollar value among star players in the NBA.
Mahoney: Mavericks. Dirk freaking Nowitzki will be paid less than $8 million this season, an amount that will make him the fourth-highest-paid Maverick. That in itself is tremendous for Dallas, and made all the more so by the cap room Nowitzki's sacrifice was able to free up. If not for Dirk's willingness to again sign for a well-below-market rate, it would have been difficult for Dallas to make enough room for Chandler Parsons and Devin Harris – who together will make $18.6 million next season. With Nowitzki's cooperation, though, the Mavs pulled off an impressive run of moves this summer set to be capped with the additions of Jameer Nelson and Al-Farouq Aminu.