Off-season grades: Southwest Division
With most of the summer already in the books, SI.com is grading each team's off-season performance as well as examining their best and worst moves. Today, Rob Mahoney breaks down the Southwest Division.
San Antonio Spurs
Best move: The choreography of deals needed to keep the team intact while clearing room for LaMarcus Aldridge.
Worst move: N/A
San Antonio’s summer was a success without caveat. The only losses suffered were that of a willing concession (Tiago Splitter) for the sake of clearing room to sign a superior player and a backup point guard (Cory Joseph) whose asking price had outgrown his utility to the team. Otherwise, this was a front office showcase for a contender that milked the NBA’s transactional system to its fullest.
Plenty of teams work with their own Bird rights free agents to stretch their room under the cap as far as it will go. Yet rarely though, if ever, do we see a team already this good manage to preserve the patience and retain the commitment of so many high-level players. Kawhi Leonard could have named his price around the league; were it of interest to him to get a short contract with an opt-out as to get back on the market as soon as possible, that option would have been available to him. Instead, he agreed to re-sign with San Antonio on a five-year max and then waited to execute that agreement as to preserve the Spurs’ cap room. Danny Green, who was an unrestricted free agent, both took less than this summer’s market suggests he could have earned and signed exactly on the timeline that the Spurs needed.
There was never any reported inkling that Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili might go elsewhere—only that both had at least considered retirement. They came back at a discount instead, as is the Spurs’ astounding custom. San Antonio is treated with reverence for a reason. Those intricate, hypothetical schemes that could allow a team to improve if every party involved leaves something on the table? The Spurs have the winning currency to make them a reality. So respected is this organization that veterans concede, excellent young players cooperate fully, and quality free agents (like David West) sign for the minimum just to be a part of it. Aldridge, unsurprisingly, wanted the same.
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Best move: Acquiring Ty Lawson in exchange for little-used players and marginal assets.
Worst move: Losing Josh Smith and the security of a loaded frontcourt.
Houston made itself a title contender by collecting as many attractive trade components as possible and cobbling them together into deals as opportunism allowed. That very strategy gave the Rockets the means to acquire James Harden; if not for their amassing multiple first-round picks and the right kinds of contracts, the chance to trade for Harden might well have passed Houston by.
The same basic principle was applied this off-season on a smaller scale—both in trade package and return. In a deal with the Nuggets, the Rockets gave up but a single protected first-round pick along with four reserves to land the talented and troubled Ty Lawson. Denver’s motivation for moving Lawson, naturally, had more to do with the repercussions of his drinking than his basketball ability. Houston now accepts that risk but protected itself in the process. As a condition of acquiring him, the Rockets negotiated to remove the salary guarantee from the final year of Lawson’s contract. This seems a fair compromise for a player facing a burden of proof, professionally, and a team that’s wise to guard against the possibility of Lawson giving in to the same influences that have earned him multiple DUI violations.
Clearly the Rockets see reason for confidence in Lawson’s ability to get his life in order. If that assessment proves fair, Houston looks to be positioned for an outstanding return. Lawson can offer far more to a team’s operations than any of the four outgoing players (Pablo Prigioni, Kostas Papanikolaou, Nick Johnson, and Joey Dorsey) ever could have. His pace-pushing style fits perfectly within the Rockets’ preferred style and his ability to create offense should provide important relief to Harden. Lawson isn’t all that Houston needs in a point guard, though he does enough well and comes at so little tangible cost as to be well worth the gamble.
Adding Lawson also shifts Patrick Beverley, who re-signed on a four-year, partially guaranteed $23 million contract, into a more controlled role. Whichever player ultimately starts games is a matter of lineup dynamics. There’s an argument to be made that Beverley’s defense is the better counterpoint to Harden in the backcourt than Lawson’s offense, whereas Lawson might do more good bridging the offense in minutes when Harden takes a rest. The choice is a luxury that Houston earned with its maneuvering this summer. No matter the outcome, the balance of a revised point guard rotation will be a significant upgrade over the tandem of Jason Terry and Prigioni that tided Houston over until the Western Conference finals.
Free agent wings Corey Brewer and K.J. McDaniels return, too, to fulfill the needs for continuity and potential through their collective athleticism. Sam Dekker isn’t likely to play much this season but could eventually play a similar swiss-army-knife role. Terry re-signed to fill out the guard rotation and volume scorer Marcus Thornton was added at the minimum. The most significant piece Houston lost this summer was Josh Smith, whose defense in the regular season and playoffs helped the Rockets to survive injuries and balance their lineups. The extent that he’ll be missed will likely be mitigated by the full-time return of Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, coupled with the continued emergence of Clint Capela as a functional rotation player.
No team making significant additions will be without its hiccups and quirks of fit. Houston is no different; figuring out how to best play Lawson, Harden, and Dwight Howard off of one another will be an ongoing process of churning chemistry. The final product, though, seems to promise a chance at another deep playoff run if the matchups break in the Rockets’ favor.
Best move: Re-signing Marc Gasol and keeping the dream alive.
Worst move: Losing Kosta Koufos, a quality backup center, to the Sacramento Kings.
True to their operating ethos, the Grizzlies went about improving their roster in understated fashion. The biggest headline grab of Memphis’ off-season was the long-assumed re-signing of Marc Gasol, who had openly expressed his preference to stay. Otherwise, the bulk of the work was done far away from the summer spotlight. This was a team without the flexibility to make an offer to any of the flashiest free agents available. Rather than bend over backwards to create it, the Grizz went about their business and came away with two quality gets.
The first was Matt Barnes, who seemed like a Grizzly even while a member of the rival Clippers. The path to acquiring Barnes was abstract in the way that NBA trades so often are; Barnes was acquired by Memphis in a trade for the contract of Luke Ridnour, which the Grizzlies had acquired a day earlier in exchange for meaningless draft rights. Ridnour was a chip and Barnes, an actual NBA contributor, the end result. That the addition of such a player consumed none of the Grizzlies’ salary cap exceptions nor demanded that any real asset be traded in return was a nice pull for a team looking to make headway in the West.
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Using that untouched exception, Memphis landed Brandan Wright—a hyper-efficient finisher and bouncy athlete unlike any on the Grizzlies’ roster—at just $17 million over three years. This is an incredible price. Ed Davis and Aron Baynes will earn larger salaries over the same term without even remotely the same body of work. One can harp on Wright’s rebounding or nitpick some of the particulars of his defense. Yet ultimately he’s been a substantial net positive since coming into his own in the NBA and had good cause to demand far more than he did.
The discount is more than just cash savings. A team already making such a significant investment in its starting center isn’t well-positioned to match a lucrative offer like the four-year, $32 million deal given to Memphis’ previous backup center, Kosta Koufos. Wright, then, is both a stylistic adjustment for the Grizzlies and a reflection of their financial prudence. It all works out for Memphis, as Wright has the shot-swatting ability to complement Zach Randolph’s floor game and the slashing instincts to play beautifully off of Gasol.
And make no mistake: Gasol’s retention was the landmark move of the Grizzlies’ summer, even if it came as little surprise. Any other outcome would have left Memphis in real basketball peril—committed to a group of relatively high-salaried veterans that wouldn’t be achieving much of anything. Gasol is the element that makes sense of all around him. It’s through the balance of his game that the Grizzlies have the chance to contend in any series against any opponent. It’s by his influence that a group of hard-working defenders ranked third last season in points allowed per possession. It’s in Gasol that Memphis finds the offensive flexibility to get the better of playoff-caliber opponents through superb post and dribble hand-off play. Retaining him was the only logical course. Memphis, wisely, prioritized that end as to leave no doubt in their intentions.
New Orleans Pelicans
Best move: Locking in Anthony Davis for the next five years.
Worst move: Committing hefty deals to the same roster without improving upon it.
There is a tendency to treat the full run of a team’s off-season moves as a list—a format which in itself instills each item with some false equivalency. All transactions are not of equal value. Some are inherently of greater import given the stakes and risk involved. Others are couched in protections and alternatives that shield a team from potential fallout. I mention this because while some of the moves New Orleans made this summer are questionable, the one which matters most is not. Anthony Davis might soon be the best basketball player in the world. Now, he’ll definitely be a Pelican through 2021 unless the team sees fit to trade him.
Given the franchise-altering importance of megastars like Davis, criticism on any other point is just quibbling. Omer Asik signed a five-year, $58 million deal to return to a team that played him just 19.8 minutes a game in the playoffs and suffered a significant disadvantage with him on the floor. That price tag will understandably make many in the basketball world squirm; now isn’t exactly the time to be committing substantial deals to completely one-way centers who can be gamed out of a potential playoff series. Still, the Pelicans clearly thought it important to temper Davis’s minutes at center with a prolific rebounder and stout defender. Asik, even if overpaid, was the most realistic option given where New Orleans was relative to the cap.
One could register similar skepticism of Dante Cunningham’s three-year, $9 million deal or even Alexis Ajinca’s four-year, $20 million deal if they were so inclined—the sum of which leaves New Orleans with an awfully similar roster to what it had last season. The primary differences are these:
1) Better health will reflect better of that roster than last season’s first-round sweep.
2) A different coaching staff in command of that roster’s resources will bring it to greater ends.
Alvin Gentry is a terrific, creative head coach who could optimize the wide skill set of a player like Davis. That his staff is well-stocked and well-rounded only helps his cause; no longer should a team this equipped defensively fall in the bottom 10 of the league in points allowed per possession. Davis and Asik will patrol the interior. Jrue Holiday will soon be back to challenge the offense at its point of initiation. The basic components are in place to build a competent defense in balance to the Pelicans’ increasingly efficient offense—an important step for a playoff team looking to solidify its standing.
Eventually, though, the Pelicans will need to make more substantive additions beyond retaining their own. Whether that involves upgrading the starting lineup or merely better outfitting the bench remains to be seen and very much depends on the arc of Davis’s development. That New Orleans can bank on that development over the course of the next six seasons, however, speaks to the greater victory of their off-season course.
Worst move: The sequence of events leading to DeAndre Jordan’s defection, though little fault of the Mavs’ own.
Everything Dallas is and hopes to be as a basketball team changed on the whims of DeAndre Jordan. With a 27-year-old center on the brink of becoming an All-Star in the fold, the Mavericks could have used the coming season as the first step in a larger process. Jordan would be groomed, as promised, to play a more active role in creating offense than he had with the Clippers. Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and the newly signed Wesley Matthews would each complement Jordan in their own way; their collective passing, gravity, and utility would have made the Mavs a fundamentally more competitive team and, perhaps even more important, one marketable to free agents in the summer of 2016.
It wasn’t meant to be. A few rounds of spades and a tray full of chicken fingers sealed in July what had been reported days earlier: Jordan, for whatever reason, had reconsidered his agreement with the Mavericks and decided to use the informality of the NBA’s free agent moratorium to reverse course. In doing so, Jordan effectively neutralized Dallas’ ability to play the market. A majority of the NBA’s impact free agents had already committed by the time Jordan flipped. That left Dallas, which had already worked out a deal to sign Wesley Matthews, to reorient its roster while also accounting for the fact that two of its principals (Matthews and Parsons) were coming off of major injuries that left their full availability in doubt.
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Dallas did rather well, considering. Tyson Chandler, who started for the Mavericks at center last season as he did in 2010–11, had already committed to the Suns by the time Jordan sent Dallas back on the market. The same was true of almost every free agent center of starting quality, making it debatable whether the Mavericks suffered more from Jordan’s specific defection or the opportunity cost it created. As a workaround, the Mavs traded with a crowded Bucks team to pick up Zaza Pachulia—a quality defender and rebounder who could at least complement the existing core in a way the alternatives could not. The deal cost Dallas only a future second-round pick and Pachulia’s salary ($5.2 million for next season) was so slight under the rising cap as to give Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson room to scramble.
They would need it. Another bitter pill of Jordan’s decision was the bloating effect it had on standing offers to Matthews and J.J. Barea. When Jordan was considered a Maverick, Matthews and Barea had reportedly been penciled in on a four-year, $57 million deal and a two-year, $5.6 million deal, respectively. Ultimately, those two ended up signing contracts for $70 million over four years and $16 million over four years—figures that are significantly less team friendly. Some of Dallas’ remaining cap space was sopped up by Matthews in this conditional arrangement, meaning that so much of the Mavs’ immediate future hinges on paying top dollar to a player recovering from an especially devastating basketball injury.
Dallas, again, made the most of its remaining space by making a play for a point guard who wasn’t yet technically available to sign. Deron Williams’s salary was too cumbersome for the Mavs to absorb via trade while still making other necessary additions. As such, the team’s interest helped to facilitate a buyout for Williams from the Nets that made him an 11th-hour addition to the free agent pool. Williams was intended for Dallas all the way; deals all around the league are brokered on a sort of mutual and implied understanding, as was the case when Williams agreed to leave $18.3 million on the table from his final two years under contract with Brooklyn.
Williams isn’t a first-rate point guard anymore. Third-rate might even be pushing it; the league runs deep with lead ballhandlers who have passed Williams by due to age, injury, and gradual decline. Even still, there was no better point guard—nor any with a higher ceiling—available once the Mavericks made the determination to be competitive in the coming season. Williams signed to a deal short enough as to offer no real long-term value; there will be no Bird rights or even helpful non-Bird rights in play for the Mavs once Williams inevitably declines his player option to become a free agent next summer. Yet in the meantime, Williams might just save Nowitzki a headache or two and help win enough games to keep the Mavs in playoff contention.
Projecting anything more than that for Dallas seems a stretch. The roster is proportioned as such that small guards will need to play plenty of minutes together, especially if Matthews is limited or unavailable to start the season. The wings in general are a bit bare; it’s a good thing rookie forward Justin Anderson has an NBA-ready body and skill set as the Mavs might need him to contribute sooner than expected. Otherwise, Dallas has done a fine job filling out its roster with a mix of value veterans (Samuel Dalembert, Charlie Villanueva, JaVale McGee) and interesting prospects (Maurice Ndour, Jeremy Evans) in light of its unfortunate circumstances. It just isn’t enough to compete for much of real import in as deep and talented a conference as this.