Off-season grades: Northwest 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, DeAntae Prince breaks down the Northwest Division.
Portland Trail Blazers
Best move: Signing Damian Lillard to a five-year, $120 million contract extension.
Analysis: The Portland Trail Blazers’ existence as a team bordering on contention within the Western Conference was built around LaMarcus Aldridge. Sure, Aldridge was surrounded by more than capable players, with rising star Damian Lillard at point guard, defensive strongman Wes Matthews at shooting guard, and all-around Nicolas Batum filling in the cracks at forward.
But none of that mattered once Aldridge was no longer there to man the block, dominate his matchup, and draw heavy help defense. The Trail Blazers were aware of this, and after Aldridge jettisoned the team for a shot at a title in San Antonio, Portland pressed reset on its roster, unloading Batum in a trade to the Hornets and letting Matthews walk to the Mavericks. Robin Lopez also signed a four-year, $54 million deal with the Knicks. With that, Lillard became the last man standing. In the 2014–15 season the Trail Blazers’ starting five was only behind the Clippers’ core in minutes played together. Now, after years with one of the NBA’s most shallow benches, the Trail Blazers are without that crutch on which it comfortably leaned for years.
In the interim, Lillard’s rise will continue with a remade team, focused more on rebuilding than contending. The Batum trade netted Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh, while the departures of Matthews and Arron Afflalo will open minutes for C.J. McCollum to continue to grow as a scoring option. The biggest hole, as expected, will come in the frontcourt, where Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee, and an army of others will be asked to replicate the production of Aldridge and Lopez.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Worst move: Firing Scott Brooks after seven seasons as head coach and signing Enes Kanter to a four-year, $70 million contract.
Analysis: For a good deal of his tenure as Thunder general manager, Sam Presti has proceeded with a certain level of pragmatism. The deal that defines him to date is his decision to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets with a year left before he could reach restricted free agency. Given the choice to pick between Harden and Serge Ibaka, Presti took a good look at his team’s needs and made what he believed to be the shrewd decision. While Steven Adams and Mitch McGrady are promising big men gleaned from the two first-round picks acquired in the deal, what appeared to be the meat of the trade has fallen apart over time. Kevin Martin left for the Timberwolves after one season in Oklahoma City and Jeremy Lamb has failed to make good on his potential.
The Oklahoman correctly characterized the Harden deal as the trade that will never die, but the focus on it can subside if Presti's moves this summer help keep Kevin Durant in 2016—an outcome that would make it far easier to hold on to Ibaka and Russell Westbrook in 2017. Such high stakes can goad even an elite pragmatist like Presti into making a few knee-jerk moves to prove the team is on the up-and-up and worthy of Durant’s prime years.
The first was firing Scott Brooks after seven seasons, even though the team nearly made the playoffs with Durant and Westbrook missing time for injuries. It was clear the decision was not made based on 2014–15 results alone, but this is a time when stability is of the upmost importance, and Brooks represented that for the Thunder and, more importantly, for Durant. It’s not that hiring Billy Donovan was a bad idea. But there has to be some stock placed in the fierce loyalty both Durant and Westbrook showed to Brooks right until the bitter end.
The second was signing Kanter to a four-year, $70 million contract. As SI.com’s Ben Golliver noted, Kanter is a backup big man who offers little on defense. Still, once the Trail Blazers presented Kanter with a max offer sheet, the Thunder had little choice but to match and retain Kanter. Oklahoma City’s hand was forced and pen was put to paper. To put the deal in perspective, consider this: Kanter’s $17.5 million annual salary tops that of Draymond Green at $16 million and Greg Monroe at $16.7 million.
In contrast to the Harden deal, Oklahoma City’s best move was the one it didn't make, when the team decided to trade Reggie Jackson rather than pay him top dollar to occupy a sixth man role. That decision became even brighter once the Thunder drafted Cameron Payne in the 2015 NBA draft to take over the reigns. If his personality and work ethic serve as any indication, Payne should be much less of a distraction within the locker room as well. Remember, this year will feature questions about Donovan’s chops as an NBA coach and Durant’s impending free agency. The Thunder don’t need any extra distractions.
Best move: Keeping their young roster intact.
Worst move: Losing Dante Exum to injury.
Analysis: Often times the best move is no move at all. Such was the case for the Jazz, who played inspired basketball to end the 2014–15 NBA season behind Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. Utah locked up both players in advance of last season, with Hayward agreeing to a four-year, $63 million max contract in 2014 and Favors signing an extension worth $49 million over four years in 2013. The deals were well worth it, as both players helped lead Utah to a 19–10 record after the All-Star break.
Thus, with their best players on the books, the Jazz only needed to get healthy. Alec Burks, who signed a four-year extension worth $42 million, only played 27 games before shoulder surgery ended his season. But while Burks’s health was on the uptick, trouble was brewing for Dante Exum. After playing in all 82 games as a rookie, he decided to suit up for Australia in an exhibition game against Slovenia. Exum drove hard toward the paint in the game and jump-stopped to gather himself—and at that moment he tore his ACL, an injury that will likely keep him sidelined for the entire 2015–16 season. Selected with the No. 5 pick in 2014 NBA draft, Exum will now endure a lengthy rehab process while his teammates attempt to recreate the magic they created for a short time last season.
Best move: Cutting their loses with Ty Lawson and hiring Mike Malone.
Worst move: Signing Jameer Nelson to a three-year, $13.5 million contract.
Analysis: Just last season there was a time when the Nuggets appeared as if they couldn’t get right. The head coach was rapping to reach players from a different generation, and the players were counting down the days until the end of the season in the huddle. Denver will still have a tough time competing in the Western Conference, but they have taken steps in the right direction this off-season.
Perhaps the most trying event of the Nuggets’ summer involved their best player, Ty Lawson, whose second DUI arrest forced the team to cut its losses and trade him to the Rockets in exchange for a protected first-round pick in 2016 and cash along with Nick Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, and Joey Dorsey. The deal also included a 2017 second-round pick.
Houston, a team populated with veterans, viewed Lawson as worth the risk on a one-year rental. The Nuggets looked to replace Lawson by signing Jameer Nelson to a three-year, $13.5 million contract. He will serve an important role as the bridge between Lawson and rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, but Nelson's paycheck will not match his importance to the team. The deal locks Nelson up through his 36th birthday, although he struggled in stops with the Mavericks and Celtics last season and is an undersized guard on the decline.
The positive is that Mike Malone will be there to make sense of Nelson’s role and Mudiay’s growing pains. The Nuggets were in need of better direction after letting George Karl go after he won Coach of the Year in 2013 and firing Brian Shaw. Shaw is a respected assistant but struggled in his short time as Nuggets coach. Malone has experience and defensive chops on his side as he starts this new journey in Denver, just as Karl gets going in Malone’s old home, Sacramento.
Worst move: N/A
Analysis: The Timberwolves won 16 games with an extremely young roster last season. Which means the core of their approach should center around teaching the game. Minnesota has talent in place with Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine all in the early stages of their development as players. There is no better way for the Timberwolves to ensure that they all succeed than to find extensions of the coach. There are few players in the NBA who have seen more than Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller.
Garnett, who started his career in Minnesota, has already taken to a mentorship role and pledged to help guide Towns in the twilight of his career. Known for his tireless effort and legendary work ethic, Garnett is the perfect example for Towns, who possesses all the talent in the world. Garnett signed on for a two-year, $16 million contract with the Wolves and will end his career where it started straight out of high school some 20 years ago.
Miller should serve in a similar role. He can still see the floor better than most and is capable of knocking down midrange shots, but his feel for the game is something that can be shared with Wiggins and LaVine, who are both young guards whose athleticism outweighs their basketball knowledge at this point in their careers. LaVine’s ability to pick up tips from Miller should be of particular import with rumors swirling that Ricky Rubio could be traded in the near future. The role of Garnett and Miller will only be magnified by Flip Saunders's decision to take a leave of absence as he battles with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.