Off-season grades: Central 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, Ben Golliver breaks down the Central Division.
Best move: Fending off the suitors to lock up Kevin Love.
Worst move: Getting stuck in a stalemate with Tristan Thompson.
Analysis: Cleveland’s summer boiled down to two words: talent retention. With one notable exception, the Cavaliers succeeded in keeping together the guts of a roster that came within two victories of an NBA title. As expected, LeBron James re-upped on another two-year contract with an opt-out next summer. In the biggest move of Cleveland’s summer, Kevin Love decided to return on a five-year, $110 million contract, a deal that put to bed ongoing rumors that he might bail to become the No. 1 guy somewhere else and stabilized the Cavaliers’ “Big 3” for the foreseeable future. A number of key rotation guys lined up behind the stars: Iman Shumpert (4 years, $40 million), J.R. Smith (2 years, $10 million), Matthew Dellavedova, and James Jones all re-signed, ensuring that coach David Blatt will have every member of his 2015 playoff rotation back in the fold next season.
Well, technically, every member besides one, at least for the time being. After initial reports indicated that Cleveland had reached an agreement to re-sign Tristan Thompson, team and player reached an impasse that has blossomed into a full-blown stalemate. Thompson, whose agent Rich Paul also represents James, is hoping to cash in on a strong postseason run to the tune of $85 million over five years; Cleveland, with a payroll that is already well over the luxury tax line without Thompson, has multiple reasons to pinch a few pennies. After all, James, Irving, and Love will combine to make nearly $60 million next season, starting center Timofey Mozgov will be in line for a major raise as an unrestricted free agent next summer, the organization has already committed major resources to oft-injured big man Anderson Varejao, and a lucrative new deal for Thompson would force the Cavaliers to grin and bear significant, escalating luxury tax penalties. Most likely, the saga will end with the two sides reaching a long-term compromise, a la Paul’s late-arriving deal with the Suns for Eric Bledsoe last September. Alternatively, Thompson can play out the 2015–16 season on a qualifying offer that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
As Cavaliers fans await word on Thompson, whose offensive rebounding and defensive versatility make him a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and an excellent piece of insurance for Love injuries, they can look back at a summer that was otherwise devoid of mistakes or much intrigue. Shumpert, a perimeter stopper and complementary offensive player, returns on reasonable terms. Smith actually got stuck taking a pay cut for the 2015–16 season after generating limited interest when he opted out of his deal. Cleveland managed to avoid overcommitting to Dellavedova, a popular and plucky role player, and smartly used its taxpayer mid-level exception to acquire Mo Williams, who fits well into a Cleveland backcourt that needed a little extra playmaking alongside Irving. Richard Jefferson, Cleveland’s other noteworthy newcomer, might be on his last legs at age 35, but he’s another floor-spreader for James and he arrives on a cheapo minimum contract. The major outgoing pieces—Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, Shawn Marion, and Brendan Haywood—are familiar names but not impact players.
The salary cap math set up the Cavaliers for a summer that had limited upside and the potential for major disaster if Love bolted. That the 2016 Cavaliers will look a lot like the 2015 Cavaliers counts as a major victory for management, who juggled a number of balls to make it happen, and owner Dan Gilbert, who will be paying through the nose for a shot at a title. Although the lasting memory of the 2015 Cavaliers will be of James willing an injury-ravaged team through the postseason, forgetting how dominant the Cavaliers were down the stretch, after their midseason trades and before the injuries mounted, would be a major mistake. Considering James’s age and the quality of his play, this summer was precisely the right time for Gilbert to go “all in,” and his investments so far appear logical and fairly judicious.
With or without Thompson, Cleveland should again be regarded as the East’s top team, putting James on track to make his sixth straight Finals trip. With Thompson locked in, their summer looks like a solid “A.” If a long-term deal isn’t reached, that grade slips to “B+”. For now, let’s call it an incomplete, as Thompson’s happy return would boost the Cavaliers from “clear favorites” to “overwhelming favorites” in the East, while ongoing contractual drama would stand as a distraction for a team that otherwise looks poised for progress.
Best move: Re-signing Jimmy Butler, thereby keeping a contending core intact.
Worst move: Squandering tens of millions of dollars by waiting to extend Butler.
Analysis: The story of Chicago’s off-season was written before it even began, and nothing that unfolded over the last few months meaningfully altered the narrative. Former coach Tom Thibodeau was headed out, and he was summarily dumped in May. Fred Hoiberg was the expected replacement, and he was installed less than a week after Thibodeau’s departure. Jimmy Butler, a restricted free agent coming off of a breakout season that saw him win Most Improved Player and All-Star honors, was expected to cash in. He did so, to the tune of $95 million over five years. The rest of the personnel moves were viewed as likely to be minor tweaks rather than major shake-ups, and indeed that’s exactly how it played out. Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks all returned, ensuring that Hoiberg will enter training camp with every player who logged at least 150 minutes last year, plus promising first-round pick Bobby Portis.
This is a textbook “stay the course, change the captain” play by Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson, who are looking to move past ongoing beefs over minutes management with the hard-driving Thibodeau and hoping that Hoiberg can coax more fluid and consistent offensive play from a talented and decorated core that includes Butler, Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, and Joakim Noah.
The notion that Thibodeau was underachieving, like Mark Jackson in Golden State, is hard to swallow. On the contrary, Thibodeau generally made lemonade out of lemons during a five-year tenure that was swallowed up by ongoing injury issues to Rose. That said, multiple parties suggested for months that this group was ready for a new voice, and a fourth loss in six postseasons to LeBron James sealed his fate. Giving Bulls management buckets of credit for pulling the plug feels wrong, considering its role in the subterranean dysfunction, but the coaching change was ultimately executed in efficient fashion. There’s an argument to be made that the Thibodeau era didn’t need to end like this, but coach and team appeared to pass the point of no return. Although Hoiberg will undoubtedly enjoy more productive relationships with the Bulls brass and he looks suited to the task of better utilizing the likes of Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, and Tony Snell, any real assessment of his hiring will need to wait until after the former Iowa State coach has his first NBA season under his belt.
The biggest knock on Chicago’s off-season extends back nearly a calendar year: the organization dug in its heels during rookie contract extensions talks with Butler, a decision that ultimately cost the Bulls something like $45 million once he emerged as a star last season. Certainly, few could have predicted Butler’s breakout last fall, but there was still room for the Bulls to bend in those talks. As comforting as it is for Bulls fans to know that Butler will be in Chicago through at least 2019, it’s hard not to dream about the potential long-term roster-building repercussions if Butler had returned on a cheaper early extension like Stephen Curry.
This summer, however, the conservative approach made a lot of sense. The Bulls were the only team in the East to win a playoff game against James’s Cavaliers, and they were one David Blatt timeout screw-up and a Pau Gasol hamstring injury away from having a real shot at their first Finals appearance of the post-Michael Jordan era. They were also stuck with limited flexibility as they needed to pay up to keep Butler and were stuck working around Rose’s cap-cramping max contract. While there are plenty of looming questions—the Rose/Butler power balance, the Gasol/Noah fit, the pros and cons of staying big versus downsizing to smaller, spacing lineups—there are also plenty of talented players who can help shape the answers. There’s no shame in continuing forward under the “Best roster in the East besides Cleveland” label, especially when Rose’s health represents a constant dose of volatility.
Best move: Winning the Greg Monroe sweepstakes.
Worst move: Shelling out a first-round pick and a second-round pick for Greivis Vasquez.
Analysis: The only grade that really matters came down from Bucks ownership on Monday, when GM John Hammond was given a contract extension through the 2016–17 season. That vote of confidence comes at a point of swelling hope for the franchise, which has claimed recent victories in its fight for a new arena, unveiled spiffy new jerseys and logos as part of a branding overhaul, and positioned itself for a run at its first winning season since 2009–10 after taking a huge, surprising step forward last season under coach Jason Kidd.
There was much to like about Milwaukee’s summer. The headlining move was the signing of free agent center Greg Monroe, an offensive-minded big man who Milwaukee (on a 3-year, $50 million contract) over the likes of New York and Portland. Monroe’s arrival helps reorient a lackluster offense, it fills a hole created by the sudden departure of troubled center Larry Sanders, and it stands as a symbol for the progress the Bucks have made in rebuilding their reputation since Kidd arrived last fall. Would any max-type player—even one with limitations like Monroe—have signed up to play for Larry Drew in small-market, cold-weather Milwaukee? Come on.
Although Monroe’s addition drew most of the attention, the re-signing of Khris Middleton to a five-year, $70 million contract will likely prove to be the most important of Milwaukee’s off-season. The 6'7" wing enjoyed a nice breakout in 2014–15, posting elite defensive impact numbers and showing off a developing offensive game that includes a dependable three-point stroke. The Bucks’ 25-and-under core of Monroe, Middleton, Giannis Antetokoumpo, and Jabari Parker collectively possesses serious, serious upside.
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It’s worth noting that Hammond traded away point guard Brandon Knight to Phoenix in a midseason deal, and that Knight also inked a five-year, $70 million deal this summer. If Milwaukee felt it was in a position to pay only one of Knight or Middleton, then it certainly made the right call, as the latter was a central piece in the Bucks’ elite team defense and has a much better chance at becoming one of the best players in the league at his position. While Michael Carter-Williams might not be the ideal long-term solution, and Milwaukee looks like it’s hedging its bets by stocking its depth chart with roughly 57 point guards, paying him rookie-scale money for the next two seasons should work out well enough that Knight won’t be sorely missed.
Milwaukee’s work on the trade market wasn’t quite as exciting or productive. Jared Dudley and Ersan Ilyasova were shipped out for little compensation in cap-clearing moves that facilitated the Bucks’ free agency plans. Once Monroe was on board, Milwaukee shipped Zaza Pachulia, a productive center on a reasonable contract, to Dallas and received a single future second-round pick in return. Meanwhile, Hammond parted with a future first-round pick and a second-round to acquire Greivis Vasquez, a solid but unspectacular back-up point guard who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Getting too little for Pachulia and giving up too much for Vasquez hardly qualifies as a disaster, but together the moves count as head-scratchers, even when taking into account Milwaukee’s specific positional needs.
The league will be ready for the Bucks next season, and there’s no guarantee that this young squad takes another major step forward. Parker must make a smooth return from injury. Carter-Williams must improve as a shooter and decision-maker. Middleton must continue to expand his offensive arsenal and Antetokoumpo must improve his range. Most importantly, Milwaukee must keep its defensive edge as it works in Monroe and find a way to sop up the 4,700-plus minutes logged by Dudley, Pachulia, and Ilyasova last season. That’s a healthy list of variables, to be sure, but the approval from ownership seems deserved. During a summer that saw few marquee names change teams, the Bucks landed a big fish in Monroe and took care of Middleton while managing not to completely break the bank or seriously compromise its future flexibility. That’s a job well done.
Best move: Drafting a potential franchise big man in Myles Turner at No. 11.
Worst move: Angering David West to the point that he gave up millions of dollars to race out of town.
Analysis: There’s a difference between pivoting and careening when it comes to roster-building, and Pacers president Larry Bird might have crossed over to the wrong side of the line this summer. While some might view Indiana’s off-season as a premature blow-up, given Paul George’s return and the Pacers’ back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014, it’s not quite that simple. The core of those teams took a hit last summer when Lance Stephenson departed, Roy Hibbert’s defensive impact diminished significantly last season, and David West turned 35 this summer. Chasing the ghosts of those teams was a good recipe for disappointment.
What Bird came up with, however, just isn’t all that enticing in the immediate future. Hibbert was strongly encouraged to opt out of his contract and then dumped to the Lakers for next-to-nothing. West, upset in part with the treatment of Hibbert and Indiana’s dimming outlook, surprisingly turned down a $12.6 million option to chase a title with the Spurs on a minimum deal. Crafty veteran Luis Scola bailed for the Raptors. Those largely uncompensated departures left the Pacers with big frontcourt holes that will require coach Frank Vogel to give huge minutes to replaceable players (Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, Lavoy Allen) and untested rookies (Myles Turner and Rakeem Christmas), or to embrace smaller lineups that shift George up from the three to the four. Neither approach is totally desirable, and George’s initial reluctance to embrace life as a small ball power forward only exacerbates the positional balance concerns.
Indiana’s big addition was Monta Ellis, a quality playmaker with defensive deficiencies who arrives on a four-year, $44 million contract. That price is alright, not fantastic, and it’s time to start wondering when the burden of playing the most minutes in the NBA since the start of the 2010–11 season will catch up to him. Fit-wise, it looks like a decent move: Ellis’s off-the-dribble game should work well in Indiana’s spread lineups, and the presence of George Hill and Rodney Stuckey should ensure Vogel doesn’t need to over-rely on him. Still, his entertainment value has generally outpaced his impact on winning in recent years, and his presence will strain Indiana’s interior defense. Besides Ellis, the Pacers’ other veteran additions, Hill and Chase Budinger, are forgettable.
If there’s anyone to truly get excited about it is Turner, a versatile 6'11" center who projects as a quality interior defender and an inside/outside scorer. However, asking for ready-made production from any teenage big man is simply asking too much. Phasing out Hibbert in favor of Turner over multiple seasons would have made for a smoother transition, and the Pacers will undoubtedly take some lumps if and when they decide to give real run to the Texas product.
Like George, who returned to the court for just 91 minutes last season following a devastating leg injury, the new-look Pacers are an unknown quantity entering the 2015–16 season. The summer produced a clear shift in philosophy, but it didn’t quite feature the necessary corresponding talent overhaul. If this new cast shapes up into a winning product, Vogel should be at the top of the Coach of the Year conversation. But, if things don’t go so well, Bird should be the first to shoulder the blame.
Best move: Getting a (virtually) free look at Ersan Ilyasova.
Worst move: Backing up the Brinks truck for Reggie Jackson.
Analysis: It didn’t take long for Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy to reshape his roster into the spread pick-and-roll mold he prefers. Josh Smith was dumped in the blink of an eye and at a major financial cost. Greg Monroe left for a division rival, returning nothing directly. So many other trades, signings, and draft picks have been made that 22-year-old center Andre Drummond, selected in the 2012 lottery, is now Detroit’s longest-tenured player. To Van Gundy’s credit, if ever there was a franchise that needed a thorough housecleaning, it was the Pistons, and he doesn’t lack for elbow grease
Although standards are incredibly low in Detroit, which hasn’t witnessed a 33-win season since 2008–09, the incoming talent pool is composed of more questions than answers and more questionable contracts than great deals. The summer’s marquee move, the re-signing of Reggie Jackson to a five-year, $80 million contract, looks like a stretch. Jackson put up impressive numbers during meaningless late-season games and he fits Van Gundy’s offensive scheme well enough, but he’s still a 25-year-old career backup with gaps throughout his game. Was any other team in the league willing to approach this level of compensation for Jackson? Van Gundy’s major frontcourt addition, the competitive but limited Aron Baynes, arrives on a generous 3-year, $20 million deal a few months after he was unable to stay on the court during the playoffs. Meanwhile, back-up point guard Steve Blake, a 35-year-old trade acquisition, is ready for retirement.
Van Gundy’s most prudent veteran addition was stretch forward Ersan Ilyasova, who was plucked from the Bucks, who needed to dump him to clear salary cap space. Ilyasova has been hampered by injuries over the last two seasons, but he’s a proven floor-spacer who can orbit around the perimeter, freeing up the paint for Jackson’s to-the-basket forays and Drummond’s paint work. At $7.9 million in 2015–16 and a lightly-guaranteed contract in 2016–17, Ilyasova was well worth a shot for a team that hasn’t had a top 10 offense since 2007–08. The nothing-for-something acquisition of forward Marcus Morris fits a similar bill, although the lesser Morris twin brings some off-court drama, maturity issues, and a contract that runs through 2018–19. One thing is for sure: Detroit doesn’t have the luxury of being scared away by red flags.
This summer’s great hope is rookie Stanley Johnson, a two-way talent from Arizona with natural scoring instincts and an excellent size/strength/quickness combination that should allow him to play multiple positions. A strong showing at Summer League puts him in the mix for minutes, but there’s sure to be an adjustment period as he acclimates to the physicality and length at the professional level. If Johnson evolves into a long-term, All-Star level running mate for Drummond, this off-season will be remembered as a success.
Nevertheless, the immediate outlook for Detroit remains cloudy. Jackson has the potential to put up big numbers if the ball stays in his hands, but will that translate to team success? Also, how will all parties respond once Brandon Jennings returns from his Achilles injury? Will Drummond, a no-brainer candidate for a max rookie extension this fall, thrive now that he no longer is sharing the stage with Monroe? Can Ilyasova stay healthy? Will any of the Pistons’ other rotation players emerge as plus individual contributors, or will Van Gundy find a way to work his Magic-era magic and create a collective that performs better than the sum of its parts? As tempting as it is to put faith in Van Gundy’s sideline acumen, it’s fair to wonder whether he has the horses yet, or whether it will take another year or two of churn to pull the Pistons out of their slog.