NBA Off-Season Grades: Best And Worst Teams
- With stars changing teams and everyone chasing the Warriors, it's been a summer of non-stop action in the NBA. Let's break down the best and worst performers.
The NBA off-season has been churning along at 150 miles per hour for almost a month, but this week it's finally beginning to slow down. Deals have been signed, stars have relocated, the Knicks are still the Knicks, and the Warriors are still the Warriors.
What about everyone else? Let's hand out some grades to the most notable names of the NBA off-season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Consider where the Thunder were before free agency began. Russell Westbrook was set to be offered a $200 million extension, but it wasn't clear if he would take it. Likewise, if Westbrook actually signed, there would be even less cap room for Presti to work with as he tried to upgrade an overachieving roster that lost in the first round of last year's playoffs. It was a bleaker situation than most people realized.
Then the Pacers got involved. I'm still not sure what Indiana saw in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, but the Paul George trade makes the Thunder the biggest winners of the summer. Anytime you pull off a deal that makes the entire league pissed off, it's a good sign.
George will make the Thunder more fun next year, and more flexible long term. By foisting Oladipo on the Pacers, OKC cleared his $84 million contract off the books and positioned itself for one of two options: 1) Russ signs the extension, and they have money to build around him next summer, with or without Paul George or 2) Russ doesn't sign the extension, signals he's ready to leave, and OKC can rebuild from the ground up, with cap space to take on bad contracts in exchange for more assets. They also added Patrick Patterson on a super valuable deal, and brought back Andre Roberson as a perimeter stopper.
It's not to say that OKC is suddenly a title contender, or that this summer's moves will keep Westbrook in OKC forever. George is probably still headed to L.A. next summer, and if the season breaks bad, he could be on the move even earlier. This can still get plenty complicated. But in light of how dark this summer could've gotten, what happened instead feels like a magic trick. OKC is ready for war next year, and whatever happens from there, it'll be in good shape to handle it. Grade: A
The Celtics are sort of the inverse of the Thunder story, and not just because they were the biggest name that missed out on Paul George. Like OKC, processing the Summer of Ainge means considering not just what happened, but what was possible.
What actually happened: Boston's starting nucleus is better than it was last year, and they still have more assets than any team in the league. They added Gordon Hayward, they drafted Jayson Tatum and grabbed a lottery pick from the Sixers, and they forfeited very little. Losing Avery Bradley will hurt, but they flipped him for Marcus Morris on an affordable deal, and that's better than losing Bradley for nothing next summer. After this summer, the Celtics believe they're positioned to continue winning now, with young players who will be around to keep it going well into the next decade.
What was possible: The Celtics could have come away from this summer with a potential cornerstone for the post-Warriors, post-Isaiah era, but they traded Markelle Fultz to Philly. They could've put together a title nucleus for this season, but they refused to include any of their most valuable assets in Paul George talks with the Pacers—a factor that may have annoyed Indiana into taking the OKC offer. Instead they are betting big on a poor man's version of Paul George (Hayward), a lottery pick with a lower ceiling than Markelle Fultz (Tatum), and they just traded a shooting guard who's perimeter defense helps hide Isaiah Thomas's biggest weakness. (Also, now that Fultz is in Philly and Bradley is in Detroit, Boston is likely boxed into paying huge amounts of money to Thomas next summer. How much are you winning if Hayward, Isaiah, and Horford are your Big Three?)
Without Paul George they're not all that well positioned to contend next year, and without Fultz, the young core still doesn't have any player who looks like a future superstar. Maybe that will come via next year's Nets pick? Or the Lakers/Kings pick? Or another trade? Or maybe it'll change with a promising rookie season from Tatum. The only guarantee is that arguments about the Celtics will continue for at least another few years. This is our new version of the Sixers. Everyone in basketball has an opinion on what the Celtics are doing with their assets, why they're doing it, and whether it's stupid or brilliant. I'm just not sure it needed to be this complicated. Grade: C
On draft night I was ready to take my shirt off and run headfirst into battle for Tom Thibodeau. Now... Did the Jeff Teague contract dampen my spirits a little bit? Sure. Is it fair to wonder whether Taj Gibson is still good? Probably! Do I understand the Jamal Crawford contract? Not really!
But I keep coming back to that moment Jimmy Butler read his cell phone number at a press conference and told critics to call him. Or Jimmy and Thibs at the airport. Or this photo with KAT, and two of the 12 best NBA players on one team, with Andrew Wiggins looking like one of the best third options in the league. The Wolves will be fine. This summer was great. Don't overthink this. Grade: B+
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers haven't actually done anything to make themselves a more competitive team. Next year's Lakers will be bringing a Brook Lopez to a superteam gunfight, and it'll probably end with somewhere between 30 and 35 wins. From there, they'll be trying to woo superstars to come save them, which isn't actually that much of change from what the past regime was doing every summer.
But something about all this feels more competent. Trading D'Angelo Russell may not look great in a few years—he's still got All-Star potential—but they needed the cap space, and Russell turning the corner in L.A. was looking increasingly unrealistic after failures under two different coaching staffs. Then, they didn't panic and overpay for Paul George. They didn't spend $71 million on Tim Hardaway. They didn't worry too much about LaVar Ball. They grabbed Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma as potentially helpful role players.
And they drafted Lonzo, obviously. He may not be a superstar if his shooting doesn't develop, but he's got a high floor and his passing will be infectious. Everyone will look better with Lonzo on the floor, and beyond that they are staying flexible and patient. This is progress. Grade: B
Dwyane Wade and the Bulls
Apart from every single thing Klay Thompson did in China for the past two weeks, my favorite social media sequence of the off-season came from Dwyane Wade in late June. First:
And 30 minutes later:
"Everyone thinks I'm overpaid at $24 million-a-year, so here's a reckless claim about my production, and here's the sunrise from my opulent vacation in Italy." I love the NBA.
The Bulls get an F for the past 36 months, and I have no confidence in that front office's ability to manage the rebuilding process. But Wade gets an A for answering critics better than any of us ever could. Grade: A
Dan Gilbert and the Cavs
Low-balling David Griffin in extension talks was not a great look, low-balling Chauncey Billups was even worse, and now the future is uncertain for everyone in Cleveland. LeBron has been silent throughout this process, and he reportedly never made contact with Billups as he weighed the offer. Something is happening in Cleveland, and whatever it is, we don't have the full story.
For now, the biggest moves the Cavs have made are re-signing Kyle Korver to a $21 million deal, signing Jose Calderon, and becoming the latest team to run out of options and say, "Well, Jeff Green is available..."
It's been a steep fall from Jimmy Butler rumors and Paul George blockbusters. The Cavs are still the best team in the East, no question. But the gap between them and the Warriors looks even wider after this summer. I guess at some point we can sleepwalk through a conversation about Jeff Green's role or what Calderon could do, but it feels secondary after the past few weeks. Only one Cavs question matters: What the hell is happening with Dan Gilbert and LeBron? Grade: D
If there's one thing we all said after James Harden's meltdown in Game 6, it was, "Give that man $200 million!"
Damn J Hard can prob own a lil percentage of the team now lol— Bradley Beal (@RealDealBeal23) July 8, 2017
On the one hand, this means that Morey and the Rockets are currently better off than their counterparts in Oklahoma City. On the other, I'm not 100% sold on James Harden taking care of himself and staying in the MVP conversation through the second half of that deal. In any case, taking care of Harden puts a nice bow on everything else the Rockets accomplished this summer.
Houston with Chris Paul is a little bit like OKC with Paul George. It's not clear if this union makes sense, and it may not last past this season, but it's a lot more interesting than any of the other options that were available. Throw in a deal for PJ Tucker to harass the Warriors on the perimeter and good value on Nene's deal, and the Rockets did really well.
The chemistry could get tricky and the depth isn't great, and I'm not sure they're that much better than the Spurs, let alone threats to the Warriors. But this feels like a 55-win team and basketball's most interesting science experiment. (That's before Morey finds a way to add Melo somehow.) All things considered, it's a step forward in a summer that looked like it would be a dead-end. Grade: B+.
I definitely have my guard up here. Praising the Kings' off-season feels like what football writers do with the Jaguars after the NFL draft every year. But what can you say? Everything they did made sense.
De'Aaron Fox has a higher ceiling than anyone in the draft outside of Fultz and Ball, and they got him at No. 5, while also resisting the urge to trade up to get him. They passed on Zach Collins and Malik Monk at 10, in part because neither one would have fit with the rest of their core. The old Kings—the Kings that drafted two centers last year, after drafting Cauley-Stein the year before, all of which came with Boogie playing 40 minutes per game at power forward, and Kousta Koufos starting—were not concerned with fit.
This summer has been a real departure. The Kings went and drafted players who actually know how play basketball to help stabilize the environment around Fox. Vince Carter is the perfect wise uncle to help Buddy Hield and Fox, and George Hill is an excellent fit at either backcourt spot while Fox learns. Zach Randolph is reunited with Dave Joerger, and he should be an awesome veteran for Skal Labissiere provided he doesn't accidentally break him in half during practice.
It feels like there's a real strategy in place for the first time in a decade. The veterans will help solidify the culture, and the young guys—Fox, Hield, Cauley-Stein, Justin Jackson, Labissiere, Harry Giles—may actually have a chance to succeed. It probably won't translate to real winning for the next year or two, but for a team that's thrown lottery pick after lottery pick into hopeless situations that probably handicapped their development, this is a real step forward. Obviously the legacy of this summer will depend on Fox, but I have a good feeling on that one, and early returns are promising. Grade: A
Rick Carlisle has been allergic to tanking for the past few years, and maybe it worked out anyway? The Mavs get a high marks because they decided to pass on a $100 million bidding war for Jrue Holiday, they stole Dennis Smith Jr. at the end of the top 10, and there's a chance they can get Nerlens Noel back for cheaper than the max deal that was initially expected. If that happens, they'll have a really solid young nucleus to build around, plus a decent amount of cap space for next summer. I'm not sure how any of this happened, but the Mavs have a brighter future than at least four or five teams that have been fixtures in the lottery for the better part of this decade. Grade: B+
The Hawks will be an interesting test case for the rest of the league. They decided against paying Paul Millsap this summer, and yes, they were able to keep a straight face when they politely declined to match Tim Hardaway Jr.'s $71 million offer sheet. Theoretically it hurts to lose a productive starter like Hardaway for nothing, let alone an All-Star like Millsap. But maybe this is the smarter way to play it. Most teams have been scared to lose core pieces and willing to overpay to keep winning teams intact—Blake in L.A., Lowry and Ibaka in Toronto, Otto Porter in Washington, last year's Blazers, this summer's Heat. But I wonder whether teams will come to understand that it can be just as productive to develop internally and wait for the chance to spend money on guys that make more sense.
Atlanta didn't blow it up and trade stars for assets. This was almost more radical: The Hawks came to a crossroads and decided that it wasn't worth it to spend $100 million to lie to themselves about the possibilities with Paul Millsap and limit opportunities elsewhere. It means they'll move a step down in the short term, but it'll be really interesting to see how far they actually fall, and how long it takes to find alternate solutions. With good coaching and solid young pieces in place, I bet they don't suffer as much you'd think. Grade: B
Every Contract Signed Last Summer
One problem Atlanta didn't solve was Kent Bazemore's contract, which pays him $17.5 million per year over the next three seasons. It's not great, but if the Hawks look psychotic in hindsight, they are not alone. Almost every major deal that was signed last summer looks awful in hindsight. Evan Turner, Ian Mahinmi, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Chandler Parsons, Bismack Biyombo, Allen Crabbe, Ryan Anderson... There are more untradeable contracts in the 2017 NBA than any year this millennium. It was a perfect storm of mismanagement by the league and the players' association, an underwhelming free agent class, and clumsy management by the teams themselves. And this summer has only made it clearer that the league's financial structure spun completely out of control a year ago. Grade: WHOOPS.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers did better than expected after losing Chris Paul, but I'm not sure what their summer actually accomplishes. If everyone's healthy, they'll finish somewhere between the 7th and 10th seed in the West. And then what? Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell are fun, and I can't wait to watch Milos Teodosic. Danilo Gallinari would have been a perfect Clippers addition if this was three years ago, but now, I'm not so sure. DeAndre Jordan doesn't really fit with the direction of the rest of the team, but with just a year remaining on his deal, his trade value isn't great, either.
It was a puzzling sequence of events, and it feels like they still need to figure out whether Doc Rivers makes sense for this team. But if nothing else, the Clippers' summer gave us this t-shirt, and the Blake Griffin museum:
Griffin walked into a Blake Griffin museum, basically. Stations set up to remind him of different stages of his life w/ Clippers.— Bill Oram (@billoram) July 1, 2017
The Blake Museum, 82 games of NBA Teodosic, and no more miserable nights with Chris Paul yelling at everyone... Yeah, there are questions here, but I can get behind the Weird Clippers. Grade: C+
We've written plenty on the Sixers over the past month, but it really can't be overstated how well they did this summer. In Markelle Fultz they found the perfect guard to play next to Ben Simmons, and they gave up less than expected in the deal with Boston. Colangelo even demanded a top-1 protection on the pick he sent to Boston—a clear sign that Sixers internet has infected his brain—and somehow the Celtics agreed. All of it was shocking.
Then, rather than overreact to the sudden ground swell of optimism and playoff whispers, the Sixers made short-term bets on J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson that will support their young stars while keeping the team flexible for next summer and beyond. Redick is a perfect player to compliment what they already have, and while he's not the one who'll make them a playoff team—that would be Embiid if he's healthy—he'll make life much easier for Fultz and Simmons as they play their first year in the NBA. The Fultz ankle injury at Summer League was a good reminder to proceed with caution when it comes to any and all Sixers expectations. But still. This was a great summer for a team that was due for good news. Grade: A
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors did not need more good news, but here we are. They re-signed Andre Iguodala and Livingston, two guys the rest of the league was counting on them to lose. Kevin Durant took an even bigger paycut than expected, while Steph Curry was rewarded with the $201 million and didn't sacrifice a dime. Omri Casspi was pretty mediocre when he saw the floor last year, but watch, he'll be helpful in Golden State. Nick Young is taking a paycut to join them too. Early numbers indicate that his presence on the floor will make Golden State opponents feel twice as demoralized by all of this.
They even brought back Zaza, and Steph responded on cue:
Nothing easyyyyyyyyyy!!!!— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) July 7, 2017
It's only right that in the summer of Warriors responses—PG in OKC, Chris Paul in Houston, Hayward moving East, Kawhi refusing to take off his uniform for the entire summer—the actual Warriors still wound up beating everyone. Good preparation for next season.
Grade: What China Klay said.