The All-Lifeline Team: Five lottery-bound vets contenders should target this summer
"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week: five veterans stuck on lottery teams who should seek greener pastures during the summer free agency period.
Previously: The All-Grateful Team | The East's All-Letdown Team | The All-Atrocious Team | The All-Ignored Team | The All-Stocking Stuffer Team | The All-Recalibration Team | The All-Payday Team | The All-Gridiron Team | The All-Sanctioned Team | The All-Dunk Contest Team | The Non-Champions | The All-Gold Strike Team | The All-Tank Team | The All-Bullseye Team | The All-Four-Year Team
Although the trade season was light on power plays, there's no questioning its efficient transfer of players from also-rans to playoff contenders. The moves were defined more by quantity than quality, but all those minor transactions -- whether they came via trade, buyout or even trade then buyout -- have a way of adding up.
At least 12 players who began the season playing for teams that currently have 25 or fewer victories will get a shot at the playoffs after changing addresses. Those players, in no particular order: Luke Ridnour (Bucks to Bobcats), Gary Neal (Bucks to Bobcats), Steve Blake (Lakers to Warriors), Caron Butler (Bucks to Thunder), Evan Turner (Sixers to Pacers), Lavoy Allen (Sixers to Pacers), Glen Davis (Magic to Clippers), Hedo Turkoglu (Magic to Clippers), Jimmer Fredette (Kings to Bulls), Marcus Thornton (Kings to Nets), Courtney Lee (Celtics to Grizzlies) and Jordan Crawford (Celtics to Warriors).
Those are just the direct rags-to-riches names. If we loosen things up to include multi-step moves and lottery-bound sellers who aren't among the league's bottom-dwellers, you can add names like Beno Udrih (Knicks to Grizzlies), Andre Miller (Nuggets to Wizards), Jordan Hamilton (Nuggets to Rockets), Andrew Bynum (Sixers to Bulls to Pacers) and Danny Granger (Pacers to Sixers to Clippers).
None of those players are rookies or on monster long-term contracts, and many are set to become free agents this summer. Past that, this group runs the gamut from up-and-comers, to guys who needed a change of scenery, to veterans hoping to compete for a title, to injured or aging players who just didn't make sense in rebuilding situations. Regardless, they were all picked up at the NBA's garage sale of a deadline by opportunistic playoff teams looking to fill out their bench or plug a rotation hole, instantly transforming their seasons from meaningless to meaningful.
But what about the guys who didn't get a new lease on life? What about the veterans who remained stuck on lottery-bound teams or, worse yet, were sent in the wrong direction, going from playoff teams to an early summer?
Let's call these players The All-Lifeline Team: five pending free agents playing out the string on lottery-bound teams who might be better fits on more established squads next season.
PG: Ramon Sessions, Milwaukee Bucks
The well-traveled Sessions is no stranger to being dealt. The 27-year-old has played for five teams in his seven-year career, including two stints with the Bucks, who acquired Sessions and Jeff Adrien from the Bobcats for Ridnour and Neal at the deadline.
The move inspired some sympathy. Sessions has made the playoffs just once, with the Lakers in 2012, and that high point was immediately undercut when he opted out and Los Angeles successfully chased Steve Nash. Scrambling to find a new home, Sessions took a leap of faith by signing a two-year, $10 million contract with Charlotte, which was coming off a 7-59 season. That commitment, and the many losses that followed in 2012-13, turned out only to be a prelude to being dumped to Milwaukee just as Charlotte is gearing up for its second playoff appearance in franchise history. Sure, being able to cash those checks has helped take the sting off, but no one is envying his personal game of Chutes and Ladders. The Bobcats' need to add a scorer in Neal sent Sessions back to the league's bottom rung.
The major free-agent dollars for point guards this summer are earmarked for Eric Bledsoe (Suns, restricted), Kyle Lowry (Raptors, unrestricted) and Isaiah Thomas (Kings, restricted). It's possible that none of those three wind up changing zip codes. The second-tier names include Mario Chalmers (Heat, unrestricted), Shaun Livingston (Nets, unrestricted), Rodney Stuckey (Pistons, unrestricted) and Mo Williams (Blazers, player option), none of whom can really be classified as a game-changer.
Although Sessions is limited as a shooter and is better suited as a third guard than a starter, he ranks 21st among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating (16.3) and gets to the free-throw line a lot. He is positioned nicely as a value option in this summer's crop. Sessions is a solid distributor and a known quantity in his prime, and he's seen more than his fair share of losing. Wouldn't now be the ideal time for him, as an unrestricted free agent, to sign on with an organization that is actually going places?
SG: Nick Young, Los Angeles Lakers
There are some observers who see the Lakers magically reloading in a jiffy to make the most out of Kobe Bryant's last NBA chapter. I am not one of them. I'm selling hard on the Lakers' 2014-15 forecast because of the incessant reports of internal power struggles; the limited assets; the uncertainty around Bryant; the ongoing injuries for Nash; and the questions about coach Mike D'Antoni future, given the personnel merry-go-round that's taken place since he was hired. Even in a dream world -- one where Bryant returns to 100 percent, the team's 2014 lottery pick is moved for a blue-chip superstar and Pau Gasol is somehow re-signed on the cheap -- is it possible for the Lakers to fill out a roster, from scratch, that is capable of cracking the Western Conference's top six? Remember, teams and egos need time to jell.
For Young, 28, the question becomes whether it's worth playing for his hometown team for a second straight year on a subsidized deal. After signing a one-year, $5.6 million contract with the Sixers in 2012, Young opted for a two-year, minimum-salary deal (worth $2.3 million) last summer that included a player option for the 2014-15 season. He would be foolish to exercise the second year, as he's averaged 17.1 points off the bench this season. Swaggy P is undoubtedly more sizzle than steak, and his 14.7 PER is mediocre. That said, playing on a minimum deal for another year would be unnecessarily charitable.
If his choices are re-upping with the Lakers for a raise or fully exploring his options elsewhere, Young would be wise to choose the latter. There's no chance he's getting 13.4 shots a game once Bryant is back, and the looser moments that come with his easygoing personality -- like turning his back to celebrate a three-pointer that actually missed -- would seem to be mutually exclusive with Kobe's patented brand of competitiveness. Young's personality and game made him uniquely equipped to lighten the mood during a disastrous season. Does he make sense as a supporting player on a Bryant-led push for the bottom of the West's playoff picture?
Young has played for four teams in the last three seasons, and his status as a confident, streaky shooter puts him firmly in the "hired gun" category. He's been used as both a starter and a reserve over the years, but this season showed he's best used as a microwave scorer for a team that can use some punch off the bench. The two-guard market features Dwyane Wade (Heat, early-termination option), Lance Stephenson (Pacers, unrestricted) and Avery Bradley (Celtics, restricted), and all three -- much like the top point guards mentioned above -- could wind up staying put. That could mean a profitable summer for Young, and one that doesn't require settling for a team stuck in quicksand.
SF: Luol Deng, Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland took a reasonable risk in trading for Deng in January. The Cavs weighed their burning desire to make the playoffs and their massive hole at small forward against the fact that the 28-year-old two-time All-Star would be seeking a big payday as a free agent this summer. A push into the playoffs would help Deng acclimate to his new surroundings after nine-plus years in Chicago, the thinking went, and Cleveland possessed two primary ingredients that were seen as necessary to keep him, cap space and an owner who is willing to spend in Dan Gilbert.
The anticipated transformation simply never developed. Before Deng's arrival, Cleveland was 12-23. Since Deng's arrival, Cleveland is 16-21. Add that up, mix in an injury to Kyrie Irving, and you get the fourth straight lottery trip of the post-LeBron James era and a giant series of question marks hanging over Deng's future.
What are his ties to the city and the franchise? What does he make of the fact that Chris Grant, the general manager who traded for him, was fired only a few weeks after the deal? How important is maximizing his earning potential when he's already banked more than $80 million during his career? Why would a player who has made the playoffs six times since 2006, including the last four seasons, want anything less than a surefire, ready-made playoff team to play for next year?
The small-forward free-agent crop looks enticing at first glance. What happens if James (Heat, early-termination option), Carmelo Anthony (Knicks, early-termination option) and Gordon Hayward (Jazz, restricted) all stay put or re-sign? Deng is left as the undisputed top option at his position. It's quite possible that Cleveland isn't the only team interested in (over)paying for a dependable, two-way workhorse who has logged nearly 2,000 playoff minutes. Is there a chance that Deng becomes this year's Andre Iguodala?
PF: Charlie Villanueva, Detroit Pistons
Let's start a slow clap for Villanueva, who somehow managed to make it through the entirety of an atrocious five-year, $37.8 million contract in Detroit without being traded, bought out or amnestied. For a deal that looked like one of the league's worst just a few months after it was signed in 2009, this is a truly special feat. Sure, it's not quite as impressive as Pistons president Joe Dumars hanging on through the duration of that contract and tons of other poor decisions, but Villanueva still deserves a gold star.
Concerns about Villanueva's conditioning, health, attitude and just about everything else under the sun have popped up at various times over the years. The best way to sum up the lay of the land: Villanueva's half-decade in Detroit included more coaches (four) than playoff games (zero). He barely took the court during both the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons, and when he has played, he's done a lot of launching, missing and loafing. Need a clear testament to his indifferent approach on offense? He had more three-point attempts during his second year in Detroit (323) than free-throw attempts over the last five seasons combined (316). You've heard talk about the "stretch four"? Villanueva has been a snooze four.
Now, it's quite possible that the 29-year-old Villanueva, a 2005 lottery pick who has never made the playoffs in nine seasons, simply can't be salvaged. Many teams will rightfully conclude that his risks outweigh the rewards, eliminating him from their summer shopping lists before the calendar even turns to July. That's totally understandable. But in recent years we've seen remarkable turnarounds or reappearances from Boris Diaw (conditioning), Greg Oden (knees), Michael Beasley (drugs), Drew Gooden (lack of playing time), and Andray Blatche (... lap dances?), among others. Villanueva might not even stack up very well to that list of cast-offs, given his five years of dwindling production, but does that mean he's absolutely worthless? And are we completely sure that he will be the same player, with the same risks, when he's not in a carrot-less environment that includes a revolving door of coaches and constantly changing roles?
The "Charlie Villanueva is a massively overpaid disappointment on a terrible Pistons team" era is finally about to end. His future will be defined by his willingness to recommit himself and by his ability to sell an organization that has its stuff together on his ability to fit into a team context. Although he's unlikely to generate a long list of suitors as a free agent, it's possible to imagine Villanueva paying off as a low-cost flier for an established team that has a no-b.s. climate in place. If not now, then never?
C: Kris Humphries, Boston Celtics
I know he's not a center, you know he's not a center, his more famous ex-wife knows he's not a center and the Celtics and their fans definitely know he's not a center. Coach Brad Stevens hasn't had much of a choice in using the 6-foot-9 Humphries at the pivot this season, though, as the decks were otherwise cleared during the first year of an extended rebuilding plan. The results have been predictably unsightly: The Celtics are 23-47 and opponents have generally creamed lineups with Humphries at the five.
Humphries, 29, has buttered his bread during his 10-year career as a productive rebounder who is capable of scoring in the paint. He somehow suckered the Nets into a two-year, $24 million contract in 2012 after averaging double-doubles in back-to-back seasons. That laughable deal inadvertently proved helpful when it facilitated the blockbuster trade that landed Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Brooklyn. This year, Humphries spent much of this season in trade rumors, but his eight-figure salary ensured that he wasn't exactly a liquid asset.
At this point, there's no untapped potential or upside to bet on with Humphries. He is who he is, an energetic glass crasher who overestimates his own shooting ability but not to the point of inflicting terrible harm. Humphries' ideal fit is as a reserve power forward for a playoff team that needs a bench boost and has a set center rotation. He's talented enough to step in and start should injuries demand it, but he's proved that he can play his game -- rebounding in volume, scoring opportunistically, competing on both ends -- in a reserve role, too. A lot of free-agent dominoes will fall at his position -- including Chris Bosh (Heat, early-termination option), Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks, unrestricted), Zach Randolph (Grizzlies, player option) and Gasol (Lakers, unrestricted) -- but Humphries' dependability and work ethic should create interest once the bigger names make up their minds. Stevens told the Boston Globe earlier this month that finding a rim protector is "extremely important," and it's not clear how Humphries fits into the Celtics' long-term thinking when Jeff Green (signed through 2015-16, with an option), Gerald Wallace (signed through 2015-16) and second-year forward Jared Sullinger (on a rookie deal that extends through at least 2014-15) are all on the books and in the mix. What is clear: Playing out of position has done Humphries no favors, and the presence of so many other salaries makes it unlikely that he will command big dollars if he somehow re-signs. Humphries isn't some unconventional basketball anomaly, and he should welcome the opportunity to be a round peg filling a round hole if the right playoff team comes calling.