NBA Off-season Grades

When I was a little kid I used to mow some for my neighbors’ lawns. In return I would get around twenty dollars (the actual amount depended on their generosity). I would then use the twenty dollars to buy six packs of $2.99 Showdown baseball cards (side note-Showdown was the absolute coolest). I was young and had no concept of money besides wanting Showdown cards and having the money to get what I wanted, I immediately spent all of it. I am writing about this for two reasons. First, you should absolutely get into Showdown (especially 2000 and 2001 since the series tailed off after that). I never got into Pokémon or Magic because Showdown was so much cooler. You wouldn’t have cared about Blastoise if you gave Showdown a chance. Second, this NBA offseason reminded me of my Showdown-buying sprees.

Thanks to a higher salary cap terrible NBA GMs were no longer constrained by having spent all their money on terrible contracts. Now, they were given a second chance to spend money with reckless abandon and just like ten-year-old Chris Linnan, they did. Of course, some of the smarter NBA GMs wisely skipped out on the opportunity to pay NBA role-players ludicrous amounts of money. Just because you have twenty dollars in your pocket doesn’t mean you have to spend it on the first shiny object that catches your eye. But, some GMs didn’t, which makes grading their teams’ off-seasons infinitely easier…

Atlanta Hawks- C-plus

I understand the desire to not give Al Horford the max. He’s thirty, has suffered serious injuries two out of the last five years, and NBA big men don’t tend to age very well. However, spending that money on Dwight Howard instead doesn’t make a lot of sense. He is also thirty, has suffered serious injuries two out of the last five year, and unlike Big Al, he has a game totally predicated on athleticism. He’s also left all three of his previous teams on bad terms and is a ball-stopper, which is a problem for a team that prides itself on its ball movement.

Now let me take the chance to say that the NBA salary cap rising from $70 million to $94 million (so a little bit more than 25%) means that salaries will rise correspondingly. However, if you got a 20K raise bonus you wouldn’t go out and immediately spend 18K on an antique vase. Maybe you really want an antique vase, but wouldn’t it make more sense to spend 4K on an antique vase and spend the rest of your money wisely?

For example, I’m still confused why the Hawks gave Kent Bazemore a 4-year, $70 million deal. He’s a solid two-way swingman, but last year (his best year by far) he averaged 11.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 2.3 APG for a good, but not great, Hawks team. Is that some type of irreplaceable production you should break the bank for? Somehow I don’t think so. I did like that the Hawks were able to trade away Jeff Teague and get a lottery pick in return (I’m a big Dennis Schröder fan).

Boston Celtics- B-plus

The Al Horford signing wasn’t a bargain, but if you’re going to commit a significant chunk of your cap space to a player, he should be a difference-maker. Al Horford is a difference-maker. Plus, there’s a better chance of his game aging well than Dwight Howard.

Brooklyn Nets-A-minus

I loved that the Nets did this off-season. They turned a nickel into fifteen cents by trading Thaddeus Young for a first-round pick and signed Jeremy Lin to a reasonable contract that if nothing else will help sell tickets. Now, if only Mikhail Prokhorov could go back in time and never hire Billy King the future would be bright.

Charlotte Hornets-C

Let’s breakdown the Hornets Clint Eastwood style…

The good- I like a lot of the role players they signed this off-season, re Roy Hibbert, Brian Roberts, and Ramon Sessions. The thing I liked even more was that the Hornets didn’t clog their long-term cap-space by signing them to expensive long-term deals.

The bad- It wasn’t hard to predict that the Hornets would sign Nicolas Batum to a long-term contract worth a bajillion dollars. It’s also not hard to predict that this won’t work out. Also, I’ll be a hundred years old before I figure out what NBA teams see in Marvin Williams. I didn’t understand why the Hawks drafted him second overall and I don’t understand why the Hornets decided he was worth more than Jeremy Lin.

The ugly- You can count the number of good moves the Kings have made over the last decade on one hand. Unfortunately, one of those moves was trading Marco Belinelli to the Hornets for the No. 22 pick in this year’s draft. First-round draft picks may have become overrated in the past decade, but to trade one for a 30-year-old 3-point specialist is a Billy King move.

Chicago Bulls- B-minus

I spent a lot of time this summer wondering if signing Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade were good moves. Both are past-their-primes and among the worst shooters in the league at their respective positions in an era where the ability to shoot the basketball well is increasingly important. The top eight NBA teams in three-pointers made last year were (in order) Golden State, Cleveland, Houston, Charlotte, Portland, Atlanta, Dallas, and the L.A. Clippers. Those were all playoff teams, including both conference winners. NBA defenses are becoming increasingly sophisticated, so it will be far too easy for opponents to force the Bulls to shoot low-percentage mid-range jumpers. Then again, the East is still terrible (besides the Cavaliers) and this is the type of team that could thrive in the playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers-incomplete

Call me a sucker, but I love undersized players like Kay Felder who play their hearts out. Somebody somewhere once said “you can’t teach desire” and Kay Felder has that. Plus, he’s an NBA-level athlete, so who cares if he’s 5’9! Apparently, the entire NBA does, since he lasted until the 54th pick.

That having been said, I’m giving the Cavaliers an incomplete because who knows if J.R. Smith is able to strong-arm them into giving him a ridiculous contract.

Dallas Mavericks-C

Last year Melvin Gordon was the starting running back for my fantasy football team. That means two things. The first is that the Lil Lewbowski Urban Achievers were bad. The second is that every Monday morning during football season (remember there is an 11 hour time difference between the US and Indonesia) I would wake up and look at my fantasy football team and see that Melvin Gordon had rushed for 33ish yards on 11ish carries and had produced 0 touchdowns (not 0ish TDs, actually 0 TDs because he literally didn’t score all season). I kept waiting for him to improve under the theory “he’s only a rookie, he’s got so much potential!” It never happened. This off-season he underwent microfracture surgery and yet I’ve read numerous articles hyping him as a fantasy sleeper. I understand the logic behind these articles, which is that he’s a former first-round draft pick who is going to get a lot of carries, his offensive line will be better this year, and he was a historically great college player. However, don’t be fooled like I was last season. I paid very close attention to Melvin Gordon last year and I would estimate there’s a 15% chance he’s going to have a decent or better year.

The reason I retell that story, other than to get angry at Melvin Gordon one last time, is that Harrison Barnes reminds me of Melvin Gordon. He had plenty of opportunities with the Warriors, but his stats were mediocre at best. His regular season numbers were middling and his post-season consisted mostly of taking and missing open jumpers. I don’t think he’s a bad player, but if he had the same type of production as an undrafted free-agent he would have gotten a 4-year, $44 million contract, instead of 4-year, $94 million contract, and it might still have been an overpay. I’ve watched enough Warriors basketball over the past few seasons to confidently say that it is highly unlikely that this contract is going to work out. Sorry, but it’s true.

Denver Nuggets-B-plus

I like Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley, but I’m afraid that the Nuggets are just stockpiling good players with no real long-term plan. I still like the long-term potential of this roster, but at some point you need to commit to a core group of players.

Detroit Pistons-C-plus

I love Stan Van Gundy.   His decision to lock up Andre Drummond to a long-term contract and sign Boban Marjanovic to a reasonable deal were great. I think he’s one of the most authentic and underrated coaches in the NBA. However, I don’t understand why he signed Jon Leuer to a 4-year, $41 million contract. Are you really telling me you can’t find a semi-athletic big white guy in the NBA draft who can shoot a little bit and get dunked on a lot? Of course you can, so why pay a premium for one? Do you know which NBA team has the highest payroll for the upcoming season? The Detroit Pistons (and it doesn’t get significantly smaller until 2019-20).

Golden State Warriors-A

Let me offer an unpopular opinion, which is that Kevin Durant does not make them a better team. He’s obviously an upgrade from Harrison Barnes and the Warriors could very well win the NBA championship next season, but NBA team chemistry is a fickle thing. I’m just not sold that Kevin Durant can adapt his style of play well enough to the Warriors’ offense to be a significant upgrade. His best basketball attribute is that he scores a lot of points very efficiently, but Warriors had a historically good and efficient offense, so it’s not like they need to upgrade it. Plus, who knows if Steve Kerr can control all of the egos in his locker room.

Having said that, I would still have signed Kevin Durant for two reasons. The first is that I would rather pay Kevin Durant $25ish million per year than Harrison Barnes. The second is that Kevin Durant is a safe hedge against any serious injuries to Curry-Green-Thompson.

Houston Rockets-D

Nobody has done a better job with the NBA media than Daryl Morey. I think a large part of this stems from his very impressive resume with a bachelor’s in computer science and a MBA from MIT. It’s easy to fall sway to “well he has a fancy degree from a fancy school, so he must know what he’s talking about.” By all accounts he loves interacting with media members, which influences the way they cover you, even if it is just unconsciously. Plus, a lot of what he preaches makes sense. Three-pointers are more valuable than mid-range jumpers and Dwight Howard should not be the focus of an offense, even if he thinks otherwise.

That having been said, the results from Morey’s tenure have been less-than-spectacular. His teams are good (or sometimes pretty good), but he inherited a good roster when he became GM. I think most of it stems from an aversion to analyzing the human aspect of running a basketball team.   Talent matters, but chemistry matters more. The Dwight Howard fiasco was very predictable. He left the Lakers because he couldn’t get along with a ball-dominant shooting guard, so why did Morey think that it would be different with James Harden? He normally drafts well, but the roster is in constant flux and young players aren’t given the chance to develop. It not good news when your interim head coach withdraws from consideration after working there for a year for an assistant’s job with another team. It’s even worse news when your other ex-coach is saying things like “do I miss coaching? Depends on who I’m coaching.”

The reason I bring all this stuff up is that the Rockets’ off-season reeked of desperation. Signing Ryan Anderson to a 4-year, $80 million contract, a guy who has been a NBA player for eight seasons, yet has only played in more than 66 games once, is the type of move a gambler who is down significant money makes to recoup his losses. Eric Gordon has only played in more than 64 games once, but he got a 4-year, $53 million contract. Even if they are both healthy they aren’t going to improve the Rockets significantly. There are some role players on this roster I love, e.g. Patrick Beverly and Corey Brewer, but there are others like Josh Smith and Michael Beasley that make absolutely zero sense, especially for an advanced stat guru.

Indiana Pacers-B-minus

I would rather have Al Jefferson for 3-years, $30 million than Ian Mahinmi for 4-years, one bajillion dollars (all numbers approximate). But, that’s like saying I’d rather get a DUI than a manslaughter charge.

Los Angeles Clippers-C-minus

The Clippers off-season plan under Doc Rivers is the same every year. Step 1) Draft a young player(s) who will never play significant minutes for the Clippers. Step 2) Pretend the Clippers have a realistic shot at signing big-name free-agents when everybody knows they don’t. Step 3) Fail to sign those free-agents. Step 4) Try to find mid-tier free-agents. Step 5) Fail to sign those free-agents. Step 6) Sign their own free-agents to expensive deals (cough-Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford- cough) because the Clippers have no leverage.

Los Angeles Lakers- F-infinity-infinity-minus

You can quote all the fancy stats you want, but the Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng contracts are horrendous.   Just because you can’t lure big-name free-agents doesn’t mean you should invest your long-term cap-room in aging role players. You could justify giving them over-market one-year (or maybe two-year) deals (the Yi Jianlian signing makes sense as long as it doesn’t lead to the Lakers giving him a three-year, $55 million contract next off-season), but why four years for Mozgov and Deng? Who were the Lakers bidding against? What happens in three years when the Lakers have to deal away first-round draft picks to get rid of these terrible deals? How did the Lakers convince themselves that an aging center with a lengthy injury history who averaged six minutes a game in the playoffs (when he played at all) was worth this much money? Sometimes the NBA makes me really confused.

Memphis Grizzlies-B

At some point the Grizzlies are going to regret the Mike Conley deal, but they didn’t really have choice. The Chandler Parsons signing is a risk, but if you have an aging core you might as well go all-in to win now. What I really want to know is what does Lance Stephenson do to alienate all the teams he plays for? His numbers for the Grizzlies were actually pretty good in limited minutes, but he literally can’t find a NBA team right now.

Miami Heat-B-minus

I think there is something more to the Dwyane Wade saga. Maybe either the Heat or Wade got their feelings so hurt they decided to stop negotiating, but he’s still a good player, even if he’s 34. He signed a very reasonable contract and the Heat are in win-now mode, so saving some cap-space for the next two years doesn’t make a lot of sense. I know he’s from Chicago, but if he really wanted to return home why did he flirt with Denver so aggressively?

Milwaukee Bucks-C-plus

Professional sports, just like many other American institutions, is full of group-think. So, I applaud GMs willing to think outside the box even if I would have done something differently. However, sometimes you can outthink yourself and I think the Bucks did that when they selected Thon Maker. There are just too many red flags. The NBA media freaked out and made him out to be the second coming of Kevin Garnett when he put up decent stats in a few Summer League games, conveniently forgetting he shot 37% from the field and had one game where he committed ten personal fouls. Also, it was Summer League.

Minnesota Timberwolves-A

If basketball teams were stocks this would be the team I would put my money into. They did two brilliant things this off-season. The first is that they hired a great coach. I’ll never understand how so many NBA teams hire mediocre coaches that have ALREADY proved they are mediocre or worse. NBA coaches are some of the easiest professionals in the world to evaluate. All you have to do is look at the talent they had and their record, and then decide if they overachieved, underachieved, or were in the middle.

The second brilliant move by the Timberwolves was to sign a few free-agent veterans to reasonable short-term deals. Their longest and most expensive contract was Cole Aldrich for 3-years, $22 million. Maybe that’s not a bargain, but it’s not bad and he’s not going to clog their cap room forever. Assuming all goes well, the addition of Kris Dunn, and Andrew Wiggins and KAT’s development means they will get better this year and in the long-term. Yet, they have maintained their long-term flexibility to sign big-name free-agents once they are winning and thus a more attractive destination (unlike a team like the Lakers). Does that make too much sense? I guess so.

New Orleans Pelicans-A-minus

I’ve made a lot of terrible sports predictions in my life, so take the following sentence with a grain of salt. I think Cheick Diallo can be a decent NBA player. A lot of blue-chip one-and-done athletic big men struggle in their lone college season, e.g. DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, etc., but then thrive in the NBA. I saw Cheick Diallo play during Summer League (you know that league I just dissed) and I was impressed. His statistics weren’t out of this world, but he knows what he is good at, rebounding and defense, and does those things very well and he’s a NBA-level athlete. I am also a big Buddy Hield fan, but I probably don’t need to spend a hundred words selling you on him.

New York Knicks-B-plus

My vote for the team that had the best under-the-radar off-season. I don’t love the idea of building around a thirty-two year-old Carmelo Anthony, but Phil Jackson has done the best he can with limited resources. Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee are serviceable starters (even if the former is injury-prone), and Brandon Jennings and Derrick Rose will presumably be looking to provide maximum value since it’s a contract year for both of them. If Kristaps Porzingis continues to improve the Knicks could sneak into the playoffs this year.

Oklahoma City Thunder-B-minus

I didn’t ding the Thunder’s grade too much for Kevin Durant leaving. If your girlfriend left you for Ryan Gosling you might get mad, but you would realize it’s Ryan Gosling and there wasn’t much you could do anyway. The Thunder did everything they could to keep him and they are in way better shape than the Cavs post-LeBron. Plus, they didn’t compound the loss by signing Dion Waiters or another middling free-agent to a ridiculous long-term deal. Obviously, the Thunder aren’t as good as before, but they aren’t bad either.

Orlando Magic- F-infinity-minus

Let me start with the good, which is that I know I’m in the minority, but I thought a Serge Ibanka for Victor Oladipo swap wasn’t the worst deal ever. In a vacuum it isn’t as bad as a lot of people have made it out to be. There aren’t a lot of big men who can block shots, space the floor, etc. James Harden thrived after being getting a bigger role post-OKC and I don’t see why Serge Ibanka can’t do the same thing. Plus, Victor Oladipo may be on a team-friendly deal for next season, but come next off-season he’s going to get a ridiculous deal thanks to restricted free agency.

Now, the bad news, which is that Serge Ibanka will be an UNRESTRICTED free-agent next off-season. So, that means he will have almost unlimited leverage because the Magic won’t want to lose him since they traded a lot for him and other teams can offer him a ton of money. At least the Magic didn’t throw in a lottery pick to a team that does a phenomenal job drafting that could make this deal look terrible in a few years. Oh wait, never mind.

Meanwhile, Nikola Vucevic has made it abundantly clear he expects to remain the starter after the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo to a 4-year, $72 million dollar contract. The media spent a lot of time gushing about how much the latter improved this year.   So, let me present the following stats…

2014-5- 19.4 MPG, 4.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.5 BPG (result is he signs a 2-year, $5.7 million contract)

2015-6- 22 MPG, 5.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG (result is he signs a 4-year, $72 million contract)

The biggest difference is he had a decent playoff series against the Cavaliers, who usually play one big traditional big man and the media went crazy. How is he going to fit in with a team with four big men who need significant minutes (Aaron Gordon is a big even if the Magic want to pretend otherwise)? So, congratulations Orlando Magic, there is a 97% chance you will regret this deal.

I’m not even going to comment on the Magic signing a one-way scorer who averaged 15 PPG to a 5-year, $85 million deal. Let’s just say I am not betting on the Magic anytime soon.

Philadelphia 76ers-B-plus

I’m not going to repeat everything I already wrote about “the process.” I stand by everything I said, especially that a major part of building a good basketball team is building a winning culture, especially developing young players. Jerry Colangelo has a great opportunity to build a winner, we’ll see if he takes advantage of it.

Phoenix Suns-B-plus

I tried to keep bias out of this grades. I really did. But, I love Tyler Ulis too much. Did you know he won the SEC Player of the Year and the SEC Defensive Player of the year? He’s a 5’9ish sophomore point-guard! Yet, he lasted until the 34th pick. So, why isn’t this grade higher? Because the Suns took two guys that play the same position in the lottery.

Portland Trail Blazers-D

The Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless signings may have been defensible (then again maybe not). However, the Allen Crabbe deal is less-so, unless the Trail Blazers see him taking a huge step forward, and the Evan Turner signing was possibly the worst free-agent deal this year. Since he’s been drafted he’s played for three teams. The first one drafted him second overall and traded him for Danny Granger and a second-round pick. The second team elected to not even give him a $8.7 million qualifying offer in free agency and the third one wisely chose not to match this ludicrous offer. He’s 27, so he’s not going to get significantly better. The Trail Blazers already have multiple ball-dominant perimeter players, did they really need another one? The Trail Blazers did a magnificent job transitioning from the LaMarcus Aldridge era, but this off-season was a step backwards (or maybe sideways). They have the NBA’s fifth highest payroll and most of that money is tied up in long-term contracts.

Sacramento Kings- C

I love Matt Barnes and Arron Afflalo, but they’re not getting the Kings into the playoffs. DeMarcus Cousins is going to have to morph into Hakeem Olajuwon for that to happen. At least the Kings drafted a desperately-need point guard or wing. Oh wait, never mind, they actually picked a potential back-up center much to the dismay of their current starting center and franchise player.

That might have made a little bit of sense in 1985, but we live in an era when NBA 4s are increasingly athletic and it’s getting harder to play two traditional big men on the floor at the same time. The Kings first-round draft picks (all in the lottery) since drafting DeMarcus Cousins in the first round in 2010 are Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Staukas, Willie Cauley-Stein, and now Georgios Papagiannis. In other words, only two more years until Boogie leaves via free-agency.

San Antonio Spurs- B-plus

I’m going to miss Tim Duncan. Pau Gasol is an able temporary replacement, but Tim Duncan was one-of-a-kind. He wasn’t the most athletic NBA player nor did he have a pure shooting stroke like Dirk Nowitzki, but he was the greatest player of his generation (I’ll write about that another day).

Toronto Raptors- A-minus

Maybe DeMar DeRozan is overpaid, but at least he’s a star. Also, my favorite move of the summer was the Raptors signing Jared Sullinger to a one-year deal to replace Bismack Biyombo. Role players are only as good as the players surrounding them. So, it makes zero sense to give them ludicrous long-term deals. It’s just too easy to replace them if they ask to be paid like star players. If more NBA teams were as smart as the Raptors it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to follow.

Utah Jazz-B-plus

The good news is that the Jazz were winners from the George Hill-Jeff Teague swap, and the Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw deals weren’t unreasonable, even if they weren’t great. You just don’t know which version of Joe Johnson from last season is going to show up, Heat Joe Johnson or Nets Joe Johnson. I still don’t think their core is as good as everybody else does, but what the hell do I know.

Washington Wizards- F-minus

It cracks me up that the same NBA owners who fought so hard during the last CBA negotiations for shorter contracts still spent gargantuan amounts of money on mediocre players. Now instead of grossly overpaying Ian Mahinmi for five or six years, it’s only four. That’s progress in the NBA.



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