Stampler's Take: Grading the NBA Off-Season, Part 1

David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

Wait, shouldn't I be more depressed? Morbid? Fatalistic? Oddly I'm not and I'm as surprised as you are. I'm actually kinda giddy. I can't help it. The Spurs are bringing the band back together (mostly) and there have been so many fascinating moves across the league I can't help but staying in completely mentally engaged with America's most top-heavy sports league. Join me for a look at who did what.

For the most part the NBA's hectic roster shuffling has come and gone. There are still a handful of big names out there, and some decent role players, but by and large the main pieces have moved and settled and we have a sense of what the new landscape just looks like.

Hey, what do you know? It still looks like the Heat and the Spurs are the two best teams. Crazy, right?

If you ignore that small fact the off-season has still been gripping in its own way and I already wish we could just skip baseball and football and get going right away with basketball. Some part of me will always mourn the bittersweet ending of the 2012-13 Spurs season, but another part of me as a basketball fan/chronicler can't wait to watch the league in general and our guys in particular again.

I'm going to rehash and grade (note: subjective, arbitrary and meaningless) every team's off-season over the course of the next five days, covering six teams at a time. If any major moves happen to teams I've already covered, I'll add postscripts both to whatever group of clubs I'm writing at the time and to the original columns that covers those teams in question.

Abbreviations: D = Draft pick (only concerning myself with first-rounders), FA = Free agent, T = Trade

Atlanta Hawks: B-

Gained: PF Paul Millsap (FA Jazz), PF Elton Brand (FA, Mavericks), SF Jared Cunningham (T Mavericks), SG DeMarre Carroll (FA Jazz), C Lucas Nogueria (D), PG Dennis Schroeder (D)

Lost: PF Josh Smith (FA Pistons), C Zaza Pachulia (FA Bucks)

Kept: PG Jeff Teague, SG Kyle Korver

Up In Air: PG Devin Harris

The initial temptation is to rhetorically ask what has longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer gotten himself into, agreeing to take the top job with a Hawks team, joining forces with a proven bad GM in Danny Ferry, clueless ownership above him and a largely disinterested fan base. One would suspect that Budenholzer did his due diligence before taking on the job and that he had to have some inclination that Smith (and others) would be leaving. My guess is that he was okay with that or else he wouldn't have taken the reins.

Branch Rickey, the general manager who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, held the same role with the Pittsburgh Pirates a decade later. When his best player, Ralph Kiner, asked him why he was being traded to the Cubs, Rickey reportedly told him, "We finished last with you and we can finish last without you."

I'm thinking the same principle applies to the Hawks without Smith, where they weren't a cellar-dweller by any means, but even worse by NBA standards, forever stuck in that middling purgatory where they were never in the lottery to draft a superstar and never real contenders either.

They signed Millsap, a far more efficient scorer than Smith, to a smart affordable deal and took a flyer on a couple of foreign kids in Nogueria and Schroeder who, if they pan out, will fill the two hardest positions to find in center and point guard (Nogueria in particular would allow Horford to slide to the four, which he prefers). It remains to be seen what will happen with Teague, but it seems like either he'll return or will be replaced by Monta Ellis, whom Budenholzer, who learned the black arts of lying to people with tape recorders under Pop, compared to Tony Parker. [Postscript: After kicking around some other options, the Hawks reportedly have matched Milwaukee's offer for Teague and will keep him around.]

The Hawks will not stink nearly as much as their few fans will want them to, unless they bring the draftees over right away and play them a ton. I also don't understand why they re-signed Korver to such a big money deal. If everything goes right for the Hawks, the Cavs, Wizards and maybe even the Pistons will leapfrog them in the standings and allow them to sneak into the fringes of the lottery, but be real, it's the Hawks, so you know they'll finish as the seventh seed.

Boston Celtics: B

Gained: SF Gerald Wallace (T, Nets), PF Kris Humphries (T, Nets), G MarShon Brooks (T, Nets), G Keith Bogans (T, Nets), PF Kelly Olynyk (D)

Lost: PF Kevin Garnett (T, Nets), SF Paul Pierce (T, Nets), SG Jason Terry (T, Nets)

An object lesson (in case anyone was foolish enough to need one) that at least as far as character and loyalty is concerned, Doc Rivers isn't Pop, Garnett isn't Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce isn't Manu Ginobili and Rajon Rondo (probably) isn't Tony Parker. None of these guys was content to go down with the ship and now the Celtics are in the beginning stages of a massive rebuilding, complete with the hire of a college coach in Butler's Brad Stevens. This seems familiar, somehow. To be fair to those guys, it isn't completely analogous to the Spurs because Pop is clearly atop the organizational flow chart here, as opposed to general manager Danny Ainge being The Man in Boston. Still, by all indications nobody's arm had to be twisted too hard to make this trade happen (Garnett had a clause in his contract where he had to consent to the trade, for example).

None of the guys the Celtics got back from the Nets matter in the long view. They're not even proverbial "pieces" going forward unless we're talking about in the form of expiring contracts in future deals. Wallace, in particular, is basically the same guy as Jeff Green, but older.

As far as the trade haul goes, three first round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 sound nice, but how valuable are they going to be really? The Nets figure to be contenders at least next season, but there's a chance they'll slide back down once Garnett and Pierce retire. Will they slide all the way down to lottery land? Seems like a long shot with Mikhail Prokhorov's money backing them. I suppose the only other team in the mix was the Clippers and that would've netted a similar return via draft picks, or something even worse like DeAndre Jordan, so Ainge got what he could. It's still better than what Sam Presti got for James Harden.

The only question now is what happens with Rondo, and you get the sense that they have to trade him, for something, anything, if for no other reason but to ensure they finish with a terrible enough record to draft Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. I guess in a perfect world they could convince Rondo to go the Derrick Rose route and just sit out the whole year "to get completely healthy" so that they can have him and Future Superduperstar for 2014 and beyond, but I doubt Rondo will go for that.

To me this is the most intriguing storyline left in the off-season, far more compelling than where guys like Andrew Bynum, Ellis, Brandon Jennings, Andrei Kirilenko, etc. or even local curiosities Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair wind up -- Where's Rondo going?

Actually, this is a good time to cut in to

STAMPLER'S OFFICIAL LIST OF BEST/MOST INTERESTING GUYS LEFT OUT THERE

1. Rajon Rondo - PG (Celtics potential trade)

2. Omer Asik - C (Rockets potential trade)

3. Andrew Bynum - C [Signed by Cavs]

4. Nikola Pekovic - C [Signed by T-Wolves]

5. Andrei Kirilenko - SF [Signed by Nets]

6. Gerald Henderson - SG (RFA, Bobcats)

7. Brandon Jennings - PG (RFA, Bucks)

8. Monta Ellis - SG [Signed by Mavericks]

9. Jeff Teague - PG [Staying with Hawks]

10. Nate Robinson - PG

11. Gary Neal - SG (RFA, Spurs)

12. DeJuan Blair - PF

13. Jason Collins - C

14. Metta World Peace - SF [Signed by Knicks]

15. Brandan Wright - PF

16. Kenyon Martin - PF

17. Mo Williams - PG

18. Corey Brewer - SF [Signed by T-Wolves]

19. Beno Udrih - PG

20. Lamar Odom - SF

The guys I feel sorry for are Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. They're in a no-win situation (pun intended). Fans will want them to play well and prove they were worthy of being first-round picks, but if they do show promise the team will win games and worsen the team's draft position, which will only incite those same fans.

Brooklyn Nets: B+

Gained: PF Kevin Garnett (T, Celtics), SF Paul Pierce (T, Celtics), SF Andrei Kirilenko (FA, Timberwolves), SG Jason Terry (T, Celtics), PG Shaun Livingston (FA, Cavs), C Mason Plumlee (D)

Lost: SF Gerald Wallace (T, Celtics), PF Kris Humphries (T, Celtics), G MarShon Brooks (T, Celtics), G Keith Bogans (T, Celtics), PG C.J. Watson (FA, Pacers)

Kept: PF Andray Blatche

Well, you can't accuse the Nets of not trying, at the very least. On paper they have perhaps the best starting five in the NBA now in Garnett, Pierce, Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and a very solid bench as well in Kirilenko, Blatche, Plumlee, Livingston, Terry and Reggie Evans. At some point, they'll probably acquire a shooter too (Neal?), you'd think.

Their tax bill will be exorbitant, but what does Prokhorov care?

There will be chemistry issues early on, and injuries figure to be a constant concern for this aging crew, but the optimistic view is that the Nets are right there with the Pacers as best bets to topple the Heat in the East. My concern is that their window is, at best, just the upcoming season because Garnett has almost nothing left, but perhaps this trade will rejuvenate him. Really, all he has to do is worry about defense and rebounding because there are plenty of scorers around him.

The bigger question is whether it was wise to give up three first-round picks (even if they don't figure to be lottery picks) for guys who will be, by-and-large, the fourth and fifth option for your half-court offense. Rondo had the fire and attitude to marshall all the superstar egos around him (though he famously had issues with Ray Allen) and had Rivers to help him in that regard as well. Does Williams have the personality and leadership skills to establish a clear pecking order among the troops and keep everyone happy and involved? Does rookie coach Jason Kidd have the chops to squelch all these potential brush-fires before they erupt? I'm curious how Garnett will interact with Lopez and to a lesser extent, Plumlee.

It all looks so combustible, doesn't it? Garnett vs. the other bigs. Garnett vs. Williams. Pierce vs. Williams. Pierce vs. Johnson. Kidd vs. everybody. Whoever the Nets play on a given night will almost be the secondary opponent, behind the team's internal skirmishes and rivalries. The over/under on guys complaining to the press about minutes and shots over the course of the season is 58.5, and these guys don't even have Dwight Howard.

It promises to be fascinating and I can't wait to watch these guys as a neutral observer, rubbernecking at the carnage, thrilled that I root for the other black-and-white team; the Alphas to the Nets' Omegas on so many levels.

[Postscript: Kirilenko for $3.1 million? Are you kidding me? Either Prokhorov is paying him boatloads of rubles under the table or he knows a guy who knows a guy who can do rather unpleasant things to Kirilenko's friends and loved ones back home. Either way, there's no way this is a kosher deal, and I'm sure some teams around the league will inquire about that unpleasant smell, but this is the NBA we're talking about, and this is like the 143,852th biggest controversy of the David Stern Era. Dammit.]

Charlotte Bobcats: D+

Gained: PF Al Jefferson (FA, Jazz), C Cody Zeller (D)

Lost: C DeSagana Diop (FA, renounced), C Byron Mullens (FA, renounced), PG Jannero Pargo (FA, renounced), PF Tyrus Thomas (amnesty)

Kept: PF Josh McRoberts

Up In Air: SG Gerald Henderson

Here's the thing... a starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jefferson and Zeller doesn't actually sound too bad. I mean, you know all those names and three of those were college stars while Henderson and particularly Jefferson have had success in the league. Yet it's a virtual certainty the Bobcats will be god awful again next season.

That's how hard it is to be good much less great in the NBA. The elite, difference-making players are just so much better than the rank-and-file that even teams who have entire starting lineups filled with guys you've heard of can just get crushed night after night. The Bobcats have no true stars unless MKG seriously develops in the next year or two or Zeller surprises everybody. Jefferson is what he is, a net minus player that no smart GM would ever touch much less give $14 million a year to. Walker, at best, will be in that Brandon Jennings phylum of good-not-great, shoot-first point guards. Bismack Biyombo is a homeless man's Serge Ibaka, and it's not like Ibaka's all-that-and-a-bag-of-Cool-Ranch-Doritos.

The best case scenario (beyond Michael Jordan selling and leaving this smoldering tire fire for good I mean) would be for Jefferson to suffer a season-ending injury in November and these guys finishing 8-74 and winning a lottery for once. Unfortunately you know he'll average an empty 20 and 10, "lead" the Cats to a sterling 25-57 record and they'll wind up with the sixth pick in a five-deep draft. I'd feel bad for their fans if they had any.

Just move to Seattle already and leave North Carolina to the college game. The Bobcats can morph into the Seattle Supersonics and the league could send the Memphis Grizzlies to the East, so there'd be some more competitive balance between the conferences. Win-win for everybody.

Chicago Bulls: C+

Gained: SF Mike Dunleavy (FA, Bucks), SG Tony Snell (D)

Lost: SG Marco Belinelli (FA, Spurs), SG Rip Hamilton (waived)

Kept: C Nazr Mohammed

Up In Air: PG Nate Robinson

In one sense the Bulls will win the off-season by having the biggest "gain" of anyone in Rose coming back (unless he wants to take another year off), but I still don't know what to make of this team. In one sense they might be better equipped to take down the Heat than anyone with the long, athletic wings they'll be able to throw at LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Snell. Remember, the Bulls made the Heat work in the second round, and that was with Deng sidelined. Having him back and Snell figure to be upgrades over Belinelli and Hamilton, at least defensively, and that's not even factoring in Rose instead of Robinson.

There are also rumors that Omer Asik might be back in the mix for the Bulls since the acquisition of Howard makes him somewhat redundant at Houston. Getting him back to fortify the second unit would be huge, literally. Still, even with Dunleavy on board I don't know if the Bulls will have enough perimeter shooting in the end. You can just picture Miami (or the Nets maybe) grinding out some 82-78 playoff wins against them.

Regardless the Bulls look to be in the top four mix in the East and it'll be interesting to see Rose work his way back into their collective. I'm curious what happens with Robinson as well. A sign-and-trade with him and Asik would serve both teams well, no? Don't forget, Kirk Hinrich is still around, and he's excellent as a third guard. Another team to watch on those nights when the Spurs are off though.

Cleveland Cavaliers: B+

Gained: C Andrew Bynum (FA, Sixers), PG Jarrett Jack (FA, Warriors), PF Earl Clark (FA, Lakers), PF Anthony Bennett (D), SG Sergey Karasev (D)

Lost: PG Shaun Livingston (FA, Nets), SF Omri Casspi (FA, Rockets), PF Marreese Speights (FA, Warriors), SG Wayne Ellington (FA, Mavericks)

Another interesting club to keep an eye on, though they're not any kind of contender, will be the Cavs. You've got Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson; Bynum, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao returning from injury, the top draft pick (such as it was) in Bennett, a solid combo guard in Jack for the second unit, and maybe even Karasev if he comes over from Russia right away.

If their core guys just stay healthy --a big if with Bynum, Varejao and Irving-- that should be good enough to nab a playoff spot, with a peak Bynum pushing them all the way to a fifth seed and a really compelling first-round series. Of course the endgame for them is whether they put together enough of a roster to draw LeBron back. I could be wrong, but I really think it's just going to be between the Cavs and staying with Miami for James. On some level, he understands that no matter how incredible he is, his legacy will be somewhat tainted, regardless of how many rings he winds up winning, if he plays for more than two franchises. Now that he's won a couple (and who knows, maybe three by next June), the burden is off his shoulders historically in the John Stockton/Karl Malone/Patrick Ewing/Charles Barkley sense, so maybe LBJ will feel he's accomplished everything he's set out to and all that remains for him is the unfinished business in his home state.

Or he can just be a complete whore and go to the Lakers. Whatevs.

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