I'm going to rehash and grade (note: subjective, arbitrary and meaningless) every team's off-season, 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.
- Grading the NBA Off-Season, Part 1
- Grading the NBA Off-Season, Part 2
- Grading the NBA Off-Season, Part 3
- Grading the NBA Off-Season, Part 4
Abbreviations: D = Draft pick (first-rounders only), FA = Free agent, T = Trade
I could be mistaken --there's a first time for everything-- but right now the Blazers look to me like the squad with the best chance of nabbing the final playoff spot in the West, in what will surely be a hotly contested battle between Portland, New Orleans, Dallas, Minnesota and the Lakers. And I make this claim knowing full well that they're going to be a defensive catastrophe. But man, what an entertaining defensive catastrophe. These guys are my unofficial No. 11 on the Stampler League Pass rankings (skip to the end of the piece).
Damian Lillard was the runaway Rookie of the Year winner last season despite being a turnstile on defense. GM Neil Olshey's bright idea was to draft another dynamic, small-school, shoot-first point guard in McCollum out of Lehigh and to play the rookie alongside Lillard in the backcourt. To me this reeks of the Monta Ellis/Stephen Curry and Ellis/Brandon Jennings experiments in Golden State and Milwaukee, respectively. Has any backcourt where both starters are 6'3" or shorter ever won a title? The closest I can think of was the Pistons with Joe Dumars, though I think he was 6'4." Also, he was a great defender.
Outside of that questionable draft pick though, I like just about everything the Blazers did. Allen Crabbe, the first pick of the second round out of Cal does have ideal size for a shooting guard, so that's a pretty intriguing three-man rotation they've got there to build with, and they're all 23 or younger. They'll probably combine for a zillion turnovers, but that's half the fun of watching them.
Robin Lopez was sneakily very good last season for the Pelicans and it's quite a coup to land him. He can buy LaMarcus Aldridge minutes at his natural power forward position and at least fortify the bench. In fact, the reserve units were the main reason the Blazers were so terrible last season and they basically did a do-over with all those guys. Wright's a good three-point shooter and if coach Terry Stotts ever feels like ending it all over all his kids' defensive mistakes, he can play Wright and Nicolas Batum together on the wings. Robinson, the fifth pick of last year's draft, has been passed around like a dorm room bong but he should be good for some run behind LMA. Watson brings a steady hand as the backup point and can mentor the pups.
The Blazers, like the T-Wolves, are another one of those squads I'd be thrilled to see on the Spurs schedule normally, but would absolutely dread if they're on the second night of a back-to-back, especially on the road.
Lost: SG Tyreke Evans (T, Pelicans), PG Toney Douglas (FA, Warriors)
Up In Air: SF John Salmons
The good news for the Kings (beside the off-the-court victory that keeps them in Cow-town) is that they added potentially four new starters during their off-season haul. The bad news for them is that their roster is so poor that Landry, Mbah a Moute, Vasquez and McLemore all represent potential upgrades over what's already on hand.
Maybe I'm being unfair to the incumbents. It's not like Chuck Hayes, Isaiah Thomas and Travis Outlaw are completely terrible. Well, Outlaw is, but I digress. Starting the steady veteran Vasquez would allow Thomas to thrive more as an instant-offense off-the-bench guy and allow Jimmer Fredette to just catch-and-shoot or run off screens to get open instead of trying to create for himself or others, where he's mostly been a disaster. Mbah a Moute would give the Kings something they've lacked forever in a wing defender, and playing him and Hayes together would ease a lot of the defensive burden off Cousins and the guards.
Really though, the guy that's going to make or break Sacramento's summer is McLemore, the most polarizing, boom-or-bust lottery pick in the draft. Talent evaluators like ESPN's Chad Ford rave about his talents and insist that if anyone in this year's underwhelming class goes on to play in multiple All-Star games, it will be McLemore. His critics question his maturity and desire and aren't blown away by his overall athleticism. I don't know the guy from Adam Morrison so I won't pretend to have an opinion, but it looked clear to me that Tyreke Evans wasn't the answer in Sacramento, so it doesn't hurt to gamble on someone else.
Honestly though we're still mostly rearranging lottery balls on the Titanic. You can't take the Kings seriously as long as they employ Cousins and continue to tolerate all of his jackassery. Unfortunately, I can't imagine a scenario where they won't keep stinking out loud.
Up In Air: PF DeJuan Blair, SG Gary Neal, SG Tracy McGrady
I'm not going to spend
much too much an insane amount of time here because we're hardly lacking for Spurs opinions and there will be plenty of time for me to write thousands upon thousands of words about them. I'm not going to lie, the "gained" column is a bit underwhelming, though I wasn't necessarily expecting anything different. Still, Andrei Kirilenko would've been the most exciting free-agent acquisition in my eyes since at least Brent Barry in '04-05. Instead, we're just left with "meh."
The bright side, which often gets lost in a lot of corners of the interwebs, is that the Spurs "meh," was the best team in the Western Conference last season and came within a bounce of the ball of toppling the Miami Heat and winning it all. The top seven guys are back and nine of the top ten, with the only possible defection being Neal, and even that isn't a sure thing yet. It's debatable whether Belinelli is an upgrade or not, but he can't be any worse of a defender so for now I'll take the conservative route and say it's a wash. I'll give Pendergraph the same credit --better defender/worse scorer-- because with an extra three inches on his frame I can't imagine he can be worse than Blair at protecting the rim.
If you had any doubts about whether first-round pick Livio Jean-Charles out of France was a real Spur, your mind can rest easy. Of course he is; he injured his knee in an U20 National game. Well, he wasn't going to come over this season anyway, but the injury ruins a year of development for the 19-year-old, so now I figure he won't be a Spur until '15-16 at the soonest. In other words, he'll never play with Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili -- just like the rest of us.
We'll worry about the rotation and who fits where later. My educated guess is that the Nando De Colo experiment at point guard has run its course. Assuming the summer league is any indication, he's basically going to get all of his minutes at two guard, and most of those when Ginobili is either injured or being rested. I think the backup point guard job is Cory Joseph's to lose, with Mills as the third-string/energy guy. I figure Ginobili and Belinelli are interchangeable as the bench wings (call me a skeptic on Deshaun Thomas at this point). While that might seem undersized, it's not like other teams' reserves have all that much talent, especially at small forward. And Manu's always been an underrated post defender; he doesn't give up much ground and is good at drawing offensive fouls. The only concern with the bench unit, really, is rebounding, but I suspect that Aron Baynes will have a bigger role next season just for that reason. I see Baynes (or Duncan) pairing with Diaw or Matt Bonner and Splitter pretty much just playing with Duncan or in small-ball units with Kawhi Leonard at the four. Splitter as the center alongside Diaw or Bonner is rebounding death.
The important thing to remember is that until proven otherwise the Spurs have no real weaknesses as a team besides age and fragility. On paper they're the best squad in the league, I honestly believe that. Unlike a lot of "on paper" claims, we know there's a practical application here because the guys have plenty of experience playing with one another and there is chemistry already present and sure to only get better.
Then there's the small matter of projecting Leonard's continued improvement, and that promises to be its own column. Suffice it to say not too many teams fans can be more excited about their starting "small" forward than the Spurs.
Of course another Spurs-based sites which will remain nameless, practically all they're talking about is Ginobili, and NOT in a "Hey, how cool is it that we got a Hall-of-Famer with a 57th draft pick who was one of the most fun, unique players in the history of the league and gave us countless happy memories" kinda way. No, instead they're still hung up on the Finals, where it's become almost accepted over there that the Argentine singlehandedly gifted the championship to the Heat on a platter and they're also upset at him for signing for too much money (and therefore, in their minds ruining the chance to acquire Kirilenko), for claiming he was "so-so" in the Finals instead of saying, I guess, "I sucked so bad that if I had any guts I'd kill myself," and not looking sad enough in interviews. I swear, these were real threads.
And those were just the threads that went on for multiple pages. There were some other, less popular random threads too, which I'll copy here for today's list.
Top Ten Silly Spurs Fans' Manu Ginobili Complaints
10. Manu shouldn't have been re-signed because he's too injury prone/can't play enough minutes.
9. Manu shouldn't have been re-signed because Pop trusts him too much and plays him too many minutes.
8. Manu isn't committed to the Spurs, he plays too much international basketball.
7. Manu BETTER spend the off-season working on his game so he doesn't suck next year.
6. Manu hijacked the Spurs for more money because he knows he's a fan favorite.
5. I hate Manu and he needs to die in a fire for his play in the Finals.
4. Manu needs to go away because he makes me question my sexuality. (Okay, you got me, I started this one.)
3. Manu needs to realize he plays in 'Merica and tweet/interview/write only in 'Merican.
2. Has anyone else noticed Manu's balding?
1. MANU GOTTA GO. HE AND TONY HATE EACH OTHER.
Toronto Raptors: C+
Lost: C Andrea Bargnani (T, Knicks), SF Linas Kleiza (amnesty)
The Raptors had no draft picks and didn't sign a single free agent, but they've shed what was thought to be an immovable contract in Bargnani, so in that respect their off-season has been a smashing success.
Seriously though, this organization is in a bad way. Their "core" of Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valancuinas, Alan Anderson and Terrence Ross is just good enough that they're going to win like 30 games and finish with the eighth pick. But man, is this an uninteresting outfit.
I can't decide what's worse, that they're paying Gay $17.8 million next year or Landry Fields $6.2 million. It's Gay, I guess, but... just wow.
And there are Spurs fans losing their minds that Ginobili was signed to a two-year, $14.5 million deal.
Utah Jazz: B
Up In Air: PG Mo Williams
Ha ha, neither -- sorry about that.
Instead the Jazz have chosen to bottom out and go for Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. I gotta say, it's probably the right call, all things considered, and I commend their organization for their lack of subtlety in this matter. I have several ideas (bonus list!) on how they should proceed for the 2013-14 season.
Top Ten Strategies I Would Implement If I Ran The Jazz
1. 40 minutes a night for Richard Jefferson.
2. Plenty of burn for crowd-favorite Jeremy Evans because dunks are awesome, right?
3. Claim that Enes Kanter is too depressed about political strife in his native Turkey to play a children's game in his underwear.
5. Gordon Hayward gets to play, but only as a small-ball power forward.
6. Andris Beidrins is the designated techincal free-throw-shooter.
7. I can't even make a "play Trey Burke a bunch" joke because their other point guards can't be worse.
8. Let Burke sit and learn behind veterans Mo Williams and Jamaal Tinsley.
9. Is it too late to hire Vinny Del Negro?
10. Never mind, we're good.
Anyway, the Jazz got first-round picks in 2014 and 2017 and second-rounders in 2016 and 2017 to take on the Warriors' awful contracts (but hey, $24 million worth of expiring deals next summer!) and that would be a lot more exciting if Golden State hadn't finally found someone competent to run their basketball operations department three years ago. I guess the Jazz could go back to their New Orleans roots, make a Stephen Curry voodoo doll and spend the season hacking at its ankles. But that's just crazy. People in Utah don't practice absurd religions like voodoo.
Gained: SF Otto Porter Jr. (D), PG Eric Maynor (FA, Trail Blazers)
Kept: SF Martell Webster, SG Garrett Temple
Up In Air: SF Trevor Ariza
I'm gonna be honest: I have nothing interesting or creative to say about the Wizards, which I suppose some would argue makes them no different than the other 29 teams I've gone over.
They drafted in Porter a fellow who has been compared to Tayshaun Prince, which would make me awfully squeamish if I were a Wizards fan since this is the No. 3 overall pick we're talking about and I swear I saw Patty Mills do a celebratory towel wave every time Prince launched a jumper during the Western Conference Finals.
Washington also re-signed Webster to a four-year, $22 million deal, which seems reasonable, but the dude had a sub-14 PER last season in his "breakout" year and he's already 26 so it's not like he's going to improve a bunch. Basically all he does is shoot threes, but I'm sure coach Randy Wittman will juggle the lines shrewdly enough where he only gets to play on the power play with Alex Ovechkin and Porter only has to worry about killing penalties.
The Wizards were, I want to say, decent? not terrible? with John Wall in the lineup last season and Bradley Beal looks like a player, but because I'm selfish because all I care about them is whether there's any chance Ariza can be dealt somehow to the Spurs. Otherwise, best of luck in nabbing that eighth-seed and I can't wait for Wall to predict an upset of the Heat.