The bulk of this offseason’s free agency moves are now behind us, so we can take a look at which teams did the best and worst job.
Golden State Warriors
When a franchise that just won 73 regular season games in a single season, that was within arm’s reach of winning the championship after winning it the previous season, that features a roster with the reigning league MVP, two other all-NBA caliber players, an elite wing-defender, plenty of rotation depth and a top-notch head coach adds Kevin Durant in free agency, without question that franchise falls into the winner’s category.
There isn’t a ton to dissect here. The Warriors already had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on the roster and add a generational talent in Durant. They had to let players like Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Leoandro Barbosa and Marresse Speights go, but replaced them with some solid veterans like Zaza Pachulia and David West.
This isn’t just a collection of raw talent either. The Warriors play some of the most cohesive, inclusive basketball of any team in the NBA. Durant steps right in and fills the gap that Barnes left behind. While Durant has made a living in isolation over his career, he should benefit from the pass-happy, screen-heavy, free-flowing style of play that Coach Steve Kerr runs. This team was already crazy good and it just got even better. Oh, and by stealing Durant away, the Warriors simultaneously gutted their biggest challengers in the Western Conference. Talk about icing on the cake.
There isn’t a single team that can match the Warriors’ talent on paper. But, if you had to pick a team that could give the Warriors some problems based on personnel, the Jazz is a pretty good bet.
This offseason, the Jazz traded the rights to Taurean Prince (the 12th overall pick in this year’s Draft) to the Atlanta Hawks for George Hill from Indiana Pacers (who received Jeff Teague from the Hawks), traded the rights to Olivier Hanlan (41st overall pick in the 2015 Draft) to the San Antonio Spurs for Boris Diaw and a 2022 second-rounder and signed Joe Johnson to a two-year, $21.5 million contract.
In making these moves, the Jazz have added a strong defender and veteran at the point guard position in George, a versatile forward in Diaw and a veteran wing who can still score from anywhere on the court in Johnson. Add these veterans to a team that features a dominant defensive duo in the front court in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, along with a star-wing in Gordon Hayward, and the Jazz suddenly have a versatile roster that can go big and punish teams for playing small-ball.
Our Ben Dowsett broke down Utah’s bolstered roster versatility earlier this month. This is part of what he said about the Jazz’s new flexibility:
To be clear, the Jazz, just like every other team, does not have the level of collective talent that Golden State does. However, with a versatile roster, they should have a decent shot at giving the Warriors some problems in their matchups.
The Celtics were one of the most ambitious teams this offseason. General manager Danny Ainge has a treasure chest of tradable assets and was looking to trade for or sign star players like Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Al Horford. Ainge ultimately missed out on Butler and Durant, but adds a top-notch two-way big man in Horford.
Horford, age 30, fills a big hole in the Celtics’ roster. Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson are fine players, but neither is a top-level big men. Horford can plug in at starting center while adding rim protection, the versatility to guard mobile big man, as well as an effective assortment of shooting and post-moves on offense.
Horford probably doesn’t vault the Celtics into the NBA’s elite-tier of teams, but he does move the needle significantly. The Celtics now have a stud at center and plenty of assets and flexibility to use moving forward. Adding Durant and Horford would have been a grand slam, but hitting a homerun is perfectly fine too.
The Hornets entered the offseason with a lot of decisions to make. In the end, the Hornets let Courtney Lee, Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin go to other teams while retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. They also added Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert and Brian Roberts.
Keeping Batum is a big deal considering his age, versatility and still improving game. Batum may not be a superstar, but he’s the kind of player who makes a team better in more ways than can easily be quantified. Add in the fact that we still don’t know how good he and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can be together and there’s a lot of reason to like the roster the Hornets are developing. In fact, let’s all take a moment to get excited about Kidd-Gilchrist’s eventual return to NBA action. He is a tenacious defender, improving offensive player and should be a dynamic complement to Batum on the wing.
Williams shot over 40 percent from three last year and has found his niche as a valuable stretch-four. Hibbert has fallen off the map, but has a chance to rebuild his image as a defensive stalwart under Steve Clifford. The Hornets may not have had the best overall offseason, but they took care of their main priorities without losing sight of their long-term outlook.
Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s hard to not feel bad for the Oklahoma City Thunder and its fans. Seriously, this team was finally scratching the surface of how good it could be last postseason after years of fans and critics criticizing their inability to consistently extract optimal output from their talented roster.
Klay Thompson’s three-point barrage (11-of-18) helped the Warriors force a Game 7 against the Thunder, who ultimately lost after being up in the series 3-1. Thompson’s performance, in part, led to Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder and team up with the star-studded Warriors. Again, it’s hard to not feel bad for the Thunder.
However, Thunder general manager Sam Presti did bring in some nice talent by trading Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Donatas Sabonis (11th overall pick in this year’s Draft). Getting a player like Oladipo, who will be under team control for several years, as well as Ilyasova and Sabonis is a pretty nice haul for a player who is on an expiring deal and whose defensive impact had steadily waned in recent seasons. Though they will likely lose Dion Waiters to another team after Oklahoma City rescinded their qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.
Losing Durant is a major blow (to say the least) for the Thunder and could lead to Russell Westbrook leaving town after this upcoming season as an unrestricted free agent. If any front office could successfully navigate a situation like this, the Thunder’s can.
Los Angeles Lakers
Not so long ago, the Lakers were the league’s most desirable franchise. However, after putting together some historically bad seasons, missing out on major free agents, dealing with internal strife in the front office and saying farewell to Kobe Bryant, this once proud franchise has been knocked down a peg or two.
Proof of this is the fact that Durant declined the invitation to meet with the Lakers to discuss the possibility of joining them as a free agent. It’s one thing to meet with a superstar and to be told ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ It’s another thing to not even be given the opportunity to meet and discuss the possibility of making a deal.
Instead of getting a star player like Durant or a rising talent like Hassan Whiteside, the Lakers threw down big money on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Deng and Mozgov are still both decently productive players and nice veterans to add to the locker room. However, $136,000,000 is a lot of money to commit to Deng and Mozgov over four years. Yes, the cap spiked and that changes the way we assess the value of contracts these days. It doesn’t matter—that’s still a lot of money. Even signing Tarik Black to a two-year, partially-guaranteed $12.8 million contract is a pretty hefty investment when guys like Hibbert, Speights and Ezeli are earning only slighter more, or less per year.
Having said all of that, adding Luke Walton on as coach, re-signing Jordan Clarkson to a four-year, $50 million contract and drafting Brandon Ingram are nice moves that help the rebuilding process in L.A. With a good core of young talent and a bright head coach, the Lakers are slowly but surely heading toward a better future. But again, $136,000,000 is a lot of money for two aging veterans whose best days are likely behind them.
Asserting that the Bulls are losers in free agency may draw some ire considering they added Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo as free agents. Wade is one of the greatest shooting guards of all-time and Rondo is one of the best passers in the league. However, Wade’s past his prime and has a less than ideal injury history and Rondo has struggled in recent seasons and is always a concern in the locker room.
These issues are exacerbated by the fact that Wade and Rondo would form arguably the worst shooting backcourt in the entire NBA considering Wade and Rondo have shot below 30 percent from three-point range in their respective careers. Additionally, Wade and Rondo are ball-dominant guards, which may be a problem considering star forward Jimmy Butler also needs the ball in his hands. Each of these three players has strong personalities and will have to set their respective egos aside to make this dynamic work.
Fortunately for Chicago they do have a nice crop of young talent on the team in players like Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Jerian Grant, Cristiano Felicio and Denzel Valentine, and added a good center in Robin Lopez in the Derrick Rose trade. Additionally, adding Wade and Rondo doesn’t jeopardize the team’s future flexibility. Nevertheless, the Bulls have added two strong personalities to a team that suffered issues in the locker room last season. One way or another, this will be an interesting season in Chicago.
San Antonio Spurs
After 19 years in the NBA, Tim Duncan decided to call it a career. Losing Duncan is a sad thing for NBA fans and even tougher for those in and around the Spurs organization. While the Spurs did manage to land Pau Gasol to offset the loss of Duncan, at age 36, it’s hard to see how Gasol helps the Spurs get past the Warriors in the Western Conference.
The issue for San Antonio is that by failing to land Durant, losing Duncan and not bringing in a significant boost in talent, they remain more than a step behind the Warriors in the Western Conference with an aging roster. The same logic can be applied to the Los Angeles Clippers, who also missed out on Durant and had to settle for re-signing their own free agents while adding depth on the fringes of their roster. However, in the Clippers’ case, they kept most of their key pieces and got value signings in Brandon Bass and Speights. Unfortunately for both of these teams, not being able to take a step forward in free agency constitutes a loss considering how much better the rival Warriors became by signing Durant.
This Spurs roster has nice pieces in LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. But players like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gasol are in their mid-30s and it’s hard to see how they can match against the prime-year athletes in the Bay. However, if there is any coach that could find out a way to maximize his roster’s talent and the formula for stopping the Warriors, it’s Gregg Popovich.
The Wizards spent the last two seasons or so preparing to make a strong run at Durant in free agency. Despite their careful planning, the Wizards didn’t even get a meeting with Durant.
Instead, the Wizards brought in some decent big men in Ian Mahinmi (four-year, $62 million), Andrew Nicholson (four-year, $26 million contract, player option in final season) and Jason Smith (three-year, $15.7 million contract, player option in final season). They also reportedly agreed to re-sign Bradley Beal to a five-year, $127.2 million contract.
The Wizards still have a good crop of young talent to build this team around and a new coach in Scott Brooks to lead the way. But failing to get a meeting from Durant, who grew up in Washington D.C., is a punch to the gut for a team that had the talent (John Wall, Bradley Beal) and flexibility to make a viable pitch. It also doesn’t help that Durant seemed to take a less than veiled swipe at the team in his letter on The Players’ Tribune announcing his decision to join Warriors: “I’m from Washington, D.C. originally, but Oklahoma City truly raised me. It taught me so much about family as well as what it means to be a man.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.