Which NBA teams improved the most in free agency this summer? Basketball Insiders’ experts discuss.
The Overlooked, Underrated Memphis Grizzlies
The NBA’s summer of 2015 will go down as one of the most memorable in recent history. With the salary cap set to increase over the next several seasons, teams opened up their checkbooks and spent accordingly. One estimate had the total price tag at $1 billion spent after the first day of free agency alone.
The cap is projected to climb over $100 million as soon as 2017 so teams were motivated to lock players into deals now, with the hope being that contracts handed out this summer may end up looking like bargains in the future.
It seems as though just about every team in the league improved in some form or fashion, either through free agency, trades or the draft. Now that the bulk of free agency is over, many have started to look at the “winners” and “losers” of the summer (as Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton discussed on a recent podcast). Of course, teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks among others have been pegged as winners thus far.
While there was a ridiculous amount of lucrative contracts thrown around this summer, one team that remained fairly quiet was the Memphis Grizzlies. They entered this offseason with one goal in mind: re-signing unrestricted free agent Marc Gasol.
Leading up to the summer, many expected Gasol to ultimately stay in Memphis. Reports surfaced prior to the start of free agency that he’d only be meeting with the Grizzlies. After all, this was someone who attended high school in Memphis after making the move from Spain (when his brother, Pau, played for the Grizzlies). Not to mention, he spent his entire seven-year career with the Grizzlies and felt comfortable staying there long-term.
Grizzlies fan began to get restless as no news surfaced from either side after free agency began. Players like Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard had already agreed to stay with their current team, while Gasol remained a free agent. It wouldn’t be until July 6 that news broke that Gasol would re-sign with the Grizzlies.
When Gasol and the Grizzlies finally reached a deal, it was a five-year, $110 million agreement. With the Grizzlies retaining arguably the best center in the NBA, they should also be viewed as one of the clear-cut winners of the offseason along with teams like the Spurs and Clippers.
Gasol would later say that he told the Grizzlies he’d come back on the first day of free agency, but it wasn’t reported until later since he was in Spain and disconnected from social media.
“Once the dust settled and I started thinking about the process of next season and the years after that, every scenario would bring me back to Memphis,” Gasol said last month at the press conference announcing his new deal. “It never opened up to different teams. So, it was actually pretty easy. … Nobody really had a doubt that I was going to leave. [I] just needed to take some time and settle.”
Gasol returning was perhaps one of the biggest moves of the summer, even though it was expected. He’s coming off of a career year in which he averaged 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 blocks. He elevated those numbers in the postseason to 19.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.7 blocks. Keeping Gasol around means the team will remain competitive in the Western Conference, and it could prove critical to keeping Memphis an attractive destination for future free agents.
The Grizzlies finished last season tied for the West’s third-best record with the Spurs, but ultimately earned the fifth seed after the Portland Trail Blazers grabbed the fourth seed as a division winner (despite finishing with fewer wins). Even though they are a perennial contender with a talented core, unique style of play and excellent chemistry, the Grizzlies are seemingly one of the most overlooked teams in the league.
They don’t make splashy moves, they don’t play a sexy brand of basketball and their leading scorer is Gasol, a center. In contrast, the reigning NBA champions run a high-octane offense, have a ton of shooters and are led by MVP Stephen Curry, who seems to be comfortable shooting as soon as he crosses the half-court line.
But the Grizzlies are fine with being different and being underrated. They embrace the “Grit and Grind” style of play. With the players that they have on their roster, it’s no wonder why they play that way. Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Vince Carter and newcomer Jeff Green are the key players in head coach Dave Joerger’s system.
They finished 26th in pace last season, but had the fourth-best defensive efficiency in the league. As a result, they were 13th in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions). For a team that averages just 94.2 possessions a game, that ranking is remarkable. By comparison, the Warriors led the league with 100.7 possessions a game.
After re-signing Gasol, the Grizzlies opted to just make a couple of moves. They lost Kosta Koufos to the Sacramento Kings through free agency, but replaced him by signing Brandan Wright to a three-year deal worth $18 million. He seems to be a near perfect fit for the Grizzlies’ system, given his abilities on offense and defense. He is extremely efficient on offense, as he shot 64 percent from the field last season. He finished seventh among all power forwards in PER at 20.44, which was better than the likes of Paul Millsap, new teammate Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki. On defense, he held his own as well as he averaged 1.3 blocks in 19 minutes per game and held opponents to 49.5 percent shooting at the rim. Given how many players earned large contracts this summer, signing Wright at just $18 million over three years has to be considered one of the most underrated signings of the offseason.
“Brandan Wright is probably my high school nemesis,” Gasol said. “He beat all of us for the state championship in Nashville, but I think he brings a lot of things to the table. [He brings] athleticism that we didn’t have on the bench. [He’s capable] of running and playing above the rim; we’re going to play a lot faster when he’s on the floor. He’s going to set a lot of pick-and-rolls and roll to the basket. He understands his role.”
One of the other big moves the Grizzlies made was acquiring Matt Barnes from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Luke Ridnour. The Grizzlies greatly needed another proven perimeter defender and opted to go after Barnes, who’s another player that will fit well with the culture the team has created. Barnes can be a glue guy off of the bench and he has shown he won’t back down from anyone, which is a trait that can also be found in Randolph and Allen.
Memphis quietly had a very strong offseason, keeping their core pieces and then adding players who fit right in and fill a need. They didn’t make splashy additions like other teams, but the solid contributors they added do the dirty work and often fly under the radar – just like the team itself.
The key for Memphis this season is staying healthy. The team suffered some crucial injuries last year in the playoffs, especially with Conley, Allen and Beno Udrih going down. The argument can be made that had the team been fully healthy, they could have challenged the Warriors even more in the second round instead of being eliminated in six games. But injuries are a part of the game, and they’ll use their early exit from the playoffs as fuel for next season.
As it’s said each year, the window for a team to win a championship can close rather quickly. This could be especially true with the Grizzlies after the 2015-16 season. Conley, Green, Lee, Barnes and Udrih are all in the final year of their contracts and will be unrestricted free agents next summer. Memphis only has five players guaranteed on the books for the 2016-17 season. Carter, Russ Smith, Jarnell Stokes and JaMychal Green are on non-guaranteed deals in 2016-17 and the team holds an option for Jordan Adams.
This season will be an important one for the team as it could set the future of the team. If the Grizzlies show that they’re just a player or two away from a championship with their current roster, ownership could opt to retain everyone regardless of the cost. If they don’t show improvement, the roster could undergo drastic changes next summer.
James Harden Moves on to adidas
Houston Rockets guard James Harden will officially make the jump from Nike to adidas, his agent Rob Pelinka confirmed on Thursday. The deal will pay Harden $200 million over a span of 13 years.
Harden will begin wearing adidas on and off of the court starting on October 1.
“We’re a brand of creators and James embodies that more than any athlete in the game,” said Chris Grancio, adidas’ global basketball general manager, in a statement. “His addition to the Adidas basketball family is a game changer.
“This partnership gives him the opportunity to achieve his goals and express himself in a totally new way as a creator. He’s already one of the most recognizable sports figures because of his game, his look, his hunger to win and his style on the off the court. His ceiling is far from reached, which tells you the future for him and our brand looks incredible.”
Reports first surfaced early last week that adidas had planned to offer Harden a deal. The initial reaction was that Nike would opt not to match the offer, since they’re set to take over as the official apparel supplier of the NBA after next season and already sponsor marquee players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving among others.
With adidas approaching the final season of their agreement with the NBA as its official apparel supplier, it was believed they would begin targeting more athletes. The company already sponsors players like Derrick Rose, John Wall and Damian Lillard, but they want to add to that rotation as they continue to compete with Nike.
Miami HEAT rookie Justise Winslow and Washington Wizards rookie Kelly Oubre also signed with adidas recently. Each year, adidas tries to add a number of notable lottery picks from the incoming draft class. Last year, adidas signed four of the top six picks in the 2014 NBA Draft: Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum and Boston Celtics point guard Marcus Smart.
Harden will nearly make more money annually from adidas than he will from the Rockets. He has three more years left on his current deal with the Rockets, which will pay him an average of $16.78 million per season, while his new deal with adidas will average $15.38 million each year.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.