NBA Offseason Grades: Eastern Conference
Get going or get left behind. That is the reality for the NBA’s 15 Eastern Conference teams. Each one is chasing the Miami HEAT, while the HEAT are now gunning for their fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Championship and third consecutive NBA crown.
The Brooklyn Nets, obviously, hope to have a say, and based on the franchise’s productive offseason, it is reasonable to believe that they may.
But what about the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls?
How about the younger teams that are establishing cores and foundations for the future? Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers), Brandon Jennings (Detroit Pistons) and John Wall (Washington Wizards) are three of the league’s younger point guards whose fan bases enter the 2013-14 season with reason for newfound optimism.
Is it founded?
That is the discussion.
By mid-August, the cream of the NBA’s free agent crop has dried up, the amnesty deadline has come and gone and teams generally have a very good idea of what their regular season roster will look like.
In honor of school reconvening and the end of summer approaching, here are report card grades for all 15 of the teams in the East.
Here, the concern is not whether or how the team has positioned itself for the future—projected cap space and future first round draft picks cannot play and win games in 2013-14—it is this season that is the primary concern.
The extent to which a team has improved and upgraded its talent base is the essence. And while projected cap space in the future will not get positive points here, on the other hand, a lack of it is a black mark. Cap flexibility is as important as ever, as the punitive luxury tax and restrictions placed on teams whose payroll exceeds the tax apron will have lasting effects on how effectively a team can be built moving forward.
In other words, the primary concern here is not how much teams may have to spend in the future—it is how effectively they have spent the dollars they have already committed.
That, and the simple question as to how the 2013-14 version of the team compares to the 2012-13 version, and what maneuvers the franchises have made to improve upon last season’s success (or lack, thereof) is the major determinant.
Key Additions: Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk
Key Subtractions: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry
All of a sudden, 2008 seems so long ago. There is not much to say about the Boston Celtics, other than “it was nice while it lasted.” Rajon Rondo is now the lone holdover from the 2008 title team, and his return from a season ending ACL tear will give fans in Boston something to cheer for, because Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries probably will not.
It is no secret that the impetus behind trading Pierce, Garnett and Terry to the Nets were the three first round draft picks that Brooklyn agreed to fork over to Danny Ainge. In the long run, the Celtics may have made a wise move for their franchise, since it became painfully obvious that the days of actually competing against LeBron James were over.
In the interim, Ainge has been somewhat adamant about the fact that the Celtics will not tank this season in an effort to improve their draft positioning for the heralded Class of 2014, but it is difficult to take that seriously when the Celtics did just that back when a youngster by the name of Kevin Durant was preparing to begin his professional career.
This summer truly marks the end of an era in Boston, and while brighter days may lie on the horizon for the franchise, the 2013-14 season will be quite dark and dreary.
GRADE: D -
Key Additions: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko
Key Subtractions: Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Gerald Wallace
How one receives the Nets trading three first round draft picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts for aging Hall-of-Famers in Pierce and Garnett and an aging bench scorer in Terry varies.
The opponents of the trade correctly point out that draft picks are the lifeblood of a franchise and the most realistic opportunity to end up with a young franchise player.
The proponents, however, would recognize that Deron Williams and Joe Johnson will earn a combined $40 million in 2013-14, and at 29 and 32 years old, respectively, neither of them have time to worry about who the Nets may be able to draft in 2016.
The mandate to win now comes directly from owner Mikhail Prokhorov, and it is a mandate he passed down to general manager Billy King when King was awarded with an extension last spring.
The Nets entered the offseason far over the tax apron and were supposed to be hamstrung. Instead, they will enter the season as one of the most talented teams in the entire league.
The franchise has done quite well.
Re-signing Andray Blatche and drafting Mason Plumlee—two young big men whose best days may still be ahead—pushes their offseason from “good” to “great.”
Key Additions: Andrea Bargnani, Metta World Peace, Beno Udrih, Tim Hardaway, Jr.
Key Subtractions: Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland
Offensively, Andrea Bargnani should provide the Knicks with a pick-and-pop option that can help keep their offense spaced, and even at this late stage in his career, Metta World Peace is still a very productive low-post defender. Beno Udrih is a very capable point guard who should fill in nicely with this team’s strong bench scorers.
Although Jason Kidd played very well for the Knicks when they got off to a blistering 18-5 start last season, Bargnani, World Peace and Udrih are a net-plus when compared to Kidd, Novak and Copeland.
Copeland showed promise in the Knicks’ second-round loss against the Indiana Pacers, but the sting of his departure is softened by the franchise’s re-signing of both J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin.
A fair question to anyone who sees the Knicks’ offseason as anything less than super productive and yet another step in the right direction should be asked what more the team could have done in its quest to overthrow Miami.
Glen Grunwald has played the hand he has been dealt, and he has played it quite well.
GRADE: A -
Key Additions: Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, Royce White
Key Subtractions: Andrew Bynum, Jrue Holiday
In the 2012 NBA Playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers fell one win short of challenging the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference Finals. Just over one year later, five of the nine players that Doug Collins played in that Game 7 are no longer even with the team.
Last summer, Elton Brand was amnestied, Lou Williams signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks, Andre Iguodala was traded in the deal that saw Andrew Bynum end up in Philadelphia and Jodie Meeks signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
This summer, Bynum left for Cleveland and Jrue Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for Nerlens Noel.
Newly installed general manager Sam Hinkie and head coach Brett Brown have pressed the reset button in Philadelphia. Although the team won just 34 games last season, trading a 23-year-old point guard who just made his first NBA All-Star team does not exactly seem like a wise move.
And while the cap space and influx of youngsters may make the Sixers a threat in a few years, they are in for a long season—a much longer one than 2012-13.
GRADE: C -
Key Additions: Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Austin Daye, Steve Novak
Key Subtractions: Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza, Marcus Camby
After acquiring Rudy Gay on Jan. 31, the Toronto Raptors went 18-15 over their final 33 games. Bargnani played in only 14 of those games, and the Raptors were just 6-8. For the most part, the emergence of Jonas Valanciunas and the acquisition of Gay made Bargnani somewhat expendable in Toronto. It was, then, no surprise that newly installed general manager Masai Ujiri agreed to move Bargnani less than a month after he accepted the job.
The Raptors are ultimately a middle-of-the-pack team in the Eastern Conference and will likely battle for the seventh or eighth seed. All four of Ujiri’s key acquisitions are productive players in their own right, and although the Raptors will ultimately depend on Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Gay to lead them from the doldrums, it is difficult to take exception to any of the level-headed moves Ujiri has made this summer.
Key Additions: Mike Dunleavy Jr., Derrick Rose
Key Subtractions: Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Richard Hamilton
With Derrick Rose expected to return to the lineup for the Chicago Bulls, the team will immediately regain their spot atop the NBA’s Central Division, though the Indiana Pacers are very likely to have something to say about that.
Though Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton each did an admirable job in their roles on Tom Thibodeau’s team, all three are replaceable. For the Bulls, as usual, the major concern will be the team’s ability to stay healthy.
With Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Taj Gibson flanking Rose, it is difficult imagining the Bulls being anything less than a 55-win team, even in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.
Re-signing Nazr Mohammed to serve as Noah’s backup is another plus, leaving a shooting void that the team hopes can be filled by Dunleavy as its lone concern heading into the season.
Key Additions: Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Anthony Bennett, Earl Clark
Key Subtractions: Wayne Ellington, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights
For perhaps the first time in Cleveland’s post-LeBron era, the Cavaliers have a serious chance at qualifying for the playoffs next April.
With Kyrie Irving as the team’s franchise player and Dion Waiters as his sidekick, the task for general manager Chris Grant was to assemble a cast of running mates that Irving could lead closer to the promise land.
After lucking into the first overall pick of this past June’s draft, the Cavaliers made a wise selection in Anthony Bennett, though it remains to be seen how he and his fellow Canadian Tristan Thompson coexist together. Aside from the health of Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao, that should be the primary concern for the Cavaliers.
As for the acquisitions of Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark, the duo gives the Cavs one of the more productive combo guards in the league and a 25-year-old power forward who, last season, showed why the Phoenix Suns made him the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
If Bynum and Varejao can stay healthy—two big ifs—then the Cavaliers will certainly qualify for the playoffs. But even if that is not the case, the cast assembled is strong enough to give Irving an opportunity to get to the postseason.
GRADE: A -
Key Additions: Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Key Subtractions: Brandon Knight, Jose Calderon, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell
Even after four years in Milwaukee, Brandon Jennings is still a bit of an enigma. He certainly seems to possess all of the requisite qualities of a successful NBA point guard, but for whatever reason, he has failed to put it together over the course of his young career.
The Bucks traded Jennings to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Knight—a younger point guard who is just as unproven—and did so after unsuccessfully attempting to sign the Atlanta Hawks’ Jeff Teague. The Bucks preferred Teague over Jennings and then settled for Knight.
That is a red flag.
On the other hand, the Pistons now possess an intimidating front court featuring Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. With Charlie Villanueva, Rodney Stuckey, a re-signed Will Bynum and a returning Chauncey Billups, Jennings had everything he needs to lead the Pistons.
General manager Joe Dumars took a calculated risk in committing more than $75 million to the combination of Jennings and Smith, but after failing to qualify for the playoffs for four consecutive years, it was a risk worth taking.
GRADE: B +
Key Additions: Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson, Solomon Hill
Key Subtractions: D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough
For the Indiana Pacers, a successful offseason started with re-signing David West, and they managed to do just that on a very reasonable three-year deal worth $36 million.
After an impressive 31-game stint as a member of the Nets during the 2011-12 season, Gerald Green did not make consistent contributions to the Pacers and was expendable after the emergence of Lance Stephenson. D.J. Augustin did not contribute meaningfully, meaning that the loss of Tyler Hansbrough will sting most. However, the combination of Luis Scola and Chris Copeland should more than make up for the loss of “Psycho T,” despite the fact that he is a much better rebounder than each of them.
With the potential return of Danny Granger, the Pacers are rightfully expecting to repeat as Central Division champions and, no doubt, would like another shot at the Miami HEAT.
After a productive offseason, they just may get it.
GRADE: A -
Key Additions: Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Key Subtractions: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy Jr., J.J. Redick, Gustavo Ayon, Drew Gooden
The Milwaukee Bucks’ offseason has been marked by substantial turnover. Newly installed head coach Larry Drew will have his work cut out for him if his team is to make the playoffs, but if Drew can help Brandon Knight replicate the progress that Jeff Teague made under Drew in the early years of Teague’s career, the Bucks may surprise some people this season.
As for direct comparisons, Mayo is not capable of scoring the way Ellis is, but Mayo is on-par as a defensive player and plays within the flow of an offense better than Ellis does. Neal is a fine jump shooter, but Redick is just as good, if not better, and also provides better man-to-man defense. But even if Mayo and Neal vs. Ellis and Redick is a net-negative for the Bucks, Ridnour, Delfino and Pachulia are each productive, team-first players in their own right.
Despite losing the star power of Jennings and Ellis, the Bucks have managed to assemble a roster that may be greater than the sum of its parts. They have also spent wisely, committing a total of just $20 million this season to Mayo, Pachulia, Ridnour and Neal.
GRADE: B +
Key Additions: Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, Gustavo Ayon
Key Subtractions: Josh Smith, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Zaza Pachulia, Anthony Tolliver, DeShawn Stevenson
Upon taking over the Atlanta Hawks in June 2012, general manager Danny Ferry made two cap clearing trades—Joe Johnson was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets and Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz. That, above all, is why cap space should not be considered when making the grade on a team’s offseason.
The Hawks were hoping to land Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, and instead, settled for Paul Millsap and Elton Brand. To make matters even worse, the team lost some extremely productive players and will continue to descend into mediocrity after making the playoffs for six consecutive years.
The saving grace for the Hawks’ offseason was matching the very reasonable offer sheet that the Milwaukee Bucks tendered to restricted free agent Jeff Teague.
But the black eye? The decision to not trade Josh Smith back at February’s trading deadline. The Hawks ended up losing him for nothing, and based on that, it is difficult to label this offseason as a success.
Key Additions: Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller, Anthony Tolliver
Key Subtractions: Byron Mullens, Tyrus Thomas, Reggie Williams
Since entering the league in 2009, Gerald Henderson has progressed as a solid NBA shooting guard and if he were playing in a bigger market, would be better known than he currently is. Re-signing him to a three-year deal was a solid move for the Bobcats.
However, the real story of the franchise’s offseason is the club’s signing of Al Jefferson.
Though Jefferson is still far from the player he was back in 2008 as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was a free agent being targeted by multiple NBA teams and is widely considered to be one of the best post scorers in the entire league. His presence on the floor should open things up for Ben Gordon and with marked improvement from Kemba Walker, the Bobcats actually have some hope that he, Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can give the Bobcats something to be proud of this season.
That, of course, would end the “Bobcats” era on a positive note. Beginning with the 2014-15 season, the Bobcats will change their name back to the Hornets.
By then, who knows where the franchise will be? But for now, we know that the 2013-14 Bobcats will be better than the 2012-13 version.
GRADE: B +
Key Addition: Greg Oden
Key Subtraction: Mike Miller
Not much needs to be said about the Miami HEAT, other than the fact that the team seems poised to make a serious run at the league’s first three-peat since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant led the L.A. Lakers to three straight NBA titles from 2000 to 2002.
For the HEAT, re-signing Chris Andersen was a major victory, as was getting him to accept a $1.39 million veteran’s minimum salary. The team still has its $3.18 million taxpayer mid-level exception, but that fact may bode negatively for HEAT fans. When coupled with the fact that Miami waived Mike Miller with its amnesty designation, it seems obvious that owner Micky Arison is concerned about his team’s luxury tax standing.
The future of this team is in question, but its present is not. The HEAT are clearly the cream of the NBA, even if their offseason was absent of the hustle and bustle of the conference’s other contenders who are playing catch up. A poor grade is deserving since the HEAT have not done anything to actually improve their team for next season. And though Greg Oden may, there are simply too many questions surrounding his health for his signing to be taken as a net-positive.
Key Additions: Victor Oladipo, Jason Maxiell
Key Subtractions: Al Harrington, Beno Udrih
Life after Dwight Howard continues for the Orlando Magic, and Victor Oladipo will now join Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Arron Afflalo as the centerpieces of the rebuilding project.
Quickly and quietly, the Magic have young and talented players with whom they hope to build for the future. As of right now, though, the team remains in transition and will slowly but surely build. That, of course, is the R.C. Buford way, and general manager Rob Hennigan is from Buford’s tree.
The Magic are looking at another 20-win season and another high lottery pick in the 2014 draft. Overall, the signing of Maxiell and the drafting of Oladipo will not do much to improve their showing from last season.
Key Additions: Otto Porter, Eric Maynor, Glen Rice, Jr.
Key Subtractions: None
For the Wizards, this offseason will be remembered for the franchise’s re-signing of Martell Webster and, of course, signing John Wall to a maximum five-year extension worth $78.8 million. The decision to pay him so handsomely is somewhat curious, since the Wizards have averaged just 24 wins in each of his three professional seasons.
In all fairness, though, both Wall and then-rookie Bradley Beal missed considerable time last season. If healthy, with a re-signed Webster and an intimidating frontline featuring Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, Wall certainly has a cast that should be capable of stringing together some consistent wins. It will be interesting to see what kind of playing time rookie Otto Porter gets.
With good health, the Wizards should improve this season, mainly due to Wall’s progression as a player.
GRADE: C +
Check back on Saturday for the Western Conference offseason grades.