Rain, Meet Parade: The Potential Downside to Every Big NBA Offseason Victory
Congratulations to every NBA team that successfully pulled off one of the offseason's biggest coups. You're all summertime superstars, and your outlook, relative to the hand you've been dealt, is pretty darn good!
Now, if we may, please retrieve your umbrellas.
Clouds are about to party crash your summer of sun.
Look, sussing out the bleak aspects of silver linings and blindingly bright futures gives me no pleasure. (OK, maybe it's a little fun.) These downsides should be not be confused with absolute pessimism or predictive death knells. If your favorite squad makes this list, it's winning! These drawbacks might even be irrelevant!
But we'd be remiss not to acknowledge the possible stumbling blocks that, should they reveal themselves, threaten to rack and ruin the strongest feel-good vibes.
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal has already ranked the most positively impactful moves of the offseason. For consistency's sake, and because he was spot-freaking-on, our subjects will be plucked straight from that hierarchy.
Potential downfalls may be met in the middle or at the end of next season. They could even manifest themselves years down the line. It doesn't matter. We're looking for something, anything that complicates free-agency signings, trade acquisitions and future plans.
The Lakers' Flier on KCP: Yeah, but Does LeBron Even Care?
Signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a flawless move for the Los Angeles Lakers. Quality 24-year-olds who were expected to get max money seldom end up accepting one-year flier contracts. The Lakers lucked out.
But are their intentions pure? Or are they merely extending an olive branch to LeBron James, who shares an agent, in Rich Paul, with Caldwell-Pope?
Rachel Nichols and Adrian Wojnarowski broached this topic on a recent episode of ESPN's The Jump:
Nichols: Is that a KCP thing? Or is that a LeBron-KCP thing.
Wojnarowski: It was both. Now, they would not have given $18 million in a one-year deal to a guy that didn’t play at all. He’s a good young player. That deal for the Lakers is ultimately a great deal on a one-year contract. This is a player who people thought would get a four-year, $20 million-plus…that didn’t happen. But this is all part of the greater LeBron conversation, and the Lakers are going to be—just like they’re in full Paul George mode from now until July 1 next year, LeBron [mode] has started, and it started the day they [Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka] took over.
Paying Caldwell-Pope for one year won't do much to sway James. It doesn't hurt, but it's not some inside track.
Even with Paul opening the lines of communications between Caldwell-Pope and the Lakers, this logic is flimsy. He now gets to tell James that Johnson and Pelinka are...willing to sign one of his clients who fills a need and fits their placeholder timeline. Hooray.
Things change if James legitimately wants to play with Caldwell-Pope. And maybe he does. But he's not leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers because of Caldwell-Pope. If the Lakers move Jordan Clarkson and Luol Deng without taking back any salary beyond next season, we can talk. Renouncing Corey Brewer, Brook Lopez and Julius Randle (restricted) would allow them to float Caldwell-Pope's hold while dredging up more than $50 million in spending power—nearly enough for James and a friend.
Until this implausible scenario toes the boundaries of reality, the Lakers' marriage to Caldwell-Pope is one borne from convenience, and nothing more. Sorry.
Charlotte Lands Dwight Howard: Good Thing It Gave Cody Zeller $56 Million
Dwight Howard's fit with the Charlotte Hornets isn't in question. No other team is better suited to host his last stand.
Reuniting with Steve Clifford is a boon by itself. Charlotte's head coach spent five years as an assistant during Howard's time on the Orlando Magic and was in Los Angeles for the big man's only season with the Lakers.
Most other squads won't indulge Howard's post-up penchants. The Hornets will. They placed 27th in back-to-the-basket volume last season solely because they lacked a low-block threat. They sprinkled in more post-ups during the 2015-16 campaign, when they deployed Al Jefferson for nearly 1,100 minutes.
Pepper in some pick-and-roll action with Kemba Walker, along with Howard's persisting value as a rim deterrent, and this relationship is destined to pan out for everyone involved—except Cody Zeller.
Trading for Howard equates to the Hornets acknowledging Zeller cannot be their lifeline at the 5. Howard replaces everything he does while adding explosion and strength he's never provided. As Adam Spinella wrote for NBA Math:
The Hornets also gave up the most three-pointers per game, since they frequently collapsed and rotated on ball movement. It may be by design, but those numbers were also inflated by Cody Zeller’s presence with the first unit. Zeller isn’t a poor center by every measure; he sets fantastic screens and makes good plays out of the pick-and-roll on offense, and his lateral quickness helped the Hornets with defensive rotations. Yet he is an atrocious defensive rebounder; he finished the season with a 17.3 percent defensive rebounding rate. Steven Adams and both Lopez Twins were the only starting centers with a lower number, per Basketball-Reference.
Bringing Zeller off the bench is fine. Using him as the second-string 5 after signing him to a four-year, $56 million extension is questionable, but not egregious. Balancing his court time with Howard is a problem—the problem.
In a perfect world, Clifford seldom, if ever, plays Howard and Zeller at the same time. The Hornets don't have that option. Four people make up the center carousel when adding time for Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky in five-out lineups. Everyone other than Howard must dabble at the 4—including Zeller.
Almost 25 percent of his minutes have come there since 2015-16, which is already far too many. He shouldn't be chasing around the many glorified wings who populate power forward these days, and his sub-30 percent clip on long twos doesn't bode well for Charlotte's floor balance. Clifford needs to hope a happy medium exists, and that he's able to find it.
Brooklyn's Salary-Absorbing Savvy: Crabbe, Mozzy and Carroll Make How Much???
Prior to February, the Brooklyn Nets were slated to enter the offseason with cap space and one (late) first-round pick.
By the end of July, they leveraged this position into the No. 22 pick (Jarrett Allen), DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe, Timofey Mozgov, D'Angelo Russell, a lottery-protected first-rounder in 2018 and an extra second-round choice.
Offseasons don't get much better when working from a position of relative weakness. These additions cost the Nets the No. 27 pick (Kyle Kuzma) and Brook Lopez, but they're reasonable forms of collateral damage—especially when, in the end, Brooklyn shed Andrew Nicholson's deal while picking up a player it targeted last summer (Crabbe).
Still, the Nets absorbed a lot of money. Maybe too much money. Paying Carroll, Crabbe and Mozgov a combined $49.4 million is whatever for one year. But that number climbs to $49.9 million in 2018-19, and it settles in around $35.2 million for 2019-20, when Crabbe (player option) and Mozgov enter the final year of their deals and Carroll comes off the books.
Passing on one of these acquisitions would have given the Nets an upper hand leading into next summer. Cap space will come at a premium as the market continues to correct itself after the 2016 spending spree. Free agents will get "squeezed," as one source told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks. Think of how much the Nets could command from teams looking to dump contracts for wiggle room.
"They could have signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year deal instead of tying up cap space on Crabbe through 2020," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "Depending on what happens with Lin and other free agents, the Nets may be out of the salary-dump game until then."
This situation isn't dire. The Nets will have some flexibility in 2018—a boatload if Jeremy Lin declines his $12.5 million player option. But holds for him and Trevor Booker curb that financial clout if the team is at all interested in retaining their services. General manager Sean Marks also has to make decisions on free agents Joe Harris and Sean Kilpatrick, plus Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's extension.
None of this matters if the Nets exponentially improve. Perhaps Russell turns into a star. Maybe Caris LeVert becomes a full-fledged cornerstone. Crabbe might have another gear under head coach Kenny Atkinson. But what-if scenarios don't advance rebuilds. So unless the Nets have designs on tanking beyond next year (Lowe said they won't), they may have swallowed one too many contracts.
Sixers Trade Up for Markelle Fultz: Wasn't Ben Simmons Supposed to Be Your PG?
Pouncing on the opportunity to draft Markelle Fultz is a fantastic play. The Philadelphia 76ers deserve all the applause and optimism and baseless-but-not-really LeBron James conspiracy theories. But this move isn't beyond reproach.
Head coach Brett Brown planned to play Ben Simmons at point guard before the Sixers entered Fultz territory. He was bullish on this tactical ruffle. Consider what he told Adrian Wojnarowski, then of The Vertical, back in April (via Liberty Ballers' Xylon Dimoff):
"When I say 'point guard,' I mean 'point guard.' You know, who takes the ball out of bounds, who receives the ball when the ball goes in the basket, who brings it up the floor after a free throw. I’m not talking about Draymond, I’m not talking about LeBron, you know, I’m talking about a point guard. And so I intend on trying this."
Necessity breeds conviction, and Brown didn't have any shinier alternatives at the time. Adding Fultz still projects as a wrinkle. Both he and Simmons must play off the ball more, but neither is particularly polished in that area.
Simmons only attempted three triples during his lone season at LSU while putting down just 32.9 percent of his two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com. Fultz canned 41.3 percent of his threes at Washington, but he's no catch-and-shoot sniper; his field-goal percentage dipped on spot-up opportunities, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor.
J.J. Redick's arrival opens things up for both ball-dominant newbies. Joel Embiid's surprise touch from beyond the arc does the same. And who knows, maybe Simmons follows Embiid's lead, emerging from a lost season with refined outside touch, as the unicorn the NBA didn't realize it employed.
Make no bones about it: The Sixers are happy to have these problems. But they're still problems—issues that could delay Philly's expected meteoric rise.
LAC's Solid Post-CP3 Roster: Congrats on Earning the No. 6 Seed!
Evaluating the Los Angeles Clippers' offseason against Chris Paul's departure paints a rosy picture.
They locked down a 28-year-old superstar in Blake Griffin. They acquired Danilo Gallinari. They parlayed Paul's exit into a multitude of rotation players: Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. They signed playmaking maestro Milos Teodosic and Clint Capela-light Willie Reed to reasonable deals. They escaped the final guaranteed year of Jamal Crawford's contract.
They now have depth. Real, live, actual, tangible depth.
And what does all this get them? About 49 victories and a sixth-place finish in the West, according to Kevin Pelton's Real Plus-Minus (RPM) record protections for ESPN:
"Surprise! RPM doesn't expect the Clippers to decline as much as you might think after they lost Paul to Houston. Gaining valuable replacements Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams as part of an impressive return for Paul helps, as does trading RPM liability Jamal Crawford. But ultimately the Clippers will be depending on both Blake Griffin (68 games) and Danilo Gallinari (70) to stay on the court as projected."
Flirting with 50 wins is an admirable outcome following Paul's departure. But respectable regular-season dalliances won't get the Clippers out of the first round. Their forecast also feels ambitious.
Gallinari and Griffin are at the center of all doubts. In the event they both make it through the season—Gallinari already suffered a right thumb injury after punching an opponent while playing for the Italian national team—the Clippers must figure out whether they possess the surrounding defensive depth to play both, extensively, at the same time.
Pushing 29, with back, ankle and knee injuries on his health bill, Gallinari should be a full-time 4. Paying him $64.8 million over the next three seasons is a bold move after signing Griffin to a five-year, $171.2 million pact.
Plus, even if everything goes right for the Clippers, they're still left to reconcile their place in a conference that features the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and surging Denver Nuggets.
Paul Millsap to Denver: Six Kajillion PFs May Be One Too Many
Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap form the perfect 4-5 alliance.
Both are crafty passers. Both know how to play away from the action. Both can bring the ball up the floor after a defensive rebound—a scary thought knowing Jokic, on his own, anchored an offense that finished sixth in pace and efficiency following an opponent's miss, according to Inpredictable.
Most importantly: Millsap completes the Serbian superhero. He brings the defensive switchability the Nuggets have yet to stick around Jokic. He can chase around the more mobile of 4-5 assignments, while his partner in crime tethers himself almost exclusively to the paint, hones his rotations, recaptures his 2015-16 rim protection and, yes, grabs even more defensive boards.
Now, about the rest of the frontcourt...The Nuggets didn't consolidate their power forward ranks. They added to them. Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles join Millsap, Darell Arthur, Juan Hernangomez and Kenneth Faried in one of the league's most bizarre logjams.
Not a single one of these players should sponge up time at the 3. Hernangomez will, because Denver has no choice, but the best version of this team doesn't include him at small forward. It negates whatever defensive ground gained from adding Millsap.
Mason Plumlee isn't even factored into this equation. Re-signing him only accentuates the pileup. At least now the Nuggets can field ambitious backup units with Faried, Lydon or Lyles at the 5. Accounting for Plumlee bites into that option while all but killing jacked-up small-ball combinations that trot out Millsap at the 5.
This dilemma coincides with a dearth of wings. The well runs dry after Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler. The 6'4" Jamal Murray will have to chip in against small forwards, an equally intriguing and awkward rebuttal.
Hitting the phones will help the Nuggets clear up their accumulation of 4s-who-can't-be-3s-but-also-shouldn't-be-5s. Pretty much everyone is on a movable contract. But good luck sussing out suitors open to flipping wings for bigs.
Gordon Hayward to Boston Brads: Can You Have Too Many Wings?
Brad Stevens won't apologize for his team's wing-heavy makeup. The Celtics are now at the forefront of positionless models, and their head coach is happy to wade out into the stylistic wave.
Losing Avery Bradley still stings. Stevens turned to him more than anyone to help out against rival floor generals. Bradley defended more pick-and-roll ball-handlers than Boston's other non-point guards. His hustle must now be recouped via the collective efforts of Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris.
This reads like a doable collaboration. Each of Boston's four wings guarded more than 115 ball-handler possessions last season, and Crowder was the only one who failed to finish in the 60th percentile of points allowed per play. And remember: Smart hasn't gone anywhere. He will help bridge some of the gaps Bradley left behind.
But stashing Isaiah Thomas on weaker assignments becomes a wee bit more of headache without the Bradley option.
Start Smart, and the Celtics erase the defensive concerns but hamstring their five-out dynamic. Use Brown, and they're rolling the dice with inexperience and shaky shooting (away from the corners). Tab Morris, and they resign themselves to switching-by-committee with Crowder and Hayward as helping hands.
Positionless basketball only works with a bundle of interchangeable options. The Celtics have them. Stevens can even test out Daniel Theis' defensive range. At 6'9", he matched up with basically every position while playing in Germany. Rookie Jayson Tatum could always develop into a sneaky-good switcher.
That doesn't mean this transition into full-blown sameness will be without growing pains. It might be. It really might be. But Boston may also find that its assortment of wings, though rangy on paper, isn't ready or even built to mirror Golden State's adaptability.
All Things Minnesota: Spa, Spa, Spa, Spacing
Concerns over the Minnesota Timberwolves' floor-spacing are overblown.
Counterpoint: What if they're not?
The Timberwolves placed dead last in three-point attempt rate and 20th in outside efficiency last season. They had three qualified players finish in the top 100 of long-range accuracy: Zach LaVine (38.7 percent), Karl-Anthony Towns (36.7) and Andrew Wiggins (35.6)—one of whom is gone (LaVine).
Their response? Add no players who ranked better than 65th on the downtown-success scale.
Caveats abound when looking at the Timberwolves' retooled roster. Integrating Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague into an offense that already includes Towns and Wiggins will give way to easier shot attempts. Minnesota generated fewer wide-open three-pointers than Orlando in 2016-17. That should change. Only seven teams converted a lower percentage of those gimmes. That should change, too.
Except, again, what if it doesn't?
Butler has never put down threes at a league-average rate in consecutive seasons. Blame the Chicago Bulls. That's fine. And correct. That context doesn't reinvent the facts.
Wiggins has yet to nail treys at a league-average clip. His 35.6 percent dagger rate last year came close but still fell short of the mean (35.8). His improvement between his second year (30 percent) and third year could be an anomaly—right down to spiking catch-and-shoot marks.
Spot-up threes have never accounted for more than 11.2 percent of Wiggins' total field-goal attempts. Ceding more touches to the combination of Butler, Teague and Towns could have a reverse effect on his shooting percentage. Playing off the ball is theoretically easier but also an adjustment after creating a lion's share of your own looks.
Aside from Towns, the Timberwolves are not loaded with froncourt spacing, either. Taj Gibson is a non-threat. Nemanja Bjelica could lay another 31.6 percent egg. Gorgui Dieng's ever-improving jumper may finally crack under the weight of more volume. Things can, and might, and probably will, go wrong.
Paul George to OKC: The Lakers
Paul George told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins it's "too early" for him, Oklahoma City, people in purple-and-gold face paint or anyone else to worry about his presumed infatuation with the Lakers.
The Thunder, to their credit, will probably place stock in those sentiments. George hasn't ruled out re-signing as a free agent next summer (player option), and they have the defensive tools to contend for the second- or third-place Western Conference finish that makes it mighty difficult for him to join the Lakers without a blood pact from LeBron that states he's doing the same.
Worst-case scenario: The Thunder lose George, Russell Westbrook follows suit, and general manager Sam Presti is left to begin a rebuilding project free from any truly suffocating contracts or damning draft-pick obligations.
Take off the rose-colored goggles, though, and you'll see the other side of the fence. The Thunder didn't trade for George with the intention or hope of losing him. They understand the risk. That's the extent of their complicity.
Indeed, Oklahoma City acquired George to stave off the rebuild his exit incites. His arrival infers a certain gall on the franchise's behalf. That, if nothing else, should resonate with both stars, increasing the likelihood George commits long term or Westbrook re-ups independent of his running mate's leanings.
Neither bet has paid off to this point. Westbrook's extension remains unsigned, and George knows better than to profess his loyalty to a team and vision before playing any games. Everything rides on 2017-18, from the Thunder's regular-season finish to their postseason performance to George's chemistry with Westbrook—the latter of which is most crucial, as SI.com's Rob Mahoney explained:
"Westbrook had grown so accustomed to looking off his teammates in certain situations (some understandably, some less so) that he’ll have to work his way back toward treating them as threats. Giving Westbrook carte blanche also did no favors to his shot selection. A portion of his attempts—the premature pull-up three-pointers, in particular—ought to go. The question is whether they will quietly, if at all."
For all the pomp and promise incumbent to the Thunder's revamped look, next season isn't about basking in the afterglow of their impromptu resurrection. It's about survival.
Chris Paul to Houston: It Turns Out the Rockets Only Get One Ball
Those who subscribe to the "talent figures it out" adage will not waste energy worrying about the possible perils and pitfalls of a Chris Paul-James Harden pairing. To that end, most skeptics are less pessimistic than curious.
Striking balance between two top-10 stars is a one-percenter's errand. Harden and Paul are ball-dominant by craft, but they're not wholly foreign to concession.
Harden surrendered spotlight and touches during his three seasons playing next to Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. Paul never submitted to anyone but has displayed a unique knack for summoning complementary power on-command. He's shooting 43.9 percent on spot-up threes since 2013-14 (145-of-330).
Standalone threebies account for only 8.3 percent of Paul's total attempts over that span, though. He assisted on 47.7 percent of the Clippers' baskets when in the game during his six-year stay—the highest rate in the league. He's accustomed to operating on-ball.
Ditto for Harden nowadays. Though he's drilling 44.5 percent (350-of-886) of his catch-and-shoot threes since 2013-14, those looks make up 13.5 percent of all his shots. Since he arrived in Houston, only Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins have posted higher usage rates among 525 active players with at least 50 appearances.
Past familiarity and efficiency helps sate the severity of the learning curve that awaits Harden and Paul. They do not entirely redress it. There will be awkward stages—inverse honeymoon phases wherein patience and compromise supplant unrestrained euphoria.
Will these trying, at times frustrating periods be the difference between the Rockets winning 55 and 60-plus games? The culprit behind finishing third in the West instead of second? A year-long transition that bounces them from the postseason long before the conference finals?
Will these potential hiccups have any bearing on Houston's season at all? Maybe, maybe not. But there will be a feeling-out stretch no matter what. Expectations should be tempered accordingly—if only so the bar on a Harden-Paul formation isn't set impossibly high from its infancy.