1 Thing We Learned About Every NBA Team During the Offseason
Every NBA offseason is more enlightening than the previous one. It has to be.
Competitive landscapes change on a whim, so the Association's teams must do the same. Some reinvest in a model that's working, while others opt for full-tilt reboots. New contenders emerge. Established ones bow out.
Free agents leave. Players demand trades. Those requests are granted. Or denied. Injuries turn rotations on their head. Younger players are awarded or thrust into larger roles.
At the end of it all, the league looks and feels different, even if the most known commodities remain the same. No matter the team, no matter the direction, we learn something new about every franchise and what lies ahead.
These lessons should be held in special regard as the 2017-18 campaign gets underway.
Atlanta Hawks: They're Neither Tanking Nor in a Rush to Compete
General manager Travis Schlenk will not let the Atlanta Hawks commit to one direction. He outlined as much to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore in June:
“We want to be exciting. We are going to play an exciting brand of basketball. We want to be competitive. We want fans to show up every night thinking we have a chance to win. Fans in Philly, I don't think they felt that way. That's not our goal. If we make the playoffs, great. If we miss out one year, it's not the end of the world. We just have a chance to get a better player. Our goal is to be competitive.”
Parsing through the Hawks roster doesn't yield a clear-cut read on their future.
On the one hand, they picked up a first-round pick in the Paul Millsap sign-and-trade, let Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha walk and lopped off short-term salary with the Dwight Howard trade—moves evident of a full-scale rebuild.
On the other hand, they signed Luke Babbitt, Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova—veteran placeholders who will eat into playing time for kiddies DeAndre' Bembry and John Collins and prop up Schlenk's vision for watchable, potentially meaningful basketball.
Anything goes in the wide-open Eastern Conference, so the Hawks don't need to bottom out or put their foot on the gas. They have five first-round picks through the next two drafts and plenty of financial flexibility, even with Miles Plumlee, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder on the books.
What that means is anyone's guess. The Hawks might view those assets as ground-up building blocks. They could see them as resources to acquire impactful vets. Perhaps they'll use them for a little bit of both. Or maybe Schlenk wants to get a better feel for what he has, relative to the rest of the East, before leaning one way.
So, basically, what we've learned about the Hawks is that they're still trying to learn about themselves.
Also: Kent Bazemore trade rumors are en route.
Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge Isn't Done Straddling Two Timelines
Trading for Kyrie Irving is not the Boston Celtics' way of renewing their immediate interest in catching the Cleveland Cavaliers and, after them, Golden State Warriors.
If anything, this move represents the opposite—a play for the future, when the league's foremost superpowers might be ready to relinquish their chokeholds on the competitive landscape.
Adding Irving could make the Celtics better right away. Head coach Brad Stevens coaxes maximum value out of his troops, and Boston's roster has more lineup combinations at its disposal than Irving's previous digs.
More likely than not, though, his arrival comes with a grace period, during which these Celtics will be comparable to, if not worse than, last year's iteration.
Boston lost value in this trade by giving up Jae Crowder, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added. And that doesn't account for rookie Ante Zizic's possible contributions or the player Cleveland lands with the Brooklyn Nets' pick.
Looping in Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris doesn't change anything. The Celtics still lost Avery Bradley, Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. Bumps from Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart could improve this season's product, as can rookie Jayson Tatum, but roster turnover of this magnitude doesn't typically portend a win-percentage spike.
Ditching Isaiah Thomas' expiring deal, forking over the league's best trade asset (Nets selection) for a 25-year-old point guard, placing more responsibility on a sophomore like Brown—these decisions aren't motivated by instant gratification. The Celtics care more about later.
They're just the rare team that needn't do so at the expense of now.
Also: Jayson Tatum is almost as untouchable as Terry Rozier.
Brooklyn Nets: Fun Lineup SZN Is Coming
Defined positions are fast becoming relics of the past. The Nets know this. They're counting on it.
Just two players on their docket stand taller than 6'10", and their primary options at center, by traditional measures, are Jarrett Allen, Timofey Mozgov and Tyler Zeller. Quincy Acy (6'7") and Trevor Booker (6'8") will find themselves in the mix, but they're no bigs.
Beyond that, the Nets have 10 guards and wings who will all be battling for court time: DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Sean Kilpatrick, Caris LeVert, Jeremy Lin, D'Angelo Russell and Isaiah Whitehead.
Most teams would see this as a problem. The Nets will not. They have the opportunity to run out some fascinating quintets, many of which feature five guys who can orchestrate pick-and-rolls and warp defenses with off-ball cuts and/or three-point barrages.
Finding a small-ball 5 who won't get destroyed on defense will be tough, but Brooklyn already views Hollis-Jefferson as a power forward. Moving to the 5 isn't a huge leap, and they can test out switchiness from Acy and Booker.
Everything else will organically fall into place. Lin and Russell are slated to play beside each other in ball-handler melees, and general manager Sean Marks wouldn't have stockpiled so many wings if installing a more post-modern model wasn't the goal.
Brooklyn is striving for a new normal more than its stepping outside its comfort zone.
Also: Celtics fans think the Nets will be the second-best team in the league.
Charlotte Hornets: Malik Monk Needs to Be Good Right Away
Well this, or the Charlotte Hornets are banking on a Michael Carter-Williams breakout.
Let's go with this.
Signing Carter-Williams on the first day of free agency to help plug the second-string playmaking role behind Kemba Walker still makes next to no sense months later. The All-Star floor general advocated for his arrival, and the Hornets couldn't have known how much the sticker price on someone like Ian Clark would fall, but rushing to add a fringe NBA player is seldom the smartest move.
It'd be different if they employed seasoned, standout alternatives and viewed Carter-Williams as an emergency safety net. They don't.
Jeremy Lamb has emerged as a small-dose pick-and-roll initiator but looks to score before anything else and shouldn't be piloting an offense on his own. Nicolas Batum is a turnover machine as the primary ball-handler, and the Hornets didn't let him direct solo shows. The offense spiraled into bottom-10 territory whenever he played without Walker.
Rookie Malik Monk is the best bet to iron out this imbalance. He shouldn't be quarterbacking the Hornets without another buffer—like Batum—but he's a smooth operator off the bounce, and his hesitation dribbles have a gravitational pull.
That on-ball fluidity might make him a quick learner as a pick-and-roll trigger man and transition disher. The Hornets can only hope it will, because turning to Carter-Williams doesn't spell good times.
Also: Dwight Howard bought a farm.
Chicago Bulls: Michael Porter Jr. Is Really Good
ESPN.com's Basketball Power Index rates the Chicago Bulls as the NBA's worst team entering 2017-18. It's not hard to see why.
Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman have steered into the league's most obvious tank job. Three of their projected starters—Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Paul Zipser—have totaled 2,177 career minutes between them. Eighty-one players logged more than that in 2016-17 alone.
Eight. Zero. One.
Step back and look at the overall makeup of the roster, and the evidence is even more damning. The Bulls have about a kabillion guards and one or two wings. Zipser, Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine are the closest they come to a small forward rotation, and not one of them should be seeing time as a small-ball 4.
Dwyane Wade isn't enough to change the optics. No one expects him to finish the season in Chicago, and the Bulls fared better at both ends without him last year, when more veterans were at their disposal. Surrounding him with inexperienced and unproven talent won't compromise their plunge into the doldrums.
Reaching an agreement with restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic might tack on a few wins to the bottom line, but only if he's not pigeonholed to small forward. The Bulls have a cushion to combat his breakout anyway. The same holds true for contract-year Zach Lavine. This team will be bad—one of the NBA's three worst—by design.
Michael Porter Jr. (or Luka Doncic) must be that good.
Also: Doug Collins is woke.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Life Beyond LeBron Is on the Brain
A healthy Thomas is a near-lateral offensive move to Irving. Crowder cuts off the ball like he means it, drilled more threes than Hayward last year and spares LeBron James from having to defend All-NBA wings full time in games that matter.
Get both players at their best, and the Cavaliers should be better than last year's team—even if it's also by virtue of Irving's escape plan sparking something within James. They have more tools, with Crowder and Jeff Green, to chase around the Warriors' "Death Lineup" and won't skip a beat without Irving so long as Thomas is half the player he was in Boston.
The Cavaliers don't care. Or rather, they have more pressing priorities on the brain—like life after James.
Breaking bread with the Celtics "was always about that Brooklyn pick," per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. The Cavaliers "wanted a veteran ready to help" James, but they know what they're up against. He's a free agent in 2018 (player option), and any half-coherent Google search turns up departure theories.
Chatter this far in advance carries only so much weight, but James has already fled once. And according to USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt, he was left frustrated by former general manager David Griffin's exit and Cleveland's lack of hustle and creativity to start the offseason.
Another relocation is hardly out of the question—particularly with the Warriors running roughshod over everyone. Instead of entirely kowtowing to that possibility, the Cavaliers are trying to pepper in preparation.
Prioritizing the Nets pick over other offers proves that much. The Celtics' package may have ended up being the crowning jewel no matter what, but the Milwaukee Bucks, per Lowe, dangled Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton—a return that tempts the Cavaliers more than Crowder and an injured Thomas if James' future isn't up in the air.
Also: Cleveland's lockers discriminate against players shorter than 6'1".
Dallas Mavericks: They're Primed for Midseason Trades
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban didn't mince words back in July when addressing his team's direction, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon:
"We're rebuilding. Right? There's no question about it. If we were in the East, we would not be rebuilding. We'd be handling things completely different. I think I'm going to kidnap [commissioner] Adam Silver and not let him out until he moves us to the Eastern Conference.
"Given where we are, given where the Warriors are and what's happening in the Western Conference, it kind of sealed what we have to do."
Accepting the task at hand is the first step in any rebuild. Actually rebuilding comes next.
Harrison Barnes (25), Yogi Ferrell (24), Dorian Finney-Smith (24), Nerlens Noel (23) and Dennis Smith Jr. (19) are all young enough to stick around for the duration of Dallas' restoration project. And Dirk Nowitzki isn't going anywhere.
Everyone else on the roster should be up for grabs prior to February's trade deadline—most notably J.J. Barea, Seth Curry and Wesley Matthews. Barea, 33, could be a nice backup for a team that's not trying to get younger. Curry is a free agent next summer, and the Mavericks just drafted their primary guard of the future in Smith. Matthews should have value as a three-and-D worker bee who won't be on the ledger past 2018-19.
Dealing Ferrell and Noel shouldn't be off the table, either. Both will be free agents in July (Ferrell has a qualifying offer), and squads in the early stages of a rebuild shouldn't immerse themselves in too many long-term deals.
Paying Barnes $72.3 million over the next three years is a stretch in itself. So if the Mavericks are serious about rebuilding, they'll be looking to wheel and deal in exchange for picks, rookie-scale contracts and salary-cap relief.
Also: Dirk Nowitzki is forever zero seasons away from being two seasons away from retirement.
Detroit Pistons: No One Is Safe
Almost nothing the Detroit Pistons did over the offseason suggests they're locked into the current core.
Hard-capping themselves with Langston Galloway's three-year pact paved the way for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's departure, and Reggie Jackson might be next. The Pistons shopped him in February, and he's more expendable now with both Galloway and Ish Smith on the payroll.
Jackson incidentally began the summer on the chopping block, along with Andre Drummond, according to Basketball Insiders' Michael Scotto. And if they're being viewed as trade bait, no one is safe.
Both underachieved last season, but they're supposed to be Detroit's two most important building blocks. Even half-heartedly exploring their outside value says a great deal about the lack of faith in this roster's setup.
Flipping Morris for Bradley does the same. The latter is a big-time floor-spacing upgrade, but he's also a free agent after this season. Trading the two years and $10.4 million left on Morris' agreement for the right to pay Bradley much more is a cry for new direction.
Team-wide uncertainty is an inherent part of these pleas. The Pistons are not above rattling the foundation. They've proved that much. And more reshuffling feels inevitable.
As for what that next shakeup will be, and when it will go down, we don't know. It could be a trade. Or two. Coach-president Stan Van Gundy could be shown the door after a slow start or at the end of another disappointing campaign.
Whenever a team looks like this much of an unknown, from its ceiling as constructed to its interest in changing course, no one is untouchable.
Also: Boban is coming, for Andre Drummond's job real this time.
Denver Nuggets: Frontcourt Logjams Are Underrated
While messing around on NBA 2K18, Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey hopped into a computer-simulated Denver Nuggets game during the fourth quarter. You won't believe the lineup they were rolling with:
PG: Wilson Chandler
SG: Paul Millsap
SF: Trey Lyles
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Nikola Jokic
Actually, on second thought, we can buy into this eccentric fivesome. How else are the Nuggets supposed to divvy up minutes between their bazillion bigs?
Turning Donovan Mitchell into Lyles and Tyler Lydon, both power forwards, looked awkward at the time. It's indefensible now. Denver has since signed Paul Millsap, another power forward; waived goodbye to Danilo Gallinari, an actual wing; given Mason Plumlee, a center, $41 million; and held onto Darrell Arthur, Kenneth Faried and Juan Hernangomez, three should-be 4s.
Juggling the rotation amid this pileup will be a challenge to say the least. Using Faried exclusively at the 5 and permanently slotting Hernangomez at the 3 cuts through some of the bunk, but Denver will still get bogged down by unmanageable excess up front.
Multiple players will find themselves on the outskirts of the rotation if head coach Mike Malone doesn't rely on three-big lineups, with Lyles or Millsap being treated as wings. This 2K arrangement is an exaggeration of that option but not of the Nuggets' situation.
They sorely need a bigs-for-wings trade—or, at the bare minimum, a locker room free of resentment over playing time.
Also: They'll be keeping a close eye on Donovan Mitchell's career arc.
Golden State Warriors: 74 Wins Isn't All That Much
Scary but true: After racking up 67 regular-season victories and posting the second-highest playoff net rating since 1984 en route to an NBA title, the Warriors are just getting started.
"I think we're going to be even better this year with the confidence, the trust factor and knowing for ourselves we won a championship with that team, with that personalities on the team and the chemistry we have," Zaza Pachulia said, per the Mercury News' Mark Medina. "We can be even better with the focus we have with better details in how to improve."
Historically great squads shouldn't have room for improvement. The Warriors do.
They added quality rotation players in Omri Casspi and Nick Young without losing any of their core members, and Kevin Durant is no longer new to the scene and system. The Death Lineup should be more terrifying, since the combination of Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson won't collectively shoot under 34 percent from downtown forever.
Bringing up 74 wins is a joke—for the most part. The Warriors know better than to expend energy chasing their record-setting 2015-16, and 70-something victories isn't a feat achieved by happy accident.
Then again, familiarity among the centerpieces coupled with the NBA's hardline stance against liberal rest days opens the door, however slightly, for the Warriors to blow last year out of the water. Remember: From March 14 on, including the playoffs, they finished 31-2.
Avoid a complete championship hangover, and they have the superstar talent, depth and chemistry to render 70 wins a formality and anything more a distinct possibility.
Also: Kevin Durant probably has more burner social media accounts than you.
Houston Rockets: Golden State Doesn't Scare Them
Don't take this as an overestimation of the Houston Rockets' gall.
Lesser teams wouldn't have hesitated to acquire Chris Paul. If you have the opportunity to partner your top-10 superstar with another top-10 superstar and the worst form of collateral damage incurred is Patrick Beverley, you do it. Figure out the rest later.
Plus, the Rockets' offseason aggression isn't totally unique. The rest of the NBA hasn't retreated into hibernation to wait out the Warriors' reign. Other teams pushed the bill—non-contenders from last season like the Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder included.
But Houston's own stab at derailing Golden State does carry a special weight.
Paul isn't Jimmy Butler, or Paul George, or even Paul Millsap. He skirted free agency so he could play with James Harden—a power play he doesn't stage, at age 32, if he's not assured of a long-term max next July.
"We're chasing one of the best teams ever in the history of basketball," head coach Mike D'Antoni told USA Today's Sam Amick. "Nobody wants to go into the [2017-18] season going, 'OK, if you have a really good year, you can come in third.' You just don't want to do that, so we're all in."
Yes, technically, the Rockets have an out if things go sideways. But this commitment isn't temporary. They don't put together their best assets for Paul—and then give a four-year contract to 32-year-old P.J. Tucker—if they're not sold on this being the recipe to rivaling the Warriors.
Salary-cap-manipulator extraordinaire/general manager Daryl Morey was serious about taking them down last year, when they should have been more vulnerable during a feeling-out process with Durant. He's more serious about it now, even though that transition period is over and could, feasibly, give way to a more dominant product.
Also: Daryl Morey's recruiting voodoo is wild.
Indiana Pacers: Tanking Is Not an Option...Yet...or Ever
Put aside your feelings about who the Indiana Pacers received in exchange for George. Look, instead, at what they accepted:
Four guaranteed years of Victor Oladipo and the rookie-scale contract of Domantas Sabonis—who, when factoring in restricted free agency, can be under their control for the next seven to eight years.
No picks. No impending free agents. No instant salary-cap relief. The Pacers talked themselves into immediacy—into semi-known commodities who can contribute now but don't have the option of leaving anytime soon.
Sprinkle in deals for Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison, the trade for Cory Joseph, the retention of Thaddeus Young and Monta Ellis' departure, and the Pacers' objective is clear: Don't sniff rock bottom. It's also puzzling. As The Ringer's Mark Titus explained:
"As the rest of the league either tanks or tries to get the most out of a title contender, the Pacers stubbornly continue to shoot for the moon despite never having the artillery to do so. And I suppose that's noble, as it could be argued that tanking isn't in the spirit of the game.
"Still, eventually something has to give. Of all the NBA franchises that have stayed in the same city since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, Indiana is the only one to have both never won an NBA title and never had a single player named to an All-NBA first team. Meanwhile, all signs point to the Pacers winning 30-something games again this year, landing a late lottery pick that won't make an immediate impact, and failing to attract any big-name free agents in the 2018 offseason. The cycle will probably repeat itself in 12 months."
Small-market squads cannot always withstand contrived collapses. One-year tank jobs can squander goodwill among the fanbase. And self-instituted implosions aren't the only way to jump-start a rebuild.
Cornerstones can be found later in the draft. The Pacers scooped up George at No. 10. They selected Danny Granger 17th overall. Myles Turner, now their best player, went at No. 11. They have experience retooling outside the comfortable confines of premeditated irrelevance.
And yet, picking early in the lottery remains the most efficient method of superstar acquisition—especially for small-market franchises that don't hold mystique as trade and free-agent destinations. The Pacers' refusal to "Sam Hinkie" their way to talent is admirable, if fiscally motivated, but it doesn't change their position.
They're trying to rebuild with one hand tied behind their back.
Also: Kevin Pritchard is too low on Gary Harris, too high on Victor Oladipo, hates Cleveland with a burning passion or some combination of all three.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley and DeAndre Jordan Will Be Busy
Major ups to the Los Angeles Clippers for fending off surefire-lottery status despite losing a top-10 player. They received a golden haul for Paul, and adding Gallinari's complementary scoring and Milos Teodosic's abracadabra playmaking should preserve their top offensive billing.
Poor Patrick Beverley and DeAndre Jordan, though. They have their work cut out for them at the less glamorous end.
Few other defensive assets are scattered throughout the roster. Indeed, many of the Clippers' most-used lineups will gloss over points prevention altogether.
Gallinari needs to spend time at the 4, which means Blake Griffin will have to play some small-ball 5, which means the Clippers must surround them with three lockdown perimeter pests, which they don't have.
Los Angeles' best options after Beverley include Wesley Johnson, DeAndre Liggins and rookie Sindarius Thornwell. But neither Johnson nor Liggins is a factor on offense, and Thornwell's newbie label won't engender much trust from head coach and veteran-lover Doc Rivers.
Austin Rivers is suddenly super important to the Clippers' defensive integrity within lineups that don't include both Beverley and Jordan. That says all we need to know.
Also: Keeping first-round picks is boring.
Los Angeles Lakers: 2018 Free Agency Already Started
The $500,000 tampering fine the NBA levied upon the Los Angeles Lakers and team president Magic Johnson's subsequent admission of guilt would be all the evidence we need to float this lesson...if we needed it at all.
July 1, 2018, has been circled on the Lakers' calendar since before Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka took the reins. This offseason merely advanced their commitment to poaching superstars—specifically George.
The Lakers didn't add any guaranteed salary that stretches into 2018-19 (outside the draft). They'll have more than $20 million in cap space to start the summer if they keep their draft pick (protected for Nos. 1 and 6 through 30) and Julius Randle's cap hold. They've forged a clear path to more than $60 million in room if they renounce Randle and pot-sweeten Luol Deng to another team.
A scenario now exists in which they re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or ferry his cap hold and still have more than $50 million to burn through. This assumes they pass on Randle while offloading both Deng and Jordan Clarkson without taking back money.
Easy? No. But this doesn't need to be easy, just possible. The Lakers are purposefully built to navigate long-shot hypotheticals. And judging from these tampering charges—the result of contact Pelinka had with George's agent—they've already started.
Also: Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time (until Oct. 17).
Memphis Grizzlies: They Won't Pivot to Rebuilding Without a Fight
Fill out a brutally honest postseason bracket. Go ahead. Do it. The rest of the class will wait.
Now, look at it. The Memphis Grizzlies missed the cut, didn't they? They should have—an exclusion that has almost nothing to do with the departures of Tony Allen, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph.
Penciling in the Nuggets and Timberwolves for playoff berths squeezes out two of last year's participants. Give credence to the New Orleans Pelicans' Twin Towers, and three incumbents must be shafted. The Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz all fall into that unfortunate mix, but the Grizzlies look extra vulnerable.
Too much of their livelihood between the point guard and center slots is roped to unknowns. JaMychal Green is still without a new contract. Chandler Parsons cannot be counted on for anything until he stays on the floor for an extended period of time without appearing overmatched. Investing in reclamation projects Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore (shelved with a fractured right foot) doesn't promise a beefed-up perimeter rotation.
Where Carter was the Grizzlies' best wing last year, that honor could belong to Troy Daniels, James Ennis or, perhaps, Rade Zagorac this season. The power forward situation will be a mess if Green doesn't come back. If he does, the second-stringers behind him and Marc Gasol—Deyonta Davis, Jarell Martin, Ivan Rabb, Brandan Wright—don't incite much confidence.
Midseason buyers, at this rate, will see an opportunity to ravage through the Grizzlies' best assets. Gasol is 32 and can hit free agency in 2019 (player option), while Mike Conley will turn 30 before opening night. Neither has the window to endure the rebuild for which Memphis seems destined.
Except, the Grizzlies aren't having it. Not yet. Sources told CBS Sports' Matt Moore they view Conley and Gasol as untouchable. This stance can always change, but the Grizzlies have founded a reputation on their knack for hanging tough in a Western Conference forever poised to leave them behind. They aren't diving into a midyear reset without a fight.
Or at all.
Also: JaMychal Green might've changed his number.
Miami Heat: Pat Riley Believes in 30-11
The Miami Heat's offseason could have unfolded one of two ways after Gordon Hayward delivered his free-agent verdict: Either they purchase more stock in last year's 30-11 sprint to the finish line or distance themselves from it by resisting substantive reinvestments.
Franchise overlord Pat Riley rode with the former option—in a huge way.
He didn't just re-sign James Johnson (four years, $60 million) and Dion Waiters (four years, $52 million). He added Kelly Olynyk (four years, $50 million). And then he locked down Josh Richardson with a four-year, $42 million pact.
Bankrolling these contracts was not, and still isn't, a no-brainer. Not one of them is demonstratively above market value, but they make for a big-time pledge when squished together, as part of the bigger picture.
Fast forward to 2018-19, when Richard's extension takes effect, and the Heat will have more than $118 million in guaranteed contracts on their tab if they keep Rodney McGruder (duh). That puts them within $5 million of the expected $123 million luxury-tax line, which they'll blow past should they re-sign Wayne Ellington and Okaro White (qualifying offer) and use some form of the mid-level exception.
Riley will have ways of cutting costs—the benefit of making Tyler Johnson your only overpaid player as of 2018-19, when he starts earning more than Goran Dragic. But, for now, he's put the Heat's financial flexibility where his beliefs are: in the idea that this past season's 30-11 finish is more harbinger than anomaly.
Also: Udonis Haslem is a richer man's James Jones.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo Will Get the Anthony Davis Treatment
Giannis Antetokounmpo's second NBA contract kicks in this season—a four-year, $100 million deal that won't let him reach free agency until 2021.
Naturally, then, the Milwaukee Bucks need to begin warding off trade-seeking vultures.
During a July appearance on the Ryen Russillo Show (h/t Sporting News' Jordan Heck), ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski said "everybody in the league is trying to figure out how they are going to get" Antetokounmpo away from Milwaukee.
Because, of course.
Never mind that Antetokounmpo cannot leverage his departure for another three years. Teams are circling him now, because the Bucks don't play in Hollywood or The Windy City or The Big Apple, and because the Celtics are superstar voyeurs.
Milwaukee gets to laugh this off for now—and, make no mistake, it's hysterical. Premature interest in Antetokounmpo is a testament to his megastar standing. The Bucks can take it as a compliment, knowing full well it'll be two years, if not three, before they must reconcile their whatchamacallit's future.
Still, time flies when a soon-to-be top-five player is at stake. Just ask the Pelicans, who have no reason to shop Anthony Davis now but will be left confronting the worst-case scenario, ahead of his 2020 free agency (player option), if the experiment with him and DeMarcus Cousins doesn't pan out.
Also: Jason Terry will never, ever retire.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Thibs Cares Not for Second-Unit Spacing
Optimism collides with pessimism here.
Spacing will not be a crippling flaw for the Timberwolves' starting five. Butler (40.2), Karl-Anthony Towns (39.3) and Andrew Wiggins (40.6) each put down more than 39 percent of their catch-and-shoot threes in 2016-17. Jeff Teague's 37.6 percent clip isn't far behind them.
Gorgui Dieng isn't a proven long-range chucker, but he always expands his range from year to year. He canned 43.6 percent of his 188 attempts between 16 and 24 feet in 2016-17—accuracy and volume identical to Marco Belinelli. He'll aid Minnesota's floor balance before he hurts it.
Dive deeper into the rotation, beyond the starting lineup, and the Timberwolves don't have any dependable shooting whatsoever.
Jamal Crawford nailed 36 percent of his treys last year, but his efficiency dipped below 35 percent as a spot-up option. And while he's been better in seasons past, he won't be surrounded by an arsenal of floor-stretching weapons.
Shabazz Muhammad is a career 32.3 percent three-point marksman who has, historically, opted out of real volume. Tyus Jones is at 33.3 percent through two years and just 126 total attempts. Nemanja Bjelica's knockdown rate plummeted from 38.4 percent as a rookie to 31.6 as a sophomore.
Anything Taj Gibson gives the Timberwolves outside 10 feet is found money. Cole Aldrich hoisted two shots beyond eight feet of the hoop last season—and missed them both. Justin Patton has some stretch to his game; he buried eight of his 15 triples at Creighton. But he'll be lucky to see the court under the rookie-averse Tom Thibodeau.
Staggering the starters' minutes will help the Timberwolves slow some of the brick-laying, but not all of it. Their bench is a house of cards.
Also: Derrick Rose will sign with the Timberwolves, after he's bought out by the Cavaliers, because they signed Dwyane Wade, because he was bought out by the Bulls.
New Orleans Pelicans: The Wing Rotation Is Going to Get Weird
Small forward always figured to be a wacky conundrum for the Pelicans. They have two superstar bigs, in Cousins and Davis, and a bunch of backcourt pieces. But Solomon Hill and Darius Miller were their only two wings.
And now they're down to Miller.
Hill is recovering from a torn left hamstring, leaving the Pelicans to rummage through a bundle of weird options at the 3. The recently re-signed Dante Cunningham will get burn, but he's best suited defending slower 4s. Miller will get his turn, but he hasn't played in an NBA game since November 2014 (it was for the Pelicans).
Tony Allen and E'Twaun Moore should combine to eat up the meat of New Orleans' wing rotation. Allen has amassed six All-Defense selections by guarding up a position or two, and Moore has dabbled in small forward duty his entire career.
Head coach Alvin Gentry could embrace the wonky and trot out a Davis-Cousins-Cheick Diallo frontcourt, but...well...yeah...no. The Nuggets shouldn't be a role model.
Three- and four-guard assemblies boast the highest floor. Send out Cousins and Davis with three of Allen, Moore, Ian Clark, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo. Or deploy four of them with one big. The defense might suffer in these instances, but you can't put a points-allowed-per-100-possessions rating on fun.
Also: Rajon Rondo is beloved.
New York Knicks: This Isn't Kristaps' Team Yet
First it was Carmelo Anthony and Arron Afflalo. Then it was Anthony and Derrick Rose. Now it's Anthony and Tim Hardaway Jr. And Michael Beasley.
Will the New York Knicks ever be Kristaps Porzingis' team? Of course. It just won't be this season.
Anthony is "cautiously optimistic" he'll be traded to the Rockets sometime soon, according to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, but his exit alone doesn't vault Porzingis to the unshared top of New York's hierarchy. Hardaway's $70.9 million contract and position as a ball-dominant wing will continue to obfuscate the pecking order.
Porzingis won't gripe about the food chain, whatever it may be. He wants Anthony in town and didn't complain about a declining usage rate behind Rose last year. He cared more about the Knicks' fuddling vision than being the alpha option—a role for which many don't believe he's suited right now, as ESPN.com's Ian Begley wrote:
"But there are people around the league who believe that Porzingis could be better off playing with Anthony—or another No. 1 scorer—for at least one more season.
"Doing so would give him more time to develop before he faces the nightly focus of NBA defenses. It would also shield him from the scrutiny that comes with being the face of the Knicks. If and when Anthony is traded, Porzingis will become the primary target for opposing defenses. Is he ready for that task? Last year, New York went 1-5 when Porzingis was in the lineup and Anthony wasn't. As FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring pointed out earlier this week, the Knicks were a bottom-five offense when Porzingis was on the floor without Anthony."
Fair points. But this cannot be the excuse New York offers for its approach to Porzingis' development. Laboring through growing pains is part and parcel of authentic rebuilds.
Besides, the Knicks scored like a top-12 offense when Porzingis played without any of the other starters. Equally important: They played like a top-three defense in the nearly 600 minutes he logged without Anthony and Rose—more than enough to warrant using him as the unmistakable centerpiece.
Also: Michael Beasley is basically Carmelo Anthony, but only on the left side.
Oklahoma City Thunder: They're All-In on Staving Off a Rebuild
Thunder general manager Sam Presti has spent the offseason acting out of character.
This team doesn't trade for potential rentals like George on the verge of massive paydays. Oklahoma City dealt James Harden, Jeff Green, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka to bypass similar dilemmas.
Granted, Presti inherited one with Oladipo, and the price for George (Oladipo and Sabonis) wasn't high. But this dice roll is largely a foreign gamble.
Impact free agents also don't sign below-market contracts to join the cause. Nor do the Thunder spend real money on them.
Patrick Patterson's arrival merges both rarities. His three-year, $16.4 million deal is a damn steal, but as the Norman Transcript's Fred Katz pointed out on the Hardwood Knocks podcast, Presti has never thrown more total money at another team's free agent.
Tiptoeing outside their default mode of operation isn't an accident. It's a message—a gesture aimed at Russell Westbrook who, like George, is ticketed for free agency next July (player option). The Thunder have shown him they're not content to slow-play their way into the post-Durant era. They want to win and are open to making the calculated gambles, within reason, that put them in a position to do so.
That might not be enough for Westbrook to sign an extension before the regular season. Mum's the word on that front, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. But the Thunder have made their point, and it won't soon fade into the background. Their actions will still matter in 2018, no matter how this go-round ends, if Westbrook delays his decision until then.
Also: Sea Lions have a thing for Steven Adams.
Orlando Magic: Point Guard-Free Lineups May Have to Be a Thing
Maybe this is whimsical thinking rather than a lesson, but the Orlando Magic pandered to their surplus of bigs last season. They should be doing the same now that they've thrown together some perimeter potpourri.
Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Jonathon Simmons and, yes, Mario Hezonja all need to see action. Jonathan Isaac can be included in this olio as well, but he deserves more time at the 4, even with his lanky frame.
Ergo, here we are, assuming (hoping?) the Magic are prepared to do the right thing.
Elfrid Payton closed 2016-17 on a tear, going full Watchable Rajon Rondo. He averaged 14.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists while shooting 51.7 percent from the field over Orlando's final 21 games—through which the offense scored with top-two efficiency (111.9 points per 100 possession) with him on the court. Leashing him to the bench for protracted periods isn't in the cards.
But these point guard-less lineups don't need to come at his expense—unless he's once again being outplayed by D.J. Augustin. Fournier and Simmons can act as Payton's primary backups so these arrangements only cut into the floor time for Augustin and Shelvin Mack. Isaac and Aaron Gordon can tackle the 4 and 5, respectively, with head coach Frank Vogel moving between Hezonja and Ross at the 3.
Orlando can revert to more traditional combos if these wing-heavy arrangements flop. Until then, given the backup point guard situation and the Isaac-Gordon dynamic, they should get the benefit of the doubt.
Also: Books will be written about the various forms Jonathan Isaac's hair takes over the course of his career.
Philadelphia 76ers: They Care About 2018 Free Agency as Much as the Lakers
OK, not really. Simmons' one-character courtship probably came in jest. James and himself are both represented by Klutch Sports, and their paths have crossed off Twitter. But, hey, James is speeding toward another free agency, and the Philadelphia 76ers have piqued attention around the NBA with their stopgap deals for Amir Johnson and JJ Redick.
As Lowe wrote: "They stayed lean for next summer by refusing to dole out multiyear deals, and that has the rest of the league wondering: What exactly are the Sixers up to?"
Saddle the Sixers with the cap holds for both the No. 1 (Lakers) and No. 2 pick (their own), and they can still dredge up more than $25 million in space while toting Joel Embiid's restricted free-agent hold ($18.3 million) if they renounce Johnson, Redick and Nik Stauskas (qualifying offer).
Cap forecasts don't get more conservative, because Philly won't have a pair of top-two picks. The Lakers' selection goes to the Celtics if it's second, third, fourth or fifth, and the Sixers aren't supposed to contend for another early lottery cameo.
Renegotiating and extending Robert Covington will bite into their flexibility, but it won't negate their proximity to max cap space. If he's making, say, $12 million in 2018-19, the Sixers can still sleepwalk their way to $30-plus million in wiggle room.
A young player or pick gets Jerryd Bayless' expiring deal ($8.6 million) off the ledger, Jahlil Okafor can be dumped for nothing (if he hasn't been already), and they could realistically have only one first-round hold worth under $3 million.
If the Sixers table Covington's new contract until the summer, when he's an unrestricted free agent with a microscopic hold, get your popcorn. They won't be favorites to land James, but they'll have the dollar-sign juice to reel in a max star.
Also: T.J. McConnell is Brett Brown's favorite player.
Phoenix Suns: The Rebuild Is Happening...For Real This Time
By pulling out of the Paul Millsap sweepstakes early in free agency, the Phoenix Suns signaled to the rest of the league they were done chasing low-end postseason appearances they ultimately couldn't reach.
Sure, they've flirted with thorough rebuilds before, only to do a 180-degree turn the following summer. But this time seems different.
It is different.
Phoenix ranked among the most popular suitors for Irving before he went to Boston but refused to part with Josh Jackson, the fourth overall pick in June's draft, according to Darren Wolfson of ESPN 1500 (via NBC Sports' Dan Feldman). Devin Booker was made similarly untouchable, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon.
Might the Suns have relented if Irving guaranteed to re-sign with them in 2019? Maybe. But they could have hurled the kitchen sink at Cleveland without that pinky swear.
Two years gives them time to pitch Irving on staying long term. And their postseason candidacy becomes more intriguing with him helming the offense beside either Booker or Jackson.
That the Suns drew a line in the sand speaks to their interest in gradual progression, free from the pitfalls of aiming too high, too soon. They need to capitalize on Eric Bledsoe's trade value if they're completely committed to this reinvention, but resisting an all-in play for Irving is a good start.
Also: Jared Dudley is a national treasure.
Portland Trail Blazers: CJ and Dame Really, Really Want Melo
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum may have finally done it.
According to Fox Sports 1's Jason McIntyre, Carmelo Anthony's "people are trying a Hail Mary attempt to get him to Houston," and if that doesn't work, he'll agree to join the Blazers.
Congrats to Lillard and McCollum if this is true. They've been trying to court Anthony since mid-July, per Wojnarowski, albeit to no rumor-mill avail. But that hasn't dissuaded their efforts.
McCollum maintained from the beginning that Anthony was "interested" in Portland, per the Oregonian's Joe Freeman. He even tried to make "Hashtag Free Melo" a thing. Lillard hasn't been as candid in his approach, going as far as implying he's ceased recruitment.
"I'm not giving up on anything," Lillard told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears in mid-September. "I just think I've done what I can do."
Apparently, he's done more. Or maybe it's McCollum. Who cares, really? All that matters is Anthony might be, possibly, open to the idea of joining the Blazers.
Regardless of what you think about the fit between him, Lillard and McCollum (it's awesome, offensively), Portland's two studs will deserve a medal if they successfully reverse Anthony's stubborn fondness for Houston.
Also: Evan Turner may have to be a full-time point guard. Portland has so. Many. Bigs.
Sacramento Kings: Culture > Tanking
Reactions to the Sacramento Kings' offseason approach remain mixed.
With their 2019 first-rounder headed to Boston or Philly, they have a one-year window in which to tank their hearts out. Shelling out a combined $40.3 million to Carter, Randolph and George Hill this season runs counter to that mindset, inferring an interest in establishing culture, even if it adds wins to a team that shouldn't be hunting them.
But that trade-off can be worth it in the long run. As SI.com's Rob Mahoney argued:
"The only way to bring stakes to a likely losing season is to find ways to make the games matter. Hill and Randolph will because they don't know any other way; both have been part of successful organizations for so long that winning standards have become a part of their approach. In ways conscious and not, veterans like these carry themselves in a way commensurate with the demands of a more competitive team.
"This might manifest in their reaction to a particularly distasteful loss. It might come to the forefront in the middle of a long road trip. Hill and Randolph could be an extension of the coaching staff at a time when the players need to reorient themselves. Young teams need veterans because they really don't know better.
"Even those who have been with the Kings for a few seasons could stand some reinforcement of how things work in more functional franchises around the league. This is where Hill and Randolph come in—to mentor, sure, but also to demonstrate how a professional goes about his business."
Irony abounds in Randolph dubbed a steadying force and then getting arrested for felony marijuana possession with intent to sell. (It was eventually knocked down to a misdemeanor, and his agent maintains the accusations were false.) But the crux of the Kings' philosophy is not in limbo: They have respected veteran influences to help mold the youngins amid transition—amid losing.
These concepts are not mutually exclusive. Sacramento jeopardizes its bottom-five record only if Carter, Hill and Randolph cannibalize minutes reserved for De'Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, et al. And even then, the ceiling on that resulting rotation won't approach most teams' floor.
Also: Signing former Grizzlies > absorbing bad contracts.
San Antonio Spurs: Pop Is Ready—or Being Forced—to Play Small(er) Ball
Small(er) ball is coming.
Overpaying Pau Gasol doesn't jibe with that takeaway, but the San Antonio Spurs don't have the reserve towers to holster switchy combinations. After Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, head coach Gregg Popovich has Davis Bertans and Joffrey Lauvergne. He couldn't steer clear of one-big lineups if he tried.
Gambling on Rudy Gay marks a slight submission to the modern era. The Spurs have been reluctant to pile power-forward moonlighting onto Kawhi Leonard's growing list of responsibilities. Just 7 percent of his minutes came at the 4 last year, up from 6 percent in 2015-16, and he barely totaled 25 minutes as the power forward to Aldridge's center.
Popovich can now use Gay—who has been cleared for basketball activities, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald—to cover the bigger bodies. Power forward is already his best position, and the mobility he could lose as a result of last January's torn left Achilles tendon won't bode well for him against more explosive wings.
Contract-year Kyle Anderson(!) can offer relief up front, spelling Gay when the other team puts its own wing at the 4. These two, together, ensure Leonard's defensive role doesn't fade, incentivizing Popovich to fight small ball with something other than dual-big packages.
Also: Manu Ginobili will play forever.
Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan Is Their Best Backup Point Guard
Dealing Joseph for CJ Miles is not a move the Toronto Raptors should want back. They need Miles to help offset the departure of Tucker and Patterson—not to mention the version of Carroll who never arrived.
In sacrificing Joseph, however, the Raptors have complicated their point guard rotation. He is one of the best backups in the league, and they don't have a foolproof replacement.
Some inside the front office believe Delon Wright will end up being better than Norman Powell, according to TSN's Josh Lewenberg, but he has all of 54 appearances on his two-season resume. Fran VanVleet, meanwhile, played in just 37 games as a rookie. Toronto can only turn to so much inexperience while treading water near the top of the Eastern Conference.
DeMar DeRozan, for all intents and purposes, is the second point guard now. Head coach Dwane Casey has talked about increasing his usage as a facilitator because, frankly, he doesn't have another choice.
DeRozan is no stranger to this role. He chewed through 822 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler last year—about the same as Lillard (826). But the job description changes without Joseph. He'll need to log more time as the lone distributor, something that hasn't typically gone well.
Toronto scored like a bottom-10 offense when DeRozan played without Joseph and Kyle Lowry in 2016-17. That efficiency dropped to bottom-two levels for 2015-16, according to NBA Wowy. Neither sample eclipses 140 minutes—infrequency that is a red flag unto itself.
Lowry-plus-bench units have been a crutch for so long, and that won't change. But the Raptors will need DeRozan to do more heavy lifting on his own if they're to match the success from recent years.
Also: Bruno Caboclo's Extension Fund doesn't have a GoFundMe.
Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward Wasn't Irreplaceable Enough to Force a Rebuild
The Jazz couldn't really about-face into a rebuild once Hayward bolted for Beantown. They already traded for Ricky Rubio and agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal with Joe Ingles—transactions originally aimed at keeping Hayward in Utah.
But they didn't need to act so quickly. These moves were calculated, not reckless. Offering George Hill a monster deal would have been impulsive. The Jazz decided to keep pushing for playoff berths regardless of Hayward's leanings before he ever left.
Two-year flyers on Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh (non-guarantees in 2018-19 across the board) align with that strategy. They'll need at least one of Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum and Rodney Hood to compensate for the playmaking they lost in Hayward and Hill, but they'll be more reliant on veterans overall.
And who can blame them? They just ended a four-year playoff drought and have a star cornerstone, in Rudy Gobert, ready to anchor a postseason squad now. They outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions—comparable to a second-place net rating—in the 196 minutes he tallied without Hayward, Hill and Boris Diaw.
Pounding the reset button before giving what's left of last year's nucleus a chance to override this summer's losses was never an option. Next year, if things go wrong during this one? Maybe. Not now.
And, preferably, not anytime soon.
Washington Wizards: Kelly Oubre Jr. Is More Important Than Ever
Kelly Oubre Jr.'s development made the cut before Markieff Morris needed sports hernia surgery that could force him to "miss at least" the preseason, according to the Washington Post's Candace Buckner. This wrinkle only adds to his immediate importance.
Oubre's playing time more than doubled during his sophomore crusade, as the Washington Wizards searched for some oomph off their bench. He provided it, at times, on the defensive end. He switched onto point guards and gummed up passing lanes. He also gambled for too many steals and fouled too much; his 4.4 personals per 36 minutes led all Wizards wings (who finished the season with them).
Additional discipline will come with time. And Washington better hope his jumper follows suit. Oubre shot 28.7 percent from three-point range last year, including under 19 percent from the corners—an unreliable stroke that butchers the Wizards' spacing.
Marcin Gortat and John Wall aren't imposing shooters, so putting him in for any of the starters other than Morris wasn't an option. And if Washington has to tailor its personnel around his substitution patterns, it caps the number of possible lineup combinations.
Mostly, though, the Wizards need more from Oubre because they have nowhere else to go. Barring any trades, Gortat, Morris, Wall, Bradley Beal, Ian Mahinmi and Otto Porter will run them nearly $110 million in 2018-19. They won't have the money to add meaningful free agents and shouldn't be drafting inside the lottery for some time.
Unless Tomas Satoransky suddenly morphs into a sweet-shooting combo wing, Oubre is now the extent of their material upside.
Also: Stockholm, Sweden's "John Wall" store does not, in fact, sell anything remotely related to the real John Wall.