Buying or Selling Biggest Gambles of 2022 NBA Offseason
The NBA offseason wouldn't be the NBA offseason without its usual amount of audacity. And fortunately, even amid a cap-strapped market and lackluster free-agency class, the Association did not disappoint.
Notable risks were taken at every imaginable decision level: trades, free-agency signings, franchise directions, even negotiation tactics. Our mission here, which you have no choice but to accept, is passing judgment on the biggest gambles made (so far).
Everything from the NBA draft onward is up for discussion. Sincere apologies to anyone looking for a disembowelment of the Sacramento Kings passing on Jaden Ivey. (Aside: I buy Keegan Murray at No. 4.)
We will also only focus on dice rolls that have already taken place or are inarguably underway. In other words, we won't comment on the Brooklyn Nets trading or keeping Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving, because they have committed to either yet.
Atlanta's Acquisition of Dejounte Murray
Dejounte Murray's defensive fit on the Atlanta Hawks isn't up for debate. It is divine.
Atlanta needs someone in the backcourt who can eclipse many of the matchup dilemmas posed by Trae Young's slight frame and seesawing defensive motor against screens. Murray is that guy. He isn't massive (6'4"), but his length is indiscriminately disruptive and scales to both smaller point-of-attack assignments and wing responsibilities. Good luck screening him, too. He teleports through and around bodies. True story.
Murray's partnership with Young on offense is less of a sure thing. Both prefer to operate on-ball, and Murray has limitations when displaced from it. Staggering their minutes is a given, but the overarching idea behind pairing them together presumes Young can and should and will spend more time leveraging his absurd outside ability away from the rock.
Head coach Nate McMillan has already said Trae will get more off-ball reps. That's great in theory. But what's it like in practice?
This is all uncharted territory for Young. Over 83 percent of his made baskets went unassisted last season, the fourth-largest share among 96 players who averaged more than 30 minutes per game. He also ranked fourth under the same criteria (minimum five games played) in 2020-21, sixth in 2019-20 and ninth in 2018-19.
Talent has a way of figuring things out, and Young's off-the-bounce touch, both in the lane and from beyond the arc, should translate to more streamlined touches. But the Hawks gave up three firsts and one swap to land Murray. That's a steep price to pay for this level of offensive uncertainty.
Then again, new and unexplored fits are never technically guaranteed anything. More than that, it's not like the Hawks gave up everything. This move didn't cost them anyone from their core, and the 2023 Charlotte Hornets pick is heavily protected until kingdom come.
Forfeiting two unprotected firsts (2025, 2027) and an unprotected swap (2026) in years that post-date Murray's contract is bold, but it's a digestible risk when Trae (23) and Dejounte (going on 26) are both under 27. If this investment implodes, Atlanta still has a superstar who hasn't yet entered his prime around which to build. If it works, the Hawks aren't a finished product, but they're pretty damn close to it.
Cleveland Lowballing Collin Sexton
Collin Sexton has reached a somewhat surprising impasse with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And the team may live to regret it.
Market dynamics always suggested Sexton wouldn't get as much money as he might have raked in if he agreed to an extension last fall. A torn left meniscus cost him most of this past season, scant few teams entered the summer with meaningful cap space, and the Cavs looked like a playoff lock without him before additional injuries started piling up.
And yet, I would've bet a not-insubstantial amount of money Sexton returned to Cleveland on a deal worth $16-plus million annually. The Cavs have instead offered a three-year, $40 million deal, according to Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor—money only a notch above the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.
Negotiations are a matter of leverage. The Cavs have plenty of it, including the right to match any offer sheet Sexton signs, insofar as he can find one. The rebuilding Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs are the only remaining teams with cap space, and neither has a pressing need for an off-guard on a bigger-time deal.
Cleveland is to some extent using the market to its advantage–the entire point of restricted free agency. But there's capitalizing on leverage and then whatever the hell this is right now.
Sexton isn't far removed from averaging over 24.0 points and 4.0 assists in 2020-21 while draining better than 50 percent of his twos and 37 percent of his threes. Only five other players have hit those benchmarks for an entire year before their 25th birthday: Kevin Durant (2012-13), Kyrie Irving (2016-17), Jayson Tatum (2020-21) and Trae Young (2021-22).
Maybe it matters those numbers came during a season that mostly didn't include fans in the stands. And it definitely matters that Sexton is working his way back from a not-unserious injury. But it should also matter that he's only 23 and that he improved his offensive armory in every season prior to this year's injury-abbreviated campaign.
Pessimists tend to focus on what Sexton doesn't do. He isn't lead-guard material. And he isn't going to dance with the ball and then drop in an off-balance, off-the-dribble jumper at a high clip. Big whoop. Defenses react when he gets going downhill, and he does a much better job maintaining his dribble and finishing around the basket than when he entered the league. Critiques of his passing are both rooted in validity and hyperbolized. He isn't Darius Garland, but he can throw kick-outs after getting defenses in rotation.
Fitting him into the Cavs' newly minted core of Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley isn't an issue. Sexton has proved his catch-and-shoot three is for real, and Cleveland sorely missed having another player who could put driving pressure on defenses.
Fedor noted on an episode of The Lowe Post podcast (h/t RealGM) that Sexton is more likely to accept his qualifying offer and enter 2023 unrestricted free agency than sign the deal on the table. Good for him, if true. His brand of scoring is worth more to the Cavs, and other teams should be blowing up their phones with sign-and-trade proposals offering what Cleveland won't.
Dallas Bids Adieu to Jalen Brunson
Professional water carriers will note the Dallas Mavericks didn't have a chance to re-sign Brunson this summer. His deal with the New York Knicks was fait accompli before free agency (funny how that works, huh?), and team governor Mark Cuban has said Brunson didn't let Dallas present a deal.
Still, the Mavs reportedly could have bagged him on a four-year, $55.6 million extension...twice. They passed. Those initial failures are an extension of this one. And even if Dallas got to pitch him this summer, it was only prepared to offer ever so slightly more over five years ($110 million) than New York gave in four ($104 million).
That is—and I don't say this lightly—a gargantuan failure.
For as much crap as the Knicks have taken for spending on Brunson, they at least, you know, actually spent on Brunson. (For what it's worth: the Brunson deal isn't risky for New York. It's more about the out-of-order, perhaps incoherent, steps the front office is taking.) Refusing to pay Brunson top dollar for him to be your best player is acceptable. Ditto if you're paying him to be your second-best player and your absolute best player isn't an all-time great. But the Mavs have Luka Friggin' Doncic, a consensus top-five talent.
Half-assing the Brunson reunion at multiple turns is inexplicable, verging on unforgivable. It is even harder to understand knowing the Mavs lack a ready-made replacement or the asset equity to go out and acquire one. They can't trade a first before 2025 and don't have a blue-chip prospect. Punting on Brunson isn't even a cap-space play. They're currently not slated to have any before 2024.
Dallas will be fine—or fine-ish. Doncic is a fringe contender unto himself, and the Mavs are not absent secondary creation. Spencer Dinwiddie or Christian Wood could turn in career years amid pristine spacing.
At the same time, the 2021-22 Mavs weren't a juggernaut. They were (and are) uniquely lethal thanks to Doncic, but the team was a plus-2.3 points per 100 possessions last year when he played without Brunson and Kristaps Porzingis. (KP is included to get a more accurate portrait of current personnel.)
That doesn't imply a huge margin for error. Instead, it suggests the Mavs should've been more aggressive courting Brunson—both before and during free agency—and then figured out the rest later.
Minnesota Goes All the Way in for Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns
Sticker shock still hits you like a landslide when reviewing what the Minnesota Timberwolves gave up for Rudy Gobert (deep breath, everyone): Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, Walker Kessler (No. 22 pick), Jarred Vanderbilt, 2023 first-round pick, 2025 first-round pick, 2026 first-round swap (unprotected), 2027 first-round pick, 2029 first-round pick (top-five protection).
Tally it all up, and this amounts to three rotation players (Beas, Bevs, Vando), five first-rounders including Kessler (three unprotected) and a pick swap. That's an overwhelming package in a vacuum. It is even harder to wrap your head around knowing the Timberwolves did all this to acquire a 30-year-old big man owed $169.7 million over the next four years, even though they already have another center in Karl-Anthony Towns—who they just signed to a four-year designated veteran extension worth $224.2 million.
This is quiiite the investment and opportunity cost just to go against the grain. Dual-big frontcourts aren't unheard of right now (Boston, Cleveland, Orlando, etc.), but they're far from the standard. Minnesota is betting an awful lot—its entire future, really—on a two-center model elevating the franchise to heights not seen since the Kevin Garnett era.
And you know what? I dig it.
Going hard after All-NBA players isn't irresponsible when you already have one star in place. The Timberwolves have two: KAT and the ascending Anthony Edwards. Getting Gobert alone may not launch them into the championship stratosphere, but we should all be rooting for teams with ultra-promising cores to frantically angle for more than first-round playoff cameos.
Concerns over the KAT-Gobert fit are fair. They're also overblown. Gobert is among the league's most devastating screeners, divers and finishers at the hoop. Towns, meanwhile, can do just about anything on offense—unbottle threes in high volume, post up, attack off the dribble. His shooting stroke allows the Timberwolves to tie the fate of this pairing to his jacking 10-plus threes per game. It wouldn't even be surprising to see head coach Chris Finch pepper in some big-on-big pick-and-rolls, with Gobert setting ball screens for Towns.
Figuring it out on defense could be tougher. Or maybe not. The Timberwolves already had KAT playing aggressively high with Vando behind him. Now he'll have Gobert, one of the best rim protectors ever, to cover him. And for his part, Gobert gets to play behind more perimeter disruption. Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Kyle Anderson would have been three of the Jazz's four best non-big defenders last season.
Playoff question marks abound. Teams will more scrupulously poke and prod and target elements of the Wolves' Twin Towers setup with speedballing smalls. That could force some awkward rotation decisions late in games. But we just saw two teams in the NBA Finals that frequently rolled out two bigs at once. Minnesota is not journeying backward. It's trying to crash the Western Conference contender clique—an attempt as reasonable as it is bold.
San Antonio Commits to Rebuilding
Pivoting into an actual rebuild is not a decision the San Antonio Spurs made out of nowhere. They gradually hinted at it with their sign-and-trade of DeMar DeRozan last summer and then with their February deal that sent Derrick White to Boston.
San Antonio was also stuck in the sub-middle of the West—too good for primetime lottery odds, not good enough to flirt with more than a play-in bid. It was time to choose a course: consolidate assets into a star or start over.
Opting for the latter was the right call. That doesn't make it easy. Or safe. The Spurs traded away Dejounte Murray, an All-Star guard, for a king's ransom and uncertainty. Future picks are sexy. They are not sure things.
Head Gregg Popovich's future looms over all this to boot. He is 73 and will turn 74 in January. Cannonballing into a rebuild when his status on the sidelines is very much year-to-year, if not week-to-week, takes gall. Though, to be fair, Pop hasn't hidden how reinvigorated he feels reverting back to the developmental phase.
Once more, with feeling: That doesn't make journeying down this road a no-brainer. The Spurs don't have a certified polestar around which to structure their rebuild. Is it the recently extended Keldon Johnson? Devin Vassell? Joshua Primo? Is it Jeremy Sochan, the No. 9 pick in this year's draft? Could it possibly be Malaki Branham (No. 20)? Or Blake Wesley (No. 25)?
Frankly, the odds are it's none of them and that the Spurs' best crack at netting a full-fledged franchise cornerstone better than Murray lies with next year's draft and beyond. And that's kind of the point.
Rather than continuing to double-down and retool around a so-so roster without a tentpole building block, the Spurs are in full-on exploratory mode—a transition period that both allows them to plumb the depths of their current kiddies while juicing up the stock of their own future picks. The outcome is not guaranteed, but the decision to deemphasize now for the prospect of building something much better later is admirable.
Utah Tearing It Down
Whereas San Antonio's decision to rebuild skewed cut-and-dry, albeit still risky, Utah's teardown is more complicated
For starters, it's not yet done. Rudy Gobert is in Minnesota and Royce O'Neale is in Brooklyn, but the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes are frozen in a stalemate. And beyond him, the Jazz have to tackle the futures of Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley.
Demolitions unfinished are not uncommon. Utah has at least made its direction clear—transparently so.
Less evident is whether this was the only route to go.
Sure, the Jazz's core and its penchant for coming up short in the postseason had grown stale. Rumblings of the chilly relationship between Gobert and Mitchell have existed since, approximately, the dawn of time, as well. But Utah finished no worse than 14 games over .500 in each of the past six seasons. Disassembling a core comprising two All-Stars also isn't a situation from which you detour away on a whim—especially in a non-glamor market.
This notion is largely laughed off, if not completely ignored, but the Jazz were good enough to try retooling rather than rebuilding. Though they have upped the ante a couple of times over, most notably with the acquisitions of Bogdanovic and Conley, they never stocked the wings with the requisite athleticism needed to playoff-proof their defense. Nor did they ever go in a on 1B-type scorer to pair with Mitchell. (Conley came close.)
Team CEO Danny Ainge was not without avenues to triple-down. The Jazz could have dangled salary filler and their own distant firsts, in 2026 and 2028, to try nabbing another substantial impact player. This, of course, infers Utah was just one piece away. That's not a sentiment many will share. But it's not necessarily wrong.
Invariably, it feels like the Jazz are making the right call. They got a monster haul for Gobert, and pretty much everyone has been waiting for the day Mitchell requests a trade—something he has not done, that we know of, to be sure.
That's not to say the Jazz's decision is beyond reproach. They not only had another viable avenue to consider, but they need to follow through now that they're here. And so long as Bogdanovic, Clarkson, Conley, Mitchell, Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley all remain on the roster, Utah's rebuild will be more pending than officially underway.
Verdict: Buy (for now)
Washington Puts Fate of the Franchise in Bradley Beal's Hands
Bradley Beal needn't be panned for staying with a team that's not currently chasing a title. We cannot vacillate between romanticizing franchise lifers and insisting stars force their way off non-contenders with which they've chosen to stay.
The Washington Wizards, similarly, cannot be eviscerated for keeping Beal, an All-NBA player when healthy—last season notwithstanding. Ding them for not trading him sooner, summers and summers ago, if that's how you feel. Letting him walk this offseason was never an option.
Perhaps they could have explored sign-and-trade scenarios. They would have been out there, and teams don't have to wait for star players to decide when it's time for a change. (See: Jazz, Utah.) Whatever, though. The Wizards maxed out a max player. Big deal.
No, seriously, big deal. Huge deal. Incomprehensibly Herculean deal.
Beal got the full boat from the Wizards: a five-year supermax worth around $251 million. Just because players are eligible for supermaxes doesn't mean teams have to give them all of it. (See: Gobert, Rudy.)
Maybe the $250-plus million was the price of Beal not window shopping. Fine. But a player option on the final year? When Beal will be entering his age-33 season? And a 15 percent trade kicker?! And then the only no-trade clause in the NBA?
Qualifying for a no-trade cause demands certain player-team longevity—criteria almost the entire league doesn't meet. But a lack of NBA-wide eligibility doesn't justify giving Beal one. He now controls where he can go, making it even harder to move him if Washington ever decides to start over.
I'm not demanding Beal's contract begin with us contemplating when he'll leave. But the Wizards are non-contenders and don't have a smack-you-in-the-face path to jockeying for position above the middle. Pondering a future two or three years down the line if they don't make a mega leap is reasonable. What happens next, though, is hardly their call. Beal now gets to dictate if and when and how this relationship ends—a concession Washington was and remains in no shape to stomach.