Grading the 10 Biggest Moves of the 2014 NBA Offseason, Midseason Edition
Last summer was big for the NBA.
Players switched teams, franchises hired new coaches and, most importantly, immediate futures were enlivened. At least, they were supposed to be.
Moves aimed at instant improvement are typically met with overwhelming hype and comparable acclaim. We pass judgments based on how things look on paper, idealizing what's to follow.
The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers are Exhibit A. They became overrun with superstar talent almost overnight after re-signing LeBron James and trading for Kevin Love. By the time August was out, they had secured the Larry O'Brien Trophy 10 months in advance.
Only that's not how these things work. Personnel changes need to be evaluated over a period of time. There are no exceptions. Time needs to pass, sample sizes need to grow—which is exactly what's happened.
With the 2014-15 campaign reaching its halfway point, we have enough evidence to circle back and reassess the summer's biggest moves properly. The following subjects are not the only big moves that took place; they're just the biggest of the big.
Inclusion is based on the positive impact these moves were supposed to incite. James was supposed to bring six titles to Cleveland before the season even started, so his return to the Cavaliers is considered big.
These moves also need to represent real change. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh re-signing with their respective teams do not qualify, because that's not real change. It's more of the same.
Grades will be handed out relative to expectations. Immediacy—as in what's already transpired—is weighted heavily. Players must be performing up to snuff, and coaches must have their teams where they're supposed to be. The Cavaliers did not win six titles before the season started, so James gets an F. That kind of thing.
Put on your absolute worst clothes. We're breaking out the red ink, and you've officially entered the splash zone.
Chandler Parsons Signs with Mavericks
Feel free to loop Tyson Chandler in here too, but while his return to the Dallas Mavericks preceded Chandler Parsons' arrival, it's the latter who changed everything.
In signing Parsons to a three-year, $46 million deal, the Mavericks both maximized the generous pay cut Dirk Nowitzki accepted and bilked the division-rival Houston Rockets of their third-leading scorer. Aggressively chasing Parsons was also a harbinger of their commitment to making the most of Nowitzki's twilight.
Parsons' contract is an overpay. There's no way he should be Dallas' highest-paid player. But that's the benefit of Nowitzki being the anti-Kobe Bryant: The Mavericks could afford to take this risk.
Incidentally, Parsons has become a key contributor for the NBA's second-most potent offense. His numbers are down across the board, but he's still pumping in 15.4 points while shooting 36.1 percent from deep. And as a deadly spot-up shooter—36.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes—he's a lethal complement to the drive-and-kick, pick-and-roll-packed system head coach Rick Carlisle has installed.
The Mavericks, for their part, are still surfing this offseason wave. They own the sixth-best record in the Western Conference, which, while modest in theory, is pivotal in practice. They're only two games back of the second-place Memphis Grizzlies and, most importantly, are keeping pace—not just surviving—within the West's callously crowded championship picture.
Although Parsons' addition isn't the sole or even primary force behind their season-long tear, he's one of at least five reasons—Chandler, Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Rajon Rondo—why the Mavericks look like legitimate title contenders.
Trevor Ariza to the Rockets
Context is important here.
Trevor Ariza was, without question, a consolation prize for the Rockets. After failing to bring in another superstar, general manager Daryl Morey thought it prudent to let Parsons walk. Rather than match the three-year, $46 million pact Dallas tendered him, the Rockets signed Ariza for $14 million less over four years.
Now, the offense has regressed in the aftermath of Houston's offseason. The Rockets rank 14th in offensive efficiency, down from fourth last season. Ariza himself has cooled off after a scintillating start. His scoring is down from 2013-14 even though his shot attempts are up, and he's registering his worst effective field-goal percentage—a cumulative measurement of two- and three-pointers—since 2011-12.
But the Rockets have become a force on the defensive end while enduring occasional absences from Dwight Howard and an erratic rotation at power forward. Ariza is a part of this defensive uprising. Houston runs what equates to the league's second-best defense with him on the floor, allowing just 97.9 points per 100 possessions.
Having him on the perimeter has been a boon for James Harden more than anyone. Harden is credited with improving on defense this season, but while he clearly has a better grasp of what's unfolding around him, Ariza has been instrumental in helping.
Harden seldom plays without him. He averages under seven minutes away from Ariza per game, so he's rarely without perimeter backup and doesn't need to guard the opposition's best wing scorer 100 percent of the time. And during those times when Ariza isn't on the floor, Harden's individual defense worsens by 8.7 points per 100 possessions.
Under the circumstances, given the free-agency coup Houston whiffed on, Ariza's time with the team has been a success. The Rockets have the winning percentage (68.9) to prove it.
Paul Pierce Joins Wizards
Someone needed to replace Ariza.
Few superstars have made the transition to role player as seamlessly as Paul Pierce. We have Pierce, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, every single star Gregg Popovich has ever coached and not many others.
Pierce's offensive numbers are down in virtually every possible category, but that comes with aging. Plus, his per-36-minute numbers are nearly identical to those from last season. And though the Washington Wizards offense has been better in the 1,029 minutes it's logged without him, Pierce has shown he can function as an off-ball scorer.
More than 71.2 percent of his made baskets have come off assists, an impressive number considering nearly half of his converted buckets went unassisted two seasons ago. Pierce is also finding twine on 40.6 percent of his spot-up threes, which is huge, because just under 39 percent of his total shot attempts have come under such circumstances.
As if that's not enough, Pierce has really upped the Wizards' trash-talk game. The Washington Post's Jorge Castillo writes that he still "transmits swagger like a boombox," something that has not gone overlooked in the locker room.
"I noticed he definitely got a big mouth," Marcin Gortat said, per Castillo.
Talking a big game has long been part of Pierce's persona. What makes him unique is his ability to back that up with big plays—moments he's still a magnet for today. He is shooting 50 percent in clutch situations and has brought championship clout to what is now the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
Washington couldn't have found a better way to invest $11 million over the next two years.
Jason Kidd Journeys to Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Bucks are going to the 2015 NBA playoffs.
Think about that, because it's going to happen. There's almost half a season left to play, but the Eastern Conference is bad, and the Bucks are not. Ergo, they're going to the playoffs.
It is not a pure coincidence that this unexpected rise to mediocrity has corresponded with Jason Kidd's arrival.
No, he's not the one playing, and yes, he's been the beneficiary of in-house development. But this Bucks team, on paper, is hardly different from last season's squadron—the one that notched 15 victories and ranked 29th in defensive efficiency.
Kidd's crew is playing .500 basketball and has already surpassed last year's win total by seven games. What's more, the Bucks rank second in points allowed per 100 possessions. Second. That's wholly insane.
This entire season has been insane. The Bucks are battling season-ending injuries (Jabari Parker, Kendall Marshall), an ever-changing rotation, Larry Sanders' suspension and a below-average offense, yet remain on course for their first .500 finish since 2009-10.
Say what you will about the way Kidd left Brooklyn, but he has these supposedly irrelevant Bucks playing relevant basketball, exceeding even the wildest projections. And there's only one thing to say about that: Wow.
Lance Stephenson Marries the Hornets
Some thought the Charlotte Hornets and Lance Stephenson were made for each other. Yours truly may or may not have been one of them (I was). But instead of soaring up the Eastern Conference's shoddily rooted pecking order, the Hornets are trying to fend off another lottery finish.
Injuries have admittedly complicated matters. Al Jefferson and Stephenson have both missed time, and Kemba Walker is expected to be out for six weeks after suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Not that injuries are the lone cause for Charlotte's tumult.
Stephenson has just been really bad. Awful, even. Like, his numbers this season shake with shame in comparison to 2013-14:
|Stephenson||FG%||TS%||PPG||REB||AST||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||PER|
To say Stephenson hasn't meshed well with Walker would be overly flattering. He has been completely unable to adjust, and the Hornets are being outscored by 8.6 points per 100 possessions when he and Walker share the floor.
Quite predictably, Stephenson's name has meandered in and out of rumors since he became eligible trade fodder on Dec. 15. The latest has him potentially landing in Brooklyn, per Wojnarowski. Whether he finishes the season elsewhere, though, doesn't matter.
Attempts to dissolve this marriage, this soon, are all we need to pass judgment.
Pau Gasol Sets Up Shop in Chicago
Who needs Carmelo Anthony? Not the Chicago Bulls. Not so long as Pau Gasol's time machine is still up and running.
Landing Gasol wasn't part of the Bulls' initial offseason agenda. Their dalliance with Anthony was well documented; for a while, it even looked like they were the favorites to land him. But Anthony stayed in New York, leaving Chicago to seek out a contingency plan—one that's paying huge dividends.
Gasol is averaging 18.3 points, 11.8 rebounds (career high), 2.7 assists and 2.1 blocks (ties career high) per game on 48.3 percent shooting. If those numbers hold, the 34-year-old will become the oldest player in league history to reach said benchmarks.
It would be a fitting end to a superb season. Gasol has already racked up his fifth All-Star selection and helped Chicago establish itself as a top-10 offensive team, after finishing in the bottom three for 2013-14. This performance, though typical of the Pau Gasol from 2009, is abnormal for someone his age who appeared to be on the decline.
Dan Feldman of NBC Sports will now borrow the floor:
This is Pau's first All-Star berth in four seasons. At 34, he's hardly the oldest player to become an All-Star. But many of those aging players were legacy All-Stars, players selected year after year. Only Johnny Green, who made it at 37 while playing for the 1971 Cincinnati Royals, played three years without an All-Star appearance and then got one at such an old age.
Individual accolades aside, there are concerns. The Bulls have regressed defensively, going from the second-stingiest unit last season to a 12th-place ranking. Gasol and Joakim Noah have yet to find a two-way medium alongside one another as well. Noah looks out of place when guarding stretch 4s, and the Bulls are outscoring opponents by an unremarkable 0.6 points per 100 possessions with both in the game.
Still, Derrick Rose continues to work off rust, and Noah is playing through injuries (what else isn't new?). Gasol has been forced to carry the Bulls at times, so while they're roller coaster-ing all over the place—they've lost seven of 11 contests—he's proving vital in their push for the East's No. 2 seed.
LeBron James Goes Home
Signing James could never, ever be construed as a bad thing. He's the best player in the game—though Anthony Davis is coming for him—and transforms any team he represents into a title contender.
Sure, it was tough sledding for the Cavaliers early on. Panic reached astronomical levels once they lost six in a row, falling to 19-20.
James himself was on the sidelines, resting and healing. Some dared to think Father Time was catching up to the 30-year-old. His stat lines remained gaudy, but the Cavaliers were slumping, and he lacked consistent conviction on the defensive end.
A little midseason respite seems to have cured everything, though. Never mind that James is averaging 26.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.5 steals on 49.3 percent shooting. The Cavaliers have found their mojo and started to ascend up the Eastern Conference's wobbly food chain.
When we attribute this rise to James, it is not hyperbolic gibberish. It is undistorted fact:
|Cavaliers||MP||Off. Rtg.||Rank||Def. Rtg.||Rank||Net Rtg||Rank|
No, James' return to Cleveland hasn't been perfect. But the Cavaliers are still fixtures in the championship discussion, so it's been good enough.
And as long as he remains healthy, it will only get better.
Kevin Love Joins LeBron
Love's success on the Cavaliers, alongside James, swiftly became a formality. As a proven passer and ready-made floor-spacer, he would complement the two-time champion in ways Bosh never did. The results would be instant and devastating.
Playing third fiddle to Kyrie Irving and James hasn't suited Love thus far. His scoring is down, his shooting percentages have plummeted, fellow stretch forwards have torched him from beyond the arc and rookie head coach David Blatt has benched him multiple times in the fourth quarter.
Explanations for his struggles have a habit of focusing on shot selection. The Cavaliers haven't been using him properly; Blatt hasn't been using him properly.
But roughly 40.5 percent of Love's shots are coming inside the paint and restricted area this season, compared to 41.7 percent in 2013-14. It's not like he isn't being put in somewhat familiar spots. It's more likely that he's having trouble adjusting to diminished involvement.
Love's usage rate has dropped by 6.6 percentage points since joining the Cavaliers, and nearly 75 percent of his made baskets have come off assists. For someone used to being a No. 1 option, the transition to predominant spot-up shooter and off-ball cutter hasn't been smooth.
Looking at the big picture, though, Love still has a real opportunity to succeed in Cleveland. He's said all the right things about his future—even when the Cavaliers are down and out—and it was only last season that he hit nylon on 39.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys (he's at 35.3 percent now).
If his performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday (19 points, 13 rebounds, 5-of-7 from deep) was any indication, it won't be long before he turns a corner. After all, Love is a superstar.
Superstars tend to figure things out.
Andrew Wiggins Finds His Way to Minnesota
Much was made about James not mentioning Andrew Wiggins in his return essay for Sports Illustrated. Certain folks tried overlooking his absence. It was a non-issue. Others remained skeptical—borderline paranoid—and waited for Wiggins' NBA career to shift course before it ever truly started.
Paranoia won out in this instance. Cleveland sent Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the Love trade, and he is now their rebuilding lifeline. And if you've been watching, you know this is the best possible thing that could have happened to both the Timberwolves and Wiggins himself.
Without the threat of Love's inevitable departure looming over the Timberwolves, they're able to evaluate young talent and engage in a calculated, seasons-consuming rebuild. Free from James'—and to a lesser extent—Irving's shadows, Wiggins is already a No. 1 option who defers responsibility to no one.
Trial by fire has given him a real shot at superstardom. The Wiggins this side of Jan. 1 is nothing like the one who began the season:
|Before Jan. 1||15.1||40.6||47.8||4.5||1.6||1.1||21.6|
|Since Jan. 1||18.4||46.3||54.4||4.9||2.4||1.3||23.1|
Wiggins' transformation from hesitant prospect to burgeoning megastar is obvious. So obvious, Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry poses a poignant question that would have seemed silly six months ago:
Lord knows what's going to happen with the Cavs, but it's pretty clear Minnesota suddenly has one of the best packs of young talent in the league. Ask yourself this question: If you're a Wolves fan, are you more excited with the known quantity of Love or the potential of Wiggins? Even if Love had extended in Minneapolis, it would be hard to find this much optimism up there. Love had a decent run up north, but, thousands of meaningless rebounds and points later, that arc never really had a hopeful bend. Five months after his departure, it's looking like you can characterize his complicated legacy in Minnesota with two words: Andrew Wiggins.
Hear that? It's the sound of silence. No one is laughing, because this isn't funny. It's real; Wiggins is real.
Unloading established superstars is never easy and rarely productive. The Timberwolves' haul for Love is an exception. They now have something they didn't before—a blindingly bright future that begins and ends with the player who is quickly turning Love's exit into a fortunes-turning boom.
Steve Kerr Eschews New York for Oakland
Counting all the ways in which the Golden State Warriors are spectacular would take days. In the interest of allowing you to have a life outside of this slideshow, here's the lowdown:
- They rank third in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency.
- They have a 5.5-game hold on first place in one of the NBA's most brutal Western Conferences ever.
- They're on pace to win 70-71 games.
- Their adjusted team rating (TeamRtng+)—how their offensive and defensive rating collectively compare to the league average (explained further by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal)—is a tidy 105.82. That would go down as the second-best mark in NBA history.
On a final note: Rookie head coach Steve Kerr is sideline fire.
Before he signed with the Warriors, it was widely assumed he would wind up with the New York Knicks. As it turns out, avoiding them is the best decision he could have made. Likewise, hiring Kerr is the best decision the Warriors could have made.
Replacing Mark Jackson was never going to be easy. His offense was disenchanted, but he had the support of certain players, including Stephen Curry. But Kerr has come in, reinvented the offense, maintained the defense, helped Klay Thompson become a superstar, ensured Draymond Green isn't far behind and turned the Warriors into historically good title favorites.
"He set the table for a lot of what's happening now," Kerr said of Jackson, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Rusty Simmons. "He deserves a lot [of] credit."
Perhaps he does. Kerr inherited a talented roster Jackson oversaw.
Except it's not Jackson who has Golden State on top.