Let's Look at the Bright Side for NBA Offseason's Biggest Losers
For a few of the offseason's most disappointing teams, the 2017-18 NBA campaign can't come soon enough.
Not necessarily because hopes are high, everyone's healthy and the entire franchise is itching to get on with its teardown or championship chase (as the case may be), but because at least on-court competition will divert attention away from shaky summers.
Because expectations are relative, offseason losers come in all shapes and sizes. You'll see lottery teams, fringe playoff squads and 60-win juggernauts here. And though they earn placement on this list for botching free agency, the trade market, the draft or all three, the one commonality is this: Each of these teams has hope.
That hope will be relative, too—specific to each organization and its goals. For some, optimism means still having a shot at the conference finals, despite a blown summer. For others, the silver lining lies in a single young talent, or even the painful but necessary embrace of a rebuilding plan.
For these teams, it's not all bad.
Paul George had the Indiana Pacers over a barrel, but trading him for Domantas Sabonis and the right to pay Victor Oladipo $21 million per year still stands out as one of the worst returns for a departing star in memory.
The Bright Side
The runway is clear for Myles Turner!
As building blocks go, Turner, a floor-stretching center who can defend the rim and run, is tough to top. Entering his age-21 season, the 6'11" big man is suddenly Indy's unquestioned alpha. And while it's fair to expect dwindling efficiency in an expanded role, Turner's counting numbers are primed to explode.
Last year, Turner became just the fifth 20-or-younger player to average at least 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. And he's the only player to ever post those averages before age 21 while hitting more than six threes (he hit 40).
Plus, there's his willingness to accept a leadership position to consider.
"I want to start establishing myself as a leader in this league and on this team," Turner told Matthew VanTryon of the Indianapolis Star. "I know I’m quite young compared to a lot of guys on this team, but the best time is to start young."
After an ugly offseason in which Jeff Teague and CJ Miles followed George out the door, Indy may struggle to reach the playoffs in a depleted East. But Turner's star trajectory will ease that sting.
The Chicago Bulls didn't have the Pacers' built-in excuse; Jimmy Butler wasn't on an expiring deal, and he hadn't made his plans to join the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency known to the world.
But they still managed to get hosed in the trade that sent Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the pick that became Lauri Markannen weren't nearly enough for a top-10 player on a below-market deal with two guaranteed seasons left. Not even close.
The Bright Side
At least the Bulls are starting fresh* with a trimmed-down roster devoid of bad contracts. They should bottom out and finish with one of the three worst records in the league, which could net a foundational star via the draft.
Not only that, but Chicago has uncluttered things for head coach Fred Hoiberg, long saddled with pieces ill-matched to his preferred wide-open playing style. That's not saying he has all the speed and shooting he needs to coach a top-10 offense. The talent isn't good enough for that. But he finally has a chance to implement his system without entrenched veterans trying to play their own way.
Chicago has a direction now: down.
It also has clarity of purpose: Let Hoiberg prove himself while the losses mount.
That's better than mucking around in the middle.
*This assumes a buyout for Dwyane Wade is coming sooner rather than later.
New York Knicks
OK, deep breath.
The New York Knicks picked up the two-year option on former team president Phil Jackson and fired him two months later, but not before taking Frank Ntilikina, theoretically a "triangle" point guard, in the draft. Kristaps Porzingis skipped an exit interview with Knicks brass—and there have been no reports of the two sides being chatty since, Carmelo Anthony is on the roster but not promotional materials, and Tim Hardaway Jr. is New York's new (old) $71 million man.
Scott Perry, late of the Kings, is the new general manager, while Steve Mills, long a power figure in the Knicks organization, takes over as president.
Ron Baker (Ron Baker!) will also be back on an inexplicable two-year deal for the full room exception.
Other than that, the offseason went great!
The Bright Side
Porzingis just turned 22 years old and now gets to play in a system that a) might feature some pick-and-pop sets, and b) isn't run by Derrick Rose, who must have had a clause in his contract dictating a fine for every time he passed KP the rock.
Though Anthony is still the organization's biggest name at the moment, this will be the year Porzingis takes over that title. Whether by trade or buyout, Melo's exit feels like a certainty.
Ntilikina may have been drafted for the wrong reasons (triangle!), but he's still an intriguing prospect. He, Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez give New York a promising young trio around which to build.
More broadly, Jackson's departure removes a shroud from the franchise. No longer married to an outdated philosophy or guided by a leader who seemed at least as interested in mind games with star players as the actual duties of his station, the Knicks can move forward. So can Jeff Hornacek, who'll get a chance to incorporate his own offense without oversight from Jackson.
None of this means the Knicks will be any good. But there's a lot to be said for simply turning the page. With Jackson gone and Anthony likely to follow, at least New York can look to the future.
Portland Trail Blazers
A Portland Trail Blazers team that squeaked into the West's eighth playoff spot with a .500 record and got nonchalantly swept by the Golden State Warriors made no significant offseason additions. The only move of note was salary-dumping Allen Crabbe, perhaps the best pure three-point shooter on the roster, to the Brooklyn Nets.
Standing pat is fine if you're already elite. But the Blazers were mediocre before their inactive summer, and the West got better while they stood and watched.
The Bright Side
Maybe we're wrong to use a .500 baseline when judging last year's Blazers.
Portland went 14-6 during the 20 regular-season games in which Jusuf Nurkic played, posting a plus-5.2 net rating that ranked fifth in the league during that span. Tracing the source of that figure suggests the improvement wasn't coincidentally related to Nurkic's arrival. With him on the floor, the Blazers' net rating spiked to plus-9.6. And it's also critical to note that he, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum performed well together. That three-man unit's on-court net rating was plus-11.3 in 419 minutes.
That, folks, is what a legitimately potent core looks like.
Asking the Blazers to sustain that level of performance is a mistake. We're dealing in small samples, and Nurkic may not be as motivated as he was immediately following the trade. What's more, Crabbe's absence is going to hurt. He shot 44.4 percent from deep and attempted more threes than everyone but Lillard and McCollum.
Spacing will be a challenge.
If someone—Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, a hopefully resurgent Al-Farouq Aminu—can step into a high-volume shooting role, Portland will be in good shape. And even if we shouldn't expect the 57-win pace during Nurkic's healthy post-trade stretch to continue, the Blazers can still ride their powerful trio to a win total in the high 40s and (maybe) a playoff spot.
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs didn't land any consequential free agents, let Jonathon Simmons go and spent exorbitantly to re-sign 37-year-old Pau Gasol for three years and $48 million (the third year's a partial guarantee).
The big get: Rudy Gay, aged 31 and coming off a torn Achilles.
Winners of 61 games last season, the Spurs needed to take a big swing to challenge the Warriors in the West. As the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder made landscape-altering acquisitions, San Antonio did nothing.
The Bright Side
Manu Ginobili is back, which is really all that matters.
Two more years of 19 pulse-pounding, sidearm left-handed-pass-slinging minutes per game will cost the Spurs just $5 million. That's a bargain, considering a crowd-funded campaign to pay Manu out of sheer love and admiration would have easily netted $100 million.
In addition, San Antonio has the luxury of expecting 55 wins even after a ho-hum offseason. Until this thing falls apart, the rebuttable presumption must be that the Spurs know what they're doing, that they've got this figured out. They effectively own the rights to the phrase "benefit of the doubt."
With Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich and a system that hasn't failed in 20 years, the Spurs aren't exactly hurting.