1 Free-Agent Signing to Help Each NBA Contender Catch the Warriors

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 4, 2018

1 Free-Agent Signing to Help Each NBA Contender Catch the Warriors

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    Preventing the Golden State Warriors from winning a third straight title was going to be hard no matter what. Now that the Dubs will add center DeMarcus Cousins to the fold, as first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, it's beginning to feel like the task is impossible.

    The rest of the league's contenders can't pack it in, though. They've got to try.

    Last year, the Houston Rockets focused all their efforts on building a roster to dethrone the champs. If not for 27 straight missed threes in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the most consequential cold spell in recent NBA history, Houston would have felled Golden State. No matter how wide the margin between the favorite and the field may seem, a shrewd offseason can always narrow the gap.

    Qualifying as a contender for our purposes means a club has a good shot at seeing the Warriors in the conference finals or Finals. That's a low enough bar to give us a decent number of teams. The players we're suggesting address specific areas that'll be necessary to compete with Golden State.

    Drawing from what's left of a relatively thin free-agent market, how can other would-be giant-killers do the same this summer?

Houston Rockets: Luc Mbah a Moute

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    Trevor Ariza's departure for the Phoenix Suns leaves the Rockets without a vital two-way wing. With the length to occasionally bother Kevin Durant, the versatility to guard four positions (five when Golden State plays Draymond Green at center) and a three-point stroke opponents respect, Ariza was vital to Houston's success last year.

    Though we shouldn't rule out a trade or buyout that gets Ariza back to Houston at the deadline, it appears the elements that made the Rockets such a challenge for Golden State (relentless switching and spot-up three-point shooting around James Harden) must be replenished.

    At the very least, the Rockets can't let another rangy defensive wing get away. That means they've got to focus their efforts internally and hope Luc Mbah a Moute is willing to return on another minimum deal.

    An injured shoulder sapped Mbah a Moute's shooting confidence in the postseason, which made him almost impossible to play against a defense as good as the Warriors'. When healthy, though, Mbah a Moute may very well have been the Rockets' best defensive weapon—better, even, than Ariza.

    With Mbah a Moute on the floor, Houston held opponents to 101.2 points per 100 possessions last season. When he sat, that number climbed to 105.5. The first figure, with Mbah a Moute on the floor, was better than the Boston Celtics' league-leading full-season defensive efficiency. The second would have fallen outside the top 10, between the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers.

    It may feel like aiming low, and keeping a player is less satisfying than adding a new one. But Ariza's exit spikes Mbah a Moute's value.

Los Angeles Lakers: Wayne Ellington

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    If you have LeBron James, you're a contender—even if almost every move you make after adding the King feels like self-sabotage.

    JaVale McGee on a minimum deal is fine. He can bring energy and interior scoring in short spurts. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a bargain at $12 million.

    But Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, gross overpays who can't shoot and offer suspect defense, don't fit the mold of your typical James sidekicks. That makes it all the more important for L.A. to add defensive versatility and/or shooting around LeBron.

    Can they get Wayne Ellington for the $5.7 million in cap space that remains after agreeing to pay Rondo $9 million? If that's not enough, L.A. can always free up cash by stretching Luol Deng or swinging deals (perhaps for Kawhi Leonard) involving Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram or other young pieces. It's possible adding Leonard would convince Ellington to lower his asking price.

    Ellington won't help on D, but he's probably the best pure shooter left on the market. James is familiar with how Kyle Korver sprints around screens and ties off-ball defenders in knots; Ellington can do the same thing.

    He shot 39.2 percent from deep last year, excelling on a diet of on-the-move, high-difficulty looks. He'd likely see much cleaner opportunities alongside James.

    Though adding a role-playing shooter doesn't feel like a move that would concern the Warriors, L.A. has to do what it can to give James the right kind of help. From what we've seen over the past eight years, all of which concluded with James in the Finals, he doesn't need much.

Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart

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    As was the case with the Rockets and Mbah a Moute, the Boston Celtics should train their focus on a familiar face.

    Marcus Smart is a crummy shooter (career 29.3 percent from long range), but his competitiveness and defensive versatility are hugely valuable commodities for any team that hopes to knock off the Warriors. Unlikely to be intimidated by a Dubs roster that boasts immense star power, Smart would approach a potential Finals matchup with a maniacal scrappiness right in line with Draymond Green's.

    He cannot be outworked.

    Capable of suffocating any guard or wing, Smart is also a fearsome post defender. No 6'4" guard truly stifles Kevin Durant in the mid-range or on the block, but Smart's resistance there would be as stout as anyone's. Sic him on Stephen Curry or attach him to Klay Thompson off the ball, and Smart can wreak havoc there too.

    Though Smart is a potential liability because of his shooting, his other attributes aren't replaceable on the market. Boston can't find anyone tougher or more defensively valuable.

    Fortunately for the Celtics, the market has largely dried up, meaning the chances that Smart gets a big offer they'd have to match are dwindling. Whether Boston convinces him to stick around on the qualifying offer or comes to terms on a deal that'll put Smart back on the market for a bigger payday next summer, it has to find a way to keep its most fiery competitor and best wing stopper.

Philadelphia 76ers: James Ennis

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    "We are star hunting," Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown told reporters on draft night. "Or we are star developing. That's how you win a championship."

    Kawhi Leonard could still arrive via trade, though that scenario looks less likely now that Wilson Chandler is coming aboard from the Denver Nuggets, as reported by Wojnarowski. Perhaps it's best for the Sixers to think less about star hunting and more about marginal improvements.

    James Ennis, 6'7" and a career 35.9 percent shooter from long distance, is yet another two-way wing with respectable three-point chops. Though seemingly duplicative on a roster that features Chandler and Robert Covington, Ennis would still have a role—especially against the Warriors.

    Throwing him out there with Ben Simmons, Chandler and Covington would allow the Sixers to switch reasonably well across several positions. Just as importantly, he could help Philly avoid scenarios in which JJ Redick or T.J. McConnell gets victimized by Durant, Thompson or Curry. When trying to take down the Dubs, it's impossible to have too many like-sized wings on the roster.

    Philadelphia only has the room mid-level exception to offer, but with so few quality teams capable of spending, that money could go further than one might expect.

Toronto Raptors: Michael Beasley

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    Toronto was a quiet winner when LeBron James ditched the East. A team that won 59 games last season is still intact, and there was a reasonable case to be made that Toronto could have reached the Finals if not for James' annual tradition of ruthless spirit-breaking.

    Michael Beasley would give the Raps the mobile frontcourt scorer they lack.

    Serge Ibaka has aged rapidly and can't keep up with wings on defense anymore, which limits some of his utility. Beasley isn't guarding anyone, but Toronto could toss him the ball as a second-unit threat and trust him to get a decent look. That logic has kept Jamal Crawford in the league for years; you'd think a frontcourt microwave would have similar value.

    You aren't going to outscore the Warriors with the starters on the floor, so making hay against the backups is one of the only ways to succeed.

    Beasley may not seem like much, but this is as well as we can do for Toronto, a tax team with only minimums and the taxpayer MLE to spend.

San Antonio Spurs: Rodney Hood

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    The concept of infinite realities is helpful here. Somewhere in the vast reaches of the multiverse, there's a world where Kawhi Leonard repairs his relationship with the Spurs and has no lingering effects from the quad injury that cost him most of last year, and San Antonio runs up another win total in the 60s.

    In that world, the Spurs, having added Marco Belinelli and retained Rudy Gay and Danny Green, could get Hood on a cheap, one-year deal and hope his tools finally manifest in consistent starter-quality production. A restricted free agent, Hood may not be in the suddenly rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers' plans. And for a player who's trying to rehabilitate his value, San Antonio is a solid option.

    Hood averaged 16.8 points per game as a key bench scorer for the Jazz last year prior to joining the Cavs, where his production cratered to the point where he was out of the playoff rotation for a hefty stretch.

    Of course, Leonard is almost certainly gone. Realistically, the Spurs are going to fall well short of real contention without their best player—even in the unlikely event they get decent value back in a trade.

    But as long as we're pretending the Spurs aren't cooked as contenders, Hood makes sense as a bigger scoring guard alongside shooting-challenged Dejounte Murray.

Utah Jazz: Nemanja Bjelica

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    If the Utah Jazz's inclusion among contenders surprises you, congratulations on not paying attention to the second half of the 2017-18 season. Did you get a lot done while you were negligently ignoring Utah's league-best plus-10.1 net rating after Rudy Gobert returned from injury Jan. 19?

    Utah belongs here. Of course, all that means is, like every other contender trying to catch the Warriors, it needs to nail its signings and catch a dozen breaks to really make something happen. But the Jazz are worthy.

    Having stanned for the Jazz enough, who's their guy?

    How about Nemanja Bjelica, a savvy playmaking forward who can hit a three and stretch the floor alongside Gobert in the frontcourt?

    Bjelica isn't much of a defender, but we've suggested three-and-D wings for just about everyone else, and he represents an intriguing change of pace. Capable of pulling frontcourt defenders out of the lane, the 6'10" power forward is adept at attacking a closeout and intuiting the right move in a smart offense. He'd work well in Utah's movement-heavy "advantage" approach, as his athletic limitations wouldn't matter so much when playing in a system that gives attackers screens and running starts against scrambling defenses.

    It never quite worked for Bjelica in Minnesota. But he shot 41.5 percent from deep last year and is an intelligent offensive basketball player. He'd maximize his gifts in Utah, perhaps juicing an offense that only needs a little boost to get into top-10 territory. With an elite defense, that's all you need for serious contention.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

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