Rethinking NBA Offseason Moves We Judged Too Quickly
Snap judgments are the essence of the NBA's offseason. Without the benefit of actual games, opinions are formed based on theoretical fits and previous sample sizes.
This isn't going to change. Nor should it. Waiting to evaluate free-agency signings and trades isn't an option. Meaningful discussions would have to halt for months.
Knee-jerk reactions, both good and bad, aren't hurting anyone anyway. They can be quite useful and spot-on—Jabari Parker being a horrible defensive fit with the Chicago Bulls, for instance.
Still, initial responses to offseason moves aren't always backed up by playing the games. Sometimes, they entirely overlook the importance of an acquisition. In other cases, they completely write off or destroy an addition or contract that turns out to be perfectly fine, if not legitimately valuable.
Prospective mea culpas are part of reflexive reckonings. Don't join the insta-take hive if you cannot handle or even entertain the possibility of being wrong. July's perceived flub could be November's pleasant surprise. It happens. Accept it, then own it and move on.
Our oopsies will focus only on the biggest misses—signings and trades predominantly met with overwhelming indifference or disdain. Draft-night decisions count toward the tally. One-year deals are fair game.
Cases of addition-by-subtraction are not eligible. The same goes for minimum contracts. Such low-stakes agreements never incite deep-thought exercises. We apologize to JaVale McGee for the inconvenience.
Marco Belinelli Joins the Spurs
First of all: Marco Belinelli is only 32? How is that possible? It feels like he's been around forever. And he kind of has. His career has spanned nine teams. He is between 35 and 37 in nomad years.
Anyway, Belinelli's two-year, $12 million deal with the San Antonio Spurs was less lampooned and more so hailed as weird. Gregg Popovich's ground-and-pound offense needed a shooter. It always needs another shooter. But did the market for Belinelli dictate San Antonio give him a majority of the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception on Day 1 of free agency?
Color me skeptical. Shooters get paid. And Belinelli's off-the-dribble confidence is an asset even when he's not finding the bottom of the net. Waiting out the landscape still could have saved the Spurs money. It might have given them leverage to offer a similar or slightly higher pay grade in exchange for a one-year agreement or team option on the back end.
This seems like a sticking point worth harping over even now. Belinelli is burying under 32 percent of his threes and fails to eclipse the 40 percent mark overall. But parsing the context of his performance changes everything.
Belinelli is essential to San Antonio's offense. The Spurs didn't just send a hyper-efficient Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. They threw in Danny Green, who has failed to clear 36 percent from beyond the arc just once since 2010-11, presumably for salary-matching convenience. They brought back a package built around two non-spacers, DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl.
As it stands, the Spurs hover near the bottom of the league in three-point-attempt rate. They're making their triples with top-five accuracy, but the floor wouldn't open up as well—or at all—without Belinelli's volume.
No one on the team is jacking more long-range attempts per 36 minutes. And while Belinelli is splashing in fewer than 30 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, he's dropping in 37.5 percent of his pull-up treys.
That might be the most Marco Belinelli stat ever. And the Spurs, with only Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills as high-end spacing alternatives, are better for it. DeRozan is the lone rotation player who has a greater impact on their offensive rating.
Nemanja Bjelica Signs with Sacramento Kings
Some Sacramento Kings fans took exception to yours truly writing that Nemanja Bjelica is "playing very tradeable basketball." It was meant to be a compliment. He has outperformed his three-year, $20.5 million pact (non-guaranteed in 2020-21). Sacramento could get something spicy for him once his restriction lifts in mid-December.
Perhaps that's the primary offense: suggesting the Kings should almost immediately reroute a reasonably priced player shooting almost 50 percent from deep and pump-faking defenders off their feet so can he slither inside eight feet of the hoop, where he's hitting over 60 percent of his looks.
Bjelica has even made some nice defensive plays. He's sporadically hanging in space when switched onto smaller ball-handlers, including guards, and he's intercepting passes from offenses that seem to forget he's 6'10".
Whether the Kings should be investing court time in a 30-year-old remains a worthwhile point of discussion. They're showing real signs of progress and should be doing everything in their power to torpedo the value of a draft pick they'll send to Boston or Philadelphia. But the frontcourt is teeming with younger players, namely Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein and Harry Giles III. Bjelica is not the future, and with Cauley-Stein heading to restricted free agency next summer, Sacramento needs to get a feel for which kids matter most to the bigger picture.
At the same time, this isn't last season. Bjelica is not Zach Randolph. His minutes aren't holding back the youth. Cauley-Stein and, for the most part, Bagley, are getting their reps, and Sacramento was always going to slow-play Giles' development. And FYI: Cauley-Stein is shooting much worse without Bjelica in the game.
If anything, Bjelica has become integral to the Kings honing their offensive identity beyond the frontcourt. His shooting opens up the court for De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and, now, Bogdan Bogdanovic. Sacramento's effective field-goal percentage plummets by more than eight points with Bjelica on the sidelines, as does the frequency with which the Kings reach the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass.
There you have it. Another thing people—specifically, little ol' me—missed on with the Kings. Bjelica isn't harshing their rebuild. He's helping stabilize it. Teams should still call about him closer to the trade deadline, especially if he starts hitting his free throws. At least for this season, though, Sacramento needn't be in any rush to move him.
Bulls Match Zach LaVine's Offer Sheet from Kings
Critics of the Chicago Bulls matching Zach LaVine's four-year, $76 million offer sheet from the Kings are running out of road. Contracts aren't earned in a month, but the 23-year-old is doing his darnedest to make his agreement look like a value deal.
LaVine will generate All-Star buzz if his averages of 27.4 points and 3.8 assists on a 46.1/35.4/84.9 shooting slash hold. It's getting harder to believe they won't stand.
Lauri Markkanen's return could eat into some of his volume, but LaVine is by far Chicago's best shot creator. Not even the best version of Jabari Parker measures up. He doesn't have that same knack for draining well-defended off-balance looks.
Over 35 percent of LaVine's attempts are coming as pull-up jumpers. His efficiency waxes and wanes, but the volume is the means to an end. He's now leveraging his outside allowance—which includes a 40-plus percent success rate on spot-up threes—into close-range finishes.
More of LaVine's shots are coming inside three feet than ever before. He is gradually finding that medium between settling by design and attacking by necessity. He is averaging almost as many drives as Giannis Antetokounmpo and ranks second in free-throw attempts per 36 minutes among guards.
Chicago's offense is still struggling to score at an acceptable clip with LaVine on the floor. Only so much of that is on him. The Bulls' point guard situation is far from ideal, and he's spending a bunch of time alongside inexperienced players...and Cameron Payne. Turnovers are a symptom of his circumstances rather than a red flag.
Defense is always going to muddy LaVine's stock. This season is no different. He gets overwhelmed by half-court actions and is easily beatable in the pick-and-roll. But he's hustling more than he has in past years.
Plus, with Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold, there might be a path to using LaVine like the Houston Rockets did James Harden last season—on bigger, slower offensive options. The Bulls should give that an extensive test run once Markkanen is ready to rock and they're not consigned to resident turnstiles Parker at the 4.
Elfrid Payton to the Pelicans
Elfrid Payton arrived in New Orleans to a welcome that resembled something a little worse than indifference.
His one-year deal didn't even cost the full bi-annual exception, so it barely registered on the books. But he was replacing Rajon Rondo, an occasional standout presence who helped the Pelicans unlock different lineup combinations that moved Jrue Holiday into an off-guard role.
That Payton wasn't initially embraced as a lateral move says a lot about how much his stock had fallen. After all, Rondo's value to the Pelicans was always a touch or two overrated. They scored more points per 100 possessions without him, both before and after the DeMarcus Cousins injury. His defensive effort was inconstant at best.
Skip ahead to now, and Payton is someone New Orleans would prefer never to play without.
"We miss him a lot," head coach Alvin Gentry said of his point guard, who's recovering from a right ankle sprain, per the New Orleans Advocate's Scott Kushner. "What he does is, it would put Jrue [Holiday] back in his natural position, and it gives us a good player back on the floor who is a defender and made a lot of plays for us. He has the capability of getting to the basket and creating plays for people."
Elements of Payton's start are unsustainable. Let him take more than seven three-pointers before declaring him a passable floor-spacer. His turnovers and suspect finishing around the rim could come back to bite the Pelicans as well.
But the rebounding, career defensive energy and playmaking all feel more permanent. The latter most separates him from Rondo. Even when Payton is dribbling until kingdom come, it doesn't feel like he's seizing control of the offense by force. His ball-dominant style plays out more naturally. He doesn't shy from early passes in transition or simple dump-offs, and New Orleans' half-court actions are developing faster than they did with Rondo at the helm.
Payton needs more time before his subtler offensive command is deemed an impeccable fit. For now, the numbers have his back. The Pelicans' starting five with him in it has blasted opponents by almost 40 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating above 138, according to Cleaning the Glass. Sliding Holiday to the 1 has proved far less effective regardless of whether Anthony Davis is also in the game.
Hawks Give Up Right to Draft Luka Doncic for Trae Young
Trae Young has not surpassed Luka Doncic on the NBA's rookie ladder. Not even close. Doncic is still the better prospect. Years down the line, the Atlanta Hawks will probably look back at the 2018 draft and know they traded away the best player in the class.
They just might not care.
Having the Kings as a shield is part of it. They passed on Doncic for Marvin Bagley without nabbing any compensation for their decision. The Hawks snagged a top-five-protected pick from the Dallas Mavericks for moving down two spots. But Young needs to play well enough for that to be considered equal value.
Guess what? He's doing just that.
Pay no mind to Young's offensive efficiency. He's shooting under 30 percent from distance, and Atlanta is scraping together fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions when he plays. Whatever. Learning curves are a real thing—especially at the point guard position.
Rookies and sophomores deserve leeway, and Young is passing the eye test. His handles are sick, and he's comfortable manufacturing space from scratch. The level of difficulty on his shots is through the roof. Over 43 percent of his attempts are coming as pull-up jumpers, and more than 40 percent are contested looks. His passing makes up for the remaining gap in efficiency.
"Young doesn’t pound the ball or even have to penetrate in order to draw help and find an open man. Guys simply run the floor faster and cut into space harder, knowing he'll hit them on the money if/when they get open," Vice Sports' Michael Pina wrote. "His kick-aheads alone deserve to be nominated by the MacArthur Fellows Program."
Right now, the Hawks have Young playing with two or more non-spacers at every turn. Surround him with more established shooters, and the numbers will rival his off-the-bounce pizzazz.
Even amid choppy floor balance, Young's creativity is shining through. He's finishing close to 65 percent of his looks inside three feet and shooting 61 percent on drives—the second-best mark among 106 players averaging at least five downhill attacks per game. Not bad for someone whose height and length were supposed to crimp his accuracy around the rim, huh?
Once more: Doncic should end up being the more transcendent player. But this idea the Hawks botched their rebuild by going in another direction is slowly, surely becoming borderline bonkers. Watch Trae Young go to work, and you'll see why.