Ranking the Best 2021 NBA Offseason Moves So Far

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 14, 2021

Ranking the Best 2021 NBA Offseason Moves So Far

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    With billions of dollars flying around and multi-team sign-and-trade deals requiring complex flow charts to decipher, the 2021 NBA offseason got wild.

    Now that we have a few months' distance from the madness, it's easier to take stock of who spent, signed and swapped most wisely.

    Which teams got maximum value for their money? Which free-agent or trade acquisitions changed an organization's fortunes the most? And which moves look the boldest in hindsight?

    We'll leave the handful of mega-extensions out of the discussion. New deals for Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and others that added several years and hundreds of millions of dollars are best judged over a longer timeline, with the back ends of the agreements often mattering more than the front.

    Two months into the season, these moves look better than most.

Honorable Mention

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Miami Heat Sign-and-Trade for Kyle Lowry

    At 35, Kyle Lowry is showing predictable signs of decline. He's getting to the rim less frequently than ever, and he's no longer elite at collecting steals on defense. That said, the six-time All-Star is a critical starter for a Miami Heat team that ranks among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That two-way competency is one of the surest signs of contention, and few teams have more competitive grit and playoff knowhow than Miami with Lowry in tow.

    Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa went out in the Lowry deal. The former has played just five games, and the latter is shooting under 40 percent from the field for the Toronto Raptors, making the Lowry acquisition an even greater value.

            

    Utah Jazz Sign Rudy Gay

    It felt like the Utah Jazz needed to make major changes after last postseason's disappointing ouster, but the only significant addition they made was signing Rudy Gay for two years and $12.1 million. Utah's relatively inactive summer was a bet on continuity and a show of faith in the personnel that was already on hand.

    Gay has looked capable of filling a vital role. If you haven't been watching the Jazz closely, you probably don't know the 35-year-old vet is logging more minutes at center than ever before. And Utah has looked good in those configurations, particularly on defense, since they can switch across multiple positions and keep opponents out of the lane more effectively. After the Los Angeles Clippers put on a blow-by clinic in the second round last postseason, this was exactly the kind of lineup variation Utah needed in its arsenal.

    We're dealing in tiny samples, so don't give Utah its flowers just yet. But if Gay can give the Jazz a handful of minutes at the 5 against certain playoff matchups, it could mean the difference between another early elimination and a trip to the conference finals.

         

    The Warriors' Minimum Signings

    Otto Porter Jr. is shooting 41.1 percent from three and thriving as a stretch power forward, putting up a box plus/minus higher than every starter not named Stephen Curry or Draymond Green. 

    Nemanja Bjelica strains opposing defenses as a small-ball 5 who'll happily hoist from 30 feet or put the ball on the deck and get into the lane, where he uses his guard-like vision to pick out shooters spotting up beyond the arc.

    Gary Payton II might be the most disruptive defender in the league, as evidenced by a steal rate that ranks in the 100th percentile at his position (not a typo) and a lengthy reel of highlight thefts. Dribbling in his general vicinity is unwise.

    Golden State has figured out how to use the non-shooting guard on offense, essentially replicating the model the Brooklyn Nets built last season to turn point-guard-sized Bruce Brown into a center. These three are all nightly staples in the rotation for the best team in the league, and the Warriors literally could not be paying them less.

5. Boston Celtics Sign Dennis Schroder

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Dennis Schroder turned down a four-year, $84 million extension from the Los Angeles Lakers at the 2021 trade deadline, per Brian Windhorst on The Hoop Collective podcast.

    A few months later, the Boston Celtics inked the veteran point guard to a one-year deal worth just $5.9 million.

    That's really all the information you need to understand the value Boston got. It also helps to know that the Celtics are already listening to trade offers because his play has been so good as to make a potential extension too pricey, per Shams Charania of The Athletic.

    Despite being paid like a ninth man, Schroder has been a regular starter for most of the season. He's second on the team with 4.9 assists and third in scoring at 17.5 points per game. Only Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown get to the foul line more often. Though not always known as a top-flight defender, Schroder's presence on the floor triggers a spike in opponent turnovers this season, spicing up a defense that can sometimes be a little bland. 

    He's not elevating the Celtics to contention, and the Celtics' decision to sign him for so little was probably one of the biggest no-brainers of the entire offseason. But Schroder absolutely checks the "value" box in our analysis. There aren't many players in the league producing more for less.

4. Brooklyn Nets Sign Patty Mills

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    If Patty Mills were getting all $12 million of his two-year deal in this season alone, he might still have warranted an honorable mention. That's how good the 33-year-old guard has been for the East-leading Brooklyn Nets.

    Mills is having arguably his best offensive season, posting a 60.9 true shooting percentage and turning the ball over, well, basically never. It's true that the Aussie sniper's success has plenty to do with a limited role that plays exclusively to his strengths, but that doesn't change the fact that he's giving a contender everything it could want at a bargain price.

    It may seem counterintuitive with Kevin Durant and James Harden on the roster, but the Nets actually need Mills' supportive scoring. They're a respectable 10th in scoring efficiency overall, but with Mills on the floor, the Nets are a ridiculous 16.1 points per 100 possessions better on that end.

    He's a dead-eye, knockdown gunner, whether he's firing from a standstill or off a full sprint around a screen. Mills is drilling 45.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes and an even more impressive 42.2 percent on more difficult pull-ups. The attention he draws on the perimeter clears the middle of the floor for Durant, the league's leading scorer. KD would find ways to light it up regardless of the personnel surrounding him, but Mills' gravity has a hand in Durant's total dominance of the mid-range area this season.*

    Brooklyn could be without Joe Harris until February, which leaves Mills as the only Nets rotation player hitting over 40 percent of his threes (among those attempting at least one per game).

    *LaMarcus Aldridge, making the minimum, has been lights-out on two-point jumpers as well. He deserves a mention as another fantastic Nets signing.

3. Washington Wizards Trade Away Russell Westbrook

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    The best offseason moves aren't always about additions. Sometimes, success depends on subtraction.

    The Washington Wizards are absolutely better for having added Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Holiday and Isaiah Todd in the five-team sign-and-trade that also involved the Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.

    Kuzma and KCP have played a hand in Washington's defensive improvement, while Harrell is right back in the thick of the race for Sixth Man of the Year after a rough stint with the Lakers. Dinwiddie hasn't shot the ball well, but he's provided capable secondary playmaking next to Bradley Beal. The entire complicated exchange left the Wizards deeper and more balanced than they once were.

    But more than anything, Washington achieved all this while getting off one of the most onerous contracts in the league.

    Jettisoning Russell Westbrook should have cost the Wizards. Instead, it benefitted them.

    Now, suddenly in the mix for a top-four playoff spot in the East, Washington is also operating with clean books and greater roster flexibility. Even if the recent slump they've endured since a 10-3 start persists, the Wizards have dramatically improved their long-term outlook.

    The only reason this move (or collection of moves, if we're being totally accurate) doesn't rank higher is that the Lakers may have been the only team in the league willing to give up value for Westbrook. Had Los Angeles not inexplicably prioritized adding him, the Wizards probably would have been stuck in the same go-nowhere situation they were in 2020-21.

    Still, credit the Wizards for answering the door when opportunity knocked.

2. The Chicago Bulls' Entire Offseason

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    We're supposed to focus on a specific transaction, but it's too difficult to separate the three key offseason decisions that remade the Chicago Bulls. So we're grouping the moves that brought DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso into the fold.

    In light of how those three players fit together as part of an inspired vision, considering them collectively makes sense.

    DeRozan is shooting the ball more than he has in a half-decade, but that added volume hasn't knocked his true shooting percentage down in any meaningful way. He's thriving as a power forward, getting to his mid-range spots in the Bulls' spaced-out offense and torturing defenders with his patient package of moves.

    The 32-year-old is posting just the second season of his career with a positive on-off split. Prior to this year, DeRozan's teams were almost always more effective with him off the court. Now? The Bulls are an obscene 17.2 points per 100 possessions better when he plays.

    As a result, he's in the "but don't forget about this guy..." portion of the MVP conversation.

    DeRozan is still suspect on defense, as are Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. But it doesn't matter that 60 percent of Chicago's preferred starting five isn't known for its defense because Lonzo Ball and reserve Alex Caruso have teamed up to wreak havoc on opposing backcourts. In a league where team defense usually depends on either switch-heavy schemes or the presence of an elite rim protector, the Bulls are making it work on D mostly with pressure at the point of attack and hellacious effort.

    The results have been cruelly effective. And spectacular.

    The DeRozan sign-and-trade, which cost the Bulls Thaddeus Young, a protected first-rounder and $85 million in new salary, wouldn't have played out so well without Ball and Caruso shoring up the defense. And those two wouldn't be as valuable if Chicago didn't have DeRozan as a high-usage counterpart for Zach LaVine. The pieces fit, and all of them simply have to focus on the things they're best at.

    The Bulls are third in the East and capable on both ends, despite being ravaged recently by COVID-19 protocols.

    I'll be the first to admit that I never saw the puzzle coming together this cleanly.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers Sign Jarrett Allen

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers deserve the same treatment we gave the Bulls a moment ago; they made a series of decisions over the offseason that, collectively, changed the direction of the franchise.

    For several reasons, the focus here is on Cleveland's decision to sign Jarrett Allen to a five-year, $100 million contract. Their faith and investment in a conventional center—with the NBA increasingly dominated by wings—looks like a stroke of genius.

    Allen, for starters, isn't as conventional as it seems. More than a rim-rolling dunker, Allen is now a legitimate threat on the block whose 1.14 points per post-up possession rank in the 95th percentile. Even more importantly, Allen has proved effective on switches, turning what were once flashes of capability against smalls into reliable shutdown work. That he rarely fouls, despite the difficulty of his expanded role, is all the more impressive.

    That versatility has been key to making the pairing with rookie Evan Mobley work.

    Grabbing Mobley at No. 3 in the draft was a much easier call than lavishing nine figures on Allen, but nobody foresaw the exceptionally mobile big man profiling as a generational talent this quickly. Mobley moves with the agility of a guard that, combined with Allen's mobility, gives the Cavs extreme length around the bucket. And they don't have to sacrifice perimeter integrity to get it.

    Cleveland owns the NBA's third-best defense, and it's almost entirely because of Allen and Mobley smothering opponents all over the floor.

    Additional bonus: The presence of two rangy bigs who can move allows for a third one who's only out there to score, sign-and-trade acquisition Lauri Markkanen. The Finnisher can stretch the floor as a grossly oversized small forward without fear of killing the Cavs' defense.

    Cleveland has been the best team in the East so far, as measured by Basketball Reference's simple rating system, which combines margin of victory and strength of schedule. Mobley looks like a future MVP candidate, but the Cavs wouldn't be in this lofty position without Allen, the key to everything.

    Oh, and if we're going to be completists, spending big on Allen instead of Collin Sexton looks wiser than ever, with Darius Garland clearly taking control as the team's top offensive creator.

                 

    Stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Dec. 13. Salary info via Spotrac.

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