We're still waiting for Brandon Jennings and Nikola Pekovic to reach their inevitable free-agency conclusions, but the NBA's silly season is basically over. We've taken a look at the bigger-picture trends that have started to emerge as the league gets used to the new collective bargaining agreement, so it's time for a team-by-team look at the NBA's reshuffled landscape.
The Miami Heat have looked vulnerable in each of the last two playoffs, plus they lost Mike Miller to the amnesty provision and they have limited means to find a capable replacement. The Western Conference is loaded but muddled at the top, and as many as 13 teams may end up fighting for the final five playoff spots across the two conferences (the bottom three in the East, and the bottom two in the West).
Next year's free-agency class could be loaded, depending on what a few stars do with player options, and if things go badly in Minnesota and Portland, we will hear louder rumblings about Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge. This could be a monster season. Here's an attempt to categorize how and what teams did this summer — with help from a pile of intel gleaned while chatting up execs in the stands at summer league.
Over the last two years, Dwight Howard has embarrassed himself. He has become known for almost unbelievable indecision, excessive flatulence, and his fascination with candy. On the court, he wasn't nearly himself for the bulk of last season in Los Angeles. Justifiable criticism of Howard's professionalism has bled into misguided criticism of his game — some fans have delighted in his health-related regression and wrongly screamed about his alleged lack of a post-up game.1
Before a spate of shoulder and back injuries, Howard was the best two-way big man in the league by a considerable margin. He showed semi-sustained flashes of his peak defensive form during his last 30 games with the Lakers, he'll be in better health this season, he has an excellent backup (Omer Asik), and he should play with supercharged motivation. Even 90 percent of 2010-12 Howard is worth more than what Houston will pay him. So congrats, Rockets, on tricking Howard into missing that last season Houston played almost exactly the style of offense Howard — perhaps the NBA player least aware of how to maximize his abilities — professed to hate under Mike D'Antoni.
Houston will have to adjust its offense, and likely its pace, to fit Howard's preferences, but the James Harden–Howard pick-and-roll should instantly become one of the most powerful offensive staples in the NBA. Houston wisely filled out the roster with one-year minimum deals for wing shooters who either helped last season (Francisco Garcia) or who once showed promise before being traded and flopping with their new teams (Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams). The Rockets should have access to the full midlevel exception next summer to go after another solid veteran, and they own all their first-round picks. The Rockets really stand alone as the team that helped themselves dramatically in the present without sacrificing any future assets.
Winners, With Caveats
Los Angeles Clippers
The Suns hatched the idea of a three-team Eric Bledsoe trade involving Milwaukee, but the Clippers deserve credit for recognizing the opportunity to toss Caron Butler into a deal that returned two legit rotation players. It would have been hard to nab that bounty from a single trading partner, dangling only Butler/Bledsoe without a first-round pick attached. The Clips now have J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley on fair contracts, which could free them up to buy out Jamal Crawford's nonguaranteed deal a year from now or trade him in the meantime — a move that would help them duck the tax.
The added shooting should make the Clips a real threat to jump over Oklahoma City and Miami as the league's best offensive team. The big caveat here comes down to the same question as last season: Can you win the title, or get out of the thorny Western Conference, if DeAndre Jordan is your second-best big man?
Jordan has shown minimal improvement on either end. If he doesn't become a more stable defender alongside Blake Griffin, the Clips will have trouble building the top-10 defense that is a nearly essential element of any title contender. Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens certainly aren't helping. The Clips know they need another big, and they will likely sign one shortly, while the four-man wing combination of Crawford, Dudley, Redick, and Matt Barnes should allow Doc Rivers to play a lot of small ball.
The Clips also surrendered a first-round pick for Rivers, they're out second-rounders in each of the next three drafts, and they won't have any real cap flexibility as things stand until the summer of 2015 — at the earliest.
On the surface, the Hawks and Mavericks appear to have had similar offseasons. Both inked several secondary players to contracts of varying lengths after striking out with the big-name free agents, all while maintaining major flexibility for next summer and beyond. The difference: Atlanta signed good players (mostly) on the right side of the aging curve at great prices. Jeff Teague will make only about $1 million more per season on average than Jose Calderon over their respective four-year deals; Calderon is almost 32 and it's been years since he was able to guard anyone or get into the lane. Teague just turned 25 and still has some upside. Kyle Korver might be "too old" for a four-year deal at 32, but the value of his contract declines each season, and he brings the one skill — shooting — that ages better than any other. And I have no idea how Danny Ferry brainwashed Paul Millsap into accepting a two-year, $19 million deal.
These are all tradable pieces (as is Lou Williams's deal), and the Hawks remain one midsize salary dump from entering the next offseason with max-level cap room — again. They should remain competitive in the meantime, though they'll miss Josh Smith's ability to create shots on offense and protect the rim on defense.2
It's wrong to suggest Cleveland's flyer on Andrew Bynum3 is totally risk-free. The combined signings of Bynum and Jarrett Jack soak up the cap space Cleveland could have used to nab a big man who might actually play long-term — someone like Tiago Splitter or Pekovic. Cleveland could have splurged on such a player and maintained max-level cap room next summer by dealing Anderson Varejao to one of his many suitors.
But the Wolves likely would have matched any Cleveland offer for Pekovic, and signing any player to a big-money deal could rob Cleveland of max-level room in the summer of 2015 — when both Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson will represent massive salary hits in some form. So Cleveland found another way to shoot for the postseason in 2014 — a must after its lottery braggadocio — while maintaining future flexibility. Jack will be a shrewd stabilizing force in the backcourt, and Mike Brown (plus a healthy Varejao) should have this team defending at something closer to a league-average rate.
The Suns manufactured a way to get Bledsoe, the most desirable asset on the trade market, and they're lean enough going forward — with expiring deals, tradable assets, and unguaranteed contracts — that they can afford to overpay Bledsoe a tad in an extension. Also, they should still be bad enough this season to make a "run" at a top-five pick.4
This team could follow a number of different paths over the next two years or so, but they've found a ruthless negotiator in Masai Ujiri to guide them. Ujiri somehow dumped Andrea Bargnani on the Knicks in return for three draft picks and only one player on a guaranteed multiyear contract (Steve Novak), a move that at least creates the possibility of the Raps clearing max-level cap space as early as next summer.
They'd have to part with Rudy Gay to get there, and Gay has a $19.3 million player option for 2014-15. Gay is still in his prime, and when they traded for him the Raptors privately indicated they expected Gay to opt out and secure a longer-term deal. Kyle Lowry will also be a free agent next summer, putting Toronto in a unique position in which they could compete for a playoff spot this season and then bottom out in 2014-15.
Of course, this season is the best time in a decade to bottom out, and the Raps might be able to engineer that path with a few midseason trades. Everything's on the table, and the Bargnani trade was a nice start.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors entered the offseason at the edge of the tax line, and with two essential bench players — Jack and Carl Landry — entering free agency. They appeared stuck, but GM Bob Myers and his staff found a way to clear enough cap space to sign Andre Iguodala and get far below the tax. They immediately turned the Iggy deal into a sign-and-trade, a magic trick that kept them over the cap and netted Golden State the full midlevel — which they then used on Marreese Speights and Toney Douglas.
Tack on a minimum deal for Jermaine O'Neal, unfortunately coming without Phoenix's warlock training staff, and you've got a very nice bit of cap gymnastics. The Warriors should be flexible enough next summer to re-sign Andrew Bogut and add another part via the full midlevel. The price: two first-round picks likely to fall late in the draft, two second-round picks, and the fun challenge of integrating Iguodala into a crowded wing rotation. The front line is an injury away from disaster, but the same is true for most teams. The Dubs are in good shape going forward, though "good shape" might still amount to a sixth seed in the West.
Portland Trail Blazers
It's nothing grand, but this is what you do when you can't lure big free agents (Millsap, Splitter, Roy Hibbert) from other teams: Use your cap space to swipe assets from teams that need to cut money (Thomas Robinson), and/or play the same role to snag something as the third team in what had been a two-team deal (Robin Lopez). Toss in a solid draft and the cheapo signing of Dorell Wright, and Portland projects as a playoff contender with a clean cap sheet after 2014-15.
Took Giant Steps Back — for Better or Worse
Not much to this: Utah let two free agents walk. It has been popular to criticize Utah for failing to deal Al Jefferson or Millsap at the trade deadline, but they would have done so if they could have gotten a first-round pick — or some other upside asset — without taking on any long-term salary. The better argument is to look back a year, when Utah had more leverage and other teams would have looked at both bigs as useful assets for at least one more season. The Jazz have also caught heat for reaching the league's minimum team salary by acquiring $24 million worth of players (Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush) who won't help them win many games — all for the right to snare four draft picks, including two first-rounders, from the Warriors. This is called "being bad on purpose."
Utah's young, four-man core is better than solid considering their collective age, and the Jazz should actually improve on defense by giving more minutes to the Derrick Favors–Enes Kanter pairing. But if Gordon Hayward is your no. 1 option on offense, you're on track for a bottom-five ranking in points per possession and a ton of losses in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
They are, quite intentionally, in the running for the league's worst record. They don't have a coach, they barely have half a roster, and they traded their best player (Jrue Holiday) for a lottery big man who may not play more than a couple of months this season. Depending on Jason Richardson's health and age-related decline, Spencer Hawes may be the third-best player on this team. Please read that again. Lavoy Allen might take the no. 5 spot by de-fault (the two sweetest words in the English language). The Carlton Banks Dance Cam might be the best reason to attend a Sixers game next season.
What Philly does have: a long-term plan, two potential lottery picks in a stacked draft as well as the two guys they just acquired in June's draft, a whip-smart new GM (Sam Hinkie) capable of executing that vision, and an ownership group ready to support Hinkie over the long haul.
Projections for this team among league executives are all over the place. Some are bullish on the Nuggets as a surefire playoff team, citing Denver's (regular-season) home-court advantage and the youth and athleticism of the roster left over from last year's 57-win speed machine. Others are worried about the team's first trip to the lottery since it drafted Carmelo Anthony in 2003.
Count me among the pessimists. This was a below-average defensive team before Iguodala arrived; Iguodala is now gone, and there isn't a stable big-man defender among the Kenneth Faried–J.J. Hickson–JaVale McGee trio. Darrell Arthur will help in that regard, but following the Arthur–Kosta Koufos trade by giving Hickson the full midlevel exception was curious. Ty Lawson may find himself with a smidgen too much responsibility on offense until Danilo Gallinari returns from a knee injury.
And then there's the great unknown: Brian Shaw is a first-year head coach following an offensive genius who put a deep, personal imprint on this team. The pieces remain here for an ultra-athletic, up-tempo offense, especially with Nate Robinson now locked in as a bench scorer (in a move that may also turn Professor Andre Miller, PhD, into a trade asset), but it's unclear if Shaw wants to play that style.
There are a lot of unknowns here, and with the team set to be capped out until the summer of 2016, new GM Tim Connelly — universally respected around the league — has a tough job ahead.
Los Angeles Lakers
Oh boy, was there a lot of Lakers schadenfreude among rival execs in Las Vegas — and a lot of confusion about why the Lakers are bothering with Chris Kaman/Nick Young types instead of going into full-blown tank mode.
I keep hearing from L.A. fans assuring me this is a playoff team. Really? Take a look at the Western Conference: The Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Warriors are locks, barring catastrophic injuries. That's six spots. Denver still lurks, Portland fattened up its bench, Minnesota and New Orleans are both going for it, and Dallas has shown it's hard to win fewer than 40 games with a healthy Dirk Nowitzki and even a so-so supporting cast.
News flash, Lakers fans: Kobe is coming off one of the worst late-career injuries a player can suffer, and this defense was a giant sieve anytime Howard hit the bench last season. This looks like a lottery team banking on free agency for salvation, only it's not quite bad enough to get true lottery value.
A decent number of folks see Boston as a candidate for the no. 7 or no. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference, provided Rajon Rondo starts the season on time to run an offense that looks incapable of creating a single quality shot without him. Boston could build a top-10 defense around Rondo, Avery Bradley, the corpse of Gerald Wallace, and the combination of league-average big men on hand. That alone might be enough to drag the Green to the pathetic win total typically required to snag the East's last playoff spot.
But that is not the outcome Boston really wants, and if the Celtics find themselves on pace for it midseason, look for them to trade a productive veteran or two. This was a miserable offensive team when Rondo had Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen around him, and it's going to be downright unwatchable on that end for large chunks of this season.
But the Celtics are not about this season. They're about the future, with a bright young head coach (Brad Stevens), three unprotected first-rounders from Brooklyn, and one from the Clippers. Boston is banking on at least one of those picks — Brooklyn's in either 2016 or 2018 — turning into a lottery selection as the Nets age, but that might be a 50-50 chance at best, since the Nets might remain decent by trading for everyone's unwanted long-term contracts.
Generating Bad Buzz
New York Knicks
The Bargnani trade wasn't so bad in pure basketball terms. He doesn't rebound or defend, but the Knicks had zero resources to sign any quality players beyond their own (injured) free agents. Bargnani could fit well with the Carmelo Anthony–Tyson Chandler pairing, perhaps without compromising the general "Melo at power forward" structure that made New York so potent last season. The Knicks can mimic that structure even with Melo as the nominal "small forward" by playing a true stretch power forward — a second big man who does very little but spot up behind the 3-point arc. In that alignment, Melo can go to the block against a smaller wing player with Bargnani dragging a big man far from the rim, much as Melo did with smaller lineups when opponents hid one of their big men on Jason Kidd or Iman Shumpert.
But New York is going to blow away the luxury tax again, and the ability of both Amar'e Stoudemire and Anthony to terminate their deals and enter free agency next summer will likely result in a double blow for New York — Anthony opting out and commanding a $100 million–plus max contract as he approaches his 30th birthday, and Stoudemire opting in for 2014-15 at the laughable price of $23.4 million.
The Knicks need an absolutely indestructible season from Chandler to survive on defense with all the minuses around him. For now, they project as the fifth-best team within a very clear top five in the Eastern Conference. They'll be waiting, of course, on the next in-his-prime star to either hit free agency or force a trade to New York, but the latter route is tougher under the new CBA, and it's hard to see the next such wave of players beyond Love and Aldridge.5
The most common question NBA execs put to me during spitballing sessions in Vegas: What the heck are the Mavericks doing? After filling the roster with expiring contracts last season, the Mavs handed out pricey multiyear deals to Calderon and Monta Ellis and shorter/cheaper deals to Samuel Dalembert and Devin Harris (whose three-year, $9 million deal had to be canceled earlier this month because of a toe injury, but which will likely be re-signed soon with the same terms).
None of this is terribly damaging long-term. Dallas has $34 million coming off the books after this season in Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Vince Carter, and if Nowitzki really is willing to take a giant pay cut, the Mavs could have max-level cap space again next summer once they clear his massive cap hold and re-sign him to a smaller number.
But they could have had almost a completely clean slate had they not committed nearly $16 million combined to Calderon and Ellis — the former a defense-less distributor on the wrong side of 30, the latter a defense-less chucker who undermines his own clever passing skills by jacking up terrible shots. Both will get a bump in efficiency from running pick-and-rolls with Nowitzki, and Dalembert provides the best rim protector Dallas has had since letting Chandler walk.
The Mavs will be a strong contender for 40-plus wins and one of the Western Conference's final playoff spots, and tanking is clearly not an option for this ownership. But it's hard to see a way out from there, barring a rare free-agency win.
The second-most common question executives put to me in Las Vegas: "Man, how much do you hate this city? Can we move summer league?" Third might have been some variation of, "Is it true Daryl Morey is flying here just to compete in that charity Ping-Pong tournament Warren LeGarie hosts every year?"6
But a strong no. 4 was: "What is up with the Bucks? Are they aware they have 19 centers and two wing players?" Yes. Yes, they are. Milwaukee views Zaza Pachulia as a legit backup center — a well-rounded enforcer who can teach the young bucks (sorry) the required physicality and the little tricks about interior passing and sneaking in for offensive boards.
But signing him to a three-year, $15 million contract was strange, given the number of big men already on the roster before amnestying Drew Gooden — one of the NBA's great recent tragedies, at least in terms of missed comedic opportunity. Milwaukee before the J.J. Redick–Tobias Harris trade was on course to build a very nice team from within: Keep the young guys around, sign-and-trade Ellis for whatever you can get (including just second-round picks, if need be), play hardball with Jennings, and stay lean going forward while filling out the wing with Harris and other cheap parts.
The Redick deal cost them two assets — Harris, and then Redick, for whom the Bucks managed to recoup two second-round picks. That's poor asset management. They're probably overvaluing O.J. Mayo at $8 million per season, but at least he's in his prime at a position of severe need.
The Bucks' cap sheet isn't so bad going forward after amnestying Gooden and trading Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to Sacramento. They'll be right around the cap next summer if they re-sign Jennings at market value and give LARRY SANDERS! something close to the max extension he'll want soon, and they could have significant space if they let Jennings walk. Flexibility would have come earlier without Pachulia and Mayo.
The other potential path: Tank, baby, tank! Let all the perimeter guys go and brick your way to a top-five pick in the best draft in years! But Herb Kohl, the owner of the team, has always prioritized staying competitive, and GMs generally listen to their bosses.
The Kings took on $10.9 million of "good guy" salary in signing Carl Landry and dealing two second-round picks for Mbah a Moute, part of a larger plan to surround DeMarcus Cousins with positive role models as Boogie enters the last season of his rookie deal. Call me crazy, but I wouldn't be thrilled about contemplating a max contract for a player entering his fourth season if one of the first thoughts to enter my head during said contemplation were, "OH MY GOD, WE HAVE TO GET VERY MATURE AND NICE PEOPLE AROUND THIS GUY, BECAUSE HE IS INSUFFERABLE."
But there's not a ton of harm here. The Landry/Fresh Prince money was going to go somewhere, and it's possible the Kings dodged a cap-clogging bullet by not giving it to Tyreke Evans. Sacramento could in theory have had max-level cap room next summer by avoiding multiyear deals this summer, but it was going to be tough making that theory into a reality, and it's not as if Sacto has been a hot destination for free agents.
In any case, the Kings are going to be pretty lean after the 2014-15 season, though they may have to unload one of their many power forwards (Landry, Jason Thompson, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson) for very little in return at some point. They should still be bad enough this season to get into the derby for a top-five pick, and their long-term picture hasn't budged much in either direction. It will be tougher to snag a future asset by acting as an in-season salary dumping ground this year, but that's one of the trade-offs in NBA team-building.
Paying Al Jefferson $14 million per season is ludicrous, but you can understand Charlotte's reasoning. Charlotte must prove itself as a viable free-agency destination, and that's impossible while flirting with "Worst Team Ever" status every season. Splurging on Big Al's flat-footed nondefense might be the perfect way to regain some relevance, transform into a run-of-the-mill bad team instead of a headline-grabbing embarrassment, and stay bad enough to try the top-five lottery gods one last time. Jefferson's is the only long-term nonrookie deal on the books, so it's not as if that contract is holding Charlotte back from future spending.
He may hold back the development of Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeffery Taylor, Cody Zeller, and others by monopolizing the ball on the way to 29 wins, but if that's the only real damage here, we can all just move on.
Generating Divided Opinions and/or Excited Anxiety
Brooklyn really deserves its own category, because the Nets are generating some toxic combination of animosity, jealousy, and giddy anticipation of a looming franchise apocalypse. Brooklyn has to make the pieces fit, both on the court and in the locker room, where there is a bit of anxiety over how the happy-go-lucky Brook Lopez will mesh with the new screaming maniac from Boston. But these aren't last year's Lakers, no matter how badly rival executives wish that to be the case.
Those Lakers, another on-paper juggernaut, went four deep before a falloff to subreplacement players. This team will have five legit All-Star-level starters, with Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche, Jason Terry, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic, and more coming off the bench. They will be a 50-plus win team, and likely better, just by showing up.
They aren't favorites, and they may well finish behind Chicago, Miami, and Indiana. But if Kevin Garnett can get through the season healthy, people are underselling this team's chances at making real noise. Again: Miami has been on the ropes in each of the last three seasons, and the Nets were a top-10 offense before exchanging the Brick Machine Formerly Known as Gerald Wallace for three ex-Celtics who should do well in supporting roles. Garnett holds the key to transforming a so-so defense, and if he can work some of his old magic, the Nets will be a very dangerous team. They'd better be, because they've mortgaged their future to assemble this roster.
New Orleans Pelicans
Covered at length here. Executives are both curious about the team's new six-man nucleus and skeptical that this group can take New Orleans over the mountaintop. The Pellies are betting on a lot of things, but the most important big-picture wager is on a 20-year-old Anthony Davis developing into one of the league's five best players. Most executives agree that is a good bet. But will he get to that level at the right time for this group?
The rest of the Pelicans' core is 25 or younger, so they can grow together to some degree, even though the age gap between Davis and the rest of them is meaningful. And the Pellies will surely explore moving both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon — anyone but Davis, really — if they decide this core won't be good enough to compete for a ring.
One caveat that has become a bit clearer over the last couple of weeks: It's possible the Pelicans could have nabbed their "good starting point guard" type by aggressively chasing Teague or Jennings in free agency (essentially using the Tyreke Evans salary slot) instead of trading two picks for Holiday. Holiday is a better two-way player than those guys, but he came at a very high price.
Mostly covered here, since the Wolves haven't done much since that post, and they are a 99.9999 percent bet to re-sign Pekovic at a fair number. They're going to be a playoff threat and impossible to guard with all the shooting they've added, but it's hard to see a top-10 defense emerging from their roster. The team is going to be capped out for each of the next two summers, with two tricky paths to short-term flexibility: a major trade and/or the loss of Love. The Wolves as constituted need Ricky Rubio to emerge as one of the three or four best point guards in the league in order to realistically contend for a title in the next three to four years, and that's a riskier bet than the one New Orleans has made with Davis.
Covered at length here. Executives have mostly panned the Josh Smith signing, and as I made clear in that piece, some of that criticism has probably gone overboard. Giving Greg Monroe the max contract he'll want next summer (or the max extension he wants now) makes even rival execs queasy — and it should — and the Pistons still have a lot of moves to make going forward. Smith's contract doesn't impair their flexibility in going about those moves, and he's a quality piece.
Stood Pat/Tanking Division
Rob Hennigan, the team's second-year GM, is all about creating the right culture in Orlando, which is why he spends manageable money on "good guy" veterans (Jameer Nelson, Jason Maxiell) in deals that confuse colder, more calculating executives. Remember: This team was 12-13 before Glen Davis suffered a season-ending injury, and they were blitzing people with the Nelson–Arron Afflalo–Redick–Davis–Nikola Vucevic lineup. Could they duplicate that by slotting Maurice Harkless or Tobias Harris into Redick's slot in that group?
Probably not, since both are young, without anything close to Redick's outside shooting or understanding of defensive schemes. The rest of the roster is almost totally unproven, and the Magic will continue listening to offers for Afflalo and other veterans.
Stood Pat/Actually Trying Division
This is a placeholder year for the champs — an attempt to see if they can squeeze one more title from this roster before literally every player on it hits free agency, retires (a real option for Shane Battier and Ray Allen), or contemplates some sort of option for 2014-15. Miami has faced elimination in all three seasons of the Big Three era, and when you're on the brink, the margin between glory and disaster is thin; it'll feel the loss of Mike Miller, especially if Dwyane Wade is limited again in the postseason. This is especially true if the Heat don't get an uptick from one of their younger players (Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers, the promising James Ennis). The "mini" midlevel exception, reserved for taxpayers, brought them zippo quality players this summer after netting Battier and Allen in the prior two years — a roster-building risk of spending big.
Uncertainty looms after June 2014. But you can bet on this: The Heat aren't going to be passive about LeBron's potential free agency. They won't promise him the same aging and top-heavy roster — they'll be bold, with lots of contingencies in the air.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs had a chance to be bold by renouncing Splitter, opening up a ton of cap space, and signing a new big-name rotation player — likely a big man — with more pop to his game. They went the other route, indicating that they either preferred Splitter or concluded that they couldn't get the one or two assets they wanted. Oh well.
They split the midlevel on Marco Belinelli and Jeff Pendergraph, seeing the latter as a potential two-way contributor who didn't get enough time with the Pacers — a decision that was tough for Frank Vogel, and not universally popular within the Indiana organization. (You can probably count the tight-lipped Spurs among those grumbling over the Kirilenko deal, since they tried hard to work a sign-and-trade with the Wolves after learning — as other teams say they also tried — that Kirilenko would not sign for the midlevel exception.)
There were more alluring paths out there, but this team was a few seconds from the title, it has a fluent corporate knowledge, and it has enough pieces on the rise to counteract Tim Duncan's inevitable (at some point … I think) decline.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Hey, remember these guys? They're still awesome. They'll miss Kevin Martin's shooting and chemistry with Nick Collison off the bench, but those things are always less important in the postseason, when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will play damn near every meaningful minute. The Thunder are about $1.4 million under the tax line, which means the full midlevel exception was never really in play. They could slide about $1 million further under the line by waiving one or two nonguaranteed guys (Hasheem Thabeet, Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins), meaning they could nab an extra shooter — Mike Miller, perhaps — without incurring a big tax bill.
The use of the amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins's bloated $8.7 million deal would have helped in the search for wing depth, since the Thunder could easily find a minimum-salary replacement who could do 90 percent of whatever it is Perkins does. But the Thunder view Perk as a crucial locker-room voice, and so here he stays.
Continued development from Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and Perry Jones should soften the impact of Martin's loss. Bottom line: We should still view this bunch as among the three or four favorites for the title.
The Grizzlies did most of their work last season, when they dealt Speights and Gay ahead of the trade deadline, freeing them to re-sign Tony Allen without hitting the tax line.7 They haven't been able to find the wing shooter they so badly need; the best ones ended up outside their price range, and even cheapies like Anthony Morrow and Wayne Ellington got multiyear guarantees the Grizz — at the edge of next year's tax already — decided they couldn't afford. So they're left to tweak around the edges, hoping for internal improvement (Tony Wroten, anyone?), and perhaps a dash of unexpected oomph from Nick Calathes or a potential last-minute minimum signing such as Jack Cooley.
The Grizz probably still don't have enough scoring to emerge from the Western Conference, but they'll be a giant pain in the ass — again.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a hair better outside shooter than Marco Belinelli, and he has the size (if not the speed and athleticism at this point) to more easily shift between wing positions on defense. The rest is about health and internal development, the latter mostly via Jimmy Butler. This team is a legit title contender if it's walking in June, and Tom Thibodeau could help by easing the playing-time loads from "insane" to "reasonable."
Re-signing David West was a must, since the Pacers would otherwise not have had the cap flexibility to fill his spot with a player of similar quality. C.J. Watson is a giant upgrade over D.J. Augustin, but effectively swapping Tyler Hansbrough for Chris Copeland is a gamble on the prominence of shooting. Copeland is 29 and a defensive liability, and the Pacers will feel that downgrade on defense if Copeland ever has to play extended minutes at power forward. They are banking on Roy Hibbert duplicating his 2013 postseason form — a ton of minutes, great conditioning, minimal foul trouble.
The Wiz probably enter the season as the favorite among teams chasing the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, and with some help and luck, they could push Atlanta for the no. 6 spot. This was a clear playoff team with both John Wall and Nene on the court, and the organization is confident Nene will finally be ready for a normal minutes load this season. They re-upped Martell Webster at a fair rate, and that signing gives them flexibility with Trevor Ariza on the trade market. Eric Maynor is better equipped than anyone Washington had last season to keep things afloat in the event of a Wall injury, and the long-term cap picture gets very sunny once the hideous Ariza–Emeka Okafor combo expires.
Whew. That's our best read on all 30 teams as we we enter the NBA's dead zone. Let's hope no one gets injured in international competition, and here's to a thrilling 2013-14 campaign.