Offseason In Review Rumors

Offseason In Review Series

December 9 at 7:11pm CST By Eddie Scarito

Hoops Rumors has spent the past few weeks taking an in-depth look back at how each NBA franchise fared this past offseason. We covered all of the trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more as we examined the moves each team made over the last several months. These posts covered all of the activity that occurred from the end of the playoffs in June right up until the first jump ball on opening night.

Here is a team-by-team recap of the series:

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Central Division

Southeast Division

Western Conference

Northwest Division

Pacific Division

Southwest Division

Offseason In Review: Sacramento Kings

December 8 at 11:00am CST By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

Trades

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

  • Nik Stauskas (Round 1, eighth overall). Signed via rookie scale exception to rookie scale contract.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

Three players averaged more than 20 points per game for the Kings last season, and while it seemed Sacramento didn’t mind losing one of them this summer, the team focused an inordinate amount of attention on keeping another. The Kings made a hard push and an elaborate presentation to Rudy Gay in hopes that he would opt in for this season, one in which he’s making more than $19.317MM. The team put an unusual amount of effort into ensuring that a player who’s talented but less than a superstar would be on the books for a salary usually reserved for the NBA’s truly elite. It was yet another sign of owner Vivek Ranadive’s faith in a player whom the analytics community had roundly criticized and who was playing some of the most inefficient ball of his career at the time of the trade that brought him from Toronto to Sacramento a year ago. Ranadive and GM Pete D’Alessandro made trading for Gay one of their first priorities when they took their respective posts during the 2013 offseason, and since they accomplished that, Gay has proven the Kings wise with increased efficiency and production in numbers both simple and arcane.

Rudy Gay (vertical)Gay picked up his player option, but Sacramento’s ultimate plan was to secure him for a longer period of time. Talks started and stopped over the summer, but the Octagon Sports client finally signed an extension in the season’s first month that will keep him under the control of the Kings through 2016/17, with a player option for 2017/18. The now 28-year-old small forward will make salaries more in line with his market value on the extension after his lucrative payday this year. Gay will see an average of more than $14.829MM over four years, taking both the opt-in and the extension into account and assuming he once more opts in with the Kings in 2017. That’s not cheap, by any means, but it slots him second behind DeMarcus Cousins in the team’s salary structure, mirroring the pecking order on the court. It also gives Sacramento the chance to enter 2016 with Cousins and Gay locked in and max-level cap flexibility to go with them, though there are plenty of variables the team will have to resolve between now and then.

One of those variables won’t involve Isaiah Thomas, whom the Kings removed from the equation when they saw him off to the Suns with a sign-and-trade deal. D’Alessandro and company seemingly ensured they wouldn’t be bringing Thomas back when they struck a deal with fellow point guard Darren Collison, as Thomas later said he felt like that move was a signal that the Kings were pushing him out the door. In any case, Thomas and the Suns did the Kings a favor, perhaps to ensure that Sacramento wouldn’t match Phoenix’s offer for the restricted free agent, when they agreed to make it a sign-and-trade rather than a straight signing. That allowed the Kings to come away with a trade exception worth nearly $7.239MM, one of the largest still-valid exceptions in the league. It’s far too valuable for the Kings to let it go unused, particularly given D’Alessandro’s propensity for trades, even if he’s holding off on any moves for the time being.

The Kings committed nearly their entire $5.305MM exception to Collison’s starting salary for this year, wisely leaving a sliver just large enough to tack a third year onto Eric Moreland‘s contract for the rookie minimum, thus giving Sacramento greater power to retain Moreland. The outlay for Collison, coupled with the Gay opt-in, nonetheless left the Kings in a salary crunch that would influence much of the rest of their offseason.

Collison had spent 2013/14 making just $1.9MM while rehabilitating his value with the Clippers. He started 56 of the 66 games the Pacers played during the lockout-shortened 2011/12 season, helping the team to a 42-24 mark, but he lost his job to George Hill for the playoffs, and Indiana traded Collison the following summer to the Mavs. The former 21st overall pick cratered in his year in Dallas, where he watched 37-year-old Mike James start ahead of him by season’s end. So it was off to the Clippers last year, and the BDA Sports Management client proved his worth as a backup and injury replacement for Chris Paul, just as Collison had done as a rookie when he and Paul were teammates in New Orleans. Collison has been stuck between starting and the bench for much of his career, so the Kings have to hope that as the 27-year-old enters his prime, they’ll benefit from his best work.

Ultimately, Collison is paid like an upper-tier backup on the mid-level deal, so the price is right, and just low enough for the Kings to avoid crossing the luxury tax threshold. Giving Thomas the same deal he received from the Suns would have put the Kings in tax territory, though backloading that Thomas contract rather than frontloading it would have allowed the Kings to have paid him the same money while just barely ducking the tax line. Still, Sacramento wouldn’t have had the space available beneath the tax for Omri Casspi, as the Kings were able to scrape together just enough for a one-year offer for the minimum salary. Casspi is playing 18.6 minutes a night for the Kings with a new offensive game that relies much less on three-point shooting and more on scoring in the paint. His PER to 16.9, 3.8 points better than his previous career high.

The Kings afforded themselves the chance at more slightly more breathing room beneath the tax when they pulled off a trade that sent Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw to the Knicks for Wayne Ellington and Jeremy Tyler. The exchange of salaries itself lessened Sacramento’s payroll by only about $196K, and Tyler’s non-guaranteed salary was $33K greater than Acy’s non-guaranteed pay, so the Kings gained slightly more flexibility in that regard, too. They also saved about $76K more when they used the stretch provision to waive Ellington instead of doing the same with Outlaw. Yet perhaps the most important benefit that the Knicks trade gave the Kings was the removal of the protection on the 2016 second-round pick that Sacramento later used to sweeten the pot in the trade that sent Jason Terry and his salary of more than $5.85MM to Houston. The Kings received only non-guaranteed salaries in that exchange and promptly waived them to pocket the savings.

D’Alessandro used some of that extra wiggle room beneath the tax line to ink Ramon Sessions and Ryan Hollins, strengthening the Kings’ bench. The addition of Sessions, to whom Sacramento committed its biannual exception, seems particularly key, since it gives the Kings a measure of insurance in case Collison fails to prove worthy of the starting job. Sessions, too, has floated between starting and reserve roles, but he played well down the stretch last season for the Bucks, and it wasn’t long ago that his 2012 trade deadline acquisition was to have given the Lakers the missing piece they lacked for another title run.

Still, the decision the Kings had to make with the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft was perhaps as important as any in front of the team this offseason, aside from what to do with Gay. Thus, it’s perplexing to have seen Sacramento use a lottery selection on a shooting guard for the second straight year. The Kings immediately pledged their support for Ben McLemore, last year’s pick, after seemingly drafting Nik Stauskas as his replacement this year and in spite of a draft-night report that indicated that Sacramento and the Celtics were in talks about a potential trade involving McLemore. The seventh overall pick from 2013 has proven the Kings wise to have hung onto him, as he’s shooting much better from just about every point on the floor than he did in his rookie season, according to Basketball-Reference. That appears to have come at the cost of playing time for Stauskas, who’s yet to find his shooting stroke amid just 13.1 minutes per night. Sacramento risks stunting his growth, lowering his trade value, or both if it can’t give him either more playing time or a new home.

The Kings are still a work in progress two offseasons into the Ranadive-D’Alessandro era. They secured Cousins, their superstar, last year on a long-term extension that’s already paying dividends as he continues to mature on and off the court. They acquired Gay, watched him become a top-flight complement to Cousins, and this year made sure that he, too, would be around for the long term. There are a few signs of hope elsewhere on the roster, one that nonetheless includes too many players who are either poor fits or not skilled enough to contribute significantly to a playoff-caliber team. Sacramento’s optimism appeared misplaced when the team entered the regular season with the intention of competing for a playoff spot in the rugged Western Conference, but more than a month in, the Kings are in the thick of the race for the eighth seed. There’s a long way to go in this season and an even longer road ahead in Sacramento’s journey to relevance in the title picture, but the Kings are making progress.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

Offseason In Review: Los Angeles Clippers

December 3 at 8:35pm CST By Eddie Scarito

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

  • C.J. Wilcox (Round 1, 28th overall). Signed via rookie exception to rookie scale contract.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

It would be logical to think it would be a given that a team that notched a franchise-record 57 victories and advance to the conference semifinals would have quite a bit of momentum heading into the offseason. That’s especially true of a club that was returning the bulk of its core and seemingly only needed to make some minor roster tweaks in order to maintain its forward progress. But the last year’s Clippers were in a unique and thoroughly distressing spot. The Donald Sterling scandal hit during the playoffs and threatened to derail the entire franchise, and it cast a pall over what the team had accomplished in recent years.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Detroit PistonsSterling, the league’s longest-tenured owner prior to his ouster, set off a league-wide chain of events when his racist remarks were revealed during the team’s first-round series against Golden State. The shocking comments almost led the players to walk off the court during the series. But commissioner Adam Silver, in his first major test in his new position, swooped in and issued a lifetime ban to Sterling. While the litigation is ongoing regarding his departure and sale of the team, the franchise largely moved on after months of turmoil when it sold for a record price of $2 billion to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer immediately injected a breath of fresh air into the “other team” in Los Angeles, and he arrives with a seeming willingness to spend whatever it takes to win, in direct contrast to Sterling. Ballmer also brought a fresh batch of enthusiasm to the franchise. Ballmer’s arrival quelled any talk of Doc Rivers departing, which would have been a devastating blow to the franchise and might have led to discord among the team’s players, many of whom are extremely loyal to Rivers. It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise when Ballmer gave the coach/executive a new contract worth more than $50MM over the next five years shortly after closing on his purchase of the team. The deal was well-earned, since Rivers essentially held the Clippers organization together during those difficult weeks that followed the TMZ report which outed Sterling’s comments. He’s one of the game’s best ambassadors and a true class act.

Rivers’ job title also received an upgrade from senior vice president of basketball operations to president of basketball operations. Kevin Eastman, who served as an assistant coach with the Clippers last season and had been with Rivers as an assistant for the past nine years, moved into the role of vice president of basketball operations, where he’ll serve under Rivers. Dave Wohl became the team’s GM after working as the team’s director of professional scouting last season, giving the Rivers yet more front-office assistance while he’s focusing on his coaching duties.

The revamped front office staff was given the task of finding the right complementary pieces to address the team’s two most glaring weaknesses — perimeter defense and outside scoring. An inability to stop Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had led to the downfall of the Clippers in their playoff series versus the Thunder last year. This isn’t an issue that was unique to the Clippers, as both of those players are more than a handful for even the stoutest defenses. But if the Clips dreamed of playing in the NBA Finals, they needed to improve markedly. The team’s offseason additions did little to help the Clippers toward that goal.

The Clippers’ weakest position in terms of talent is at small forward, where the gritty Matt Barnes returns as the starter. Barnes offers toughness and hustle, two vital skills that would be more valuable if he were a reserve. Paul Pierce was mentioned in connection with the Clippers during the summer, and he seemed like a fit given his history with Rivers and desire to play for a contender. But the Nets wouldn’t play along in sign-and-trade talks, and Pierce chose to head to Washington and the easier route to the Finals in the East.

So, Rivers and company instead signed Chris Douglas-Roberts to a minimum-salary deal, and they gambled that Reggie Bullock, their 2013 first-rounder, could develop into a useful rotation piece. It hasn’t worked out thus far, considering the two players are averaging 5.0 points combined through the team’s first 16 contests. The Clippers do play small-ball quite often, which lessens the need for more production from the three-spot, but come playoff time, the Clippers will regret not better fortifying this position, unless they’re able to address the need via a trade prior to the February deadline. This isn’t a very likely scenario given that the team is hard-capped and less than $1MM beneath the $80.829MM threshold the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t allow them to cross, even if Ballmer would be willing to spend more.

The Clippers’ largest offseason outlay was the signing of Spencer Hawes via the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception. This is a move that I have extremely mixed feelings about. Hawes certainly can help address the franchise’s need for more outside scoring, and at 7’0″ he can play center as he does so. But Hawes is a luxury, and inking him to a four-year, $22.652MM deal when the team clearly had more important needs hardly seems wise. It’s not that I don’t believe Hawes is worth in excess of an average of $5.66MM per season, especially when compared to the more than $8.5MM annually that Channing Frye received from Orlando or Ryan Anderson‘s $8.5MM per year with the Pelicans. He’s just not the right fit for this Clippers squad considering the team’s cap position and shrinking window of contention. This is a contract that will weigh the team down and with a 15% trade kicker included, it won’t be an easy one to get off the books when Rivers and company come to their senses.

The free agent departure of Darren Collison, who inked a three-year, $15MM deal with the Kings, was the other offseason turning point that will significantly impact the Clippers’ title hopes. Collison declined his player option, and since the Clippers only held his Non-Bird rights, they could only pay Collison 120% of last season’s $1.9MM salary. The Clippers could have fit Collison into the mid-level exception that they instead used on Hawes, and that would have been a wiser move for the long term, especially given the efficiency that Collison displayed playing on a career-low 25.9 minutes per game last season.

The departure of Collison makes it two straight offseasons in which the Clippers lost an upper-tier reserve at the point, following the trade of Eric Bledsoe to the Suns a year prior. In this suddenly injury-heavy NBA, a strong backup point guard is a vital cog in any successful team. That’s especially so considering that Collison made 35 starts a season ago and kept the Clippers in the thick of the playoff race while Paul was in street clothes. Signing Jordan Farmar this summer to fill Collison’s spot is a less-than-inspiring move, and if Paul is forced to miss any significant time this season, it will probably knock the Clippers into a lower playoff seed, and in the difficult Western Conference, that portends an early playoff exit.

The Clippers would have been much better off to re-sign Collison, pass on Hawes, and focus on adding some much-needed rebounding and defense through minimum-salary deals or through trades. The Clippers are currently 29th in the league in rebounding (37.9 per game), and they are a middling 15th in points allowed (99.1 per game), which is not a winning formula long-term.

The Clippers only needed to make some minor tweaks this offseason, but the moves the front office executed can easily be second-guessed. A trip to the NBA Finals would prove me wrong, but I can’t help but feel that the team took a step back this summer. The Clippers must ask themselves if adding Hawes, Douglas-Roberts, and Farmar while subtracting Collison, Jared Dudley, and Ryan Hollins make the team better than the 57-win squad of a year ago. Any way I look at it, the answer is a resounding “no.” Unless one of the team’s role players has a career season or help arrives via trade, the Clippers won’t be raising their own title banner to the rafters of the Staples Center anytime soon.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post. Chuck Myron contributed to this post.

Offseason In Review: Phoenix Suns

December 3 at 2:15pm CST By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

Trades

  • Acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Kings in exchange for the rights to Alex Oriakhi. Thomas was signed-and-traded for four years, $27MM.

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

  • T.J. Warren (Round 1, 14th overall). Signed via rookie scale exception to rookie scale contract.
  • Tyler Ennis (Round 1, 18th overall). Signed via rookie scale exception to rookie scale contract.
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic (Round 1, 27th overall). Playing overseas
  • Alec Brown (Round 2, 50th overall). Unsigned.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

When last season began, many around the league reportedly expected the Suns would trade Goran Dragic before the 2014 trade deadline, in part because the Suns had acquired Eric Bledsoe to play point guard and in part because the team appeared to be rebuilding. Dragic instead enjoyed a career year and Phoenix never came close to letting him go during a 48-win season. Unbowed, Suns GM Ryan McDonough tripled down on point guards to team with Dragic for 2014/15, re-signing Bledsoe, signing-and-trading for Isaiah Thomas, and drafting Tyler Ennis, a collection of moves that few would have predicted.

Eric Bledsoe (vertical)The Suns made it clear long before the offseason began that they intended to keep Bledsoe in restricted free agency, threatening to match any offers for the Rich Paul client. That, coupled with a knee injury that limited him to just 43 games last year in his first season as a full-time starter, appeared to have the effect of scaring away would-be suitors, and Phoenix took advantage, holding the line on a four-year, $48MM offer through much of the summer. Bledsoe’s camp stewed, and he even put pen to paper on a qualifying offer that would have allowed him to hit unrestricted free agency in 2015 had he ever sent that signed QO back to the Suns. Phoenix explored all of its options, including a proposal to the Wolves that would have sent Bledsoe to Minnesota in a sign-and-trade in exchange for Kevin Love. Minnesota, already on the verge of closing on its deal to send Love to the Cavs, didn’t bite, but the Wolves later tried to engage the Suns on a different sign-and-trade idea that would have given Bledsoe the max he was seeking. This time, Phoenix was the team saying no, and soon thereafter, the Suns finally said yes on a deal to re-sign the 24-year-old, who shelved the qualifying offer for good.

The sides met roughly in the middle, with Phoenix granting Bledsoe a five-year, $70MM deal with average annual salaries of $14MM, or $2MM greater than their initial offer but almost $3MM less than Bledsoe would have received in a five-year max deal. The Suns absorbed the risks that the small sample size of Bledsoe as a starter wasn’t misleading and that his knee trouble won’t become a long-term issue in exchange for cost certainty as the salary cap escalates drastically in the years to come. There are no options in the arrangement, meaning Bledsoe is locked in through 2018/19. The Suns will have an elite point guard at a relative discount if he continues to develop.

They’ll also have another potent force at the position through 2017/18 thanks to their deal with Thomas, who felt jilted after the Kings refused to make him an integral part of their plans even after he put up 20.3 points per game for Sacramento last season. Thomas isn’t seeing nearly as many opportunities to score in Phoenix, and he won’t as long as the Suns backcourt is as crowded as it is. He’ll nonetheless make an average of about $6.75MM a year, better than mid-level money, to play in tandem with Bledsoe, Dragic and others, and that amount was enough for Phoenix to ward off a handful of other teams with interest, reportedly including the Mavs, Pistons, Heat and Lakers.

The Thomas deal went down nearly three months before the Suns re-signed Bledsoe, suggesting that perhaps the Suns viewed Thomas as insurance in case they couldn’t come to an agreement with Bledsoe. Thomas would have been wading into cluttered waters either way, given the presence of Dragic and Ennis, but as it is, the ex-King is an odd fit whose salary could become a complication if the Suns intend to lure other free agents to the warmth of the desert in the next few years.

Still, the Suns demonstrated plenty of times this past summer that they’re not averse to paying the sort of middle-tier salaries that other front offices avoid in favor of maximum-salary stars and minimum-salary role players. They committed money in the neighborhood of the mid-level exception to re-sign P.J. Tucker, who proved his worth as an outside shooter and strong rebounder for his size. They also handed out average annual values of $8MM and $4MM, respectively, to twins Markieff and Marcus Morris in rookie scale extensions, ensuring the former lottery picks who present matchup problems along the front line continue to do so for Phoenix. Their games don’t resemble each other’s as much as their faces do, as Markieff provides the rebounding and Marcus the three-point shooting. Neither is an elite talent, though both thrived in reserve roles last season that will change with the absence of Channing Frye, who bolted for Orlando.

It’s somewhat difficult to see why the Suns were willing to spend so liberally for mid-tier players but weren’t able to bring back Frye, who reeled in $32MM over four years from the Magic. That sort of salary wouldn’t have been particularly troublesome for a player whose inside-out game proved as effective as ever last season, even if the Magic turned a few heads when they shelled out that much for him. That’s particularly so in light of Phoenix’s willingness to shell out an average of $12MM annually for the Morrises.

Anthony Tolliver came in as a much cheaper alternative, and while he fits the profile of a stretch four, he hasn’t been able to stay on the floor much for the Suns, who’ve given him just 11.4 minutes per game so far. Still, at $3MM this season and with the vast majority of his salary for next season non-guaranteed, Tolliver represents a trade chip if coach Jeff Hornacek can’t carve out a more consistent role for him.

Playing time has been difficult to come by for the team’s 2014 lottery pick, too. Combo forward T.J. Warren has seen action in only seven games so far, rarely getting the chance to display the knack for scoring he honed at N.C. State. He was a bit of a stretch as a lottery pick, as Eddie Scarito of Hoops Rumors noted in his Prospect Profile, but at No. 18, the Suns came away with a point guard who for much of last season seemed destined to become a top 10 pick. The fortunes of Ennis stumbled down the stretch just as his Syracuse team did, but he was nonetheless a coveted prospect, and the Raptors were particularly keen on drafting the native of Ontario before the Suns got in the way. Phoenix used its third first-round pick on draft-and-stash prospect Bogdan Bogdanovic, who probably won’t be coming stateside until 2016, at the earliest.

The draft isn’t the only way the Suns used a European player to prepare for the future. The Suns brought Zoran Dragic from his Spanish team with a two-year guaranteed contract that will no doubt play on brother Goran Dragic’s mind next summer, when Goran has a $7.5MM player option. Goran Dragic unsurprisingly intends to turn that option down, and he seems prepared to test the market even though he’ll reportedly give the Suns the first swipe at him. The Rockets and Lakers have already been linked to him, and it appears that for a second straight summer, there will be some uncertainty about one of Phoenix’s elite point guards.

It’s nonetheless unlikely that those negotiations will drag on nearly as long as Bledsoe’s did, and the hard part of keeping the core of the roster intact is probably over for McDonough. Now, the even more difficult task of taking a playoff contender and turning it into a title contender looms. Regardless of how or whether the Suns get to that point under his leadership, this past offseason is further evidence that the GM is unafraid to cut an unconventional path to make it there.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

Offseason In Review: Los Angeles Lakers

December 2 at 1:31pm CST By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

  • Acquired 2014 pick No. 46 from the Wizards in exchange for $1.8MM cash.
  • Acquired Jeremy Lin, Houston’s 2015 first-round pick (lottery-protected), and the Clippers’ 2015 second-round pick if it falls anywhere from 51st through 55th from the Rockets in exchange for the rights to Sergei Lishchuk.

Waiver Claims

Draft Picks

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

  • None

In October 2012, just as the Lakers were beginning their sudden and shocking descent into also-ran status, Lakers co-owner and executive VP of basketball operations Jim Buss said that he planned for the team to “make a big splash in the free agent market” in 2014. The belly flop that took place this year surely wasn’t what he had in mind. The Lakers never had a realistic shot to land LeBron James, and though they reportedly floated a max offer to Carmelo Anthony after meeting with him, ‘Melo’s top two choices were instead the Knicks, whom he eventually re-signed with, and the Bulls, who would have required him to take a sharp discount. Chris Bosh and Eric Bledsoe, two other marquee free agents to whom the Lakers were linked, never appeared close to wearing purple-and-gold. None of the 10 players in the 2014 Hoops Rumors Free Agent Power Rankings signed with the Lakers, even though they entered July with just four players under contract and loads of cap flexibility.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles LakersJulius Randle was poised at that point to become the fifth player on the Lakers roster, and though he’s lost for his rookie season with a broken leg, seemingly fate’s way of rubbing it in for a downtrodden franchise, the power forward nonetheless represents the promise of a brighter future. This year’s No. 7 overall pick was No. 2 behind only eventual top selection Andrew Wiggins in the rankings of both Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress and Chad Ford of ESPN.com when the season began last year. Randle failed to stand out quite as well as expected in his lone year at the University of Kentucky, but on a roster that’s always full of top-flight NBA prospects, that’s not altogether surprising. His size and strength give him a natural advantage on offense, and though his short arms will likely keep him from becoming a strong defender, he has the capacity to become a marquee player.

That won’t be for a while, however. He turned 20 just last week, and because of his injury, he won’t see the floor for the Lakers again until he’s nearing his 21st birthday. There will be a learning curve, to be sure, as well as an adjustment to playing again after such a long absence, so there’s a strong chance that the real Randle won’t emerge until 2016/17 at the earliest. Even the silver lining for the Lakers has gathered tarnish.

The Lakers drafted Randle and entered free agency without a coach, in part because the team wanted to be able to choose a coach to fit the roster, which was still largely a mystery. Still, it appeared unseemly that the job that Pat Riley and Phil Jackson had lifted to iconic status would be left open for so long, even if it was by design. Nevertheless, there was reason for the Lakers to take a deliberate approach to their choice after their hasty and unpopular decision to hire Mike D’Antoni early in the 2012/13 season, just weeks after firing Mike Brown and days after getting Jackson’s hopes up about a return. Jackson was off to the Knicks to serve as team president by the time D’Antoni resigned rather than coach 2014/15 on an expiring contract, so there was no chance at a do-over.

The Lakers interviewed Lionel Hollins, Mike Dunleavy and Alvin Gentry, and perhaps Kurt Rambis, too, though it was unclear whether Rambis, a Lakers assistant coach at the time, was given a formal interview. The team also considered George Karl but settled on Byron Scott, who had spent 13 years as an NBA head coach with the Nets, Pelicans (then Hornets) and Cavs. Scott had long ago forged a relationship with Kobe Bryant, mentoring Bryant when their playing careers overlapped as Lakers teammates in Scott’s final season and Bryant’s first. Scott began conversing with Bryant in coach-player terms even before the Lakers formally hired him on a four-year, $17MM deal with a team option on year four. D’Antoni’s tenure began with Bryant as an admirer of him, too, so there’s no guarantee that Scott and the star of the Lakers will always get along, but the lack of any rift at this point will help the emotional tenor of a team that faces an uphill battle nearly every night.

The Lakers didn’t make Scott’s job any easier when they lavished their most lucrative free agent contract of the summer on Nick Young. Most teams would do well to secure their leading scorer from the year before on a deal worth the rough equivalent of the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception, but Young’s production last year was one-dimensional. He put up 17.9 points but dished only 1.5 assists and grabbed 2.6 rebounds per game. His 16.0 PER represented the first time that the 16th overall pick from 2007 had put up a better-than-average number in that category. Young’s season was reminiscent of the one he delivered in 2010/11 for the Wizards, when he scored 17.4 PPG for a similarly moribund Washington team. That, too, was a walk year for Young, but the Wizards didn’t tether themselves to a long-term contract that next summer. Young signed the team’s qualifying offer, watched his production plummet after a midseason trade to the Clippers, and didn’t recoup his market value until parlaying a minimum-salary contract with the Lakers last season into this summer’s jackpot.

The outgoing personality of “Swaggy P” was made for Hollywood, and he’ll help the Lakers sell tickets and capture TV ratings as he and Bryant hoist jumpers from all over the floor and pile up inflated point totals, but he seems like a poor fit in any traditional basketball sense. Young has so far taken a back seat to Bryant after returning from a preseason thumb injury that caused him to miss the start of the regular season, and it’s worked to help the Lakers win more games than they had while Young was out. Yet it remains to be seen if he and Bryant can co-exist peacefully even though both prefer the ball in their hands.

The Lakers were otherwise conscious of preserving cap flexibility for next summer. Jordan Hill netted an above-market $9MM for this season, particularly so given that he was only a part-time starter last year, but the second year in his deal is a team option. Jeremy Lin comes in via trade with a nearly $8.375MM cap hit and an actual salary close to $15MM, but he’s on an expiring contract, and the Lakers netted a first-rounder in that transaction, even if it’s destined to come in the 20s, given Houston’s strong play. Ryan Kelly received a two-year deal, but his room exception salary is a pittance to pay for a young player with some degree of upside. The same is true of Ed Davis and his two-year, minimum-salary deal. All of the other Lakers signees are without any guaranteed money or player options past the 2014/15 season, leaving the team with only about $35.1MM in commitments for next season, not counting the player option for Davis.

Still, the acquisition of Carlos Boozer‘s expiring contract came with a high cost. The Lakers put up $3.251MM in an effort to ensure that they’d have the high bid on him in amnesty waivers, a process that functions much like a blind action. That amount meant the Lakers would have to cut salary to reopen the cap room necessary to make a few of their pending agreements official, and Kendall Marshall‘s non-guaranteed salary was the casualty. The Lakers waived the now 23-year-old 13th overall pick from 2012 even though he’d averaged 8.8 assists in 54 games for the team last season. D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense played a part in that assists number, to be sure, but it still seems odd for a rebuilding team to cut ties with a productive player who was just two years removed from having been a lottery pick. That goes double when it happens just so the team can accommodate a declining veteran like Boozer, who plays the same position as Randle, whom the Lakers had drafted just a few weeks prior. Milwaukee wisely picked Marshall off waivers, and the Bucks can match offers for him in the summer of 2015.

Such missteps have not been uncommon the past few years, but the Lakers rewarded GM Mitch Kupchak in large measure for his work during the team’s more decorated past with an extension that runs through at least 2016/17. Buss and Kupchak have promised Jeanie Buss, the ultimate decision-maker for the Lakers, that the team will pick up ground in the win column with each season to come, but that’ll be a tough vow to keep this season, even though the Lakers set the bar rather low with 27 victories in 2013/14. Jim Buss said in April that he’d step down from his role in charge of the team’s basketball operations in a few years if the team doesn’t bounce back, and that clock is ticking. The Lakers will always have inherent advantages, based on their history and geography, but they’ll have to do a better job of putting those to use if Buss and Kupchak are to keep their jobs much longer.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

Offseason In Review: Golden State Warriors

December 1 at 1:01pm CST By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

Trades

  • None

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

  • None

Camp Invitees

  • Aaron Craft
  • Jason Kapono
  • Sean Kilpatrick
  • James Michael McAdoo
  • Mitchell Watt

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

For a team without draft picks, cap space, or any members of its starting five entering free agency, the Warriors sure made some critical and potentially franchise-altering decisions this past offseason. A controversial coaching change, a steadfast commitment to Klay Thompson in failed trade talks with the Timberwolves about Kevin Love, and a near-maximum extension for Thompson only seemed to dial up the pressure to challenge for the title.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Detroit PistonsThe Warriors entered the playoffs in 2013 not having been to the postseason in six years and as an underdog in the first round against the 57-win Nuggets. They won that series and put a scare into the Spurs before succumbing in the next round, and since then, co-owner Joe Lacob’s expectations for the team have ratcheted up. Golden State won four more games in the regular season last year than it did the year before, but it didn’t improve its playoff seeding, and though the Warriors took the Clippers to seven games this past spring before falling in the first round without an injured Andrew Bogut, it didn’t save Mark Jackson‘s job. Jackson had presided over a rapid turnaround in his three seasons as Warriors coach, and he had forged a profound trust with his players, but he failed to get along with some of his assistant coaches and other key figures within the Warriors organization. He also reportedly made a play for other NBA head coaching jobs while still with Golden State. His ultimate shortcoming was in failing to convince Lacob that the team’s on-court performance and locker-room morale were strong enough to justify his continued employment, and the Warriors axed him.

That touched off a wide-ranging search for a replacement that at one point seemed to zero in on Stan Van Gundy, but by the time Golden State met with him, the Pistons had already spoken to him about the dual executive/coaching role he ultimately took on in Detroit. The Warriors were instead seeking a coach who would be just that and leave front office decision-making others. Somewhat curiously, they hired former Suns GM Steve Kerr, whose only experience is as an executive and not as a coach, though Kerr made it clear that he wanted to transition into coaching long before he hooked up with the Warriors, and he reiterated that after his hiring this year. Kerr agonized over choosing the Warriors instead of the Knicks, with whom he could have served under mentor Phil Jackson, but Kerr’s West Coast ties, and doubtlessly the vast gulf in talent between the Warriors and Knicks, proved too strong.

Kerr made it a point to win over Jackson supporters like Stephen Curry and others on the Warriors roster, and the team is off to a roaring start this season. Golden State’s 14-2 record also helps validate the team’s decision to keep Klay Thompson for this season and for the foreseeable future. There’s no guarantee that the Warriors would have wound up trading Thompson to the Wolves if they had been more willing to include him in proposals, particularly given how pleased Minnesota was with the package it received from the Cavs. The deal never would have been Love-for-Thompson straight up, since the salaries wouldn’t have matched, and a variety of other factors involving David Lee, Kevin Martin and Harrison Barnes complicated the discussions, as Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group chronicled.

The inertia didn’t itself guarantee a long-term future together for Thompson and the Warriors, since the fast-rising former No. 11 overall pick was extension-eligible and agent Bill Duffy was going after the max. Lacob vowed this past spring to strike a deal with Thompson, though it wasn’t clear whether he was talking about an extension or a new pact in restricted free agency during the summer of 2015. The owner apparently resisted giving Thompson $15MM salaries, amounts that the max will almost certainly entail. Thompson held firm, and other teams reportedly sniffed around as the extension deadline drew near to see if the Warriors were willing to change course and trade the 24-year-old, but the sides ultimately struck agreement on a pact with an unusual structure.

Thompson will get the max for a player of his experience in the first year of his extension next season, as long as that max doesn’t exceed the $15.5MM that it’s projected to hit, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe reported. It’s a compromise of sorts for both sides, though there’s a strong chance it won’t have wound up costing Thompson a penny if the max doesn’t come in higher than thought. The Warriors appear to have made the more significant concession, especially since the Thompson extension gives them nearly $78.8MM in commitments for next season, including Brandon Rush‘s minimum-salary player option. Former second-round pick Draymond Green wasn’t eligible for an extension even though he was entering the final season of his rookie contract, so he’ll hit restricted free agency in the summer. He’s poised to merit a sizable raise that would make it difficult for the Warriors to avoid the luxury tax should they keep him.

The Warriors figure to have little capacity to spend on upgrades next summer, but they took advantage of the full mid-level exception this year, inking Shaun Livingston months after he finished his strongest campaign since his catastrophic knee injury in 2007. He’s not the player he was before he got hurt, when the Clippers made him the fourth overall pick in 2004, but he was a vital part of a revival for the Nets after they started slowly last season, as his unusual combination of 6’7″ height and ball-handling proved troublesome for opponents. The Warriors struggled all of 2013/14 to fill the role that combo guard Jarrett Jack played in 2012/13 before he departed in free agency, so they outmaneuvered the Nets as well as the Heat, HornetsSpurs, Wolves and Kings in hopes that Livingston would fill that gap. A toe injury slowed him at the start, and he has barely played half as many minutes per game as Jack did in his season by the Bay, but there’s plenty of time left this year, and the Warriors have no need to press him for more, as well as they’ve played as a team.

In any case, the answer at point guard won’t be Nemanja Nedovic, even though Golden State is just a year and change removed from investing the last pick of the first round in him. The Warriors declined his third-year rookie scale option before the season and waived him shortly thereafter, eating only about half of his guaranteed salary for this season thanks to a buyout arrangement. The parting of ways was a somewhat troubling sign for the team, since it gave up $600K in cash and a second-round pick in an odd sequence of trades to acquire Nedovic on draft night in 2013, but, Jimmy Butler aside, late first-rounders often fail to become contributors, much less stars. The Warriors gave a vote of confidence to 2012 30th overall pick Festus Ezeli when they picked up his fourth-year option in October after an injury wiped out his sophomore season, so there’s still a chance that he’ll help the Warriors.

Regardless, this past offseason wasn’t about moves on the margins for Golden State. The Warriors made potentially franchise-altering decisions even though their core remains intact, and the onus is on that core to produce like never before. Lacob has every financial reason to affect significant change and avoid the tax next season, so the Warriors must show they’re close enough to winning a title to ensure that the team as constituted will continue to have chances to do so.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

Offseason In Review: Oklahoma City Thunder

November 30 at 10:09pm CST By Zach Links

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

  • Acquired 2014 pick No. 55 from the Hornets in exchange for cash.
  • Acquired the rights to Sofoklis Schortsanitis from the Hawks in exchange for Thabo Sefolosha (sign-and-trade), the rights to Giorgos Printezis, and cash.
  • Acquired Philadelphia’s 2015 second-round pick (top-55 protected) from the Sixers in exchange for Hasheem Thabeet and $100K cash.

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

Camp Invitees

  • Michael Jenkins
  • Richard Solomon
  • Talib Zanna

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

The Thunder may have been disappointed with the conclusion of their 2013/14 campaign, but they were impressive when taking everything in total.  OKC was without star guard Russell Westbrook for nearly half of the season and when the Thunder arrived in the playoffs, they staved off battle-ready teams in the Grizzlies and Clippers before succumbing to the Spurs in six games.  They nearly won 60 games and they were a stone’s throw from the Finals, but after years of being on the cusp, this team isn’t satisfied with moral victories.

Oklahoma City didn’t undergo an offseason overhaul, but that’s not to say that it didn’t make a real run at shaking things up.  The Thunder were one of several teams that went hard after veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller before he landed with LeBron James and the Cavaliers.  They were also hoping to land Pau Gasol, which would have been a monstrous boost to their frontcourt.  Just as the Spurs did, OKC went after the Spaniard with the hope that the allure of winning would help distract from an under-market contract offer.  Ultimately, however, Gasol found a chance to win with better compensation with the Bulls.  Kevin Durant gave it his best shot, but he couldn’t reel in Gasol.  “Obviously [it wasn’t] that close, [but] I did my work. That was my first time recruiting,” Durant said in July.

The Thunder had a few holes to fill over the summer. Backup point guard Derek Fisher left to coach the Knicks, Caron Butler moved on in free agency, and Thabo Sefolosha regressed sharply in 2013/14, ensuring his exit.  The Thunder couldn’t pull off a flashy signing like Gasol or Miller, so they had to dig a little deeper to reload their roster.

Oklahoma City badly needed outside shooting and its signing of the fearless Anthony Morrow made perfect sense.  On a three-year, ~$10MM contract, it’s hard to find fault with the deal given his long-distance acumen and the interest that he had from contenders around the league.  Heading into this season, Morrow had only 129 starts on his resume, but he has shown that he can make an impact with his ability to keep opposing defenses honest.  Unfortunately for the Thunder, he missed the first seven games of the regular season while healing from a sprained left MCL.

With Fisher out of the picture, the Thunder brought Brooklyn’s own Sebastian Telfair aboard to help soak up some of the backup minutes at the one guard.  At the time, the one-year, minimum salary deal seemed like an inexpensive solution to their problem, but things didn’t quite work out.  Just recently, the Thunder bid farewell to Telfair and instead opted to keep fellow point guard Ish Smith.

D-League notable Grant Jerrett was brought back on a four-year, minimum-salary deal with the final two seasons non-guaranteed.  For the time being, it seems like he’s going to remain a D-League staple, but that’s just fine for the Thunder, who aren’t banking on Jerrett to be a key cog this year.  Lance Thomas beat the odds to make OKC’s roster and the Thunder believe that they have found a gem in the former New Jersey high school star.  The Thunder carved out space for guys like Thomas by dumping Sefolosha and Hasheem Thabeet for table scraps, including the rights to Sofoklis “Baby Shaq” Schortsanitis.

The Thunder made moves to try and win a title in the here and now, but they also put a good amount of focus into the draft, where they made two surprising first round selections.  First, with the No. 21 overall pick, the Thunder drafted Michigan big man Mitch McGary. McGary decided to go pro early rather than face a one-year suspension and while there was fear that he wasn’t NBA-ready, the Thunder apparently had no such concerns.  McGary is still waiting to make his NBA debut after a strong performance in the summer league, but the Thunder must be optimistic about the impact he can make this season.

With the No. 29 pick, the Thunder made an even more surprising selection with Stanford forward Josh Huestis.  When Huestis spoke with Hoops Rumors prior to the draft, he projected as a mid-second round pick.  Huestis isn’t a tremendous athlete or a top-notch scorer, but he is a textbook hustle player and a super tough defender.  Huestis’ camp reached agreement on an unusual deal with the Thunder prior to the draft which ticketed him to play for Oklahoma City’s D-League affiliate in his first pro season.

The Thunder didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but then again, this has never been a team to really build with the open market.  Their quiet offseason may have raised some eyebrows, but the Thunder stand as one of the most fearsome teams in the West, when they’re healthy.  OKC has all of the answers in house. They just need them on the court.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

Offseason In Review: New Orleans Pelicans

November 29 at 1:03pm CST By Eddie Scarito

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

The Pelicans are a franchise on the rise thanks to the continued development of their centerpiece player, Anthony Davis. Davis showed remarkable improvement in every facet of his game last season, though his strides weren’t able to prevent New Orleans from notching its third straight losing campaign. The sky is the limit for the 21-year-old big man out of Kentucky, and he is posting MVP-like numbers thus far this season. Davis draws mention in debates about the best player in the league, and in a few short seasons he may be the first player who comes up in those conversations. But the Pelicans’ overall growth as a team the next couple of seasons will be limited by a number of questionable contracts that occupy their balance sheet.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio SpursOne of the Pelicans’ biggest weaknesses as a team is their outside shooting, and the wing is where two of their more questionable contracts happen to reside in the deals the team gave to Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. Neither player has come close to justifying his salary cap number, and it will be extremely difficult for New Orleans to take the next step forward until one or both can be removed from its balance sheet. Gordon’s making nearly $14.899MM this season with a player option for more than $15.514MM next year, while the deal for Evans runs through 2016/17 with salaries that range upward from this season’s more than $9.904MM.

The Phoenix front office is thanking its lucky stars that the Pelicans matched the offer sheet the Suns had inked Gordon to back in 2012. At the time it seemed like a wise move, since the then-23-year-old guard certainly appeared to be a star on the rise. But injuries and unhappiness with his surroundings have rendered him a shell of the player who averaged 22.3 points per game back in 2010/11. It is highly likely that New Orleans will be stuck with Gordon for one more season since he’ll almost certainly exercise his player option.

Barring a trade, Evans will also be occupying a healthy chunk of the team’s cap space for two more seasons beyond this one. The four-year, $44MM offer sheet that New Orleans had inked Evans to before working out a sign-and-trade deal with the Kings was ill-advised, seeing as how Evans’ scoring averages had dropped every season since his Rookie Of The Year campaign back in 2009/10. Evans hasn’t lived up to his contract, but there’s an easy argument to be made that he has provided exactly the production that should have been expected given his track record.

The Pelicans reportedly made Gordon and Evans available in trade talk this past summer, though there were some conflicting reports about whether that was the case with Evans. New Orleans won’t be able to surround Davis with the players needed to maximize his talent and to help the franchise break through in the challenging Western Conference while Gordon and Evans occupy roughly $26MM of cap space. Evans can still be a useful piece despite being overpaid, but Gordon’s deal is an albatross. Either of these two wings will be tough to deal thanks to their contracts, and the Pelicans would likely have to package draft picks and assets alongside either player in order to make a trade palatable to the other team, which presents long-term roster building issues of its own.

New Orleans’ most noteworthy offseason move was the deal that netted them Omer Asik from Houston, one that forced the Pelicans to overcome several obstacles to complete. It was a risky deal on the Pelicans’ part because they sent away a protected first-rounder for 2015, and Asik can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. I like the addition of Asik for basketball reasons since he’ll add rebounding and defense to a team that needed both, but with the Pelicans more than likely to convey that pick to the Rockets next spring, it puts added pressure on New Orleans’ front office to re-sign Asik. He’ll likely command an average annual salary in the $12MM to $14MM range, given his status as an elite defensive force, though that’s just my estimate. It would take up a hefty chunk of cap space, and coupled with player-friendly deals for Evans, Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday, and with Davis eligible to sign an extension next summer, the Pelicans would soon find themselves severely limited in flexibility moving forward. Plus, Asik proved disruptive regarding his playing time last year with the Rockets, and the Pelicans will have to keep that in mind when they think about re-signing him to a long-term deal.

Pelicans GM Dell Demps didn’t have the cap flexibility this offseason to pursue any big-name free agents, but he did manage to add a number of useful pieces on team-friendly deals. I like that New Orleans took low-risk gambles on Jimmer Fredette, Darius Miller, and John Salmons. None of those players are true game-changers, but all can be valuable bench contributors and offer strong work ethics, and in the case of Fredette and Miller, upside. I also like the team picking up the undrafted Patric Young, who was in the running at times to become an early second-round pick. He’s a long-term project who could end up paying dividends in a season or two.

The Pelicans were without a first-round pick in this year’s draft thanks to the trade with Philadelphia that netted them Holiday. In the second round, Demps did well to snag Louisville point guard Russ Smith, who has the ability to become a valuable reserve for this team, and whose intangibles make him worth having around. Smith should be able to develop enough to replace former No. 10 overall pick Austin Rivers, who can depart as a free agent next summer, since the team declined his fourth-year option. Rivers never lived up to his high draft position, and he could benefit from a change of scenery.

New Orleans needs to be active and creative in the trade market this year to try and clear some much-needed cap room they can use to surround Davis with more productive talent. The Pelicans are a team on the rise, though the strength of the Western Conference will probably force them to miss the playoffs once more this spring. The Pelicans need to give Davis a reason to want to re-sign for the long-term, as well as maximize the contention window that his incredible skills will provide them. If Demps is unable to remove one or more of the questionable deals on the team’s books, it will be a few seasons before he’ll be able to alter the roster significantly. The franchise and its fans had better hope that Davis will not have soured on the team’s losing ways before then and decide to take his skills elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post. Chuck Myron contributed to this post.

Offseason In Review: Utah Jazz

November 27 at 6:12pm CST By Eddie Scarito

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

Trades

Waiver Claims

  • Jordan Hamilton: Claimed from the Raptors. One year, $948K remaining. Contract was partially guaranteed for $25K. Waived after opening night.
  • Joe Ingles: Claimed from the Clippers. One year, $507K remaining. Non-guaranteed.

Draft Picks

  • Dante Exum (Round 1, 5th overall). Signed via rookie exception to rookie scale contract.
  • Rodney Hood (Round 1, 23rd overall). Signed via rookie exception to rookie scale contract.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

Looking back on the Jazz’s offseason, it’s tough to see a franchise that has a definitive and confident rebuilding plan to return to contention. While I like a number of the moves that GM Dennis Lindsey made if analyzed individually, it’s how they fit into the larger picture that doesn’t make much sense. Utah will never be seen as a free agent hot spot in the eyes of NBA players, which does frame and influence much of what the team does in regard to roster moves and contracts. This limitation, courtesy of geography, makes the draft vital to the franchise’s long-term success, and it also makes retaining players that the organization has developed even more important.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Utah JazzThat helps explain the motivation behind Utah’s biggest and riskiest offseason move, which was matching the four-year, maximum salary offer sheet the Hornets inked with Gordon Hayward. Lindsey had made it clear that the Jazz were planning to match any offer the restricted free agent would receive on the open market all along, and the GM held true to that promise. Utah needs to fight to attract players, which made retaining the services of Hayward vital. But I question the wisdom of committing max-salary dollars to a player who is more of a complementary piece than a true franchise star. Even omitting his rookie-season numbers, Hayward’s career averages of 15.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists do not scream, “Give this man max money!”

On a team like Charlotte, which made the playoffs last season and was seemingly one shooter away from making some real noise in the Eastern Conference, the deal would have still been risky, but it may have been worth it in the short term. Restricted free agents often end up overpaid, since franchises know they will have to go above market value in order to discourage the player’s original team from matching the offer sheet. Just look to Jeremy Lin‘s and Omer Asik‘s deals with Houston, and Chandler Parsonswith Dallas, as examples of this. But Utah had other options since numerous teams had reportedly been offering sign-and-trade deals for Hayward in attempts to work around the possibility that Utah would match their offer sheets.

Hayward has improved every season he’s been in the league, which means the deal could still pay off for Utah. But the 24-year-old isn’t likely ever to be more than a very good player in the league, and it will take more than that to elevate the Jazz’s standing in the brutal Western Conference. I’ll also concede that since there aren’t many max-level free agents aching to live in Salt Lake City, Hayward’s deal isn’t the cap space killer that it would be on many other franchises. But it’s tough to argue that he is worth almost $63MM over four years.

Another questionable signing that Lindsey made is the four-year, $42MM (plus incentives) extension for Alec Burks. I like Burks as a player quite a bit. He’s a hard worker, can play and defend multiple positions, and at only 23 years of age, is likely to continue his upward development. But where exactly does he fit in long-term with the Jazz? Hayward is entrenched at small forward, and the backcourt has two young first-rounders whom the team needs to continue to develop in Trey Burke and Dante Exum. Burke and Exum have the potential to play side-by-side as starters for years to come, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to pay an average annual salary of $10.5MM for a sixth man, no matter how talented Burks is. Of course, my concern will be negated if Exum, Utah’s first-rounder this year, fails to develop.

Exum was one if the biggest wildcards in this year’s draft lottery. He didn’t play college ball, and his international experience didn’t always come against top-flight competition, so it is hard to gauge what kind of a pro Exum will become. His physical talents are phenomenal. He is a blur on the court, and that coupled with his still growing 6’6″ frame makes him worth the risk on pure potential alone. Exum had been in the conversation as a darkhorse to become the No. 1 overall selection, and I still think the Sixers should have snapped him up with the third overall pick. But Utah snagged a potential superstar in Exum, if he can ever develop a reliable outside shot.

That last point is the key to the Jazz’s future. If Exum cannot develop his outside game, he’ll be limited to playing the point, a position which he apparently prefers. But the Jazz already have a talented young player manning that spot in 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke. Burke doesn’t project to be an All-Star, but he is still a very talented player who has a number of desirable intangibles that will help make his teammates better. It’s nice to have depth, as this year’s cavalcade of injuries around the league has demonstrated. But when you are a non-contending team trying to develop younger players, redundancies can hamper not only the franchise’s growth, but the growth of the players as well.

Lindsey’s excellent draft continued when he came away with one of the night’s biggest steals, selecting Rodney Hood with the 23rd overall pick. Hood was one of the most NBA-ready players in the draft, and his combination of length, athleticism, and outside shooting should make him a fixture in Utah’s rotation for years to come. He’s a player who should have gone much higher in the draft, and though he suffered a foot injury recently and will be out indefinitely, Hood will really help this team.

But here’s where another redundant and questionable move comes into play — the trade of Diante Garrett to the Raptors for Steve Novak. It’s tough to see the need for this deal, which puts the Jazz on the hook for a total of more than $7MM to Novak over this season and next. Novak is an amazing outside shooter, but he contributes little else. With Hayward a starter and Hood on the roster, Novak is an unnecessary piece who will siphon minutes away from younger players like Hood and Joe Ingles, and eat up too much cap space while doing so.

The Jazz claimed Ingles off waivers after the Clippers released him, and he was a shrewd pickup. If you don’t like Ingles, you don’t like what’s right about the game of basketball. He’s a hard worker, he’ll run through a wall if the coaches tell him to, and he’s a great guy to have in the locker room and on the bench. He’s someone I’d much rather see on the court than Novak.

The Jazz also needed to find a new head coach this offseason, after they elected not to renew Tyrone Corbin‘s contract. The man tasked with developing a new identity for the Jazz is former collegiate head coach and NBA assistant Quin Snyder. I’m extremely high on this move for Utah. Snyder is a great basketball mind and his effect on the Jazz’s offense should be fun to watch as the players become comfortable with the new system. His college coaching experience will also come in handy on a young team. The decision to hire Snyder was perhaps my favorite coaching move of the entire offseason.

Utah wasn’t able to come to terms on a contract extension with Enes Kanter, which leaves the 22-year-old from Switzerland poised to hit restricted free agency next summer. Kanter has shown improvement each season that he’s been in the league, and his agent, Max Ergul, is hoping that trend continues this season, which would serve to increase his client’s bargaining position. If Kanter’s salary demands become too great, or if another team swoops in with an offer sheet well out of line with what Kanter is worth, the Jazz should consider working out a sign-and-trade or simply letting Kanter walk. The franchise will have a number of rookie scale extensions to decide on in the next few years, and coupled with Hayward’s deal, any high-dollar payout would put a serious crimp on future moves. Utah does have Rudy Gobert waiting in the wings, and the team exercised his third-year rookie scale option in October. He’ll likely be a much less expensive long-term option than Kanter. Ideally, the team would retain both, but that might not be wise depending on how the market develops for Kanter.

The Jazz also made two under-the-radar free agent deals this past offseason. I like the signing of Toure’ Murry, who has the potential to develop into a useful rotation player. Murry is a high-energy defender who can add a spark off the bench. His partially guaranteed deal is also very team-friendly, and he isn’t the type of player who will gripe about his minutes. He’s drawn mention in trade rumors regarding Andrei Kirilenko, though it’s unclear whether the Jazz are truly thinking about bringing Kirilenko back to Utah. Kirilenko would add yet another redundant piece to the roster with the depth already present at both forward spots, and that would serve to reinforce questions about the team’s direction.

Signing Trevor Booker wasn’t a bad move either, as he is a high-energy rebounder who adds a needed level of toughness to the squad. The second year of his deal is non-guaranteed, so Lindsey limited the team’s risk and allowed some flexibility moving forward in case Kanter departs next summer. Booker can also be a valuable trade chip later in the season as well.

Utah has roughly $49.6MM in guaranteed salary on the books for 2015/16, and depending on the way Kanter’s situation plays out, this will allow the team to make some minor upgrades in the near future. But with deals for Hayward and Burks already on the books, coupled with the extensions the team seems likely to hand out to Gobert and Burke when they’re eligible, Utah’s long-term cap flexibility is set to disappear rather quickly. The Jazz need to reshape their roster and figure out which players to build around. For now, there are too many similar pieces monopolizing the franchise’s cap space. Until that is sorted out, the Jazz are far more likely to spend their springs in the draft lottery instead of the playoffs.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post. Chuck Myron contributed to this post.

Offseason In Review: Portland Trail Blazers

November 27 at 1:40pm CST By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

  • None

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

  • None

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

The Blazers knew their starting lineup wasn’t the issue. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez were the fifth-best five-man group in the league last season in terms of per-possession point differential among those that played at least 500 minutes together, according to NBA.com. That unit outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions, but Portland as a whole was just plus-3.5 in that category. The Blazers entered the summer with no real cap flexibility and no draft picks, but GM Neil Olshey set about to prove just how valuable the mid-level and biannual exceptions can be.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver NuggetsOlshey used the mid-level to ink Chris Kaman, a player who two years prior wouldn’t have been obtainable for that sort of money or for the reserve role the Blazers expect him to play. The one-time All-Star was one of the key figures in a fairly strong class of free agent centers in 2012, and he signed a one-year, $8MM deal with the Mavs that gave him the chance to excel in filling the team’s need for a starting center and to net more money over the long-term on his next contract. Instead, Kaman failed to see eye-to-eye with coach Rick Carlisle and played just 20.7 minutes per game that season, deflating his value and prompting him to turn to a one-year, $3.183MM deal for the taxpayer’s mid-level with the Lakers in 2013. Mike D’Antoni had even less use for him, and he appeared in only 39 games last season. Having turned 32 this past April, it seemed unlikely that Kaman would merit a raise, and quite conceivable that he’d have to settle for the minimum salary and a third-string job.

The Landmark Sports Agency client instead came away with $4.8MM this year, almost the full value of the $5.305MM non-taxpayer’s mid-level, plus a $1MM partial guarantee for 2015/16. It was a gamble for Olshey, but so far it’s paid off, as Kaman is putting up 10.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 19.0 minutes per game. He’s the NBA’s ninth leading per-minute rebounder among those who’ve played at least 100 total minutes this season, according to Basketball-Reference, and his 20.6 PER is a career high.

Olshey used all of the team’s biannual exception to come up with another player who began last season on the Lakers. It’s a reunion for the Blazers and Steve Blake, though Olshey wasn’t around when Blake played in Portland from 2007 to 2010. Olshey nonetheless had a chance to get an up-close look at the point guard when the GM was with the Clippers and Blake was in his early days with the other Staples Center tenants. Derek Fisher, Steve Nash and even Ramon Sessions had played in front of Blake on the Lakers, for whom he started just 45 games in three and a half years, but the 34-year-old hasn’t averaged fewer than 20.0 minutes per game since the 2004/05 season. That’s a testament to his value as a bench contributor, and so far for Portland he’s been an even more efficient ball-distributor than he had been in recent years. He’s averaging 7.1 assists against just 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes, a ratio well clear of 3-to-1, and though most of his stats are by no means gaudy, he earns his keep in his time on the floor.

The Blazers as a whole are outscoring opponents at a rate of 8.6 points per 100 possessions so far this season, a rate almost identical to the one their starting five had produced last season, as NBA.com shows. Part of that is because the starting unit has upped its differential in that category to plus-10.7, but Portland’s bench has picked up some of the slack. The Blazers are missing one their top reserves from last season, as Mo Williams fled to the Timberwolves for a one-year, $3.75MM deal that was only slightly greater in value than the approximately $3.18MM that Portland was limited to giving him via Non-Bird rights. Agent Mark Bartelstein said before Williams signed with Minnesota that there was a chance, however slight, that his client would return to Portland even after the Blazers committed their mid-level to Hawes, which wiped out their ability to give Williams more than that $3.18MM. It’s unclear what Portland could have done at that point to woo him back, and perhaps a multiyear offer might have done the trick, but Williams nonetheless departed, leaving Portland to rely more heavily on C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Will Barton to supplement Blake. Still, that could be a blessing in disguise, since it’ll give the Blazers a chance to evaluate that trio, all of whom are either second- or third-year players, and much is eventually expected of McCollum, the 10th overall pick in 2013.

The Blazers made a tough call on another recent lottery pick, declining their fourth-year rookie scale option on 2012 No. 5 selection Thomas Robinson. The big man had a tough go of it in his first two seasons, rebounding efficiently and running the floor well but otherwise failing to show many glimpses of the promise that made him such a hot prospect coming out of Kansas. The Blazers can still re-sign him next summer, but he’ll be an unrestricted free agent, and they can’t pay him a salary greater than the $4,660,482 option they turned down. Robinson probably won’t merit more than that unless he has a breakout season this year, but teams rarely re-sign players after declining their rookie scale options, so he’s likely in his final days with Portland.

The decision pick up Meyers Leonard‘s somewhat cheaper rookie scale option wasn’t clear-cut, since Leonard has been just as disappointing after having been the No. 11 pick in the same draft that Robinson was a part of. Still, Leonard’s willingness to try to remake himself into a 7’1″ stretch power forward bears watching, and perhaps Portland felt compelled to keep him around for at least another season to see how that experiment turns out.

Such tinkering pales in comparison to the importance of Aldridge’s free agency in the summer to come, though the team’s preeminent star made it clear this past summer that he intends to re-sign with the Blazers. That he was willing at times last season to entertain the idea of signing an extension, which wouldn’t be in his best financial interests, is demonstrative of his commitment to Portland, even though he said in July that an extension was no longer a consideration. It was also quite a switch from the summer of 2013, when it seemed that Aldridge was looking for a way out of town in the wake of consecutive losing seasons. Last year’s revival was clearly a game-changer for the long-term future of the Blazers, and the team’s second consecutive hot start is impressing upon the league, and upon Aldridge, that last season was no fluke.

Olshey hasn’t made any earth-shattering moves in his three offseasons with the Blazers, aside from the shrewd drafting of Lillard at No. 6 in 2012, but adding Lopez in the summer of 2013 and Kaman and Blake this year show his ability to be a consistent singles hitter. Still, he’ll most likely need to display a little more power for the team to become a true title contender, and this coming offseason, when only three Blazers have fully guaranteed contracts, will provide that opportunity.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.