Evaluating the ’12 offseason: Winners
It’s offseason evaluation time! We’ll be splitting up the team-by-team assessments into several posts over the next week or so, starting here with teams that, at least from this vantage point, have little hindsight-based hand-wringing to do. Other posts will include teams that have us worried, teams that generally stood pat (and whether that was a good thing) and the teams that have us most intrigued based on the moves they made and the directions open to them now. Keep that last part in mind if you think your team had a successful offseason and it is not mentioned below.
For today: teams that made some fairly dramatic moves and should be very happy with them.
• Los Angeles Lakers
Offseason grade exercises are always tricky. Analysts aren’t in the room with general managers and are thus often in the dark about what directives ownership is giving and which alternative trades or signings are being discussed internally, discussed externally, nearly consummated or merely dreamed about. The ownership motivation isn’t a mystery in Los Angeles, though, even if the Lakers’ attitude toward spending has shifted from December until now: The Buss family wants to win championships, and while some franchises are happy with second-round playoff exits and capacity crowds, that won’t do for a team paying Kobe Bryant nearly $ 30 million per season and sitting one ring shy of Boston’s record.
The Lakers were 1-8 in second-round playoff games during the last two seasons. Though there were some close heart-breakers among those eight losses to Dallas and Oklahoma City, there were plenty of blowouts, and this team in the big picture graded out as nothing more than a solid playoff team. The Lakers needed a jolt, and with zero financial flexibility, GM Mitch Kupchak turned the only asset he had — the Lamar Odom trade exception — into point guard Steve Nash, one of the greatest offensive players in league history.
Forward Antawn Jamison also was added. He is a sieve on defense, but so was Troy Murphy, and Jamison can at least add some free throws and driving attacks to the Lakers’ second-unit offense. Re-signing Jordan Hill to an affordable deal without having his full Bird Rights was a nice get. Hill emerged at the end of last season as the team’s third-best big man, and given his potential as a defender, the Lakers will probably be better off if he wins the battle for that spot over Jamison next season.
There are still huge questions here, obviously. Getting even the sum of these superstar parts on offense is going to be difficult, Princeton offense or no, and this team as it stands is going to have work very hard to crack the top 10 in points allowed per possession.
But nabbing a transformational player in Nash can’t hurt, especially because there was no easy upgrade to find at small forward, the Lakers’ other weak position. A three-year deal is a little much at this point for a guy approaching 40, but the Lakers are capped out anyway for the first two of those years and have almost no guaranteed money on the books in the third. Little harm, little foul.
• Atlanta Hawks
It bears repeating: The Hawks can’t carve out $ 39 million in cap space, the combined amount of maximum salaries for Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in free agency next summer, as long as center Al Horford’s salary and power forward Josh Smith’s cap hold are on the books. Those two slots combine for about $ 28 million, leaving Atlanta with “only” something like $ 32 million in space before factoring in guard Lou Williams, rookie shooting guard John Jenkins, next season’s draft pick and point guard Jeff Teague’s cap hold.
But these are minor details amid new general manager Danny Ferry’s miraculous success in clearing shooting guard Joe Johnson’s deal from the Hawks’ cap sheet — the kind of success, again, that cannot be untangled from the motives of Atlanta’s always-messy ownership. A GM can’t make moves like these — unloading the alleged franchise centerpiece and loading up on one-year deals — without ownership’s OK to take a step back and prioritize building a champion over some feel-good second-round playoff games (and the accompanying gate revenue).
The Hawks are a bit smaller and less versatile, in terms of size, without Johnson and small forward Marvin Williams. They need a fourth reliable big man behind Horford, Smith and Zaza Pachulia — a non-urgent need that free agent Ivan Johnson will likely fill because the Hawks still have plenty of wiggle room under the tax. But this still projects as a playoff team. Swingman Kyle Korver, who acquired for a trade exception, brings some much-needed three-point shooting off the bench. Williams can supply much of Johnson’s scoring and pick-and-roll play (and add some free throws, increasingly rare things with Johnson). Devin Harris is a dynamite backup point guard whom coach Larry Drew can pair with Teague in smaller units.
This team should be pretty good. The Hawks also have a killer combination of cap space and attractive assets that they could move for more space or in sign-and-trade deals.
• Miami Heat
Look, you’d like Miami to find a real backup center with some actual NBA talent and athleticism. But the easy path to that kind of player — hard to find on the cheap — vanished when the Heat spent so much two years ago on Joel Anthony, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. They’ve added more role players since in needed transactions, to the point that even using the amnesty provision on Miller wasn’t going to open up the full mid-level exception this summer. The Heat could have used the mini mid-level on a big man instead of shooting guard Ray Allen, but players such as Jordan Hill and Greg Stiemsma were at or above that price range, and so Miami went elsewhere.
Pat Riley went with shooting in Allen and forward Rashard Lewis. Those players fit the on-court paradigm that the Heat discovered in the second half of the postseason, when they finally got healthy, embraced small-ball as the foundation of their playing style and sent a steely LeBron James to devour everyone in the post. Defense has been Miami’s stronger, more consistent half since the Big Three signed. When the Heat lost or struggled for long stretches, it was usually because the offense stagnated amid a lack of shooting and half-hearted commitment to motion sets. Miami has taken steps to bring its offense up to the level of its defense over the last year.
As for the lack of a reliable center: You can win that way when you have the best player in the world and two other stars. Second-round pick Justin Hamilton may turn into a usable player, and the Heat can keep a roster spot open in case another such player emerges and is willing to play on a minimum salary. Miami will enter next season as an overwhelming title favorite.
• Golden State Warriors
Everyone was excited about the Warriors even before they filled out the wing by re-signing Brandon Rush and finding a sorely needed third reliable big man by enticing Carl Landry out of New Orleans with the mid-level exception — transactions that took Golden State barely over the luxury tax. Warriors Mania has infected these parts, too, and that’s a bit nerve-wracking, considering that outside the defensively challenged Stephen Curry/David Lee pairing, the core players here have played close to zero meaningful NBA minutes together.
Lauding Golden State’s offseason also shows how tricky these judgments can be. For one, the Warriors’ offseason really started at the trade deadline, when, with the Monta Ellis/Andrew Bogut swap, they gave up on a team that had proved to be no better than mediocre in exchange for one with unknown potential to be something more. And discussions over that deal, both internally and between the teams, started long before the deadline.
Golden State also took on small forward Richard Jefferson’s $ 11 million deal — in 2013-14 — for the right to draft a total mystery in center Festus Ezeli with San Antonio’s first-round pick. Rewind further, and you’re reminded that the Warriors could have had an estimated $ 8 million in cap space had they used the amnesty provision on center Andris Biedrins instead of wasting it on shooting guard Charlie Bell’s small expiring deal as part of the team’s ill-fated pursuit of center DeAndre Jordan.
But all of that happened, and it’s very hard to argue with much of what has happened since. Bogut is one of the half-dozen best defensive big men in the game — and that may be under-selling it when he’s healthy — and one player like that can lift an otherwise-awful defense into league-average territory. Combine a league-average defense with a top-five offense, and you’ve got a dangerous playoff team.
The Warriors ranked 11th in points per possession in 2011-12 despite Curry’s lost season; 58 combined starts from Biedrins and rookie Jeremy Tyler; having zero reliable bigs beyond Lee after dealing Ekpe Udoh in the Bogut trade; and pulling one of the NBA’s all-time prolonged tank jobs. We can’t project them as a top-five offense until we actually see them play and learn more about Curry’s troublesome ankle, but the tools are here — along with a vision you can see coming together. That wasn’t the case a year ago.
Stealing backup point guard Jarrett Jack from other suitors at the last minute was a nice example of dealing from a position of strength (the wing, with Dorell Wright going out the door) for a position of weakness. Jack can fill that role and is big enough to defend shooting guards, meaning coach Mark Jackson can play Jack and Curry together for stretches, freeing Curry to run around screens off the ball.
The Warriors will be capped out next summer, so this is essentially the team for the next two seasons. The books are pretty clean after that, meaning Golden State can hit reset on the Bogut experiment after 2013-14 if it isn’t working and try something else around the Curry/Lee duo — or try to break them up, likely by dealing Curry at some point.
• New Orleans Hornets
Winning the Anthony Davis lottery almost automatically gets you on this list, and two of the Hornets’ other three splashy moves carry some degree of risk. Shooting guard Eric Gordon showed max-level potential for about half of one season — a killer pre-injury stint in 2010-11 — but the Hornets rewarded him with four years of max-level pay. Getting power forward Ryan Anderson for about $ 8 million per season looks like a steal, but he’s a shaky defender in the post and in space, and the Magic’s defense generally fell apart when he was on the floor without Dwight Howard.
Davis may have a Howard-level impact someday, but that day is years away, and the sign-and-trade for Robin Lopez (and Hakim Warrick) sets up an interesting minutes distribution dilemma for Monty Williams — one of the league’s great young coaches, and a big reason the future is so bright here. Anyone suggesting that Anderson could defend small forwards as part of giant lineups that feature Anderson, Davis and Lopez hasn’t paid much attention to Orlando over the last two seasons. Anderson played zero small forward there, and though Davis’ quickness and creative zone principles combine to bring more possibilities, this already feels like a stretch.
But on balance, things look great here, in part because the Hornets could still create about $ 10 million in cap space next summer by declining an option on Warrick. That’s what a salary dump as massive as the Trevor Ariza/Emeka Okafor deal can do for you. And there is even more flexibility, given nonguaranteed deals in 2013-14 for 7-footer Jason Smith (a player New Orleans likes) and power forward Lance Thomas (ditto), and a team option on shooting guard Xavier Henry, a lottery pick facing a huge proving-ground third season. Lopez’s deal is only partially guaranteed after the first season, meaning he’s easily movable for an asset if some sort of unsustainable (and unlikely for now) minutes logjam emerges.
Gordon’s deal is pricey. But a post-rookie “max” is much less cumbersome than a $ 20 million veteran “max,” and Gordon should be able to live up to that price tag if he stays healthy. Anderson is young and developing, and there is a growing pile of evidence that power forwards with three-point range who can maintain their accuracy over high volumes of shot attempts are a hugely helpful commodity.