There have been a handful of seismic shifts since NBA free agency began earlier this month — LeBron James heading west to join the Lakers, DeMarcus Cousins signing with Golden State and Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard being shipped to Canada for DeMar DeRozan — but the dust is finally beginning to settle some, allowing us to make sense of what has happened.
Two things have become relatively clear: 1) This was a lean, challenging year for players who might have otherwise taken long-term deals, as around half of the pacts this summer have been for a single season; 2) With Cousins in tow, the Warriors may be in a league of their own again when it comes to contending for the title.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t give a brief rundown of the teams that have wowed, disappointed or befuddled us this offseason. Here’s our look at the good, the bad and the confusing from the past month.
The Pacers were arguably the league’s biggest surprise last season, going from what many analysts figured would be a lottery team after the Paul George trade with Oklahoma City to one win away from knocking out LeBron and the Cavaliers in the first round. An enormous part of that, of course, was Victor Oladipo having a better statistical campaign than George en route to becoming an All-Star and winning the Most Improved Player award.
The other element flew under the radar but was just as integral: Indiana’s offense, gladly taking what the defense gave it, went against the grain and launched far more midrange jump shots than any other club, essentially making the Pacers the antithesis of the Rockets. With a group of decent jump-shooters, the strategy worked. But as a team that doesn’t shoot a ton of threes or get to the line much (Indiana had the NBA’s fifth-lowest 3-point attempt rate and the fifth-worst free-throw rate), the Pacers could have entered the 2018-19 season somewhat vulnerable to opponents who can score in bunches more quickly and efficiently.
But inking perpetual-motion sharpshooter Doug McDermott should make Indiana less predictable and more of a threat from outside. And Tyreke Evans — who has quietly shot nearly 39 percent from the arc over the past three years after shooting about 28 percent in his first six seasons — was a solid, under-the-radar pickup who should be a huge upgrade over Lance Stephenson.
Kyle O’Quinn, who came over for the room exception at one year and $4.5 million, will fit right in with the Pacers’ offensive philosophy; he hit better than 44 percent of his long 2s last season. He can get himself in trouble as a playmaker, but he’ll be a more-than-adequate backup to Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis.
Almost no analyst will pick the Pacers to land a top-three seed in the East. But should the Celtics, Raptors or Sixers struggle out of the gate, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Indiana did just that. The Pacers finished just outside the top 10 last season in both offensive and defensive efficiency — a hint that they weren’t far from contention. If things break right for them this year, they could reach that level with their improved roster.
Just when we thought we had left the Grit-n-Grind era behind us, it found its way back into our hearts and, soon enough, onto the court at FedEx Forum.
The Grizzlies battled through a miserable year that included the firing of coach David Fizdale after he and center Marc Gasol failed to see eye-to-eye, and that was after losing point guard Mike Conley to a heel injury that eventually led to season-ending surgery. From the outside, a total teardown might have seemed like the best course of action. But for a small-market franchise — which has big-money deals on the books and is already dealing with attendance problems — that avenue might have been too dire, leading the club to reload instead.
Memphis did so by trying to get back to what made it special a few years ago: It loaded up on solid players who aren’t the most glitzy but tend to get the job done on both ends of the floor.
While they started that process at the draft with forward Jaren Jackson Jr. — a player whom FiveThirtyEight’s projection models like a great deal — the Grizzlies also landed advanced-stats darling Kyle Anderson, who ranked second among small forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus this past season. With his ball-handling ability and size, Anderson is a lower-scoring, better-defending version of the Grizzlies’ Chandler Parsons, who has been sapped by injuries in recent years. Memphis also picked up wing Garrett Temple, a reliable defender and 39-percent 3-point shooter this past year, from Sacramento via trade.
It’s not often that a 22-win team jumps into the playoff conversation without adding a bona fide star. But merely getting healthy again after adding this many capable two-way players could let the Grizzlies improve by leaps and bounds.
Portland Trail Blazers
Similar to how the Raptors needed a shakeup after multiple seasons fizzled out in a similar manner, the Blazers seemingly needed one in 2017-18, too. Even after realizing they couldn’t go about things the exact same way and altering a handful of schematic details, those fixes weren’t nearly enough, and the club got swept in the first round by Anthony Davis and the Pelicans.
But the beatdown didn’t bring about big changes for the West’s No. 3 seed. Instead, the Blazers brought back restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic (who’s highly productive when he’s not getting whacked in the face) while losing solid bench contributors in guard Shabazz Napier and reserve big Ed Davis.1
If there’s a sour taste in the mouths of Blazers fans, though, it should stem from the notion that Portland could have — and possibly would have — completed a sign-and-trade for Cousins had it not been that he and Nurkic have representatives who work for the same agency, potentially creating a conflict. Such a deal would have provided the sort of shakeup that a capped-out team like Portland needs. Instead, we may see this team — one of the few that enjoyed good health last year — finish near the bottom of the playoff pool in the West.
Any way you slice it, it’s tough to make sense of the Rockets’ offseason. This team was one decent half away from knocking off the vaunted Warriors and reaching the NBA Finals when its players short-circuited and couldn’t make a 3-pointer to save their lives.
The Rockets were close enough that you could almost understand bringing back the same team to try again. But instead, Houston lost starting forward Trevor Ariza right out of the gate (granted, for big money at $15 million this season with a young Phoenix team). Then Luc Mbah a Moute followed suit, rejoining the Clippers about a week later for just one year and $4.3 million. Both were enormous contributors to the Rockets’ vast defensive improvement, and they played key roles in the team’s switch-everything scheme, a must-have against a club like Golden State, which screens away from the ball so well.
Houston’s interest in Carmelo Anthony wasn’t terribly surprising, after it pursued him the year before. Yet while there’s a chance Anthony plays far better with the Rockets than he did in a down year with Oklahoma City, it’s hard to see him being much better than either of the two aforementioned wing players, given how Anthony is frequently exploited on defense.
James Ennis may help in replacing the lost production on D, and getting guard De’Anthony Melton in the second round of the draft was seemingly a steal. Still, with the gap between the Rockets and Warriors as small as it was in the postseason, you get the feeling that these moves might have widened the chasm.
Somewhere in between
Even if you don’t think Zach LaVine is worth the four years and $78 million that the Bulls ponied up to keep him from becoming a Sacramento King, the logic is clear: LaVine, at one point, was the centerpiece of what Chicago got in the Jimmy Butler deal last summer.
What’s tougher to understand is the logic behind pairing LaVine with free agent Jabari Parker.
Yes, this ACL-hobbled duo has clear scoring chops, and both are just 23. But neither can really defend on the wing just yet, potentially making life far more challenging for impressive youngster Wendell Carter Jr. than it should be this early on.
“Well, I don’t know — I just stick to my strengths,” Parker said when asked about defense during a Chicago radio interview. “Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. … I’m not gonna say I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. I’ve scored 30s and 20s off of guys who say they try to play defense.”
The Parker deal, for two years and $40 million, isn’t awful. The second year of the contract is a team option, giving the Bulls an out if he doesn’t return to form. But the biggest challenge, and one that gives analysts around the league pause, is his defense. Statistically, Parker has surrendered2 more blow-by opportunities on D than any other NBA player over the past three seasons, according to data from Second Spectrum. Some of that, of course, stems from the head-scratching scheme the Bucks used for so long. But other times, it was a function of Parker playing out of position at small forward, where he’s not quick enough to stay in front.
It’s safe to assume that someone — be it Parker, the guy he’s guarding or both — is going to score a lot next season. We look forward to seeing who gets the upper hand.
Los Angeles Lakers
No one is knocking the LeBron signing itself. (How could you?) But add me to the list of people who have struggled to understand the free-agent signings around him.
Regardless of whether you plan to have James control the ball a ton or you prefer that he operates more from the post, he would benefit most by having a stable of capable jump-shooters to give him the time and space he needs to create scoring chances.
For the better part of eight years, James’s rosters have generally featured several shooting specialists who afford him ample room to drive and kick. A number of players — James Jones, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Matthew Dellavedova, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, just to name a few — have logged seasons in which they shot 40 percent or better3 from deep when playing alongside James. By contrast, no one on this Lakers roster — outside of James — has ever logged even one season of 40 percent or better.4
This might be an arbitrary threshold. Aside from the fact that many players on this club are in the early stages of their career, Brandon Ingram shot 39.0 percent from there last year, and Josh Hart was at 39.6 percent. And it seems a given that the team’s best young players stand to take massive steps forward by playing with a great setup man who demands so much of the opponent’s attention.
The bigger question, in light of comments he made during the NBA Finals, is whether this team will possess the sort of collective basketball IQ that James feels he needs around him. We know Rajon Rondo, however combustible he might be, is set in that regard. But the additions of Stephenson and JaVale McGee were tougher to square from that standpoint.
At their best, with the right surroundings, Stephenson and McGee can lead the NBA in triple-doubles and wreak havoc in pick-and-roll scenarios, respectively. At their worst, they create blooper reels. We have no idea which versions will emerge. But rest assured: LeBron and the youthful Lakers will be anything but boring as we tune in to find out.