Welcome back to #GBL @ Tautonomy! We’re kicking off the 2015-2016 season with Part 1 of my better-late-than-never (and admittedly nitpicky) offseason grades. It’s the time of year that a Draymond Green Hassan Whiteside twitter battle is the most interesting NBA related news, so clearly we’re all in need of a little real action. Safe to say, the season couldn’t come any sooner. Training camps start up in about a month, and until then we’ll be posting division by division team analyses to get you hyped. Today’s division is…
2014-15: Record: 60-22
Atlanta faced a major dilemma this offseason: two vital cogs to their conference title team, Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, were due for raises, and it was going to be extremely difficult to retain them both. When the offseason began, each had only been with the Hawks for two years, which meant that Atlanta only held Early Bird rights on the free agents, as opposed to full Larry Bird rights.1 As a result, to exceed the salary cap to re-sign them, the maximum the Hawks could offer was 175% of their respective salaries from a year ago.2 As July 1st rolled around, it became clear that any tricky accounting would be unfeasible. To retain their free agents, the Hawks would have to use their limited cap space. However, it became clear that without dumping other players on the roster to clear salary, Atlanta would not have had enough enough room under the cap to bring Millsap and Carroll back at their respective market market salaries.
Additionally, re-signing them both would have limited the Hawks’ options to improve their roster elsewhere, and it would have left the team with scant cap space next summer. So, when free agency rolled around, the Hawks made their difficult choice. They opted to re-sign Millsap, but let Carroll head to Toronto. The decision was in keep with the Hawks’ philosophy of roster and cap flexibility that began when Danny Ferry came to town and immediately unloaded Joe Johnson’s albatross of a contract on the Nets.3 Thus, committing $58 million to Carroll and $60 million to Millsap would have locked them into a cap situation against their recent (and very successful) doctrine.
With the money left after Carroll’s departure, they brought in Tiago Splitter via a salary dump from the San Antonio Spurs. He should fit in nicely as a 3rd big who can play alongside either Al Horford or Millsap. They also made a draft day maneuver to get 2 second round picks and Tim Hardaway Jr. out of the 15th overall pick via a pick swap with Brooklyn. Many criticized the move because of Hardaway’s lack of production a year ago (VORP actually rated him as below replacement), but he’s shown decent offensive upside, is more ready to contribute than a rookie would be, and is making less than what the 15th pick will make given the rookie scale.
Hardaway Jr. will compete with Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, and former Golden State Warrior Justin Holiday, who was a nice addition at the minimum, for the minutes left in Carroll’s wake. The hope is that some combination of the replacements can replicate what Carroll brought to the table. Finally, the team used leftover cap space to bring over 7’3” center Edy Tavares from Spain. The team’s second round draft pick in 2014, Taveras doesn’t figure to contribute right away, but the Hawks locked him into a cheap 3-year deal. The 3-year contract is useful because Atlanta will have his full Bird rights moving forward, allowing the team to exceed the salary cap to retain him when he becomes a free agent if he proves to be an effective NBA player.
Synopsis: Losing Carroll hurts, but per usual as of late, the Hawks stayed flexible and added solid pieces to mimic what Carroll brought to the table. Plus, the addition of Splitter gives the Hawks great depth at the big positions. While it will be difficult to repeat their breakout performance from a year ago, especially given that they overachieved the record their point differential predicted, the Hawks will be a major factor in the East once again and are set up well to continue competing beyond 2015-15.
2014-15 Record: 33-49
After missing the playoffs in 2013-14, the Hornets set out to retool their rotation this offseason. Their first move was to dump Lance Stephenson. In the trade, Charlotte acquired Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes from the Clippers. Hawes gives the Hornets coveted spacing from the big position, although his exorbitant contract makes him a net negative as an asset. Further, they managed to parlay Barnes into Jeremy Lamb, who, despite never establishing his role in Oklahoma City, has decent upside as a bench contributor in the last year of his rookie contract.
The big move was to get Nicolas Batum from the Trail Blazers for Gerald Henderson and the 9th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Noah Vonleh. Batum gives the Hornets playmaking and defensive prowess from the wing spot, two skills that Stephenson was supposed to provide but never did. Charlotte will have a new-look wing rotation with the additions of Batum and Lamb. They also added Jeremy Lin with their bi-annual exception, a nice way to fill the backup point guard spot. Given the external upgrades and the hope for internal development from guys like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller, there are reasons to be optimistic about this Hornets team.
Speaking of Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets recently locked him up with a 4-year $52 million extension, which could keep him in Charlotte until the 2020-21 season. MKG has a player option in the 4th year so the contract could (and probably will) revert to 3 years and $39M. Nonetheless, this contract is a great deal for the Hornets in the current cap environment. The deal won’t kick in until the 2016-17 season when the cap is projected at $90 million, and will extend at least two seasons more seasons in which the cap will be above $100 million. Over the length of the contract, MKG will make below average money for a starter while, with projection based on his age and recent development, he can be reasonably expected to perform as an above average starter. Charlotte got great value with this deal.
On the other hand, though, it appears the Hornet’s made a rash decision to give up on Vonleh just a year into his career. Vonleh was going to be a project when he was drafted as an 18 year old out of Indiana, so letting him go now makes little sense. Vonleh has plenty of time to develop in a quality starter or better. The real kicker however, is that Batum is only under contract for 2015-16. One year of the frenchman on a fair (but by no means a massive bargain) contract was not enough value for three years of Vonleh on a rookie scale deal.
In addition, during the draft there were reports that the team turned down a monster trade offer from the Celtics, who were looking to move up and draft Justise Winslow. Charlotte rebuffed the offers and instead selected Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky. Zach Lowe confirmed these rumors in his article on the Hornets and specified exactly what the Hornets passed on: the 15th and 16th picks in the 2015 draft, Brooklyn’s unprotected 2016 1st rounder, and a future first from either Memphis or Minnesota. It was a bit outrageous to pass on that offer just to draft Frank Kaminsky, and laughable that Charlotte’s decision makers justified it by saying they hadn’t “been focusing” on the later range in the draft. Isn’t it their job to know who they would draft at every spot to prepare for this type of situation? But I digress. This move signals that Charlotte is locked into win-now mode. Kaminsky is one of the only college prospects that figures to contribute immediately. However, accepting the treasure trove of assets Danny Ainge was offering would seem to have been a more efficient use of resources than drafting the 22 year old, especially given that their big rotation already figures to be crowded with Jefferson, Zeller, Hawes, and Marvin Williams.
Synopsis: The Hornets are clearly tired of rebuilding and it showed this offseason as they tried to upgrade the 2015-16 roster at the expense of the future. On paper, they look better than a year ago, and dare I say a playoff team in the East. They also still have the midlevel exception to add another rotation piece if necessary. However, Jefferson appeared to regress a year ago after a spectacular 2013-14 season, Kidd-Gilchrist was oft-injured, and the team didn’t mesh. Some of the team’s struggles can be redirected onto Lance Stephenson’s shoulders, but surely there were underlying issues leading to a disappointing 2014-15 season.
It has gotten to a point where I expect Charlotte to underachieve irrespective of supposed offseason upgrades. I don’t think they maximized value for the 9th overall selection in the draft, given Boston’s monstrous offer. Furthermore, trading away a promising 19 year old big for a fairly paid veteran in a walk year doesn’t seem to be a prudent move for a team that didn’t make the playoffs in the dreadfully weak Eastern Conference a year ago. In sum, Charlotte didn’t get good value in many of their offseason moves, which even if they do make the playoffs this year, will come back to haunt them.
2014-15 RECORD: 37-45
The Heat brought back the band that really never got together a year ago. Among them, Dwyane Wade missed his obligatory 20 games, Goran Dragic wasn’t acquired until the trade deadline, and Chris Bosh missed the second half of the season with a lung clot issue. Even most improved player candidate Hassan Whiteside missed several games due to ankle issues.
They rewarded Wade for his past willingness to take less money for the sake of the team by re-signing him to an above-market $20 million contract. Because the deal lasts only one season, it maintains cap flexibility next summer. The overpay this year means that if the Heat have a chance to sign say Kevin Durant next summer, Wade would able to take less so that the team could do so. More realistically though, the team will need the cap room to re-sign Whiteside, who, because his contract with the Heat runs just two years, the team will have to use cap on to re-sign. If Whiteside stays healthy and plays the way he did a year ago, his market value will surely exceed what Miami could offer using the Early Bird exception. Thus, the necessity to use cap room to bring him back. Going full-circle back to Wade’s contract, a one year deal for him, rather than a long term commitment, makes potentially bringing in free agents in 2016 or just retaining Whiteside much easier.
Furthermore, nabbing Justise Winslow with the 10th overall selection in the draft was a coup d’etat given how he projects to be an impactful two-way wing. Winslow’s physical tools, skill set, and mentality on the court look like the foundation of an NBA starter and possibly more. In other value moves, the Heat nicely filled out their rotation with signings of Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green to minimum contracts.
On the other hand, the flurry of positive offseason additions have left the team well above the luxury tax for the upcoming season. If the Heat do in fact end the season above the tax line, it would mark the fourth time in five years the team would be making luxury tax payments, which would mean Micky Arison and the rest of the Heat ownership group would be facing the dreaded repeater tax this season.4
The Heat have already begun to maneuver their way out of the tax. To shed some salary, the Heat traded away Zoran Dragic and Shabazz Napier, sending cash, and in Dragic’s case, a future 2nd round pick to do so. My quibble is with the Napier trade. After a poor rookie year, was his trade value so low that Miami had to trade him away, with the cash to pay his salary, for nothing in return? Apparently. But if that were in fact the case, I would have held on to Napier, a first round pick in 2014. Out of college he was projected to be a solid backup point guard by both scouts and statistical analytics, and while he struggled a bit in his rookie year, he did nothing to drastically alter this projection. The move seems to be a sell-low trade and I’m not a big fan, but again, I’m nit-picking.
Synopsis: Because of the severe penalty for every dollar over the tax line for a repeater team, it appears the Heat will try to make at least one more move to get under.5 Regardless, the team is stacked on paper going into next year. If Bosh comes back at full strength, Dragic plays close to his 2013-14 self, and Wade, Whiteside, and Luol Deng stay relatively healthy, they will be major players in the Eastern conference. That is without even mentioning Winslow and returnees Mario Chalmers, Josh McRoberts and Chris (Birdman) Andersen. By being smart with Wade’s contract, re-signing Dragic at a reasonable rate, bringing in Stoudemire and Green at the minimum, and stealing Winslow at number 10 in the draft, the Heat did all they could to put themselves on the right track for 2015-16 and beyond.
2014-15 Record: 25-57
My stance on this Magic team falls a bit in the revisionist camp. The general consensus is that this is the year they are finally ready to turn the corner on their rebuild and begin competing for the playoffs. But I’m not so sure. Their major addition was through the draft, adding talented young Croatian wing Mario Hezonja with the 5th overall pick. Hezonja, while possessing supreme potential, doesn’t figure to contribute immediately. His minutes this season will be much more for his development than helping the team win.
Further, the Magic retained skilled forward Tobias Harris on an interesting and fair contract. One of Orlando’s offensive hubs a year ago, Harris proved he could score in a variety of ways, shooting over 36% from 3-point land and posting the league’s highest points per possession in post up opportunities (min 100 chances). While his defense leaves much to be desired, his burgeoning game on the offensive end to go along with the fact that he’s still just 23, makes him a valuable commodity in the league. The Magic have structured his contract so that his salary rises in 2016-17 but then declines in the final two years, essentially trading cap room this summer and next for greater flexibility in 2017 and 2018.
My qualm with the Magic offseason lies in what they did elsewhere. They threw their gobs of cap space at journeyman veterans Jason Smith and C.J. Watson, who don’t figure to contribute much this season and won’t be in Orlando’s long-term plan. Look, I will give the Magic credit for trying to lure Paul Millsap with max money at the beginning of free agency, but he took slightly less to stay with Atlanta. Alas, once Millsap spurned their offer, the Magic ought to have have used their cap room more effectively than doling out questionable contracts for veteran backups. There were young players on the market who could have fit into their long-term plan. Al-Farouq Aminu on the descending deal that Portland gave him is perfect example of a player who would have been a better use of Orlando’s extra cap space. Moreover, rolling the extra space over in next summer would have been a better move than locking in Watson to a three-year deal.
Likewise, I remain skeptical about this team for not getting good value in the peripheral trades they made. They aren’t nailing all the little moves, although getting Shabazz Napier for nothing was nice. They let young center Kyle O’Quinn walk for $4 million a year and could only squeeze out a second round pick swap from the Knicks. O’Quinn signed for the same money (albeit a 4-year deal versus a 1 year pact) as Smith did. Instead of signing Smith and letting O’Quinn walk, they could have locked O’Quinn into 4-year descending deal, starting at $4.5 million only paying him $3.5 million in year 4. That type of contract structure would have increased his future value and kept a young and relatively productive backup center in town. In another head-scratcher, Orlando traded 22 year old forward Maurice Harkless to Portland for nothing in return. While Harkless hasn’t shown much as a pro, his age, length, and athleticism make him a solid proposition to be at least an energy guy off the bench. I might expect even more from the young forward, but I’m on the optimistic side. Along those lines, I would have kept both Harkless and O’Quinn if this was in fact the market for their services.
Synopsis: The Magic have a promising young core, but the front office has failed to nail all of the peripheral moves that would maximize their young talent. A general rule of thumb: pay for future instead of past production. In swapping out O’Quinn and Harkless for Smith and Watson, it seems the Magic have done the reverse. My relatively negative prognosis for this season notwithstanding, I would still bet on them being a really good team in the future, but a couple tweaks to their strategy would give them an even higher upside.
Entering the offseason, the most important task for Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards front office was to convince Pierce to re-up at the maximum they can offer, about $6.4 million. In this regard, they failed, but not for lack of effort. The allure of returning to his LA roots and to his old coach Doc Rivers proved too much for The Truth to turn down. After the loss, the Wizards pivoted nicely to replace Pierce’s production. Getting veteran forward Jared Dudley for just a second round pick and bringing in guards Alan Anderson and Gary Neal were nice rebound moves. Anderson’s $4 million contract eats up most of the mid-level exception and Neal’s deal is for the bi-annual exception. All three however, should adequately fill Pierce’s minutes and with further development from 2013 third overall pick Otto Porter, they might not even have to. The team also brought back major playoff contributor Drew Gooden on a raise.
In the draft, the team traded two future 2nd round picks to move up from 19th overall to 15th to select Kelly Oubre. I’m a big fan of Oubre’s. He was my 2015 version of athletic draftee I fall in love with. He is raw, and it’s doubtful he’ll contribute to the 2015-16 version of the Wizards after looking lost at times last year at Kansas. On the flip side, Oubre has great potential to be a 3 and D wing or even more. Down the road, the risk to trade up to get the ephemeral wing could prove to be genius.
With Washington’s roster set at 15 contracts, the next task for the Wizards’ front office becomes looking forward to summer 2016. The first step may be trying to work out an extension with Bradley Beal before the October 31st deadline. Given Beal’s age and skill set, the scarcity of wings due to hit the market next summer, and the abundant amount of cap space expected across the league, Beal would in all likelihood get a maximum offer sheet from a team next summer. It makes sense then, that Beal would ask for the max in his contract discussions with the Wizards, and therein lies the dilemma.
There would be little upside for the Wizards to engage in such a deal. They could always wait out his restricted free agency next summer and match any offer sheet that he signs. The added benefit of doing the latter is that the Wizards will just have Beal’s $11 million cap charge on the books versus the first year of his extension, which could exceed $20 million. This difference could be have mammoth ramifications considering the Wizards have been hoarding 2016 cap space in the hopes to sign Kevin Durant, and an extra $9 million could open the door for another impact player to head to the capital along with KD. My bet is that the Beal’s extension doesn’t get done, which could wind up being beneficial to both sides.
Synapsis: The Wizards did what they could after losing the Paul Pierce sweepstakes, rounding out the wing rotation with quality veterans. If Beal and Porter continue their development, the team could take the next step into the upper echelon of the Eastern conference, which would set the stage for an exciting 2016 free agency when Durant could opt to head home to D.C..
2. Or in Carroll’s case, 104.5% of the average NBA salary because it is greater than 175% of his previous contract.↩
3. He even pilfered a first round pick and a couple of pick swaps in the process.↩
4. The repeater tax is even more draconian than the regular tax penalty. For the first $5 million above the tax, a repeater team pays $2.5 million in taxes for every million over as opposed to just $1.5 million. Additionally, the tax penalty increases the further a team is over the line. For a complete explanation, click here.↩
5. I’d expect Andersen to be dealt by the deadline for one.↩