Offseason Grades Part 2: Central Division

Part 2 of my offseason grades is pretty late, but in case you missed part 1, I’m going to be doing division by division offseason grades until the NBA season kicks off. You can find part 1 here. This week is offseason grades for the…

CENTRAL DIVISION:

CHICAGO BULLS

2014-15 Record: 50-32

Grade: B

I wrote out what I thought the Bulls should do this offseason in an article back in July. The number one item on my list was to re-sign Jimmy Butler, and the Bulls did well to get him to commit to at least 4 more years in Chicago with a maximum contract. Kudos to John Paxson and Gar Forman for doing so after it seemed Butler might opt to sign a 3 year deal with a player option in the last year ala Chandler Parsons and Greg Monroe. Making sure Butler was staying for the long haul was the most important goal for the Bulls, and they took care of it.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Additionally, the Bulls retained Mike Dunleavy on a 3-year contract. Chicago relied pretty heavily on Dunleavy a year ago and retaining him was a necessity, especially since they had no real means of replacing him as an over the tax team. The Bulls re-signed Dunleavy using the Early Bird exception, which allowed the team to sign him for as much as $5.8 million in the first year. In the end, the two parties settled on a fair contract that pays him about 14.4 million over the life of deal. Furthermore, nabbing Bobby Portis with the 22nd overall pick in the draft was a steal. A skilled 6’11” big out of Arkansas, Portis was projected to go in the mid teens, so it was good value for the Bulls to grab him in the 20s.

Elsewhere, I have been a bit disappointed with what the Bulls have done. I had figured the team still had the entire taxpayer mid-level exception (just under $3.4 million) to add another free agent. However, it seems the Bulls used almost the entire functionality of it to re-sign Aaron Brooks to a 1-year $2.25 million deal. It’s not that I hate Brooks at that number, but the Bulls could have re-signed Brooks using Non-Bird rights for a contract starting at $1.525 million with a player option in year 2 worth $1.6 million and saved the entire mid-level exception. For the additional three-quarters of a million in salary for Brooks, the Bulls are giving up $2.25 million of potential room to sign another player using the exception. If Brooks was truly going to command more than the $1.5 million Chicago could offer using his Non Bird rights, I would have looked elsewhere for a backup point guard, especially given Brooks’ defensive limitations due to his slight build. While the Bulls clearly like Brooks (so do I) and want to keep him around, using the functionality of the taxpayer mid-level was not the ideal outcome from a cap management perspective and a is disappointing turn of events that all but eliminates the Bulls’ flexibility to add additional talent above the minimum.

I wonder if owner Jerry Reinsdorf may be reluctant to increase salary for a team that is already $4 million over the tax. This reluctance to spend is pretty ludicrous given that projections have the Bulls running a $61 million profit a year ago. However, Reinsdorf is notoriously cheap and Chicago has only paid the luxury tax once in its history. Perhaps Reinsdorf didn’t want the Bulls to spend the entire mid-level exception because of the increased luxury tax bill. In this context, re-signing Brooks makes a lot of sense.

Alas, it appears Chicago’s offseason is, for all intents and purposes, over. The Bulls have 13 guaranteed contracts, and 2 partial or non guarantees. They essentially have the same team as they had a year ago, which means if the Bulls hope to contend, the will rely on internal development and new coach Fred Hoiberg successfully installing his system and culture. If Hoiberg generates some offense and brings new life this Bulls team, it would go a long way towards an Eastern conference finals appearance for the Bulls.

Synopsis: The Bulls made some nice moves this offseason: getting Butler to commit to at least four years with the team, re-signing Dunleavy, and getting good value in the draft with Portis. On the other hand, for all intensive purposes they’re returning the same team from a year ago that lost to a hobbled Cavaliers team in the Eastern conference semis. They opted not to use the taxpayer mid-level to add outside talent or dangle one of their surplus of bigs to add an impact player. Without Hoiberg’s team completely gelling and Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah returning to form, I don’t see them competing with the Cavs in the East.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS:

2014-15 RECORD: 53-29

Grade: A

Cleveland resigned LeBron James, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Matthew Dellavedova from their Eastern Conference championship team a year ago. They also brought veteran guard Mo Williams back to Cleveland to play with James once again. They still have to finalize a contract with Tristan Thompson, but he’s unlikely to be anywhere but Cleveland in 2015-16 given that the Cavs have the ability to match any contract he signs, and he’s represented by the same agent as LeBron, Rich Paul. The recent turn of events makes things more interesting. Thompson opted against signing the qualifying offer before the deadline and the sides haven’t come to a contract agreement. TT is now holding out. However, I believe it’s only a matter of time until he returns to Cleveland on a long-term deal. There’s too much money at stake.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Cleveland ought to improve on last season’s effort, when they made the finals. The team added Mo Williams to backup Irving, bumping Dellavedova to a 5th guard role. They replaced Shawn Marion with Richard Jefferson, a marginal but real upgrade over a player in Marion who became so unplayable come playoff time that Blatt opted for a 7 man rotation over giving Marion minutes. They also brought 6’11” center Sasha Kaun from CKSA Moscow to be the 5th big. This Cavaliers roster will be much better equipped to overcome injuries with much improved depth across the team.

Realistically, the Cavaliers could have a payroll of over $100 million after bringing Thompson back, whether it be on the qualifying offer or a long-term contract. If Thomson returns on the qualifying offer, I would estimate the Cavs spend just over $101 million on player salaries and an additional $35 million in luxury tax payments. That’s almost $140 million on player personnel costs alone, almost ensuring the team will lose money next year. If the Cavs sign Thompson to a long-term contract, the damage could be far worse. Let’s say for example that Thompson and the Cavs agree to a contract similar to what was reportedly agreed to back in July: five years and over $80 million. A contract of this nature would pay Thompson around $14 million in 2015-16, $7.25 million more than what the qualifying offer would pay him. In this case, Cleveland would have about $109 million in player salaries and nearly $60 million in taxes (!!). The reason for the stalemate in contract talks between the Cavaliers and Thompson comes down to the luxury tax. This year, the difference between the qualifying offer and a long-term contract is almost $30 million if you include the additional salary and taxes.

Another fascinating piece of salary minutiae regarding the Cavaliers offseason has to do with its draft day trade and the eventual outcome. Cleveland traded down from the 24th pick in exchange for the 31st and 36th overall picks. Because first round draft picks come with guaranteed contracts for two years while second rounders do not, the Cavaliers ensured they wouldn’t owe any guaranteed money to draft picks by trading out of the first round. With the 31st pick the Cavs took Cedi Osman, a talented Turkish player who will continue to play overseas and thus not impact Cleveland’s 2015-16 cap sheet. With the 36th pick, David Griffin and the Cavs front office took Syracuse big Rakeem Christmas.

Here is where it gets interesting. Cleveland later traded Christmas to Indiana for a future 2nd round pick, which the Cavs then shipped to Portland in the trade to dump Mike Miller and generate a trade exception from Brendan Haywood’s contract. Portland most likely wanted a higher second round pick than where Cleveland is projected to be picking, hence the Christmas trade to Indiana. However, in lieu of the rookie Christmas on the roster, the Cavs brought over Russian center Sasha Kaun. The Cavs will pay Kaun almost $1.3 million this year while Christmas would have made just over half a million. While that’s only a $0.8 million in salary, because Cleveland is so far above the luxury tax line, in real terms Dan Gilbert is paying $3.6 million more in salary and taxes for Kaun than they would have paid for Christmas. Kaun is probably better suited to contribute this year, but the Cavs have 4 bigs ahead of him in the rotation. Safe to say, Gilbert is going all out for this year’s edition of the Cavaliers.

Synopsis: Irrespective of what happens with Thompson, we’re talking about $140 to $170 million spent on player salaries and taxes. Kudos to Dan Gilbert for the willingness to run a loss for the chance at a championship. With a deeper and more talented roster than a year ago and another year to gel, I would expect the Cavs to come out of the East on top once again.

DETROIT PISTONS

2014-15 Record: 32-50

Grade: C+

Do I dare say this Detroit team is going to be fun to watch this season? Reggie Jackson Andre Drummond spread pick and rolls surrounded by Jodie Meeks, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Ersan Ilyasova will bring back memories of the 2009 Magic. Detroit isn’t exactly what you’d call a free agent destination, so Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons front office opted to absorb players into that cap space through trades. Because they gave up little in exchange, this strategy was an effective means in upgrading the roster this offseason.

The Ilyasova addition is a nice one. They didn’t have to give up anything to get him, and get stretch 4 that fits perfectly into what Stan Van Gundy wants to do offensively. In another trade, they acquired Marcus Morris, Danny Granger, and Reggie Bullock from the Phoenix Suns for a future second round pick. Phoenix was trying to clear salary for a run at LaMarcus Aldridge and was willing to part with useful players to do so. In Morris, Detroit gets a solid combo forward, who’s locked into a team-friendly contract through 2019. If he doesn’t lose all of his twin superpowers after being split-up from his brother Markieff, the other Morris twin will fit nicely as a rotation forward who can stretch the floor a bit from the 4 spot.

Call me crazy, but I’m still a fan of Bullock as a 3 and D guy. He’s been bad limited minutes thus far in his NBA career, but I hope he gets some minutes as one of Van Gundy’s patented space wings. He can really shoot it, and looked decent when he got some time in Los Angeles before got traded to Phoenix mid season and got lost in their wing shuffle. In the third year of his rookie contract, if he can shoot it consistently and elevate his defense a notch, he could become a bargain rotation piece.

Now, to the ugly stuff. Giving Aron Baynes $20 million on a 3-year dear was a massive overpay. He will fill in as Drummond’s backup at center but that money would have been better spent on a guy like Kyle O’Quinn who got more than $2 million less, is younger, and has been equally if not more productive than Baynes over his career. I even would have prefered 23 year old big Bismack Biyombo, who got less than $3 million per year, to Baynes.

USA Today
USA Today

The team also doled out a 5 year $80 million contract to midseason acquisition Reggie Jackson. While Jackson turned down a $12 per year extension from Oklahoma City, for Detroit to pay $16 million a year without any clear competitor for Jackson’s services appeared unnecessary. A better strategy would have been to let Jackson search out an offer sheet and simply match it, because no team was going to offer Jackson $80 million. The only teams with significant cap space at the time Jackson inked his deal were Portland and Philly, neither of which were in a position to splurge on the young point guard. The Pistons ought to have used this leverage to their advantage, and signed Jackson to say a $70 million descending contract. This would reward Jackson’s gamble, paying him $14 million per year versus the $12 offered by the Thunder, but without severely overpaying. The descending contract would also help Detroit maintain a bit of future flexibility. Jackson still hasn’t proven himself as an above average point guard, and that’s fine. Paying for future production is the name of the game. However, paying him so handsomely with little market competition was poor value. A descending scale contract where Jackson is getting paid $13 million per over the final 3 years is far more tradable than a deal where he will make $17 over the final 3 years. Of course, Van Gundy, being a coach, isn’t thinking about trading Jackson, he just knows he wanted him on his team, such is the nature of having your coach as your general manager.

Synopsis: Van Gundy has molded this team to fit his patented space pick and roll. If Andre Drummond does his best 2009 Dwight Howard imitation and Reggie Jackson takes another step in his development, Detroit could easily be a playoff team. However, the also have a roster that’s littered with guys that aren’t great values. Jackson and Baynes were healthily overpaid. There’s a reason Milwaukee was willing to give up Ilyasova for free. Remember Jodie Meeks’ contract on the first day of free agency 2014? Van Gundy’s approach is typical of a coach at the lead of personnel decisions. As a result, the Pistons lack just a bit of the long term focus that a GM would normally provide.

INDIANA PACERS

2014-15 Record: 38-44

Grade: C+

Larry Bird and Pacers aimed to completely refashion their roster this offseason. The last couple years, Indiana has been a slow, plodding offensive team. They played almost exclusively with two bigs on floor, neither known for their mobility or outside shooting touch: David West and Roy Hibbert. While West and occasionally Hibbert, can knock down a mid-range jumper, each prefers (or at least is most efficient) operating in the painted area.

David West opted out of $12 million player option and instead signed on with San Antonio for the minimum (never a good sign about your organization). After Hibbert opted into $15 million, the Pacers dealt him to Los Angeles for a future 2nd round pick. The Hibbert trade actually isn’t terrible value. Hibbert is fairly paid (if not overpaid) so getting a future 2nd for him with one year left in his deal is a respectable return. The only problem is that now, Indiana basically has no bigs left on the roster. They drafted center Myles Turner out of Texas with the 11th overall pick, but he won’t be ready to contribute immediately. He ought to get playing time do doubt, but rookies always struggle. The hope for Turner will be to play him rotation minutes and hope he shows flashes of his potential. However, in terms in real on court value, he won’t provide much.

Getty images
Getty images

The Pacers signed Jordan Hill, re-signed Lavoy Allen, and still but Ian Mahimni, but their bigs are going to be atrocious. Larry Bird has said that his vision is for Paul George to play more forward than in years past, and after the offseason moves it appears he will have to because they really don’t have any playable power forwards in the roster. In theoretical sense, the alignment with George at the power forward makes a lot of sense as the league trends toward smaller, more versatile lineups. However, it seems George doesn’t want to play the position full time. Watching how Indiana’s big situation plays out will make for interesting theatre this season. If George and the team battle over his position and George sours on the Pacer organization, he would be extremely coveted on the trade market.

Elsewhere, Indiana signed Monta Ellis to a 4-year $44 million deal that isn’t a great value. The player option on the last year worth $11.7 million could end up getting ugly by which time Ellis will be 33 an ineffective. Small guards who rely on quickness historically haven’t aged well, which doesn’t bode well for Ellis and the Pacers. Indiana re-signed guard Rodney Stuckey to a 3-year $21 million contract. After a couple down years in Detroit, Stuckey played relatively well a year ago. Given his past production however, the 3-year contract, especially with the player option on the last year, isn’t a good value bet for Indiana.

Synopsis: This Indiana team is one of the most variable in terms of possible win totals in the league. Everything could break right and they could end up as the 5th seed in the East. If not however, I think things could get ugly. We know they don’t have any decent bigs so trying to play small could prove a disaster if their guards aren’t up to the task. Plus there’s the added difficulty with trying to play George at power forward, a position he’s never play before and isn’t exactly thrilled to play. My bold prediction is that George is gone by the trade deadline, but I think that’s the disaster situation for Indiana. They could be okay, or it could go all wrong and George could want out of bad situation. Only time will tell.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

2014-15 Record: 41-41

Grade: B

Milwaukee entered the offseason in a situation similar to what the Spurs had with Kawhi Leonard. Both Milwaukee’s stud wing Khris Middleton and Leonard were set to make substantial money in restricted free agency, but because of where they were drafted had relatively low cap holds. Middleton’s was only $1.7 million. What that meant was that Milwaukee had the luxury of a ton of cap space so long as they waited to sign Middleton until after they made their other move. They began their offseason early with a trade during the NBA finals that sent Ersan Ilyasova to Detroit in return for cap room. Ilyasova is a useful player, but is properly if not overpaid at $7.9 million. Hence, Milwaukee got nothing of value back for him.

After the trade, the Bucks had about $26 million in cap space to play with. They filled $6.6 million of it up with a draft day trade for Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez. While Vasquez fits a need as a creator at the guard position that can also shoot it, he’ll be competing with the recently acquired Michael Carter-Williams, Jarryd Bayless, OJ Mayo, and even rookie Rashad Vaughn for minutes at guard. Making matters worse is that Milwaukee severely overpaid for him, giving up their 2015 second round pick and a protected future first rounder from the Clippers. Because Vasquez contract is mostly fair and only runs one more year, the price Milwaukee paid to get him was far too steep.

With the rest of the cap room, the Bucks made a major splash once July rolled around when they convinced Greg Monroe to come to Milwaukee on a 3 year maximum contract. Getting Monroe was a major coup for the Bucks given that many expected the former Pistons big man to head to the Knicks or Lakers. Monroe clearly valued playing with Milwaukee’s exciting young core over the rebuilding situations New York and Los Angeles. The only catch is that his contract has a player option in the third year. As a result, Milwaukee will have to hope they can convince him to stay in town when he will have the option to opt-out in the summer of 2017 when the salary cap is expected to reach $105 million. In all likelihood Monroe will opt-out for the chance at a long-term deal, but convincing him to re-up with the Bucks will be paramount.

A starting lineup of Carter-Williams, Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Monroe will be interesting in a mediocre Eastern Conference, especially with some improvement from MCW, who struggled mightily with Milwaukee after he was acquired at the trade deadline. The have a strong young core that could develop well together if things break right. The Bucks will also have to hope that their length on the perimeter will mask the defensive weakness of a Parker – Monroe frontline.

Getty Images
Getty Images

However, despite the addition of Monroe, I’m mostly pessimistic about this Bucks team. They inked Khris Middleton to a fair 5-year $70 million contract. If Middleton can prove his 2014-15 season wasn’t a fluke he might outplay the contract as the salary cap continues to rise in the upcoming years. Afterward, the Bucks traded veteran forward Jared Dudley to the Wizards for a second round pick. Dudley far outplayed his $4 million salary a year ago, so trading him for just a second rounder in return doesn’t make much sense, especially given that now Milwaukee appears to be low on quality backup forwards with Ilyasova and Dudley out of town. Milwaukee also traded backup center Zaza Pachulia to Dallas for a future second round pick. This trade makes sense after Milwaukee acquired Monroe and has John Henson to play backup big minutes. Finally, Milwaukee reached a 4-year $44 million contract extension with big John Henson. Henson is solid at protecting the rim on defense and diving hard to the paint after pick and rolls on offense. That skill is valuable in today’s NBA, which combined with the rising salary cap and the fact that Henson is just 24 makes this contract good value for the Bucks.

What doesn’t make sense however, is the net result of their trades this offseason. They sent out Ilyasova, Dudley, Pachulia, a future first from LAC, and a 2015 second in exchange for Vasquez and 2 second round picks. That equation doesn’t add up, which has me worried about the depth of this Milwaukee team as well as their collection of assets moving forward. Sure, they ended up with the second rounders, but they traded one away as well in addition to a first rounder they could have used as a lottery ticket on a prospect in the upcoming draft or pawned as part of a larger deal to improve the team. Getting 1 year of a fairly paid Vasquez does not appear to be the best use of resources. Neither does getting nothing for Ilyasova and pennies for quality veteran backups in Dudley and Pachulia.

Synopsis: The Bucks did extremely well to unexpectedly snag Monroe from a thicket of other teams competing for his services. You could say the same about Milwaukee making sure Middleton stays in town for the next 5 years on a fair contract. However, elsewhere it appeared the Bucks didn’t get great value in their offseason. They unloaded quality veterans on the cheap and paid an expensive price to get one year of Vasquez on a relatively fair contract. Many are predicting Milwaukee to jump into the upper echelon of teams in the East. I would peg them closer to a 7th or 8th seed.

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