The Northwest division is a hodgepodge of teams in various stages of contention. How do their summer transactions stack up?
Summertime in the NBA is a season full of hope, where every team except the Sixers can give their fans something to look forward to as they count down the days to opening night.
Every team made changes and most changes look great on paper this time of year, before the actual product is revealed on the floor and the unexpected inevitably happens. Some can't-miss signings will indeed miss, and some players that are being completely overlooked at the moment will suddenly make a name for themselves.
While we can't predict who will be this year's Hassan Whiteside or Khris Middleton, we can still have a little fun with the whole thing and act like we know what we're talking about. For this, I enlisted the Walter Matthau to my Jack Lemmon, Bright Side of the Sun's noble scribe Jim Coughenour, as we pick apart the summer moves that every NBA team has made since their season ended.
This week we move on to the Northwest Division, which features a couple up-and-comers and a legitimate title contender. If reading about bad teams is more your thing, check out last week's piece on the Atlantic Division here.
2014/15 record: 30-52 (felt worse than that, missed playoffs)
Incoming: Joey Dorsey, Kostas Papanikolaou, Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Nick Johnson
Jim: The most conspicuous change over the summer for Denver was the transition from Lawson to #7 overall pick Mudiay at point guard. Unfortunately, the team was compelled to cut ties with Ty because his most favoritest thing in the whole wide world is driving under the influence of alcohol. Lawson excelled as a playmaker last season and finished third in the NBA in assists per game (9.6), proving the only thing he can't pass is a field sobriety test.
Lawson's DUI on July 14th was his second arrest in less than six months. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly stood behind Lawson after the July incident, "Ty's a really good person. He's a Nugget, so when one of our guys goes through issues, we support him as a family and everyone stands behind him."
Lawson was traded to the Rockets two days after Connelly made those remarks.
Maybe the Suns behavioral issues aren't that bad (or unique) after all?
Coming back in the trade for Lawson was a steaming pile of garbage, the crown jewel of which was a lottery protected 2016 first round pick (which will likely be in the 25-30 range). Not exactly a great haul for one of the better offensive point guards in the league. Among the warm bodies coming to Denver was Joey Dorsey, who accomplished the staggering feat of shooting less than 29% (24-83) from the free throw line last season. They also got Pablo Prigioni... then waived him.
Denver's other major move this summer was extending the oft-injured Danilo Gallinari. The Nugs are now locked in long term with a core of Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried. The nicest thing I can probably say about that is they will never, ever, ever compete in the Western Conference around that trio.
Jim's grade: Just like Connelly, I'm standing behind the Nuggets offseason.
Rollin: Allow me a moment to tip my 40 for what used to be my favorite non-Suns basketball organization. How they went from George Karl and Masai Ujiri to whatever is going on now is baffling. I don't think the Nuggets even know what the Nuggets are anymore. When a front office targets both Mike Malone and Mike D'Antoni for the same head coaching vacancy, it's probably safe to assume that there are some serious directional issues.
They have a promising tandem at the 1 and 5 with Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic, which is good for them because otherwise they'd have the single least interesting roster in the NBA. I'm talking narcoleptic levels of boredom. I'd rather watch The English Patient and The King's Speech back-to-back than watch Wilson Chandler and Randy Foye play basketball.
I'm not saying they're bad players -- but just like the rest of this team, they're serviceable in the worst way possible.
How is it that this team has gone belly-up for two straight seasons, yet made not a single major transaction other than the Lawson trade, which they were more or less forced to address? What are they building here? The Malone hiring would signify a shift towards a very un-Nuggets defensive-minded team, but their roster suggests nothing of the sort. It's like they're making three right turns when a single left would suffice.
It's jarring how dramatically the fun has been sucked out of Denver, which as recently as 2012/13 was the mecca of unbridled basketball pornography. I remember a game at the Pepsi Center last season when the Nugs were absolutely boatracing the Suns in the first half, and it was quiet enough in that arena to hear Steve Albert rip one. When a Suns fan can call you out for lame home-court atmosphere, you have a problem.
Of course, when building a contender it's always better to be lucky than good, so if Mudiay ends up being a homerun then most of this won't matter.
And that's really their only sliver of hope at this point.
Rollin's grade: A compass, because obviously they need one.
2014/15 record: 16-66 (finished with worst record, landed no. 1 overall pick)
Arrivals: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Miller, Tyus Jones
Departures: Chase Budinger, some other dudes
Rollin: It's 2015 and the post-KG rebuild has finally gained some momentum ... with KG in tow, wouldn't you know.
They made no significant moves after draft day outside of signing Old Man Miller. There is a young core featuring Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Anthony Bennett qualifies as young talent in theory, but he followed up his horrendous rookie season with something only slightly less horrendous, as his 11.4 PER and .458 TS% with the Wolves were somehow a dramatic improvement.
The Wolves are like a screwball comedy movie, and I don't mean that as a jab.
Screwball comedies are judged by only a single factor -- either they make people laugh or they don't. As far as the Wolves are concerned, either their young players will pan out or the rebuild will enter yet another half-decade worth of spinning the lottery wheel. Anything else is only details. At some point they're bound to score big, even if it's by accident, and luckily for them there isn't much more one could hope for than pairing a talent like Towns with the reigning Rookie of the Year.
Greatly distinguishing themselves from the likes of Philadelphia, Minnesota will roll out a curious assembly of veterans in Miller, Garnett, Nikola Pekovic Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio, who is only 24 but seems like 34, and will be guided by the grizzled hand of head coach Flip Saunders. This actually isn't a half-bad roster, and if health permits they should at least be able to bag 30 wins.
But who cares? All that really matters in Minny is how high the ceilings of Towns and Wiggins are. Towns seems to be as can't-miss as young big men come, at least since Tim Duncan, but I'm quite certain the same thing was said for Michael Olowokandi and Darko Milicic at some point.
The only other compelling storyline here is that of Rubio -- specifically, will he ever be as good as advertised or have his injuries and non-existent scoring ability reduced him to nothing more than a notable role-player?
Rollin's grade: A tax break, for hiring players of all ages.
Jim: The best move the Wolves made this offseason was rabbit footing their way into the #1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, becoming the first team with the worst record in the league to do so in 11 years.
Somehow they managed to beat out the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Minnesota was actually plagued by injuries last season, which largely contributed to their pitiful 16-66 record. The Wolves will almost surely improve upon that total as they potentially have one of the deepest teams in the league. Martin and Garnett fit the bill as veteran leaders, with the added bonus of KG being one of the most underhanded players in the league.
I would add 22 year old Shabazz Muhammad, who averaged 21.3 points per 36 minutes on 49% shooting and 39% from three, to that young core you mentioned. 25 year old Gorgui Dieng is also a great backup big. Hell, Adreian Payne, who many Suns fans coveted, and Tyus Jones add even more young talent to their roster. The future looks bright for this team.
The biggest problem is being located in Minnesota.
Another issue facing this team right now is the inconvenience of having Pekovic locked up for three more years. It might not have seemed like a bad deal at the time, but with the arrival of Towns he just became an unnecessary stumbling block. The #1 overall pick should be starting on a lottery team and I like Dieng better as a backup. I would be higher on the Wolves summer if they had found a way to dump the burly big man.
Jim's grade: Fish tacos, because Rubio.
2014/15 record: 45-37 (missed playoffs, because Western Conference)
Arrivals: Kevin Durant, Billy Donovan
Jim: Forget the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes, the Thunder may have made the single biggest move of the summer by bringing back a healthy Kevin Durant. Durant has started practicing again and is showing no ill effects after appearing in just 27 games last season. The real chance of moving from the lottery to the #1 overall seed in the Western Conference would be a big leap.
OKC will potentially have two top five players, with Russell Westbrook emerging as an even more freakishly gifted maniac in Durant's absence. He led the league in scoring and triple doubles, despite failing to drag his team into the playoffs. He also led the league in usage percentage, Russell likes the ball, and showboating. The dilemma with Westbrook is always finding a balance between his reckless abandon and smart team basketball. The former tends to predominate the latter at times.
I will be curious to see if new coach Billy Donovan can implement a better offensive scheme than his predecessor Scott Brooks, who brilliantly concocted the give the ball to Durant or Westbrook in isolation late in the shot clock offense. I'm still not sold on the trio platooning at shooting guard, but Russ, KD, Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka could compose a terrifying offensive combo.
Some people already look at the Thunder as a failed opportunity/experiment, with Durant's pending free agency looming, but Durant and Westbrook are both only 26... LeBron James didn't win his first title until he was 27. James still only has two titles. Winning those things seems kind of difficult.
Jim's grade: I guess if I lived in a ranch I'd be jolly, too.
Everyone knew that [Kanter] would get a ton of money either way, because NBA GM's do things like give the Enes Kanters of the world a ton of money.
Rollin: Has a team as loaded as OKC ever flown farther under the radar? Kanter will probably prevent this team from being top-5 defensively, but we've seen how good the Thunder offense can be even with the bland schemes of Scott Brooks. If Donovan can design an NBA offense and the key cogs can stay healthy, these guys might score 150 points a night.
For a refresher on how poorly structured the OKC offense was under Brooks, check out the vid.
Let's be honest; West playoff teams have all been stupidly lucky that the Thunder have been unable to field a healthy team in the playoffs for three straight season. They're due for a break, and they might be the team to beat come April.
But let's talk about Kanter for a moment. Was there any fanbase in the NBA that wanted their team to sign the Turkish big man to a $70 million contract? The folks at Welcome To Loud City sure didn't ... 65% of them anyway.
For $70 million over four years, a team should at the very least get a starter that can play over 30 minutes a game. I think most of us can guess what will happen with Kanter. He will start out by getting all the minutes he can handle before eventually his team realizes that he might be the worst defensive big man in the NBA and has to constantly yank him out of games despite his hefty scoring and rebounding numbers and he eventually becomes an overpriced sixth man.
No matter what team opened up the bankbook for him, this is probably what the narrative would end up being.
But still, everyone knew that he would get a ton of money either way, because NBA GM's do things like give the Enes Kanters of the world a ton of money.
The Thunder seem to be a particularly bad fit for Kanter, with Steven Adams already providing everything that this team needs from the center position and Mitch McGary waiting in the wings. The rest of the roster is so good that it probably won't matter this season, but the front office still gets a black mark for everything that has happened from Harden to Kanter.
In other news, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III indeed turned out to be bad NBA players.
Rollin's grade: SonicsGate 2: Still Sonicing
Jim: I kind of disagree with you on the Kanter thing. I like him on that team and am fine with the price point given that team's present situation.
Their cringeworthy offensive sets should be a thing of the past.
I think their defense as a whole will still be pretty good and teams better take advantage, because OKC will board ham.
Rollin: They're good enough that even if Kanter is a disaster they won't feel it much.
Damn that sentence makes me jealous.
Jim: Even in the West, if they stay healthy I'll be surprised if they don't win 60 games.
They're even a little bit better than the Suns.
2014/15 record: Doesn't really matter anymore, does it?
Rollin: It's hard to assess the offseason of an organization that decided to nuke almost their entire roster. Do we grade them on how well they dropped the nuke? If so, they certainly nailed it.
Here's the condensed version: The only rotation players the Blazers kept were Damian Lillard, Chris Kaman, Meyers Leonard and Dorell Wright. Everyone else, including four of their starters, left town with very little resistance. Portland had just put the finishing touches on their post-Brandon Roy rebuild and now they'll be starting another one all over again. Except this time, Billy King is all out of draft picks.
Replacing the playoff roster will be a puzzling assortment of youngish players that don't seem to have as much room for growth as their youth suggests. This might be important, because Damian Lillard was minted with a $125 million contract extension and with the departure of Aldridge he is now the only thing in Portland that even resembles a star player.
As Suns fans know, getting one star is hard enough. Portland had two, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Lillard spend the remainder of his contract waiting for that next co-star to arrive.
I'll reserve judgement until I have some idea of what the end-game is, but when a 50-win team in the Western Conference decides to part ways with most of their roster, I would expect the return to be a little more intriguing than this.
Rollin's grade: Fred Armisen in drag
It reminds me of the "let's pretend we have a plan" charade employed by the Suns in 2010. Maybe it will work, but I don't think it was really "the plan" until very recently.
Jim: At least Portland should get to keep its own 2016 first round pick now, top 14 protected to the Denver Nuggets, because they have a shot at being the worst team in the Western Conference (might be a steel cage death match between them and the Lakers)...
Neil Olshey has apparently said %^ck the Suns rebuilding strategy and decided to push all his chips in on Lillard with a cataclysmic approach. This artifice comes with its own inherent perils. The Blazers could have chosen to retool around Lillard and fought for the eighth seed, but instead are prepared to embrace the suck for at least one year while planning to use Damian as a lure in next summer's free agency period. That combined with the value of the top five pick the team seems intent on chasing could trampoline them back into competition.
On the other hand, they could stay bad for a long time in a brutal conference with several more improved teams.
I think I'd like to see a little more of C.J. McCollum and Noah Vonleh before I close the door on them, but other than that I agree with you that the upside of the current roster is pretty underwhelming. I also think that having a few extra draft picks coming their way would be nice... no, the Lakers 2019 second rounder doesn't count.
More than a nuke, though, this seems like Portland didn't realize their plane was about to crash and had to hit the ejection seat button. In a way it reminds me of the "let's pretend we have a plan" charade employed by the Suns in 2010. Maybe it will work, but I don't think it was really "the plan" until very recently.
But since I'm a fan of getting bad to get good...
Jim's grade: A garden of roses.
2014/15 record: 38-44 (felt better than that, missed playoffs)
Arrivals: Trey Lyles
Departures: Dante Exum (out for season, torn ACL)
Jim: The Jazz were having a great summer doing absolutely nothing until August 4th rolled around.
Less than a week ago Dante Exum suffered a random, no contact injury doing something he had done thousands of times before. As someone who tore his own ACL 22 months ago (on a similarly random, no contact movement) I hope Exum a full and speedy recovery. I lost some athleticism and still have pain.
That was fun.
The loss of Exum for next season puts a bit of a pallor over a team that appeared to be on the rise after going 19-10 after the All-Star break. Utah easily had the league's best defensive rating (94.8) over that period, which coincided with Rudy Gobert's insertion into the starting lineup.
[...] it feels a lot like eating a salad. Now the lettuce is a little wilted.
Losing a defensive menace type franchise point guard is bad enough, but this managed to happen after free agency... leaving the Jazz with the unsavory option of Trey Burke manning the point next season and Bryce Cotton and Raul Neto (go ahead and google them if you think I made those names up) backing him up.
At least they're not stuck with Ronnie Price.
Utah's summer was pretty unspectacular, unless you're a huge fan of the build from within and develop talent mechanic. I mean, it can be a solid way to construct a long term winner (especially for a location that doesn't have free agents banging down the door), but it feels a lot like eating a salad. Now the lettuce is a little wilted.
Jim's grade: A Crushing Loss
Rollin: As a fervent salad-eater, I think what's going on in Utah is pretty exciting. The Exum injury was more of a bummer for Exum than it was for Utah's hopes this season. Their great play post-ASB was without their starting shooting guard (Alec Burks), so I think they'll find a way to recover from losing Exum and his 5.7 PER.
Ish Smith, make sure your phone is charged.
Other than that, things are pretty simple in the SLC. They'll spend another year watching Gobert, Favors and Hayward grow into their roles, and the jubilation of Quin Snyder calling the shots instead of Ty Corbin still hasn't worn off. The return of Burks to the lineup will steady the rotation (Joe Ingles started 32 games for them last year) and Rodney Hood shot .365 from 3 during his rookie year.
For a team that often sits out the first week of free agency, there is a lot of intrigue on this roster.
But ... for all that has been made of their young core, is there any real star potential here? Is it reasonable to hope for more than maybe a couple combined All-Star appearances from the Gobert/Favors/Hayward triumvirate? Can any of these guys be the type that can win a playoff series for their team? Hayward is already 25, Favors is now 24. Not that that's long in the tooth, but they're getting to that age where they more or less are what they are.
It'll be enjoyable in the meantime, but unless someone makes a leap, I don't think we're watching a true contender being born here. I was also prepared to poo on the Lyles selection, but I have no idea what a Trey Lyles even is so I'll refrain.
Rollin's grade: My favorite team name that doesn't end with 'S'
Jim: I think part of the reason that Utah enjoyed their success down the stretch was that Exum was a complete nuisance on defense. With him out I think the lack of depth at the point becomes more salient... and by lack of depth I mean more Trey Burke. It appears that I'm higher on Exum than you are, and maybe than I should be, but some of that might be that I'm pretty low on Burke.
I still think that Gobert has star potential. If he continues to develop I can see him making several All-Star games as a defensive anchor that averages a double-double and leads the league in blocks. He might not be sexy, but I think he can still win a team a lot of games. Unfortunately, Exum is the other player whose ceiling I like most and now his development is in stasis.
Hayward also seems a bit underrated, maybe because he plays in Utah, and Favors could be an attractive trade chip if the Jazz get frisky.
Rollin: I should clarify that I think Utah will be a 50+ win team sometime in the near future. I just wonder if any of their youngsters will ever be the kind of guy that can carry an offense in a playoff series, which is often the sole difference between regular season and postseason success.
But I'm putting the cart way ahead of the horse here. Basketball is relevant in SLC again, and that's a good thing.
10 NBA articles you may have missed.
At least one ESPN writer thinks that the Phoenix Suns have the "second-worst roster construction in the Western Conference."
CBS Sports' Matt Moore:
"Teams victimized the Mavericks by putting Dirk Nowitzki in pick-and-roll coverage and forcing Chandler to cover for him. He couldn't do it consistently. Phoenix is a different animal, however. Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker have all shown good defensive impact on the perimeter, and Markieff Morris, if he's still around, won't be as limited physically as Dirk is at this point." Can new Sun Tyson Chandler still be one of the very best defensive centers in the NBA?
Here's Moore's complete offseason report.
The Suns and Phoenix Mercury are helping with an Arizona voter initiative to educate school children about the electoral process.
New Suns swingman Sonny Weems returned to the West Memphis high school where he won a state championship to host a free three-day youth basketball camp last week.
Here's your reminder of the worst kept secret since his brother was shipped out to Detroit, Suns forward Markieff Morris wants out of Phoenix.
When looking at sheer numbers, does Phoenix have more professional sports teams than the market size would suggest?