30. New York Knicks: 10-44. Offense: 98.7 (28th). Defense: 107.6 (28th)
Traded: Pablo Prigioni ($1,662,961 this season, $290,000 of $1,734,572 guaranteed next season)
Received: Alexey Shved ($3,282,057 this season, RFA this summer) and the Rockets' 2017 and 2019 2nd round picks
I'm surprised that New York actually added salary after Phil Jackson nearly got them under the Luxury Tax, but this is good trade for the Knickerbockers. They add some much needed draft picks (even if they are so far into the future), shed the modest amount due to Prigioni this summer, and get a look at the much younger Shved, who actually fits Phil's preference in the triangle offense for a big PG with some shooting ability. It is ridiculous that Carmelo Anthony played in the All-Star game before shutting it down for the season -- if his knee was in enough pain to require surgery, why play in an exhibition? -- but they've secured cap space and are on the right track to secure the best lottery odds for the post player they desperately need in this system, Jahlil Okafor...even if those odds are still just a 25% chance at the #1 pick.
29. Los Angeles Lakers: 13-41. Offense: 101.3 (23rd). Defense: 108.6 (29th)
With the fourth worst record in the league right now, L.A. has an 82.8% chance at keeping their top-5 protected pick, but whenever that pick ends up being conveyed to complete the Steve Nash deal, they'll still owe another first round pick to Orlando two years later thanks to the Dwight Howard trade. While they were wise to pick up Houston's first round pick by taking Jeremy Lin off their hands, second round pick Jordan Clarkson has some nice potential, and Ed Davis was an incredible steal at the minimum for this season, this roster is still barren of talent overall, with no foundation player at any position. Seventh overall pick Julius Randle breaking his leg in the first game was one of the biggest tragedies of the year, and Kobe Bryant ending up injured for the third straight year makes his ridiculous contract extension look even worse. It will be interesting to see how they navigate their cap space in free agency this summer with the last year of Kobe's contract coming off the books in the summer of 2016 when the massive TV contract will jump up the salary cap.
|Andrew Wiggins has soared above his peers.|
28. Minnesota Timberwolves: 12-42. Offense: 99.5 (T-25th). Defense: 109.2 (30th)
Traded: Thaddeus Young ($9,660,869 this season, $10,221,739 early termination option this summer)
Received: Kevin Garnett ($12,000,000 this season)
The Big Ticket returning to where it all started 20 years ago is a great story, but trading 26 year old Thad Young wasn't the best use of assets considering that he cost them Miami's first round pick from Cleveland in the Kevin Love trade. Maybe there weren't any future values better than KG's influence if Young indicated that he was going to opt for free agency this summer, but the mere fact that this was a possibility made the choice to trade for him instead of simply keeping top 10-protected pick a questionable one. President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders has had an uneven performance so far (which is still better than what Head Coach Flip Saunders has done), with this trade capping off a trade season that included dumping Corey Brewer for Troy Daniels and two second round picks, including a valuable one from Sacramento this year; flipping Daniels and cheap free agent signing Mo Williams for Gary Neal's expiring contract and a possibly valuable 2019 Miami second round pick via Charlotte; and trading a heavily protected 2017 first round pick for Adreian Payne, who was the 15th pick in last year's draft but hasn't been overly impressive in the D-League.
Of course, the most important move of all was trading for Andrew Wiggins, the #1 prospect of his class and next great NBA star, last summer as the key piece of the Love trade. He's had some ups and downs as you'd expect from a 19 year old, but things appeared to have clicked since the end of December. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what caused this change (it occurred not long after Shabazz Muhammad joined the starting lineup, allowing Wiggins to have the ball in his hands more and have a size advantage against opposing shooting guards, but it has continued with Muhammad injured and Kevin Martin back healthy), but since December 23rd, when he went off against the Cavaliers team that traded him, he has averaged 18.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists with 47.1% shooting overall in 14.7 attempts, 34.9% from three in 2.3 attempts, and 76.9% from the line in 4.8 attempts in 28 games, all the while defending the opponents' top perimeter threats. This kind of two way versatility provides a foundation piece for a franchise that has Ricky Rubio locked up along with Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett (the other piece of the Love trade), Zach LaVine, and now Payne all on their rookie scale contracts. They could all become solid rotation players down the line to go with Wiggins, Rubio, and their high lottery pick this summer-- I hope they end up with Karl Towns as their elite big to be mentored by Garnett compared to the others they already have.
27. Philadelphia 76ers: 12-42. Offense: 91.6 (30th). Defense: 101.9 (T-12th)
Traded: Michael Carter-Williams ($2,300,040 this season, $2,399,040 next season, $3,183,526 team option, RFA in 2017), K.J. McDaniels ($507,336 this season, RFA this summer), and the rights to Cenk Akyol
Received: Isaiah Canaan ($816,482 this season, $947,276 partially guaranteed next season, RFA in 2016), JaVale McGee ($11,250,000 this season, $12,000,000 next season), Lakers' first round pick (top 5 protected this year, top 3 protected in 2016 and 2017, unprotected in 2018), Thunder's first round pick (top 18 protected this year, top 15 protected in 2016 and 2017, otherwise becomes 2018 and 2019 second round picks), and the less favorable of the Timberwolves' or Nuggets' second round pick.
Sam Hinkie was as active as ever, flipping his cap space and players he didn't envision as long term pieces for more assets. Since I've always been higher on MCW than most, I don't like that they traded the reigning rookie of the year with two years left on his contract, but I can understand the value of it. As I wrote in my mock draft in June, it may make sense to trade him while his value is at its highest since there may be more perceived potential than he actually has since he's relatively old for his class (23, compared to his childhood friend and teammate, Nerlens Noel, who is still 20), and this LA pick has huge potential.
The McDaniels trade is harder to reconcile despite his regression from earlier in the season when he was uncharacteristically hot from deep (40% his first 16 games, 23.8% in his next 37) because while Canaan is a nice, young backup point guard, neither he nor the second round pick bring the upside of what McDaniels already brings on the defensive end alone. This had more to do with the fact that after unexpectedly falling to the second round at pick 32, McDaniels refused to sign the typical four year partially-guaranteed contract at the minimum that Hinkie helped make popular from his time in Houston (i.e. Chandler Parsons), and as a result, he is set to hit restricted free agency already after signing the cheaper, non-guaranteed one year tender. Given that the 76ers have no huge contracts on the books, I don't see why they decided to cash in on their chips now rather than dole out a fair amount this summer.
The McGee trade was a no-brainer decision to absorb his contract into otherwise unused cap space in order to pick up one of Denver's extra draft picks as compensation for taking him off their hands. The only potential negative would be that he harms the development of their young big men, Noel and Joel Embiid, but I don't think that is a concern. Say what you will about Hinkie, but he is accumulating chances to find a franchise cornerstone and finding contributors on cost-controlled deals with the aforementioned contract strategy. Brett Brown has done and admirable job of coaching up his extremely young team of long-armed athletes to field a competitive defense, and Tony Wroten, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Hollis Thompson, and Jakaar Sampson look like they could be nice pieces to have going forward. I could go on and on about this franchise, but the fact of the matter is that they need to find a focal point for the offense, someone like D'Angelo Russell, who reminds me of James Harden as a 6'5" lefty with a smooth stroke who has an innate passing ability and sneaky athleticism. With a best case scenario of the lottery giving them the #1 pick, knocking the L.A. pick to #6, Miami imploding to #11, and OKC sneaking into the playoffs at #19, they could potentially have a ton of chances at finding this fixture.
26. Orlando Magic: 18-39. Offense: 99.5 (T-25th). Defense: 105.3 (24th)
|Gordon's foot injury has mired his rookie year.|
This team has some nice things going for it, but there are a lot of questions that aren't answered by simply saying recently fired head coach Jacque Vaughn was holding them back. Can Victor Oladipo become a franchise player? I like him (enough so to make him my dark horse pick for the dunk contest), but I always found the Dwyane Wade comparisons a bit of a stretch. Can Nikola Vucevic, the steal of the Dwight Howard trade who was recently reward with a handsome extension, anchor an above average defense? He posts gaudy rebounding numbers and is a skilled offensive player, but he needs to at least put himself in the right position to impact plays and allow for a tenacious frontcourt-mate like Aaron Gordon to help elsewhere. What happened to Mo Harkless and Andrew Nicholson? These 2012 mid-first round picks have shown potential in the past but have lost minutes in favor of veteran retreads, and you wonder if they could be acquired cheaply to become impact players for other teams. Tobias Harris and, to a lesser extent, Kyle O'Quinn should get paid a fair amount in restricted free agency this summer, and it will be interesting to see how Orlando handles their forward situation to go with Vucevic and the backcourt of Oladipo and rookie Elfrid Peyton.
25. Denver Nuggets: 20-34. Offense: 101.2 (22nd). Defense: 104.9 (23rd)
Traded: Arron Afflalo ($7,750,000 this season, $7,750,000 player option this summer), Alonzo Gee ($915,243 this season), JaVale McGee ($11,250,000 this season, $12,000,000 next season), and the Thunder's first round pick (top 18 protected this year, top 15 protected in 2016 and 2017, otherwise becomes 2018 and 2019 second round picks)
Received: Will Barton ($915,243 this season, RFA this summer), Thomas Robinson ($3,678,360 this season), Victor Claver ($1,370,000 this season), the Trailblazer's future first round pick (lottery protected in 2016 and 2017, otherwise becomes 2018 and 2019 second round picks), and the rights to Cenk Akyol
Much like when they sent Timofey Mosgov to Cleveland, Denver received solid value for Afflalo, especially since he could hit free agency this summer. I was surprised to see them dump one of the picks from the Cavs just to get out of McGee's contract since it was about to become a large expiring number, and the fact that Portland's pick is in 2016 instead of this year makes it even stranger. There is a better chance of that pick becoming more valuable next year since it is currently slated for the mid 20's, but is lottery protected, anyway. They'll get a look at the talented but inconsistent Barton for the rest of the year before having the chance to match any offers in restricted free agency, and rookie Gary Harris should get more opportunities to develop, as well. Fellow rookie Jusuf Nurkic has already gotten the chance to spread his wings, and while he still struggles with fouls, he shows a lot of promise as one of the team's potential cornerstones like Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried. Brian Shaw needs to carve out an identity with how these pieces can fit together so that they aren't mediocre on both offense and defense.
24. Sacramento Kings: 19-34. Offense: 101.7 (19th). Defense: 105.9 (27th)
Traded: Ramon Sessions ($2,077,000 this season, $2,170,465 next season)
Received: Andre Miller ($4,625,000 this season)
New head coach George Karl is reunited with one of his favorite players in the veteran Miller, and that should help get the team acclimated to the system after yet another coaching change (I won't get into the fact that there was even a ridiculous first change early in the season). Karl's recent Denver teams never had a player quite like Boogie Cousins to feature, so it should be fun to see how he's incorporated, while Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore should feel right at home. Furthermore, 8th overall pick Nik Stauskas might actually be freed with McLemore in a shooting slump since the calendar turned to 2015 and Karl not afraid to play small lineups, anyway. It probably won't come that close with so few remaining games this season, but it is worth noting that they still owe a first round pick to Chicago (via Cleveland thanks to the horrible Omris Casspi/J.J. Hickson exchange from 2011) that is only top 10 protected through 2017.
23. Utah Jazz: 20-34. Offense: 103.0 (15th). Defense: 105.6 (25th)
Traded: Enes Kanter ($5,694,674 this season, RFA this summer), Steve Novak ($3,445,947 this season, $3,750,001 next season)
Received: Kendrick Perkins ($9,654,342 this season, to be bought out), Grant Jarrett ($816,482 this season, $947,276 next season, $1,015,696 and $1,087,745 non-guaranteed through 2018), the rights to Tibor Pleiss, a future Thunder first round pick (lottery protected from 2017 to 2020, otherwise becomes 2020 and 2021 second round picks), and the Pistons' 2017 second round pick
It was a nice haul for an unhappy player who they might not have wanted to resign in the restricted free agent market anyway, given the emergence of Rudy Gobert. Although the first rounder is down the line and heavily protected, it is a nice asset, along with dumping the money owed Novak next season and Jarrett and Pleiss, both of whom are pretty nice throw-ins as former high second round who are long on potential but lack NBA experience. They have all of their own future picks and a bevy of second rounders to surround their core of Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Gobert, the Stifle Tower who was an absolute steal at 26th overall in 2013 after emerging at the Nike Hoop Summit. It remains to be seen what their plans are for Trey Burke, who was overvalued when they traded up for him but has looked good coming off the bench, and rookie Rodney Hood, who hasn't seen much action but could become the wing shooter they need. Rookie head coach Quin Snyder has shown encouraging signs and can't fully be judged until his young players, particularly Exum, develop.
Traded: Marcus Thornton ($8,575,000 this season), Tayshaun Prince ($7,707,865 this season), and a future Cavaliers first round pick (top 10 protected from 2016 to 2018, unprotected in 2019)
Received: Isaiah Thomas ($7,238,606 this season, $6,912,869 next season, $6,587,132 through 2017, $6,261,395 through 2018), Jonas Jerebko ($4,500,000 this season), and Luigi Datome ($1,750,000 this season, RFA this summer)
I really wanted to rank this team higher just because of the great moves that Danny Ainge has made and the job young coach Brad Stevens has done, but the actual product on the court just isn't there yet. Adding a proven bench scorer like Thomas (and his bargain contract) helps, and it makes sense that he joins defensive minded guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, his Tacoma, Washington buddy. Keep this in mind when considering the cost of the trade: Ainge picked up that pick and Thornton's expiring contract (along with the underrated Tyler Zeller) by using an expiring Trade Exception when Cleveland was scrambling for cap space last summer. Furthermore, they still have seven potential (five likely) first round picks form other teams upcoming, two of which are unprotected from a Brooklyn team that isn't likely to be good next season and potentially a wreck in 2018 given their age, which was why I loved the long-term implications of that trade when it happened.
|Ainge and Stevens have this team in the right direction.|
21. Brooklyn Nets: 22-31. Offense: 100.3 (24th). Defense: 104.7 (21st)
Traded: Kevin Garnett ($12,000,000 this season)
Received: Thaddeus Young ($9,660,869 this season, $10,221,739 early termination option this summer)
As you might have surmised from above, I'm not high on this Nets team overall, but they did well to exchange KG's expiring contract for a younger, potentially long-term piece, all the while trimming their luxury tax bill. They were also wise to not sell low on Brook Lopez despite his injury history, so they at least have a decent shot at making the playoffs. They aren't likely to make much noise against a top team, but they might as well go for it since they have to swap first round picks with Atlanta as the last aspect of the Joe Johnson trade.
20. Indiana Pacers: 22-33. Offense: 99.4 (27th). Defense: 101.4 (11th)
They stood pat at the deadline, and in fact, they are the only team in the league that does not have any future draft picks coming or going. The possible addition of a healthy Paul George would provide the boost they need to make a playoff push, and they are actually 6-2 since C.J. Miles came back healthy, hitting the century mark in each win. Rodney Stuckey and a healthy George Hill have been playing good ball, as well, so although their defense hasn't been as stifling as in previous years, they could put some pressure on teams down the stretch.
19. Detroit Pistons: 22-33. Offense: 101.9 (18th). Defense: 103.9 (17th)
Traded: D.J. Augustin ($3,000,000 this season, $3,000,000 next season), Kyle Singler ($1,090,000 this season, RFA this summer), Jonas Jerebko ($4,500,000 this season), Luigi Datome ($1,750,000 this season, RFA this summer), and their 2017 and 2019 second round picks
Received: Reggie Jackson ($2,204,369 this season, RFA this summer) and Tayshaun Prince ($7,707,865 this season)
What a year it's been in Detroit between starting 5-23, waiving Josh Smith via the stretch provision, and then going 12-4 before losing Brandon Jennings to a torn Achilles. Augustin performed admirably in his stead, but they were just 4-6 before this opportunity to upgrade to Jackson at a low cost. I've been a believer in Jackson going back to the 2011 draft, and while it is disappointing how he handled his situation, he could thrive with Stan Van Gundy handing him the reins to his spread offense on a potential playoff team. Exchanging expiring contracts to bring back the battle tested Prince was a savvy move, as well, so they actually have a solid rotation for an Eastern squad. Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see what kind of contract he receives considering that the injured Jennings still has one more year on his deal and Greg Monroe is set to test the free agency waters after not garnering much interest due to the restricted tag last summer.
18. Charlotte Hornets: 22-30. Offense: 97.7 (29th). Defense: 100.4 (T-6th)
Swapping Gary Neal and an extra second rounder for Mo Williams was a solid addition to help Brian Roberts carry the point guard load while Kemba Walker is sidelined. Lance Stevenson could help run the offense in theory, as well, but that free agent experiment has been a disaster as he's another sub-par shooter on a team that struggles to generate offensive spacing. I'd like to see rookie Noah Vonleh get more of an opportunity as he could possibly provide some shooting, but he may just be too raw for a team with playoff aspirations. His Indiana predecessor, Cody Zeller, has played well, and it will be interesting to see what will happen if their offensive focal point, Al Jefferson, opts out of his $13.5 million dollar contract this summer at age 30. It's more likely he'll wait until the salary cap skyrockets in 2016, and that is also when the still potential-laden Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could hit restricted free agency, as well.
17. Miami Heat: 23-30. Offense: 101.6 (20th). Defense: 104.3 (19th)
Traded: Danny Granger ($2,077,000 this season, $2,170,465 player option this summer), Norris Cole ($2,038,206 this season, RFA this summer), Shawne Williams ($1,145,685 this season), Justin Hamilton ($816,482 this season, RFA this summer), two future first round picks (the first is top 7 protected in 2017 and 2018, pending another pick owed to Philadelphia, unprotected in 2019, and the second is unprotected in 2021), and $2.2 million cash
Received: Goran Dragic ($7,500,000 this season, $7,500,000 player option this summer) and Zoran Dragic ($1,706,250 this season, $1,706,250 next season, $2,132,813 non-guaranteed in 2016)
I'm a huge Dragic fan, but while he's a massive huge addition to the rotation, it is worrisome that the 2021 pick is unprotected since no one knows how good or bad the team will be that far down the line. In the present, a Dragic-Wade-Deng-Bosh-Whiteside starting five would be among the best in the league when healthy, but they sorely lack depth. Having to include Williams to help match salaries hurts since he gave them some good stretch-four minutes earlier in the season, and now with the unforeseen possibility of Chris Bosh missing the rest of the season due to the scary blood clots in his lungs, they'll have an even bigger hole at power forward than they did at point guard. They'll likely play small with Luol Deng more often, hope for some buyout/minimum contract free agents, and rely on the lightning in a bottle known as Hassan Whiteside to continue to play huge. Although I thought he was overhyped as a 21 year old prospect who faced inferior competition in the 2010 draft, he always had the capability to make an impact on defense. No one could have foreseen him playing at this high of a level on both ends, though, and the Heat were wise enough to get a second, non-guaranteed year at the minimum when they signed him midseason.
16. New Orleans Pelicans: 27-27. Offense: 105.4 (T-8th). Defense: 105.7 (26th)
Traded: John Salmons ($2,000,000 this season) and the less favorable of the Pelicans' and Kings' 2016 second round pick (protected for picks 56-60)
Received: Norris Cole ($2,038,206 this season, RFA this summer), Shawne Williams (this season $1,145,685, to be waived), Ish Smith ($861,405 this season, to be waived), Justin Hamilton ($816,482 this season, RFA this summer), the rights to Latavious Williams, the 76ers' second round pick (protected 31-55 and thus unlikely to be conveyed), and $1,169,959 cash.
Waiving Williams in addition to trading Salmons was curious considering their lack of small forward depth, but they did bring Quincy Pondexter back to New Orleans in January to help provide some semblance of a 3-and-D presence. It is shocking to a team that has Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, and Omer Asik, who are among the best defensive players at their respective positions, perform so poorly on that end of the floor, and coach Monty Williams will have to make some scheme adjustments if they are to make a playoff push. The Brow might just get them there all by himself, though, as he has become the superstar we all envisioned even sooner than expected with his jumper already matching his innate feel for where and when to use his elite athletic gifts. His versatility around Asik or Ryan Anderson allows so much freedom, and a pick and roll between him and Holiday, Tyreke Evans, or the newly reinvigorated Eric Gordon is a sure way to produce a good look in some capacity.
15. Phoenix Suns: 29-26. Offense: 106.0 (7th). Defense: 104.2 (18th)
Traded: Goran Dragic ($7,500,000 this season, $7,500,000 player option this summer), Isaiah Thomas ($7,238,606 this season, $6,912,869 next season, $6,587,132 through 2017, $6,261,395 through 2018), Zoran Dragic ($1,706,250 this season, $1,706,250 next season, $2,132,813 non-guaranteed in 2016), Tyler Ennis ($1,590,720 this season, $1,662,360 next season, $1,733,880 and $2,666,707 team options through 2018), Miles Plumlee ($1,169,880 this season, $2,109,294 next season, RFA in 2016), and the Lakers' first round pick (top 5 protected this year, top 3 protected in 2016 and 2017, unprotected in 2018)
Received: Brandon Knight ($3,553,917 this season, RFA this summer), Marcus Thornton ($8,575,000 this season), Danny Granger ($2,077,000 this season, $2,170,465 player option this summer), Kendall Marshall ($915,243 this season, to be waived), John Salmons ($2,000,000 this season, to be waived), a future Cavaliers first round pick (top 10 protected from 2016 to 2018, unprotected in 2019), two future Heat first round picks (the first is top 7 protected in 2017 and 2018, pending another pick owed to Philadelphia, unprotected in 2019, and the second is unprotected in 2021), and $2,170,465 cash
|At least we'll always have this from the Suns' twitter.|
Well, at least they actually got value for Dragic this time instead of when they foolishly added a first round pick to trade him for Aaron Brooks after his first Suns stint. After a great first season as GM, Ryan McDonough found good value last summer when he drafted Ennis 14th overall and acquired Thomas on a cheap sign and trade, especially with Bledsoe's restricted free agent status still up in the air, but in the process, it forced the best out of all these point guards, Dragic, into too much playing time on the wing. It's disappointing that Dragic would resort to his public comments right before the deadline, but I guess instead of leaving as a free agent, he secured a trade to help his brother's future of staying in the league with him.
As I mentioned in the Miami section, those future picks could potentially be very valuable, and with those in tow, it is reasonable to give up the Lakers' pick for the right to overpay Knight in restricted free agency this summer, although including Ennis and Plumlee as throw-ins seems excessive. Since LA currently sits with the 4th worst record, Phoenix would need two teams to jump them in either the standings or lottery to get the pick, and next year's draft does not appear to be as strong. Thus, making the move to have Knight join his Kentucky predecessor, Bledsoe, is a fair value, and they make for a dynamic backcourt that's interchangeable. Although both are on the smaller side, Bledsoe's 6' 7.5" wingspan and Knight's 6' 6.75" wingspan allow them to compete defensively. The departed Thomas was a defensive liability, but it is still surprising that they still ended up trading him for just Thornton and another future pick that will likely end up in the 20's. Perhaps they were too far down the road to dealing him as an attempt to appease Dragic, but their playoff chances are definitely not as high as they were before the deadline.
14. Milwaukee Bucks: 31-23. Offense: 102.0 (17th). Defense: 99.0 (2nd)
Traded: Brandon Knight ($3,553,917 this season, RFA this summer), Kendall Marshall ($915,243 this season)
Received: Michael Carter-Williams ($2,300,040 this season, $2,399,040 next season, $3,183,526 team option, RFA in 2017), Tyler Ennis ($1,590,720 this season, $1,662,360 next season, $1,733,880 and $2,666,707 team options through 2018), and Miles Plumlee ($1,169,880 this season, $2,109,294 next season, RFA in 2016)
Jason Kidd has done a tremendous job of using his young team's length and athleticism in an aggressive, trapping defense, and MCW fits that profile well. With Jabari Parker's unfortunate ACL tear, the offensive was heavily reliant on Knight, so they take a further step back in that regard for this season. However, I do like the prospects of the two Syracuse point guards in the long run, and Plumlee has shown he can be an adequate big man contributor, as well.
In the short term, they'll have to rely even more on the playmaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the shooting of rising 3-and-D star Kris Middleton, who is likely to get a nice payday this summer after displaying the promise he flashed at Texas A&M that made him a valuable extra piece of the Brandon Jennings trade. The shrewd trade to pick up a future Clippers' first round pick to take on Jared Dudley's salary has worked out spectacularly since they were able to get him healthy and add another versatile 3-and-D player, and their cap sheet is still clean going forward with the unfortunate Larry Sanders situation resulting in a buyout that saved them about half of the value of his contract. The onus is now on John Henson to play big at center, and although he has always produced when given the opportunity, there is serious concern that he can handle the beating of playing inside on heavy minutes given his lack of girth. No matter what, though, this will be an exciting young team to watch going forward, starting in the playoffs, and if the Greek Freak takes his game to the next step in the spotlight, lookout for a first round upset.
13. Washington Wizards: 33-22. Offense: 103.3 (14th). Defense: 100.5 (9th)
Traded: Andre Miller ($4,625,000 this season)
For as big of an upgrade Miller was for them post-deadline last season, he was almost holding them back an equal amount this season, so this minor backup point guard swap could provide a spark for this inconsistent team. Their offense relies far too much on mid-range 2 pointers, and I don't know how far this team can really go under Randy Wittman, who has implemented a stout defense but makes questionable lineup decisions. That defense could result in another playoff series win if Nene and Marcin Gortat are healthy since it keeps each game within striking range for John Wall and Bradley Beal. I'm ecstatic that Wall has made his long-awaited rise to elite point guard status, but the lack of consistent outside shooting given Beal's injury issues and Rasual Butler's inevitable regression to the mean can lead to bad turnovers due to poor spacing. Paul Pierce remains one of the best free agent signings of the season, but given his age, it'd be nice if former 3rd overall pick Otto Porter showed some more consistency.
12. San Antonio Spurs: 34-21. Offense: 103.9 (12th). Defense: 100.2 (T-4th)
Could this finally be the year the wheels fall off after being so focused on getting back to the Finals last year? Not likely, but there are some signs of rust in Pop's typically well-oiled machine. Tony Parker's hamstring issues have been a real concern because the offense needs him to play at a high level, and the expanded game of Kawhi Leonard hasn't gone as planned yet, although he has missed a significant amount of time, himself. He's getting his max contract this summer in restricted free agency; the only question is if Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli retire since the Spurs would then have the cap space for a major free agent given Leonard's smaller cap hold before signing his extension. It's amazing how productive those two still are at their age, especially Duncan, who could almost be considered for Defensive Player of the Year without it even being a lifetime achievement award. The championship pieces are all still there, but the age and health questions are starting to become more prevalent.
Since I've already stated how good of a deal the Dudley trade was for Milwaukee, it goes without saying that it's been a disaster for LA since they gave up a future pick to get rid of wing depth that they could use right about now and get a little breathing room against the luxury cap apron after overpaying Spencer Hawes with the full mid-level exception. They couldn't make any additions at the deadline since they have almost no assets, especially after giving up on 2013 first rounder Reggie Bullock to bring in Doc Rivers' son, Austin, who is on an expiring contract for a reason after New Orleans declined their team option for next season. That's what happens when you trade a first rounder for someone to become both the head coach and President of Basketball Operations. They'll almost have to give DeAndre Jordan a max contract this summer since they have no means to replace him, and although it won't look the same in light of the 2016 salary spike, he still has his limitations on both ends of the floor, despite his coach's incessant confidence boosts in the media. Although the lack of wing defense certainly impacts the ranking, it's hard for me to believe that the "defensive player of the year" resides on the 20th best unit. The sheer efficiency of Chris Paul and a healthy Blake Griffin can take this team places, but they're not a true contender in my eyes.
10. Toronto Raptors: 37-17. Offense: 108.9 (T-3rd). Defense: 103.8 (16th)
I was a little surprised they didn't make a move for a forward considering their salary flexibility and that they have all of their future first rounders plus a valuable one from the Knicks for next year via the comical Andrea Bargnani trade. I like Terrence Ross but always viewed him as a 2 more than a 3 because he lacks the sheer size to defend the better small forwards in the league. I also liked the James Johnson experiment returning to Toronto, and they're hoping Bruno Caboclo can be their version of the Greek Freak as an attempted lottery ticket at the next KD. However, they could use more consistency on the defensive end, and part of that is the lack of minutes for Jonas Valanciunas, who is still learning the nuances of the game but just has so much upside. Amir Johnson brings a lot to the table, but they don't have a true backup center outside of maybe the still-unknown Lucas Nogueira, whom they swindled from Atlanta with Lou Williams thanks to Masai Ujiri's contract management. Sweet Lou combines with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to make sure there is always offensive firepower on the floor, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the offseason to take this team to the next level.
9. Dallas Mavericks: 37-20. Offense: 108.9 (T-3rd). Defense: 102.7 (14th)
The early returns of the Rajon Rondo trade would appear to favor those of us who didn't think it made them much better. It isn't fair to use their post-trade record as in indication since he's missed some time to injury, but the overall feel of the team just isn't the same. First off, while Dwight Powell is a nice throw-in for his second trade of the season, their frontcourt is seriously depleted with the loss of efficient finisher Brandan Wright and swiss army knife Jae Crowder. Al-Farouq Aminu was a bargain free agent who still has some potential as a combo forward who suddenly has opportunity, but he lacks the consistent outside shot that this offense is predicated on. And that is the crux of the argument against bringing Rondo in.
An ball dominant point guard who can't shoot just doesn't make sense on a team with constant spacing, ball movement, and shooting, especially when Monta Ellis is a similarly small guard who lacks 3 point range and often acts as a de facto point guard in his own right. The two man game between him and Dirk Nowitzki surrounded by shooters is tough to slow down, and I have a hard time seeing that being as devastating with Rondo in the fold. There is an argument to be made that Rondo can help improve the defense and rebounding, but that isn't something you typically look to a point guard to fix. I'm not sure the argument that one dollar is worth more than four quarters applies here, but I could be wrong, with the playoffs bringing about a new beast. If the offense hums, Tyson Chandler can do just enough to cover up the team's defensive shortcomings to make some noise in the playoffs.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder: 29-25. Offense: 102.5 (16th). Defense: 100.7 (10th)
Traded: Reggie Jackson ($2,204,369 this season, RFA this summer), Kendrick Perkins ($9,654,342 this season, to be bought out), Ish Smith ($861,405 this season), Grant Jarrett ($816,482 this season, $947,276 next season, $1,015,696 and $1,087,745 non-guaranteed through 2018), the rights to Tibor Pleiss and Latavious Williams, the 76ers' second round pick (protected 31-55 and thus unlikely to be conveyed), and their future first round pick (lottery protected from 2017 to 2020, otherwise becomes 2020 and 2021 second round picks)
Received: Enes Kanter ($5,694,674 this season, RFA this summer), Steve Novak ($3,445,947 this season, $3,750,001 next season), D.J. Augustin ($3,000,000 this season, $3,000,000 next season), Kyle Singler ($1,090,000 this season, RFA this summer), the less favorable of the Pelicans' and Kings' 2016 second round pick (protected for picks 56-60), and the Pistons' 2017 second round pick
Well, leave it to Sam Presti to put together a blockbuster trade that takes everyone by surprise. I would have rather gone after original target Brook Lopez, whom I view as the clearly superior talent, but I can understand choosing this trade over the potential Nets deal given the injury concerns to go along with age and salary differences. I already touched on the players they gave up above, and while I do think they're nice pieces, the future first round pick is the toughest pill to swallow and a surprising one at that since it severely limits options down the line. I didn't like the trade for the inefficient Dion Waiters, and the combination of these two trades means that because of the Stepien rule, the earliest first round pick that they can trade is 2019, depending on when they convey the first picks after the protections.
|Every little bit helps with KD's 2016 free agency.|
The other concern could be that Scott Brooks might not be able to juggle such a deep roster because while on balance, he is a good coach, his rotations have always been his Achilles' Heel, with the 2012 Finals being the most notable example. The emergence of rookie Mitch McGary along with this trade makes for a crowded frontcourt, meaning that Durant might not spend much time as a stretch 4, which is what often creates OKC's most devastating lineups. How Brooks manages his suddenly bolstered roster could determine just how high in the seedings they up and whether or not they can avoid the Warriors in a meeting of juggernauts in the first round.
7. Chicago Bulls: 34-21. Offense: 105.4 (T-8th). Defense: 101.9 (T-12th)
Coming into the season, this was the team that I thought would be what the Hawks are: a well-coached, battle-tested group that stands in the way of an incomplete Cavs team for the Eastern crown. I loved the addition of Pau Gasol to pair with Joakim Noah as one of the most skilled big men pairs in the league, and Nikola Mirotic finally arriving stateside was a pleasant surprise. I wasn't on board with the massive price to trade up for Doug McDermott and didn't see Jimmy Butler's bounce back year going quite this well, but I liked the makings of this deep and talented roster. I was a little worried (and still am) about Tom Thibodeau's rotations since the best combinations of Gasol, Noah, Mirotic, and Taj Gibson are debatable, but I thought this team finally had enough offense to win a title.
However, I underestimated the importance of Derrick Rose's health with regards to consistency, and the defense has taken a step back with Noah's nagging injuries and Butler carrying a heavier load on offense. Aaron Brooks has fallen right in line with the Bulls' yearly churn of undersized dynamos off the bench to provide scoring, but he makes even Rose look like a good defender. I still believe this team can win a pretty open East, but a lot depends on the hometown point guard's ability (and availability) to play like an All-Star.
6. Portland Trailblazers: 36-18. Offense: 104.5 (11th). Defense: 99.7 (T-3rd)
Traded: Will Barton ($915,243 this season, RFA this summer), Thomas Robinson ($3,678,360 this season), Victor Claver ($1,370,000 this season), and a future first round pick (lottery protected in 2016 and 2017, otherwise becomes 2018 and 2019 second round picks)
Received: Arron Afflalo ($7,750,000 this season, $7,750,000 player option this summer), and Alonzo Gee ($915,243 this season)
I was a skeptic last year due to their perfect health and lack of a consistent defense, but the Blazers have shown a lot more this season that screams title contender. Their core group has had a rash of injuries this time around yet another year together under Terry Stotts has tightened up the defense immensely, and now they've added some extra wings to bolster their depth for a playoff run. Gee likely won't make the rotation come the postseason, but Afflalo is still a player who is solid in all areas despite not being the defender he once was. I'm a fan of the talent they sent out, but it never seemed like they would develop without more playing time that Stotts couldn't afford them in the playoff chase. Hopefully, that won't be the case for C.J. McCollum, who thus far hasn't contributed much as the 10th overall pick in 2013 but has the potential to be an anchor for the bench in a Jason Terry or Jamal Crawford type of role.
Damian Lillard is still a sieve on defense, but Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez have picked up their defensive intensity, while LaMarcus Aldridge is always in the conversation for the overall best power forward in the game. If healthy, I can see this team making the Western Conference Finals with their shooting, defense, and versatility, and how far they go this year could determine how far they go as a unit in the future since 3/5ths of the starters are free agents this summer.
5. Houston Rockets: 36-18. Offense: 103.6 (13th). Defense: 100.4 (T-6th)
Traded: Isaiah Canaan ($816,482 this season, $947,276 partially guaranteed next season, RFA in 2016), Alexey Shved ($3,282,057 this season, RFA this summer), their 2017 and 2019 2nd round picks, and the less favorable of the Timberwolves' or Nuggets' second round pick.
Received: K.J. McDaniels ($507,336 this season, RFA this summer), Pablo Prigioni ($1,662,961 this season, $290,000 of $1,734,572 guaranteed next season)
I discussed the McDaniels and Prigioni trades above, and they just add more options that can be used down the line for a downright scary team. Dwight Howard has only played in 32 games yet here they are tied for both the 3rd seed in the West and the 6th best defense in the league. James Harden might be the leading MVP candidate right now with how much offense he's created for a team that quite frankly doesn't have too many options on the perimeter. Donatas Motiejunas is doing a splendid job helping him shoulder the load with an inside-out game and has probably been the team's second most important player with Howard out and Terrence Jones missing all but 11 games himself. Josh Smith was a relatively low-risk addition that can play a Lamar Odom type role to carry the bench and eventually throw lobs to his former AAU teammate, Howard. This group of versatile lefties is supported by solid role players in Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverly, Jason Terry, and Corey Brewer. The deadline deals add some extra depth and future options along with some useful picks they can use for future flexibility, but I think this current team, if healthy, has what it takes to go far.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers: 34-22. Offense: 107.5 (5th). Defense: 104.8 (22nd)
This team has been a constant work in progress since LeBron James decided to come home to what was a mostly young team, and now they are starting to hit their stride. The way GM David Griffin has assembled this team through various tiny tweaks has been fascinating, culminating in the current lineup that is built for a Finals run. In trades that were just two days apart and can be considered the same transaction for all intents and purposes, Griffin turned Dion Waiters, the non-guaranteed contracts of Lou Amundson and Alex Kirk, a trade exception, and the protected Memphis first rounder they owned into Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith. James return from his two weeks of rest on January 13, and since then, this new roster is 15-3 and only allowing 102.4 points per possession, which ranks 14th in the league over that span. Smith was less injured than Shumpert at the time of the trade and thus became the starter while they took off, but I have to think they'd be better off with the stronger defensive option starting and allow J.R. to have free reign of the 2nd unit.
Regardless, Mozgov is the key here as a monstrous interior presence to anchor the defense and allow Tristian Thompson to return to his role as the energetic rebounder backing up both big spots. Matthew Dellavedova is still proving he can be relied on as the backup to Kyrie Irving, but the rest of team depth and versatility is drastically improved, with these new wings allowing for more smallball lineups with James at the 4. They still need to implement more of coach David Blatt's movement offense to give Kevin Love a bigger role than "a glorified Mike Miller" as I believe Grantland's Zach Lowe described it on a podcast, but it's working for now. All of the pieces are now there, which couldn't be said two months ago, and now it's just a matter of them putting everything together.
3. Memphis Grizzlies: 39-14. Offense: 104.6 (10th). Defense: 100.2 (T-4th)
|Memphis is counting on Green driving them to the next level.|
These aren't the same Grizzlies of years past, with the January addition of Jeff Green providing more athleticism, versatility, and shooting to their bruising core. Having Courtney Lee for the full season already provided some of that alongside Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol, but now they have more lineup options they can rely on. They've already cracked the top 10 in offensive efficiency to pair with their usual elite defense, and if Vince Carter ever finds his shot or one of the young prospects steps up, this could become the team to beat. The Jon Leuer experiment might be over, but Jarnell Stokes fits the mold of a contributing big man off the bench with his activity, similar to how you'll almost always know when Jordan Adams enters a game with the buckets he gets. They kept Kosta Koufos around despite his impending free agency because he's such a strong third big man while their window is open right now.
2. Atlanta Hawks: 43-12. Offense: 106.8 (6th). Defense: 100.4 (T-6th)
When you have such a strong team dynamic, it can produce a remarkable consistency like this Hawks team because someone is always there to step up in a moment when others might be faltering. Coach Mike Budenholzer has really molded this team in the Spurs model in his second year on the job, and they all pass, shoot, and defend so well that it's hard to discern who their most important player is. I'd argue it's Al Horford, the resident star who is finally healthy, because of how much he battles in the paint on both ends, but you can make a strong argument for Paul Millsap's versatility, Kyle Korver drawing so much attention, DeMarre Carroll defensive focus, or Jeff Teague orchestrating the whole thing. Dennis Schroder has really come into his own this season after an uneven rookie year, and it'll be interesting to see how they handle his development in the future along with the free agency of Millsap and Carroll after their bargain contracts run out this summer. As it stands, though, they're deep and don't have any weaknesses to poke at. If you argue that they lack a "go-to guy," I'd go as far as to say that they have five because as a unit, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. This isn't necessarily a proven method that is sustainable come playoff time, but right now you have to respect what is going on in Atlanta.
1. Golden State Warriors: 43-9. Offense: 109.7 (2nd). Defense: 97.4 (1st)
Was there ever a question as to who would be #1? Speaking of the Spurs model above, Steve Kerr has done a remarkable job of drawing from his Pop experience as well as some of the triangle under Phil Jackson to create a free-flowing offense that makes use of his team's various talents. Furthermore, he surrounded himself with veteran assistants like Alvin Genry and Ron Adams and has never had an ego about him, listening to what are essentially his offensive and defensive coordinators. I was cautiously optimistic about the hire and what kind of system he would run, but I underestimated Draymond Green's potential to be the stretch 4. Although his outside shot isn't at an elite level, his passing has opened up the floor for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and a reinvigorated Harrison Barnes to shoot their efficiency up to the top of the rankings.
They have the remarkable potential to join the 72-10 '96 Bulls as the only teams to lead the league in points per possession on both ends of the floor, culminating in a point differential that is blowing out the competition and puts them in historical company. Part of the reason that they've maintained so many leads is a much improved bench that has benefited from Andre Iguodala shifting to a 6th man role and the addition of Shaun Livingston, giving them some dangerous lineup versatility. The smallball unit with Green as the nominal center that consists of almost all 6' 7" players is similar to the Nets' "longball" with Livingston that turned their season around, and it is a nice emergency unit that Kerr can use when they need more energy or, in some cases, chaos to open up the transition game. Curry can create chaos on his own with his ridiculous playmaking, as well, and together with the max contract version of Thompson, no lead is safe. Their adaptable defense will always keep them in games by getting stops to make a comeback possible, and it can squeeze the life out of opponents when holding onto a lead, getting their long arms into passing lanes that momentarily seem open. This isn't just a "jump-shooting team," it is the favorite to win it all.