It’s that time of year again in the NBA, when teams’ rosters are all but shored up and the majority of signings that remain are minor, veteran’s minimum contracts. The two biggest free agents left on the market, Nikola Pekovic and Brandon Jennings, appear destined to return to their current teams, and it seems like there’s nothing left to do at this point but wait for training camp.
Even so, I’m not quite ready to rank what everyone has done. It’s not just that those rankings never hold – I think I, along with much of the rest of the basketball media, said that last year’s Lakers would win 60 games – but also that there is so much time between now and October. There’s plenty of opportunity to rank when basketball is more imminent, when Pekovic is again a Timberwolf and Jennings again a Buck, when Philadelphia has a coach and summer league is amore a distant memory.
So for now, instead, here’s a look at the Western Conference offseason awards, where each of the 15 teams is recognized for what it did well – or poorly, or strangely, in some cases – this summer:
Best rejection: Lakers
This is not how the Lakers wanted their offseason to go. There’s really no way around that, and I’ve been at times critical of what they’ve done, but mostly because I wanted them to have some fun with their jilting. Even so, with a month of distance between us and Dwight Howard’s decision, things don’t look terrible. If the Lakers are mediocre for a year, that’s fine, and they’re doing everything they can to position themselves perfectly for 2014. Howard wasn’t their guy, and he walked away, and now there’s a whole lot of freedom that comes with that.
Biggest culture shock: Clippers
I’d say they won the offseason, but I’m going to save that designation; plus, this goes beyond just swinging some good signings. Bringing in Doc Rivers caused a series of dominoes to fall, most importantly Chris Paul’s re-signing and the trade of Eric Bledsoe that brought in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. In addition, Rivers will bring about a complete culture change; there’s something about him that simply implies a greater level of team and the idea that these Clippers might finally move to the next level.
Best overall offseason: Warriors
I’m not necessarily elevating what the Warriors did over the Clippers’ moves, but it’s definitely on par, in part because of the overwhelmingly positive note upon which the team ended its season. Stephen Curry was the best story of the playoffs, with Klay Thompson not far behind him, and then the Warriors went out and dumped bad contracts to get a lock-down defender and consummate veteran in Andre Iguodala. Sure, the team still has its flaws, but it looks better than last year, and the Iguodala signing was maybe the most under-the-radar, but important story, of July.
Most underrated: Timberwolves
First of all, they healed, and that doesn’t appear on any list offseason moves, though it probably should for a team as depleted as this one was last year. Plus, Minnesota added Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, re-signed Chase Budinger and will likely re-sign Pekovic as well. All of that almost pales in comparison to the front office move they made, though, ousting David Kahn for Flip Saunders, and the fact that Rick Adelman will almost certainly return cannot be emphasized enough.
Best heist: Rockets
They actually, really, somehow got Dwight Howard. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch because we’ve had a month to get used to it, but I repeat: the Rockets got Dwight Howard. It was the biggest free agent heist at the expense of the Lakers, perhaps since the dawn of time, and it could very well transform the Houston into a contender.
Biggest bad-to-decent turnaround: Kings
They got rid of Keith Smart, and apparently DeMarcus Cousins also had a successful Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas last week. Right there, things are looking up, and the Kings could perhaps be decent next year. They won’t make the playoffs, but for a team as ineffective as they’ve been in recent history, the playoffs are not the next step. Capitalizing on young talent is, and this year it seems like there’s actually a possibility they might do so.
Best use of youth: Suns
This became even more true after the team dumped Luis Scola over the weekend to Indiana; the Suns are young, and they’ll be bad, but for once they have something to build around, plus a young, intelligent new general manager. Sure, the blight that is Michael Beasley remains on Phoenix’s roster, but with young talent like Alex Len, Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin, among others, it can focus on player development, grab a talented player in next year’s draft and theoretically be on its way toward something.
Best use of the word boring: Spurs
As usual. Can you name one thing the Spurs did this summer besides predictably re-sign Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobili? Probably not. You’re just relieved that Tim Duncan isn’t retiring (or irate, if you happen to be a fan of a rival team, but really, what are the Spurs without him and Popovich?). They are losing Gary Neal, who caught a glimpse of Finals fame, and the fact that they flirted with acquiring Andrei Kirilenko and failed is maybe the biggest disappointment of the offseason, simply because it would have been a blast to see him play for Popovich. Still, things continue as usual in San Antonio, and at this point, it just seems silly to suggest that they’re too old for this. We’ve said it and then been proved incorrect for years, after all.
Biggest whiff: Mavericks
It seemed like Mark Cuban had been planning to acquire Dwight Howard this summer since the second he broke up his championship team two years ago, and you can’t say he didn’t try. The man ran a fire sale on his roster, ready to build around Dirk Nowitzki with the prized big man and whoever else would come this summer. Trouble is, he’s left only with whoever else, and in this case, it’s Monta Ellis. This summer has been nothing short of a nightmare, and it’s hard to say that no one saw it coming.
Best job doing essentially nothing: Thunder
Russell Westbrook’s injury in the first round of the playoffs made the Thunder into a team that felt no need to restructure after its disappointing early finish. They were without their second-best player, after all (insert obligatory “imagine if they still had James Harden” statement here), and even if they felt no need to amnesty Kendrick Perkins to get some extra flexibility, the Thunder will be fine. In fact, this year might be Kevin Durant’s best shot yet at a title.
Best name change: Pelicans
So they signed Tyreke Evans for more money than Tyreke Evans is worth, and they got Jrue Holiday in a draft-night trade, and for a second we all thought Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis were going to play together … but somehow, that all pales in comparison to the fact that they are now the Pelicans. I love it. The most engrossed I’ve been in a story about the NBA this month was while I was reading Zach Lowe’s riff on Grantland about possible Pelican nicknames. I’m definitely on team Pellies. This is fun. Pellies. And good job with that Holiday trade. But still, Pellies.
Weirdest coaching change: Grizzlies
There were plenty of strange wrinkles in this summer’s massive game of coaching musical chairs, and the George Karl firing in Denver ranks up there among the odd, but I still think Memphis wins. Sure, Lionel Hollins mouthed off a bit when the Grizzlies’ new owners dealt Rudy Gay, but then he went on to take his team to the Western Conference Finals, capping off the best season in franchise history, before the team declined to renew his contract. This is no knock on the new guy, Dave Joerger, a former assistant, but the Grizzlies took a big risk when they parted ways with Hollins. They’re a great group and one of the more charismatic teams in the league, but at the same time, that roster is packed with quite a list of personalities – Zach Randolph, Tony Allen – and I’d imagine coaching them well takes a very precise touch. Hollins seemed to have it.
Strangest everything: Nuggets
They fired Karl, lost Iguodala, who opted out of the final year of his contract, and Danilo Gallinari won’t be back until after the season has started. They traded Kosta Koufos, their starting center, who will make $3 million this year, and signed a reserve big man, Timofey Mozgov, to a deal that will pay him $14 million over the next three years. (That averages out to $4.67 million per year.) Sure, there’s still young, exciting talent in Evan Fournier, Javale McGee, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried on Denver’s roster, but new coach Brian Shaw has a tough task ahead of him, and it’s hard to see how, after all these changes, next season’s team will top what 2012-13’s did.
Best acquisition of a bench: Trail Blazers
The Blazers had exactly zero bench last year. Their starting five logged 1,143 minutes together, with the next most frequently used combination of players logging just 142. That’s staggering. This summer, though, Portland not only got another potential draft steal in C.J. McCollum, but it also added a far deeper core to its team, guys like Thomas Robinson, Dorrell Wright and Earl Watson. They’re not big names, but they’re the solid backups that last season’s Blazers were glaringly missing.
Most usable uncertainty: Jazz
After cutting bait on both Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, the Jazz lost much of their core this offseason, and they also took on the expiring deals of Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson from Golden State. This is a team that doesn’t appear quite sure where it’s going, but it’ll have a ton of flexibility both at the trade deadline and next offseason. With Enes Kanter, Gordon Heyward and Trey Burke, Utah still has talent to develop and build around, and it can sit back and evaluate this season to decide where it wants to go next.