The excitement of the NBA offseason is upon us and the trades and rumours are swirling hard like a tornado. Already we have seen DeAngelo Russell traded to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and Dwight Howard moved to the Hornets for a very slight return. But the rumour mill is churning and every day we hear more about Paul George and his desire to leave or Jimmy Butler and the league-wide chase for him. And now we add the rumours about Kristaps Porzingis to the mix and we are in the most exciting and interesting offseason in recent memory, if not all-time, and we haven’t even reached free agency yet.
And all that makes us think of the 2016 offseason, about the moves that were made and the changes implemented by every team in the NBA. It is often said that you must understand the past to understand the future and so let us look ahead by looking back. By looking at what happened in that 2016 offseason and what it can teach us about the 2017 offseason.
1. Teams shouldn’t be afraid to part ways with veterans.
Now this is a difficult one and it refers specifically to Dwyane Wade who, this time last year, ended his 13-year association with the Miami Heat to join his hometown Chicago Bulls. We had heard rumbling of discord between Wade and Heat president Pat Riley before but it came to a head in 2016 and their negotiations fell flat. Dwyane went home.
But when you look now, the Heat are better off than the Bulls. The sad fact is that Wade is getting older. His stats fell off again, although not by much, and his general play seems to get weaker every year. Admittedly, Miami are not exactly contenders and their 2016-17 campaign started slow but Goran Dragić thrived, Hassan Whiteside re-upped and they now look set to be real players in free agency.
For the Bulls, it’s hard to imagine things went to plan. Sure, they made the playoffs but the additions didn’t really work. But who knew that putting Rajon Rondo and Wade next to Jimmy Butler wouldn’t be ideal? Well, everyone but the Bulls front office, it seems. Their point guard spot was filled by Rondo, Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams seemingly at random come the season’s end and the burden fell mostly to Butler to pull the team onwards. Parting ways with Derrick Rose might not have been a bad idea, but retooling as Chicago did was. Now Dwayne Wade has opted in for the last year of his contract and the Bulls are taking calls for Jimmy Butler. Chicago is carnage right now.
And with that, there are lessons to be learned. When the time is right, teams shouldn’t be afraid to part ways with veterans, even legends. It might hurt the fans, it might cut them deep, but the franchise will benefit if the timing is right. The alternative is team’s sticking by their veterans, even as their pay vastly outweighs their contribution, and burdening themselves both financially and performance-wise. For the fans, they get to watch a former great stagnate, way past his prime. At times, you must throw out your emotions and look at the cold, hard facts objectively and be clinical.
Still, don’t expect players like Dirk Nowitzki to be traded or released. Some teams might be more inclined to be cold and ruthless than others but Nowitzki has sacrificed his own pay for the team and so he earns the right to see out his days in Dallas. Yet, the lessons of the Dwayne Wade signing are clear for all to see and teams should be more aware than ever that parting ways with an expensive veteran is a smart idea, if timed right.
2. The fit matters.
It might seem obvious, but one thing that the moves of the 2016 offseason taught us is that a player’s fit into a roster and their style really does matter. And we have two examples of this. The first, Utah’s acquisitions of George Hill and ‘Iso’ Joe Johnson. The second, Houston’s hiring of Mike D’Antoni as coach and their signings of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.
The Jazz’s 2016 offseason was very much low-key, but it might have been one of the best in the league. Already tipped to gradually grow, the Jazz did a tremendous job of filling their needs and ensuring that their new recruits were a good fit. George Hill was a perfect example of both. As well as being a strong two-way guard, Hill gave the Jazz another crucial facilitator and another three-point threat but also one who wouldn’t encroach on Gordon Hayward’s touches. And in Joe Johnson, the Jazz added good depth and veteran leadership, as well as another player who can create his own shot and isn’t afraid to take do so when the game is on the line.
The Jazz reaped the rewards as Hill improved, Johnson contributed off the bench and the team burst into the West’s elite teams.
For the Rockets, the hiring of D’Antoni was widely questioned. An offensive coach leading a one-way team seemed certain to lead to some of the worse defence the NBA had ever seen. Despite multiple departures, Houston added only Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Gordon’s progress seemed to have stalled on a Pelican’s team hidden behind Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. Even Anderson, as arguably the best three-point shooting power forward in the NBA, was hardly an orthodox replacement for Dwight Howard. But they fit into D’Antoni’s system of fast offence and a barrage of three-point shooting perfectly. And so, despite the doubters, which included me, the Rockets improved. James Harden reestablished himself as an MVP candidate and Gordon made a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year as well. Both were perfect fits, as was Lou Williams who would join towards the deadline, and the Rockets benefited significantly from their contributions.
So, while it might seem obvious that the fit matters, that fact should now be more obvious than ever. Hill helped accelerate Utah’s rise and Gordon and Anderson made Houston one of the most lethal three-point shooting teams in history, helping to push them into the postseason when many thought they might struggle this year.
It should clear to everyone now that a player’s fit within a team and its system is just as important as the player’s talent itself and nothing says that better than what comes next…
3. Restraint is necessary and hoarding assets has to be done carefully.
The Boston Celtics are the envy of the NBA for their vast array of assets in players, prospects and drafts picks. They could easily outbid any other franchise in a trading war for Paul George or Jimmy Butler or any other superstar that is available. As I said, they are the envy of the league. Perhaps especially for one team in particular.
Having enjoyed a surprisingly good 2015-16 season, the Portland Trail Blazers got busy in the offseason as they tried to capitalise on the success of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum without LaMarcus Aldridge. How they did that was by raiding free agency while holding on to their own assets, by any means necessary. That resulted in Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli coming in, while Meyers Leonard was re-signed and an offer sheet (from the Nets) for Allen Crabbe was matched.
What followed was a disappointing season. Evan Turner was a poor fit alongside Lillard and McCollum and, with a four-year $70 million contract, he was too expensive to simply be a wing facilitator for the backup unit. Festus Ezeli was out all year with injuries but his fit was questionable at best anyway. The Blazers already had Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis filling the five spot and the addition of Ezeli did little more than to cause a logjam at that position, especially if Leonard was to have time at center too. In the end, Plumlee was shipped for Jusuf Nurkić and Ezeli, whose two-year, $15 million contract could have been a bargain, leaves without playing a game after his team option was declined. Allen Crabbe did not decline, but there can be no arguments that his play was not worthy of his a four-year, $75 million contract. On the wing, Crabbe is a good shooter but not much else and that contract will be a burden for years to come.
That frantic desire to hold on to what they had and add questionable pieces makes you wonder what it was that Portland were trying to achieve. Were they simply trying to add depth to their roster or were they trying to hoard assets they might use later for trades? While it’s hard to say one way or the other, the Blazers hit the 2016 offseason with reckless abandon and it’s left them in a difficult position. Crabbe and Turner, with their big contracts, are a burden on Portland’s future growth but it is hard to imagine a lot of franchises being eager to trade for them.
The Blazers have an abundance of assets but, whether because of their salaries or their flaws, they are not valuable. GM, Neil Olshey, has plenty of expendable guys to work into trades but no partners to trade with. And that is because they acted without restraint. Ezeli was brought in without one of Plumlee, Davis or Leonard leaving to make space for another big, and even at the trade deadline, Nurkić’s arrival ensured that the positional logjam remained. Matching Crabbe’s contract seems like a decision that was made in a panic. Turner was never a good fit but was one of the top free agents left. It was all a mess. Portland, whatever their intentions, ended up with a hoard of assets but no one can say for sure where they are at right now.
And that teaches teams, thinking about stocking up in free agency, that they must show restraint or become like Portland, who have one of the highest payrolls in the NBA but are a long way from contention.
4. Changing style is difficult.
One close to my heart now. One of the biggest changes in the 2016 offseason was the shift of centers in Atlanta. Al Horford, who was the key to coach Mike Budenholzer’s free-flowing style, was let go and Atlanta-born Dwight Howard came in. And there was some logic behind it. For years, the Hawks had been slaughtered on the boards. Horford formed a very efficient frontcourt with Paul Millsap but they could never deal with rebounders like Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson, as the Cavs swept the Hawks in consecutive postseasons. Adding Howard should have changed that and it did.
But it also changed Atlanta’s style. Without the spacing that Horford added, the Hawks’ offence stalled. Teague’s departure also played a part in Atlanta’s shift in style but it was Horford’s absence which made the biggest difference. The Dominican big man is a deadly shooter from mid-range and had added a three-pointer to his arsenal. He was also a smart defender and passer and he personified Atlanta’s recent success.
Howard is many things but he is not Horford. He could not keep the offence moving as Horford could and that, combined with a lack of shooters outside, compounded some real offensive issues. Howard needed his touches in the post. Dennis Schröder was promising but inconsistent in his first year as a starter. Kyle Korver struggled before his trade and Kent Bazemore, who had flourished in Atlanta’s passing style, floundered after his new contract was signed. Budenholzer shifted his style in an attempt to find success in the postseason but the offensive, which was once among the best in the league, sank in the rankings.
And now Howard is gone, Millsap is likely to leave in free agency and the rebuild is on. Horford’s departure, the absence of his spacing and ball movement, was the Hawks’ demise. The change in style came fast, jarringly fast and it was detrimental to both the offence and the players.
That new style lasted for one year before it was scrapped. A team that had once garnered 60 wins on the back of its offence, now relied on its defence to claim its annual spot in the middle of the playoff standings. The changes did not work and it serves as a good example to the rest of the league to be more cautious in making moves that so severely change their team’s style of play, especially if that style had been successful.
5. Superstars are worth every penny.
Who could this be about? Of course, it’s Kevin Durant, who last offseason sent shockwaves and shudders throughout the NBA when he joined a Golden State franchise that had set the all-time winningest record that year with a 73-9 record. It was the “super team” and it became almost inevitable that the Warriors would be champions just months later.
In June 2016, the Dubs had fallen in seven games to the Cavaliers as LeBron James finally brought a ring to Cleveland and so Golden State reacted quickly, looking to improve. And how better to improve than with Kevin Durant? If three superstars weren’t good enough, try adding another. The Warriors roster was insanely good, unbelievable even, from the outset.
Any doubts about how the four stars would fit and gel were immediately blown away as Golden State put up dominant performance after dominant performance. They didn’t match their 73-9 record but breezed through the postseason with a 16-1 record, sweeping the Trail Blazers, Jazz and Spurs before strolling past the Cavs in five.
And now the Cavaliers are scrambling for a fourth star themselves, going after Jimmy Butler especially, but the message is clear. Superstars truly do matter and until another “super team” can be formed, the Warriors will continue to be dominant and that started with Kevin Durant’s much maligned move from Oklahoma City to Golden State.