Author Archives: Jack Winter

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Indiana Pacers

2012-2013 W-L: 49-32

New Places: DJ Augustin (Toronto), Gerald Green (Phoenix), Jeff Pendergraph (San Antonio), Miles Plumlee (Phoenix),

New Faces: Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, CJ Watson

Draft: Solomon Hill (23)

The Pacers were one win away from the NBA Finals last season.  That’s a fact.  How close – extremely, awfully or very – Indiana actually came to beating the Heat is open to interpretation.

Yes, LeBron James made a game-winning layup as time expired in the first of a series that went the maximum seven games.  But that line of thinking doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the how the Eastern Conference Finals played out in reality.  The Pacers pushed an injured Miami team farther than most anyone anticipated, but the champs responded with aplomb whenever their collective back was truly against the wall: they won games 3, 5 and 7 by 20, 11 and 23 points respectively.

So Indiana came close to dethroning the Heat, but “seven games” doesn’t convey the true state of that series.  Miami controlled the action not at will, but certainly something close to it.  Contrast that to the true ebb and flow of the NBA Finals: though each series went the distance, in which set of games did the Heat face real and consistent doubt?

It’s important going forward to put Indiana’s loss to the Heat in the proper perspective.  Why? The Pacers might be a much better team this season than they were in 2012-2013.

No coach has ridden his starters like Frank Vogel over the last two seasons.  Indiana’s opening quintet played the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league last year, and led the NBA in 2011-2012.  It’s no secret the Pacers have lacked a corps of reserves befitting the team’s status as almost title-contenders, and Vogel made up for it in the most straight forward way possible.

A quick glance at lineup data from last year’s playoffs shows that Vogel’s hand was basically forced. Of eight non-starter groups that played at least 20 postseason minutes, only two had positive net ratings. The remaining six were – only a crass adjective applies – slaughtered; the ‘best’ of those lineups managed a -12.7 rating, and four of them registered red numbers in the mid-20s.

Help was on the way next year even if Indiana mostly stood pat this offseason, but Kevin Pritchard wasn’t satisfied.  The Pacers used cap exceptions to sign Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, each of whom is a major boost off the bench compared to recent Indy reserves.  Copeland is a limited defender and a bit one-dimensional on offense, but gives Vogel an opportunity to experiment with small-ball, floor-stretching lineups.  History’s shown he’s reluctant to abandon the Pacers more traditional power forward/center post identity, but that another option exists is at least a nice ace in the hole.  Still, the on-court impact of Watson’s signing is likely bigger.  He’s no super-sub, but an upgrade on Augustin in most every way imaginable.  Indiana absolutely fell apart without George Hill on the floor last season, and that won’t be the case in 2013-2014.

But the biggest fish here is Scola.  The price Pritchard paid to get him – Gerald Green, 2012 first round pick Miles Plumlee and a future lottery-protected first-rounder – seems high on the surface, but needs proper context.  Green’s reclamation project flamed out by mid-January, optimistic projections for Plumlee suggest a player like Mahinmi, and a Pacers first-rounder – barring a major injury to one of their stars – will be in the 20s the next half-decade.  Scola’s clearly on the downside of his career, but still offers Indy’s second-unit a versatile offensive cog.  He can post-up, pick-and-pop and play effectively from the elbow.  Fulcrums like this can keep the bench afloat.

Pritchard’s summer activity is just icing on the cake, though; the Pacers were going to get better reserve play next season nonetheless.  The rise of Paul George and fun of Lance Stevenson made it easy to forget Indiana played last season without former All-Star Danny Granger, but the potential influence gleaned from his return can’t be understated.  He’s not Indy’s best player anymore and won’t be utilized that way, but that’s a good thing for the Pacers.  Granger was stretched thin as a primary offensive option in his peak years, and should thrive playing a more ancillary role with Hill and George doing the lion’s share of ballhandling.  In fact, there’s no reason he can’t be an ideal ‘3-and-D’ type should he commit to that identity; the Pacers need all the space they can get on offense, and allowing George time away from guarding the opposition’s best wing threat is prudent.  The biggest question now is whether or not Granger assumes his role as a starter.  While a reserve part seems the right one, Vogel’s bench will receive a major boon one way or another.  Stephenson, after all,  is poised for bigger things this season.

The Pacers are another year older.  They made offseason moves that improved on their biggest weakness.  And they have an All-Star returning from injury.  So they’ll be better this season, and considering the way last year ended – on the road at Game 7 – all that could mean Indiana should be favorites in the Eastern Conference.  But that wasn’t a typical seven game series, the Heat aren’t a typical team and LeBron James isn’t a typical MVP.  Context always, always matters, and it renders a prediction for 2013-2014 we’re all accustomed to by now: until proven otherwise, it’s Miami with a bullet in the East.

But there’s room for a real title contender just below the Heat in the conference pecking order, a team considered the favorite should things go awry in South Beach.  Boston, Chicago and the Pacers have been noted challengers the past three seasons, and New York’s teams long to hop in the ring.  If that separation comes this season, Indiana’s the one most likely to have emerged from the fray – this summer’s ensured it.  And until they meet Miami again, that should be enough for the Pacers.

Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Atlanta Hawks

2012-2013 W-L: 44-38

New Faces: Pero Antic, Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Cunningham, Paul Millsap, Mike Budenholzer (Head Coach, San Antonio Spurs)

New Places: Devin Harris (Dallas),  Zaza Pachulia (Milwaukee), Josh Smith (Detroit), Deshawn Stevenson (unsigned)

Draft: Lucas Nogueira (16), Dennis Schroeder (17), Mike Muscala (44)

Danny Ferry did it again.

Just one year removed from ridding Atlanta of Joe Johnson’s contractual albatross and parting seas for the future, the Hawks were set to rebuild.  Josh Smith was leaving, Dwight Howard never coming and this franchise’s run of five consecutive playoff appearances seemingly over.  But Ferry had other plans, and in a fell swoop of prudent offseason moves improved Atlanta’s present and future trajectory by leaps and bounds.

This is what it’s like to have competent leadership, Hawks fans.  And though it might not pay immediate dividends on the court this season, Ferry’s ideal combination of patience and foresight surely will in ones to come.

It’s only fitting that Smith departs Atlanta the same way he arrived and endured for the past nine seasons – as a divisive lightning rod.  The market fought over Smith’s consensus value this summer before ever agreeing on it, and given his play for the Hawks it made sense.  For all his unique versatility and vastly underrated defensive impact, Smith’s aggregate influence has always been less than his talent suggests it should be.  The Hawks knew that first-hand, and seemed reluctant to retain him even before Smith made it clear he wanted a fresh start elsewhere.

But the question remained: was letting Smith walk the right decision for Atlanta? There was never a clear answer either way until both sides finally played their hand.  Smith agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract with Detroit on July 6th.  He won.  The Hawks came to terms with Paul Millsap on a two-year, $19 million deal on July 7th.  They won, too.

That swap in a vacuum is a boon for Atlanta; having to replace a cog like Smith is almost always a negative proposition.  But Millsap is a very good player in his own right, and savvy enough to know the extent of his game’s limitations.  If he’s not at or above Smith’s level, he’s just below it at the very least.  And considering the parameters of their respective contracts, Millsap could even be an overall upgrade  – certainly with respect to the cap and possibly on the floor, too.

The salary ramifications of exchanging Smith for Millsap are important, because Atlanta suddenly has the assets to make a major splash at the trade deadline or through free agency in coming seasons.  The Hawks drafted 19 year-old point guard Dennis Schroeder with the 17th pick in June’s draft.  Two weeks later, the precocious German maestro was everyone’s Summer League darling and had some suggesting Atlanta part ways with Jeff Teague this offseason.  While that talk was premature, Schroeder’s potential and Teague’s new, extremely reasonable contract – four years, $32 million – give the Hawks options at point guard.  Anywhere they go from here – trading Schroeder, trading Teague, playing it out – is a luxury of which teams always take advantage.

Schroeder’s summer play was was aided by his innate chemistry with Nogueira, a seven-foot bundle of arms, hair and energy.  The 21 year-old Brazilian needs weight and far more experience against elite competition, but he’s a very intriguing prospect.  Nogueira will eventually make his mark in the NBA; the question now is the scope of its extent and when it will actually come.  Ferry announced last week that “Bebe” will spend this season in Spain playing for Asefa Estudiantes Madrid.  Regardless, he’s another piece that makes Atlanta feel good about its future.

Even without Nogueira, the Hawks won’t lack for serviceable big men behind Millsap and Al Horford.  Atlanta signed Elton Brand in free agency and claimed Gustavo Ayon off waivers from the Bucks; each has deficiencies, obviously, but no doubt provide the Hawks with adequate post depth.  That both of them have enough size to play center – allowing Horford to play power forward on occasion – should not be overlooked, either.

Atlanta mostly elected to stay put on the wing.  The Hawks traded for seldom-used Jared Cunningham on draft day and signed versatile free agent DeMarre Carroll, but will mostly rely on those already on the roster to flank Teague and Schroeder.  Good thing for them, then, that Lou Williams is set to return after missing the second-half of last season due to a torn ACL.  He’s no star, but certainly offers scoring and playmaking punch from the perimeter that Atlanta sorely missed in his absence.  Sophomore sharpshooter John Jenkins is coming off a strong summer league and is primed for a bigger role, and Kyle Korver re-signed, too.

The Hawks don’t have a true impact player at shooting guard or small forward, but instead have a litany of established players that know their specific role.  That’s hardly ideal, but not every team can have a Kevin Durant, Paul George or even Gordon Hayward.  Atlanta’s counting on its whole to be greater than the sum of its parts on the wing, which is a microcosm for how the Hawks will have to win this season in general.

Horford’s a genuine two-way star, Millsap an underrated offensive crutch and Teague a solid lead guard, but they won’t push Atlanta to the playoffs alone.  Longtime Spurs assistant and new head coach Mike Budenholzer is known for his defensive mindset, but will likely implement San Antonio-esque offensive principles, too.  Basically, it’s safe to assume that what the Hawks lack in top-end talent will be somewhat supplanted by team-wide discipline on both ends of the floor.

There’s a ceiling to Atlanta’s success in 2013-2014.  They won’t win the East and are unlikely to gain home-court playoff advantage, either.  But another season of approximately 45 or so wins and a familiar first round exit won’t mean what it has the past several years.  So though this season might seem status quo on the surface, it’s really anything but; there are steps on the road to real contention, and the Hawks have finally begun to climb them.

 

 

 

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Cleveland Cavaliers

2012-2013 W-L: 24-58

New Faces: Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack, Mike Brown (coach, Lakers/unemployed)

New Places: Omri Casspi (Houston), Marreese Speights (Warriors), Shaun Livingston (Nets), Wayne Ellington (Mavericks)

Draft: Anthony Bennett (1), Sergey Karasev (19), Carrick Felix (33)

Dan Gilbert didn’t make good on his personal Comic Sans guarantee of three summers ago; it’s almost fall 2013 now, and the “self-titled former king” has two NBA championships compared to Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ zero.  But no matter.  After another fortuitous and prosperous offseason, it’s time that Cleveland finally forgets.

The future is here.

The Cavaliers won the draft lottery.  They signed two marquee free agents.  Their young core is improving.  And they still have Kyrie Irving.  This season could be the first of what should be perennial playoff contention in Cleveland, and the Cavs have the summer to thank for accelerating their pace up a steep developmental curve.

This team will be better in 2013-2014, that much is certain.  It’s the extent of improvement that’s unknown for now; perhaps no team in the league has a ceiling so high and a valley so low.  Health is of utmost importance across the NBA landscape, but its potential influence looms larger in Cleveland than anywhere else.

Why? Irving, Bynum and Anderson Varejao – this team’s three most accomplished players – combined to miss 162 games last season.  Their simultaneous absence isn’t a fluke or coincidence, either; each has been notoriously injury-prone throughout their respective careers.

To rely on such considerable impact from multiple players with shoddy health histories isn’t ideal, but commend Cleveland for taking a chance.  A healthy Bynum is worth far more than the incentive-laden two-year, $24 million deal he signed with the Cavs in July.  His physical and emotional status will always be tenuous, but Bynum’s juice – even as he gets back up to playing speed after missing all of last season – is easily worth the squeeze of his contract.

Best case? He and Irving form the best center-point guard pairing this league’s seen in decades.  Worst? Cleveland pays $6 million for a year of his service and moves on next summer.

When – not if – Bynum and Varejao miss time due to injury, the Cavaliers are well-suited to withstand their absence.  Third-year big man Tristan Thompson made major strides last season, and is primed for another leap this year after completely reworking his jumper this offseason.  It’s been easy to overlook Thompson’s unprecedented effort to change his primary shooting hand, and Bennett’s presence undoubtedly has something to do with it.  His unique talent is obvious no matter your position on his draft selection.  Few players combine Bennett’s size and athleticism with such a versatile offensive repertoire.  And while sophomore center Tyler Zeller is admittedly limited, he’s above replacement-level.

There are redundancies here.  Thompson isn’t big enough to play center for extended periods, and Bennet’s chance to play the perimeter likely won’t come this season.  Zeller can’t rebound or defend, either.  But the Cavs’ post depth is suddenly an envy of many.  Even assuming injury complications, the Cleveland frontcourt should be a strength this season.

And taking that into consideration is when it’s easy to get excited about the Cavaliers.  Jack is a middling defender at best and sometimes prone to confounding shot-selection, but his two-way versatility is a valuable asset off the bench.  Lightening Irving’s heavy offensive burden is important for Cleveland going forward, and Jack’s presence certainly helps in that regard; Irving will thrive as a scorer a la Steph Curry when paired with Jack in the backcourt.  Dion Waiters is still in the mix too, of course, and will also benefit from Jack doing a lion’s share of ballhandling when he’s on the floor.

And though a three-headed playmaking monster of Irving-Jack-Waiters obviously presents a laundry list of defensive issues, they’d make up for much of them on the other end.  This won’t be Mike Brown’s primary set of perimeter players, obviously, but at the very least offers a scary late-game option when Cleveland needs points.

The Cavaliers are at least a mystery now.  Seasons like last year’s and the one before it are a thing of the past, when Cleveland had no realistic aspirations aside from internal development.  So questions are a good thing; they mean progress and potential.  Will the Cavs stay healthy? Can they play league-average defense? What to make of Bynum? Where does Bennett fit? How much better are Thompson and Waiters? Are Clark, Alonzo Gee and CJ Miles enough on the wing?

The questions are endless and the answers are varied.  That’s not enough for some teams, the ones that deserve to dream biggest.  But dreaming at all should be enough for Cleveland right now, a mere three years removed from heartbreak and complete destruction.  Playoffs for the Cavs? It’s really anyone’s guess, but that alone means they’re headed the right direction.

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Utah Jazz

2012-2013 W-L: 43-39

New Faces: Ian Clark, Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, John Lucas, Brandon Rush

New Places: DeMarre  Carrol (Atlanta), Al Jefferson (Charlotte), Paul Millsap (Atlanta), Earl Watson (Portland), Mo Williams (Portland)

Draft: Trey Burke (9), Rudy Gobert (27), Raul Neto (47)

These are exciting times for the Jazz.

That sounds nonsensical.  Utah let its two best players walk in free agency and completed a trade that nets them almost nothing of immediate consequence for the upcoming season but $24 million in guaranteed salary.  Burke’s draft-day slide was a major coup and Gobert’s longterm potential certainly intrigues, but neither is enough to offset the impact of Jefferson and Millsap’s departure.

The major roster overhaul foretold by the February 2011 trade of Deron Williams is finally here, and with it begins this organization’s first ‘rebuilding’ year since 2004.  The Jazz don’t have realistic playoff hopes in 2013-2014, have fully embraced a long-awaited youth movement, and emerge from a summer in which every move was made with the horizon in mind.

But Utah isn’t the Philadelphia 76ers or even the Boston Celtics.  There’s reason for optimism in Salt Lake City now and going forward, which puts the Jazz in a unique and enviable position among the teams that underwent offseason construction in anticipation of next summer’s loaded draft.

Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are the justification for Utah’s optimistic prospects, just as they’ve been for two seasons running.  But things are different with Jefferson and Millsap playing elsewhere; they’re suddenly this team’s future and present as opposed to just the latter.  That means more opportunity but more responsibility, too.  So while there’s a reason the Jazz aren’t on anyone’s short-list of potential playoff teams, there’s another they’ll remain competitive regardless: Hayward, Favors and Kanter might be really, really good.

That Utah’s three best players are valuable NBA contributors at the very worst is obvious; what isn’t is the slope of their career trajectories going forward.  We’ll finally get the proper opportunity to gauge that this season, though, and what we learn is paramount to this franchise’s direction going forward.  Are they merely starter-level? Is one of them an All-Star? Can Favors and Kanter play together? Is Hayward best as a shooting guard or small forward? There’s enough to suggest multiple answers to every question, and the hope is Utah will have enough real evidence after this season to narrow down the possibilities.

Point being, there’s talent here.  And it’s not just in Hayward, Favors and Kanter, either.

Burke, everyone’s darling of the NCAA Tournament, was once projected as the second overall pick in the draft.  He wasn’t a realistic option for Utah after March, but draft night’s wild lottery gave them a chance to acquire him.  Surrendering the 21st pick of a weak draft to swap the 14th for Burke – considered by many as the top point guard in the 2013 class – was an easy choice for the Jazz, long in search of a franchise lead guard.  Burke is hardly without deficiencies, but at the very least stops Utah’s revolving door of floor generals since being forced to trade Williams.  Noted physical limitations plagued him during summer league play, but Burke’s future is bright.

His potential influence – despite Burke’s limitations, he’s a likely upgrade on the departed Mo Williams and a certain one over Jamaal Tinsley – as an overall playmaking threat will pay dividends for the rest of Utah’s young core, and perhaps most notably third-year guard Alec Burks.  Despite flashes of two-way impact and a rare physical profile, Burks has struggled to earn consistent playing time over his first two seasons despite his team’s lack of viable options on the wing.  But he showed considerable improvement last season nonetheless, especially as a defender and three-point shooter.  He’s not a foundational piece for the Jazz yet, but this should be the year Burks gets a real chance to show he belongs as a fixture of Utah’s longterm plans.

The rest of this roster is made up of career journeymen.  But there’s a silver-lining here, with the contracts of Biedrins, Jefferson, Rush and Marvin Williams set to expire after this season.  Though the Jazz likely won’t make a major trade deadline splash unless the ideal scenario presents itself, they should be active as third-party facilitators; teams with so many salary, player and draft assets are always sought-after trade partners come late February.

Mediocrity gets you nowhere in the NBA, a fact Utah was reluctant to admit until this summer.  So instead of clawing tooth-and-nail for another chance to lose in the first round come spring, the Jazz are sitting that fight out with a longterm payoff in mind.  But their’s is a different rebuilding process than the rest, one as much about players already on the roster as those that might be this time next year.

A small step back makes it easier to take a giant leap forward.  The Jazz understand that now, and have as encouraging a future as ever because of it.  Don’t let the losses this season fool you; Utah should still be the force we’ve thought it will in years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Oklahoma City Thunder

2012-2013 W-L: 60-22

New Faces: Ryan Gomes (Artland Dragons, Germany)

New Places: Kevin Martin (Minnesota)

Draft: Steven Adams (12), Andre Roberson (26), Alejandro Abrines (32), Grant Jerrett (40), Szymon Szewczyk (35, 2003)

The Spurs renewed, the Clippers reloaded, the Warriors reimagined, the Grizzlies retooled and the Rockets revamped.  In an offseason marked by the rich getting richer in an already loaded Western Conference, the Thunder stand alone.

On the surface, Oklahoma City’s relative summer inactivity is most optimistically construed as a lateral shuffle compared to the competition’s varying degrees of ascendant steps.  Losing a key if underrated cog in Martin without on-court compensation – not to mention adding developmental prospects like Adams and Roberson through the draft – means Oklahoma City will count almost entirely on internal progress from players already on the roster to pick up newly created slack.  For most teams, that’s not an optimal let alone realistic means to improvement.  Most teams, though, aren’t the Thunder.

Discounting the potential impact Martin’s absence could have on Oklahoma City is a major disservice to his play last season.  He accounted for four of the NBA’s 10 best three-man units in terms of offensive rating last season; no other player in the league can claim that feat.  Obviously, much of that incredible success stems from playing alongside Kevin Durant and/or Russell Westbrook, and the latter’s postseason injury and the Thunder’s resulting offensive struggles paint a more realistic picture of Martin’s limitations.  He’s clearly not the bellwether force that such lineup data suggests, but he deserved more credit for his role in OKC’s near-historic level offense last season nonetheless.

Replacing Martin’s influence won’t be easy.  In most any situation, the loss of such an efficient offensive player necessitates a single major offseason acquisition or a series of smaller ones; that production needs to be supplanted somehow, after all.  But this is the Thunder, and they have an advantage – well advantages, actually – no other team has: Durant and Westbrook.

Approaching their seventh and sixth NBA seasons respectively, the Thunder’s superstars have improved in every year of their careers thus far.  To expect anything less additional progress at this point – as they reach something close to the beginning of their primes – would be remiss.  These guys combine otherworldly talent with unmatched work ethics and tireless, frustrated dispositions, and they’ll play this season another year wiser as 25 year-olds.  Durant and Westbrook will be better this season, basically, and the Thunder are counting on that assumption to help soften the blow of Martin’s departure.

But they can’t play 48 minutes, and that’s where the play of this team’s ancillary pieces loom larger than ever.  There’s no Martin or James Harden here to carry a primary offensive burden when one or both of OKC’s stars is on the bench.  Reserve production will be a group effort this season as opposed to more of an individual one for the Thunder, and they’re relying on two young players, in particular,  to lead the charge.

Reggie Jackson is the biggest benefactor of Martin’s defection.  The third-year guard has been a wildly inconsistent performer in his career thus far, and was mostly an afterthought last season before finally getting consistent playing time after the new year.  But Jackson’s overall talent has always been obvious, and he put together a quietly impressive playoff series against Memphis in May, averaging 13.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on 50% from the field.  More consistency from beyond the arc is the next step in his development three-point shooting is next to come – he shot 23.1% from deep during the regular season and 30.2% in the playoffs – and should it come, Jackson will emerge as one of the league’s best backup guards.  Not Martin nor Harden, certainly, but an extremely valuable player nonetheless.

Sophomore wing Jeremy Lamb will get his chance, too.  Acquired last fall as a centerpiece of the now much-maligned Harden trade, he played nearly as many games (21) for the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers as he did the Thunder (23) last season.  So while there weren’t many positives to glean from his rookie year, some point to his MVP-winning performance in June’s Orlando Summer League as reason for optimism this season and going forward.  Let’s just say his Orlando numbers of 18.8 points and 3.8 turnovers per game on 39.1% shooting leaves a lot to be desired.  But context matters here, too, and with the big boys Lamb will play a supporting role as opposed to the one he did this summer or even down in Tulsa.  He can contribute at this level, we can all agree; the question now is to what extent.

This is mostly moot, of course.  The fact is that Oklahoma City will be among the league’s three best offenses this season assuming health; development from Jackson, Lamb, Serge Ibaka or perhaps Perry Jones III won’t matter in that respect.  Durant and Westbrook are simply that good.  And once spring comes and rotations shorten, the presumed absence of a Harden/Martin-esque sixth man will prove inconsequential.

For the Thunder, it’s mostly about defense.  Will they make sound rotations? Will Westbrook and Ibaka exercise restraint going for blocks and steals? Can they protect the three-point line? Will they pound the defensive glass when the game slows down? After last season, the answer to all those once-vexing questions are encouraging; OKC didn’t finish fourth in defensive efficiency by accident.  There’s every reason to believe – the ‘loss’ of Martin and even addition of the ultra-versatile Roberson among them – they could be even better on that end in 2013-2014.

Which begs a final question: to which are those the Thunder don’t have a viable response? There just aren’t many if any, and that’s as encouraging a sign for this team’s championship hopes as anything else.  Oklahoma City is top-heavy with talented depth, offensively-oriented but defensive-minded, and boasts a roster suddenly not so green on playoff experience.  And though a list of simple offseason arithmetic won’t show it, they undoubtedly got better, too.  This organization preaches patience, process and culture; this comparatively quiet summer ensures all three.

The Thunder are on a short-list of teams with legitimate title aspirations, just as they’ve been since 2011.  And as long as Durant and Westbrook are around, odds are that will always be the case.

*Statistical support for this piece provided by nba.com/stats.

 

 

 

Gordon Hayward’s Turn to Star

It’s always been easy to overlook Gordon Hayward.

He almost gave up on basketball in middle school.  He was an unranked high school recruit and received just three division-one scholarship offers.  He was Utah’s second-most heralded rookie by the end of his debut season.  And he hasn’t fallen short of or exceeded expectations throughout his three-year career.

Or so the story goes.

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 5.01.01 PM

Table courtesy of Basketball Reference.

These are the per-36 minute statistics of the league’s best young swingmen during the regular season.  Many would laugh at Hayward’s inclusion among the esteemed quartet of Barnes, Butler, George and Leonard, and the numbers would shake their head in response; Hayward’s not only belong, but mostly outpace those of his peers.

That’s surprising on a macro level.  Our perception of Hayward’s merit differs wildly compared to his counterparts': George is the bonafide superstar, Leonard following Tim Duncan’s footsteps, Butler a fearless two-way force, and Barnes the hyper-athletic marksman.  These are the game’s prototype ‘three-and-D’ guys, players that not only impact both ends of the floor, but do so at multiple positions while filling multiple roles, too.

But circumstance matters here as it does anywhere else.  Barnes, Butler, Leonard and George were afforded the opportunity to shine in front of a national audience during the postseason.  That each of them took advantage and drastically outperformed their regular season selves is certainly commendable.  They wouldn’t be where they are now had they played any differently.

Instead, they’d accompany Hayward on the list of youngsters that face promising but indeterminate futures.  But this group’s playoff chance was had and fulfilled, cementing their spots among the league’s young hierarchy in the process.  Hayward didn’t get his last season and likely won’t this coming one, either.  So we’ll have another opportunity to forget him again, unless he takes that salient leap from supporting to stardom during the regular season.

Let’s just say you’d be wise to pay attention.

Comparisons aside now, the 23 year-old Hayward enjoyed easily his best season in 2012-2013.  In addition to a career-high of 14.1 points per game, he posted personal benchmarks in PER (16.81) and win shares (5.4), and shot 41.5% from three-point range on 3.4 tries a night.  Perhaps more impressive, Hayward increased his usage rate from 17.8 to 22.1 while lowering his turnover rate from 13.7 to 11.7.  All that while guarding the opponent’s best wing, too, and thriving while doing so; Hayward held shooting guards to a PER of 13.6 and small forwards to the paltry number of 12.4.

So it’s safe to say Hayward got much better last season.  We just weren’t watching.

None of that means he’s due for more improvement, of course.  Perhaps Hayward’s reached his ceiling as a floor-spacing wing with underrated passing flair that doubles as a plus defender, and that’d be fine.  Every team in the league would be far better off with a player made from that basic fabric.

But Utah, finally in real transition, needs more.  And fortunately for the Jazz, there’s evidence to support the optimistic theory that Hayward has ample room to grow in the fourth and most important season – he’s due for a contract extension next summer – of his burgeoning career.

Utah fully embraced the youth movement in the offseason.  By letting longtime offensive stalwarts Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leave without any compensation whatsoever, the Jazz are counting on internal improvement to remain competitive in the Western Conference.  How competitive Utah actually wants to be this season is a discussion for another time, but the point remains that the Jazz will finally be relying on its young talent with no veteran strings attached.

Though Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are the most direct beneficiaries behind the departure of Jefferson and Millsap, the biggest onus will fall on Hayward.  Utah’s flex-heavy offensive system relied almost untenably on its two-headed post-up monster the last couple years, leaving little wiggle room for Hayward and the team’s other perimeter players to even play basic principles of pick-and-roll basketball.  How Ty Corbin will adjust his system to life without Jefferson in particular is anyone’s guess, but what isn’t is that the biggest burden now rests on Hayward’s ever-broadening shoulders.

He’s this team’s most experienced if not best offensive player now, what with Derrick Favors’ established limitations, Enes Kanter developing, and Alec Burks and Trey Burke ill prepared for such a role.  The ball is headed Hayward’s way, and to forecast how he’ll perform with such added responsibility, we need to look back.

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All totals per 36 minutes of play.

Above are Hayward’s splits with and without Jefferson on the floor.   The biggest and broadest takeaway from all that data? Hayward is going to make a jump in 2013-2014; the question now is just how big it’s going to be.

Most everything you’d want and expect from Hayward without Jefferson playing beside him is here.  He’s a more productive scorer, a better creator, a more frequent penetrator and clearly exhibits the type of added aggression befitting a primary wing scoring option.  Hayward’s field goal percentage takes the predictable dip as a result, but that’s nearly offset by his remarkable consistency from beyond the arc and increased opportunities at the free throw line.  A 54.1% true shooting mark is hardly elite, but is sandwiched by those of established scorers like George and Carmelo Anthony.  The Jazz can deal as long as that decrease comes with the necessary uptick in production, basically.  Like everything in basketball, it’s a balancing act.

And remember, the numbers Hayward compiled without Jefferson were garnered through means of Utah’s old offensive system, and at least partially with Millsap on the floor, too.  Those aren’t circumstances in which Hayward will find himself this season; the Jazz offense should be catered to his abilities more than that of any other player on the roster.  With that change comes more defensive attention, of course, but his high-assist/low-turnover yield bodes well for that coming adjustment.

None of this is to say Hayward will ever be good enough to lead Utah to a championship.  In most every case, those types of franchise-changing players will have shown that hand by the time they’ve reached Hayward’s current stage.  But he can absolutely be a foundational piece for the Jazz in their quest to quickly rebuild; versatile defenders that can occasionally function as something close to a lead ballhandler and legitimately stretch the defense from every spot on the floor are rare. Not coincidentally, so, too, are great players in general.

Gordon Hayward is finally getting a chance this season.  It’s not ideal and doesn’t come under the best of circumstances.  But for a player so often unintentionally discounted, that such an opportunity has come at all might be enough.  And considering the quiet but sizable strides he took last season, with Hayward it likely will be.

Analytical support for this piece provided by NBA.com/stats, basketball-reference.com and 82games.com.

Tipping the Scale: John Wall’s Extension and Bradley Beal’s Rookie Season

NBA contracts aren’t considered, awarded or agreed upon in a vacuum.  Every possible context matters to salary negotiations in today’s league, one increasingly intelligent, accountable and prudent on the court as well as off of it.

Like the ripple effect of a deadly shooter stationed in the weak-side corner or back-line help responsibilities of varied pick-and-roll coverage, the specific terms of a new contract offered by a franchise are examined through every lens imaginable.  What is this player’s market value? What is he worth now? What will he be worth in the future? What’s he worth to us – as a piece of the basketball puzzle, as an ambassador for the team, as a portion of the salary cap?

The questions an organization must ask in determining a player’s value in dollars are immeasurable.  Extremely rare are cases akin to those of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and, in all likelihood, Kyrie Irving: surefire superstars whose overall value and influence can’t be measured financially despite their huge slice of the cap.  Those select few will always get their maximum money, and questions concerning their free agencies or looming ones are limited exclusively to where they’ll sign their next mega contract.

John Wall, he of a just-signed and much discussed five-year, $80 million contract extension, isn’t among that handful of transcendent players.  His new deal with Washington deserves at least study and perhaps scrutiny, like all those that came before him this summer.  Wall’s extension generated so much interest because he’s at the very least close to deserving the distinction that comes with the designated player contract.  That often harsh spotlight combined with his injury history, middling efficiency and awesome finish to last season is the nature of stardom or potential stardom; remember, there are still those skeptical of Houston for awarding Dwight Howard – the league’s second best player as recently as 2011 – a contract worth the maximum.

Unless you’re LeBron or the next best thing, a max-level deal will always generate apprehension.  Some players live up to it, and others don’t.  So the Wizards are certainly gambling a bit with a player as unproven and uneven as Wall.  The extent of that bet depends on their projection for him going forward, which is almost as much about Wall’s teammates as it is his play individually.  In this case there’s certainly no vacuum, with Washington’s above .500 second half, Wall’s public attitude adjustment and a concerted effort to make the playoffs in 2014 all factoring into the 22 year-old’s mammoth extension.

But aside from Wall’s personal improvements, there may not be a bigger contributing factor to his new contract than the changeabout play of backcourt mate Bradley Beal.  Wall won’t ever be able to win by himself, and Beal’s Hyde and Jekyll of a rookie season ensures he won’t have to.  Whether or not reality – well, advanced statistics, game logs and shot-charts – supports the popular narrative that Wall’s return to the court from injury was the direct means behind Beal’s rapid improvement is something else entirely.

The raw numbers support that half-full theory, of course.  Beal began his rookie season in the worst way possible, shooting a combined 35.7% from the field and 28.7% from three-point range through November and December.  For a player whose greatest strength supposedly lied in rare marksmanship, such consistent struggles provided cause for major concern.  Worst, there were even few fleeting bright spots; after making at least half of his shots and scoring at least 17 points in the fourth and fifth games of his career, Beal couldn’t manage those feats again before the calendar flipped to the new year.

Wall was sidelined the first ten weeks of the season due to a September knee injury, of course, leaving Beal stretched too far as a ballhandler and creator.  That much was assumed once news of Wall’s sustained absence surfaced, but Beal’s early rookie year performance came up well short of even those revised expectations nonetheless.

Then Wall made his 2013 debut and everything changed.  Below are Beal’s numbers from before and after Wall returned to the Washington lineup.  The differences, obviously, are stark.

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By most every statistical measure available, Beal was a new player once Wall was healthy enough to play on January 12th.  The uncomfortable, often indecisive rookie of 2012 was replaced by one that played with a sense of role and purpose in 2013, and the numbers bear that out.  Beal was a far more efficient and productive scorer with Wall available, a fact best exemplified by a more than 10 point rise in his true shooting percentage once Wall made his debut.

But there’s more to the idea that Beal’s turnaround hinged mostly on Wall’s health, and it centers around metrics that indicate the former’s satisfaction playing off the ball alongside a point guard that garners so much attention from the defense.  Beal’s usage rate declined with Wall in tow as did his percentage of baskets made that came without an assist, but only slightly so.  Evidence supporting that belief lies mostly in Beal’s three-point shooting performance pre and post Wall’s return.

The percentages speak for themselves: Beal hit on 10.9% more of his corner attempts from deep and 15% more than his above-break tries after January 12th.  But just as important is the frequency and quality of those shots, too.  Though Beal actually averaged fewer three-point attempts – 4.3 per game versus 4.1 – after Wall’s debut, they were distributed across the floor in a far more efficient manner.  A corner three-pointer might be the most valuable shot in basketball; there’s a reason Beal performed well from there pre-Wall even as he struggled to make shots from anywhere else.  Good thing for the Wizards, then, that 41% of Beal’s three-point attempts with Wall in the lineup came from the corner.  When he was injured, only 37% of Beal’s tries from deep came from that hallowed ground.

Yes, the metrics agree that Beal’s game changed once Wall was finally healthy, and not just for the sheer statistical better, either.  He was suddenly a more selective shooter, a more effective cutter and something much closer to the player archetype he was billed as coming into the draft – a skilled marksman that doesn’t need the ball to succeed.

But there’s another layer to Beal’s 2013 play, and to best understand his major improvements and project his career’s altered trajectory, it’s one that needs to be peeled.  How did he perform with Wall on and off the court from January 12th and so forth? The numbers tell an interesting story, and one that shines new light – if not lighter or darker – on Wall’s extension.

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The general takeaway of the above: Beal’s second half turnaround had less to do with Wall’s return than it did him hitting and clearing the proverbial rookie wall (no pun intended) – that development just happened to coincide with the assumed health of Washington’s star point guard and, now, franchise player.

Beal’s numbers with Wall on the floor are indeed slightly superior to those he compiled while Wall rode the bench.  But that difference is negligible, and his progress in those instances compared to the pre-Wall period is the best indicator of his whirlwind rookie season as well as his future success.  And while Beal’s play alongside Wall is an obvious harbinger of success, too, the degree of his coming ascendance appears steeper when he’s on the floor alone as the Wizards clear top offensive option.

So Beal’s rookie season was more than one of halves; it was actually one of thirds.  Pre-Wall, with Wall and without Wall, he was a different player.  How much certain strategic changes and the overall health of the roster played into his rapid rise is a consideration for those most familiar with Washington’s season.  But these numbers tell a story just as encouraging for Beal and the Wizards going forward as does the one with Wall as his knight in shining armor.

But given Wall’s recent re-up, Washington has a problem.  It’s a good one, an issue which they’d rather put up with than not have at all, but still something that bears watching as this roster ripens over the next two or three seasons.

Wall is the Wizards’ surefire ‘guy’ now, and not just because his is the face of the organization’s reclamation efforts.  Under the parameters of the new CBA, teams are allowed one designated player for a five-year extension on a rookie deal that’s already on the roster.  Wall is that player for Washington, even though the last 25 games of Beal’s ever-encouraging rookie season indicate he’ll likely be just as if not more worthy than his teammate of that distinction when the time comes at the end of the 2015-2016 season.

Unless David Stern and the league’s Board of Governors grant Washington the same confounding exception they did Oklahoma City with respect to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (not happening, obviously), the Wizards are running the risk of antagonizing Beal.  That was mostly beyond their control what with the language of the CBA, and electing to save the designated player tag for Beal – the inferior player, for now at least – with Wall eligible for it risked alienating the latter at a time this franchise finally had an opportunity for stability.  Just ask Minnesota how that very decision worked out with Kevin Love.

A bird in the bush is worth two in the gander, the saying goes, and Washington was almost forced to play things out that way as a simple result of timing.  Wall has two years on Beal in development as a player and salary cap entity; this bet was the safest one, and it was probably the smartest, too.  The possible negative trickle down of saving the tag for Beal was simply too much, what with likely disenchanting Wall and the possibility that his evolution stalls.  The Wizards’ bet is insured by the fact that Beal – at just 20 years-old – is a noted professional that understands the business side of basketball, and whose relationship with Wall is constantly championed by both sides.

But more important than salary cap ramifications of Beal’s rise are those that occur on the floor.  It’s clear now that he can thrive with or without Wall by his side, as evidenced by the numbers laid out above.  Should his talents and overall influence eventually eclipse those of Wall, how will each player react? Washington’s case is a rare one, with two players that could conceivably emerge as the team’s best player on different timelines.  The complications gleaned from that possibility are numerous and varied, but it’s another good problem to have nonetheless.

For now, at least, Washington is sitting pretty.  Wall’s extension was necessary for the short and long term goals of this organization, and the justification behind it – be it his individual merits, how pieces like Beal fit around him or factors contributing to public perception – is obvious regardless on which side of the fence you sit.

But Beal’s rookie evolution isn’t what it seems on the surface, and positions the Wizards for additional possibilities going forward that most don’t assume.  For the future sake of both backcourt stars and the franchise as a whole, let’s hope they realize it.

Follow Jack Winter on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Thomas Robinson: Chance, Opportunity and Meaningless Expectations

“I got work to do,” Thomas Robinson said at the 2012 NBA draft.  “I ain’t stopping for nobody.”

But that was more than a year ago, when the 22 year-old Portland Trailblazers forward was considered the steal of the draft and a cornerstone of the Sacramento Kings rebuilding effort.  It seems far longer than that, of course, considering the rocky road Robinson’s traveled since realizing his NBA dreams.

Robinson was a bit player for the Kings his rookie season, averaging 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game for a crowded Sacramento frontcourt.  He shot just 44.9% from the field, even worse from the free throw line and often appeared visibly frustrated with his role on a team and organization in constant states of flux.  The February trade that sent him to Houston was a surprise, but a good one.  The Rockets dealt Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris for financial flexibility more than to accommodate Robinson, but a gaping hole was left in Houston’s frontcourt nonetheless.  Robinson was the logical choice to fill it, going from deep reserve on a lottery team to key rotational cog with one fighting for a playoff spot.

But basketball is never that simple.  Robinson’s physical interior game didn’t mesh with a Rockets team intent on space and pace at all costs, and Kevin McHale’s reluctance to let youngsters play through growing pains compounded matters.  His role varied from one game to the next initially, before he was fazed out of the rotation altogether as April days grew longer.  Robinson didn’t log a single minute in Houston’s five-game first round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Once summer came, the Rockets longterm goal complicated things even further.  Robinson’s name was in trade winds again, this so Houston could shed cap room for the opportunity to sign Dwight Howard outright.  His once-exalted name seemingly made immediately available to the highest bidder, there should have been a fire-sale.  But there wasn’t.

The June 27th NBA draft came and went without a trade.  Days later, the Rockets agreed to send Robinson – 12 months removed from being the fifth overall pick in a superior draft – to Portland for pennies on the dollar: the rights to Kostas Papanikolaou and Marko Todorovic, as well as two second-round picks.

So this is where Robinson finds himself in still the most formative days of his NBA career, on his third team in just over a calendar year, already a journeyman before he’s had extended game opportunities to prove he’s otherwise.  Falls this precipitous shouldn’t happen.  There were unique extenuating circumstances in both of his previous stops, but something more than broad organizational concerns have put Robinson at this early crossroads.

Deciphering why is bigger than his shooting struggles or reportedly poor understanding of basic NBA concepts.  There’s more at play when it comes to Robinson, certainly, once the rare NCAA prospect that combined an elite physical profile with production to match and room to grow.

A confluence of factors go into shaping a player during his malleable years and half of them are beyond his control.  A player’s upside is limited until he gets a chance to prove it in game situations, and extra shooting and conditioning only does so much if a player’s strengths clash with his team’s general philosophies.  It takes the right fit for all but basketball’s best to shine as bright as they’re ultimately capable, and even in ideal situations players develop at different paces.

To be fair, much has been made behind the scenes of Robinson’s questionable self-awareness, and his limited on-court opportunities confirm those whispers.  The enthusiastic player that made his original mark at Kansas by cleaning the glass and doing the proverbial little things was gone last season, replaced by a mercurial one horribly miscast as a primary offensive option.  The remaining half of a player’s trajectory has as much to do with understanding his own base strengths and weaknesses as anything else, and Robinson showed little his rookie season – in Sacramento or Houston – to suggest he ever would.

But he was the impact role player he should be during his first two years at Kansas, and showed enough shot-making talent his junior season to suggest he could be that and even a little more.  One of the reasons pundits were high on Robinson going into the 2012 draft were his fantastic collegiate rebounding numbers, and he exhibited that strength last season – he ranked seventh among PFs in offensive rebounding rate – despite a motor that ran far below his established standards.  Combined with his natural athleticism and flashes of offensive skill,  there’s definitely a legitimate NBA future  here; the crux with Robinson is properly mining it.

That means structure.  It means consistency.  A role, and an organization intent on getting Robinson to realize it to his full potential.  Groupthink permeates in the NBA, and if one team thinks a player looks, quacks and swims like a duck, others will, too.  That aspect  is another reason why Robinson finds himself on his third team in a single year.  But bucking trends, taking chances and noticing things others don’t is how good organizations build great teams.

Who knows what the Blazers see in Robinson? The price they paid to get a good glimpse is small enough it might be little.  But they have it now, and whatever it may be is just as important as how Robinson sees himself.  Both need to throw away original expectations, punt his tumultuous rookie year and look through the most basic lens, one that shows a young, 6’9” power forward with rare athleticism and rebounding instincts that needs a fresh start.

Even then Robinson still might never live up to his once lofty status as a prospect.  But he will certainly realize his chance to fulfill the draft day promise he made last year and now needs to remember more than ever.  If he does, Robinson simply has too much talent to fail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pelicans Reimagine Rebuilding

Swap known commodities for assets, develop those assets into tangible young cornerstones, stay the slow-moving course and eventually reap the benefits.  Or stay barely afloat, compile tradable pieces, attack blood in the water and maintain patience for the ultimate pay-off.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets are the model for team-building in today’s NBA, a league whose incentive structure is under intense scrutiny as more and more teams sacrifice immediate win-loss dividends with a long-term goal in mind.  Or at least they should be.  But interestingly, the vast majority of forward-thinking organizations are taking something closer to just the former’s approach.  Bottoming out and building through the draft is the most popular name of league construction now, even as Daryl Morey and the Rockets just scored the biggest prize of free agency through a wholly different means.

And what’s of increasing note is the overwhelmingly positive reception met with franchises that undertake the Thunder Model of growth and the negative perception of teams that embark on a different journey.  How else to explain the general reaction to the draft day trade that sent Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected 2014 draft pick from New Orleans to Philadelphia in exchange for Jrue Holiday?

New general manager Sam Hinkie – a former Houston executive, it should be noted – and the Sixers were hailed as the winners of that swap, acquiring arguably the top prospect in this year’s class and a likely lottery pick in next season’s draft for the ages.  Surrendering a 23 year-old, newly minted All-Star on the front-end of a reasonable contract became an afterthought, the necessary consequence for the chance to net two players who could eventually develop into a similar or superior caliber.

But that’s all the NBA draft is – an opportunity.  And it’s one wrought with countless outside influences and ancillary factors that could change the trajectory of a team or player’s future.  It’s not up to one entity to determine the fate of a particular draft pick; it takes a confluence of positive developments – individual, franchise and off-court aspects – for a player to reach his ultimate potential or something close to it.  And banking on anything but the LeBrons, Durants and Wigginses of the world for even that is a harrowing assumption.

It’s easy to forget as they rack up the postseason accolades, but the Thunder took a risk by drafting Russell Westbrook and James Harden higher than they were projected.  Only after rollercoaster rookie campaigns did we know those were awesome gambles.  The latitude afforded general manager Sam Presti from those brilliant picks still permeates, too, even as Oklahoma City considers amnestying Kendrick Perkins, the Harden trade looks ever-questionable and his most recent draft picks continue to struggle.  Basically, a front office can be intelligent, cap-conscious and the necessary blend of patient and opportunistic, but that doesn’t make every coal a diamond or draft pick a star.

There’s certainly direction to the suddenly crowded road being traveled by the Sixers, Celtics and others.  Just look at the steady rise of the franchise from which they’re basing that course.  But Morey and the Rockets have shown there’s more than one way to build, and, most importantly, that it’s unnecessary to start the climb towards contention from the basement.

The approach taken by Dell Demps and the Pelicans is still a new one, though.  Past iterations have come in the form of immediate judgment, like the Dwight Howard signing for Houston or Chris Paul trade for the Clippers.  Those teams had a young core in place and sought the biggest fish to lead the school; in that case, there’s no downside to acquiring an established superstar.

With this active offseason, though, New Orleans is assuming they already have that guy in place.  Anthony Davis was the rare draft sure-thing referenced earlier, and he’ll undoubtedly develop into a very good two-way player.  But even after an encouraging rookie season, the jury’s out on whether he’ll be that franchise cornerstone the Pelicans are counting on.  If he isn’t, players like Holiday, Eric Gordon and free agent pickup Tyreke Evans will be stretched beyond their limits.  But if Davis eventually delivers on all of that obvious promise, the Pelicans will have an awesome young structure in place rivaled by almost no other team in the league.

There’s major projection at the center of New Orleans’ new means to title aspirations, but ifs are involved in every NBA rebuilding job.  The likelihood that Evans doubles down on an under-the-radar 2012-2013 season and thrives in his role as something other than first or second banana is at least as realistic as a run-of-the-mill lottery pick becoming a player of that potential caliber.  And that Holiday takes another step forward with a pick-and-roll partner like Davis at his side is as plausible as a recovering Noel and 2014 rookie outside the Wiggins-Randle duo becoming the league’s next great young tandem.

Risk and chance is everywhere in the NBA.  Avoiding those variables is impossible.  The Pelicans are simply taking a simpler and more direct avenue to confronting them than the lot of teams hoping to contend.  They aren’t clinging to barely realistic future draft hopes or signing and trading for superstars, but doing something in between.  At the very least that’s to be commended, if not lauded.

There’s no surefire road to sustained success in this league.  The Thunder were 3-29 at one point four seasons ago, almost title winners last summer and second round prey in May.  Morey’s Rockets were laughed at 18 months ago, the proverbial team on the rise last spring and suddenly have legitimate title hopes.

Winning is a process.  There’s no way right, wrong or forever. And until it’s proven one of the three, the Pelicans’ progressive process deserves a chance for praise.

Follow Jack Winter on Twitter.

Milwaukee Stays The Confounding Course

The Bucks had a chance.

Milwaukee reportedly offered Monta Ellis a three-year, $36 million contract in early June, a month before the madness of free agency officially kicked off.  Ellis immediately declined the deal and opted against exercising the player option on the final season of his existing contract, making him a free agent.

That chain of events was a loss for Milwaukee on the surface.  The Bucks acquired Ellis in March of last year with the longterm in mind; though the team’s 2013 season could only be considered a minor success, that he was offered such a lucrative deal once it ended made that much clear.  Whether that was the right approach is another thing entirely.

Ellis, the entire league should know by now, isn’t worth a contract that rich.  Perhaps not half of it.  But the Bucks got away with their big mistake regardless, and Ellis’ hubris is now getting the nemesis it deserves on the open market.

So Milwaukee lost out on Ellis but won in the end.  Addition by subtraction on every level.  Then yesterday happened, and the Bucks took the flexibility luckily afforded them by Ellis’ mistake to dip into the free agent market.

Milwaukee agreed to terms with OJ Mayo and Zaza Pachulia to deals that total $40 million over three seasons.

These aren’t horrible moves in the NBA vacuum.  Both Mayo and Pachulia have proven their worth as role players for playoff teams in the past, and they’re precisely the kind of guys that are routinely overpaid.  Mayo’s age, physical profile and ‘3 and D’ potential would entice any team, and size and smarts like Pachulia’s always come with a price mark-up.  To be sure, these contract numbers are high but not outrageously so.

For the right team, that is.  The Bucks aren’t.

Mediocrity has been the game of Milwaukee basketball for years.  They’ve won between 34 and 46 games every season since 2009, and even that low high-water mark in 2010 – with a far different roster, it should be noted – was an outlier; the Bucks’ win percentage has been between .415 and .470 in the campaigns surrounding it.

Milwaukee was forced to trade JJ Redick, lost Mike Dunleavy to the Bulls and ‘missed out’ on Ellis, leaving a gaping hole in its backcourt.  That vacancy had to be filled.  Fine.  But opting to do so with Mayo for the reported terms gets the Bucks near a dangerous place they would have been with Ellis.  An erratic, shot-happy player like Mayo needs reigns and structure, things he won’t get as a focal point of the Milwaukee offense.  He’s more efficient, better defensively and cheaper than Ellis, but still nothing more than a bench spark-plug on a great team.

The acquisition of Mayo is yet another thing that assures that’s something the Bucks won’t be anytime soon.  But at least his addition deserves scrutiny, because the same can’t be said for that of Pachulia.

Even without free agent Samuel Dalembert, Milwaukee boasts one of the deepest frontcourts in the league.  Larry Sanders is foundational, Gustavo Ayon useful, Ekpe Udoh growing, John Henson the team’s most recent lottery pick and Drew Gooden a salary cap albatross.  That quintet is promising despite its limitations, and each player is good enough to garner a place in the rotation.  They’re also due approximately $17.7 million next season and sometimes lose minutes when the Bucks play small with Ersan Ilyasova or Luc Richard Mbah Moute at power forward.

It’s already far too much, basically, and now Milwaukee will be paying Pachulia somewhere in the arena of $5 million next season to fight in that scrum for minutes off the bench.  Remember, too, that Sanders’ rapid improvement means he’s sure to play more than 27 minutes per game in 2014.  The same can be said for Henson.

Remember the finally solved post logjam in Utah? That’s what Milwaukee has now, except it’s more crowded, less talented and full of redundancies.  Yikes.

And, of course, it all comes back to Ellis.  These reported agreements with Mayo and Pachulia would make far more sense if the Bucks thought they were challenging for a high seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs next season.  If Ellis had agreed to terms, Brandon Jennings was re-signed and this above-average wedding band was brought back for another run, that’s the approach these acquisitions would signal.  It’d be one that’s wrong and ultimately debilitating, but at least there’d be an effort toward progress.  As it is, Milwaukee is running in quicksand.

Ellis’ blunder gave the Bucks a chance to start fresh.  They avoided another cap burden and scrapped the always-vexing idea of a Jennings-Ellis backcourt tandem.  They could have hit quick restart, swapped useful players to contending teams for assets, come as close to bottoming out as Jennings and Sanders would allow and come away with a future stud from the 2014 draft class.

Instead, Milwaukee elected to stay its routine course of mediocrity.  The reasons why are anyone’s guess, but to expect anything different at this point is setting yourself up for disappointment.

Or, if you’re the Bucks, just another first round sweep.