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NBA off-season grades: Thunder's failures open the door for Northwest upstarts

With Kevin Durant no longer in the division and several young squads adding reinforcements, the Northwest Division race is wide open in 2016-17.
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With most of the NBA summer already in the books, is grading each team’s off-season performance and examining their best and worst moves. Today, we dissect the Northwest Division, where Kevin Durant no longer plays, and where a group of young teams are looking to take advantage.

Previous division grades: Central,Atlantic and Southeast.

Portland Trail Blazers

Best Move: Staying patient.Nothing the Blazers did this summer will launch them into the West’s top tier immediately, but in sticking to their philosophy and adding complementary pieces around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, they should stay happily steady. They probably overpaid to keep Allen Crabbe away from Brooklyn, but continuity comes at a price in this league. The Blazers did their best to avert risk for the next couple seasons and assembled workable depth in the process. — Jeremy Woo

Worst Move: The Evan Turner contract. Evan Turner is a bit of a cult hero for his zany quotes and (mild) career renaissance with the Celtics, but even with the rising cap, Portland grossly overpaid the swingman. Paying $17.5 million a year for someone who shoots 24.1% from three? In 2016? Turner is a career 43% shooter from the field overall, and the only year he's topped 15 points per game was when he was a volume chucker for a bad 76ers team. With Portland already handing out big money to McCollum, Crabbe and Lillard, the Turner contract could haunt them when the Blazers need to supplement their stars in the future. — Rohan Nadkarni

The Skinny: Without question, the Blazers led the NBA in contracts that made you ask, “They gave how much to who?” Evan Turner: $70 million. Allen Crabbe: $75 million. Moe Harkless: $40 million. Meyers Leonard: $41 million. In case you’re counting, that’s more than $225 million to four players who combined to start 44 games last season. Crazy. Then throw in a $110 million rookie extension for CJ McCollum and a two-year, $15+ million deal for Festus Ezeli and it probably got to the point that billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen had to cash in a few of his Microsoft stock options just to make payroll.

Spending big on marginal talent, and doing so repeatedly in a short period of time, is usually a good recipe for a bad summer. To make matters worse, Portland struck out on its top priority—a top-shelf, defensive-minded starting center—and had to settle for gambling on Ezeli, who this week underwent treatment on his ailing left knee. At first blush, it certainly looks like Blazers GM Neil Olshey spent a fortune to marginally improve a non-contender that vastly outperformed expectations last season.

Still, it’s not that hard to understand why Portland elected to “go for it” this summer. First, their young core centered around Lillard and McCollum enjoys strong chemistry and plays exciting basketball that produced instant results in the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure last year. Second, the rising salary cap should help facilitate offloading some of these commitments down the road. The timing was right to pay up now and figure it out later, even if that means salary-dumping a player or two into another team’s cap space next summer.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there’s greater opportunity in the West for a team like Portland, which hasn’t been to the conference finals since 2000, than there has been in years. The Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers all regressed this summer, while the Rockets, Grizzlies and Mavericks mostly treaded water. Suddenly, the Blazers’ best-case scenario entering the season looks more promising than it has at any point since Scottie Pippen was in Rip City.

There are plenty of ways that this could backfire. Portland’s key players enjoyed excellent health last season, and a meaningful injury at the top would be difficult to weather. Turner is an odd fit, and his lack of shooting and need to have the ball could cut into Lillard and McCollum’s effectiveness if coach Terry Stotts can’t find the right lineup combinations. The Blazers will be asking Ezeli to fix their weak interior defense, but his health is already a serious question mark. Plus, regression could strike due to so many rotation players no longer playing for new contracts and because rival teams have had a summer to digest the late-season lineup changes that fueled the Blazers’ playoff run.

NBA off-season grades: Central challengers stay busy, but Cavs maintain dominance

In sum, the Blazers went pretty nuts this summer, but they did so with an eye towards favorable external factors and without boxing themselves in quite as much as it might seem. If the gamble works, Portland could build on its surprising postseason success and lift itself firmly into the NBA’s second tier, which might help the franchise enjoy better luck with marquee free agents. If the gamble falls short, Portland will spend a year with one of the league’s most bloated cap sheets before eyeing liquidation mode next July. Given the wide spectrum of possible results, the Blazers’ summer stands as one of 2016-17’s best under-the-radar storylines. — Ben Golliver

Grade: C+

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Utah Jazz

Best Move: Working the scrap heap. It’s too early to declare Utah the West’s most improved team, as some have, but the Jazz made clear improvements and landed helpful rotation players that other teams needed to move. Netting George Hill for a late lottery pick addressed the Jazz's biggest need at the point, and takes pressure off the recovering Dante Exum. Boris Diaw was hobbled down the stretch last season, and getting him for essentially nothing should pay off if Utah can keep him motivated and full of espresso. Joe Johnson is definitely old, but adds experience, shot-making and had plenty of suitors. They’re not yet contenders, but the Jazz are certainly better equipped for their first playoff trip since 2012. — J.W.

Worst Move: Getting old quickly. The Jazz made the right gambles. The only question now is how their veteran signings will hold up. Johnson faded down the stretch for the Heat in the playoffs, with his three-point shooting particularly vanishing in the second round. Will JJ stay consistent—and will he be happy in a spot-up shooting role? Diaw isn’t expected to play big minutes, but if he’s forced into the lineup for any reason, will he show the same engagement as he did under Gregg Popovich? On paper, Utah’s signings certainly make the Jazz one of the more intriguing teams in the West. But how the team’s oldest players mix with a young core that’s worked hard to build its own identity could be a legitimate test. — R.N.

The Skinny:Reviewing Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey’s summer is like watching someone restock his refrigerator using Amazon. Starting point guard—add to cart. Veteran shooter—add to cart. Versatile forward—add to cart. Boom, boom, boom.  A few hours later, the missing ingredients to what should be one of the league’s most improved teams are dropped off at the front door, easy as can be.

This was both a surgical and an economical off-season for Utah, which narrowly missed the playoffs last season despite a rash of injuries. In addition to welcoming back Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks after all missed significant time in 2015-16, the Jazz have fortified their rotation by adding 1) George Hill, a quality starting point guard who fits their defense-first approach, 2) Joe Johnson, a past-his-prime wing who can still stretch the floor and give minutes, and 3) Boris Diaw, another aging vet with playoff experience who should help Utah match-up more effectively with spread teams.

Remarkably, Lindsey filled those three critical holes with one first-round pick and $36 million in total guaranteed money (Hill is an expiring contract, Diaw is nonguaranteed next year, and Johnson arrived on a two-year deal). That type of targeted, cost-effective work can land a GM in the Executive of the Year conversation.

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Although the Jazz did lose Trevor Booker to the Nets (in free agency) and Trey Burke to the Wizards (via trade), those departures feel like blips on the radar compared to the influx of proven pieces and the numerous players who are returning from injury. Suddenly, a team that had a massive hole at the one and an unimpressive bench has addressed its biggest position weakness and now runs two deep at all five positions, with the ability to beat opponents with traditional and stretch lineups alike.

The biggest downside to Utah’s off-season is that it sets up a busy 2017 free agency period, with Gordon Hayward able to opt out, Hill set to hit the market, and multiple other contract decisions on deck. That’s hardly a disaster: the Jazz’s summer additions should prove to Hayward that the franchise is serious about being competitive throughout his prime while also lifting the team back into the playoff picture for the first time since 2012. Meanwhile, Utah’s cap sheet is clean enough that it will be in position to fork over whatever it takes to keep the players it deems to be irreplaceable.

Utah has been poised to turn the corner as a franchise for a few years now, only to fall short when bad injury luck and crippling positional shortcomings got in the way. Lindsey’s big-time summer should drastically increase the Jazz’s chances at making a strong push up the West’s standings. This team looks really, really ready. — B.G.

Grade: A+

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Denver Nuggets

Best Move: Drafting for the future. It’s easy to like Denver's three first-rounders —Jamal Murray’s shooting is a welcome addition, Juancho Hernangomez could become a cult hero and Malik Beasley was nice value, even if they have too many guards now. Credit Denver for thinking about what team they could have in two years, not next season. Figure in that Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried are still on the roster even after an eternity of trade rumors, and more youthful stockpiling could be in the cards. — J.W.

Worst Move: Almost Signing Dwyane Wade. The Nuggets didn’t rock the boat this off-season. Like Boston, Denver had some assets to trade but mostly stayed pat. The Nuggets still have interesting chips in Gallinari, Faried and Wilson Chandler if someone does land on the market. But while the Dwyane Wade dalliance was a credibility boost, it did not at all make sense with the rest of Denver’s plan. Beasley, Murray and Gary Harris are all more worthy of minutes than Wade on a rebuilding team. Watching a 34-year-old shooting guard try to keep pace with his younger teammates in the altitude would not have been fun for anyone. The Nuggets should be happy Wade said no. — R.N.

The Skinny: If you rock a sidepart haircut, or brew your own beer in your basement, or delight in discovering indie rock bands three years before your friends, or conform to other vague hipster stereotypes, the Nuggets are your spirit animal.

Denver’s front office has traveled the entire globe to collect the most obscure and intriguing prospects for your viewing pleasure: there’s a Juancho, there’s a Joffrey, there’s an Axel, there’s a Nurkic and a Jokic. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Canada to half of the European continent, the Nuggets have you covered. Even better, Denver’s deep collection of international talent is entirely under the age of 25, making them perfect for idealistic dreamers.  

There’s finally enough budding prospects in Denver to appeal to the older and more cynical set, too. Nikola Jokic, a center with range and unusual vision, followed up a strong rookie campaign with a breakout game against USA Basketball in Rio. Emmanuel Mudiay, a physically gifted point guard beset by injuries as a rookie, should make a demonstrable leap in Year Two. Canadian lottery pick Jamal Murray, a skilled shooter and pick-and-roll initiator, looks like a keeper, even if he needs a few years of seasoning and strength development.

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Aside from adding three top 20 picks, Denver pretty much punted on the summer. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly opted not to trade Danilo Gallinari or Kenneth Faried, two franchise mainstays who have never quite lived up to expectations. Connelly did re-sign defensive-minded big man Darrell Arthur to a quality three-year, $23 million deal, but he otherwise opted for the lightest of touches. 

Denver’s inaction would seem to signal that it is committed to slow-playing its build-up under coach Michael Malone, leaning heavily on Mudiay, Jokic, young shooting guard Gary Harris and Murray to determine when it’s time to really gear up. That’s a defensible approach, and one that should appeal to fans who prioritize potential over reality. As it stands, though, the Nuggets’ quiet summer sets them up for another season of being overmatched on more nights than not. — B.G.

Grade: B–

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Minnesota Timberwolves

Best Move: Thibs! Kris Dunn might be a Rookie of the Year candidate, but there’s no mistaking that Tom Thibodeau was Minnesota's biggest coup this summer. Watching him scream at Team USA for a few weeks just made this even more exciting. He gets as great of a second chance as anyone could ask for in Minnesota, and seeing how fast Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins can rise to the occasion gives us this season’s most interesting subplot that doesn't involve playoff implications. Then again, would anyone be shocked if the Wolves snag the No. 8 seed now? — J.W.

Worst Move: Why so many centers? Minnesota signed Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill this summer, adding to a pivot rotation that already includes Nikola Pekovic, GorguiDieng and Towns. The signings weren’t big money moves or large commitments, but it does create a bit of a logjam at the five, especially when Towns should probably be playing center full time sooner rather than later. It was a tough market, but it would have been nice to see the Wolves add another shooter to space the floor, or another perimeter player to give the team more positional flexibility. — R.N.

The Skinny: The major takeaway from Minnesota’s summer is pretty obvious: Tom Thibodeau wants to see what he has before he starts blowing things up. This is an understandable position to take because Thibodeau is new to the management side of his hybrid coach/president role, because so many of his key players are extraordinarily young.

Putting all other factors aside, Minnesota should easily surpass its 29 wins from last season now that it has a proven coach and another year of growth time for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. In NBA management speak, this is a quintessential example of an organization that should “let the cake bake.”

The big win from the summer was landing Providence point guard Kris Dunn in the lottery. Dunn, 22, looked ready to contribute right away during his brief stint at Las Vegas Summer League, and he fits the mold of a Thibodeau teacher’s pet with his take no prisoner’s style and two-way game. While Dunn might very well supplant Ricky Rubio as Minnesota’s point guard of the future, Thibodeau can take his time letting that process play out while also testing whether the two guards can function effectively together.

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Thibodeau’s free agency moves were discreet but solid. Understanding that the oft-injured Nikola Pekovic is very likely a lost cause, Thibodeau inked Cole Aldrich to a three-year, $22 million deal. During a summer in which numerous centers broke the bank, Aldrich arrives at a fine number, giving Thibodeau some interior depth and a nice physical complement to Towns in the middle. Minnesota’s other frontcourt addition was journeyman power forward Jordan Hill, who signed for $8 million over two years. Hill isn’t all that much to write home about, but he’s a productive rebounder who gives Thibodeau another proven veteran to turn to in the event that his many younger options falter.

Minnesota’s backcourt also gets an infusion of experience: Brandon Rush arrives from Golden State after a two-year tenure that was marred by a knee injury. Rush, 31, has good size for a wing and can shoot the ball from deep, something the Timberwolves desperately needed after essentially foregoing the deep ball in recent years.

Will a new coach, a spiffy new lottery pick, and a bunch of new veterans be enough to push Minnesota into the West’s playoff picture? Probably not, but there’s really not much to complain about here. Thibodeau avoided the temptation to try to fix everything on day one, and he shored up his depth at positions of need without compromising the ideal roles of his young centerpieces. For the last few years, observers have pegged Minnesota to be one of the league’s most exciting teams, only to be disappointed by a dysfunctional offense and an overabundance of inexperienced players. This season, the Timberwolves should finally live up to that billing. Thanks to the Towns/Wiggins/Dunn trio and the arrival of Thibodeau, the future will only get brighter from there.

Grade: B+

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Oklahoma City Thunder

Best Move: Obviously, keeping Russell Westbrook. Russell Westbrook alone doesn’t make this team a contender, but he does make Oklahoma City a fascinating watch. Who’s not excited to see one of the most irrepressible talents in league history go bananas with nobody around to rein him in? Westbrook likely won't have enough help to do damage in the playoffs, but he should have enough of a supporting cast to get them back there. The narrative potential is overwhelming and will probably get really annoying. There, I managed to get through an entire paragraph without mentioning Kevin Durant. — J.W.

Worst Move: Trading James Harden. Just kidding. But maybe there’s an alternate universe in which OKC never loses Harden, pays him what they’re practically paying EnesKanter now, and Durant never leaves. OK, that’s unfair. Losing Durant was obviously the Thunder’s “worst move” of the off-season. But Durant’s departure was an insane chain of events—untimely injuries, heartbreaking playoff defeats, a historic opponent, the cap spike—that even the best general manager could not have truly planned against. The Thunder could be back. Maybe. But losing Durant will undoubtedly set this franchise back for many years to come. — R.N.

The Skinny:The Thunder are the biggest losers of the 2016 off-season, easily, and yet it actually could have been much, much worse.

Kevin Durant’s unexpected and uncompensated departure to Golden State was all bad: it brought a premature end to Oklahoma City’s status as a title contender, it broke up one of the most entertaining superstar duos (Durant and Russell Westbrook) in NBA history, it contributed to a superteam within the same conference, it caught the Thunder at least somewhat by surprise and contributed to their lack of major additions this summer, and it preempted what could have been up to five more years of entertaining championship chases with Durant smack in the middle of his prime.

No wonder some fans were lighting fire to and shooting his jerseys, and no wonder his signature restaurant in Oklahoma City has already closed. Durant’s decision scores off the charts on the “What if” scale.

Since he entered the league in 2007, only two players have accumulated more total Win Shares than Durant: LeBron James and Chris Paul, two A-listers who also changed cities during their careers. Unfortunately, fans in Cleveland, New Orleans and Miami already know how rocky things will get in Oklahoma City as the post-Durant era begins to unfold.

Thunder GM Sam Presti surely deserves credit for his salvage efforts. Before Durant left, Presti proactively sold high on Serge Ibaka in hopes of increasing the Thunder’s depth and salary cap flexibility. Moving Ibaka, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, for Victor Oladipo, 2016 lottery pick Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova helped Presti avoid the ticking clock on Ibaka’s next deal and gave the Thunder multiple young talents on cost-controlled rookie deals. Now that Durant has left, the trade also provides coach Billy Donovan with multiple options to help replace Durant’s scoring. While Oladipo is a bit redundant with Westbrook, and Ilyasova isn’t particularly special, their arrivals should help Oklahoma City achieve a level of offensive balance that’s preferable to Westbrook taking 30 shots a game.

Grades: Thunder extend Russell Westbrook in franchise-saving move

Even more important than the Ibaka trade, however, was Presti’s ability to re-sign Westbrook to a contract extension that will keep the All-Star point guard in place for at least two seasons. Given that Westbrook was also on track to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Oklahoma City was staring at the very real possibility of deciding to trade Westbrook this offseason to maximize the return value before pursuing a full-scale teardown/youth movement. Rather than suffer two heartbreaking departures in one summer—three if you’re feeling generous and want to count Ibaka—the Thunder instead stabilized its short-term future around Westbrook and can now get to work on building a supporting cast that best fits his skillset.

Presti has cultivated a reputation as a deliberate and calculating executive; true to that framing, Oklahoma City didn’t rush to throw much around once Durant left them hanging. Rather than paying up to keep Dion Waiters or pursuing mid-tier free agents on the open market, Presti inked Spanish guard Alex Abrines (a 2013 second-round pick) to a three-year, $17 million deal. And that was just about it: Westbrook got a nice bump on his renegotiation, and the Thunder will seemingly take some time to assess what they look like without Durant before getting to work on the roster’s next chapter. Patience is a good idea, but Oklahoma City will need to address its gaping hole at the three and its shallow cast of interior defenders sooner rather than later.

There’s no question that Presti deserves real credit for both the Ibaka trade and the Westbrook deal, but focusing on those salvage efforts distracts from just how damaging Durant’s decision will be to the organization’s long-term outlook. Sure, Presti chipped in nicely from the sand with the Westbrook deal, but that only happened after he put his ball in the water hazard three times in a row.

Oklahoma City will move on from its rough summer with a motivated Westbrook and a focused Presti. Durant’s departure tested both of them, but neither broke. That’s a promising sign during an otherwise disheartening time. — B.G.

Grade: F+