Evaluating the summer’s biggest gambles
The gamble: Hoping Josh Smith, who signed a four-year, $54 million contract, can work alongside two conventional big men (Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond) as a small forward, and/or retain his trade value to give the Pistons a high-level asset.
The assessment: I’m in favor, and explained why at length here. Ultimately, Smith’s appeal boils down to three factors:
1. He’s a better small-forward option than many would have you believe, and a colossal upgrade over Detroit’s lackluster options from last season.
2. Adding Smith is a huge defensive play for a team that ranked 24th in points allowed per possession last season and has two raw defensive big men who could stand to learn a thing or two.
3. At worst, his deal is sub-max and movable. Even if sharing time between both forward spots isn’t purely optimal, Smith will retain trade value and could be shipped out if the fit isn’t as expected or if the team’s internal development renders him redundant.
Los Angeles Clippers
The gamble: Loading up a roster with quality perimeter players as a means to hide the lack of frontcourt depth.
The assessment: I’m skeptical, even in acknowledging that the Clippers will be one of the better teams in the West next season and an uncompromising scoring juggernaut regardless of their faults. Replacing former coach Vinny Del Negro with Doc Rivers should help deepen the offensive playbook and instill hope with a proven defensive system, but a lot rides on Blake Griffin’s and DeAndre Jordan’s joint ability to play huge minutes (their sole backups are Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins) and thrive in their control of the weak side of the floor.
Boston’s defense under Rivers worked so effectively because Garnett had such a flawless command of quasi-zone coverage when keeping tabs on the weak side. I’m not quite convinced that Griffin and Jordan will be up to that challenge. They’ll still be fine, and will likely improve in reading the floor and rotating on time. There’s just a clear divide between “getting better” and “title-worthy,” and I’d expect the Clippers’ defense to lean toward the former.
New Orleans Pelicans
The gamble: Sacrificing cap space and draft picks (one of which was used to select Nerlens Noel, another which could come into play for the vaunted 2014 draft) to acquire Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, completing a strange and fascinating core.
The assessment: I’m higher on what the Pelicans have done than most, largely because of the potential for offensive synergy between their high-usage perimeter players and high-efficiency big men. There isn’t a definitive star in the bunch, but Evans, Holiday and guard Eric Gordon form the foundation of a balanced, well-spaced offense suitable to all involved. Evans can handle the ball without monopolizing it. Holiday can run the show while still having a chance to play off the ball, as he did well with Andre Iguodala in Philadelphia. Gordon — if engaged — can fill in the gaps by spacing the floor and getting to the foul line.
Big men Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis, though, create the most intrigue as valuable, shot-wise offensive players who can manipulate defenses without even touching the ball. Every Davis roll and Anderson spot-up warrants concerted defensive attention, making things easier for the Pelicans’ creators. It’ll be awkward getting all the pieces to fit initially, but New Orleans could become a very solid offensive team quickly if coach Monty Williams brings a more creative flair to the base offense.
The defensive end is a bit trickier, but the Pelicans are in decent position with an elite big-man prospect in Davis and the very versatile Holiday serving as the base of a cogent system. Gordon, too, can lock in to play solid D when so inclined, though his waffling interest, Evans’ lack of focus and Anderson’s struggles could well create some problems.
New York Knicks
The gamble: Acquiring a poor defender and miserable rebounder (7-footer Andrea Bargnani) to log major minutes.
The assessment: I’m flummoxed that the Knicks, even with limited options to acquire talent, would consider obtaining Bargnani a wise basketball move. Bargnani, 27, compounds the biggest problems the Knicks faced a season ago. His presence — along with that of forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire — will force center Tyson Chandler to manage multiple defensive liabilities at all times. As good as Chandler is (or can be; he wasn’t looking quite himself late last season), that’s asking far too much.
To lay things out simply: New York traded an elite three-point shooter (Steve Novak) for a below-average one (Bargnani has made only 32.3 percent from long range in the last three seasons), added salary, complicated the sensible option of playing Anthony at power forward, widened the gaps in its defense and gave up three draft picks for the privilege. Good show, gents.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The gamble: Allowing Kevin Martin to walk in free agency without a clear substitute.
The assessment: If the James Harden trade didn’t already make it abundantly clear that the Thunder take the luxury-tax penalty seriously, consider that they just parted ways with the highly efficient Martin — a prime acquisition in the Harden deal — and haven’t used their mid-level exception so far. Getting Russell Westbrook back will cure much of what ailed Oklahoma City in the postseason, but Martin was a component of nearly every top Thunder lineup last season. The Thunder can get by (and contend) without him based on the excellence of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but they’ll also have to lean more consistently on third-year guard Reggie Jackson and second-year guard Jeremy Lamb to fill minutes and fit neatly alongside the other core rotation players.
I’m optimistic about OKC’s chances to pull that off, but admittedly curious to see how Jackson and Lamb fare. Jackson showed legitimate progress through Westbrook’s postseason absence, but he’s in no way the complementary cutter and shooter that Harden and Martin were for the Thunder — a difference that could make him a slightly more awkward fit alongside the Thunder’s two stars. (Durant, Westbrook and Jackson played just over 100 minutes together last season.) Lamb, on the other hand, just isn’t NBA-tested after playing only 147 minutes as a rookie. Though he’s scored well in the D-League and summer league, he doesn’t have much to draw from in terms of baseline chemistry with his Thunder teammates.
Both players could well answer the call with strong individual seasons. But let’s not understate the risk of trading Harden, parting ways with Martin, and trusting two young players to pick up the slack.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com. Salary data courtesy of Sham Sports.