Give And Go: Which 2012-13 lottery teams have the brightest futures?
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Weighing the short- and long-term improvements of various 2012-13 lottery teams.
1. Which of last season’s lottery teams did the most this summer to push itself into the 2013-14 playoff picture?
Rob Mahoney: Dallas Mavericks. Once the bid to acquire Dwight Howard fell through, the Mavericks shifted into contingency overdrive. They signed Jose Calderon as a clear upgrade at point guard. With that spot secure, the Mavs used the room mid-level exception on shooting guard Wayne Ellington and persuaded guard Devin Harris to sign for the veteran minimum. Guard Gal Mekel, 25, a two-time Israeli League MVP, signed a three-year deal for the cheapest salary possible. Guard Monta Ellis was added for his capacity to create offense and get things moving off the dribble, despite the clear caveats he brings with him. Dallas then picked up center Samuel Dalembert to round out its probable starting five, re-signed big man Brandan Wright (and in waiting to do so, maximized its cap room) and nabbed former Spurs big man DeJuan Blair for the minimum.
Add in the drafting of waterbug point guard Shane Larkin and a promising wing in Ricky Ledo, and it’s been a pretty full summer for the Mavs, with most every move designed to make this team more immediately viable. Dallas had its experimental phase in 2011-12 and its concession season in 2012-13. But after chasing superstars as trade and free-agent targets for the last few seasons, owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson opted for a very different strategic bent this summer. In all, it should get the Mavs at least into the thick of the playoff race. Dallas was only a few wins (or a few more games from Dirk Nowitzki) away from the postseason last year, and this team will be deeper and more talented. The Mavs have completely reshaped their roster while still leaving room to maneuver in future seasons.
I’m still not a huge proponent of the contracts for Calderon (four years, $29 million) and Ellis (three years, $25.1 million), if only for the burden they may carry in two years’ time and the degree to which they limit Dallas’ 2014 plans. But Dallas couldn’t wait for the next available superstar forever, and even then it has shown that clearing max-contract cap room around Nowitzki’s $22.7 million salary leaves the rest of the roster rather barren. This shift puts more pieces in play for a franchise that has historically done rather well in its roster tinkering. It also creates the potential for an explosive, efficient offense. The combination of Nowitzki’s all-around brilliance, Calderon’s shooting and playmaking and Ellis’ work off the bounce should form a stable scoring core on which the Mavs can pin legitimate playoff candidacy.
Ben Golliver: I suppose this hinges on whether “doing the most” is a measure of activity, perceived progress or spending. If you like pure volume, the Trail Blazers flipped nearly half their roster, adding seven new players, five of whom are expected to see rotation minutes. If you like progress, the Cavaliers added some badly needed talent, in the form of Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, while also taking the summer’s biggest flier, on Andrew Bynum, a franchise-changing talent if healthy. Cleveland’s additions greatly outweigh the subtractions (Ellington, Marreese Speights, Omri Casspi). In terms of spending, the Timberwolves’ signing spree should probably have gotten more attention. New president Flip Saunders handed out $117 million (!) to Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. I’m not sure Saunders wound up “doing the most” to push his team into the playoffs, but he was definitely, as Snoop Dogg might say, doin’ too much.
If we’re combining all of these measures — and taking into account how much easier it will be to climb from the lottery to the playoffs in the East as compared to the West — I think the Detroit Pistons are the choice. To be clear: This is not necessarily an endorsement of their decision-making this summer. Still, after finishing nine games out of a playoff spot last season, the Pistons landed one of the summer’s biggest fish in forward Josh Smith; upgraded from Brandon Knight to Brandon Jennings at point guard via sign-and-trade; brought back franchise legend Chauncey Billups; went overseas to snag Italian forward Luigi Datome; re-signed guard Will Bynum; and drafted three intriguing rookies (guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Peyton Siva and forward Tony Mitchell). In short, they were very busy, they took a step forward talent-wise and they were generous ($78 million combined to Smith and Jennings), all in the same summer.
The questions — shooting, front-line fit, etc. — are glaring, but Pistons president Joe Dumars pretty much followed the blueprint for taking a below-average team into the bottom of the playoffs.
2. Which 2013 lottery team has the most optimistic long-term outlook?
Golliver: Welcome to the NBA’s version of Star Search. So many of the 2013 lottery teams are either spinning their wheels in futility or trying to chart a new course during a rebuild. The best way to address this question, then, is by simply ranking the top emerging talents and then gauging what’s around them.
Among the 14 teams that missed the playoffs last season, at least eight young players (excluding rookies) have a chance to develop into perennial All-Stars: Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas, Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Utah’s Derrick Favors. Others should emerge over the next year — and some observers might add Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio and Kings center DeMarcus Cousins — but that’s the short list of franchise building blocks.
From that group, three stand out as true prodigies: Irving, who made his first All-Star Game in 2013 at age 20; Davis, a 20-year-old two-way talent whose 21.7 Player Efficiency Rating as a rookie was up there with that of the likes of Blake Griffin and David West; and Drummond, a 20-year-old traditional center whose nickname should probably be “Per-36,” as he averaged 13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes in a reserve role last year. Out of that trio, it’s hard to argue against Irving, who has adapted to the NBA game faster than anyone could have reasonably expected while possessing all the attributes — on and off the court — that you want from a franchise guy.
Even so, I’ll go with Davis and the Pelicans, largely because they’ve wasted no time in assembling talent around him and have therefore given themselves more time to tinker with the equation to get it right. Although his rookie season was dampened by injuries (to himself and shooting guard Eric Gordon), Davis can look forward to a much better sophomore year. Holiday is in place at the point. Another newcomer, Tyreke Evans, can score and make plays for others. Take into account those additions, a better season from Gordon and another year of growth from Davis, and it’s easy to see how New Orleans (which ranked No. 15 on offense and No. 28 on defense last season) should be better on both sides of the ball.
Two factors will determine just how bright New Orleans’ future can be. First, Gordon, who is entering the second year of a four-year, $58.4 million contract. He will either be: a) the perimeter scoring complement to Davis that solidifies the Pelicans’ status as a playoff team year after year; b) the trade chip that gets flipped to surround Davis with even more young talent, or c) the chronically injured player with a big-dollar contract who keeps this whole show from ever really launching. Gordon’s deal, worth about $15 million annually over the next three seasons, represents roughly one-quarter of the NBA’s salary cap. There’s no way for a cost-conscious team to make meaningful progress with that much dead-weight money holding it back.
The other issue: Can New Orleans locate a beefy, effective traditional center to keep some of the wear and tear off of Davis? Last year’s starter, Robin Lopez, was dumped to make room for Evans, and his replacements — Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma and Jeff Withey — are fine for a bridge year but not for an extended window. Davis should be able to function very well as both a power forward and center as he progresses, and he’s expressed a willingness to play either position, but a little extra protection would go a long way.