When the biggest names on the move at the NBA trading deadline are Brandon Jennings, Jeff Green and Markieff Morris, it is a bit of a letdown.
There is legitimate reasoning behind last week’s relatively quiet activity. This summer marks uncharted territory for NBA teams and their general managers, none of whom want to be the guy who shoots before aiming.
The salary cap is going to jump from $70 million to more than $90 million this summer. That is an unprecedented increase of almost 30 percent in the size of the cap, and a dollar amount difference that covers a low-tier max player. The cap also is projected to jump to $108 million the following summer.
That’s a sandbox that every GM wants to play in, and only two things prevent them from doing so: Acquiring a player with lots of years and money left on his deal, or acquiring a potential free agent who will be seeking a max contract that may not be the best way to use this unexpected influx of spending money.
Keep in mind that when the salary cap is $90 million (or more), the salary floor (the minimum amount teams must spend) is 90 percent of that figure, or approximately $81 million. Teams that don’t move quickly once the free agency bell sounds at midnight on July 1 are going to end up maxing out guys like Jennings, Ryan Anderson, Nic Batum, Harrison Barnes and Hassan Whiteside – combined All-Star appearances: zero – just to avoid cutting a check to the Players Association and to show their fans they are trying.
Remember the summer of 2010, when everyone cleared cap space for a loaded free agency class headed by LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and Joe Johnson? Well, after they all got paid, guys like Carlos Boozer, David Lee, Travis Outlaw and even Tyrus Thomas received above-market deals, too, because the money was there and had to be spent.
No GM wants to make those mistakes again, and the easiest way to make those mistakes is diving right in without checking the depth or temperature. So executives played it safe last week, leading to lots of talk but little action.
Still, some teams made moves, and we’ve taken the liberty of handing out kneejerk pass-fail grades below.
WINNER: Charlotte Hornets. They had to do something to replace the unlucky Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who had hit the ground running upon his return before hitting the floor and injuring his shoulder again. They did so by snagging Courtney Lee, who should fit right in with their three-happy offense as Nic Batum slides to small forward. And they did it while ending the disastrous experiment of P.J. Hairston and his 7.41 PER. Al Jefferson is back, and it’s time to push for the playoffs.
WINNER: Cleveland Cavaliers. Channing Frye is an upgrade over Anderson Varejao, who wasn’t playing unless there was a frontcourt emergency for a team that often plays small. They will be able to stay that way when Kevin Love sits, and with LeBron James throwing the passes, Frye will get a lot more corner threes than he did in Orlando. Frye isn’t enough to topple the West champion, but let’s see what they do with the roster spot created by moving Jared Cunningham. On the downside, the outgoing draft picks are starting to pile up, and Varejao is signing with Golden State. Oh, well.
WINNER: Detroit Pistons. Stan Van Gundy knew he couldn’t get into the playoffs with his bench, which is near the bottom in every key metric and was weighing on his starters. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris are both in the top 10 in minutes per game. “We’ve got a little less than eight weeks to go and we’ve got nine back-to-backs,” Van Gundy said. “I’d like to get their minutes down a little bit.” His haul of potential star Tobias Harris, Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton should help – if D-Mo’s balky back doesn’t void the Houston deal. But dealing Brandon Jennings puts Steve Blake – who turns 36 later this month – on the spot as backup point guard. It looks like Reggie Jackson may be seeing a boost in minutes.
LOSER: Houston Rockets. Collecting an extra first-round pick was a nice way to clean up the Ty Lawson mess. But they went into last week looking to find a taker for Dwight Howard and came up empty. Even if the Rockets sneak into the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine Howard sticking around. Maybe we should start recognizing who the common denominator has been in Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston, because I highly doubt the personalities of Motiejunas and Thornton were the reason this is a “broken” team.
LOSER: Los Angeles Clippers. Yes, Jeff Green is an upgrade from Lance Stephenson, but he’s not enough to get the Clippers past Golden State or San Antonio, even as a reserve once Blake Griffin returns. And his expiring deal doesn’t help because LA’s payroll for next season already is $84 million. So Doc Rivers has to either re-sign a non-difference maker or get really creative, which he tried without success last summer. And like Cleveland, the outgoing first-round picks are becoming an issue.
LOSER: Memphis Grizzlies. OK, so you lose Marc Gasol for the season to a broken foot, and the solution is to trade two more of your top six players for the best collection of colorful characters since Reservoir Dogs? The Grizz have a five-game lead in the loss column on the ninth-place team in the West; can they hold on? “It’s going to be kick, scratch, bite, claw,” coach Dave Joerger said. If they do miss the postseason, they can always try to make the NHL playoffs, with a roster that now includes tough guys Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, Birdman Andersen, Lance Stephenson and P.J. Hairston. “This team that we have now, we call ourselves the Goon Squad,” guard Mike Conley said.
LOSER: Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re back to dumping salaries for luxury tax savings and “valuable trade exceptions.” Wait until they find out Randy Foye (36 percent last two seasons) can’t shoot fish in a barrel. And moving D.J. Augustin means rookie Cameron Payne is now their postseason backup point guard. They did create a roster spot, and it looks like they’re gonna have to bite the bullet and use it, based on their last two home games. On the other hand, they still have two of the league’s top five players, and it seems more and more like Kevin Durant will take a “one-and-one” deal similar to James and re-enter free agency with Russell Westbrook in 2017.
WINNER: Orlando Magic. Frye wasn’t giving them much, and his $8 million annually could be better spent elsewhere, especially with keepers Evan Fournier, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon coming due for extensions over the next few summers. They got out from under Tobias Harris, letting Detroit spend the next three-plus years finding out if he will ever be an All-Star. Jennings and Ilyasova – both of whom played for Scott Skiles in Milwaukee – add some veteran leadership for a young group still in the playoff hunt and come with the added bonus of expiring contracts. And Rob Hennigan could have $40 million in cap room this summer. However, this team needs a taste of the postseason to make a real jump.
LOSER: Phoenix Suns. GM Ryan McDonough held out for a first-round pick for Markieff Morris and got it. But Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair aren’t part of their future. In fact, McDonough – who signed the Morris twins to extensions, drafted Alex Len with Nerlens Noel still on the board and traded the Lakers’ upcoming No. 1 pick – might not be part of their future, either. This is the worst team in basketball right now and has lost its way in frighteningly quick fashion. With three first-round picks and nearly $40 million in cap room this summer, plenty of GMs will want to work here. But will anyone want to play here?
LOSER: Washington Wizards. All of Morris’ recent shenanigans have kind of obscured the fact that he can play. He also has two former Suns teammates vouching for him in Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat. He is definitely an upgrade, but is he enough? The Wizards are in a five-team scrum for the East’s last two playoff spots, and John Wall looks exhausted at times carrying this team. If they miss the postseason, GM Ernie Grunfeld and coach Randy Wittman likely will be looking for jobs. And the idea of landing Durant in free agency now seems pretty far-fetched.
TRIVIA: Among active players, Jason Terry has scored the most points of any player who has never made an All-Star team. Who is second? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Is racism alive in America? Did we really have to ask?
moms drove 7 hours to OKC to be called a coon from two ladies sitting behind her that’s wild… but that’s life huh smh
— Solomon Hill (@solohill) February 20, 2016
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem, speaking to the Miami Herald on the trade of Chris Andersen:
“It sucks to lose my boy. We ain’t been getting much playing time, so we’ve been having great conversations.”
TANKS A LOT!: Much has been made of the influence of Jerry Colangelo on the Philadelphia 76ers and the team’s improvement since he came on board as chairman of basketball operations in December. But in their only deal Thursday, the Sixers traded the rights to Eurostash eyechart Chuk Maduabum to the Houston Rockets for Denver’s 2017 second-round pick and Joel Anthony, whose $2.5 million cap figure pushed Philadelphia above the salary floor. To make roster room for Anthony, the Sixers had to waive JaKarr Sampson. But the plan now is to waive Anthony and re-sign Sampson. Sounds like mad scientist Sam Hinkie is still calling some shots in Tanktown.
LINE OF THE WEEK: Anthony Davis, New Orleans at Detroit, Feb. 21: 43 minutes, 24-34 FGs, 2-2 3-pointers, 9-10 FTs, 20 rebounds, four assists, one block, two turnovers, 59 points in a 111-106 win. The points were a franchise record, a league season high and a career high for Davis, who at 22 years, 11 months became the youngest player with a 50-20 game since Bob McAdoo had 52 and 20 on Feb. 22, 1974 at 22 years, 5 months.
LINE OF THE WEEK BY SOMEONE NOT NAMED ANTHONY DAVIS: Damian Lillard, Portland vs. Golden State, Feb. 19: 31 minutes, 18-28 FGs, 9-12 3-pointers, 6-7 FT, zero rebounds, seevn assists, six steals, zero turnovers, 51 points in a 137-105 win. Think Lillard might have been upset about being left off the All-Star team? He went for a career high against his hometown team with a flurry of 3-pointers, including a handful from well beyond the arc, as Portland handed Golden State its worst loss of the season. “He looked like Steph Curry out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Dion Waiters, Oklahoma City vs. Indiana, Feb. 19: 32 minutes, 0-6 FGs, 0-2 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, two rebounds, two assists, two steals, zero points in a 101-98 loss. Apparently, Andre Roberson has screwed up the Thunder’s shooting guard position so much that now no one can play it. It was the first donut of the season for Waiters, who followed this gem with a 1-of-8 vs. former team Cleveland on Sunday.
TRILLION WATCH: For a while, this was Jarell Eddie’s world, and we were all just living in it. The Wizards were forced to play three games in three nights coming out of the All-Star break, and the 10-day signee had a trillion in each one. Eddie had 2 trillions Thursday vs. Utah and Friday vs. Detroit before crashing the season leaderboard with a 5 trillion Saturday at Miami. Alas, his glorious week was upstaged by Chicago guard Tony Snell, who gave Kobe Bryant a truly special farewell present with a 9 trillion Sunday vs. the LA Lakers. That is the second-biggest lack of effort this season, trailing only Rashad Vaughn’s monstrous 12 trillion.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Cleveland at Toronto, Feb. 26. This one should let us know how much space there is between the Cavaliers and the rest of the Eastern Conference. With Atlanta and Chicago stumbling, the biggest challenge to Cleveland appears to be Toronto, which won its only playoff series as a franchise in 2001, when LeBron James was a junior in high school. The teams split their first two meetings, with each winning at home.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Brooklyn at Phoenix, Feb. 25. Is this where the woeful Suns end their slide and finally get interim coach Earl Watson a win? They have lost 11 in a row and 25 of 27. They also dropped the first meeting to the Nets and are a combined 1-4 vs. Brooklyn, Philadelphia and the LA Lakers.
TWO MINUTES: The next time Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld has the meet the media after making a trade, he can skip the session and just send Jared Dudley instead. Here’s the Wizards wing when asked about the acquisition of Markieff Morris. “I had Markieff during his rookie year. He’s a good kid,” Dudley said, sounding like a camp counselor. “When I was there, he had no problems. He had one problem, obviously this year when he had the situation where he felt disrespected, felt betrayed. I’m not going to defend him. Some of the stuff he did was unprofessional, but that being said, I guarantee you will have no problems with him here. He is a good friend of mine. I usually hang out with him in the summertime. It’s easy for me to mentor him. He’s a good kid. His mom lives 35-45 minutes away from here. He’s excited about coming here. I’ve already talked to him. He’s a starting power forward where he is very effective from 17 feet, 18 feet. He’s got a quick bounce where a lot of those dropoffs from John (Wall) will be dunks. He does have some flaws where he needs to work on his rebounding and defense, but he’s young. He has a good salary for this team moving forward and he’s someone we need. We need another body, another athlete. From the time he gets here, he’s going to be motivated to show people he’s not that player. He’s got a fresh start.” Wizards center Marcin Gortat, who also played with Morris in Phoenix, had good things to say as well. “It’s just guys that actually know me, and not on the outside looking in,” Morris said. “Getting compliments from those guys means a lot.” … Here’s something to think about regarding Damian Lillard. He has the Blazers on target for a playoff berth, which no one predicted for that team this season. If Portland makes the playoffs, that would increase Lillard’s chances of making one of the three All-NBA teams – and trigger the “Derrick Rose Rule” for his contract extension, adding about $25 million to the projected five-year, $120 million deal. And if you think someone can’t be All-NBA if they weren’t an All-Star, consider that Goran Dragic did just that two years ago. … In Friday’s loss at Sacramento, Denver rookie center Nikola Jokic started against DeMarcus Cousins and committed a foul on Cousins, a turnover and another foul before sitting down for the last 21:55 of the first half. Jokic started the second half and grabbed a rebound before fouling Cousins for a three-point play and drawing a double foul with Cousins. He sat again, this time for the last 22:25. … The Spurs are 11-0 this season in the second game of back-to-backs. … The Thunder have been shuffling coaches more than some teams shuffle players. On rookie coach Billy Donovan’s staff is Monty Williams, who has been away from the team following the tragic death of his wife in a car accident, and Maurice Cheeks, who is attending practices but not games due to hip surgery. So the Thunder called up Mark Daigneault, the coach of their D-League affiliate, to help fill out Donovan’s staff for the rest of the season. But Daigneault had to temporarily return to the OKC Blue because the wife of interim coach Jarrell Christian was having a baby. … The Warriors avoided their first set of consecutive losses with Saturday’s road win against the Clippers. No team has ever gone an entire season without consecutive losses. According to Elias, the deepest a team has gone is 74 games, and it is not the 72-win Chicago Bulls of 1995-1996 but the 1984-85 Boston Celtics, who finished 63-19 and lost to the LA Lakers in the NBA Finals. … Sixers forward Jerami Grant has been poked in the eye three times this season. When asked what the second-year jumping jack has shown him this season, coach Brett Brown snarked, “He’s shown me that he needs goggles.”
Trivia Answer: Jamal Crawford. … Happy 66th Birthday, Julius Winfield Erving III. … Thanks, ESPN.com. I always wanted to have to click four times to read a boxscore.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.