In this final chapter of our series we’ll be finishing up with the teams of the Northwest: Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz. For the first five parts, check out our reviews for the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Pacific and Southwest Divisions. Once again, for the newcomers, here are the rules:
1. Rather than a standard A through F grade or going for a scale of 1-10, we shall use a system that my friend Noriko loves: -5 through +5. It helps differentiate things a bit more, ‘cuz like if a team gets a C-, it’s better than an F, but is it good? With this scale, you can instead give the team a +1, which shows that they improved the team, but only marginally. Or maybe they get a zero ‘cuz they didn’t hurt the team or help it.
2. These grades are not, I repeat, NOT, about how good teams will be. It’s purely about how good their summer moves were. For instance, the Sacramento Kings may get a higher grade than say the Orlando Magic, but that doesn’t mean I’m insane and think the Kings will be better than the Magic. It simply means I like the Kings’ draft of DeMarcus Cousins more than the Magic’s signings of Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon.
3. The grades are not just based on how good the players are, but also their contracts. Joe Johnson is definitely a top 30 player, but with Atlanta giving him $120 million/6 yrs, the largest contract of anyone this summer, his signing turns into a negative.
4. Grades will be scaled based on what each team could have done. Meaning the Lakers, a team over the salary cap, get major kudos for snagging Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff and bringing back Shannon Brown with their limited financial flexibility, but if say the Knicks, with all their cap space, had only made those moves, I’d pan ‘em.
5. Fit matters. I like Kirk Hinrich a ton, and had he gone to the Pacers (a team that desperately needed a point guard before the Collison trade), I would’ve raved about the move. However, Washington acquiring him is a bit odd considering they already have PGs in John Wall and Gilbert Arenas.
Denver Nuggets – With Kenyon Martin and Chris “Birdman” Andersen likely to start the season on the injured list (okay, there’s no such list anymore, but don’t go getting all technical on me), they clearly needed some big man help. With only the Mid-Level Exception at their disposal, they got possibly the best scoring big man available at that price in Al Harrington. However, Kmart and the Birdman are defense-first guys, so it’s an odd swap. Plus, on a team that’s not known to be great at sharing the ball and swinging it around, Big Al will only add to the problem. Still, maybe he’ll be the spark they need. Al can post up since Nene often seems reluctant to do so, or he can shoot the three if Carmelo Anthony or Chauncey Billups drive and kick it out. Melo’s never played with a stretch 4 before, so maybe this’ll open things up for him around the basket. Regardless, while it may not work out, these guys need a big injection of something new. They needed more than just the tinkering of signing a Matt Barnes or Kyle Korver, so it’s nice they snagged Al. There other signing of Sheldon Williams leaves me unenthusiastic (although he is a more traditional big man defensive type to replace Bird/Kmart at the beginning of the season). Also, the scrappy underrated Linas Kleiza returned to the NBA… but to the Raptors, not the Nuggets. Particularly with JR Smith on the way out, they could’ve used that depth at the swing position. Even though they haven’t gotten Melo to sign an extension yet, they don’t lose points for it yet as he could still end up doing it once the status of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement become clearer.
Minnesota Timberwolves – I’m tempted to give the Twolves points just for the fun everyone has writing/saying “Kaaaahn!” due to David Kahn’s decisions being as foul as Star Trek’s Kahn (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalban). Plus the fact that he described Darko Millic’s arrival as being “like manna from Heaven.” In the race for most mocked phrase of the summer, it’s clearly second only to LeBron “deciding to take his talents to South Beach.” All of which has nothing to do with what the Twolves actually did rather than said this summer. I hated that they let Al Jefferson go for just two draft picks. Particularly, since one draft pick is from the perennially good Utah Jazz and the other from the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies, meaning there’s a decent likelihood that neither will even be a top 20 pick. Big Al (oops, I just called Al Harrington that, so this needs to change to Bigger Al) may not have turned out to be the franchise cornerstone they were hoping he’d be, but near 20-10 guys ain’t too easy to find, particularly at the end of the first round. And Bigger Al’s still only 25, so it ain’t like he was gonna be past his prime once say Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio improved. But enough about him, let’s move onto another move of their’s that Ihated: drafting Wesley Johnson instead of DeMarcus Cousins. Yes, Cousins is a big question mark attitude-wise, but he’s potentially a game changer while Wes has limited upside. When you’re down at the bottom, you need to make bold moves. Well, lemme clarify: bold, smart moves. But wait, there are more dumb things. Signing Darko for $20 million. Even if Mr. Millic ends up being as truly spectacular as Kaaaahn claims, they still coulda got him much cheaper. As proof, fellow high draft bust Kwame Brown just signed for the veteran’s minimum. And Kwame’s had a better “career” than Darko. Signing Luke Ridnour to a four year contract made no sense considering they’ve already got Jonny Flynn, Ramon Sessions and soon Rubio. Yeah, they then traded Sessions away, but they got another mediocre point guard in Sebastian Telfair plus the shortly-therafter-waived Delonte West. Even if they felt the older Ridnour was much better than the still young and developing Sessions, they could’ve simply signed Luke to just a two-year deal (like the Knicks did with Raymond Felton to keep their options open down the line). Rubio was already hesitant to go to Minnesota, and having two other quality point guards who deserve minutes will make him even less eager to join up. That said, I did actually like a few of Kaaaaahn’s moves. Martell Webster should be a nice addition, and I’m happy they’re taking a flier on former D-Leaguer Anthony Tolliver who showed some promise in his brief stint with the Warriors last season. Finally, I actually think getting Michael Beasley was a great move. Beas has only played two years and is still on his rookie contract, so it’s a relatively inexpensive gamble on a #2 pick who could still turn into a stud. In fact, I’ve got no idea why it was so hard for the Heat to give the guy away and no one else was willing to give him a chance. I mean his next year is even a team option, so if he turns out to be awful and a distraction, then he’ll have just been a one-year experiment. Of course, the Wolves taking on Beasley’s contract is what allowed the Heat to have enough cap space for LeBron to take his talents to South Beach, so to them this trade must’ve felt like manna from Heaven.
Grade: -4 (if they hadn’t gotten Beas for nothing it’d be the full -5)
Oklahoma City Thunder – I like the trade of their two late draft picks for #10 pick Cole Aldrich and Mo Pete. It also was nice in this climate of superstars all talking about flying the coop that they got MVP-candidate Kevin Durant to ink a long-term deal. Although that’s more due to the humble greatness of Durant rather than a particularly savvy move on management. I mean clearly it was a no-brainer to offer him a max contract. That said, I wish they did a little more to improve their team rather than just hoping for natural maturation with basically the same squad. A few years ago New Orleans was in this position with a young stud of their own in Chris Paul, and after they had a great post-season, everyone predicted them to improve. Instead they’ve had a steady decline. By contrast, the Trailblazers were also in the same situation with Brandon Roy playing the role of young upcoming stud. However they bolstered their team by acquiring Andre Miller, and then subsequently trading for Marcus Camby. Thus even with them suffering through massive injuries last season, they still remained relevant (versus the Hornets who, after Paul got injured, plummeted out of the playoff picture like Shaq skydiving without a parachute).
Portland Trail Blazers – I like Wesley Matthews, but they offered him far too much money. I realize they didn’t want the Jazz to match it, so they had to pay him more than he’s worth, but I feel like they really overshot the mark. Should he really be the third-highest paid player on the team when this will be just his second year in the NBA? Particularly since they already seem pretty solid at the swing position between Brandon Roy and young stud Nicolas Batum. They will pay nearly $10 million this season for Matthews to potentially come off the bench. Ugh. However, I do like the extension they gave to Marcus Camby. I hadn’t minded the giveaway of Martell Webster ‘cuz they did have a glut of players at the swing position last year with Rudy Fernandez in the mix too. However, signing Matthews just clogs up the minutes again, so it’s no surprise that Fernandez then wanted out more than ever. And if the Knicks truly have offered up Wilson Chandler for Rudy, I dunno why the Blazers haven’t snagged the deal ‘cuz Chandler’s a pretty good baller. The worst thing though, even though the writing had been on the wall for so long that it felt etched in stone, was the dismissal of Kevin Pritchard as GM. He had done a phenomenal job creating this team and was pretty much universally hailed as one of the best guys at his position (okay, maybe not universally since he once made some anti-Martian remarks, but on Earth his rep is great). The only people who seemed to have an issue with him were, alas, his bosses who felt he claimed far too much credit for the team’s turnaround. His replacement, Rich Cho, seems like a smart and by contrast, humble guy, but after that Matthews signing it seems clear he’s no Pritchard.
Utah Jazz – They didn’t want to pony up the $14.4 million that Carlos Boozer will get next season with the Chicago Bulls, which is understandable since they were already over the cap. But then why trade for Al Jefferson, aka Bigger Al, who makes nearly as much with an upcoming salary of $13 million. It’s a small savings, and who knows if Bigger Al will fit as nicely with Deron Williams as Booze did. Then again, this team had leveled off, so maybe Al can push them to a higher level than Booze ever did? The thing is, this didn’t seem like a conscious plan. They let Booze go before they ever knew about Jefferson. However, I suspect that both Deron and Jazz fans were pretty annoyed that the team was gonna take a huge step back, so management had no choice but to make a play for Mr. Jefferson to appease their star point guard. It also was a bummer that they lost Kyle Korver. However, it was smart that they didn’t match Matthews ridiculous offer from Portland. Particularly since they then smartly acquired defensive ace Raja Bell on the cheap (even with Kobe Bryant trying the hard sell to get Raja to come to LA). In the end, they saved what initially looked like was gonna be a disastrous mass-exodus-of-talent summer. Still, just ‘cuz it’s the summer, that don’t mean they should’ve spent the whole time just treading water.
If you want to see how we think these teams will stack up against each other during the season, look at our Western Conference Playoff Preview.
Topics: Al Harrington, Al Jefferson, Brandon Roy, David Kahn, Denver Nuggets, Deron Williams, Kevin Durant, Kevin Pritchard, Minnesota Timberwolves, North Carolina, Off-Season Grades, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz