Best and most underrated moves of the NBA summer

Who won and lost the NBA offseason? Are these Lakers locks to make the playoffs?

With nearly all the major moves in the books, our NBA experts answer the big free-agency, trade and draft questions.


1. Which was the best move of the NBA offseason?

Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: I feel obligated to say LeBron James, given that he’s the best player in the world. But if you’re the Oklahoma City Thunder, you have to feel like it was locking in Paul George after making the enormous gamble to trade for him without knowing whether he’d stay in the small market. On top of that, the Thunder got out from under the last year of Carmelo Anthony’s deal (and all the luxury tax payments it would have triggered) and managed to get a useful player out of it. They won’t win a title because of these two things, but they came out of it all pretty well, all things considered.

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The Los Angeles Lakers signed the best player in the game. The acquisition instantly rescues a team that has spent the past several seasons in the NBA wilderness and restores its brand to among the most relevant in professional sports. The Lakers still need to assemble some additional pieces, be it another marquee free agent or the maturation of a couple of their young prospects into bona fide top-shelf talents, but the golden hue around the Lakers has officially returned.

Jackie MacMullan, ESPN.com: The best move was the most anticlimactic, the most predictable and the most obvious. Never mind that there has been a run on graffiti paint since LeBron took his talents to Redondo Beach. The Lakers got their man, the juice of a “big name” that pumps new life into the Lakers’ hype machine and a chance to position themselves for a game-changing summer in 2019. In the meantime, LeBron will settle into his L.A. digs and sort through the — ahem — colorful cast of characters who have joined him. Anytime you sign the best player in the game, you win. Simple as that.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Signing the best player in the game was pretty good for the Lakers, although the Thunder keeping Paul George was such a monumental moment for the franchise that I sort of feel like it should be put in a special category. It totally set them up for the next three seasons.

Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: I’m choosing to interpret this as a move with the highest degree of difficulty — or, in other words, not the Lakers signing LeBron James. In that case, I’m going with the Toronto Raptors dealing for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Although adding Leonard is a high-risk move because of his injury and impending free agency, the Raptors gave up so little in addition to DeMar DeRozan (center Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick) that even if Leonard leaves after this season, the trade can still be a positive move for them.


2. Which offseason move is least likely to work out?

Arnovitz: We’ll grade the Washington Wizards on a curve because it’s unlikely that they believe the acquisitions of Dwight Howard, Jeff Green and Austin Rivers vault them toward the top of the Eastern Conference. But at some point, the Wizards might need to take a cold, sober look at the roster and measure whether they believe their core, as currently constituted, has a strong probability of playing for an Eastern Conference title. It might very well be that the core in question is their best shot, but the full range of options — however radical — should be explored.

Herring: I really don’t see an ideal fit for Jabari Parker in Chicago. I fully understand the gamble — and the fact that the contract is basically guaranteed for only a single season — but pairing him with Zach LaVine on the wing defensively is essentially an invitation for opposing players to go to the basket whenever they want. The hope is that his scoring will make up for this. But for all the scoring gifts Parker possesses, he’s out of position on defense at small forward. Unfortunately, that’s where the Bulls plan to play him. I don’t see it working.

MacMullan: Does inertia count as an actual move? You have to wonder how both Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute walked away from a team that was one strained hamstring away from advancing to the NBA Finals. No one can convince me that the Houston Rockets are better now than they were one short month ago.

Ariza’s decision to choose the cash ($15 million is a healthy haul at this point of his career, though not the funny money JJ Redick coaxed out of Philly last summer) was a bit surprising, and Houston die-hards will happily point out that the team was 15-1 in games Ariza didn’t play last season. Fair enough. But the Rockets oozed great chemistry and will be tested to preserve that without two team-first guys. Adding Carmelo Anthony will be a low-risk, high-reward scenario, and he fares better on a team that values spacing, but has he finally realized that you can still make sweet music as a second (or third or fourth) fiddle?

Pelton: Most of the Lakers’ signings after LeBron could qualify, but I’m going with giving Lance Stephenson a one-year, $4.45 million deal. That’s slightly more than the $4.3 million team option the Indiana Pacers declined days earlier, which means they obviously didn’t think he was worth the money. And remember, Indiana is the only place Stephenson has found success in his NBA career. As a poor outside shooter (29 percent from 3-point range last season) who is best with the ball in his hands, Stephenson is ill-suited to fit in L.A.

Windhorst: Dwight Howard has arrived with fanfare for the past three summers running. It seems the Wizards are banking on him being an impact player, but that would be a departure from how the back end of his career has gone. We’ll see if he can buck the trend. There’s reason to be dubious.

3. Which was the most underrated move (or set of moves)?

MacMullan: I’m a fan of what the Denver Nuggets did, starting with drafting Michael Porter Jr., who remains arguably the most talented player in the draft. They re-signed Nikola Jokic (10 triple-doubles in 2017-18, trailing only that of Russell Westbrook, LeBron and Ben Simmons) and sneaky good Will Barton. They also paid a pittance to bet on Isaiah Thomas, who can score in bunches and force the issue in transition in the right environment. That chip on IT’s shoulder has been upgraded to a full-fledged boulder, and he’s at his best when people are counting him out. The main objective here is to make sure he doesn’t muck up the continued development of 21-year-old Jamal Murray, a young, emotional player who has a chance to become a cornerstone.

Windhorst: I thought the Grizzlies had a nice summer, adding two quality role players in Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson and drafting a guy in Jaren Jackson Jr. who I think can help right away. Mike Conley says he is pain-free. The Grizz are poised for a turnaround.

Arnovitz: There wasn’t any ingenious front-office witchcraft this offseason outside of the collective restraint across the league, but perhaps the New Orleans Pelicans. They resisted the temptation to pay big money to DeMarcus Cousins, then filled out their roster with a couple of affordable players — one pretty good (Julius Randle), the other serviceable with, at least theoretically, some remaining upside (Elfrid Payton).

Honorable mention: The Memphis Grizzlies for getting Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple, along with the Jaren Jackson Jr. pick.

Pelton: Brooklyn creating $16 million in additional cap space for the summer of 2019 by swapping Timofey Mozgov for Dwight Howard, who was entering the final year of his deal. Remarkably, after a buyout for Howard, the Nets gave up less than $3 million in 2018 cap space to make that move, along with a pair of second-round picks and cash. Good luck trying to move $16 million in salary for a similar price next summer.

Herring: I actually really liked the Pacers’ summer. In perfect Indiana fashion, the club didn’t do anything all that flashy. Tyreke Evans was likely a wanted man around the league, and I’m sure a handful of teams could have found nice fits for Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn. But they all filled needs for this club, which was pretty damn good last season and didn’t lose anything of value this summer. If a handful of things break right, the Pacers could make some real noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs next year.


4. How confident are you that the Lakers will make the playoffs?

Windhorst: I’m 50/50. Even LeBron is openly saying he thinks the Lakers will have tough “months.” The concept that these guys “all know how to play basketball” or “all love to play” falls a bit hollow on these ears. That’s quite the defense of the moves. That said, I recognize that what they are today may not be what they are in February.

Herring: I’m pretty much all-in on the Lakers making the playoffs, so long as LeBron stays healthy as he always has. I really don’t like the rest of the moves the team has made this summer, as they seem to run counter to the direction the league has moved as a whole. But between the growth the young, core players should show and LeBron’s greatness, I’d expect the Lakers to reach the postseason.

MacMullan: Let’s do the math. Eight teams come out of the Western Conference, so let’s count off the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Spurs, Blazers and Jazz. That leaves two spots among the Pelicans, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Clippers and Lakers. I’m bullish on Denver (see above), and the Pelicans flourished at breakneck speed once Boogie Cousins went down and Nikola Mirotic joined the band. The Timberwolves should be a playoff team … right? It would seem that the Lakers are the odd team out — except I’ve seen this movie before. So many times. LeBron will drag those young ‘uns into the postseason kicking and screaming.

Pelton: Not all that confident, but I’ll go into that more in the near future.

Arnovitz: Very confident. The cavalry of eccentric veterans on one-year deals isn’t the greatest source of comfort, but a LeBron James-led team will qualify for the postseason, even in his 16th season and even in the rugged Western Conference.


5. What is your bold prediction for next season?

Pelton: The San Antonio Spurs will win fewer games than they did last season.

Herring: The Portland Trail Blazers will miss the playoffs, one season removed from being the No. 3 seed out West. Aside from the fact that the Blazers seemingly stood pat (re-upping with Jusuf Nurkic and getting Seth Curry after losing Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis), they watched other teams in the West — ones that had far more injury problems — get better. The idea of a Boogie signing would have potentially given them an enormous shot in the arm, but Cousins and Nurkic having the same agent killed any chance of that happening. That’s too bad because it feels like the Blazers needed the kind of shake-up the Raptors just underwent.

Windhorst: I don’t make predictions, bold or otherwise, but I will say that I expect three of the league’s five best teams to be in the East. It’s the weaker conference, but its top is deeper.

MacMullan: Jakob Poeltl will emerge as more than just a throw-in for the Spurs in their blockbuster deal with the Toronto Raptors. We’ve spent so much time ruminating over Leonard’s bizarre decision to extricate himself from San Antonio by any means possible and DeRozan’s pained exit from the Raptors that we haven’t focused very much on the additional pieces that completed the trade. Poeltl is a solid defender and shot-blocker with good defensive instincts who needs some polish on the offensive end. He shot a league-high 65.9 percent from the floor, but most of those buckets were from three feet in.

Give him a summer with shot doctor Chip Engelland, and maybe, just maybe, he can show some midrange prowess. In the meantime, he’s a young, able backup to Pau Gasol who will enable LaMarcus Aldridge to log more time at his desired power forward spot.

Arnovitz: If he remains healthy and can drag the Pelicans to 50 wins and/or a top-four seed, Anthony Davis will win his first most valuable player award.

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