We’ve been conditioned to view the NBA’s offseason as an annual reshuffling of the league’s ecosystem. It’s a time when superstars change franchises and general managers remake their rosters on the fly. Viewed through the funhouse mirror of a league that runs on rumor and intrigue, the offseason takes on even greater importance than the games themselves.
We had some of those franchise defining moves last summer. LeBron James signed with the Lakers and reshaped his narrative arc. The Kawhi Leonard trade dramatically remade two teams overnight. The DeMarcus Cousins signing was ground zero for Warrior fatigue. We just didn’t have a lot of it.
Beyond those seminal transactions, the offseason was dominated by smaller moves with subtler implications.The Bucks got a real center, the Grizzlies fixed their off guard issues, and Nemanja Bjelica may have tilted the balance of power in two conferences. (Ok maybe not, but the Bjelica saga was way more important than anyone anticipated at the time.)
The margins are where the real work took place last summer and it’s worth revisiting a few of those moves now that we’ve had a few weeks to settle into the season.
No contending team was more affected in free agency than the Houston Rockets, who lost two invaluable role players in Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Without the switchy Ariza and the relentless Mbah a Moute on the wing, the Rockets defense has regressed mightily from 6th last season to the 23rd entering play Monday night. Or so the story goes.
Perhaps just as important was the retirement of longtime assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik just before the start of training camp. The respected defensive guru was the one who installed Houston’s switch-everything style. Whether it was talent or scheme, the Rockets have turned into a sieve on the defensive end.
Fortunately for the Rockets, Bzdelik’s retirement was shortlived as he’ll be back with the club by the end of the month. That will give us a clearer picture as to whether the departures of Ariza and Mbah a Moute have been overstated.
To be sure, losing two solid vets certainly didn’t help Houston, who lost five of six to open the season. Still, that conveniently forgets the three games reigning Most Valuable Player James Harden missed with a hamstring strain, and it ignores the two games Chris Paul sat with a suspension after the spit hit the fan in Los Angeles.
Nevermind that Mbah a Moute has played all of four games for the Clippers, or that Ariza is shooting 35 percent from the floor for the Suns. Remember to cough when reminded the Ariza-Moute combo cost almost $20 million in a summer when the Rockets top priorities were re-signing Paul and Clint Capela.
Their replacements have been a mixed bag. Michael Carter-Williams has been a disaster as teams are outscoring the Rockets by almost 20 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. James Ennis, however, has been quite serviceable as a 3-and-D wing at a fraction of the cost it would have taken to retain Ariza.
You win some, you lose some when you play role player roulette and general manager Daryl Morey has a long track record of crafting versatile rosters with overlooked players. A trade for a serviceable backup ball handler wouldn’t be the worst idea.
With Harden and CP3 back in the lineup, the Rockets were grimly trending in the right direction following a pair of rugged road wins in Brooklyn and Chicago. Beating the Pacers in Indy on Monday certainly qualifies as statement win. With their stars back and Bzdelik returning to the bench, the bet here is the Rockets will be just fine.
It’s not always players who can make the biggest difference. Consider the case of new Toronto coach Nick Nurse who began his tenure under less than auspicious circumstances.
Just days after he was named Coach of the Year by his peers and a few weeks before the basketball writers bestowed their honor on Dwane Casey, the Raptors decided to move on from the most successful coach in franchise history. With five playoff appearances in seven years and a .571 winning percentage, Casey didn’t deserve to get fired. But it was also clear that a new voice was needed if Toronto was going to get over its self-inflicted postseason wounds.
Still, the timing was dreadful and after an initial failure to land Mike Budenholzer, the Raps looked like a franchise without a plan. That all changed with the Leonard trade, but the team’s vision really began to coalesce when team president Masai Ujiri promoted Nurse to the big coaching chair.
Nurse has already put his stamp on this team with a long overdue personnel adjustment. By starting Pascal Siakam at the four, Nurse broke up the conventional, but ineffective, frontcourt pairing of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas.
Nurse has gone a step further by rotating his two centers in the starting lineup depending on the matchup. Ibaka gets the small ball teams, while Jonas draws the bruisers. The benefit is the two don’t get in each other’s way anymore.
Valanciunas has been effective in shorter doses as a pick-and-roll man, while Ibaka has room to work around the rim without the big fella in the paint. Suddenly the Raps have one of the most versatile big men rotations in the league by making better use of what they already had.
Speaking of big men, the Bucks had one of the worst center rotations last season. Thon Maker still oozes with potential, but he and John Henson got shoved around way too much. The Bucks were pounded on the defensive boards, ranking next-to-last in rebounding percentage. The game may have evolved into a sleeker, faster sport, but as Pat Riley once famously said, “No rebounds, no rings.”
Milwaukee signed Brook Lopez in mid-July and while his best days may be behind him, the dude is still big and he can still bang. The Bucks get nearly 80 percent of the defensive rebounds when Lopez is on the floor and the number drops to 72 percent when he sits. The biggest beneficiary of his arrival has been Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is cleaning up on the glass without all those big bodies to maneuver around.
Credit Budenholzer’s coaching and the simplified defensive scheme that allows fewer cracks for opponents to exploit, but remember that marginally better can be a significant improvement over woefully inadequate.
Which brings us to Garrett Temple. Every team could use a Garrett Temple. Perhaps your favorite team has employed him at one time or another. Memphis is the eighth NBA city that Temple has called home, not counting the year he spent in Italy and the handful of G League stops earlier in his career.
Since emerging with the Wizards for the 2013 season, Temple has carved out a niche as a low maintenance grinder who makes open shots and does the dirty work. Temple is an ideal wing counterpart to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Not only because of his defense and shotmaking — he’s drilled 46 percent of his triples — but his competence makes him a massive upgrade over the slop of shooting guards the Grizz employed last season.
Temple was acquired from the Kings for former Sacramento lottery pick Ben McLemore who is not in the rotation, and a project big man in Deyonta Davis who was waived before training camp. That’s one of the sharper moves the Grizz front office has made in recent years.
Nemanja Bjelica, who knew? It sure looked like a savvy move when the Sixers agreed to terms with the Serbian swingman last summer to shore up their outside shooting. Bjelica is the epitome of a low usage stretch four, just the kind of player the Sixers could have used between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to space the floor.
But Bjelica never did sign the deal. Initially the story was that he would return to Europe. A few days later, he agreed to a 3-year deal with the Kings. One of the many reasons for Sacramento’s hot start is a vastly improved offense and Bjelica has been cooking from behind the arc, converting 54 percent of his 3-point attempts.
We’ll know a lot more about the Kings after they face a steady diet of Western Conference contenders this month, but Belly’s defection certainly hurt the Sixers. Veteran Mike Muscala was acquired to fill the vacant big man shooting role and while he hasn’t been terrible, he’s been no Professor Big Shots. Who is, really?