Phones are always busy in the early months of the summer in NBA Front Offices with the NBA Draft, the start of free agency in July, and young talent performing in the NBA summer league all catching the eye of teams around the league. This year has not disappointed with big storylines that will cause some movement in the standings this upcoming NBA season. A few teams in particular stood out as impressive or underperforming in the early summer months, and earned the title of “winners” and “losers” of the 2016 NBA Offseason thus far.
Golden State Warriors (73-9 in 2015-16)
It would be hard to start off with any team other than the winners of the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, the biggest story of this year’s offseason. Andre Iguodala reportedly had a big role in luring the free agent superstar into joining the team coming off a record-breaking 73-9 season. Durant is being called out for leaving the team that drafted him in favor of the Warriors, who Oklahoma City had down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals yet could not finish off, and many say that this will put Durant’s legacy in question. What will not be in question is who the team to beat is in the NBA going into the 2017-18 season, and that’s the Golden State Warriors. Already up for debate as one of the best teams of all time, Steve Kerr adds to his lineup the 2014 NBA MVP and perennial all-star, yet more importantly perhaps, a level-headed superstar who does not constantly demand the ball. Durant will take the place of Harrison Barnes in Golden State’s starting lineup, with Barnes headed to Dallas. Durant’s deal keeps the former Texas Longhorn in Golden State for 2 years and $54 million. In order to have enough cap space to bring in Kevin Durant, the 2015 NBA Champions also had to give up Andrew Bogut yet replaced him with Zaza Pachulia (8.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG) at a very reasonable price of $2.9 million for one year. In addition, the Warriors selected Damian Jones in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, and he will replace fellow Vanderbilt Commodore Festus Ezeli, who is off to Portland. Considering the 2015-16 team out of the bay area broke the record for wins in a season, it is scary to think about what this new and improved team will do next season.
Philadelphia 76ers (10-72)
From the 2015-16 season’s best team to the worst, the Philadelphia 76ers’ long-term rebuilding process is finally showing positive results and giving fans something to be excited about. The 76ers surprised no one by choosing the consensus top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Ben Simmons. Simmons is as versatile as they come and has unique ball-handling and passing skills for a guy of his size (6’10, 240 lbs), drawing comparisons to Magic Johnson and leading Coach Brett Brown to believe Simmons will one day prove to be the 76ers’ answer at the point guard position. Through the NBA Summer League season, Simmons averaged 10.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in six contests and was named to the All-Las Vegas Summer League First Team. While Simmons is certainly the biggest headline of the Sixers’ offseason, the team added Jarryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson through free agency, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot and Furkan Korkmaz with their other two first-round selections, who will look to give the 76ers some much-needed outside shooting. Luwawu-Cabbarot figures to join the team immediately while the 19-year-old Korkmaz, who many claimed to be the best shooter in the entire draft, will play overseas for the time being. In addition, former 2014 lottery pick Dario Saric finally signed with the team on July 15 after playing in Turkey for two years. Loaded with players down low and lacking in quality NBA guards, many thought the 76ers would look to move a big man in the offseason, but finding more information on the 7’2 Center Joel Embiid’s health for the upcoming year should come before any drastic moves. The process is still far from over, but Philadelphia is buzzing with excitement over the rookie seasons of Simmons, Saric, and potentially Embiid. With a top-3 protected pick from the Lakers next year coupled with the option to swap their first-round selection with Sacramento, the tanking project is done and now is the time to watch their young group improve and try to put the franchise’s dismal seasons behind them.
Minnesota Timberwolves (29-53)
For NBA teams looking to rebuild, the Timberwolves’ past few seasons are a perfect example of what to do to create a team built for deep postseason runs in the future. Getting rid of their franchise player in Kevin Love was the starting point, which gave them eventual 2015 Rookie of the Year recipient Andrew Wiggins. Through the draft, they followed that up with a second consecutive Rookie of the Year in Karl-Anthony Towns in 2016. While slight improvement this year led to the fifth pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Timberwolves got one of the draft’s best values in Kris Dunn, who was expected to be taken third after the duo of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. They also made small splashes in free agency by strengthening their bench with Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush. Most importantly aside from the selection of Dunn out of Providence, has been the growth of the Timberwolves’ core of young players in Towns, Wiggins, Zach Lavine, and Shabazz Muhammad alongside the slightly older Ricky Rubio and veteran Nikola Pekovic. As these four young returning players, with an average age of 21, along with Kris Dunn grow alongside each other and get another year under their belt, they will start to become one of the more feared teams in the Western Conference. Unlike the 76ers, this young, rebuilding team has a well-balanced roster with potential stars at the guard position, at the wing, and down low. With Tom Thibadeau at the helm, the Timberwolves may make the postseason for the first time since 2004 as soon as this year, with Westgate Las Vegas Superbook giving Minnesota the 8th best chance at this year’s NBA Finals. If they are able to hang on to their young pieces, the odds will only improve for what Josh Martin of Bleacher Report called the “NBA’s Most Promising Future Powerhouse”.
Boston Celtics (48-34)
For the Boston Celtics, many will look at this offseason and think of what could have been. Brad Stevens’ team certainly did not get worse, in fact in many ways they have improved from last season, but they have failed to make the big jump to the next level that Boston fans were hoping to see. The Celtics went 48-34 in the 2015-16 season and find themselves needing a star that could help them contend with the Cavaliers in the East. Despite their record, Danny Ainge had the Celtics picking eight times in the 2016 NBA Draft, including the third overall selection and two other first round picks. It was the expectation that Ainge would move some of these picks for players with a win-now mentality, and rumors leading up to draft night included the Celtics trading the #3 pick to the 76ers or the Bulls, who were shopping young budding stars in Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Jimmy Butler. However, the Celtics kept the pick and passed on Kris Dunn to select Jaylen Brown, a 19-year-old freshman out of California who is an exceptional athlete, yet has a raw offensive game and is not a great fit for a team looking to win this upcoming season. The two other first round picks resulted in draft-and-stash players who may not see the floor in the NBA for a couple of seasons, which is questionable for a team with a win-now mentality. The Celtics recovered by signing Al Horford who could be a key piece for this franchise, yet it costed them a pretty penny, spending $113 million over 4 years on the big man. Horford’s 28.25 million per year surpasses what Kevin Durant ended up getting from Golden State ($27 million per year). Durant would have been the perfect player for the Celtics needs and Boston went all in on going for him, even using Tom Brady to help reel in the perennial all-star. After missing out on him, Jae Crowder added that the Celtics revealed a lot of information when trying to recruit the superstar, showing him film of how the Celtics took down Durant’s new team by stopping Stephen Curry. That may not be a big difference-maker, but Crowder called it a “slap in the face”, seeing as though he thought the Celtics would be Durant’s destination if he chose to leave Oklahoma City. Do not think the Celtics are done yet, as they are rumored to be interested in a trade bringing Blake Griffin to Boston and are considered a possible destination for Russell Westbrook next year, but for now, this offseason consists of a poor draft performance and a lack of big-headline moves that Boston needed to make to be able to contend with Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Sacramento Kings (33-49)
Demarcus Cousins, the face of the Sacramento Kings, tweeted “Lord give me the strength” in the middle of the 2016 NBA Draft. That gives a good indication as to how the team fared on draft night. Cousins has always been willing to speak his mind when something bothers him, and he had every right to speak out against the Kings’ performance on June 23. Marquese Chriss, a freshman out of Washington that many had pegged as a top-5 prospect out of this years’ class, was available with the Kings’ #8 overall selection. Vlade Divac elected to trade the pick to move down to #13 and to add a late first round pick. With the thirteenth pick, they selected Georgios Papagiannis, a 7’2 Center who nbadraft.net had as the 49th best overall prospect. Not only was this a huge reach on a risky player, but why select a Center in the first round when Cousins is widely considered the best in the game, and when they spent their 2015 first round pick on seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein? To add to Cousins’ frustration, with the 28th pick, the Kings added yet another center in Skal Labisierre. That pick was good value, yet still makes no sense with an all-star down low in Cousins. Following draft night, the Kings made a couple respectable free agency moves such as bringing in Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes, and perhaps more importantly got a new head coach in Dave Joerger, formerly of the Grizzlies. However, the fact that the Kings have already given up many future draft picks, added to the poor 2016 draft performance makes it hard for the Kings to improve in upcoming seasons, and it may be sooner rather than later that Demarcus Cousins finds a new home.
Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)
Pegging this offseason as a failure is tough to do with the Oklahoma City Thunder, given they did everything correctly within their control, including multiple good trades and an impressive draft night. Leading up to the draft, they made a good trade in sending Serge Ibaka to the Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilysova, and the #11 pick Domantas Sabonis. However, this offseason was all about re-signing Kevin Durant, and OKC failed to do just that. The Thunder looked very strong in the 2016 postseason, yet struggled to finish off the Golden State Warriors in three attempts, but that was likely their best shot at making the NBA Finals in the next decade with Durant going off to Golden State. In losing Durant, Billy Donovan has not only lost one of the top 5 players in the NBA from his lineup, but they are now thought to likely lose another of the NBA’s best in Russell Westbrook. Without Durant, Westbrook will unlikely be able to carry the Thunder to the level of success they have had in years’ past, and the star point guard becomes a free agent after the 2016-17 season. Many believe Westbrook will elect to go home to Los Angeles and help revive the Lakers franchise if he is not traded before free agency. Thus, in just a matter of two years Sam Presti’s Thunder may go from a team minutes away from booking a trip to the 2016 NBA Finals with two of the NBA’s best players to a small-market team without a superstar to help recruit free agents. Even if Durant’s decision was mostly out of the control of the Thunder front office, there is little doubt that any franchise went more downhill in the 2016 offseason than the Oklahoma City Thunder.