August is upon us, and while there is a near certainty that the NBA is not quite finished with its ledger of transactions–we’re still waiting on trades of Damian Lillard and James Harden–most of the action is complete by now.
With that, we’re handing out grades for the Eastern Conference and in large part, it was not a great month-and-a-half for this bunch.
The Hawks are trying to pull off a difficult trick here, shedding veteran salaries, retooling around younger players and, at the same time, remaining competitive. The problem is, it is nearly impossible to do all three well. Atlanta traded John Collins for nearly nothing and could wind up doing much the same for Clint Capela. A core built around Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, Saddiq Bey, De’Andre Hunter, A.J. Griffin and Onyeka Okungwu is decent enough but not exactly contender-level.
It was not an easy summer for the Celtics, and team prez Brad Stevens had to make some tough choices. But he came into the offseason with a roster too heavy on guards and packed with too many questions up front, with the age of Al Horford, the health of Robert Williams and the fit of Grant Williams all trending the wrong way in the past year. The team zeroed in on a handful of centers, and was able to come away with Kristaps Porzingis, another injury risk but with immense upside if they can keep him on the court. The cost was steep: heart-and-soul guard Marcus Smart, who wound up in Memphis after a potential deal for Malcolm Brogdon fell through. But the roster makes more sense on paper now. The other major decision, giving Jaylen Brown a record $300 million contract extension, certainly is expensive but, hey, Brown is a Top 20 player and it’s not your money.
Would have been nice to see the Nets go and get the star scorer they seem to need for a roster that could be imposing on the defensive end if Ben Simmons (rinse and repeat) is healthy and engaged—Simmons, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Nic Claxton are big and versatile. Boosting the offense could fall to new guy Lonnie Walker, who had some flashes as a bucket-getter with the Lakers, but is not likely to be a marquee scorer.
The Hornets will get a new owner soon, and that might be the best thing there is to say about this summer. They have not extended either of their big free agents, Miles Bridges (who signed a qualifying offer) or P.J. Washington (restricted), and they might have blown it by selecting Brandon Miller with the No. 2 overall pick.
Bulls Still Unwilling to Spend
The Bulls made some nice roster-building additions with point guard Jevon Carter, who could be the starter, and forward Torrey Craig. Add the bargain deal they gave to Ayo Dosunmu, and that covers the summer positives. They’re still looking at an aging and mismatched core that failed to make the playoffs last year. The Bulls re-signed 32-year-old Nikola Vucevic because it would have been embarrassing not to, and are now built around him, 34-year-old DeMar DeRozan and an increasingly unsatisfied Zach LaVine. Chicago refuses to go over the luxury tax threshold to make significant additions, which is a joke in a market of that size and with the level of support the team gets from its fan base.
The Cavs badly overpaid for the services of Max Strus, giving him four years and $62 million despite a meh season last year (11.5 points on 41.0% shooting and 35.0% 3-point shooting, which got worse, at 31.9% from the 3-point line, in the postseason). They overpaid (three years and $25.5 million) for Georges Niang, too, but the goal was clear: to add shooting to a team that was 19th in 3-pointers made and 24th in 3s attempted. Situation addressed, but not efficiently.
Ausar Thompson, chosen with the No. 5 pick in the draft, could be all we remember about the Pistons’ summer of 2023. That would be OK, because despite significant cap space, the Pistons did little other than add Joe Harris and a couple of second-round picks. Not exciting there. The Pistons are clogged with young former lottery picks—Thompson, Jaden Ivey, Killian Hayes, James Wiseman, Marvin Bagley, Jalen Duren—but it will be up to 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham to sort it all out after returning from shin surgery.
Did they overpay for Bruce Brown? Two years and $45 million indicates they did, except that the Pacers have an option on next season, allowing them an out if Brown is a flop. They locked up Tyrese Halliburton to a new contract, plucked Obi Toppin from the Knicks for a couple of future second-rounders and nabbed a pair of promising rookies—Jarace Walker and Ben Sheppard—in the draft. Well played.
Heat Playing the Lillard Waiting Game
The Heat resisted the urge to overpay free agents Gabe Vincent and Max Strus after helping to build them into valuable NBA players. They dumped the contract of Victor Oladipo, wriggling out of that failed experiment. They brought back Kevin Love, added center Thomas Bryant and went into the bargain bin for old friend Josh Richardson, paying the trio a combined $10 million. They got plug-and-play rookie Jaime Jaquez in the draft and are primed to develop Orlando Robinson and Haywood Highsmith into their next undrafted finds. Oh, and they could put an exclamation point on all this by bringing in Damian Lillard via trade.
Mike Budenholzer is out and Adrian Griffin, who has for so long deserved a shot to be a head coach, is in. It is a gamble, but kudos to the Bucks for having the guts to take that chance. Adding Malik Beasley is an unheralded move, and Andre Jackson could prove to be a rookie who has some impact.
New York Knicks
Donte DiVincenzo is a decent pickup but does he address any of the Knicks’ needs? The team was already overloaded in the backcourt and now must sort out how it will get minutes for all these guys—and how much they will need to be paid. The Knicks should have been looking for big, versatile combo forwards who can defend, like Grant Williams or Dillon Brooks. Instead, they got another combo guard to add to their collection. The team also held onto Obi Toppin so long that he was worthless when they finally traded him to the Pacers, getting back only two future second-rounders for the guy the Knicks picked at No. 8, ahead of Tyrese Halliburton, in 2020.
The Magic were rumored to be ripe for some splashy moves in free agency, but instead opted to keep things safe—they added Joe Ingles and bolstered the backcourt with Anthony Black and Jett Howard in the draft. There will be cap space again next summer and, at some point, the Magic will need to make a move toward getting back to the playoffs.
Maybe things turn around once we get some clarity on James Harden’s future, but for now this offseason has been a disaster for the Sixers. Pat Beverley and Mo Bamba are nice additions, while Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton are tough but not terrible losses. Doc Rivers did well as the team’s coach and it is unlikely that Nick Nurse will be able to make much more sense out of things than Rivers did, especially when it comes to the Sixers’ playoff flops—which should land in the lap of star Joel Embiid as much as anyone. If the Sixers have to bring back an unhappy Harden to a team that already feels a bit tired, things could get ugly.
So the Raptors are … building? Rebuilding? In transition? Settled? Masai Ujiri is often credited for playing things close to the vest, but he seems to be playing things so close to the vest that even he can’t see the cards. Toronto has assets—Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, plus Gary Trent—but appears unsure whether it wants to bolster those guys or tear down and start over. One thing for sure: Losing Fred VanVleet and replacing him with Dennis Schroder was not in Toronto’s plans.
It’s a good thing the Clippers could not get a look at Malcolm Brogdon when the trade for Kristaps Porzingis with the Celtics was going down. If they had, the Wizards would have gotten precious little in the trade. But shifting to a three-teamer with Memphis brought in Tyus Jones, who has excelled when given a chance to start. The Wizards also shipped out Bradley Beal and Chris Paul in the same summer, a remarkable feat that brought back Jordan Poole and youngsters Ryan Rollins and Pat Baldwin Jr. They overpaid to keep Kyle Kuzma (four years, $90 million), but he figures to be trade bait down the line. The grade might have been better but there are some serious questions about the decision to take Bilal Coulibaly with the No. 8 pick in the draft.