The NBA season is a month old, and already we’re seeing the impact of the biggest moves of the offseason. After a run to the NBA Finals, Chris Paul re-signed in Phoenix and has the Suns near the top of the West again. Kyle Lowry went from Toronto to Miami in a sign-and-trade deal and has helped the Heat post the best point differential in the Eastern Conference so far.
Those were just two of the more than 300 transactions this summer, including 35 trades, and while they dominated the headlines in the early days of August, there have been several other moves — some big, some small — that are paying dividends so far this season.
Here are the group of executives and players that have made the biggest impacts early in the 2021-22 season, starting in the nation’s capital, where a remade Washington Wizards team has stood out among the season’s biggest surprises so far.
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Tommy Sheppard | Washington Wizards
After Washington’s late-season run to get into the play-in, then win its way into the first round of the playoffs, it would’ve been easy for Sheppard, the Wizards GM to run it back. He had a different plan.
“The way that I felt that we needed to get better probably wasn’t gonna come from within,” he said. “We were gonna have to add more players and a different look, different expectations, different emphasis. And so, those are hard decisions.”
The biggest decision Sheppard made was dealing Russell Westbrook, who’d helped power Washington’s playoff push by averaging 23.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 13.9 assists over the final 20 games of the season.
Trading Westbrook eventually landed the Wizards three starters in Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Montrezl Harrell along with backup point guard Aaron Holiday (they also acquired second-round pick Isaiah Todd as part of the trade).
The goal of the trade — which started out as a deal directly with the Los Angeles Lakers, but eventually expanded to a five-team deal that also included the Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs — was to help balance the roster, provide more depth and allow for the development of young players Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija on their own timeline.
“I think we were able to add depth at every position, add some veterans that have been around the league — a couple people with championship rings,” Sheppard said before the start of training camp. “I think when you add depth to our roster, it certainly gives you a lot more optionality.”
That was the case in a win over the Atlanta Hawks, on a night Bradley Beal shot 11-for-26 from the field. Caldwell-Pope, Harrell and Kuzma combined for 67 points and 29 rebounds. That type of win does not happen if Westbrook is still on the roster.
Washington has a more complete product on the court than it did a year ago, plus controllable contracts that can help improve the team in both the short and long term.
“I think Tommy Sheppard and the Wizards should be applauded”, said Jeff Van Gundy on the Lowe Post Podcast. “Sometimes you just need to enjoy being good. Good is hard.”
Arturas Karnisovas | Chicago Bulls
Karnisovas, the head of basketball operations in Chicago, made it known after the season that change was coming.
“We will not settle for mediocrity here,” Karnisovas said. Mediocrity was a 31-41 record and failing to even reach the play-in round despite trading multiple first-round picks for All-Star Nikola Vucevic in March.
The Bulls have used up to $30 million in cap space to renegotiate All-Star Zach LaVine’s existing contract or tried to create as much cap space as possible to sign free agents outright.
Instead, Karnisovas got creative, using complicated sign-and-trade deals — one of which is still under investigation by the league — to remake the roster. He added Lonzo Ball from the Pelicans, sending Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple to New Orleans. Because Ball was a restricted free agent, there was no guarantee that the Pelicans would not match if Ball had signed an offer sheet with Chicago.
Later on, in a move that was highly criticized at the time, the Bulls added DeMar DeRozan by sending Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu and three draft picks (a future first and two seconds) to San Antonio.
Finally as part of a three-team trade, the Bulls restocked their draft assets (a 2022 first from Portland and 2023 second from Denver) and strengthened their bench (Derrick Jones Jr.) when restricted free agent Lauri Markkanen was sent to Cleveland.
By creatively working the trade market and remaining over the cap the entire time, the Bulls had their full $9.5 million midlevel exception available to go out and sign Alex Caruso and former second-round pick Marko Simonovic — something that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d just gone the route of creating cap space to sign DeRozan and Ball outright.
The roster overhaul (only LaVine and Coby White remain from when Karnisovas took over in 2020) has the Bulls ranked in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency and off to their best start since Derrick Rose’s MVP season in 2011-12.
The Bulls sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and — at least for now — are anything but mediocre.
Ricky Rubio | Cleveland Cavaliers
There were two major transactions that impacted Cleveland the night of the draft. The first and obvious one was when they selected Evan Mobley with the No. 3 overall pick.
The second was the trade to acquire point guard Ricky Rubio from Minnesota for Taurean Prince and a future second-round pick, ending the revolving door of backup point guards and providing Cleveland with an insurance policy in the event of injury to one of the Cavaliers’ starting guards — something that has already come to pass this season with Collin Sexton’s knee injury.
In the game Sexton was hurt in New York, Rubio scored a career-high 37 points and posted a season-high 10 assists. He leads all backup point guards in assists per game (6.5), and the Cavs outscored their opponents by 34 points with Rubio on the court in wins over Portland and Charlotte, despite Rubio going 1-for-14 from the floor.
“That’s why we fought to get him here,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of Rubio. “We know what he’s capable of and how good of a player he is. When that gets going, and when it turns on, he’s capable of what he did tonight. He flat out put on a show. And he willed us to a win.”
Richaun Holmes | Sacramento Kings
The Kings caught a break when Charlotte traded for Mason Plumlee on the night of the draft.
The trade took a possible destination for Holmes off the board and started a trend that saw his market begin to shrink. He eventually signed a four-year $46.5 million contract with the Kings. The $10.8 million salary (16th among starting centers) this season was the maximum Sacramento could offer because Holmes did not have full Bird rights.
This season, Holmes is rewarding the Kings by averaging a career-high 14.4 points and 10.6 rebounds and he recently posted his first 20-point, 20-rebound game in a win against Charlotte.
“His steadiness, he brings energy, his communication continues to get better,” Kings coach Luke Walton said of Holmes after the game. “Anytime you can give us a 20-20 game, I like our chances.”
Kelly Oubre Jr. | Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets landed among the offseason winners a season ago by adding Gordon Hayward, and it appears the addition of Oubre will get them there again.
Ironically it was the season-ending injury to Hayward in March that put a spotlight on the glaring need for Charlotte to address its bench depth at the wing position. At the time of the injury, Charlotte was 25-23. They would finish the season 9-16 and get blown out in the play-in game by the Indiana Pacers.
Oubre was the last of the big-name free agents left on the board, and Charlotte was fortunate to be the lone team remaining to have significant cap space available. He signed a two-year, $24 million contract but with only $5 million guaranteed for next season.
Oubre has fit in seamlessly, embracing the role of coming off the bench or starting when needed.
“He has been fantastic,” said James Borrego after Oubre Jr. scored 26 points off the bench in a win against the Trail Blazers. “This is why we brought him here. We believe in him. We believe there is a major role for him on this team and tonight was a great example.”
While there are still nights when Oubre Jr. can’t find the basket (he shot 2-for-19 in three recent losses), the forward has still managed to score double figures in 10 games and shoot a career high 39% from 3-point range.
The veteran minimum contracts
The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors are all considered contenders to come out of the West, and all three teams entered the offseason with limited resources to sign players, a result of being in the luxury tax. Each team would have to identify veterans who were willing to take less money but with the goal of winning a championship.
In Golden State, GM Bob Myers was clear on what the goals were in the offseason.
“I do know we need veterans, and the one area I can say without kind of equivocating is we have to add some veterans in free agency,” he said. “We just have to. We’re well aware of that.”
In the play-in loss to Memphis, a Warriors bench that featured Mychal Mulder, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Jordan Poole was outscored 40-25.
Myers addressed a bench unit that ranked No. 16 in points per game a season ago by adding veterans Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica, all of whom signed for the veteran’s minimum.
That trio is averaging 16.7 points per game, helping the Warriors rank in the top five in bench points per game. Golden State’s reserves are outscoring their opponents’ second unit by 11.3 points per game.
The Warriors’ bench will get only stronger when Klay Thompson and James Wiseman return and Jordan Poole, who is averaging a career-high 17.1 PPG, moves to a sixth-man role.
The Jazz took the financial savings from the Derrick Favors trade to Oklahoma City and filled two primary needs: depth at the forward position with Rudy Gay (taxpayer midlevel) and a backup center with Hassan Whiteside (veteran minimum).
The Whiteside signing has been key since it gives Utah the perfect fit when Rudy Gobert goes to the bench. In 13 games played, Whiteside is averaging 6.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 16.3 minutes per night. Whiteside ranks No. 7 in net rating (plus-16.3) and No. 23 in defensive efficiency (98.1) among players playing at least 16 minutes per night.
In Los Angeles, future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony is making a strong early case for Sixth Man of the Year honors.
“I think people don’t really understand me,” Anthony said after a recent win against the Rockets. “I think there’s a misconception out there about me and not being able to adapt to situations. But I’m easily adaptable, man, to any situation.”
In the 29 minutes played per game, the second-lowest in his career, Anthony is shooting a career high 42.9% from 3-point range and averaging 15.2 points per game.
The extensions that did not happen
On the surface, James Harden passing on a three-year, $161 million extension looks like one of the biggest financial blunders of the offseason.
In the early part of the season, Harden looks like a shell of the player who has been a six-time first-team All-NBA selection and won MVP honors in 2018.
During Brooklyn’s 2-3 start, Harden averaged 16.3 PPG and shot below 36% both from the field and from 3-point range. His net rating was a team-worst minus-8.4; he led the team in turnovers (4.6) and attempted only three free throws per game.
“I had no opportunities to play pickup or nothing this summer,” Harden said after a loss to Miami. “Everything was rehab for three months, from a Grade 2 injury that happened three times in one season. So this is my fifth game of trying to just play with competition against somebody else. And as much as I want to rush the process and be back to hooping and killing, [have to] take your time.”
Harden did recently post a season-high 39 points in a win over the Pelicans, and has shot better than 42% from 3 since that slow start, but is still averaging just 20.3 points per game, which would be by far his lowest since his days as a reserve for the Thunder.
Still, despite the early season struggles, Harden continues to hold leverage on the Nets when it comes to his future. The Nets gave up all their draft assets (three first round unprotected firsts and pick swaps in the next three seasons) and can ill afford to lose him, especially with the uncertain future of Kyrie Irving.
As one Western Conference GM told ESPN, “you might as well look at trade suitors for Kevin Durant if you are not going to offer Harden a new contract in the offseason.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Miles Bridges, who is this year’s version of Julius Randle. Not only is the Hornets forward an early favorite for Most Improved, he is also a strong candidate to earn his first All-Star appearance and be in consideration for All-NBA.
Bridges is posting career highs in points (21.5 PPG), rebounds (7.3 RPG), assists (3.5 APG) and net rating (plus-5.7). On a recent edition of the Hoop Collective, Brian Windhorst mentioned that Bridges wisely turned down a four-year, $60 million extension this offseason. If he continues to play at this level, a Bridges contract next season should exceed $100 million over four seasons.
“I’m not worried about the money,” Bridges told The Undefeated after getting 32 points, nine rebounds and making five 3-pointers in a 114-92 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 3. “I’m really just worried about playing the right way and winning. I will let my agent worry about all that stuff and just worry about the game.”
As for other notable 2018 first-round picks who didn’t sign an extension off their rookie-scale contracts this offseason:
Deandre Ayton missed six games with a bone bruise in his right knee, before posting 22 points and 10 rebounds in his return in a win against Minnesota. He has reached the starter criteria in his contract (average of 38.5 starts over the past two seasons), making him eligible for a one-year, $16.8 million qualifying offer this offseason — which would make him a restricted free agent. Signing the qualifying offer then becoming an unrestricted free agent a year later could be an insurance policy for Ayton if negotiations on a long-term deal with Phoenix stall in the offseason. The 2018 No. 1 pick ranks seventh in the league in rebounding (11.6), and despite only 11.5 field goal attempts per game, is averaging 15.8 points.
Collin Sexton suffered a torn meniscus to his left knee in a win against New York and is sidelined indefinitely. Despite averaging a career low in points (16.0) and 3-point percentage (24.4%), Sexton had played a big role in the Cavaliers’ early season success.
Marvin Bagley III gained headlines after the extension deadline, not because he and the Kings failed to reach an agreement but because he was already out of the rotation before the season started. Agent Jeff Schwartz blasted the Kings organization, calling it a case study in mismanagement. After averaging 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds last season, the former No. 2 selection has played in only three games this season. Because Bagley has gone from starter to not playing, it is likely that he will not reach the criteria of starting 41 games this season or playing 2000 minutes. As a result, his qualifying offer next offseason will drop from $14.8 to $7.3 million.
Before the season started, Anfernee Simons made it known to rookie head coach Chauncey Billups how he wanted to be coached. “I told him you can be hard on me because that’s all I know,” Simons told the team’s website. “My dad was hard on me growing up, so that’s the only way I can get better is somebody constantly on me on certain things.” So far that tough-love approach has been one of the bright spots in the Trail Blazers’ season. Simons has seen his scoring nearly double (7.8 to 11.6 points) and is shooting a career high 45.5% from the field and 36.9% from three. “The main thing I’m telling Ant is: stay aggressive,” Billups said. “I just think he’s so good, he’s so gifted.”
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