Five most intriguing moves from NBA free agency

The 2016 summer of free agency will be one where predictions were forsaken due to the presence of the unknown. In the place of common analysis was a overwhelming feeling of intrigue. These offseason moves, however, put more strain on the minds of basketball thinkers than most.

Dwight Howard, Hawks (Three years, $70.5 million)

For the duration of his career, Howard has existed more as a team’s virus than its cure when factoring in his divisionism in the locker room, creaky back and defiant call for post up opportunities. Howard said he felt marginalized last season in Houston, when the verdict of his peak value was diving hard to the rim in pick-and-rolls, only to watch James Harden continue to pound the ball, while still rebounding and competing like hell on defense to cover for the myriad mistakes made by his teammates. That’s a cruel enough reality to make anyone a little grouchy, especially when factoring in Dwight was once a consensus top five player in the league.

Still, Howard had 297 post ups in 71 games last season that ended in a shot, foul or turnover, the 14th most in the NBA. His efficiency on such opportunities (0.82 points per possession) was slightly below league average offering ammunition for those proposing reductions in his post up possessions. As Howard returns home to Atlanta, he encounters Mike Budenolzer’s offensive system that prioritizes pick-and-rolls more than so post ups. In fact, the Hawks ranked 26th in the league last season in total post ups and fifth in pick-and-rolls where the roll man finished the play.

The departed Al Horford was a pick-and-pop killer, who gave the Hawks a consistent bail out option if the initial offensive actions stalled and the shot clock began to wane. Howard, obviously, provides no such luxury, and he can’t generate offense from the high post with his passing either. However, even with his shaky health, Howard demands more gravity from defenses than Horford, stretching the defense with his verticality in rolling situations, but teams will consistently duck under Dennis Schroder-Howard pick-and-rolls to undercut Dwight’s rim rolls and force Schroder to chuck with his rickety jumpshot.

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Howard’s real value with the Hawks may be what happens after those Schroder jumpers clank off the rim. The Horford-Paul Millsap frontline has essentially made second-chance scoring opportunities obsolete in Atlanta. The Hawks scored a league-worst 316 points on putbacks last season, according to nba.com. Howard, on the other hand, scored 165 points by himself in such scenarios, ranking 10th in the league. The Hawks weren’t much better keeping opponents off the glass on the other end, partly a byproduct of Horford’s tendency to leap out and blitz ball handlers, which is a strategy Budenholzer may have to ax with Howard. The Hawks ranked 25th in defensive rebound rate last season, leaving its paltry 47.5 overall rebound percentage 28th in the league. Individually, Howard ranked seventh in rebound percentage, while Horford, despite being a Swiss Army knife in terms of what he can do the court, rated just 52nd out of 60 qualified centers in 2015–16 in rebound rate, according to espn.com.

Harrison Barnes, Mavericks (Four years, $94.4 million, player option on fourth year)

After a maligned ending in Golden State, Barnes signed a max contract in Dallas after the Mavericks continued its strategy to plan diligently for free agency, then not actually garner interest from top-flight free agents. Barnes’ max deal is no indication of his pedigree, and while he is an extremely useful and effective player in the modern NBA, he’s never been anything more than an ancillary player in his NBA career.

One can view Barnes’ time in Golden State through two prisms. On the one hand, Barnes’ role in the offense was simple — take open 3s, post up against smaller defenders on switches and attack closeouts with hardline drives to the rim, which were often unimpeded with defenders sticking to the Warriors’ sharpshooters. On the other hand, Barnes was never forced, and also never had the opportunity, to function as a primary ball handler — his reads were straight forward and predicated on his strengths.

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Barnes will always possess the value in the modern NBA, which is why he’s toasting to a fresh four-year max contract. He’s a switching specialist on both ends of the floor, has the core strength to tussle with 4s and can knock down open 3s on offense. However, serving as a high-end role player isn’t going to cut it in Dallas, especially when considering the team’s primary shot creators are Deron Williams and J.J. Barea exploiting the gravity of Dirk Nowitzki in pick-and-pops. Barnes will share in those ball handling duets with Nowitzki, which was just a teensy piece of his contributions in Golden State. Barnes was the ball handler in just 33 pick-and-rolls last season ending in a shot, foul or turnover, that’s one more than his new teammate, Justin Anderson, and, for comparison, the departed Chandler Parsons ran 150 such plays in Barnes’ spot last season in Dallas. Barnes was efficient on those plays, averaging 0.94 PPP, but the sample size is so miniscule, it offers almost no forecasting.

His 13.5/6.6 assist/turnover ratio last season is a healthy stat and one that bodes well against digressions related to his decision-making, but his usage rate was just 14.9, ranking behind dudes like Luke Babbitt and Metta World Peace, and Barnes’ court vision and passing has never been dubbed as an undiscovered gem in his game. Playing in Golden State’s free-flowing offense and in canyons of space simplified everything for Barnes as well, a luxury he won’t have in Dallas, where his inchoate handles and lack of finishing creativity could become exposed as fatal wounds. That’s why Barnes’ situation is so intriguing — he’s never been in this position on a team’s totem pole of offensive options, leaving him susceptible to a flop or primed for a breakout.

Dwyane Wade, Bulls (Two years, $47.5 million, player option on second year)

The fascination with Wade translates to the entire Bulls roster heading into the 2016–17 season. Wade, Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler are all ball-pounding guards who like to catch the ball, hold it, survey the floor, hold it some more then dribble and dribble, inspiring madness in coaches. Wade’s sacrilegious playing style was glossed over in Miami due to his legendary status, but toward the end of last season, basketball purists began whispering about a more Goran Dragic-centric offense.

Wade can still get buckets and draw fouls with a slippery post game, glitchy drives and masterful pump faking, but his route toward producing efficient offense is a challenge. Ditto for Butler, although Butler is more of a 3-point threat and a better athlete at this stage in his career. Rondo’s ball control habits have devolved into degenerative disease. He averaged the second most touches per game in the league last season and only six players possessed the ball for longer allotments of time.

Certainly the Wade-Rondo-Butler fit is nebulous, but Chicago’s plan for next summer and beyond is clouded by the addition of Wade as well. Bulls GM Gar Forman mostly sat idle during the free agency frenzy, seeming to commit is resources to the bounties of next summer, until springing at Wade late in the process. Wade’s presence may be alluring to high-profile free agents next July because, although he is declining and not the most cordial player from a style standpoint, being ball-dominant and lacking a 3-point shot, he’s a champion, a legend and a good teammate — a dude who commands respect across the league.

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Assuming Wade sticks around and opts in to his $24.27 million player option next season, the Bulls could carve out just enough cap space for a max salary slot next summer for players from 1–9 years of NBA experience while also extending qualifying offers to Tony Snell and Cristiano Felicio.

A starting max salary would be approximately $28.75 million for the 1–9 years of experience range, and if the Bulls renounced Taj Gibson’s cap hold and waived Rajon Rondo’s partially-guaranteed $13.4 million salary, while stretching his $3 million guaranteed over three years, they could lessen their cap sheet to about $73 million under a $102 million cap. The math is tight as is, and with the $102 million cap for in 2017–18 being only a projection and a potentially reworked CBA hanging as a huge Matzah ball waiting to drop, the formula is bound to shift. The Bulls have ways of mending their cap space if things do change; they could waive Isaiah Canaan’s non-guaranteed salary and rescind Snell’s qualifying offer to attain nearly $4.5 million in additional cap space.

The Bulls seemed compelled to jump in on Wade immediately and put out a product this season that will at least sell tickets, while placing roster fits and future cap sheets into the rearview to figure out later. That’s not an indictment in the slightest, merely an objective hypothesis of where Chicago stands this season and next summer.

Serge Ibaka, Magic (Acquired by Orlando in trade with Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis — One year, $12.25 million remaining on current contract)

It was a straight up impeachment of Ibaka’s worth so many analysts labeled the Magic’s acquisition of the shot blocker a heist in favor of the Thunder. The trade was certainly a gamble on the part of Orlando GM Rob Hennigan with questions surrounding Ibaka’s contract (he’s on an expiring deal), his age (supposedly 27 at the start of the season, but no one knows for sure) and what he definitively gives a basketball team after fading into the background in OKC. Those are a lot of cards one has to hit to win the pot, and tossing the most proven youngster on the Magic’s roster in Victor Oladipo (sorry Aaron Gordon) along with an incoming lottery ticket in Domantas Sabonis is a steep bet.

However, members of the Ibaka camp recognize his value as a basketball anomaly. Rim-protecting 4s who can space the floor are rare and the perfect complement to plodding bigs who are sieves defensively and derive their offensive merits through backing-down in post-up scenarios (hi, Vooch!). Oh, and did you see Ibaka switching onto Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, acting as the hinge that nearly saw OKC blitz the Warriors in the conference finals? Dudes who can protect the rim and switch on defense are NBA treasures. Toss in a 3-point stroke, and you’re looking at an NBA fairytale.

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Those small ball Thunder lineups against Golden State, however, used Ibaka as a nimble stretch 5, where his shooting is most cumbersome to defenses and his callow playmaking is marginalized. In Orlando, the Magic already had the laboring Nikola Vucevic at center before adding a rim-diving, shot-blocker type in Bismack Biyombo clogging up the depth chart at the 5 and delegating Ibaka almost exclusively to the 4, pending a Vucevic trade. At the 4, Ibaka is an invitation for teams to take their chances going small. With a standard two-big lineup against opposing small ball lineups, the Magic will often be tasked with overcoming deficits at the 4 position in terms of playmaking and shooting. A shooting 4 would also yank Ibaka away from the rim, mitigating his vicious weakside shot blocking. Offensively, Ibaka doesn’t reflect the mass artillery that can carpet bomb small ball lineups. He can’t abuse smaller guys with a devastating post game, and his porous 6.5 offensive rebound rate suggests he’s not punishing team’s on the glass either to gain devastating second-chance opportunities.

Pau Gasol, Spurs (Two years, $31.7 million, player option on second year)

The Spurs and Gasol finally recited their vows and got hitched after ample pandering from analysts and leaguer personnel about Gasol being a Spurs-type player or years. Perhaps the Spurs-type-player sticker is part of the potential issue with the signing — Gasol is another aging, ground-bound big man who doesn’t stretch the floor vertically on rim rolls or shoo away opponents who have built-up steam and are attempting to yam on his head at the rim.

A Gasol-LaMarcus Aldridge frontcourt pairing is a duplication of sorts. Both players prefer touches in the high-post area or just a few feet off the block and become ornery if the volume of those touches is a bit lacking. Hard, aggressive rim rolls have been deleted from both of their games as neither player has the bounce or athleticism to play above the rim, which works as a double negative when considering the influence of either as a potential rim deterrent. Tim Duncan accounted for some of Aldridge’s defensive shortcomings despite his own underwhelming physical abilities, but Duncan’s savvy timing and speedy second jump are qualities Gasol won’t be able to emulate.

Gasol is a deft passer, continuing the Spurs’ marveled interior big-to-big passing, and he’s stretched his range beyond the 3-point line, a progression Aldridge has implemented into his game as well. Neither will have defenses fumbling over themselves trying to get a hand up, but it’s an acute advantage for Gregg Popovich to have in the quiver.

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Duncan imposed a presence at the rim last season, especially when healthy (other than his mangled knee) in the first half of the year, however, he and Aldridge were far from pick-and-roll savants when conducting switches or balancing the space to cut off a ball handler and still recover to their man in the paint. Gasol’s rim protection numbers from last season were actually efficient in terms of both effectiveness and the likelihood of a contest, according to Nylon Calculus, but, like Duncan, he can’t keep pace with jitterbug point guards or surging wings who bolt off of picks trying to puncture the paint, placing inordinate value on San Antonio’s perimeter defenders, such as Kawhi Leoanrd and Danny Green to slip past screens and disrupt dribblers with their reaching arms.

That’s the art of roster construction, leveraging the strengths and weaknesses of what each player gives the team. The Spurs have the pieces to mold Gasol’s defense into a tenable addition, and his offensive skill could wring some needed juice out of a San Antonio offense that struggled against the league’s top tier.

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