Dan Feldman

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Trail Blazers still paying for last summer’s mistakes – but far less

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

If given the ability, how of the contracts signed last year would the Trail Blazers undo?

Evan Turner (four years, $70 million)? Absolutely.

Festus Ezeli ($7.4 million in year one plus another $1 million guaranteed in year two)? Unquestionably.

Meyers Leonard (four years, $41 million)? Highly likely.

Maurice Harkless (four years, $42 million)? Probably not, but at least maybe.

Allen Crabbe (four years, $74.8 million)? Apparently.

Portland unloaded Crabbe on the Nets,  even taking back and stretching Andrew Nicholson‘s (smaller) toxic contract in the process. The Trail Blazers’ main move of the summer puts them in line to save more than $55 million between salary and luxury tax this season. They’ll also save the next two years, when the tax will remain an issue for them.

Whether that’s a good thing depends on your perspective.

For ownership, that’s clearly huge savings. But the trade cleared no cap space, and the mid-level exception still sits untouched. Crabbe, Portland’s lone reliably plus 3-point shooter besides Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum will be missed on the court.

But acquiring Jusuf Nurkic before last season’s trade deadline, not factored into this grade, allows the Trail Blazers to still paint themselves as a rising team rather than one just dumping rotation players to save money. Nurkic was awesome down the stretch before getting hurt, and a full season with him at center could vault Portland back on track.

Importantly, the Trail Blazers surrendered no draft picks to Brooklyn, which signed Crabbe to the offer sheet in the first place. It seemed clearing any of their bad contracts would require significant sweeteners. Paying Nicholson $2,844,430 through 2024 is a minor inconvenience, all things considered.

Dumping salary was a reasonable measure considering the tax burden and team quality, and Portland did it deftly.

Trading the Nos. 15 and 20 picks to move up for Zach Collins at No. 10 before this draft fell off looked solid, though Collins’ summer-league struggles give pause. Collins and No. 26 pick Caleb Swanigan will provide insurance if Nurkic, Noah Vonleh and/or Ed Davis depart when their contracts expire next summer. Davis might even get moved sooner if the Trail Blazers try to dodge the luxury tax entirely this season.

Portland went all-in last offseason for a team that went .500 and got swept in the first round. The Trail Blazers return a little worse than the Nurkic-infused squad that soared late – but also a whole lot cheaper.

Offseason grade: B-

Rumor: Lakers signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope because he shares agent with LeBron James

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The Lakers are gearing up for 2018 free agency – when LeBron James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins will be available. The Lakers also don’t have their own 2018 draft pick.

That made their mission this summer clear: Preserve and clear 2018 cap space while upgrading the team for 2017-18 as much as possible.

Brook Lopez, acquired in the Timofey Mozgov salary dump that sent D'Angelo Russell to the Nets, was an ideal fit. Lopez will help the Lakers establish credibility this season, and his contract expires afterward.

Likewise, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope emerged as a partner in a mutually beneficial relationship with the Lakers. He unexpectedly became an unrestricted free agent onlu after many teams spent their cap space. Rather than lock into a long-term discount, he sought a one-year deal to get back on the market again next year. He was the best shooting guard the Lakers could have gotten on a one-year contract.

Plus…

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Multiple league sources suggested to ESPN that a major motivating factor in the Lakers’ signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year, $18 million deal this offseason was because Caldwell-Pope is repped by Rich Paul, the same agent as James.

It’s fun to speculate about all things LeBron-Los Angeles, and I think that drives a lot of these rumors.

Show me a plan for the Lakers better than signing Caldwell-Pope, even if he had a different agent. Caldwell-Pope’s transition speed, defense against both guard spots and spot-up 3-point shooting make him a nice fit with rookie point guard Lonzo Ball. (If only Caldwell-Pope could create in the halfcourt, it’d be a perfect pairing.) And the Lakers upgraded at shooting guard without any long-term commitment.

The chance to impress Paul is a bonus, but it’s not as if even that gives the Lakers carte blanche to discuss LeBron with him. After all, the Lakers were just fined for communications with George’s agent, who also represents current Laker Julius Randle and just-traded Russell.

If the Lakers do well by their players – including Caldwell-Pope – that will eventually get back to LeBron, anyway. The lines of communication can just be a little more direct now.

LeBron James undercurrent of Celtics introducing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward

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A restricted free agent in 2014, Gordon Hayward visited Cleveland. Kyrie Irving – who had just signed a contract extension with the Cavaliers – recruited him.

“Then LeBron came, and that kind of squashed that whole thing,” Hayward said today at the Celtics’ introductory press conference for their newest stars.

That was first mention of the elephant in the room: LeBron James, who seemingly played a large role in Irving requesting a trade from the Cavs before that 2014 extension completed.

Irving just laughed and held up his hands as Hayward spoke of LeBron, whom Irving had sidestepped in questions about why he wanted to leave Cleveland and what Boston needed to do to overtake the Cavaliers in the East. It wasn’t until the final question that Irving finally addressed LeBron.

“No, I haven’t spoken to him,” Irving said. “And my intent, like I said, was for my best intentions. And to look back at the amount of ground we covered in the last three-year span – or even before that, because we had a prior relationship – and to really realize how special that was and how much growth happened in that amount of time, I’d be sitting up here and telling you guys a lie if I didn’t tell you I learned so much from that guy. The perfection of the craft comes in a variety of forms. And you watch, and you watch, and you ask a lot of the great players, “What does it take to be great?” And I’ve had the unique opportunity to play with one of the greats, and it was awesome. At times, it was all over, just like it is in any other team. And when you look back and you’re eternally grateful for the moments that you’ve had and you’ve shared, you’re able to put peace with that journey and start anew. And this was a very, very challenging decision at first. But after a while, when you understand, and you have that confidence yourself to understand the magnitude of what you actually can accomplish and potentially can do with other great people. And now that I’m sitting here, it just echoes in terms of me just being very appreciative of, not only the Cleveland fans, all of Ohio, but as well as Bron incorporating me into that special team that we had in Cleveland. Because three Finals in a row, all the shared memories, all the individuals, with T-Top, Swish – I could go down the line with the guys that I played with in Cleveland. But they all know how I feel about them individually, as well the amount of love that we have for one another. The brotherhood exists, even without all this, and it will continue. So, that’s exactly where it is. And I’m very appreciative of it.”

The rest of the press conference was more of the same – Irving bloviating and Hayward, who lasted fewer than two months as Boston’s splashiest new addition, an afterthought.

Even in an offseason Celtics press conference he obviously didn’t attend, LeBron was the subtext that drove interest. If you want to read into them, there were a few times prior to his final answer that Irving addressed LeBron:

  • “I just knew that I wasn’t going to come up here to specifically point at individuals, specifically point at what issues here, whatever. Because that’s not important to me. At all.”
  • “Is there ever such thing as one person carrying a whole team? I don’t think so.”
  • “There is no such thing as putting the team on your shoulders.”

Irving kept attempting to steer the conversation back to his talking points – his commitment to teamwork and affinity for Boston, including Brad Stevens. The point guard also praised Hayward, repeatedly calling him “a bad dude.”

“He’s been working with a common guy between us, which is pretty awesome in L.A.,” Irving said.

Everyone wanted to hear more about LeBron-Irving, and those questions won’t stop – especially if the Celtics and Cavaliers continue their expected course toward an Eastern Conference finals rematch.

But at least Irving knew, in Boston, it was probably better for him not to talk more about that “common guy between us.”

New Magic front office not changing Orlando overnight

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Magic fired general manager Rob Hennigan last April, but a rough overview of their offseason would hardly show it. Orlando hit all the Hennigan classics:

But look closer, and new president Jeff Weltman fared better than his predecessor.

Isaac, a shaky ball-handler, is far from a sure thing. But he was my second-best available prospect (behind Dennis Smith, who went No. 9 to the Mavericks) and is certainly a reasonable pick.

Unlike Watson and Augustin, Mack received only one guaranteed season. He’ll even earn less this year than Augustin, who’s still guaranteed $21.75 million over the next three years (blegh).

I’m not convinced Afflalo deserves even a roster spot, but at least he’s on just a minimum contract. That’s far better than the amounts paid to Maxiell ($2.5 million), Gordon ($4.5 million) and Green ($15 million!) for their lone seasons in Orlando.

Speights is also on a minimum contract. More importantly, he can shoot 3-pointers, providing a vital element on this space-scarce team.

So, no, Weltman isn’t necessarily Hennigan. But Weltman hasn’t proven himself not be a continuation of the Magic’s front-office problems, either – mostly because he hasn’t had the opportunity.

Weltman inherited a team too good to tank all the way to the bottom of the standings. Though overpaid, Biyombo (three years, $51 million remaining on his contract), Vucevic (two years, $25 million) and Augustin (three years, $21.75 million) are still helpful contributors. Dumping them to tank would have required significant sweeteners, undermining the whole idea.

So, with little choice but to plod ahead with a similar roster… Weltman is plodding ahead with a similar roster.

At least he squeezed in Jonathon Simmons (three years, $18 million with just $1 million of $5.7 million final-year salary guaranteed) on a team-friendly contract.

If Aaron Gordon taps his otherworldly athleticism while finally returning full-time to his natural power forward position… if Elfrid Payton builds on his strong play late last season… if Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross provide enough shooting to make up for the rest of the starting lineup’s downtown deficiencies… Frank Vogel-coached Orlando could challenge for a playoff spot in the lowly Eastern Conference.

Sure, that’s probably a longshot. But what choice did the Magic have but to keep that dream alive and hope for the best?

With more than $78 million already committed for 2018-19 – not counting possible extensions for Gordon and Payton – it might be a couple years before Weltman can put his stamp on this team.

He’s not wasting his capital while the team is overrun with Hennigan players. Orlando traded the Nos. 25 and 35 picks this year for future picks. Reasonable enough, though it’s possible the Magic wind up with no first-rounders in return for No. 25 and a lower second-rounder for No. 35.

One small cause for concern: After wisely waiving Watson, paying his $1 million guarantee rather than his $5 million salary, Orlando stretched his payout. That opened $666,666 in cap room – superfluous as long as the $4,328,000 room exception remains unused. The Magic will pay the price with a $333,000 cap hit each of the following two seasons.

These are obviously small amounts and unlikely to affect future plans. And the Magic had to decide on this in mid-July. Maybe they had a logical plan for the extra cap space this summer that fell through.

But taking their medicine and eating the entire $1 million this season – a year unlikely to go anywhere regardless – was the most obviously sensible solution. Given the results, it would have also been the correct course.

At some point, Weltman must show whether he’s pulling Orlando out of its hole or digging it deeper. With minimal opportunities to display his acumen, he did a little of both.

I think the Magic are in slightly better shape than they entered the offseason, but not enough to move even a partial letter grade.

Offseason grade: C

Rumor: Dan Gilbert could sell Cavaliers within next few years

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Dan Gilbert said he’d never move the Cavaliers from Cleveland, but the Cavs owner left something unsaid.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

He could sell the team, and while a team spokesman said there has been no thought given to a sale, sources outside the organization suspect Gilbert to consider selling within the next few years.

“Sources outside the organization” could be wildly speculating, especially because, anonymously, they face no consequences if they’re wrong. But I trust Vardon enough as a reporter to believe he’d cite only people positioned to have real insight.

Forbes valued the Cavaliers at $1.2 billion. Gilbert bought controlling interest of the franchise for $375 million in 2005. This could be the right time to cash out.

Though he sometimes gets in his own way and too personal, Gilbert has spent considerably on his team – to the point people forget Cleveland is a relatively small market. That’s a key reason the Cavs have been to three straight Finals and won the 2016 title.

Of course, the biggest reason is LeBron James returning to Cleveland despite the fallout from Gilbert’s infamous letter.

Cue the speculation about LeBron just purchasing the franchise himself, as he has expressed a desire to own an NBA team. With a net worth pegged at $275 million, he probably can’t afford a majority stake. But with NBA salaries escalating and endorsement money flowing, the share he could buy probably just keeps increasing. It all depends on timing.

LeBron, who is 32 and has played 14 NBA seasons, can’t buy a team until retired as a player – and can’t buy the Cavaliers unless Gilbert is actually willing to sell.