Dan Feldman

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Timberwolves ace Jimmy Butler trade… then made some other moves

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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.

From the moment former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took over the Timberwolves, Minnesota was involved in Jimmy Butler trade rumors. But, as of last year, Chicago reportedly wouldn’t budge without receiving Andrew Wiggins, and I didn’t think that was enough for the Bulls. Since, Butler has only improved and Wiggins moved closer to a max salary that will diminish his value. A deal seemed unlikely.

Then, suddenly the Timberwolves traded for Butler – without surrendering Wiggins. A team bound to improve around Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins is now set to clobber a 13-year playoff drought.

Butler is a star in his prime who’s locked up for two more seasons at an affordable salary. The price to land him – Zach LaVine (injured and up for a contract extension), Kris Dunn (ineffective as a relatively old rookie) and moving down from the No. 7 to No. 16 pick – was absurdly low. By dropping only nine spots rather than give up the No. 7 pick entirely, Thibodeau just stunted on his old bosses.

That fantastic trade started a busy offseason in Minnesota, but the rest of it wasn’t nearly as inspiring. (To be fair, how could it be?)

Going from Ricky Rubio (two years, $29.25 million remaining) to Jeff Teague (three years, $57 million with a player option) at point guard wasn’t ideal in a vacuum. But Teague’s shooting was important considering Butler and Wiggins form a sketchy wing pairing on 3-pointers and Thibodeau insists on playing two traditional bigs. Plus, the Timberwolves got a first-rounder a first-rounder from the Jazz for Rubio.

Another former Bull, Taj Gibson, will bolster Thibodeau’s two-big rotation. But Minnesota already had Gorgui Dieng and Cole Aldrich (who’s overpaid and has disappointed, but can still eat up minutes) to limit the defensive burden on Towns, and No. 16 pick Justin Patton is in the pipeline. Does a 32-year-old Gibson have enough left in the tank to justify a two-year $28 million contract?

Likewise, will a 37-year-old Crawford provide value at the full room exception (two years, $8,872,400 with a player option)? The Timberwolves didn’t need another ball-handler. Butler, Wiggins and Teague can be staggered enough to handle that. Towns should be tasked with a greater offensive role, too. At least Crawford is a solid spot-up shooter, but his defense is a big minus.

Shabazz Muhammad won’t fill Minnesota’s 3-and-D void, either. But on a minimum contract, he was too talented to pass up. Dante Cunningham could help, though he’s better at power forward than on the wing, where the Timberwolves need more depth.

Thibodeau hasn’t exactly instilled faith in his ability to take this franchise into the future. But he hit a home run with the Butler trade, and that buys him leeway.

Offseason grade: A+

Cavaliers say they’re not trading, are re-designing offense to optimize Kevin Love

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The Cavaliers have essentially gotten the worst-case version of Kevin Love.

That player is still darned good, a borderline All-Star. But Love was an All-NBA second-teamer who received MVP votes before Cleveland traded for him.

Love just never found a way to duplicate his Minnesota-era all-around contributions while playing with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The power forward has often been relegated to spot-up shooting.

But what happens now, with Irving traded and Isaiah Thomas not ready to play, for Love and the Cavs?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

They are confident Minnesota Love still exists, and they are re-designing their offense — and potentially their rotation, featuring more of Love at center — to unleash him again.

“Kevin is going to have the best year that he’s had here,” Tyronn Lue, Cleveland’s coach, told ESPN.com this week. “I thought he was great anyway. You keep bringing up Bosh. What did Bosh average in Miami? Kevin averaged almost 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] with two other All-Stars. If you are on a championship-caliber team, you have to sacrifice. But this year is going to be a big opportunity for him. We’re going to play through him more. He’s going to get those elbow touches again.”

We’ve heard this before. So, there should be some skepticism.

Love is 29, and after injuries, he doesn’t look as athletic as he did with the Timberwolves. Even if the Cavaliers feature him more, he can’t necessarily recreate what he did in Minnesota – especially because the rest of the league is better-equipped to deal with versatile and skilled big men.

But Irving’s departure changes the equation. Maybe, this time, Love will actually seize a bigger role. Using him at center could give him enough mismatches to flourish, though he’ll have his hands full on defense.

What happens when (if?) Thomas returns at full strength, though? As point guard, he’ll control the ball far more than Love.

If Love has re-blossomed into a near-superstar, Cleveland will gladly sort that out later.

Pelicans trying to keep up with all the problems they’ve created for themselves

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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 entire operation could have cratered if Jrue Holiday left in free agency, as the Pelicans would have had only moderate cap space to replace him.

That didn’t happen.

Otherwise…

Years of roster mismanagement caught up to New Orleans, which had its meager wing depth eviscerated when Solomon Hill suffered a long-term injury. Complicating matters, the Pelicans had already hard-capped themselves by signing Rajon Rondo and Darius Miller to a combined salary above the taxpayer mid-level exception. Holiday used his leverage to get a massive contract – worth up to $150 million over five years – that pushed New Orleans close to that hard cap.

Rondo might be a decent value as a $3.3 million backup point guard. But his ego complicates the situation, and the Pelicans will start him at point guard – pushing Holiday to shooting guard, where the team’s third-best player will make less of an impact.

Miller washed out of the NBA two years ago after three seasons in New Orleans. The former second-rounder went overseas and then drew a salary above the minimum. I’m curious to see what the Pelicans see in him now.

In a pinch on the wing – where Hill, best at power forward, was already playing out of position – New Orleans sent a second-rounder and cash to the Bulls to dump Quincy Pondexter. Presumably, the injury problems that have kept Pondexter from playing the last two seasons meant he couldn’t help the Pelicans on the wing this season. Otherwise, this deal was a farce. But it allowed the Pelicans to sign Tony Allen and presumably one other player. Re-signing Dante Cunningham would help, but even he is better at power forward than small forward.

Allen is still a strong defender at age 35, but he’s a poor shooter. Rondo generally has been, too.

Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins will have to be comfortable from deep for this team to have adequate spacing. The situation behind those two stars is woeful.

New Orleans spent a lot of time picking around the edges at point guard, though. In addition to re-signing Holiday and signing Rondo, the Pelicans traded effective backup point guard Tim Frazier (on a reasonable $2 million salary) to the Wizards for the No. 52 pick. Then, New Orleans essentially dealt the Nos. 40 and 52 picks and $800,000 to move up to No. 31 for injured point guard Frank Jackson, who’s already hurt again. The Pelicans also signed Ian Clark (defends point guards, handles the ball and distributes like a shooting guard). Combo guard E'Twaun Moore returns, too.

Between Davis, Cousins, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, New Orleans is paying $57,396,659 this season to players most effective at center.

Meanwhile, small forward is a wasteland.

This is not the team I’d want to send into battle during Cousins’ contract year. Lose him, and how will that color Davis’ long-term view of the franchise?

The Pelicans keep bandaging major wounds, and it’s already catching up to them. The difficult situation entering the offseason must be taken into account.

They started the summer in a jam. Then, they got jammed.

Offseason grade: C-

Knicks undergo wildly unproductive regime change

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The Knicks spent the offseason shooting wildly, sometimes hitting something – including their own feet.

They opted into the final two years of Phil Jackson’s contract in the spring then fired him in late June – but not before allowing him to alienate Kristaps Porzingis and use the No. 8 pick on Frank Ntilikina. After Jackson, New York turned over power to former team preisdent Steve Mills, who asserted himself by signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a ridiculous four-year, $71 million offer sheet. Like Jackson, Mills went out of his way to alienate Carmelo Anthony – without actually trading him.

Amid all the chaos, the Knicks just backslid further.

No. 8 pick Ntilikina was a defensible choice – maybe even the right one. But it’s just too likely Jackson selected the big point guard due to his fit in the triangle, a scheme New York will gladly never hear another word about. Three players at least a tier ahead of Ntilikina (No. 11 on my board) – Dennis Smith Jr. (No. 4), Malik Monk (No. 7), Zach Collins (No. 10) – were still available. Passing on Smith, a pick-and-roll lead guard who doesn’t fit the triangle, looks particularly regrettable. Again, maybe Mills or some average decision-maker would have picked Ntilikina. But you’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone Ntilikina’s triangle fit didn’t play an outsized factor in his selection.

Splurging on Hardaway could cost the Knicks for years to come. Even Mills’ stated logic for the signing is lacking. The Knicks president said Hardaway’s $17,737,500 average salary was the going rate for a starting shooting guard and that Hardaway is one – two questionable claims. But say Mills is right. Hardaway merely qualifying as a starting shooting guard (No. 30) doesn’t mean he should be paid like an average one (No. 15 or so).

Hardaway’s contract was so bad, it overshadowed New York giving Ron Baker the full room exception (two years, $8,872,400 – with a player option!). Baker was a restricted free agent. Did the Knicks really have to make such a high opening bid? It probably won’t pay off, anyway.

With such little experience between Ntilikina and Baker at point guard , Ramon Sessions was New York’s most important minimum signing. Michael Beasley was the better one. He could become a discount version of Anthony as a scoring forward.

Of course, the Knicks would have to trade Anthony first. He didn’t make it any easier on them by refusing to accept a trade anywhere but Houston. It appears increasingly likely Anthony will return for another season in New York.

That just promises more drama.

Firing Jackson was supposed to reduce the tumult, but the primary source of dysfunction remains. Mills, Jackson and Mills again running the front office – these are still James Dolan’s Knicks. Now, they’re locked into a triangle point guard and expensive middling-at-best shooting guard.

Offseason grade: D+

LeBron James and wife visit private school near Los Angeles

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When LeBron James returned to Cleveland, he considered his family. This is painfully obvious, but worth reminding: NBA players are like everyone else in this regard. They factor arrangements for those close to them when determining where to live and work. (NBA players differ from the rest of us, because they often work in different cities than where they and their families have their homes established.)

So, if – ifLeBron is leaving the Cavaliers for the Lakers in free agency next summer, it’d be logical that he consider where his kids would go to school. LeBron already has a house in Los Angeles. So, his family would likely make that its year-round base.

That’s why it’s so interesting LeBron and his wife, Savannah, toured Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, an elite Los Angeles-area private school.

TMZ:

LeBron James surprised the basketball team at Notre Dame High School in L.A. on Tuesday — hitting the gym for a training session while his wife checked out the campus … TMZ Sports has learned. We’re told Bron and Savannah James rolled up to the school in a chauffeured car around 6 PM and walked around campus before a workout on the court.

Eric Sondheimer of the Los Angeles Times:

LeBron:

Imagine @kingjames showing up to your high school gym unannounced. 🚀👀

A post shared by UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) on

Maybe this was simply a workout, though it seems like an odd location. Maybe Savannah had another reason to accompany him, though checking out the school for their sons certainly seems plausible, too.

LeBron obviously doesn’t want to tip his hand publicly about his plans, but I also think he wants to keep pressure on the Cavs. Was this a tour disguised as a workout to prepare for signing with the Lakers? Or was this a visit LeBron knew would draw attention from his current team? Or was it, as LeBron said, just a simple workout?

The possibility of an ulterior motive, whether or not one actually exists, sure is alluring in advance of his free agency.