Dan Feldman

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Mavericks found a keeper and conundrum in Dennis Smith Jr. and Nerlens Noel

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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 Mavericks had one building block fall into their lap.

Now, they’re playing chicken with another.

No. 9 pick Dennis Smith Jr. could be the steal of the draft. He hasn’t even begun his rookie year, so plenty is unknown, but Smith’s summer-league excellence only confirms what I saw before the draft. He looks like a potential star, and Dallas gets credit for landing him in the back half of the lottery.

Nerlens Noel‘s restricted free agency didn’t go quite so smoothly. The center, acquired before the last trade deadline, reportedly rejected an offer paying $17.5 million annually and took the $4,187,599 qualifying offer.

That could have major upside for the Mavericks, who could hold him at a $7,956,438 cap hit next summer then exceed the cap to re-sign him after finishing their other business. They could have major cap space, especially if Wesley Matthews declines his $18,622,514 player option.

But this could also be the beginning of the end of Noel in Dallas. Of the 20 players who’d ever signed qualifying offers, only one – Spencer Hawes – re-signed with the same team the following summer. Mark Cuban can try to dress it up, but this situation usually ends with the team and player parting ways.

And it’s not as if the Mavericks can just preemptively trade Noel. As a player on a one-year contract who’d have Bird Rights when it expires, he can block any deal. It’s hard to see a place he;d better showcase himself than Dallas, which needs a starting center and has a scheme that maximizes his contributions.

For that reason, maybe Noel would be the exception who re-signs after taking the qualifying offer. Though being unrestricted should help, the market will still be tight, and I doubt centers suddenly become en vogue in this small-ball era.

Smith, Noel and Harrison Barnes could comprise a nice young core to follow Dirk Nowitzki.

Speaking of Nowitzki, he re-signed for two years, $10 million with a team option – another team-friendly deal granted by him. The Mavericks are trying to remain competitive around him, though that’s an uphill battle as he ages and other Western Conference teams build up.

At least the Mavericks aren’t overspending in some last-ditch effort to win for Nowitzki. That allowed them to extract a second-rounder and cash from the Heat for taking on Josh McRoberts. Dallas still has cap space to pursue similar deals before the trade deadline.

The Mavericks signed their annual gaggle of fliers – Jeff Withey, Maxi Kleber, Maalik Wayns, P.J. Dozier, Gian Clavell, Brandon Ashley, Johnathan Motley – to compete for back-end roster spots. Maybe one emerges as a contributor.

I’d bet Smith becomes much more than that. Even though he has yet to play, he has impressed enough to warrant optimism he’ll out-perform his draft slot. He could be a franchise-changer, and the possibility carries weight.

Offseason grade: B

Cavaliers wing it through offseason until monumental trade

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The Cavaliers seemingly spent most of the offseason not knowing what they’d do at point guard.

They rushed to sign Jose Calderon, learned Kyrie Irving wanted to be traded, saw Derrick Rose left disregarded, signed Rose to a minimum deal, agreed to trade Irving to the Celtics, determined Isaiah Thomas‘ injury was more severe than anticipated then finalized the deal with Boston.

Not bad for a team that appeared to be operating without a fully formed plan. But not as good as it could have been, either.

The Cavs started the summer on the wrong foot by dumping general manager David Griffin just three days before the draft. That might have cost them Jimmy Butler and/or Paul George.

But new general manager Koby Altman still handled a star trade with Irving and came out well ahead – if Thomas is healthy, if Cleveland is willing to trade the Nets’ unprotected first-round pick.

A healthy Thomas is nearly as good as Irving right now, and the present matters so much for Cleveland with LeBron James propping its title window open. Jae Crowder – a versatile defender who shoots 3s will be essential against the Warriors – more than makes up the difference between the point guards this season. Again, if Thomas is healthy, and it’s a major question when that will be.

The Brooklyn pick is more valuable than any player in this trade, and the Cavaliers could use it to kick start a post-LeBron rebuild or trade it to improve their title odds this year. They can wait to decide, but both options should be on the table.

It’s so hard to build a team capable of winning a championship, and the Cavs are there. They shouldn’t waste any chance to maximize this opportunity. A better shot at the title would justify a longer post-LeBron rebuild, whenever that comes.

But which player worthy of that pick is available? Teams tend to hoard good players. Cleveland could always keep the pick and delay its decision into the offseason.

These are major questions – How healthy will Thomas be? What would the Cavaliers do with the Nets pick? – that make evaluating this offseason so difficult.

At best, Thomas is soaring by the playoffs, and the Cavs are even better than they were last year. They’d still have the Brooklyn pick in their back pocket to load up even more against Golden State or draft someone who’d infuse talent as this team ages. This could be the type of package that entices LeBron to stay in Cleveland.

At worst, Thomas never gets right. The Cavaliers, fearing LeBron leaving, refuse to trade the Nets pick then lose LeBron because of it.

With the specter of LeBron departing and the lackluster offseason that preceded it, the Irving trade is an all-timer. I think the Cavs came out ahead, but it’s tough to tell without knowing more about Thomas’ status, and they’re keeping that closely guarded. I am giving them full credit for the Brooklyn pick, because, whether or not they’re actually willing to trade it, they’re in position to.

Don’t overlook Crowder, an underrated player on one of the NBA’s most team-friendly contracts (three years, $21,917,475 remaining). He’s a significant part of the package. The third player acquired from Boston, rookie Ante Zizic, isn’t nothing.

Neither is Cedi Osman, a 2015 second-rounder signed this year. Signing Kyle Korver to a three-year, $22 million contract (though just $3.44 million of $7.5 million guaranteed the final season) is probably an overpay considering he’s 36. I like Rose much more as instant offense during LeBron’s short rests rather than a starter who neither defends nor shoots 3s well. Calderon doesn’t have a place on this team if Thomas and Rose are healthy, and I’m not sure Calderon would have been signed if Cleveland knew the latter two would later be acquired. Jeff Green has continuously disappointed, so maybe a minimum contract is finally the right salary for him – though if the Cavaliers are expecting a versatile and effective defender, they too might be left unsatisfied.

That amounts to several minor moves until one huge move. The Cavaliers might have aced the big one, but uncertainty about Thomas’ health has me docking them a full letter. If he’s healthy long enough before the playoffs to establish chemistry with his new teammates, bump them up a full letter. If he’s diminished all season, dock them another letter.

Offseason grade: B

Arena group proposing rapid construction timeline in Seattle

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SEATTLE (AP) — A proposal to remodel KeyArena now has an ambitious timeline that could have it ready to house a professional franchise within three years.

The timeline was laid out in a proposed memorandum of understanding between Seattle and Oak View Group. The MOU will be presented to the Seattle City Council on Tuesday but the final version of the agreement won’t be voted on until the first week of December at the earliest.

Still, the draft agreement is a significant step in the process of redeveloping the city-owned building through a privately financed project that officials believe will finally lure the NHL or NBA – or both – to Seattle. KeyArena housed the NBA’s SuperSonics until they relocated to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. Oak View Group believes it can have the building ready by October 2020 if environmental approvals are obtained and demolition can start in October 2018.

“I think the most important part of this MOU is the fact it states very clearly to the leagues that this project is going to happen, we do have a deal with the city, they can make a deal. They are very focused ultimately not only on building a new arena here and giving us the partnership and certainty in order to do that,” OVG CEO Tim Leiweke said.

“But more importantly it sends a very strong message now to the NBA and to the NHL that everyone worried about, `Yeah will it ever get done with the city? Will they ever be able to get to the finish line? Will you ever possibly get this deal done within the politics of Seattle and the Seattle process as everyone likes to call it?”‘ Leiweke said. “Guess what? Game, set and match. We clearly send a message to everyone that this will get done, this will get built and we are ready now to go get one and hopefully soon, two teams.”

The timeframe is sure to attract attention, including from the NHL. OVG has not hidden its intentions to be aggressive in an attempt to obtain an NHL expansion franchise soon after the arena agreement is finalized. Likewise, the NHL has not hidden its interest in Seattle, the No. 14 media market in the country and the only market in the top 25 that does not have an NBA or NHL team.

OVG has lined up billionaire David Bonderman and filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer as the lead owners for a potential NHL franchise.

“From our standpoint, this timeline is geared toward what we believe is the optimal timeline in order to begin to get a team or two for Seattle,” Leiweke said.

The project is expected to total about $600 million and Oak View is also on the hook for another $40 million to help improve transportation in the area around Seattle Center. They are also responsible for regular facility upgrades for the life of the 39-year lease agreement. Should those upgrade requirements be met, there are two eight-year lease extensions that will be activated, and carry the entire life of the lease agreement to 55 years.

In all, OVG is liable for about $168 million in capital investment upgrades on the facility during the life of the lease. The project will be financed through a mix of revenue streams. OVG also has financial backing from Madison Square Garden Entertainment.

Among the other details of the MOU:

– OVG will be required to pay yearly rent equal to what the city is making off KeyArena now, estimated to be $2.6 million at the start.

– OVG will pay for the displacement and relocation of existing tenants on the Seattle Center campus during the construction.

– OVG will assume the city’s current obligation to the Seattle Storm or arrange a new deal with the WNBA team.

“One of the principals that we had was the city would never go backward as far as its ability to maintain the revenues that were received through the operations of KeyArena going forward,” said Brian Surratt, the director of the Office of Economic Development for the city. “We would be partners in any deal moving forward.”

The negotiations between the city and OVG have come as a similar agreement between the city and investor Chris Hansen is in its final stages. Hansen and the city agreed to an arena plan in 2012 that was contingent on Hansen acquiring an NBA team and included some public investment in a project to be constructed near Safeco Field.

Hansen has since offered a completely privately financed project, but has continued to run into road blocks in getting final approvals to make his arena “shovel-ready” should an NBA team become available. Hansen’s agreement with the city expires Dec. 3, meaning OVG’s agreement with the city could be approved as early as the week of Dec. 4.

Grizzlies look aimless following Grit & Grind

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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 Grizzlies ended an era – just so they could take baby steps into the next one.

Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen spent seven seasons together. They built a strong identity of Grit & Grind – reaching seven straight postseasons, upsetting the top-seeded Spurs in the 2011 first round and peaking with a trip to the 2013 Western Conference finals.

That success was always bound to wane. This core was growing old.

I wouldn’t have wanted to pay a 36-year-old Randolph $24 million over the next two years. It just might have been time to move on from the 35-year-old Allen.

Still, it’s sad to see the quartet – which had been together longer than any active foursome – break up. It might be even sadder when seeing what the Grizzlies have become.

They still have their two best players, Gasol and Conley. But their massive contracts, plus another max deal for Chandler Parsons, restricted Memphis’ ability to retool sans Randolph and Allen.

Memphis signed Ben McLemore (two years, $10.66 million) and Tyreke Evans (one year, $3.29 million) as potential bridges between eras.

That was a surprisingly high price for McLemore, who has floundered in four NBA seasons. Still, the former No. 7 pick is just 24, and Sacramento looked like a poor environment for development. Though I’m not optimistic about McLemore, I’m also not sure the Grizzlies could have better spent that money.

Evans was nice value for the room exception, but he’s clearly trying to reestablish himself for next summer by taking a one-year deal. How much will Memphis get from him before next summer?

The Grizzlies face an uphill climb to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference, and they’re fighting the odds without – as Gasol called Randolph and Allen – the president and mayor of Memphis. There was something to be said about letting a proud group go down swinging.

Rebuilding is also a fair option, but this is barely that.

The Grizzlies didn’t have their own first-round pick, which was traded years ago. They dealt a couple future second-rounders to acquire ones this year, No. 35 pick Ivan Rabb and No. 45 pick Dillon Brooks. (Rabb, oddly, remains unsigned.) They also signed 2016 second-rounder Rade Zagorac.

Neither of Memphis’ players on rookie-scale contracts – Wade Baldwin, Jarell Martin – have shown much. Neither has Deyonta Davis, another 2016 second-rounder who was paid like a first-rounder.

It looks like restricted free agent JaMychal Green will return at a reasonable salary, and he’ll help in the short term. So could a re-signed Mario Chalmers, if healthy. But those variables won’t swing the Grizzlies’ playoff odds above 50%.

So, what are they doing?

Gasol is 32, and Conley turns 30 before the season. Time is ticking to make something of their remaining prime years. Maybe it’s time to rip the bandage completely off and trade those two, but Memphis is strongly resisting.

The Grizzlies owe the Celtics a future first-rounder, protected top-eight in 2019 and top-six in 2020 and unprotected in 2021. That makes timing a rebuild tricky.

In need of direction, Memphis spent the offseason slowly sinking.

Offseason grade: C-

Report: Timberwolves re-signing Shabazz Muhammad

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Tom Thibodeau never seemed that high on Shabazz Muhammad, whom the Timberwolves president/coach inherited in Minnesota. Muhammad surely never wanted to settle for a minimum contract.

Yet, here we are.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Minnesota renounced Muhammad to sign Taj Gibson earlier this summer, but this deal will restore Muhammad’s Bird Rights and allow the Timberwolves to exceed the cap re-sign him when he becomes a free agent – likely next summer. If this is a one-year deal, Muhammad could block any trade.

For now, Muhammad provides much-needed wing depth behind Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. A steady role and the prospect of re-signing could keep him from approving a trade.

Muhammad neither shoots 3-pointers nor defends well – major deficiencies for a wing this era, which explains why he didn’t receive bigger offers. He’s just 24, and he’s strong enough to create efficient shots inside against most defenders. His strength also helps on the glass.

Minnesota especially could have used a 3-and-D wing, but down to minimum contracts, Muhammad provides excess talent. He prioritized a short-term deal in hopes of earning more next summer, and getting his Bird Rights back could only help.

This is a marriage of convenience for both sides.