The Inbounds: A Hive In Construction; How to Protect Anthony Davis With Robin Lopez

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Hang on to your monitors, I’m going to get through the rest of this column without mentioning the busted CP3-to-the-Lakers trade. You ready? Break!

When the Hornets agreed to terms with the Suns and Wolves in a three-way trade Sunday night, it wasn’t anything that was going to be bust over Ichiro Hamel’s new deal A-Rod breaking his hand. It was a minor deal. But it was yet another example of what has become the modus operandi of Dell Demps this offseason. It’s an understated move with positional variability which sacrifices neither cap space or crucial assets.

Here’s how quickly these things shift. Had the Suns just recommitted the money to Robin Lopez, who has never established himself as the center Phoenix needs, but has consistently scraped the ceiling of legitimacy enough to keep people interested, it probably would have been panned. Now, the Hornets reached good value on Lopez at three-years, $15 million according to Yahoo Sports, but part of that value is inherently due to what a legit center means for New Orleans, versus what it means for Phoenix.

The Suns, with Marcin Gortat, didn’t need to overpay for Lopez. (After all, they’d already overpaid for Michael Beasley, badum-ching.) They needed a little extra money going forward and to dump Hakim Warrick’s deal. It would have been a better move had they not already gone on a spending spree to try and remake the team immediately after Steve Nash’s departure and been more patient, but moving dead money long-term for short-term dead money (Brad Miller’s retired contract) isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

But the Hornets? They needed Lopez. They needed a center, and they needed to not overpay for a center. Lopez gives them everything they need. He’s a fill-in, a decent starter for a lottery team, a player who could surprise everyone and make the leap but if he doesn’t, you’re not drowning at that position. Long-term, there have to be upgrades at every spot but shooting guard and power forward for the Hornets. And that’s fine. They’ve got time. But the biggest key to next season for the Hornets is cohesiveness and the development of Anthony Davis.

Since the Hornets liquidated Emeka Okafor along with Trevor Ariza in the deal to clear cap space in a move for buyout-able Rashard Lewis, there has been talk about what it means for Davis’ positional future. Even in an NBA that is hurtling towards positional liquidity like the big-boned kid off the diving board, you can’t simply expect any player to be any position. They still have to have the ability to succeed at any given position’s set of requirements. In the case of center, Davis fails several smell tests. He’s incredibly long, but razor thin, it’s going to take years for his frame to catch up with his length, and there’s no guarantee that will happen at all, though muscle training will only make him more versatile and dangerous. I like to put this in perspective by saying that Michael Kidd Gilchrist has a substantial weight advantage on Davis. Think about that.

This isn’t to question Davis’ ability to succeed, far from it. We’re on the verge of seeing one of the truly most unique and impactful defensive players of the past ten years make his debut, I believe, and Davis’ talents can make up fora great many physical mass issues. But it’s crucial that the Hornets put him in a position to succeed right away, and depending on him to handle guys with considerably more muscle weight. It’s fine to speak to the lack of talent at the center position, but if you give a big guy the ball in the post with someone he can slam his shoulder into and create separation, there’s going to be scoring. More importantly, though, there’s going to be damage to the smaller player as the impact alone will wear on and injure a player like Davis having to play down in position to that degree.

It’s best put this way. The Lopez move, along with re-signing Jason Smith, adding Ryan Anderson and throwing in Hakim Warrick means that Davis won’t be slotted at the five, and will be best placed in a position to use his singular talents, as I always felt were best expressed here:

 

With Davis as unstoppable pterodactyl, there are a great many things Monty Williams can employ with Lopez along. While the rest of the league is gearing small-ball line-ups, the Hornets can throw out a big lineup with Ryan Anderson, Davis, and Lopez that doesn’t surrender much in the way of pick-and-roll containment or perimeter length. Anderson’s defense needs help defenders behind him, and Lopez will require double-team help if faced against a post player who can dribble and chew gum at the same time, and absolutely, there will be times when Davis is just a rookie getting schooled.

But it puts Davis in the best position to succeed.

It’s not that Davis can’t spend time at the five. He should. It’ll be good for him to learn about post position in the NBA, challenging guys on-ball with frame advantages that prevent him from being able to block it, and will allow him to give weak-side help off that previously-mentioned weak center class, where he should be electric. But it’s important that Davis not be faced with covering for the roster issues of a team in a rebuild. The Hornets will have positional weakness, but they have to protect Davis from those. Some tough love is good for him. Breaking his spirit and body with a set of positional demands that put too much physical and emotional strain on him is not a good plan for development.

The Hornets will still run plenty of small-ball lineups. Anderson and Davis should see substantial time on the floor together, and should a center come available wherever the Hornets draft next year, you have to imagine they’ll be examining that player, along with the best available point guard (Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon on the same team is a whole other boondoggle). You can expect to see Davis and Warrick, Davis and Smith, Anderson and Smith, and a more traditional Anderson and Lopez, which gives them an opening night rotation down low if Davis isn’t ready yet. But Lopez is going to get the job done next to Davis, and on the list of players who you look at and think they may be able to take a leap in production, he’s on there. He could wind up being a steal for the Hornets. A hidden element in the NBA as of late has been the development timelines at different positions. Point guards blossom early, wings sometime around 24 to 25, and bigs closer to 27. Lopez will be 26 in the last year of his deal, and may be giving the team an idea of what he can do. He fits both as a place-holder and a possible long-term investment.

Like I said, subtle, quiet, and important, the Dell Demps offseason.

Now about where the Hornets would be if Stern hadn’t blocked that trade…

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ 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 Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-

Report: Iman Shumpert rejects offer from Rockets, who’ll have several familiar names in minicamp

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Iman Shumpert is the best free agent available.

Why hasn’t he signed yet? Apparently because he spent the offseason negotiating with the Rockets, but those talks haven’t produced a deal.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic:

I wonder whether Houston tried to sign Shumpert to a contract similar to Nene’s, creating another trade chip. The Rockets are close to the luxury tax and probably wouldn’t guarantee Shumpert much. It doesn’t take months to negotiate a simple minimum contract.

Shumpert (29) is a credible wing in a league starving for them. He played well for the Kings last season before getting traded to Houston, where he struggled. Other teams should be interested.

The Rockets have just nine players with guaranteed salaries. There’s plenty of room for some of these past-their-prime veterans to make the regular-season roster. It might mostly depend on which of Terrence Jones (27), Nick Young (34), Luc Mbah a Moute (33), Corey Brewer (33), Raymond Felton (35) and Thabo Sefolosha (35) are in the best shape at this stage.