Best under-the-radar offseason moves
With extra words for paying subscribers!
The NBA offseason isn’t technically over, but most of the dust has settled.
Sure, we still have the inevitable Lillard trade and the slightly-less-inevitable-but-still-probable Harden trade, but those could take months to resolve. And frankly, those guys are getting too much ink and attention for my highly refined, cultured taste.
Instead, let’s turn our attention to some other moves that didn’t get as much shine as they should have.
Dennis Smith Jr., Brooklyn Nets
Smith seems like the perfect fit for a Nets team whose success is predicated on building a jail warden identity. He still can’t shoot, but he’s a human turbo button who resurrected his career behind a shocking defensive turnaround.
Seriously, it’s hard to overstate how bad Smith was defensively at the start of his career. Now, he’s getting All-Defensive Third Team votes.
He has killer ballhawk instincts (he’s been in the top decile of steal percentage in the last three seasons) and an attitude that forces offensive players to make decisions on the move and under duress. Watch as he gets beat on the first steal attempt but stays with the play and forces the turnover later:
It’s not textbook defense, but when a player has Smith’s instincts and tools, it can be effective.
Flanked by long-armed defensive menaces up and down the roster, Smith will be free to take even more calculated gambles, knowing his teammates can protect him on the rare occasions he misfires.
His ceiling will always be capped as a player if the three-pointer never arrives, but his floor is still significantly higher than anyone watching him founder on the Mavericks could have guessed. If Brooklyn surprises people this season, Smith’s resurgence will be a reason why.
Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
This wasn’t a free agent signing or trade; instead, the incumbent Grizzlies locked up Bane to a near-maximum five-year, $197 million contract extension (plus a bit more in incentives).
$40 million a year for a guy who has never made an All-Star team? How could that be a great move?
Well, as always, context is king. Bane just finished his third year, and despite receiving increased defensive attention, he once again improved in essentially every meaningful statistical category. His three-point percentage did drop to “only” 41% on a hefty 7.0 attempts per game, but that see-sawed with a corresponding increase in his two-point finishing.
At 6’5”, and with biceps that need extra-large jersey armholes to fit, Bane can reasonably defend bigger guards or smaller wings. His playmaking, ballhandling, and self-creation have improved dramatically, and he suffers no drop-off when playing without Ja Morant (as the Grizzlies will to start the season).
More importantly, while the contract is large, there is reportedly no player option. That means the Grizzlies have locked up a young, improving player with a skillset that perfectly meshes with their franchise tentpole for the next half-decade. If Bane were to leave, the Grizzlies would almost certainly be unable to replace him — maximum-salary-caliber free agents ain’t summering in Memphis, and they don’t have the war chest of assets to get a superstar via trade after the Marcus Smart deal.
Mark it now: this will be the Year of Bane. I think he’ll make a legitimate All-Star run, and if the breaks go right, he could even sniff an All-NBA team. It’s impossible to put a ceiling on a rising fourth-year player with shooting splits that compare favorably to Klay Thompson. When a team like Memphis has a chance to extend that relationship, it needs to do whatever it can. The fact that they didn’t have to give max money or a player option is the delightful cherry on top.
Chris Duarte, Sacramento Kings
Duarte had a promising rookie season as a sharpshooting wing with some solid on-ball defensive chops, but a sophomore ankle injury led to poor play and confidence issues. The Pacers are filled with better players at the same position, so they were happy to take a couple of second-round picks off the Kings’ hands in exchange for Duarte.
Much of Duarte’s success came next to Kings linchpin Domantas Sabonis, his former teammate in Indiana. Both players speak Spanish, which led to an immediate personal connection that buoyed their on-court chemistry. Sabonis’ playmaking at the top of the key opens up off-ball lanes in the paint for Duarte, and the two share one mind on dribble hand-offs:
Duarte also demonstrated killer footwork in the mid-range, utilizing his size and strength to get to his spots and then shake defenders with smooth reverse pivots and spins.
Second-year Duarte looked like a different player, however, so Indiana wasn’t that hard to convince in trade talks. The shot disappeared, the ankle never looked right, and the confidence evaporated like a Las Vegas dew.
The Kings are betting that Duarte can repeat or improve upon his rookie-year magic with improved health while next to his old running mate. It’s a smart position to take. No team can ever have enough shooting, and Duarte’s shown enough defensive promise that he could end up with a surprising amount of playing time despite a crowded Sacramento rotation.
Georges Niang, Cleveland Cavaliers
“The Minivan” is a robust, foul-prone stretch-four who can play a smidge of small forward or center if needed. Being one of the best shooters in the NBA allows a little breathing room for his sometimes-porous defense: Niang has shot >40% from deep in each of the last five seasons on very high volume.
And while that defense will never be a plus, most advanced metrics grade him as a respectably below-average defender, not mincemeat. Having Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen on the team mitigates Niang’s flaws to a degree; he’ll always be backed up by at least one world-class defender.
He’s not a thirty-minute player, and that’s okay; Cleveland has several other options they can cycle through, as the case may be. But last year, they had very few deadeye shooters on the roster. Now, they’ve got someone with White Walkers in his pupils. (Nailed it.)
Jevon Carter, Chicago Bulls
When the Bulls were at their peak two seasons ago, it wasn’t their offense leading the way. Instead, their smothering defense, unconventionally led by two guards, was the key to their success.
Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball melted opposing offenses at the point of attack. Knowing that Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic were vulnerable on the back lines, Ball and Caruso swarmed nervous ballhandlers like scavenging hyenas, pressuring them into bad passes and poor shots.
Well, Lonzo is gone for the season, but the Bulls tried to replicate that strategy by picking up Jevon Carter.
Carter doesn’t have Lonzo’s size, but he’s one of the most tenacious defenders in the league. He has impeccable lateral quickness and tree-trunk strength to go with some of the quickest reflexes I can recall. Watch as he bats this pass away milliseconds after it enters his vision:
(That the passer was Patrick Beverley, a proto-Carter who left the Bulls this offseason, is ironic).
Carter is also an excellent spot-up shooter, nailing 42% of his triples last season for Milwaukee.
I hope that Carter wins the starting role in Chicago; watching him and Caruso careen around like basketball-thieving tornadoes, ripping the roofs off of offenses, would be a League Pass highlight.
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