Monday, July 03, 2006

NBA Offseason Kickoff

And they’re off!  The NBA offseason has hit the ground running like seldom seen before.  Many teams are unhappy with where their roster stands and are determined to make moves.  The draft was a free-wheeling event for slightly different reasons: this was a weak and shallow draft, and with first rounders due guaranteed contracts on the same payscale as good drafts, if a team didn’t see someone they liked where they were slotted, they dealt up for a better player, dealt down for future picks or cash, or simply sold their pick to get out.  Others picked foreign projects to keep them shelved overseas.   Pretty entertaining results, nonetheless.

There’s a lot to go through, so I’m going to hash things out team-by-team and toss everything in one write up.  Their immediate situation, what they’ve done to address it, and what they still hope to accomplish this summer.

Still embroiled in an ownership battle involving castout owner Steve Belkin that originated in the Joe Johnson S&T (looking more and more like Belkin was right to contend that they gave up too much for him) and determined to improve attendance (virtually tied Protland for last).  The Hawks know that a true superstar is a better bet to fill seats than a winning team (see the Lenny Wilkins/Steve Smith era vs Dominique) and have been in the midst of Allen Iverson rumors.  They made a solid draft pick in power forward Shelden Williams, despite Billy Knight’s talk of taking yet another 6-8 SF with potential (they passed on Rudy Gay).  More than their $18 million in cap space, Al Harrington is the key to the Hawks’ plans.  Using him in a S&T is a far more effective way to bring in players (Atlanta wants a center in return and the Lakers and Bucks are rumored suitors), seeing how marquee free agents more often negotiate with the Hawks to gain leverage than to sign on the dotted line.  Sam Cassell, for example, used the Hawks to twist the Clippers into giving him the two-year contract he was after.  

Paul Pierce has made it abundantly clear to Danny Ainge that he won’t sign an extension unless the team ends its youth movement and brings in veterans to win now.  That’s the reason the Celtics dumped their #7 pick to Portland for Telfair.  Ainge has been hellbent at bringing in Iverson, but Wally Sczcerbiak has been nowhere near enough.  Almost the entire roster (Al Jefferson, Gerald Green) is up for grabs as Boston actively looks to give Pierce a reason to stay.  

Michael Jordan wasted no time upon arrival in declaring the build-slow strategy over and saying the time to compete is now.  The addition of Morrison fits into that.  While I question whether his game translates to the pros, he is a scrappy scorer and therefore the perfect compliment to the rest of this roster.  Charlotte also has $24 million in cap space, but they’ve been uninterested in courting free agents in previous summers.  That may change under Jordan, and his presence may help draw players to North Carolina.  

The Bulls feel they are in a position to make a push at the East’s elite after years of post-MJ suffering.  They are most interested in adding a frontcourt scorer and adding size to the SG position.  They played Portland tremendously, bluffing with LaMarcus Aldridge (too similar to Tyson Chandler to the Bulls’ liking) in order to get Tyrus Thomas at #4 (read: cheaper) and considerations.  Thabo Sefolosha is a 6-6 Euro guard that they are said to be excited about, but I’d wait before penciling him into their starting lineup.  One of the 5 teams with significant cap room ($17 million), the Bulls are making serious overtures to disenchanted Ben Wallace.  Bringing him in would be a two-fold victory; sending them into contender status and bringing up their division rivals.  Tyson Chandler and/or Ben Gordon could be moved in a contined effort to improve the froncourt.

Highly encouraged by LeBron’s first foray into the postseason, the Cavs are looking to build on their success.  Drew Gooden may be retained if he comes cheap, but they’d be just as happy to ship him out in a S&T for a more reliable role player.  Larry Hughes is available for the right price, and they would like to upgrade their situation at the point.  Unsatisfied with the self-proclaimed “greatest shooter in the world” Damon Jones, the Cavs drafted a couple of high-scoring combo guards to make him expendable.

Dallas feels that they have a good roster that they can ride for several years, so they are primarily focused on keeping everyone together.  Jason Terry resigned for a very reasonable price, Dirk was extended, and Josh Howard is next.  Maurice Ager will fit in perfectly as another interchangeable backcourt piece, and may free up the Mavericks to move Marquis Daniels for a target such as Mike James.  Depth at the two forward positions may be the only concern.

It’s a tumultuous time in Colorado.  Kiki Vandeweghe is gone, the players are divided and somewhat disgruntled, the owner has been bearing fangs, and George Karl has made enemies with several on the roster.  Nene Hilario has been resigned at an extremely generous rate for a forward that never realized his potential and has yet to begin running on the court (per George Karl) after a major knee injury.  Kenyon Martin is being shopped as hard as any player has ever been and will be moved for virtually anything under the allowable rules, if possible.  Revelations of a Sam Cassell courting heightens speculation that Andre Miller is not safe.  Ruben Patterson and Reggie Evans are free agents, but it is unclear whether they want to stay or if they are even wanted by the team.  Evans is the forward more likely to stay.  This time could find itself in dire straits soon, an extended Carmelo Anthony notwithstanding.

Detroit finds the top of the hill to be a difficult place to remain.  Uncharacteristic in-fighting and finger-pointing marked a dismaying end to a season that began with a 70-win pace.  Joe Dumars made moves to resign Billups and Wallace, but it could be that Big Ben, clearly playing without passion in the postseason, has decided that he’d be happier elsewhere.  With an ever-thinning bench, a defection of this magnitude could seriously wound a previously close-knit team.  Don’t look now, but Darko just might make them regret sending him to Orlando.  Detroit has opened talks with Bonzi Wells in an effort to get the backup swingman that Carlos Delfino has failed to become.

Chris Mullin finds himself in a mess of his own making, with a roster full of overpaid and underperforming pieces that show little promise for success.  Jason Richardson is perhaps the only piece that the Warriors are happy with.  Baron Davis has been difficult to coach and play with, Mike Dunleavy continues to flounder, and Derek Fisher and Adyonal Foyle have terrible contracts.  The Warriors went after developing center Patrick O’Bryant with the ninth pick, but that may or may not bear fruit.  Troy Murphy and Baron Davis are on the block.

Feeling the wrath of the fans (#28 in attendance) and with Jeff Van Gundy entering the final year of his deal, the Rockets are under major pressure to turn things around after an out-and-out disastrous season.  Underachiever Stromile Swift found himself kicked out the door after only one season, packaged with rookie Rudy Gay for the unspectacular but reliable Shane Battier.  Traded away for Rafer Alston just last summer, shooter Mike James has been Houston’s primary offseason target.  The most important pieces of the puzzle will be McGrady’s back and Yao’s plagued feet.

Bird and Walsh have suggested that it is time for a roster overhaul, in the wake of two seasons marred by immaturity.  Most of the locker room does not get along, and there has not been enough success to turn a blind eye to it any longer.  No one is untouchable, but Larry Bird will not approve lopsided deals, especially concerning Jermaine O’Neal.  Many experts were surprised to see the Pacers pass on Marcus Williams in the draft in light of Jamal Tinsley’s neverending injury woes (has missed over a third of the season in each of the past 3 years).  They instead took forward Shawne Williams.  As I have opined for months, Peja Stojakovic bolted Indianapolis immediately, though surprisingly to Oklahoma City.  This leaves the Pacers with nothing to show for Ron Artest.  Al Harrington and the Pacers have expressed mutual interest.

The Clippers are in a highly unusual position, trying to keep together a winning team.  They kept Sam Cassell after he deftly used Denver and Atlanta to bluff Elgin Baylor into accepting his terms.  Radmanovic switched Staples Center lockers by defecting to the L.A. Kobes, but they managed a very equitable replacement in Tim Thomas, who shares almost all of his strengths and weaknesses.  All that’s left on the to-do list is some low-cost depth.  

The Lakers have abandoned last season’s plan of clearing cap space for a 2008 run at Dirk, Amare, or Yao, now that they’ve all been extended.  Plan B is to make trades to give Kobe a better surrounding unit.  Jordan Farmer will split the point with Smush Parker, though I found it odd that they didn’t opt for Mardy Collins, the sort of big point guard that Phil Jackson loves to have in the triangle.  Lamar Odom may not be hot for a move anymore.  A package including Chris Mihm has been circulating as a possible deal for Al Harrington, with Kwame Brown penciled in as a starting center.  Free agent Devean George may not have a place on the team after L.A.’s deal for Maurice Evans.

Jerry West felt that his team needed to make moves or it would flounder, and kicked things off by moving treasured role player Shane Battier for prodigal big man Swift and potential star Rudy Gay.  Swift is reportedly unhappy with the involuntary return to Memphis, but West may be planning to move him again before long.  Bobby Jackson left the team, but Kyle Lowry was drafted to help shore up the point.  In short, the Grizzlies look to maintain their hustling philosophy by reloading for high energy atheletes.  

Miami is basking in its first championship, and may keep everyone together for no other reason that a lack of alternatives.  Very few pieces are viable trading chips, and it may be simple to sell the fans in South Florida that they want to defend their title with the same cast.  An improved back up point guard and power forward would be high on the wish list.

Milwaukee is trying hard to hand the center position over to Andrew Bogut, who had a difficult time as a 4 in his rookie campaign.  To that end, they swapped T.J. Ford and his tenuous neck condition for wishy-washy PF Charlie Villanueva.  The second item on the list will be moving Jamaal Magloire for a SF, PG, or 2007 first rounder.  

Minnesota, somewhat like Boston, is making every effort to keep Kevin Garnett by convincing him they can bring in the pieces to compete.  Randy Foye may not be as solid a bet as Brandon Roy, but the Wolves are more concerned with their shaky point guard play (Jaric was a disaster) and they have shown that Kevin Garnett thrives with quick-triggered 1s (Starbury, Sam Cassell).  Eddie Griffin has again allowed his off-court troubles to threaten his employment, and Rashard McCants may not be back for sometime after an alarming microfracture surgery.  SF and center are critical needs.    

The Nets continue to try and crawl back into the elite, and were helped by an extremely fortuitous draft.  Marcus Williams and Josh Boone project to be near perfect answers for the Nets terrible need for a backup point and help at the 4.  Boone is the shakier pick of the two, but you don’t need much to cut into the minutes of Jason Collins and Cliff Robinson.  There have been whispers that Richard Jefferson is not on good terms with Jason Kidd and could possibly be dealt, but nothing seems immediate or certain.  New Jersey would figure to target another forward with their MLE.

The Hornets are looking to capitalize on last season’s surprising success, both on the court and in the box office.  The Hornet’s chief concerns have been size and dumping immature SG J.R. “Rider” Smith.  Despite needing a center more than a 4, the Hornets settled on Hilton Armstrong and Cedric Simmons in the draft with no viable centers remaining.  While neither is a sure bet, the odds are good that one of the two will be a contributor on the boards.  Also surprising because of the need for a center, the Hornets quickly used their cap space ($17 million) to land Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson.  The team may want to play an uptempo style modeled after Phoenix rather than pursue centers such as Nazr Mohammed or Joel Pryzbilla.    

With the Larry Brown mess and James Dolan’s declaration that Isiah has a single season to right the ship, there is a strong likelihood of desperate moves by Isiah Thomas.  If he didn’t mind mortgaging the future before, it makes all the more sense now.  In the draft, Isiah had people rolling in the aisles after using his #20 selection on a swingman with no offense that admitted he wasn’t sure about being taken at all.  Isiah followed that up with a less-criticized pick of playmaker Mardy Collins.  The two players bring to the table attributes that Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, and Jamal Crawford do not: defense and creating for others.  Isiah may not necessarily overhaul his roster, despite his natural inclinations, in part because he feels a need to vindicate the roster that Larry Brown publically trashed.

The Magic feel that they are back in an upswing, after the McGrady era fell apart and the transition was a similar wreck.  Step 1 was filling the gaping hole at shooting guard, which the Magic looked to do by drafting J.J. Redick.  Whether he can man the position fulltime remains to be seen, as he may be best suited in a situational role off the bench.  Orlando is very optimistic about their frontcourt duo of Howard and Darko Milic, who averaged a very decent 7.6 points, 4 boards, and 2 blocks in 20 mpg upon joining the team.  That said, Orlando is not likely to extend his contract this summer and would be wiser to wait a year and allow him to become a restricted free agent instead.  Trevor Ariza may help as a swingman if he is retained (the Magic do not have Bird rights), and Grant Hill is entering the final year of his max contract.  It would not be surprising if he is bought out or moved if he struggles with even a minor injury, though the team values his locker room presence as a class act.  

Philadelphia appears ready to end the Iverson era.  With wins coming and going, Philly has been content to stay the course in part because Iverson kept attendance high.  Last season, it plummeted to 21st in the league, and reports are flying the ownership wants to pull the plug on the second-highest payroll in the league.  Webber and his unfathomable contract (he’s now the top-paid player in the NBA) are virtually impossible to move, but Iverson is still attractive to teams.  With that in mind, the Sixers drafted swingman Rodney Carney to pair up with Andre Iguodala on the perimeter and are fielding phone offers for the franchise’s biggest star since Charles Barkley.  

Phoenix continues to toy with becoming a true-blue title contender, but owner Robert Starver may be tightening the strings rather than making a Miami-like push for the trophy.  This upcoming season, Amare Stoudamire begins to enjoy his max contract extension, giving Phoenix three players (Nash, Marion, Amare) earning 8-figure salaries and threatening to send the Suns deep into the luxury tax.  Starver is strongly opposed to spending the dollar-for-dollar penalty and may instead rely on Nash’s ability to make YMCA pick ups look like stars, especially with Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw due for big pay raises in the very near future.  It’s hardly a sure thing that they would have retained Joe Johnson at the max even if he hadn’t pushed for a trade to Atlanta.  Now, we’ve seen them sell their two first round picks for cash and Tim Thomas walk out for a better deal in Los Angeles.  High-dollar but invaluable Shawn Marion has been making the rounds in trade rumors, but Mike D’Antoni has flatly denied them.  Phoenix could face a whisper-thin bench for their backcourt unless they sign some guards soon.   Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Phoenix made aged sharp shooter Eric Piatkowski its first addition for two years at the minimum.

Portland is one of two teams currently for sale.  When that happens, a roster firesale is usually attached at the hip.  Darius Miles and Zach Randolph, in that order, have repulsed management and the city with their heartless play and juvenile behavior.  Coupled with their unsightly contracts, this pair could be had for a stick of gum and a trade exemption (Atlanta?  Charlotte?  Please?).  The flurry of trades that netted the team 4 first rounders was a likely push to replace the roster with low-rent youth, a far more attractive sell to potential buyers.  Expect Paul Allen to continue to unload veterans rather than sign for them.  Center Joel Pryzbilla is all but a lock to walk out for nothing.

The Kings are in a transition period with a new coach and a roster in flux.  Their draft pick, Quincy Douby, looks to take over Bobby Jackson’s old role off the bench as a combo guard gunslinger.  While the Kings have a fairly well-rounded roster, they could stand to improve the power forward position and are interested in defensive stoppers.  Bonzi Wells is a key free agent that is unlikely to consider any hometown discounts.  

The Spurs may have to begin wondering if they are sliding down the hill.  The roster is aging, recent acquisitions have not substantially reloaded the magazines, and the team look outmatched at times against Dallas in the postseason.  Getting a better back up swingman than Brent Barry and replacing the departing centers (Rasho and Nazr) has to be top priority.  Popovich could alternatively move Duncan to center in the face of the league’s move toward smallball, and instead focus on getting more athletic wingmen.    

The other team with a for sale sign out front, the Sonics are more likely to part with pieces than add them.  The Sonics took a head-scratching foreign center project with the #10 pick (Sene), that can only be so much worse than Robert Swift and Johan Petro.  Rashard Lewis may be moved as a consequence of his rumblings about opting out of his contract next summer, and Danny Fortson is unwanted.  

Bryan Colangelo has made his mission clear – focus on foreign players that are more willing to stay in Toronto.  The franchise has lost every major star but Bosh to States defections, and Colangelo looks to adjust rather than repeat mistakes.  Partially to that end, the Raptors stuck with Bargnani with the top pick, after numerous smokescreens to entice teams to trade up failed.  The Italian figures to start as a 3 until he bulks up sufficiently to start playing inside.  Colangelo traded for Slovenian center Rasho Nesterovic and moved inconsistent power forward Charlie Villaneuva for PG T.J. Ford in order to help balance the roster.  The team does have significant cap space ($12 million) but Toronto has historically struggled to lure free agents.  A swingman would be a nice piece to add to the roster.  Mike James has never been in the Raptors plans, as he gets his eye-catching numbers by forgetting about his teammates and the game plan.  

Owner Larry Miller is at his wits’ end with his team, spoiled from almost 2 decades of Stockton-Malone professionalism.  Reportedly sour on Carlos Boozer and staging on-court tirades at his players, Miller has almost assuredly declared open season on the roster.  Utah had to be thrilled to have swingman Ronnie Brewer fall to them, if not the other way around.  He fits in well with Okur, Ak47, and Deron Williams.  Matt Harpring isn’t likely to be retained, and Boozer is being shopped hard for blue collar types.

Gilbert Arenas took a cue from Paul Pierce and turned the screws on management, letting it be known that he was unhappy with the current roster and would leave at first opportunity unless there was a push to improve the team.  He got one wish when coach Eddie Jordan was extended.   The draft provided less optimism, with super-skinny forward Olexsiy Pecherov less than certain to contribute this year.  This is a team that may regret passing on Marcus Williams, who could have shifted super-scorer Arenas to a more natural 2-guard role.  Arenas does not want to see Jared Jeffries leave like Larry Hughes did, but Jeffries seems very open to going elsewhere.  There is lingering tension between Brendan Haywood and coach Jordan involving his defensive effort and he may ask for a trade.  This is connected to reported intial talks between the Wizards and Bucks involving Jamaal Magloire.  Most important for this team is to add size and a backup point guard that is able to execute the offense rather than simply throw up shots.