The dust has settled on the NBA landscape after a frantic few weeks of free agency. In a series of emails, my friend Craig Salner (@CSalner) and I broke down the biggest moves of the offseason and discussed some of the intriguing storylines heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
When I was a kid I had a poster in my bedroom of a fake movie promo entitled L.A. Story with Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky standing back-to-back.
Notice, Clippers forward Danny Manning is not a leading man. The Clippers were not and never have been a part of the L.A. story. Until now. It was as if the Lakers and Clippers switched places this offseason. The Clippers re-signed Chris Paul, brought in Doc Rivers and swung a deal to land two shooters in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, while the Lakers lost Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets.
I can’t help but think that this shift in power is temporary. As a New Yorker, it reminds me of the mid-1980s when the Mets and their young stars Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry captivated New York City and bumped the Yankees off the back page (at least some of the time.) Then everything returned to normal in the 90s. The Yankees began winning championships again and the Mets, well, they’re the Mets.
However, for now the Clippers are the best team in L.A. The question is: How good are they? Are they legitimate championship contenders? And where do the Lakers go from here?
The sudden rise of the Clippers has called into question everything I thought I had learned about sports as an adult. As a Miami resident and Heat fan, I truly believed the Summer of 2010 and LeBron James’ decision had as much to do with Pat Riley and Micky Arison as it did with Dwyane Wade or anything else. As a kid, you don’t understand why teams perennially stink. As an adult, you see sports more for the business that they are, and no business has been run more poorly than Donald Sterling’s Clippers. Even the cryptic departure of Vinny Del Negro indicated that the franchise still has no recognizable voice. But then, about 45 days later, the Clippers landed a top flight coach in Doc Rivers and subsequently convinced a franchise player to re-sign.
I think Doc is a basketball junkie who is salivating over the Clippers’ talent and has convinced himself that he can make it work even with a bumbling mess of a franchise. I am still not convinced that Blake Griffin is anything more than the power forward version of Vince Carter (off the charts athleticism, off the charts hype, but shrinks from the big moments), but we will learn a lot about how good Doc Rivers is and/or how bad Vinny Del Negro was based on how Blake develops. Given the hype around Eric Bledsoe, I wasn’t knocked out of my chair by the J.J. Redick/Jared Dudley combination they brought in. They are two solid pieces that fit nicely into that starting lineup, but Chris Paul still has some creaky knees and Jamal Crawford isn’t getting any younger. If anything, I guess you have to admire that the Clippers are truly going all in for right now, particularly while the Lakers are down.
Speaking of the Lake Show, this whole Jim Buss thing really scares me. Ever since the Chris Paul trade fell through, every move they have made has been disastrous. The Mike Brown hire, mind-screwing Gasol by perpetually shopping him, the Nash trade, letting Mike Brown install a Princeton offense, the D’Antoni hire. I left out the Howard trade because giving up Bynum hasn’t exactly come back to haunt L.A. Still, I am not signing on to a rapid Laker resurrection until I see a smart basketball move.
It’s a sad way for Kobe’s career to end, but I call it karma for the staggering amount of times Kobe’s Lakers have exited the playoffs in epic blowout fashion. Kobe has 5 rings and is a top 15 all-time player, but he cannot be compared to MJ with all the times his teams have gagged in close-out games. I recall the Pistons Finals (2004), the Phoenix Game 7 (2006) when he refused to shoot in the second half, a blowout loss at the hands of the Celtics in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, a sweep by the Mavericks (2011) (Bynum clotheslining Barea reminding us all of King Kong Bundy beating up “little people” in WrestleMania III). Nobody brings this up about Kobe, so I don’t feel bad for him!
I think one of the other big stories out West is that 12 months ago OKC appeared to be a team that would make the Western Conference Playoffs moot for 5 years. Now they look like a team with a LOT of holes. What is your take on the 60-win team NO ONE is talking about?
I see where you’re coming from with the Blake Griffin/Vince Carter comparison. Both are incredible athletes, but not quite franchise players. There is one key difference between them though. Griffin always plays hard and works on his game. Carter is a dog. I could see Griffin’s career arc mirroring that of Amar’e Stoudemire’s, knee problems and all.
The Jim Buss situation reminds me a little of when Hank Steinbrenner took control for the Yankees after the Boss passed away. Lakers fans should be very worried, but I think they have such a sense of entitlement that they don’t understand how perilous the situation is. It’s easy to write off Howard’s exit as an anomaly or rationalize it as stupid decision by an immature athlete who doesn’t deserve to wear the purple and gold anyway.
To your point, in a short period of time, the Thunder have gone from the apparent successor to the Spurs as the NBA’s model franchise to just another great team in the Western Conference. General manager Sam Presti’s magic touch in the draft has not carried over to other player personnel decisions.
The Kendrick Perkins trade, which was highly praised at the time, has turned out to be a disaster. One of the biggest mysteries of the offseason is why OKC has not amnestied Perk. Nick Collison is more effective for a quarter of the price, and the Thunder could have used at least part of the money they would saved on Perk to add some desperately needed help on the wing. The Harden move does not look very favorable in hindsight. With Kevin Martin bolting for Minnesota, OKC is left with just Jeremy Lamb and rookie Steven Adams from that deal. Presti also has not added one significant free agent during his tenure.
That being said, it is easy to forget that OKC finished in the top five in the league in offensive and defensive efficiency last season and very possibly would have returned to the Finals if Westbrook had not injured his knee. They are still missing a consistent third scorer and/or somebody who can operate in the post. Durant may have to take his game inside more, like Dirk did in 2011 and LeBron in 2012 in order to put his team over the top. I still think they are the favorite to come out of the West, though they will need significant contributions from some of their young players like Lamb, Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones.
The Warriors and Rockets are two teams who upgraded this summer with the signings of Iguodala and Howard. How do you think Houston and Golden State will stack up against the Western powers?
I could not agree with you more about the Perkins trade. I remember at the time as Heat fan being upset thinking, “dammit, the Celtics just stole Jeff Green!” Meanwhile, Celtics fans were outraged that “Ubuntu” was broken up, and OKC was giddy that they had an enforcer in the paint. Jeff Green would look pretty nice in the aquamarine, scoring for OKC’s second unit right about now. Presti gets killed for that Harden trade and it obviously was disastrous, but few people were lining up to throw a max deal at Harden after the 2012 Finals.
I am not sure about the GSW’s. The league is more fun when they are good, and I think at a minimum they will be relevant, but I believe they’re getting a little more marquee hype than they’re ready for. They played a great series to beat Denver, but I’m pretty sure “George Karl” means “first round exit” in at least one language. They also played the Spurs tough, but ultimately lost in 6. I do like Iguodala a lot. He reminds me of Jason Kidd in that you really don’t understand what he’s doing out there that’s so special, but he makes his team a lot better. Still, this team leaves me with a Rex Ryan Jets feeling of too much hype too soon, a popular coach with a lot of bluster, and something tells me that come next April they will be pretty much right where they were last year, outside the top 4. Let’s not forget that Steph Curry’s ankles are involved . . .
I was disappointed that the Rockets signed Howard because I can’t stand him and I loved watching Rocket games last year. They had a unique ability to go on runs and get that arena jumping. I really thought signing Josh Smith would have been a better fit for that team. Smith’s image is tainted, but he does a lot of things well, plus there are so many more options in Houston that I don’t think he would’ve found himself with the ball late in the shot clock, having to jack up 3’s. I’m also not sold on Dwight’s championship mettle. I think they’ll struggle out of the gates a bit as most of these so-called “super teams” do, but then likely round out the top 4 with the Spurs, OKC and Clippers. I think Memphis is going down for the dirt nap this season.
The Dallas situation is pretty funny. Let’s just say it’s a good thing Dirk got the ring when he did. What did you think of the Brooklyn/Boston shakeup?
I don’t even think Mark Cuban knows what the hell the Mavs are doing. They worked so hard to free up cap space and then used it on Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert.
I think the Pierce and Garnett deal made sense for the Nets because they were already all in with so much money invested in Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace. Pierce and Garnett were completely gassed by the playoffs and they are no longer capable of being No.1 and No. 2 options, but they won’t have to carry nearly as much of the load in Brooklyn. KG is one of the few guys who can single-handedly change the culture of a locker room, and the Nets will benefit from his intensity. However, as Heat fan you know that it usually takes a couple of seasons for a team with major new parts to gel and at KG and Pierce’s age it can go quickly. I also worry about Brooklyn’s lack of athleticism on the perimeter.
The Nets did a great job with their bench as well, which should help keep KG and Pierce fresh. Andray Blatche was a good value signing, Jason Terry could provide some punch if he regains his Dallas form, and then there’s my favorite story of the offseason: Andrei Kirilenko. The Russian AK47 opted out of a contract with the Timberwolves which would have paid him $10 million this season. His agent told teams that he wanted more than the mid-level exception ($5.2 million per year.) Then he signed with the Nets and their notorious Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov for $3.2 million. Executives around the league were furious. They were convinced that something shady went down.
Sure, you can argue that the best Russian player in the world was thinking about the branding opportunities in Russia that would come from playing for a Russian owner, or there may have been some kind of illegal side deal between the two parties, but I prefer to imagine Kirilenko’s family tied up in a basement somewhere in Moscow, as Prokhorov “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” It’s not quite on the level of Putin jacking Robert Kraft’s super bowl ring, but any time you can inject a little Russian gangster into American sports it’s intriguing.
I liked the KG, Pierce deal from the Celtics side as well. It was time to start over in Boston and three first-round picks for players that were no longer part of their plans was a pretty good haul. The Celtics’ problem is that they’re not bad enough to land a top-five pick in what is supposed to be a loaded 2014 draft. It will be interesting to see what they do with Rondo. I think the best move is to let him prove that he is healthy after the knee surgery and then see what they can get for him. He would be a great fit in Detroit, and the Pistons could put together a deal around Greg Monroe, who is expendable after the Josh Smith signing.
New Orleans had a very interesting offseason (And I’m not talking about their horrendous name change.) What do you think about the moves the Pelicans made?
I think Mark Cuban is still paying the karma gods for this obnoxious photo . . .
I actually didn’t like the Bos/Bkn move for either team at first, but I’m warming up to it. I still remember the 2011 Celtics taking Miami to the brink in the ECFs and it taking Chris Bosh channeling his inner Chris Mullin in Game 7 just to win that series. Fans tend to remember LeBron’s destruction of Boston in Game 6, but forget that Game 7 was a dogfight. The Celtics have maintained a mental hold over the “Big 3 era” Heat and I thought they should have kept the team together with a healthy Rondo. Don’t forget that the 2011 Celtics got nothing out of Jeff Green. So you have the same team more or less (Jason Terry for Ray Allen) plus Jeff Green, possibly a healthy Sullinger and I think that team is more dangerous than people realize. Plus I think Doc would have stayed if the Celtics went in that direction. Instead they have committed to rebuilding. I guess the Celtics were gun-shy to let history repeat itself given how the Bird/McHale Celtics era ended.
As for Brooklyn, I really hated the move at first, thinking they went all in for the sake of going all in even though they were clearly (in my mind) still not good enough. Those bench moves you spoke of were significant and surprising given their severe cap issues. Still, I’m seeing an epic collapse in Paul Pierce’s game, plus a strange mental transition for him given that he had license to take a LOT of bad shots in Boston. It seems like a really weird transition for him, and a strange makeup for that team. They are short on glue guys like Battier, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, etc. They have five guys who need to have plays run for them. I’m just not feeling it.
I like the Pelicans’ moves thus far, though I liked them a lot more when I thought they were GETTING a 1st rounder instead of GIVING one up in the draft-day Jrue Holiday deal. Honestly, the NBA needs to change its rules regarding announcing trades, cause the whole draft night mystery theatre gives me headaches. I haven’t seen a lot of Tyreke Evans, but at least they seem to have a plan. They have put together 3 really nice young pieces in Holiday, Gordon and Davis. You have the sniper in Ryan Anderson. There’s a lot to like. They could definitely be a threat to jump the Lakers, Memphis or even Denver to get into the Western playoffs.
What’s your take on the LeBron 2014 hype?
You could have gone in a different direction with the Cuban photo…
I can’t believe the LeBron circus is starting all over again. And it’s not just him. Bosh, Wade, Carmelo, Kobe, Pau, Deng, Zach Randolph, Pierce and Dirk are all likely to be free agents next summer. There are also be restricted free agents like DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George. It should be an exciting summer between free agency and the much-hyped 2014 draft.
I assume LeBron will remain in Miami. He likes playing with Wade and Bosh, they are winning championships and I suspect he is confident in Riley and Arison’s ability to continue to surround him with talent. The Lakers scenario seems like a pipe dream. A return to Cleveland would be a great story, but as far as we know there is still a huge rift between James and Dan Gilbert. I think the prodigal son is more likely to return in another four or five years after his next contract.
The more interesting issue for Miami to me is Wade. He is clearly breaking down and it would not be a good idea for the Heat to give him a max deal if he opts out of his contract as expected next summer. The punitive luxury tax could make it difficult to keep Wade, LeBron and Bosh next summer and Wade is the least valuable member of the trio. That being said, it is hard to imagine him not returning to the Heat or accepting anything less than a max deal.
There seemed to be fewer head-scratching contracts this summer than in years past (There are exceptions of course, like the outrageous three-year, $41 million deal Al “my feet are stuck in cement” Jefferson signed with the Bobcats. High-scoring, inefficient players like Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings drew little interest on the market. Do you think the prevalence of advanced analytics is changing the way GMs are building teams or is the reluctance to hand out massive contracts a result of the luxury tax?
You hit on a lot of key topics. LeBron should say early in the year that he’s not going to discuss the possibility of free agency and that his focus is purely on winning a title. He was way too polite when he was in Cleveland, answering all of those types of questions candidly, and it just fueled more questions and speculation. He would play against the Knicks in the Garden and then talk after the game about how amazing it would be to play there, etc. He needs to shut it down now.
I hope he stays with the Heat, but I won’t be mad if he leaves. He has brought two titles to Miami. What does he owe us? However, I do think he will stay. I don’t think he wants to be like Wilt or Shaq and wear 4-5 jerseys in his career. I think he has a lot of trust in Riley and Arison, as you said, much more so than Jim Buss and Dan Gilbert! How could he go back and play for Dan Gilbert? I think it would be funny if he did the whole free agent meeting deal, and as soon as Gilbert and his team sat down, LeBron just up and left, leaving a few grand on the table to pay for the airfare.
I have to disagree with you a little bit on the Dwyane Wade issue. I agree that he is breaking down at this point, but I don’t think he will be in line for max money from any team with championship aspirations. I wouldn’t be shocked if he stays in his current deal and plays it out for 2 more years. A team would be insane to give him some 4-5 year deal at $20M per, and if someone does, I sure as hell hope it’s not Miami. I hope he plays his entire career here, but at a fiscally responsible price.
Your last point is one I have been meaning to get to since we started this discussion. The way some guys lingered in free agency and ultimately took less money than they expected or are still out there is probably a combination of the CBA, brighter GMs, and the “Heat effect.” What I mean by the Heat effect is that teams are panicking to structure their roster like the Heat did and other top teams who have followed that model (i.e., the Clips, the Rockets, etc.). While Brandon Jennings is still 23 years old, with high point and assist totals and a surprisingly low turnover rate, teams are looking at that 40% FG percentage and saying “we cannot win a title with this guy as one of our top 2 players.” Similar case with Monta. That guy is an explosive scorer in a league where many teams struggle to score. Yet, he’s not a good enough all-around player to command the money he thinks he deserves. That Al Jefferson contract was fun though. MJ always gives us a laugh in the off-season. He is every bit as outmatched in the front office as he would be on the PGA tour.
Perhaps we should discuss your Knicks? I have to say that if there weren’t so many teams tanking for Wiggins in the East, I could see them fighting for a playoff spot. I did not like the Bargnani move at all, the Amar’e contract is killing them, Chandler is aging more rapidly than the Nazi at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and they just re-upped with J.R. Smith. This team clearly is worse than Miami, Indiana, Brooklyn, and Chicago, and I would not be surprised if Washington, Detroit and Cleveland surpassed them.
I was hoping we wouldn’t go here, but I guess it was inevitable. I don’t think the Knicks will win a championship as long as that egomaniacal moron James Dolan owns the team. Did you hear Stephen A. Smith say that Dolan wanted to trade Shumpert because Shump was reluctant to play in Summer League?
From the top down, the franchise operated under the delusion that they were championship contenders last season. I actually think that was a big reason for their success, but the Pacers delivered them a dose of reality in the playoffs. What’s discouraging is that that was their best shot at making a serious run. The Heat were vulnerable, Derrick Rose was injured, the Celtics lost Rondo, and the Pacers were without Danny Granger.
I described the Bargnani trade to a friend in one word: Isiah-esque. They mortgaged the future for a player the Raptors were desperately trying to get rid of. The three picks they surrendered (one first and two seconds) could have been used down the road to sweeten a deal for a high impact player. Bargnani is a big man who doesn’t defend or rebound. The best part of having him on the team will be listening to Walt “Clyde” Frazier mis-pronounce his name all season. He calls him Bargn-YAR-ni (with an extra R.)
Still, I’m not as down on the Knicks as you are. I agree that the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Nets are better, but I think the Knicks are secure in the No. 5 spot. They are returning the nucleus of a team that won 54 games, and Metta World Peace and Kenyon Martin will add some much needed toughness. Tyson Chandler definitely slipped last year, but his embarrassing showing against Hibbert in the playoffs was an aberration. He was playing with a herniated disk in his neck and probably shouldn’t have been out there.
Management is looking towards the summer of 2015 when Amar’e’s crippling contract comes off the books. The Knicks don’t have any guaranteed contracts past the 2014-15 season and are gearing up for the 2015 free agent market. Melo and Shumpert are the only players in their long term plans. This should be a big year for Shump. Don’t be surprised if he’s in the running for Most Improved Player.
What teams do you think will sneak up on people this season?
I will give you two, both out East, where a playoff spot is much more attainable. I like what the Wizards and Magic have put together. As a FanDuel junkie, I watched more of these teams than most sane people should. John Wall played like an All-NBA second-teamer during the second half of the season, and Brad Beal had one of the more quietly impressive rookie seasons for any “one and done” player in recent memory. He has a great floor game for such a young player. Also, Emeka Okafor had a bit of a renaissance year. I did not see much of Otto Porter last season, but if he can defend the tough 3’s in the East and you factor in Nene that’s a formidable starting 5.
The Magic absolutely stole Tobias Harris from the bumbling Bucks in that J.J. Redick deal last year. Harris looked like Barkley-Lite the last two months of the season. Plus I think Orlando got the best player in the draft in Victor Oladipo, giving them a nice three-guard rotation with Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo. Vucevic is on his way to being a regular 15-15 guy, and they have other nice young frontcourt pieces in Nicholson and Harkless, as well as some veteran toughness in Jason Maxiell and Big Baby Davis. I think this team recovers from the Dwightmare ahead of schedule.
I know Cleveland is the more popular pick, but I really did not like the Bennett pick based on fit and defense. Tristan Thompson is looking like a real nice player, and who’s going to guard LeBron, Melo and Paul George?
What about you? Are you in more of the Detroit/Cleveland camp?
The Wizards played very well last season with Wall in the lineup and I expect them to grab one of the last two playoff spots. I really like what the Magic are doing as well. After much criticism, they came out on the winning end of that the four-team Howard deal. I think they are still a couple of years away from the playoffs though. Similarly, I don’t think Detroit is ready for the postseason. They desperately need a point guard. The Cavs could sneak into that last playoff spot. I really liked the Jarrett Jack signing. A lot will ride on what, if anything, they get out of Bynum.
I think the Pelicans jumped the gun a bit and should have continued rebuilding slowly. Holiday is a very good point guard, but that is the deepest position in the league, and the thought of a defensive duo of Davis and Noel is downright scary. I also wonder about the chemistry between Holiday, Evans and Eric Gordon, all of whom like to have the ball in their hands.
Two teams I believe will really surprise people out West are the Timberwolves and Trail Blazers. The T-Wolves’ dreadful 31-51 record is deceiving. Kevin Love missed essentially the entire season, and Ricky Rubio was not himself until around February after recovering from ACL surgery. Their biggest weakness was a lack of athleticism and shooting on the wing and they addressed that this summer by bringing in Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. Rick Adelman is a very good coach and Pekovic, the NBA’s best doppelganger (the resemblance to the bad guy in Superman II is uncanny) is a beast down low.
Big Pek has not re-signed with Minnesota yet, though it sounds like a foregone conclusion. I think the T-Wolves will be over .500 and could nab one of the last two playoff spots in the West.
I love what the Blazers did this summer. Their starting lineup was solid, with the exception of the center position, but their bench was atrocious. They quietly and efficiently beefed up their second unit with the additions of Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and rookie C.J. McCollum. Robin Lopez, is a serviceable center, which is a lot more than they had last year. McCollum reminds me a lot of Damian Lillard. He played four years at a small school, is a point guard who can play off the ball and may have been the most NBA-ready player in the draft.