A Whirlwind Summer In The NBA

July 12, 2009

Since the Los Angeles Lakers clinched their fifteenth title nearly one month ago, the NBA has continued to generate headlines in what has turned out to be an eventful offseason. Here are some of the more interesting developments of the 2009 summer:

The Arms Race

The NBA's superpowers are in the midst of a Cold War-style arms race, as the league's elite have revamped their rosters in an attempt to win this year's championship.

Unlike in past offseasons, the league's mediocre-to-bad teams have made few splashes in the form of signings or trades, as many of those teams are either trying to cut costs or are gearing up for the 2010 free agent class.

Instead, it is the elite who are headlining the biggest transactions, and refreshingly, they are doing it at the expense of financial profit.

Take small market San Antonio for instance. The Spurs quickly have realized that the health of Manu Ginobilli and Tim Duncan can no longer be taken for granted, and that even if healthy, those aging stars guarantee them nothing in the West.

So, to their credit, they rolled the dice and traded for athletic Richard Jefferson and his $20 million-plus contract. A few weeks later they signed veteran 4 Antonio McDyess for approximately $15 million over 3 years.

The champion Lakers have also demonstrated a willingness to upgrade, as they improved the small forward position by signing Ron Artest, and then used their bi-annual exception to bring back guard Shannon Brown. Assuming they sign Lamar Odom, the Lakers will pay a significant amount of luxury tax this season in an attempt to defend their crown.

Meanwhile, the Eastern powers have followed suit.

Cleveland made a blockbuster trade for Shaquille O'Neal, then overpaid for unskilled banger Anderson Varejao, just to keep their team intact.

Conference winner Orlando pulled the trigger on a trade for scorer Vince Carter and his $20 million-plus contract, and then inked a solid forward in veteran free agent Brandon Bass.

The Boston Celtics have also joined the party, nabbing Rasheed Wallace on a multi-year deal after their prior attempt to swap backcourts with Detroit fell through.

All of the above moves will require these contenders to dip into the luxury tax, and indicates a refreshing new mentality that almost any NBA fan can appreciate - franchises are now starting to value rings over profit.

End of an Era?

Yao Ming's recent foot injury has been slow to heal, and most likely will preclude him from playing for the Houston Rockets this upcoming season. A greater fear for Houston is that this recurring injury could be career-ending.

Their concern is well-founded.

The injury track record for players of Yao's size - 7'3" and above - is not so bright. For every Mark Eaton or Manute Bol with a long career, there is a Ralph Sampson, Kenny George, Arvydas Sabonis, or Gheorghe Muresan whose ability to play has been hindered from leg injuries arising due to the pounding generated by their own body frame.

Compounding this inherent problem is Yao's activity with China's National Team, as he rarely gets any rest time from the NBA season due to his busy FIBA schedule.

Should this injury cause the premature end of Yao's career, his legacy already is well-established.

Currently, Yao stands as an elite, top 5 center in today's league. When compared to past greats at his position, he's a legitimate All-Star, and would have been in any era. Although not a Top 10 All-Time center, he easily makes the Top 25 list. Moreover, in the history of the sport, Yao is the only player of that height to possess such a high level of coordination, mobility, and skill.

And make no mistake, those skills are immense. Yao's range on his face-up J reaches 20 feet, and his excellent back-to-the basket post game features a variety of jump hooks, drop steps, spin moves, and turnaround jumpers. His 80% free throw shooting is nearly unheard of for his position. When viewed entirely, his offensive package ranks among the best.

But his most important contribution to the game has occurred off-the-court.

As China's first basketball star, Yao has single-handedly brought a fan base potentially one-billion strong to the NBA. In addition, his toughness, clutch play, dignity, and charm has won over both U.S. fans and Yao's peers.

If the NBA has indeed seen the last of Yao, he should be remembered as an athlete who truly globalized the game in a manner unlike any other prior international basketball player. In other words, Yao was not only a pioneer, but a true All-Star caliber player as well.

Goodbye Summer of 2010

The NBA recently announced that the salary cap and luxury tax threshold for the 2010 season will be shrinking below previous projections. For many teams who had restructured their rosters with expiring contracts in the hope of landing a big-name 2010 free agent, this news puts a huge wrench in their plans.

One such team is the New York Knicks. New York brought in a players' coach in Mike D'Antoni, and set themselves up to have plenty of cap room in 2010, all in the hopes of getting LeBron James, Chris Bosh, or perhaps both.

Now, getting even one becomes more difficult because New York will start paying the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax at a much lower price than expected. Thus, there is a greater financial disincentive for New York or other similar teams to try to pry free agents away from their current franchises.

Judging by the looks of things, Dwayne Wade, James, Bosh, and the rest of the 2010 class, probably will end up staying with their current teams.

Tough Stretch for Portland's Pritchard

For the past couple of seasons, Trailblazer GM Kevin Pritchard looked like the toast of the town. He scored two draft coups in getting rising stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, and had a young, deep roster full of talented players. Adding to that bounty were two can't-miss prospects in Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez. The future seemed boundless.

Today the future in Portland still remains bright, but it is not so clear whether Pritchard is the right man for the job.

The signs of trouble began showing earlier this year, when Pritchard absurdly threatened to sue teams interested in signing free agent Darius Miles because it would cause Portland to lose cap room. The NBA promptly put a stop to such nonsense, and Miles was signed by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Problem sign number two occurred at the NBA draft, when Portland traded up two spots with Dallas to get the 22nd pick. Apparently, the guy they wanted (perhaps Darren Collison) must have been selected already because the Blazers ended up with Victor Claver, a player they will probably stash overseas for a season or two. In other words, who trades up just to stash a player?

But Pritchard's biggest failings have been in the free agent market. Portland has approximately $9 million in cap space, and had hoped to land a quality free agent to bolster the roster.

Portland first courted small forward Hedo Turkoglu, only to have Turkoglu change his mind and opt for Toronto. The offer allegedly had the added effect of angering swingman Rudy Fernandez, who felt that his role might be further limited.

Pritchard then tried to orchestrate a multi-team deal to bring Kirk Hinrich to Portland in order to upgrade the point guard position. Thus far, no deal has been completed, and the Blazers remain stuck with so-so Steve Blake at the point.

Now, he has made a big offer sheet to restricted free agent Paul Millsap, a 4 who would end up only backing up Aldridge. Most likely, Millsap will use the offer as leverage, and stay with his current team, the Utah Jazz.

Even his good efforts seem tinged with bad luck, as potential second round steal Patty Mills broke his foot during the first day of the team's Summer League practice.

If indeed these missteps reveal the true competence of Pritchard, then fans in Rip City can at least take comfort in the fact that this Blazer team has enough young talent and quality coaching to overcome its leadership problems at the upper levels of the organization.

Odom Talks Stall

The one key piece missing from the Lakers' roster is free-agent forward Lamar Odom, and there are no indications that he will be re-signing with the team anytime soon.

When Odom stated he would sign with the Lakers for less money, he apparently had a different figure in mind than the low-ball amount the Lakers have offered.

Unfortunately for Odom, he has little negotiating leverage, as the two playoff-caliber teams with cap room have both seemingly spent their money. The first team, the Detroit Pistons, committed $20 million to free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, while the other squad, Portland, has signed Paul Millsap to an offer sheet.

Perhaps the greatest leverage Odom has is that the Lakers will need him to repeat.

What separates the Lakers from other NBA teams is the depth and length the team possesses at the 4 and 5 spots. And Odom is an essential part of that equation.

Because center Andrew Bynum's health is always a question until proven otherwise, Odom's value to the team skyrockets in the event that Bynum does get injured.

Most likely, both sides will have to compromise somewhat to make it work. Odom perhaps might take less money on a one-year deal, and enter the 2010 offseason as a free agent where more teams have cap space. The Lakers themselves could then offer him a better deal because forward Adam Morrison's $5 million will have come off the books.

Two Different Approaches By Fringe Contenders

The Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks both made significant moves to upgrade their rosters, but only one of those teams had a long-term focus in mind.

The Mavericks re-signed point guard Jason Kidd, and then executed a multi-team deal for Shawn Marion in which they traded away veteran Jerry Stackhouse.

Meanwhile, the Pistons inked free agent guard Ben Gordon, and free agent forward Charlie Villanueva.

For Detroit, the signings will provide them with two long-term pieces to their nucleus while also keeping them somewhat relevant this year.

Although a bit of a 'tweener, Gordon proved in last year's playoffs with Chicago that he is a clutch gunner who can make the big shot. And until Detroit trades Rodney Stuckey or Rip Hamilton, Gordon will give the Pistons a third guard off the bench who can score and play at either guard spot.

Villanueava came at a cheaper price than Gordon and could be an even better bargain. Despite being an average rebounder and defender, Villanueva has a solid jump hook and three point range. He should provide Detroit with excellent scoring at the 4.

Dallas, on the other hand, now has a collection of older parts, with a championship window that probably closed long ago. Although both Marion and Kidd should fit in quite well with Dirk and company, they probably do not push Dallas into the class of San Antonio, Denver, or LA.

Kidd's best days are behind him, and yet Dallas signed him to a three year deal worth significantly more money than what his next best suitor, New York, had offered.

Marion is still a quality defender, rebounder, and athlete, but not the low post offensive threat that Dallas needed. The best aspect of his game is that he can put up points without the team running plays for him, as he will spot up on the perimeter, crash the offensive glass, and fill the lanes on the break.

For Dallas, these moves constitute little in the grand scheme of things, as Marion and Kidd are not enough to make the team title contenders today, nor are they likely to be key contributors in the future.

Clippers Deal Zach Randolph

When Memphis waived Stackhouse as part of the Shawn Marion deal, it allowed the team to complete its deal with the LA Clippers for Zach Randolph. In exchange, the Grizzlies sent Quentin Richardson to LA.

On paper, the deal seems like a loser for LA, as Randolph is clearly a better player than swingman Richardson.

However, this deal was done with something else in mind - Blake Griffin.

By dealing Randolph, the Clips have cast their fortunes with number one overall pick Griffin, essentially giving him the starting job at the 4.

Entering the draft, LA knew it needed to clear out its frontcourt logjam of Randolph, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby, and DeAndre Jordan. Randolph was the most talented player in the group, but occupied Griffin's spot. Kaman's contract rendered him virtually impossible to trade, and Jordan was a bright prospect whom the Clips wanted to keep. Thus, it looked like productive vet Camby would be the one to go.

Now, with Randolph being shipped, the Clips will enjoy the luxury of having Griffin learn on the job, while being tutored by a respected professional like Camby.

As for the three-point gunning "Q," he returns to the team that drafted him, and should at least bring the Clips some size on the perimeter. Back in the day, Q used to love to crash the glass and post smaller 2's, and if he can revitalize that aspect of his game, it would be an added bonus.

Good News For USA Basketball

USA Basketball had two doses of recent good news. First, the USA U19 Men's team won the gold medal in the U19 World Championships by defeating Greece, 88-80, in Auckland, New Zealand. The U.S. was led by Tyshawn Taylor's 18 points.

Second, Coach K announced he is coming back to lead the Men's National Team.

Although Coach K at times played lineups that were too small, and often had a seemingly unstructured, directionless offense, he did create a defense-oriented team culture that has left NBA veterans wanting to play in more FIBA tournaments. That quality, more than any other, makes his return an asset to the program, and spells good news for USA Basketball.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

1 comment:

  1. kupchak better not screw this up! He needs to sign Odom ASAP. If we lose Odom because of Sasha's and Luke's contracts, then those 2 fools need to hear boos on a nightly basis in Staples.


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