Like snowflakes or Rajon Rondo jump shots, no two NBA offseasons are exactly the same. The summer of 2009 was supposed to be the prudish precursor to the wild hedonism of 2010 when teams with oodles of cap space and money to burn would cash in on the greatest free agency class ever.
Throw in an underwhelming draft class and this summer should have been more about maintaining the status quo. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Every major contender (with the somewhat ironic exception of the free-spending Nuggets) made at least one significant move in the offseason and a number of also-rans frantically spent the summer trying to shed payroll and contracts in an effort to get under what will likely be a lower cap in 2010.
But with all the shuffling we are still looking at essentially a five-team league with Boston, Cleveland and Orlando in the East and LA and San Antonio in the West.
Let’s review the last six weeks:
FIVE MOST SIGNFICANT FREE AGENT SIGNINGS
The Need for Sheed
We all know what’s at stake for the Celtics this season. Ray Allen is in the last year of his contract, Rajon Rondo will be looking for an extension and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren’t getting any younger.
The Celtics made their key move early getting Rasheed Wallace, who in theory should supply them with what turned out to the their biggest issue last season: size in the frontcourt. Remember the Celtics basically played two undersized power forwards as their top backup big men last season.
Wallace has his own caveats (he was disinterested most of last season, he’s getting older, the technicals), but he is a tremendously intelligent player who should fit right in with the rest of the Celtics veterans, which should help take care of most of that stuff.
With Big Baby Davis reportedly about to be back in the fold, the Celtics are going to be way over the luxury tax and Danny Ainge still has work to do in finding a backup point guard. But the elements are there for the Celtics to remain among the top contenders if—all together now—they stay healthy.
There’s a lot riding on Wallace, but not as much as say, Shaquille O’Neal or Vince Carter, because the Celtics won’t fundamentally alter the way they’re going to play with Rasheed. But now there is depth in the frontcourt and talent coming off the bench all of which could have a trickle down effect on the starters who were overtaxed last season.
In the end this is still about the health of Kevin Garnett and the development of Rajon Rondo, but more than most of the summer moves, Wallace is a good fit, which is really the whole point of the exercise.
The Ariza-Artest swap
In essence, the Lakers and Rockets traded Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest, and Houston is not crying about it. At this point in his career, Artest has passed through the cultural matrix and emerged from his role as scary sociopath into a loveable whack job. But while charmingly weird, he takes too many 3-pointers and his defense has slipped from his younger days.
The NBA thrives on soap opera storylines and the Kobe-Phil-Ron Ron show rivals the Cavs for most tabloid-worthy. That’s all well and good for the league, but the key move was re-signing Lamar Odom, which makes the Lakers the favorites again in the West.
The Rockets have their own issues. Yao Ming is gone for the season and Tracy McGrady is a huge question mark. Former Celtics front office stalwart Darryl Morey is nothing if not adaptable and in Ariza he got a significantly younger and way more stable player for the perimeter. The Rockets are far from being a serious contender without Yao, but they should still be good enough to cause problems, and it’s doubtful Ariza will be greeting the owner in his underwear.
The Pistons Re-load; Sort of
When Joe Dumars traded Chauncey Billups to Denver for Iverson it was hailed by NBA observers as a realistic step in the rebuilding process. The Pistons had been treading water for years and it was time to move on from the 2004 championship team.
Then Billups transformed the Nuggets from a collection of talented oddballs into a very good and very serious contender, while Iverson imploded spectacularly. But still the trade still couldn’t be judged fairly until Dumars spent that available cash. Now that he has, the inevitable question is: Would you trade Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace for Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva?
Young, tall and gifted, Villanueva is at least a step in the right direction, but Gordon is a one-dimensional scorer who gets paid because his dimension is the one that tends to get the big money. Given the opportunity that Dumars had to fundamentally remake his team, this feels like a swing and a miss.
Hedo Turkoglu achieved the rare distinction of affecting not just one or two, but four different franchises this offseason. First, by opting out of his contract with Orlando, the Magic went out and traded for Vince Carter as Rod Thorn continued to strip-mine the Nets of players and contracts.
Turkoglu then almost took the Blazers down the aisle before ultimately agreeing to sign with Toronto at the last minute, which seriously messed up Portland’s plans.
In the short run this will help the Raptors, and maybe help GM Bryan Colangelo keep his gig, but in the long run it’s hard to see how Turkoglu helps keep Chris Bosh happy and content, which is Colangelo’s No. 1 priority.
The Raptors remain a curious enigma. Their numbers say they should be better, but they haven’t played up to that level. Bosh is a fantastic player but he’s in danger of being sucked into the superstar without help zone. Turkoglu and a healthy Jose Calderon will probably make the Raps a playoff contender, but not a serious title threat.
Speaking of the Blazers; they went shopping and all they got was Andre Miller
This was going to the summer when the Blazers cleaned up and added big-time pieces to their tantalizing young core of players. So how did they wind up with (just) Andre Miller?
For starters, the Darius Miles affair wiped away a good portion of their salary cap (and a little bit of their credibility). Then the Blazers kept missing on their targets.
After Turkoglu bailed, Portland signed restricted free agent Paul Millsap to an offer sheet, but the Jazz matched. With media and fan pressure mounting the Blazers took in Miller, who has the unfortunate feel of a consolation prize.
Miller may not be a great fit for the way they play (he likes to post up and he has the ball in his hands a lot which is the exact description of LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy), but he is definitely better than Steve Blake, so he’s got that going for him.
The summer had threatened to be a total bust but last week’s contract extension for Roy made everyone a little happier in Blazer Land, but now they are relying on improvement from within and that wasn’t necessarily the plan back in June.
THE FIVE MOST SIGNIFICANT TRADES
Those subtle Spurs
In 2008-09 the Spurs were injured and old. They still might be injured—Tony Parker hurt his ankle playing for France and Manu Ginobli is also coming back from an ankle injury—and the core players are still old, but the Spurs are more talented now thanks to the trade that sent Bruce Bowen and Fabricio Oberto to Milwaukee for Richard Jefferson.
San Antonio at last has perimeter cover in case Ginobli can’t play or is limited. Make no mistake: Jefferson is no Ginobli, but he fits the need that the Spurs had, which again is really the point of the offseason.
Just to rub it in, they also stole DaJuan Blair in the draft and got Antonio McDyess for a relatively cheap deal. The Spurs know what they’re doing.
The other Washington stimulus package
The Wizards were bad last year. Real bad. Rather then accept their fate as a team on the downside of the NBA’s bell curve they reasoned that a healthy Gilbert Arenas would get them back to respectability.
Thanks to their record, the Wiz had the fifth pick in a bad draft, and rather than deal with the Ricky Rubio soap opera they gladly traded the pick to Minnesota for Randy Foye and Mike Miller.
That move hasn’t received the kind of attention it deserves but those three pieces move the Wizards instantly into the Eastern Conference middle class.
Beyond that Ernie Grunfeld has stacked the roster with young, athletic talent like JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Dominic McGuire.
The issue as always is how will Gilbert get along? He is undeniably a fantastic scorer but Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are pretty good too. The Gilbert Show was one of the NBA’s best annual diversions, but now he, and they, have to take it up a level if they are going to considered anything more than a novelty act.
The Cavs become a 24/7 reality show
The offseason’s biggest move, relatively and literally, was the Cavaliers acquiring Shaquille O’Neal for Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace. Getting Shaq for a couple of players who were not in their plans was an obvious move on paper, but…
It has not been a great past couple of seasons for O’Neal. He talked his way out of Miami and didn’t get the Suns into the playoffs. His nemesis won a title without him and his odd feud with the Magic, particularly Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy hasn’t won him many admirers.
His legacy is secure as one of the best big men ever, but he is in danger of going out as a sideshow, which is why no one should expect any bother from Shaq in Cleveland off the court.
But on the court will he help the Cavs win? That’s the big question for the Big Question Mark. He is supposed to be able to guard Howard, but how exactly is he supposed to get quicker on defending pick and rolls? He will take up a large amount of space in the middle, space that used to belong to LeBron James, and it’s still to be determined how the Cavs will use Zydrunas Ilgauskus.
Aside from that, Cleveland spent wildly to keep Anderson Varejao, which was probably a must, and added two nice pieces in Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Parker and Moon give the Cavs two things they lacked last year—size and defense as backup wings. But that was just icing on top of the O’Neal layer cake.
The early line was the Shaq trade was a gambit to make LeBron happy and secure in Cavalier gold and wine, but now that the salary cap looks to be significantly lower in 2010 the odds of him staying have increased. Still, LeBron continues to play coy with the city rejecting out of hand a chance to extend his contract.
That’s a tough combination for a city with the most damaged psyche in professional sports. It’s not quite now or never for the Cavs, but it is now or worry.
Vinsanity! Or: Vinsanity?
Vince Carter is better than Hedo Turkoglu. But is he better than what Turkoglu, Courtney Lee, Tony Battie and Rafer Alston were last year? Carter’s arrival coincided with Turkoglu’s departure and, like the Shaq trade, it remains to be seen if it will make the Magic better.
Carter’s rep took a dramatic hit when he forced his way out of Toronto but his work in New Jersey had been consistently All-Star caliber. Now he gets a chance to prove it on a bigger stage. The throw-in in the deal—Ryan Anderson—is a tall shooter who will help the Magic’s second unit.
Orlando GM Otis Smith didn’t stop there. He also added undersized power forward Brandon Bass and re-upped Marcin Gortat. Bass is a solid player who should fit in with Howard, but the Magic were at their best when they used Rashard Lewis at the four and took advantage of all the subsequent matchup problems. Gortat, meanwhile, is a nice offensive player, but when is he going to play? Matching the Mavericks offer sheet was a curious move.
In the long run, Carter makes the Magic more conventional, which may not be such a good thing.
The odd Tyson Chandler for Emeka Okafor swap
Chandler and Okafor are essentially the same player. Both are defensive-minded centers who will always be underrated because they don’t score a lot of points. They’re about the same age and they make about the same money. As for differences, Okafor’s deal is longer and Chandler has a bad toe. So why make the trade?
Longtime Larry Brown observers recognize this as part of Larry’s annual desire to trade everyone on the roster and since he has come to Charlotte the team has turned over every player of note except for Gerald Wallace (not from a lack of effort) and Ray Felton (who remains unsigned).
The Hornets are in a tough spot. They are not making money and they are pressed up against the luxury tax. They’re too good to break up the team, but don’t have the flexibility to add significant pieces. Okafor helps with the cap in the short term, which is all that matters right now in New Orleans.
FIVE MORE SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENTS
The Knicks master plan (?)
Their beloved salary cap space may be a casualty of the recession and unless they find a way to trade Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries the LeBron+Other Superstar fantasies are over.
The Knicks curiously made a run at Grant Hill and Jason Kidd, who both passed up the chance to play on Broadway for more money. Both moves smacked of desperation in what is supposed to be a long-range rebuilding project. David Lee and Nate Robinson remain unsigned, but they do have Darko. Free Darko!
The obvious target remains LeBron James, but otherwise sane people are asking why LeBron would want to leave Cleveland for this?
Will Dwyane Wade find happiness?
Dwyane Wade says he wants to see a commitment from the team before he entertains thoughts of signing an extension. He probably didn’t mean re-signing Jamal Magliore.
The Heat kicked the tires on Odom and may be involved in the bizarro Carlos Boozer trade demand/request/prayer but for now the Heat have elected to stand pat.
Oh sure, Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers will probably be better in their second seasons but that’s about it. Wade may say he wants Allen Iverson—such is the respect that AI still carries with players—but will he be saying the same thing if he has to fight him for the ball?
Speaking of AI
Allen Iverson remains a man without a team and it’s time to wonder if his run is nearing its end. In the grand social experiment that the NBA has become since Larry and Magic entered the league few players have been as important as Iverson.
He was the logical conclusion to the league’s dalliance with hip-hop for good or ill and it’s worth noting that you can still get into a major disagreement depending on where you fall in that equation. Even on the mundane topic of style Iverson had a huge impact: corn rows, tattoos, even the shooting sleeve. Would there be a dress code without Iverson?
Michael Jordan became a global phenom by being larger than life and all things to all people, but Iverson achieved roughly the same status in his prime by being hard as hell, jagged and edgy. It was impossible to not have an opinion about Iverson. But he has reached a point in his basketball career where his impact is more felt in societal terms than it has been on the court.
True to form Iverson has refused to age gracefully. He wanted no part of coming off the bench in Detroit and he does not appear to want to be a quick-strike scorer off the bench now either.
It would be a shame if there wasn’t a place for Iverson in the NBA anymore but it would also be a fitting coda if he went out in his own way; even if it wound up being slightly delusionary and ultimately self-defeating.
OKC stands pat
Sam Presti comes from the Spurs and that’s important when you consider what the OKC GM did this offseason, which was essentially nothing besides drafting James Harden.
He could have messed with young point guard Russell Westbrook by drafting Ricky Rubio, but he took Harden who looks like a sure thing to become a solid two-guard. He resisted the urge to blow up his cap space with players who might not fit or mess with Kevin Durant’s development.
Presti is, is effect, letting his team breathe and if he’s right they will be well positioned when the current galaxy of NBA stars begins to fade.
This is the trickiest moment for a rebuilding project. At some point all the young players will be up for new contracts and the ability to add pieces will shrink (see: Portland). Sometimes showing restraint is the hardest part and in the midst of the madness Presti seems to be one of the sane ones.
The rise of Twitter
If there was a breakout NBA star this summer it was without question Twitter. From Shaq’s ramblings to Kevin Love announcing Kevin McHale’s departure, Twitter has overtaken the NBA landscape. NBA reporters of all stripes frantically check their Twitter accounts to keep up with the latest news updates.
Beyond that, Twitter is really about marketing and the league has always been ahead of the curve in that respect. It was aggressive in getting its TV announcers and the like to join the Twitter masses during the playoffs, for example. Compare that to the NFL’s regressive reaction to social networking. Think Charlie Villanueva would get fined if he complained about the food in training camp like San Diego’s Antonio Cromartie?
But the players are realizing that they don’t need the traditional filters (media, team PR efforts) to connect with the fans and build their personas. True, social networking can also bite back. Witness Brandon Jennings and rapper Joe Budden (F the Knicks, F Luke Ridnour, etc) and Stephon Marbury’s long descent into madness via Ustream.
But as someone once said there is no such thing as bad publicity. Look at it this way: Would anyone be talking about Marbury if not for his bravura performance?
The NFL can sell the Sunday ritual and baseball has always been about franchises more than individual players, but the NBA sells personality, intrigue and personas both real and mythical.
Amazing what 140 characters can do, which was roughly the same amount of players who changed teams resulting in the essentially the same contenders we had last year. Thanks Twitter.