Dealing with NBA Downtime - Part 2: Free Agency
By Nick Prevenas
Joe Johnson: Top free agent of 2005?
Building an NBA championship contender is like playing chess. You have to start every match with a plan. You must protect your prized pieces at all costs. You should only take calculated risks, where the potential for success far outweighs the potential for failure. All of your pieces must have well-defined roles. You must uncover and exploit your opponent's weaknesses. And, most importantly, you have to see three or four moves in advance. Impulsiveness is your worst enemy.
Every summer, the NBA free agent period shows that 1/3 of the teams are playing chess, 1/3 are playing checkers, and another 1/3 are playing Connect Four.
With the moratorium on player movement ending on July 22, let's take a look at where some of this year's bigger free agents will be suiting up next season.
One of the most active teams up to this point has been the Milwaukee Bucks. Michael Redd said he wanted to stay in Wisconsin, the Bucks' front office said they'd pay to keep him, and that's exactly what happened. Redd will be a Buck for the next six seasons to the tune of around $90 million. One can't help but feel that's a bit steep. Granted, Redd is a talented scorer who's worked very hard on his all-around game, but max contracts should only be given to franchise centerpieces. Unless Milwaukee develops into a Pistons-like, sum-is-more-than-the-parts team, I don't see Redd being that type of player. But since the NBA has started overpaying 2-guards the same way the NFL overpays cornerbacks, Redd's market value shot through the roof. He should have a productive six seasons, but the Bucks' faithful might not feel too good about this contract in 2009.
The other big Milwaukee free agent addition is Clippers' swingman Bobby Simmons. Many point to Simmons as a one year wonder gunning for a big contract, but I feel those comments miss the mark. After starring at DePaul, Simmons has drifted around the league, unable to find a situation where a team could make the most of his abilities. The Clippers finally gave him some consistent minutes and he began showing people what he could do. He averaged 16 points a game as the team's third scoring option and proved he's one of the league's top perimeter defenders. Bucks fans will love Simmons. He hustles on every play and never whines to the refs. At $47 million over five seasons, Simmons turned out to be a relative bargain at the swingman position. With Redd, #1 pick Andrew Bogut, newly resigned bigman Dan Gadzuric, Desmond Mason, a healthy TJ Ford (please stay healthy, TJ!), and Simmons, the Bucks could again challenge for a playoff spot. The Clips will regret not resigning Simmons.
Speaking of the Clips, they missed out on Redd, Ray Allen, and every other high profile shooting guard and settled on Cuttino Mobley to replace the departed Simmons. Mobley is still one of the league's top streak-shooters, but he won't be able to replace Simmons's hustle and (especially) defense. Plus, Mobley's shot selection has gotten progressively worse the past few seasons. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Mobley's work, but the price difference between Mobley and Simmons (Mobley's about $5 million cheaper over the duration of the contract) is negligible in NBA terms. But nobody's ever accused Donald Sterling of being a "win first" owner.
The Clippers' cross-town counterparts have been busy this off-season, as well. Since they didn't have any cap room to bring in free agents, they were forced to take the sign-and-trade route to shake up their roster. The Lakers will ship Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins to DC in exchange for the Enigmatic Kwame Brown (his new legal name). Apparently, the Lakers' brass was impressed with how Kwame handled the media glare in the nation's capital during MJ's comeback, so they figured they'd bring him to Los Angeles to deal with the Kobe-Phil soap opera. Honestly though, I like this deal for the Lakers. Brown's only under contract for two seasons (with a team option for a third) and with the media hanging on Kobe's and Phil's every action, Kwame could be given the chance to finally relax and play some basketball. I'm rooting for you, big fella.
As for the Wizards, Butler will be counted on to help pick up the slack from Larry Hughes's departure. Caron was never able to find a groove in Los Angeles (since they had roughly 19 swingmen on that roster), but he still has the talent to be a terrific NBA player. He should start over Jarvis Hayes at the 3-spot. Since this is a contract year for Caron, expect to see a sharp rise in his production this season. Atkins isn't quite a starting-caliber point guard, but he'll be a terrific second-rotation point to play behind Gilbert Arenas and newly acquired Antonio Daniels. The highly-sought-after Seattle point guard is expected to ink a 5-year, $30 million contract with Washington. His size and defensive abilities at the point guard spot will allow Arenas to run wild as an Iversonian undersized 2-guard. Daniels and Butler will combine to make $3-4 million less than Larry Hughes next season.
Speaking of Hughes, he's the major piece in "Operation: Keep LeBron in Cleveland." With a glaring hole at 2-guard, Cleveland flirted with (and were rejected by) Michael Redd and Ray Allen before landing Hughes. His defensive presence and ball-handling skills are his strongest attributes. The Cavs also resigned Zydrunas Ilgauskas and brought in Donyell Marshall to complement Hughes and James. Ilgauskas is a solid (if aging/overpaid) post scorer and Marshall is a terrific (if underachieving) outside shooter and rebounder. Some might wonder why new Cavs GM Danny Ferry would throw $20-25 million at Marshall (a relative bargain, all things considered) when the team still has Drew Gooden and is still in dire need for a point guard. They remain high on European star Sarunas Jasikevicius, Marko Jaric and Earl Watson, but they might've priced themselves out of their services.
After Ray Allen contemplated signing with the Cavs and the Clippers, he decided to remain in Seattle for the next five seasons at around $80-85 million. He definitely picked the right time to have a career year. Many picked the Sonics to finish below .500 last season, but Allen led them to a surprising 3-seed and gave the Spurs everything they could handle in the second round of the playoffs. Skeptics say Allen's resurgent 2004-2005 performance was due entirely to his upcoming contract negotiations. This will likely be Allen's final big contract, since he'll be 35 when the deal ends. With Nate McMillian and Antonio Daniels fleeing the premises (and possibly Vladimir Radmanovic), Allen might regret passing up the opportunity to play alongside King James.
One free agent Seattle could afford to lose was perennial underachiever Jerome James. When I read that the Knicks decided to throw a 5-year, $29 million contract at him, I had to re-read the story a couple times for it to sink in. Then I began laughing uncontrollably. James averaged a whopping 17 minutes of playing time a game in 2004-05, where he managed to average 5 points, 3 rebounds and 3.5 fouls a contest. On the bright side, James is a moderately athletic 7-footer with decent shot-blocking skills when he decides to break a sweat. Unless Isiah Thomas believes the Knicks will be playing the Sacramento Kings 82 times next season, expect this James signing to stand as yet another prime example of front office ineptitude. At this rate, the league will have no choice but to rig the lottery in two years so the Knicks end up with Greg Oden, because they won't have the cap space to snag LeBron.
However, the Knicks still might land themselves the biggest free agent name of 2005: Larry Brown. As you might've heard, Brown and the Detroit Pistons have come to terms on a buyout and he will be free to coach anywhere he pleases next season, health permitting. While it might seem ludicrous on the surface for Brown to step away from a perennial title contender in Detroit to take over the disastrous Knicks, it's still completely possible (even probable) that Brown takes this job. Brown's built his legend by spearheading rebuilding projects and quick turnarounds. His ego is probably big enough to believe he (and he alone) can turn this team around in a matter of weeks. It's no secret that he'd like to be the man to resurrect this franchise. Only one problem. This rebuilding project will take patience-something Brown, as well as the Knicks' faithful, are lacking. This current roster (with or without Brown) only has a ceiling of 45 wins. Plus, with front office moves like the James signing and the Q-for-Thomas trade (which, in fairness, did result in the Knicks snagging the electrifying Nate Robinson), it's likely that Brown and Isiah Thomas would...um...disagree on how to put together an NBA roster.
Former T-Wolves coach Flip Saunders will take over the Pistons' head coaching position. The most attractive quality Saunders poses for Joe Dumars and the rest of the Pistons' front office is his dependability. He spent nine seasons coaching in Minnesota (which is two lifetimes by NBA coaching tenure standards) and, unlike Brown, Saunders' name won't be connected to every high-profile job opening. He's a solid coach who won't be asked to perform any miracles. He'll simply need to steer the ship of the back-to-back Eastern Conference champions whose nucleus remains entirely intact. On the downside, teams tend to slip quickly in their post-Larry-Brown season. The Detroit fans and press will blame Saunders for anything short of a third Finals appearance. Factor in his career 17-30 playoff coaching record, and this seems like a tougher job than anticipated. On top of that, Saunders will be expected to find a way to get Darko on the floor. Good luck, Flip.
The Phoenix Suns made one of the better under-the-radar free agent moves thus far. Phoenix pounced on Raja Bell before any other team even had a chance to consider him. He had a typically solid season for the Utah Jazz, but hardly anybody saw it. For a team lacking in depth, Bell will immediately become one of their top bench contributors. He's expected to fill in at the 2 and the 3 with Jim Jackson. Some around the league saw Bell as an insurance policy, in case Phoenix wasn't able to resign Joe Johnson. The Atlanta Hawks have reportedly offered Johnson $70 million over five seasons, but the Suns have shown every indication that they intend to match that offer (and they'd be stupid not to). Johnson is a stud, and could end up being the best player of this year's free agent class. Seriously.
Every off-season seems to yield the same results for the Hawks: tons of cap room but unable to attract any marquee free agents. They've "shown interest" in nearly everyone, but have yet to land themselves a notable player. They still remain very high on Samuel Dalembert and Eddy Curry. Both men are restricted free agents. Dalembert has expressed some frustration with his negotiations with the 76ers, and with the recent resignings of Kyle Korver and Willie Green, Dalembert could be headed elsewhere. But Sixers GM Billy King has repeatedly said he will match any offer for Dalembert. Curry is also frustrated with his current negotiations with the Bulls, and has expressed some desire to play in Atlanta. If the Hawks could land one or both of these players, they might approach the 30-win mark. Call this a gut feeling, but they will DEEPLY regret passing on Chris Paul in the draft.
Former Hawk Shareef Abdur-Rahim looks like he's heading to New Jersey in a sign-and-trade. He's expected to sign for around 6 years and $35-40 million and the Portland Trailblazers will acquire a future first rounder from the Nets. Playing alongside Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson will give Abdur-Rahim the opportunity to move back to power forward, where he's obviously most comfortable. And (gasp!) he might end up contributing for a playoff ballclub for the first time in his 10-year career. By the way, his contract isn't even half of what the Nuggets are currently paying Kenyon Martin.
Speaking of the Nuggets, they were rumored to be interested in Cuttino Mobley, but the Kings wanted Nene in return. Thankfully, the Nuggets politely declined that deal. Now they have their sights set on Marko Jaric or Ronald "Flip" Murray. Jaric's a little too wild and turnover-prone for comfort, but he's a big guard (6'7") who can play either guard position. Murray played for Karl back in Milwaukee and could end up sharing the 2-guard spot with Voshon Lenard. If only they didn't sign Kenyon Martin last season, continued giving Nene starter's minutes at the 4, rolled that substantial cap room over into this season, and made a run at one of the Big Four shooting guards this off-season. Oh, what could have been.
Hey, does anybody have any idea where Antoine Walker will end up? How about Paul Pierce? Gary Payton? Say what you want about Danny Ainge, but the man definitely doesn't tip his hand. The only move Ainge has made public thus far is signing Brian Scalabrine for 5 years and $15 million. Expect to see Payton move on to a contender (i.e. Miami) in need of point guard help. Pierce will likely stay in Boston, and Walker will sign with...um...your guess is as good as mine.
The Houston Rockets made a terrific move by signing Stromile Swift. He's as athletic as anyone at the power forward spot (ok, not Amare, but anyone else). With the Memphis Grizzlies running a bizarre 10-man rotation the past couple seasons (where no player averaged more than 32 minutes a game but 11 guys averaged over 12 minutes a game in 2004-05), Swift has only gotten around 20 minutes per contest. His per-40-minute numbers were roughly 19 points and 9 boards a game. Plus, he's the perfect complement to Yao inside. The Rockets have desperately needed an athletic bigman to block shots and rebound next to Yao, and Swift will give them exactly that. On top of that, the Rockets snagged him for five years and $30 million-exactly what the Knicks paid for Jerome James. I'll bet anything Swift has a more productive five seasons than James. Tremendous move for Houston.
Jay Williams (the Duke Jay Williams) has said he expects to be back on an NBA court next season. He's spent the past couple years recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle accident. The Miami Heat are one of the teams who's shown interest in bringing in Williams. I wish Jay all the best in his comeback and want nothing more than to see him back on the court. He's a gifted player who could do some serious damage alongside Dwyane Wade. The thought of a Jay Williams comeback must have Dick Vitale in an absolute frenzy.
Robert Horry will continue his "Human Horseshoe" tour in San Antonio for the next three seasons. Big Shot Rob contemplated signing with the Miami Heat, but the Spurs give him the best chance to add to his already impressive Playoff highlight reel. By the way, what do you think Horry's career stats are? 13 points, 8 boards, 41% from 3? Try 7.5 points, 5 boards, and 34%. As long as you hit the ones that matter, people will overlook everything else.
Plenty of players remain on the open market and there will be at least one big trade between now and when the season starts, so if you don't think your team has done enough to better itself, rest assured that there is still time and talent available, for the right price. In fact, I expect another surge of player movement to occur between the time I finish writing this column and the time it appears on the Internet