Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Where The Refs Don't Decide The Outcome: Looking Forward To The NBA Off-Season

We are a week removed from the Miami Heat's championship win, which means it's about time that we started looking forward to the off-season, and the coming NBA year. The NBA draft is tomorrow, and free agency begins shortly. With that in mind, here are some things to look for, and some things I think should happen.

Which Teams Have Cap Room?
This article does a good job of covering it, but Atlanta, Toronto, Charlotte, Chicago and New Orleans could be big players. Could is the operative word, because of some of these teams (Atlanta, Toronto) have already found out, cap room isn't always enough to entice a player to sign on. I would imagine that Chicago, with its young nucleus, would be the most attractive destination for free agents.

Who Are The Big Name Free Agents?
Ben Wallace is the biggest name. For the longest time, it was expected that he'd sign in Detroit (they cleared out Darko and others to make room for his salary increase). Now, however, having hired an agent, the odds of him exploring the market are higher than ever. I still think he'll stay in Detroit, since any team that could offer him a similar salary is nowhere near contending for a championship. The only plausible scenario would be for a sign and trade to happen, but I haven't heard of any potential destinations. Other top names such as Jason Terry (Dallas), Nazr Mohamed (San Antonio) and Nene (Denver) will probably stay at home. The biggest name to switch teams could be Al Harrington, who Atlanta will probably give up in a sign and trade.

ESPN.com has a look at the top free agents, as well as a complete list.

Will Any Big Names Be Traded?
The following names have been rumored to be on the market (Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Jermaine O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Rashard Lewis, Pau Gasol, Carlos Boozer, Lamar Odom), so I imagine at least one of them will find a new home this summer.

Teams Ready To Make The Leap
They gave the Spurs fits in the playoffs, and with a full season of Artest, could challenge for the division crown. They need additional depth in the front court, which they will address in the draft, and could use another point guard to back up, and take the pressure off of Mike Bibby. I think they should sell high on Bonzi Wells, especially with Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia ready to take over at the 2. A sign and trade that sends him to Charlotte for point guard Brevin Knight and forward Gerald Wallace (a Kings draft pick in 2001) could set them up nicely for next year and beyond.

They continue to amass young talent, and at some point, will have to start seeing production, or flip them for established players. They've been linked to nearly every player on the market, from AI, to Marion, to Sebastien Telfair, and it's possible that they'll use the 7th overall pick to acquire an established player. They have Paul Pierce in his prime, along full season of Wally Szczerbiak to compliment him, along with youngsters like Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Gomes and Al Jefferson playing major roles. The Cs could be a sleeper to make the playoffs and cause havoc.

They gave the eventual champion Miami Heat a run for their money in the opening round, and in my opinion, are a big guard, and a low-post scoring threat away from getting over the hump. They could use their two draft picks (2nd and 16th) to address the needs, or they could try and trade for a big man like Jermaine O'Neal or Kevin Garnett. If they go the former route, I suggest they look at LaMarcus Aldridge or Andrea Bargnani, the two big men at the top of the draft who can put up points. A dark horse option would be to pick up Pau Gasol from Memphis (if they're willing to deal) for the #2 and the #16. If the Grizz did that, they could add one of the top players, and use the 16th and 24th (their own) selections to address needs at center and point guard.

Teams In A Good Position To Start Over
After two years in the lottery, they're going nowhere, fast. However, they don't seem to recognize this, which means they'll be doomed to another number of years of mediocrity. Not only are they wasting the twilight of Kevin Garnett's peak years, but they're heading for a situation where, either due to age or a blow-up from their star, they won't get value in return. Now is the time to rebuild. If Kevin McHale admitted this, and went full out and did it, he could salvage his job. If not, I suspect a third straight lottery trip will find him out of work next summer.

If they could swap KG (to Chicago for picks and maybe Luol Deng), and dump another salary or two (Troy Hudson to Atlanta in a salary dump), they will find themselves under the cap, having plenty of room to make a move next summer, and with a group of young players to build around. They have two second rounders near the top of the draft, one can be used on a European, and one on a player who can add depth, or fill a need. If they get Chicago's pick, they could add a big man to replace KG (Aldridge at #2), and use their own pick (6th) to add a potential star at the 3 (Rudy Gay) or in the backcourt (Brandon Roy or Randy Foye). Add those players to second-year guard Rashad McCants, and whomever they pick with what will certainly be a high lottery selection next year, and you have the start of a promising future in the Twin Cities.

The Artest melee seemed to rip the heart out of this club. Adding to their problems, Peja Stojakovic opted out of his deal (in hopes of a raise), and Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley just can't seem to shake off the injury bug. Things aren't looking good in Indiana, and I can't see them competing with the Pistons, LeBron, or D-Wade anytime soon. If the Basketball Jesus converts some of these players into young assets this summer, the Pacers could reload in a hurry. The market for O'Neal is unknown. Bird probably wouldn't flip him to division rival Chicago, but if he could get a pick and a young player (Charlie Villaneuva in Toronto, Al Jefferson in Boston), he should jump on it. Tinsley will be tougher to move, but could find his way to Atlanta in a sign and trade for Al Harrington (which I first saw suggested here).

They will lose Rashard Lewis next summer, putting them well under the cap. Additionally, resigning Chris Wilcox will give them a trio of young big men (Wilcox, Robert Swift, Johan Petro) to build around. With Luke Ridnour and Earl Watson at the point, they're a couple of swingmen away from being back in the playoffs. Ray Allen is a steady, veteran presence at the 2, but they need depth behind him, and someone who can take over for Lewis at the 3. Still, with a top 10 pick this year, and $15-20 mil in cap room next summer, they should be able to reload quicker than most if they play their cards right.

What's Isaiah Thomas Capable Of This Year?
The answer in most years would be anything, but that is especially true now that he has been given one year to turn the Knicks around. He didn't say what specifically constitutes a turnaround (getting the team closer to a championship is still vague), but I would assume that means an appearance in the playoffs, at the very least.

I see two possible scenarios here. The first is that Isaiah is happy with his roster, and feels that the coaching style of Larry Brown was the problem. The second, and more probable, is that he's desperate to make any move that might have a remote chance of improving the Knicks and saving his job. In this respect, James Dolan may have made a critical mistake. With their long-term payroll commitments, it's unlikely that the Knicks will contend any time soon. Giving Isaiah a one-year ultimatum could end up making things worse, as I could see him giving up the few young assets and expiring contracts that the team has in an effort to find a quick fix.

Just for kicks, here are two trades I would offer up to Isaiah to take advantage of what I assume is a new-found sense of urgency and panic:

Portland trades G Sebastien Telfair for F David Lee, the 20th overall pick in 2006, and a future 1st round pick.

Philadelphia trades G Allen Iverson and C Samuel Dalembert for F/C Channing Frye, G Jamal Crawford, and G/F Jalen Rose's expiring contract.

Both of these trades check out with RealGM's trade tracker, so never say never. Luckily for Knicks fans, Maurice Taylor's expiring contract cannot be traded, otherwise I would have dumped Raef LaFrentz on them in addition to the aforementioned pair of trades.

Who Do You Like In The Draft?
I'll post my mock draft tomorrow, but here are some comments on some of the top-ranked players that I saw during the last NCAA season.

The Real Deal
1. Randy Foye, G, Villanova
I saw him a few times this season, and came away impressed each and every time. He can shoot (from 3 and from mid-range), plays defense, and while he isn't a true point, he is a leader on the floor, which is more important in my books. He may not be a superstar in the league, but I see him as a 21st century version of Dennis Johnson, which is one of the highest compliments I can think of.

He's my favorite player in the draft, so I'm rooting hard for him to land with the Celtics, though Minnesota seems to be high on him, so I don't anticipate him being available. Sigh.

1a. Kyle Lowry, G, Villanova
I liked what I saw of this guy too. He's more of a traditional point, though I'm not sure if he's good enough to be a consistent starter. I see his downside as a change of pace, backup point in the NBA, which makes him worth a pick in the mid-teens in this year's weak draft crop.

2. Adam Morrison, F, Gonzaga
Yes, he doesn't play defense, and has no mobility, but the tape doesn't lie - this kid knows how to play ball. The thing that impresses me is how he keeps working on his game, and getting better. His jumper has improved leaps and bounds, and he's added range to his shot as well. Sure, the guy's below average athletically for the NBA, but so were a lot of successful players. I can't see him being anything worse than a good second or third scoring option who plays hard and provides leadership presence. In the right scheme that highlights his strengths and covers his weaknesses, he could be an all-star (call it Rip Hamilton syndrome).

3. JJ Redick, G, Duke
Stop with the Trajan Langdon comparisons. The key difference between the two was that Langdon benefited from playing on the most loaded Blue Devil team of the past decade, and really, didn't do anything aside from spot up and shoot open treys. JJ was the leader on offense for the past couple of years, and has NBA range (and then some). He's also good at coming off of picks and shooting with a hand in his face. He may not be a star (in fact, I'm pretty sure he won't), but he'll pick up enough secondary skills (ball-handling, passable defense) to stick with someone as, at worse, a third guard. I expect him to have a career like Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, or Tony Delk.

Don't Believe The Hype
1. Tyrus Thomas, F, LSU
He never jumped out at me during the NCAAs, but why I put him as overrated is that he seems to have earned his perch atop the draft based on athleticism, defense, and the assumption that he will develop an offensive game once he hits the pros. That generally doesn't happen, so whoever takes him is getting an energetic defender and supporting player. The best hope for him to be a contributor on offense is to put him in an up-tempo offense where he can get a lot of put-backs off of offensive rebounds. Think of him as a better version of Stromile Swift.

2. Shelden Williams, F, Duke
He's tough, and if nothing else, will provide a defensive presence for his club. However, he's not very mobile, and could struggle without the comfort of Duke's half-court offense. I expect him to have a Danny Fortson-like career, which means he'll be a serviceable pro, but probably best served as a bench player. Not what you're hoping for out of a top 10 pick.

3. Rudy Gay, F, UConn
I can see where the criticisms of his heart and passion come from. Every time I watched UConn, I'd rarely notice him on the court. Guys like Marcus Williams, Rashad Anderson, and even Josh Boone stood out more. Rudy just kind of seemed to be there. He was content to take his shots when they came from him, but never really seemed to get in the game. I like players who show more of a competitive spirit, which I've yet to see out of him.

I'll be checking in with more coverage over the next few days, in the meantime, enjoy Bill Simmons' annual draft diary, and root for Randy Foye to fall to the Celtics.


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