Category Archives: Free Agency

Looking Forward: Phoenix Suns

We all used to love the Phoenix Suns, but things changed a bit last year. Under Terry Porter until the All-Star break, the Suns failed to meet expectations. The new coach was given the unenviable task of trying to change the Suns’ identity. Instead of an all-out running attack, Porter wanted to play a more controlled style of basketball. Less quick shots, less chaos, more defense, more rebounding.

It didn’t work. They slowed the pace down a little bit, but their defense got considerably worse. Players such as Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa seemed downright frustrated at times, not knowing when they had the green light to shoot. The offense wasn’t the same and the players weren’t comfortable (despite Steve Nash’s genuine effort to make it work). Their roster wasn’t capable of becoming a lockdown defensive team, especially after the Jason Richardson trade, and it came as a surprise to no one when Porter got the axe and was replaced by Alvin Gentry. Sure, Shaquille O’Neal put up great numbers (with and without Amar’e Stoudemire in the lineup), but it wasn’t necessarily best for the team to make him a focal point. Even with the improvement under Gentry, the Suns remained a mediocre team and missed out on a playoff berth by 2 games.

This summer, the Shaquille O’Neal experiment was put to rest when he was moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers for salary relief. Matt Barnes headed to the East, too, signing with Orlando. All the Suns have done is re-sign veterans Steve Nash (36 in February) and Grant Hill (37 before opening day), draft forwards Earl Clark and Taylor Griffin, and sign free agent Channing Frye. My initial thought about all this: “What exactly are they doing? Do they even have a plan?” These are not moves I should endorse. They’re not ones that will put the team back where it belongs, legitimately in title contention. They’re not ones that will ensure future financial flexibility, planting the seeds for rebuilding. Rather, they are lateral moves, keeping them in a spot where they have just enough talent to make the playoffs if things go right. When I thought about it, though, I realized I was happy that they had kept Nash, happy they’ve pledged to keep the run-and-gun style going. It’s because, at this point, I just don’t want to see him in another uniform.

Here’s some of what Kelly Dwyer said about Nash in his top 10 point guards of the last decade list:

We play to win, I guess, but we’re also playing because it’s fun. Nobody says, “I’m going to go down to the Y later this afternoon to try and contribute to a winning cause.” We say, “I’m going to go play basketball,” a game, a game that’s fun. You’ve seen this dance before.

So, he’ll get burned on D. And at the end of the day, other players will have more points, rebounds, steals and assists, even. But man, isn’t his game something to behold?

Take this quote and apply it to the whole team. They have flaws. Obvious, season-shortening flaws. We know they are going to be overmatched, some nights. In a cold, rational world, the smart thing would unquestionably be to blow this thing up and start over. Ditch the veterans, develop young guys, rebuild. We live in the real world, though, a place where Phoenix Suns fans would be distraught if the franchise abandoned its fiery Canadian saviour. It’s really a shame that this franchise fell short of winning a title this decade, and it’s a shame that this year’s team won’t measure up to those of years’ past. Still, they’ll be fun for another year or two, and that’s what we want.

I can’t honestly say I’m very excited about the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns. I can’t even say I find them that interesting, beyond seeing if Amar’e can successfully come back from eye surgery and start playing defense again. Still, I know I’m going to end up watching a ton of their games and I know I’m going to love it. They might not be the Suns of old, but they’re still worth our time.

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Looking Forward: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat were decent last season. 43-39, with the league’s 11th-best defense and 20th-best offense. Good enough to lose the most boring, meaningless 7-game series in NBA playoff history to the Atlanta Hawks. Dwyane Wade turned in an individual season for the ages, but his teammates were not good enough to make this team a serious contender in the East.

With Wade’s free agency coming up in the summer of 2010, many expected Miami to try to make a big splash this summer and surround the megastar with more talent. With Toronto in the same situation with Chris Bosh, they overhauled the roster and invested significant money in Hedo Turkoglu and Andrea Bargnani in an order to solidify their core. What did Miami do, get Lamar Odom and Carlos Boozer? Nope. These avenues were explored, but all they ended up doing was replacing Jamario Moon and Mark Blount with Wade’s buddy, Quentin Richardson. Bleh.

This is a risky strategy, following the Knicks’ lead in holding out for the 2010 sweepstakes. Dwyane Wade might not be content with another season on a middle-of-the-pack team, losing in the first round of the playoffs. If he sees himself being trapped in Chris Paul Hell and bolts to Chicago or New York next summer, their fan base will be crushed.

Thing is, if it works, it really works. Next summer, everyone’s contract is up. They already have a potential star in Michael Beasley and a nice young PG in Mario Chalmers, and they’re going to have enough cap room to re-sign Wade, sign another big-money player, and find a few role players. As a Raptors fan, I’m absolutely terrified that Bosh will join Wade in Miami. Boozer, Amar’e Stoudemire, and even David Lee are also legitimate possibilities. Of course, this raises the question of whether or not Beasley can be converted to a 3, but if that becomes a problem it will be a pretty good problem to have in Miami. In a city where it seems every NBA player would love to play, having the most flexibility in the league in a star-studded free agency period is certainly a good thing. This team has had an extremely boring summer and I’m not even very excited about watching them in 2009-2010, but I understand their thinking. They have a plan and they’re going to stick to it.

If the Heat are not going to be in the East’s upper echelon (and they won’t be), the single most important part of 2009-2010 is going to be how they develop Michael Beasley. This supremely talented player only played 25 minutes a game for Erik Spolestra’s club last season, despite being taken #2 overall in the NBA draft. Even with his defensive deficiencies, this is far too low. His scoring and rebounding translated very well to the NBA. This season, he’s got to get far more minutes and they have to run more plays for him. With increased playing time and an increased role, there’s no reason this kid can’t average 20 PPG next season. They need to give Beasley the opportunity to shine – it’s the right move for their future, even if it’s later determined that he doesn’t fit alongside Wade and Free Agent X in Miami’s long-term plan.

Aside from Beasley (and Mario Chalmers), there’s probably not going to be much improvement from anyone on this squad. Dwyane Wade does almost as much as humanly possible and, if Jermaine O’Neal actually does return to All-Star form like he says he will, it will defy all logic and historical precedent. It’s a bit unfortunate for Heat fans, to see the same mediocre team trotted back out there again this year, probably destined for another first-round defeat. I guess they’ll just have to live with having one of the game’s very best and most exciting players on the roster. That isn’t so bad, actually.

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Looking Forward: New York Knicks

Chandlernari

“Let’s get this out of the way.”

This is what the Knicks’ management thinks of the upcoming season, and likely what they were thinking at the beginning of last season too. It’s clear the Knicks are looking towards the summer of 2010, as they should be. Upon hearing today’s news that Nate Robinson’s one-year deal is essentially finalized and David Lee’s will soon be too, I figured it was time to get this preview out of the way.

If you watched any Knicks games last season, you no doubt noticed a significant change from the previous few seasons. With Donnie Walsh pulling the strings to dump the worst offenders of the dreadful Isiah era and Mike D’Antoni freeing his players to push the ball and get quick shots up, this team was infinitely more watchable. Sure, they still won only 32 games, but that’s what you get when you don’t have a real starting centre and you have Chris Duhon playing over 36 minutes a game. They were still the butt of some jokes on late-night TV, but their play was a huge, huge upgrade from what we were used to. At long last, the Knicks were fun.

Going into the off-season, there were questions about what would happen with Lee and Robinson. Both had just had phenomenal seasons and would likely want their deserved multi-year contracts. However, with the Knicks not wanting to commit potential LeBron James money to anyone and with few other teams in the free agent market this off-season, their situations lingered until… well, about now. Fortunately for Knicks fans, though, these two should give the team more of the same solid production next season, even if they don’t figure to be in the team’s long-term plans.

The only other free agent move Walsh even considered was signing Ramon Sessions. The young PG ended up signing a below-market-value deal with Minnesota, but would have been a big upgrade over Duhon at the point in NY. I can’t fault the GM for not pursuing him, though – anything that would jeopardize the 2010 financial flexibility Walsh has worked so hard to set up probably isn’t worth it. Knicks fans have suffered for too long, they deserve a shot to become an elite team. You have to stay with the plan. Even if the plan fails and they don’t land a megastar next summer, it’s worth the gamble. It just means that you’re going to have summers like this one, where the two biggest new faces are rookie Jordan Hill and Darko Milicic.

You know what to expect from the Knicks next season. They’ll play at a blistering pace and surprise more talented teams every once in a while. They’ll be a fun watch, but you’ll never consider them “relevant”. Without the circus surrounding the team at the early stages of the season this time around, and with some progression from young players Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, they could make a slight improvement on their record from last season. Still, we know this isn’t a playoff team and it isn’t a team that’s going to scare anybody. That’s okay for now, though. Maybe next year.

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Looking Forward: Detroit Pistons

Old Huskies, New Pistons

The Detroit Pistons are in transition. We all know this. This is why they made the Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson trade. This is why Rip Hamilton’s contract extension made no sense. This is why they signed two ex-UConn Huskies (Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva) who don’t quite fit the traditional Piston mold. Finally, this is why they probably should have grabbed Rajon Rondo from Boston earlier this summer.

You’re aware that mainstays Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess are gone. Amazingly, Ben Wallace is back, along with the aforementioned marquee free agent Huskies, big man Chris Wilcox, and rookies Austin Daye and DaJuan Summers. In addition to this, maligned head coach Michael Curry is gone, replaced by long-time assistant John Kuester, who was on Larry Brown’s staff when Detroit for their 2003-2004 championship season.

Kuester, the architect of Cleveland’s much-improved offense last season, will be charged with improving what was the league’s 21st-best offense in 2008-2009. He’s got the tools to do it, I tell ya. Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, and Chris Wilcox all have their faults, but they can score. Despite appearing to be a chucker, Gordon is quietly one of the most efficient scorers in the league, and Charlie V. turned in an impressive 21.7 points per 36 minutes last season in Milwaukee. Wilcox, in the East, will be serviceable at both the 4 and 5 spots. His inconsistency, especially on defense, will likely remain, but so will his excellence in pick-and-roll situations. Point guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum can put the ball in the basket, too, and you don’t need me to tell you what Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton can do.

Does this mean they’ll be better this season?

Probably. They should be far better on the offensive end, but questions remain. What will happen to Rip Hamilton? He obviously shouldn’t have had his contract extended, and it’s probably going to be tough to move him in this economic environment. We know Gordon is the future of the Pistons’ 2-spot, but Kuester has already committed to bringing him off the bench while Rip is around. A big challenge for this new coach is going to be to allocate minutes in a way that keeps everyone happy and doesn’t leave guys playing out of position for so long that it puts the team at a disadvantage.

Kuester’s also going to have to put some thought into how to get these guys to play D. This squad was average on that front under Michael Curry last year, finishing 16th in the league (down from 4th the previous year). With a bit of luck, they’ll sustain something close to that mark this coming season – Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are certainly not defensive-minded players, but I don’t think their efforts will be significantly worse than what we saw from Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace last season.

If all goes right, then, we’ll see an elite offensive team and an average defensive team. This is the opposite of what we saw from Larry Brown’s championship-winning team (it should be noted that the great Flip Saunders had them playing elite-level ball on both ends) and it’s why I must stress again that this team is in transition. There is some serious talent in Detroit, some of it young and some of it old. Pieces remain from the perennial Eastern Conference Finals teams earlier in the decade, but they don’t represent the majority of this roster anymore. It’ll be interesting to see how this franchise negotiates this tricky terrain of trying to rebuild while staying in the playoff hunt, rather then tearing everything down and starting again. Grabbing at least one post-season victory this time would be a good start.

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Looking Forward: Indiana Pacers

I could probably copy and paste my recent Milwaukee Bucks post here and you’d get the idea.

Indiana, like Milwaukee, had to deal with major injuries last year and missed the playoffs. Again, like Milwaukee, they’re on the outside looking in when it comes to how most are projecting the East’s 2009-2010 playoff picture. If all goes right, sure, they could sneak in there, but it’s hard to argue that they’ve improved, talent-wise, during the off-season.

Here’s a quick run-down.

Players Added: Tyler Hansbrough, A.J. Price, Dahntay Jones, Earl Watson, Solomon Jones, Luther Head.

Players Lost: Marquis Daniels, Jarrett Jack, Rasho Nesterovic, Stephen Graham, Maceo Baston, Jamaal Tinsley (kinda).

With due respect to Psycho T, I’d argue that for this season Daniels, Jack, and Nesterovic are the three best players on those lists. Unfortunately, they all reside on the “Players Lost” list. Still, you can’t really kill the Pacers for the boring moves they’ve made this summer (besides the Dahntay Jones one – inexcusable). As was the case with Milwaukee, they didn’t have much room to manoeuvre because they’re so close to the luxury tax. With the money Troy Murphy, Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, and Jeff Foster are making, they likely won’t be in a position to make a big splash next summer, either. This is the result of mistakes of the past, mistakes that other teams should learn from. If you’re going to invest big, long-term money to a player, you better make sure it’s a guy who can be a top player on a successful team. Danny Granger fits the bill fine, but while I like Murphy and Dunleavy, I don’t think they should be your key guys. So, if you’re going to slam the Pacers’ front office for assembling a middle-of-the-road team, that’s fine, but realize those seeds were planted well before this summer.

Let’s talk about positives, though. These guys were a fun bunch to watch last season. They pushed the ball at every opportunity, finishing 3rd in the league in pace. Granger is a great, great young prospect, and I’m not just talking about fantasy basketball here. Roy Hibbert had a much better rookie season than I could have anticipated, shockingly posting a better PER than former Pacer center Jermaine O’Neal was able to muster. Theses guys should improve this year. So should Brandon Rush, who showed a lot of promise when he was given a starting role for the last month of his rookie campaign. T.J. Ford, who no longer has to share minutes with Jarrett Jack, has a great opportunity to bounce back from what was a down year in 2008-2009. Also, the new faces might help them improve their defense from last season. All good things.

Like I said about Milwaukee, it’s not too far-fetched to see the Pacers ending up with the 8th seed. Nobody’s penciling them in now, though, especially with the way some other Eastern teams have improved. With a week until training camp starts, Indiana fans are anxious and can do nothing but hope for the best. If this year’s squad is as fun as last year’s and finishes with a better record, I guess that’s a successful season. If you take a broader look at this franchise, though, there are real problems. Danny Granger, at 26, is approaching his prime – do we really want to wait until the summer of 2011 to see him (potentially) on a winning team? I say no. Mediocrity is annoying.

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Looking Forward: Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks have had an underwhelming off-season. After a 2008-2009 campaign where important coach Scott Skiles improved this team’s defense and toughness the same way he did in Chicago, Bucks fans have watched as three of their four most talented players have been let go.

First, Richard Jefferson was moved to San Antonio for cap relief, Kurt Thomas, and Amir Johnson (who was later traded to Toronto along with Sonny Weems for Carlos Delfino and Roko Ukic). Then, Charlie Villanueva was allowed to walk, choosing to sign with Detroit. Finally, the team declined to match Minnesota’s below-market-value offer sheet to Ramon Sessions. This is all kind of understandable in the scheme of things, as the Bucks are cash-strapped, in a small market, and nowhere close to being a serious contender. If you’re a Milwaukee fan, though, it had to hurt, epecially considering the Jefferson trade represented the colossal failures of the previous two summers, where they had 1) drafted Yi Jianlian 6th overall and 2) traded Jianlian and Bobby Simmons to New Jersey in exchange for RJ.

As I said, the off-season’s been underwhelming in light of what they’ve lost this summer, but let’s examine the guys the Bucks have added to the roster:

1. Brandon Jennings: Milwaukee fans can be legitimately excited about this rookie. You know the story: played in Italy last season instead of becoming another slave to the NCAA, sick handles, great court vision, tons of potential, but needs time to develop. He may have come under fire a bit earlier this summer, but he seems like a great kid. Anyway, he will probably make tons of mistakes, turn the ball over too much, and miss jumpers this season. That’s fine, he’s only 19. Be patient with him.
2. Jodie Meeks: He can score. He really can. He gave up the chance to be on an absolutely stacked Kentucky team this year in order to be picked 41st by Milwaukee. For his sanity’s sake, I hope he gets some burn this season and contributes. You know he’s going to be watching John Wall and company tear it up next year.
3. Hakim Warrick: This is the Bucks’ only real free agent signing. I guess he will replace Charlie Villanueva. He’s a different kind of player than Charlie V., but still an effective one. He can score, he can guard, and he can play both forward positions (although he is most suited to the 4). Good one-year signing, but is he part of the Bucks’ long-term plans?
4. Kurt Thomas: He’s exactly the type of player Scott Skiles likes – not flashy, but smart and tough. He’ll play excellent post defense, grab boards, and hit open jumpers from the wing. He’s way past his prime, but he’s still effective. If I’m Skiles, I’m happy to have him, but if I’m the GM I’m already looking to trade him to a better team for young talent.
5. Carlos Delfino: He has a chance to start at the 3 for Milwaukee. He’s got handles, he can shoot, and he rebounds at an excellent rate for a wing player. Watching him in Toronto, I appreciated his toughness and his ability to space the floor on offense, but I grew tired of his inconsistency. Let’s hope this is the year he avoids those 3-12 shooting nights.
6. Roko Ukic: We’re all infatuated by his potential – he’s a 6’5 point guard who can get to the basket and make very nice passes. However, his shooting and decision-making leave a lot to be desired. He’ll be 25 in December, so his deficiencies in these areas are worrying to even the most ardent Ukic supporters.
7. Ersan Ilyasova: He was below average in his first NBA go-round, but has been productive overseas. If you haven’t noticed, he’s absolutely killing it in Eurobasket right now, so Bucks fans have reason to be excited about him. You’ve gotta wonder if there will be minutes for him in the rotation, though – he’ll be competing against Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Kurt Thomas, Hakim Warrick, and Joe Alexander.
8. Walter Sharpe: Um, Sharpe has played 20 minutes in his NBA career. I’m not going to pretend I have anything to tell you about him.

With these guys joining a healthy Michael Redd, along with Andrew Bogut, Charlie Bell, and Luke Ridnour, these Bucks could challenge for the 8th seed in the East. I see that as the ceiling for this season, given that Scott Skiles hasn’t worn out his welcome yet. He’s capable of making teams achieve more than they should on paper and is excellent at disguising individuals’ defensive flaws. This is what makes him a good coach.

I would be very worried about this if I was a Bucks fan, though. The last thing this team needs is a mediocre season where they finish with a record just good enough to keep them from getting a high draft pick. What I advocate is the same as what PG of All Things Hoops has called for: Play small-ball, trade guys like Kurt Thomas and Charlie Bell, and listen very seriously to trade offers for Michael Redd. The losses of Villanueva, Sessions, and Jefferson are only excusable if this franchise commits to a rebuilding plan. I know Skiles would hate to hear this, but this club doesn’t need a decent record in 2009-2010. At this point, Milwaukee fans just need a team that has a chance to compete a few years down the road.

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Looking Forward: Minnesota Timberwolves

It’s been a busy summer for the Timberwolves. New GM David Kahn put his stamp on the team right away, ensuring that next year’s Wolves look very different to the team Kevin McHale had assembled. This is a bit weird, considering how last year’s Wolves were playing before Al Jefferson’s injury.

It’s worth nothing that although the Wolves started out the season horribly (especially when Randy Wittman was still the coach), they were 11-8 in the 2009 calendar year when Al Jefferson went down with his season-ending ACL tear. Jefferson had become an elite post scorer, Randy Foye had flourished at the 2-guard spot, and Kevin Love had put a few monster-rebounding games together. If this team had done nothing but stand pat this summer and make use of their #6 draft pick, they’d have a roster that would be primed to make a significant improvement on their woeful 24-58 record based just on the return of Jefferson and improvement from within.

Does this mean Kahn’s screwed up with his overhaul, then? I say no. He’s used existing assets to improve the team in both the short-term and the long-term. The first and biggest deal he made was obviously the Foye and Mike Miller for the 5th pick swap. Miller dogged it in 2008-2009 and Foye, though capable of scoring, wasn’t in Kahn’s long-term plans for good reason. With no desire to extend Foye’s contract, and the stated goal of rebuilding to become a contender a few years down the road, trading these two for a high draft pick was a smart move. Heading into the draft, they had the fifth and sixth picks. Sure, it was a weak draft, but this was a chance to reshape the team.

They couldn’t have expected Ricky Rubio to be there, though. When it was their time to pick and the consensus 2nd-best player in the draft was still on the board, they couldn’t pass on him twice, even with questions about his buyout. So, the Wolves selected him with the #5 pick and followed it up with the confusing pick of Jonny Flynn, the point guard out of Syracuse at #6.

You know what’s happened since. Rubio’s elected to play in Barcelona instead of Minnesota for the next two, probably three years. Bill Simmons and Chad Ford have called Kahn out for screwing up this situation. It seems as if their argument is that the Wolves had a good chance to lure Rubio over next season, if only they hadn’t taken Jonny Flynn. I haven’t seen any evidence to support this claim, though. Financially, the motivation to stay in Europe is very clear – his new team, FC Barcelona, fully bought out his contract with DKV Joventut and, if he chooses to, he has the option to wait until he is no longer bound by the rookie salary scale to come to the NBA. Finances aside, he gets to live and play basketball at home in the great city of Barcelona. I haven’t actually been to Minnesota, but I can understand why a not-yet-19-year-old kid from Barcelona might prefer not to relocate there. I don’t think having the chance to play with Stephen Curry would have changed any of this.

The situation isn’t so bad for Minnesota. It kind of sucks for NBA fans, who are anxious to see Rubio compete against the best of the best, but the Wolves franchise still has a tremendous asset who will come over in a few years when he’s still very, very young in NBA terms. In the meantime, it opened the door for Kahn to ink promising guard Ramon Sessions to a four-year deal for $16 million. For a 23-year-old who has shown a lot of promise, this is a bargain. Of course, it duplicates the problem some saw in having Flynn and Rubio – they now have two point guards who will be competing for playing time. To me, this is a very positive problem to have, though, and one that will be mitigated a bit by giving Sessions some minutes at the 2 guard spot every night. Long-term, they aren’t going to keep Flynn, Sessions, and Rubio on the roster, but if they all develop like we hope they will, there should be plenty of takers for them on the trade market.

Flynn and Sessions aren’t the only newcomers to this squad. In fact, there are only four to five returning players who figure to have a chance to crack Minnesota’s rotation next season: Al Jefferson (duh), Kevin Love (double duh), Ryan Gomes, Corey Brewer, and Brian Cardinal. The other new faces are Wayne Ellington, Ryan Hollins, Antonio Daniels, Chucky Atkins, Damien Wilkins, and Mark Blount. These role players will fill the void left by departing players Sebastian Telfair, Rodney Carney, Mark Madsen, Kevin Ollie, Shelden Williams, and Bobby Brown. You probably don’t care much about any of the names mentioned in the past two sentences, but I thought they were worth mentioning. What you need to know: the names have been shuffled around, but ‘Sota is still weak at the wing positions.

I’m not going to tell you David Kahn is a genius, but his off-season hasn’t been nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. This team isn’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re not supposed to. They are rebuilding. This organization has four solid young guys suiting up next year in Jefferson, Love, Flynn, and Sessions. Plus, there’s that Rubio guy overseas. Their salary situation looks mighty fine to me, as the contracts of Blount, Cardinal, Wilkins, Daniels, Atkins, and Stewie Griffinall expire at the end of the season. None of this guarantees even eventual success, especially as it remains to be seen how the pieces are going to fit, but going forward the most important thing is that this organization has options. Sweet, sweet options.

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