Backdoor Cut: The Sports Inquirer’s 2015 NBA Free Agency Primer

NBA

By E. Marcel Pourtout, Editor

Its time for the 2015 NBA Free Agency Primer.

Music to listen to: Silently Falling by Chris Squire (RIP)

We’re less than 24 hours away from the most frantic period of the NBA offseason, free agency.

Unlike professional leagues such as the National Football League, National Hockey League and to a lesser extent Major League Baseball, its possible to buy yourself into a contender spot in the NBA.

If you look at the most consistent championship contending franchises of the past five years in the NFL (New England, Seattle, Green Bay), NHL (Chicago, Anaheim) and MLB (San Francisco, St. Louis), each of them drafted the top core players of their teams and have used free agency as a supplement.

There’s still value in drafting well in the NBA as evidence of the San Antonio dynasty and the current champions Golden State. However, we’ve also seen Miami get LeBron James and win titles. Houston traded for James Harden and signed Dwight Howard to become a conference finalist. It can be done.

The 2015 NBA free agency period will be interesting because while there isn’t a game changer like James or even Harden available, current and future All-Stars will have a chance to move. Furthermore, two of the biggest markets in the league will be major players which will begin our primer.

-What will the Knicks and Lakers do? Every major free agent will be linked to one of these two teams because they’ve hit their respective bottoms and have the money to rebuild.

For the Lakers, this the first offseason since 1998 where they will have to think about the post-Kobe Bryant era. He has one more year left on his contract and may retire at the end of this upcoming season. Its doubtful he’ll leave money on the table but Bryant’s time as an elite NBA player is over.

Los Angeles showed its hand in the NBA Draft last week when it took point guard D’Angelo Russell over center Jahlil Okafor. If the Lakers didn’t have the belief it was signing a front court player this offseason, it would have taken Okafor because while Russell is an elite guard prospect, Okafor has game-changing potential.

You will see either LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe or Kevin Love in a Lakers’ uniform next season. My money is on Love who we will address later.

New York drafting Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis last week wasn’t as large of an indicator as Los Angeles. It did show that Phil Jackson and the Knicks’ front office has an eye towards the future which won’t involve Carmelo Anthony.

When the Knicks become a title contender in two to three years, Anthony won’t be a part of it. He’s had some strong offensive years and showed he could be a competent defender when Mike Woodson was the head coach of New York but the 2015 version of him doesn’t fit the rebuilding plans the team really needs.

Every unrestricted free agent will be on the watch list for the Knicks from the ones mentioned earlier to DeMarre Carroll, Paul MIllsap, Marc Gasol. This is the reason the Knicks brought Jackson on. We’ll see if New York gets it money’s worth.

-Restricted free agency makes things complicated. The market for guys like San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson and Golden State’s Draymond Green would be more open but their current teams have the ability to match any offer another team gives. Its more complicated than that but that’s the simplest way to put it.

I could see Leonard returning home to play for the Lakers, Thompson getting a major offer from Toronto (because all Canadians should play for a Canadian team, just kidding, or am I? and Detroit replacing Monroe with Thompson but none of those are probably going to happen. Expect each of those guys to stick with their original teams.

The wildcard to me is Leonard. Butler will be the main player in Chicago in two years in status and pay which the Bulls are aware of. Thompson’s agent represents James as well, that’s a package deal. I thought Green would leave the Warriors at the midway point of this season but he proved his value in the championship run. I expect Golden State to clear money with aging players like David Lee and Andrew Bogut to re-sign Green and eventually Stephen Curry in two years.

Everyone, including myself, assumes that Leonard won’t leave the Spurs. He’s a major player in that system, no state tax, winning franchise, etc. We’ve also been conditioned to believe that not only do the Spurs keep free agents, they re-sign their players to franchise-friendly deals. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and hosts of others have done that.

Leonard may be different but San Antonio has the chance to keep him, get Aldridge and re-sign Duncan. Unless the Lakers or a franchise we’re not thinking of (Knicks?) makes a massive offer the Spurs can’t match, Leonard will be a Spur.

-James, Duncan and Dwayne Wade aren’t going anywhere. All three of those guys are the best players in their franchises’ histories and are free agents only in contracts.

Expect James to sign a two-year deal that makes him a free agent once again in the 2017 offseason when the salary cap is expected to expand and the maximum deals will guarantee more money.

Duncan is on a year-by-year basis at this stage of his career. He’s not going to another team. The Spurs will offer him a respectable two-year deal at a fair market value that will probably be his last contract as an NBA player.

I hear the rumblings that Wade may sign with Cleveland to reunite with James but Miami can offer a longer contract with more guaranteed money than the Cavs. Its rare that an athlete leaves money on the table especially when he has injury issues like Wade.

-Love may pull a Howard. Two offseasons ago, many believed that Howard wouldn’t leave the Lakers. Winning franchise, southern California lifestyle, its the frickin Lakers and nobody turns them down. Furthermore, Los Angeles could offer more money and an additional year on the contract. Howard still signed with Houston.

Explanations ranged from no state tax in Texas (which matters to pro athletes) to playing alongside Harden (basketball purposes) to getting away from Bryant (reality). All of those were factors in Howard’s decision but he wanted to be happy playing basketball.

In covering athletes for the Inquirer the past few years, I’ve learned that they’re motivated by different things. Money, prestige, power, relationship with teammates, interaction with coaches all matter. However, comfort in your environment may be second only behind money/financial security for the pro athletes.

Love didn’t have a good year in Cleveland. Between injuries, struggling playing alongside James in Cleveland’s offensive system and experiencing the highest level of criticism ever experienced in his career, Love had struggles with the Cavs.

He can sign a one-year deal with the Cavs and give it another go with the top team in the East by a wide margin when healthy. Love can sign a long-term deal for financial security which is important because of his injury past and the chance to play alongside James and Kyrie Irving.

Or Love can just sign a two-year with the Lakers, the franchise he’s always wanted to play for in his college and home city (I know he’s from Oregon and went to high school in the state but work with me) similar to what Millsap did with the Hawks in 2013. Once that deal is up, Love is a free agent in 2017. My money is on this happening.

-What else is there to know?

  1. Atlanta has decisions to make. It will be tough to keep both Millsap and Carroll because both of them will get deals north of 10 million a year. Trust me, there’s a franchise we’re not even thinking of that make those offers. Both men want long-term deals due to age (Millsap) or the reality that their personal market will never be higher (Carroll). I believe that Carroll will return to the Hawks while Millsap will be with another franchise. Look for Atlanta to sign either Tyson Chandler or Omer Asik at center, moving Al Horford to the power forward spot.
  2. Marc Gasol will stay with Memphis. He’s been in the city his entire adult life and even went to high school there. The Knicks are too toxic for him and while his brother Pau had good years with the Lakers, I don’t see Marc leaving. The Spurs would be of intrigue though.
  3. Lighting-round predictions for where I think other top players will sign:
  • Khris Middleton: Milwaukee
  • Bismack Biyombo: Portland
  • Brandon Knight: Phoenix
  • Danny Green: San Antonio
  • Goran Dragic: Miami
  • Tyson Chandler: Atlanta
  • Paul Pierce: Clippers
  • David West: Indiana
  • DeAndre Jordan: Clippers (watch out for Dallas)

Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

Backdoor Cut: NBA Finals Review

Music to listen to:  Omar Rodriguez-Lopez live from Highline Ballroom in New York

There are many ways for me to go with my review of the NBA Finals.  I can look at the view of the Mavs, the Heat, Pat Riley, journalists, Dirk Nowtizki, fans, and everything in between.  Let’s go with that route.

Dallas Mavs organization, specifically Mark Cuban:  When Cuban purchased the Mavs in 2000, the franchise was one of the worst in the entire NBA.  The Mavs played in a media market where they were a distant fifth behind the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Longhorns football, Texas A&M Aggies football and the Texas Rangers.  They played in arguably the worst arena in the NBA and hadn’t even reached the playoffs in 1990.  In fact, here were the loss totals that the team had each season after 1990 before Cuban took over: 54, 60, 71, 69, 46, 56, 58, 62, 31 (strike-shortened year) and 42.

Dallas actually had a moment when it looked like its fortune would change in the mid-1990’s with Jason Kidd, Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn but that didn’t work out.  I’ll get to that later.

We now see the Mavs as one of the most consistent franchises in the NBA since they’ve won at least 50 games in each of the last 11 years and Cuban deserves a lot of credit for that.

The best move that Cuban made in his first year as owner was bring in Don Nelson as head coach.  Before that, the Mavs had many incompetent head coaches (shoot, Richie Adubato led the team for nearly four full seasons) but they finally brought a guy who has a system that could work in the NBA.

Cuban and Don Nelson would have clashes over personnel decisions which ultimately led to an ugly separation which included taking each other to court legally but without the foundation that Nelson laid down for the next man, last night wouldn’t have been possible.

Dirk Nowitzki:  I still remember the 1998 draft like it was yesterday.  As a teenager, I finally was able to have a tangible sense of evaluating college basketball talent and seeing it translate to the NBA.

My four overall thoughts were that Michael Olowokandi would be a terrible pro, especially with the Clippers, Vince Carter wouldn’t amount to a good pro player, everyone in the top-five would regret not taking Paul Pierce and the Bucks/Mavs were crazy for taking a German teenager that I never heard of.

Maybe I was being racist against him at the time because he was white, didn’t trust the prep European training techniques or honestly never saw the man play.  Whatever it was, I thought that Nowitzki would be a terrible NBA player.

I decided that I was going to take a flier on the guy because I liked Steve Nash since his Santa Clara days and he was on the Mavs with Dirk.  I also enjoyed watching Michael Finley on the squad as well at that time.

I saw a lanky seven-footer who struggled against physical defenses, wasn’t a great rebounder but could shoot, ran the floor well and understood the game.  I still didn’t think that Dirk would reach the level he has at that time until the 2001 playoffs.

The Mavs were on the road in game five of the first round of that playoffs against Utah.  Dallas had lost the first two games of the series in Utah but managed to get two wins at home to force the game five.  I thought that Utah would destroy Dallas at home because no one beat John Stockton and Karl Malone at home in the playoffs at that time, at least in the first round or against underdogs like Dallas was.

Finley has a career day, Dirk contributes 18 points, defends Malone hard and Dallas escaped with a two-point win.

At that moment, I had a feeling  that Dirk would become a special player if things broke right for him.  Unfortunately, Nash left for more money to Phoenix, Finley’s body broke down,  Nelson leaves, the Spurs become a dynasty and always seem to beat the Mavs in the playoffs, etc.

The low point was the 2007 playoffs when Dirk has a career year, wins the NBA MVP, leads the squad to a 67-win season and promptly gets dominated by the Golden State Warriors in the first round.

I thought that he would continue to be a top-10 NBA player, make double-digit All-Star games, be known as one of the best foreign players ever in the NBA, retire and never get a championship because of the competition.

However, this season seemed different.  Dirk had Dallas playing like the best team in the NBA for the first three months of the season.  The Mavs even get road wins at San Antonio, Boston and Miami during this stretch.  Then Dirk hurts his knee and has to miss a few weeks.  Knee injuries are tricky and there has to be concern that this may be a permanent issue.  He manages to come back and Dallas has good form but Caron Butler hurts his knee and is out for the year, leaving the team without its best second-option for scoring.

Furthermore, by the time the playoffs start, I would have taken Chicago, Miami, the Lakers, Oklahoma City and Boston as team more likely to win the NBA title before Dallas.

However, when I saw Dirk perform against Portland in the first round, I decided to not bet against him in the rest of the playoffs.  I knew that a sinus infection, sprained finger or anything else wouldn’t prevent him from getting his championship.

Steve Nash:  For older NBA fans, its STILL strange to not see Nash and Dirk on different teams and wonder what could have been if they stayed together.

Tyson Chandler:  When he singed with Dallas, I felt that he would be the most significant free-agent signing in all of the NBA outside of Miami if he was able to stay healthy.  His defensive skills are the second-biggest reason the Mavs are champs right now.

Dwayne Wade:  He tried his best but if I’m Miami, I would be less concerned about a certain forward from Akron, Ohio and more about how long Wade is physically gong to be able to hold up.  That’s why there’s urgency on the side of Miami and why people shouldn’t be so sure that he’s going to be around for the next six to eight years.

Jason Terry:  Dumb arm tattoo aside, it seems like Terry has been playing the same role of offensive guard off of the bench to perfection for years.  He even did this at Arizona in 1996 when Miles Simon and Mike Bibby were the starting backcourt for  the Wildcats.

Jason Kidd:  Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas are the only two point guards that I’ve seen in my lifetime that I would take before Kidd.

Before I get the angry e-mail, I didn’t see Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, Walt Frazier, Tiny Archibald and a cast of others play.

What wasn’t spoke about more during the Finals was  Kidd’s career path in the NBA.  He starts in Dallas, becomes Rookie of the Year, has a bright future in the city but for some reason (probably a love triangle with two of his teammates and a popular R&B singer), things don’t work out and he’s sent to Phoenix.

He becomes a top point guard for the Suns but an off the court incident makes the organization ship him off to New Jersey, where some believe that his career will be over.

Kidd only wins an MVP and leads the Nets to two consecutive NBA Finals appearances.  He eventually ends his time in New Jersey by getting traded back to Dallas in what’s considered a steal for the Nets because they get an All-Star point guard in Devin Harris who is younger and has a brighter future.

Kidd ends up becoming exactly what the Mavs need and wins a title.

Movies have been made with less.

Eric Spoelstra:  Time to brush up that resume.  Actually, its not all of his fault but Riley put him in a tough spot as a young coach and you could clearly see the inexperience throughout the season.  Whether it was telling the media in March that some players were crying in the locker room after a regular season loss, failing to install a zone offense, waiting too long to insert Mario Chalmers into the rotation, not showing urgency at any point in the NBA Finals (if he says “mental stability” one more time…), he was overmatched.

I think Spoelstra would have been better off being a head coach at a place that isn’t a top-10 NBA spot, working out these issues and than becoming the main man in this situation.  We were watching on the job training.  Unfortunately for Spoelstra, he may not get to keep his job.

Rick Carlisle:  He was an excellent assistant coach in Indiana, did well as a head coach in Indiana and Detroit and is now has an NBA title.

Why did it take him more than two years to get another head coaching job.

Pat Riley:  I don’t think that he’s going to be the head coach of the Heat, that time has passed, but his presence will be felt this offseason.

Cleveland Cavs fans:  Enjoy this moment in whatever way you feel.

Chris Bosh:  I’ve made plenty of jokes about Bosh throughout this season, some deserved and some in mean spirit.  However, he was the second-best player for Miami in the Finals.  I don’t mind the crying at all.  A lot of these athletes that we want to make out to be unemotional robots cry often.  The only difference is that we don’t see it on film.  Bosh just got caught.  No shame in that.

Sports journalists:  I don’t think I”ve seen more bias when covering an athlete or a specific team than James and the Heat.

I can tell from reading someone’s article or hearing them on television if they have a personal investment in the success and failures of the Heat.

It shouldn’t be the case but that’s what has happened in 2011.

NBA fans:  This was the most entertaining NBA season in a long time, both on and off the court and it was fun.  The main reason for that was the Heat.

I’ll save my NBA lockout stuff for another day.  However, I will say this.  If you think the NFL lockout is bad, the NBA has bigger issues and less money to work with.  Good luck with that.

LeBron James:  When you don’t have solid fundamentals and you’re struggling on the floor, you have James in the Finals.

Its been eight years and we still haven’t seen James develop a competent mid-range jumper or a post-up game.  That’s inexcusable and it finally caught up with him.

The Heat didn’t need James to put up triple-doubles, they needed him to put up 35 points.  That’s the bottom line.

He needs to work on his weaknesses on and off the court because this will happen more often if he’s isn’t careful.

OK, those are my thoughts, what are yours?

Backdoor Cut: NBA First Round Playoff Preview (Miami vs. Philadelphia)

Music to listen to: I Can’t Go For That by Hall and Oates

What to expect from Miami:  This is now the time for Miami to put aside all of the regular season drama and make the march towards the championship.  We’re going t see if two of the top five basketball players who essentially do the same thing can thrive in the playoffs with out a legitimate post threat or a decent point guard.

I expect Dwayne Wade to have a big series because the physical defensive style of the Sixers will try their best to stop LeBron James which will open things up for the shooting guard.

What to expect from Philadelphia:  The Sixers will play hard, get some solid contributions from Andre Iguodla and continue to rely on a solid bench that features Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams and honestly hope for the best.

Prediction:  Miami in five

The Heat have the top three players in the entire series but Philadelphia will play hard.

The problem for the Sixers is that Miami plays defense just as well, maybe even better in some aspects, and the difference in the two offenses is significant.

This will also be a good series for Chris Bosh to become comfortable in the playoffs because for the Heat to even come close to winning a championship, he must emerge as a viable third option.