Sunday, March 23, 2008

Stephen Curry: Davidson's Golden Boy and Future NBA Draft Steal

Yes, everyone (or someone... whoever that one lone reader of my column out there is), it's NCAA Tournament time. While I pay attention mostly to watch basketball games in which the players and coaches actually care and are trying to win for all 40 minutes of action (that's you, Isaiah Thomas - benching Zach Randolph to look at Randolph Morris?), I also watch to see if I can pick up any trends or rising stars that might someday be mailing it in on the big stage, as well as to pick up on trends within the college ranks. And this year has been absolutely rich with storylines and twists that have pretty much everybody thinking their bracket has been decapitated and left to rot by now. For me, Drew Neitzel taking down Memphis and Texas back-to-back is my only hope... Hey, it can happen.

But my focus here will be on the one team that has absolutely shocked everyone but me: Davidson. That's right, I'm the only human being outside of North Carolina who picked Davidson to win not only the Gonzaga game, but to beat Georgetown as well (my reasoning? Look at their non-conference schedule this year: lost by four to North Carolina, lost by six to Duke, lost by one to NC State, lost by twelve to UCLA, won at Winthrop by 13, undefeated in their conference - this is a good team). In the process, Davidson's golden child, Stephen Curry, has been taken away from the obscurity of the Southern Conference and thrust into the national spotlight for his lights-out jump shot, which he seems to get off in approximately .0000237 seconds. But it's not like he suddenly became good within the last few days - he averaged 25.5 points per game this year. And it's also not like he just became good this year - he averaged 21.5 points per game last year, his freshman season. But those numbers didn't do anything to remove him from the shadows of the Southern Conference, even though Davidson was in the NCAA Tournament last year, which nobody seems to remember. Only now, after canning 40 against Gonzaga (30 in the second half) and 30 against Georgetown (25 in the second half) in two winning efforts, Curry has become the talk of every confused NCAA Basketball follower in the country, wondering how one guy could propel an obscure mid-major team in an unheard of conference past the team synonymous with mid-major success and a national powerhouse in the matter of a few short days. And, beyond that, how was a guy that good not recruited by the bigger schools? After all, he had wanted to go to his father's alma mater, Virginia Tech. They're not even in the tournament, likely watching the guy they could have easily signed light up the big stage.

The answer to these questions lies in the biggest downfall of college recruiting - the one thing that gives mid-major programs like Davidson a chance to get a guy like Curry. When Curry was coming out of high school, he was 5'11'', scrawny, and looked about 8 years old (he still only looks about 12). Physically undeveloped, the big-time schools were looking for someone who was strong enough and physically built to handle the college game, and overlooked Curry. Since arriving at Davidson, the kid has already grown 4 inches to reach a respectable 6'3'', and has obviously begun to mature as a basketball player. It's not like this guy came from an obscure basketball background either - his dad is former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry. This is where colleges (and the NBA) get it wrong. They overlook guys who have simply put up numbers and won games simply because they don't appear to be of the physical build that is necessary to be a good basketball player. What they forget is that physical features develop naturally, and if the player is dedicated enough, quickly. What can't be taught or worked into a player are all those other intangibles - the work ethic that leads a kid to have such a pure shot, the mentality and desire to step up on the biggest stage there is and get better as the game goes on, to knock down shots when the team needs them the most. That's what this kid has, and that's why Davidson is winning.

Now, as someone who is more into the NBA than College Basketball, I feel obliged to mention how Curry appears to project as an NBA prospect, where he should go if he comes out of the college ranks this year, and where he would go if he comes out of the college ranks this year, and why he would slip. First, let me start by giving a comparison to guys currently in the NBA if you havn't seen Curry actually play in any of these games. He reminds me a lot of Kevin Martin, but shorter and with a faster, above-the-hip shot form (which counteracts the height difference). Martin played his ball at Western Carolina, a similarly obscure school to Davidson, and averaged high point totals from the very beginning of his career, 22.1 per game in his freshman season. The similarities between the two, unfortunately, probably will extend to the draft for Curry. NBA teams will make the same mistake as the big-time colleges did back when Curry was being recruited - pass on him for being physically undeveloped. Martin was 6'7'' and weighed just 195 pounds, and that (as well as questions regarding the talent he played against) caused him to fall to Sacramento at the 26th pick. Looking at mock drafts around the internet this year, Curry is nowhere to be found (even in the second round, which is a crime). Curry is the ranked 85th among all prospects on Chad Ford's top 100 list, being projected to go either in the late second-round, or to be undrafted. This tourney showing isn't going to give him the publicity and stock boost that will be needed for serious draft consideration, and he will be forced, like Martin, to spend his junior year in the college ranks despite being perfectly ready to enter the NBA and begin to receive the highest level of coaching and develop into a big-time scorer. But, whoever does manage to eventually pick up Curry next year will be rewarded within three years of that pick with a guy who might not be the best defender on the court, but will definitely be one of the more prolific scorers the league has. You have my not-so-expert guarantee on that.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why Robert Sarver Sucks

The Phoenix Suns should be the best team the NBA has ever seen. The Suns should be better than anybody in the stacked Western Conference. The Suns should have already won something around two of the last four NBA Titles. And we havn't because of Robert Sarver and his excessively tight wallet. And I'm going to prove it.

When Sarver bought the team in May of 2004, the Suns had just come off of one of their worst seasons in history, a season in which the Suns had won just 29 games, and had traded away two of their best players (Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway) at the deadline to the Knicks for next to nothing. Granted, this deal turned out to be one of the heists of the century, but only because Bryan Colangelo managed to turn the cap space we got after the season into Steve Nash. Sarver was set up with a team that had a low salary cap figure, three future stars in Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, and Amare Stoudemire, and good draft picks to build a great team. So what did he do? He refused to spend money, and doomed the team to hovering around the top of the league, but never being able to get past the NBA's elite when it mattered. I'll break Sarver down move by move, tracking his impact and how it caused the team to suffer in the long-run.

The Joe Johnson Fiasco:

After that 29 win season, everyone knew that Joe Johnson was going to be a star. He had made ridiculous strides in his scoring ability since Marbury had been traded away, was young, athletic, had size, and could flat-out shoot the ball. So, instead of offering Johnson a contract extension that would have locked him up for somewhere around $6-8 million per year, the Suns waited, hoping that somehow Johnson would play his value down through some means - injury, struggles, etc. Whenever you hope for one of your prime scoring options to struggle, you're making a huge mistake. That kind of young talent is something that you lock up as soon as possible. But, instead, the Suns waited for Johnson to become a restricted free agent the following summer, when the Suns were comming off an amazing rebound season of 62 wins, and a playoff series where Johnson played with a mask to protect his broken eye socket. He had made even more strides in his three-point shooting due to the open looks he was getting from Steve Nash, and had managed to raise his value to around $14 million per season. He wanted a 5-year, $70 million contract, which, quite frankly, he had earned. Yes, it would have caused the Suns to go significantly over the cap, and would have made keeping the rest of the team intact difficult financially with the salary cap. But the Suns offered a joke contract of 5-years and $50 million, and ended up giving away Johnson for draft picks and Doris Diaw. The contract they offered Johnson was not going to be accepted, and they knew it. This was Sarver's first error, and his future mistakes would only end up making it worse and worse.

The '04 Draft Pick Sale:

The Suns walked into the 2004 NBA Draft with the #7 overall pick in the draft. They were set up to add another key piece to a team that was rebuilding quickly, and would be contending within a few years. So, when their pick came around, and the options for them included Luol Deng, who was coveted by teams around the league like Chicago, and Andre Iguodala, the U of A prospect who would have been a great addition to the team. This gave the Suns two choices, sell out on the pick in hopes that you could get another one next season, save money, and even get a few million bucks out of the team you're giving the pick to, or take the best available player for the team (this was Iguodala) and build the roster. The Suns, and Sarver, sold out. They dealt the pick to Chicago for (I believe) cash, Chicago's second-round pick that year (Jackson Vroman...), and Chicago's first-round pick in the following season's draft. Sarver didn't want to spend the appox. $3 million salary for a high-lottery rookie, and decided that the idea of adding a bit of cash to his bank account sounded irresistable. So we ended up giving Deng to Chicago, and watching them go on to have a resurgence season as the Baby Bulls made a run in the playoffs, giving us the 21st pick in the draft in '05. But the Suns weren't done with their mistakes. They traded Quentin Richardson, their second major acquisition in the summer of '04 that wouldn't have needed to be made if Iggy was drafted, allowing us to possibly acquire a solid, useful veteran, and that pick, Nate Robinson, to New York for Kurt Thomas and the rights to Dijon Thompson. And, as will be detailed later, Thomas was dumped off for salary-cutting purposes along with two future first-round picks for a trade exception (which we won't use). So, to track the final score of this set of moves inspired to cut costs: Andre Iguodala, Quentin Richardson, and two first-round picks in exchange for Jackson Vroman, Dijon Thompson, and a trade exception. Stab me.

The Bryan Colangelo Firing:

Let me start off by saying that Bryan Colangelo is a fantastic General Manager. So when he wanted a raise from the Suns to counter the offer he had received to take over Toronto, he should have been given the money, no questions asked. Instead, Sarver wouldn't fork the money over, and Colangelo was simply allowed to walk away. Instead, he was replaced with Mike D'Antoni in one of the worst GM hirings in years. D'Antoni loves his players, and thinks they're worth far more than they really are. As a result, D'Antoni forked over $9 million per season to Doris Diaw and $5 million to Leandro Barbosa. The Diaw signing is simply appalling, given that Diaw can't stay in shape, and Barbosa is simply ineffective come playoff time. So why are we paying $14 million per season to those two? D'Antoni, as decent as a coach that he is (note I said decent, not good), was a terrible GM. And Sarver is the reason why D'Antoni was allowed to screw up this team.

The Late First-Round Pick Firesale:

Anybody who has followed the NBA at all has noticed how the Suns have had a firesale on their first-round draft picks over the past four drafts. After having two first-round picks in '03 (the bust of Zarko Cabarkapa and the heist of "Leandrinho" Barbosa from S.A.), the trend started in '04 (what a coincidence) with the already-detailed Deng selling to Chicago. The next year, '05, Phoenix managed to end the day with three first-round picks out the door. Phoenix's original pick's departure can't be blamed on Sarver, that pick was sent to San Antonio from the Barbosa deal in '03 (the pick was then sent to New York - they picked the one guy on their roster who they like, David Lee). Phoenix also had Cleveland's first-round pick that year from a trade they made a long time ago (I think this was the Cleveland/Phoenix/Denver 1997 trade where the Suns acquired Antonio McDyess, but I can't seem to find out the exact details), where guys like Rashad McCants and Danny Granger were available. They sent that to Charlotte so that the Bobcats would take Jahidi White off their hands the previous year in the expansion draft (a double salary dump, nice one Sarver!). And of course, as previously written, the first-round pick they got from Chicago in the previous year's draft went to New York for what would eventually become next to nothing. Not to mention this was also the year where they sold their second-round pick, Marcin Gortat, to Orlando for cash. Granted, the chances of him amounting to anything are slim, but not even being willing to take a Euro hit-or-miss prospect, choosing cash instead, is cheap to a fault. In '06 the misery continued, with the Suns giving Rajon Rondo to the Celtics for a future first-round pick in order to dump Brian Grant's expiring contract on the Celts. Also, the Suns straight-up sold the rights to Sergio Rodriguez to Portland, when we could have gotten a big man like Craig Smith, Paul Millsap, or Leon Powe (if you're laughing, you know nothing about basketball). No future picks, just money. And, of course, the selling of last year's 24th overall pick to Portland, again for nothing but cash, when guys like Carl Landry, Glen Davis, U of A prospect Marcus Williams, and sharpshooter Morris Almond were all available.

The Kurt Thomas Dumping:

This I can't stand. Sarver, last summer, ordered Steve Kerr to dump Kurt Thomas' salary before the season started. How else do you explain giving away an expiring contract and two future first-round picks for a conditional second-round pick (which we won't get, by the way - the idea of making it conditional is that we don't get it) and a trade exception (which we again won't use, because it would cause us to spend more money, and Sarver won't). So we gave up two first-round picks and a guy who is reknowned for his post D and sweet mid-range stroke for... nothing. Giving up Thomas' post presence is what caused the Suns to have such a gaping hole in regards to interior defense, and made the Suns have to swing a deal for Shaq. Granted, I'm for the trade based on the build of the roster at the time of the deal, but Thomas would be a better alternative. And even if we didn't want to keep Thomas, we could have done exactly what Seattle did at the deadline and trade him to someone (Seattle chose our main rival, San Antonio - smooth move, Sarver) for picks and expiring deals. So, when you balance this out, we essentially just sold three more first-round picks for.... NOTHING!!!

Now, let me justify Sarver in the faintest, lamest way possible. Sarver is a businessman. He became the majority owner of the Suns for a reason, and that was because it was yet another business venture for him, and if the team was successful, that was a sweet bonus for him. So let this lead to the moral of this entire column - The best NBA owners treat the idea of owning a team like a really expensive hobby. The best NBA owners are guys who will spend the big bucks that they have already made in whatever previous business ventures they have undertaken in order to be able to say that they spent the money to build a great team. Great owners are like James Dolan of New York, just without the side order of Isaiah Thomas. Sarver is not that, he is worried way too much about the financial state of the team, and, as detailed above, it has had a direect impact on the possible shape of this team. Assuming that all other non-Sarver influenced free-agent moves and trades made over this time would have been made anyways (except the useless ones), this is the roster the Suns could have if Sarver were willing to spend money.

The Not-So-Bizarro-Suns

Starting 5:

PG: Steve Nash
SG: Joe Johnson
SF: Andre Iguodala
PF: Amare Stoudemire
C: Shaquille O'Neal


PG: Rajon Rondo
Leandro Barbosa
D.J. Strawberry
Grant Hill

SG: Leandro Barbosa
Raja Bell
Eric Piatkowski (or Sean Marks)

SF: Grant Hill
Danny Granger
Alando Tucker

PF: Danny Granger
Carl Landry
Craig Smith

C: Carl Landry
Craig Smith
Sean Marks (or Eric Piatkowski)

I am thouroughly convinced this is the best roster ever assembled. You have a starting lineup of three sure-fire All-Stars (Nash, Johnson, Stoudemire), with two potential All-Stars with them (Iguodala, O'Neal), four guys on the bench who could be Sixth Man of the Year contenders (Hill, Rondo, Barbosa, Granger), three rookies with solid potential (Landry, Tucker, Strawberry), and two scrappers (Bell, Smith), one of whom clotheslined Kobe Bryant (Bell), and a Token White Guy (Piatkowski or Marks)(in case you're wondering, the Skinner signing wouldn't have happened, this team has the max 15 players and he was signed simply to fill a roster spot). Notice that a lot of the guys on the bench are found in different positions in what seems to be a pretty jumbled up order - this is because this team, along with being one of the best ever, is also one of the most versatile ever. They can march out with Shaq and Amare and play big, or put in a bunch of shooters and a guy like Amare or Landry at center and go small. The depth of this team is ridiculous. And don't act like this is a pipe dream, or some sort of best-case scenario situation. This could have easily happened. The only debatable part about this is whether or not we draft the young guys in here (Rondo, Landry, Granger, Smith) that we ended up giving to other teams. Even if we only get one or two of those guys, this is still a team that separates itself even among the ridiculous Western Conference, and has already won multiple titles in recent years. This is what could have been, everybody. Suns fans need to be more upset about this - I know I am.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The State of the NBA Rookie

While living up the old days last night playing some pickup ball (I'm the Zoran Planinic of pickup basketball: tall, white, and plays the point by default because all I can do is pass and dribble), me and a few buddies of mine were discussing U of A's basketball team. Granted, I'm not a Cats fan, only really following the couple of guys on the team that will likely have an impact on the professional stage. However, my buddy Sean brought up the fact that the Cats, in his opinion, are likely to be among the favorites to win it all next year should both Bayless and Budinger spurn guaranteed money and come back. That's a fair point, but I responded by saying that the rumblings that Bayless is going to return for another season at U of A were about the stupidest thing he could do - why would you risk a guaranteed $3 million-or-so salary for the change to win an NCAA tourney? It's a lock that he's not going to stay there for four years and actually earn a degree, and he shouldn't, degrees are designed to allow someone to earn as much money as possible, and Bayless is going to make his living with something that requires no education whatsoever. So what is the point of wasting a year of salary when the most likely outcome is that he gets picked lower next year than he would have this year, due to the fact that NBA teams prefer players who are younger and can be coached at the highest level and play at the highest level for the longest periods of time? The response I got back was, "he's not ready for the NBA." This, naturally, got me thinking. When has a player ever been "ready" for the NBA, and how have those players' careers played out in the NBA as opposed to those who were deemed to be similarly "unready?" I've always said it's a huge mistake to make the "safe" pick, but do the numbers back me up? Thus, it's time to look at a few of the most recent drafts, assess who would have most likely been deemed "ready" for the NBA, who would have been deemed "not ready" for the NBA, and how they have all fared. Keep in mind this is all subjective, and I, with my extremely limited sports knowledge, am the one determining all of these distinctions. I have tried to do so in a manner that takes into account year in college ball, success on teams in college, physical build, presumed ability to handle 82-game schedule, etc.



Greg Oden
Al Horford
Jeff Green
Yi Jianlian
Corey Brewer
Joakim Noah
Acie Law
Rodney Stuckey
Marco Belinelli

"Not Ready:"

Kevin Durant
Mike Conley
Brandan Wright
Thaddeus Young
Al Thornton
Sean Williams

Obviously, it's really early to try to make any huge distinctions about the 2007 draft class, but there are a few things worth noting already. First, the rookies playing the best this season are, predominantly, those who were expected to do so - the "ready" ones. This includes Al Horford, statistically having the best season among all rookies (yes, better than Durant - the shooting percentages don't lie), and a few rookies who were not among those drafted, such as Luis Scola, Jamario Moon, and Juan Carlos Navarro. However, one must also realize that there are a few rookies who seem slated to amount to very little in their careers who were chosen high because of the fact that they were expected to immediately contribute as polished players. What has happened is that they have thus far been unable to crack their team's rotation, and given the fact that they have really never seemed to have a great deal of potential, it seems that these players will amount to little more than role players. Who now envisions Acie Law as becoming a potential starting point guard? If Corey Brewer can't average more than 5 points per game on the hapless Timberwolves, does he have a legitimate future? After such a dazzling preseason, can Marco Belinelli perform at a high level when he isn't more experienced and clearly more talented than everybody else on the court? This is the danger of drafting "ready" players, the upside is limited, and if they don't pan out immediately, it's hard to envision them being long-run mainstays on a good team. You might call me an idiot for predetermining the careers of guys no more than six years older than myself, and I may well look like an idiot for this column in a few years, but I simply don't see it happening.



Andrea Bargnani
Adam Morrison
Shelden Williams
Brandon Roy
Randy Foye
J.J. Redick
Hilton Armstrong
Thabo Sefolosha
Oleksiy Pecherov
Quincy Douby
Maurice Ager
Mardy Collins

"Not Ready:"

LaMarcus Aldridge
Tyrus Thomas
Rudy Gay
Cedric Simmons
Shawne Williams
Rajon Rondo
Kyle Lowry
Jordan Farmar

After just a year and a half, the comparison between those players who were "ready" and "not ready" is staggering. Andrea Bargnani's ceiling continues to be about as low as his vertical, Morrison looks to be a bust in Charlotte, the Hawks already gave up on Shelden Williams, Foye is stuck on the bench behind Marko Jaric, Redick has become Orlando's Token White Guy, Armstrong is a role player in New Orleans, Sefolosha's inability to perform forced Chicago to bring in Larry Hughes' terrible contract, Pecherov is a bust as a rookie this year having finally come to the states, and Douby, Ager, and Collins have all become quite irrelevant. Only Roy has been immensely successful in Portland out of that group. Meanwhile, Aldridge is a key piece of Portland's rebulding process, Ty Thomas has, between trade rumors, played well enough to allow Chicago to dump Ben Wallace, Gay is a star, Rondo is the point guard on the best team in the East, Lowry is stuck on a team with two other guys picked higher and more recently than him, and Farmar is L.A.'s point-guard-in-training behind Derek Fisher. If you had to choose between starting your team with the first or second groups, the choice is obvious. Having only one guy turn out to be a potential star as opposed to having only two guys (Simmons and Williams) not be important pieces to a team is a position that does not make GM's successful.



Andrew Bogut
Deron Williams
Raymond Felton
Channing Frye
Ike Diogu
Fran Vazquez
Sean May
Rashad McCants
Antoine Wright
Joey Graham
Danny Granger
Hakim Warrick
Julius Hodge
Nate Robinson
Jarrett Jack
Francisco Garcia
Luther Head
Jason Maxiell
Wayne Simien
David Lee

"Not Ready:"

Marvin Williams
Chris Paul
Martell Webster
Charlie Villanueva
Andrew Bynum
Yaroslav Korolev
Gerald Green
Linas Kleiza

Now things get interesting as we go back into the high school era. For starters, yes, I know, that is a whole lot of "Ready" guys. But this draft happened to be filled with guys who came out as either juniors or seniors in college. And looking at that group of guys, how well did it turn out for the teams that picked them? Larry Harris is about to be fired in Milwaukee, and Bogut is a big reason why. Sure, Deron Williams has turned out well, but I'd be willing to bet Jerry Sloan would rather be coming out of that tunnel with Chris Paul. The two guys picked before Andrew Bynum were Channing Frye and Ike Diogu... gulp. May has become irrelevant - partially because of injuries and partially because he didn't even perform when he wasn't hurt. Antoine Wright almost just got traded for a second-round pick before he had to be included in the Jason Kidd deal for salary cap purposes. Graham is unheard of. Hell, the only guys out of this group who seem to have exceeded expectations came in the back part of the round, when the expectations were so low. Even so, among overachievers like Danny Granger, Nate Robinson, Luther Head, Jason Maxiell, and David Lee are busts like Julius Hodge, Francisco Garcia, and Wayne Simien. Now, are you ready for the "not ready" guys? Marvin Williams is 21 and already averaging over 15 points per game. Chris Paul is this year's MVP. Webster, despite being so far behind the curve when he came out of high school, has managed to work his way into Portland's starting lineup. Villanueva can score in bunches, as shown by his recent 32 point outing, as Milwaukee's sixth-man. Everyone knows about Bynum's ridiculous development into a potentially dominant big man. And Kleiza has developed so much that Denver was unwilling to part with him as a part of a deal to get Ron Artest. Out of this group, really the only two guys who have struggled are Green and Korolev. For being younger guys who were thought to be high-risk and high-reward, the risk seems to be pretty small, and reward really really high.



Emeka Okafor
Ben Gordon
Josh Childress
Rafael Araujo
Luke Jackson
Kirk Snyder
Jameer Nelson
Delonte West
Tony Allen

"Not Ready:"

Dwight Howard
Shaun Livingston
Luol Deng
Andre Iguodala
Andris Biedrins
Robert Swift
Sebastian Telfair
Al Jefferson
Josh Smith
J.R. Smith
Dorell Wright
Kevin Martin (Despite coming out after his junior year, when kept him at the bottom of the first round was the fact that he was physically undeveloped, and had a shot that was not seen as suited for the NBA. Looks like that didn't matter too much, did it?)

This draft's comparison begins right at the top of the list and goes right down the order. Orlando could have easily made the safe pick, Emeka Okafor, at the start of the draft, and nobody would have complained, and everyone's job security would have been untouched. However, they made the daring pick, the unproven and unready guy, and what do they have now to show for it? Possibly the most dominant force in the NBA today. Were it not for Shaun Livingston's devastating knee injury last season, do you really think he wouldn't be far and away better than Ben Gordon, whose inconsistencies have kept him on Chicago's bench? Who would you rather have on your team - Josh Childress or Luol Deng? Andre Iguodala or Rafael Araujo? Andris Biedrins or Luke Jackson? Al Jefferson or anyone taken picks 3-14? Josh Smith/J.R. Smith or Kirk Snyder? Tony Allen or Kevin Martin? In all of these situations, the player who was "not ready" was selected immediately after the player who was "ready," and in every one of these situations, the player who was "not ready" has turned out to be a better player. Sure, there are busts like the unproven Robert Swift's and Dorell Wright's, but there are just as many Rafael Araujo's and Luke Jackson's among those "ready" players to make it idiotic to choose a player because he's "ready" for the NBA and a supposed proven commodity.

Now, I won't continue going to keep proving my point, but if you feel the urge, keep going back, and you'll find that it has been going on for a long time that making the safe pick and taking someone who is "NBA ready" doesn't mean that player will have a successful career, and that often players who are deemed as being "not ready" for the NBA often become the most successful players in the league.

So, to get to the point of this column - Jerryd, get out of UA and make your money. The Knicks are waiting for you.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

How to Fix the Lottery Teams

Pretty much year after year in the NBA we find the same teams mired in the mediocrity that is the NBA Draft Lottery. Atlanta, Memphis, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Portland, the L.A. Clippers, and Denver are among the teams that can be found annually hoping the ping-pong balls resurrect their franchises. So this year, I'm here to analyze the problems facing the fourteen teams that currently are lined up to be a part of the NBA Draft Lottery, Miami, Minnesota, Memphis, Seattle, New York, the Clippers, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indiana, Atlanta (pick owned by PHX), Sacramento, Portland, and Denver, and suggest methods for those teams to rectify their situations. Note that this will not be a mock draft (that's for a later date when the draft order is solidified), but just an outline of some of the moves and philosophies the teams need to have to rebuild. Some scenarios are very brief and simple, while others are so daunting as to nearing impossibility (that's you Isaiah). Starting from the bottom of the lottery, here we go.

Denver Nuggets:

Starting 5:
PG: Anthony Carter
SG: Allen Iverson
SF: Carmelo Anthony
PF: Kenyon Martin
C: Marcus Camby

Worst Contract: Kenyon Martin - $13.25 million salary, three years remaining after this season.

Remember a few years ago, when the Nuggets pulled off the sign-and-trade for Martin and everyone thought they were headed for the top? Well, now it seems like that's the move that is preventing them from making it to the top. They have two power forwards (Martin and Nene) who are both overpaid, have crappy knees which have had dreadful surgeries performed on them, and who the Nugs would love to dump off on someone. Honestly, if you're the Nuggets last summer, and you know Martin is under contract long-term, you know that the center position is locked up by the excellent Camby, what inspires you to sign Nene to such a terrible contract? Well enough griping on how the Nuggets have shot themselves in the foot, I'll offer some solutions. First off, there isn't a playoff team alive that really would depend on the play of a guy like Anthony Carter. Naturally, that's the first position the team needs to address. Problem is they're way over the cap, and there aren't great point guards available right out of college, especially around the bottom of the lottery, where the Nuggets will be picking this summer. So what can be done to rectify the Nuggets's situation? Well the first thing that strikes me is that Martin needs to be given a kick in the pants - he's making over $13 million per for the next three seasons following this one, and is averaging 11 points and 6 rebounds per game. How about a benching? Is it just me or is Martin the kind of guy who is enough of an athletic superfreak that he would be great in a role similar to David Lee's? He just runs and dunks, and has for pretty much his entire career, and given that he's 30, that isn't going to change. Inserting the emerging Linas Kleiza into the lineup instead of Martin, and having Martin come off the bench would not only maintain a solid starting 5 with Carter, Iverson, Carmelo, Kleiza, and Camby, but also give the Nuggets a great sixth and seventh man combo in Martin and J.R. Smith. Smith could spell Carter, with Iverson moving the point (given his new ability to pass), and Martin comes in for Kleiza to provide some instant energy after the opposing starting 5 has started to tire a little. Obviously that's a pretty insignificant change, but the fact of the matter is the Nuggets don't have any way to bring in free agents with their cap situation, and the draft is the only way they're going to bring in any more decent talent. As for the draft, Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson appear to be the best options - they need a point guard. That, or they could opt for a shooting guard and move Iverson to point full-time (Chase Budinger?).

Portland Trail Blazers:

Starting 5:
PG: Steve Blake
SG: Brandon Roy
SF: Martell Webster
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: Joel Pryzbilla (will be some guy named Oden when he returns)

Worst Contract: Raef LaFrentz - $12.4 million salary, one year remaining after this season.

Here's my advice for Kevin Pritchard: DON'T DO ANYTHING THIS SUMMER!!! Unless someone gives you an out-of-the-world offer of talent for Raef LaFrentz's expiring contract/corpse, don't ship it off for a set of longer, crappier contracts belonging to role players. Pritchard has been fantastic in building through the draft the past couple of seasons, acquiring picks in bundles from teams selling them off for nothing (that's you Suns, stop ruining the team's future for the sake of Sarver's bank account). This team has the talent currently on its roster to become great within a few years, as long as it doesn't undergo some unheard of unloading process of this talent. However, with such young, inexpensive talent comes the reality that all of those rookie contracts will soon expire, and once that happens, large contracts will be needed to replace them. So, for goodness' sake, let LaFrentz expire, and use that money to lock up guys like Roy, Aldridge, Webster, and eventually Oden long-term when necessary. Same applies for Darius Miles. Otherwise, keep the good track record on draft picks and continue to build inexpensively while acquiring relatively inexpensive role players (i.e. James Jones). Keep giving the young guys minutes, and keep alienating overpaid cancers like Darius Miles. Portland has the right idea, it just needs to stay patient. Jumping from the top pick last season to the 13th (thus far) is evidence of the progress, don't ruin it.

Sacramento Kings:

Starting 5:
PG: Beno Udrih
SG: Kevin Martin
SF: Ron Artest
PF: Mikki Moore
C: Brad Miller

Worst Contract: Kenny Thomas - $7.9 million salary, two years remaining after this season.

Sacramento started the process it needs to undergo at the deadline by shipping off Mike Bibby to Atlanta for spare expiring contracts. So now that it traded off one of the most expensive aging pieces that had trade value, why didn't it keep going? This is an example of a team that is floundering between wanting to compete now and building for the future. Last summer, the team signs Mikki Moore for over $5 million per season based on one playoff series of performance. And now it's trading away the guy who was its franchise point guard for years? OK, so you could argue the team decided to change its philosophy during the year after seeing they weren't going anywhere this season. So naturally, they choose to keep a guy making $7.4 million, who has had a history of making headlines for being insane throughout all of his career, but yet oddly seems to be as sane as he is ever going to be, and for whom there was legitimate interest throughout the league. Why do they not get rid of Ron Artest? He was a tradable asset who they can't see as being a part of their future - after all, why would you want to surround the young and budding star of Kevin Martin with a cancer like Artest - and they didn't trade him. Hopefully, next season, when Artest has opted out (making the Kings' net gain for him nothing) and Brad Miller is drawing attention from teams around the league due to his still-impressive play and short-term, high-salary contract, they make the smart move and deal him. This is a good young team that can build around guys like Martin, Spencer Hawes, Beno Udrih, and another lottery pick this year. O.J. Mayo's less-than-stellar freshman campaign at USC is starting to slip him down draft boards, and throwing him into that mix would make Sacto formidable if they can make the right moves.


Starting 5:
PG: Mike Bibby
SG: Joe Johnson
SF: Josh Smith
PF: Marvin Williams
C: Al Horford

Worst Contract: Speedy Claxton - $6.3 million salary, two years remaining after this season.

To start off, let me just say that the Bibby trade was spectacular. They gave up no first-round picks, nobody who was a significant part of their future plans, and got a guy who is just 29, has playoff experience, and plays the position the Hawks have been lacking for years. Granted, had they drafted Chris Paul, they wouldn't be in this situation, but the fact of the matter is they still have a really solid starting 5. The one problem here though is that by the time the young kids (Smith, Horford, Williams, and Acie Law off the bench) are in their primes, Bibby will be way past his. So the key here is the Hawks finding a way to contend before the kids hit their prime and after Bibby is past his. Also, the Hawks are without their first-round pick this year, having dealt it to Phoenix as a part of the Joe Johnson trade. However, the Hawks have a very managable cap situation, being just $126,000 over the cap, and Bibby's outrageous deal only lasts one season after this year, just as some of the kids are up for extensions. The key is what they do with the cap space they are likely to have when his deal expires. They obviously need to extend Smith and Williams. But one thing that the Hawks have been terrible about is signing insignificant players to short-sighted deals. They have Speedy Claxton on the books for another two seasons after this one at over $6 million and Zaza Pachulia on the books for next season at $4 million. One of the biggest rules for building an NBA team is to NOT overpay role players and guys who you aren't absolutely convinced will be significant parts of the team's rotation throughout the duration of the deal. However, the management in Atlanta is so screwed up, it's hard to imagine this foundation actually lasting for too long. If it does manage to survive though, this could be the Eastern Conference incarnation of the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns. We can hope.

Indiana Pacers:

Starting 5:
PG: Travis Diener (Jamaal Tinsley injured)
SG: Mike Dunleavy
SF: Danny Granger
PF: Troy Murphy (Jermaine O'Neal injured)
C: Jeff Foster (Jermaine O'Neal injured)

Worst Contract: Jamaal Tinsley - $6.3 million salary, three years remaining after this season.

Obviously, the depth chart is a bit skewed due to the two injuries mentioned, and the fact that Jermaine O'Neal has been injured for much of the season has left this team struggling, even in the Eastern Conference. First though, I'd like to look at the position where the other injury is hi-lighted, the point guard slot. Jamaal Tinsley has been inconsistent for years, and Diener looks to have some potential to be a fantastic point guard. In his last seven games, he has dished out a total of forty-eight assists - almost seven per contest, while also averaging 10 points per game. Given that Diener is paid much less, has more potential as a young player (only 26), and isn't despised by fans the way Tinsley is, it seems logical to me to simply keep him at the point even when Tinsley comes back. Similar to Kenyon Martin earlier, perhaps a benching will remove some of the lethargic play Tinsley has become associated with. After O'Neal fully recovers from his injury next season, this team looks poised to make a run at being one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference again. Thank goodness this team didn't panic and make a deal for Vince Carter - if they thought Tinsley mails in games, Carter has made it into his own art form. Not to mention Carter's contract is simply ungodly, whereas O'Neal's expires at the end of next season, either making O'Neal into a valuable trading chip next season, or giving the Pacers some cap flexibility to start over with. As far as what to do in the draft this year, the Pacers need a true center to pair with O'Neal, and while a guy like Marreese Speights of Florida would be considered a reach by some, he's the best center option that is likely to be available to the Pacers. Or, if the Pacers are looking to contend as soon as possible, they could go for Italy's Danilo Gallinari, although he might be off the board by this point.

Chicago Bulls:

Starting 5:
PG: Kirk Hinrich
SG: Larry Hughes
SF: Andres Nocioni
PF: Drew Gooden
C: Joakim Noah

Worst Contract: A tough call, considering the Larry Hughes deal is pretty bad, but Hughes was playing out of his element in Cleveland, and if he can recover some of his scoring ability he had in Washington, he could prove to be extremely valuable. I'm going to give the edge to Andres Nocioni - $8.5 million salary, four years remaining after this season. Role players don't deserve this kind of money, even glorified role players who happen to start on their team.

Analyzing the Bulls is especially tricky right now in the aftermath of their huge deal to ship Ben Wallace to Cleveland. However, what I notice when I look at the Bulls right now is that they have a much different problem than many other teams in the NBA Lottery situation right now. Instead of having a slew of underpaid young players who can continue to develop into potential all-stars in the mold of teams like Atlanta, Portland, etc., they are stuck with a slew of players who seem to have reached their potential in the starting lineup, backups with obvious deficiencies that prevent them from being starters, and only a couple of young players who seem to have star potential. Hinrich, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng don't appear to be getting much better anytime soon, aren't going to be all-stars, but also aren't just average role players. This makes it a dicey situation for Chicago, as they now are faced with the challenge of paying a bunch of non-starters starter-level money. However, these players do have trade value, so the Bulls need to swing a big deal moreso than any other team on this list. However, in order to do so, the Bulls are going to have to remove their hesitation to part with some of their youngsters in Tyrus Thomas and Joakin Noah, as parting ways with one or both of these guys is likely the only way they're going to make any sort of significant splash. The deal to send off Ben Wallace was certainly a step in the positive direction, but this summer is going to be key for Chicago. If they can find a way to convince someone like the Clippers, Washington, or even Miami to agree to a sign-and-trade for someone like Elton Brand, Gilbert Arenas, or Shawn Marion, the Bulls can start to assemble pieces like Andres Nocioni and Larry Hughes around that one star player and rebuild this team around experience. In the Eastern Conference, that is going to be enough to make a serious playoff run. Some of their bad contracts prevent this team from being able to completely blow it up and rebuild from the ground up, but even if they wanted to do so, it probably wouldn't be the wisest course of action at this point. Let me just say I wouldn't want to be John Paxson right now, as he has some very difficult decisions to make. The makeup of this team even makes it difficult to try to suggest a way to go in the draft. The point guard position seems to be weak, especially since Chris Duhon is set to be a free agent, so one might expect the pick to be D.J. Augustin, but a big deal could throw all of their draft needs into flux. That is, if the pick isn't a part of the deal they make.

Milwaukee Bucks:

Starting 5:
PG: Mo Williams
SG: Michael Redd
SF: Bobby Simmons
PF: Charlie Villanueva
C: Andrew Bogut

Worst Contract: So many choices... I'll go with Bobby Simmons - $9.28 million salary, two years remaining after this season.

What has plagued the Bucks over the past few seasons has been being conservative when they need to be aggressive, and aggressive when they need to be conservative. Making the "safe pick" in the draft only ends up with teams passing up on elite talent like Chris Paul and Deron Williams to pick Andrew Bogut first overall. That's what makes last year's selection of Yi Jianlian so disappointing to me. It's not that Yi is a bad player - it's that he was the safe pick for Milwaukee. He's a guy who has legitimate game experience in international play and could come in and contribute now. The fact of the matter in Milwaukee is that right now, the Bucks aren't going to win, and a bit more production this year from Yi over taking a guy who could have a more significant impact in the long run shows no guts. Then, in looking at what they have done in free agency, you can only wonder why they throw gobs of money at second-tier free agents such as Mo Wililams, Bobby Simmons, and Charlie Bell. These guys are certainly not top-level players, but yet the Bucks seem to think they should pay them as such. What the Bucks need is patience right now - simply sit and let the crappy contracts expire, fire Larry Harris, one of the worst General Managers around (and hire Bill Simmons), start drafting for the future, and refuse to pay role players starter-money. Redd is a ridiculous scorer, and that won't diminish too much with age. Yes, this is going to take a LONG time, around three or four years in order to get rid of some guys and make others into expiring contract trading chips. But if Milwaukee basketball is going to be relevant again, the Bucks cannot start trying to swap out these deals for worse ones in hopes that they get a slight improvement in talent and can make a playoff run. It's not going to happen with this team, so suck it up and get ready for the long haul. Once Bell, Dan Gadzuric, Bo. Simmons, Jake Voskuhl, Mo Williams, and Desmond Mason are all finally off the books, this team can finally start to build and become relevant again. As for draft advice, the Bucks need to make a statement with a legitimate prospect. I've heard suggestions to go with Italy's Danilo Gallinari, who has been said to be "possibly a better prospect than Andrea Bargnani." That is absolutely not what Milwaukee needs. Milwaukee needs to take a guy who will need grooming and attention to develop his raw talents, and two names that come to my mind are Anthony Randolph of LSU and O.J. Mayo of SC. Both of those guys would be the start of a new trend in Milwaukee which would allow for the Bucks to begin making the drastic changes they need to make. Two great options (and at least one is likely to be available at Milwaukee's pick). Another less-appealing backup option could be Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, but it shouldn't be necessary to take him.

Charlotte Bobcats:

Starting 5:
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: Jason Richardson
SF: Gerald Wallace
PF: Emeka Okafor
C: Nazr Mohammed

Worst Contract: Matt Carroll - $5.45 million salary, five years remaining after this season.

Michael Jordan is drunk at the helm. Looking at all the recent moves the Bobcats have made, you can't help but wonder what their long-term plans are. The Bobcats have been hounded by the same issues the Bucks have been pestered by - making the safe pick in the draft. Adam Morrison had proven he could score and college and was a proven competitor. But did he have upside? No, and everyone knew it. Sean May played for a great team at North Carolina, but was he going to be a dominant, physically imposing power forward? Absolutely not, and, once again, everyone knew it. This timidity has prevented the Bobcats from really acquiring top-notch young talent through the draft. Last summer, when the Cats picked Brandan Wright from UNC, the kid with all sorts of potential and athletic upside, I thought they had finally reversed their thinking and made a move that made sense for the future of the franchise. So what did they do? They shipped him to Golden State for Jason Richardson, wasting their cap space on a highly-paid veteran who wasn't going to take this team to the playoffs, not to mention a championship. And then they break the golden rule of not overpaying role players by giving Matt Carroll a SIX-YEAR CONTRACT!!! Then, to only make matters worse, their in-season deal involved giving expiring contracts to Detroit for Nazr Mohammed, who was stuck as the third center on Detroit's depth chart before the trade. Sure, Mohammed improves the team from a talent perspective, but he has a terrible contract and isn't going to take this team to the playoffs. So why sacrifice your cap flexibility? Some drastic changes need to come, and quick. Same advice I gave to the Bucks applies to Charlotte: stop overpaying role players, draft for the future, not the present, and lay off the scotch/phone combination. As for the draft, this team needs a center, despite the fact that they gave up their cap flexibility to get Mohammed. He isn't going to cut it, and the team would have been so much better off not wasting their money. DeAndre Jordan is ideal, given that he has an incredibly high ceiling, but unfortunately his chances of being around when Charlotte picks are slim to none. So the Bobcats may be forced to pick someone like Stanford's Brook Lopez, despite the fact that he does seem to slightly go against the suggested philosophy of not making the "safe pick." The Cats' need at center is simply that big.

Los Angeles Clippers:

Starting 5:
PG: Brevin Knight (Shaun Livingston injured, Sam Cassell recently released)
SG: Cuttino Mobley
SF: Corey Maggette
PF: Tim Thomas (Elton Brand injured)
C: Chris Kaman

Worst Contract: Cuttino Mobley - $8.35 million salary, two years remaining after this season.

The Clippers have a lot of problems. For starters, Elton Brand is likely to opt out and bolt at the end of the season, and you really can't blame him with the lack of success the Clippers have had recently. It's been obvious for a long time that this team isn't awfully keen on winning as many games as they possibly can, and that they certainly aren't well-managed. However, there are reasons to believe that, if this team's management gets its act together, this team can start to re-build and become pretty good in a short period of time. After Brand opts out, the Clips will have some cap space to work with this summer. My advice to them - don't use it unless you can get one of the top three or four guys on the market. Their space in all likelihood would only get them a mid-tier player on the current free agent market whose contract they would be wanting to rid of in about two weeks (like what has happened with Tim Thomas). Instead, this team needs to start re-building around guys like Chris Kaman, Quinton Ross, and Al Thornton, while waiting for the contracts of Corey Maggette and Mobley to either run out or become expiring deals that they can get quality players and draft picks out of in the next couple of years. As far as drafting goes, the Clippers need a good point guard to take over for Cassell, and if Jerryd Bayless gets past the Knicks, he would be a fantastic pick for the Clippers. However, in all likelihood that does not happen, forcing the Clippers to look into possibly selecting either a big man compliment to Kaman (Jordan/Lopez) or reaching a bit for either a power forward (Randolph/Griffin) or even a polished foreign player like Gallinari.

New York Knicks:

Starting 5:
PG: Jamal Crawford
SG: Fred Jones (Stephon Marbury suspended/injured/who knows)
SF: Quenton Richardson
PF: Zach Randolph
C: Eddy Curry

Worst Contract: Good lord, can I say all of them? No? Well... if I have to pick, I'll say Quentin Richardson's beauty of a deal - $8.1 million salary, two years remaining after this season, and the guy who he was recently traded for, Kurt Thomas, is less washed up than Richardson is despite the fact that Richardson is eight years younger. Yikes. The Knicks weren't even the ones who signed the guy and they still ended up with his terrible contract. Is Isaiah doing this on purpose? I'm seriously asking this question...

Where in God's name do I begin? They're almost $40 million over the salary cap. I was discussing what I would do as Knicks GM with my buddy Travers, and came up with the idea of signing three fat cannibalistic Samoan guys to ten-day contracts, leaving David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Wilson Chandler, Mardy Collins, Randolph Morris, and Nate Robinson in New York on some road trip with a mysterious "illness," and then having the Samoans have at it on the team jet. If they were hungry enough, could get through Jerome James' fat layers, and dodge Zach Randolph's prison shank that he keeps in his left sock, they could potentially get rid of all of the Knicks' bad contracts in a quick four-hour plane ride! Honestly, and in all seriousness, I do not know where to begin with this team. The only option that seems to be available to the Knicks is to simply stand pat, try to acquire some young pieces in the draft, sign NOBODY in free agency, give the young studs counseling so they don't commit suicide, and wait four years for all of these crappy deals to finally come off the books. That means that the Knicks get absolute free reign to draft whoever will be the best player in the draft, since they're completely starting over with their roster. Since the top-3 appears all but set, this leaves the two centers (Jordan/Lopez) or Jerryd Bayless as the pick for NY. Having watched Bayless crush BCP at St. Mary's in Phoenix for four years, I can't help but think that Bayless is the guy that will shine in the prime-time atmosphere of New York City. He's my pick.

Seattle Sonics:

Starting 5:
PG: Earl Watson
SG: Kevin Durant
SF: Jeff Green
PF: Chris Wilcox
C: Johan Petro

Worst Contract: Nick Collison - $5.75 million salary, three years remaining after this season.

This team is absolutely being ripped apart right now, as Clay Bennett prepares to move the squad to the booming market of Oklahoma City (what?!?!?!). So Sam Presti has been faced with the impossible task of trying to shed salary on this team while also building it up to have a future once it does finally arrive in Oklahoma City. To be short, Presti has been marvelous. If I'm forced to take over any one of these teams, Seattle is at the top of the list (with one other team that might surprise you - coming later). Presti has been marvelous in not only getting rid of the team's horrid contracts (like Wally Szczerbiak's, also known as "One of the Top 20 Most Untradable Contracts to Ever Get Traded"), while also stocking up on first-round picks, such as how he turned Rashard Lewis wanting to go to Orlando into three first-round picks and half a year of solid play from Kurt Thomas. He did so by using the trade exception to acquire Thomas from Phoenix, but only consenting to do so by taking two of Phoenix's future first-round picks, only to ship Thomas off to San Antonio at the deadline for another pick and expiring deals. And now by taking on more expiring deals in the Cleveland/Chicago three-way deal, Seattle is set to build their team around a young, exciting core of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and this year's pick with solid role players like Nick Collison and Luke Ridnour (two examples of safe picks, by the way, and now both have gone from lottery selections to role players - I can't stress this enough...). Also, once their plethora of deals that expire over the next couple of seasons finally are off the books, the Oklahoma City Rodeo Clowns will have the resources to rebuild their franchise. It really is too bad that Bennett is forcing Presti to cut salary - I'd love to see what this guy could do if he were just trying to build talent, not cap space. As for the draft, they find themselves in the unfortunate position of being the fourth-worst team in the league. If they score in the lottery and get into the top-3, they can get their hands on one of the three guys who are widely expected to, and should, go 1-2-3, Beasley, Rose, or Gordon. If not, I would think they might go for DeAndre Jordan, but if the Sonics/R.C.'s picked up yet another center in the first-round of the draft, I think there might be even more of a mutiny than there is already after the abysmal busts of Robert Swift, Johan Petro, and Mouhamed Sene (picked three straight years before Durant came into town last year - too bad Oden didn't slip to them, we could be going for the quinfecta...). I can see management in Seattle/soon-to-be-OKC showing too much pride and refusing to admit that all three are busts, and instead reaching for a Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Randolph, or Danilo Gallinari, strictly to try to not end up with another center on the roster.

Memphis Grizzlies:

Starting 5:
PG: Mike Conley
SG: Mike Miller
SF: Rudy Gay
PF: Hakim Warrick
C: Darko Milicic

Worst Contract: Brian Cardinal - $5.85 million salary, two years remaining after this season. Tempted to put Darko though...

Good lord, what is GM Chris Wallace thinking? He accepted two prospects (one of whom is in Europe), two picks, and a corpse (it apparently has a name too, something like Kwame, I think) in exchange for one of the top power forwards in the league. And then, following that debacle, he tries to hike up his asking price for Mike Miller, resulting in the Grizzlies getting nothing out of a tradable asset with a high-priced contract to start rebuilding around the incredibly gifted scorer Rudy Gay. If Marc Iavaroni gets through this mess with his job, someone ought to give him a purple heart. Or at least a hug. The Grizzlies have precisely 37.4 young point guards on their roster (Conley, Javaris Crittenton, and Kyle Lowry), an even greater number of one-dimensional three-point bombers (Miller, Juan Carlos Navarro, Casey Jacobsen, and Brian Cardinal), one true center (the oh-so-talented Jason Collins), and two starters who don't have a definite position (Darko is not a center or a power forward, and Warrick is not a power forward or a small forward). Yikes. This team needs to do two things. First, it need to use one of its point guard assets and Miller to dump off Cardinal's contract for expiring deals. Ironically, they had just this opportunity when Miami offered to take Cardinal and Miller from the Grizz for the expiring deals of Jason Williams and Ricky Davis, yet the Grizzlies moronically refused. Second, they need to stop signing guys who havn't proven themselves over long periods of time to contracts that will pay them over long periods of time. This caution alone would have prevented the Darko and Cardinal signings, which unsurprisingly are now the two worst contracts on the team. As for the draft, take the best player available who does not play point guard. They could be tempted to go for DeAndre Jordan to finally get themselves that center, but I feel that this team has so many needs that it's hard to settle for any smaller amount of talent to pick for need. That player with the greatest talent looks to be Eric Gordon at this point, but if the Grizz fall in the lottery, they should focus on one of the two center prospects.

Minneota Timberwolves:

Starting 5:
PG: Sebastian Telfair
SG: Marko Jaric
SF: Corey Brewer
PF: Ryan Gomes
C: Al Jefferson

Worst Contract: Antione Walker - $8.3 million salary, three years remaining after this season.

Minnesota has pieces and quality young players to work with, but too many bad contracts to allow them to surround those young players with the quality guys they need to rebuild this team. Walker's deal is horrendous. Mark Madsen makes $2.4 million, and will for two more years after this season. Jaric makes $6.05 million, and will for three more years after this season. Greg Buckner makes $3.75 million, and will for two more years after this season. In case you're counting, that is $20.5 million in salary devoted to thsoe players The only one in the Wolves' rotation is Jaric, and quite frankly he shouldn't be. Minny is going nowhere in the next couple of years, and the young guys on the team are developing. So what Minny needs to do is get all of those young guys into their starting lineup and give them as much playing time as their bodies can handle. Telfair is leaving to get as much money as he can find this summer when his deal expires, so bench him and give Randy Foye the run he needs. Jaric is useless, and McCants has shown time and time again that he can score, so swap those two around. A lineup headlining Foye, McCants, Brewer, and Jefferson has four guys who have all proven they will be good, if not great, players in the NBA. This team has a fair number of guys whose deals expire at the end of the year, including Michael Doleac ($3.1 million), Kirk Snyder ($2.36 million), and Telfair ($2.56 million). However, this team shouldn't go out and spend it, and instead focus on building through the draft and making sure they'll have the resources around to extend the guys who will be keys to their team when the time comes to do so, while waiting for the crappy deals to start going away. For this year's draft, If the Wolves manage to hit the jackpot in the Lottery their pick will, without any doubt or hesitation, be Michael Beasley. He not only is the most talented player in the draft, as well as the best prospect, but also fits exactly the need that the Wolves have. It is, by all accounts, a perfect marraige. However, should they come up short, their pick is Derrick Rose should they choose second (moving Foye to the 2, and McCants to a great bench scorer role in the mold of what Leandro Barbosa is supposed to be), or one of the centers should they pick fourth or fifth (moving Jefferson back to his more natural power forward position). The Wolves are extremely fortunate that this draft has players in it that fit their needs.

Miami Heat:

Starting 5:
PG: Jason Williams
SG: Dwayne Wade
SF: Shawn Marion
PF: Udonis Haslem
C: Mark Blount

Worst Contract: Mark Blount - $7.9 million salary, two years remaining after this season.

I mentioned earlier that the Sonics were one of two teams that I would most like to take over if I had my choice of any of these fourteen lottery teams, and said that one other would come later. Well, this is the last team, so yes, the Heat are my second choice, despite being the worst team in the NBA and being almost $20 million over the cap. Allow me to explain. First things first, the the Heat, despite being so far above the cap now, will shed off a TON of salary at the end of the season. Since the Grizzlies did the Heat a solid and refused to take Davis' and Williams' expiring deals for Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal, the Heat now will have both of those deals, along with the deals of Dorell Wright, Smush Parker, Alonzo Mourning, Earl Barron, and Chris Quinn all expire at the end of the year. The combined salaries of those players alone, $24.97 million, is enough to get the Heat $5 million under the cap. Where it gets even better is when you consider the fact that Shawn Marion has the option to opt out of his $16.44 million contract, and it is widely assumed that he will do just that in order to get one last huge deal with whoever is willing to pay him the most money. So for this year, shut Wade down, lose intentionally, make Marion as unhappy as possible so he leaves, and the demolition is complete. That gives the Heat a healthy, rejuvinated Dwayne Wade, a couple of good supporting pieces (Marcus Banks, Daequan Cook, Udonis Haslem), one of the top picks of this year's draft, and over $20 million in cap space to re-shape their roster however they please. Moving on to the draft, the Heat look poised to have the best shot to acquire Michael Beasley due to their futility. However, what is even more important about their futility is that it guarantees them that they pick no worse than the fourth pick. This makes it so that they are guaranteed one of the top-5 talents in the draft, since only one player in that top-5 (Eric Gordon) plays the position that is locked up by Wade. Anybody from Beasley, Rose, Jordan, or Lopez would be a great pick for Miami to compliment Wade. Don't expect this team to stay down for too long.

There you have it - I have just pretended to actually have some sort of knowledge on the runnings and operations of the NBA and made myself into the GM of all 14 lottery teams. If any of these teams does what I say they should and it works for them, just know that I'm never going to stop talking about it. You've been warned.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

NFL Free Agency - The Race to Guarantee as Much Money to as Mediocre/Unproven of Players as Possible

NFL free agency started last Friday, and in just a few short days we find that there have been a plethora of moves, some good, some decent, and some downright incomprehensible. So, without further delay, here I go, team by team, in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that grades are for the moves the teams have made SO FAR. Also, I'm not going to get to all 30 teams, so if I skip the team you care about... sorry, I guess.

Arizona: Put Franchise Tag on LB Karlos Dansby, other random rumblings.

Granted, Arizona hasn't done much to anything in free agency, but since I'm a Cards fan and have access to the local media's discussion about the inner workings of the team, instead of just hearing about when big moves happen, I'm sort of obligated to, and can, write something about them. First up is the one actual move the Cards have made, putting the Franchise Tag on Karlos Dansby. Dansby is simply a freak of nature at the linebacker slot, and that kind of athletic ability in a player doesn't come around every day. The Franchise Tag, however, is only a short-term fix. What needs to happen is Dansby getting a long-term deal, as he's earned it, and the Cards need to have his abilities in the long-run. However, for some reason I can't comprehend, the Cards seem to be dragging their feet on negotiating a long-term deal with this guy. I'd hate to see a great player like Dansby get run out of town because we can't open up the pocketbook to keep him around, but given the Cards' history, don't be shocked if that's exactly what happens. The other big news in Arizona relates to a guy the Cardinals still have under contract for another two seasons - Larry Fitzgerald. That actually is exactly the problem - Fitzgerald has performed so well during the first few seasons of his rookie deal, that certain ridiculous escalator clauses have been activated within the deal, and thus Fitzgerald's salaries over the next two seasons have risen to $14.6 million and $17.4 million, respectively. That kind of cap hit can crush a franchise, and while the Cardinals frantically try to renegotiate with Fitzgerald to bring that number down, it's hard to imagine that happening without extending his deal another four or five years, and giving him another $40 million or so (I'm no GM, but I can't imagine Fitz consenting to this without cashing out huge in the process). In case you're keeping track, that's six years and about $70 million, with what are likely to be unheard of guarantees. Fitzgerald has Arizona by the balls right now, and the GM work of the Cardinals has clearly laid a few eggs in how this has played out. As a result, we now have rumblings of Fitz being traded, possibly to Philadelphia, in order to get rid of his insane cap number. Make no mistake - trading Fitzgerald would kill the hopes of the Arizona Cardinals. The only strength we've had the past few years, and the only reason why our offense has managed to produce, is the fact that we have one of the best 1-2 receiver combos in the league and can create mismatches every down. Our running game has so far amounted to nothing, and despite Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt's hopes, I doubt it's going to get much better as long as Edgerrin James is our featured back. It's obvious that GM Rod Graves has done next to nothing right in handling this team. From getting nothing out of Kurt Warner and leaving a young and developing Matt Leinart to platoon at QB, which can do nothing but destroy his confidence, to mismanaging the cap and having signed no free agents thus far, despite the fact that Calvin Pace is on the verge of going to Miami and Bryant Johnson looks to possibly move to somewhere like Buffalo or Chicago, there is much to be desired out of Cards management. Hey, at least we get to back to the comfort of having a top-10 pick next year!

Grade: C-

Atlanta: Signs Michael Turner for six years, $34.5 million, including $15 million in guarantees. Re-signs Chris Redman to two-year deal

To begin, let me say that Michael Turner was VASTLY overpaid by the Falcons. He is unproven as a guy who can take a majority of the carries for a team, is already 26 years old, and was just given a contract that will pay him until he is 32. However, let me say that I don't mind the fact that Atlanta overpaid him in the least. At this point, Atlanta is in clear turmoil as a franchise. They were not going to get a quality player to sign with them unless they drastically overpaid him. Every new article about the franchise still has a reference to the Michael Vick fiasco (there was mine), they had their coach quit on them in the middle of the season last year, and have nobody at any of the key positions that appears to be a long-term solution. Well, until now, that is. Turner gives them a guy at running back who has proven that he can toast a defense if put in the right situation, and, believe it or not, Atlanta is the right situation for him. Their new head coach, Mike Smith, came from Jacksonville, who was pretty darn good at giving a similar back in Maurice Jones-Drew the opportunity to succeed in a split backfield. With Jerious Norwood already in the fold, Turner doesn't have to toil through 25 carries per game. Smith will maximize Turner's efficiency, and perhaps save his legs to the point where he can still be productive near the final years of this deal. As for Redmond, he played very well last season when he was given some time, but given his limited run, the Falcons played it safe and gave him a two-year deal so they can get a look to see if he's their guy. If not, they can draft a QB this summer, and plug him in in a year or so.

Grade: B+

Chicago: Lance Briggs stays for 6 years, $36 million. Rex Grossman stays for 1 year, $3 million. I'm not really sure what to think of this deal. First impressions are very good for the Bears - they get a 27-year old Linebacker in the prime of his career for a reasonable $6 million average salary. Granted, the deal is long, but in all likelihood, by the time he's 33 at the end of this deal, his production will have fallen, the Bears will cut him, and that won't matter. But really, what is going on in Chicago these days? They don't seem to be making active strides to improving their team, despite the fact that that's exactly what they need to be doing. Re-signing Rex Grossman for $3 million for this season? What is the point of doing that - the fact that they're only giving him a 1-year deal makes it obvious the Bears are simply taking a flier on a guy who they don't have any real faith will produce and become a great QB. So why not take this opportunity to get a new franchise QB and start re-building the team? With what the Bears are doing, they aren't going to get better this season. It's no secret that Miami wants to trade out of the #1 overall slot - so why is Dallas the only team you keep hearing about discussing a deal? Is it just me or would Matt Ryan be a really nice fit in Chicago? Not only have they not made any strides to improve, but they lost their two best receivers, Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad. And that's supposed to set up Grossman to succeed, right? The Briggs deal was good, but the team's overall direction, especially at Quarterback, is confusing to me.

Grade: B-

Cleveland: Re-sign Derek Anderson for three years, $24 million. Acquire Corey Williams from Packers for second-round pick, Shaun Rodgers from Lions for third-round pick and Leigh Bodden. Sign Donte Stallworth for seven years, $35 million.

I'm going to just go ahead and say it - I flat-out love the Anderson deal and the way that GM Phil Savage handled the situation. He knew that he had the upper-hand on Anderson from the beginning due to the fact that Anderson wanted to stay in Cleveland, where he's had his only success after bouncing around the waiver wire, and that Anderson was a Restricted Free Agent, and that he only wanted to secure Anderson for a reasonable two or three year contract. He quickly let Anderson know that the only offer from Cleveland would be a three-year deal, and that any deal that Anderson tried to sign elsewhere would only have gotten matched by Cleveland. Should Anderson have tested Cleveland, he would have been stuck with a long-term deal with a team that would have traded him, or even possibly cut him after three years of that deal. Should Anderson have been cut after three years of such a deal, he would have lost out on the big money of the contract. Anderson knew he had to take the Browns' offer or risk the possibility of losing some huge dollars. And given the fact that Anderson has only performed at a high level for one season, he would have been stupid to take such a risk. After all, he is making eight million dollars per year - that's a pretty nice paycheck. Savage saw all of this, and kept open the possibility of Brady Quinn taking over in a couple of years by not weighing himself down with a huge deal to Anderson. For the two trades for Williams and Rodgers, it's much of the same story. While Savage had to give up two first-day picks and a solid corner, he acquired almost 700 pounds of defensive linemen that will cause havoc along the 3-4 front Cleveland runs. Rodgers will be destructive at the nose, and Williams will produce at the end. Rather than taking rookies who may or may not turn out to be productive, Savage is making sure he's getting value out of his draft picks, sensing that the Browns are so close to the playoffs. Yet, despite scoring a couple of hits in his previous two moves, I don't really understand Savage's reasoning behind the Stallworth deal. Yes, Stallworth is a good receiver, and will be the #2 guy opposite of Braylon Edwards. Yes, the Browns want to give Derek Anderson and eventually Brady Quinn weapons to throw to. But seven years and $10 million guaranteed doesn't make sense to me. He wasn't especially productive with New England last season, getting only 697 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Certainly, Randy Moss and Wes Welker took a lot of Stallworth's potential touches, but Tom Brady threw the ball so much that it's hard to believe a legitimate #2 receiver couldn't have produced more. When the line at the end of an article reporting the signing is "[Player]'s best overall season was in [three seasons ago], when he caught [fewer than 1000 yards and less than 10 touchdowns] as a member of [a team that was really really bad three years ago and for whom he was clearly the #1 option]," and especially if he has a pretty extensive medical dossier, that is not the guy you want to be giving this kind of money. Sorry, Savage has made some great moves, but this isn't one of them.

Grade: A-

Jacksonville: Signs Jerry Porter to six-year, $30 million deal. Signs Cleo Lemon for three years and $9 million. Acquires Troy Williamson from Vikings for sixth-round pick. Acquires third-round and fifth-round picks from Buffalo in exchange for Marcus Stroud.

A lot of action from Jacksonville, but how much of it is really going to make a significant impact? The Porter signing and Williamson trade are designed to give emerging QB David Garrard options to throw to, which he clearly hasn't had the past few seasons. Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford have not lived up to the expectations Jacksonville had for them, and so the Jags have decided to bring in some new bodies, but my question is whether or not they picked the right bodies to bring in. Everyone knows that Williamson, despite his high-end speed, has been a monumental bust in the NFL. If the Jaguars can find a way to utilize his athletic ability, they might end up with a steal, but in all likelihood Williamson shows just as little production in Jacksonville's run-happy offensive schemes. Porter, on the other hand, is a pretty intriguing signing. The fact that they're signing a 29-year-old receiver to a six-year contract is scary enough. But Porter's production last year was certainly not spectacular (44 receptions, 705 yards, 6 touchdowns), and the year before he found himself buried on the end of Art Shell's bench. Thus, you have to go back three years to find Porter's last above-average season in the NFL, and four years to find Porter's best statistical season. If Porter can re-capture those types of numbers in Jacksonville, this move is fantastic. If he can't, however, they'll end up trying to get rid of him within a year or two. The Cleo Lemon signing is completely insignificant if you ask me, and the amount of publicity it's actually managed to get is shameful. The fact that people are actually worried about the QB competition in Dolphins camp makes no sense to me, as we won't know any of the details for sure until after the draft. Lemon will sit on the pine and collect his checks while Garrard does all the heavy lifting. Moving on, I don't get the Marcus Stroud trade from Jacksonville's perspective. Stroud has been a dominant interior defensive force for years, racking up three Pro-Bowls and teaming up with John Henderson to strike fear into opponents in Jacksonville. So they're trading him for two mid-round picks? What? They sold low on Stroud, unloading him after a year in which he fought with an ankle injury. Jacksonville is trying to win now, but yet they get rid of dominant defensive players in a league where defenses win championships. If someone could explain this one to me, I'd really appreciate it. Really, Jacksonville has made a bunch of moves, but none of them seem to really make any sort of impact on the team. Disappointing for a team that was so good last season.

Grade: C+

Minnesota: Signs Bernard Berrian to six-year deal (financial numbers unknown - above $40 million?). Signs Madieu Williams to six-year deal worth $33 million.

I'll start with Madieu Williams because quite frankly I don't really know much about how Williams plays. What I do know is that he recorded 74 tackles last year with 2 interceptions and a sack - numbers that don't add up to one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL, which is what Willams just became. This seems to be an example of a guy being overpaid, but Dwight Smith is gone and the Vikings need impact players now, and Williams is believed to be one of the best safeties on the market. Also, in the NFL today, the safety position is quickly becoming more and more important as an impact player, so having an elite player at that position is a key. Whether or not Williams is one is debatable, but the Vikings are definitely trying to get better. The Berrian contract is a move that fills what has been a huge need for this team for a long time (ever since some guy named Moss left). Tarvaris Jackson has spent the past couple of seasons trying to lob passes up to such superstars as Troy Williamson, clearly to no avail. Having a legitimate receiver will allow Jackson to begin the process of developing into the franchise QB that Minnesota thinks he will become. However, again the Vikings are probably overpaying Berrian too, but Minnesota is another one of those teams that wasn't going to lure big-time free agents from other teams without breaking the bank, so that's what they had to do.

Grade: B

San Francisco: Signs Justin Smith to six-year, $45 million contract. Signs Isaac Bruce for two years, $6 million. Exercises clause in Alex Smith's contract to extend his deal through 2010. Sign DeShaun Foster for two years, $1.8 million.

Once again, San Francisco went out this summer and spent a huge amount of money over a long period of time for a defensive player who, despite being the top player at his position, is not a dominating player by any stretch of the imagination. Granted, last year's deal with Nate Clements was much more expensive, but Clements had had a higher degree of success in Buffalo than Smith has had in Cincinnati. Guaranteeing $20 million to Justin Smith really isn't a great idea. The 49ers are quickly becoming the Washington Redskins, feeling that simply spending more and more money on big-name free agents will make them into an elite football team. There was a gaping hole at DE with Bryant Young's retirement, but signing a guy who had 2 sacks last season isn't going to fill that hole. In four years, when the 49ers are still on the hook for huge amounts of money to guys like Smith and Clements, they'll be back in the same sort of financial mess they were in before Mike Nolan came and cleared it all up. They're just backtracking and putting themselves in the same crappy situation they were in before, and it won't end well. The Bruce deal, however, makes a lot more sense. Mike Martz is in as the Offensive Coordinator in San Francisco, and Bruce knows Martz's system from their days with the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis. It's a short-term deal without a whole lot of financial commitment - not much you can argue with. As for Alex Smith, this was all the 49ers could do shy of trusting Shaun Hill with the franchise's success, and given how unproven Hill is, and the fact that Hill was recently a third-string QB makes caution a smart choice. However, given the fact that Smith and Nolan have had such a shaky relationship, it's hard to believe that he will end up being the long-term franchise QB of this team. And as much as I'd like to believe the Foster deal is a steal, again I don't get it. This team just gave Michael Robinson a three-year extension to be their third-down back and backup to Frank Gore, who's the starter and is going absolutely nowhere. So why clog up the backfield even more with a guy nearing the 30-year old benchmark (Foster is 28)? Foster has shown he is effective if he's given carries as part of a two-man backfield, but I seriously doubt that idea is going to fly well with Gore. It's not a given that the Niners will be better this year than last year, and with all the money they're giving out, that's a tough pill to swallow.

Grade: C

Tampa Bay: Signed Jeff Faine (contract details unavailable).

Obviously, this is hard to grade and analyze with precision because of the fact that Faine's contract details are unavailable. However, it has been assumed that Faine would attract the type of money that would make him the highest-paid center in NFL history (a trend that we're seeing a lot of at multiple positions), and naturally that would seem to come with a long-term commitment. However, Faine seems to deserve that type of money and contract length. He is only 26 years old, plays a position that people excel at well into their thirties, and is a very skilled lineman. It's no secret that a good offensive line is important in building a great football team, and the Bucs seemed to make a step to keep building a good offensive line.

Grade: B+

Tennessee: Placed Franchise Tag on Albert Haynesworth. Signed Alge Crumpler to two-year contract (financial terms unavailable).

The Haynesworth move was expected - the guy tore it up last season, but has been a battle off the field with character issues, and even had one memorable on-field character issue when he stomped on Andre Gurode's face with his cleats. He was pretty well behaved last season, and if he can continue to keep up such behavior this year, I could see the Titans giving the guy a long-term deal, unless of course they give him one this summer. As for Crumpler's signing, I do think it will help Vince Young by giving him a safety net, but I don't think that the deal is a blockbuster that will make Young infinitely better and drastically improve the offense. Crumpler caught only 42 passes for 444 yards last season, poor numbers for a player of his reputation, even taking into account the quarterbacks throwing to him (Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Redmond). He's a 30-year-old tight end whose star has certainly begun to fade. After all, if he was still a big-time playmaker, the pitiful Falcons wouldn't have released him. The best part about this deal might perhaps be the length of the contract - for all the teams ponying up six-year deals to players who don't deserve them, the Titans managed to give a solid player a reasonable two-year deal, preventing them from overpaying for a guy far past his prime.

Grade: B-

That's about it for now - there will be more updates and posts for later happenings, but this is all I can force myself to do for now. Oh, and Randy Moss should go to Green Bay - He'd do for Favre what he did for Brady, except win the Super Bowl. Just in case you were wondering...