NBA free agency has been a looming topic for several months now, due to the quality of the players available.  Perhaps the biggest rumor is that multiple All-Stars will decide to sign with the same club, creating a new juggernaut franchise in the NBA.  The more this rumor is pushed out there, the more people seem to forget that this simply doesn’t happen in any sport.  Think back and try to remember the last time two guys took less money to play together.  Try to remember guys sacrificing money and statistics in favor of the mere chance to win a championship.  I can think of just one example in the modern sporting era.

In 2003 NHL All-Stars Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne left their previous teams (Anaheim and San Jose respectively) to sign with the Colorado Avalanche while both taking massive pay cuts.  The two were close off-ice friends and had been teammates previously with the Anaheim Ducks.  The results didn’t match their desire, as Kariya struggled with injuries and Selanne was ineffective.  Their previous chemistry failed to re-emerge.  In the end they would play just one year together in Colorado.  Selanne would eventually win his Stanley Cup (ironically with the Ducks in 2007) while Kariya has not come close since his 2003 finals appearance with Anaheim. 

This is the only documented instance that I can remember of two star players foregoing dollars and numbers to win.  And it was unsuccessful.  Clearly one or two players can have more of an impact in the NBA than in the NHL, but across all leagues it just doesn’t happen.  It seems like every few years it’s speculated that Team X is “the favorite” to land multiple marquee free agents.  In the end, it turns out to be idle speculation.

The Chicago Bulls cleared the decks in the post-MJ era, expecting a windfall of free agents.  They settled for overpaying Ron Mercer, who played all of one and a half years in Chicago before he was traded to Indiana.  Anybody remember when Baron Davis was supposed to be joining his good friend Elton Brand in Los Angeles in the summer of 2008?  Only to have his buddy Brand sign a free agent deal with Philly only days after Davis signed on to the Clips?  If that kind of thing can go one between guys who are good friends off the floor, how are we supposed to swallow the idea that multiple franchise-level players are going to sacrifice numbers and (more importantly) dollars in order to win?

I think it’s certainly possible that we see one or more marquee free agents change teams this summer, but I don’t buy all the conspiracy theory that one club is going to land multiple players (and even coaches) due to back-room style agreements.  History shows us that just doesn’t occur, and with good reason.  Ask Joe Smith and the Minnesota Timberwolves how dangerous it can be to cut a deal in the shadows.

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For two seasons or more now, the buzz around the NBA has been that LeBron James is going to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Championship.  There was good reason for this buzz.  He carried a downright crummy team to an NBA Finals appearance in 2007.  He had shown himself to be a dominating force both in regular season and playoff games.  He displayed a mix of talent and unselfishness that is rare in the world of basketball.

And yet while he projected an aura of invincibility… reality never caught up to that perception.  His imposing physical stature and tremendous athletic gifts made him seem at times like a man among boys.  LeBron James was so clearly great so quickly, that it seems to have taken a handful of years for observers to really figure out where he stands on the NBA landscape.

One thing is clear now as we stand in the shattered remains of Cleveland’s 2010 title hopes.  The Cavs made change after change to appease their young superstar and entice him to stay.  They resigned players like Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson.  They added free agents like Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker.  They traded for known entities like Shaq, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison.  What did it get them in the end?  Certainly no satisfaction.  Instead they’re left standing on the precipice, wondering what else they could have done to cement this team into a championship winning group.

While I can’t remember a team that was supposed to be so great failing quite this way, I can remember a team constructed in a similar fashion that in the end failed just as badly.  I’m talking about the Toronto Raptors.  Back at the beginning of this decade the Raptors had one of the leagues premiere young players in Vince Carter.  He was one of the most popular basketball players on the planet, known for his creative and ferocious dunks.  He carried what was quite frankly a pretty ordinary Raptors club to the seventh game of the second round against Philadelphia, where they lost when he missed a shot at the buzzer.  Carter was just 24 then, and looked to have a bright future ahead of him in Toronto.

Following the season, Vince signed a huge contract extension with the club worth over 90 million dollars.  He was told by management that the team was going to spend money and keep their good players together.  The end result of this was outrageous contracts for Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Chris Childs, Jerome Williams, Michael Stewart and other such NBA studs.  After two-plus disappointing seasons with the same nucleus, Vince voiced his frustration and disappointment about the team built around him.  He was ultimately traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004.

Conveniently forgotten during Carter’s exodus was that he was the one demanding a competitive roster in the first place.  His demands for a competitive team placed the Raptors in the position of having to put a lot of money into questionable assets.  Even with Vince Carter on the roster, Toronto was not a free agent hot spot.  They felt that they had to shell out the cash needed to keep their existing core intact, and in the end that cost them long-term flexibility and made it impossible to build a true contender around Carter.  Cleveland seems to have reached a similar place with LeBron.  He signed that three-year extension a few years back with the intent on winning a title in Cleveland.  The Cavs tried to appease him by bringing in a variety of veterans and signing big extensions with the likes of Anderson Varejao and Booby Gibson.

They have now amassed a collection of veterans with clear limitations, and yet at the same time have removed almost all flexibility from their roster.  They seem to have finally realized that during this season when they refused to send J.J. Hickson out of town to bring in more high-priced talent.   Unfortunately for Cleveland fans, they may have realized it too late.  The Cavs are financially tapped out, unless they can get a team to take Jamison or Williams off their hands.  They gave up their #1 pick in the Jamison trade.  The ways for them to improve for 2010-2011 are extremely limited.  It would appear to be trade or bust, and that’s simply going to lead to them taking on contracts that are just as bad as the ones they already have, or perhaps even worse.  I’d love to be in the room to hear Danny Ferry pitch the Cavs to LeBron come July 1st, because on the surface it would seem that their biggest addition this offseason will be the subtraction of Shaq and Z.

Perhaps the Cavs have learned their lesson.  They are clearly at their best as a running team with athletes and shooters and defenders on the floor.  Now the question for the Cavs is how can they build that kind of team with no cap space, and a limited window of opportunity before LeBron can breeze right out of town.  At least in Toronto the fans had already long turned on Vince before he was traded to New Jersey for a ham sandwich.  The mistakes the Cavs have made could cost them Ohio’s most beloved sports hero since Jim Brown.

It’s been a busy last 24 hours or so in the NBA trade market. Teams are not waiting for the draft itself to get deals done, in hopes of achieving whatever their goals for 2009-2010 might be with an early start. Contenders like San Antonio and Cleveland are attempting to add missing pieces while bottom-feeders like Milwaukee and rebuilding teams like Phoenix attempt to dump parts that no longer fit their vision.

Spurs, Bucks and Pistons Swap

Richard Jefferson to San Antonio.  Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Amir Johnson to Milwaukee.  Fabricio Oberto to Detroit.

An interesting three-way deal.  The Spurs come out the best obviously, picking up a 29 year-old Jefferson who can score 20 a night and play good all-around basketball.  He can shoot the three with ease, and will be more than capable at swinging the ball or getting it inside to Duncan.  He also does a good job getting to the line, and is a passable rebounder and defender.  He’s probably exactly what the Spurs need given the fact that they can’t depend on the health of Manu Ginobili. They also dump some aging and little-used talent, which doesn’t hurt for a team that has appeared short on athleticism at times.

Detroit gets a capable big body which they definitely need.  The Pistons only have one other roster player taller than 6’9, and that’s Kwame Brown.  With Rasheed Wallace off the books and probably gone, they have plenty of money to spend on replacement bigs.  Oberto isn’t a world-beater but he’s a servicable interior player.  They lose a nice role player in Johnson but the Pistons had pretty much decided to cut bait with him at this point.

As for Milwaukee… uhm… yeah.  Last year they traded Yi “The Chairman” Jianlian a year after picking him 6th overall to get Richard Jefferson.  Not a bad move for a team in need of scoring on the wing.  Especially considering The Chairman kind of sucks.  A year later, they traded Richard Jefferson for Amir Johnson and two expiring contracts.  Why?  Apparently they need cap space to keep restricted free agents Ramon Sessions and Charlie Villanueva.  Building around Ramon Sessions and Charlie V?  I think we might have pinpointed why the Bucks have struggled to find traction in the standings in recent years.

Minnesota, Washington Deal

Randy Foye and Mike Miller to the Wizards.  Etan Thomas, Darius Songalia, Oleksiy Pecherov and the 5th overall pick to the Timberwolves.

Seems like a no-brainer for Washington.  They get Foye who’s at least shown he can play in the league, which is more than you can say for anyone in the draft.  The only guy I personally would want to hold on to that pick to take is Stephen Curry, but rumor has it now that he’ll be gone before the 5 spot.  The Wiz also get three-point shooter Mike Miller, giving them a pair of new outside threats and making them one of the leagues more potent offensive clubs.  Are they going to have enough shots for Arenas, Butler, Jamison and Foye?  Probably, but it will be interesting to watch them mesh.  The Wiz at least have themselves another starting-quality NBA guard to pair with Agent Zero, something they’ve lacked in recent years.

Minnesota meanwhile trades away the reminder of their terrible Brandon Roy-Randy Foye trade a few years back, and gives themselves the 5th and 6th picks in the draft to go with their two other later first rounders.  The T’wolves actually have a lot of cap room and dead salary (Thomas, Brian Cardinal, Mark Madsen) that they could use to actually acquire some good talent.  Will they do that?  Who knows what the new Minnesota regime will do.  If they really want to shed their image as a franchise that’s screwed up for 15 years, they could display some competence.  We’ll see.

Phoenix, Cleveland Deal

Phoenix gets Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a conditional draft pick (2nd round) and cash.  Cleveland gets Shaquille O’Neal.

A smart move for both teams, but not as big as the press coverage makes it seem.  Phoenix saves some money and looks even stupider for their Marion-Shaq deal two years ago.  They just were not a good fit for Shaq, despite the best effort on all sides this past season.  They need to give their young bigs (Lopez, Dudley) some burn anyways. If Wallace retires they save even more money, and that’s apparently all Robert Sarver cares about.

Cleveland improves here no question, but not in leaps and bounds.  They have three legitimate bigs, which is something that most teams in the league can’t say.  Of course two of those bigs are slow, old and have injury histories.  But I digress.  Shaq can still score in the paint in bunches, and clog the lane.  He’s a definite upgrade over Wallace, and they got him for basically nothing.  As long as he’s just the start of their offseason moves, it’s a nice step.  But he is not a solution alone.

Mid-Day Update…

New Jersey, Orlando Swap

Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson to Orlando.  Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Tony Battie to New Jersey.

Jersey continues to tear down their old nucleus, getting a nice young talent in Lee and a pair of expiring contracts.  The Nets save around 16 million in cap space for that magical 2010 summer, and picked up a player who emerged throughout the playoffs as a guy who can make big plays.  They’re going to be pretty bad next season, but at least they’ll be young.

Orlando continues to demonstrate their commitment to winning.  Adding Carter to an already impressive lineup makes them the favorite to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions.  The question they will have to answer is about their depth.  They just gave up three rotation players to get one, and must still re-sign Hedo Turkoglu to prevent this from being a lateral move.  Anderson should be able to give them some post minutes, provided he can shoot better than 39 percent.

This could be an opportunity for Carter to answer a lot of questions about his motivations over the years.  One thing he has never shied away from is taking the big shots and the Magic definitely need more players willing and able to score when the chips are on the line.

Hot Trade Hopper

A ton of names and trades still percolating out there.  Guys like Vince Carter, Amare Stoudamire, Corey Magette, Rajon Rondo… so on and so forth.  We’ll see what becomes of it as the draft unfolds and beyond.  It’s interesting that a lot of the trades seem to revolve around teams fixing salary issues caused by past dumb trades.  A lot of clubs are going to learn that two dumb trades doesn’t equal a good one.

With the decidedly uncompetitive NBA Finals in the books and the Los Angeles Lakers on top of the basketball world, we’re left to examine how the basketball world will react to the final results of the 2008-2009 season.  Some of the most pivotal reactions will come from those involved in the final series.  Questions must be answered.

1.  Did Kobe finally exorcise those demons that have haunted him since L.A. became “his” team?

We may not truly know until a year from now, but the early returns are promising.  He has appeared much more relaxed and content following the Lakers victory than any time I can remember including their previous Championships.  His acknowledgement of the constant doubts of him winning “without Shaq” was a big step for him in my opinion.  Giving a voice to that always-discussed subject that he acknowledged as “annoying” and illustrating that he is now beyond it can only help him grow. 

After months and years of jokes about being the best second fiddle in NBA history, Bryant has captured a fourth NBA Championship as the undisputed best player on his team.  Not only that but he was the best player in the playoffs.  He willed the Lakers to several victories when in past years the team (including Kobe himself) would have been more likely to fold up, implode or quit on each other.

Much as we saw the remaking of Kevin Garnett’s image from Playoff Bust to Fearless Leader, expect that Kobe Bryant will ascend to the pantheon placing him with the greatest of the greats.  His accomplishments can no longer be marred by suggesting he couldn’t lead a team to victory.  He’s done that now.

2.  Will the Lakers be back next year (and beyond)?

Barring a major exodus via free agency (unlikely) or the rise of a new West power (possible), yes.  The Lakers have to be the favorite in the Western Conference heading into the offseason.  They’re a deep and talented team and most of their talent is young.   Kobe and Derek Fisher are the only guys on the entire roster who are over 30.  That’s pretty astonishing.  Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown are 23.  Andrew Bynum is 21.  Jordan Farmar is 22.  Lamar Odom is 29 and Pau Gasol is 28.  Even their depth guys like Luke Walton (28) and Sasha Vujacic (25) have plenty of miles left on their bodies.  That’s a big thing in a league where all it takes is one guy to break down to end your season.  Just ask Boston.  Or Houston.  Or New Orleans. 

The Lakers have a young core built around Kobe Bryant, and provided they can satisfy everyone this summer I would expect them to stay together through the next two or three seasons.  They will have some dancing to do in the free agent period though.  Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Trevor Ariza are free agents. All are key cogs in this Laker machine.  Without any of them the Lakers would not have the depth and athleticism and skill they displayed nightly this season.  Of course the Buss family has not had a problem paying the luxury tax in the past.  Especially if the results are of Championship caliber.  I would expect them to save some money dumping Adam Morrison, unless the Zen Master feels he can coax something out of the former NCAA star.

This is where that big extension for Bynum hurts.  Bynum was a bit player in this title run, but will see his salary climb from 2.77 million to 12.5 million.  That raise eats up almost all of Odom’s entire salary for this season.  The Lakers should have no trouble retaining the versatile wingman however.  He’s admitted that he wants to stay in Los Angeles and can’t see himself playing elsewhere.  That makes it kind of hard to drum up interest away from the beaches.  Ariza and Brown will be the true tests.  Are the Lakers willing to pay for guys who are role players?  They have in the past (Walton and Vujacic are examples) and that burned them in recent years.  This time though it appears to be the smart move.  Athletic wing guys who can play defense are a must in the NBA.

3.  Where Does Orlando Go From Here?

Good question, that.  The Magic could go in a few different directions.  Luckily for Magic fans their ownership has already stated that they will in fact pay the luxury tax to keep Hedo Turkoglu.  That’s a key for them because in crunch time the Turk was clearly their most important player.  They will have to pay the tax, as they were already over the threshold before Turkoglu opted out of the last year of his old contract.

They’ve got Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard combining to earn over 33 million next season.  They’ve got Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus for 11 million on top of that.  Throw in key role players like Courtney Lee and JJ Reddick and that six guys that we know will be back and around 48 million payed to them.  Turk will earn at least 10 million and probably closer to 12 for his trouble.  In a better economic climate he could probably get more, but such is life.  That would put Orlando in the 58-60 million range with 7 guys under contract.

Now, those aren’t the only Magic players under contract for next season.  Orlando also has Tony Battie (6.2 million), Rafer Alston (5.25 million) and Anthony Johnson (2.1 million) on the books through next season.  However, I would say it’s a good bet that Orlando will look to move at least one of those guys as an expiring contract.  The Lakers made it pretty clear in the Finals that Orlando has trouble scoring consistently inside.  They will also have to address the role of Alston if he doesn’t get moved, as Rafer has never been particularly quiet about coming off the bench.  He feels he’s a starter and will let anyone know it, as evidenced by his speaking out during the playoffs.  Who’s going to want Alston is another question entirely, but his expiring contract and solid NBA player status will make him desirable to some.  Battie and his 6.2 million dollar contract (along with solid interior defensive reputation) could see him moved.  Despite Orlando’s lack of size inside he didn’t play much in any series through the playoffs.

Can Orlando upgrade their rotation with those kind of chips to deal?  Maybe.  Dollars are tight in the league so they could probably add a good weapon to their bench this way.  That would definitely help them going into next season.  They could use a physical presence like a Drew Gooden or a Chris Wilcox inside, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them chase a guy like Mehmet Okur if he exercises his opt-out clause.

4.  Can Dwight Howard Raise His Game?

No matter what the Magic do this summer, Dwight Howard will be the biggest factor in what Orlando accomplishes in 2009-2010.  We’ve all heard about how he’s been working with Patrick Ewing.  Well… Patrick Ewing probably isn’t the greatest guy to teach him how to use his dominant athletic ability.  While “Superman” had some dominant performances in the playoffs he was clearly befuddled by the Lakers defense.  His lack of a post game was exposed to a new degree.  You can’t question his ability to own the glass or block shots, but he didn’t make more than 5 field goals in any Finals game.  For a guy who struggles a lot at the charity stripe that is an issue.

Howard acknowledged after the loss that he has work to do this summer.  The question will be whether the work he does is on the right things.  Yes, shooting free throws is important, but Howard has already said that he doesn’t have trouble making them in practice or in shoot-arounds.  The real focus for Howard this summer needs to be developing his footwork and his instincts in the post.  He has the size, speed and power to be a dominant low-post scorer.  He just doesn’t know how to get from point A to point B consistently yet.  If he’s in need of some tips in this area he’d be better served calling up Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson.  Both of those guys were athletically superior big men who can probably help Howard out honing his athletic gifts into an unstoppable force.

The fact remains that this guy could be the most unstoppable force in the league, if harnessed properly.  The Magic came up three wins short of an NBA Championship, with Howard operating at about 33% offensive capacity in my opinion.  If he gets it figured out even a little bit, look out NBA.

It’s a great day to be a sports fan.  The NBA and NHL are both in the midst of their final series and we’re getting into some good mid-season baseball.  Tuesday was also the start of the MLB Draft which in recent years has really made a move in terms of importance.  It seems like all the majors sports are placing more of an emphasis on the draft.  I can understand it with the NBA and NFL since guys step in right away.  It also makes sense for the NHL because it gets them some buzz during their offseason.  I am however surprised at the MLB pushing the draft so much.  Is it just because of Strasburg or is it a part of their larger strategy that includes stuff like running their own blogging network, tweeting info via twitter.com and the expansion of MLB TV?  Either way, this is the first time in a long time that I know much about the MLB draft going into it.

It’s Draft-y In Here

I’ve been following the MLB draft hype, although about 90 percent of what is written is about Strasburg’s amazing ability (which I don’t doubt) and about Boras’ insane demands (which I also don’t doubt).  I can appreciate that this is the big money story here and Strasburg might well be a once in a generation prospect, but I’d like to see a little more digging into other guys that are likely to be good players coming out of the draft.  Maybe that’s just me though.  It was nice to see the draft being prominently displayed on a lot of big name sports websites.  I can’t remember the last time I saw this many mainstream mocks.

I’ll give my .02 on the Strasburg contract debate, for whatever it’s worth.  I think that he will end up signing with the Nationals and it’ll end up being closer to that 10 million dollar mark than 20.  It sure as heck won’t be the 50 million Scott Boras threw out there.  This is the same guy who counseled Varitek to pass on 10 million in arbitration only to have him sign for a fraction of that months later.  Whoops.  Strasburg will set a new record (I’d guess 14-15 million range) but he’s not going to shatter the draft structure.

It could use some shattering though.  Hopefully in the next CBA they find a way to limit this stuff so that the lowest drafting teams can draft based on needs and scouting rather than “signability”.  Nothing irritates me more than a guy manipulating the draft via contract talks.  It hurts the league.

The Karma Payback

After some pretty favorable officiating down the stretch in Game 2, the Lakers couldn’t convert on their opportunities tonight.  There were several points in the game that it seemed as though the Lakers were about to take over and put a hurting on Orlando, but they simply could not deliver the dagger.  The Magic got extremely hot early and even when they cooled down, Los Angeles didn’t get enough stops and of all people Kobe couldn’t hit his free throws.  If Kobe hits like usual at the line, LA wins.  That’s gotta hurt for a guy who can’t smile.  Did you know he hasn’t smiled in two months?  ESPN told me so.

To be fair to Kobe, the Lakers wouldn’t have been in this game at all without his phenomenal play in the first half.  He was making play after play and shot after shot, but at the end of the game he just could not get the freebies down.  You know that’s eating at him heading into Game 4.

I actually think that tonight’s game was bad news more than good news for Orlando.  They shot phenomenally (62.5% FG), Kobe missed half his free throws and they won by exactly four points.  At home.  With two of those being gimme free throws when the game was over.  Can they build on some things from this game?  Absolutely.  Whether they do or not remains to be seen.  I’d bet my last dollar that the Lakers will play hungry defense in Game 4 and win by double-digits.  I’d also expect an improved performance from one Lamar Odom, who while he didn’t play poorly was invisible for large stretches tonight, especially on the glass.

Orlando’s best bet for another win is continued hot shooting from downtown, and using Jameer Nelson to change the pace rather than dominate the ball.  Rashard Lewis will have to continue his coming out party if Orlando wants to pick up their franchises second ever NBA Finals victory.

Seventh Heaven On Friday Night

I’m sure Gary Bettman cried tears of joy when the Penguins pulled out a tough and impressive Game 6 victory against the Red Wings, assuring that we will see a Game 7 in Detroit on Friday night.  That is if he wasn’t too busy trying to prop up dying NHL franchises to notice.

It’s the dream scenario for the NHL and for broadcaster NBC.  The Red Wings have become the Yankees of the NHL in the last decade-plus.  They’re always good, they always seem to get the best talent and they’re much more fun to root against than for (unless you’re a Wings fan, of course).  They’re simply a powerhouse and matching them up with Sidney Crosby, Gino Malkin and the rest of the exciting Pittsburgh Penguins has resulted in exactly the kind of hockey the NHL wants to showcase… at least for a few games.  The first two games in Detroit were good but not great, and Game 5 in Detroit was a real stinker.  But the other three were absolute gems, and Game 7 has the potential to be epic.  Pavel Datsyuk is getting his sea legs back and the always doubted Chris Osgood has been stellar for the Wings in net.  Case in point would be last night’s game where he held Detroit in the game for two periods when the Penguins were clearly the aggressors.

The Stanley Cup is supposed to be the two best teams in hockey and I’d have to say that this series has definitely delivered on that.  We’ll get to see Zetterberg vs. Crosby for one more night, and that could either answer or raise a lot of questions about Sid the Kid.  He has been spectacular for the Penguins on many nights in these playoffs but he seems genuinely bothered by Zetterberg who has been doing his best vintage Sergei Fedorov impression with his two-way play.

Stay Tuned…

This week won’t slow down either.  The MLB Draft continues tomorrow (not to mention the schedule of games) with the NBA Finals resuming on Thursday and the NHL crowning their Stanley Cup Champions on Friday.