Sunday, September 23, 2007
Trio lead our countdown of West's best moves
By Marc Stein
The natural follow-up to our review of Eastern Conference summer business is assessing who's done the best shopping and tweaking in the Western Conference.
West teams weren't nearly as active, as the migration of those five 20-point scorers to the East would suggest.
The Houston Rockets made an aggressive clutch of moves to boost their depth and make the Texas Triangle more daunting than ever, but most of the Westerners went for more of a status quo approach.
We nonetheless plug away with our annual team-by-team rankings ... and we repeat: These are assessments of each team's summer dealings, not predicted order of finish for the coming season.
In their ongoing quest to finally reach the second round of the playoffs, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming will no longer be lacking assistance. They'll have more help than ever this season.
Daryl Morey's first summer of exclusive authority in the Rockets' front office has resulted in multiple handy pickups to strengthen the supporting cast around T-Mac and Yao for new coach Rick Adelman, quickly hushing concerns that Morey's limited experience and untraditional background made him a risky hire.
The Rockets have three new options at point guard, which is good timing given all the off-court trouble Rafer Alston has encountered lately: First-round pick Aaron Brooks and the reacquired duo of Mike James and Steve Francis.
The Rockets have welcomed back a resurrected Bonzi Wells to possibly (finally) emerge as their new No. 3 scoring option. Wells is eager to stick around after thriving under Adelman in Sacramento and, like Francis, will be playing at a bargain-basement price, taking all the risk out of the second chance he'll get now in Houston after never meshing with Jeff Van Gundy.
The Rockets have also addressed a real need at power forward with the surprise acquisition of Argentina's Luis Scola, capitalizing on the unusual circumstances that made Scola available and believing that the toughness, smoothness and energy he offered in Las Vegas during the recent Olympic qualifying tournament can trump concerns that he's too undersized to succeed inside in the NBA.
It remains to be seen if Yao, even with his passing ability, can transition to Adelman's up-tempo style as easily as Houston projects. But that might be the worst non-Alston-related thing you can say about the Rockets' summer, which is why they top this list.
Even if it does turn out to be the Supes' last season in Seattle, there's at least one consolation for the locals.
They'll be getting a Rookie of the Year farewell from the green and yellow.
It's only September, yes, but the ROY race would appear to be over. Barring another injury tragedy in the Pacific Northwest, it's hard to see any other rook beating Kevin Durant to the trophy now, as good as he looked during his abbreviated Team USA stint and with his chief ROY rival (Greg Oden) already out of the race.
It's likewise tough to imagine a franchise happier to come out of the draft lottery with the No. 2 pick. Months of murmurs that Durant was a more worthy No. 1 overall selection than Oden are predictably louder than ever now. Even if such talk is (bad pun alert) a predictable knee-jerk reaction to Oden's demise, it's safe to say that having Durant under any circumstances sets the Sonics up nicely. Wherever they are in future seasons.
Rookie general manager Sam Presti, incidentally, isn't off to a bad start, either.
Presti got an intriguing package back for Ray Allen by landing Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and the No. 5 pick that became Jeff Green -- I say so even though I'm not a huge Green guy -- and then took in a seemingly worthless second-round pick from Orlando to create a lucrative trade exception after Rashard Lewis had already committed to signing with the Magic. That enabled Presti to exploit the Suns' desperation to slash payroll by agreeing to take Kurt Thomas into that trade exception ... but only if he also got two first-round picks in the exchange.
The Sonics' presumed lame-duck status in the Emerald City is another unexpected bonus for Presti and new coach P.J. Carlesimo. Durant's young team is going to struggle mightily in Year 1, but there's no real public pressure on the Sonics to get off to a gonzo start. They can focus on player development as opposed to the standings without alienating their fans, since those fans, frankly, have already been alienated by new Sonics owner Clay Bennett.
A year ago, you'll recall, what happened to the Grizzlies in the summertime ended their season before it started, with Pau Gasol suffering a foot injury that wound up sidelining him until December.
Only a small handful of teams had a more fruitful offseason than the Grizz, whose new brain trust (general manager Chris Wallace and coach Marc Iavaroni) has already generated some new hope after drafting Mike Conley, signing Darko Milicic and trading for Gasol's close friend Juan Carlos Navarro.
All three might even help the Grizz immediately, although it's worth remembering that Conley is a rookie and that we're still waiting to see sustained production (and intensity) from Milicic after four seasons. Navarro's arrival, though, is significant not only for his on-court potential as one of Europe's best guards but what it means for Gasol's future.
After a year of unending trade speculation and Gasol's own push to be moved, Memphis has moved decisively to show the Spaniard that (a) it wants to keep him and (b) wants to keep him happy. You have to believe that the feeling is mutual after the Grizzlies landed one of Pau's all-time favorites.
Throw in a Team USA summer for Mike Miller, another year of experience for Rudy Gay and Memphis' ability to secure Iavaroni's coveted services and you'd have to say that the post-Jerry West Era is off to the upbeat start few anticipated.
After some three months of haggling over money and with a mere three weeks to spare before the start of training camp, the Warriors finally secured an official commitment from coach/savior Don Nelson that he's going to keep coaching them.
It sounds like a long (and nervous) wait, but the Warriors say now -- and you tend to believe them -- that they were never too worried about the standoff. Nelson behaved all summer like a coach who was coming back, spending more time around Golden State's summer-league team than he ever did in Dallas along with making frequent office appearances. He simply couldn't bear to walk away after last season's ride, even though Nelson managed to score only half of the extra $4 million in guaranteed money he was seeking over the next two seasons as a reward for halting the Warriors' 12-season playoff drought.
Perhaps we should call it a sign of how hot the Warriors still are. They were widely hailed as winners in a contract squabble with Nelson -- even Nellie conceded he blinked first, which hasn't happened too often over the years -- to cap what ranks as a pretty sunny summer by the standards of the West.
It would be a surprise if rookie Brandan Wright or Serbian import Kosta Perovic could immediately supply the size injection Nelson needs, but the Warriors do appear to have drafted a first-round steal in No. 18 pick Marco Belinelli while also re-signing unheralded playoff contributor Matt Barnes at a bargain rate. Best of all, Golden State improved its future financial flexibility tremendously by trading away Jason Richardson and buying out Adonal Foyle at a savings of about $7 million.
Richardson will be missed by the Warriors' rabid fans after their six seasons together, but club insiders insist that Nelson was never a big J-Rich guy. Between Monta Ellis, Belinelli, Barnes and free-agent returnee Kelenna Azubuike, Nelson figures Richardson's production should be covered. Of greater significance, Golden State should find re-signing Ellis and Andris Biedrins to contract extensions much easier now that Richardson is off the books.
Baron Davis didn't get the extension he was seeking -- at least not yet -- but Davis and Nelson badly want to keep working together. So it becomes an issue only if negotiations drag and Davis' (or Nelson's) contract frustration turns into something bigger.
The only other outstanding issue -- after buying out Sarunas Jasikevicius -- is whether restricted free agent Mickael Pietrus will be forced to return on a one-year, $3.5 million deal much like Barnes did.
Does adding Grant Hill -- but subtracting Kurt Thomas -- really get the Suns closer to a championship?
At first glance, it's hard to see how. Hill could certainly ease some of the ballhandling burden Steve Nash carries over 82 games and Nash has stated repeatedly how thrilled he is to add Hill's veteran savvy and professional locker-room manner to a group that's occasionally fractious and younger than you think. But Hill is not an adept 3-point shooter, which is the shot that most often presents itself to Phoenix perimeter types. And even if Hill, at 35, defies recent history by staying healthy, he obviously can't defend in the post like Thomas, either. An interested observer named David Robinson, remember, said after the epic Spurs-Suns series that Thomas guarded Tim Duncan one-on-one as well as anyone ever has.
That said ...
Beating out competitors like San Antonio and Dallas to score Hill was about as close to a blockbuster free-agent signing as we saw in the West, which has to count here.
Plus Phoenix had trouble slowing Duncan even with Thomas playing so valiantly. With the Suns still convinced that those infamous leaving-the-bench suspensions from the league office beat them as much as the eventual champs did, they justifiably feel as though they're closer to the Spurs than anyone else.
So perhaps the Suns won't be badly hurt by a luxury-tax induced move they didn't want to make, shipping Thomas and two first-round picks to Seattle to shed Thomas' $8.1 million salary. Maybe they'll flourish playing even smaller lineups than usual, with Amare Stoudemire or Boris Diaw at center. They're depending on Stoudemire to mature as a defender and rebounder and will need an upbeat and plugged-in Shawn Marion to make everyone forget that they couldn't conceive a workable trade for Nash's buddy Kevin Garnett, but coach Mike D'Antoni is already vowing that Phoenix will play with even more of "a swashbuckling attitude" than they've had for the past three years.
Of course, if P.J. Brown doesn't sign with the Suns as Thomas' replacement, they won't have much choice.
Maybe you expected the Spurs to do more this offseason, given that they've failed in their previous three attempts to follow up a championship by winning another championship.
But take a look at the rest of the conference. Which new threats do they need to counter?
As we keep noting, not much happened in the West to threaten San Antonio's leadership position. I'd say the Spurs, as the only Western Conference team since 1996 to win a title besides the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers, are in the best position to defend a status quo strategy.
Among playoff teams, only Houston has made significant improvements to its roster -- one of them courtesy of the reluctant Spurs, who grudgingly agreed to trade Scola to the Rockets as a cost-cutting measure -- but it's a bit premature to list the Rockets as a threat to the defending champs in spite of their recent upgrades. Yao and T-Mac, as mentioned previously, have yet to win a single playoff series together.
And it's not like the Spurs were inert. They brought back the key free agents from their latest title team (Fabricio Oberto, Matt Bonner and Jacque Vaughn), convinced Robert Horry to play one more season, signed free-agent swingman Ime Udoka to serve as Bruce Bowen's understudy and finally summoned 2005 first-round pick Ian Mahinmi to the States.
Trading for an injection of youth has to be their next move, but I'm not sure who they should and/or could have added but didn't.
LaRue Martin. Bill Walton. Sam Bowie. And now Greg Oden.
Bad things have happened to every Portland big man taken in the upper reaches of the NBA draft, so the question is going to be asked louder than ever: Is this franchise cursed?
"I've never been one to believe in voodoo and superstitions and things of that nature," Bowie told ESPN.com last week. "But if you look back on the history of the franchise, you start to wonder. This one might convert me."
This one is the news that Oden's rookie season is over three weeks before his first NBA training camp, thanks to the unhappy surprise of microfracture surgery on Oden's right knee. Portlanders who were justifiably delirious in May when their team won the lottery and the right to choose between Oden and Kevin Durant are already wondering where the euphoria went.
The mood is possibly gloomier than it should be given the long-term promise Portland still possesses. The Blazers had another busy summer (acquiring Channing Frye, Steve Blake, James Jones) to only add to their deep cache of young talent. So one more trip to the lottery -- seen as a certainty now with Oden unavailable and Zach Randolph and Jamaal Magloire having departed -- should only add to a list of prized kiddies that includes Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Spanish duo Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez and "veterans" Jarrett Jack, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster. Just to name seven.
Yet you have to underline the word possibly until we know more about Oden's recovery. If he rebounds like Amare Stoudemire, this won't be more than a 12-18 month setback for a team that, unlike Phoenix, wasn't going to be contending for anything significant in that time frame. But what if it's the first real setback to back up the whispers that Oden has a body susceptible to breakdowns ... like Bowie and Walton before him?
See? Now you know why I wrestled with this one for a while. Oden's surgery is a basketball tragedy for now, but I don't know that even losing him so soon can drop the Blazers lower than seventh when (a) so many West teams stood pat and (b) when you remember they're still the winners in one of the three or four most anticipated lotteries of all time.
It was only a year ago that we were raving about the Greatest Hornets Summer Ever and owner George Shinn's uncharacteristic spending spree. This summer, sadly, looked and sounded like a lot of the quiet summers that proceeded the 2006 offseason.
The Hornets simply didn't do much in advance of their full-time return to New Orleans. They brought back Jannero Pargo and signed Morris Peterson and Melvin Ely, who join first-round pick Julian Wright as the most notable newcomers. But that's it.
Of course, it should be noted that Shinn got only 13 games out of Peja Stojakovic last season after consenting to pay Peja a very un-Shinn-like $63 million over six years. Scary as the severity of the injury sounds, Peja will undoubtedly be regarded (at least by Shinn) as the Hornets' big 2007 signing if the Serbian sharpshooter comes back as projected from back surgery.
The Hornets contend that they've assembled a core to build around in Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, David West and Stojakovic and that they'll benefit from playing in only one city for the first time in three seasons, even though they'll no longer have the support of those loud crowds in Oklahoma City.
If Paul joins Peja by returning problem-free from his foot surgery -- and if Chandler continues the development he showed with Team USA over the summer -- maybe they're right. Maybe we'll see the Hornets bring at least one round of NBA playoff basketball back to New Orleans.
You'll notice, however, that's a lot of ifs.
There's a new coach in Sactown. There's a new franchise cornerstone. There's even a potential new building site for a new arena.
But I'm guessing Kings fans, who for much of this new millennium have been regarded as the league's loudest, are struggling to muster much enthusiasm. Can't blame them, either.
Maybe new coach Reggie Theus proves to be the right replacement for Eric Musselman and gets a re-energized response from a group that never responded to Muss. Maybe Kevin Martin's $50 million contract extension winds up as a bargain if he keeps developing. Maybe even the proposed construction of a new home for the team at Cal Expo will be the plan that ensures the Kings' long-term existence in Sacramento.
But look at the rest of the Kings' roster. Does anyone but Martin offer much long-term hope?
Even if Ron Artest suddenly turns dependable in his contract year after a summer of contrition and charity work, he's headed for free agency at season's end and realistically will always make folks wonder how long the calm is going to last. Mike Bibby's future, meanwhile, certainly seems to be elsewhere after a season of struggle and two near-trades to Cleveland.
Pretty much anyone else you name looks like a rotation player at best, whether it's newly signed Mikki Moore, combo guard John Salmons or Francisco Garcia, whom Theus loved at Louisville. The Kings obviously believe that rookie center Spencer Hawes will defy the skeptics and exceed expectations ... and they need him to, with big men Brad Miller, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Kenny Thomas all on the decline.
One theory holds that Kings president Geoff Petrie still hopes to move Bibby in the near future to see if Artest fares better without him. Yet it should be pretty clear by now that this team -- nearly three years removed from trading away Chris Webber to start the rebuilding process -- remains more than one move away from regaining its place among the West elite. Sacramento's turn-of-the-century rise from perennial doormat to title contender earned Petrie a well-deserved rep as one of the league's best architects, but rebuilding this castle with the limited assets in his possession has already proven to be much tougher.
You wanted to see Utah build on its unexpected drive to the Western Conference finals by addressing its sizable hole at shooting guard. You wanted to see the Jazz sign a bigger name than Jason Hart or Ronnie Price, especially after they agreed to let Derek Fisher out of his contract.
You definitely didn't want to see the Jazz start the new season like they finished last season. Engulfed in a bit of turmoil, namely.
But that's exactly where they are.
Utah predictably refused to extend itself financially -- management contends that it did years' worth of splashy spending when it assembled the Carlos Boozer-Mehmet Okur-Andrei Kirilenko frontcourt -- to render Jerry Sloan's commitment to return for a 20th season on the Jazz bench as the personnel news of note.
The problem? Kirilenko has gone public with a wish to be traded that he says he registered with Jazz management even before Russia's unexpected triumph in the European Championships. Yet that push and the tension it has caused is getting increasingly louder, resuscitating some of the disharmony seen at the end of the Western Conference finals when Deron Williams and Boozer accused a few unnamed teammates of quitting on the season early.
A summer of non-spending can be rationalized. Utah could have outbid New Orleans for Morris Peterson to be its new shooting guard but weren't willing to offer more than a three-year deal ... which is a mistake only if Peterson would have helped the Jazz close the gap on San Antonio.
Don't forget, furthermore, that Utah is obviously saving for the next big splash it has to make, when franchise cornerstone Williams is eligible for a lucrative contract extension next summer that will likely drag the club into luxury-tax territory.
Kirilenko's rekindled discontent is another matter entirely and that's what dropped the Jazz into the bottom half here. That's what everyone will be talking about when camp opens, as opposed to jumping right back in and building on the happier memories of last spring's Cinderella run to the Final Four.
Dirk Nowitzki obviously doesn't agree with my theory that his team needed some sort of roster shakeup because the last two playoff endings in Mavs land inflicted long-lasting psychological scars that won't simply be forgotten.
But I'm sticking with the theory.
I needed to see more than the re-signing of Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris' contract extension and the addition of Eddie Jones -- which I do like, by the way, since Jones still plays enough defense to win over Avery Johnson but can also make 3s -- to believe that the Mavs can recover emotionally from their back-to-back postseason unravelings.
Problem is, they never had the trade assets to come close to Boston in the Garnett hunt and owner Mark Cuban was unwilling to trade Josh Howard or Harris unless it could bring back KG or Kobe Bryant. With little to no interest in what the Mavs did make available, that led to the stance Nowitzki shared earlier this month by saying, "We had trouble with one team, not 29. We still have a good team. I don't think it's time to panic because we had trouble with one team [Golden State] over three years."
The Mavs remain interested in signing P.J. Brown or Webber at a minimum rate, but there continues to be no indication that a decision is coming soon from either vet.
Yet even if the Mavs bring in Brown or Webber, new assistant coach Paul Westphal might be the most important newcomer in the organization. Dallas' offense stagnated badly as the season deepened and offered nothing in the way of imaginative counters to the defensive swarm former Mavs coach Don Nelson unleashed on Nowitzki in the first round.
It'll be interesting to see if Westphal can bring some creativity and movement back to the Mavs' attack ... and how much influence Johnson will actually let Westy have.
The team that made last season's most monumental trade acquisition didn't exactly follow up on that instinct in the offseason. Yet you can probably guess why.
Yup. Luxury tax.
Allen Iverson will earn just over $19 million in his first full season as a Nugget, with four more teammates -- Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene and Marcus Camby -- earning between $8.8 and $13.25 million. As a result, Denver has the league's third-highest payroll at nearly $80 million, making every new expenditure a significant one.
Improvements will thus have to come from within. The only roster tweaks Denver made were minor, signing point guard Chucky Atkins after letting Steve Blake go and swapping Reggie Evans for Steven Hunter in another Nuggets/76ers collaboration that saved some $8 million in long-term salary obligations and established Hunter as Camby's new backup.
To make any sort of jump in the conference, Denver is banking on the idea that Iverson and Anthony will play better as a tandem after starting the season together with a full training camp.
The Nuggets will also be praying that Kenyon Martin can give them something as he attempts to be the first player in league history to successfully come back from microfracture surgery on both knees. It would be a fairy tale that theoretically makes a huge difference in the Nuggets' fortunes, given the fact that Martin at his peak would have been a good fit alongside A.I. and Melo since he didn't need the ball to be effective. The Nuggets have to know, though, that Martin realistically might need the whole season just to get some confidence in his body again after two anguished years.
The good news: One team insider insists that Phil Jackson is leaning toward signing an extension that will keep him on the Lakers' bench for two more seasons after this one, despite Jackson's recent announcement that the 2007-08 campaign "could well be my last year of coaching."
The bad news: Jackson also announced during a recent radio interview that he, like Kobe Bryant, was still waiting for the "big changes" on the roster promised by Lakers vice president Jim Buss, heaping more pressure on the Lakers to do something drastic tradewise.
Cosmetic is the more appropriate word for what we've seen from the Lakers so far, with L.A. unable to come close in the KG Sweepstakes and unwilling to part with Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum in a trade for Jermaine O'Neal.
The Lakers brought back Derek Fisher unexpectedly after Fisher asked the Utah Jazz to be released from his contract so he could move to a larger city with a treatment center for his infant daughter's rare form of eye cancer. And they re-signed Luke Walton and Chris Mihm, after Walton at times looked like the Lakers' third-best player and after Mihm missed the entire season following ankle surgery.
None of that, though, adds up to "big changes."
We'd naturally love to tell you what Bryant thinks of those moves, but he's refusing to discuss the Lakers after bashing management relentlessly in May and June. Yet his silence more than implies that he hasn't withdrawn his trade request, backing up the theory that he still wants to be sent to one of the three teams he pushed for months ago: Chicago, Phoenix or Dallas. The theory also holds that Bryant is opting for silence now merely to avoid further damage to his image, knowing that more complaining is futile because the Lakers won't even consider trading him.
In the summer of 2008, when Bryant is only a year away from free agency, he'll have a lot more leverage to try to force his way out if he wishes. In the summer of 2007, Lakers fans could only brace for the fall of 2007 and what might happen when the Lakers and their seething star open training camp in Hawaii (after media day in L.A.).
There normally wouldn't be much camp intrigue surrounding a 42-win team that didn't change a whole lot. Of course, when it comes to Kobe and the Lakers, what's normal?
It's gruesome enough when Elton Brand, one of the league's finest citizens, suffers a severe injury in July that historically sidelines NBA players for a full year.
But now Brand and the Clips won't even get their deserved share of sympathy for EB's torn Achilles' tendon. Not after what happened to Oden, whose own season-ending nightmare has shoved the fallen Brand into the background. Ouch.
One of the sadder bits here is that, with a healthy Brand to anchor everything, you'd have probably found the Clippers' additions somewhat intriguing after their failure to make it two straight trips to the playoffs last season. Now? Brevin Knight, Ruben Patterson and first-round pick Al Thornton can't even come close to offsetting what the Clips expected to get from Brand and the still-sidelined Shaun Livingston.
The Clippers continue to maintain the in-house belief that Brand can be back in about six months. Yet even if he defies history to return in February or March, what will he be coming back to?
Follow-up question: How soon before our man Sam Cassell, soon to be 39, realizes that he should push for a buyout so he can make one more playoff run with a needy contender like Dallas or Boston?
I think I've made my views on the Wolves fairly clear by now. But to recap quickly from the adjacent click:
1. They waited at least a year too long to trade Kevin Garnett.
2. Owner Glen Taylor should have used his considerable financial might to clean house two or three years ago and then go outside the Wolves' sphere to find a new front-office chief from a successful franchise, long before the Wolves wound up in a crisis summer like this one.
3. When they finally did trade KG, they got back five players and two future first-round picks ... but only one out of the seven players (Al Jefferson) would automatically command minutes with a quality team. The rest are all maybes.
All of which should clear up any mystery about why I have the Wolves down here.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.