Friday, April 24, 2009
Shaq to N'awlins? Here's the latest buzz
By Marc Stein
We will be intruding on the playoffs with periodic Stein Line sweeps for interesting chatter from the NBA's front-office and coaching grapevines.
The first round, so to speak:
The assumption that Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson is leaving the organization at season's end, after persistent speculation that he nearly quit after the trade deadline, is still out there. But it really shouldn't be.
Sources with knowledge of the Bulls' thinking indicate that Paxson, while still very eager to relinquish day-to-day duties in Chicago's front office in spite of the Bulls' recent return to semi-prominence, is expected to stay in the organization as its senior basketball voice without losing much (if any) influence in big-ticket decision making.
In a scenario relayed by a few of his peers, Paxson would move into a still-to-be-defined role as a top adviser to Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, with director of player personnel Gar Forman taking over as the every-day personnel chief.
Such an alignment -- similar to Michael Jordan's arrangement in Charlotte, where Rod Higgins handles the daily duties -- would allow Paxson to continue to participate in the major trade and draft matters he enjoys while relinquishing the management headaches that have increasingly unsettled him. Shifting those duties to Forman would continue the expansion of a role that began to take shape last summer when Forman was asked by Reinsdorf to step in for Paxson on a good chunk of the Bulls' negotiations to re-sign forward Luol Deng.
"The best way to describe it," one insider says, "is that John is going to be moving up, not out."
After a difficult run marked by the failed free-agent signing of Ben Wallace, preferring Tyrus Thomas over LaMarcus Aldridge in the 2006 draft and a string of trade frustrations that led to a steady stream of criticism after so many positive reviews early in his tenure, Paxson has been at the heart of the Bulls' rally this season. Using the No. 1 overall pick on Chicago native and eventual rookie of the year Derrick Rose wasn't exactly risky, but Paxson's trade-deadline acquisitions of John Salmons and Brad Miller are widely seen as the spark that sent the Bulls from eight games under .500 as late as March 13 to the East's No. 7 seed.
The notion that the Hornets and Suns could come to an agreement on a Shaquille O'Neal deal, similar to what we said recently when O'Neal started dropping hints about wanting to be traded to Dallas, can't be described at this stage as much more than a helpful suggestion from the Big Tweeter.
O'Neal's interest in a return to the NBA territory closest to his LSU roots is even more genuine than we thought. Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News wrote recently that O'Neal "thinks" he's going to New Orleans in a deal headlined by Chandler. I've since heard that Shaq was not at all shy about telling Chris Paul what a great arrangement that would be when they were Western Conference teammates at All-Star Weekend.
What we don't have to date is any firm indication that the teams have even discussed Shaq scenarios.
Suns president Steve Kerr has spoken openly of his desire to inject his front line with mobility and athleticism, but Chandler is clearly still playing hurt in New Orleans' first-round series with Denver after Oklahoma City rescinded its trade for the rangy 7-footer in February because of concerns about a long-standing toe injury.
Then there's the obstacle of the teams' respective financial constraints on top of any health concerns. Once first-round draft picks are included on next season's payrolls, New Orleans will be an estimated $8 million over the luxury-tax line. Phoenix will be an estimated $9 million over. Both teams are hoping for trades this summer that would save more money than making this sort of deal would allow.
If the Suns ultimately did decide that they were willing to take on Chandler's contract -- which runs one season longer than Shaq's -- that would still require New Orleans to gamble on O'Neal for a season in exchange for the right to shed Chandler's $13.2 million salary in 2010-11. If those two conditions were realized, there are a couple of trade scenarios that aren't completely out of the realm of possibility:
1. Chandler, Rasual Butler and Devin Brown (assuming Brown picks up his $1.1 million option for next season) for O'Neal. Such a deal couldn't happen until after July 1 because Brown is ineligible to be traded until he can pick up the option.
2. The version that makes a trade more even cap-wise for the Hornets: Chandler, Butler and Antonio Daniels for Shaq and Alando Tucker.
Lance Blanks, one of the quiet rocks on Danny Ferry's front-office staff in Cleveland, has been frequently mentioned as a candidate for the GM opening in Minnesota. But Blanks, contrary to reports, has not been interviewed by the Wolves, who have still not requested permission from the Cavs to bring him in for a chat.
The Wolves' only known external candidate to take over their basketball operations is Spurs assistant general manager Dennis Lindsey, although plugged-in sources say Wolves owner Glen Taylor has also spoken to former Indiana Pacers executive David Kahn.
Landing Lindsey would be an undeniable coup for the Wolves. With more proven talent on its roster and residence in the Eastern Conference to offset its muddled ownership situation, Atlanta couldn't do so during last season's playoffs when it sought to convince Lindsey to become the latest alumnus from San Antonio's front-office factory -- along with Ferry, Blanks, Portland's Kevin Pritchard and Oklahoma City's Sam Presti -- to leave the staff of Spurs president R.C. Buford.
Kahn's most recent basketball experience took place in the D-League, but he is a longtime favorite of NBA commissioner David Stern, which is presumably how he hooked up with Taylor. This is Taylor's first season as the chairman of the league's Board of Governors, who meet twice annually with Stern, but his sphere of contacts outside the Wolves' organization is said to be very limited.
The Wolves' core young players (primarily Al Jefferson and Kevin Love) want Kevin McHale to stay on as coach, but the theory I'm hearing more and more is that Taylor wants to make an outside hire, whose inevitable desire to hire his own coach -- along with McHale's likely reluctance to work for someone he doesn't know well -- would lead to a coaching change that spares Taylor from having to outright dismiss McHale. Which is something Taylor has resisted for years and clearly doesn't want to do.
Something we didn't get a chance to get into during the short window between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs: NBA players made 77.07 percent of their free-throw attempts this season.
Which nearly broke the record for the highest cumulative percentage in league history.
The record that was narrowly missed this season -- 77.12 percent during the 1973-74 season -- happened in the first season after Wilt Chamberlain retired.
This season's success rate has inevitably dipped as we've moved into the playoffs, where the stakes are obviously higher and the pressure is greater, but the 16 postseason qualifiers were still shooting a combined 76 percent from the line until Thursday night's brickfest in Utah, where the Lakers and Jazz combined to miss 20 of 54 free throws. The league's cumulative playoff free-throw percentage entering Friday's play, with 687 makes in 914 attempts, was 75.2 percent.
One of the most familiar faces in refereeing won't be seen at all during the playoffs.
Bob Delaney, who has officiated nine NBA Finals games and 133 playoff games since leaving the world of undercover police work and trading his badge for a whistle, suffered an Achilles' injury late in the regular season that will sideline him for at least three months.
Doctors have told Delaney, 57, to avoid running for 10 to 12 weeks as he recovers from "severe tendinopathy and paratendinosis" in his right heel.
A reader asked me this recently assuming that Houston will soon be halting its run of six consecutive first-round exits by eliminating Portland: Does Tracy McGrady's infamous first-round drought end if the Rockets advance because his name appears on their playoff roster?
The answer: There apparently is no official answer.
I actually went through formal channels to find out how the Elias Sports Bureau would treat this hypothetical, given that Rockets coach Rick Adelman has to take the step of deactivating the only player in NBA history to win a scoring title without winning a first-round series before every playoff game. But the response from Elias is that there is no "official" policy on such matters, since we're not talking about a pure "stat." They generally record players' playoff milestones, such as championships won, only if they appear in at least one game along the way. Yet that's the only guideline in effect.
In the court of public opinion, of course, I think we can safely assume that McGrady would continue to hear plenty about his first-round failings even if his career ledger suddenly read 1-7 as opposed to 0-7.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.