Friday, January 26, 2007

Trade Talk

The NBA's trade deadline is approaching and, if half the rumors being tossed about are accurate, we're in for one of the more action-packed trade seasons in recent memory, both in terms of number of trades, as well as the caliber of players moved. We've already seen a trade involving trades involving 2 former #1 overall picks, one of whom (Allen Iverson) is a perennial All-Star and first ballot Hall-of-Famer, as well as an 8-player deal involving 4 players averaging over 25 mintues per game (that number would be 5 if Ike Diogu had not been injured to start the season) and another, Sarunas Jasikevicius, who gets regular playing time, averaging almost 18 minutes a night. With the February 22 deadline less than 4 weeks away, the action is about to pick up. To this point, we've seen three noteworthy trades. A quick breakdown:
Allen Iverson to Denver Nuggets, Andre Miller, Joe Smith and 2 1st Round picks in to Philadelphia 76ers. A team trading a legitimate superstar in his prime is unlikely to receive full value in return since a) there is rarely another player of the same caliber available and b) if a team is actually looking to trade its superstar, other teams will begin to ask “what’s wrong with him?” which will, in turn, drive down his value. From Philadelphia’s perspective, those reasons, along with Allen Iverson’s desire to be traded and the need to acquire the equivalent amount in salaries from Denver (salary cap rules), made the Iverson trade one of the most difficult trades in recent memory to pull off. That said, the 76ers did a relatively good job in moving their unhappy star.
So, how’d they fare?
Denver- To see the Nuggets’ two studs, Carmelo Anthony as well as Iverson, playing together, is really a pleasure. There was some concern over: Melo and AI sharing the ball, Denver trading away its starting point guard and Iverson’s shoot-first mentality magnifying the departure of pass-first Andre Miller.
Not to worry. First of all, Anthony and Iverson, who in the two games they have played together, seem to be having a blast, are not the same type of player. Melo plays the post, fills the wing and has a great mid-range jump shot, while AI slashes to the basket, either scoring in the paint or getting to the line. Also, AI is a nightmare match-up that forces opposing teams to devote multiple defenders to keeping him out of the lane. This opens up the floor for ALL of his teammates, not just Melo (this happened in Philly too, problems arose when the other 76ers had to make open shots). As for replacing the loss of Andre Miller’s unselfish play, Nuggets’ GM Mark Warkentien solved that problem brilliantly by trading for Steve Blake (see below) AND saved some money in meantime.
From the Nuggets’ perspective, they did phenomenally well in trading for Allen Iverson. While his salary (about $20M/yr for the next 3 years) restricts the team’s cap flexibility a bit; Miller’s contract was smaller and Joe Smith’s $6.8M salary would have come off the Nuggets’ payroll after this season, the Nuggets have two players, one entering his prime and another in the later stages of his, capable of single-handedly winning a game against virtually any team in the NBA- and that wins series’ in the playoffs.
Philadelphia- The Philadelphia 76ers, this trade was made not for this season, but for the June 2007 Draft and the 2008-09 season. In addition to freshman superstars Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the upcoming NBA Draft is being touted as the deepest in years. The 76ers struggles will undoubtedly have them selecting very high in the draft. As a result of the deal with the Nuggets, which netted the Sixers two additional first round selections, Philly holds 10% of the picks in the first round of this year’s draft. Whether Philly uses the picks to retool its roster with young talent or elects to trade the picks, they are extremely valuable commodities.
As far as the salary cap is concerned, by dealing Allen Iverson, and the $60M he is owed through 2008-09, for Joe Smith, whose expiring contract pays him $6.8M this season, and Andre Miller, the Sixers will see their payroll fall from over $90M this season to just under $64M next year (payroll will fall to $32M in 2008-09), significantly lowering payroll and making it possible to sign/trade for any player that may come on the market through the end of the decade. Also, in acquiring Andre Miller, Philly now has one key component of any young, rebuilding team: an experienced, poised pass-first point guard. Whether he’s the 76ers point guard in the long run or not, Miller will keep the team in a lot of games and help his younger teammates, like Andre Iguodala, develop and gain confidence by getting the ball to them in scoring position.
As they looked to make a trade, the Sixers found themselves in a Catch 22: get as much as possible for Iverson without scaring away potential suitors. Without a lot of leverage, and a rebuilding period looming, the 76ers have put themselves in a strong position to return to prominence sooner rather than later.

Earl Boykins, Julius Hodge and cash to Milwaukee Bucks, Steve Blake to Denver Nuggets. It is possible to have too many undersized, shot-happy shooting guards on one roster. Acquiring Allen Iverson, the best such player on Earth, from the 76ers, made Earl Boykins expendable to the Denver Nuggets. Meanwhile the Milwaukee Bucks, their backcourt ravaged by injuries, needed just what the Nuggets had too much of. The perfect, everybody wins deal, right? Not so fast.
So, how’d they fare?
Denver- Allen Iverson is not a point guard. He has all the skills to play the position and does so phenomenally well in spurts. The fact remains, however, that he is the best pure scorer of his generation and plays with a shoot-first attitude. Not selfish, just shoot-first. The recipe that got AI’s 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001 was pairing him with Eric Snow, a pure point guard who deferred completely to Iverson and hit enough shots to force the defense to pay attention to him. Steve Blake is Eric Snow 2.0, same attitude- only with better range and what seems like instant rapport with AI. If that’s not enough, his salary ($1.1M), represents a savings of $3.1M over the $4.2M owed to Earl Boykins and Julius Hodge this season.
Milwaukee- The Bucks perimeter scoring has taken such a massive hit in the first half of this season with injuries to Michael Redd, Mo Williams and Charlie Villanueva that they felt the need to do something to hold them over until they get healthy. At a cost of PG Steve Blake and a mere $3.1M addition (about $1.5M when prorated) to their payroll, the Bucks added Allen Iverson Lite to their roster in the person of Earl Boykins.
For a variety of reasons, this trade does not make sense. Why, in anticipation of the return of three starters, would the Bucks acquire a shoot-ONLY guard as a stop-gap? Earl Boykins does not pass! EVER! What is Michael Redd going to return to? It’s not exactly like the Bucks are desperate for a shooting guard! It can be argued that Boykins, at $2.95M, is a very affordable scoring guard. This is true, except Boykins has a player option for next season for $2.98M (a 1% raise), which means that he can, and will, become a free agent. After averaging 20-something point for a couple of months, someone will offer him a $5-$7M/yr contract which the Bucks, who are paying Redd $47M over the next four seasons, will NOT match.
A potential wild card in this deal is Julius Hodge, the second year swingman out of NC State, where he was an All-ACC player. In college, playing in the perennially loaded ACC, Hodge showed that he's capable of holding his own against top competition, so he certainly has the potential to develop into a solid NBA player. However, he too, is a free agent at the end of the season, which means that the Bucks will have just half a season to assess Hodge’s potential and determine whether or not he worth resigning, likely for more than the $1.23M that he is making this season. If Milwaukee decides that he is not, they will have paid $1.5M for the privilege of giving away Steve Blake.
It’s true that Steve Blake is not a star, but to simply give away a serviceable point guard and $1.5M in exchange for half a season of shot-crazy Earl Boykins and unproven Julius Hodge seems irresponsible at best. Halfway through a season that is, for all intents and purposes, a lost cause, why would the Milwaukee Bucks not simply save as much money as possible and enter the Oden/Durant sweepstakes?

Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell to Golden State Warriors, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod to Indiana Pacers. The Warriors and the Pacers each turned over a third of their respective rosters in an attempt to shake up their current situations. Activity does not necessarily signal achievement. On the surface, this trade appears to have been made simply for the purpose of making news, not for salary cap flexibility or to fill any holes on either roster. While the teams’ results on the floor are unlikely to change dramatically, the financial benefits of the trade seem to decidedly favor one side.
So, how’d they fare?
Golden State- By dealing Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. and their “What the hell were we thinking?” contracts, the Warriors not only succeeded in adding by subtraction, they actually got superior talent in return. In exchange for two average players and their albatross contracts, Ike Diogu, who is an intriguing player with a body and physical gifts similar to Charles Barkley, and a third string point guard, Chris Mullin brought in two legitimate NBA scorers and a better third string point guard. Through 38 team games, Al Harrington’s 68 offensive rebounds (think 68 additional possessions), bested the 67 that Murphy and Dunleavy had combined! Also, during the same period, the duo of Harrington and Jackson attempted 83 more free throws than Dunleavy and Murphy (238 to 155) and shot a slightly higher percentage (77.7% to 76.7%) from the line. The Warriors also acquired Sarunas Jasikevicius, a solid point guard (much better than solid when he’s your third stringer) who shoots over 90% from the free throw line, 37% from 3-point range and does not turn the ball over at a high rate (57 TO in 36 games; about 1.6/game).
Indiana- The Pacers’ motivation for making this trade is more of a mystery. Based on the numbers involved, it’s fair to assume that Indiana’s top priority was to move Jackson and Harrington at any cost. Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird obviously decided that Stephen Jackson, and his erratic behavior, had to be eliminated from their roster, much the same way that Ron Artest was purged last season. It seems that the market for Jackson had softened so much that the Pacers were placed in a “get whatever you can for him” situation.
This still doesn't explain the desire to deal Harrington who is an athletic forward with great range (46% 3-point %) and a knack for offensive rebounds, two very valuable qualities for player at his position. That is, unless Harrington’s trade value had slipped to a level similar to that of Jackson’s and the team decided to cut its losses on a pair of depreciating assets.
The most baffling aspect of this trade is the decision to deal 4 years and a combined $63.7M in guaranteed salary (Jackson-Harrington) for Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy, players of inferior talent and production, with 5 years and a combined $93M+ remaining on their respective deals. The Pacers had better hope that character, and not talent, production or salary cap flexibility, win games in the NBA, because Murphy and Dunleavy will NOT be movable until 2010, when their trade value will climb due to their expiring contracts.
Before writing this trade off as a loss for Indiana, Ike Diogu must be taken into consideration. As mentioned earlier, Diogu sports a like Charles Barkley in his prime. The guy looks like he was custom made for heavy minutes in the paint. When he's healthy, Diogu is a monster on the offensive glass and a good free throw shooter, which will come in handy, as he does not shy away from contact and will get to the line regularly. If Ike can develop a Barkley-like mean streak that will drive him to destroy anyone he faces, he'll single-handedly change the focus of this trade. If he grows into his 22 point, 12 rebound potential, he will be the key to the reemergence of the Indiana Pacers. Otherwise, the Pacers made a deal for two average players with catastrophic contracts.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Embracing Change

To err is human. Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, it just happens. In sports, as in life, the best way to resolve these issues is to admit fault and address the matter head-on.

Too often, general mangers will suffer through disappointing seasons and waste the best years of the talented, highly paid, highly drafted players that are supposed to be “the face of the franchise.” Was it this type of passive, non-decision making that landed these guys the coolest job in the world to begin with? GMs need to honestly assess their rosters, not just see what they wish they had or do nothing for fear of being wrong. Plenty of guys score 20 points a game, but teams only have success when talented players are asked to play roles that suit them. Talent alone doesn’t translate to superstardom; the right system and supporting cast play just a big a part in a player’s success.

In the wake of Allen Iverson’s trade to Denver, a burning question emerges: what other NBA stars, as well as their teams, could benefit from a similar change? Rather than trying to squeeze every productive season out of a guy that is obviously not the best fit, GMs needs to take a more proactive, “solutions oriented” approach. The Nuggets acquired a future Hall-of-Famer with plenty of gas left in the tank and the 76ers acquired a solid point guard, a little bit of cap relief and now have 3 first round picks in what is being called the deepest draft in a decade.

There is no shame in admitting that a draft pick or a free agent signing hasn’t worked. Just man up and fix it! With that in mind, the first ever “It’s Just Not Working Out” Team:

G- Ray Allen: When he was traded for Gary Payton in 2002-03, Payton was still superstar. Yeah, it’s been that long! In Allen’s 4th full season with the Sonics (11th of his career), it’s starting to look like a change of scenery may be in order. Allen is definitely still a star, but he’s never thrived as a "carry the team" type of player. The Sonics are not a contender in the West and don’t look to be all that close. Stubbornly trying to make it work will ultimately lead to the worst possible fate for both the Sonics and Ray Allen: irrelevance.
How about? Taking on the last half season of Grant Hill’s contract ($16.9M this year) in exchange for the services of Ray Allen makes sense for Seattle. In a draft year that is being touted as the best in years, why fight to be below average? Tank the season! Start over! You’re not gonna win anything this year, so why struggle just to roll the dice with the #12 pick when with Hill’s expiring deal (cap space!) and a full commitment to rebuilding, you could simply draft a new “face of the franchise” with a top 5 pick. And Orlando, much improved and looking like a force over the next few years, is simply not “there” yet. Hill’s contract could bring the Magic exactly what they need to be an instant contender in the East: a proven, perimeter threat. How scary is the thought of having Dwight Howard dominating the post, Jameer Nelson slicing through defenses with Ray Allen spotting up beyond the arc?

G- Mike Bibby: Bibby ran the show for the NBA’s best team of the past 10 years NOT to win a championship (or even a conference title). Unfortunately for the Kings, the winner of the 2001 Western Conference Finals was not crowned after the 3rd quarter of Game 7. After their 4th quarter/overtime collapse, it was obvious the Kings missed their best shot at a title. They’re still somewhat competitive, but with C-Webb, Peja, Vlade and Rick Adelman all gone, it’s time to admit that, as good as they were, that era’s over.
How about? The last time the Kings and the Washington Wizards consummated a trade, the Kings sent a slightly-past-his-prime Mitch Richmond to DC and landed Chris Webber who, for a time, became the NBA’s best inside/outside big man. Now, trading Bibby (and what’s left of Mo Taylor’s contract) for Antawn Jamison will allow the Kings to add a legitimate 20-point scorer to an aging front line while trading a good, but not great, point guard from the team’s previous era. From the Wizards’ perspective, they would be adding a clutch, talented backcourt mate for Gilbert Arenas without having to part with young talents like Caron Butler and Jarvis Hayes.

F- Kevin Garnett: There is really something to be said for a superstar spending his entire career with one team and becoming the face of the organization and the community. At age 30, Garnett is still one of the top three power forwards in the league, is extremely durable and only has 5 (give or take) superstar caliber seasons left. It’s easy to say that he’s happy only because of his contract, but KG is beloved in the Twin Cities and he genuinely loves the community and kills himself trying to win every game for his decidedly mediocre teammates. There is a lot to be said for that kind of dedication, but with Allen Iverson off the market, KG in Minny no longer makes sense. It is highly unlikely KG’s Wolves will rejoin the NBA’s elite any time soon.
How about? If Garnett's ever going to play for a championship, it’s unlikely to be in Minnesota. Had AI not ended up there, Denver would have been an ideal destination for Garnett. Now, looking around the NBA, a deal sending KG to Boston in exchange for Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff (cap-relief!), Al Jefferson and $4-5 million would net the Wolves a young, playmaking point guard, a veteran big man (cap relief!) and a potential stud of a power forward, filling several needs. As for the Celtics, the opportunity to team Kevin Garnett with another superstar in Paul Pierce, a solid young point guard in Delonte West and a potential star in Gerald Green is far too good to pass up, especially in the highly mediocre Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ hesitance to trade Jefferson, who they believe will develop into a star, is understandable until you consider that if Al Jefferson lives up to every last bit of his potential, he is still unlikely to be the player that Garnett is.

F- Pau Gasol: The next two months of the season leading up to the NBA’s trade deadline should be an audition for the sixth-year Spaniard. Jerry West’s collection of young talent, led by Gasol, began to emerge in recent seasons, but never made the leap into the West’s elite. The team, as currently assembled has yet to win even a single playoff game. Gasol is still a solid inside/outside threat in his prime with plenty of trade value. Holding on to him would not only waste the remaining years of his prime, at the end of his prime, the team will be saddled with a depreciating commodity. Memphis, you have a problem. It’s time to look for a new approach.
How about? A change of scenery might be just what the two of the top players in the 2001 Draft needed to invigorate their careers. The Golden State Warriors have repeated tried for years to land a versatile big man (see the draftings of Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Adonal Foyle, and most recently Patrick O’Bryant), so why not Pau? Sending Jason Richardson and Dunleavy to Memphis for Gasol and Chucky Atkins will address two of the Warriors' needs: a versatile, of not overpowering big man (basically an upgrade of Mike Dunleavy) and veteran leadership at the point. Baron Davis has been in the NBA for a while, but seems to lack veteran savvy, and emerging preps-to-pros stud Monte Ellis has tons of talent but virtually no experience. Chucky Atkins could provide a calming influence for the pair, not to mention giving the Warriors 10-12 quality minutes a night.

C- Jermaine O’Neal: J.O. helped ease the Pacers’ transition into the “post-Reggie Miller” years and has been among the Eastern Conference’s best big men since his breakout season of 2001-02, his second in Indiana. Since then, Miller has retired, Ron Artest has come and gone, attacking fans in Detroit, releasing a flop of an R&B album and getting suspended and traded in the meantime. With J.O., who is in his 11th NBA season and approaching his 30th birthday, an amicable split may be in everyone’s best interest; it would give the Pacers a chance to retool for another title run, and Jermaine O’Neal another much-deserved shot at a championship again.
How about? Sending O’Neal to New Jersey for Vince Carter and Bostjan Nachbar? J.O. would be the Nets’ low-post anchor, allowing Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson space to operate on the perimeter. Nenad Kristic, the Nets’ promising big man with a strong mid-range game would also clear up the paint, giving O’Neal plenty of room on the block. From the Pacers’ perspective, bringing in Carter would preserve Indy’s star power while allowing the Pacers to take advantage of a roster full of athletes like Marquis Daniels, Danny Granger and Al Harrington.

6th Man- Jason Richardson: Still young and spectacular, J-Rich has so dramatically improved the range on his jumper, he is now a legitimate threat from 3-point range (and all points closer). The team has failed to show any significant improvement during his 5-plus seasons and whatever improvement the Warriors have shown has been with Richardson playing only sporadically. This, coupled with J-Rich’s injury problems, is an indication that it just may not work out for J-Rich in Oakland.
How about? A Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy for Pau Gasol and Chucky Atkins would put both teams on the right track. J-Rich would be a great compliment to Mike Miller, Rudy Gay and Hakim Warrick in Memphis. Even Damon Stoudamire, who’s in the twilight of his career, would find 2-3 more productive seasons running the break with this group of horses filling the lanes.