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David Aldridge

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How Greg Oden recovers from his knee injury will shape Portland's fate more than anything else.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Key big men will make (or break) fortunes of bottom teams


Posted Jul 26 2010 9:52AM

A year ago, in this space, in evaluating each of the 30 NBA teams' 2009 offseason moves, these words were written about the Miami Heat's decision to do nothing, biding its time for the Summer of 2010: "It's a big, big gamble. But if Riles can pull it off, he'll be the one laughing 12 months from now."

Ha. Ha. Ha. Ho. Ho. Ho. Hee. Hee. Hee.

Riles laughs; the rest of the league weeps. And seethes. And curses. Like he cares.

The Closer got it done, luring LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Miller, all while keeping Dwyane Wade, and if you're looking for some statistical analysis that "proves" the Hornets had a better summer, keep walking. Miami won the summer, but it's only the summer. The Lakers and Celtics and Magic aren't afraid.

But this offseason had the scent of change, and not just on South Beach. The Eastern Conference, pushed around for most of the last decade, got almost all of the quality talent in the Draft, while All-Star forwards Carlos Boozer and Amar'e Stoudemire went from West to East. Doug Collins, Avery Johnson and Byron Scott joined up as coaches. It should make for much more competitive and entertaining basketball east of the Mississippi, with the exception of northeast Ohio.

In a zero-sum game, someone loses, and that someone, this summer, was Cleveland. The Cavaliers bet the ranch they could keep James happy, and lost. Now comes the reckoning.

As ever, the ground rules: my 30-team rankings are for offseason moves only, the things teams have done since they last played a game. It is not a predicted order of finish for next season; I do not expect Golden State to have a better record than Orlando.

It is as much art as science, weighing the impact both of the Draft and free agency, but also assessing whether teams got value in their free-agent signings. Overpaying the right player is as much a sin as signing the wrong player. New coaches, new GMs, new owners and new arenas are also signficant factors in judging a team's summer success, for a good coach can coax some more wins out of a roster, and a new building can generate the kind of revenue necessary to let a team be aggressive in pursuing free agents and trades.

So let's get to gradin'.

The Bottom 10
(Blazers, Clippers, Nuggets, Raptors, Magic, Bobcats, Pistons, Hornets, Pacers, Cavs)

More Aldridge Offseason Rankings: The Top 10 | The Middle 10

The Bottom 10

No. 21 -- PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

2009-10 RECORD: 50-32, third place, Northwest; lost in first round to Suns.

ADDED: G Wesley Matthews (five years, $33 million); F Luke Babbitt (Draft day trade with Minnesota); G Elliott Williams (first round, 22nd pick overall); G Armon Johnson (second-round pick); hired new general manager Rich Cho.

LOST: G Martell Webster (trade with Minnesota); F Juwan Howard (signed with Miami); F Ryan Gomes (signed with Clippers); fired former GM Kevin Pritchard.

RETAINED: None.

THE KEY MAN: C Greg Oden.
The first pick in the 2008 Draft has played one season's worth of games (82) in three seasons total. Not a good ratio. He is recovering from his latest injury, a fractured kneecap, and is hopeful that he'll be ready by the start of training camp. When Oden went down in December he was playing the best basketball of his young career, and for Portland to ever become more than just a good team he has to stay healthy.

THE SKINNY: On the last day on the job, knowing it was his last day, Pritchard nonetheless did what he'd done for four seasons in Portland -- he got the Blazers more young talent. Most people had Babbitt as a Lottery pick; he went 16th. Williams will likely step in when the Blazers move Rudy Fernandez. Cho, from Oklahoma City, is well-regarded around the league. His first task is deciding whether to keep Andre Miller or to put a package together that could bring Tony Parker from San Antonio or Chris Paul from New Orleans. But if the Blazers can get Oden and Joel Pryzbilla healthy, allowing Marcus Camby to play more minutes at power forward, they should make a move in the West without a major roster upheaval.

No. 22 -- L.A. CLIPPERS

2009-10 RECORD: 29-53, third place, Pacific; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: F Al-Faroqu Aminu (first round, eighth pick overall); G Eric Bledsoe (Draft-day trade with Oklahoma City); F Ryan Gomes (three years, $12 million); G Randy Foye (two years, $8 million); F Brian Cook (two years); hired new head coach Vinny Del Negro.

LOST: F Travis Outlaw (signed with New Jersey); G Steve Blake (signed with Lakers); F Drew Gooden (signed with Milwaukee); fired interim head coach Kim Hughes.

RETAINED: F Rasual Butler (one year); F Craig Smith (one year).

THE KEY MAN: F Blake Griffin.
The still-rookie forward has been cleared for full contact after missing all of last season with a knee injury, and that should make the Clippers a much, much better team. His explosiveness around the basket will make All-Star Chris Kaman the king of uncontested follows; he should shoot near 60 percent from the floor with all the open looks he's likely to get. Griffin is a difference-maker and he will make the Clippers a much improved team.

THE SKINNY: No, the Clippers didn't do anything wrong in the offseason; I would have taken Mavs assistant Dwane Casey over Del Negro, but OK. Aminu made sense for a team in desperate need of a small forward (stunningly, LeBron decided not to put his future in Donald Sterling's hands); Bledsoe was a very good pickup and gives the Clips an alternative if Baron Davis goes south again. Gomes and Foye were reasonably-priced signings for depth. No bad moves. But no big moves, either. With that once-only-every-few-years cap space available, L.A. should have been able to make a bigger impact, either through a blue-chip signing or trade.

No. 23 -- DENVER NUGGETS

2009-10 RECORD: 53-29, first place, Northwest; lost in first round to Jazz.

ADDED: F Al Harrington (five years, $33 million); F/C Shelden Williams (one year, $915,000).

LOST: F Linas Kleiza (signed with Toronto); C Johan Petro (signed with New Jersey).

RETAINED: G Anthony Carter (one year, $1.35 million).

THE KEY MAN: Coach George Karl.
The Nuggets fell apart without their boss on the sideline, as he battled neck and throat cancer. After a grueling treatment, Karl is slowly working back into form and says he'll be ready for the rigors of coaching again. Denver needs him desperately as it enters a critical season, needing to keep Carmelo Anthony from getting wanderlust in his eyes and needing to keep pace in the ultra-competitive West. If Karl can't get through a full season, the Nuggets are in deep trouble.

THE SKINNY: They lined up David Lee. And Brendan Haywood. And Andris Biedrins. And Jermaine O'Neal. And Brad Miller and Juwan Howard and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and just about any other human over 6-foot-10, and whiffed on every single one. That's why Denver fell behind this summer. With Kenyon Martin likely to miss much of next season as he recovers from knee surgery, and Chris Andersen on the mend as well, the Nuggets were desperate to plug in a couple of bigs by the start of training camp. The best they could do is Harrington, who doesn't provide the toughness and interior defense that Martin brought, but has more offensive game. Karl wants to get the Nuggets' edge back, but what Denver needs is its size back.

No. 24 -- TORONTO RAPTORS

2009-10 RECORD: 40-42, second place, Atlantic; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Leandro Barbosa (trade with Phoenix); F Ed Davis (first round, 13th pick overall); F Linas Kleiza (four years, $20 million); C Solomon Alabi (Draft day trade with Dallas).

LOST: F Chris Bosh (sign-and-trade deal with Miami); F Hedo Turkoglu (traded to Phoenix); F Antoine Wright (signed with Sacramento).

RETAINED: F Amir Johnson (five years, $34 million).

THE KEY MAN: DeMar DeRozan.
The second-year guard has to develop rapidly with Bosh gone. He had a solid rookie season (65 starts, .498 FG percentage), but the Raptors need to give Andrea Bargnani some help, and they could use another star along the lines of Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady to keep what fan interest the Maple Leafs don't already have.

THE SKINNY: Well, that didn't end great. Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo gambled that he could find a sign-and-trade for Bosh that would bring some players back, but the best he could do is a trade exception that might be able to land someone in the next year. Until then the Raptors don't have much to hang their hats on. Davis has potential, but it will take a couple of years; Barbosa was once one of the league's fastest and fiercest with the ball, but injuries have slowed him down. And, let's just say there aren't many people around the league who think Johnson is worth $6.5 million a season. He, and Toronto, have to prove a lot of people wrong.

No. 25 -- ORLANDO MAGIC

2009-10 RECORD: 59-23, first place, Southeast; lost in Eastern Conference finals to Celtics.

ADDED: G/F Quentin Richardson (three years, $7 million); G Chris Duhon (four years, $15 million); F/C Daniel Orton (first round, 29th pick overall).

LOST: F Matt Barnes (signed with Lakers).

RETAINED: G J.J. Redick (three years, $19.5 million).

THE KEY MAN: G Jameer Nelson.
Everyone on the Magic says the same thing: when Nelson is going, Orlando is close to unbeatable. But he didn't get going against the Celtics' Rajon Rondo, who dominated Nelson in the East finals. And with Chris Paul saying that Orlando is his preferred destination, it's gotten people talking. But it would be a shock if GM Otis Smith gave up on Nelson, whom he loves for his toughness and leadership. And it would be a shock if Nelson didn't respond with a huge 2010-11 season.

THE SKINNY: Can't give Orlando a great offseason grade for only matching an offer sheet on Redick. But the Magic are in much better shape than most of the teams on this list. Nobody else has Dwight Howard and almost nobody else has quality big man depth like Orlando, which can bring Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass off the bench. But the Magic have some decisions to make. Should they pull the trigger and deal Vince Carter for the likes of Gilbert Arenas, or package Nelson and some of that big man depth and try to get Howard a Pau Gasol-like second? Or should Orlando stand pat and give a team that was playing the best basketball in the league -- until meeting Boston -- another chance to get back to the Finals?

No. 26 -- CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

2009-10 RECORD: 44-38, fourth place, Southeast; lost in first round to Magic.

ADDED: C Erick Dampier (trade with Dallas); F Eduardo Najera (trade with Dallas); G Matt Carroll (trade with Dallas); G Shaun Livingston (two years, $7 million). F Dominic McGuire (one year, $885,000).

LOST: F/C Tyson Chandler (trade with Dallas); C Alexis Ajinca (trade with Dallas); G Raymond Felton (signed with New York); F/C Theo Ratliff (signed with Lakers).

RETAINED: F Tyrus Thomas (five years, $40 million).

THE KEY MAN: G D.J. Augustin.
Pity the young man -- who, for now, will incur the Wrath of Brown as the Bobcats' starting point guard. The third-year guard was Larry Brown's personal pick in the '08 Draft, while most of the rest of the room wanted Brook Lopez. With Felton gone to New York, Augustin will have to deliver with the most critical pair of eyes this side of Simon Cowell watching.

THE SKINNY: Dampier's $13 million contract for next season is non-guaranteed, so if Charlotte cuts him, it will be out of danger of paying the luxury tax next season. That's a fine result for new owner Michael Jordan, who is loath to pay any tax, but it's not likely the goal of the team's fans, who'd hoped to see more added onto a team coming off its inaugural postseason appearance. A proposed trade with Toronto that would have brought point guard Jose Calderon for Tyson Chandler and Boris Diaw was scotched by MJ, so Augustin and import Livingston, who played well down the stretch for the Wizards last season, are the new answer at the point. Keeping Thomas for $8 million a season was a bit of a head-scratcher, but the Bobcats also wanted someone around to push Diaw or take his starting power forward job.

No. 27 -- DETROIT PISTONS

2009-10 RECORD: 27-55, fifth place, Central; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: F/C Greg Monroe (first round, seventh pick overall); G Terrico White (second-round pick).

LOST: None.

RETAINED: C Ben Wallace (two years, $2.8 million).

THE KEY MAN: F Austin Daye.
The second-year man showed signs of growth at small forward the second half of last season and Detroit may give the 6-foot-10 Daye some minutes at shooting guard next season. Wherever he plays, Daye will be much stronger than he was last year and capable of much more, a necessity as the Pistons continue their rebuild.

THE SKINNY: Normally I don't like proferring trade advice -- it's talk radio schtick -- but in this case, I have to: the Pistons should deal Tayshaun Prince to the Clippers for a Draft pick and move Rip Hamilton to the Knicks for Eddy Curry. Yes, that Eddy Curry. Doesn't matter if he plays a minute; where is Detroit going next season other than right back to Secaucus for the 2011 Lottery? So bite the bullet, give Prince a ticket back to his native L.A. with an up-and-coming team and Hamilton a chance to shine in the Knicks' tailor-made-for-him attack, send Curry quickly on his way and bide your time for the Summer of '11, when the Pistons would then be in a much better position to go after the likes of Carmelo Anthony or make an offer for Chris Paul. Now that would accelerate the rebuilding process for team president Joe Dumars, who hasn't been able to do much else this summer to improve the team.

No. 28 -- NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

2009-10 RECORD: 37-45, fifth place, Southwest; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: F Craig Brackins (Draft day trade with Oklahoma City); F/G Quincy Pondexter (Draft day trade with Oklahoma City); new head coach Monty Williams, new general manager Dell Demps.

LOST: G/F Mo Peterson (trade with Oklahoma City); fired general manager Jeff Bower.

RETAINED: C Aaron Gray (two years).

THE KEY MAN: Team president Hugh Weber.
The son-in-law of current owner George Shinn has put himself on the hot seat with his decision to fire the popular Bower and former head coach Byron Scott, and to hire rookies in Williams and Demps at the team's critical positions at the most critical stage for the franchise since Hurricane Katrina forced the team to move to Oklahoma City for two years. Chris Paul has leaked word to his favorite media outlets that he wants out of the Crescent City, and has helpfully provided a list of teams to whom he'd like to go. It will be up to Weber to keep Paul's powder dry while Demps figures out some way to dramatically improve the team without getting anywhere near the luxury tax.

THE SKINNY: Wasn't it just yesterday when Paul was throwing oops to Tyson Chandler, and New Orleans Arena was rocking, and the Hornets were the Next Big Thing in the Western Conference? Now New Orleans is facing doom, with Paul's trade demand. The only positive is that he can't contractually leave for two more years, and that gives the Hornets some time. They got two good pieces in the Draft with Brackins and Pondexter, but they need a superstar in country soon to keep Paul's feet from falling asleep. And nobody will take Emeka Okafor's huge contract off their hands.

No. 29 -- INDIANA PACERS

2009-10 RECORD: 32-50, fourth place, Central; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: F Paul George (first round, 10th pick overall); G Lance Stephenson (second-round pick).

LOST: None.

RETAINED: None.

THE KEY MAN: C Roy Hibbert.
The rising third-year center had a few flashes last season, but if the Pacers are ever going to become important again, Hibbert has to accelerate his impact. He's one of the pieces that the Pacers plan to keep around for a while. At Georgetown, Hibbert made great strides between his second and third seasons; Indiana needs the same.

THE SKINNY: Well, at least they have a plan. The Pacers have a bunch of expiring contracts -- Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster, Solomon Jones -- coming off the books after next season, and Indiana hopes it can be a player in free agency or through trades next summer. Of course, there will probably be a lockout after next summer, so it could be hard for the Pacers to find willing agents or teams who want to send their clients/players Indiana's way. But it is a plan. In the meantime, there are high hopes for both George, the Draft's diamond in the rough, and Stephenson -- a rough diamond -- to be contributors next year with second-year forward Tyler Hansbrough, whom the Pacers hope will be back after missing much of last season with a shin injury and vertigo induced by a severe concussion.

No. 30 -- CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

2009-10 RECORD: 61-21, first place, Central Division; lost in East semifinals to Celtics.

ADDED: New head coach Byron Scott; general manager Chris Grant; F Christian Eyenga (played last two years in Europe).

LOST: F LeBron James (signed with Miami); C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (signed with Miami); fired former head coach Mike Brown, former general manager Danny Ferry resigned.

RETAINED: None.

THE KEY MAN: Owner Dan Gilbert.
He has some PR work to do around the league after his crazy post-James-to-Miami screed. The people of Cleveland loved it, but agents and players did not, and Gilbert will have to work with both of those groups in the future to try to rebuild the Cavs. If Gilbert reacts that way when the team's face of the franchise leaves, they wonder, what will he do if my client/I decide(s) to go some day? But Gilbert has a lot of money, is willing to spend it and is driven to make the Cavs into a contender without James. It's a start, anyways.

THE SKINNY: If you saw the opening Vegas scenes of The Hangover, you've seen the post-LeBron James Cleveland, Ohio. (Although there is no tiger in the bathroom that I am aware of.) The party is over and the bill has come due and nobody can find the man of the hour. There's no way to spin it, though Grant and the team speak bravely of going forward and Scott says he'll coach the remainders up and figure out a way to win. Cleveland won't be 12-70 bad next season, but the Cavs are back on the first steps of the Yellow Brick Road, with years of tearing down and starting over ahead, a long, long way from the city of Oz.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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