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David Aldridge

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Moves like All-Star Deron Williams' return to the Nets -- and not smaller ones -- are what win the summer.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Offseason's universal law: Superstars always rule the day


Posted Jul 9 2012 8:15PM

One of the very few things I remember from my MacroEconomics class in college is the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. In economic terms, it generally refers to the supposed decrease in productivity in a given environment when more workers are added to that environment. At some point, the temporary increase in productivity that comes from having more workers is eclipsed by the amount of congestion and delay that having all those extra workers creates.

Or, as my econ professor explained, more coolly:

Say you're at a bar and you're really thirsty, and you order a beer. The beer comes and you drink it and it tastes incredible, and it quenches your thirst. That beer was so good, you think, that you'll order another. And you drink the second one. But you're not quite as thirsty as you were the first time, and your taste buds have already been stimulated by the ingredients in the first beer. The second beer is still good, but it's not quite as good as the first one. And the third won't be quite as good as the second. And on and on.

The more beers you consume, the less satisfied you are. In this case, "satisfaction" is the product.

I think of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns every regular, non-lockout offseason. I think of it because so many NBA teams, every regular, non-lockout offseason, act as if the goal is to appear as active as possible. They seem to think that if they can cram as many trade rumors and free-agent signing possibilities into their schedule, they'll win the news conference -- and, thus, keep their jobs. When the exact opposite is true.

The NBA is about just one thing: superstars. Coaches matter, teammates matter and the home crowd matters, but none of it matters if you don't have a superstar. If you have one, you have a chance to win a title. If you don't, you can't win. Period. It has nothing to do with conspiracies and all that nonsense. Superstars are superstars because they're better than most of the other players in the league. It's quite simple.

"First, you are right," Mavs owner Mark Cuban texted Friday, responding to my inquiries about how teams deal with the perception that they are smart or dumb, depending on what they do in the offseason. "You cant win without a superstar. Although who is a superstar is often a judgment call."

LeBron James is a superstar, the best basketball player on Earth at the moment. It really isn't close. And he showed that this season, leading the Heat to the championship with one of the greatest individual seasons we've seen in this league in the past 30 years.

The Heat beat three really good teams in a row to win the championship: Indiana, Boston and Oklahoma City. The Pacers and Thunder were playing outstanding basketball when they played the Heat, and if the Celtics weren't playing great, they sure were a tough bunch mentally. They never believed they wouldn't win, right until the final seconds of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

None of it mattered. LeBron is that good, that dominant, that pinpoint with his passes, that bullish when he gets up a head of steam, that unstoppable when he's in the paint and dealing. All the great depth of the Pacers, all the youth of the Thunder, all the smarts and toughness of the Celtics, all those Diminishing Marginal Returns, couldn't beat one great player at the top of his game.

Yes, Dwyane Wade is still terrific, and Chris Bosh made a huge difference, and Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers made a bunch of important threes, but James was the catalyst, the secret sauce, the 1.21 gigawatts that made the Heat's DeLorean go.

Superstars, unlike factory workers, are scarce. The pursuit of them makes people do things that don't seem to make much sense at first glance. But if you look deeper at what just about every team is doing -- or not doing -- so far in free agency, most of them are really doing the same thing: trying to figure out some way to get, or retain, a superstar.

Daryl Morey, the Rockets' general manager, looks like a fool so far in the eyes of many, with his Quixotic, Captain Ahab-esque pursuit of Dwight Howard. Howard has made it clear he won't sign an extension in Houston even if the Rockets trade him. Morey spent every moment before the Draft trying to trade up, to get as high a pick as possible, and wound up with three first-rounders. After that, he went as far as he could, but still let go the point guard that everyone in town wanted him to keep, Goran Dragic, and then he traded the only point guard he had left on the roster, Kyle Lowry. In between, the Rockets let a solid player, Courtney Lee, become an unrestricted free agent.

But Morey, who believes in numbers, who relies on numbers, who has an entire two-day conference at MIT to which hundreds of True Believers and fellow travelers make pilgrimage every year devoted to the primacy and efficacy of numbers, isn't stupid. The numbers take him to a certain place, and then, he knows ...

We need a star.

"When you're close and have a foundational piece, you should be willing to give up picks and overpay players, whatever it takes while you have that precious foundation to get better," Morey told the Houston Chronicle Sunday. "When you don't have a foundational piece to build around, you should do every move in reverse, which is, 'How does each move get us closer to getting a star, how does it get us more cap room, how does it get us more high picks and how does it get us more players with potential?'"

The Mavericks and Nets were in a staredown much of the last few months over Deron Williams. Dallas has a superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, but he's on the back nine of his career. The Mavs need a new one, a younger one. Cuban knows this. He's a very good businessman and he knows when you have something that very few other people have, people will pay to see it. The Mavs put on a great show inside their arena and they make the fan experience well worth it. But if they were 29-53 every season, their fan base would shrink.

Cuban knows this. (Also: not stupid.) The Mavericks basically walked away from their championship team, realizing that catching lightning in a bottle a second year in a row was not likely. It was unpopular to let Tyson Chandler walk and not make much effort to re-sign Caron Butler or J.J. Barea, key members of the title team. But within two years, Deron Williams would be a free agent. So would Dwight Howard. So would Chris Paul. The chance to get any one of those guys was worth the short-term pain of letting Chandler go to the Knicks.

"Our goal is to win championships and to put together an environment that is quality entertainment for our customers," Cuban wrote. "As far as smart or dumb, who cares what people think . No matter what we do, every summer we are idiots. It doesn't have any impact on the brand value. None. Zero. What is different today is that if you read your Twitter feed every 5 minutes, there is so much Twitter courage and hate that it can sometimes seem like things are far worse than they are. In the sports industry, Twitter is the most misleading indicator there is."

The Nets were in a similar spot a year and a half ago. They spent months in 2011 trying to make a deal for Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is a superstar. He is an old-school superstar: give him the ball and get out of his way. A lot of coaches don't like playing that way, but in the NBA, you give your best guy the rock and hope he's hot that night. But the Nets could never make it work, never find the combination of players that the Nuggets wanted for Anthony, who'd make it clear he was going to walk unless Denver traded him to a team -- preferably the Knicks.

The Nets fought the Knicks hammer and tong for Anthony: I'll see your Danilo Gallinari and raise you Derrick Favors. One day, it looked like a deal was done with New York; the next day, it was New Jersey, as the Nuggets, brilliantly and diabolically, pitted the two teams against one another. Finally, the dam broke: the Nuggets dealt 'Melo to the Knicks for a king's ransom of players and picks.

Two days later, Billy King traded for Williams, sending, basically, the same package to Utah that he'd been offering Denver for months. That he had no team to put around Williams, and only the promises of an oligarch who spent most of his days several times zones away, was merely background noise.

He needed a star. And he got one.

"It was tough," King texted Sunday night, "but I always believed if we put a team in place we'd be ok."

King met regularly with Williams, told him what the plan was, asked for his input, kept the lines of communication open, and both men kept what they said to one another, and to owner Mikhail Prokhorov, between themselves. For a year, the Nets have been linked with Howard, with various concoctions and deals, and they're still trying to get him, because if they do, they'll be an event in a city that doesn't pay attention to you if you're just a competent guy.

Superstars change the perception of what is reality, like the extractors in "Inception." They make once-derided organizations destination points.

I can't get what Riles said during The Finals out of my head. "There is more than one way to skin a cat," he said then, referring to how the Heat built their championship team, and it's easy now to forget exactly how big a gamble Miami took in 2008, deciding to break up a team that had just won a title two years before on the hope that it could attract LeBron James and keep Dwyane Wade.

But the reason Riley could take that gamble is because he already had a superstar entering the prime of his career in Wade to offer as a carrot for James and Bosh. Wade came to Miami via the Draft, the celebrated 2003 version.

Yes, the Thunder built a great young team through the Draft. Their three-year stretch of Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka is the NBA's version of the Steelers' five-year haul from 1970-74: Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster -- all of whom are Hall of Famers. You hit home runs in the Draft two or three straight seasons, you can build a dynasty.

But that's an anomaly. Most teams aren't that smart, or that lucky. (This guy makes a convincing argument that even if you are that smart, or that lucky, it's almost impossible to ask fans and players to be patient enough for the payoff -- which, in OKC's case, took six years.)

There isn't a franchise that has earned more rightful scorn over the last three decades than the Clippers. But they got the No. 1 pick in the Draft in 2009, and there happened to be a rim-rattling highlight machine named Blake Griffin available to take first overall. If the Clippers had gotten the first pick in 2005, they may well have taken Andrew Bogut, as the Bucks did; the next year, 2006, they could have taken Andrea Bargnani, like the Raptors did; the next year, 2007, they probably would have taken Greg Oden, like the Blazers did.

But 2009 was their year. And Griffin was theirs. As Cuban noted, sometimes there are differences of opinion as to whether someone is really a superstar or not. But even if Griffin isn't close to being fully developed as a professional player, he dunks really hard on everyone and those dunks are played over and over ad nauseum on ESPN.com and NBA.com, and so, he's a superstar.

I don't write that as a criticism, just as a fact, the same way Robin Williams became a superstar in the late '70s by playing an alien on television who said "Nanu, nanu." Doesn't matter if it wasn't Shakespeare -- or "Hill Street Blues", for that matter. People liked it. And that matters. It changes perceptions, and it sells tickets and sponsorships and suites. Griffin made the All-Star team and jumped over a car, and all of a sudden, after the Commish vetoed the proposed trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers, the Clippers weren't laughed out of the building by Paul's people when they said they wanted Paul to come to their team, the long national joke of a franchise.

They were no longer a joke because Blake Griffin dunked on people's heads.

That changed everything.

Paul gave his blessing to a trade, and because the Clippers had been in the lottery forever, they had a stash of good players and Draft picks they could offer to the Hornets for Paul. The Lakers tried to resurrect the deal with New Orleans, but in the end, the Clippers won out. And the dominoes fell. Caron Butler came to L.A. instead of San Antonio. Chauncey Billups didn't like being amnestied or picked up off of waivers by the Clippers; he wanted to go to Miami. But Billups re-upped in L.A. last week. If the Clips can convince Paul to take their $100 million next summer, after his current deal expires, they will have taken the biggest step to being taken seriously since John Lennon opined the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

The Clippers agreed to terms with free agent Jamal Crawford for $21 million. If it was the same old LAC as in years past, they'd be excoriated for executing the exact same deal. With no official general manager in place, they'd be taken apart as rudderless and leaderless, with businessmen making the decisions that basketball people should be making, blah, blah, blah.

But things are different now.

On the other side of relevancy, the Wizards have been getting slapped around by most in the professional (and amateur) punditry lately for taking on the $44 million in combined salaries over the next two years of New Orleans' Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. (I called it a "meh" trade myself.)

Yet, the trade isn't as horrible financially as it looks at first glance. At minimum, the Wizards would have had to pay out $13.7 million to buy out the final year of Lewis' contract, even if they didn't replace him with anyone. They're paying $21.2 million combined this season (and next, which is the issue) for Okafor and Ariza. So actually, they're only paying $7.5 more this season for two players that could help them than they would have by standing pat. In most places, that would be considered good business. But the Wizards aren't winning. Every move is suspect.

Washington's owner, Ted Leonsis, tried to explain his thinking in a recent blog post.

"Of all of the tools available, free agency has the most risk, costs the most as you always over pay (because you are in a bidding situation against other teams), and is the most uncertain -- just because you have cap space doesn't mean you can use it and get what you want as to a player joining your team," he wrote. "And free agency burns though cap space for a long term in that free agents tend to sign longer term deals. That translates to high risk and no guarantee of high reward. The free agent you do sign had better be the right player, as the player will get paid a lot of money and also get a lot of term...

"We used our cap space for certainty -- by making three trades over the last few months. We added Nene via trade --and his significant salary -- which he signed as a free agent last off-season, and then we added Ariza and Okafor to our lineup via trade and used some of our cap space in that manner. We have a few things we can still do this off-season to add some other players as well. But we traded uncertainty for some certainty -- we have players signed for shorter periods of time compared with having to sign free agents using all of our cap space right now."

Fans haven't embraced that thinking. Then again, the Wizards don't have a superstar -- at least, not yet. Wall, the first pick overall in the 2010 Draft, has shown signs of being a special talent, but he is not yet a special player. Until they know for sure, the Wizards are reluctant to throw money at free agents who may not be good enough to help Wall anyway.

You can dismiss that as rationalization from an owner trying to save money. But what if saving that money now gives you a chance at a difference-maker later?

And so, as Cuban notes, the pressure on a franchise, even his, to act, to do something, grows and grows -- especially in the Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn/Tumblr age. This is when an organization can't waver from what it truly believes.

The Mavericks believe they'll be players again in free agency. Whether it's this year or next, when Howard and Andrew Bynum could both be free, they'll be ready to hunt for the next star.

"As far as customers, the folks that follow free agency closely and get emotional about it are not our core customers," Cuban said. "So that isn't an issue."

They are in New York -- and in Philly, where King was the GM of the 76ers through the bulk of the Iverson Era. He experience the joy of making The Finals and getting fired after he'd cleaned up the team's huge salary mess -- much of which lay at his feet, having given the likes of Kenny Thomas $50 million. He has learned from those days, he thinks, and he expects to be wiser about who to pay and who to send along on their way.

But he can afford to be wiser now. He has a superstar. And if it takes bringing on Joe Johnson's $82 million from Atlanta, and adding $40 million for Gerald Wallace, to keep the superstar happy, so be it.

"Ed Snider (the former Sixers' chairman) always told me, you can't listen to the fans or media," King wrote, "and if you do, soon you will be one of them."

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They knew the day was coming.

There would be a day when the Phoenix Suns would have to watch Steve Nash go.

And the Suns knew that it was likely that day would come this summer. Unless there was a major change of heart from Nash's camp, the Suns knew that they couldn't throw enough money at their two-time MVP or put enough quality players around him to keep him happy. Like Lieutentant JG Douglas Roberts, Nash was watching the war go on without him, and if there is one thing you must know about the kid from Victoria, it's that while he's as thoughtful and generous and genuinely curious about the world around him as anyone who's ever laced 'em up, he's also a vicious competitor, with a desire to win that is just as thick as Kobe Bryant's. But the Suns were long past their expiration date as contenders.

Nash was still a great player; he was second in the league in assists this past season at 38 and made another All-Star team, and passed Oscar Robertson for fifth place on the league's all-time assist list ("well, finally," he joked in late April, just as he was about to pass Robertson. "Everybody's known I was going to pass him since I was 13 years old," he laughed, still amazed by the utter incongruity of any part of his athletic life surpassing the Big O's.)

But he was slowing down, certainly no longer good enough by himself to lift a sagging franchise. There was no good way for the Suns to end the relationship; they couldn't give Nash another big extension and have any chance of rebuilding. To make the team better, they would need his money.

It is a dilemma that faces just about every team lucky enough to have a true superstar at some point. The Nets faced it with Jason Kidd; the Kings with Chris Webber; the Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon. Even the great ones get old, and hurt, and can't always do what they used to. Like another great warrior, Kevin Garnett, Nash is best used today in smaller doses, five or six minutes at a time, to better conserve his energy and give him the best chance to be there in the fourth quarter.

Nash, of course, was only the most important player the Suns had had since Charles Barkley in the early 1990s. He had signed with Phoenix at 30, believing he could still play at the level he did in Dallas with the Mavericks.

He was wrong.

He played better.

He became an icon in the Valley, the heart and soul of a team that developed a national following, the most exciting team in the NBA, one that pushed the ball and kept the pressure on the opposition from the opening tap. Nash would never give up his dribble until he found someone wide open -- either Jason Richardson or Raja Bell or Shawn Marion for a three, or Amar'e Stoudemire roaring down the lane for a dunk. The Suns were fun and free flowing and Nash was the conductor, making Phoenix a road draw and a ratings guzzler.

And now, it's over.

The Suns' owner, Robert Sarver, pulled the trigger on the 4th of July, giving the OK for Phoenix to trade Nash to the Lakers -- at Nash's request -- for a total of four Draft picks and $3 million cash.

Nash, a Laker. It's like Susan Boyle singing acid rock.

Sarver said Sunday that he couldn't comment until after the July moratorium ends on the 11th.

But the dilemma of what to do about a franchise player that's aging vexes teams in all sports. How do the Yankees let Derek Jeter go out gracefully? When will it be time for the Patriots to have the Big Talk with Tom Brady?

Nash's potent yet fading star put the Suns in an impossible situation. One can argue that they put themselves in that position, with a series of wrong personnel and management decisions over the past few years. The previous GM, Steve Kerr, gambled that changing the Suns' Seven Seconds or Less philosophy under D'Antoni would lead to the kind of improved defense and halfcourt execution necessary to win a championship. He traded for Shaquille O'Neal and fired D'Antoni, bringing in Terry Porter to coach.

That did not work, either.

O'Neal was still good many nights, and occasionally great. Teams still had to game plan for him. But the Suns' personnel was a mishmash of fast and slow. Nash was not a spot-up guy like a Derek Fisher, who would float to open spots on the court when Shaq or Kobe Bryant drew double-teams in L.A. and drain open threes. Nash and other holdovers from the D'Antoni days chafed at the slowdown pace Porter insisted on. If he couldn't play at a fast pace, Nash knew, he was no better than any other heady but physically limited point guard.

That's why Nash trained like a Spartan and ate like a beauty pageant contestant, to hold on to what he still had. He wanted to play fast, but he, himself, wasn't fast, he would often say. He was quick. He could get in and out of spots. But that was of no use if he was going to walk the ball up the floor.

Other players were critical of Porter as well, but only one player was a two-time league MVP. Nash never went into anyone's office and demanded Porter be fired, but any team executive worth his or her salt knows when the franchise player is unhappy. Porter lasted but half a season, replaced by Alvin Gentry, a disciple of the Fast and Furious D'Antoni style.

Soon, Kerr was gone as well, back to TNT, and Nash and Gentry and Grant Hill improbably led the Suns to the Western Conference finals against the Lakers in 2010. But Nash was already talking more about the journey than the destination, how he had fun with these guys but that they had so much to learn. He loved playing with them, as he did just about everyone that was a teammate, but everyone knew what was up, him most of all.

There would be no magic. The Suns would move on, and sign Goran Dragic for $30 million, and offer Eric Gordon $58 million, because they had to get younger and better, and sentiment couldn't get in the way of that.

But Sarver didn't want to hand Nash to the Lakers. The Knicks, OK, but not the Lakers, for Chick Hearn's sake. They'd had a blood feud with Los Angeles for years, like in 2006, when Raja Bell had clotheslined Kobe, and the Suns had come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat L.A. in that first-round series, going on to the Western finals, where they lost to Nash's old Mavs squad.

But L.A. was the closest team in need of a point guard to Phoenix, where Nash's kids still lived with his ex-wife, and he wanted to be as close as he could to them. So Sarver -- who isn't the bad guy in this -- relented, and the terrible deed was done. Nash will play with Kobe in Los Angeles, getting one last chance at a ring, but more importantly, getting one last chance to truly compete.

"It's almost comical," Nash had said that day in April, assessing his career. "As a kid who started playing basketball because his friends played, and fell in love with it as a 13-year-old, and had one scholarship offer, and somehow got drafted, and stuck around and made a career, it's incredible that I'm still playing ... I feel very unworthy, and just appreciative. Hopefully all the kids out there realize that hard work really does pay off."

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(Final 2011-12 standings)

1) Miami (46-20 regular season, NBA champions): If the Heat get Marcus Camby as well as Ray Allen, that wouldn't even be fair.

2) Oklahoma City (47-19, Western Conference champions): Video Scott Brooks got the contract he deserved. Now he gets the expectations that come with it.

3) San Antonio (50-16, lost in Western Conference finals): Tony Parker's eye has healed to the point where he was cleared to play in the Olympics for France by team and independent physicians.

4) Boston (39-27, lost in Eastern Conference finals): My guess is if you pumped Danny Ainge full of sodium pentathol, he wouldn't be all that upset that Ray Allen went to Miami. It keeps him from being the bad guy and accelerates the rebuilding process Ainge wanted to start this offseason anyway.

5) Indiana (42-24, lost second round): If the Pacers decide not to match on Roy Hibbert, would a sign-and-trade for Chris Kaman involving Danny Granger going to New Orleans make sense? I'm pretty sure the Hornets would sign off on that, and it would ease future cap concerns for the Pacers.

6) L.A. Lakers (41-25, lost second round): In getting Steve Nash, the Lakers had to surrender a lot of Draft picks -- picks that might have come in handy when making an offer to Orlando for Dwight Howard. One thing at a time, though.

7) L.A. Clippers (40-26, lost first round): Adding Jamal Crawford is good; getting Chauncey Billups back, assuming he returns from his torn Achilles', is even better.

8) Memphis (40-26, lost second round): Grizz have a hole in rotation after letting O.J. Mayo go in free agency, losing out on Allen.

9) Atlanta (40-26, lost first round): Danny Ferry has taken a meat cleaver to the roster in less than a week on the job, meaning he's going to be a player next year in free agency ... or the Hawks are on the market again.

10) Philadelphia (35-31, lost second round): Expectation is that former Hawks GM Rick Sund will eventually be coming to Philly for a similar position.

11) Chicago (50-16, lost first round): Bulls reportedly interested in Courtney Lee, who, in a bit of a surprise, was allowed to become an unrestricted free agent by the Rockets.

12) Denver (38-28, lost first round): Nuggets would like to get a deal done with JaVale McGee before Roy Hibbert's situation is resolved, because either the Blazers or Pacers will be looking for a center.

13) New York (36-30, lost first round): Knicks take care of the uncertainty at the point by signing Jason Kidd to back up Jeremy Lin, whose offer sheet from the Rockets will be matched with the loose change from Jim Dolan's couch.

14) Dallas (36-30, lost first round): Somehow, don't think Ramon Sessions, talented as he is, was the top prize the Mavericks had in mind this offseason.

15) Orlando (37-29, lost first round): Magic insisting anyone who wants Dwight Howard has to take Hedo Turkoglu's contract as well. And remember: Because Turk had a trade kicker in the four-year deal he signed with Toronto -- which was invoked when he was dealt to the Suns -- his cap number is $2 million higher than his actual salary next season.

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1) For all the yapping about all the injuries the U.S. men's Olympic team has already suffered -- Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh among the fallen who won't be there in London later this month -- they still announced a pretty damn good team Saturday night in Vegas.

2) It says here the Sixers have had a great offseason already. They've added three solid players who'll contribute for years to come -- guard Nick Young and rookies Maurice Harkness and Arnett Moultrie -- for less than $8 million in total first-year salaries. They Video re-signed starting center Spencer Hawes and key reserve Lavoy Allen for very reasonable amounts. And while they amnestied Elton Brand, the transaction allowed them to sign Young and cleared room for additional moves. Young essentially replaces Lou Williams, who led the Sixers in scoring last season and was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Williams was capable of winning games by himself when he got hot. But he did shoot just 40 percent last season.

3) Alan Hahn, MSG network's studio analyst for the Knicks, came up with this first, so it's not my idea. But an opening night schedule of Knicks at Nets in the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, followed by Lakers-Clippers at Staples, doesn't sound too bad at all. I'll happily go to Brooklyn and try out Peter Luger's if anyone in a decision-making capacity at, say, TNT, is reading. Of course, as many Miami fans pointed out in Tweet Anger, the defending champion Heat have to be involved, per tradition, so that everyone can see the ring ceremony and banner raising. That's right, and fair. So, how about an Opening Day/Night tripleheader, with Knicks-Nets at 5:30, Boston at Miami at 8 so KG and The Truth can say hello to Walter Ray, and Lakers-Clippers at 10:30. Thank me later.

4) Happy that Brandon Roy is back in the game. Good dude, and hope you can stay healthy in Minnesota.

5) Good to see that Roger Federer and Serena Williams, blogosphere and talkosphere to the contrary, are not dead and have some pretty good tennis left in them.

6) Despite the incessant insanity the last week and a half of Draft and free-agent talk has brought to my life, with dealing with all of the people who lie, or don't call you back, or even return a simple text, it is better -- by a factor in the quadrillions -- than standing in a lobby of a hotel in New York City, waiting to hear the latest reason why owners and players couldn't figure out an equitable way to split $4 billion. Way better.

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1) Let's just say Cubes has had better weeks.

2) Jerryd Bayless is still just 23 years old, believe it or not. His qualifying offer was withdrawn last week by the Raptors, who'd just made a deal with Houston for Kyle Lowry, making Bayless an unrestricted free agent. Still think there's a major place for this kid on someone's roster, either as a starter -- what, there are 29 point guards definitely better than him? -- or a big-time reserve.

3) Not really surprised to see Larry Miller leave the Blazers over the weekend and head back to Nike, where he'd been the head man for Brand Jordan for many years before going to Portland in 2006. Miller came to Portland at a time of great financial turmoil for the franchise, and helped to get that stopped. But he also was in the middle of internal conflicts between the team's ownership group and the basketball people, and that never really stopped. The handwriting was on the wall when the Blazers hired Neil Olshey from the Clippers to run the basketball side; he wasn't Miller's choice. But Larry is a good guy who probably will do better back at Nike than having to be the public face of a sports franchise.

4) I feel your pain, NHL writers and broadcasters.

5) TomKat, kaput. Damn.

6) They once again had a heavyweight title bout over the weekend. I, once again, could not have had any less idea it was happening, or cared less. (Coda: I have nothing against MMA or UFC, and I know they had a big fight on Saturday, too. Just never have had any interest in watching it. Forgive me, Jay Glazer.)

7) What Ron Burgundy said.

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What was the point of the lockout, again?

Oh, that's an easy jab, based on the contracts that teams have committed to during the first week of the July Moratorium: $98 million for Deron Williams in a max deal by the Nets; offer sheets of $58 and $56 million, respectively, for Roy Hibbert and Eric Gordon by the Blazers and Suns; $45 million for Ersan Ilyasova by Milwaukee; $40 million for Gerald Wallace by Brooklyn; $36 million for Ryan Anderson in a sign-and-trade deal to New Orleans; $30 million for Goran Dragic by the Suns; $28 million for Jeremy Lin in an offer sheet by the Rockets; $27 million for 38-year-old Steve Nash by the Lakers. Total Finals appearances by those nine players: zero.

There's already a lot of gnashing and columnizing about how the owners didn't learn a thing from the lockout.

But they did learn.

The point isn't what players have been offered in the first week of free agency; it's what they would have been offered under the old terms of previous CBAs.

Kevin Garnett got $126 million over six years from the Timberwolves in 1997 -- 15 years ago. That was $21 million a year. Adjusted for inflation, Garnett's $126 million max deal would be $180.4 million today, or almost twice what Williams got from Brooklyn in a max deal last week.

Even under the more punitive rules of the CBA that ended the 1999 lockout -- in large part because of Garnett's deal -- the Nets could have offered Williams a seven-year deal with annual raises of 12.5 percent from his previous contract. Williams made $16.9 million last season. To keep Williams under the old rules, Brooklyn's max offer would have been seven years at $177,420,000.

Once again: One hundred seventy-seven million, four hundred twenty thousand dollars. That would be just a little less, remember, than Garnett's adjusted for inflation mega-deal today. There were maximums that players could receive under the old rules, up to 35 percent of a team's total salary cap, depending on how long the player had been in the league. But in those pre-99 days, almost no one was making $16.9 million a year like Williams did last season; this coming season, 14 players will make more than that.

It's not just star players who will be pulling in, relatively, less money than their brethren in previous seasons.

The players' union fought to the end to preserve the mid-level exception, and it did. But it's much smaller than it used to be.

In the 2005 deal, every team could use the mid-level every season, and could offer a free agent from another team a five-year deal starting at $5 million in the first year (by the end of the last CBA, that starting salary had increased to $5.7 million) with eight percent annual raises off of the first-year salary. The old mid-level was a boon to the NBA's middle class, with solid if unspectacular players like Brian Cardinal (six years, $39 million), Jared Jeffries (five years, $30 million) and Luke Walton (six years, $30 million) getting great money.

In the new deal, only teams that are below the "apron" -- that aren't more than $4 million above the $70 million luxury tax threshold -- can use the full $5 million exception. (And if using the exception takes you above the apron, you can't use it, either.) Those teams can offer players four-year deals, with 4.5 percent annual raises off the first-year salary. This is what the Clippers did with free agent guard Jamal Crawford, who agreed to the maximum four-year deal -- but will make only (I know, but it's all relative) $21.7 million total.

If you're above the apron -- if you're a luxury tax payer -- you can only use the "mini" mid-level exception that starts at $3.09 million in the 2012-13 season and can only goes for three years and $9.5 million. This is the offer the Heat made -- successfully -- to Ray Allen, who took less money to play with Miami than the Celtics had been offering.

Or, take this year's winner of the NBA's Most Improved Player award, Ryan Anderson. He's agreed to a four-year, $34 million deal with the Magic that will be sent to New Orleans after the Moratorium for center Gustavo Ayon as part of a sign-and-trade deal. That's a great contract for a guy who's only been in the league four years and never made an All-Star team.

But, as my fifth-grade teacher used to say, compare and contrast.

The recent history of MIPs shows that most players who've won that award in recent years have gotten a big contract soon after, either that summer or the following year. The history of some recent winners:

Most-Improved to Highly Paid
Since 2002, seven of the players who won the Most Improved Player award were rewarded with a hefty payday soon thereafter.
Player Year Won Most Improved Next Contract Year Contract Awarded
Jermaine O'Neal (Pacers) 2002 $126 million 2003 (Pacers)
Gilbert Arenas (Warriors) 2003 $60 million 2003 (Wizards)
Zach Randolph (Blazers) 2004 $84 million 2004 (Blazers)
Bobby Simmons (Clippers) 2005 $48 million 2005 (Bucks)
Monta Ellis (Warriors) 2007 $66 million 2008 (Warriors)
Hedo Turkoglu (Magic) 2008 $52 million 2009 (Raptors)
Kevin Love (Wolves) 2011 $62 million 2012 (Wolves)

Danny Granger, who won the MIP award in 2009, had already gotten his extension, $60 million, in 2008. Aaron Brooks, the 2010 MIP, played last season in China during the Lockout. And, of course, Arenas got another big deal ($110 million) out of Washington before GunGate, while Randolph got another $66 million in 2011 from Memphis. All of those contracts, even the extensions, are bigger than what Anderson will be getting now, in 2012 dollars.

And the per-year amounts are bigger, too: O'Neal got $18 million a year over the seven years of his mega-deal. Arenas's first contract was $10 million per year. Ellis's was (is) $11 million a year. Love's extension is just four years, averaging $15 million a year.

No one is asking any of you to feel sorry for NBA players, and you wouldn't, anyway. Just understand that while this first week of free agency has looked like business as usual, there's an asterisk. Some teams are just as aggressive as they've always been. But they're spending a lot less money.

You never think about the money you don't spend on something, do you?

And, this: Who's really been active so far? The Knicks, the Nets, the Lakers, the Suns, the Rockets, the Blazers and the Hawks. The Bulls haven't done much of anything. The Thunder signed center Hasheem Thabeet to a minimum deal, but haven't done much else. The Spurs are quiet. Most teams look like they're waiting.

"It will be interesting to see how things play out under the CBA," one team executive said over the weekend. "If certain teams won the summer and lost the war ... so far it's seven or so teams that have been active setting the market. Far more teams are taking notes. Lets see what happens."

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We will, charitably, agree to disagree. From Evan Sigmund:

Maybe the trade was good for the Hawks to trade the best two-guard in the NBA ... He was one of a few that defended well, had the size and strenght to go down inside and post up other guards and forwards in the paint as well as unlimited range on the outside shot. I thought all the Hawks would need is to get a good center who could score a little and bang in the middle. That would allow Al Horford to go to his best position (power forward) and put Smith at small forward.

Sorry, Evan: I stopped reading after I read "the best 2 guard in the NBA," and you were talking about Joe Johnson.

The rules are, there ain't no rules. From Leon Quenneville:

At some point in the history of the NBA, someone decided to start keeping a stat on blocked shots. At some point someone decided to keep track of offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds as separate stats under the same category. At some point someone decided to keep track of charges taken. As times change and the game changes ... Statisticians have decided that there are important factors of the game and that by keeping track of these factors we can better decipher which players have a bigger impact on the game and how they do so.

Scenario #1: A point guard makes a great pass to a power forward, who goes to the hoop for an easy basket. The power forward is rewarded with the 2 points and the point guard is rewarded with an assist. Teamwork at its best !

Scenario #2: A point guard makes a great pass to a power forward, who is fouled on the way to the hoop, thus preventing him from scoring an easy basket. The power forward goes to the line and sinks the 2 free throws. In this case, the defender gets the demerit (accessed a personal foul) for a bad play, the power forward gets rewarded the 2 points for making his free throws, but the point guard has lost the assist thru no fault of his own. This does not seem statistically fair. We've kept track of the other 2 players ... good and bad ... but it's like the point guard had nothing to do with the play at all.

This inequity hit me several years ago when I was watching my hometown Suns play a game. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire were running the pick and roll to perfection all night. Amar'e scored over 40 points. But he went to the line something like 20 times where he made 18 free throws. In the box score the next day it read that Steve Nash had only 5 assists for the game. It would seem to anyone who had not watched the game that Nash had a subpar night, when in fact he was carving the defense up all night long !

I want to propose a change in the way the NBA tracks assists. I'll call it the "Steve Nash Rule".

I believe that if a player makes a pass that would be counted as an assist (if the basket was made) but the shooter is fouled preventing him from making that basket .... Then the passer should be awarded .5 (half) an assist per made free throw. In the game I described above, had Amar'e not been fouled on those 10 attempts at the basket, Nash would have 9 or 10 more assists added to his game total, which would have been a truer indication of his influence on the game. In my new proposed system, Nash would have been credited with 9 assists on Amar'e 18 made free throws. Understand?

I do understand, Leon, and I've heard this proposal before, along with others like including the "hockey assist" -- the first of two passes that leads to a basket -- in the totals. The problems I have with your proposals are 1) you assume that the player would make the basket when he was fouled, which you cannot assume; 2) why should Nash get credit for the free throws Stoudemire makes? He wouldn't get half a turnover if Stoudemire misses, right?

This is one series I'd like to see go best 17 of 33. From Eduardo Munoz:

This is the first time I send someone in the NBA my opinion. I'm a Mexican fan and my company has recently relocated me here in Wisconsin. Fortunately for me as I can watch more NBA games!!

And well, with the Dream Team movie, and the Olympics coming soon, wouldn't it be nice to have come 'Rocky Balboa' movie simulation between the '92 Dream Team vs the actual USA National team?. And I don't want to disrespect the '92 team, they will be the best, but I think there's huge talent right now also. If Dwight Howard and Derrick would stay healthy, I would love to see a 7 game series between these two teams.

I'm old, Eduardo. No group of 12 players in their prime -- with the possible exception of the '60 U.S. Olympic team led by Oscar Robertson and Jerry West -- would come close to beating the Dream Team in its prime. Or, even, the shape they were all in by '92.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and best wishes to Ann Curry -- who deserved better -- to dlaldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, interesting or snarky, we just might publish it!

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$26,370,000 -- Amount of money that Nets principal owner Mikhail Prokhorov allegedly made in his U.S. principal businesses last Thursday, according to Forbes Magazine's "Real Time Billionaire Tracker". If accurate, Prokhorov made enough money in one day to pay all of Joe Johnson's $19.57 million salary next season.

9 -- Years since former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who built Chicago's dynasty around Michael Jordan, left the NBA to return to his roots as a baseball scout. Krause, now working for the Diamondbacks, is still beating the bushes for talent, as evidenced by this great piece Sunday in the Chicago Tribune.

5 -- Players from the 2008 "Redeem Team" that won the gold medal in Beijing -- LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- who made the 2012 Olympic team that will defend that gold medal in London. Five players from the 2010 World Championship Team that won gold in Turkey -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Andre Iguodala and Tyson Chandler -- will also be on the '12 Olympic team.

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Made a very tough decision today ...
-- Nets guard Deron Williams (@DeronWilliams), Tuesday, 6:03 p.m., announcing that he was returning to Brooklyn and the Nets instead of taking the Dallas Mavericks' offer of $75 million. Williams agreed to a five-year contract worth more than $98 million with the Nets.

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"The first thing I would suggest, he needs to gain an appreciation for the game and the players who preceded him. Show respect to players, and you get respect back. He needs to mature as a person, as a player if he's going to have an outstanding NBA career. So before discussing him being part of our program, he has a lot of building to do."
-- USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo, to reporters on Saturday, about the long-term prospects of Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins for future international competitions as a member of U.S. teams.

"Are the countless hours Ray Allen spent perfecting his jump shot somehow less admirable than those Yo-Yo Ma spent practicing the cello?"
-- Seattle businessman Chris Hanson, who is proposing to build a new arena in Seattle's South of Downtown area, in a recent op-ed in The Seattle Times on how sports have an impact on a local community.

"The background on (Milicic) was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn't know half of the stuff you needed to know."
-- Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars, acknowledging to local reporters that Detroit now does a lot more work -- collecting about five times as much data on potential Draft picks today as they did in 2003, when the Pistons took Darko Milicic with the second pick, passing on the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and others. The Pistons took Connecticut's Andre Drummond with the ninth pick last month.

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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