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Scoring a top free agent no easy task

Teams are going to have to be prepared to make other moves, writes Sam Smith about signing a top free agent. You may have second thoughts paying some $20 million a year to players like Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh. If you pay them like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, it doesn’t mean they become them.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Dwyane Wade

“This will be my last first-round exit for a while, I'll tell you that,” Wade said after the Game 5 loss. “Obviously, we've got some work to do, the front office has to do. I think any player that's thinking about coming to Miami, they understand where my heart is. I just have to see things being done and accomplished.” (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

As the playoffs move on and more potential free agents finish their seasons—Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki last week—it seems more apparent that this is going to be a difficult process for teams hoping to make a big score in free agency.

LeBron James, the prize of the 2010 class, seems well on his way to the conference finals and perhaps the NBA Finals with his second straight MVP award, and is generally considered too tough to pry away from the Cavs. Wade said after the Heat lost in five to the Celtics his heart is in Miami, and he’s all about heart.

Meanwhile over the weekend, Chris Bosh tweeted asking fans what he should do, which should make any team wary as I believe that’s the first stage of dementia.

“This will be my last first-round exit for a while, I'll tell you that,” Wade said after the Game 5 loss. “Obviously, we've got some work to do, the front office has to do. I think any player that's thinking about coming to Miami, they understand where my heart is. I just have to see things being done and accomplished.”

Wade’s situation is perhaps the most curious. He’s the second biggest prize after James. He clearly wants to stay in Miami, but also insists he won’t stay unless the Heat come up with a star. Miami has few, if any, sign-and-trade assets to draw a top player like Bosh or Amar’e Stoudemire with a maximum deal. So Wade figures to wait to see what they Heat will do. Then, do you take the risk of passing on guys like Joe Johnson and maybe Bosh waiting to see if Wade will go? A team like the Bulls would be his best option if Miami strikes out. But if the Heat doesn’t miss, then maybe all the other top players have committed to teams already and you are left out again.

But what happens to Wade if he waits? And then everyone else didn’t. Hello, Newark and the Nets.

So you better have options and alternatives, and here’s a variation of my previous Monta Ellis/David Lee combo.

Yes, yes, I know Ellis is smallish for a shooting guard, maybe 6-3, and a bit shot happy at times. The point is it’s no certainty to get any of the top five or six free agents. James and Wade are leaning toward re-signing. Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer may as well. Remember, it’s $30 million more to stay home and even Wade, who probably has one of the best endorsement deals of all NBA players and isn’t in a big three market, says even he doesn’t want to walk away from that difference.

It also comes down to what you can do and how to become better. So how about this one:

The Warriors are pretty committed to Stephen Curry as their backcourt scorer and have had talks off and on for a couple of years about Kirk Hinrich. That seems a doable deal, especially with the Bulls absorbing some extra salary.

There’s also a sense around the Jazz they may re-sign Boozer and deal Paul Millsap as they still need to lower payroll. Taj Gibson would be a good, much cheaper option at power forward and ideal backup. Millsap is a tough guy and a bigger scorer than Gibson and the same age as Gibson.

The point then is you still have substantial cap money left and can add another player. You can also extend Joakim Noah’s contract starting with the 2011-12 season and then next summer, assuming no shutdown, make a free agency offer to a star of the Wade or LeBron level in Carmelo Anthony. So you have Rose and Noah, fill in your holes at power forward and shooting guard, and then still remain a player for a big prize like Anthony. I’ve thought he’d go to New York. But how great would Chicago look after next season with that kind of nucleus and a chance to directly challenge James, with whom Anthony thought he’d have a Bird/Magic kind of NBA rivalry until Anthony went to Denver and disappeared.

I know I’ve said you cannot skip this summer and wait for someone like Anthony as I still see that as a long shot and you cannot keep asking your fans to wait. But if you do fill two spots and make yourself that more attractive, then maybe you can dip your toe in one more time. After all, even with, say, Bosh, would the Bulls be a championship contender next season? Maybe. Maybe not.

The point is you cannot sit back and wait for some great player to call. You are going to have to be prepared to make other moves. And, frankly, you may have second thoughts paying some $20 million a year to players like Johnson and Bosh, given their track records in the NBA. If you pay them like James and Wade, it doesn’t mean they become them.

Best players without a ring

-- With Jason Kidd and the Mavs going out in the first round, it revived the debate once again of the best players never to win a championship. Perhaps the toughest was my No. 1, Elgin Baylor, whose Lakers teams lost in eight Finals eight times, four times in Game 7. Baylor retired nine games into the season the Lakers finally won with playoff averages of 27 points, 12.9 rebounds and four assists in 134 playoff games and the record of 61 points in a Finals game. There were many such close calls, like Dave Bing being waived by his hometown Bullets at the start of the season they won their only title and Adrian Dantley traded for Mark Aguirre in February of the season when the Pistons first championship. So here’s one list of the best never to win it all:

Elgin Baylor
Karl Malone
George Gervin
Pete Maravich
John Stockton
Charles Barkley
Patrick Ewing
Jason Kidd
Dominique Wilkins
Steve Nash
Dirk Nowitzki
Nate Thurmond
Dave Bing
Allen Iverson
Adrian Dantley
Alex English
Bernard King
Reggie Miller
Bob Lanier
Chris Mullin
David Thompson
Richie Guerin
Walt Bellamy
Mark Price/Brad Daugherty
Rolando Blackman
Kevin Johnson
Calvin Murphy

NBA news and notes

-- There were rumors—sounded made up to me—of the Wizards being interested in Miami’s Michael Beasley. No one knows what will be up with the Wizards given the ownership change, but you assume if they want to pair Beasley with Andray Blatche new ownership will be as successful as the old, which had become a perennial loser. Beasley told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun during the playoffs he was bitter that he’d been surpassed by Derrick Rose and childhood and AAU friend Kevin Durant. "I get bitter. I get bitter," he said. Beasley also apparently complained the offense was too geared to Dwyane Wade. Can’t imagine why teams won’t be lining up for him. Maybe right after J.R. Smith. I still expect the Knicks with their limited roster to be shut out in free agency, and while I’m not sure how they do it, I can see them—just my suspicion, by the way—making a bid for Gilbert Arenas, who would be New York’s kind of personality and the D’Antoni system point guard who could put up big numbers. You assume the Wizards are just waiting to move on from that contract. … For the worst player I’ve seen in these playoffs, I have to go without competition for Rasheed Wallace. How bad has he been? Let us count the ways. Wallace has been a guy who never exactly has taken training and preparation seriously, and it may be costing he and the Celts. The Celtics and Cavs look like it will be a terrific series, and if the Celts had Wallace instead of having to play overmatched, undersized Glen Davis it might be 1-0 Boston now. Wallace averaged 3.8 against the Heat, which was little contest, and then had two points in Game 1 against the Cavs with some of the ugliest shots imaginable. He has two years left on a contract the Celts are quickly regretting. … Speaking of that compelling series, a lot stood out in Game 1. Something no one talked about caught my eye. Boston has been something of the punks of the NBA the last few years, but they have been able to back up their trash talking and puerile behavior. One of the favorites was how Kevin Garnett always would jump up and grab those shots an opponent takes after a timeout, sort of the message of defending our basket no matter what. I saw Antawn Jamison do that once Saturday night. Garnett watched and looked like he tried to jump, but then didn’t and the shot bounced off the rim. It was what we’d seen all season. Garnett knows what he’d like to do. He just can’t do it anymore. It likely will be the legacy of this season’s Celtics. … The Lakers’ biggest problem may be their fear of Ron Artest. Though he is working on defense, he’s now six of 35 on threes and it seems clear everyone is afraid to tell him to stop shooting lest he melt down on them. … How about that Nate Robinson addition? He’s played 12 minutes so far in the playoffs.

-- With all the talk in the first round series of Dwyane Wade’s future, someone asked Paul Pierce, who also can be a free agent if he opts out of his option year of $21.5 million next season. “I’m not thinking about playing anywhere else,” Pierce told Boston reporters. “This is where I’ve been my whole career. But honestly, it’d be a tough decision for me to make if Doc (Rivers) decides to step down and we rebuild.” That seems doubtful for now that Pierce gets an offer anywhere else. Good luck on getting a new deal at 33, a deal which would start at almost $21 million and increase eight percent per year. So you’d have to have at least $21 million in cap room to start with, and then you’d basically be giving just about all to a guy going into his 13th year with knee issues. Sure. … It’s also why Dirk Nowitzki isn’t going anywhere, but is having some fun with Mark Cuban when Nowitzki said he’d consider his options. Nowitzki is on one of those old deals, like Pierce’s, and made $19.8 million this season and is due to make $21.5 million next season. He qualifies for five percent above his 2009-10 salary to start, which is almost $21 million. So, for starters, the Bulls probably don’t even have that. Then you go out five years and are looking at paying up to $25 million a year pretty soon to a jump shooting forward who has a history of first round playoff outs. And since he would take all your cap room, the best you could do if you were just about every team but the Knicks, is sign at least six minimum salaries players to fill out your roster. Nowitzki, by the way, is 32 next month, and there are penalties for players you pay after age 36 that increase your earlier year cap totals and could reduce your available cap space. Dirk will do Dallas again. … Jason Kidd skipped his post season meeting and took off and looked a bit old and unable to stay in front of George Hill or Tony Parker in trying to hold off the Spurs guards. Same with Shawn Marion, who has three more years on his deal while Kidd has two. It was clear from his post game enthusiasm, owner Mark Cuban wants to see more of guard Roddy Beaubois, and without a guaranteed deal it’s likely they let go Erick Dampier while Brendan Haywood is a free agent. It was supposed to be a season the Mavs contended for a title after the big midseason deals. Now, they and Nowitzki have to wonder if that aging group is even a playoff team in the West.

-- By the way, the Mavs keep choking in the playoffs because of Cuban. I don’t even have a feud with Cuban anymore as he basically counts me as iron filings and has moved on to more important people to insult. But it’s not coincidence the Mavs are the league’s playoff underachievers since their 2006 Finals meltdown. They’ve now been out of the playoffs in the first round three of the last four seasons. Hardly an endorsement for Dirk, but I don’t fault him. I give Cuban credit for being an owner who doesn’t hide from the fans and media, though his motives are questionable. Still, he was with reporters right after the Mavs lost to the Spurs in a terrific series. “I'm not so proud of the NBA,” Cuban said in what he hoped would be in a fine avoiding cryptic way. “I'm not proud of my inability over the last 10 years to have the impact like I want to have.” It was obvious to anyone who has followed Cuban or the NBA it’s about the officials. The Mavs attempted 15 free throws in Game 6 while the Spurs attempted 31, though it was fairly even the games before that and the Mavs are a jump shooting team with no inside scoring, anyway. It was interesting to hear Chris Webber and Eric Snow on NBA-TV afterward say the Mavs were always a team they never feared because they were considered soft. What I think has occurred, and affects Nowitzki as well, is a lack of accountability created by Cuban. He constantly blames the officiating to the point even the players seem to accept they are victims. So they tend to lose with an excuse. They never seem to blame themselves or find fault in what they did. No matter what call you feel may have gone against you, the great competitors take it on themselves to change the outcome. The Mavs seem to accept their fate as Cuban, sitting behind the bench and bellowing at officials all game, has it planted right in their ear. I once asked Bill Walton the worst call against one of his teams ever. He said he never lost a game because of a referee’s call, that it was on him. You never hear that from the Mavs, and until that attitude and mindset changes, I doubt anyone else is going to have to worry much about them in the playoffs. … To all those who keep second guessing about the Bulls decision to let go J.R. Smith, the Denver Post reported Smith after sending out a tweet about selfish teammates spent most of the second half of the closeout game sulking on the bench, refusing to join huddles and blowing off the coaches after yelling at them when earlier removed from the game. Asked why he acted in that manner, Smith said, "I'm not really sure." Asked what frustrated him that much, Smith said, "The whole game, pretty much." Smith shot one of four in the final game as the Nuggets went out in the first round as the No. 3 seed after going to the conference finals last season. It was symptomatic of the Nuggets without ailing coach George Karl jacking up one three after another down the stretch once they got behind. Earlier in the series after halftime of Game 3, Smith spent the warmup time trying trick shots of bouncing the ball in the basket. You can imagine what he was thinking as Jazz coach Jerry Sloan watched. … They’re never satisfied. There was ample commentary in the Portland media after the Trail Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs that coach Nate McMillan was outcoached again in the playoffs. And he’s regarded as one of the best young coaches in the game. Go figure. By the way, it obviously was a mistake to allow Brandon Roy to come back so soon from surgery, much like the Magic last season with Jameer Nelson in the playoffs. Yes, you have to like the player’s desire, but the organization has to make the long-term decisions. … As for the big money for free agent Rudy Gay, he averaged more turnovers than assists. How much is that worth? … Welcome to the second round, Grant Hill. No great player has had as much of a star crossed career. But the perennial winner of the league’s sportsmanship award even took on the big defensive assignment in taking and basically shutting down Andre Miller, who now holds the T-Mac award for never having been out of the first round.

-- By contrast to the Mavs, Magic GM Otis Smith said he would play Dwight Howard physically like Charlotte did to frustrate him into fouls, and Smith said Howard needs to stop blaming the refs and complaining and making excuses. "He's got another round of this," Smith said. "It's going to be just the same, and he just needs to be on the floor longer than 28 minutes, period. That's not on the officials. That's not on Stan (Van Gundy). That's not on Marcin (Gortat). It's on Dwight." Good for him. … No one seems to believe Larry Brown’s comments he wants to stay in Charlotte, and Brown does have a history of changing his mind. The consensus seems to be Brown goes to Philadelphia as coach and then to work his way up to the front office after a year or two. If Brown doesn’t come, the next top choice is believed to be Doug Collins, the TNT broadcaster who was the 76ers No. 1 overall draft pick after their 9-73 season and was instrumental in helping turn around the franchise. He’s said to be interviewing with the 76ers. Collins’ daughter and grandchildren live in the area and he, along with Brown, are considered the only two true turnaround specialists—like what Scott Skiles did for Milwaukee—among the top coaching candidates. As for Brown, his parting remarks also seemed a challenge to owner Michael Jordan to make changes. Said Brown to the Charlotte Observer: "If you watched the series, they didn't guard our point guard, they didn't guard our centers and they guarded Boris (Diaw) only when he had the ball. That made it difficult even if we did move it quickly and the end result was usually taking a jump shot.” Brown also said Stephen Jackson needs to lose weight and, well, pass the ball more. How about that financial decision for the point guard no one guarded, Ray Felton, having turned down $7 million annually on an extension last year. Ooops. … Hard to see the Hawks getting more than a game from the Magic with their one-one-one offense and switching on defense, which generally promotes lazy defense, mismatches and poor rebounding position. Also, the Magic had the league’s best second half record, 33-8, and has won 24 of the last 27 with the first round sweep. Coach Mike Woodson finally ushered the Hawks into more man to man the last two games, and the Bucks, a poor shooting team all season, couldn’t make shots. As an aside, it also took Phil Jackson four games to make the change that needed to be made against the Thunder and place a bigger defender on Russell Westbrook, who isn’t a true point guard and doesn’t run the team well. Westbrook is a great transition scorer, and when Kobe Bryant played Westbrook, the Thunder offense began to stagnate. I also thought that had as much to do with Kevin Durant’s poor shooting as Ron Artest’s defense…It was a terrific run for the Bucks without Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd. As a result, the Bucks shouldn’t have been favored in one matchup. They got to Game 7 on coaching, hustle, determination and desire. As for the Hawks, it turns out there is one AAU team in the NBA.

-- Watching the Hawks/Bucks series, if you are the Bulls, you get the sense you have a good shot at Joe Johnson. But you also perhaps begin to understand why the Hawks last summer offered Johnson $15 million a season, but for four years. What will Johnson, 29 this summer, be like in four years? Five years, which is the max another team can give him. Six years? Which only the Hawks can give him. Johnson did average 20.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists against the Bucks while playing good defense on John Salmons. But in Game 7 Sunday, Johnson had eight points on four of 14 shooting. I doubt given the Hawks ownership quagmire and financial issues they can or would pay Johnson the maximum $126 million when Jamal Crawford was the one who came up biggest in Game 6 and 7, leading the Hawks scoring 24 and 22 and shooting 16 of 33 overall. Also, during the season, Crawford took the majority of game-winning shot attempts. You could see Crawford moving in as starting shooting guard with just one year left on his deal at about $10 million. How about a Crawford/Kirk Hinrich backcourt again as that likely would be the desired sign-and-trade for the Hawks? Then, if you are a bidder, you have to ask if signing Johnson for five years at some $95 million is worth what he gives you and having him on the books at $20 million or more five years from now. And do you even offer Johnson a sign-and-trade knowing that means a sixth year to when he’s 35? And this is a guy who’s played among the most minutes in the NBA the last seven years, averaging more than 40 minutes per game as coach Mike Woodson rarely takes him out and ironman Johnson (four straight 82-game seasons) has played more than 21,000 minutes the last seven seasons. He’s above 25,000 minutes for his career and you see Ray Allen struggling more now as he passes 35,000 minutes. With more buyers than top free agents who are moving, someone will pay Johnson. Is he worth it?