Offseason Moves - Western Conference
By Charlie Zegers, Rotowire.com
Denver’s offseason plans seem clear: Plan to have Allen Iverson for the whole season and hope like anything that some of their walking wounded in the frontcourt rotation – Kenyon Martin, Nene, Eduardo Najera, and Marcus Camby – spend more time on the floor and less time in suits and ties. That seems to be a sound strategy. After all, the Nuggets, once they finally got healthy and somewhat used to playing with each other, finished last season as one of the hottest teams in the league. They closed out 2006-07 by winning 10 of 11 games in April.
When operating on all cylinders, Denver’s offense is one of the NBA’s elite units. George Karl’s squad averaged 105.4 points on the season – only Phoenix and Golden State scored more per game. Obviously, most of the damage will be done by Anthony (28.9 ppg) and Iverson (26.3 ppg), but an offense that scores that much will have opportunities for everyone. If you’re facing a choice between a secondary player on the Nuggets and someone from a less-aggressive team, be sure to factor that in.
Denver has made a couple of roster changes. One is the minor swap of backup point guards. Steve Blake parlayed last year’s surprisingly effective run with the Nuggets into a lucrative free agent contract with Portland. That’s not a major loss; Blake’s success was a product of the powerful Denver offense. Chucky Atkins, a talented three-point shooter and experienced bench player, will more than replace Blake’s numbers. In early September, the Nuggets traded Reggie Evans to the Sixers for Steven Hunter and Bobby Jones. Don't expect much out of the latter two.
Who’s Coming: Al Jefferson (BOS), Ryan Gomes (BOS), Gerald Green (BOS), Theo Ratliff (BOS), Sebastian Telfair (BOS), Juwan Howard (HOU), Corey Brewer (7th overall), Chris Richard (41st overall)
This year’s Timberwolves look suspiciously like last year’s Celtics. That’s what a seven-for-one trade will do to you. Unfortunately, the “Minnesota Celtics” will feature Juwan Howard and Rashad McCants instead of Paul Pierce – a significant downgrade from the squad that was very much in contention for the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
The ex-Celtics have a tough season ahead, but several have the potential to put up nice numbers. Al Jefferson, clearly the centerpiece of the deal for the T-Wolves, flashed All-Star potential during the second half of last season and could emerge as a real 20-and-10 power forward. But don’t be surprised if he takes a step backwards in the early part of the season, as he adjusts to his role as the focal point of the offense and deals with tougher competition from Western Conference front lines. Gerald Green is something of an unknown quantity; he can leap out of the gym but is still very raw. Gomes is a nice complementary player, but he’s expected to have trouble in the West as an undersized four. Sebastian Telfair is still young enough to resurrect his career in the town where his cousin Stephon Marbury got started. He could be a real fantasy sleeper.
Who’s Coming: Greg Oden (1st overall), Josh McRoberts (37th overall), Taurean Green (52nd overall), Steve Blake (DEN), James Jones (PHX), Petteri Koponen (30th overall - from PHI), Channing Frye (NYK)
The ping-pong balls were kind to Portland in this year’s draft, kick-starting their rebuilding efforts by dropping a franchise center in Nate McMillan’s lap. Greg Oden’s arrival in Portland had a domino effect on the Blazers’ roster, effectively closing the books on the “Jail Blazers” once and for all.
With Oden solidifying the middle and expected to provide a low-post presence, Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard was free to ship the talented-but-troubled Zach Randolph to New York, bringing back a promising big man with a choirboy reputation in Channing Frye. (Steve Francis was also included in that deal, but his contract was bought out.) With Oden, Frye, LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Przybilla on board, the Blazers were stacked at the four and five spots. The key word is "were." As you probably know, Oden is out for the season following microfracture surgery, so it wasn't as promising as it initially looked.
The only sure thing in the backcourt is last season’s Rookie of the Year, Brandon Roy. He will start at the two and should improve on last season’s averages of 16.8 points and 4.0 assists. McMillan has a number of options at the other guard spot including incumbent Jarrett Jack, improving Sergio Rodriguez, free agent signee Steve Blake and draft pick Taurean Green.
Like the Blazers, the Sonics hit the fast-forward button on their rebuilding plans thanks to luck in the Draft Lottery. Kevin Durant became the new face of the franchise on draft night. The immensely talented rookie will need to contribute immediately on an offense that lost Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and their combined 44.8 points per game. Durant certainly has the skill, but he may need to bulk up some before he becomes a star; he was famously unable to bench-press 185 pounds at pre-draft workouts, which raised questions as to how he’ll cope with physical play at the NBA level.
Fellow rookie Jeff Green, who arrived in the Ray Allen trade, joins Durant on the wing. Green is more of a physical player who projects to be a very good defender. However, he’ll need time to adjust to the NBA game, as most rookies do. To ease the transition, Seattle general manager Sam Presti has imported productive veterans like Wally Szczerbiak and Kurt Thomas as well as third year player Delonte West. West is expected to be in the mix for the starting point guard job with disappointing incumbents Luke Ridnour and Earl Watson. Szczerbiak is an accomplished shooter and scorer who can play the two or three position, but he has a history of injuries. Thomas will provide toughness, rebounding, and serve as a mentor to Seattle’s young forwards and centers like Robert Swift, Mouhamed Sene and Chris Wilcox.
When attempting to gauge who will win jobs and playing time, remember that new coach P.J. Carlesimo is a defensive guru. Players who can’t (or won’t) provide strong defense will have a harder time cracking his rotation.
Utah emerged as one of the top teams in the West last season, led by the stellar play of sophomore point guard Deron Williams (16.2 ppg, 9.3 apg) and the resurgence of power forward Carlos Boozer (20.9 ppg, 11.7 rpg). The two ran Jerry Sloan’s pick-and-roll with a precision that would make John Stockton and Karl Malone proud.
Repeating as division champs will be tough, as Denver should be right in the mix for the title. But Utah also has room to improve. One possibility for growth would be better play from Andrei Kirilenko. AK-47 had a terribly inconsistent year last season, causing many to suggest that Boozer’s emergence and dominance on the low block pushed Kirilenko towards the perimeter and out of his comfort zone. But Kirilenko returned to form late in the season and during the first round of the Playoffs. If he and Boozer can learn to play together, the Jazz will have a legit shot at winning the West.
The team will return more or less intact when the season opens. The only loss is guard Derek Fisher, who worked with Utah management to terminate his contract so he could pursue a job in a city where his daughter can seek cancer treatment. Fisher’s veteran leadership will be missed, but his production should be covered by the arrivals of Jason Hart from the Clippers and Ronnie Price from the Kings. Rookie Morris Almond – the Conference USA Player of the Year with a 26.4 ppg average for Rice last season – has range out to the three-point line and could challenge for minutes in the backcourt rotation.
Who’s Coming: Marco Belinelli (18th overall), Brandan Wright (8th overall), Stephane Lasme (46th overall), Kosta Perovic (38th overall pick, 2006 draft), Austin Croshere (DAL), Troy Hudson (MIN)
Chris Mullin’s draft night deal that sent Jason Richardson to Charlotte for the rights to eighth-overall pick Brandan Wright had many observers scratching their heads. The Warriors had a breakthrough season and seemed to be close to title contender status. Was Mullin gathering assets to make a run at Kevin Garnett?
While another deal is still possible, it looks like Don Nelson and company will head into the 2007-08 season with a deeper, but younger, rotation than the fan favorites of the 2007 Playoffs. With Richardson gone, Monta Ellis (last season’s Most Improved Player) will likely step up into the starting guard role alongside Baron Davis. Look for big things from both guards this year as they’ll get plenty of opportunities in the Warriors’ fast-paced offense (second in the NBA in scoring last season). Additionally, both players are in “contact drive” mode; Ellis’ rookie contract expires after the season, and Davis has an opt-out clause. Italian guard Marco Belinelli, selected with the 18th pick in the first round, was one of the most impressive players during the Las Vegas Summer League and should provide depth at both positions.
With the re-signing of Matt Barnes and expected return of Mickael Pietrus, the frontcourt rotation returns intact – deep and athletic. Al Harrington is key. His size, athleticism and skill would seem to make him an ideal fit for Nellieball, but Harrington struggled late in the season and during the playoffs. With a full training camp under his belt, Harrington could emerge as a solid fantasy four this year. Rookie Brandan Wright has the size and athleticism to contribute in his first year, but he’s expected to need some time and some bulk before he reaches his full potential.
Who’s Coming: Al Thornton (14th overall), Jared Jordan (45th overall), Brevin Knight (CHA), Ruben Patterson (MIL)
Not so long ago, the Clippers were considered a team on the rise. Now it appears they’ll have a real struggle on their hands just to prevent a drop to the bottom of the conference.
Injuries have hit the Clippers hard. The worst was the grisly knee injury suffered by Shaun Livingston last February – a video clip that instantly made the “Cover Your Eyes” Hall of Fame alongside Lawrence Taylor’s career-ending sack of Joe Theismann. The Clips have no idea when – or if – Livingston will return. Making matters worse, power forward Elton Brand will also sit on the bench for the first two-thirds of the season after rupturing his Achilles’ during an early August workout.
Who can step up to replace them? Sam Cassell will return for one more season and likely start at the point. Unfortunately, he is clearly on the down side of his excellent career. Slowed by a variety of injuries, he played in just 58 games last season. It seems unreasonable to expect more than that. With Jason Hart and Daniel Ewing gone, Cassell’s primary backup might be rookie Jared Jordan. A rookie from Marist, Jordan has drawn comparisons to Steve Nash for his basketball IQ and court vision. But Jordan also shares Nash’s lack of ideal NBA size, quickness and athleticism. He could be the steal of the draft, but the comparison to the two-time MVP is probably a bit lofty. Veteran Brevin Knight, who emerged as one of the top assist men in the league during his run with the Bobcats, is another option.
To fill Brand’s enormous shoes, the Clippers will need guys like Tim Thomas, Chris Kaman and Corey Maggette to step up. Rookie Al Thornton might be thrust into a big role almost immediately, but it would be unfair to expect anything approaching Brand numbers from a neophyte.
Who’s Coming: Derek Fisher (UTA), Javaris Crittenton (19th overall), Sun Yue (40th overall), Marc Gasol (48th overall), Coby Karl (free agent), Larry Turner (free agent), Elton Brown (free agent)
I don’t know what Kobe Bryant is complaining about.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Kobe has expressed “mild” dissatisfaction with the work of Lakers’ management. Looking at the Lakers roster, it’s fairly easy to see why. They’ve got arguably the NBA’s best player in Bryant and one of the most versatile forwards in the league in Lamar Odom. After those two, there’s not much to write home about.
Luke Walton is a nice, heady complementary player, but he’s not putting this team over the top. Center Andrew Bynum has tons of potential but is still very raw. The rest of the big man rotation consists of expensive busts like Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm and active young role-players like Brian Cook and Ronny Turiaf. Jordan Farmar and Fisher are excellent fits for Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Why? Because the triangle doesn’t require an elite point guard. The overall problem is that this roster is not one that can compete with the Suns, Spurs, Mavs or Rockets – or even the Warriors, Nuggets or Jazz.
That puts the Lakers in a catch-22. They don’t have the pieces to compete, but they don’t have the pieces to make a trade for significant help – someone like Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal, for example – without giving up Odom. Unfortunately, a Laker team with Kobe, O’Neal and the same supporting cast probably isn’t competing in the West either.
Many Phoenix fans are livid about some of new GM Steve Kerr’s offseason moves. Pressured by ownership to avoid the dreaded luxury tax, some of Kerr’s first transactions – like the deal that sent Kurt Thomas and two future first-round picks to Portland for an $8 million trade exception – were motivated by finances, not basketball.
That said, the Suns are bringing back all the key players from last year’s top scoring team – Phoenix’s 110.2 point average led the league by a wide margin. The Suns will be contenders as long as the big three of Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire wear purple and orange. Each player is arguably the top fantasy player in the league at his position. Boris Diaw is a potential triple-double on any given night, but it remains difficult for him to put up his gaudy 2005-06 numbers with Amare and Marion alongside (as we saw last year). Leandro Barbosa is a terrific scorer as a starter or off the bench, and Raja Bell complements the rest with excellent perimeter defense.
The personnel losses were minor. Kurt Thomas provided depth in the frontcourt, but he really doesn’t have the legs to keep up with the Suns’ frenetic pace any more. James Jones put up nice numbers with Phoenix, but so does everyone else that gets playing time for Mike D’Antoni. With Steve Nash running the show, Kerr could almost bring in guys from the Rucker League to fill his roster and still top the league in scoring. And Kerr’s roster fillers are just a touch better than the guys you’d see on the playground. Grant Hill still has tremendous court sense and skill, even though he’s not nearly the athlete he once was. Don’t count on him for more than 50 or so games, but expect him to put up excellent numbers when he does play. Alando Tucker – the all-time leading scorer for the Wisconsin Badgers – has inside scoring ability and nice touch from outside. He’ll provide depth at three positions. And D.J. Strawberry is an excellent defender who could serve as the Suns’ answer to Bruce Bowen and the eventual successor to Raja Bell.
The Kings are another team that feels like a work in progress, mostly due to the near-continuous trade rumors involving Ron Artest and Mike Bibby. But given that our magic 8-ball is on the fritz, we’ll make some educated guesses based what we do know.
Sacramento’s new coach, Reggie Theus, was an assistant to Rick Pitino at Louisville. He brought his mentor’s offensive philosophies and quick pace to New Mexico State. That fast pace and perimeter game should make for really productive seasons from Mike Bibby, Kevin Martin and, potentially, perimeter players like Francisco Garcia (who played under Theus at Louisville and might have a head-start on the rest of the team) and even Quincy Douby.
In the frontcourt, the Kings will feature veteran Brad Miller and rookie Spencer Hawes. If Hawes pans out, he’ll be a very similar player to Miller – an excellent passer out of the high post who can help start the break with good court vision and accurate passes. Free agent signee Mikki Moore is athletic and runs the floor well, but don’t expect a repeat of the numbers from last year’s breakout season. Moore’s contributions on offense were inflated by his proximity to Jason Kidd; he won’t be set up for as many easy baskets playing with a scoring point like Bibby.
Who’s Coming: Brandon Bass (NOH), Eddie Jones (MIA), Nick Fazekas (34th overall), Reyshawn Terry (44th overall), Renaldas Seibutis (50th overall)
Do we judge the Mavericks based on their 67-win cruise through the regular season? Or on their disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of former coach Don Nelson?
Don’t get too caught up in the loss to Golden State. On some levels, that was a simple case of “worst possible matchup,” as the Mavs faced the coach who built them into a title contender and knew their strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. Aside from that, the regular season is what counts in fantasy, and the Mavs are as good as anyone during the regular season.
The big guns in “Big D” are Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. Nowitzki earned the MVP award last season – probably the most productive in his incredibly impressive career – while Howard embedded himself quite firmly on the list of the league’s best players. With a pair of forwards like those two, Dallas doesn’t need much production from the pivot; they will once again feature defense-and-rebounding specialists like DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier in the middle. Veteran Jerry Stackhouse has re-invented himself as one of the best sixth men in the league; he’ll provide scoring for the second unit. Rookie Nick Fazekas may emerge as a similar option. Dallas is also one of several possible destinations for free agent Chris Webber, whose passing ability and low-post moves would make for a nice fit.
If a 67-win team can have an area of concern, the backcourt is it. Jason Terry’s name has come up in trade rumors this summer, and Devin Harris can be inconsistent. If a roster shakeup happens, guards will be involved. The team has already made one minor tweak, adding veteran Eddie Jones to the mix.
Who’s Coming: Aaron Brooks (26th overall), Brad Newley (54th overall), Steve Francis (POR), Mike Harris (MIL), Jackie Butler (SAS), Mike James (MIN), Justin Reed (MIN), Carl Landry (31st overall), Luis Scola (SAS)
Depth is important in the NBA, but this is ridiculous.
The Rockets have been very active this summer, adding depth at center (Jackie Butler), power forward (Luis Scola, Carl Landry) and guard (more on that in a bit) while sacrificing only Juwan Howard and Vassilis Spanoulis.
Clearly the team is deeper, but is it better? A lot will depend on which of the imports actually play. For example, right now Houston’s guard rotation consists of Rafer Alston, rookie Aaron Brooks, free agent signee Steve Francis, Luther Head, Mike James (acquired in the Howard deal), John Lucas, Kirk Snyder and Bonzi Wells. Now, Rick Adelman is a very creative coach, but there’s simply no way he can get regular minutes for all those guys. (Never mind the fact that Houston will have a very difficult time putting together an active roster that carries five or six point guards.) In other words, something’s gotta give.
Who stays and who goes? Let’s start with the easy ones. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady are franchise players. They’ll get as many minutes as they can physically handle. Shane Battier is the glue that holds the team together; he should adapt to Adelman’s scheme very quickly. Bonzi Wells played the best ball of his career under Adelman in Sacramento. Scola and Chuck Hayes provide different yet complementary looks at power forward. With the guards, things are trickier. It seems reasonable to assume that Francis will get some run – why sign him otherwise? By the same token, however, it seems safe to assume that the Rockets wouldn’t have acquired every guard short of Bob Cousy if Rafer Alston, Luther Head or John Lucas were considered long-term solutions. The smart money would seem to be on a Francis-James tandem running the point with Brooks left to develop on the bench and Alston shopped to any team looking for point guard help.
The NFL is called a copycat league, but what the Grizzlies are doing this season comes pretty close to plagiarism. Let’s review. Last season, the Raptors decided to rebuild around a very talented power forward/center (Chris Bosh) by installing a Phoenix Suns/Euroleague offense and signing a bunch of players with international experience (Andrea Bargnani, Jorge Garbajosa, Anthony Parker). This season, the Grizzlies have hired a Phoenix Suns’ assistant and started surrounding Pau Gasol (their version of Chris Bosh) with Juan Carlos Navarro, Darko Milicic and Casey Jacobsen.
C’mon guys. At least try to hide what you’re doing.
Aside from the lack of originality, it’s hard to criticize the Grizzlies’ plan. Gasol is an elite talent, and the move to an international-style offense should make him happy. Fellow Spaniard Navarro was one of the top guards in Europe. Milicic – once you get past the overwhelming hype that accompanied his arrival in the league – is a highly skilled seven-footer, and he’s still just 22. Combine those guys with Mike Conley Jr. (generally considered the best point guard in the ’07 draft), Rudy Gay, Hakim Warrick and Kyle Lowry, and the Grizzlies have the look of a very raw, but dangerous team.
The Hornets have had a very quiet offseason, apparently content to let the continuing development of brilliant point guard Chris Paul and defensive center Tyson Chandler be their primary means of improvement. That’s not a bad plan, really. Paul, at 22, is already one of the top three or four point guards in the league and the likely successor to Steve Nash and Jason Kidd at the top of the NBA. Chandler - still just 24 - is a near-automatic double-double and one of the league’s top shot blockers.
Scoring should come from the wing. “Should” is the key word here. Peja Stojakovic signed a five-year, $64 million contract before last season, but a variety of injuries kept him from all but 13 games. As insurance against further problems, New Orleans added former Raptor Morris Peterson this summer. Mo Pete fell into disfavor in Toronto last year, but he’s always been a highly productive player when given regular run. New Orleans’ base lineup will likely feature Peterson at shooting guard and Stojakovic at small forward. Assuming both are healthy, they should combine for around 35 points per game.
At the other forward spot, David West has emerged as one of the more promising big men in the league, putting up numbers comparable to someone like Carlos Boozer or Zach Randolph but with far less hype. As with Stojakovic, though, durability is a major concern. Elbow and ankle injuries limited West to 52 games in 2006-07. Julian Wright could be in the mix for minutes at the four as a result. The rookie from Kansas has good size and is a solid passer and defender, but he’ll need to spend some time in the weight room before becoming an impact NBA player.
Who’s Coming: Tiago Splitter (28th overall), Marcus Williams (33rd overall), Vassilis Spanoulis (HOU), Ime Udoka (POR), Ian Mahinmi (28th overall, 2005 draft)
The following San Antonio Spurs recap applies to the team nearly every year. In fact, I might save it as an auto-text entry for re-use next season. Here goes:
“Coming off another championship run, the Spurs made only minor changes. With their late first-round draft pick, they selected a star from the Europe who may or may not help them immediately.”
Can’t say that they aren’t consistent. And can’t argue with their track record.
Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, defensive stopper Bruce Bowen, do-everything wing Manu Ginobili and lightning-quick point guard Tony Parker are all expected back for another run at another title. So are key reserves Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Robert Horry, and Jacque Vaughn. First round draft pick, Brazilian forward Tiago Splitter, has an enormous buyout in his Euroleague contract and is expected to play overseas for at least one more year before joining the Spurs.
The Spurs did try to make one minor change – acquiring a backup point guard in Vassilis Spanoulis from the Rockets. But Spanoulis is seeking a release and intends to play in his native Greece this year. Any changes they make at this point are expected to be minor – like the signing of Ime Udoka as a long-term replacement for Bowen.
An interesting fantasy note about the Spurs. As good as they are, their key players really aren’t ideal from a fantasy perspective. Duncan’s free throw shooting is a huge drag on your percentage. Ginobili misses lots of games, due in part to his aggressive style of play. And Parker has no outside shot at all.