Beyond top prizes, free agents could come relatively inexpensively

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Joe Johnson

There’s a big question with Atlanta's ownership still in court whether the Hawks could even pay Joe Johnson this summer. He’s considered the most likely free agent to change teams.

Say you strike out on the big time free agents this summer. Can you take your estimated $20 million if you are the Bulls and spread it around and to a core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, and add Marcus Camby, Luis Scola, Ray Allen and Steve Blake or Travis Outlaw?

Those are some of the potential third- and fourth-tier free agents who could come relatively inexpensively. Does it make some sense to consider a deeper, more talented roster than using up all your money on one player?

I generally go with five shirts from Kohl’s instead of one from Armani, though I guess you knew that already. The so-called championship formula is two or three stars, and I fully expect the Bulls to pursue that strategy.

So as we get into March, here’s a look at the top free agents and their odds of moving on. I’ve long believed because of the chance to make substantially more money with higher raises and a sixth year on their contracts, most of the top guys will stay. But there seem to be growing reasons why things could change as we head down the stretch.

Joe Johnson: The Bulls see him Monday with the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are having a terrific season, but their attendance remains in the bottom third and there’s been internal grumbling about Johnson’s tendency to stop the ball and try to make plays. “We've won a lot of games early with Joe and Jamal (Crawford) making plays off the dribble, either for themselves or for other people,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson told the Atlanta Constitution. “When it works, it looks good. When it don't work, everybody thinks you are standing around and not getting anything accomplished." Woodson added when asked about the team’s penchant for isolation play: "I've got to get us out of that. We are isolating too much now. I've got to get more movement, more ball screens, give the bigs a chance to make plays." They are hoping to stay away from the Magic and Cavs in the playoff bracketing and believe if they do they can go at least to the conference finals. Though the way they play isolation, they don’t look like a good pick for slower playoff basketball. And there’s a big question with their ownership still in court whether they could even pay Johnson. He’s considered the most likely free agent to change teams.

Dwyane Wade: He was out with a strained calf and the Heat was absolutely horrible without him. They’ve been said to be looking at adding now journeyman Larry Hughes, recently released by the Kings. They just were blown out by the Bucks and lost to Minnesota at home. Michael Beasley, whom they declined to deal in potential trade talks about Amar’e Stoudemire, has basically been a jump shooter instead of the advertised post player and limited impact without Wade. He had one point and one rebound in Sunday’s loss to Orlando. And last week he was upset about Charles Barkley likening the Heat to the old Jackson 5 with all the backup singers behind Michael, a bunch of Titos, as Barkley said. Barkley’s been saying that for a year. When did Beasley wake up? It’s funny, and whoever actually reacts to what Barkley says? They’re just 14-14 at home and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs after Sunday night’s loss to Orlando with Wade back. They are far enough under the salary cap for a maximum player and a smaller contract. Does adding Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer, or even Bosh, make up the difference with such a shallow roster? If Wade is serious about being talked about with Kobe and LeBron, wouldn’t he be better off with Rose, Noah, Deng and Hinrich? The Bulls believe so. I still believe he leans toward returning, but maybe by 51-49 seeing what is left, though owner Mickey Arison told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel he’s 95 percent certain Wade will return. What does he know that I don’t?

Chris Bosh: They’ve got a deeper roster and have done somewhat better before being blown out Sunday in Oklahoma City with Bosh out with an ankle sprain. What’s little discussed is the possibility of resigning Bosh and being able to get under the cap to add a top free agent after next season. Plus, Bosh raised the interesting possibility during All-Star weekend of being the guy a team builds around rather than a guy who needs to go somewhere and be the Scottie Pippen supporting actor. And then what if his new teams asks him to play defense? By the way, have you noticed the four top power forward free agents, Bosh, Stoudemire, Boozer and David Lee, all are regarded as poor defensive players? I think Bosh still remains 50-50, which is far better for Toronto than the 100 percent everyone has assumed because he is in Canada.

LeBron James: I’ve believed all along he’d stay, especially with the acquisition of Antawn Jamison, as I expect the Cavs to petition the league for a name change to Cleveland James’. Rarely has a franchise done more to accommodate one player. If James were a better guy, he’d just declare he’s staying and committed to the city, much like Michael Jordan always said he’d remain a Bull and was committed to winning where he started like Bird and Magic and not become a mercenary. But James seems to enjoy keeping the team on edge, so much so that when an erroneous report surfaced last week that the league would deny Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ return—they won’t and he likely will—the Cavs privately accused the league of trying to direct James to New York. I’ve long dismissed New York’s awful roster as a place to go, but Ilgauskas is not expected to return to Cleveland next season after the way they mistreated him this season with giving Shaq his job when Shaq hardly earned it, forgetting to play him the night he was to set the team record for games and leaving him in every trade rumor. Shaq could be out for a substantial time now with a hand injury and surgery and who knows if he can play next season. Suddenly, the Cavs get small and maybe a lot less competitive. I assume he re-ups, though I’d say an 80 percent chance and 100 percent he makes the Cavs sweat way more than they have already.

Amar’e Stoudemire: He’s a consolation prize for someone like Miami or New York or New Jersey after missing on the Big Three and having to show the fans something. He’s putting up some huge numbers and rebounding better, though he had four and three rebound games last week before his 41 and 12 Sunday in the loss to the Spurs. He’s a risk because of his microfracture and eye surgeries and the risk of another issue. Plus, his defensive and general rebounding indifference generally has left his team losing. The Suns cannot afford to let him go for nothing, and they’d probably do a sign-and-trade, but can you invest your future for the next six years in him? He seems to want the attention and is probably 60 percent to go as he could play one more season for $17.7 million and not opt out.

Carlos Boozer: He really scares you because he’s been playing so great, averaging 21.2 and 13 in February for the streaking Jazz. He’s been regarded as the most avaricious of the bunch from that shell game he played with the Cavs to gain free agency years back to trying to sell himself to the Bulls and Heat in radio interviews last summer. There’s been some buzz the Jazz could make Paul Millsap available instead and resign Boozer, who runs a solid pick and roll with Deron Williams. And Jerry Sloan, interestingly, doesn’t seem to mind Boozer’s indifference on defense. He lives in Miami and supposedly has told teammates he wants to sign with the Bulls. He’s going on 29 and missed major parts of three of the last five seasons with injuries. Could you really consider yourself a championship contender if he’s your major addition? I’d say he’s 80 percent to leave.

Rudy Gay: The Memphis small forward is a restricted free agent, so the Grizzlies can match. But they are not likely to make the playoffs, though they are much improved, and might not be able to afford to match a big offer with extensions due soon for O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph’s contract expiring after next season. Gay also came in for some oblique criticism from Randolph last week after a loss to the Bobcats when Randolph told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “We were just talking about how everybody has to be upset about losing. It can’t just be me and O.J. and everybody else laughing.” When Memphis was in New Jersey last week Gay talked about how record doesn’t matter when a team wants you. "The record doesn't mean much when you're dealing with a team," Gay told the Bergen Record. "You're thinking about yourself and how you can contribute, and that's what other teams think. Wherever you feel like you're wanted the most, that's where you're going to be." Doesn’t sound like he’s long for Memphis. I’d say it’s about 80 percent he’s somewhere else.

Dirk Nowitzki: The Mavs continue to improve and there seems zero chance he’d leave. I agree.

Yao: Not going anywhere after a season not playing injured.

Kobe Bryant: He has an opt out and hasn’t re-upped yet. But in addition to being with likely the best team, if he were to leave and sign for a max deal somewhere else, he’d earn almost $10 million less per season given he’s already making $24.8 million and his extension would continue from there. So do you think he’s leaving? My old LeBron-to-the-Lakers speculation has come back with a story by longtime Lakers’ chronicler Roland Lazenby saying James wants to go to the Lakers and Phil Jackson is in a bitter feud with ownership and wants Kobe to side with him, a la Jordan in 1998, to give him leverage for the future. It sounds fantastic and could be all speculation, but that’s the joy of championship teams. Never a dull moment.

So, you ought to be considering trades and alternatives as the moving companies may not be as busy as previously thought.

NBA news and notes

-- The Celtics are 13-16 since Christmas, so it’s no fluke and none of this waiting for the playoffs excuse. Doc Rivers isn’t in trouble, though the Boston Herald felt compelled to note that in a column with pressure already increasing after that home loss to the Nets and players saying it’s them and not him, which usually precedes a firing. This time it won’t and shouldn’t. But the Celtics are looking at the end of this group, and albeit short, it was worth it to get a championship and revive interest in basketball. … With Shaq out and Z not able to return, assuming he does, until March 22, the Cavs have to play their smaller, quicker lineup with Anderson Varejao at center that so many say makes them better because their centers don’t play pick and roll defense well and coach Mike Brown cannot keep them in a slowdown game to concentrate on defense. If this opens the floor for LeBron James, he could average 40 if he tries. … He’s been disruptive and disinterested his whole career, but since the trades to blow up the Wizards, Andray Blatche is averaging 26.6 points and 11.7 rebounds in seven games and the team’s main building block going forward. But is he just a player who’ll score on a bad team or a guy who’s finally gotten it?

-- The favorite for coach of the year of late seems to be Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks. And while they’ve improved greatly, there’s probably only one Bucks player who could even make their lineup. Though the Bucks lost in Atlanta Sunday night in overtime to break a streak of six straight wins on the road, Scott Skiles has probably been doing his best job as coach. The Bucks have been one of the league’s hottest teams as Skiles has finally turned Andrew Bogut into a threat. The tranquil Aussie is second in the league in blocks and averaging a double/double. Skiles has been patient with poor shooting rookie point guard Brandon Jennings and tough with Bogut. He’s blended in Jerry Stackhouse and now John Salmons, and they’ve been terrific. He seems to have grown as a coach and maybe he finally is settling down to become what he’s always wanted to be, the next Jerry Sloan with longevity with an organization. It also seemed obvious whom Bogut was referring to when he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of the Bucks improved play: “Guys are starting to play for each other a little bit more." Hello, Michael Redd, whose career likely is over after another major knee operation. And by the way, here he goes again: John Salmons is averaging 20.1 since the trade and the Bucks are 6-1. … The Detroit Free Press had a column last week noting the departure of longtime top executive Tom Wilson and speculating one reason he left is the Pistons leaving Detroit. There was widespread pooh poohing, but I had heard the same talk All Star weekend that if the parts of the Davidson empire are sold separately the basketball team could be sold to out of town interests given the economic decline in the Detroit area. It wouldn’t seem to make sense with someone needing the game dates for the Palace, but things are changing in the NBA. … Ben Gordon failed to score in double figures in nine of the Pistons’ 13 February games and played fewer than 20 minutes in two of the last three. The word is coach John Kuester is withholding minutes from Gordon and Charlie Villanueva until their defense improves. It’s interesting because not even Skiles held Gordon accountable on defense given his explosive scoring ability.

-- Michael Jordan is in the right spot for him as an owner as he wasn’t much interested in the day-to-day drudgery of being a GM. But how delicious is this irony. Now Jordan will be the one, after years of complaining of teammates—and himself—being underpaid, of being the one making the payroll decisions at a time the team is close to the luxury tax and losing tens of millions of dollars. Though he hasn’t commented publicly, Jordan previously has said he doesn’t see the need to exceed the luxury tax. Actually, Charlotte’s books aren’t bad with Tyson Chandler and Nazr Mohammed coming off after next season. But now Jordan joins the owners who want a much harder cap and much less revenue for the players in the next collective bargaining agreement. And we know Mike likes to win. … He doesn’t say much, but Dallas’ Rick Carlisle is working on his fifth season of at least 50 wins in eight seasons with three different teams. Yes, owner Mark Cuban spends money, which makes it easier, but Carlisle holds things together well and never has been reluctant to take chances and make changes. … And you had to love Jason Kidd, whom the Bulls see Saturday and has been coming on strong averaging 14, 10 and six in February, see Hawks coach Mike Woodson on the court and run into him to get a key technical foul in beating Atlanta. Good. It’s about time those coaches get off the court. If they have so much to say in games, it suggests they aren’t doing much teaching or work in practice. … He’s not politically correct, and good for him. Here was Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy to the Orlando Sentinel on Dwight Howard generally being ignored as an MVP candidate: “Kevin Garnett has been in this league forever and he's won six playoff series in his career. Dwight's won four and he's 24 years old. That's a pretty good comparison. Why is Kevin Garnett a great winner and Dwight Howard's not? I don't get it.
And if you're just going to go by titles, Kevin Garnett's got one, and Dwight's got as many as LeBron's got. But LeBron's a great winner and Dwight isn't?”

-- It’s some season for Minnesota’s Al Jefferson, who was arrested for alleged drunk driving Saturday night as he struggles to regain his form and has been benched of late for Darko Milicic in the fourth quarters. Jefferson, who was suspended by the team for two games, is averaging 11 points and 6.7 rebounds the last six games and likely post season trade material. Meanwhile, it was an amazing sequence of plays for rookie Jonny Flynn who almost single handedly blew a 10-point lead in the last two minutes over the Heat fouling a three point shooter, firing off a three two seconds into the shot clock after his team got an offensive rebound and then making a turnover before bailing out the game with a beauty of a finger roll on a drive. The Timberwolves may be the biggest player of the draft with plenty of cap room, the rights to Ricky Rubio and a good chance at getting the No., 1 pick and John Wall. … Warriors coach Don Nelson on Andris Biedrins: "I didn't see any life there. I'm tired of not seeing any life. I'm very disappointed. This isn't the first time we haven't seen a light on." Nelson on Vladimir Radmanovic: "He's been disgraceful when I've played him." Last season, it was Nelson saying similar stuff about Al Harrington and Jamal Crawford and running them off and Stephen Jackson this season. Also trying to get away was Corey Maggette, who played through injuries until past the trade deadline and then took treatment that will keep him out three weeks. Nelson is seven wins from Lenny Wilkens alltime win record, and the team’s hope is he gets it this season and retires. … Pretty cool response from Kings coach Paul Westphal to a story in the Sacramento Bee that had players led by Spencer Hawes questioning the rotation. Westphal then made Hawes inactive the next game. Said Westphal: “I saw where he's having a hard time understanding his role. He should understand it tonight."

-- You don’t expect them to do it, but with Darren Collison averaging almost 20 and 10 with Chris Paul out and burning Jason Kidd for a career high Sunday night and rookie shooting guard Marcus Thornton coming up big with Paul out and the Hornets not likely to make the playoffs, would they trade Paul? Again, I don’t think so. I ran it by former Hornet Devin Brown and he laughed. But 22 teams draw more fans and they’re near the luxury tax line next season with little chance to improve. Can they really bench Collison after the way he’s played? "As a competitor, you want to be able to showcase your talent, " Collison told the New Orleans Picyune. "This league is all about opportunity." Paul could draw a king’s ransom of No. 1 picks and maybe someone to take those bad contracts, like Emeka Okafor and Morris Peterson. Would you rather have John Wall or Chris Paul? You have great young talent, high picks and hang onto David West, and maybe you are better set for the next decade rather than with Paul and little chance to get him help. As I said, I doubt it, but… … Kevin Martin’s had back to back 30-plus games, but the Rockets are 1-4 since the trade. It’s way too soon to say they made a mistake given they get a slew of first rounders and from what could be a horrible Knicks team. And they see Martin more as a future complement with Yao. But losing Carl Landry was bigger than the sum of the pieces as they lose a big part of their chemistry, unselfishness and toughness. They look out of the playoff race in the West. … You know those Iranians are funny guys. At least the ones in the NBA. That would be Memphis center, Hamed Haddadi, who replaced No. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet in the rotation. Thabeet went to the D-League for a time, the highest pick ever to do so. He needs the time, and likely, like Kwame Brown, will struggle his whole career with being overdrafted. He’s still got a chance given his size if he works at it. As for Haddadi, this was how he explained a dunk over Shaq last month to Memphis station WHBQ: “I drop step, go around and I dunk that (expletive).” Now that’s what I call being Americanized.

Follow Sam Smith on Twitter at SamSmithHoops.

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