Be careful what you wish for with free agency

Sam Smith at

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Grant Hill

Hill spent six years in Orlando, and did make the All-Star team after rarely playing because of injuries the first three seasons. But he never averaged 20 again after leaving Detroit and the Magic never won a playoff series while he was there. They eventually had to go to the bottom and rebuild in drafting Dwight Howard.

(Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images)

Grant Hill’s story may be one of the most special, inspiring and unusual in the history of the NBA.

And perhaps his place a decade ago as one of the most sought after free agents in NBA history gives a clue to what will happen among the big free agents this summer.

Hill is playing an integral, yet supporting, role for a Suns team that has won 15 of its last 20 and 10 of 14 since the All-Star break. He’s transitioned comfortably and without complaint from being one of the game’s elite stars to a contributor. He’s made himself into an excellent three-point shooter after not being a shooter when he came to the NBA and is averaging 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds and is one of the league’s ironmen as he has missed one game in the last two years.

“It’s something I’m proud of,” says Hill about his adjustment to the supporting player. “Not all guys can do that. I don’t know about Allen Iverson’s personal issues, but it’s not easy to go from a star to being a role player. A lot of guys can’t. You swallow your pride. I enjoy my role and feel I can go out and do the job.”

So much so that when the Lakers played the Suns last week, Kobe Bryant remarked in talking to the 37-year-old Hill, the league’s oldest starter, “You sure can jump for an old guy.” Dwyane Wade has asked Hill to help advise him about diet and exercise to have such longevity.

And don’t think Hill wasn’t a star. In the mid-1990s, he was LeBron James. He was the face of the post-Jordan NBA. Hill was an All-Star in every one of his first six years in the NBA, including his rookie season (there was no All-Star game his fifth season) and all-NBA first or second team five of his first six seasons, all but his rookie year. He almost averaged a triple-double over a two season stretch in his second and third seasons, averaging more than 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

He was headed directly to the Hall of Fame, until he became a free agent—not because, as he was planning to remain with the Pistons.

“There wasn’t the anticipation then like now with everyone speculating,” recalled Hill. “It was one of those things, ‘When summer comes we’ll see.’ It was not in your face like the guys have it today.”

There hadn’t been a lot of free agency in the NBA. Shaq was one of the few in 1996, and he wanted to stay with the Magic as his home was in Orlando and still is. But the community, not always color blind in central Florida, turned on him some and the organization offered far less than what the Lakers were offering. By the time the Magic realized their mistake and came up to match the Lakers, it was too late.

Lesson 1: Don’t antagonize your free agent. If you don’t, he’ll probably stay.

“We had a couple of good years (in Detroit) and then took a couple of steps back,” said Hill. “But I liked the situation. I was comfortable. My wife is a rhythm and blues singer and Detroit was better for her career. She wasn’t opposed to leaving, but my intention was to stay. And there’s something appealing about staying in one place, like the great stars of the 80s did, starting and ending your career there and trying to build something. It’s kind of neat to try.”

But Hill also wanted to go through the process, he figured, the one chance he’d have.

“It’s always exciting to be recruited,” said Hill. “I was recruited this summer in New York and Boston.”

But in Hill’s case, there was emotion and anger.

Hill was hurt and continued to push through the end of the season and playoffs. The team doctor told one of Hill’s associates perhaps Hill needed a psychologist, that the pain was in his head. Eventually, of course, doctors found a broken foot, more serious than initially imagined, bad surgery, and later more complications and an infection that almost proved fatal.

Hill was furious with the treatment and, more so, questioning his pain.

“It put me in a bad mood that summer,” Hill recalls. “I was going through a lot of mental and emotional stuff.”

But Hill went on as the surgery was supposed to be routine.

He liked Orlando in a nearly three-day visit. GM John Gabriel, now on the staff of the Knicks, had made dozens of moves to clear room for two free agents.

“Obviously, you have a situation where you have a chance to win,” said Hill. “There was a good, young coach (Doc Rivers), a team that worked hard and overachieved and won 41 games.”

Lesson 2: Have youth and competitiveness to sell and show you have a team that didn’t quit.

“I looked at (who I’d be with),” said Hill. “(Tim) Duncan or T-Mac (Tracy McGrady). I felt comfortable with the decision, though looking back, even if I were healthy I’m not sure we’d have had enough.”

So McGrady committed to the Magic, though he didn’t sign. There still was an opening, and teams like the Bulls, Knicks and Heat swooped in for a last shot.

Hill admits the Bulls dynasty was daunting.

“I had all the Bad Boy stuff in (coming to) Detroit and then with Jordan it could be no matter what you did, it wasn’t good enough,” said Hill. “Though what was appealing is they had won championships, so they knew how to get there and others didn’t. All the situations were interesting, though New York had the best presentation. They flew in actors, made this big video. It was fun, but I got tired of all the wining and dining after awhile.”

So if you look at two of the biggest free agent stars to change teams, there are some similarities: Both felt unappreciated and not respected about where they were. Neither seemed to care that much about the coach. The team had to be good or coming fast and have some young talent. You had to be aggressive in recruiting, declaring your endless affection and concentrating on him above all others. The Magic actually recruited Hill before Duncan. McGrady was using the Bulls as a fallback if the Magic got Hill and Duncan, the latter eventually returning to San Antonio when David Robinson flew in from vacation to petition Duncan to stay.

Hill spent six years in Orlando, and did make the All-Star team after rarely playing because of injuries the first three seasons. But he never averaged 20 again after leaving Detroit and the Magic never won a playoff series while he was there. They eventually had to go to the bottom and rebuild in drafting Dwight Howard.

So you also take your chances in free agency with McGrady basically run off by frustrated fans after four first round playoff exits mostly without Hill in four seasons.

Gentlemen, open your checkbooks. Caveat emptor.

Bosh on Bulls’ free agency radar while Toronto drops in the standings

-- The Bulls don’t necessarily have a final list of free agent priorities because they don’t have to yet. And things change. Of course, they’d love to have LeBron James, like everyone else. But him moving seems hardly realistic the way the Cavs are playing. Yes, things change. Nothing is locked in no matter what anyone says now. But if the Bulls have a wish list, my guess is the combination of highest on the list/most likely to leave is Toronto’s Chris Bosh. And perhaps more so now with the Raptors collapsing through a Western Conference trip and Bosh basically going off after Saturday night’s loss in Golden State.

“I guess for some reason, we don’t like to secure a lead and we don’t like to win basketball games,” Bosh told reporters in the post game locker room. “We talk about it, we have a billion meetings. We can talk all we want. Unless we do it, it really doesn’t matter. Just do it. Act like you care. I’m going down playing offense on their side of the basketball court and their bench is louder than we are. That doesn’t make any sense. They’re not playing for anything. We’re trying to make the playoffs. This isn’t playoff basketball. We’re supposed to be gearing up for the playoffs. Their bench and players are more active than ours is. They get more stops. They get more offensive rebounds. It’s like if you look on the schedule right now and see Toronto, I’m sure people are checking something in the win box. I can understand if we lose the game going down fighting. We’re not fighting at all. if we keep playing like we are right now, we’re going to be on the outside looking in.”

Strong stuff, and Bosh is generally known as a quiet, non-vocal leader more like the players the Bulls have. Which is why it makes this Bulls seven-game losing streak amidst the injuries so costly. It seems clear now with the Bucks, Bobcats and Heat playing well the last playoff spot will come down to the Bulls and Raptors (they play April 11th in Toronto). The Raptors already hold the tiebreaker with a 2-0 season record, so Toronto has a big advantage and they now lead the Bulls by just one game in the standings with their ninth lost in their last 10 Sunday night in Portland.

As for big free agents, Hedo Turkoglu was less horrible than usual Sunday with his second double figure scoring game in the last eight. One Portland fan carried a “Mrs. Turkoglu, Thank you,” sign as Turkoglu was to sign with Portland but went to Toronto, supposedly because his wife didn’t like the shopping in Portland. Meanwhile, if the Bulls could make the playoffs—which seems a longshot now with all the injuries—it would seem to make Bosh only that much more likely to leave as a free agent this summer despite the chance to earn more money in Toronto and Bosh’s statement at All-Star weekend that he’d like a team to build around him. Also, it was interesting to read the Wall Street Journal story Thursday about how much pro athletes have come to love Toronto for its singles scene with welcoming gentleman clubs (Bosh isn’t married), diversity and ability to blend in without paparazzi interference.

Still, if the Raptors disappoint again (though you’d have to also ask how a basically healthy Bosh team with a decent supporting cast can miss the playoffs two straight seasons), you figure that’s the best chance to get a shot at Bosh. Miami is said to have made him their main target. But power forward, even with the solid season from Taj Gibson, stands out as likely the Bulls biggest hole along with shooting guard. It’s why even with the season looking lost now for the Bulls, a strong finish to make the playoffs likely is crucial to the franchise’s future if it can knock out Toronto, which seems the most likely victim. Of course, you have to wonder how motivated some players will be to make the playoffs so they can be replaced by better players. Yes, it’s the conundrum of free agency as well.

NBA news and notes

--I’m not saying Tyrus Thomas couldn’t be of help with the Bulls injury problems in the front court. But after a quick start, Thomas is putting up numbers similar to those he did with the Bulls after his hot return from injury in December. Thomas was averaging 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game in the Bobcats’ last four and shooting 37 percent before Sunday. The Bobcats had won all four. Thomas had nine points and nine rebounds and shot three of nine as the Bobcats won in Orlando Sunday. Since being traded to the Bobcats for Flip Murray, Thomas is averaging nine points and 6.6 rebounds in their eight wins and 14.6 points and 10 rebounds in their five losses. Thomas is averaging 8.4 shots in the wins and 11 shots in the losses. … They keep talking and they keep losing. You wonder if any of this ever embarrasses the Celtics, who continue acting like they are something. Kendrick Perkins was demeaning Shaq and Anderson Varejao before the Celtics were blown out again to the Cavs Sunday and talking about how the Cavs haven’t won anything yet. OK, true. But show some class as champions rather than acting like punks. But what happens if a punk wins? Do they then just look like they’re classy? … What comes around, eh? That was a terrific picture of the Celtics leaving the court after a loss in Milwaukee last week and Brandon Jennings talking trash to a saying little Kevin Garnett. … Really, will the Bucks lose again? … I’m not saying LeBron James is Jordan, but I’m seeing a lot more lately of the way Jordan began games slowly and finished strong in the fourth. Sorry, Jordan fans, but there’s always someone else. You know in 1929, baseball was convinced there’d never be anyone as good as Babe Ruth. But eventually a generation comes along that hasn’t seen him play and exalts its own. Still, it was a bit curious to hear Suns coach Alvin Gentry last week declare that Kobe Bryant is the greatest closer in the history of the NBA. And Gentry was counting Jordan. "Yeah, that is including Michael Jordan,” Gentry told the Arizona Republic. “I just think what he's done this year, to have six game-winning shots that come on the last possession of the game, I don't know if anybody has ever done that.”

-- So Mike Dunleavy quit, supposedly as coach, and then was fired last week as general manager and the assumption was Larry Brown might return there as he has a home in Malibu while he’s in Charlotte and his family chose to remain in Philadelphia. Then there’s been a week of Vinny Del Negro-esque “He may be fired any minute” reports in Philadelphia about Eddie Jordan, and Brown, the franchise’s most successful coach in almost two decades, said, "They've had phenomenal drafts and they're in a good situation financially. I don't think they're very far away. I know what kind of owner (they) have, I know the fans are as good as any. I look at their roster and I see the chance for improvement very quickly." Going back? The Bobcats are likely to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and it would seem unlikely new owner to be Jordan would let Brown out of his contract, which has two years remaining. Though Larry has left longer ones, as we know. … It’s been a busy week for speculation in New York with one report of a so-called “wink” deal already for Joe Johnson, who is represented by supposedly good Donnie Walsh friend Arn Tellem. That’s the same Tellem who supposedly had made that “wink” deal with the Bulls for Tracy McGrady in 2000. Actually, I think Tellem was seen with Walsh after Walsh had tried digging into his morning grapefruit. Then there was a breathless report Sunday J.J. Berea prefers the Knicks if he cannot resign with the Mavs. Now, that’s what you call your Plan Z. If the Bobcats finish over .500, the Knicks will be the league’s only team since 2001-02 not to have a winning season. How as a free agent could you not want to join that tradition? Plus, c’mon, have you been in it lately? The arena is a dump, the world’s most famous, I am told… … However, it does sound like Rudy Gay wouldn’t mind an address change as he told New York reporters last week when the Grizzlies played the Knicks "Every kid grows up playing like that and enjoys it. What I like about (Mike) D'Antoni's system is that everybody is effective in it. At any time, anybody can score. So it's something I'd look at.” Did anyone say, defense? Defense! This was after Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley told the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "People say, 'Are you going to pay Rudy Gay?' My answer to them is simply, ‘Are you going to come to the games?’ If I can't get people to come to the games, I can't pay anybody." The Grizzlies are 29th in home attendance ahead of just the Nets. "It's a small market, plus we're not on TV a lot," Gay said. "So it's kind of tough to get a name in Memphis." Championships! to paraphrase Jim Mora. Who’s talking about championships!

-- One of the great, obscure moments in the NBA was brought back to memory last week when Will Bynum got his 20th assist on a Ben Gordon three at the end of a Pistons blowout win over the Wizards. He was the first Piston since Isiah Thomas with 20 assists. As an aside, Gordon continues to fall farther back with Bynum starting at point and still injured Rodney Stuckey looking like first man off the bench when he returns. Anyway, it was clearly an unnecessary play with three seconds left to get the statistical milestone. It appeared Pistons coach John Kuester tried to apologize to Flip Saunders as the teams left the floor. It was reminiscent of a reserve named Anthony Bowie starting for an injured Nick Anderson calling timeout at the end of a blowout win over the Pistons to get one more assist for a triple-double. Then Pistons coach Doug Collins, a noted purist, was so enraged he ordered his team not to play so Bowie could get the assist after Magic coach Brian Hill refused to call a play he was so upset, though he should have removed Bowie from the game. It was a classic Collins statement about going for stats over wins and the sanctity of the game, and we need more of that. … Talk about your contract pushes. We know Amar’e Stoudemire has been playing maybe the best ever. But with Friday’s seven threes against the Bulls, former DePaul star Quentin Richardson was 25 of 50 on threes in the last six games going into Sunday and 23 of 43 in the team’s five game home winning streak before another win Sunday. Richardson was two of seven on threes in Sunday’s Heat win over the 76ers. … Kevin Durant gets all the notice for the rising Thunder, but making as many, or more, big plays down the stretch is Russell Westbrook with his third game in the last two months of at least 30 points and 10 assists in Sunday’s win over the Jazz. Westbrook averaged 18.8 points and 10 assists in February and this month 19.3 points and 8.9 assists. They’ve won 17 of their last 20. … Quietly effective in the Mavs’ big winning streak that shocking ended in a blowout loss to the Knicks has been Shawn Marion. He’s been the forgotten man in the midseason trades, but hasn’t said a word and added to the Dallas Morning News: “You got to sacrifice certain things to get that ultimate goal, and that's a ring, the hardware. Once you get that hardware, nobody can say anything to you. That's what I want my legacy to be. I want that ring." It’s interesting to hear that the way Marion ran himself out of Phoenix because he felt he wasn’t getting enough credit behind Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. And imagine if the Suns also had been willing to pay Joe Johnson, who also left in something of a snit because he felt he was overlooked as fourth option. Their decline generally is attributed to lack of defense. But they also didn’t seem to have enough player sacrifice at the time. … This is what being a veteran and successful coach is all about. Just before the Spurs played the Timberwolves last week, Gregg Popovich went with his 23rd different starting lineup with Richard Jefferson, after his first scoreless game in six years, replacing Keith Bogans. Why the change? Said Popovich: “Because I want to.” The Spurs won and Jefferson had a big game. But that can’t be your answer if you are Vinny Del Negro, among others.

-- The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been printing reminiscences this season in a 40th anniversary and had a story on the team’s 40 greatest antagonists with Norm Van Lier 11th and this nice recollection from then beat writer Burt Graeff: "Van Lier dissed the Cavs following a game in the mid-70s at a time when they were starting to get good. In stories before a Bulls game at the Coliseum, Bill Nichols and I wrote about how he had dissed the team. As soon as the Bulls came out for their layup drills, the fans started booing every time he touched the ball. At one point, he asked one of his teammates why. The teammate asked him if he had read the two Cleveland papers. Van Lier said he had not. The booing continued during the game and Van Lier was awful. Afterward in the Chicago locker room, he was surrounded by writers. At one point, he wanted to know who wrote the stories in the papers that day. Finally, I stepped forward and said I was one of those who wrote the story that day. Van Lier went nuts, calling me every name in the book and pointing his finger about an inch from my nose. After everyone left the room, I went up to him, introduced myself, and we had a nice talk for about 10 minutes. Several nights later, the Cavs were in Chicago to face the Bulls. During the layup drills, he spotted me, came over said, 'Say hi to all my friends in Cleveland.' Years later, I was boarding a plane somewhere. While getting on the plane, someone in back of me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'How's everyone in Cleve?' It was Van Lier. We got on the plane, sat next to each other and talked the whole way to wherever it was we were going. (He) turned out to be a friend.” That was Norm, ever passionate, but ever loving. … Dwyane Wade has been getting a bit cranky. Fed up with the Miami roster? It’s quite a game of chicken they are playing there with the Heat not committing to sign anyone long term until Wade signs up as they don’t want to be stuck with a contract if Wade leaves, unlike Toronto with the likes of Hedo Turkoglu. While Wade won’t sign until he sees something better and long term. It was Wade taking some shots against the Bulls Friday, telling reporters afterward the Bulls, namely Brad Miller, should stop whining, and last week after losing to the Bobcats telling reporters: "The ball wouldn't go in the basket. Ain't giving Charlotte no credit, if that's what you're looking for." Touchy, touchy. But I do like the competitiveness. I’d like to have him on my team. … In that game, Wade had a chance to tie but missed a last second three. Larry Brown admitted he went to new owner to be Jordan, who sits at the end of the bench, and asked whether they should foul. Now that you don’t see often. Related Brown: "When that shot went up, I thought my owner was going to be mad at me."… As for Jordan committing to the franchise as owner after being something of a part time general manager, NBA commissioner David Stern told the Charlotte Observer: "The naysayers will be very pleasantly surprised."

-- You gotta feel for Kenyon Martin, who’s got knee problems again. It was warm in Denver last week and Martin told the Denver Post the knee was so bad he couldn’t play golf. “That's my plant leg,” said Martin. If Charles Barkley only had that excuse. … Poor Noce. He was suspended for that DUI and then last week rookie Tyreke Evans—a rookie!—publicly condemned Nocioni for shooting too much in a loss. "We were in the game, and you come down and take bad shots?" Evans said of the situation to the Sacramento Bee. "That's not team basketball. Coach didn't say nothing, so I thought I had to step up." Evans later apologized, and Evans did later in the week have the franchise’s first triple double since Norm Van Lier of the Cincinnati Royals had 13 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists on Nov. 5, 1969 vs. San Diego Clippers. But remember this season when the Kings were a surprise story starting 13-14? That was after the Kings’ 35-point comeback win over the Bulls Dec. 21. Ouch, did I have to bring that up again? Nocioni hasn’t started since as the team goes young, but they are 11-9 with Nocioni starting and, well, not very good at 10-32 with the likes of Donte Greene and Omri Casspi starting for Nocioni. … There are some—mostly in L.A.—who say with Chris Kaman, Blake Griffin (assuming he plays), Baron Davis and Eric Gordon and the Clippers being well under the salary cap they are a top contender for top free agents. But you want to be proud of we’re you are going and the Clippers’ name, with the team firing Mike Dunleavy last week and not telling him, remains notorious. Said the Magic’s Stan Van Gundy when hearing about the firing: "It's hard to comment on anything another organization does, because you don't know the why or how. Now multiply that by 10 with the Clippers.'' There was a report in L.A. the Clippers believe they can sign James if they let him pick the coach and GM. Yeah, LeBron and Wade should be signing up soon.

-- There was a good journalism (I know, when you can find it anymore) question raised in a story about John Salmons in the Racine Journal last week. Salmons has been a big part of the Bucks’ impressive play, averaging 18.8 points and making some game winning plays. I liked him when he was with the Bulls. He always was accessible, if not tremendously forthcoming, even when things didn’t go great for him. I found this comment intriguing: "I know when I have gotten interviewed, reporters don't really like talking about God. I have mentioned God a lot, but I never see it in the papers when I do read the papers. Like if I hit a big shot, I'd say it's God. And I really believe that. I don't believe that was me who made that shot. I believe it was all God's doing. When I'm out there, I rely on him 100 percent." I will attest Salmons mentions God in most every sentence and I never once quoted him that way. Yes, I made a personal judgment and perhaps it was unfair. I wouldn’t mention it if a player credited Cheerios with winning, though I don’t profess to compare spiritual and commercial belief. We hear a lot of players in interviews thanking God for what occurred. I’ve always believed in a sort of separation of church and sports, that what’s relevant is what you do and how you did it. And the fact is reporters always alter direct quotes, though usually for clarity or to not make the player sound stupid, like with players who didn’t have English as a first language. I’ve also seen it done with Mayor Daley, who didn’t seem to have the same English as I did as a first language. I’ve never questioned Salmons’ belief and his belief that it wasn’t him but God who made the shot or play possible. I just didn’t think it belonged in a sports story. Yes, it was my judgment. I never changed what he’d say. I’d just leave out the “God” part. Judgment plays a big part in what every reporter writes or what’s broadcast as you pick out what you believe is pertinent and don’t publish or air entire quotes. I’ve had more chance to do that now going to from the newspapers, where the space is way more limited and the interest is more general compared with the specific basketball content on the web site. Salmons has a reasonable point, and he never asked his quotes to be exactly as he said them or stopped talking in protest. I will continue to follow my own policy, but I accept as well Salmons has a valid point. And also that he may be the best player I’ve ever known to adjust to being traded. Good for him.

Follow Sam Smith on Twitter at SamSmithHoops.

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