||09-26-2006 03:38 PM
ESPN: Marc Stein Rates The Western Conference's Summer Moves
Offseason review: Rating the West from Mavs to Griz
By Marc Stein
Fear not, West types. It's your turn.
The natural follow-up to our review of Eastern Conference summer business is evaluating the offseason machinations for everyone in the West, starting with the surprising New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets and a level of activity (and success) no one saw coming.
The following is a team-by-team ranking for the Western Conference based on who has done the best summer shopping and tweaking. Just to be clear: These are offseason assessments, not my predicted order of finish for the coming season … and we obviously have to say that louder judging by the number of Detroit-based e-mails I received bemoaning the Pistons' No. 11 slot.
That means they had the 11th-best summer in the East, folks. (For the record, I'm not picking the Hornets to win the West, either.) Yet since some of my Michigan friends are clearly edgy, I'll spoil the suspense and tell you now that Detroit will indeed still be the second-highest Eastern team in the new season's first batch of Power Rankings.
Are we clear? Let's proceed:
1. NEW ORLEANS/OKLAHOMA CITY HORNETS
The greatest summer in Hornets history? OK, OK. There obviously isn't a backlog of happy summers to compare with this one. Yet that's precisely why their maneuvering was so stunning. Spending like George Shinn has never spent before, they were the talk of the league in July and suddenly look like legit playoff material.
Now did the Hornets overpay Peja Stojakovic? At $62.6 million over five years, most certainly. But just like the Bulls with Ben Wallace, New Orleans/Oklahoma City can handle the over-the-top commitment to Peja, trading for Tyson Chandler and maybe even guaranteeing $17 million over three years to Bobby Jackson at 33.
I have to laugh when I hear folks say that the Hornets (who also signed Byron Scott to a contract extension) wasted their cap room on marginal upgrades. Huh? First of all, Stojakovic is the first marquee free agent from another team who has ever shown an interest in the Hornets' cap room. What were they saving it for? Second … New Orleans is projected to have some cap room next summer as well. If this wasn't a one-summer hobby, Shinn could actually have more in store.
2. DALLAS MAVERICKS
June was as torturous as it gets, but the Mavs had quite a July. Without a lot to work with when it came to tweaking the roster, they managed to turn their mid-level exception and one trade asset who had fallen out of favor with coach Avery Johnson -- swingman Marquis Daniels -- into four players who can help them: Austin Croshere, Anthony Johnson, Devean George and ex-Mav Greg Buckner. They came out deeper than they would've been had they landed Mike James.
They also re-signed Jason Terry without any trouble and are likely to have Dirk Nowitzki's signature on a three-year contract extension by the start of training camp. Negotiations on Josh Howard's extension have been predictably slow, but the Mavs achieved almost everything they could have wished for since blowing that 2-0 lead in the Finals to Miami. Now to see if the three months they've had to grieve and rebound from the deepest of disappointments were sufficient.
3. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
I heard this one a bunch when Nazr Mohammed signed with Detroit after Rasho Nesterovic had been traded to Toronto: What are the Spurs going to do now? Answer: What they always seem to do. Instead of matching the offer Mohammed got from the Pistons, San Antonio hatched a wiser plan, splitting its mid-level exception on a couple of restricted free agents and coming away with two younger, more athletic bigs: Francisco Elson and Jackie Butler.
With a coach like Gregg Popovich and a mentor like Tim Duncan, you have to figure at least one of the new centers will develop into a dependable member of Pop's rotation, which is probably all the Spurs need given their increasing reliance on smaller lineups in the playoffs. It's less certain that fellow newcomers Matt Bonner, Eric Williams and Jacque Vaughn will make a significant impact, but file this away: Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are the only Spurs under contract two seasons from now, meaning they'll soon have a chance to reload yet again.
4. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Sam Cassell, after all the panic, was re-signed for two more years. Vladimir Radmanovic bolted to the other locker room at Staples Center but was quickly replaced by another long-limbed shooter in Tim Thomas. Corey Maggette is still here, too, when many presumed Donald Sterling would not bring back Cassell or spend on Radmanovic or Thomas without dumping Maggette's salary first.
The Clips, in other words, have confounded the skeptics again. Call it a very good summer. Not a great summer, which only could've happened had they signed Mike Dunleavy to a contract extension. Sterling is taking a needless risk with his coach if that doesn't happen soon, but it's impossible to quibble otherwise. The best team this franchise has seen for three decades, going all the way back to the glory days of my Buffalo Braves, went one round farther in the playoffs than the Lakers and will be back almost intact.
5. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
I think you already know where I stand on these guys. Derek Fisher leaving is the only significant roster change, after several Warriors admitted they were expecting an overhaul, but Chris Mullin still managed to make his team eight to 10 wins better.
At least that's the bump I expect from Don Nelson's return as coach, similar to what Phil Jackson's return did for last season's Lakers, which is why I'm betting on the Warriors to halt the league's longest playoff drought even without a drastic personnel makeover. Don't get me wrong. I realize these guys have plenty of holes and obviously won't be getting better defensively under the new coach. But there's talent in the Bay Area, far more talent than Nelson started with in Dallas and plenty of pieces to mix and match with lineups and run, run, run. As Nellie himself said the other day: "There's a lot of positives here and many of them happen to be smaller players."
6. HOUSTON ROCKETS
You know me. There's no way Bruce Bowen would have been left off my Team USA. But I'm a big Shane Battier guy, too, which means I would have had both of them on my Japan roster -- sayonara, Antawn Jamison or Brad Miller -- and which should explain why I loved Houston's draft-day deal for Battier, even if it meant sacrificing the high promise of Rudy Gay.
Battier's a glue guy and a winner and the Rockets need all the dirty work he does. Of course, Houston needs good health more than anything after Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming only played in 31 games together last season.
So it's probably wise not to get too worked up about the newcomers until we see how sturdy T-Mac and Yao are, even if we're talking about one of the league's most coveted role players, that Greek guard everyone knows about now (Vassilis Spanoulis), and my favorite American rookie (sharpshooting Steve Novak).
7. DENVER NUGGETS
It was a good summer for Carmelo Anthony's rep and a busy one back in Denver, where a pretty limited reserve of assets (Ruben Patterson, Howard Eisley and a couple second-round picks) didn't stop the Nuggets from acquiring two Smiths who should contribute: Joe Smith and J.R. Smith.
Of greater significance, Denver owner Stan Kroenke finally ended the tug of war in his divided front office by promoting Mark Warkentien and hiring Rex Chapman to share the duties vacated by Kiki Vandeweghe, while also giving Bret Bearup an overdue official role after all the whispers about Bearup wielding more sway than Vandeweghe. Yet plenty of work remains for the new team of decision-makers, with the Nuggets still in dire need of dependable shooting and having been foiled in their attempts to move Kenyon Martin. K-Mart might be back on speaking terms with George Karl, but that's as far as it goes. Rest assured he wants to play elsewhere and that the Nuggets, having spent so much ($60 million) to bring Nene back, want to oblige Martin.
8. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
As an unabashed Mike James fan, I'm naturally moved to applaud the team that beat out Dallas and Houston to get one of the league's great motor mouths. Minnesota has a zillion guards, true, but no one with James' edge and swagger. Kevin McHale is hoping (OK, praying) that James can replicate some of the gusto Sam Cassell gave Kevin Garnett in the Wolves' best-ever season in 2003-04.
McHale actually added two guards who can score -- don't forget rookie Randy Foye -- and those are the best kind to put next to the unselfish KG. However … none of the above offsets the reality that the Wolves have serious, serious issues in the frontcourt and precious few assets to get Garnett some rebounding and defensive help. Even if it goes small and deploys KG as a crunch-time center, a role he doesn't enjoy, Minnesota sorely needs another quality big to compete in the West.
9. PHOENIX SUNS
After some big summer scores -- Steve Nash two years ago, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell last summer -- this wasn't the hottest July in the desert. The Suns' fast-escalating payroll forced them to let playoff hero Tim Thomas walk, and in the greater indignity, John Salmons chose Toronto over Phoenix in free agency before making a U-turn out of Canada to sign with Sacramento.
I actually see fallback signing Marcus Banks as a better fit than Salmons -- and Jumaine Jones, Eric Piatkowski and Sean Marks are good bargain newcomers -- but the real debate naturally involves the Suns' marquee addition: Amare Stoudemire. Mike D'Antoni sounds more realistic than most about the bumps ahead when he noted this week that the inevitable ups and downs on Amare's comeback trail can lead to "some hard patches" and even "wreck a team" in the worst-case scenario. Of course, that didn't stop the ever-confident D'Antoni from talking championship in the same conversation with the Arizona Republic … and doesn't change the fact that any team in this league would gladly take its chances with Amare at 80 percent. It's simply too soon to know if the ups will outnumber the downs, which is why Phoenix is down here.
10. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Lakers need as many shooters as they can find to flank Kobe Bryant and got a proven bomber when they lured Vladimir Radmanovic away from their co-tenants at Staples Center. They also added a rotation player on draft night (Maurice Evans) in exchange for a second-round pick. That's the good news.
The flip side is that using their full mid-level exception on Radmanovic, after clinging to future cap space until now, amounts to an admission that L.A.'s dreams of signing a marquee free agent to pair with Bryant and Lamar Odom were just that. That was the original plan after Shaquille O'Neal was exiled to Miami, but the Lakers have finally conceded that they'll have to rebuild piece by piece and keep looking for trade gambles, as I've maintained they would since Shaq left, while also sweating out some nagging unknowns. No. 1: Will Kobe be ready to model his new No. 24 on opening night after minor knee surgery? No. 2: Will there be growth, or a hangover, from the 3-1 blown lead in the Phoenix series?
11. UTAH JAZZ
The Jazz are (sort of) like Orlando in the East. They're hoping that they didn't need to change too much after a 9-4 finishing kick in which Deron Williams played extensively alongside four forwards: Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Matt Harpring.
So they re-signed Harpring and reserve center Jarron Collins, took on some salary by trading for the championship savvy of Derek Fisher and convinced themselves that those last 13 games were an accurate reflection of the squad's capabilities at full strength. It's definitely dicey to buy in, after a hard-to-believe three straight seasons out of the playoffs for Jerry Sloan and given that such late-season surges are often misleading. (Orlando's, by comparison, at least covered one-fourth of the season.)
But it would be easier to share the optimism if you could promise that the Jazz will have good health, which regularly eludes Boozer, Harpring and the multi-talented Russian with the NBA's most progressive marriage.
12. SACRAMENTO KINGS
Bonzi Wells has been pilloried for his decision to turn down Sacramento's $7-million-a-season offer and understandably so. Word is he wanted $10 million annually and he's not going to come close to recouping any of that money anytime soon.
But Bonzi isn't the only loser here. For all his ills, Wells was Sacto's playoff difference-maker, abusing mighty San Antonio inside and giving the Kings what suddenly seemed like a three-man core to build on alongside Mike Bibby and the mercurial Ron Artest. There was also a decent chance he would have continued to be the good Bonzi with the Kings, since Wells was super-tight with the late Bill Musselman and thus eager to play for Eric Musselman and give the new coach some momentum from the start.
I certainly can't blame Geoff Petrie for refusing to offer Wells more than $35-ish million over five years, but I suspect Wells (with prodding from Artest, who loves him) eventually would have taken it. The Kings will naturally counter by saying they couldn't wait around to find out, but Salmons -- another non-shooter who lacks Bonzi's power-game gifts -- doesn't move me as a $25 million Wells replacement.
13. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
The list of teams that absolutely, positively have no hope of making the playoffs in the West only goes one deep … and it's the Blazers. Yet at a time when simply snagging a No. 8 seed is so tough -- don't forget Garnett has missed the playoffs for two seasons running -- maybe plunging deeper into a youth movement isn't the worst thing. The Blazers undoubtedly believe at least a few of the kiddies will develop into players -- LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy are merely the newest additions to a long line of first-rounders -- and that perhaps the West landscape might have changed by the time they do.
Of course, asking for more patience from long-suffering Blazer Maniacs is more than pushing it, especially since speculation that owner Paul Allen would prefer to be in Seattle won't seem to go away. For that matter, neither will the two vets who continue to turn fans off: Darius Miles and Zach Randolph.
14. SEATTLE SUPERSONICS
The Sonics could have guaranteed themselves a favorable review here by offering a one-year guarantee to second-round pick Yotam Halperin, who's almost considered family at Stein Line HQ. But angry as I am that it hasn't happened yet -- an appropriate mood with so many Sonics fans fearing their team is headed to Oklahoma City at season's end -- I can't totally dismiss the Sonics' summer.
You figured they weren't going to spend any significant money this offseason because A) they've been non-spenders for years and B) the club, as we now know, was in the process of being sold when the free-agent buzzer sounded. Yet Seattle still managed to retain its top free agent, re-signing Chris Wilcox to a three-year deal worth $24 million, and resisted the urge to cut costs further by, say, shipping out Rashard Lewis. So it looks like the Sonics will at least field a decent team for the angry diehards in what could be their farewell to the Emerald City.
15. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Let's face it. The West is so brutally deep (again), with at least 13 teams that can claim to have visions of the postseason, that injuries will inevitably decide who makes and misses the playoffs.
But the Grizzlies don't need me to tell them. They already know Pau Gasol's foot injury from the World Championship, which threatens to keep him sidelined until December and could prevent him from hitting peak form for who knows how long after that, is a killer. Rudy Gay would have to be spectacular from the start to lift the gloom … and none of the draft experts touting him as the potential star of the 2006 draft is projecting that sort of instant impact. The Grizz were a great story last season, but Pau's plight is bound to put them at the top of most Who's Gonna Slip lists in the West.
The consolation: Memphis will be on the short list of teams with cap room in July 2007, so next summer should be, well, worlds better.
Eastern Conference: http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/column...arc&id=2586126