Some random observations from the previous month’s action:
* The Minnesota Timberwolves are on the cusp of putting together not only a winner, but a must-see basketball team. They have an untouchable threesome in Love, Rubio and Williams, a brilliant coach and a (relatively) clean cap sheet. But if they want to reach the playoffs and make some real progress, they need a front line, and fast.
Let’s be honest, apart from Love they’re paper thin upfront – though Pekovic has made some strides. And there’s really no excuse for this because they do have the assets (and spare parts) to get something done.
Outside of their ‘Big Three’, everyone (including draft picks – they hold Utah’s lottery-protected 2012 pick) should be available in trade. Some combination of Wes Johnson, Beasley, Randolph, Ridnour, Barea, Ellington, Webster and draft picks, should be aggressively shopped to see what they can flush out.
Anderson Varejao (my first choice), Emeka Okafor and Marcin Gortat should be the primary targets. Their respective clubs are going nowhere, so one would think that at some point they’ll realize that and look to clear cap space and acquire younger assets.
If you swing and miss on these guys then I’d go for a diamond in the rough type, like Sacramento’s Jason Thompson or Oklahoma’s Cole Aldrich. Both are being underutilized by their respective teams (although Thompson is finally getting some burn) and they do have potential to become competent role players in the NBA.
If they can land a center that can walk and chew gum at the same time, then this squad’s a playoff team. But stick with the status quo, and they’re just not.
And how’s this for a perfect scenario. A free agent at the end of the year, Kevin Garnett signs a mid-level deal in the offseason to see out his days with his former club. He can mentor the young guys and help usher in what will hopefully be a successful era of Minnesota basketball. You couldn’t write a better script than that.
* Not that we didn’t know it already, but the shrewd Russell Westbrook extension is just another example of Sam Presti’s brilliance. The 23-year old Westbrook is undoubtedly a ‘super max’ player in today’s market, but Presti locked him up to a regular max deal of five-years, $80 million (with no opt-out), saving the club about $14 million over the life of the contract. That can’t be understated because it could give them the extra space needed to re-sign Harden and Ibaka in the coming years, which will be crucial to their success.
Sam Presti is flawless; he drafts the right people (both in character and talent), he doesn’t overpay (ever!) and he makes shrewd free agency/trade decisions. He’s like the Mother Teresa of NBA decision-making; he doesn’t get it wrong, but not only that, he hits a home run every time.
If he came on to the open market there should be a ‘LeBron-esque’ bidding war for his services. As GMs go, he’s as good as it gets.
* How about Denver and Philly as the early season surprises. I did tab George Karl to win Coach of the Year in our pre-season predictions, so I knew they would be good, but not this good.
Neither team has a bona fide star, but you know what? Who cares. They’re stocked with hungry young talent, with some nice veterans mixed in, and they’re playing hard every night.
Are they serious title contenders? They’re close, but realistically both teams do have a ceiling (second round of the playoffs) and holes on their roster to fill. The Nuggets need a shot-creating wing (will Wilson Chandler return in March?) and the Sixers an athletic PF/C to provide a presence down low and shot-blocking.
But credit and Coach of the Year consideration must go to George Karl and Doug Collins, for doing a masterful job of maximizing the talent on hand. The Nuggets and Sixers are not only on track to make some noise in the postseason, but thanks to some shrewd personnel moves and good drafting, they’re well positioned to be quality, competitive teams going forward.
* In regard to the Milwaukee Bucks, the guys over at Eye on Basketball put it best – “this is a treadmill of expensive mediocrity”.
Don’t be fooled by the recent surge; they’re a mediocre basketball team. And I am not just saying this because I would love to see Andrew Bogut elsewhere, but with the big fella’s injury a rebuild must be considered, and that includes trading AB (which is probably best left for the offseason). Don’t get me wrong, I think Bogut can still make a tremendous impact on the right team, but not here and not now; the Bucks need an overhaul and he’s the biggest chip to facilitate that. For all his warts, Brandon Jennings is the future of this franchise and if they wish to retain him long term, then all future decisions must be made with that mind.
It should never have come to this. On the back of an impressive playoff run in 2010, they had cap space on the horizon and two young cornerstones in Bogut and Jennings. But in one foul swoop they botched it, by taking on Maggette and overpaying Gooden and Salmons. And with that, they locked in mediocrity.
Unless they’re satisfied playing for an 8th seed year in and year out (they shouldn’t be), the plan needs to change. They should start tanking to improve their draft position (by playing the young guys), clean out the crud (Gooden/Jackson/Dunleavy/Udrih), cash in Bogut for young assets and build around Jennings with high draft picks.
But to be honest, with their wretched history of incompetent and conservative decision-making, I can’t see it happening. And that’s a shame.
* Which brings us to the Utah Jazz. Props on playing some good ball in January, but just what exactly are they doing?
They’re on course for a low playoff seed and subsequent shellacking by a real contender, but the last time I checked this was a team that needs to get younger, rebuild and clear cap space (they’ve made a good start with Favors, Kanter, Hayward and Burks). If they continue down this path they could end up with no first-round selection in the loaded 2012 draft (Minnesota holds their lottery-protected pick; the Jazz hold the Warriors pick but its top-7 protected), which would be a huge opportunity missed.
So to be clear, they’re sacrificing the chance to draft a player like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Austin Rivers, Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb, to be a fringe playoff team? I may be in the minority here, but that makes zero sense to me because you’re just prolonging the rebuild. And I could be saying the exact same thing about Phoenix, Houston and Golden State.
I would get off the fence and start trading out guys like Jefferson, Harris and Bell, all of whom have no future on this team.
* With his Chinese team possibly missing the playoffs, Patty Mills could be set for an NBA return in mid-February (otherwise March if they make it). The Portland Trail Blazers hold his rights, but with their logjam at point guard and a full roster a return seems unlikely.
So, who could be interested? The Orlando Magic or the Oklahoma City Thunder would seem to be the logical fit. The Magic trot out a pathetic Chris Duhon as their back-up point guard, and Oklahoma City the inexperienced Reggie Jackson. Both guys are third-stringers, so I would be surprised if they didn’t take a serious look at Patty to fill the back-up job. Personally, I’d love to see Patty in those sucky OKC powder blue unis.