Some random observations from the previous month’s action:
* Don’t discount the Portland Trail Blazers as a serious option for Deron Williams this offseason. With Dwight Howard staying put in Orlando (for now) you’d have to be a bit nutty to think Williams will stick around with the Nets, because without Howard on board they’re a bloody mess. Williams has let it be known at every turn that he just wants win and he doesn’t care where that happens. Upon landing in New Jersey last year, he famously said, “Winning trumps everything. I don’t care if you put me in North Dakota.” So, if the Blazers can get their act together in the front office (a big IF) and hire a good coach (they had one but inexplicably dumped him because he wouldn’t tolerate shoddy play from serial malcontents Crawford and Felton), then they could present Williams with a unique offer.
His hometown Dallas Mavericks are the popular choice, but Howard’s about-face should open the door to other suitors. And if Mark Cuban can’t land another big name, then why would Williams tie his future to Dallas and the 34-year-old Nowitzki?
It’s still being suggested that Williams and Howard could team up in Dallas at the end of next season, but I give no credence to that. Howard’s waffling over the last few months proved two things: 1) he’s unreliable, and 2) he’s gutless, in that he doesn’t have the stomach to follow through on his convictions. Williams won’t hitch his wagon to that nonsense.
He’ll be seeking out a team that can win both now and in the future, and the Portland Trail Blazers can more than satisfy those requirements. They can offer a supporting cast of the 26-year-old All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, 23-year-old Nicolas Batum, former Jazz teammate and glue guy Wes Matthews (25-years-old), possibly two lottery picks in the loaded 2012 draft – their own and New Jersey’s as long as it doesn’t land in the top 3 – and they have just $27 million in committed salary for next season without options, meaning they will have enough cap space to offer D-Will a max, or near-max contract. No other team can top that package.
Another revealing quote from Williams: “I’m not Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant or LeBron James. (Marketing value) depends on who you are, No. 1. I don’t think it’ll make a difference for me, which is why I don’t really care about big market, small market.”
The thing to remember about D-Will, he walks to a different beat than most. Look no further than his trail blazing decision to play in Turkey during the lockout. So, I am just putting it out there; don’t make the assumption that he’ll follow the flock and head to a big market team (or stay with the Nets because they’re in New York), because his history says otherwise. Unlike Dwight, he’s not full of it – he has one motivation, winning, and that will dictate where he goes.
* The OKC foursome of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka (who are all 23 or younger) is just incredible. Each guy is still nowhere near their peak and if they can keep this core together long term, then the rest of the league should be shit scared, and that includes Miami. Without a doubt, the possibility of a San Antonio Spurs-like dynasty is certainly on the cards. But, whether or not they can retain all these guys will come to a head soon because both Harden and Ibaka are eligible for an extension next year.
At the current pace of improvement, I have no doubt that someone will offer James Harden a max or near max contract should he not agree to an extension during the year with the Thunder, and thus enters restricted free agency next offseason (where OKC can, technically, match any offer). And let’s be honest, in this day and age where second tier guys like Marc Gasol and Tyson Chandler are getting max money, Harden also deserves to be on that level because he’s a phenomenal player. Ditto for Ibaka, although for slightly less; a contract offer in the $60-70 million range is bound to come on the open market. Remember, Nene just recently received a $67 million deal in free agency, so keep that in mind when judging Ibaka’s value.
It’s clear that the Thunder may have to choose between one or the other because the new salary cap restraints will not allow them to keep both, unless they’re willing to pay huge tax bills year in and year out, which they’re not in a position to do. They’ve already inked Durant and Westbrook to max extensions which will absorb roughly 55-60% of their cap space going forward, so something will have to give, and, it does seem ridiculous to say this, but unfortunately for the Thunder Harden and Ibaka are just becoming way too good. So much for the new CBA rewarding small market teams who draft and develop their own players. Under the new harsh luxury tax system (which kicks in for the 2013/14 season), it will be virtually impossible for teams like OKC to pay their players market value and keep everyone in the fold.
There is one way around it though; BOTH Harden and Ibaka would have to agree to take a good chunk less (about $20 million or so) than what they will be offered on the open market. By all accounts Harden is the consummate team guy, a very humble, low-key dude and loves playing in OKC, so it’s a possibility that he could go that route. But I am not so sure on Ibaka, he may seek a more prominent role elsewhere, which he absolutely deserves mind you (as does Harden). But the question is, will they both take less money to be apart of something special in OKC?
I am not going to say that Sam Presti can’t pull this off because the guy’s brilliant, but it won’t be easy and the odds (and available cap space) are against him. It will be interesting to see how the situation unfolds.
* The Utah Jazz need to clear a path for Derrick Favors (by trading Al Jefferson in the offseason) because he’s fast becoming a monster. Despite limited minutes and seldom getting his number called on the offensive end, the 20-year-old Favors has shown superstar potential. His 23-point, 17-rebound performance against Golden State in mid-March, which included several key plays down the stretch of regulation and in overtime, was an example of what he’s capable of. And he’s since had many more good games.
He’s a brute around the basket, possesses underrated post moves, is a very good defender (with the potential to be great) and more importantly, he influences the outcome of the game – one of the rarest commodities in the NBA. Derrick Favors is the future for the Utah Jazz and the quicker they realize that the better.
* No one’s been harsher on the San Antonio Spurs in recent times than I have, but I have to admit they’ve put themselves in the best possible position to be a sneaky contender this year. And by ‘sneaky’ contender, I mean if they get the right matchups, if everyone’s healthy and with a few breaks here and there, it’s not inconceivable that the Spurs could pull off a Dallas Mavericks-type run in 2012. They’ve got Tony Parker playing at an MVP-type level, they have incredible depth, a good blend of youth and experience and they’re versatile. Not to mention they have one of the best, if not the best coaches going around in Greg Popovich.
Recent additions Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson have walked into the perfect situation in San Antonio; they just need to show up, tow the line and play a role. Jackson’s a headcase, sure, and Diaw’s a lazy bugger, but they will fall in line here, under Popovich they have no other choice. And the young guys Leonard, Splitter, Blair and Green are really making strides (especially Leonard and Splitter) and have given the Spurs an added edge that they’ve lacked in recent years. And let’s hope Patty Mills can eventually slot into that group as well.
Ok, some friends of mine are probably in shock now having read all that because I’ve been slagging the Spurs off for years, but for good reason I believe. Trading away the rights to Luis Scola in 2007 for basically nothing in a money saving deal, when they had no starting-caliber power forward at the time (Bonner, Oberto and Mahinmi were the only other PF on the roster) and with indications that he could have been the perfect compliment to Tim Duncan, was inexcusable. And, extending Richard Jefferson in 2010 on a bloated salary when it was plain to see he didn’t fit the system, was just odd. But now, assuming everyone is healthy (again, a huge IF) they are deep squad that has all the necessary components to be a championship-caliber team, especially in a shortened season like this one.
The top two contenders are vulnerable to a degree – Miami with its almost comical inability to close tight games, and OKC with its youth – so the door is slightly ajar for somebody, if everything breaks right, to take advantage, IF the big boys drop the ball. Did I put enough caveats in there?
* NBA League Pass is a wonderful thing, albeit with a few drawbacks; your NBA viewing is totally reliant on your internet connection, and you have to navigate those ridiculous game-breaks during replayed games.
But to me, the most annoying aspect is listening to the local play-by-play announcers, who typically (though not all) are bloody awful. With some, the local bias is ridiculous and the absence of criticism glaring. But there is an exception to this – the New York crew of Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier. These guys not only tell it as it is, but they often, and quite brutally, lay into the team and its stars when it’s deserved. They call a spade a spade, and that’s refreshing.
If it looks like shit and smells like shit, call it what it is.