Offseason goals: Stay the course, and get ready for eight months of real practices.
What really happened: More than anything that happened over the summer, Dallas' most important move came last March, when Don Nelson passed his head coaching duties onto assistant Avery Johnson, who promptly led the team on a 16-2 tear to finish the season. Nelson had seen the team through the depressing Ross Perot Jr. era, weathered Mark Cuban's fitful (but ultimately satisfying) first few years as owner, and had the biggest hand in creating a team that averaged 56 wins a season from 2001 to '05.
Johnson adopted the Nelson model of coaching -- eschewing standard positional roles for his players making and making moves based on hunches -- but also created a much-needed sense of purpose that nearly led Dallas to the franchise's third Western Conference finals appearance.
Over the summer, the team was more or less left to its own devices, outside of a regrettable-though-necessary cut of Finley, courtesy of the NBA's new amnesty clause.
Michael Finley's absence will be felt, but it's nothing the Mavericks' deep backcourt can't overcome if minutes are allotted properly. Christie will probably start the season, but not unlike other Nelson signings who were probably past their prime (Howard Eisley, Christian Laettner, Tim Hardaway, Travis Best), he'll probably be phased-out as the year moves along. It won't be for lack of trying, it's just that Christie's once-stellar defense doesn't pass muster anymore, and the enticing all-around game of Marquis Daniels can't sit on the bench for too much longer. Though Jerry Stackhouse will continue to flourish in a scoring role off the bench, the future of this team will have Daniels and Jason Terry playing the bulk of the minutes, with second-year point guard Devin Harris pulling his Doc Rivers-act off the bench. And if last year was any indication, Josh Howard is ready to explode at small forward.
Outlook: Johnson will substitute accountability for creativity, and while it may not mean much of a jump in the standings, the fleshed-out roles and improved chemistry should account for bigger things next spring.
Losses: Mike James (Raptors), Charlie Ward (retirement), Clarence Weatherspoon (waived).
Gains: Rafer Alston (Raptors), Derek Anderson (free agent), Lonny Baxter (free agent), Dion Glover (free agent), Luther Head (draft), Stromile Swift (free agent).
Offseason goals: Fill the glaring holes at small forward, off guard and point guard. Rest Yao Ming while trying to disabuse him of the absurd notion that he somehow "disappointed" during last year's playoffs.
What really happened: Quietly, the Rockets may have had the best offseason of anyone in the West. Factoring in age (25) and a relatively modest contract, the addition of Swift may be the finest free-agent acquisition of the year. If coach Jeff Van Gundy lets the mercurial forward play 33 minutes a night, he'll shine. Anderson won't make as much of an impact, but he'll add to a veteran backcourt that manages to succeed by sliding oft-injured combo guards into play for 50 games at a time. Watch Baxter, a sturdy back-to-the-basket type who has played on the fringes since being drafted out of Maryland in '02. Learning under Juwan Howard (who is on the books for four more seasons), he could finally refine his all-around game and turn into a Mark Bryant-type.
For most other teams, a trade that involved swapping Mike James for Rafer Alston (and his contract) would be a head-scratcher, but we've learned to trust Rocket GM Carroll Dawson. With Bob Sura wondering aloud if he'll play another game due to a dodgy right knee, the Rockets need a point guard to lope up the court while JVG calls out another exacting play. Rookie Luther Head is an interesting talent, but he's a year away from helping. The Illinois product shouldn't even be allowed to leave the Rockets' practice facility without game tapes of David Wesley under each arm.
Outlook: At times last season, Sura was the team's most important player, filling in wherever needed. Alston won't be able to match Sura's rebounding acumen or grimacing defense, but he can create shots for others. A creative touch was sorely lacking at times in Van Gundy's offense last season, and Alston should change that -- even if the price meant parting with the offensively potent Mike James.
Losses: James Posey (Heat), Stromile Swift (Rockets), Earl Watson (Nuggets), Bonzi Wells (Kings), Jason Williams (Heat).
Gains: Bobby Jackson (Kings), Eddie Jones (Heat), Lawrence Roberts (draft), Damon Stoudamire (free agent), Hakim Warrick (draft).
Offseason goals: Find a taker for malcontents Williams and Wells, make the roster (Mike) Fratello-friendly.
What really happened: GM Jerry West made it happen, dumping his pouting backcourt duo with a series of trades and surrounding his coach with a crew of half-court semi-stars. Whether this will allow them to tread the 45-win waters, though, we're not sure. The fact that West was able to get anything beyond draft picks or cap space for players like Williams and Wells should be lauded as an achievement in itself, so procuring the services of talented (though limited) guards like Eddie Jones and Bobby Jackson is a plus.
Stoudamire was reborn last season, a contract year -- huge shocker, eh? -- and appeared healthy for the first time in years while hurting teams from behind the arc. Just two years removed from averaging less than two attempts a game from long range, Matured Mouse chucked six a game in '04-05, hitting on 37 percent.
Outlook: If we learned anything in the offseason, it's that Fratello is going to put the ball in the hands of Pau Gasol and let everyone else feed off of him. The big Spaniard's field-goal attempts and overall effectiveness dropped for a second-consecutive term last season, but surrounded by a new crop of shooters, he should perk up a bit offensively now. On defense, the Grizz are still a mess, though Fratello's slow-down tactics should frustrate opponents into taking quick shots once they finally get the ball back. Rebounding is a concern, as rookie boarders Warrick and Roberts are still a year away.
New Orleans Hornets
Losses: Dan Dickau (Celtics), George Lynch (banned), Lee Nailon (76ers).
Gains: Rasual Butler (Heat), Arvydas Macijauskas (free agent), Chris Paul (draft), Kirk Snyder (Jazz).
Offseason goals: Establish order after being uprooted from New Orleans, add inexpensive youngsters to an expansion-like situation.
What really happened: Though we admit to dismissing him outright after he was re-hired by the Hornets last year, former GM Allen Bristow (who retired last weekend due to health concerns) turned this franchise around in his short tenure with the team. After an 8-40 start, Bristow made no excuses for his team's pitiful play and set to shaking up the roster. Baron Davis was shipped out for cap space; center Jamaal Magliore continues to be shopped, while more and more intriguing young talent continues to find its way to the roster.
Four years from now, a four-guard rotation including Paul, Macijauskas, and Snyder (along with incumbent wing J.R. Smith) could mean big things, but this group is still a long way away. Snyder can play, but he needs to start listening to coaches and quit taking criticism personally. The same goes for disappointing forward Maciej Lampe, who continues to frustrate with his sluggish play. There is no reason why Lampe shouldn't have wrested control of the starting small forward position by now, and if he's not careful, the former potential lottery pick could sleepwalk his way toward the D-League. And there are few worse insults than being told that you're not good enough for the Hornets.
Outlook: This team started over last winter, showing a nice sense of perspective instead of hanging on to dreams of a 40-win season. New GM Jeff Bower would love to keep veteran power forward P.J. Brown around to mentor the kids, but we'd like to see Brown sent to a contender, making way for the bruising David West to assume the role of starting power forward.
San Antonio Spurs
Losses: Devin Brown (Jazz), Linton Johnson (Nets), Tony Massenburg.
Gains: Michael Finley (free agent), Fabricio Oberto (free agent), Nick Van Exel (free agent), Jawad Williams (free agent).
Offseason goals: Make sure every player knows when training camp starts; try to add two former All-Stars.
What really happened: I think they pulled it off.
This is the 30th team we've reviewed, and I can't think of a bigger disparity between the loss/gain columns for any of the previously touched-upon squads. Finley may not play a minute, and Van Exel may be washed-up, but it still amazes that a championship squad has the smarts to add these type of talents. Nutty. In the draft, they plucked 18-year old bruiser Ian Mahinmi, a project who will season himself overseas until the Spurs bring him stateside. Beyond that, Coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford topped themselves by adding Oberto, the best available foreign big man -- a player coveted by half the teams in the league. Brilliant. Another stellar offseason from the team that gets everything right.
Outlook: Anyone who doesn't think the Spurs are a mortal lock for their fourth championship should be ... well, after about 30 teams, the yuks tend to dry up.
(Mock applause fills the Internet)
Plan on another championship party on the Riverwalk next June.