New Orleans Hornets
Projected draft position: 10
2007-08 committed salaries: $50.8 million
What they need: Shooters
How they are going to get it: I like what the Hornets are doing. Despite being decimated by injuries, the Hornets have hung in and are still in playoff contention. Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and David West form a solid nucleus while Peja Stojakovic (though overpaid and chronically injured) is just the type of player they need to move to the next level. A healthy Stojakovic would take enormous pressure off West in the low post and give Paul an outlet to kick it to when defenses invariably collapse on him.
The Hornets' unstable situation -- at last check, they were moving back to New Orleans -- means they would have to overpay for any free agent, but they have some wiggle room under the cap and the allure of playing with Paul could be enough to attract a free agent like Grant Hill or Rashard Lewis. Florida's Corey Brewer, an excellent finisher in transition, would look good running the wing alongside Paul next season.
Projected draft position: 8
2007-08 committed salaries: $54.1 million
What they need: Point guard*, depth
How they are going to get it: The Kings have a decision to make: Have they gone as far as Mike Bibby can take them, or do they want to bring back their prized free agent -- should he choose to opt out of the remaining two years of his contract -- with another big-money deal (hence, the asterisk)? They should send him packing. For years Bibby was able to mask his lack of playmaking skills in a Kings offense that essentially ran things through Chris Webber and Vlade Divac in the high post. But as Sacramento has evolved toward a more traditional offense, Bibby has become less effective. The fluidity that was once a staple of the Kings' play is little more than a memory.
Sacramento needs to rebuild. Bibby has considerable trade value and could bring back a wealth of talent in return. With Ron Artest, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Brad Miller tied into long-term deals, the frontcourt is set. But Sacramento has almost no quality depth and needs to think hard about packaging Kevin Martin for a top-shelf point guard. Chauncey Billups would be just what the doctor ordered, and a high draft pick could yield a replacement for Martin in the form of Kansas' Julian Wright or Georgia Tech's Thaddeus Young.
Portland Trail Blazers
Projected draft position: 6
2007-08 committed salaries: $57.5 million
What they need: Point guard, depth
How they are going to get it: As bad as Portland has been, it hasn't been nearly as pathetic as predicted. Brandon Roy is an emerging force and Zach Randolph is at the top of the list of West All-Star snubs. What the Trail Blazers do need is a point guard; Jarrett Jack and Dan Dickau are backups. Playing matchmaker with Boston for Delonte West is a possibility, and dangling Jamaal Magloire's expiring contract before the Feb. 22 trade deadline is an option. The Trail Blazers have been wise not to revert to their old ways of taking on massive contracts, and they should continue that trend. Texas' Kevin Durant would be perfect for anybody but would look especially nice in Portland, where he would form a nice inside-out combo with Randolph. But like we said, Portland just doesn't stink bad enough to get him.
Projected draft position: 4
2007-08 committed salaries: $60.2 million
What they need: Center, depth
How they are going to get it: The biggest question for Seattle is whether Lewis will opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Lewis is young (27), versatile (he can play three positions) and a cornerstone player. If Seattle is convinced he is ready to walk, it should do everything in its power to move him before the deadline. If Lewis leaves and the Sonics get nothing, well, be ready for a fan revolt in Seattle.
The draft could be helpful. Florida's Joakim Noah is a ready-made replacement at center and could platoon with a recovering Robert Swift and Mouhamed Sene until one establishes himself. Beyond the draft, Seattle is limited to the mid-level exception in free agency and would be wise not to waste it on a weak free-agent crop. Another thing to consider: a vacant Oklahoma City market. In a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated last year, Sonics owner and Oklahoma City native Clay Bennett said he preferred to keep the team in Seattle, but I got the impression any resistance to a new Sonics arena could prompt him to change his mind.
Projected draft position: 1
2007-2008 committed salaries: $44.3 million
What they need: Point guard, center, defense
How they are going to get it: I'll say it: Trading Pau Gasol is a bad idea. Gasol is not a once-in-a-generation star, but he's close. Slip Greg Oden into the starting lineup and add a top free agent (Billups?) with the truckload of available cap space, and Memphis easily could make a run at the playoffs next season. Mike Miller has become a lethal scorer and Kyle Lowry was on track to becoming the starting point guard before he went down. A deep second round easily could present Memphis with another big man, possibly ex-Boston College center Sean Williams, who was dismissed from the team last month.