Best yet to come for red-hot OKC (cont.)
Bulls score for present and future at deadline
The best under-the-radar moves at the deadline belonged to the Bulls, whose swaps with Milwaukee and Charlotte set the franchise up for the future and yet improved the roster right now. Everyone naturally wants to talk about the $5.8 million in cap space cleared by moving John Salmons to Milwaukee for the expiring contracts of Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander, a deal that positions the Bulls for a run at Dwyane Wade or another max free agent this summer. But combine that with the trade of Tyrus Thomas to Charlotte for Flip Murray, Acie Law and a future first-rounder (at least two years off), and the Bulls have also aced this season's chemistry quiz with better glue guys on the court and in the locker room.
Thomas has great hops but a 10-cent attitude that was further devalued once the Bulls benched him in favor of rookie grinder Taj Gibson and gave every indication he wouldn't be re-signed. In his stead, Warrick has less upside but is more stable, more experienced and knows his role. Likewise, Murray doesn't have Salmons' talent but is a capable journeyman who has learned to provide points off the bench for seven previous teams.
Warrick and Murray have immediately become part of the rotation and are averaging more than 24 minutes per game apiece in the three games since the trades. But the best short-term impact of the deals is that the Bulls created cap space without jettisoning Kirk Hinrich. He is overpaid with two years and $17 million left on his contract after this season, but Hinrich is an ideal complement to All-Star Derrick Rose in the backcourt. Chicago was 10-17 when Hinrich replaced Salmons as the starting shooting guard. Since then, the Bulls have gone 19-10.
Del Negro said he "wasn't comfortable" with the idea of trading Hinrich at the deadline. "The intangibles Kirk brings are incredibly important," the coach said. "He is one of our captains, he's our best perimeter defender, and he can run the team when we need him to so he takes a lot of pressure off Derrick."
What's more, Hinrich might finally be reversing his shooting woes. He has nailed 27-of-54 from the field, including 9-for1-6 from three-point range, in the five games since the all star break. If that continues, don't be surprised if the Bulls overtake Toronto for the No. 5 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, raising the potential for a rematch of last year's classic first-round series with the Celtics.
The downside to Houston's big trade
Having praised Rockets GM Daryl Morey's performance the past couple of years, it feels odd to note that his maneuvers have essentially doomed Houston's playoff hopes this season. No doubt getting under the luxury-tax threshold, picking up callow but intriguing power forward Jordan Hill and snatching a 2012 first-round pick (top five protected) from the Knicks (as well as a swap of first-rounders with New York in 2011 if Houston chooses and the pick isn't No. 1 overall) is all quality handiwork in the Tracy McGrady deal. But acquiring Kevin Martin from Sacramento to go with point guard Aaron Brooks is an oil-and-water pairing in the backcourt that also disrupted the incredible chemistry the Rockets had created in the first half of the season.
Both Martin (who has played starter's minutes off the bench in his first two games) and Brooks are volume, ball-centric scorers. They are both, to put it charitably, less-than-mediocre defenders, a flaw that will be less glaring if and when Yao Ming returns from injury next year to protect the rim. But this year, Rockets opponents will be able to proceed to the hoop with impunity -- and with 6-6 Chuck Hayes at center, the Rockets block a mere four shots per game, 27th in the NBA. And giving up Sixth Man Award candidate Carl Landry to Sacramento as part of the three-team McGrady trade deprives Houston of one of the league's best bargains (Landry is on the books for $3 million next season.)
But losing Landry cuts deeper than dollars. Rick Adelman's team was one of this year's feel-good stories because it had taken on the mantle of scrappy underdogs. Without their top three scorers from a year ago (Yao, McGrady and Ron Artest), the Rockets had refashioned themselves as a group of bruising, synergistic role players, staying in playoff contention because of nonstop motors and nonexistent egos. Landry epitomized this ethos. Last year, he bounced back from a gunshot wound to his leg; this year, he lost two teeth in Dirk Nowitzki's elbow and missed but one game.
Wrapping up the deadline
Nate Robinson is not a good fit for the Celtics. A ball-hog reserve coming to a team of selfless All-Stars, he's always scored and clanked in bunches. Eddie House offered similar virtues with much less aggravation.
Getting Antawn Jamison is a net plus for the Cavs only if they can regain the services of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is hoping to reach a buyout agreement with the Wizards. Jamison is undeniably talented and a solid-gold teammate, but I don't see how he is a significant upgrade over J.J. Hickson in a matchup with Orlando's Rashard Lewis. Hickson moves without the ball more often than Jamison, who will save Lewis energy by staying on the perimeter more frequently. And is the 33-year-old Jamison really going to close out on Lewis' three-pointers more effectively than the 21-year-old Hickson? Finally, for what it's worth, nobody dominated Jamison more thoroughly than Kevin Garnett during his vintage years with the Timberwolves.
Everyone is excited about the Knicks' ability to clear enough cap space to sign two max free agents. But is the allure of Madison Square Garden (and Madison Avenue) really more appealing to LeBron, Wade and the rest than, say, playing in Brooklyn (once the Nets move there) with Brook Lopez and possibly John Wall, or playing beside the Bulls' Rose and a frontcourt of relentless bangers like Gibson and Joakim Noah? To clear that cap room, the Knicks had to clean the cupboard of draft picks, and if they indeed intend to sign two max free agents, they will have to renounce their rights to their best player, David Lee. The combination of Gallinari, Sergio Rodriguez and Wilson Chandler isn't exactly championship glue, especially if your max men turn out to be two players from the B list of free agency.
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