Weekly Countdown (cont.)
With Richard Jefferson opting out and a ton of cap space for next year, wouldn't it make sense for the San Antonio Spurs to offer Bosh (or even LeBron) a max deal, and just pay the luxury tax this year? They might have to pay an extra $15 million this year, but wouldn't it be worth it in terms of value and revenue to the franchise over the next five years knowing they have their franchise player in place to play with Duncan and take over when he leaves?
-- Jared, Charleston, S.C.
Even with Jefferson off the books, they don't have cap space, not with $44 million committed next season to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs' best option is to re-sign Jefferson to a long-term deal at a smaller salary, which will save them money next season. They can expect Jefferson to play a more solid role now that he has spent a full year learning their system, and he may not face as much pressure to put up big numbers in exchange for his smaller salary. But he may be hoping to return to the Nets or move to the Knicks, in which case he'll have to sit tight and wait.
Obviously, the Mavs can't make any real change as long as they keep Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd on the roster. Is there any chance Mark Cuban would trade Dirk for Bosh (or others) in an attempt to finally get a title?
-- Dov, Israel
Should he really trade Nowitzki for Bosh? Bosh is a better rebounder, but he isn't the go-to scorer Nowitzki has been. Nowitzki has been league MVP and he is the face of a highly successful franchise. If you were going to list the problems that have kept Dallas from winning a championship, Nowitzki would be at the bottom -- he is one player who does what is expected of him. The issue is finding the right pieces around him, as opposed to replacing him outright.
Say Carmelo Anthony doesn't accept the $65-million extension Denver reportedly offered him and Denver is open to trades. What do you say about a package of 'Melo and Nene for Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Sasha Vujacic? Their salaries match well, and chemistry-wise it looks like it works for both teams. Denver will have Chauncey Billups, J.R. Smith, Odom, Kenyon martin and Bynum as their starting lineup, and the Lakers will have Derek Fisher/Steve Blake, Kobe, Melo, Pau Gasol and Nene with Ron Artest coming off the bench. They should also sign Shaun Livingston and Jermaine O'Neal at minimum or mid-level exception contracts to solidify their bench. What do you say?
-- JMin, Korea
Interesting idea, especially if you're a Lakers fan. That trade would weaken Denver, leaving the Nuggets without their go-to scorer in Anthony while providing the Lakers with a 26-year-old MVP candidate who can take over as Kobe Bryant ages. The Nuggets are going to want to receive a star replacement for Anthony, and they'll only generate that by moving him to an attractive team that will be able to sign him to a long-term deal beyond next summer, when he can become a free agent. This trade proposal leaves them with no star power with which to rebuild, unfortunately.
If Blake Griffin were in the draft this year, do you think he would he have been chosen first over John Wall?
-- Gary, Gary, Indiana
That's a good question. In general terms, I would say a healthy Griffin would be No. 1 because of his size and mobility. But if the team with the No. 1 pick had a need at point guard, then of course it could rationalize choosing Wall No. 1.
Freakonomics. To understand how Thunder general manager Sam Presti has steadily assembled a low-cost, high-upside roster that is the envy of other small-market teams, give credit to two factors that are out of reach for most franchises. First is the presence of Kevin Durant, who arrived as the No. 2 pick in 2007 and is fast developing the talents and leadership skills of a league MVP. Second is the discipline of Presti, who continues to develop -- and most importantly, stick with -- a long-term plan to develop young players according to the team-first demands of the Thunder program while keeping costs low. It's fine for franchises to envy OKC now, but how many owners would have the foresight and patience to adhere to the plan a couple of years ago when the Thunder were struggling?
The third factor, which may be available to other teams: Assistant GM Rich Cho, the Swiss army knife of the Thunder's front office. Cho is a lawyer and capologist who also knows a player when he sees one. "He's so smart with numbers and negotiations and the cap," said Hawks GM Rick Sund, who worked with Cho with the old Sonics in Seattle, "and he's an attorney and he's brilliant in finance and he's a good people person."
Most fans (and many NBA owners) have never heard of Cho, but people in the league view him as a prototype for the next NBA era, an executive who draws on a number of backgrounds to come up with solutions. "Rich is incredibly talented," said Presti. "He has great versatility in his approach and skills and is someone that consistently thinks of the long-term interest of the organization."
The law. Former Sonics president Wally Walker used to employ Cho in both the basketball and business offices in Seattle, where Cho would work on sponsorships and other business deals in addition to helping Walker and Sund structure their basketball payroll. When Presti took over, he focused Cho entirely on basketball and has turned him into a scout as well as a numbers-crunching salary-cap expert.
Someday, Cho will be a GM or team president in the NBA, and as such he'll be able to draw on his experience in the business office while not needing to hire legal counsel or a capologist -- he'll fill both roles himself. "The combination of all of those things gives him a really good future," said Sund. "Going back over my career of 30 some years in the NBA, I wish I'd picked up a law or business degree along with my understanding of basketball. I've been in basketball all my life, but the different dimensions Rich has -- I wish I had them."
The analysis. Cho is not the only executive who applies an unusual point of view to assembling NBA talent. Nuggets VP Mark Warkentien and Bucks assistant GM Jeff Weltman -- both reportedly on the short list of candidates to take over as GM of the Suns -- are both highly regarded as outside-the-box thinkers. Rockets GM Daryl Morey uses data analysis in an unprecedented way with the help of his VP Sam Hinkie, a brilliant number-cruncher who previously worked in private equity and venture capital. Nets VP Bobby Marks is another promising capologist.
Crucial to all of these planners is their ability to translate a player's strengths and weaknesses into a salary. What is the player's value in the current market? The Thunder's success has depended on making the difficult decisions of knowing when to spend on certain players -- like the three-year, $15.6 million deal they gave to center Nenad Krstic -- and when to walk away from others who aren't worth big money. "I always felt I was a half-step ahead with Rich," said Sund. "When I was with Seattle he'd already developed a software package of evaluating every player in the league, it was all done by numbers and all I had to do was type in the name or the value. Plus he's one of those lucky guys who has a photographic memory -- he can remember everything that happened from when you were trying to do a trade four years earlier or when you were looking at a guy in the draft."
"This game has become a numbers game," said Hawks director of pro personnel/college scouting Steve Rosenberry, who worked with Cho in Seattle. "It's easier to assess the talent than it is to assess to attach a number to that talent. You can inherit a bad contract and you can trade for one, but you damn sure don't want to give one."
Doc Rivers returns to Boston. Combine Rivers' decision with the Celtics' quick negotiations with free agent Paul Pierce, who reportedly agreed to a four-year deal worth an average of $15 million annually, and the Celtics appear likely to be among the Eastern contenders next season. They are focused on re-signing Ray Allen and adding more size (Brad Miller?) to pursue their third Finals in four years next season.
If James stays in the East he should make his decision to quickly, in hope of attracting another star to join him. Because he has yet to prove he can beat Boston or Orlando in the playoffs.
Phil Jackson returns to Los Angeles. The repeat champions will now be favorites to win three in a row now that Jackson and assistant Brian Shaw -- who pulled out of negotiations to become head coach of the Cavaliers -- are committed to another season with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. As much as we are all being drawn into the suspense of this free-agent market, the continuity and cohesion of the Lakers and Celtics may be an advantage that no newly constructed team can trump next spring.
Think about the next collective bargaining agreement. Will today's successes of signing Bosh or Johnson or Stoudemire be viewed differently in two or three years? Will they be albatrosses on their new team's payroll in the more austere era of the next CBA? Don't be so sure. The next agreement could shrink every player's salary to reduce costs, as it did in the NHL because of its lockout. Or there could be some other grandfathering that could enable teams that invest big now to survive happily later. There really is no means for predicting who will sign where, or what it will all mean two years from now.
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