Some thoughts on the latest moves around the league (and a quick word about Greg Oden) …
• Minnesota uses the amnesty provision on Darko Milicic, signs Nicolas Batum to four-year, $46.5 million offer sheet.
I’m late on this, since former Timberwolves forward Michael Beasley agreed to terms with the Suns more than a week ago, but let’s pour one out for the Beasley/Milicic two-man game. This was perhaps the most unwatchable two-man game in recent NBA history, a staple of former Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis’ triangle offense that Rick Adelman quickly de-emphasized after taking over last season.
Alas: As ESPN.com’s John Hollinger has pointed out, the use of the amnesty provision on Milicic does not clear enough cap space for the Wolves to execute every move to which they have potentially committed themselves. That holds even if the Wolves follow the amnesty trigger by buying out Martell Webster and Brad Miller for the minimum amounts that their respective contracts allow. Minnesota has now promised nearly $12 million annually to Batum, $5 million next year to guard Brandon Roy and an unknown amount for Russian combo guard Alexey Shved. Even assuming a very conservative figure for Shved, an accomplished international player, all of these moves would put the team at least $4 million or $5 million above the cap, meaning another cost-cutting transaction would have to come if Portland lets Batum walk to Minnesota.
Speaking of which: Once Batum’s offer sheet is delivered to the league office, NBA rules prohibit the restricted free agent’s involvement in a sign-and-trade. Minnesota and Portland had discussed a sign-and-trade armistice that might have included draft picks and the participation of Chicago, which would have dealt Kyle Korver and his non-guaranteed deal to the Trail Blazers. Those talks are dead now, provided the offer sheet has been submitted to the league.
I’ve written at length about Minnesota’s lack of production on the wing last season, but, holy cow, have the Wolves gone all-out to address that problem in free agency. They started by dealing the 18th pick in last month’s draft to Houston for Chase Budinger and have followed that by agreeing to deals with Roy, Shved and now Batum. That’s four potential new wing players. If they land all of them, Adelman will have some major minutes juggling to do and the Wolves will have spent their way (for now) close to the projected 2013-14 cap, affecting their ability to upgrade via free agency next summer. That doesn’t even take into account center Nikola Pekovic’s cap hold, but the Wolves could cut money a year from now by making the second season of Roy’s deal a team option and parting ways with a few non-performers, including swingman Wes Johnson, the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft.
As Jonathan Tjarks has noted at RealGM, the real issue here is Minnesota’s batting average with its bundle of first-round picks from 2008-10. The O.J. Mayo/Kevin Love draft-day exchange was a masterstroke, but the Johnson and Jonny Flynn picks look like huge whiffs, and the one relatively late first-round pick that the Wolves nailed — Ty Lawson at No. 18 in 2009 — resulted in an immediate trade that ended up netting (in a roundabout way) Webster.
And so here we are, with the Wolves frantically trying to rebuild their entire wing rotation in one fell swoop, potentially capping themselves out for at least a year in the process. Batum will be overpaid at this price wherever he goes, but he’s a very useful two-way player who should get better as an off-the-dribble attacker as he gains even more experience; he has shown a level of assertiveness with the French national team that we haven’t seen consistently in the NBA. Roy is an obvious risk and Shved is a talent who has never played pro ball in the United States. Budinger is a great shooter who probably tops out as a solid bench player on a good team.
Signing all these guys will obviously help the Wolves, who were a real contender for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference last season before point guard Ricky Rubio’s ACL injury in March. But that help comes at the cost of some future flexibility to make the moves that would vault them up another notch — the kind of jump that Love is waiting impatiently to experience.
The Blazers have said they will match on Batum. (If that happens, the Wolves could pursue shooting guards O.J. Mayo or Courtney Lee.) Portland is so lean even after signing longtime Euro-stash draft picks Victor Claver (No. 22 in 2009) and Joel Freeland (No. 30 in 2006) to multiyear deals this week that it could pay Batum at this level and still have between $9 million and $15 million in cap room next summer, depending on whether the Blazers made any additional multiyear commitments and on what the team does with various team options. Signing Batum at this price would make max-level room harder to come by, but that’s the price of doing business, and new Blazers general manager Neil Olshey is a creative guy.
A word on the amnesty process: Teams under the cap get first dibs on any amnesty candidate through a bidding process, and such players only become available to the rest of the league if no under-the-cap team meets the minimum bid. Elton Brand, for instance, is not going to clear that initial process because Dallas intends to bid whatever it takes to get him.
The rules for minimum bids on amnesty players are complex. But the minimum bid on Milicic would appear to be $3.915 million, the amount of non-guaranteed money in the last season of his current deal (2013-14). The “winning” team would spread that money over two seasons because his contract has two years left. That is not an insubstantial commitment to a player who hasn’t produced much and annoyed Adelman with some alleged work ethic issues. If no one bites, Milicic would then become a free agent who could be signed for the minimum.
• The Bobcats renounce point guard D.J. Augustin, reach deal with point guard Ramon Sessions.
Charlotte began Thursday with about $48 million in committed salary before considering cap holds for its free agents. But the Bobcats then rescinded their qualifying offer to their most notable free agent, Augustin. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Charlotte was ready to give Nets center Brook Lopez a max-level offer sheet, which suggests that the Bobcats were already primed to renounce their rights to Augustin and operate under the salary cap.
(As an aside, the Bobcats would have had to use the amnesty provision on someone — perhaps center DeSagana Diop or power forward Tyrus Thomas — in order to sign Lopez to a deal at that amount. The Bobcats also would have to use the amnesty provision to sign Nets free-agent power forward Kris Humphries, a player in whom they remain interested, according to the Charlotte Observer. If Humphries is determined to get a multiyear deal, the Nets could sign-and-trade him to Charlotte and create a sizable trade exception for another player — perhaps Antawn Jamison — whom they’d acquire on a one-year deal, making for an expiring-contract trade chip down the line.)
Meanwhile, Sessions fits here, because anything fits on a team that won seven games last season. Kemba Walker is the point guard of the future, and the Bobcats have said they would prefer that he starts next season. But even if the ninth pick in the 2011 draft starts, Charlotte needs some more stability at the position. Walker shot 36.6 percent from the field as a rookie, took a ton of three-pointers despite making only 30.5 percent of them and really struggled to finish at the rim.
Walker isn’t a selfish player or a bad passer; he put up a higher assist rate than some of his more experienced counterparts, including Darren Collision and Brandon Jennings, and he posted a very nice turnover rate for a rookie. But he’d be able to learn from Sessions, a solid pick-and-roll decision-maker who brings the kind of size that Walker, Augustin and newly acquired Ben Gordon are all lacking at the guard positions. Sessions helped boost the Lakers’ offense toward the end of the regular season and shot accurately from three-point range for the first time in his career, but his outside shot and general play suffered in the postseason.
Sessions turned down a $4.5 million player option with the Lakers to test free agency, and Steve Nash quickly closed off the return route to Los Angeles. A few other teams with needs at starting or backup point guard are either capped out (Chicago, with Derrick Rose sidelined) or filled the need with someone else (Dallas, with its trade for Collison). The Cavaliers and Hornets stand as decent fits, especially in the wake of New Orleans’ dealing Jarrett Jack to Golden State for nothing, but Sessions has already done the time-share thing with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. He wants to start. I’d be surprised if the Hornets, with about $9.5 million in cap space to use before matching the Suns’ offer for shooting guard Eric Gordon, didn’t at least take a look at Sessions. But it’s possible they’re satisfied splitting ball-handling duties between Gordon, Greivis Vasquez and rookie Austin Rivers, and would like to spend that money (if they spend it at all) on a big man.
The Sessions deal will presumably be short and cheap, allowing both parties to move on if need be and enabling Charlotte to maintain its flexibility. Right now, Thomas is the only player on a non-rookie deal owed guaranteed money beyond this season.
• The Pacers sign D.J. Augustin to a one-year, $3.5 million deal.
The other shoe dropped here. Augustin is something like Lance Stephenson insurance, because the Collison trade left Stephenson as George Hill’s main backup. Augustin is essentially a caretaker point guard with a once-decent three-point stroke that has failed him in each of the last two seasons. Without an above-average three-point shot, Augustin doesn’t offer much beyond a low turnover rate, a stat that stems in part from his general lack of dynamism as a creator. You can’t turn the ball over if you’re not slicing into the lane to create higher-risk, higher-reward opportunities for yourself and others.
But Stephenson has been erratic, and Augustin provides a one-year stopgap. The Pacers could simply have kept Collison and signed center Ian Mahinmi, for whom they traded Collison and swingman Dahntay Jones, as a straight-up free agent, and it’s fair to wonder why they complicated things. I addressed most of that issue here, but it’s also worth mentioning the money the Pacers saved in dumping Jones — who is mostly superfluous, especially with the more explosive Gerald Green now aboard — and the fact that the Pacers were running out of time to get deals for center Roy Hibbert and Hill deals finished; perhaps going the trade route with Mahinmi sped up the process. It’s still a confusing series of moves, and Augustin is a downgrade from Collison.
• Greg Oden is open to returning to the NBA next season.
So says his agent, Mike Conley Sr., according to Fox Sports Florida. Oden is still rehabbing from his third microfracture surgery. Research into player injury histories has turned up exactly zero cases of any player returning from three such knee surgeries. You all know Oden’s story. But he was so good when healthy that some team will absolutely take a flier on him via a non-guaranteed deal or one loaded with incentives. It’s too early to speculate which team that might be or when it might happen, but if Oden continues working seriously and expressing a willingness to play, he will find a taker at some point.