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Seven teams with intriguing offseasons

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Courtney Lee (left) and Jason Terry give Boston a new look in the backcourt. (NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s offseason evaluation time, and I’ve already covered the winners and those teams that have me a bit concerned. Here, I look at the seven teams that left me most intrigued with their July work, both because of the sometimes-dramatically different paths between which they had to choose, and because of the varying directions they could still go after those initial moves.

Boston Celtics

No team outside the Dwight Howard Nexus of Horror had a more interesting offseason than the 17-time champions. Boston had carefully set up its books so that this could be a rebuilding summer, with deals for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen expiring and the potential for more than $20 million in cap room. But then something funny happened: Garnett, 36, hung on as the team’s top all-around player and one of the league’s three best defenders, and the Celtics came within one victory of a third NBA Finals trip in five seasons.

Even that success brought questions. Was it the lucky result of injuries to Derrick Rose and Chris Bosh? Or was it a signal of Boston’s strength, winning with a hobbled Allen, a crippled bench and without Avery Bradley, the menacing second-year guard whose midseason insertion into the starting lineup transformed the Celtics?

The starting lineup with Bradley in Allen’s place outscored opponents by an unthinkable 20 points per 100 possessions and scored at a rate that would have edged the Spurs for the league lead. Such success might suggest that the way Bradley’s cutting fits within Boston’s spacing could solve the team’s long-term scoring decline and save another offense-first player (Jason Terry, now) to prop up bench units. But that lineup played fewer than 350 minutes together all season, meaning we know very little about it in the big picture.

Meanwhile, Boston got a first-hand look at Miami’s frightening emergence as a small-ball team with an emboldened and post-savvy LeBron James, a trend that firmed up in the Heat’s Finals win over the Thunder.

Add all of it together, and the Celtics faced an enormously complex set of questions this offseason. Were they contenders? How serious of one? And if they were, could they spend in such a way as to improve prospects for a ring in 2012-13 while remaining relatively flexible and finding a young asset or two?

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  • Published On 11:18am, Aug 07, 2012
  • Around the NBA: Wolves flood the wing

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    Nicolas Batum is set for a big payday from either Minnesota or Portland. (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

    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.

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  • Published On 7:23pm, Jul 12, 2012
  • Darren Collison trade hands Mavericks, Pacers exactly what each team needs

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    Darren Collison

    Darren Collison’s ability to attack the basket is a commodity the Mavericks did not have in their backcourt last season. (Steven C. Mitchel/EPA/Landov)

    A year ago, the Spurs traded a helpful combo guard about to enter the last year of his rookie deal for a relatively unknown, borderline 2011 lottery pick at a position of need who would have the full four years left on his rookie deal. People have since hailed the trade as an ingenious combination of talent acquisition and cost control, and some of those people don’t even know San Antonio also acquired the rights to two talented international players in the same trade.

    On Wednesday night, the Pacers, San Antonio’s partner in that trade, dealt a helpful point guard entering the last season of his rookie deal for a relatively unknown player at a position of need who comes with the certainty of an affordable four-year contract. And people were outraged.

    This is not to say last year’s George Hill/Kawhi Leonard trade and Wednesday’s Darren Collison/Ian Mahinmi swap between Indiana and Dallas were close to identical. Mahinmi is almost 26, so his upside is limited, and he’ll make an average of $4 million per year over the next four seasons — double Leonard’s yearly rate, but also a few million less than what Collison is likely to get on a new contract that will start in 2013-14. The Pacers didn’t receive any trendy international players in the deal, nor did they obtain even a second-round pick for the player who was their starting point guard for most of last season — and a crucial, gutty bench spark in the playoffs. And the Pacers, assuming they have renounced Leandro Barbosa, were way under the cap, meaning they could have simply signed Mahinmi as a straight-up free agent.

    But the general ideas behind the trades aren’t that different, and the perception of Indiana’s return would surely be different if the Spurs were pulling this deal. Indiana, a money-losing franchise for years now, has agreed to pay Hill $40 million over the next five seasons to play Collison’s position — just as the Spurs had Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal (and then others) on hand to soak up Hill’s minutes. The Pacers have already agreed to a mammoth new deal with center Roy Hibbert, and swingman Paul George’s rookie deal will be up in two years. Indiana looked ahead, decided it made no sense to extend all of these players and flipped Collison for a low-priced player who fills a need, a solid backup big man.

    And if you don’t think the Pacers need a solid backup big man, you haven’t looked at their lineup data or power forward Tyler Hansbrough’s eye-searing numbers. The Pacers were an elite team — on the level of Miami, Chicago, San Antonio or Oklahoma City — with both Hibbert and David West on the floor. Swap Hansbrough or Lou Amundson for one of them, and the Pacers typically became average or a bit below average, depending on the personnel around the two big men. And when Hansbrough and Amundson paired up, the Pacers were outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions. It was even worse in the postseason. Read More…


  • Published On 12:08pm, Jul 12, 2012
  • Pacers’ decision to retain Roy Hibbert opens door to free agency chess match

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    Roy Hibbert

    After posting career bests in scoring, rebounding, shooting and blocks last season, Roy Hibbert received a $58 million free-agent offer from Portland that the Pacers are expected to match. (AP)

    On Monday came news that the Pacers will match the Blazers’ four-year, $58 million offer sheet for Roy Hibbert, a move that makes sense considering the scarcity of good two-way centers and creates all sorts of possibilities over the first 72 hours of official free agency this week in Portland and Indiana, per Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star.

    The Hibbert decision marks Indiana’s second free agency splurge of the month, with the Pacers already having agreed to a five-year, $40 million contract with George Hill. And depending on how Indiana chooses to time these transactions after league business resumes on July 11, the Pacers may yet be a major player for another mid-tier free agent — perhaps a shooting guard such as O.J. Mayo or Lou Williams, or a power forward (Carl Landry?) who could help fill Indiana’s thin big man rotation.

    The timing is everything. The Pacers have 72 hours after midnight on July 11 to match Hibbert’s offer sheet. They could, in theory, wait that long, or longer, to make Hill’s deal official. During that waiting period, Hibbert and Hill would count for only about $10.3 million combined on Indiana’s cap sheet via charges, called cap holds, linked to their old salaries. Add those charges to the Pacers’ committed salary, and Indiana could have about $10 million in cap space to use over those hours — assuming the Pacers renounce their rights to Leandro Barbosa. If they’re nervous about Hill drawing interest elsewhere, they could make that contract official fast and still have about $6.5 million in cap space to use before matching on Hibbert. That number could jump a little bit if Dahntay Jones officially signs his player option right away. There’s also the possibility, reported first by David Aldridge of NBA.com, that Indiana negotiates an identical contract to the one Portland offered rather than forcing Hibbert to sign the offer sheet from Portland and then matching that offer sheet.

    This may not amount to anything for the Pacers, of course. There are lots of moving parts, several other teams who can influence all these moving parts and no guarantee of finding anyone for that cap space. They may also just choose to lock up their own guys immediately and move along. It’s just a reminder that the Pacers are lean enough to maintain some flexibility while still retaining two core players. Heck, the Hill and Hibbert deals combined give Indiana only about $41 million in committed salary for 2013-14, raising the possibility of near-max level cap room again next summer — though cap holds for David West, Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison will eat up all that cap space at first.

    Still, Indiana can overpay Hibbert just a bit without compromising its future, especially since none of the above West/Hansbrough/Collison trio are guaranteed core spots in that future.

    Hibbert, of course, is the centerpiece of the team’s future at this point. He probably isn’t quite worth a near-max deal in cold calculating terms, but he’s a center who helps on both sides of the ball and doesn’t actively hurt his team in any way. Those are rare commodities, and they get compensated as such. The Pacers in the regular-season were a borderline elite team with Hibbert on the floor and a break-even one with him on the bench, and in the playoffs, the gap widened to the point of absurdity. Read More…


  • Published On 5:36pm, Jul 09, 2012
  • Brandon Roy’s potential return creates an intriguing possibility for contenders

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    Brandon Roy averaged 19 points, 4.7 assists and 35.2 percent from the three-point arc before his knee problems forced him to retire after the 2010-11 season. (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

    It honestly seems like yesterday that I was yelping on a couch and e-mailing friends one-sentence messages like, “ARE YOU WATCHING THIS?????” as an allegedly washed-up Brandon Roy carried the Blazers to a memorable Game 4 playoff win over Dallas in April of 2011. Roy played only two more games after that, shooting a pedestrian 6-of-13 combined in two Portland losses. He retired before the 2011-12 season due to chronic problems in both knees, and the Blazers used the one-time-only amnesty provision to remove Roy’s hefty long-term salary from their cap and luxury tax numbers.

    Since Roy announced plans to retire, rival teams did not place a bid on him during the amnesty waiver process. As a result, Roy is now a true blue free agent, and Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! reports the Mavericks, Bulls, Timberwolves and Pacers (helmed in part by Kevin Pritchard, the former Blazer GM who drafted Roy) are all interested in signing the former All-Star shooting guard as he attempts a comeback. Perhaps just as important, via Wojnarowski:

    Roy’s recovery from chronic knee problems has been recently spurred by undergoing the platelet rich plasma therapy procedure that Lakers star Kobe Bryant popularized with NBA players, sources said. The blood spinning procedure gave profound relief to the knees of Bryant, Tracy McGrady and baseball star Alex Rodriguez.

    Bryant actually underwent a slight variation of platelet rich plasma therapy, or PRP, that the U.S. government has not yet approved for use here. Bryant famously went to a German doctor (Peter Wehling) for that treatment and cited it as one key reason for his bouncy play in the 2011-12 season. Gary Vitti, the Lakers’ longtime trainer, described the process in detail in this must-read interview with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com.

    It’s important to note two things here:

    • It’s unclear exactly which procedure Roy has undergone. Traditional PRP is a bit different from Bryant’s procedure — click on that link from Trudell or the specifics — and the differences matter.

    • It’s very, very unclear whether PRP or any variant of it could have much impact on Roy, who is missing the entire meniscus cartilage in both his knees. As I’ve written before, the meniscus is a band of cartilage that provides cushioning between the knee joint and the bones that make up the leg. It allows for a certain degree of comfort and flexibility, and when players suffer meniscus tears on either side of the knee, surgeons in most cases work to repair those tears or at least limit the amount of the meniscus they remove in any operation. Without that cartilage, players experience bone-on-bone rubbing, which, in turn, leads to decreases in mobility and flexibility, pain, arthritis and general deterioration.

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  • Published On 11:39am, Jun 26, 2012
  • Soft or not, Pacers’ biggest problem is solving Heat’s defense

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    After Miami’s bloody, violent smackdown of Indiana in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday, Pacers president Larry Bird (and, also, just Larry Bird) told the Indianapolis Star that his team was “soft”:

    “I can’t believe my team went soft,” Bird said on the phone. “S-O-F-T. I’m disappointed. I never thought it would happen.”

    When asked to elaborate on those comments, an obviously frustrated Bird said, “That’s all I have to say.”

    Bird is playing mind games here, just as he was during the legendary 1984 NBA Finals, when he called his Celtics teammates “sissies” after the Lakers ran Boston out of the building in a Game 3 blowout. In Game 4, the Celtics’ Kevin McHale nearly decapitated the Lakers’ Kurt Rambis, Boston scratched out an overtime win and Bird’s public rebuke now stands as one of those mysterious “turning points” of a classic NBA series.

    Bird is right that the Heat outrebounded Indiana 49-35, a gap that overstates things a bit, because Indiana missed 59 shots and gave Miami a huge number of chances to snag high-percentage defensive rebounds. The Pacers also lost the flagrant foul count 2-1, on all three judges’ scorecards, and they shot a disturbing 10-of-30 from within 8 feet, according to NBA.com. Those missed close shots, including a few “soft” finishes by center Roy Hibbert, resulted in several run-outs and bundles of the chaotic fast-break points that fuel Miami’s attack when its half-court offense goes through bouts of stagnancy, as it did on Tuesday.

    But with all due to respect to Larry Legend, when I watched Game 5 and reviewed pieces of it on Wednesday, I did not see a team undone by physically “soft” play. I saw a team that just has not been able to figure out the Heat’s fast, swarming defense. I saw a team that hasn’t been quite good enough to take advantage of the fleeting gaps that open up amid Miami’s frantic trapping and rotations. The Pacers have scored 97.1 points per 100 possessions in the first five games of the second round, according to Hoopdata, a number that would have ranked 29th in the regular season. That is a huge fall for a top-10 offense that improved dramatically as the season progressed. The decline is a result of both Miami’s defensive excellence and, to be frank, the fact that Indiana just might not have the talent to score enough in this series, which continues Thursday with the Pacers trying to avoid elimination at home in Game 6.

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  • Published On 12:56pm, May 23, 2012
  • Chaos breeds success for Heat

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    Miami won Game 4 at Indiana on Sunday for a ton of reasons. Among them:

    • LeBron James and Dwayne Wade played to the level of the two best players in the league, and beyond.

    • Simultaneous foul trouble to power forward David West and center Roy Hibbert made the Pacers easier to guard on offense and far less intimidating on defense. Those foul issues also forced coach Frank Vogel to deal with several rotation-related dilemmas at once, including how long to sit his big men and whether/when he should use a small lineup with only one of the Tyler Hansbrough/Lou Amundson backup duo that has been shaky all season.

    • Late in the game, the Heat leaned on a nicely designed pick-and-pop play involving Udonis Haslem as the screener and designated shooter. The play is simple at its core and at times can reduce James or Wade to spectator status, but coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff deserve credit for tweaking the set in two ways that made it more effective.

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  • Published On 1:55pm, May 21, 2012
  • LeBron James tentative in crunch time, but Heat’s offensive woes run deeper

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    The criticism of MVP LeBron James for his play down the stretch of Miami’s 78-75 Game 2 loss to Indiana on Tuesday will be much louder than the barbs aimed at Dwyane Wade, who shot 1-of-5 in the last 3:30 of the fourth quarter and missed one of his two free-throw attempts.

    It is slightly inaccurate, though, to suggest that James shied away from the ball for the entirety of crunch time. He took a three-pointer with 3:35 to go and attempted a driving layup — snuffed out brilliantly by the Pacers’ Paul George — with less than 90 seconds remaining. He crashed the offensive glass hard on three of those Wade misses. A player who wishes to hide does not chase offensive rebounds, especially when grabbing them often leads to free throws.

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  • Published On 12:07pm, May 16, 2012
  • How loss of Chris Bosh affects Heat

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    The nice thing about having three All-Star players is that you can get by against most teams without one of them, especially when your best All-Star is the most versatile player in the league. The Heat should overcome the Pacers in the second round without Chris Bosh, who is out indefinitely after straining an abdominal muscle in the second quarter of Miami’s 95-86 victory in Game 1 on Sunday. And if the power forward’s absence extends beyond that, the Bosh-less Heat would still be favored in the Eastern Conference finals against a Sixers team that is 1-11 against Miami over the last two seasons and a ferocious Celtics club dealing with its own health issues. The gap is smaller, though, and the chances for an upset against any of those three teams increase. The Heat may still reach the NBA Finals without Bosh in the worst-case scenario, but beating a team like the Spurs or Thunder would require Miami to be at full strength.

    Now, LeBron James will play huge minutes at power forward in “smaller” lineups that have done quite well this season, with and without Bosh. Counting only lineups that logged at least 10 minutes together in the regular season, the Heat used James at power forward for 376 minutes and outscored opponents by about 14.5 points per 100 possessions — a number that would have led the league by a long shot, according to Basketball Value. The two such units that recorded the most minutes did not feature Bosh, as the Heat often used James as power forward when one or both of the other stars rested.

    David West was unable to punish James in the post in Game 1, both because Miami makes it a chore just to enter the ball, and because LeBron is just as big and strong as the Pacers’ power forward. Miami’s move to sign Shane Battier and retain Mike Miller has it stocked with defenders capable of guarding small forward Danny Granger, sparing each of the LeBron/Battier/Miller trio the full-game burden. The Pacers were unwilling to go small/fast along with Miami on Sunday, forcing West into an awkward matchup on defense with Battier. That pulls West from the paint, opening driving lanes, and over the course of the series it will provide Battier some good looks as West scrambles around in an unfamiliar, perimeter-oriented assignment.

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  • Published On 11:30am, May 14, 2012
  • One player key to Pacers’ run vs. Heat

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    David West will be the difference-maker for the Pacers in the second-round series against Miami. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

    I spent the regular season watching the Pacers and asking two questions:

    1. Will this team ever score efficiently enough to be a real threat to the league’s best teams?

    2. When is Darren Collison going to make a leap?

    The second question basically amounted to: Why doesn’t Collison look more like Tony Parker on the pick-and-roll? Why is he always pulling up for long jump shots? Why can’t he see the passing lane open for just a beat? Or: Why doesn’t he keep his dribble alive a bit longer to create passing lanes that don’t otherwise exist?

    But these were the wrong questions, and not just because the Pacers replaced Collison in the starting lineup with a less traditional point guard in George Hill and got even better. Indiana could use an ace point guard — any team could — but it doesn’t really need one, because it’s built to create offense in a different way. The Pacers are not all that different from the Lakers, both the Phil Jackson and Mike Brown versions, in that they use their big men instead of their point guards to get into the teeth of the defense and create shots.

    Among playoff teams, only the behemoth Lakers devoted a higher percentage of their possessions to post-up plays than the Pacers, per Synergy Sports. Roy Hibbert will have a huge height advantage over every Miami big man in this series, and how he responds to the quickness of Miami’s bigs and help defenders will be a key factor in how this series goes.

    Again, one way to penetrate a defense is simply to toss the ball to a tall person close to the hoop. But over the last 25 games or so, the Pacers have gotten very good at creating penetration through a second method. And with that in mind, I present the player who gives Indiana the best shot at giving Miami an honest run: David West, and his passing skills.

    West has been slipping screens for nearly a decade in the NBA, which is a fancy hoops guru way of saying that when West sets a screen in a pick-and-roll, he cuts straight toward the basket almost before he actually sets the pick. He is not interested in lingering there or nailing an opposing point guard with a cement wall pick. He wants to get in the way for a second and then leave, hoping to catch the ball in an open space somewhere just below the foul line and to the left of the paint. This is penetration via the pass. Read More…


  • Published On 2:24pm, May 10, 2012


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