Approximately a year ago, the NBA and the Players Association were in the early stages of a lockout, a stalemate that was supposed to eventually change the financial structure of the league.
One week into free agency in the first year of a new collective bargaining agreement leaves many to wonder why the sides fought to keep the system essentially the same. Teams are throwing around money as if salary-cap space has an expiration date.
The numbers are staggering: $29 million for Jeremy Lin, $25 million for Omer Asik, and that’s just from the Rockets. The Timberwolves paid $5 million per season for Brandon Roy, who retired a year ago because of chronically bad knees.
And somehow, this excessive spending will be blamed on the players when the CBA expires. It’s apparent that general managers can’t control themselves when it comes to signing players.
Ray Allen is nearly 37 and was heavily pursued by as many as five teams before deciding on the Heat. Meanwhile, even older players, such as Jason Kidd, cashed in on long-term contracts.
The NBA’s salary structure may have changed slightly, but it’s still the Wild West when it comes to free agency, and players who are fortunate enough — especially restricted free agents — are cashing in, although owners claimed poverty just a few months ago and demanded salaries be cut nearly in half.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this offseason is that the Hawks, who experienced buyer’s remorse soon after signing Joe Johnson to a maximum contract two years ago, found a taker in the Nets. New Jersey acquired Johnson for expiring contracts and draft picks to be perhaps its third-best player.
What we have learned in one week is that many teams have chosen to abandon the draft and are steadfast about improving through trades or free agency. The Lakers needed a point guard and already possessed a $9 million trade exception from the Mavericks in the Lamar Odom deal. They simply turned that into a sign-and-trade for Steve Nash, making the rich even richer.
You’d better believe that union executive director Billy Hunter, who has remained mostly quiet the last few months, is keeping a close eye on owners’ activity. The only thing that has remained consistent from the previous CBA is that smaller-market teams aren’t making moves.
Teams such as Sacramento, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Cleveland have been mostly quiet during this free agent frenzy. Those teams are still determined to build through the draft because that’s the most fiscally responsible way to do so, so there remains a line between the haves and have-nots, which is something the owners were determined to change through the new CBA.
But others are spending away, such as the Suns, who offered Eric Gordon a four-year, $58 million contract that the Hornets plan to match. The Trail Blazers did the same thing with Roy Hibbert, putting the onus on the Pacers to match.
Given that there were adjustments to the cap and smaller-market teams were given a more level playing field, it’s telling that the same teams are refusing to spend or chase major free agents, including the Maloofs in Sacramento, Herb Kohl in Milwaukee, and of course Michael Jordan in Charlotte, whose next major free agent will be his first.
The new CBA was supposed to allow them to pull some of those desirable free agents away from the larger-market teams. But what the league is now realizing is that regardless of how inviting the free agent market may become to certain owners, they are not going to invest their money. They are instead willing to take the cheaper route and compete for lower-level playoff spots with draft picks and moderately priced free agents.
This is why the same teams win every season. It’s not the model that is broken, it’s the owners who are willing to be mediocre that makes the NBA predictable. Owners such as Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert and San Antonio’s Peter Holt claimed they were losing millions with the previous system, but have not budged under this new system.
So, why were we subjected to the lockout, the compacted season, and a plethora of injuries? Because there was a separation, two distinct and conflicting groups of small-market owners and large-market owners. The small-market owners fueled the lockout and were amenable to canceling the season while the large-market owners reluctantly stood by in the name of solidarity. But the groups remain as disjointed as ever, and the lockout accomplished nothing but establish the same rhetoric that has been spoken during the previous CBAs. The owners are hardly suffering, and the players are reaping the rewards from their seemingly mindless spending sprees.
Few options for Howard
So the Nets decided to move forward and acquire Joe Johnson from the Hawks for several pending free agents and draft picks. Johnson’s departure was welcomed in Atlanta, especially given he criticized the fans after the Hawks were embarrassed by the Magic in the playoffs two years ago.
Johnson, because of his anvil-like maximum contract, was blamed for many of the Hawks’ issues and their inability to get over the hump to become one of the elite teams of the Eastern Conference. The ball stuck to Johnson, and while he was a splendid shooter and scorer, the former Celtic was never a top five player warranting a maximum contract. In Brooklyn, he’ll have the help of Deron Williams, whose commitment to the Nets was not a surprise considering coach Avery Johnson formed a strong bond with the point guard over the past year.
Now, how do general manager Billy King and the Nets acquire Dwight Howard? It is unlikely since the Nets sacrificed most of their tradeable parts in the Johnson deal. The only assets they could offer are Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks, and draft picks, and Orlando GM Rob Hennigan, two weeks into the job, has no allegiance to Howard and no intention of doing the mercurial center any favors.
“I tried to convey to Dwight the vision and the culture we’re trying to put in place here,” said Hennigan, 30, a Worcester native and Emerson College product. “The culture we’re trying to build is one that embodies humility, teamwork, some elbow grease, and we want guys who want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
Hennigan is a Sam Presti disciple, and his philosophy for the Magic won’t focus on one player, so the days of Howard running the show in Orlando are over. The Magic will indeed trade him, but there is no guarantee Howard will go where he wants.
And the question is whether a team will take a chance on Howard for a one-year rental, knowing he is likely to bolt when his contract concludes. Howard put himself in this situation by opting into the final year of his contract and expressing his desire — although short-lived — to remain in Orlando.
“As I told Dwight, I have to think about what you’re telling me,” Hennigan said of Howard’s trade request. “The answer is we’re going to continue to map out what’s in the best interests of our team. Our fans certainly deserve some details and deserve some information. We’re within a fluid process right now.”
Howard may have to change his thinking in terms of the Lakers because they are reportedly preparing a package for the Magic that includes Andrew Bynum. Howard’s critical mistake was opting to return to Orlando instead of hitting the free agent market or forcing a trade in February.
“What I can tell you is Dwight Howard is one of the best players in the NBA,” Hennigan said. “A lot of teams have interest, as they should. We’re going to analyze all of our options.”
Hennigan also has to find a coach and the top emerging candidates are Pacers assistant Brian Shaw, a former Celtic and Magic player, and Warriors assistant Mike Malone. The coaching crop is not strong this offseason, so Hennigan is fortunate that those two remain available.
Raptors’ Ross intriguing pick
The Celtics were quite intrigued with Terrence Ross, the sophomore guard from the University of Washington. He was one of their targets when they attempted to move up in the draft. Ross was barely on the draft radar after his freshman season, when he averaged 8 points and was named to the Pac-10 honorable mention all-freshman team.
Being the primary focus of the offense as a sophomore, Ross developed into one of the nation’s top swingmen, despite being hidden in the Pacific Northwest. He was initially projected as a top-20 pick but was taken eighth by the Raptors. Ross played high school basketball at Jefferson in Portland with Kentucky forward Terrence Jones. Jones was considered a better prospect and actually verbally committed to Washington before deciding on Kentucky.
Jones was drafted 18th overall by the Rockets, while Ross’s impressive pre-draft workouts, his ability to score in bunches, and his legit 6-feet-6-inch frame made him attractive to scouts.
“I didn’t think I would go this high, but I’m happy I am,” Ross said on draft night. “I know I can make an impact at the next level, and I’m just happy to be where I’m at.”
The Raptors are undergoing a major overhaul, having acquired Kyle Lowry from the Rockets for former UMass standout Gary Forbes, and likely to move point guard Jose Calderon. GM Bryan Colangelo has drafted DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis the past few years, and also has Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas joining the team next season.
Ross will team with DeRozan to give the Raptors one of the best young scoring tandems in the league. But the rebuilding process will be slow again.
“The workout in Toronto went really well for me,” Ross said. “I did a lot of things really well, got to the basket, shot well, defended really well. Playing with DeMar, he’s going to help me a lot. He’s been in the league a couple of years and all of his knowledge, I’ll just soak it up and I think he’ll make me a better ballplayer. He’s the best they have and it will really be good for me.”
An endorsement from college coach Lorenzo Romar may have helped Ross’s stock rise considerably. Romar, who played five years in the NBA, has a good reputation for turning raw college talent into NBA-ready players. Ross’s teammate, Tony Wroten, who came with major question marks as a freshman entry, was selected 25th overall by Memphis and will be the primary backup to point guard Mike Conley.
“I think my freshman year, coming to a group that’s already playing together for two or three years, and being only freshmen, I think it really helped my game,” Ross said. “It made me go through life faster, and they told me a bunch of things and I soaked it up like a sponge. Going into my sophomore year, all of the hard work I put in and how hard I played, and getting all of the information from the seniors, that really helped me in the long run.”
The Raptors were banking that Syracuse shooting guard Dion Waiters would be available at No. 8 and even made him a draft promise, but Waiters was selected fourth by the Cavaliers, leaving the Raptors to take their second choice.
“We need shooting and we need runners on the floor,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “I consider DeMar a scorer and this kid is more of a shooter. He is a different type of a scorer than those guys. We could not get enough shooters for this team. This kid is a more accomplished shooter than Austin [Rivers] right now and he’s going to help us. He’s going to be another piece that we need. He’s a kid that has an NBA skill that you don’t have to wait to develop.”
It’s been a terrible stretch for the Mavericks, who lost out on Deron Williams, the hometown kid who decided to stay with the Nets on a five-year deal, and then having Jason Terry reject a two-year deal to agree on a three-year, $15 million contract with the Celtics. And now the trade exception used by Dallas to acquire Lamar Odom, who was an abject failure, was used by the Lakers to acquire Steve Nash from the Suns . . . Agent David Falk was astute in refusing a contract extension from the Pacers for client Roy Hibbert. Falk knew Hibbert would draw a maximum offer — four years, $58 million — and now Hibbert seems headed for the Trail Blazers, leaving the Pacers to chase free agent Chris Kaman . . . An intriguing free agent is former Minnesota forward Anthony Randolph, the 14th overall pick in 2008. Randolph is only 22 but has played just 170 out of a possible 312 games over four seasons because of injuries and coach’s decisions. The Timberwolves declined a qualifying offer to Randolph, making him a potentially inexpensive investment for a team looking for athleticism . . . Another intriguing free agent prospect is former Syracuse forward Donte Greene, who was not given a qualifying offer by the Kings. Greene was part of the youth movement in Sacramento but was lost in the roster’s immaturity and was jettisoned by the Kings, who drafted Thomas Robinson and will give second-year swingman Tyler Honeycutt a chance . . . The Pistons quickly replaced assistant general manager Scott Perry, who left for the Magic, with George Davis. Davis was considered one of the top scouts in the NBA and participated in some key personnel decisions . . . Former Celtics second-round pick Semih Erden signed with a Turkish team (Anadolu Efes) after the Cavaliers made him a qualifying offer. After a promising start as a backup center for the Celtics, Erden never found a role in Cleveland, often plagued by injuries and lack of focus and conditioning. The Celtics essentially gave away Erden and Luke Harangody to clear roster space for Troy Murphy and Sasha Pavlovic.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.