Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Meanwhile, Quietly in the West...

As the NBA world awaits a potential earthquake to its power structure - what with the impending decisions of alpha free agents LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh - the likelihood is that the major tectonic disruptions will be contained entirely within the Eastern Conference.

The Cavs, Bulls, Heat, Nets and Knicks are the franchises most likely to be extreme winners or losers based on where the three true difference-making major free agents land, but as Henry Abbott tweeted last week:
    All this talk about huge free agents for bad teams. But some GM is going to win a championship with little improvements to a good team.
No matter who emerges as the most extreme winner in the East, they will of course still have to go through the champion of the West in order to win a title.

Remember that the West was a conference in which just 7 games separated no. 1 L.A. from no. 8 OKC, and in which the Suns transformed from a lottery team seemingly on the decline into a near-conference champion with the development of young players and a few moves around the edges.

Small improvements can go a long way in the West. Before the earthquake strikes in the East, I wanted to look at some of the quieter, subtler shifts and potential happenings that could shape the next few years in the Western Conference.

Even though Kevin Durant is only 21 years old, sometimes I wonder if we may already be taking this guy for granted. Durant's comments to Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog from June 28 were not news, per se, but they still stopped me in my tracks as they reminded me of the big picture of KD's career. In the midst of talking about how John Wall was going to be "big for the city" in D.C., Durant reiterated that he was committed to Oklahoma City:
    Durant, of course, will be a restricted free agent next summer, and more than a few optimistic Wizards fans dreamed a few Wall-Durant dreams. Sorry. Put them away.

    "No," Durant answered, when I asked if he's ever thought about coming home. "I mean, I'm just worried about Oklahoma City. I never envision myself playing at home, but you never know what'll happen. But I'm happy I'm in Oklahoma City, if that's what you're asking."
Step back and think about this as a reminder: a) Durant is from the D.C. area, b) an electrifying potential teammate in John Wall is coming to town, and c) Washington is widely perceived to be a more attractive destination for a young African-American than Oklahoma City.

Look at the cities being considered by the major free agents this summer. Other than Cleveland, which is in the mix only because it's LeBron's hometown, all of the potential destinations are glamorous marquee cities. What a franchise-making stroke of luck for the Thunder that they not only found a transcendent superstar, but also one who appears comfortable to play out his days in Oklahoma. I was going to label it a "Duncanian" stroke of luck, but on further reflection, it's even more remarkable - guys like Duncan, Stockton and Malone grew up in low-key areas, so small markets seemed like reasonable fits. But for a D.C.-area kid to accept a small, non-cosmopolitan market? Amazing.

Then, to read a tweet like this from Durant during the middle of the BET Awards last weekend, with who knows how many NBA players in attendance for the party:
    LA is definitely turnt up right now...but I'd rather be in Chicago getting this good work in!! No disrespect, but I'm tryna be the greatest!
And now, he's in Orlando to support the Thunder's summer-league team? I don't know if there's enough that can be said in admiration of how this budding superstar carries himself at such a young age.

The Thunder are now in talks with Durant about a contract extension which should be a complete formality - a maximum contract by acclamation of the entire Sooner State. Though lots of moves will draw a whole lot more noise and chatter, I think that only LeBron James' decision will be a more significant transaction this summer than Kevin Durant's contract extension.

The signing of Steve Blake should be a good one for the Lakers for the 2010-11 season - he seems like a good fit for the triangle offense and a supporting role for the two-time defending champions.

Yet, it is another example of the Lakers exchanging young for old - with 23-year-old Jordan Farmar about to depart the team via free agency as the 30-year-old Blake comes on board with a four-year contract - to the point where I wonder if the Lakers' championship window might shut more abruptly than expected after 2011.

In the 2012 Playoffs, here's what the ages of L.A.'s current rotation will look like, assuming that Shannon Brown re-signs, as seems likely, and I'll include Derek Fisher, too, even though he seems likely to re-sign with the Lakers for just one year:
    Kobe Bryant: 33
    Pau Gasol: 31
    Andrew Bynum: 24
    Lamar Odom: 32
    Ron Artest: 32
    Steve Blake: 32
    Shannon Brown: 26
    Luke Walton: 32
    Derek Fisher: 37
    (Also, Sasha Vujacic would be 28, but he will be a free-agent after the 2010-11 season.)
With players like Farmar and Trevor Ariza gone, nearly every key Laker player will be into the decline phase of his career by the 2012 Playoffs.

These Lakers are certainly worthy champions, but they have not been a dominant club. Their margin for error in the postseason has been small enough that I think these declines will sink them after 2011, especially considering that the team will not have much flexibility to improve next summer.

Even the aged Celtics had younger players like Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Tony Allen to give them a spark. Certainly, the age roll-call spotlights how heavily dependent L.A. will be on Andrew Bynum developing into an All-NBA center, in the manner that Rondo developed into an All-NBA player for Boston.

Hey, maybe the losses of Ariza and Farmar are minor enough that they don't change anything (though I still think every little bit hurts) - maybe the Lakers were destined to decline after 2011 anyway, and it's not as if Laker Nation will be in tears if another three-peat is the end of this group's road. I just think that the window of opportunity for this L.A. Lakers team is smaller than most people believe.

OK, after that spiel about how the gray-bearded Lakers are hopeless, maybe it's contradictory for me to now suggest that the Spurs' ability to return to championship contention is being highly underestimated, but here goes.

The last memory we have of the Spurs is seeing them get swept off the court and seemingly into oblivion by the Suns. Of course, as mentioned above, a year ago, Phoenix was a 46-win team with a one-way ticket to Secaucus in its future, before the development of young players, plus the health of its veterans, propelled the Suns back into contention.

If the Spurs can stay healthy - which is a big if, I realize - I like their chances to move back into serious contention precisely because all indications point to them getting an infusion of important young talent in Tiago Splitter.

As more and more crazy money gets thrown around in free agency - especially at big players like Darko and Amir Johnson, since size is at a premium - I become more and more convinced that 7-foot center Tiago Splitter will be THE value free-agent signing of the summer.

The 25-year-old Splitter, the reigning Spanish League MVP, is *just* what the Spurs need: a mobile big man who will be a strong defensive anchor, taking some of that responsibility off of the aging Tim Duncan, and who has methodically developed an solid offensive game over the years, flashing especially good passing skills in Spain this season.

Listen, I'm not the first to write this. The great Kelly Dwyer was all over this back in May, and the good folks at 48 Minutes of Hell have consistently been on the Splitter beat, as well.

I just feel like I need to reiterate the point, as I still often hear pundits suggesting that the Spurs need a big man, and it's just laughable. No, they don't; all accounts suggest that San Antonio has a good one coming.

Am I suggesting that Tiago Splitter will be an NBA All-Star? No. What I do believe is that he'll be a top-tier defensive center, he'll be someone who can help San Antonio match up vs. L.A.'s size, and he'll be a huge, huge upgrade for a Spurs team which too often had to play small and lacked the interior defensive presence which has defined the franchise's long run of contention. That is coming back: Splitter is ready now.

The interesting question for the Spurs now, especially with Richard Jefferson's surprising decision to opt out of the last year of his contract, is what they do with Tony Parker. At 28 years old and entering the last year of a contract which pays him $13.7 million, Parker's trade value will never be higher, and it's doubtful that the Spurs will want another long-term contract carrying through Tony's decline years.

The problem is that I think the Spurs will be hard-pressed to replace Parker's production in 2010-11 (I like George Hill, but don't think he can replace Parker on a full-time basis), and they may have a championship potential next year which will soon evaporate, given the ages of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

San Antonio probably needs to trade the asset while it can, but for all the talk about how they need a big man, the Spurs most pressing need in 2010-11 may be in the backcourt.

The two teams which have the best chance of bringing some earthquake effects to the West are the Rockets and Mavericks, both of whom have the most intriguing assets and appeal to draw a free agent such as Bosh in a sign-and-trade.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are quietly sitting on two of the most fascinating assets in the league this summer: New York's first-round pick in 2011, top-1 protected (essentially, as the Rockets have the right to exchange first-round picks), and also the Knicks' first-round pick in 2012, top-5 protected.

I'm not a believer that Amar'e Stoudemire is a huge upgrade over David Lee. If the Knicks strike out on major free agents, will they be much better? Certainly, it's only July 6 and lots can happen via the trade market, if not through free agency, so the Knicks still have plenty of opportunity to improve into the late-lottery or better.

But man, those are two tantalizing variable assets for Houston. If the Knicks stink, Houston could be have a chance to set itself up for the rest of the decade regardless of what happens with Yao's feet.

Daryl Morey's best course of action this summer might be to sabotage all productive transactions by the Knicks. What happens in New York may have a more profound effect on the future of his team than anything else this summer.

I'm not suggesting that the T-wolves will be sniffing Western Conference glory anytime soon. I just wanted to add a brief addendum to note that, as bad as the Darko Milicic signing was, Minnesota's signing of Nikola Pekovic to a 3-year, $13 million was quietly one of the best bargains of free agency so far.

John Hollinger's generally reliable Euroleague stat translations have projected Pekovic at the following per-36 NBA numbers over the past three seasons:
    '09-10: 18.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 53% FG
    '08-09: 19.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 56% FG
    '07-08: 16.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 51% FG
A full three seasons of data project Pekovic producing at a clip of around 18 points, 9 rebounds, 53% FG per 36 minutes in the NBA.

I'm not suggesting Pekovic is an All-Star - the guy can't defend a lick - but as with Splitter, consider the context: Pekovic is 6-11 and 24 years old - that's where the money's been going most crazy.

If he provides anything close to what his translated numbers suggest, he'll be a total bargain by current standards. Not that anyone will notice, with him playing in Minnesota....

Now that we've written all this about the subtle shifts and opportunities in the West, I'm sure there will be something like a Chris Paul-to-Portland trade next week which changes everything dramatically. Yes, it's probably premature to speculate, but it seems like several signs for the future of the Western Conference have already taken shape.


At 11:01 PM, Blogger sophomorecritic said...

As a lifelong Washingtonian, let me explain to you that:
1. D.C. isn't that glamorous and certainly not for the African-American where there's a good deal of housing segregation.
2. Durant grew up about 20 minutes from D.C. in PG County which isn't that glamorous.

For someone who grew up in PG County, the midwest might offer something refreshing

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