Friday, July 2, 2010

Breaking down the Free Agent class

I feel like yesterday was important – you know, as if yesterday was a day that a bunch of people had been waiting for over the last two years…did something important happen? Oh I know – it’s the 50th anniversary of Somalia’s Independence Day!!!! Duh!! Ok so maybe that’s not what Knicks fans were so excited about. All jokes aside, people will be spending the next month endlessly discussing where all the free agents will go – and admit it, that’s probably what you assumed I was going to do. Wrong!! Just like with the NFL/NBA draft, I could care less about speculating where the players will actually go – we’ll find that out soon enough. Instead I’m more interested in analyzing how valuable the players actually are and where they should go, which is why my free agency preview consists solely of breaking down all the free agents that matter and what they’re truly worth. With that we start with a certain finals hero of the past…

10. Paul Pierce – To tell the truth (no pun intended) he’s probably not going anywhere. If I were another team in need of a go-to scorer (perhaps the Rockets) I would consider signing him, and Boston has to be careful about not ruining its future cap flexibility for someone who’s clearly on the decline. That being said, Pierce is still a very valuable player. He can absolutely be the top scoring option on a contender and one of the top-3 players on a championship team as long as you can protect him defensively. Giving him a lucrative five year deal wouldn’t be smart, but something like 3 years and 45 million seems right.

9. Rudy Gay – Prototypical small forward, would certainly be very valuable on a contender. I love him at something like 5 years/50 million. 5 years/80 million (which is what he’s reportedly getting)? Not so much. Rudy can be an awesome third fiddle on a contender, but I’m sorry, you’re not going anywhere if he’s your best guy (update: those rumors about the 80 million dollar contract ended up being true. I guess it could’ve been worse, but still not the greatest contract in the world – so par for the course in this league).

8. Carlos Boozer - What? Boozer number 8? You’re crazy?!!! Sorry, but facts are facts: he’ll be 29 at the start of the season, he doesn’t play defense, and he isn’t exactly the most durable player in the league. I get that he rebounds extremely well and can score a bit in the post, which is why I’d love to have him on my team, but if you gutted your roster to have Carlos Boozer be your main guy (I’m looking at you, Donnie Walsh) then that has to be considered a disappointment. We’ve seen it time and time again in the playoffs, Boozer gets swallowed up by the bigger, more athletic forwards in the playoffs – first against Tim Duncan in 2007, then against Pau Gasol these last three years, so really how far are you getting if Boozer is your best big man?

7. David Lee – Love him, because I know for a fact that he’s going to get signed for far less than the max, and some team is going to get a bargain. The positives: he rebounds the hell out the ball (despite being miscast as a 6-8 center these last two years), he developed a deadly midrange jumper, he can handle the ball and be a point-forward…so what if he sucks at defense? He can be a good team defender in the right situation, and besides doesn’t everyone magically get better at defense once they go from Mike D’Antoni to a coach that actually knows that it’s legal to give effort on that end? Speaking of D’Antoni, don’t tell me that David Lee is just a product of Mike’s system, because Lee’s was still rebounding and hustling like a mad man before 2008; Lee’s minute-adjusted and pace-adjusted stats are still awesome, and it’s not like his midrange jumper and newfound ball-handling abilities will go away in another system. If I was a contender looking for the missing piece I would offer him something like 4 years/28 million in a heartbeat (especially since we know the delusional Knicks front office wouldn’t match in order to save cap space for Lebron); Or how about this: why don’t the Wizards offer Josh Howard’s non-guaranteed deal for Eddy Curry and David Lee? The Knicks open up more cap space while the Wizards get David Lee for the price of simply paying Curry for one year? OK now I’m rambling, but the point is David Lee is awesome and about to be woefully underpaid.

6. Joe Johnson – Here’s what the last two seasons have taught us: If Joe Johnson is your best player, then your team is second round and out. No more, no less. He’s the perfect second fiddle, someone who can handle the rock, score in a variety of ways, and make just enough plays for others to keep the defense honest. Problem is he’s not good enough to lead your team to a championship – sorry, but we just saw how far a whole season of iso-joe is getting you. It would be absolutely dumb of a bottom-feeder to give him a max contract and expect him to take them to the promised land (especially given that he’s 29 and at the tail end of his prime) – which obviously means that’s exactly what’s going to happen!!! Gotta love the NBA. (Update: right after writing this I found out that JJ re-upped with the Hawks for the max. My take: Wtf, are they crazy?!!! Joe Johnson is definitely not worth 20 million this year, and you can only imagine what it’ll be like paying him that sum in 2016!!! I hope the Hawks enjoy these second round sweeps, because that’s their absolute ceiling for a long, long, time).

5. Amar’e Stoudemire – Wait, why is Amar’e so much higher than Boozer? – he doesn’t play any defense either!!!! Good point. Still, Stoudemire is younger, more athletic, and actually has proven that he can play with the other bigs in the playoffs (could you ever imagine Boozer eviscerating Pau Gasol like Amar’e did in games 3 and 4 of the West Finals?). Plus there’s the slim chance that he’ll finally get it and start rebounding/defending (where he could be an absolute terror) – I’m not saying it’ll happen, but that 1% chance that he does commit himself on that end of the floor is there. Of course I wouldn’t give him the max, and I would never splurge all my cap space on the hope of him resurrecting a lottery team (so naturally he’ll end up in a Knicks uni). But you can win with Stoudemire as one of your top-3 players and starting power forward – not sure if that’s the case with Boozer.

4. Dirk Nowitzki - I get that he’s on the older side – I get it. And I know he’s probably staying put. Still if he does test the waters than he’s clearly deserves to be in this spot. Dirk’s as good as ever, and should age well because he doesn’t rely on athleticism. Dirk’s comfortable being the lead guy but his game would also lend itself to complementing a star like Wade. Again, Dirk is probably staying with Dallas, but that doesn’t diminish his value in comparison to the guys below him.

3. Chris Bosh – My favorite player is finally going to go to a relevant team and get the respect/recognition that he’s always deserved. Bosh is the perfect second banana – does all the little things, can play inside or outside to accommodate the superstar, capable of carrying the team for stretches but selfless enough to defer when necessary. That being said, he’s not good enough to be the alpha dog on a title team – just look at the Raptors these past four years, if Bosh is your best player them your team can contend for the playoffs but ultimately isn’t going anywhere. The best historical precedents are Pau Gasol and Jermaine O’Neal, two other dominant big men capable of making a team good but never great. Jermaine O’Neal passed up on the chance to sign with the Spurs in 2003 and become the absolute perfect second fiddle to Tim Duncan; instead he chose to be the alpha dog on good, but not great Indiana teams, which ultimately killed JO’s career; Gasol, by contrast, managed to land in the perfect situation as Kobe’s second in command, allowing him to flourish as a player and resurrect his career. I would love to see Bosh team up with Lebron or Wade on a super team, but it would be an absolute disaster if he went to someone like the Knicks and was forced to be the savior for a horrible team. Chris, follow the Gasol model. Not the Jermaine O’Neal model.

2. Dwayne Wade – How do we know he’s not the best player in the world? He already won a title as the best player in 2006 (submitting one of the greatest playoff/finals performances in the process); the fact that he was forced to carry a series of putrid Miami teams that weren’t even attempting to win shouldn’t be held against him; If anything it’s rather admirable that he managed to repeatedly carry this team to the playoffs, and if you think Lebron and Kobe would be winning 50 games while flanked by Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley then I don’t know what to tell you. D-Wade will make any team a title contender with the right pieces and at this point his likely place in history (top-20 all time, possibly top-10) is secure. Really, there’s not much more to say about D-Wade. Which is fine, because the next guy provides more than enough talking points to compensate…..

1. LeBron James – Let’s be honest, if you’re reading then you probably came to see my thoughts on the King. Obviously LeBron’s the crown jewel of the free agency class and the target of our endless attention for the next two weeks. I’m not denying that he deserves that status, but for once rather than obsessing about his next destination, can we start to evaluate his legacy?

LeBron is already one of the top-30 players ever, even if he retires right now, and I’m sure we all expect him to vault higher than that. At the same time, these last two months raised questions about LeBron, at least in my mind. First of all, why does he feel the need to go to a bigger market to become a global icon? Aren’t you already a global figure and mainstay in American pop culture? You made your mark in the Olympics, your merchandise is sold all over the world, and you are easily one of the five most famous athletes – what more do you want? More importantly, who cares??? What is you obsession with being a global figure?? Why is that more important than, you know, winning titles, being great, et. Al? Why is that your priority? At the end of the day nobody is going to remember you for coming out with your own fashion line, they’ll remember you for what you achieve on the court – why is becoming a marketing mogul your biggest priority?

And finally, the Cavs second straight playoff flameout begs the question: how great is LeBron really? Everyone’s so concerned with where he’ll go that they it seems like everyone is just brushing under the rug his troubling playoff performance. I know he’s one of the greatest players ever, but how does he compare to the other great players? He is still 25, but he’s 7 years into his career and has played in enough big games that I think we can start definitively talking about his legacy and how great he’ll ultimately be; and I’m worried that we’ll all remember LeBron for putting up ridiculous stats, making amazing plays, but not having that singular drive and determination that separated the transcendent superstars from the rest of the superstars. After last year’s Orlando series in which he played out of his mind, still fell short, and stormed off the court, I thought that was the sign that he had finally developed that kind of competitive streak, and that sitting in that empty, lonely, miserable post0game locker room would motivate him to kill himself during the summer, develop a more reliable three point shot and post up game, come into the season with a vengeance, and rip through the playoffs. Nope – if anything he regressed during the playoffs. For goodness sakes he quit – QUIT!!! – on his team in game five (don’t tell me he just had a bad game; he didn’t even touch the ball on many possessions and played totally half-heartedly on defense; LeBron led the way in what can only be described as a disgraceful performance by Cleveland)!!! Would Jordan, Russell, Bird, or even Wade ever do that?!!! To be clear, I’ve been defending LeBron for years; I’ve always argues that he’s the best player in the league (not Kobe) basically since he came into the league; but after his playoff flameout I think I’m finally ready to say that LeBron just lacks enough of a killer instinct and competitive edge that Kobe and Wade simply have. Everyone compares him to Shaq in that both liked dominating but were just as concerned with side interests and weren’t maniacally driven towards basketball greatness. Here’s the difference: Shaq was sometimes immature and not totally committed, but Shaq understood his responsibilities as the franchise guy and knew when to suck it up, put the team on his back, push aside his other interests and dominate; sure he preferred making movies and music videos rather than getting in killer shape for the season, but when push came to shove he knew when to step up in big games and deliver a 35-20-5. I’m still not sure LeBron even understands that and can’t seem to strike the right balance between when it’s OK to be his usual playful, goofy self and when he really needs to flip the switch and become completely serious/focused. If anything, it seems to me that he’s attacking his free agency with more gusto than he ever did any of his seven NBA seasons; he’s been waiting for this moment for the last three years, and based on all the planning/maneuvering it seems like this is more important to him than winning a championship ever was. Maybe he’ll figure it out, but until then I think Bill Simmons comparison between LeBron and Julius Erving is perfect – both were extremely exciting, made your team a contender, but when they needed to take over it didn’t always happen. Obviously LeBron’s a better player than Dr. J (LeBron was every bit the scorer Dr. J. was, but LeBron also has Pippen’s defensive abilities and Magic’s playmaking), but in terms of drive and mindset the comparison is valid.

I don’t want this to come off as overly moralistic and self-righteous; if being the best basketball player ever isn’t LeBron’s first priority, then that’s that; it would be rather hypocritical of us to criticize him for not being driven like Jordan, because quite frankly its not like any of us are either, and how many of us would really have the work ethic to be as committed as someone like Jordan or Russell if we were put in that situation? It’s always easier to demand accountability than to practice it, so I want to be careful in what I say. However, if LeBron truly cares only about winning and maximizing his potential, then he does need to be more driven almost to the point of obsession; Jordan understood that; Russell understood that; Magic understood that; Bird understood that; Duncan understands that; Hakeem understood that; Kobe understands that; Even Shaq understood that, even if he didn’t always practice it. I’m not so sure LeBron understands that yet, which could potentially drop him into the Malone/Barkley/Erving tier of greats. Maybe LeBron was just waiting to find a long-term team and will develop that killer instinct after free-agency; maybe he’ll create a super-team and they’ll create a Celtic-like dynasty; who knows what will happen? But what we do know is that there are legitimate questions surrounding LeBron’s legacy that never existed until this May and that LeBron will have to answer soon enough.