Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tuesday's Starting Five

NBA Free Agency Edition
1. Baron Davis. In less than four seasons in Oakland, Davis helped transform the franchise from perennial disapointment to beloved giant killer. He was the heart and soul and face, nay the beard, of the Golden State Warriors. And, he's gone. Without much warning or speculation by those folks allegedly in the know (meaning actual NBA beat writers and commentators) Davis opted out of the final year of his contract with the Warriors last week and then signed a multi-year pact with the Los Angeles Clippers. The 29-year-old guard left $17.8 million on the Warriors-table next season, the final one on his six-year deal. When players leave teams it is de rigueur to make them the bad guy but I don't think that's really the case here. Davis is from Los Angeles, played his college ball at UCLA and is heavily involved in community work in his hometown. Moreover, he left more money in Oakland (at least for next season) to sign on for long-term security (reportedly five years and $65 million) in LA. Apparently talks of contract extension had not gotten very far with the Warriors and Davis decided to opt out while the opting was good. Given his injury history it's also hard to fault the Warriors for being hesistant about a long-term deal but it's also hard to imagine what that team will look like without Davis. Is Monta Ellis ready to take over? Is Monta Ellis, himself a restricted free agent, even planning on staying? Given the power of his smile to bring in fans and his dribble to get past defenders you would have thought that in spite of the injuries that GS would have tried harder to keep him in the Bay Area.

2. Gilbert Arenas. One of the many planets knocked slightly out of orbit in the aftermath of Baron Davis opting out in Oakland was whatever planet Agent Zero resides on. Negotiating sans agent from China, Arenas (who is easily in my Top 5 players I pay to see when they come to the Garden) reportedly talked the Washington Wizards down from their max contract offer of approximately $127 million over six years to $111 over that same span. With his trademark honesty he asked The Washington Post "What can I do for my family with $127 million that I can't do with $111 million?" Suffice to say, Arenas is a one hover-boat sort of guy and you've got to like that about him. All along he said that he wanted to stay in Washington, that he wanted the team to resign All-Star forward Antawn Jamison and that he didn't want his max-deal to handcuff the club for the duration of his time there. Well, it looks like got all three things accomplished. Dan Shanoff, whose daily columns I couldn't recommend any more, has maintained that the Wizards need to re-sign him even if they don't think this Arenas-led-team can actually win a title. After all, if you're a franchise just trying to fill seats and put a good (if not great) product on the floor than what more could ask for (if a championship is not in the offing) than someone as talented and charismatic as Gilbert who can get you to the playoffs every season?

3. Elton Brand. And, the man formerly at the center (or power forward) of the Los Angeles Clippers universe just got himself a new stud teammate. Or did he? When the Warriors went into panic mode after Baron Davis' surprising opt out things, all of a sudden, seemed to be up in the air for Brand as well. Like Davis, he had publicly committed to staying with his team of several years. And provided that he did stay, that franchise seemed poised for a run at respectability, if not prominence with the addition of Davis. But Davis' arrival in Los Angeles set off a chain reaction of events that ended up with a lot of money floating in the ether. The money that Golden State had set aside for the Bearded One was now up for grabs and Warriors GM Chris Mullin looked into giving that cash to Brand. And, wouldn't that have been something? Davis goes to LA to play for a could-be-contender featuring Brand and then Brand leaves LA and takes his old spot in the Bay Area. But, that's not what happened. Although it is connected to what ultimately went down. When Brand didn't immediately dismiss the advances of the Warriors and reaffirm his desire to stay a Clipper it dawned on the other team(s) with available salary cap space that this guy could be had. In swooped the Philadelphia 76ers. They had more money to offer than Golden State, they had a 2007-2008 playoff team that gave the Pistons a good run and they had the Eastern Conference to offer the Peekskill, NY native who won the 1999 Naismith Award during his second (and last) year at Duke University. And, having all of that they woke up this morning to find they also have Elton Brand. He has reportedly agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract with the Sixers.

4. Josh Smith. Originally this was the guy poised to rake in all of that cheesesteak cash from Philadelphia. Until Baron left Golden State and Elton left Los Angeles. This means that Josh is likely left behind in Atlanta. Which is probably best for everyone. And by everyone, I mean for the Hawks, their fans and me. I don't really know how Smith feels about this. This likely development is good for those other parties because Smith is a ridiculously versatile athlete who the Hawks really, really need to keep aboard if they intend to build upon last year's promising first-round playoff loss (only in Atlanta...) to the Celtics. Last season he averaged 17.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game, 3.4 assists per game, 1.5 steals per game and 2.8 blocks per game. He stands all of six feet and nine inches tall but he has ranked second behind Marcus Camby in blocked shots in each of the past two seasons. In other words the guy is good at playing basketball. Perhaps most importantly, he is 22 years old and from the Atlanta area (College Park, GA). Which means that he is exactly the sort of guy to help draw fans back to the Omni Phillips Arena. Smith is a restricted free agent, which means the Hawks have the right to match any offer from another club. And, with the Sixers big money going towards whatever movie projects Elton Brand wants to bankroll it looks like Smith will stay in ATL. Unless, of course, the Clippers use their Brand-money to make a run at him. And, so it goes.

5. Randolph Morris. The former Kentucky center and current afterthought is the only Knicks player who is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Since he should have been playing in the Development League rather than wallowing and atrophying at the end of Isiah Thomas's bench. He's played a grand total of 225 professional minutes in his two years since jumping from the NCAA tournament to the NBA. Given the fact that he has barely played, I don't know if teams will be banging down his door to sign him away from the Knicks (who have matching-rights as Morris is a restricted free agent). And, if they can sign him to a one or two year deal (meaning no matter what he is off the books by the magical 2010 summer) with the understanding that he is going to join the Knicks D-League affiliate in Reno if he doesn't crack the rotation then I would be happy to re-sign him as a developmental prospect. It's an absolute shame that his first two seasons were wasted. But they were. And, I'm willing to let those sunk costs go and give him another try. Unless of course, some other club sees a diamond in our Garden-rough and offers him a two-plus year deal and some real money. If that happens then, adios Randolph.

Tales From the Clearance Rack....

(Believing that you can learn a lot about any culture by sifting through what it discards WWOD? will take a periodic look at what sports items have been relegated to the discount racks of the world.)

Willie Randolph Bobble-Head Doll:Price: Was $18.99 Now $14.99!
Details: 3 AM shipping guaranteed

Better Know Your Head Coach (Part II)

The second in WWOD?'s three-part series Better Know Your (NEW) Head Coach gets a tremendous assist from the fine folks at the even finer Phoenix Suns blog Bright Side of the Sun. The sun-tanned denizens of the valley of the sun were kind enough with their time too answer a deluge of questions that I sent them. And, they did so with a generosity and insight that amazed me. They are very good at what they do. So, read on and, all-together-now, get to Better Know Your Head Coach.

WWOD?: Vizzini always told us, "Go back to the beginning." So let's do just that. How on Walt Clyde Frazier's green Earth did the New York Knicks end up with Mike D'Antoni? One minute we were all talking ourselves into Mark Jackson (who we love for his St. John's and Knickerbocker history but who has also never even held an assistant coaching position on a high school team) and the next minute we're signing up the 2004-2005 NBA Coach of the Year and arguably the most innovative hoops mind of the past decade. How did this happen?

Bright Side of the Sun: Sometimes guys are so good at one thing that they start believing their pub and refuse to change. D'Antoni is that guy.

You first have to understand that he was an NBA nobody when he lucked into the Phoenix job after the Suns fired Frank Johnson a few weeks into the 2003-04 season. What you won't read is that Johnson was fired not so much for his poor record but because of a sex scandal that made him unacceptable to the puritanical Jerry Colangelo. So really, D'Antoni can thank Frank's wandering pecker for his big break and the irony is that he is again replacing a head coach with his own "woman problems". Mike D of course did amazing things in Phoenix and for the league in general and he (and Nash) turned the Suns into a contender.

His public failings – lack of defensive focus and poor player development – are well documented but from my cheap seat his real failing is his stubbornness.But before I slam him, let me also debunk another myth about the Suns. Seven Seconds or Less (7SOL) didn't die in early February when Shaq came to town. That system died when the Suns lost to the Spurs in the 2007 playoffs. It wasn't the suspensions that killed the Suns; it was the inability to adjust to playoff basketball against defensive teams that were able to defend in transition and slow the game to a grind.

D'Antoni recognized this and spent all of the 2007-08 season slowing the Suns down and learning to run an execution style half court offense. This meant more ball handling duties for Hill and Diaw and less of a dependence on Nash to create everything. It was a fairly encouraging development in the eyes of yours truly. The problem was that while he was able to adjust the offense to a more slow down half court game, he wasn't willing to adjust defensively and play bigger, slower less talented players so that the interior defense and rebounding improved.

In the first two years of his reign the Suns could get away with being small because they were so fast and so explosive. When they gave that up they no longer could afford that weakness. And that lead to the Shaq gamble. Right idea. Wrong player.

He and the Suns should have brought in a big guy like Diop and kept Marion or at least traded Marion for the same kind of defensive athletic big along with picks, young talent, etc. Instead D'Antoni insisted on a big that could rebound and defend but also be a threat in his beloved offense. That insistence lead to $40m worth of reputation that couldn't defend away from the hoop, couldn't hit a free throw and could barely score from 2ft in the post. Sure, the Suns GM and owner signed off on this but it was D'Antoni's refusal to consider other options that lead to it and D'Antoni was the biggest advocate for the trade.

And as the final straw of D'Antoni's hard-headedness was his refusal to bench an injured Grant Hill in the first 3 games of this year's Spurs series. He hadn't used enough depth and variety in his rotations to prepare the team to play without Hill and he personally couldn't get it through his head that Hill wasn't able to deliver. He waited until game 4 to adjust and by then it was too late.

Finally, when Kerr came to him and asked that he spend a full 30 minutes per practice on defensive schemes and rotations and consider playing a deeper rotation ala Detroit he decided that was too much intrusion and interference and left for the Big Apple.

It was time for a change for all involved.

WWOD?: Should whatever went down in Phoenix to catalyze this coaching change concern Knicks fans or should we just be happy to pick up the pieces?

Bright Side: I have no idea but I am curious to see how things work out for D'Antoni in New York. History shows that great coaches can adjust and can be successful in different places. In the next year or two we will find out if D'Antoni is really a great coach or a guy that had the perfect storm of an innovative system and Nash, Amare and Marion to run it.I can't think that after the Brown and Isaiah debacles that the Knicks could have done any better. You can only go up from there. The true test will come in a few years if the Knicks actually get competitive to see if Mike can get over the hump.

One thing is clear though – he is in a place where he's got some room to fail and so does Terry Porter. That wouldn't have been the case if he had stayed in Phoenix. Freedom to fail and lowered expectations should let D'Antoni and the Suns (and Suns fans) enjoy the next season or two a lot more then the last one which was a joyless pressure cooker for all involved.

WWOD?: What was your first reaction to the news that D'Antoni was on the way out? Was the writing on the wall? It seemed sort of shocking from afar. We ran a poll of potential coaching candidates (which included employed coaches known to be on the proverbial hot seat) and D'Antoni never even entered the conversation.

Bright Side: It was no surprise. There was talk at the end of last season that if he couldn't get it done that a change might be in order. And as the season progressed and it became clear that he wasn't going to do the things everyone agreed he needed to do that he was in trouble. In December, he and Kerr had a fight over direction which leaked out as well. They both said all the right things, but the writing was on the wall that they weren't on the same page.

Then during the Spurs series there were some very public signs. After game 1, D'Antoni "blamed" the Suns offense and Kerr "blamed" the defense and as the series went on Kerr and Sarver refused to openly support him and I think Amare quit on him as well. He was a non-factor in games 4 and 5.

WWOD?: What was the feeling in Phoenix when the word spread that D'Antoni was out? We always got the impression that he and his team were well liked. Was this the case?

Bright Side: Mixed I guess. We had quite the debate about it over at Bright Side of the Sun.

Fans everywhere are driven by expectations. As the Suns went from crap to contender all was well. As they got closer and closer to the ring the expectations increased so when he wasn't able to deliver then things turned.

I am guessing Yankee's fans know a thing or two about that and clearly watching some recent D-Backs/Mets games the boo's at Shea are expressing the same thing – frustration at an underperforming team.

WWOD?: Which players currently in Phoenix do you think would have an interest in playing for their old coach in the Garden? Which would the Kerr consider letting loose? Ditto for the assistant coaches?

WWOD?: Well, we already know that Brother Dan and Phil Weber are going to the Knicks. You can have them. Nothing special there other then loyalty to the boss.

As for players – well, this is a much larger can of worms of course and I don't have the time, energy or brain power to think through all the possible trade possibilities.

Obviously, the two guys that benefited most from the D'Antoni's were Barbosa and Diaw. He protected and coddled both of them and most Suns fans feel that he didn't get the best out of either.

I am ready to trade Barbosa to get back either a backup PG or backup Center that really is good enough to start about 40 games b/c that's about all you can expect from Shaq. I don't know that the Knicks meet either of those needs (don't even think about sending us Marbury or Curry).

So unless its some kind of multi-team deal, I wouldn't hold your breath for either of those guys.

And frankly, I am not in favor of letting Boris go despite his issues. There are very few players that can do what he can do on both ends of the floor and perhaps with Porter he will be better motivated and utilized.

I think Barbosa has pretty much peaked in his career as far as potential. He's not a PG and he can't cover anyone. Don't you already have that guy? Or seven of them?

WWOD?: Speaking of former pupils of the Italian master: Do you have any insight as to how Marbury might be feeling about reuniting with D'Antoni? Do you think that there is any way that Shawn Marion is sitting in Miami and thinking about heading north?

Bright Side: No comment.

WWOD?: What was the best thing about having D'Antoni as your coach (excluding his mustache)? What aspect of coaching in the NBA was he best at?

Bright Side: Mike D is a great at media, fan and sponsor relations. He can be funny and charming and "articulate". Have fun with that.

WWOD?: What was the worst thing about having D'Antoni as your coach (excluding his mustache)? What aspect of coaching in the NBA was he worst at?

Bright Side: See question 1 – stubbornness.

WWOD?: I've read 7 Seconds Or Less seven (or less) times since Walsh introduced D'Antoni. Is the sort of access that D'Antoni granted to the SI writer for that book indicative of his relationship with the press? In recent years, the Knicks organization has been compared to the Communist bloc when it comes to freedom of the press.

Bright Side I have to think that Donnie Walsh as part of his coming to NY is going to address that and in turn Mike D will be giving the opportunity to tear down the wall. If not, he's not going to last very long behind the Iron Dolan Curtain.

WWOD?: And lastly, what is the deal with the 'stache? Does it have powers? Will it steal my girlfriend?

Bright Side: I predict with Mike so close to Madison Ave, the mustache will be the new craze to sweep the nation just like the return of bell bottoms and long hair.

I would start work on mine now if I would were you.