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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Brief Thoughts About the Free Agent Feeding Frenzy

I am not sure how all of the dominoes are going to fall after LeBron James makes the Decision, Part II but there is an amusing yet disingenuous quality to so much that is said about the free agency process. Here are a few bullet point thoughts to consider while the basketball world waits with bated breath for James to make one city very happy and several other cities very mad.

1) It is naive beyond belief to say that winning championships is the top priority for James or most of the other big name free agents. If winning championships were James' top priority back in 2010 then he would have stayed in Cleveland and aggressively recruited another star to join him on a squad that had posted the best regular season record in the NBA for two years in a row--or he would have teamed up with Kobe Bryant on the two-time defending NBA champion L.A. Lakers. Imagine James plus Chris Bosh paired with a big, deep frontcourt and coached by the defensive-minded Mike Brown--or imagine the two best players in the NBA (James and Bryant) wreaking havoc at both ends of the court, with Pau Gasol being an excellent third option and with Phil Jackson running the show on the sidelines. The reduced workload for Bryant would have conserved his energy and likely preserved his health. Instead, James went to Miami and things certainly turned out well for him overall but let's not pretend that money, endorsements and lifestyle did not play a huge role in his choice; when James announced "The Decision" he said that he was "taking my talents to South Beach," a phrase that revealed a lot about his narcissism and his true motivations for leaving Cleveland and for not sacrificing money/shot attempts/glory to team up with Bryant, who had won the previous two Finals MVPs.

If winning championships is James' top priority right now, then he will contact the San Antonio Spurs and work out a deal with them. James already has made hundreds of millions of dollars, so if he wants to win three or four more titles then why not give up a few million dollars in salary to join forces with the league's reigning champion/model franchise? Yes, James will have a good chance to win a championship wherever he goes because he is the league's best player but his best chance to win in the remaining years of his prime is to work with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich.

Meanwhile, by once again being coy James has raised Cleveland's hopes to a fever pitch. If he leaves Miami then he is abandoning a team that just made four straight trips to the NBA Finals and he is showing no loyalty to Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh--but if he stays in Miami then he will have broken Cleveland's heart for the second time in four years, something that would not have happened if James had just said from the start that he wanted to stay in Miami. James' desire to be the center of attention and to single-handedly hold up the rest of the free agency process  makes it seem like he did not learn much from the mistakes he made during the first "Decision." I am pretty sure that James has had a plan in place for a while or perhaps one plan if Miami won the championship and a second plan if Miami did not win the championship--but he seems to enjoy toying with various franchises and watching billionaire owners scurry around trying to figure out how to entice him to join their teams.

2) I like Derrick Rose's attitude. He will not beg any other star to come play with him in Chicago and he will not publicly disrespect his current teammates by saying that he needs more help. He is confident but not cocky and it is a shame that he has not been healthy for several years.

3) I get the feeling that Phil Jackson would not be terribly disappointed if Carmelo Anthony left New York. I don't believe that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team and I think that Jackson understands that reality very well. Jackson is going to keep needling Anthony about taking less money and about diversifying his game until Anthony either begrudgingly accepts Jackson's mentoring or until Anthony flees for a less demanding environment. It would not surprise me if Anthony signs a max deal with New York, then starts complaining halfway through the season, giving Jackson a perfect opportunity to trade Anthony to one of the many teams that overvalues Anthony.

Of course, if Anthony really wants to win more than he wants anything else, there is no reason that he cannot sign with the Spurs. The Spurs have been winning 50-plus games a year for almost two decades; they are always championship contenders, they have made back to back Finals appearances and they just dismantled Miami's "super team" in one of the most lopsided championship series ever. Why isn't every free agent begging to play for the Spurs if winning is truly the most important thing?

4) Chris Bosh will bring an intelligent, all-around skill set and underrated defensive versatility to whichever franchise is fortunate enough to sign him.

5) It is not surprising that Dwayne Wade's game has aged so poorly; he is a muscular, undersized shooting guard with one game plan--bull his way to the hoop for dunks and/or free throw opportunities. He is a below average shooter and he does not have much of a post game. Anyone who ever thought that Wade was a better and/or more complete player than Bryant should take a long, hard look at how limited Wade is now that he cannot just jump over or sprint around other players. Bryant, like Michael Jordan before him, made a seamless transition from high flyer to midrange virtuoso thanks to impeccable footwork and an excellent shooting touch. Jordan and Bryant both played at an MVP level well into their 30s; Wade will either be out of the league or have to accept a much reduced role by the time he is 34 or 35.

6) It will be interesting to see where Kevin Love ends up and how he performs not just individually but in terms of elevating a team to contender status. Is he truly as good as his numbers seem to suggest or is he the ultimate Kenny Smith "looter in a riot," a player who pads his statistics without ever having a huge impact in the won/loss column? I don't think that Love is a true "looter" but I also don't think that he can be the best player on a championship team; I could see him as a solid 20-10 second option on a championship team, though.

7) I just do not understand why the Oklahoma City Thunder get blasted for supposedly being cheap and for supposedly making a huge blunder by trading James Harden. What exactly has Harden accomplished so far in Houston, other than convincing a lot of media members to overrate him? The other day, a radio commentator criticized Thunder owner Clay Bennett for being more concerned about profits than winning, contrasting Bennett with Mark Cuban and Mickey Arison. That would be the same Mark Cuban who broke up a championship team to save money and the same Mickey Arison who refused to spend enough money to keep Mike Miller around. The Thunder offered Harden a market value deal, Harden declined and the Thunder made a prudent decision to trade him and build around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. If Westbrook and Ibaka had been healthy in the past two postseasons the Thunder may very well have won at least one championship. I will be surprised if the Thunder have a worse record next season than Harden's Rockets, Cuban's Mavericks or Arison's Heat.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM