Football is America’s most popular sport and baseball is its pastime, but basketball is quickly turning into its most fascinating. The NBA hasn’t been so star-studded since the late ’80s/early ’90s (so argue all you want about the 1992 Dream Team vs. the 2012 Redeem Team 2.0), the commissioner is a madman-extraordinaire and most of the people running franchises seem to have left their brains on the lockout-extended 2011 summer vacation.
Here is my take on a few of the main storylines of the 2012 offseason.
Superman and the King: A Hollywood Extravaganza
The NBA is Hollywood.
Like movie-stars, athletes are seized by talent evaluators in their adolescence or earlier and put under a microscope from that point forward. They are performers, but also human beings, and every move at work and in their personal lives will be spread and dissected by the media, onlookers and bloggers like myself.
Recently, we have nitpicked the flip-flopping mind of Dwight Howard, much the same way we dwelled on every “story” related to “The Decision” of LeBron James. My position on James has been oft-stated, but I didn’t know where I stood on the Howard situation. When he issued a new trade demand of Brooklyn-or-bust, I immediately jumped off the Superman train, or cape (don’t get me wrong, I’ll jump right back on if he comes to the Lakers).
It’s amazing to me how such a high-profile athlete with so many professional advisers surrounding him can be so utterly clueless handling his situation. Free agency is pretty simple—if you don’t like the team you’re playing for, go sign with a new team. If you really, really, really don’t want to spend even one more year there, quietly request a trade and see what management does.
If they don’t trade you, then opt in to the next year of the contract for the team you despise…wait, what? Did Dwight have the option of becoming a free agent and decide to play another year for his current team, then demand a trade again to the team that had the cap room to sign him this offseason but won’t have it next?
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve discovered Superman’s kryptonite. It’s not his free throw shooting, but his inability to distinguish ORLANDO printed in boldface from BROOKLYN.
In a pitiful attempt to cover up his egregious misreading, Howard has claimed that he was “blackmailed” by the Magic front office. Unless Otis Smith was holding a gun to Howard’s head telling him to sign the paperwork or his family would be murdered and Stan Van Gundy would be promoted from coach to his round-the-clock babysitter, Howard’s blackmail excuse is…um…not the most convincing.
Now the chances Howard ends up in Brooklyn look slight.
“Dwight blew it,” said an anonymous source in an ESPNNewYork.com story.
Truer words have seldom been spoken, but it wasn’t just Dwight who blew it. I’m talking to you, Nets G.M. Billy King.
As King’s wheeling and dealing unfolded, another similarity between the NBA and Hollywood struck me. We have plenty of shortsighted, trigger-happy executives like King running the major movie studios.
Hollywood has a habit of producing ill-conceived, ill-planned and ill-directed blockbusters with no originality. Little difference exists between most action and superhero movies of the last decade. Here’s the gist: aliens invade, superhero(es)/ordinary human beings with poorly developed backstories overcome their poorly explained/insignificant flaws to save the day, and the audience forgets everything it saw the next day beside wasting $13 on a ticket. What made any of the Transformers movies special beside Megan Fox? What about Battleship?
An occasional smart action/superhero movie like The Dark Knight shines so brightly because the producer, director, cinematographer, etc. bothered to add just enough depth to distinguish it from the garbage heap films by Michael Bay, et al.
In their new borough-of-Jay-Z digs, the Brooklyn Nets have all the makings of a robust-budget, action-packed flop, with Joe Johnson playing a lead role.
Once an All-Star-caliber player, Johnson is now 31 years old and past his best playing days. He averaged less than 19 points-per-game and under 19 PER in the last two seasons. Oh, did I mention that he’s owed a whopping $90 million over the next four years? Writing those paychecks will give Prokhorov the same migraine that devours Angels’ owner Arte Moreno anytime he writes a check for Vernon Wells or Albert Pujols. By the time Johnson’s deal expires, he will be a role player taking up almost half of the team’s salary cap space, which will have added implications in the more punitive luxury tax era.
King is hardly the only G.M. screwing up like today’s studio heads. Orlando’s desperation pandering to Howard for the last several years has done nothing but ensure the Magic’s long-term irrelevance. Orlando has assumed the onerous contracts of Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu at various points in the past several seasons, only to see all five of them produce significantly less value than expected for their compensation.
Besides Johnson, the Nets have Williams and Gerald Wallace (who inked a four-year, $40 million deal) due to gobble up around $50 million of the payroll annually for the next four years. Whether he adds Howard or not, King has rendered himself totally incapable of building a team that can overtake the Heat. Howard would certainly give the Nets a better shot, but his approximately-$20 million annual cap hit would sink them so far into the luxury tax they would be hard-pressed to field a D-League roster around a hypothetical Big Four (really a Big Two).
If the deep-pocketed Prokhorov is willing to pay around $90 million in payroll and $60 million in luxury taxes, then he can add Howard and some quality role players.
Unfortunately, the Russian billionaire probably can’t get the 26-year-old, six-time All-Star anyway. King ensured that when he traded all his expiring contracts for Johnson. King’s only remaining maneuver was a complicated four-team deal, which included faith in Kris Humphries and others to agree to sign-and-trades. Does King not watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians? C’mon Billy, you have to know relying on the Humph is a dead-end proposition.
You also have to know what the hell you’re going to do next when you obtain a star player like Williams—other than sing his praises and spoil him with overpriced and close-to-outdated toys like Johnson. The best G.M.s in basketball always have a plan.
Despite King’s severe lack of the Pat Riley/Sam Presti G.M. planning skill set, Ian O’Connor of ESPNNewYork.com wrote a misguided column praising him for re-signing Williams. Here’s one particularly perplexing quote:
“Billy had so much on the line,” said an NBA source close to King. “He’s been like a college recruiter for the last year and a half, just trying to sell Deron on the vision he had. I know Deron got $100 million to stay and would’ve gotten $75 million if he left, and money definitely has something to do with it. But the relationship Billy established with Deron was huge here.”
Yes, King had to prevent Williams from fleeing to Dallas at all costs, and the Johnson trade reportedly convinced D-Will to stay put. Yet if King has such a fantastic relationship with Williams, couldn’t he explain that Dwight Howard just demanded a trade to Brooklyn, and Brooklyn alone?
King: “Deron, If Dwight is a free agent after this season, all you have to do is wait one more year and I guarantee he will be here. He said himself this is the only franchise he wants to join. We’ll still try to trade for him beforehand, too.”
Williams: “No, I’m not sure. You’ve got to go out and get other players first. I hear Joe Johnson’s on the trade block. What about him?
King: “Why do you think Atlanta is trying so hard to get rid of him? Do you know how much he’s making? He’s making more money than you will, Deron.”
Williams: “I don’t care how much he’s making. That’s your problem, not mine. I want good players.”
King: “If we trade for Joe Johnson, that’s $20 million less we’ll have to spend on other good players, like Dwight. Do you remember that Dwight demanded a trade specifically here? Did I mention that? That’s kind of an important point.”
Perhaps the college recruiting rules prohibit discussion of this logical nature. Whatever the case, King clearly isn’t the Great Communicator. His best move to placate Williams was trading for Average Joe Johnson. The Nets are now playoff contenders, but with a ceiling no higher than the conference finals.
Brooklyn is transforming all right—into nothing more than Transformers.
Dork Elvis Gone Mad
For those of you who don’t know, I am currently studying abroad at Fudan University in Shanghai. Four times a week, I meet with a language partner—a Fudan student who helps me practice speaking and understanding Mandarin. Like most young, urban Chinese males, my language partner loves basketball. Naturally, the first team NBA team he followed was Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets.
Earlier this week, we sidetracked into a discussion about the Rockets (mostly in English), a discussion that prompted my language partner (语拌: yuban) to call their G.M., Daryl Morey, a “silly man.”
After cracking up, I tried to explain in Chinese that Morey is an Ivy League (Chinese) graduate and a respected executive. But then I realized that my 语拌 might be right. This offseason, Morey has been quite a silly man indeed. He’s lost two above-average point guards (Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic) for almost nothing, tried to sign one that he already gave away for literally nothing (Jeremy Lin), lost two above-average centers (Samuel Dalembert and Marcus Camby) for almost nothing and tried (and probably will fail) to land Dwight Howard.
Andrew Bynum has emerged a backup target to Howard, but the Rockets won’t have much of a roster around whichever All-Star they acquire, if any. Dork Elvis, as Grantland’s Bill Simmons affectionately calls him, might be looking for new work if his star-studded dreams don’t pan out.
Count me among those pulling for Morey, who has brought sabermetric innovation to an NBA front office. Morey also deserves some good fortune after terrible luck destroyed a legitimate championship contender in 2008-2009 (remember how Houston took the Lakers to seven games without Yao Ming for half the series and Tracy McGrady for all of it?)
Well, you know what they say about geniuses—they all drive themselves crazy at some point. Thus, Dork Elvis has become a “silly man,” just like most of his NBA front office brethren.
However, the odds now seem surprisingly promising that Lin will rejoin the Rockets. Maybe another Chinese superstar in Houston will ease the dissatisfaction of my 语拌 with Morey. But probably not, considering that a core of Lin, Kevin Martin and Omer Asik (if the Bulls don’t match his three-year, $25.5 million offer sheet) will make for a 30-40 win team.
Riles and Kupchak: Sanity! Hazzah!
Thank you, Pat Riley and Mitch Kupchak for your standout performances among a cesspool of confused general managers and a misguided media. Yes, Mr. Kupchak, you are included. After years of criticizing you in the post-Shaq, pre-Gasol, full-of-Kwame-and-Smush-era, I finally value your patience and shrewdness.
I have no idea how you’re going to pay Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Bynum/Howard without the luxury tax bill soaring higher than the federal deficit, but I have faith you will figure it out.
You have brought Los Angeles multiple championships and kept the Purple and Gold in contention year after year.
As for Riley, the discount signings of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis has cemented the Heat as favorites for a title repeat.
Is there a secret to the success of these men?
Well, they did both come from the Laker organization…