Friday, August 12, 2005

10 things we learned this week

The Sporting News Here's an article I received on my mobile device recently written by Mike Kahn for the Sporting News ... my 2 cents in bold ....

10 things we learned this week

We're just a few hours away from the second phase of free agency Â? the actual signing of contracts. That means trades will follow, and things are about to get crazy.

Having said that, here are 10 things we learned last week heading into Tuesday's official opening of the NBA market.

1. Item: Eight days after the anticipated date to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA finally dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's Saturday, and the free agent market officially opens Tuesday.

What this really means: The league smartly announced they had agreed to terms with the Players Association during the NBA Finals to maintain positive momentum during theleaguess marquee event. Now we know there is a 19-year-old minimum age is in place, teams can have the option of keeping players in the developmental league at any time during their first two years in the league and all the teams know the luxury tax number is $61.7 million. It's the first time teams have known before the season what the luxury tax will be. The salary cap is $49.5 million, up $5.63 from last season and the mid-level exception is $5 million. There are other rules we've known about and written about that aren't necessary to mention, but this sets the tone for next season.

2. Item: Along with the new agreement comes the brand new amnesty rule, which will be a one-time opportunity for teams to release players that would produce possible tax situations on Aug. 15. They'll still have to pay the contracts, and the contract will still count against the salary cap, but they won't have to match the salary dollar-for-dollar, a saving of anywhere from $10 million to $20 million for some owners.

What this really means: This means players such as Allan Houston (New York), Michael Finley (Dallas), Jalen Rose (Toronto), Derek Anderson (Portland), Austin Croshere (Indiana) and Brian Grant (Los Angeles Lakers) are all possibly going to be released on Aug. 15. Should they be released, they will be unrestricted free agents with the knowledge that their contracts will be paid out by the team that releases them. It also allows them to be more selective, irrespective of the contract offered because they've already got huge money coming in. Finley is the hottest candidate with the most left to his game, with the Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and maybe the Denver Nuggets lining up for a shot at the shooting guard.

3. Item: The Suns are primed to make a pitch for Finley because their talented young swingman Joe Johnson has agreed to a five-year, $70 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks Â? with $20 million up front Â? so the two teams are trying to orchestrate a sign-and-trade.

What this really means: Sources say the Hawks will deal swingman Boris Diaw, two lottery-protected No. 1 picks and a $5 million exception for Johnson. It alleviates the strain on Suns owner Robert Sarver of already paying huge money to Shawn Marion, Steve Nash and a maximum extension coming to Amare Stoudemire. But they lose their best all-around perimeter player in Johnson. Diaw is a slimmer swingman and a decent ballhandler, but unaccomplished in any other facet of the game, so they will be much more dependent on the acquisition of Raja Bell and aging Jim Jackson. Indeed, Stoudemire is a frightening talent and Marion is All-Star caliber, but Marion is erratic offensively and MVP Steve Nash is not getting any younger. They'll be hard-pressed to come close to the stunning 62-win season they just experienced.

Bad Teams make bad choices

4. Item: Sources claim it's just a matter of time before the NBA officially announces that Las Vegas will play host to the 2007 All-Star game.

What this really means: The hypocrisy is stunning considering the league has always eschewed overtures from those that wanted to move a team to Las Vegas or consider an expansion team for the city because of gambling. Now Las Vegas becomes the first neutral site of the All-Star game? Obviously, this is the first step toward a team going there after all. Whether it's Orlando or New Orleans or some other struggling franchise is irrelevant. It's also irrelevant that they prevent the locals from running legal book on the All-Star game. Ultimately, there will be millions of dollars bet on the game and what ever franchise ends up in Las Vegas. Billions of dollars are wagered on sports every year, including the burgeoning fantasy leagues, and sports wouldn't be nearly as popular were it not for gambling. Sure, the appearance of concern is necessary, but after all these years of shunning Vegas, to hold an All-Star game there is insulting. All it says is they're opening the door to enormous sponsorship dollars there that weren't available in the past. And that's a shame.

5. Item: Denver Nuggets coach George Karl underwent prostate cancer surgery Thursday, and all points show it was a successful procedure and Karl will be in fine condition to coach come training camp in October.

What this really means: Every time this happens, it reinforces how quickly lives can change, even for the most vital, energetic and self-assured people. And more importantly, it also emphasizes how important it is to be checked annually for warning signs of prostate cancer. It obviously is treatable and doctors are becoming more proficient all the time with the surgery. Karl, 54, has known about the need for months, kept it quiet and went to Salt Lake City where he was comfortable having the surgery under the recommendation of his close friend Rick Majerus, an icon in Salt Lake City. Karl is one of the great characters in the NBA and the league is better for the knowledge that he had the successful surgery and will be an advocate of testing. For all of his fun-loving antics and crazy-making, we're all better for knowing George.

... I think that one was a little over the top

6. Item: One of the worst kept secrets in the NBA over the past decade became fact this week when Larry Brown agreed to a five-year, $50 million deal to coach the New York Knicks.

What this really means: Considering Brown will be 65 in September and that the Knicks roster is poorly constructed given Brown's defensive-oriented approach and his insistence on unselfishness on offense, it will be interesting to see how long his good relationship with Isiah Thomas lasts under the pressure of games. Granted, Brown has averaged almost nine more wins than his predecessor in the first year of his previous seven NBA jobs, and it may very well happen in New York too. But they are so strapped for cap space, and the players that are there are vastly overpaid such as Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford and, come Tuesday, Jerome James, this is a personality disaster waiting to happen. Will the Knicks make the playoffs this season? Maybe . . . but to think they'll be ready to compete for a title in three years when Brown will be 68, is pure fantasy.

... True dat!

7. Item: The Orlando Magic discovered this week that Fran Vasquez, the 6-10 forward they nabbed with the 11th pick of the June draft, will play in Spain this season and in the foreseeable future.

What this really means: The Magic organization continues to look like the picture of ineptitude. They've won 57 games the past two seasons combined, have struggled as much as any team in the NBA at the gate, and the rumblings of a sale or a move have constantly been rumbling around the organization. Yes, they got a great pick in Dwight Howard last year and he looks like a future star. Grant Hill apparently will be ready to play again this season, and they signed Keyon Dooling with the hope he and Steve Francis will mesh together in the backcourt. But new coach Brian Hill has proven over the years to be too inflexible and uptight to communicate successfully in the big picture as a head coach. And even though other teams have drafted international players and waited 2-3 years for them, nobody has done that with a lottery pick they believed would be there in the fall. It's an indictment of co-general managers Dave Twardzik and Otis Smith, but even moreso to an organization overall that continues to spin its wheels when it's about time Rich DeVos sold and somebody else wheeled it out of town.

Bad Teams make bad choices

8. Item: Nike released its latest shoe Â? a Kobe Bryant signature shoe just weeks after running its first Bryant add in more than two years.

What this really means: Nike must believe the world is ready for Bryant to take a shot at regaining his stature as one of the most marketable athletes in the world before he was accused of rape two summers ago at a Colorado resort. But Marketing Evaluations, a company in Manhasset, NY that gauges marketing popularity of the stars, begs to differ. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bryant has the second-lowest 'Q' rating, just ahead of Latrell Sprewell, when it comes to athletes.

He was exonerated when charges were dropped, but the perception of him as a selfish, deceptive superstar lingered through last season. Nobody was convinced he didn't force both Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson away from the Los Angeles Lakers. Well, one year later, Jackson is back as coach and after the disaster of last season's 34 wins and a tie for last place in the Pacific Division, all eyes will be on Bryant. Is this just a prelude of great things for the soon to be 27-year-old wonder-talent, or just wishful thinking by Nike? Only time will tell, but if it turns out to be Jackson's coaching, who ripped Bryant up and down in his tell-all book a year ago, that turns him around, it would be one of the great NBA stories of the 21st century.

... as a rule I don't watch soap operas

9. Item: Boston Celtics free agent forward Antoine Walker met with Miami Heat president Pat Riley on Thursday, prompting all kinds of trade rumors between the Celtics and Heat, with rumblings of Riley's desire to acquire point guard Jason Williams from Memphis as well.

What this really means: Riley knows the window of opportunity to win the East is there for the team, who were within a quarter of winning the conference last season despite injuries to Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade. Now he's got to pick carefully through the free agent market to tighten the loop. They've already lost reserve guard Keyon Dooling and very likely Damon Jones will go too. Both were significant role players, and that's where their interest in Williams comes in.

But now he's looking at Walker, who will be 29 on Aug. 12 with the $5 mid-level exception and 37-year-old Gary Payton with the $2 million exception. Walker is having a hard time swallowing the fact he has lost so much league cred that he's worth no more than the mid-level exception, but the bottom line is the Heat would be his fourth team since 2003. Besides, he would be a good fit up front with O'Neal and Udonis Haslem. Money wouldn't be the issue for Payton, and he clearly would fit just fine as the third guard with Wade and Eddie Jones, or Williams, should they trade Jones to get Williams. One way or another, get out the 50 proof sun-block lotion and beware of the Heat in the fall. Riley means business.

... Walker is a joke. For all his 'talent' he doesn't make his teams better. He's selfish, makes bad choices in critical moments and can't play with is back to the basket. No trip to the finals with him on your squad.

10. Item: One of the strongest rumors over the weekend that emerged was the Memphis Grizzlies have offered free agent Damon Stoudamire, 32 next month, a four-year, $17 million contract.

What this really means: It's hard to believe that president Jerry West has offered the diminutive Stoudamire that kind of contract just so he can ship Williams out of town. With backup point guard Earl Watson, their primary on-the-ball defender, leaving as a free agent, the concept that they'd bring in the diminutive Stoudamire, older and an even worse defender than Williams, for that much money when they already got Bobby Jackson in a multi-player deal for Bonzi Wells last week. Considering how strongly owner Michael Heisley has emphasized cutting the payroll, and the desire that both West and coach Mike Fratello have to re-make this team, it's hard to believe they're going to invest this much money in Stoudamire out of the blocks unless there is a sign-and-trade involved.

And you thought there was a lot of activity last year? Fasten your seat belts, we ain't seen nothing yet.

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