Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The free agent phenomenon, locally and abroad

I remember the first time I met Yi Jianlian, the newest Washington Wizard. Well, meet probably isn't an accurate word. I actually just sat in a room jampacked with Chinese journalists at the 2007 NBA Draft, who instead of asking Yi about getting drafted by Milwaukee, just wanted to know whether he was going to demand a trade considering the only thing relevant I could find on google when I typed in "Milwaukee Chinese" was a place called Long Wong's.

But Tuesday, I got a little re-introduction to Yi when the Nets essentially gave him up for free to the Wizards in exchange for precious cap space as we approach judgment hour in the biggest NBA free agent extravaganza the world has ever seen. Except this trade, and the draft day deal that brought Kirk Hinrich and the 17th pick last week's draft, likely means the Wizards will be on the sidelines when the bonanza begins at midnight.

Now in any other circumstance, I would wholeheartedly agree with the approach Ted Leonsis is taking now that he's the majority owner of the Washington Wizards. Just like he did with the Capitals a decade ago, he wants the product to bottom out and build fresh off the draft.

The stats back him up, too. Take a glance at the past 20 or so NBA champions and each were led by a seminal talent cultivated through the draft rather than free agency or a trade. There's the Bulls and Michael Jordan, the Lakers with Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, the Celtics with Larry Bird and most recently Paul Pierce, the Pistons and Isiah Thomas, the Spurs and Tim Duncan, or the Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon. I guess the only exception is that Pistons squad that won back in 2004, but in general that team has been an outlier of sorts compared to other champions because they lacked a true superstar.

This template has worked wonderfully (in the regular season, at least) for Leonsis in regards to the Capitals. Much of the team's nucleus -- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Semyon Varlamov, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz to name a few -- have come either via the draft or a trade when the franchise was de-constructing itself earlier this decade. Here's how Leonsis himself related all this together recently on his blog, Ted's Take:
The draft is important because a young, great player gets identified with the team; the fans fall in love with the player over a long period of time; the coach gets to help build a system around that player’s basic skill set; that player helps to build the identity of the team. And younger players are less expensive than max free agents, so they allow you to build more options and have more depth. And I believe when the time comes, your own young players should be courted, respected, treated, and wooed like they are free agents. I prefer to reward people that we know and trust more than players we don’t know and have contributed to another system and franchise.
Generally speaking that is a very wise, level-headed way to run a business. And frankly, amidst the hoopla that's always going on at Redskins Park during free agent signing periods, a breath of fresh air. But part of me is lusting for a little bit of Snyder to transfix itself inside Leonsis's head. Because this isn't a normal year in free agency, and to treat it like that is foolish. There are literally three no doubt Hall of Famers (LeBron, DWade, and Dirk) and numerous All Star types (Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and Rudy Gay to name some) right there for the taking.

In the Post this morning, Wizards beat writer Michael Lee said the only comparable year in the NBA's free agency era was 1996, "when Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Reggie Miller and Gary Payton were available." But considering MJ had no real intentions of leaving Chitown (just wanted to scare them into giving him more money), I would say this class is bigger and better. The only other recent comparison is probably 2000, when Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, and an in-his-prime Grant Hill were all available -- but that class dropped off precipitously from there.

At worst then, this year's flux of free agents is a once-in-a-15-year occurance. So if you have plenty of cap space -- something the Wizards had before the Hinrich and Yi deals courtesy of their midseason roster purge -- why would you sit on the sidelines? And why would the two trades you do make to upgrade the roster be for middling players that in the end just give a couple Eastern Conference rivals (in this case, the Bulls and the Nets) greater flexibility to go out and sign some of these fantastic players on the market? Patience aside, it just doesn't make sense unless your plan to get another star player besides John Wall (it pains me to admit it but Gilbert no longer fits under this disclaimer) is to be terrible again and get another top 5 pick in next year's draft.

All those rumors about maybe signing Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony next year? Chances are if he doesn't sign an extension with the Nuggets soon, he might just end up on the trading block so Denver doesn't lose him for nothing. Would he sign a max deal to play with the Wizards and John Wall next offseason? Maybe, but he's also going to be the crown jewel of an otherwise blah year of free agency. And don't think he hasn't been paying attention to the stir his buddies LeBron and DWade have caused hijacking the NBA offseason. Simply put, if Melo becomes a free agent, the Wiz won't be the only team courting his services.

I'm not even considering DC area native Kevin Durant, who becomes a restricted free agent in 2011. He's already in discussions with Oklahoma City about a long term extension and has said as much recently:
"No," Durant answered, when I asked if he's ever thought about coming home. "I mean, I'm just worried about Oklahoma City. I never envision myself playing at home, but you never know what'll happen. But I'm happy I'm in Oklahoma City, if that's what you're asking."

That leaves the Wizards average at best on the court, in my opinion. The addition of John Wall along with Gilbert Arenas's return is going to make them respectable and maybe even a threat for the 8th playoff spot -- and therefore another top-five pick in the draft is unlikely. So what is the Wizards' brass doing here? Building through the draft is a novel concept, but blissfully ignoring everything else just doesn't make much sense when established stars are sitting right at your feet.

Some other thoughts heading into the free agent frenzy:

*Speaking of Wizards' brass, I was reminded yesterday of my growing contempt for all things Ernie Grunfeld when it was announced Randy Foye would be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent. Combined with Mike Miller's impending free agency, it means the Wizards traded the No. 5 pick (Ricky Rubio's rights) to Minnesota for one-year rentals that helped Washington to a XX-XX record. Though Rubio's stock has fallen this year since he can't guard quick point guards, if he does anything resembling this once he comes to America, someone should have Grunfeld's head on a platter.

The guy has been living off his Caron Butler-for-Kwame Brown steal for way too long now. He's the guy who basically got Al Thornton in exchange for Caron, Haywood, and Jamison at the deadline this year (and don't you dare include the five games Josh Howard played in those trades). He's the one who signed Gilbert to his atrocious contract. And if Leonsis is looking to build through the draft, well, take a look at Grunfeld's selections through the years:

2003: Jarvis Hayes, 10th overall; Steve Blake 38th overall
2004: Devin Harris, 5th overall (traded to Dallas for Antawn Jamison); Peter John Ramos, 33rd overall
2005: Andray Blatche, 49th overall
2006: Oleksiy Pecherov, 18th overall; Vladimir Veremeenko, 48th overall
2007: Nick Young, 16th overall; Dominic McGuire, 47th overall
2008: JaVale McGee, 18th overall;
2009: Nada. Zilch. Zero.
2010: John Wall, 1st overall; Kevin Seraphin, 17th overall; Trevor Booker, 23rd overall

So you're Ted Leonsis and you have this draft-first philosophy and this is who you entrust to carry that strategy out? I'm surprised he could even walk by Grunfeld's office and ignore the stank, not to mention let him keep his job.

*Pat Riley could turn out to be the biggest player in the next couple of week, and I'm including LeBron, Dwade, and Bosh when I say that. I'm fairly certain Riley is going to pitch the trio of LeBron, DWade, and Bosh to take slight pay cuts with the, "You guys are the only reason I would come back to coaching" routine. This is going to be Riley's last hurrah, and if he somehow pulled it off, it could be his greatest achievement ever.

*What blew my mind about this year's class of free agents is the sheer amount of middle-of-the-road/past their prime players available. Names that stuck out to me were: Richard Jefferson, Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, Michael Redd, Kenyon Martin, David Lee, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Larry Hughes, Brad Miller, Chris Wilcox, Brendan Haywood, basically the entire 2009-10 Miami Heat, Darko Milicic, Bobby Simmons, Peja Stojakovic, Matt Barnes, Kyle Korver, and Josh Howard.

If I'm a contender (or the Wizards) I wait things out a little bit and then try to get someone like Michael Redd, Kenyon Martin, or Chris Wilcox on the cheap.

*Another interesting character in all of this is LeBron's business adviser Maverick Carter. LeBron fired his agent about five years ago and gave the reins to his buddy. I'm excited to see how the whole recruitment process goes. The rumors out there that LeBron would release a new shoe for each city he visits has already been denied by his people. They've also indicated Worldwide Wes won't play a role either (I'm not buying that, though). I'm still convinced LeBron goes to Chicago, the pressure of playing in the shadow of Michael Jordan be damned.

*I have two inclinations for the next three weeks. Most players will re-sign with their original teams or everything will be turned upside down. I don't know if we'll see no movement or watch player after player switch teams. I think out of the big names, Bosh is definitely on the move and Amare is almost certainly out of Phoenix. Aside from that, I think Joe Johnson is back with Atlanta, Boozer might go but only if someone is foolish enough to offer him a max deal. I have no idea what's in store for Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. Although I think the wild card nobody seems to think will leave is Dirk Nowitzki. Am I wrong when I say it would be scarier if LeBron paired himself with the German over Bosh?


Dan Feldman said...

Ben Wallace was a superstar.

Matt Brown said...

Definitely agree that Lebron + Dirk + Rebounding Center would be better than Bosh and Lebron.

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