After a whirlwind free agency period, the balance of power in the NBA looks a lot different than it did less than a month ago.
With the NBA season set to begin, the only impact free agents left on the board are four players stuck in China -- Kenyon Martin, JR Smith, Wilson Chandler and Aaron Brooks -- until March.
And while the Chris Paul sweepstakes have dominated the headlines, the real domino hanging over more than a half-dozen franchises is Dwight Howard’s final destination.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: The one elite team who could afford to stand pat, and they mostly did. Now they have to handle the heavy burden of title expectations while trying to manage the egos of three emerging young stars -- Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden -- looking for their first big NBA contracts.
2. Miami Heat: They plugged their hole at point guard by re-signing Mario Chalmers and drafting Norris Cole, but they’ve done little to address their undersized frontline. With roster flexibility for capped-out teams limited in the new CBA, there’s no point in keeping Mike Miller and signing Shane Battier if they aren’t going to play in the fourth-quarter, which means they must be comfortable with a frontline of LeBron James and Chris Bosh closing out playoff games. It’s something Don Nelson would have tried.
3. Chicago Bulls: They are still an excellent defensive team with an MVP candidate, but they haven’t fixed their match-up problems with Miami, the team standing in their way. They need another shot-creator to take pressure off Derrick Rose, and a 33-year-old Richard Hamilton isn’t the solution. They have two attractive trade chips: Omer Asik, a restricted free agent next season they’re unlikely to be able to afford, and Nikola Mirotic, a 6’10+ European sharp-shooter they stole at the end of the first round.
4. New York Knicks: Adding Tyson Chandler, the second-best defensive center in the NBA, changes everything for the Knicks. For Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Baron Davis, all of whom have been accused of not exactly giving 100% defensively in their careers, this season comes down to one thing. Rule #76: No excuses, play like a champion.
5. Dallas Mavericks: What Chandler did defensively and on the offensive glass is irreplaceable, but they were able to pull a rabbit out of their hat by turning him into a trade exception that netted them Lamar Odom. If anyone can figure out how to make a frontcourt rotation of Brendan Haywood, Dirk Nowitzki, Odom and Shawn Marion work, it’s Rick Carlisle.
The Tier Below
6. Portland Trail Blazers: They added Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford to the most versatile defensive frontcourt in the NBA, giving themselves some much needed offensive firepower from the perimeter. If LaMarcus Aldridge can play like an MVP candidate on both sides of the floor, they could surprise.
7. Los Angeles Lakers: After spending most of the offseason enmeshed in the Chris Paul sweepstakes, they never addressed their sub-par perimeter defense, which Jason Terry and JJ Barea exposed in last year’s playoffs. Losing Odom for a trade exception is a devastating blow, but if it helps them create a trio of Howard, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant, all will be forgiven.
8. Memphis Grizzlies: For a young team poised to make a championship run, Darrell Arthur’s season-ending knee injury is a big loss. However, they do have a surplus of young shooting guards (OJ Mayo, Xavier Henry, Josh Selby) to acquire frontcourt depth. Rudy Gay’s ability to mesh with a team that improved in his absence is still their biggest question.
9. Los Angeles Clippers: With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the offense is already championship-caliber. But the additions of Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler have made them a surprisingly old team, which means their season will depend on whether DeAndre Jordan is ready to play like a $10 million a year center defensively.
10. Boston Celtics: They significantly upgraded their frontcourt rotation by turning Glen Davis into Brandon Bass and adding Chris Wilcox, but neither can fill the shoes of a healthy Kendrick Perkins. Adequate play from the center position isn’t enough now that they no longer have the match-up edge at the 3 and 4 positions against New York and Miami.
11. San Antonio Spurs: They return the core of a 61-win team, and their two best players are 35 (Tim Duncan) and 34 (Manu Ginobili). Their time to win is now, yet they have done nothing to address their hole at the power forward position in the offseason, even though they will likely face either Dirk, Gasol, Griffin, Aldridge or Zach Randolph in the first round.
12. Atlanta Hawks: Tracy McGrady, if he can stay healthy, is an underrated addition, and he gives them one of the NBA’s biggest and most skilled backcourts. However, after losing in the second round to three different teams in the last three years, their core looks like it has a firm ceiling.
13. Orlando Magic: With Howard almost assuredly gone at the end of the year, this position is a place-holder until they figure out how much they can get for him. For a franchise about to undergo a massive re-building process, committing $50 million over the next four years to Jason Richardson and Glen Davis is a curious decision.
14. Indiana Pacers: With Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert, they have a skilled trio of frontcourt players who can pass and shoot. However, they still don’t have an elite interior defender or a player who can consistently command double teams, which is why it’s hard to see them getting out of the first round.
Fringe Playoff Teams
15. Denver Nuggets: They’ve got four solid starters in Nene, Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson, but losing three free agents to China (Smith, Chandler and Martin) is a huge blow. Not only was their depth their biggest weapon last season, they have a glaring hole at power forward in a conference full of All-NBA caliber big men.
16. Milwaukee Bucks: They’ve quietly had a solid off-season, as Beno Udrih, Mike Dunleavy and Stephen Jackson should improve the league’s lowest-rated offense. Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut are both talented players, and if either is going to make the jump to stardom, now is the time.
17. Philadelphia 76ers: While the teams behind them in the Eastern Conference have upgraded with reliable veterans, the 76ers are pinning their hopes in the frontcourt on rookie center Nikola Vucevic. Jrue Holiday should emerge as a bonafide All-Star, which makes their decision to take Evan Turner over a number of talented 6’10+ big men in the 2010 draft even more indefensible.
18. Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash and a frontcourt with two athletic 7’0 (Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez) and two good 6’10+ shooters (Channing Frye and Markieff Morris) is still a dangerous team. But with Nash entering free agency after this season, he could be one of the most interesting players available at the trade deadline.
19. Houston Rockets: While their front office is clearly still stewing about David Stern’s veto, the package Stern got from the Clippers, which included an under-25 star (Eric Gordon) and Minnesota’s unprotected #1, is a much better deal for a rebuilding team than Houston’s collection of middling veterans. Stern didn’t want to put the Hornets on the mediocrity treadmill, which is exactly where the Rockets are right now.
20. New Jersey Nets: No franchise has a wider range of possible outcomes over the next 12 months than the Nets. If they can pair Howard with Deron Williams, they’ll be one of the NBA’s top-five teams. If they can’t, there’s no real reason for Williams to re-sign next summer, and his departure would put them firmly in the league’s bottom-five.
Flashes of Competence
21. Utah Jazz: If they are committed to building around Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, two 6’10+ big men taken in the top-three the last two years, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are interesting trade assets in a big-man starved league. And if they can add a young perimeter All-Star, either through trades or the draft, they’ll have one of the NBA’s most intriguing young cores.
22. Golden State Warriors: They’re going to need Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown to play some great interior defense, as any team that prominently features Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Klay Thompson and David Lee is going to give up a lot of dribble penetration. Giving $80 million to Lee, a power forward who can’t adequately defend his position or create his own shot, may end up killing this franchise.
23. Washington Wizards: Andray Blatche recently vowed to his teammates that he “was willing to die” for them on the court this season. They’d probably be happy if he stopped carelessly turning the ball over, taking needlessly difficult shots and began exerting himself defensively. Either way, they still have a talented young core (John Wall, Javale McGee, Chris Singleton, Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin) to develop.
24. Sacramento Kings: Chuck Hayes’ ability to pass out of the high post and take the tougher interior assignment defensively should make the life of DeMarcus Cousins a lot easier. Cousins and Tyreke Evans have the talent to make them dangerous, but the franchise, which may or may not be moved, is hardly the beacon of off-court stability the two mercurial youngsters need.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves: The additions of Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams have expectations high in Minnesota, but they aren’t going to improve a defense rated 27th in the NBA last season. Handing the diminutive JJ Barea $20 million isn’t helping either.
26. Detroit Pistons: Why is a rebuilding team giving a 31-year-old Tayshaun Prince $30 million for four years? Why give Rodney Stuckey $25 million when he’s just going to take shots from Brandon Knight, the combo guard they just drafted in the lottery? Why have the Pistons had four coaches in five years? Even Jadakiss could figure this one out.
Thinking About 2012
27. New Orleans Hornets: If they can find long-term answers at center and power forward with two lottery picks in a 2012 draft full of talented big men, this franchise could be turned around very quickly. The key will be convincing Eric Gordon, the NBA’s best young shooting guard, to stay long-term, which won’t be easy until the league can find an owner.
28. Toronto Raptors: Jonas Valanciunas, the 19-year-old Lithuanian center who may end up becoming the best player in the 2011 draft, offers hope, even if he’s staying in Europe this season. For now, the Raptors will try to figure out how many of their young players -- Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, DeMar DeRozan, James Johnson and Jerryd Bayless -- are worth keeping around.
29. Charlotte Bobcats: Grabbing Byron Mullens, a raw and athletic 22-year old 7’1 center, for a second-round pick is exactly the type of move a rebuilding team should make. Under new GM Rich Cho, who worked under Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, the Bobcats seem to be following the slash-and-burn rebuilding strategy Presti perfected. Tyrus Thomas, Corey Maggette and Boris Diaw could soon follow Chandler, Felton, Stephen Jackson, Nazr Mohammed and Gerald Wallace out the door in Charlotte.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers: They’ve got a long ways to go, but Kyrie Irving, a point guard who you can build your offense around, and Tristan Thompson, a power forward you can build your defense around, are good starts. Dan Gilbert hasn’t been shy about spending money, the most important aspect of ownership, but he should remember that the old saying: “better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”