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Van Gundy On Even Shorter Leash

You just have to love the NBA?s off-season.  

 Not only did we all have to wait an entire month for a moratorium on signings to be lifted, thanks to a new collective bargaining agreement that seemingly took forever to be ratified (contrary to the National Hockey League?s new CBA, which took roughly a week to be signed, sealed and delivered), but only in the Association can you find blockbuster trades that border on the near ridiculous.

 In what other pro sports league can you find trades that involve five teams and 13 players?  That?s right, FIVE teams and 13 players!  Are you kidding me?

 There?s a certain someone in South Beach who isn?t laughing right now, however, and that?s Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy.  If the third-year bench boss was under an intense amount of scrutiny following team president Pat Riley?s declaration that he missed coaching, Van Gundy is on an even shorter leash now that the Heat appear to have fortified their roster tremendously.

 If expectations were at an all-time high in Miami after the Heat were one game away from reaching the Finals (had Miami been healthy, they may very well have reached the championship round), you?d have to consider them as the heavy favorite to win it all in ?05-?06 after Tuesday?s blockbuster, which saw Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey added to an already potent nucleus.

 While Heat fans will relish the added optimism heading into the season, the heat (no pun intended, of course) will be on Van Gundy even further to produce championship results.  Now that Riley and GM Randy Pfund have provided the ingredients, it will be up to Van Gundy to make sure all the high-priced, All-Star pieces fit together.

 That means ensuring the Big Aristotle gets his touches down low in the post, especially in crunch time; it means ensuring that Dwyane Wade, even with the arrival of Williams on board as the team?s new starting point guard, still has the ball in his hands a good percentage of the time and is given freedom to drive the lane; it means ensuring that Walker, though he is firmly entrenched as the third wheel on offense, has a well-defined role; and it also means ensuring that Williams does not become a malcontent and snap at members of the media every chance he gets.

 An interesting dilemma for Van Gundy, to say the least.  

 Walker has been used to playing a primary role offensively throughout his career, but his game, especially his ability to hit the 3-pointer and post-up presence, is well-suited to playing alongside Shaq and Flash.  Williams, providing he?s mentally stable, is an upgrade over Damon Jones, regardless of the year Jones had in ?04-?05, while Posey is a younger version of Eddie Jones, who was sent packing to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of Tuesday?s deal.   So there is no denying the talent level has received a huge upgrade and, at least on paper, Miami appears poised to get over the hump this season.

 But all eyes, at least early on, will be on Van Gundy.  If he can?t do a better job of massaging egos and defining roles, and more importantly win, then Riley, who you know remains waiting in the wings, will be ready to come down from the presidential suite and make his triumphant return behind the bench.  

 So whether Riley, Van Gundy or anyone in the Heat?s front office will care to admit it or not, the head coach is clearly on borrowed time if he fails to deliver results this season.  Van Gundy has performed admirably as a head coach thus far, but unlike in his first two seasons on the job, where the Heat were regarded as one of the league?s feel-good stories, simply making strides this season is not enough.  

 It?s championship-or-bust time in South Beach.  And no one knows that more than Van Gundy himself.  

 Kostas.Bolos@realgm.com

Despite Breakout Season, Suns Better Off Without Johnson

In an off-season that has produced one wacky transaction after another - from the Milwaukee Bucks offering $47 million to, yes, Bobby Simmons to the Knicks shelling out $10 mil a year in order for Larry Brown to live out his ?dream? ? there has not been a more puzzling development than the Joe Johnson-to-Atlanta saga.

 Whether you feel ? as I do ? the Bucks grossly overspent this summer in landing not only Simmons but also re-upping with franchise player Michael Redd (six years, $90-96 million) and Dan Gadzuric (six years, $36 million), at least the franchise and its fans have a real sense of optimism heading into the upcoming season.  The ?Larrygate? scandal was a complete joke with a far-too-predictable outcome, but nevertheless Brown?s Gotham arrival instantly assures the Knicks will be much improved.
 
 But the expected Joe Johnson-to-Atlanta sign-and-trade scenario, which is expected to go down on Tuesday when the league?s moratorium on signings is lifted at noon EST, is both baffling and tragic.  

 Free agency is all about business and looking out for number one, but here?s a player in Johnson whose career got off to a less-than-desirable start in Boston.  While the Celtics were quick to rid themselves of Johnson early on in his rookie season in 2001-2002, the Suns took a flyer on him, and as a result JJ blossomed into one of the more complete players in the league last season while Phoenix emerged into a Western Conference power.  

 The Suns wanted Johnson then and still very much wanted him throughout the entire off-season as he became a restricted free agent.  Teammates, particularly reigning league MVP Steve Nash and Shawn Marion, openly campaigned for his return, while management vowed they would take all steps necessary in retaining his services.   How could they not?  Johnson is coming off a season in which he averaged 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and shot 46% from the field and a whopping 47.8% from beyond the arc.  

 Yet despite all the pleas and assurances, Johnson, seemingly a vital cog in Phoenix?s championship aspirations, now finds himself in, of all NBA destinations, Atlanta?  

 Yes, that?s right.  Atlanta, where the lowly Hawks are coming off the heels of a league-worst 13-69 record last season.  Atlanta, where, on a good night, 5,000 faithful will show up to Phillips Arena to watch their beloved team.  

 While the Hawks have been able to stockpile some interesting pieces through the draft the last two years, they don?t figure to be anywhere near competitive for at least three more years.  Not in the Eastern Conference, where the likes of Indiana, Detroit, Miami, New Jersey, Chicago, Washington and now Cleveland all expect to be playoff fixtures.  

 Contrast the Hawks? dismal situation to Johnson?s former team in Phoenix, where the Suns have quietly had one of the more productive off-seasons in the league with the additions of Kurt Thomas and Raja Bell, and you have to wonder where Johnson?s head is at, especially when the Suns figure to be even better this season than last year?s 62-win squad.

 But that?s right, Johnson isn?t about winning.  You could say he?s all about the money, but when you consider that Phoenix was ready to match the five-year, $70 million offer that the Hawks coughed up, it?s about more than that, too.

 In the end, Johnson leaving the desert for the Hawks is about fame, about being ?The Man.?  Johnson was a complimentary part in Phoenix - a valuable one, mind you - but in Atlanta the spotlight ? whatever spotlight there is in that city ? will be focused squarely on JJ.  He?ll step in right away and not only be the go-to guy but the leader and face of the franchise.  

 Johnson will also be playing his favorite position, it seems: point guard.

 ?I love the idea (of the Hawks inserting Johnson as the team?s starting point guard).  I?d love that, having the ball in my hands,? Johnson recently told ESPN.com?s Marc Stein.  ?I think I?m a great shooter, but I think that?s where I?m most effective, making decisions.?

 With a myriad of athletic small forwards on the Hawks? roster who can run the floor, Johnson will surely get the opportunity to be more of a distributor.  But unlike in Phoenix, where Johnson was hardly considered the focus of opposing defenses, he?ll surely be the target of numerous double and perhaps even triple-teams this season in Atlanta, and it remains to be seen how he?ll adapt.

 Even if the Hawks show improvement this season, and they should, they?ll be lucky to win more than 25 games.  Maybe they?ll win 30 in JJ?s second year, and perhaps hover around .500 and compete for a playoff spot in year three.  By that time, Phoenix may very well have won a championship.

 The Suns, though they would have liked to have Johnson back, aren?t about to crumble anytime soon.  In fact, they?re better off without Johnson - and his big ego - at this point.  

 On paper, yes, Phoenix will hurt without Johnson?s versatility out on the floor.  But don?t discount what GM Bryan Colangelo has been able to accomplish this summer.  

 Colangelo went out and acquired Thomas from the Knicks for Quentin Richardson (I?m going to go out on a limb right here and say that Thomas? acquisition was the biggest move of the summer by any team, just as far as the impact Thomas will bring to the Suns from a toughness standpoint) and signed free-agent Raja Bell, a tough defender and a very underrated ball-handler and shooter in his own right.   With those two moves alone, even with Johnson?s departure, you?d have to consider Phoenix as a legitimate contender.

 As valuable as JJ was to the Suns last season, the core of the team remains built around Amare Stoudemire, Nash and Marion (even though "The Matrix" was less than stellar in last spring?s playoffs).  Coughing up, as the Hawks are seemingly prepared to do, $20 million up front to a player who may very well have been a malcontent had he returned just was not worth the risk for Phoenix.  

 The grass isn?t always greener on the other side.  JJ will find that out soon enough.

 But that?s okay.  At least he?ll be regarded as ?The Man? for one of the NBA?s worst franchises.  

Kostas.Bolos@realgm.com

Brown?s ?Dream Job? May Prove To Be A Nightmare

Well, now that ?Larrygate? has just about reached its long overdue denouement, I?m left asking myself and you, the reader, one simple question:  

 How did we allow ourselves to be played like complete dupes throughout this whole comical ordeal?

 For weeks, we were all taken for a Larry Brown magic carpet ride as the 64-year-old Hall of Famer allegedly ?pondered? his future in the Motor City.  We anxiously waited for a resolution, when really, we should have known better because Brown?s Motown exodus was carved out long before he met with Pistons brass on July 13.

 Sure, Brown stressed on numerous occasions that he wanted to coach the Pistons and only the Pistons.    Detroit, according to Brown, was undoubtedly going to be the last coaching stop in what has been a legendary career.  Pistons brass, meanwhile, let it be known that Brown had all the time in the world to get healthy before deciding his coaching fate.  

 But all along, we knew (or at least we should have known) that the Brown-Pistons marriage was doomed to end in divorce at some point, and sooner rather than later.   Just as it did in Philadelphia, and Indiana, etc.

 And wasn?t it just so convenient that a couple of days after Brown was fired/bought out, the Pistons had a news conference scheduled to announce none other than Flip Saunders as the team?s next head coach while Brown and Knicks president Isiah Thomas were in heated contract negotiations in the Hamptons?  

 Things that make you go ?Hm.?

 Well, again, we should have known better.  In fact, shame on us for thinking that Brown?s meeting with the Pistons covered anything other than a contract buyout.  There was just no conceivable way that the Pistons would welcome Brown back as coach after all of the drama the franchise endured last season.  Wins or no wins, there just comes a point where Brown?s flirtations with other NBA suitors begins to rub employers the wrong way, and it obviously did so in the case of Detroit owner Bill Davidson.

 Now as far as who winds up ?winning? in the end, Brown or the Pistons?  Well, you would have to like the Pistons coming out on top, even though Brown was the proverbial missing piece in the franchise?s title run two seasons ago.
 
 Saunders is no Brown, but he?s a more-than-capable replacement who, for arguably the first time in his career, has the horses to lead him to the Promised Land.  There may be no KG on the Pistons? roster, but there is certainly more depth as well as better team chemistry in Detroit ? two setbacks which led to Saunders? dismissal from the T-Wolves last season.  

 Brown, meanwhile, is known for his Midas touch, but he?ll have his work cut out for him should he accept Isiah?s lucrative offer (and again, we think it?s a forgone conclusion that Brown is in the Big Apple next season).  

 Forget that New York was a dismal 33-49 last season, good for last in the Atlantic Division (tied with the Toronto Raptors) and 11th in the Eastern Conference; bad teams can have quick turnarounds, especially with the right coach at the helm.  But you wonder if even Brown can come in and perform his magic with this current Knicks squad.
 
 Thomas, despite constantly retooling the Knicks? roster in the two-plus years he has been on board, still has no room to work with under the salary cap, so Brown pretty much will adopt a roster that is filled with either youngsters trying to carve their niche in the league (last time we checked, Brown was never a believer in developing youth at the expense of winning now) or over-rated, underachieving players with burdensome contracts.

 If Brown indeed pursues his dream, will he learn to be patient with the ever-developing Trevor Ariza, who at only 20 years old figures to be a fixture in the Knicks lineup for the next several seasons?   Or Channing Frye, New York?s first-round draft pick this year and a player who is still very much a project?  Or Mike Sweetney?  Will Brown be able to harness Jamal Crawford and teach him to become more aggressive offensively and less of a 3-point chucker?  

 And then, of course, all eyes will be on how Brown handles point guard Stephon Marbury.  

 It is imperative for the two to co-exist on the court, in much the same way Brown and Allen Iverson did so in Philadelphia for six seasons (though they had their fair share of off-the-court issues), for New York to have any chance of challenging for a playoff birth in the East. There hasn?t been a coach thus far who?s been able to harness Marbury?s talent. Brown will have to be the first to do so if the Knicks are to compete next season.

 And to prevent Brown's dream job from turning into a nightmare.

 Kostas.Bolos@realgm.com

Showtime In South Beach?

With Shaq unhappy and the Heat on the cusp of championship glory, it?s no coincidence Pat Riley wants to return behind the bench. Whether or not Riley can come in and help put Miami over the hump is anyone?s guess; Riley hasn?t exactly enjoyed a ton of success since his Showtime days in L.A.

End The Drama, Let Brown Walk

Even though he may not want to, it?s time Pistons team president Joe Dumars put an end to the ?Larrygate? scandal and part ways with his Hall of Fame head coach, Kostas Bolos says.

Third Time?s A Charm

While Milwaukee?s Michael Redd and Seattle?s Ray Allen may have been so-called sexier free-agent names, the Cavaliers are better off with Larry Hughes as LeBron?s sidekick, Kostas Bolos says.

Make-or-Break Off-Season For Cavs

With boat loads of money to spend this off-season, the Cleveland Cavaliers will look to buy their way into respectability, Kostas Bolos says. But beware; money doesn?t always buy free-agent love.

Another Babcock Draft Blunder

Another year, another first-round reach for Raptors general manager Rob Babcock. If last year?s selection of Araujo was, to say the least, a bona fide reach, then what can you say about the first of his two first-round picks, Connecticut power forward Charlie Villanueva, whom Babcock selected, yes, seventh overall?

Draft Dilemma: Need vs. Best Talent Available

To draft for need, or the best available talent? That is the question NBA general managers must ask themselves on draft night, Kostas Bolos says.

Duncan Legacy Talk Nonsense

As if there was any doubt, Tim Duncan solidified his status as one of the NBA?s all-time greats, putting an end ? finally ? to all the foolish legacy talk, Kostas Bolos says.

Stern, NBA On Cloud Nine

With a new collective-bargaining agreement in place and a Game 7 on the horizon, NBA Commissioner Stern has to be feeling pretty good about himself and his league these days, Kostas Bolos says.

Mission Accomplished: Spurs Head Back Home In Control Of Destiny

The Spurs? Palace venture may have been less than memorable, but thanks to their leader (Tim Duncan) and biggest clutch player (Robert Horry), the defending champs now find themselves on the ropes heading back to San Antonio.

Two Down, One To Go

The Pistons are now in the driver?s seat, you say? Not until they win Game 5, Kostas Bolos says.

Finals Over

A less than alluring NBA Finals to begin with just keeps getting more unbearable to watch. But at least it?ll be over soon, Kostas Bolos writes.

The NBA Finals No One Wants To See

The Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs are the NBA?s top two teams, but why do we have to see them in the Finals?

Gilbert?s Impatience Wearing Thin

New Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert should just take a deep breath (for once) and remain patient in his courtship of Larry Brown.

Enjoy OK Corral Basketball While It Lasts

With the Phoenix Suns on the brink of elimination, enjoy the Wild West shootouts while they last, Kostas Bolos says.

No Hype, No Problem

While it would have been nice to have some build-up prior to the Western Conference finals, the Suns and Spurs are doing their talking on the court, Kostas Bolos says.

NBA Heading Down A Slippery Slope

A breakdown in communication between the NBA and its Players? Association will result in labor Armageddon, RealGM?s Kostas Bolos says.

Are The Wizards Better Without Arenas?

Washington?s Gilbert Arenas had an outstanding season. But he was also a detriment to his team in the playoffs.

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