Memphis might just fool everyone who thinks they got worse by trading Rudy Gay. The one problem was that Rudy Gay was demanding touches on the offensive end and was taking more shots than Zach Randolph. But Memphis' biggest advantage over most (if not all) NBA teams is the impossibly big, strong and skilled combination of Randolph and Gasol. By running their offense through the post through these two players, Memphis really need a role player at the 3 rather than another star. They will now get that in Tayshaun Prince. In fact people seem to forget that when Memphis upset San Antonio in the 2011 playoffs, they were playing without Rudy Gay. They started Sam Young at the 3 and had the priceless contributions of Shane Battier off the bench. Now Tayshaun Prince can play the Battier role of veteran leader/defender (albeit a slightly worse outside shooter), but also a guy who doesn't demand any plays being run for him.

Also somewhat underappreciated went the fact that Memphis got Ed Davis who was having a fantastic season in Toronto, particularly after injuries to Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas gave him the starting spot. Davis will effectively replace Marreese Speights who was traded to Cleveland in a salary-dump move. Davis is slightly smaller than Speights but can also play both spots and gives Memphis possibly the best 4-bigs rotation in the league in Gasol, Randolph, Davis and Arthur.

We will see whether the Rudy Gay deal was a good one for Memphis but we should definitely not sleep on them for trading a star player for a role player. It could be a case of addition by subtraction.

 
 
Dear Commissioner,

I am the head coach of one of the 30 NBA franchises. Following the San Antonio Spurs ban for resting some of their players (which I absolutely think you nailed it since you are the best commissioner ever and every decision you make is as irrefutable as if it were a law), I’d like to inform you ahead of time that I would like to maybe rest a couple of guys at some point this season (if you would allow and if it is a righteous thing to do).

First of all, let me assure you that I have no plans to rest players when my team plays on national television… duh, I couldn’t be that stupid, could I.

I would like to improvise with a shorter rotation of only 9 guys over the next week. This means that I would have 4 guys inactive for the next game. I will PM you their names and wait for your permission. Then, for the next game, I’d probably play one of those guys if the game is not close in the end. Is that fine with you as well? Am I allowed to do that on a hunch or should I mail you in advance to let you know whether he will play? Or even better, should you mail me and tell me whether he should play?

Also, I am thinking of a radical move that I hope you would allow. One of my star players is getting long in the tooth and I was thinking of reducing his minutes slightly to better preserve him. He usually plays around 33 minutes per game but I’d like to get that number down to 32 minutes… (sigh). I know, radical. I sincerely hope such a drastic reduction of a star player’s minutes is not something that puts the NBA in the best light but the guy has been battling various injuries in his past and is recovering more slowly with age. I truly hope this move would not make the NBA lose money from unhappy fans who could not possibly watch so many minutes of a basketball game without seeing their favorite player in it. Please, Commissioner, consider my reasons for this intention and let me know whether I would be allowed to do that.

Last but not least, there is this rookie on my roster, a lottery pick at that. He didn’t just hit the rookie wall, he crashed so hard into it he is still seeing stars. I know that he is a lottery pick and a potential future star in the league and a blasphemous thought as not playing him would be immediately dismissed. However, his play is so atrocious at the moment that he is a net negative on the team. Please, Mr. Commissioner, allow my team to bench him until he gets back on track so that we have any shot of competing in our next few games. I promise he would always stay on the bench and the fans would hopefully not forget that he is in the league. I hope that if you have other thoughts about the playing time of my players, you will mail them so that I know which player should be played exactly how many minutes so that we follow all NBA guidelines and don’t end up getting fined.

Sincerely,

An (unfortunate) NBA head coach

 
 
The Indiana Pacers are a deep team with no legitimate superstar but with a bevy of very good players on every position who have been on the rise over the past several seasons and were even picked by some GMs as a potential Eastern Conference winner. This came after they took the Miami Heat to 6 games in last year’s Conference Semi-Finals (leading 2-1 at one point) and in the eyes of many pundits cemented their place as the second-best team in the East (at least until Derrick Rose returns from his injury).

The Pacers suffered a setback in training camp after Danny Granger suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for potentially 4-5 months. Still, it was assumed that Indiana have the depth and the talent to survive without Granger.

Danny Granger, an athletic 6-8 wing with unlimited range, has seen his per-game numbers drop every single season after his only All-Star Game appearance in 2009 and that has been the reason people believe he is not irreplaceable for the Pacers. The emergence of another athletic wing with 3-point range in 6-9 Paul George has been another reason Indiana were supposed to stay relevant until Granger returns. The fact that they have talented players at the other positions, including 2012 All-Star center Roy Hibbert, was enough for people to assume Indiana will not miss a beat.

12 games into their 2012-2013 campaign, the Pacers are 5-7, among the worst teams offensively (28th in PPG and Offensive Rating, 29th in FG% in front of the hapless 0-9 Wizards), albeit among the best defensive teams (1st in Defensive Rating and Defensive FG%, 2nd in pts allowed after the soaring Knicks). Their offensive struggles have been highlighted by Roy Hibbert’s abysmal stats so far (9.5 PPG on .407 FG compared to 12.8 on .497 last season). The problems actually go a lot deeper. Paul George is still putting good all-around stats but is nowhere near the go-to guy Granger used to be. The Pacers obviously are a defensive-minded team and putting all that effort on defense makes their offense sputter at times. (Indiana’s season-worst 72 points came against Toronto on Nov. 13 as the Pacers held their opponent to just 5 points in the final quarter, and still lost the game by 2 points.)

Granger had the ability to create his own shot and take shots from anywhere on the floor, off the dribble or as a spot-shooter. Possibly one reason his all-around stats have looked worse over the last two seasons is that opposing teams have been paying more attention on him, thus allowing Paul George and the other perimeter players to have more open looks.

Without Granger, Paul George has been thrust into the spotlight and is the main focus for opposing defenses. His 3-point % has dropped from .385 to .345 and his overall FG% has plummeted from .440 to .381. He is scoring 1.2 points less per 36 minutes, despite a 1.3 point increase per game. George Hill’s struggles have been even more alarming. Shaping out as a good shooter in San Antonio, Indiana-native Hill shot .442 in his first season as a Pacer, including .367 from 3. Those numbers are down to .393 FG (including a worrisome .264 from 3) – both career-worst. His per-36 scoring has gone only 0.2 points up despite taking 1.7 more shots per 36 and assuming a larger role in the offense. Last season, Hill started as a 6th man behind Darren Collison, and managed to supplant him from the starting spot with his solid performances. This season, with Collison gone, Hill is the incumbent starter, and Collison’s replacement D.J. Augustin has struggled more than all of his Indiana teammates: Augustin is scoring just 2.8 PPG (compared to 11.1 last season) on an unthinkable .217 FG (down from .376 which was career-worst last season), .226 from 3 and has not provided the bench play Indiana need from him.

Thus, Indiana’s perceived depth at the guard position has been non-existent. It has to be noted that an important late-season acquisition in 2012 in Leandro Barbosa provided much-needed offense and another player, capable of creating his own shot. Barbosa has effectively not been replaced and the Pacers’ perimeter players include Hill and Augustin (whose struggles have been mentioned), Paul George, Lance Stephenson and newcomers Sam Young and Gerald Green – players unable to create their own shots and depending largely on point-guard play.

The single bright spot for Indiana has been two-time All-Star PF David West. After having his worst scoring season since earning a starting spot with the Hornets in 2005-2006 (but playing in all 66 games after a knee injury), West has been under the radar and has returned to his solid career-averages. He has been showing his offensive arsenal recently and has turned into the Pacers’ leading scorer in the young season.

The Pacers’ biggest problems in the absence of Danny Granger have been not having a go-to guy (especially in late-game situations) and poor floor spacing. Their perimeter players have just not shot the 3-ball well enough with defenses locked in on them. Hibbert’s poor start of the season has exacerbated those problems as opposing defenses do not have to collapse in on him and leave the shooters wide open.

The Pacers need to address those problems as soon as possible if they hope to bounce back and return in the playoff picture in the East. The popular street-talk of the Eastern Conference being ‘easier’ is getting old and the reality is that you will find yourself outside of the top 8 spots if you do not adjust as the league adjusts to you. The Milwaukee Bucks learned that lesson the hard way after missing the playoffs 2 straight seasons on the heels of a playoff appearance that almost saw them upset the Atlanta Hawks in the first round in 2010; now the Bucks appear to be back to their strong play of 3 seasons ago. The Pacers, just like the Bucks, are a solid defensive team but they need to find their scoring back. Hibbert needs to return to his All-Star numbers of last season and role players like Hill, George and Augustin need to improve (some of them significantly). If that doesn’t happen, the Pacers might miss the playoffs despite being a realistic threat to the eventual champions only 6 months ago.

 
 
1. The Heat are a better team with Joel Anthony. Yes, you read that right. They prefer going small so they can play their 3-point shooters and usually play only one big at a time (currently Bosh or Haslem) plus either LeBron James or Shane Battier at the 4, depending on the matchup they prefer. They almost accepted the idea that they will most likely not block too many shots this season (currently 20th with 5.00 BPG as a team). But they give up more than that. The real value of a big man is not just the number of shots he blocks, it’s also the number of shots he alters by contesting them and the ones he changes by mere intimidation.

Joel Anthony may not be the biggest (standing at only 6-9) or most intimidating center in the league but he has a career achievement of 2.6 blocks per 36 mins (was 14th last season with 2.24 blocks per 36). He is also a hard-working guy who knows how to play solid defense and plays within his limitations on both ends of the floor. The Heat are still caught up in the frenzy of adding two veteran perimeter players in free agency who are deadly shooters from the perimeter in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis but neither of them (not even 6-10 Rashard Lewis) helps their perimeter defense. The Heat will surely blow out a lot of inferior teams (and some good ones) through sheer talent but there will be nights (like last night against the Clippers) where size will be more valuable than style. Last night, towards the end of the game, Erik Spoelstra went with Bosh and Haslem at the power positions, then a little bit of Anthony but it was too late. Losing one game is not that ominous in the 82-game season but it must have been an important sign to Spoelstra. Sure, there will be games where the Heat will play almost exclusively their small lineup and not go to Anthony but there also must be games where Anthony gets played either to match with an opposing big or to clog the lane and prevent penetrations and easy finishes at the rim. Both were troubling the Heat last night. Chris Bosh is a good defensive player and has a nice wingspan to add to his 6-11 frame but has been averaging less than a block per game since arriving in Miami and is not a shot-blocker and an intimidator. Udonis Haslem, even more than Bosh, is a PF being forced to play at center. Because both of them are good team defenders, they can play with each other, manning the 4 and 5 positions. But being the only big man and having either LeBron or Battier at the 4 is a task too tall for those players.

The Heat will certainly become a worse offensive team with Anthony on the floor. He is almost non-existent on offense (zero range, can’t even finish around the rim and often gets stuffed on layups or dunks by opponents or … by the rim), can’t make a pass that is more difficult than a hand-off and is only competent at setting picks. But his presence is always felt on the defensive end, and is arguably even more influential than his offense (he was just above league average in win shares per 48 last season, just as he has been over his career).

The verdict – basketball is a sport where size matters and a big man can alter the game more than a perimeter player can. The Miami Heat are good… too good to struggle continuously even with a small lineup. But some games will require Spoelstra to go to his unsexy lineup featuring two big men and eat the minutes of one of his 3-point shooters (Lewis is the player most likely to be hurt from this). 

2. The Knicks will be worse once Amare Stoudemire returns from his injury. Amare Stoudemire is a 6-time All-Star with career averages of 21.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG and 1.4 BPG on .533 FG. He has been among the premier big men in the NBA almost from the start of his career and has that elusive combination of inside-outside game. Why would then the Knicks struggle with Amare on the floor?

First of all, he has struggled with injuries over the last two seasons and they have noticeably altered his game. He has lost a step and most of that explosiveness. His defense has never been stellar despite the blocks and they will be the thing to go as his athleticism disappears. What shape he’ll return in is a big question mark. Will he be able to play heavy minutes and will he be the Amare Stoudemire we are used to seeing when he returns?

But most importantly, he is a poor fit in the Knicks lineup. Since they are set at center with Tyson Chandler, Amare has to start at PF. (Another option would be to come off the bench which will be discussed later.) This means Amare will take more jumpers and have less options to take it to the rim (which is still OK as Amare is a good mid-range shooter). But Amare will not be the Knicks’ go-to guy, not with Carmelo Anthony healthy. This adds to the problematic fit. Melo is a ball-dominant scorer who likes a lot of the same spots Amare likes (has an excellent mid-range game and likes to take it to the rim) and is an iso scorer. Since Tyson Chandler is their defensive anchor and nearly irreplaceable in that rotation, he is already clogging the lane. With Amare next to him, there is little to no space for Melo to use on his drives to the rim. Mike Woodson will surely try to use Amare when Melo is on the bench to give him adequate chances on the offensive end but Amare’s game will suffer as a whole.

Another nuance of the Melo/Amare fit problem is that Melo has been playing a lot better at the 4. Sure, he can’t guard most 4s but they can’t even touch him on the other end. With Amare playing at the 4, Melo returns to his SF position which is further away from the basket and where multiple perimeter defenders can bother him.

The Knicks have started the season great because of the newly-found balance on the offensive end where they now have guards who are glad to share the ball in Felton and Kidd and not another iso scorer in Lin, and are much improved defensively with the underrated veteran acquisitions of Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby (who is just returning from an injury). Those players make sure the Knicks defense no longer falls off a cliff when Tyson Chandler gets his rest. The problem is we already mentioned four big men without Amare being one of them. His playing time will mean less playing time for the combination of Thomas, Wallace and Camby which means worse defense.

 
 
Let me start with a disclaimer – I’m a die-hard Spurs fan. I am not one of those Miami haters that rooted against LeBron James from the day he made The Decision. As a matter of fact, I didn’t pick a side in last year’s finals. My San Antonio Spurs’ loss to the Thunder still hurt too much to root for them.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were fun to watch last season. They were damn good, too. Many people (including myself) believed they were the favorites against eventual champions Miami Heat. I’m pretty sure the majority of NBA fans believed that the Thunder again posed the biggest threat in front of the reigning champions for the 2012-2013 campaign.

The James Harden trade changed almost everybody’s perception of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Whether you love the trade or not (I don’t) you almost invariably have to acknowledge that the Thunder took at least a half-step back in their quest to the title.

(In a vacuum, it was a great trade – the Thunder took a very good player in Kevin Martin, a young player who could become a star or even the next James Harden in Jeremy Lamb, and draft picks. What I don’t like is that they traded him at all. You don’t break a championship-caliber team unless there is a Shaq-Kobe-scale feud going on.)

The Thunder traded Harden because they didn’t want to pay him max money. They didn’t want to pay him max money because of the luxury tax. I really doubt that they would have traded him if there was no luxury tax.

(Reports put the Thunder among teams who made a profit during the lockout-shortened season. Could they continue making a profit with three young marketable superstars even while being over the luxury tax is a different matter.)

The negotiations for a new CBA were supposedly all directed at keeping players from teaming up; at not allowing super teams to form or exist in the future. Some people argue that the revised luxury tax that gets even steeper for repeat offenders would actually accomplish the opposite – make it impossible for small-market teams to keep their stars. The Thunder’s unwillingness to pay James Harden his market price came as irrefutable evidence to that.

In reality, under the new CBA being in luxury-tax territory is expensive. Being unable to get under the cap for straight years makes it a nightmare. That’s what the Thunder were trying to avoid.

(Maybe the topic to a completely different discussion should be whether Kendrick Perkins is the single reason the Thunder didn’t extend and eventually traded Harden away.)

This is where I came up with an idea. I am fully aware that the salary cap issues and CBA regulations are strict guidelines that need to be as clear and straightforward as possible. Some issues are just impossible to solve in the confines of a max-salary soft-cap CBA. It appeared that the James Harden issue was one of those. Or is it?

My idea would allow teams like the Thunder who draft  exceptionally well to keep their superstars without being punished for drafting so well. It would alleviate the burden for them but not for teams like the Lakers, Heat, Nets, etc. who throw their money around to stack their roster with excellent players. At the same time, it is not a rule that discriminates large-market franchises. If the Lakers find themselves in a similar situation and draft their own superstars, they would be able to keep them and would reap the same benefits.

What I suggest:

First of all, the rule would apply ONLY to players who were drafted by the franchise. Any sort of trade involved makes them ineligible to benefit from this rule. Unlike a player’s Bird rights, those rights would not be traded with them.

(Draft-night trades would be somewhat tricky and would need to be discussed separately but a consensus could be reached on whether a player who was drafted by team A at number 4 and then flipped to team B for the number 5 pick could carry those rights to team B since they virtually drafted him, just not literally.)

Secondly, a player’s draft position would come into play.

Like we know, there is this thing called the rookie salary scale. For the 2012-2013 season, the player drafted at number 1 (Anthony Davis) would receive a base salary of 4,286,900. The number 2 pick (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist)’s base salary is 3,835,600. And so on, and so on until we get to the minimum salaries for undrafted rookies (which was 490,180 for the 2011-2012 season). We can easily calculate the difference between each player’s rookie salary and the max rookie salary (for the number 1 draft pick).

What I suggest is to use that difference when the players’ rookie contracts are up and they are signing an extension. If the player is still with the team that drafted him (the team holding his rights), and extends his contract with that team for a salary higher than the rookie salary, the new salary would count towards the team’s salary cap like a normal salary but its cap hit would be decreased by the difference between the player’s rookie salary and the max rookie salary for the season that player was drafted in. (In the case that a player is extended for a salary higher than his rookie salary but the difference is smaller than the difference between his rookie salary and the max rookie salary, the cap hit would be decreased only by that smaller amount.)

This is a great situation that does not stop the player’s ability to be traded to another team. The new team, however, would not be able to benefit from that same rule so it would assume the full cap hit (if it is above the salary cap) the player’s salary would bring.

What would that mean?

Let’s again look at the Thunder – the best-drafting team in recent years. They drafted no fewer than 2 superstars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) and 2 stars (James Harden and Serge Ibaka). Their inability to pay all four could be perceived as a punishment for drafting THIS well. Had they drafted Tyreke Evans instead of James Harden, they would have been able to extend him for fewer than max money (even though Evans had a historic rookie campaign that put him in the same sentence as Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James); had they not been able to pinpoint Serge Ibaka at the end of the 1st round of the 2008 draft and gone with an American player at the same position (Darrell Arthur, Joey Dorsey, DeAndre Jordan), they would pay less for that player as well and would probably have more money for Harden. This can go on endlessly. Russell Westbrook was perceived as a reach at number 4 in that same 2008 draft; in a re-draft, he goes no further than number 2. It is not even debatable that another franchise in the Thunder’s place wouldn’t have put those players together. There likely would have been more misses than hits. Because the Thunder were able to find excellent game-changing players who demand a lot of money well outside the lottery (Ibaka) and use their high lottery picks on superstars with almost 100% accuracy (Durant, Westbrook, Harden v. the only disappointment in Cole Aldrich), they put themselves with backs against the wall when it comes to the extensions those players demanded.

Almost everyone praised the Thunder for their scouting, drafting and player development. I’m pretty sure even fans of opposing teams would like for the Thunder to have been able to keep all of their stars. After all, those players didn’t force their way to OKC to play on a stacked team.

My idea would allow the Thunder to lessen the cap hit from almost all extensions – Durant was drafted at number 2 so he would be eligible for a small decrease; Russell Westbrook and James Harden went 4 and 3 so they would be eligible for comparable decreases. Serge Ibaka (if we assume that traded picks count towards the team that eventually got them) would be eligible for a large decrease, more than 3 million per year. That is a bonus for being able to draft and/or develop a star from a low draft pick.

(According to my idea, players drafted at number 1 are automatically ineligible for any decreases. While that might appear unfair at first sight, number 1 picks are almost universally game-changing players who are almost always expected to become superstars. With the notorious scrubs like Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown well behind us, we have seen the last five picks (not counting Greg Oden for obvious reasons) either already prove their superstar status or still expect them to do so (John Wall might disappoint but promises to be at least an all-star caliber point guard). I would say that the team that won the lottery has enough of a bonus and should not expect anything more for drafting the best player available and potential franchise player. The number 1 draft pick would universally be expected to be extended for a max contract.)

Furthermore, I think this bonus should stay with the said players as long as they are with the team that drafted them. If the Thunder continue drafting amazingly well, even outside the lottery, have them be able to extend all players by benefiting from the cap alleviations. This could become an alternative way towards stacking up your team a la the 1980s Celtics and Lakers.

For years NBA fans have been fearing their franchise’s star bolting for greener pastures, sunny beaches, and recently – amicable unions in large markets. There is simply no way to keep a person in one place if he truly wishes to leave. But this would be a way to allow the home team to surround the players it drafted with good role players without having to pay for drafting too well. Because that has been the Thunder’s only sin – drafting TOO well.