Thursday, June 24, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For

Across the league, the new new thing in roster management is clearing salary obligations from the 2010-11 rolls in order to free up more capacity for signing superstar free agents. To wit:

  • The Chicago Bulls are reportedly set to trade Kirk Hinrich to Washington.

  • Meanwhile, Miami traded Daequan Cook yesterday, and today are trying to rid themselves of SF James Jones's contract.

  • We know how New York traded away Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill in February.

  • New Jersey traded away Vince Carter last year and, just yesterday, Chris Douglas-Roberts.

  • All these teams are shedding guys who could be, or have been, productive contributors to a playoff team.

    All these teams are hoping to land two or three of the top free agents in July: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, David Lee, Rudy Gay, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen. (Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, and Kobe Bryant already re-signed with their existing squads, removing some intrigue from the coming Julian dog days.)

    Unfortunately, there is a good chance that at least one team will look back and found that it divested assets for nothing. What if James stays with Cleveland, Cleveland trades for Stoudemire, Boozer joins the Nets, Wade and Bosh sign with Miami, Lee and Johnson sign with the Knicks, and Gay/Nowitzki/Allen stay where they are. The Bulls would then be bereft of talent, with only Rose/Noah/Deng/Gibson/Johnson signed for next season. The second-tier selection of free agents is unlikely to net a big-time performer: Luis Scola or John Salmons (who was a Bull just four months ago) could help, but they will hardly help the team hang with the Lakers. Tracy McGrady was once great, but probably little more than a Vinnie Johnson now.

    Alternatively, I could construct a scenario where the Knicks, or Heat, or Nets lose this derby. Fans will wonder: "Wait, all those years of suffering through mediocrity yielded absolutely nothing?"

    Moreover, not only is it risky to part ways with a perfectly serviceable player based on a highly uncertain hope of upgrading, but hanging on to the player might be a higher-probability play if you hope to snare LeBron. Due to rules in Article IX of the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, a free agent can make more money annually, and gain an extra (sixth) guaranteed year of salary, by signing with his own team, rather than joining a new one. Thus, Chicago or Miami might have a better shot at acquiring Chris Bosh, say, by including Daequan Cook or Kirk Hinrich in a "sign-and-trade" where Bosh technically re-signs with Toronto to garner that extra booty. The Raptors might prefer such an outcome, too, as they would gain some value for their lost star. Having dumped Hinrich, the Bulls no longer have that strategic option.

    So many teams have expressly committed to a strategy of readying for LeBron that the bold move might entail not doing so. I respect the Timberwolves and Thunder, which have good young players and salary space for a star, but have said virtually nothing about signing a top free agent. At least they evince a belief that their own budding stars are good enough. (Why should we think that Bosh, Johnson, Boozer, Stoudemire, Lee, or Gay are any better? None of them has led a team to the NBA Finals.)

    A further irony is that the Bulls are casting off Hinrich, a tough point guard who has completed seven seasons in Chicago, to make way for Wade or Bosh or James. Let us recall that the ex-Jayhawk, like those celebrated others, is a member of the 2003 draft lottery class. And unlike the other free agents save Wade and Boozer, Hinrich made the Final Four!

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