Summer 2013: Charlotte, Chicago, New York and Toronto

Photo by S. Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Photo by S. Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

By Joe Manganiello

At midnight, free agency in the NBA officially began. Let’s not waste anytime jumping back into our breakdown of every team’s off-season plans.

Charlotte:

Oh, the soon-to-be Hornets. I don’t want to waste too much page talking about this team. Bottom line: they are the early favorites in Vegas to get Andrew Wiggins.

Sidebar: Hey, maybe that was their plan all along!! To draft, coach and play so incessantly bad that they have the highest odds to draft the game’s best prospect since Kevin Durant. If it’s not the most disgusting example of big business in sports of all-time, it’s genius! End sidebar.

There is very clearly no ambition from this franchise to succeed in 2013-14, as shown by their draft selection of Cody Zeller at No. 4. (I don’t care how limited this year’s draft class might appear to be, it’s unfathomable that somebody could believe that Cody Zeller was the fourth best player available.) Ben Gordon picked up his $13 million player option (shocker), which means heading into free agency, the soon-to-be Hornets have eight guaranteed contracts, plus Zeller, and have also extended a qualifying offer to Gerald Henderson. That leaves two roster spots and about $15 million in spending money.

If the soon-to-be Hornets have any dignity, they will spend at least $10 million on two decent free agents, if only to convince the few fans that remain to stay another year. Alas, Charlotte will probably sign two below-average players, one with the Mid-Level exception (calling my shot: North Carolina alum Tyler Hansbrough) and the other for as little as possible, and go into 2013-14 with all the hope in the world that it can lose 70 games.

Predictions: Gerald Henderson will stay and complete a starting lineup of (prepare yourself) Kemba Walker, Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hansbrough and Zeller, with Ramon Sessions and Bismack Biyombo playing meaningful minutes off the bench. Yikes.

Chicago:

Chicago overachieved as much as any seven-man basketball team missing its two best players could this spring: after winning a seven-game series that the Nets should have won in five, the Bulls punched the Heat in the mouth during game one of the second round, then proceeded to challenge the eventual champions every step of the way (sans game two) in the most competitive five-game series we might ever see. The Bulls have a lot going for them heading into 2013-14, namely the return of the former MVP Derrick Rose; along with head coach Tom Thibodeau’s signature defense, a healthy Rose makes the Bulls a likely top 2 seed in the East next season. But the team is not without its question marks entering the summer:

1. What to do with Carlos Boozer (owed $15.3 million in ’14 and $16.8 million in ’15)?

2. What to do with Luol Deng (owed $14.3 million in ’14)?

3. What to do with Rip Hamilton (has a non-guaranteed $5 million salary for next season)?

4. Should the Bulls attempt to re-sign Nate Robinson and/or Marco Belinelli (two HUGE performers from the recent post-season)?

5. How should the team use its taxpayer Mid-Level Exception ($3.2 million) and its Trade Exception from the Kyle Korver deal ($5 million)?

The choices the Bulls, already luxury tax bound, make this off-season have both short-term and long-term ramifications. Chicago could keep Deng and Boozer, compete with their full arsenal for the first time since 2011 and see how they stack up against the older, slightly more venerable Miami Heat. In that scenario, win or lose in the post-season, the Bulls would be faced with Deng’s unrestricted free agency next summer, and considering Boozer’s aforementioned monster salary, it seems unlikely the Bulls would go substantially over the cap to hold onto Boozer for another season AND re-sign Deng at 100 percent market price.

The way I see it, the Bulls, at best, can afford Deng and Boozer for one more year. After that, they have to pick one or the other. This is why it has been suggested that they consider moving Boozer and/or Deng now. Chicago can amnesty either player, and while Boozer’s contract might not be moveable until the final year, there would be plenty of interest for Deng’s expiring contract in a trade.

What if the Bulls trade Deng’s one-year contract for a 2014 first-round pick and a cheap asset (ie: Cleveland’s Alonzo Gee), and amnesty Boozer now? Suddenly, the Bulls are starting Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson (2014 combined salaries: $8.6 million) and would enter next summer’s plump draft/free agent class with a potential lottery pick and an additional $16.8 million off the books. Is that Bulls team as likely to compete for a championship next season? No. Would they be in a great position to compete for championships between 2014 and 2022? Yes. Of course, Chicago would prefer to be as talented as possible for the 2013-14 season, which is why keeping Deng remains advantageous for them. Tagging Boozer with the amnesty, promoting Gibson to the starting lineup and using the exceptions to fill out the roster remains an option.

Moving on, drafting Tony Snell makes pressing the escape button on the Richard Hamilton experiment possible. The marriage between Hamilton and the Bulls seemed so perfect in 2011, but he just couldn’t stay healthy. Hamilton played in 78 of a possible 148 regular season games with Chicago, and additionally missed eight playoff games this year.

Sidebar:

In the Derrick Rose-era, the Bulls have struggled to get the shooting guard position right: (Year 1) Ben Gordon averaged 20.7 ppg in 76 starts… and left the team that off-season for the Pistons; (Year 2) the following season, Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons combined for 81 starts; (Year 3) The Bulls won 62 games with Keith Bogans starting all 82 games and averaging 4.4 points; (Year 4) After Bogans left, Hamilton was the natural fit to take over the starting spot, but injuries, for a third consecutive year, kept Hamilton out and handed Ronnie Brewer 43 of 66 starts; and (Year 5) the Bulls, who were missing Rose for the entire season anyway, started a combination of Hinrich/Hamilton/Belinelli/Robinson in the backcourt 155 games out of 164.

Stability at the two-spot is a long time coming for Chicago, and getting Hamilton off the roster is a good start. End sidebar.

Robinson and Belinelli at 100 percent market price – although both players reserve the right to give the Bulls a discount, and probably owe it to the Bulls to do so – seems to be out of Chicago’s price range. So the Bulls will probably play Hinrich and Snell at shooting guard next year, unless the right free agent falls in their laps.

At the end of the day, no matter what moves the Bulls make, they are going to be good next season. Rose coming back will rejuvenate the team, strike fear into 95 percent of their opponents, and make them unquestionably the most interesting team to watch next season. Whether or not they compete for a championship in 2014, however, depends on what personnel choices they make this summer.

Predictions: Chicago amnesties Boozer, signs Deng to a long-term extension, convinces Robinson or Belinelli to take the $5 million exception, cuts ties with Hamilton, and fills out the roster with cheap talent.

And now, breaking up my alphabetical pattern, we look at the Knicks and Raptors, who have pulled off a move which appears to be a counter to the Nets/Celtics trade, which I wrote about Saturday.

New York:

It was a frustrating finish in New York this May. Boston exposed New York’s lack of killer instinct in round one, and Indiana out-muscled them in round two. Despite Carmelo Anthony’s best season as a pro, having the league’s deepest shooting team and Tyson Chandler defending the paint, the Knicks couldn’t translate their play to close out the regular season (16-2 in last 18 games) into the post-season (6-6, 88.6 ppg).

The most difficult part about assessing where the Knicks are right now is that it remains unclear if the team has a championship caliber roster in place or not, and all the while, the Knicks are restricted economically until the summer of 2015, when Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract ends.

This is why the Andrea Bargnani trade is so huge: the Knicks have found a way to add an all-star caliber player (when healthy and motivated) in spite of the payroll logjam created by Anthony and Stoudemire (owed a combined $92 million the next two years, if both players accept their player options for 2014-15). New York also found a trading partner willing to give up such a player for a combination of Marcus Camby, Steve Novak and draft picks that don’t figure to be in the lottery. It’s a win all around for the Knicks. Toronto was desperate to get rid of Bargnani (which in all likelihood should be a red flag) and is also going to benefit in 2014 when Camby’s $4.4 million contract expires. (But we’ll talk about Toronto later – this is New York’s moment.)

Playing in Manhattan makes worrying about being above the league’s soft-cap silly. Here’s the deal: New York is paying Anthony, Stoudemire, Bargnani, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert just about $75 million next season. That’s six players. Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni can be brought back cheap (both their cap holds are under $1 million), and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. will be paid what late-first round picks make. That’s nine players for a little less than $80 million (but who’s counting?) and the team’s most important free agent hasn’t even been mentioned yet.

It was an up-and-down year for J.R. Smith: several game-winning shots; asking underage woman if they were interested in his pipe on twitter; sixth-man of the year; getting suspended for elbowing Jason Terry in the face; and going ice cold from the field for the duration of the playoffs.

Even with all the question marks, Smith is a highly sought after free agent because he has a unique skill set that only a handful of players in the league have: he can flat out score on anybody. He might be the leader in headaches given to one’s team, but the Knicks found a way to turn his ability into a controlled (most of the time) weapon in 2012-13, and the result was as many headaches for the opposing team as the Knicks. There are teams who will try to pry Smith away from New York, but I don’t see him leaving, not when it is much more opportune for him to play in the Big Apple with a coach in Mike Woodson who seems to connect with him and with Carmelo Anthony, the only superstar in basketball who seems willing to put up with him.

I just can’t see Smith playing anywhere else, not next year at least, and there isn’t anybody New York could grab that does what he does. Expect these two sides to come back together because, for New York, money is only an object.

Predictions: New York stays relatively quiet, re-signs Smith, Copeland, Prigioni, and Kenyon Martin, and round out the roster with a low-risk, high-reward F.A. signing (someone like Aaron Brooks, per NYDailyNews).

Toronto Raptors:

In the last year, Dwight Howard (2004), Andrew Bogut (2005) and Andrea Bargnani (2006) have all moved from the team’s that drafted them No. 1 overall. Considering that LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, Yao Ming’s out of the league, Kwame Brown is long gone from Washington, Kenyon Martin left the Nets a decade ago, Elton Brand hardly played for the Chicago Bulls and Michael Olowokandi, well, isn’t worth mentioning here, the oldest No. 1 overall pick that is still playing for his original team is…. Tim Duncan (1997). Sixteen seasons, four championships and two MVP’s later, Duncan is a Top 10 player of all-time.

The Raptors drafted Bargnani during the “Every Tall, Athletic, Light-Skinned Forward From Overseas With A Jump Shot Could Be The Next Dirk Nowitski” era, over LaMarcus Aldridge (and also Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo and Paul Milsap, although none of those three players would have passed for the No. 1 overall pick in 2006).

Sidebar: Bargnani is far, FAR removed from being the poster boy of NBA teams looking for the next Dirk and failing. Here’s a list of lottery picks from 2001-2011 that never quite panned out for their respective teams: Vladimir Radmanovic (Supersonics, No. 12, 2001), Nikoloz Tskitishvili (Nuggets, No. 5, 2002), Mickael Pietrus (Warriors, No. 11, 2003), Rafael Araujo (Raptors, No. 8, 2004), Fran Vasquez (Magic, No. 11, 2005), Yaroslav Korolev (Clippers, No. 12, 2005), Yi Jianlian (Bucks, No. 6, 2007), Danilo Gallinari (Knicks, No. 6, 2008), Jan Vesely (Wizards, No. 6, 2011). End sidebar.

The Raptors are ready to part ways with Bargnani, who never made an all-star team, picked up any real basketball skills or learned how to play defense. Next year’s team will feature Rudy Gay as its best player, who’s better than Bargnani, and moving Bargnani will give Jonas Valanciunas much more latitude in the team’s offensive plans. The only decision the Raptors have to make contractually this summer is whether or not to pick up Kyle Lowry’s $6 million team option, which I imagine they plan to do.

With all due respect to the Bargnani trade, the most interesting potential move out of Toronto, however, is an Eric Bledsoe for DeMar DeRozan swap. The Clippers are not so quietly shopping Bledsoe, stuck behind Chris Paul in L.A., to try and add talent at other positions. DeRozan is underappreciated in that he (1) never misses time (he’s played in 304 of a potential 312 career games) and (2) has averaged 17.3 points per game the last three seasons with passable shooting splits without ever being a problem for a bad team with limited direction.

The latest reports have Los Angeles interested in keeping Bledsoe because Doc Rivers is a big fan of his game, but that sounds like gamesmanship. Jamal Crawford will not be the starting shooting guard for the Clippers next season, not when he is arguably the worst defensive player at his position and thrived last season off the bench in the team’s second unit. I doubt that the Clippers will pass up an opportunity to grab a young shooting guard who plays every day, is lengthy, can score and has a fair $9.5 million salary each of the next four seasons UNLESS they get a better offer somewhere else (ie: Orlando’s Aaron Afflalo deal). If the Raptors can’t make a move on Bledsoe, they have a Mid-Level Exception and Bi-Annual Exception available to them to add guard play off the market.

Predictions: Toronto either trades DeRozan for Bledsoe or not, and uses their exceptions to fill out the roster with players.

Joe Manganiello (@joemags32) is a NBA fanatic, screenwriter and a New York sports fan (Syracuse basketball, New York Knicks, Buffalo Bills). He studied journalism and cinema at Oswego State University – Peace, love, recycle and ball.

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