Oden heading to Suns?

Reports came out recently and reported that Greg Oden underwent a third micro-fracture surgery on his knee. He has spent more time on the injured reserve list then on the court for the Portland Trail Blazers. While his talent and potential have been clearly seen by those who have watched him play, it is the process of getting there has been incredibly difficult.

Bill Walton suggested some time ago that Oden take his money and retire some place warm and start over. I bet that is a tempting option, especially now, but I have a different suggestion – head to Phoenix to play for the Suns.

The current Suns team has three centers on the roster – Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, and Robin Lopez. Gortat is going to be the starter for the future and has played well since being traded from the Magic in 2010. In fact he is there second best player according to the wins he is contributing and his PER is 21.63, which puts him in the top 10 of centers with regular playing time. Frye will remain with the team for the foreseeable future with 4 years left on his contract. However, Frye’s style of play is so much different from Gortat, that he is more likely to play a “stretch 4” for the team, as he likes to do his work from the outside. Lopez is in the last year of his contract and may resign with the Suns after this year. The opportunity is there for Oden to fit in as the back up center and play a little while he builds up his health and his confidence in the desert.

Playing time is not the main reason to head south. The warm weather would be a great on the joints and ligaments compared to the cold and damp winters of the northwest. However, the real reason lies with the Suns physical trainers and medical team.

There are two cases that really illustrate this the best. We will not include Steve Nash in this conversation because it is well documented how well he takes care of himself. The first example would be that of Grant Hill. He is 39 years old and has famously recovered from a gruesome ankle injury with a long recovery period. He revitalized a playing career that was all but over in Orlando. He played 200 games out of the 492 possible for the Magic, and only missed 15 for the four years that he has been in Phoenix. The second example is of Shaquille O’Neal. He was with the Suns for just over one season and it was the best period of play that he logged since 2006 with the Heat. While in Miami, his numbers and games that he played were declining, his numbers took a spike in Phoenix. His points per game average went up as well as games he was able to play. In the 08-09 season O’Neal played in 75 games, the most he played since 2000. This level of performance was near the standard of play that he was logging until 04-05 season. In 2009 O’Neal was traded to Cleveland and he was only able to play 53 games. His numbers declined and he was faced with injuries. The progressed while he went to Boston.

Oden should consider the track record of the Suns training staff and utilize their abilities to help his body recover and improve. There will be playing time for him next season for him as a free agent.

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Brandon Jennings and the reasons a free agent leaves

Recently, Brandon Jennings expressed his desire to look into large market options rather than sign an extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. While, I don’t fault players for ever looking at their options when free agency strikes, the comments spoke to an important issue for any front office to recognize. If you draft talent that you want to keep and build around the stakes are higher to do what it takes to keep the talent on your team.

In light of this, and the many other high-profile players to change teams in recent years (James, Anthony, Bosh, Paul, etc.) it seemed like a worthwhile endeavour to look at why players choose to switch teams when they hit free agency. Here is my list of why players pick a team as they top free agency destination.

1 – Money

The list starts off with the most obvious. Some players are so talented that they can think about more than just money, but many are going to follow where the money is in order to take care of their financial future. Even though NBA players get paid handsomely, the implications of the collective bargaining agreement will impact players who are in the middle tier of talent.

2 – Playing Time

A player always wants to go where their wanted, but also where they can contribute. It may be nice to receive a contract, but if you never get to utilize your skill on the floor, then it is not as rewarding.

3 – Best Chance to Win

Many players may view playing in the NBA simply as their job, others view it as an opportunity to leave their mark on the game and leave a legacy. Kobe Bryant is a great example of this mindset. He recently reached number 5 on the all time scoring list, and in the interviews after the game starting talking about trying to win championship ring number six.

4 – Bigger Market

Playing in a bigger market can mean more options for endorsement deals and other options to supplement income. This is a big consideration for some who wish to earn extra money other than their NBA contract and who want to build their “brand” beyond the basketball court.

5 – Playing with a Certain Player

Ever since we saw LeBron James and Chris Bosh leave their teams to partner with Dwyane Wade in Miami it appears forming groups of power players is the new thing. While this trend goes against the traditions of how teams came together, it certainly has to be considered by a player in a free agency situation. Who wouldn’t want to pair up with a friends to make life on the road more enjoyable.

The next five in quick order:

6 – Coaching, 7 – Ownership, 8 – Weather, 9 – State Income Tax, 10 – Family and Friends in area

There are many more reasons that could be mentioned in the list but these seem like the ones being talked about in the league at present. I believe it is the players choice and right to take his skills where ever they are in demand in the open market. I believe that one or more of the reasons above play a role in their decision. If I am in the front office I am considering these options and trying to build the team in a sustainable way to ensure that a few of the reasons above are available so the player doesn’t have to consider leaving.

Consider Kevin Durant and the OKC Thunder. The OKC market is much smaller than all of the other teams in the NBA, but Durant has been doing just fine in endorsement deals, he recently signed an extension, and he gets to play with some of the best young talent in the league with also having a shot at winning big each year.

Players move teams each year for a variety of reasons. The key as a front office is to attract and retain the players that are key to your system. In the case of Brandon Jennings, though he may not be a LeBron James, he is a talented point guard who a lot of teams would desire. Though the Bucks want to keep him, they are a smaller market and more importantly, a team that does not have a track record of winning. I am curious to see what Jennings does and how the elements above came into consideration for him as free agency nears.

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What went wrong in Orlando

In the 2004 NBA draft the Orlando Magic selected Dwight Howard with their top pick. He became one of their top performers and has become a mainstay in the All Star game and in the past several years has inserted his name into the MVP discussion while securing the Defensive Player of Year. The Magic were able to make to the finals in 2009 but came up short. Since then the team has tried to remain competitive while pushing to get to the next level.

With hindsight as our guide, we will analyze the transactions that the front office has done to strengthen the team and how this has led to Dwight Howard’s request for a trade to a handful of teams.

We will start in 2006 because this is when Otis Smith became the main person in the front office making basketball decisions. Under his tenure, while Dwight was still growing into his enormous talent the team made several moves that were aimed at improving the team. Here are some of the highlights.

2006 /07

  • Drafted J.J. Redick

2007/08

  • Hired Stan Van Gundy to coach team
  • Signed Rashard Lewis as a free agent ($110 million over 6 years)
  • Traded Trevor Ariza

2008/09

  • Drafted Courtney Lee
  • Traded for Rafer Alston

2009/10

  • Traded Rafer Alston, Tony Battie and Courtney Lee for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson
  • Hedo Turkoglu signed a contract with the Raptors
  • Signed free agents Jason Williams, Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes

2010/11

  • Signed free agents Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon
  • Traded Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael  Pietrus to Phoenix for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richarson and Earl Clark
  • Traded Rashard Lewis to Washington DC for Gilbert Arenas

 2011/12

  • Signed Glen Davis to free agent contract
  • Lost Brandon Bass

Winning moves: drafting J.J. Redick, Courtney Lee, signing Brandon Bass and Glen Davis

Losing moves: not drafting impact players 2009 through 2012, trading for Vince Carter only to flip him into Jason Richarson. Signing Rashard Lewis to a 6 year $110 million deal, then flipping him into Gilbert Arenas. Losing Trevor Ariza as a free agent.

Mixed moves: losing Hedo Turkoglu. If they would have just resigned him to a fair deal then they wouldn’t have had to blow up the whole team by the Vince Carter trade, and the Jason Richardson trade.

As evident from the list above the Magic have made a several transactions in the past few years to keep the team in running for a title. While I applaud their aggressiveness and their boldness, I feel that several of the moves were done to cover up previous mistakes.

They missed on their draft prospects – In 2009 the team had a game plan in place to grow as an organization and to improve. After they fell short in the finals they went “all in” and deviated from their plan, and the current roster still reflects those bold moves. Prior to their title run in 2009, they had drafted two young players – J.J. Redick and Courtney Lee. While neither of them super stars both of them are strong players and bring a lot of skill and smarts to the court. They were contributing to the team. This is not evident yet in the recent draft picks the team has made.

They shouldn’t have traded for Vince – The Magic had a nice roster in 2009. They needed to make a few minor adjustments – like having a bit more size inside, maybe a better option at point guard, a few players that could do the hustle plays and bring energy. Instead of adjusting here and there, Otis Smith changed the team by bringing in Vince Carter. Granted he is a talented player, but he never seemed to fit the system, and his best days were already behind him. It seemed desperate. Later, in another bold move Carter was traded to Phoenix for Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu.

They shouldn’t have traded Ariza – The funny thing is the Ariza was the one playing against them in the finals and he had been on the Magic a few years prior. When they let Turkoglu walk as a free agent after the 2009 finals, they could have had an Ariza to fill the spot but instead he was a free agent who signed with the Rockets. His skill of hustle and energy would have really helped the Magic.

They shouldn’t have signed Rashard Lewis to that much money – I think Rashard was a really smart pick up at the time. He brought the shooting ability to the power forward position that they needed, but they were essentially negotiating against themselves and they didn’t need to do that much money. Something along $70 to $80 million over 6 years would have been much better. This move may have been the most impactful of the group because as time has gone on, the Arenas move and the Richardson move were done with salary cap on the mind. If they played it smarter in the first place they may have had a better chance to keep the team going to the finals in 2010 and beyond.

As it stands now, the Magic an elite talent in Dwight Howard. He is in the top five of active players in the league. They started off with a great way to build around him and to play to his abilities and win. When they came up short in the finals, the team went for broke with some aggressive trades that in the end really hindered the team to sign players that could really make a difference. There is a lot to like about Orlando – great arena, warm weather, good taxes, good fans, but the team did not have a strong presence in what it really needed – a sustainable plan to keep the talent level high around Howard while keeping a good grip on the cap so they can keep the team among the elite in the eastern conference.

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Kevin Love just started the count down

This past week Kevin Love signed an extension with the Timberwolves. While the deal keeps him in Minnesota for four more years, it spoke a great deal to me about what the NBA is like in this post lockout era.

In the years leading up to the lockout, star players were starting to leverage their skill to get them in playing situations they wanted to be in. We saw this when Chris Bosh and LeBron James went to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. We saw Carmelo Anthony hold his team hostage until he got to New York. The thinking was, that the changes made in the new contract would try to prevent some of this power that players have accumulated. But, here we are in the first few weeks of the season and it seems that we are back at it. While the NBA middle class is taking a hit by this surge of power, rising stars are converting their on court success into success in leveraging their contract. Kevin Love provides the perfect backdrop.

I remember doing a scouting report on Love when he was coming into the league. I knew he was going to be good, but I did not expect him to be this good, this soon. He has been a very consistent player and the Timberwolves have rightly wanted to build around him. This brings me to my point. Because of Love’s success he was able to negotiate a contract extension and give himself an opt-out clause after the fourth year. This may seem like nothing at first blush, but after I thought further, this has put him in the driver seat. He has already established himself as a desirable player around the league. This year it seems like he is finally around some better talent and has a strong coach. He has a chance to be successful if the team makes smart choices and takes the steps necessary for greatness. However, if they draft poorly, sign bad free agents that do not make the team stronger, Love is able to walk away with plenty of years ahead of him to sign with a contender. He has put the onus on the Wolves to get better. He has started the timer and the Wolves are on the clock to keep the team competitive and growing if they want to keep him for longer then the four years.

The point of every season is to win the whole thing. Each year you want to grow and improve to reach that final goal. If you are lucky enough to get a top flight talent in the draft it is a blessing to the franchise. But, it comes with a catch – you have to grow the right way in order to maintain that success and keep that talent. This year we have already seen one of the best point guards in Chris Paul get traded because he wanted out of playing in New Orleans. We are also observing how Dwight Howard has let his displeasure be known. Deron Williams is also itching to move if he doesn’t get a playing partner that he likes by the end of this season.

Super stars are rare in the NBA and if you get lucky enough to draft one, you better know how to build the team to keep them because we are seeing players leave with no problem.

The lockout was about owners trying to get more power back. It seems though, the star players still have plenty to use.

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And now for his next trick…

I have been following the Thunder since their inception. I am a resident in the great Northwest and had a front row seat to the departure of the Sonics and their big move to Oklahoma. I had lived in Puget Sound for about 10 years before they moved, so I got to know the Sonics pretty well. Even though I speculated they would be moving to Oklahoma I was still very excited when they hired Sam Presti. With him having his roots in the Spurs system I had a feeling he would be constructing the team in the right way.

So far he hasn’t disappointed. Drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden. Accumulating picks, dumping bad contracts. Trading a talented Jeff Green for All-Star Scowler – Kendrick Perkins was a thing a beauty. Presti and the Thunder have formed quite a strong team.

As this has been unfolding I have been curious on how they would keep this nucleus together as their pay checks were rising. In the summer of 2010 they inked Durant to an extension. This week the Thunder found a way to work out an extension for Westbrook. These two extensions seem like no brainers. Durant is a top five player in my mind. He makes the game look easy. His size, range and ability are something to behold. He is still on the up swing to where his talent will take him. Westbrook is the next logical move. For all of the flack he takes from the fans and media for his turnovers or taking too many shots with Durant still on the floor, he more than makes up for those with his grit, athletic ability, and knack for big plays. He too, is still on the upward slope of his abilities. I see him reducing his turnovers in years to come and learning how to spread the ball around when the time comes.

These next few years though is where we get to see Presti earn his keep. He did an incredible job retooling the Thunder around Durant and Westbrook, but how will he keep this team in the hunt each year for a championship. Which players will he keep on the roster and which ones will he let go? He has not been afraid to pull of a difficult trade. Jeff Green was a core part of the team when they first moved to OKC, and yet he was traded to strengthen the team. I would imagine they are going to try to secure an interior scoring presence. I believe they will try to sign Ibaka and Harden to smaller deals.

Sam Presti, this Northwest resident was sad to see your team leave. With your slight of hand and deft touch you have built a contender. We are all holding our breath for your next move.

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Letting the GM do the work

Here is an article I recently found on ESPN about how the Texas Rangers signed Yu Darvish. Even though it is a baseball article there are some great comments from one of the owners, Bob Simpson. From Richard Durrett:

“I try to find the lowest risk available and the winning strategy. Does this fit? They had to convince me and Ray that it does. I believe and trust them. They’ve done a lot of work. It goes back to, are you going to support the organization or second-guess them? You’re much better off getting real people that know what they’re doing than trying to call plays behind them. If you think you can improve your management personally as an owner, you need to get somebody else and not do it yourself.”

I love this statement from Simpson. The best teams in the NBA are the ones that have strong ownership. But having strong ownership is not enough. The owners need to be smart about how they spend money on talent on floor but also in the front office. Having the right people in the front office that you can trust and support will lead to a better organization. It is better to have the most talented people you can doing the work. When you have strong ownership and a strong front office you can really build the team and product on the floor. The best example that I can see is the San Antonio Spurs. Many folks don’t like their brand of ball because it may be less flashy then others but they have the proof that matters – 4 championships in the last 14 years. That is tough to argue. Peter Holt has been consistent and he has supported the work of RC Buford who has been able to build strong teams year after year. Further proof can be seen in how the Spurs have been retooling their roster as their big three gets older and older. They  have been creative to bring in the right talent to suit their team – like finding DeJuan Blair in the second round, making a 2011 draft day trade for Kawhi Leonard, and finally being able to bring Tiago Splitter from overseas.

It all comes back to the owner. Do they treat the team as a fun hobby, or are they really trying to win. Maybe some only focus on the profit and loss statements. Maybe some think they are the best evaluators of talent and like to trump the decision making of those they have hired to build the team. This makes it hard for teams to truly grow when the owner is not supporting the front office.  The best teams are the ones that hire great management and allow them to do their job.

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When labels are not enough

From 2006 until 2011 the Portland Trail Blazers were seen as one of the “it” teams in the NBA. People around the media and fans alike could see they had assembled a very solid and talented roster. Spectators observed this collection of talent and assumed it would help the team meet the requisite steps to reach the promised land. Each year the Blazers would be labeled as talented and deep, and each year they would make only a modest improvement in the win column. The team, though envied by others around the league seemed to be lack the ability to cross over into greatness to reach the ultimate goal.

To illustrate this point more clearly, reviewing a few of the players the Blazers were able to acquire during these years proves to be an interesting case study.

Jerryd Bayless – Crazy fast point guard who could score at will. Never seemed to fit the style of play the Blazers were going for at the time. Struggled to find playing time behind veteran point guards and was ultimately traded to the Raptors, where he is still sharing time.

Rudy Fernandez – When the Blazers drafted Fernandez it was deemed a smart move. Over time fans began to count on his arrival as having some magical powers to unlock the tempo of Nate McMillan’s offense or do something more dramatic. His impact was felt in Rip City before he even arrived. Each year the expectations grew. This became paramount in the 2008 Olympics where we saw Rudy hold his own with the NBA’s best stars. Like Bayless, over time he seemed like he didn’t fit with the style of play. It is still too early to see how he will do for the Nuggets.

Greg Oden – Poor Greg. So much talent and his body has betrayed him. Injury after injury. I remember watching him dominate in the NCAA finals prior to his leaving for the pros and it was remarkable. He was on a different level. He had it all. In the league, however, he was not able to stay on the court to show is he was a once in a generation big man.

Brandon Roy – His story is well documented. Crafty player from the University of Washington who helped lead the charge of the youth movement in Portland. His talent and knack of hitting crucial shots in crunch time have been noted. He really embodied the culture and persona of the Blazers during this period. With his knees telling him to stop, he was forced to retire.

Martell Webster – He was touted as an athletic wing with deadly accuracy from deep range. His up and down play made it hard for fans to get behind him. In the end he was traded away to Minnesota where he now fights for playing time with the collection of forwards.

Travis Outlaw – Outlaw used to be known in the Rose City for his highlights. His athletic plays were something to behold. Over time he molded himself into a shooter with range. He was the embodiment of the talent that Portland had collected. He had talent and was improving. He was traded and most recently was cut by the Nets to save some money just one year after signing a large contract with them.

The point of all of this review of Blazer players? Simple, talent alone is not enough. It does not equal nor guarantee success. The Blazers gained the reputation for drafting well and building up their team through the draft. They were making steps towards reaching the playoffs and becoming an elite team each time they drafted a prospect. However, after looking at a list of some of their selections most of them have been average players in the league. Oden still has potential he has often not been on the court and Roy had to hang it up early due to health issues while were left to wonder what might have been. Obviously, the have done pretty well with LaMarcus Aldridge. He was really developed into a top flight power forward.

For every prospect that comes into the game that ends up as a Kevin Durant there will be a dozen who end up like Tyrus Thomas. Players who have great skills, but for one reason or another are not able to take their game to that next level. More importantly for the Blazers, even though they were able to improve and enter into the playoffs on a consistent basis, they have not been able to achieve the success that was expected of them. A quick look at the Blazers roster today gives you an indication that they have changed directions. Many of their key rotation players are free agents (Mathews, Felton, Crawford) or were traded for (Camby, Wallace). This is a drastic shift from how they used to operate.

The team was labeled as deep and talented, and they were just that. Deep and talented. They were not able to cross the threshold of being a team of good players into a team with great players. Labels are not enough to make a team or player great.

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