Posts Tagged ‘Daryl Morey’

Big year and a bigger decision for Lowry


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry is one of the more coveted free agent point guards on the market

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kyle Lowry faces the decision of his career: Cash in with the Raptors and maybe one day walk away a Canadian folk hero (you saw those crazed playoff crowds, right?), have faith in the leaky, but legendary Lakers or settle for a mere pittance to play with the King.

But wait, there’s more …

To start free agency at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale were in Philadelphia seated in front of Lowry. The two men who shipped Lowry north of the border in the first place were now telling him how perfect he is for the team he actually aided in assembling.

Plotting a path to form a super team in Houston, Morey was hoarding drafts picks and the first-rounder he got from Toronto for Lowry two summers ago was supposed to be another carrot to finally lure Orlando into a deal for Dwight Howard. A month later Howard was traded to the Lakers, and the draft pick wound up in Oklahoma City as part of the package for James Harden. Howard, conveniently, followed as a free-agent acquisition last summer.

As Morey, McHale and Lowry dined, or whatever it is that goes on in these after-midnight meetings, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was working his own plan (reportedly a contract starting around $12 million) to keep the spark plug point guard behind Toronto’s resurgence, a spark plug Ujiri was prepared to trade to New York at the deadline if not for the reluctance of the  Knicks’ former regime to throw in a future first-round draft pick.

Meanwhile, back in South Florida, Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley was maneuvering for his own meeting with free agency’s top point-guard target. The Riley pitch, if he gets to make it, will get straight to the point: Come to Sacrifice City and compete for these shiny rings with LeBron James.

Amazing what a career year will do for a guy’s fortunes. Lowry, not long ago down on his luck, last season averaged career highs in scoring (17.9 ppg), assists (7.4), minutes (36.2) and 3-point percentage (38.0), while tying his career-high in rebounds (4.7).

Many believed Lowry, 28, should have made his first All-Star team of his eight-year career. After the All-Star break he reinforced that notion by averaging 20.4 ppg, 7.1 apg and 5.1 rpg, while maintaining his bulldog approach to defense. The Raptors finished the season 20-10 and won a franchise-best 48 games, finishing above .500 for the first time since 2006-07.

So perhaps a contract starting at $12 million isn’t too high for this big-market franchise desperate to maintain its playmaker and elusive momentum.

Yet becoming just as desperate are the Miami Heat.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are free agents, too. They’re waiting to finalize new contracts while Riley works to re-tool the roster. Big men, wing depth and a point guard are needed. On Tuesday, Heat target Marcin Gortat reached an agreement to return to the Washington Wizards at a price (five years, $60 million) far too rich for the Heat. Another report stated small forward Luol Deng will not sacrifice pay to play for Miami. A later report had Washington nearing a deal to bring back yet another Heat target, small forward Trevor Ariza.

The aggressive, 6-foot Lowry fits the Heat needs to a T. Only they won’t be able to match the Raptors’ reported offer and fill other needs. Earlier Tuesday, Jodie Meeks agreed to a free-agent deal with the Detroit Pistons for three years and $19 million, a hefty pay raise for a middling player, and one that would make it seem highly unlikely that Lowry could feel good about taking a deal that wouldn’t pay him much more.

The wild card here, as it always is with the Heat, is a lower pay grade is the price to play with LeBron. We’ve seen it with players nearing the end of their careers, but not necessarily from one in his prime.

Lowry has seven postseason games to his name since 2009 back with Houston when he reached the second round. All seven came this past season with Toronto. The Raptors, boasting an emerging star in DeMar DeRozan and rising talents in Terrence RossJonas Valanciunas and restricted free agent Patrick Pattersonlost a heartbreaker to Brooklyn in the first round.

For a franchise that has experienced two winning seasons in the last dozen, and has had its troubles keeping and recruiting star-level players, Lowry would be welcomed back as hero.

But then there’s always LeBron … or the Rockets … or the Lakers …

The decision of Lowry’s career will be coming soon.

If money isn’t the ultimate factor, ‘Melo and Bulls are a perfect match

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Where will Carmelo land?

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Carmelo Anthony Freedom Tour ’14 is off and running.

If the high-scoring superstar can stomach leaving tens of millions of dollars in New York, this whirlwind wine-and-dine is bound to end where it starts: Chicago.

Anthony, an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, is in the Windy City today meeting with the Bulls, including emphatic center and franchise backbone Joakim Noah, whose seemingly been in ‘Melo’s ear since around the All-Star break. On Wednesday, he’ll do a two-step through income-tax-free Texas. First to Houston to meet with the always scheming Rockets where general manager Daryl Morey has plotted a super team since he assumed office. Later in the day, he’ll trek north to Dallas where the Bank of Cuban is open for business. Owner Mark Cuban is swinging for the fences for a third summer, but this time he believes he’s got the roster to go with the cap space (albeit not max cap space).

On Thursday, the coach-less Los Angeles Lakers will make their pitch. And finally, Phil Jackson and his 11 championship rings as coach of the Bulls and Lakers will get in the final word for the incumbent Knicks.

Even then there’s theories floating about that maybe Jackson really isn’t all that keen on bringing ‘Melo back, evidence being the way he keeps needling Anthony to re-sign at a discounted rate, a notion Anthony first broached during All-Star weekend; that perhaps Jackson and rookie coach Derek Fisher would be better off without the pressure of expectation in Year 1; better off without a max (or near-max) deal gobbling up valuable cap space when New York will finally have it in abundance to go star chasing in the summer of ’15.

But then there’s the curious trade last week between the Knicks and Mavs, in which both teams trumpeted the deal as a move to motivate ‘Melo to sign with them. Dallas reacquired beloved center Tyson Chandler, their fiery leader and defensive task master on the 2011 championship team. To get Chandler, they also had to take on sinking point guard Raymond Felton.

The Knicks received four players and two starters off the Mavs’ 49-win team, including steady veteran point guard Jose Calderon and erratic center Samuel Dalembert. Jackson said he thinks ‘Melo would relish playing with the sharp-shooting and fundamental wiz Calderon.

But Jackson also spoke of “chemistry” reasons for shipping out Chandler. Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson cheered it as a move that makes Dallas more desirable for a big-fish free agent. In the days following the trade, Chandler, speaking on a Dallas-area sports radio talk show, described his relationship with Anthony as “professional.” He said off the court they stay out of each other’s way, and on it they respect each other.

Sound cozy?

Whether Jackson wants to offer Anthony a max contract — five-years for about $129 million — he holds the power to offer the 2012-13 scoring champ many more millions than any other team. The Bulls, Rockets and Mavs all have work to do to clear the cap space necessary to offer Anthony the maximum they can — four years for about $96 million.

Dallas, for one, won’t get to that number, and will seek to sell Anthony on taking less to partner with a still very capable Dirk Nowitzki at 36, a reformed volume shooter in Monta Ellis and his former teammate Chandler as a premiere rim protector. Cuban will sell the genius of coach Rick Carlisle, who challenged Gregg Popovich and the Spurs to seven games in the first round, and above all else a front office that has operated aggressively and creatively enough to remain contenders to various degrees for more than a decade.

Houston will tout James Harden and Dwight Howard, but signing Anthony will shuffle Chandler Parsons out the door. And there’s concern, at least on the outside, how Harden, Howard and Anthony will share one basketball. In Los Angeles, where Anthony spends much of his offseason anyway, a tag-team with Kobe Bryant (and cap space in 2016 when Bryant comes off the books) will be the hard sell.

So back to Chicago where the Bulls haven’t played for a championship since Michael Jordan hung ‘em up for a second time after the 1998 season. The formula seems ready-made for Anthony to drop in, take off and potentially take over a droopy Eastern Conference that has far fewer contenders than out West.

Coach Tom Thibodeau‘s defensive philosophy is entrenched in the Bulls’ DNA. Anthony’s scoring would instantly boost the Bulls’ offense that reached dreadful depths without Derrick Rose. Rose’s knees are a major question mark, and his salary — $18.9 million this season and up to $21.3 million in 2016-17 — can be fatal for long-term success if he can’t stay healthy. Then again, Rose could play the next 10 years injury-free.

With a roster that includes Noah patrolling the back line, two-way, youthful talent Jimmy Butler at shooting guard and Taj Gibson at power forward (assuming he’s not shipped out in an eventual sign-and-trade with New York) and Thibodeau at the controls, the Bulls and Anthony seem the preferable match.

Anthony turned 30 in May and is heading into his 12th season. A New York native, he loves playing on the Madison Square Garden stage. But transforming that stage into a championship parade will take patience beyond this year, a quality Anthony has acknowledged is in short supply at this crossroads of his career.

He’s earned more than $135 million in salary and made a small fortune from endorsement deals.

If Anthony can make peace with leaving tens of millions more in the city in which he grew up, then his Freedom Tour will likely end where it started today, in Chicago.


VIDEO: How will Bulls try to land Anthony?

Win Big in June, Not July!


VIDEO: The Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes last July but it didn’t matter come playoff time

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – A year ago this time the Houston Rockets were on the eve of the biggest upset of the summer, stealing Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers and winning the NBA’s free agency sweepstakes by bagging the biggest name on the market.

Roughly 200 miles to the west, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs were busy licking their wounds from an epic collapse in The Finals against Miami, gazing inward instead of at the free agent frenzy that was brewing.

When Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw changed the course of the 2014 Finals last month, it was the triumph of organic growth over the splash and dash of free agency, of the hot-and-now approach over the slow burn that is a player development machine in San Antonio that is the envy of not only the entire NBA but any professional sports franchise around the globe.

The Spurs win big in June and leave July to the Rockets and others who aspire to join them on that elite level of consistent powers around the league, a short list that includes just the Spurs, Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Indiana Pacers over the past four years.

That won’t stop the free agency craziness from kicking into high gear at midnight. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and the rest of a robust free agent crop will make sure that the attempt to make a splash trumps the status quo between now and July 10, when the moratorium for free agents to sign new deals ends.

In a copycat league, the one thing that few teams can emulate is the Spurs’ ability to — let’s borrow a phrase from Heat boss Pat Riley – “stay the course.” The Heat are attempting to do so with their core group of James, Bosh, Wade and Udonis Haslem all opting out of their deals to give Riley the ultimate flexibility to keep them together with restructured deals.

“It’s easy to tout the Spurs method and process when you’re sitting on five championships in 15 years and you have Timmy, Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili] to work with,” said an assistant general manager of an Eastern Conference team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in recent years. “That’s operating from a position of power that basically no one else in the league can operate from other than maybe Miami. The problem we deal with now is the Draft doesn’t provide the consistent home run to build and pulling off great trades, under this new CBA, are a bit more complicated than they used to be. So you’re almost left with free agency and only free agency as the best way to instantly upgrade your team. It’s not the only way, but it’s often the quickest path to where you’re trying to go.”

Tell that to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose mastery of the cap and free agency is in a stratosphere of its own, given the way he piles up assets, works them and then does it all over again every summer.

Just don’t tell the Portland Trail Blazers, who bounced Howard, James Harden and the Rockets from the playoffs this season with homegrown talents LaMarcus Aldridge, Damien Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and last summer’s free agent bargain Robin Lopez leading the way.

As long there’s a chance that reaching for the stars, and really the superstars, can result in the Heat’s summer haul of 2010, the Spurs’ approach will continue to be the exception and not the norm. It’s rare that the circumstances will present the sort of potential Hall of Fame pot of gold the Spurs tinker with now.

The fantasy basketball nature of the tip-off of free agency, which includes an endless number of scenarios — from the plausible to the utterly and completely far-fetched — fills the appetite of fan bases more interested in dreaming big than recognizing the realities of team building in today’s NBA.

For all of the heavy lifting the Heat did in 2010, their results ended up being 50-50 in four years of championship hunting. And the two teams that whacked them, the Mavericks in 2011 and the Spurs last month, were largely organic outfits that took the mighty Heat apart in those matchups. (And Spurs fans will point to the 2013 Finals and their team being 28 seconds away from winning that series in six games.)

It’s a theoretical gamble, choosing which way to go, that each franchise has to evaluate and weigh on its own.

The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks have decisions to make this summer about their respective paths. They have quality core groups that could continue to be grown and matured organically, or at least in a subtle fashion that does not include surrendering that cap flexibility on a player that doesn’t guarantee the elevation desired. But they each also have ample cap space that allows them to at least present themselves as players for high-profile free agents like James and Anthony.

A slow-burn approach, as rewarding as it can be when it finally comes together, is a tough sell when there are superstars out there waiting for someone to step up with an offer. From all indications the Suns are going all in on the pursuit of both James and Anthony, with the assets in future drafts, a young core and $20 million in cap space to wheel and deal in whatever way necessary to attract superstars.

With the projected salary cap at an estimated $63.2 million and the luxury tax threshold estimated at roughly $77 million, the Hawks will also enter free agency tonight with about $15 million in cap space to chase a superstar, or a couple of All-Star caliber talents, over the course of the next 10 days.

Whatever they choose, they do so knowing that there is an enormous difference between winning big in July and free agency compared to winning big when it really counts –  in June.

Rockets trade of Asik first step in pursuit of LeBron, Carmelo

HANG TIME, Texas – The Rockets can’t begin the actual shopping for another franchise showpiece until July 1, but it’s never too early to start moving out the old furniture to make room.

In a deal that was first reported by @WojYahooNBA, Houston will send center Omer Asik and $1.5 million to the Pelicans for a first-round draft pick in 2015.

While Asik has wanted out ever since last summer when Dwight Howard made his jump to the Rockets. But the move comes now as the team prepares to make pitches to cream of the free agent crop LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Beginning on Tuesday, when free agents can begin to talk to other teams, Anthony has agreed to meet with the Rockets, Mavericks and Bulls, according to Chris Broussard of ESPN.

The Rockets have long been interested in Anthony, pre-dating his move from Denver to New York in 2011. In order to offer him a maximum amount of $17.9 in the first season of a four-year contract, Houston would still have to trade point guard Jeremy Lin.

The Rockets also plan to make a full-court press on James, who opted out of the last two years of his contract with the Heat in order to become a free agent this summer. The four-time MVP and two-time NBA champion James is certainly at the top of the list of talent that general manager Daryl Morey will pursue to team up with Howard and All-NBA first team guard James Harden.

According to our own John Schuhmann, the trade gives the Rockets $7.9 million of cap space, with non-guaranteed deals for Josh Powell and Omri Casspi and partially guaranteed Robert Covington on the books. If they waive those players and don’t pick up the team option on Troy Daniels, they’re at $9.8 million. If they dump Lin on someone, they’re at $17.7 million. That assumes that Francisco Garcia opts out, they keep Patrick Beverley at his $915,000, and Chandler Parsons is at his $2.875 million qualifying offer until they sign everybody else.

The Pelicans will be getting a solid performer in the middle to play alongside Anthony Davis in a formidable defensive tandem. Asik averaged a double-double of 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds in 2012-13, his only NBA season as a full-time starter.

Asik and Lin were both signed as free agents by the Rockets in July of 2015 for nearly identical three-year, $25 million contracts that were backloaded. The 7-foot center from Turkey will make $15 million this season, but only $8.37 million counts against the salary cap.

The trade cannot be made official until after Thursday’s NBA draft, because the Pelicans owe their 2014 first-round pick to the 76ers and teams are prohibited from trading top picks in back-to-back seasons. The first round pick the Rockets will get from New Orleans is protected through No. 10 in the draft.

A starting front court of Davis, Asik and Ryan Anderson would provide Pelicans coach Monty Williams with both the defense and scoring he needs to lift his team that’s been underachieving and outside of the playoff race in the Western Conference for the past three years. He’s an excellent rim protector and rebounder. It’s a big step for a franchise that has been struggling to carve out an identity and create a level of excitement in New Orleans.

But the Rockets are the ones with their sights set on big things. Much bigger. Step 1 is complete and the race for LeBron and Melo is on.

Another big bang of free agents on tap

LeBron James has chosen to test the free-agent market this summer. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

LeBron James has chosen to test the free-agent market this summer. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Most scientists believe it was roughly 14 billion years ago when a single point exploded to create the universe. Of course, it was a more thoroughly documented Big Bang four years ago that blew a hole in the NBA space/time continuum, sending the celestial bodies of LeBron James and Chris Bosh south to join Dwyane Wade in Miami.

Two championships and four Finals trips for the Heat later, the potential for another explosion is on us.

Carmelo Anthony’s declaration that he will opt out of the final year of his contract with the New York Knicks was the first stick of dynamite ahead of the July 1 start of the annual free-agent scramble. Then, Tuesday, LeBron told the Miami Heat that he was going to test the waters, too.

You can feel the ground quiver as the movers and the shakers in the league start to do their thing …

Who has the space?

There are a lot of big-name free agents on the market — or there will be July 1. But the number of teams who have enough space under the salary cap that would enable them to sign some of those big-money players … well, that’s a lot smaller. Here’s a list:

Miami Heat: Up to $55 million, assuming virtually everyone opts out of contracts.
Dallas Mavericks: Up to $32.4 million
Utah Jazz: Up to $29.6 million
Philadelphia 76ers: Up to $29.0 million.
Phoenix Suns: Up to $28.4 million.
L.A. Lakers: Up to $28.2 million.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Up to $23.4 million.
Orlando Magic: Up to $22.2 million.
Detroit Pistons: Up to $22.0 million.
Charlotte Hornets: Up to $19.5 million.
Atlanta Hawks: Up to $13.9 million.
Milwaukee Bucks: Up to $13.0 million.
Memphis Grizzlies: Up to $12.0 million, if Zach Randolph opts out of his final year.
Chicago Bulls: Up to $11.3 million if they use their one-time amnesty on Carlos Boozer.
Boston Celtics: Up to $9.3 million. (more…)

Sign-and-trade for Carmelo could return Linsanity to NY


VIDEO: Relive some of the best moments from Jeremy Lin’s star turn with the Knicks in 2012

If the Rockets are going to be in the mix to land free agent Carmelo Anthony, their best chance would likely be a sign-and-trade deal with the Knicks that would send Jeremy Lin back to Madison Square Garden, the birthplace of “Linsanity.”

Though Houston could likely not clear out enough salary cap space to offer Anthony the $95.9 million over four years — including $22.5 million in the first year — that is the maximum allowed by NBA rules, they could get significantly closer by sending Lin and Omer Asik to New York.

After Dwight Howard and James Harden, Lin and Asik are scheduled to be the highest-paid players on the Rockets. Both have contracts worth $15 million next season, though counting just $8.3 million against the NBA salary cap.

With Anthony opting out of his contract with the Knicks, Chicago, Houston, Miami and Dallas have most frequently been mentioned as landing spots for the veteran forward who says he wants to play for a contender.

Though Rockets general manager Daryl Morey failed to trade Asik at a self-imposed deadline last December, in part because of the “poison pill” final year provision in his contract, the team now believes it would be easier trade both the Turkish big man and Lin, perhaps even to the Knicks. Since Lin and Asik are both entering the final year of their contracts, the Knicks would still be able to clear them off their roster and have plenty space under the salary cap to pursue big name free agents in the summer of 2015.

Spurs, Heat Have Questions (And More Offseason Queries)

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.cm

VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses what’s next for the Spurs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The San Antonio Spurs won their fifth championship since 1999, but it took 15 years for the most stable franchise in pro sports to play in back-to-back NBA Finals. What’s left to accomplish?

That’s right, back-to-back titles.

That’s only one reason to expect Spurs captain Tim Duncan to continue his brilliant career for at least a 18th season. The talk has always been about Kobe Bryant chasing Michael Jordan‘s six rings, but it’s now Duncan in his twilight years who has the greatest chance to get it done.

So why in the world would Duncan, his body holding up as strongly as his production, hang ‘em up now?

Versatile forward Boris Diaw, high-octane point guard Patty Mills and reliable-when-needed forward Matt Bonner are the only players not under contract for next season. While Diaw and Mills have raised their stock and will be attractive free agents, it’s certainly not out of the question that they’ll be back in the silver-and-black.

Even if the Spurs lose one, or both, their Big Three — plus Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and a couple new reinforcements for the bench — will have the Spurs as a favorite to make it three consecutive Finals appearances.

Duncan, 38, just completed a phenomenal postseason, averaging 16.3 ppg on 52.3 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds while logging 32.7 mpg. That followed up a regular season in which he played in 74 games while coach Gregg Popovich again masterfully managed his playing time.

So, again, what would be the motivation to retire now? A man of similar body type, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won a championship with the Lakers at age 40 and played in The Finals at age 41.

While Duncan, for whatever reason, hasn’t come out and stated that he’ll be back despite still having one year and $10.3 million left on his contract, he has smiled through interviews while making statements lightly-sprinkled with hints that he has no plan of joining San Antonio resident David Robinson on the golf course quite yet.

Fortunately, the anticipation for a definitive answer won’t take long. Duncan has a June 24 deadline, that’s one week from today, to notify the Spurs of his plans.

The Miami Heat’s future won’t be resolved quite so soon. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all opt out of their contracts and become free agents. What they decide to do will be the biggest story of the summer and whatever they decide will produce ripple effects across the league.

And that brings us to the biggest story lines of the summer:

(more…)

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches – Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14′s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Five teams already looking ahead

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The start of the playoffs is just over the horizon and there will be plenty of unexpected bounces before the 2014 NBA champ is crowned in June.

But you can’t blame a handful of teams from already taking an early peek at what will surely be better times ahead next season:

 


VIDEO: Joakim Noah joins Arena Link after a recent Bulls win

Chicago Bulls – There’ s still plenty of havoc to be made by Joakim Noah and his “no tanking here” gang. Sitting in the No. 4 spot in the East, the Bulls are already shuffling their hooves at what could be another rip-snorting first-round series against the Nets and possibly a chance to put a few bruises on the Pacers or two-time champions from Miami down the line. But while it’s unrealistic to think Chicago can go all the way this season, the title hopes are back in view next October. Starting, of course, with a healthy return by Derrick Rose, the Bulls get their former MVP and most talented player back onto the court to supplement a lineup that has Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.

While the dealing away of Luol Deng didn’t sink the Bulls in the standings, it brought a first round draft choice that the Cavs had picked up from Sacramento. They saved $20 million on Deng’s contract next year, can amnesty the vastly overpaid Carlos Boozer and be at the front of the line to make a recruiting pitch to head of the class free agent Carmelo Anthony. The lure of Phil Jackson‘s zen magic will probably make it tougher to get him out of N.Y., but if he really wants to make a run at a title instead of just being hero-worshipped, Melo would jump at the chance to join the Bulls where a recuperated Rose gives them the 1-2 punch that is almost necessary these days to be elite. As much fun as they’re having now, the real excitement could return next season.

 


VIDEO: Thaddeus Young, Jarvis Varnado discuss the progress and potential of Nerlens Noel

Philadelphia 76ers — It can’t get worse than losing a record-tying 26 games in a row, can it? It will still be only Year Two in general manager Sam Hinkie‘s long-term building project for the future. But at least next season the Sixers will be able to put a team out on the floor that has more than just Michael Carter-Williams, Thad Young and Tony Wroten as real NBA talent that could be part of something positive down the road. Hinkie has cleared out the payroll, but it’s far too early for the Sixers to even give a thought to luring free agents to Philly. They’ll have two lottery picks — their own and the Pelicans’ spot from the Jrue Holiday trade — and go digging for bargains with another pair of picks in the second round.

Of course, there’s the big bonus of finally getting big man Nerlens Noel into the lineup, after he sat out all of this season with a torn ACL. Noel has been champing at the bit to play now, but the team will hold him back till summer league and then turn him loose. Hinkie is positively giddy about what a bulked-up, more physically fit Noel will be able to do. The Sixers are not even dreaming of playoffs, just putting the building blocks in place.

 


VIDEO: Andrew Nicholson talks about staying positive in Orlando

Orlando Magic — Two years ago, Rob Hennigan dealt away Dwight Howard and the instant reaction from many corners was that the rookie GM had been fleeced. Of course, the way things turned out in L.A., Philly and Denver, it seems that Hennigan was the one doing the fleecing, picking up Nic Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Arron Afflalo, who are now main parts of a young roster on the rise. Mix in last year’s top draft pick Victor Oladipo with Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson and while the Magic are again near the bottom of the standings with the third-fewest wins in the league, there has been a method to Hennigan. The jury is still out on making Oladipo a point guard, but he’s clearly a talent.

Hennigan is following in the footsteps of his mentor Sam Presti in OKC, constructing a roster that is flexible in terms of both talent and salary. The Magic are not beholden at this point to a single individual and are willing to be in the trade market for any upgrade that makes sense at any position. Then toss in the potential of adding an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to the lineup and the Magic are suddenly a team back in the spotlight with a new franchise star and a future that could lead back to chasing the playoffs maybe even as soon as next year in the Eastern Conference.

 


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo is adjusting to life in the NBA and U.S.

Milwaukee Bucks – As bad and depressing as things got for the Sixers during their 26-game losing streak, the fact is they were never able to drop below the Bucks in the standings. This is the worst team in the league, but it doesn’t have to be this way in 2014-15. For one thing, it’s about timing in the draft. The Bucks have been fortunate enough to win the lottery twice in the past, getting Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 pick in 1994 and Andrew Bogut in 2005. “Big Dog” had had his moments and Bogut is playing nicely these days for the Warriors, but neither was ever the kind of game-changer than can take a franchise to the top.

Now with the deepest lottery in a while, it seems that Milwaukee is in a can’t-miss position. GM John Hammond is said to be setting his sights on center Joel Embiid, who could anchor the middle of a lineup with exciting rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders, who hopefully can get his head back into the game and save a career that could go off the rails. Hammond unloaded the contracts of Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal at the trade deadline and would probably like to jettison O.J. Mayo. Brandon Knight has been up and down, but shows that he can score. Rookie Nate Wolters has probably exceeded expectations and creates optimism for the future.

It’s Antetokounmpo who creates the most excitement with his raw talent and potential. Whether they go with Embild with their first pick or Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle or Dante Exum, this time the Bucks could get the game changer they need at a time when owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the franchise. This could be a lineup worth buying and watching next season.

 


VIDEO: Dwight Howard explains why he likes it in Houston

Houston Rockets — Yes, yes, yes. The Rockets are already a top four seed in the rugged Western Conference and have flexed their speed and muscles and shooting prowess against some of the best teams in the league this season. The pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden has given Houston the 1-2 All-Star punch that was expected. Yet even with some folks tabbing the Rockets as a dark horse threat when the playoffs begin, the truth is their best days are still ahead. Wheeler and dealer GM Daryl Morey knows that his job is not yet done and that’s why he’s played the payroll and salary cap like a Stradivarius and will again have the Rockets in position to make a run at at the biggest names on the free agent market this summer. If he deals Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik ($15 million each next season), the Rockets could offer close to the max.

Howard and Harden are still getting to know each other and this team might need to experience the pain of a playoff loss to get recommitted and take things to the next level. The Rockets could also use another scorer/defender on the wing to go toe-to-toe nightly with the elite contenders. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony? Let us saddle you up as part of the posse, pardner. Of course, it’s unlikely that James is going anywhere. But Anthony would have to have give long and serious thought to Houston if he decides that the magic of Jackson isn’t going to turn the Knicks around in the next year or two. Put Melo in a lineup with Howard and Harden and the 145 points the Rockets rung up the other night against the Lakers could become a nightly occurrence. If not Anthony, Bosh could return home to Texas. The Rockets made a free agent pitch for him several years ago and his adaptable skills could fit in nicely on the front line.

The Rockets will be different next season. They always are. And with Howard and Harden as anchors, now different means better. The start of next season can’t come soon enough in Houston.

Asik insurance works like a Dream

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Omer Asik blocks Luc Mbah A Moute at the rim

The video clips are almost comical, like a string of bad dancing outtakes on YouTube gone viral.

There is 51-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon spinning and whirling and rolling though the lane with the ball in the palm of one hand, moving as graceful as a swan.

Here is Omer Asik looking more than just a little bit like an ugly duckling as he tries to simulate those steps in 1-on-1 workouts following a Rockets practice.

But after having his feathers ruffled by the pursuit and capture of free-agent Dwight Howard last summer, Asik has at long last stopped splashing and is helping keep the Rocket afloat.

After averaging a double-double a year ago in his first season as a starter, this is not the role Omer Asik wanted to play. But it’s the one the Rockets need him to play as Howard has sat out the past three games to rest a strained left ankle.

It’s the reason why Daryl Morey never rushed to deal away Asik during the offseason and why the general manager refused to hit the panic button when the 27-year-old eventually demanded a trade. Morey even went so far as to sit on his hands through a self-imposed deadline to trade his discontented big man back in December.

In short, the sizable Asik is too big an impediment in the middle of the Rockets’ defense and much too huge an insurance policy.

That’s what coach Kevin McHale had maintained all along, even when a failed experiment to play Howard and Asik together in the starting lineup ended after just eight games.

Now, with Howard sidelined and again a game-time decision to play Monday night at Charlotte, Asik has filled in admirably, averaging 11 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and 2.3 assists as the Rockets have won three straight games.

“He’s a big part of what we do,” McHale told reporters. “He’s so good defensively, rebounds. He’s right on point with all of his calls defensively. Dwight gets a chance to rest a little bit and Omer gets a chance to play a little bit more. They’re probably both good things.”

There is no reason to think Asik will have a change of heart for the long term benefit of his career. Following his consistent play last season, the 27-year-old has proven that he can be a full-time starter in the league and that is the path he wants to pursue. The Rockets could trade him — and the $15 million he has due on the last year of his contract — this summer, especially if they are trying to clear out salary cap room to pursue Carmelo Anthony.

For now Asik is not only a capable fill-in while Howard mends, but can give the Rockets considerable front-court depth in the playoffs. With a pair of rim-protecting 7-footers in the rotation, the Houston defense can consistently stop opponents from attacking in the paint.

“People are afraid to go in and challenge both of them,” point guard Jeremy Lin told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t think anyone thinks of Omer as, ‘Oh, we’re going to pick on Omer tonight.’ Or if they do, they’re dumb. I don’t think anybody is that dumb.”

And Morey wasn’t dumb enough to acquiesce to Asik’s demand for a trade and move what is literally his biggest insurance policy without getting a significant return. Word was that he was seeking a first-round draft pick for Asik. What the front office and the coaching staff counted on was that, after recovering from from thigh and knee injuries that kept him out of action for two months, Asik could be convinced that he’d play a significant role in the Rockets’ drive for the playoffs and hoped-for success in the postseason.

That’s finally come to pass and is the reason why the 7-foot Turk with the often lumbering moves can be seen listening, nodding and taking in pointers from the balletic Olajuwon after practices. They’d never make much of a comfortable dance pair, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits.

“Look at him and look at me,” Asik says with a laugh. “I can never do those things that made Hakeem one of the all-time great players. But he is helping me a lot. He is showing me basic moves and how I can do things to improve.

“He is the best fundamentally, I think, in NBA history. I can’t be like him, but I’m trying to learn something from him.”