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Weekly Countdown: Sour economy ushers sweeping changes to NBA

Because who wants to talk about the economy?

5. Free agency. Earlier this season Carlos Boozer declared his intention to become a free agent this summer, and then promised to say nothing more of it. Much has changed amid his silence.

The league has projected the salary cap will decline by $1.4 million to a total of $57.3 million this summer, which will cut into the nest egg developed by teams to spend on free agents. Of the eight franchises with cap space this summer -- Atlanta, Detroit, Memphis, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Portland, Sacramento and Toronto -- only the Pistons, Trail Blazers and Thunder are expected to have enough space and ambition to be aggressive in taking on long-term commitments to improve their teams.

Should Boozer walk away from a salary guaranteed at $12.7 million next season in order to become a free agent this summer? His answer is burdened by the injuries that have sidelined him for 45 games this season, though mid-February, and the fact Boozer is shooting just 42.5 percent and averaging 10.4 ppg in eight games since he returned last month.

Boozer is clearly playing his way back into shape from the left knee injury that sidelined him in November, as well as a recently sprained right ankle. In the meantime the surging Jazz are contending for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, giving Boozer the opportunity to prove his health over an extended playoff run.

Say Boozer decides to remain with Utah through next season; say also that neither Mehmet Okur (owed $9 million next season) or Kyle Korver ($5.2 million) decline to opt out of their deals. Altogether that would put the Jazz into the luxury tax before they've paid their draft picks or -- more important -- Paul Millsap, a restricted free agent and most-improved player candidate who has averaged 16.0 points and 10.3 rebounds when starting in place of Boozer.

Alternatively, the Jazz could inherit $10 million in cap space if Boozer, Okur and Korver opt out. Boozer's decision is an example of the risk/reward facing players and teams in the declining NBA economy.

With such unpredictability, the answer for Boozer is he should go free only if he is confident of negotiating a sign-and-trade or of cultivating an offer from the Pistons, Blazers (who already have LaMarcus Aldridge) or Thunder. His best hope may come from the Pistons. "I think if Boozer doesn't opt out, Detroit will go after Millsap," predicts a rival personnel executive. "If he does opt out, they'll go after Boozer. Either way they'll try to get one of those guys.''

Prevailing wisdom holds that Utah can't afford to keep both Boozer and Millsap. But the Jazz may be able to retain both pending the decisions of Okur and Korver, or by making a trade to unload salary elsewhere. Maybe they would dare to enter the season as a short-term tax team with the capability of unloading salary at midseason if they aren't in contention.

Another complication for Boozer will be the mystery surrounding the market. While this isn't a celebrated class of free agents -- Allen Iverson will be the only current All-Star seeking a new deal this summer -- the Pistons, Blazers and Thunder may be able to trade for stars on the cheap. If an ailing franchise needs to dump a big contract, they could simply trade it into the Pistons' cap space -- a salary dump for a player with three or four years on his deal, which Detroit may find more tempting than a new five-year deal for Boozer.

There is no predicting how it will play out. "A lot of us don't even know what our owners will let us spend," says another exec of the market this summer.

4. The cost of a ticket. Three NBA teams are reportedly planning to increase ticket prices next season. The only franchise to announce the increase is the Trail Blazers, who say they are raising season tickets by 6.7 percent in order to bring their pricing into line with the rest of the league.

Even so, is it worth the risk? Two injuries or one unfortunate off-the-court incident could change attitudes toward the franchise. That's true in any NBA city -- but a disappointing 2009-10 season, combined with a ticket hike, could especially aggravate customers in Portland at a time when so many are under pressure to keep their jobs or make ends meet.

3. An Obama-esque approach. The new U.S. president is viewing the recession as an opportunity to to fix a number of longstanding problems (health care, alternative energy, etc.) that went unheeded in better times. I imagine this will be the same approach commissioner David Stern takes in his negotiations with the players union for a new collective bargaining agreement.

If it isn't, it should be. The last time the NBA was in such trouble, Stern invented the salary cap to provide a new means for owners and players to share revenues. The salary cap doesn't work any longer because the issues have changed -- the value of franchises aren't escalating exponentially, and revenues are suddenly in decline. The way forward now is to develop a model that deals with these new realities, based on projected incomesm, while accounting for the inequities between small-market and large-market teams.

This can happen in two ways. The owners can try to shove demands down the union's gullet and eventually get their way -- likely after an extended lockout that sets back the promise of this emerging generation of team-first stars led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. In this recessed economy, fans will hate everything about the NBA if the owners and players spend a '11-12 lockout bickering over how to divide billions in gross income.

The alternative is to strive for a bipartisan approach with the union to come up with an entirely new means of accounting and forecasting to deal with issues that didn't exist 20 years ago. In this relationship, Billy Hunter's union cannot be obstructionist, and Stern cannot be dictatorial. The question is whether each side is wise enough to partner with the other, even when faced with so devastating an alternative.

2. Europe. One year ago the talk was that European clubs would outbid the NBA for talent. I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now.

Just the opposite is true: The smart NBA teams should go overseas this summer to hire ready-made role players from the top clubs in Europe. Remember when the Raptors signed European veterans Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker to leapfrog into the '06-07 playoffs? More NBA teams will be seeking to make similar investments for internationals and expat Americans in their mid-to-late 20s who know how to play. With salaries dropping in Europe, there has never been a better time for NBA teams to have a reliable scouting presence overseas.

1. Local coverage.Chris Tomasson and Aaron Lopez were among the best newswriters covering the NBA, and both are off the beat now that the Rocky Mountain News has gone out of business. As a result the surviving Denver Post -- no longer in a newspaper war -- will be under less pressure to come up with every last bit of news about the hometown Nuggets. In all kinds of ways there has been an erosion in coverage of the teams in Denver and other cities, and that will ultimately hurt the NBA.

NBA owners who may question the value of newspaper coverage are going to begin seeing negative trends. The effects will be felt as newspapers cut back on coverage or go out of business altogether. Layers of media interest in the NBA -- from bloggers, from talk radio -- is built on daily information gathered from local beat writers at newspapers. What happens when those writers stop traveling with the team or vanish altogether?

Some franchises may try to provide news coverage via their own franchise Web sites. But how many of them will tell you what you really want to know? If the star player disagrees with the coach or the team is preparing to make a major trade, is the franchise going to release this information? Less interesting coverage of the NBA will lead to less interest.

4. Make a lifelong fan of a destitute franchise feel better and tell me my Bucks aren't going to abandon me? Is it really inevitable at this point? And how many other teams are about to follow the same path in this grim economy?-- Justin, Beloit, Wis.

It isn't inevitable. It's hard to imagine the current owner, Sen. Herb Kohl, participating in the movement of the Bucks. Of course, they could be sold and then moved -- but where would they go? A number of franchises may be looking for better markets over the next decade, but those places are growing harder to find. Las Vegas is going to have a team someday. Kansas City has an NBA-ready arena, but the NHL may move in first. Then there are San Jose and Anaheim, which are crowded among other teams.

Franchises seeking better deals at home will threaten to move elsewhere. But first they have to find a better place that will have them.

3. What does Dwyane Wade have to do to convince you that he should be the leading candidate for MVP?-- Ben L., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

He needs a better team. The Heat are headed for a 45-win season. Every MVP over the last 26 years has won at least 50 games (or else he has been on a pace to win more than 50, as the Utah Jazz were in the shortened 1998 lockout season when Karl Malone was MVP) and the average number of wins for the MVP has been 62 (not including the lockout year, of course).

I agree with this point of view, that a player who leads a team into championship contention is more valuable than a player leading a lesser team. The most difficult and most important accomplishment in the NBA regular season is to position a team for a title run. No doubt Wade is having a terrific season while carrying Miami, but James is right there with him statistically -- in fact, LeBron is the league-leader in the NBA efficiency stat that accounts for points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, with Wade ranked No. 2.

Of course Wade will be on my five-player MVP ballot -- at the moment it would include Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard -- but I can't foresee placing him above James.

2. Obviously, the Lakers will eventually retire Shaq's No. 34 and either No. 8 or 24 (perhaps both?) for Kobe. What about Derek Fisher? He is just as integral a part to these Lakers teams as Kobe and Shaq. When Fisher hangs 'em up, will No. 2 be retired by the Lakers?-- Simon Sharkey-Gotlieb, Toronto

Excellent question. Fisher has never been close to becoming an All-Star, which is a minimum standard among Lakers retirees Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

I disagree with your assertion that he was as important as Kobe and Shaq. But let's say Fisher contributes to one or two more championships with the current Lakers. Think about it this way: If Fisher was a key member of four or five championship teams in Boston, would his number be retired by the Celtics? Maybe. But each team has its own perspective, and being in Hollywood, the Lakers reflect a standard for individual stardom as well as team success. Based on that, I don't think Fisher will be so honored.

1. Do you really think Shaq has a future in the Association past '10? At this point, he is a 65-game-per-season, 25-to-30-minute player, no back-to backs. With a large number of teams in financial trouble and having to tap that NBA credit line to continue business, do you really see anyone exceeding the mid-level exception for a broken-down pivot? I don't. I also don't see his pride allowing him to take that money.-- Mark, San Antonio

How many players sell tickets? Shaq is among the few real stars who delivers at the box office. If you are a contender, if he fits your style and tempo and if you can sign him to a short-term number that makes sense today and tomorrow (so that his expiration results in cap space, for example) then you must think about him. He isn't going to accept a pay cut on a short-term contract unless he is motivated to play at a high level, so chances are good you'll get a return on your investment.

3. Get a passport. It isn't as hard as it sounds. There are a number of available avenues, but here's the main way in: If you were born in '83 or later, and at least one parent was British, then you have a chance to compete for an Olympic medal at London in three years.

The newly organized Great Britain national team has already recruited NBA names Luol Deng (who may go down as godfather to U.K. hoops if all goes well), Raptors' forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Joel Freeland (a Blazers' first-round pick in '06). Deng's teammate in Chicago, Ben Gordon, says he would like to help GB this summer in the European Championships pending resolution of his contract this summer, when he'll be an NBA free agent.

Team GB won't be invited to play Olympic basketball as the host nation in '12 unless it proves worthy of the honor. "FIBA said we have to show over the next couple of years that we can compete against the best teams in Europe," says Ron Wuotila, performance manager and head of basketball operations for British Basketball. "We've qualified for the European Championships (to be held in September in Poland) for the first time in history, and that will give us an opportunity to show we're not just there for the trip, but that we're going to compete with the very best in Europe."

2. Be a point guard. While GB is looking for help at all positions, a HELP WANTED sign has been placed at the point. The British should have scoring on the wings from Deng and Gordon, and big men Mensah-Bonsu, Freeland, Andy Betts (a Euroleague center for the last decade) and Kieron Achara (an Italian League rookie at Fortitudo Bologna since leaving Duquesne last season) are all 6-10 or taller. "Point guard is the area where we need improved play," says Wuotila. "There's no science behind this statement, but in this country the small, quick athletes are more likely to choose rugby or football (soccer) over basketball."

European clubs often turn to expatriate Americans for leadership at point guard. In recent years former Bucknell point guard J.R. Holden helped launch a wave of naturalized Americans playing elsewhere he helped lead Russia to the '07 European championship.

"The FIBA rules really emphasize the importance of good point guard play," says Wuotila. "The emphasis is on the pick and roll, so the point guard has to be able to manage that situation both defensively and offensively. And if you aren't shooting well, teams will utilize the zone very effectively in Europe, so you need a point guard -- like a quarterback in American football -- to get in the right spots to attack that zone."

1. Be open-minded. Olympic teams throughout the world are enhanced by naturalized citizens with foreign accents. Chris Kaman of Grand Rapids, Mich., played for Germany in the Olympics last summer. Hakeem Olajuwon of Lagos, Nigeria, played for the U.S. Olympic team in '96. When Jackie Charlton was managing the Irish soccer team in the '90s it was hard to find a player on his team who was raised in Ireland, so adept was he in manipulating the passport laws.

"I'm very Canadian," notes Wuotila, who coached men's and women's college basketball in the U.S. for several years before basing himself in London for British Basketball. "The sport here is waiting for a chance to get everything joined up."

Based on the model of Spain, whose basketball program has grown into a world power from the seeds of the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, Wuotila believes that a naturalized infusion for both the men's and women's roster in '12 could make all the difference to a sport that has had trouble settling in the UK. "We think there's likely to be some talent in America and parts of the world who are eligible to put on the uniform for Great Britain," he says. "I would say I get connected with a lead (on a potential player) on a weekly basis."

A recent recruit is 6-11 Providence College senior Randall Hanke, whose potential citizenship surfaced when a friend of British basketball read about Hanke this season in the Boston Globe. As much as they've tried to utilize Internet resources to discover talent, the British also have been discovering talent by word of mouth. "We just don't know where it's going to come from," says Wuotila. "For three or four of the players, where it has come from is in conversations with other players. It's very frustrating and a bit scary that we can't put a strategy in place to do that. It's by happenstance, so we have to keep telling people this is how the system works and this is what we're trying to accomplish."

I asked a well-informed pro scout for his answers to two big questions.

2. Will Drew Gooden help the Spurs? The 6-10 forward has averaged 12.1 points and 8.0 rebounds in seven seasons with five NBA teams. He is listed as day-to-day while recovering from a groin injury that has sidelined him since he was signed by San Antonio March 5 in a buy-out from the Kings. "He is not the most cerebral player in the world," says this exec, "but at the same time, he's not a malcontent or a bad guy. What they'll find is that he has nowhere near the basketball IQ of Kurt Thomas, but he'll give them an active and aggressive guy who is younger than what they have.

"This is the first time he'll be on a team that doesn't ask him to carry a load as a scorer. A lot of guys find they perform better when they're not asked to concentrate on five different things. They'll ask him to rebound and be aggressive, and I would think he'll embrace that. When you've bounced around to all of these teams like he has, I don't think you can be naïve to the fact that you're not the greatest player in the world or that teams aren't dying to have you. I think he'll embrace it as most people do when they join that organization. They're a team that does a lot of background work on players, and they'll know they're getting another guy to give them depth up front, which helps resolve an issue they've had against the Lakers.''

1. Will the Celtics pull their team together in time for the playoffs?Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo are out this week along with Garnett's backup, Glen "Big Baby" Davis. Backup guard Tony Allen is out indefinitely, and newcomers Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore have struggled to fit in."What do you expect from a guy that hasn't played in 18 months?" says the exec of Marbury's problems. "I don't think it's very newsworthy that he's having problems.

"It could be tough over the next month. Let's face it, over the last year and a half it's been relatively easy for the Celtics: When they've wanted to turn it on, they've been able to turn it on. Each of their great stars has been able to rely on the other stars. But when you're not healthy, it really begins to affect your psyche. When you don't have your best players, I'm telling you, the coaching staff and the other players have doubts they can win. They'll all tell you they do believe, but deep down they're asking, 'How are we going to win without this guy?' That stuff goes on with every team, trust me."

Garnett and Rondo should be back weeks before the playoffs, but the Celtics have a lot of loose ends to fix. The Cavaliers, by comparison, have fewer issues. "I just have a funny feeling this is Cleveland's year, that they believe in themselves and that they've been knocking on the door for a few years now. You look at the history of the game, and how many teams had to do that before they were able to get to the championship? They're all on the same page, Joe Smith was a great pickup who fits right in, and when you have LeBron as the second-best player in the league on your team -- behind Kobe Bryant -- that gives you a lot of juice."

1. Ask your daughter. Mine is now in eighth grade. For the last three years our family has held an NCAA tournament pool, and she has won every time. As winner she earns the right to choose the restaurant for a big family dinner. Last night her little brother asked for her secret. "For the Final Four I always pick teams that are ranked first or second [as tournament seeds]," she explained.

Then he went back and checked. It turned out that the year she picked Florida and UCLA to meet in the NCAA Final, the Gators were a No. 3 seed. So much for that theory.

That year she was one of the only people I knew to forecast the final. At the time I asked how she happened to pick UCLA. "Because they had such a good year in football," she said as an 11 year old. I remember explaining to her that she had confused UCLA with USC.

The bottom line is twofold. One, she doesn't know why she is picking these teams. And two, she'll probably be choosing the restaurant for the fourth year in a row.