Marty Burns
Thursday January 20th, 2005

What have we learned from this year's NBA summer so far?

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak could qualify for the U.S. gymnastics team at the Athens Olympics, what with the way he bent over backwards for Kobe Bryant. Carlos Boozer might not want to make plans to visit the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame any day soon. And the Heat can take down the curtain that covers the upper deck of American Airlines Arena.

Shaquille O'Neal's trade to South Beach is clearly the big story of the offseason, simultaneously ending the Lakers' mini-dynasty while making the Heat a contender in the East. Miami already is reporting record ticket sales, which is a good thing since the Heat might need the money in a few years to pay off what could be an injured, overweight 35-year-old Shaq at the end of his contract. But, hey, at least the Heat have a chance to win now. The same can't be said about the current Lakers.

Even with Bryant having agreed to stay in purple and gold, L.A. will be hard-pressed to contend for a title next season.

The Lakers, in fact, are one of a handful of teams that appear to have taken a step backward this offseason. Granted, the summer is not over yet. There are still some decent free agents on the market, and there is always the possibility of more trades. But with the bulk of the free-agent frenzy now complete, here's a look at the biggest winners and losers so far from this year's wild NBA summer:

1. Heat

Despite not having any room under the salary cap, they managed to land the game's most dominant player in Shaq. Now they're a legitimate challenger to the Pistons and Pacers for the East title. It cost them three good talents -- including stud Lamar Odom -- but Shaq is a unique force and should be even more productive in a conference devoid of good centers. Miami also added a quality backup center in free-agent signee Michael Doleac.

2. Jazz

They needed to get bigger up front, and they added two quality frontcourt players in Boozer and Mehmet Okur. Along with small forward Andrei Kirilenko, the Jazz now boast one of the NBA's more formidable front lines. Utah also managed to re-sign point guard Carlos Arroyo and shooting guard Gordan Giricek. Though not the biggest names, these players all fit Jerry Sloan's hard-nosed unselfish system and the Jazz didn't have to overpay to get them.

3. Rockets

Like the Heat, they managed to land one of the game's top 5 players (Tracy McGrady) despite not having any salary cap room. Obviously they had to give up Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, but McGrady is a transcendant talent who should form a dynamite 1-2 punch with Yao Ming in Houston. Along with veteran power forward Juwan Howard (who came over in the McGrady trade) and point guard Tyronn Lue (free-agent signee), the Rockets look ready to blast off.

4. Nuggets

They added one of the top free agents in all-star power forward Kenyon Martin and re-signed center Marcus Camby. They got Martin in a sign-and-trade with the Nets, who inked the rugged high-flier to a seven-year $92.5 million deal and then dealt him to Denver for three first-round draft picks. In a bigger gamble, the Nuggets kept the injury-prone Camby by giving him at least $60 million over six years. With second-year phenom Carmelo Anthony and rising power forward Nene, Denver's frontcourt is loaded.

5. Suns

Instead of making a longshot pitch for Bryant, they used their salary-cap room to sign veteran point guard Steve Nash. The former Maverick should provide much-needed playmaking to an exciting young squad that features Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson. They also signed shooting guard Quentin Richardson to an offer sheet, but the Clippers have the option to match. Nash's age (30) makes his six-year deal somewhat risky, but the Suns should be an improved team in the short term.

1. Lakers

Yes, it would have been far worse if Bryant had decided to sign elsewhere. But by trading away Shaq and letting Phil Jackson go, the Lakers have lost two key pieces of their mini-dynasty. Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler provide Bryant a nice supporting cast, but L.A. now has a glut of small forwards and a gaping hole at center. Vlade Divac would be a good addition, but it's doubtful he could vault them back into the upper echelon of Western teams.

2. Nets

Somewhere Byron Scott is probably chuckling. With the Nets' new ownership unwilling to pay the luxury tax, they decided to let Martin go for draft picks. K-Mart's loss is a devastating blow to the Nets, who took a step backward last season after back-to-back Finals trips. New Jersey now must work a trade for another power forward, or rely on Brian Scalabrine and Aaron Williams. Either way, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson probably aren't going to be too happy.

3. Cavaliers

They got "bamboozled" when Boozer reneged on his promised $40 million deal and took a bigger payday from the Jazz. Boozer, who joined with Zydrunas Ilgauskas to give Cleveland one of the best frontcourts in the East last year, was a cornerstone in Cleveland along with LeBron James. Now the Cavs must rely on Tony Battie, or find help in the free-agent market. Cleveland can only hope Boozer's loss doesn't come back to haunt them when it's time for James to renew his own deal in a few years.

4. Mavericks

They lost Nash to the Suns without compensation and couldn't find a way to land Shaq. They did re-sign Marquis Daniels, but it remains to be seen whether he and rookie Devin Harris can handle the point guard duties. Owner Mark Cuban still could make something happen -- talk of a Vince Carter deal won't die -- but for now it appears the Mavs have fallen back a bit. The only good news for Dallas is that Shaq is finally out of the Western Conference.

5. Clippers

Jilted at the altar by Bryant, they now must pick up the pieces. Bryant's decision was especially damaging since they had traded Melvin Ely and Eddie House to the Charlotte Bobcats in an effort to clear even more cap room than they already had to sign Bryant. Meanwhile, Richardson says he wants to play in Phoenix and doesn't want the Clippers to match their offer. L.A. might have to do a sign-and-trade to get some players who want to play there. Elton Brand and Corey Maggette are in for another long season.

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