Friday February 19th, 2010

Almost half of the league's teams were involved in deadline trades over the past week. There appeared to be a number of explosions, but when the smoke cleared very little of importance had altered the championship race this season.

Cleveland is better than ever. Literally. When Antawn Jamison joins the Cavaliers on the court this weekend, he'll fill out the most talented and promising team of their 40-year history. And when Zydrunas Ilgauskas likely returns following an anticipated buyout from Washington and a 30-day enforced leave, Cleveland will look ahead to the playoffs with a frontcourt of intimidating length and depth between 6-foot-8 LeBron James, 7-1 Shaquille O'Neal, 6-9 Jamison, 7-3 Ilgauskas -- all current or former All-Stars -- in addition to 6-11 Anderson Varejao and 6-9 power forward J.J. Hickson, the 21-year old who started 48 games this season and probably would have been dealt to Phoenix if a proposed deal for Amar'e Stoudemire had been consummated.

Of the debate between Stoudemire or Jamison, the former Wizard is the more reliable addition, based not only on his personality but also on Stoudemire's history of injuries. The Cavs know that Jamison will fit into their locker room, and that he'll space the floor for Shaq without demanding the ball, thus heightening O'Neal's value in the post. Jamison is 33, but he has only two full years remaining on his contract, and the Cavs have a good idea what they can expect from him over that time. Had they traded for Stoudemire, then they would have been under pressure to sign him through 2015-16, at which time he would be making huge money as a 33-year-old with a history of knee trouble and a game that relies on athleticism.

The Wizards had been discussing a package that would have sent Jamison and the expiring $6.5 million contract of Mike James to Cleveland in exchange for Jamario Moon and Ilgauskas, with no draft pick coming to Washington. Then the Clippers called Washington to ask about Drew Gooden, picked up in last week's deal that sent Caron Butler to Dallas, and that resulted in a better deal for both the Cavs and Wizards.

The stakes on a potential buyout of Ilgauskas went up when the Wizards subsequently dealt Dominic McGuire's contract to Sacramento, leaving Washington under the luxury tax and therefore with no pressing financial need to set Ilgauskas free for a return to Cleveland. Ilgauskas must be released by March 1 in order to be eligible for the playoffs, so it will be interesting to follow his negotiations with the Wizards.

This deal for Jamison has a strong chance of becoming this year's version of the move Detroit made at the 2004 deadline to acquire Rasheed Wallace, resulting in a championship for the Pistons just four months later. If so, it may ultimately take James off the board as a free agent this summer.

The Knicks become a player. Would one max free agent have been willing to come to New York this summer on his own? The Knicks were worried about trying to attract LeBron, Dwyane Wade or anyone else as the lone star on a roster lacking in complementary pieces. The lonesome free agent who signed with the Knicks would have been greeted as savior over the summer, but then in winter he would have been held accountable for every loss.

This is why I was among those who doubted whether the Knicks could attract a single major star this summer. But the outlook is entirely more promising for them now. Thanks to the three-team deal that unloaded Jared Jeffries to Houston, the Knicks have a chance to do something very good. They can offer free-agent contracts worth more than $30 million, and depending on the mixture of talent they attract, they may yet be able to re-sign All-Star forward David Lee to a reasonable deal. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler will remain on the books next season at a combined $5.4 million. That's not such a bad first step at all to go with Mike D'Antoni, who has retained his reputation as one of the league's best coaches despite New York's momentary dearth of talent.

The Knicks don't have their draft choice this year -- hooray for Utah, which owns the unprotected rights to New York's upcoming lottery pick -- and in order to escape their crucial $6.9 million commitment next year to Jeffries, the Knicks had to give up current rookie Jordan Hill (who was the No. 8 pick), the rights to their first-rounder next year (Houston has the option to swap picks unless it is No. 1 overall) and their first-rounder in 2012 (which is protected Nos. 1-5).

The knee-jerk response would be to complain that the Knicks are "mortgaging their future." But this mortgage actually makes sense. The earlier mortgages -- which the Knicks finally paid off this week -- had been drowning underwater following years of overspending unwisely in a hopeless effort to win now.

Even if James appears more likely than ever to remain with Cleveland, the Knicks now have a chance to turn the misery of the last two years into an opportunity to recruit Wade and Bosh; or Joe Johnson and Stoudemire; or Johnson and a secondary free agent, which might leave enough to re-sign Lee. And if the Knicks want draft choices, their owner, James Dolan, has already shown a willingness to spend the $3 million necessary to buy them.

The trade that wasn't made. This makes three straight years that the Suns have been rumored to be moving Stoudemire at the deadline. This time talks with the Cavs fizzled when Hickson was pulled out of a proposed deal, reports the Arizona Republic, leading to failed attempts to bring Carlos Boozer to Phoenix in a three-way exchange for Ilgauskas' expiring money. Then there were dalliances with Miami and Houston.

As the Celtics learned in their attempt to find a younger star to replace Ray Allen in exchange for his expiring contract, it is practically impossible in this market to realize equal talent in a trade. The Suns didn't want to surrender Stoudemire and fall out of the playoffs, knowing that their draft pick is owed to Oklahoma City.

Here's the problem: Though Stoudemire says he may return to Phoenix on a $17.7 million option next season, it makes more sense for him to become a free agent this summer and negotiate a new contract under the more accommodating rules of the current bargaining agreement. If he doesn't become a free agent now, then he faces going into a 2011 lockout without a contract, followed by negotiations under the oppressive conditions of the new CBA. So he may very well depart this summer and leave Phoenix with nothing in return. The Suns have faced nothing but bad options.

Rick Adelman reunites with Kevin Martin. Houston could have had cap space this summer by renouncing Luis Scola; instead they surrendered sixth-man award candidate Carl Landry to Sacramento as part of the McGrady deal in order to land Martin, who will partner with Aaron Brooks in the backcourt to provide Houston with perimeter scoring to balance the return of Yao Ming next year.

Martin joined Jamison and Caron Butler (sent by Washington to Dallas last week) as the only 20-ppg-capable scorers to be moved at the deadline. Adelman knows exactly what he is getting after coaching Martin in Sacramento as recently as four years ago. Looking ahead to next season, the Rockets hope Martin's three-point range and knack for drawing fouls with his unique ball fake will put the Rockets in the bonus early each quarter, when Yao's ability to convert free throws makes them a dangerous team. Of course, everything depends on Yao's recovery from foot surgery as he enters the final year of his contract next season.

Elsewhere ... Two challengers made deals that could boost them into the conference finals. Dallas tried to move into position to become the No. 2 contender in the West by acquiring Butler and Brendan Haywood from Washington, though carving out a role for Butler won't take care of itself.

The Celtics settled on an apparently minor deal for Nate Robinson that could have a major impact, as he provides much-needed ballhandling behind Rajon Rondo as well as energy and scoring off the bench. But Robinson's impact will have little meaning if the Celtics don't renew their commitment to defense by closing up the lane and controlling the defensive boards.

The Bulls and Wizards both created more cap space. Washington did everything it could hope to do short of moving the currently immoveable Gilbert Arenas. The Wizards now enter the summer with upwards of $18 million in space, and while they may not be a preferred destination for free agents, they can just as easily use that space to take on salary via trades. Likewise, Chicago's trades of John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas have left the Bulls with the potential of max space, and they will go after Wade or Johnson this summer in hope of providing point guard Derrick Rose with an elite finisher.

The Bucks took on Salmons' two-year commitment in hope of pushing for the playoffs to give postseason experience to Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut. They'll be under the cap going into the new CBA in 2011-12, as will the Kings, who aren't likely to spend their newfound cap space this summer.

As for the current races, Portland and Charlotte filled their frontcourt needs by dealing for Marcus Camby and Tyrus Thomas, respectively, which appears to solidify them as playoff teams this spring.

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

When the offseason starts, do you think Atlanta could offer a max contract to LeBron before offering a max to Joe Johnson, just to see if LeBron would want to join a team of young talent? -- Karl, Atlanta

The rules prohibit those kinds of shenanigans, Karl. Before it could try to sign James, Atlanta would have to first renounce its rights to Johnson in order to clear space and be under the cap. In this particular case, Atlanta would be left with less than $10 million in space, which wouldn't be enough to deliver James anyway.

Bird rights enable a team to re-sign its own player regardless of cap space. The Hawks can use those rights to re-sign Johnson, but they don't have enough cap space to go after LeBron.

Notable NBA agent Arn Tellem wrote in a column, "NBA players would be in a stronger position without a union." A day later, when interviewed by The New York Times, agent David Falk blamed the union for the NBA's broken economic system. Do you agree with Tellem and Falk? Is the players' union to blame for the labor strife? -- Jerry C., Mobile, Ala.

On the one side, Tellem argues, "The union has caved on pretty much every demand the league has made: a rookie wage scale, a maximum salary cap, a luxury tax, even an escrow fund. During that time, the league hasn't made a single sacrifice.'' On the other side, the owners complain that the very same bargaining agreement is delivering too much money to the players. Both sides are right. Both views are symptoms of a system that needs a revolutionary overhaul.

I find myself agreeing with Falk's call for owners and players to compromise in creating an entirely new system for sharing revenues. I don't yet know how to create that system. I do know the owners won't like Falk's definition of revenues, as laid out in his interview with The Times: "China, franchise appreciation, broadcast rights, luxury seating. If you're going to be partners, there should be no definition of revenues. Revenues should be everything that owners receive."

The NBA -- its owners and players -- needs to stop trying to repair an engine that no longer works. The sides need to work together with the understanding that everyone will make more money if they truly are partners. If the new system creates an authentic team, then the players will realize they can't afford to bring guns into the locker room and commit the other kinds of selfish, shortsighted mistakes that ultimately hurt their business.

Look at how the best NBA teams win championships. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are partners. Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan are partners. Doc Rivers and his three stars in Boston were partners in 2007-08. In each case, the rest of the team has followed that example of leadership and worked in the best interests of the team.

Most franchises can't see through this kind of high-minded partnership because the coach and/or player isn't capable of pulling it off. Too often the players selfishly exploit the relationship, and/or the coach pretends to be the boss and wastes a lot of time trying in vain to maintain authority that doesn't really exist.

The same dynamic is at play between NBA owners and players. The owners appear to be striving harshly for control over the players, but it's a farce. They seek something they never can acquire. For their business to succeed, the owners and the players must respect each other. The only way to show that respect is with a dollar sign.

If the players continue to view themselves as employees, then they'll continue to shrug off the NBA's financial difficulties as a problem for the owners to solve. The truth is those problems won't be solved unless the owners and players behave like partners -- grown-ups -- in solving them together.

There is a way for the owners to embrace a partnership without surrendering control. Look at Popovich: He and Duncan both profit from their relationship, even as both understand that Duncan could be traded at any moment on Popovich's authority.

I am naive in laying it all out in these simple terms, but the troubles each side has helped create now present an opportunity to come up with an entirely new and ultimately more profitable way of doing business together. The system of salary cap, luxury tax and max contracts isn't cutting it anymore. A better system won't come about until they stand in each other's shoes and realize that each side can't afford to continue trying to exploit the other at the expense of their business, that there is no future in behaving like the two sides of the Congressional aisle in Washington.

Can they figure out how to behave in their own best interests? I wonder.

To answer your question, Jerry, the union isn't going to budge until the players believe the owners are treating them as partners. And that won't happen until owners are convinced the players are worthy of that partnership. Good luck.

Regarding the suggested single-elimination tournament to determine the eighth seed in each conference, another revenue- and interest-generating idea might be to have something along the lines of what European soccer does. Why not have, concurrent with the regular season, a single-elimination tournament including not only NBA teams but also D-League teams? Each year there would be a regular-season winner and a tournament winner. The single-elimination format ensures that some teams will advance deep regardless of their realistic chances of winning the regular-season title, and including the D-Leaguers creates the potential for Cinderella stories. -- Chris C., Mariposa, Calif.

The D-League teams would be murdered, Chris. Cinderella would never get out of the attic.

I think the most realistic scenario is LeBron signing a shorter-term contract with Cleveland (allowing him to keep some options open) and not committing himself anywhere for a long period. Do you agree with this assessment or are my Cleveland roots clouding my vision? -- Patrick, Akron, Ohio

In normal times you may be right, Patrick. But my feeling is that James and other free agents this summer will be more interested in signing five- or six-year deals that will extend as long as possible into the next collective bargaining agreement. This will be the final summer before the new agreement reduces salaries and shortens contracts, and the current free agents will want to postpone those realities for as long as possible.

Orlando was quiet at the trade deadline, but that's no reason to forget about the team with the best chance of disrupting the anticipated NBA Finals of Cavaliers vs. Lakers.

Jameer Nelson is improving. Nelson's left knee was scoped in December to repair a torn meniscus, and the Magic point guard has been working his way back into form. "It's nothing I can't handle. I think I'm getting through it well,'' says Nelson, who had 14 points and nine assists Wednesday in a win over the Pistons. "As long as we keep getting better, we're going to be where we want to be at the end of the year.''

The Magic won the East last year despite Nelson's midseason shoulder injury that sidelined him until the Finals. His scoring has dipped to 11.7 points this season as he fights through the latest injury. If he has a healthy two months and regains his ability to attack and thereby create for others, then he'll give the Magic a more aggressive look going into the playoffs. Don't forget that the Eastern coaches voted Nelson to the All-Star team one year ago based on a first-half performance of 16.9 points and 50.4 percent shooting.

Last year Orlando recovered from Nelson's absence by making a midseason deal for Rafer Alston. This year GM Otis Smith made a preemptive move to bring in backup point guard Jason Williams, who has played in every game while providing a 3.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But the Magic need Nelson.

Vince Carter can only improve. Carter was shooting under 40 percent before February, and his arrival was blamed for Orlando's first-half inconsistency. But in his last seven games Carter has averaged 22.1 points while shooting 51.8 percent, including 56.7 percent from three-point range.

"I let a few things bother me,'' Carter said of his concerns with trying to fit into Orlando's deep rotation. "When you have a lot of guys like this team does, that can become a problem.''

Carter was a team leader with the Nets last season, and he says he has tried to establish a similar role in Orlando -- not an easy thing when joining a reigning NBA finalist.

"I'm confident in being a leader,'' Carter said. "From Day One since I've been playing with Dwight [Howard], my goal with him was to help him become a better free-throw shooter and feel more confident. Not to say I'm leading the league or I'm going to be [remembered] in history with the best free-throw percentage. I just felt that I could help him.''

The less Carter thinks about his role and the more confidently he plays, the better Orlando's chances become of improving through him. If he's fully integrated, then Carter will provide another go-to scorer on the perimeter, which can be crucial in the playoffs.

"He's getting better every game, he's getting more comfortable with the offense and the chemistry of playing with us,'' Rashard Lewis said. "You can tell he's trying to get his rhythm back. We still have a long season and he'll most definitely be a lot better the second half of the season.''

They have plenty of inspiration. It's too early to dismiss the Magic. They've been inconsistent, but that's to be expected after the moves they made this summer. Their starting five has been together for only 21 games. Yet they alone have the combination of youth, depth and star power to contend in the East against Cleveland. They also have the not-so-old memories of knocking off the Cavs last season.

"People say we're overrated,'' Lewis said. "There's always negative talk about the Orlando Magic. Even though we made the Finals, we still got a little bit of negative feedback, negative talk. It doesn't bother us at all -- if anything, the negative talk keeps us burning, and so all we have to do is go out there and show them.''

This is not such a bad thing to be: a deep, talented underdog with Finals experience.

"We're still learning to play with the new guys we have,'' Lewis said. "There's still some adjusting to do. But I think our depth is going to help us, especially when playoff time comes, because we have so many guys who can help us win games.''

From Antawn Jamison, when he was captain of the Wizards. "I'm not one of those guys who every minute on the minute I'm always hawking things or saying things about this or that. When it's time to say what's on your mind, you say it, and when I think we're not doing the things I think we need to do in order to prepare ourselves to be successful, then it has to be said. And that's something that these guys respect about me, that when he talks he's not going to be talking just to be talking -- that he's not trying to impress anybody, that it's from the heart."

From Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings. Since his conversation last summer with rapper Joe Budden was surreptitiously recorded and shown on YouTube, Jennings says he has changed the way he communicates. "We were talking basketball and talking about who we don't like, or that guy's no good, and unfortunately he was recording me and he put it out there," Jennings said. "It was something that was out of my hands because I thought I was talking to a friend. Now I don't talk on the phone a lot anymore. It's just texting now, all because of that. I don't do a lot of talking on the phone unless it's my mother or Duff [agent Bill Duffy] or some people I'm really close to.''

From an NBA scout. "I liked Cleveland's chances of reaching the Finals before, and now this trade for Antawn Jamison solidifies it. This has separated them in the East from Orlando and the Celtics and Atlanta.

"Now they've got a true scorer at power forward who can really put points on the board, who can go for 22 and 8 on a consistent basis. How do you take him away? He can shoot, give you range, spread your offense; he can still drive and finish in the paint, or you can post him up and play through him. He's not overly athletic and he's not a great out-of-position rebounder, but he'll rebound his position. He's a good teammate who will do whatever you want him to do, and he's a good passer who will understand he's the No. 3 or 4 option and that's what he needs to be to get a ring.

"Jamison is a tough matchup for [Pau] Gasol. He won't like playing Jamison. Chasing Jamison around the floor and having to guard a guy who is well-rounded offensively is going to be a challenge for Gasol, even though Jamison is not as mobile and agile as he used to be in terms of moving without the ball.

"Even with all of that, I'm still going to like the Lakers. For me, it all comes down to Derek Fisher. I look at Cleveland's backcourt and I think Fisher can still be effective against that team. If Cleveland had someone who could pressure Fisher and shut him down, then the Lakers would become a much more vulnerable team. Because then Kobe is having to bring the ball up, and that means you can load to the ball and do some things defensively against Kobe that you can't do otherwise. All of that passing and cutting that is involved with the triangle offense, you can negate some of that by locating Kobe on the ball. Plus, it just wears Kobe out because now he has to do everything.

"Fisher, because of his age, is the Lakers' weakness. But the Cavs don't have someone to hurt the Lakers there.

"So I think the Lakers are not feeling bad about this Jamison deal. Cleveland is a more formidable opponent than it was before the trade, but the Lakers aren't saying to themselves, `We can't beat them.' "

Would his prediction change if Cleveland earns the home-court advantage?

"I would ... still pick the Lakers,'' the scout said. "But you heard how long I had to pause before deciding. It's going to be a hell of a series, that's for sure.''

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