As the mania from the LeBron James circus finally begins to abate, we can snap back from the soap opera and remember the basketball. Instead of feverishly chasing the latest rundown on how and when which billionaire was stooping to kiss the still-nonexistent ring of the King, we can take a broader look around the NBA and see that Miami has some company when it comes to shrewd front offices that have done a noteworthy job with their resources this summer.
There's no scientific criteria at play here. For example, the 29-win Knicks may improve their victory total more than the 41-win Bulls in the 2010-11 season, but the way Chicago has supplemented its core strengths and prepared for playoff competition is, in my opinion, more impressive. The other caveat in judging teams at this stage is that the roster-juggling is far from finished, with plenty of valuable role players remaining as free agents and the trade market continuing to be active.
With that said, here are five teams that deserve praise for their offseasons to date.
A little more than a year ago, the Kings were coming off an NBA-worst 17-win season. People talked about a possible move to Las Vegas more than they extolled the exploits of the players on the roster. But team president Geoff Petrie spearheaded a stellar 2009 draft that brought in two rugged newcomers in Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans and small forward Omar Casspi. Petrie then hastened the inevitable emergence of Evans as the team's alpha dog with a midseason deal that sent leading scorer Kevin Martin to Houston for power forward Carl Landry. Add in 2008 top pick Jason Thompson, and Sacramento had the makings of a scrappy team.
Petrie has maximized that identity with a couple of brilliant moves over the past month. A week before the draft, Sacramento sent soft, smooth-shooting center Spencer Hawes and waning veteran Andres Nocioni to the Sixers for 6-11 center Samuel Dalembert, a quality defender and shot-blocker equally capable of stolid on-ball deterrence and rapid help from the weak side. Dalembert is durable -- he hasn't missed a game in more than four years -- and possesses an expensive but valuable $13 million expiring contract.
Dalembert will also become a key mentor for Sacramento's top pick this year, Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, a 19-year-old man-child who weighs 292 pounds and has a 7-6 wingspan on his 6-11 frame. Cousins' skills are equally enormous but purportedly undercut by some arrogance and immaturity that are not uncommon to teenagers. This is exactly the kind of high-risk, higher-reward gamble a small-market franchise should take, especially because Cousins fits the Kings' black-and-blue blueprint meant to overpower foes with aggressive physical play at both ends of the court. (Sacramento also drafted raw 7-foot center Hassan Whiteside in the second round.)
The Kings still have an uphill fight to make the playoffs in the deep, competitive Western Conference. Casspi and 6-11 swingman Donte Greene both show promise as three-point marksmen, but Sacramento could use a more reliable catch-and-shoot scorer on the wing. Evans needs to be less ball-centric operating the offense out of the half court and, with the exception of Dalembert, the power rotation is not yet fully seasoned. But Evans and Cousins are monsters in the making, a pair of huge, yet deceptively mobile and coordinated performers to man the point and the pivot, respectively. They could resurrect the once-vociferous home-court advantage at Arco Arena, playing a rugged style that wears well in the postseason.
Of all the spurned suitors for LeBron, the Bulls have collected the most astute and coherent set of consolation prizes. Free-agent signee Carlos Boozer is an ideal frontcourt teammate for center Joakim Noah. The former Jazz power forward is especially adept at dipping in and out of the sort of chaotic traffic that Noah masterfully stirs beneath the rim. (Combine those two with 6-8 paint-crasher Luol Deng at small forward, and Chicago will not be wanting for rebounds.) Boozer's ability to finish with either hand over taller opponents down low will help the Bulls address last year's inefficient and inaccurate offense (the team was 27th in offensive efficiency and 28th in effective field-goal percentage, which factors in the added value of three-pointers). So will the replacement of poor-shooting guard Kirk Hinrich (who was dealt to the Wizards in order to clear more salary-cap space) with another free-agent signee from Utah, Kyle Korver, who shot an NBA-record 53.6 percent from three-point range last season. Chicago signed another deadeye shooter, restricted free agent J.J. Redick, to an offer sheet last week, and if Orlando doesn't match it by Friday, the Bulls will have two reliable long-range options for All-Star point guard Derrick Rose to find on the drive-and-kick.
None of these recent additions is regarded as an above-average defender, especially compared to two primary starters last season in Hinrich and Taj Gibson (who will lose time to Boozer). But don't expect much of a drop-off under new coach Tom Thibodeau, who was the architect of the Celtics' celebrated defense the last three seasons. If he can motivate a younger roster to become similarly dedicated to defense, the Bulls have a chance to unseat Atlanta as one of the East's big four alongside Miami, Orlando and Boston.
Nobody maximizes bit parts with the foresight and discipline of Thunder GM Sam Presti. While most of Presti's peers pile up assets and hope to sort it out later, he acquires pieces knowing exactly where they'll fit while always maneuvering for better leverage in the future. One could argue that taking James Harden ahead of Evans last year was too extreme of an example of OKC's penchant for drafting on the basis of need and role as much as skill and potential. But how well the Thunder do their homework with respect to scouting and money-management opportunities was revealed with the emergence of late first-rounder Serge Ibaka at center and the acquisition of promising point guard Eric Maynor as part of a cost-cutting move by Utah last season.
This offseason, Presti started with four draft picks all outside the top 20. He turned those selections into veterans Morris Peterson (acquired from New Orleans) and Daequan Cook (from Miami, along with the No. 18 pick for the No. 32 pick), two long-range shooters who can relieve some of the perimeter pressure from Kevin Durant and provide a wing option for Russell Westbrook of penetration; the 11th pick in the draft, Kansas center Cole Aldrich (obtained in the Peterson trade), the kind of reliable career backup who gets the most of mediocre talent and will be a good fit in the locker room; a future protected first-round pick from the Clippers in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, the 18th selection last month (history suggests the odds of it being better than 18th are very good indeed); and second-round prospects Tibor Pleiss of Germany, D-League forward Latavious Williams and Florida State's Ryan Reid.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant quietly re-signed for another five years, a maximum $86 million deal that still feels like a steal when you consider it is just a pittance more than Memphis is paying Rudy Gay and much less than the Hawks are paying Joe Johnson. No doubt Durant's talent and down-to-earth temperament are making Presti look smarter, but the flip side is that Presti has built a foundation that Durant can trust enough to be a small-market bigwig without sweating embarrassment or obscurity.
The events of June and July have been very kind to the Lakers. Coach Phil Jackson has decided to return, as has starting point guard Derek Fisher after his flirtation with Miami. The Lakers used most of their mid-level exception for the savvy signing of point guard Steve Blake to a four-year, $16 million deal. Blake is a tongue-in-groove fit for the Lakers, a capable veteran who functions best on a team that only intermittently requires the point guard to run the offense. (For comparison, Orlando signed point guard Chris Duhon to a four-year, $15 million deal. Duhon's career shooting percentage is 39.3 -- which is Blake's career percentage from three-point territory.)
And then there is the challenge provided by Miami's talent coup. Rarely, if ever, has a two-time defending champion with all of its key pieces returning been confronted by such a hypothetically formidable foe. Remember, when the 2008 U.S. Olympic team was reeling in the gold-medal game against Spain, LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh receded into role-player reticence while Kobe Bryant seized the moment. You don't think he relishes the idea of playing David to the Heat's Goliath en route to his second three-peat? The Zen Master himself couldn't have scripted better motivation for the NBA's best clutch player.
Last but hardly not least we have the Heat, who have experienced a more bountiful summer than any team in NBA history.Yes, Miami lucked into the pajama-party vibe that compelled three of the league's top dozen players to take less than max money for the joy of playing, and presumably winning championships, together. Anyone who watched the 2008 Summer Olympics chuckles at the notion that this star trio can't play together -- Wade and LeBron were baseline-to-baseline defensive demons in China, and it was Bosh, not Dwight Howard, who was the Redeem Team's most valuable big man. As for the dangers of ball-hogging, both LeBron and Wade ranked among the top 10 in assists last season.
Bosh, Wade and James don't need months to learn how to play together. All of them have demonstrated their court IQ and all of them will be more free to roam and create than at any point in the past five years. Riley was wise to line up a three-point specialist in Mike Miller to further spread the floor, provided that Miller actually launches what remains one of the NBA's silkiest jumpers (his field-goal attempts have declined sharply in the last two seasons).
Size and depth were the immediate question marks after the Big Three agreed to deals, but the Heat moved quickly to at least ease those concerns by bringing back power forward Udonis Haslem and persuading longtime Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas to follow LeBron to Miami. The Heat are also in position to retain restricted free-agent center Joel Anthony, who was their best paint defender last season.
With Miller, Haslem and Ilgauskas, Miami proved it didn't have to fill out its roster with nobodies even after spending big for James, Wade and Bosh. But even nobodies become a little bit somebody sharing the court with the Heat's mega-talented trio. Remember, LeBron won 127 games the past two regular seasons without Wade and Bosh beside him. This time, he might want to try back-loading a few more of those victories for meaningful games in June.