There are many ways to screw up a basketball team. Sign a mere star at a superstar's pay grade. Acquire players solely on the basis of talent, with no clue how they will fit together. Disrupt a jelling roster or stand pat with one that is at or near its peak without a championship in sight. Hire a coach or general manager whose skills and personality aren't sufficient to address the needs of the franchise. Or just be cursed and unlucky.
Just as surely as some teams have sagely secured the pieces over the summer that will foster or hasten their ascent up the standings, others have shopped unwisely, forestalling momentum and laying the groundwork for more groundwork. Here's one person's opinion of the 10 worst offseason moves so far, in no particular order. In each case, I'd be happy to be proved wrong -- better teams make for more enjoyable competition.
• Knicks give Amar'e Stoudemire a five-year, $100 million deal as part of a sign-and-trade with the Suns
The Knicks obviously hoped the early agreement with Stoudemire -- his deal was announced on July 5, three days before it could become official -- would cajole LeBron James or another major free agent into joining him. It is nobody's fault that a second star couldn't be added, and defenders of this signing point out that Amar'e's presence makes the Knicks more desirable for a top free agent like Tony Parker or Carmelo Anthony next year.
Yes, keep hope alive, but let's look at the $100 million bird the Knicks have in hand. Stoudemire's justified reputation as the game's most unstoppable force going to the basket on the pick-and-roll was accomplished with the magician Steve Nash as his partner on that play. Raymond Felton, New York's new starting point guard, is slightly above-average league-wide, but can't come close to duplicating Nash's deadeye accuracy from long range (which gave Amar'e room to operate down low) or Nash's knack for perfectly timed, split-second ball delivery.
Health is another concern. Stoudemire, one of the NBA's quintessential leapers, has had microfracture surgery and wears goggles to protect a repaired retina that is always vulnerable to a career-ending jolt. Then there is the matter of attitude. Stoudemire was occasionally thin-skinned about criticism in Phoenix and may have trouble handling the media pressure cooker in New York. It also remains to be seen whether he retains his belated commitment to defense, which made him one of the NBA's best all-around players in the second half of last season, but has otherwise been a glaring weakness. Put simply, more will be asked of him than ever before, yet the supporting cast is the weakest of his career. That's not a recipe for success.
• Raptors re-sign Amir Johnson to a five-year, $34 million deal
Just 23, Johnson has intriguing potential. The 6-foot-9 power forward was one of the Raptors' few quality defenders last season -- according to 82games.com, Toronto's opponents scored eight fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court than when he sat. He also shot 63.8 percent from the field, albeit in short stints (he averaged only 17.7 minutes), and in part because of his limited range.
And that's the rub: The Raptors are gambling a lot of money on a player with a limited sample size who doesn't seem like a great fit in terms of their needs. More specifically, Johnson has "played" five NBA seasons, but languished on the bench early in the tenure with Detroit and has just 3,291 career minutes -- the equivalent of slightly more than one season for a solid NBA starter. While he plays the same position as the departed Chris Bosh, he lacks Bosh's bulk (he's listed at just 210 pounds), not an ideal situation because the Raptors are committed at center to Andrea Bargnani, a sweet shooterbut not a physical presence. Toronto also used its top draft pick on a thin power forward, 6-10 Ed Davis of North Carolina.
Scant experience and the prospect of an undersized frontcourt with Johnson and Bargnani make giving Johnson a healthy raise and a long deal seem overly pricey. Didn't the Raptors learn their lesson overpaying Hedo Turkoglu?
• Hawks re-sign Joe Johnson to a six-year, $124 million deal
This is a spectacularly dumb move by Atlanta. Less than three months ago, Johnson was booed off his home court after "helping" the Hawks suffer the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history (to Orlando, by an average margin of more than 25 points per game). Disappearing as a positive force when the games mattered most, Johnson shot just 30 percent and averaged 12.8 points during the series while delivering fewer assists and committing more turnovers than he did in the regular season. He also had the temerity to criticize Hawks fans for booing the team during a 30-point home loss in Game 3 -- earlier in the season, he had complained about the lack of enthusiasm and atmosphere for basketball in Atlanta.
After a fifth straight year of regular-season improvement, the Hawks had struggled to defeat a vastly inferior Bucks team (minus star Andrew Bogut) in the first round, renewing questions about their immaturity and lack of a killer instinct. If nothing else, the Orlando massacre demonstrated that the Hawks couldn't be regarded as serious contender for a championship if Johnson was their best player.
In response, Atlanta signed Johnson to the most expensive contract of the summer, a deal that will become more onerous with each passing season. Defenders of the move claim the Hawks couldn't afford the dramatic setback of Johnson's departure after their slow but steady climb from the depths of a 13-win season in 2004-05. But what was really at stake here? Johnson and Atlanta's fan base already have a relationship that is both fractious and indifferent (the 53-win team finished 18th in attendance last season), and the signing merely creates a more expensive status quo while hindering chances for significant future upgrades. At 29, Johnson is already well into his prime; it is almost certain that his first five years with the Hawks have been more productive than what he can generate in his next six.
Meanwhile, as the Heat and Bulls get better and the Magic and Celtics remain formidable, the Hawks have to hope that last year's shameful pratfall was all departed coach Mike Woodson's fault.
• Bucks trade for Corey Maggette and then re-sign John Salmons to a five-year, $39 million deal
Many people seem really excited about Milwaukee's offseason moves. But my view is that having both Maggette and Salmons shows an unhealthy preference for ball hogs over ball hounds. Re-signing Salmons alone would have been OK. Maggette, on his own, is not as good a fit on this roster as Salmons. But signing both could disrupt the defensive synergy that Scott Skiles created last season.
Maggette is a scoring machine who gets to the free-throw line as well as any wing player in the NBA, a Bucks weakness last season. He averaged 19.8 points by shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 83.5 percent on an eye-opening 7.9 free-throw attempts per game for Golden State last season. But, according to 82games.com, this did not translate into success for the Warriors. Maggette played nearly half of his team's minutes, and during that time, Golden State was outscored by 289 points. When Maggette sat, however, the Warriors were bested by a mere six points. The Warriors were -- and are -- better off with out him.
Maggette hurts his team two ways: no ball movement and no defense. On a Warriors team of chuckers, he ranked behind only guard Monta Ellis in shots per minute, and even that total is deflated by all the shots that don't get tabulated because he was fouled on the play. At the other end of the court, Maggette was a liability. As badly as Golden State plays defense, it was 6.3 points per 100 possessions worse when Maggette was on the court.
The crystal ball shows Maggette bouncing in and out of Skiles' doghouse because of indifferent defense, while passing becomes a secondary pursuit of Milwaukee's offense. Jennings is a ball-centric operator, having averaged 14.8 shots despite his 37.1 percent accuracy as a rookie. That tied him for the team lead in shot frequency with Salmons. Having Salmons and Maggette (owed about $31 million over the next three years) on the floor at the same time is corrosively redundant, potentially robbing minutes from such glue guys as Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino and Luc Mbah a Moute. And it means fewer touches and scoring opportunities for Milwaukee's best player, the unselfish Bogut.
• Celtics sign Jermaine O'Neal to a two-year, $12 million deal
After O'Neal shot 9-of-44 from the field (20.5 percent) and was outplayed by the Celtics' big men in Miami's first-round playoff loss last season, Boston GM Danny Ainge was impressed enough to fork over the full mid-level exception for the 14-year veteran. As O'Neal moves to the slag heap side of the team's pile of proud veterans with bad wheels, one wonders why the Celtics didn't make a run at Juwan Howard, or spend the mid-level money on a pair or even trio of playoff-tested vets -- a million or two apiece for Joe Smith, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto -- or maybe even force the Heat to match mid-level money on restricted free agent Joel Anthony, who was better at defending the paint than O'Neal for Miami last season and subsequently re-signed with the Heat for $18 million over five years.
With Rasheed Wallace set to retire and Kendrick Perkins recovering from knee surgery the first part of the season, staunch defense down low should be the priority. Playoff clanks aside, O'Neal shot a career-best 52.9 percent during the regular season and had his highest scoring (13.6) and rebounding (6.9) averages in three years. But his blocked shots (1.4) were his fewest in 10 years, and if he, Glen Davis and perhaps Brian Scalabrine (a free agent who hopes to return) are supposed to hold down the fort until Perkins returns, there could be some more playoff series on the road for Boston next year.
• Grizzlies re-sign Rudy Gay to a five-year, $82 million deal
Not quite as horrible as the Joe Johnson deal -- Gay is five years younger and has a shorter, less expensive contract. But the Grizzlies are still paying max money for a restricted free agent whose outside offers could have been matched, and Gay is still a long way from superstar status. And what does this do to the O.J. Mayo negotiations a year or two down the line?
• Clippers hire Vinny Del Negro as coach
Del Negro did a credible job developing the Bulls' young core of players in his two seasons in Chicago. But his playbook is limited, and if he flips the keys to the offense to Baron Davis the way he did to Derrick Rose with the Bulls, it will stunt the development of Clippers rookie forwards Blake Griffin and Al-Farouq Aminu. Del Negro also had plus-.500 talent yet finished 41-41 both years with the Bulls. Incidentally, the coach he beat out for the Bulls' and Clippers' jobs, Dwane Casey, had a .500 record with an inferior Timberwolves team that fell apart after he left. Three and half years later, Casey hasn't been rehired. Proven winners Mike Brown and Mike Woodson are also out of work while Del Negro lands on his feet.
• Timberwolves sign 2008 second-round pick Nikola Pekovic to a four-year, $13 million deal and re-sign Darko Milicic to a four-year, $20 million deal
A handful of prominent basketball pundits have developed a mob mentality over the supposed incompetence of Timberwolves president David Kahn. But a guy who flips Randy Foye and Mike Miller for Ricky Rubio and obtains Michael Beasley for a pair of second-round picks is probably more than just an arrogant buffoon.
That said, Kahn was bidding against himself when he gave Milicic $20 million over four years (although the last year isn't guaranteed), and should be wary of the ripple effect of also signing Pekovic, another big man who has played well in Europe. Signing Milicic and Pekovic is a concession that time and money were wasted on one of last year's free-agent signings, center-forward Ryan Hollins. But more significantly, it creates a frontcourt logjam that risks taking minutes from Kevin Love and Beasley. The Wolves need to see what they have in Beasley. But the top priority should be making Love -- their best player by a country mile and then a city block -- feel wanted. Love, who came off the bench during the second half of last season, already stated he wants to start. Alienating Love for the sake of more time for Milicic and Pekovic would make Kahn's enemies look good -- especially after Love leaves town.
• Bobcats re-sign Tyrus Thomas to a five-year, $40 million deal
There is a very low potential for stardom among players who are extraordinarily athletic but continue to demonstrate limited production and court IQ even after being in the league for a few years. That's Thomas' profile right now. The four-year veteran is a low-post jumping jack with a career shooting percentage of 45.0, and he's an occasional impact player on defense who just as often gets in foul trouble and turns the ball over. Charlotte, a team with a solid defense but in need of scoring, just gave him $40 million. The good news is that he is only 23.
• Magic sign Chris Duhon to a four-year, $15 million deal
With starting point guard Jameer Nelson often dinged or substantially hurt, the backup floor general for Orlando -- which remains an elite Eastern Conference contender -- is a vital. Duhon is a decent defender and takes care of the ball, but he hasn't shot better than 42.1 percent in his six seasons, with a career mark of 39.3 percent. That's not going to foster the spacing coach Stan Van Gundy prefers in his half-court sets. And with a four-year contract, it's a long-term gamble and only a minor short-term upgrade over Jason Williams.