For the second straight year, Gordon enters the season in search of a new contract. Unable to negotiate a long-term deal with Chicago last summer after rejecting the Bulls' offer of $58 million over six years, the shooting guard signed a one-year, $6.4 million qualifying offer that will make him an unrestricted free agent next summer. At that time, the Bulls may be able to parlay a sign-and-trade with another team; until then, Gordon appears stuck in Chicago because his contract status makes him virtually untradable.
"We can't ignore last year,'' general manager
Those reasons included the contract uncertainty of Gordon and
"That was the first season since I've been here where there was a legitimate, major trade rumor around training camp,'' said the 25-year-old Gordon, who is beginning his fifth year in Chicago. "We would have team meetings, and we would talk about the trade stuff. Coaches would bring guys in to talk about the contract stuff and try to keep them focused. I think it was something that we had never been through before as a team, and especially as a young team it swayed the focus.''
"A lot of times when you're in college, or even early in your rookie year, you hear that professional sports is a business,'' Gordon said. "You don't really know what that means until you start to go through it. I've definitely experienced the business side firsthand, so I have a great understanding for it now.''
Gordon suffered decreases in shooting (a 2.1 percent drop to 43.4 percent) and scoring (down 2.8 points to 18.6 ppg) last season, while Deng and other key Bulls realized similar lapses. But Gordon believes those have strengthened him, so that his contract status will inspire rather than distract him this season.
"I pretty much know what to expect,'' he said. "I know what's on the line.''
Rival teams wonder if Gordon will be able to maintain a winning attitude, knowing that this will be his farewell year in Chicago. An advance scout
Paxson notes that Gordon has continued to behave professionally; he came off the bench to score 18 points on 12 shots in the Bulls' opening win Tuesday against Milwaukee. But the GM also knows that his backcourt is crowded with five guards as the emphasis has changed from Gordon to the development of point guard
"I think there's uncertainty in our mind, and I think there's uncertainty in Ben's,'' Paxson said. "It's uncomfortable because in this day and age those [contract] things play out so publicly, and you try to guard against it coming out negatively. But no matter what you say, the perception always is -- when something doesn't get done -- that it is pretty negative.
"It's hard for a player to mentally invest himself. But that's the job, and you have to do it.''
Paxson brings up another point of view that I hear frequently from a number of GMs.
"I think what has happened a lot in the league now is that guys do want to be able to compare contracts to other guys,'' he said. "From what I see, it's pretty simple: Everybody knows what everybody else makes -- players, agents, everyone. And in some ways it becomes a contest, and you don't want to lose that contest.''
I believe the same dynamic exists among owners. When they gather at All-Star weekend or other meetings, they judge each other based on frugality and efficiency and which of them squeezed the most out of payroll investments.
"San Antonio has done it as well as anyone -- they have a pecking order,'' Paxson said. "Every team would love to have a pecking order in terms of players, from your best player all the way down. In the perfect world, the best players are paid the most, and San Antonio has done such a good job with that. But that's hard to emulate in this business right now.''
"The biggest thing is our players have to bring Ben in to the fabric of the team,'' Paxson said. "I think we've got a lot of really good guys on our team, and I know the guys who were here last year were embarrassed by what they did. But they have to be the ones to bring him in, and Ben has to buy in, too.''
Gordon's status may create an uncomfortable situation for Deng, who last summer succeeded in negotiating a six-year, $71 million deal with the Bulls. When I spoke with Deng during the preseason, he said he hadn't discussed the contract ramifications with Gordon.
"I didn't because I know more than anyone what Ben is feeling,'' Deng said. "It was that close to being me [in the same contract situation]. I was in the same boat, and when I was in that boat I did listen to everybody. But at the same time, it came down to me and the Bulls and where we were going to meet. That's how it was with Ben and the Bulls, that's where they were, but they never met anywhere. It's hard for me to tell him, 'Do this and do that,' and then tell the Bulls, 'Do this and do that.' So I just stay out of it and let both of them make their decisions.''
Deng understands that Gordon may feel pressure this season.
"All of that talk with the contract stuff is not in the back of my mind [anymore],'' Deng said. "I'm just really focused on trying to avoid what we had last year. I'm going to try to bring something positive and be more of a leader, rather than being on the side and watching it happen like I did last year.''
He hopes the ambition to prove his value will bring out the best in Gordon.
"We've got to wait and see,'' Deng said. "He went through it last year, where to me and to him it was a distraction. So hopefully going into this year he'll be able to cancel it out and just focus on having a great year.''
The financial crisis and looming recession will deepen the impact.
"I don't know how it can't,'' Paxson said. "Tickets and sponsorships and that type of thing were addressed before the U.S. economy slid into what it's slid into the last few weeks. Common sense tells you that next year and maybe beyond is when it's going to affect the [NBA] bottom line. Yes, wealthy people own professional sports teams, but there have been a lot of teams in the NBA that have lost money the last few years. And that's a hard thing to keep doing.''
I see Bayless as more of a microwaving sixth man, though if he turns out to be the point guard of the future, then that's all the better for Portland.
The point here is that the Blazers shouldn't be ready to make long-term decisions on this roster. The key players are so young that management will need this season before deciding which ones can help Portland win a title someday.
Kobe isn't going anywhere, which means that the top potential free agent next summer is likely to be
They could also use their cap space to trade for an expensive star from an overburdened team seeking payroll relief by unloading a big salary. There's been a lot of that going around recently, and the trend may grow as the economy worsens.
As promising as their young roster looks today, the Blazers must do everything they can to maximize their cap space. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for them to improve their team. Why should they wait for several young players who may need years to realize their championship potential? Adding a veteran in his peak years could expedite their growth and enable the Blazers to contend ahead of schedule.
I think the Suns are bound to slip, based on the ages of their key players. If I'm wrong on that count, then I'll probably turn out to be wrong about Stoudemire, too. But Stoudemire was second team as a center last year; this season he'll be listed as a forward (alongside
Parker has already won three NBA championships and an award as NBA Finals MVP. He is 26, and at his current rate he'll finish with close to 20,000 points and more than 6,000 assists. His improvement as a shooter should enable him to be relevant as he ages.
Ginobili has won three NBA championships and led Argentina to an Olympic gold medal. He was a star in Europe for four years before entering the NBA at the late age of 25. I project both as Hall of Famers, absolutely.
I was expecting more people to question whether Pierce and Allen would be worthy. But I imagined that both would receive serious consideration based on their career stats at the time of retirement; the championship puts them over the top.
He may not have a winning season, but D'Antoni has begun to win over the locker room -- and the fans.
The Cavaliers plan on returning to the NBA Finals with 25 year old Williams as their new high-scoring point guard sharing the ball with LeBron James.
"I love Jerry Sloan. He'll go down as the best coach I ever played for. I learned a whole lot in seven months there [as a Jazz rookie in 2003-04]. As good a coach as he is, he's a much better person. I've even been to his houses in Utah and Chicago. I learned how to play the game in Utah because it's so systematic. It teaches you how to play defense, how to rotate on offense, how to be a point guard -- because they put everything on the point guard to run the show.
"As long as you play hard, as long as you defend, he lets you play. He knew my strength was scoring, and at the same time I needed to make the right play. If somebody is open, get him the ball. Simple basketball.
"Playing point guard for Jerry Sloan gave me a lot of credibility. The next year [after he signed with Milwaukee as a free agent] I started 80 games.''
"I was LeBron James growing up, let's put it that way. I had to do everything. Scoring was a strength I always had. We didn't have that guy who was a scorer, and I could defer to him. I always had to be the scorer at the point-guard position.
"There are different point guards in this game. You take
"You take a nonscoring point guard and all of a sudden call him a true point guard? That's just their strength. Distributing the ball is their strength, their strength is not scoring. Off the top of my head, for example,
"In Milwaukee, they needed that distributing-type guard that I'm talking about, because they had a lot of guys who scored on the team. I was trying to be that person, but it was taking away from what I do best. Now [with Cleveland] I can play my game and not be thinking before the game that I've got to distribute and get other guys involved. Here we're just playing basketball. They expect me to play how I play.
"There's talk about me taking pressure off LeBron, but people fail to realize he's taking pressure off me, too. He's another guy who can handle the ball and make decisions. It makes it easy on me to not have to do that every time down the floor. I don't have to control the ball the entire game.''