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Predicting a wild a NBA off-season

 

By Adam Hoff

 

You have to love sports.  It's one of the only entertainment venues that keeps on giving long after the players have closed up shop for the year.  Last winter we had a wild baseball off-season filled with A-Rod deals and no-deals, Curt Schilling joining forces with the cursed Red Sox to fight the Evil Empire, and some of the best players in the league (Rodriguez, Soriano, Sheffield, and Guerrero) changing uniforms.  It was wildly entertaining. 

 

Now we've got an even more exciting NBA off-season looming.  With Shaq demanding out of LA, Coach K rumored to be the next Lakers coach, VC wanting out of Toronto, and the likes of Kobe, K-Mart, and Rasheed trying to decide where to collect their enormous paychecks, well, it all adds up to some serious good times. 

 

The whole thing has been kicked off by the announcement that Steve Nash will be signing a 5-year, $65 million deal with the Suns, his original team.  I guess it's safe to say Kobe won't be going to Phoenix.  But there are still so many unknowns.  Will Sheed stay in Detroit?  Where will K-Mart go and will he get the max?  How will the Shaq and Kobe soap opera ultimately be resolved?  How will Atlanta and Utah spend their gobs of money?  How much money can Manu Ginobili really make?

 

My best guesses for all these questions and more are all right here in the 2004 NBA Off-Season Preview. 

 

Free Agents

 

Kobe Bryant.  He's been pursued by every team with cap space, although Phoenix has already dropped out of the running by snagging Nash.  There's been a lot of speculation that the Clippers are in the hunt, since they can offer him a max deal, keep him in town, and pair him with young stars like Corey Maggette and Elton Brand.  However, it's hard to imagine him moving one locker room over for less money.  Remember, the Lakers can ultimately pay him the most.  I don't know Kobe personally, but his public persona is extremely selfish.  I can't picture a scenario in which he takes less cash.  The one possibility seems to be San Antonio.  If the Spurs cut loose the likes of Bruce Bowen and Ginobili, they can offer Kobe the max as well.  Plus, he would instantly be on the best team in the league.  Again though, he seems too selfish to ever come willingly play second-fiddle to Tim Duncan. 

 

The Prediction: The Lakers are committed to re-signing Kobe.  They fired Phil and they are entertaining the idea of trading Shaq, all because of their resolve to build around Bryant.  Add in the fact that the Lakers can pay him more and this seems like a lock.  Lakers.

 

Kenyon Martin.  First of all, it's hard to believe that K-Mart is one of the elite power forwards in the league.  Just a year and a half ago, he was absolutely killing my fantasy basketball team.  However, he's been outstanding in each of the last two postseasons and he has continued to develop his game.  He's improved his rebounding and shot blocking, added some perimeter game to his nice array of post moves, and he's even learned to harness that insane disposition that burns beneath the surface and allows him to be one of the most passionate players in the game.  He wants the max and it seems unlikely that the Nets will give it to him.  However, the fact that he's a restricted free agent and the Nets could match an offer sheet may prevent other teams from doing the same.  The three teams most likely to land K-Mart excluding his current club are Denver, Atlanta, and Utah.  All three teams are way, way under the cap and all three times have no shot at getting Kobe.  Since Martin is the second best player on the market, it would stand to reason that these teams should do whatever it takes to get him.  Utah would be a great fit for Martin as his hard nosed style would work well under coach Jerry Sloan and his explosive low post scoring would be a terrific complement to Andrei Kirilenko in the frontcourt.  Atlanta just needs players and they definitely need interior talent.  Finally, Denver is the best match for K-Mart because they can afford him and they give him a chance to win big right away.  Even if they give him the max, the Nuggets will still have enough loot to make a run at a big time shooting guard like Quentin Richardson, Ginobili, or even Jamal Crawford or Stephen Jackson.  Add those two players to a core group that already features Andre Miller, Carmelo Anthony, Nene, and Marcus Camby and you've got one of the best teams in the West.

 

The Prediction: Although Denver makes the most sense, my gut tells him he'll end up in Atlanta.  The fact that Kiki didn't pull the trigger on a Nene for K-Mart sign-and-trade leads me to believe that the Nuggets are unwilling to give him max money.  Atlanta will have no such qualms and since this is Martin's chance to get the big payday, expect him to take the money and run, err, lose. 

 

Rasheed Wallace.  When the NBA Finals ended and Sheed was kissing his daughter at center court in all his insane glory, it seemed like a no-brainer that he would re-sign with the Pistons.  After all, he just won a title there, he loved his coach and teammates, and they can pay him a boatload.  However, he's insisting that he wants to go to a city where his family can set up shop and live happily ever after.  Shockingly, Detroit isn't topping Sheed's "Best Cities to Live in" list.  Imagine that.  If he does indeed forgo the $10 million plus salary and takes a mid-level exception somewhere, it looks like Philly and New York will be the two options.  He's been wanting to play in New York all year and Philly is his hometown, so they seem to be on pretty even footing.

 

The Prediction:  Wallace is a lunatic, so anything is possible, but I think he'll ultimately be convinced to re-sign with Detroit.  The situation is just too good to pass up, from the money to the stability to the chance to win titles.  As a Sixers fan, I'd love to see him end up in Philadelphia where he can team with AI as one of the most explosive duos in the league both on and off the court.  Alas, it's probably not to be.

 

Manu Ginobili.  This guy is the ultimate sleeper in the free agent class.  He was a top-15 fantasy player over the first two months of the 2003-2004 season before he got hurt, went on the IL, and came back to a reserve role.  If he gets a chance to start, his production will skyrocket.  San Antonio wants to resign him, but they are probably going to string him along in the hopes of getting Kobe.  That fact, plus his ever-increasing price tag, will probably land him in Denver or Utah.  Both teams need a big upgrade at the "2" and love Ginobili. 

 

The Prediction: I'm guessing that he gets more money than anyone thinks.  Five years and $45 million sounds about right.  You could flip a coin between San Antonio, Utah, and Denver, but I'm going with Utah.  Denver is courting both K-Mart and Q and is probably the least willing to fork over $9 mil a year.  The Spurs can afford to sign him to a long extension and they probably won't get Kobe, but I'm guessing their indecision will drive Manu into Jerry Sloan's awaiting arms.  Not literally, but you get the idea.  Manu will team with AK-47 to build a foreign foundation of young stars in Utah.

 

Erik Dampier.  His stock is rising every day.  This seems a little alarming, since his first and only truly good season in the NBA came during his opt-out year, but the fact that Damp is a legit big man makes him attractive to a lot of teams.  There have been rumors of a three-way deal to the Lakers and a sign-and-trade with Memphis, but plenty of teams, including Miami, Indiana, and Mavericks are interested in him.  I could see him signing with a contender for the mid-level, but with his price going up so dramatically, that seems unlikely.  However, it is also unlikely that any of the teams with a lot of cap room will give him a big offer either.  So that pretty much leaves a sign-and-trade as the most likely scenario.

 

The Prediction: I'm betting Memphis.  I don't think Dampier or the Warriors are in play any more in regards to the Shaq deal now that Nash is in Phoenix, so Memphis should move right in to get Damp.  The hang up will be whether the Warriors can demand Stromile Swift as part of the deal.  I'm guessing they can't.  Jerry West should be able to convince Dampier to come to Memphis regardless, and he'll back Golden State into a corner by offering a few role players.  It will be either that or nothing.  I'm guessing the Warriors take it and Dampier ends up in Memphis and gets more money. 

 

Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles.  They are taking visits together and seem to want to play together, so we'll lump them into one.  It seems to be coming down to the Clippers or the Nuggets for Q.  His stock went way up last year as a big, rebounding guard with deep range.  He's pretty much the ideal fit for Denver.  Miles also got a big boost thanks to his play in Portland down the stretch.  He's a bit of a risk because the Blazers can match any offer (same with LA and Q), but he seems to want to follow Richardson wherever he goes.

 

The Prediction:  Even though the odds are good that Q and Miles both re-sign with their current teams after their offer sheets are matched, I just have a hunch that this is where Denver spends its money.  I still think they should have traded Nene for K-Mart and done whatever they could to get Ginobili (for an all-M starting five of Miller-Manu-Melo-Martin-Marcus) and even without it they could get Martin and one of the elite "2's", but their unwillingness to throw max money at K-Mart will cost them.  I'm guessing they end up overpaying for Q and Miles as a consolation prize.  What a shame that would be though.

 

Mehmet Okur.  For a while last year, this guy was a fantasy contributor.  However, the Rasheed Wallace trade changed all that.  He wound up sitting on Larry Brown's bench and getting other teams excited at the prospect of a legit big man coming onto the free agent market.  If Wallace takes a mid-level somewhere, Mehmet will get a lot of money and undoubtedly stay in Detroit.  However, if Sheed stays and takes Okur's money and playing time, he'll be forced to look for a $6-8 million payday elsewhere.  Phoenix was supposed to be the frontrunner, but they've spent all their money.  That pretty much leaves Denver and Utah again. 

 

The Prediction: Even if they get Miles and Richardson, the Nuggets would still have about six million to spend, but I'm guessing that Utah is the winner here.  They'll continue the foreign flavor and add Okur to the middle of the lineup that has been saddled with the likes of Greg Ostertag for over a decade. 

 

Jamal Crawford.  I love Crawford, but nobody else seems to like him.  The Bulls clearly don't, as they have drafted Ben Gordon to take his spot in the lineup.  There are a lot of teams that make sense for Jamal, but few with the kind of money he can probably command.  Atlanta could give him the rest of their money, but do they need a slightly taller version of Jason Terry?  The Clippers want him, but will they be too busy wooing Kobe to get him?  The Knicks have wanted him for a long time, but why would he go there to sit behind Marbury and Houston?  The Bobcats have a lot of money and with Omeka on board, maybe they want to try to get better now?  So many questions. 

 

The Prediction:  This is the toughest one to read.  I could see the Bobcats paying $10 mil a year for him.  I could see the Hawks giving him the rest of their cash and sending Terry to Indiana for Al Harrington (a deal I've been suggesting for about a year now).  That would give Atlanta a core of Crawford-Childress-Harrington-Martin to work with.  Not bad.  However, I see Jamal ending up in Los Angeles.  The Clippers have needed a game-breaking point guard for about 15 years and Crawford fits the bill.  They'll give him four years and $32 million and accept him as a consolation prize after losing out in the Kobe sweepstakes.  It would be a nice fit though.  He'll fill the scoring void left by Q and form a nice trio with Brand and Maggette.  Crawford is a lot better than people realize and while his decision may come in the later stages, he might wind up being one of the best pulls in this class.

 

Mark Blount.  This guy's stock went through the roof last year when he started rattling off double-doubles on a nightly basis in Boston.  I'm sure the Celtics would like to get him back, but there's no chance of that.  The Mavs, Sixers, and Heat are all rumored to be courting him with their mid-levels.  He makes sense for each of the three teams as he provides some inside scoring, rebounding, and toughness.

 

The Prediction:  The Mavs are probably going to have to spend their mid-level of emerging stud Marquis Daniels, so it ultimately comes down to Miami and Philly.  The Heat make the most sense for Blount as he gets Brian Grant by his side doing dirty work and Lamar Odom, Dwayne Wade, and Caron Butler creating shots for him.  If he uses his head, he'll go to South Beach and play in the Conference Finals next year.  However, I'm betting that he'll go with his heart and head to Philly to be reunited with Jim O'Brien.  That should make for a nice consolidation prize in Philadelphia and help keep some of the pressure off of AI. 

 

There are plenty of other free agents out there, including Vlade, Brent Barry, Derek Fisher, Rafer Alston and many more.  However, you have to stop somewhere. 

 

Other Unresolved Issues

 

Shaq and the Lakers.  The rumor winds seem to have shifted and now the prevailing theory is that O'Neal will remain a Laker for next season.  People think that the difficulty in trading him will keep him in LA or that the arrival of someone like Coach K will make him want to stay.  I say no way.  I don't think people are respecting Shaq's resolve here.  He's done in LA.  I also don't believe Mark Cuban for a minute.  With that said

 

The Prediction:  Shaq's headed for the Big D.  He's going to be pulling pranks on Cuban, going for 30-and-10 every night, and snagging one final MVP award as he leads the Mavs to the title.  There's no doubt that he's on the downside of his career, but a fired-up Shaquille O'Neal is still very capable of dominating for at least one more season.  Cuban will cave and trade Dirk as he should to get a legit shot at a title.  He'll also ship out Antoine Walker and the Russian Giant leaving Shaq a talented roster including Marquis Daniels, Devin Harris, Josh Howard, Michael Finley, and several role players.  Ladies and Gents, there are your 2005 NBA Champs. 

 

Also, there's no way Coach K is going to be in LA.  It would be so stupid all the way around. It's stupid for Coach K because he's taking his legacy and gambling it.  If he stays at Duke, he's a legend and cements his place as the best college coach since John Wooden.  If he goes to the NBA, even the best case scenario isn't as good as that.  More importantly, it's stupid for the Lakers because college coaches simply don't work in the pros.  I'm so sick of all this "if there's one guy that can do it" talk.  Forget it.  There's a reason Larry Brown became the first guy to win title in both college and the pros because it's a poor match.  I believe the Lakers will hire Rudy T but I believe they should look up Pacific Coast Highway and snag Paul Westphal.  His mentality is perfect for the situation and his family is already settled in the area.  It's a prefect match. 

 

The Spurs and all their money.  You might be asking what happens to the Spurs if Kobe re-signs with the Lakers and Manu bolts for Utah.  Well, that's an interesting question. 

 

The Prediction:  First, they'll re-sign Bruce Bowen.  Next, they'll bring Stephen Jackson back into the fold.  It was a mistake by all parties that he wound up in Atlanta last year, but he continues to prove that he can play.  He's tough, plays physical defense, and can drill threes all day.  Honestly, had the Spurs still had Jackson instead of Hedo Stink-aglu this year, they would have won that series against the Lakers and had a 50-50 shot of beating Detroit in the Finals.  Finally, they'll bring in Adonle Foyle for some Shaq-proofing backup at center. 

 

Other Predictions:

 

Derek Fisher will sign with Houston for the mid-level and take over as their point guard.  D-Fish will be cashing in on a postseason that saw him playing the best basketball of his career.  Unfortunately for Houston, they are forgetting that he's not a traditional bring-the-ball-up point guard.  This will force T-Mac to do a lot of ball-handling.  For an example of how this might turn out, see the 2003 Western Conference Semis when an exhausted Kobe Bryant ran out of gas against the Spurs.

 

The Sonics and Bulls will make a deal.  Chicago was trying to deal a draft pick for a veteran in the weeks leading up to Draft Night and despite all the bluster from John Paxton about keeping both Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, I'm not buying it.  Add in the fact that Seattle is shopping Ray Allen and you've got a match made in heaven.  Chicago can send Gordon and Tyson Chandler to the Sonics, solving two problems for Seattle and getting a growing problem off of their hands in the process.  In return the Bulls get a veteran superstar who can team with the likes of Kirk Hinrich, Deng, and Eddy Curry.  It makes total sense. 

 

Brent Barry will get some serious cash.  I have no idea who he'll wind up signing with, but I'm guessing that he'll be one of the surprise winners of free agency.  He can handle the ball, play both guard positions, and shoot the lights out.  With so much cap space floating around out there, somebody is going to be intrigued enough to throw $20 million plus at him for three years. 

 

Vince Carter and Paul Pierce won't be traded.  Pierce is rumored in every other deal out there and Carter has demanded a trade.  It says here that both players will stay where they are and miss the playoffs again.  Sucks to be them.

 

Well, that's probably enough for now.  As always, I'll feel lucky to get one or two these predictions right.  No matter what though, it should be a fun off-season in the NBA.

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at adam.hoff@pepperdine.edu.

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