Free Agent Forwards Will be the Key
By Adam Hoff
There was a lot of talk this summer about shooting guards. Ray Allen re-upped with Seattle, Michael Redd got waaaaaaaay too much money in Milwaukee, and guys like Larry Hughes and Joe Johnson found new homes and giant paychecks. Even second tier shooting guards like Cuttino Mobley, Quentin Richardson, and Bobby Simmons played big roles in shaping the free agent class.
And when the talk turned from the talented swingmen, it undoubtedly focused on the risky young centers that could offer up big returns. Kwame Brown to the Lakers was intriguing, the Sixers and Cavs made sure to keep Samuel Dalembert and Big Z in the fold, and at the time of this article, all eyes are on Chicago to see what becomes of the Baby Bulls.
As for me, I'm looking elsewhere for the biggest impact. While some of the guys listed above will surely aid their teams next season, I see the greatest value in this free agent class coming from the power forward position. In particular, the signings of Shareef Abdur-Rahim (technically a sign-and-trade), Stromile Swift, and Donyell Marshall will go a long way to deciding things next spring. Let's take a look at each Value Forward:
Donyell Marshall. The Cavs have been throwing around money this offseason, overpaying for Ilgauskas and landing the versatile and talented Hughes to play next to LeBron. They still haven't lured in a point guard, which is problematic, but one Drew Gooden-for-Marco Jaric trade can fix all that. For now, let's focus on the positive, like the Cavs snagging the ridiculously affordable Donyell Marshall. All year long people were griping about Cleveland's outside shooting (rightfully so), but now that they've snagged a legit three-point threat, no one has even mentioned it. Marshall has shot over 40% from deep each of the past three seasons, and last year he drilled almost 2.3 triples a game in only 25 minutes of action. Give this guy 38 minutes a night and he'll hit over 220 threes next year from the power forward spot. Not bad, when you consider that the Cavs only made 303 as an entire team in 2004-2005.
Not only that, Marshall is an underrated all around player. Before getting his minutes slashed for no discernable reason last season in Toronto (I know they wanted to play Chris Bosh, but they should have gone small and played them both), Marshall was the Raptors best player. In 2003-2004, he averaged 16.2 points to go with 10.7 boards, 1.8 threes, 1.6 blocks, and 1.2 steals. You know how many other players averaged those numbers or better that season? Try none. And the only guys that were even close were Dirk and Shawn Marion. Marshall is a veteran player that is far more athletic than people realize and capable of filling up a stat sheet. With him in the fold, the Cavs suddenly look like a legit contender in the East. (Now watch them screw it up and bring him off the bench behind Drew Gooden.)
Stromile Swift. Houston is the city of Stro right now. The 'Stros are tearing up the diamond in baseball and Stro Swift is now onboard to make the Rockets a serious threat in the Western Conference. If you go back and watch tape of that Dallas series from last May, two things stand out about the Rockets: 1. They needed a better point guard than Bobby Sura. 2. They were an athletic power forward away from being infinitely better on both ends of the court. Issue number one has yet to be addressed, unless you are one of the many people who have been drinking the Luther Head As Point Guard Kool Aid; however, they pretty much fixed issue number two with a single outstanding move in free agency. How Stromile Swift managed to go for the mid-level exception is beyond me, but the Rockets just went from plodding to explosive and reactive to proactive on defense in the blink of an eye.
There are some people who have their doubts about Swift, simply because his numbers have never been consistently good. However, you can easily chalk that up to the ridiculous YMCA Memphis system when you note that he's only averaged 21 minutes a night during his career. Double his minutes (not hard to imagine in a city where things were so bad that they were desperately missing Juwan Howard in the playoffs) and you get career averages of over 18 points, 10 boards, and 3 blocks. Again, want to guess how many players hit those numbers last year alone? Yup, another big, fat zero. The best part is that you have to believe his ceiling is still off in the distance as he turns 26 and enters his prime next season. If the Rockets unleash this freak of nature, they may have the best bargain of the 2005 free agent class.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim. I know that he gets knocked for always playing on losing teams, but give the guy a break. He played nearly his entire career in Vancouver and Atlanta and then found himself in Hell, I mean, Portland (the organization, not the city, of course). My thinking has always been: put him in a decent organization with some solid players and I suspect he'll start winning. Well, we're about to find out if I was right. Rahim is one of those guys that can't hurt you. He doesn't block a ton of shots and it is duly noted that he should probably get on the low block for a few more touches, but otherwise, his game doesn't have any major flaws. He hits the glass (9.5 per from 1999-2003) and puts the ball in the basket (19.9 career, below the big 2-0 thanks to the two "lost years" in Portland) while behaving himself on and off the court. More players should be like Abdur-Rahim, and the Blazers were foolish to bench him and build around Zach Randolph (who is a walking red flag AND had more trade value at the time … I'm convinced a zoo animal would have known to move Randolph in February of '04). But that is a story for another time.
Portland's loss is New Jersey's gain. Remember 12 months ago when the Nets lost K-Mart to the Nuggets, were shopping Kidd, and looked ready to plummet to the depths of the Eastern Conference? It seems like a lifetime ago. In the interim, they stole Vince Carter from the Raptors (combine that move with the decision to bench Marshall and their recent draft picks and you have possibly the worst 14 month stretch in the history of basketball executives), patched Kidd's knee up with two parts cadaver and one part Bionic Man, got Richard Jefferson back from injury, developed Nenad Kristic as a decent center, and then decided to go ahead and add a 20 and 10 guy for mere pennies (relatively speaking, of course). Oh, and by the way, Abdur-Rahim is better than Martin and will make Jefferson even better because he doesn't need to score strictly on alley-oops, which will open lanes for RJ to run the floor. All in all, not re-signing Kenyon Martin was the best thing that ever happened to New Jersey. The second best thing? Everyone in the NBA forgetting how good Shareef Abdur-Rahim is. (Actually, moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn will be the best thing, but you get the idea.)
Donyell Marshall, Stromile Swift, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim: Three names that barely registered in a free agent pool full of young, gazelle-like centers and big name shooting guards. You might not think of them tomorrow when they finally let free agents "get their sign on" (or perhaps "get their knife on," ala Carlos Boozer), but rest assured, when the dust settles next spring, these power forwards will be front and center.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org