Culture of Hoops

Answering the unanswered free agency questions: Part 1

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

The last three weeks have been incredibly hectic and the landscape of the NBA has been tremendously altered. Despite a never ending stream of coverage, there are still some unanswered questions. I’m here to serve as a one-man NBA information booth and answer all of those important questions. Today I take a look at the Eastern Conference and next week I’ll dive into the wild West.

Which team has the higher ceiling: Cleveland or Miami?

This question seems ridiculous to me, but I decided to field it since I have actually heard arguments for both sides over the past week. The answer is Cleveland – it’s not even close – and I’ll give you three reasons why I’m so convinced.

1. For various reasons I’ve watched just about every Miami Heat game over the last four years. Of Miami’s 399 regular season and Playoff games over the last four years, I’ve probably watched 350 of them, give or take. I’m here to tell you that if you’re betting on Dwyane Wade finding some sort of fountain of youth then you’re better off investing your money elsewhere. It’s not happening.

The last two years Wade was able to ride on the coattails of LeBron James. He sat out back-to-backs, missed weeks at a time and it was no big deal. Still, he broke down at the tail end of the last two postseasons and looked like a complete shell of himself during the 2014 NBA Finals. This is the Dwyane Wade we need to get used to. He’s over thirty years old and his best days are well behind him.

2. Miami still has major issues and it doesn’t look like it is going to be able to address them. The Heat is still extremely thin up front. There is a three headed monster at point guard—Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier—and we have no idea if any of the three are collectively capable of being anything more than an average starting point guard. There isn’t a backup shooting guard on the roster at the moment, and that’s a major problem even if Wade miraculously plays 82 games. I just don’t know, I’m a skeptic.

3. Looking at the other side of the coin, Cleveland has the best player in the NBA surrounded with a young and unproven supporting cast. Is it possible that the Cavaliers go through some growing pains and don’t exactly set the conference on fire? Sure, but it’s also possible that they gel quicker than anyone would imagine and some of the young guys make bigger leaps than expected. Remember, in 2009 Cleveland won 66 games with James, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Delonte West, Daniel Gibson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith as their top eight contributors. 66 effing wins! It’s not out of the question that they could get into the high 50’s this year.

Did Carmelo Anthony go back to New York because the Knicks provided him the best chance to win?


Wait a second. … Before Carmelo entered free agency he said he just wanted to win. Why did he go back to the Knicks then?

Satchel Paige once said, “Money and women. They’re two of the strongest things in the world. The things you do for a woman, you wouldn’t do for anything else. Same with money.” In this case, Anthony stayed in New York because of the money AND a woman. And you know what? I don’t have a problem with that. Do what you have to do, ‘Melo. Get them checks and keep LaLa happy, but don’t say things like “At this point in my career I’m not concerned about the money.”

By all accounts Anthony is one of the 10 or 15 best players in the NBA and if he can get max money he should take it. The only issue I have with him going back to New York for the money is that it definitely wasn’t the place to go if he wanted to win. Even in the weak Eastern Conference it’s still not a certainty that the Knicks will even make the playoffs next year. If winning truly mattered most to him then he should’ve taken a bit less money and went to Chicago, an ideal fit since what he provides would’ve turned the Bulls into the definitive favorites in the Eastern Conference.

How come nobody would take Atlanta’s money?

It’s not like Atlanta is the prototypical glamour market, but still … it’s sort of a surprise that all the Hawks have come away with so far in free agency is Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore. They still have around $10 million that they could spend, but pickings are getting slim. Even if they don’t make the splashy move that will get people talking, the Hawks are still my sleeper in the Eastern Conference heading into next season.

Al Horford played in only 29 games last season and Atlanta was 16-13 in those games. Assuming the Hawks would continue to win at that rate had Horford remained healthy, they would’ve probably finished as a top-five team in the Eastern Conference. The Horford-Paul Millsap front court duo doubles as one of the best in the entire NBA and the ideal combination for the style of offense that head coach Mike Budenholzer has implemented in A-Town.

What was the sneakiest, under-the-radar signing in the Eastern Conference so far?

Image courtesy of Mulandar News/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Mulandar News/Flickr.

Not only has Charlotte shed the Bobcats name (an instant shot of good karma), but it’s actively attempted to improve a roster that turned a few heads last year on the way to the franchises second playoff berth – and succeeded in doing so. Not too long after the Hornets’ four-year, $63 million offer to Gordon Hayward was quickly matched by Utah, they managed to steal Lance Stephenson away from Indiana for only $9 million per year.

The knocks on Stephenson are obvious and well-documented. He’s bat-crap crazy and might have been a key contributor in the destruction of Indiana’s mojo the second half of last season. His antics on the court are borderline embarrassing and he has a tendency to try to play beyond his role. However, you can’t just ignore all that he brings to the table.

Stephenson is one of the most talented shooting guards in the league. He’s a legitimate two-way player who busts his ass every single night. Though his overconfidence can at times be a detriment, it also is encouraging to know that no moment is too big and no lights are too bright. He’s obviously crazy, but if he’s crazy enough to believe that he’s the best player on the floor any given night then that can be a good thing. Charlotte needed perimeter help and they needed a guy with a little bit of an edge. Lance is that guy.

When and where is Kevin Love getting traded?

I’d put my money on either Golden State or Cleveland at this point. Yeah, I know, I’m not going out too far on a limb with that prediction. In my defense, no other teams have really gained traction as a potential Love suitor, plus I’m kind of heavy and I’d hate for that limb to snap. Unless someone comes with an offer out of left field, I think Love is a Warrior or a Cavalier before the 2014-15 season begins. That’s not based on any kind of insider knowledge or word from sources. It’s just my gut instinct.

Why would Minnesota wait around, play out another season in the brutal Western Conference, miss the playoffs again, and then lose Love with nothing to show for it next summer? Isn’t that the worst case scenario? This raises the next question: what’s the best potential haul that the ‘Wolves can get for Love?

Minnesota remains just as adamant about getting either Klay Thompson or Andrew Wiggins in return for Love as Golden State and Cleveland are that they won’t part ways with Thompson or Wiggins, respectively. Now let’s pretend it’s late-August and I’m a prominent decision maker for the Timberwolves—hell of a job upgrade for me, right? Cleveland and Golden State aren’t budging about trading Wiggins or Thompson and the season is quickly approaching. I’m getting on the phone with the Cavaliers and saying “Hey, remember when you guys offered Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and a cornucopia of picks for Kevin Love? Yeah, we’re ready to jump on that deal.”

This trade accomplishes three things. First, it moves Love before the season starts, eliminating the multiple-month-long headache that would come with a never-ending stream of trade rumors. Second, you get three guys 23 or younger who can step in and contribute right away, plus possibly two first round draft picks next year. Third, those three guys don’t make enough of a positive difference that the Timberwolves stay in that dreaded picking-late-in-the-lottery-position. Ideally, Minnesota would bottom out in the short term, cash in on three draft picks next year and further develop Waiters, Thompson and Bennett, leading to a better and more promising future. At the same time, Cleveland would be adding a top-ten player in the league, someone who would fit with James like a custom-made suit, and transform Cleveland into a clear-cut title contender and legitimate favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

So who is the favorite in the Eastern Conference?

Good luck answering this question and feeling totally confident with your choice. All things considered, the Eastern Conference is improved and it’s not a foregone conclusion that any team is going to be the representative of the conference in the NBA Finals. Right now, with a metaphorical gun to my head, I would favor Chicago. Assuming Derrick Rose returns to full health (fingers crossed) and newly acquired big man Pau Gasol is 80 percent of the player he was in Los Angeles, the Bulls stand the best chance to win the Eastern Conference.

Again, this is a hesitant selection. As evidenced by the last three weeks, things can change overnight in the NBA. Who the hell knows where we’ll be in three months.

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