Acquiring players and building a roster can be a tricky equation. Teams are constantly trying to balance the draft, free agency, and trades all while dealing with the salary cap. Teams are always looking for an edge in how to acquire more talent. And in recent seasons, quality organizations have found a way to add this talent and do it cheaply. Their method is the practice of signing players that have been let go by their respective teams late in the season. Seemingly every year, there are a few veteran players that are bought out of their contracts or released and sent packing by their team. And every year those players are tabbed and snatched up by a contending team looking for that one extra piece that can help them get over the top. The attraction between these players and teams occurs for obvious reasons. These newly freed players are normally veteran guys that are looking for a chance to win a championship after rarely playing for more than a different slot in the lottery. And the contending team is usually one or two veterans short in their rotation and looking to fill that void with a player that can come in, play smart basketball, and not need his hand held through every detail of their team and system. Sometimes it works to perfection (the obvious example is the Celtics signing Sam Cassell and with PJ Brown and winning the title with the help of their contributions) and sometimes it doesn’t (like last season when the Spurs picked up Damon Stoudamire and he had little impact in the post season). This year the trend continues as several teams either already have or are looking to add some pretty good players that have been released and become free agents.
So far, this is what we’ve seen and also what we’re hearing from the media: Boston has already added Mikki Moore as the tall/long, back up big man they’ve been looking for since PJ Brown rode off into the sunset with his championship ring. The Celtics have also added (right off the bus stop bench, apparently) former Knick, Stephon Marbury. Marbury has his faults (obviously) but he should also provide back court insurance for injured Tony Allen and an extra ball handler/scorer to play behind/with Rondo and House. Like the Celtics, the Cavs have also upgraded their front court by adding Joe Smith. Smith is a familiar face to the Cavs, so even without the injury to Ben Wallace, Cleveland probably would have pursued Joe as he’s the type of steady veteran that every contender would want. The fact that the Cavs have a real need for him with Wallace out made this signing almost inevitable. The other name that fits the bill as a veteran player that could help a contender is the recently bought out Drew Gooden. As for his destination, sources are putting him on a plane to San Antonio to sign with the Spurs at some point this week. The Spurs are in need of another big man that can contribute and Gooden may fit that bill. Even though he’s been slowed by a groin injury, Drew is a talented player that is a good rebounder and a solid mid-range shooter.
The Celtics, the Cavs, and the Spurs. If you look at any set of NBA Power Rankings, these teams are at or near the top. So, the signings by these teams look to greatly impact the eventual champion for this season. But how will they, exactly?
Before we look at any potential trip to or match up in the Finals, the playoffs come first. Let’s start in the East. All season long, the East has been a three team race with the aforementioned Cavs and Celtics, plus the Orlando Magic. The race for the top spot is crucial in the East because in the second round of the playoffs the 2nd and 3rd seeds will face off (assuming they both win in the first round) and that will be brutal match up for the team that doesn’t gain the top spot. I mean, if you were Cleveland, do you want to face Orlando in the second round or would you prefer facing Atlanta (the current 4th seed) or Miami (the current 5th seed)? Even though I respect both the Hawks and the Heat, I think I’d rather face them than the team with the best Center in the league and shooters flanked all around him. So, Boston’s signings of Moore and Marbury and Cleveland’s of Smith are directly tied to trying to continue the fantastic seasons that these teams have had and not take a step back in the pursuit of HCA in the East. And I think this pursuit of home court (and the subsequent addition of any reinforcements) matters most for the Cavs and for several reasons. First is the fact that they are the best home team in the league. If they earn HCA they will have the inside track to an ECF appearance and a trip to the Finals. Second is that the Celtics are the defending champs and with that comes a real belief in their ability to win on the road. This being a Lakers blog, and us devout Lakers fans, makes it easy for us to knock the Celtics or take pot shots (like pointing to them struggling on the road in the playoffs last season even though it really didn’t matter in the end). However, if you look back to recent history, championship teams always end up with a mental edge that carries them beyond the mental barriers that other teams who don’t have that history of winning struggle with. Essentially, I think Boston believes it can win anywhere, even a game 7 on the road with a Finals trip on the line. Getting back to Cleveland, I think they need the home court and their move to get Smith only bolsters their chance of getting it. Smith will instantly either start next to Big Z or be the first big man off the bench and let the Cavs return to their normal rotations. When the Lakers beat the Cavs in Cleveland, JJ Hickson received playing time that would have gone to other players (Big Z, mainly) had they not been injured. Now, with Smith in the fold everyone can play a role that fits their skills. (As for Orlando, I’m not sure they’re ready yet. Yes they’ve beaten us, but they still struggle with Boston and have taken a step back with Jameer Nelson injured. Sure, they’ve added Alston, but Jameer was an All-Star level player this season, Skip to my Lou is not.)
In the West, even though the Lakers are a virtual lock for the top seed, the conference really is a two team race that also includes the Spurs. If last year’s playoff series against the Lakers showed the Spurs anything, it’s that they needed more talent to compete for a Finals trip. Sure they didn’t have a healthy Ginobili, but they were also depending on Brent Barry and Ime Udoka for key stretches on the wing and Kurt Thomas, Bonner, and Oberto as front line support to Duncan. They’ve solved their wing issues by having a healthy Ginobili (though he is banged up again), by bringing in Roger Mason Jr. as a free agent, and drafting George Hill. However, their shaky front court is still a problem when matching up with the Lakers’ long and athletic front line (think they’re missing Scola and Spillter?). This is where Gooden comes in. Gooden may not have the height, but he hustles, is tough, and has more than a fair amount of talent. Don’t let the fact that he’s played for a lot of teams mask the fact that he’s contributed everywhere he’s been. And while injuries have set him back this season, his ability to post up AND hit the mid range jumper make his game a very good compliment to Duncan’s. Not to mention he’s always been a good rebounder, especially on the offensive glass where he’s corralled over two and a half a game for his career (a real problem for us considering we have not been strong in controlling our defensive glass this season). If the reports are true, and the Spurs do end up with Gooden, they just got a lot tougher. If you don’t believe me, Dwyer is saying the same thing. As for our Lakers, we’re looking at our own type of late season pick up. By all accounts Andrew Bynum is recovering on schedule from his knee injury and is hopefully well on his way to a late season return. We’ve talked at length about what his presence in our lineup means, so I won’t go into that now. However, just know that we’ll be looking for him to provide a big lift to our team and that these other teams are also looking for a lift from their recent (or pending) signings.
Like I said earlier, these late in the year additions are all the rave now for contenders. Our chief rivals in both conferences have added players that sure up weaknesses and make them stronger not only for the playoffs, but in their pursuit of maintaining their stellar records to earn prime playoff seedings. Last season, Boston does not win a title without their pickups of Cassell and Brown. This season they’re banking on Moore/Marbury, the Cavs have added Smith, and the Spurs have added (or will soon add) Gooden. Meanwhile our Lakers are hoping to get Bynum back and restore the team that started the season as a favorite for the title. As the season enters it’s final six weeks and we start the countdown to the playoffs all these contending teams hope that their additions will equal a Larry O’Brien Trophy. They’ve all added variables and tweaked their equations. How does it add up to you?