Archives For July 2010

Talking Chris Paul

Phillip Barnett —  July 22, 2010

January 20, 2010: Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets in action against the Memphis Grizzlies during an NBA game in the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, LA. Tyler Kaufman/CSM.

Where to start with Chris Paul is tough because there are several ways to look at the potential of bringing in one of the best point guards of the last decade to the two time defending champions. Before getting into the ramifications of what it would mean to bring a talent like Paul to the Lakers, I think it’s important to understand the situation that the Hornets are currently in.

Chris Paul, as most star athletes do, wants to play for a contender – and he wants to sooner rather than later. As of right now, the team is built around Paul with David West as his number 2, some young talent (Darren Collison and Marcus Thorton), and a coupe of really bad contracts (Peja Stojakovic and Emeka Okafor). This team is hardly a championship contending basketball team. As reported by Ken Berger, Chris Paul will demand a trade if the Hornets can’t put together a championship caliber basketball team. With the young talent that the Hornets likely won’t want to move and the contracts that will be extremely hard to move if they tried, it doesn’t look like Paul’s wish for a contender in NOLA will be likely. This is a team that reached its peak in 2008 when they finished first in the Southwest Division and got knocked out in the second round by the Spurs in seven games. As Kelly Dwyer put it:

CP3 signed his extension in 2008 soon after the New Orleans Hornets gave the defending champion San Antonio Spurs all they could handle before losing in the second round of the playoffs. With David West screening and Chris Paul rolling, the team seemed poise to break through to the next level by anyone who wasn’t really paying attention. But really, this was the best the Hornets were ever going to get as presently constructed.

Why?

Because you have to look at this roster. All of the main components of the team’s rotation played in upwards of games in the high 70s. Including Paul (who missed 18 games the year before that), Peja Stojakovic (who missed 69 games the season before), and the perpetually fragile Tyson Chandler. The rest of the contributors, including Peja? Already sliding or about to hit the first downslide in the descent from their respective primes. Bonzi Wells, Bobby Jackson, Jannero Pargo — all men we’d already seen the absolute best from.

And yet, Paul signed the contract extension.

Why?

Because the Hornets were a good team the year before, and players like money. They talk themselves into believing their current situation is better than it is, because the money is better with an incumbent team than it would be with a squad you’d have to jump to, so they talk themselves into thinking that Peja Stojakovic (who had just turned 31) was a proper third wheel on a championship team. That things were going nowhere but up.

So now New Orleans is faced with the impossible task of turning their current roster into a title contending team or they’ll be faced with moving their superstar and re-beginning their rebuilding process, which may make more sense for the franchise in the end. With this current roster, the Hornets will be stuck in a limbo between early playoff exits and mid-round draft picks – not a place any team wants to be in a never-ending quest to get better. This almost ensures that Paul will be leaving in 2012 when his contract ends, putting them in the same rebuilding dilemma that they’d be facing now, except they’ll get no return for him because he’ll be taking his talents elsewhere as one of the most coveted free agents of that particular summer. As TrueHoop’s Henry Abbot writes:

A more pragmatic reality is that Hornets are a middling team who, league sources say, have been calling around looking to dump salaries. There are a lot of different stories you can use to rally your fanbase — good ones include: we’re young and growing, we’re fun to watch, or we’re contenders.

A less compelling story: We’re on the playoff bubble, and likely to stay there. In other words, it’s entirely possible they won’t be exciting in the playoffs nor the draft.

There have traditionally been two ways out of that purgatory: To go cheap, by trading away big contracts and amassing draft picks and cap space, or to go expensive — like the Celtics did — by bringing on expensive players in their prime.

It does not seem likely that the Hornets are about to go the expensive route.

Which means that, as a business, they’ll have a sales job to do. The ownership needs to sell the ticket-buying public, sponsors, even coaches and players, on the idea that they have a real plan in place.

The whole pitch becomes nearly impossible if the eye of the storm — the one superstar in the building — is on record as not wanting to be there.

However, Chris Paul still has two years left on his contract, so a move might not happen at all. Paul doesn’t have much leverage with so much time left on his contract – and he is a superstar, something sports franchises don’t like to move, especially in the primes of their respective careers. And over here at Forum Blue and Gold, we have seen this kind of situation before. In the summer of 2007, the Lakers were placed in a similar position when Kobe Bryant was demanding a contender or a trade out of Los Angeles. That summer, the Lakers essentially did nothing. They didn’t make any major moves to contend and they didn’t move Bryant. From the keys of Kurt Helin:

The Hornets do not have to give in. They should not give in. There are not other Chris Paul’s out there, the Hornets need to try to build around him, not move him.

Certainly Paul and Kobe’s situations are different. Don’t confuse the rudderless ship that is Hornets ownership and management right now with the proven winner Jerry Buss at the top and a patient Mitch Kupchak at the wheel. Kobe did not see the big picture (and nobody saw the Pau Gasol trade coming). Paul doesn’t see the big picture, but nobody does. We’re not even sure who will own the team when the season starts.

Hugh Webber’s rush to fill in the vacuum of power does not instill confidence.

The Hornets can rebuild — this is the last year of Peja Stojakovic’s oversized deal, he is a trade chip. David West is still good. Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton show promise. There are pieces there. Things can improve.

But things will not get better without Paul. Trade him and you start to rebuild from the ground up. New Orleans shouldn’t do that. Not until they have to.

Now, considering all of that, I find it highly unlikely that Paul would become a Laker. There would be too many names involved in a trade for the young stud at the point guard position and could potentially break up some key pieces to the three time Western Conference Champions and two time NBA Champions. It is believed that, if a trade between the Lakers were to happen, both Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, along with maybe one other Laker (maybe Sasha Vujacic or Luke Walton) would be sent to NOLA for Chris Paul and Emeka Okafor’s horrendous contract. In an e-mail exchange with Darius, he had this to say on Paul potentially coming to Los Angeles:

The prospect of getting Paul is one that needs to be looked at from many angles if you’re the Lakers – and that’s not the case with other teams.  If you’re Orlando or the Knicks, wanting to acquire Paul is a no brainer.  He’d instantly become their best player (or maybe tied with Dwight if sent to the Magic) and he’d be the leader with the ball in his hands on nearly every possession.

In LA that wouldn’t necessarily be the case and the Lakers would be dismantling a championship team to acquire a player that really isn’t needed right now, in the short term.  This isn’t to say that Paul couldn’t make a difference – he’s one of the best players in the NBA and if not for injury concerns he’d easily be the best PG in the league (but as it stands now I think he’s still in competition with Deron Williams for that fictional title).  So, yes he’d help.  But how much would he help?  Kobe is a ball dominant guard.  In order to get Paul the Lakers would surely have to give up Bynum and potentially Odom in a deal that includes Okafor.  And if that’s the deal, the Lakers give up the the thing (besides Kobe) that makes your team special (versatile size) to get a player that who plays a position that may not even be maximized considering the other personnel that remains (Kobe) and the system the Lakers run.  In essence, I see the allure and whenever you can acquire the best player in a trade it’s definitely worth looking hard at.  But, this is still a team game and getting the pieces that fit together to make the strongest team is what matters most.

The flip side to this argument – and something that I can easily see as well – is that as this Lakers’ team and the league evolves, a team with a dynamic point guard that is flanked by Kobe, Gasol, and Artest is theoretically one of the best in the league still.  When you look at Kobe, his game is moving more toward one that is more effective in the post than on the perimeter and Gasol is a player whose game is so versatile that he’s comfortable in nearly every spot on the floor out to the three point line.  So, when looked at any potential acquisition of Chris Paul from this angle, the Lakers would have a team whose post game revolves around the exploits of Gasol and Kobe and whose perimeter players would be Chris Paul, Artest, and Kobe (as he slides in between the post and the wing based off the motion of the offense).  If Odom is in the mix over Okafor, this formula looks even better as the Lakers would still have the most versatile team in the league with “do it all” size and two of the top 5-6 players in the league when healthy.  However if Okafor is in the deal that changes some things…”

Darius presented us with some of the positives and negatives of a deal like this, and as I mentioned this morning and Darius just two paragraphs ago, this really takes away from the size that the Lakers have used to dominate the Western Conference and even the rest of the league. Yes, a Paul-Kobe-Artest-Gasol-Okafor lineup would be a formidable one, but it isn’t as menacing without the likes of Andrew Bynum, who is heads and heels above Okafor as far as offensive capabilities go. A healthy Bynum can go out and put up 20 and 10 on any given night while Okafor will go out and get you only 60 percent of that production. The Lakers are better served keeping their roster in tact and adding one or two more minor pieces to the team.

It was reported earlier that Matt Barnes will consider signing a one-year, 1.7 million dollar deal with the Lakers if the Cavaliers don’t raise their three-year, $3.5 million offer for the wing. Adding guys like Barnes make more sense than breaking up a team that has an opportunity to win its third straight NBA title.

Fast Break Thoughts

Phillip Barnett —  July 22, 2010

Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol wanted a fouled called after battling under the basket in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals at USAirways Arena on May 25th, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 115-106 to even the series.

The majority of the love awarded to the Lakers goes to Kobe Bryant, and it’s definitely with reason. However, Pau Gasol has become a super star in his own right and has earned a spot near or at the top of the list of the best big men in the NBA. Basket Blog’s Mike Trudell took the liberty of comparing Pau’s numbers to the stats from some of the league’s other big men. During the regular season only Dwight Howard recorded more rebounds per game (of the bigs on the list) and no other big man recorded more assists per game. During the post season, only Carlos Boozer averaged more rebounds and only Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki averaged more points per contest. Again, no one dished out more dimes and only Howard had more blocks per game. It’s safe to say that Gasol is one of the most well rounded big men in the NBA.

It’s been two weeks since LeBron James’ “Decision” and it’s still being talked about today as if it happened just a couple of days ago. Since then, we’ve heard some of the NBA’s greatest ball players – Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and the Lakers own Magic Johnson – weigh in on the choice LeBron made (all saying they wouldn’t have gone LeBron’s route). Robert Baptista of Silver Screen and Roll argues that Jordan made his statements to preserve his legacy as the greatest of all time.

This was posted in the comments by Mimsy a couple of days ago, but here is the column by ESPN’s Ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, on LeBron James’ decision. This is probably the most interesting piece that I’ve read about the program, not the decision itself.

As most of you have heard, Chris Paul has requested a trade from New Orleans and yes, the Lakers were on his list of possible trade destinations. I don’t think too much should be read into this. To acquire a talent like Paul, the Lakers would have to give up some talent back, and probably a big man. Part of the reason why the Lakers have been to three straight NBA Finals is because of their size and length and giving up someone like Andrew Bynum for a 6’1’’ point guard wouldn’t make much sense. I do believe that Chris Paul is either one or two on the list of best point guards when healthy, but size doesn’t come along as often as talented point guards. The Lakers will be best served by standing pat on this one.

Jun. 06, 2010 - Los Angeles, CAILFORNIA, UNITED STATES - epa02190042 The Los Angeles Lakers bench watches during closing minutes of the second half of the Boston Celtics 103-94 win of Game Two of the NBA Finals at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, USA, 06 June 2010. The best of seven series is tied at one apiece.

We’re in the dog days of Summer and the Lakers roster is not yet full.  Rarely will a championship squad have a camp invite make its team, so at some point in the next few weeks we can expect the Lakers to add the additional pieces to fill out the roster that it will take into next season.  We’ve been discussing the potential names that the Lakers could potentially pick up ad nauseam so let’s not rehash them now.  However, the question still remains – who will be the other guys that make up the Lakers?

Sadly, the answer to that question isn’t an easy one.  Recently, there have been many names linked to the Lakers but none have actually decided to latch on to a ready made championship team.  Raja Bell.  Matt Barnes.  Even Jeremy Lin.  All of these guys have been discussed as options and all of them are likely to be on another team’s roster next season.  But why?  I mean, why wouldn’t a player – whether a veteran or a youngster – want to join a team where he could potentially win a championship, play with fantastic teammates, be coached by Phil Jackson, all while living in Los Angeles?

The answer is quite simple, actually.

Money and minutes.  These are things that matter to free agents and the Lakers don’t have enough of either to really offer any new addition.

From a money standpoint, the Lakers still have the remaining portion of their mid-level exception – approximately 1.7 million – and still have the ability to sign players for the veteran’s minimum.  However, salaries starting at less than 2 million dollars aren’t exactly the most popular thing going right now.  We all know that the Lakers are looking for another wing and a big man, but look at what the guys that play these positions (and were essentially some of the last serviceable players on the market) are signing for right now.  Matt Barnes – before a salary cap miscalculation – was about to sign with Toronto for 4.5 million a year.  Raja Bell signed for 10 million over 3 seasons.  Brad Miller signed for 15 million over 3 years (though the 3rd year is only partially guaranteed).  CJ Watson just got offered a 2 year, 6.5 million dollar contract by the Bulls and will be signed and traded by the Warriors to Chicago.  What do all these guys have in common besides being good fits for the Lakers that will be playing for other teams next year?  They’ll all be making double (or more) what the Lakers could offer them after they inked Steve Blake to his 4 year/16 million dollar deal.  Essentially, the Lakers were never going to get any of these guys because their price tags were too high.

And what about from a minutes standpoint?  Well, it’s not much rosier for players looking at the Lakers from that side of the equation either.  When looking at every position, the Lakers just don’t have a lot of minutes available for any new player.  At point guard, the Lakers are looking at a combo of Fisher and Blake.  Any minutes that they don’t play will likely go to Sasha ( or if Shannon Brown returns, he could play these minutes).  At shooting guard, the Lakers are more than set with Kobe playing anywhere between 30-40 minutes in every game that’s not a blowout and the remaining minutes will go to Sasha (or again, if Shannon returns those minutes will be his or we could even see Artest play some minutes at SG).  At SF, there’s Artest who will sop up those same 30-40 minutes that Kobe plays at SG with it very likely that Kobe will be the primary back up at SF if Walton isn’t healthy next year.  If Walton is healthy enough to play he’ll cut into Ron/Kobe’s minutes at SF and if Ebanks develops at a reasonable rate he may even see some minutes next year.  At PF and C, the Lakers will go with their typical rotation of Gasol, Bynum, and Odom.  You know, the front court that has helped lead the team to back to back championships.  When looking at the Lakers’ rotation, where will the minutes come from?  During blowouts?  If an injury happens?  With the hope that Phil cuts back on the court time of Kobe and/or Artest?  While some of these things are possible and others may even be likely, it’s not like there’s a guarantee of firm playing time out there.

So really, who’s going to join the Lakers with no set in stone commitment to minutes and with a starting salary that any team can offer?  That’s the real question here.  And the answer is one that so far isn’t easy to decipher.  I mean, even Jeremy Lin saw the potential squeeze on both the money and minutes side when the Lakers couldn’t guarantee as much of his first year salary should he get cut and the Warriors have an opening at back up point guard.  This is why, at least from my perspective, the prospects of Shannon Brown and/or Mbenga/Powell  coming back increase by the day.  These are guys that have established roles with the team and may eye a return if the market doesn’t warm up for them.  In the end though, whoever signs on with the Lakers for the final two or three spots on the roster will have to face the stark reality that they’re sure to be low salaried players that may not see much court time.  And when us fans look at the situation that way, we may want to readjust our mindset about who will be joining the team before training camp.

MENS hoops

With the NBA Summer League done with, Las Vegas is now home to the USA National Basketball training camp where 27 guys will be competing to make the 12 man roster that will take on the world come August 28th. Among those 27 is the Lakers own Lamar Odom.

This summer, Team USA will have a new face – or a plethora of new faces – as no one from the Olympic Gold Medal team will play in the World Basketball Championships. This opens up the door for a lot of the NBA’s young talent like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Danny Granger and the Lopez twins to compete for a roster spot and wear their country’s colors. Looking at the 27 invited to camp it is safe to say that competition will be fierce. Below I’ll take a short look at the positional break-downs and will have more on the team’s progress at the end of camp and again when the roster is cut to 12.

Centers: Tyson Chandler, David Lee, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Kevin Love (Amaré Stoudemire was invited to camp, but is expected not to play after the Knicks requested that he sit out the worlds).

At first glance, these aren’t the kind of names we’re used to seeing at the center position for USA Basketball. This list lacks bruisers, this list lacks that defensive presence that penetrating guards will immediately fear, and most importantly, this list lacks a truly dominant center. When I said that these aren’t the names we’re used to seeing, I don’t mean the names per se, but more what the names represent. From Dwight Howard to Shaq to David Robinson to Hakeem Olajuwon – those were all names that represented what have defined the center position; tough, brutal, physical dominance in the paint. A few weeks ago, Rob Mahoney wrote on the lack of a traditional USA center for Hardwood Paroxysm, and I couldn’t agree more with his argument: it’s hard to be excited for this group of big men. I do think that the Lopez twins will be able to hold their own in the Worlds, but Kevin Love is extremely undersized and doesn’t rebound at a great rate while David Lee doesn’t play a lick of defense. Tyson Chandler, who would be a good defensive presence, needs a quality point guard on the floor to be a factor on the offensive end. It’ll be interesting to see which direction Jerry Colangelo chooses to go with this group.

Power Forwards: Jeff Green, Lamar Odom, Gerald Wallace

Green, Odom and Wallace are an athletic bunch and have all proven to be solid complementary players. Lamar Odom has the largest skill set of the three, but as we all know, he is consistently inconsistent. Odom’s past Team USA experience and the fact that he’s a proven winner gave him the early edge going into camp. Gerald Wallace is the best defender of the group, and actually has a better shooting percentage than Odom and Green. In the international game, a lot of power forwards are going to stand around the arc and launch up three pointers. I think Wallace’s game translates well to the international game, he has the ability to guard on the wing and also bring his game out there if needed. Shooters will be needed against the international zones, and if Wallace shoots at a higher rate than the other two, I think he has a great shot at making the team. For Jeff Green, he could end up being the odd man out despite being part of the Team USA program for a few years now. Colangelo and Coach K really like him as he’s played well at camps in the past, but if the two other guys have games that translate better to the international game, he could still be waiting to take his turn in wearing the national colors. However, Green is a very good perimeter defender and is young and athletic. With none of the Olympians returning for the worlds, we might see Colangelo and Coach K look to bring a youthful team to Turkey.

Wings: Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon, Danny Granger, Andre Iguodala, O.J. Mayo

Kevin Durant is pretty much a lock for the starting three spot, but I can see up to three more of these guys making the roster. I think Danny Granger’s game translates to the international game the most out of this bunch for his ability to play and guard three different positions with his size and athleticism. He can fill up a stat sheet and will do all of the dirty things that don’t show up in box scores. Rudy Gay is athletic and a good scorer, as is O.J. Mayo, but Mayo is a much better shooter than Gay is, which is going to be needed off of the ball. I like Andre Iguodala and Eric Gordon, but I feel like if two of these guys aren’t going to make the team, it’s these two. Iguodala isn’t a good enough shooter and Eric Gordon isn’t athletic enough to be much more than a shooter. Gordon has a great stroke in his shot, can shoot it off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations, but he isn’t bringing too much more than that to the table at this point in his young career.

Point Guards: Chauncey Billups, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook

I think this will be the most competitive portion of the roster. I think Chauncey Billups veteran presence will earn him a spot on the team and I think Derrick Rose is just too good to not make the team, but Curry, Evans, Westbrook and Rondo can all do great things. Of this group, it’s hard to fathom any of these guys not making a basketball team, but I think after Billups and Rose, either Rajon Rondo or Russell Westbrook earn the final spot. We’re talking about two extremely fast guys who can jump in just about any passing lane and are deadly in transition. Both of them have shaky jump shots that can hurt, but then again, these are the two point guards of the two teams that gave the Lakers the biggest run for their money. Tyreke Evans, as much as I love watching him play, has a game that least translates to the international game. Then again, people were saying that his game wouldn’t translate to the NBA and he posted a 20-5-5 line in his rookie campaign. Stephon Curry’s shooting and playmaking ability will keep him competitive, I just think there are better point guards. I’m not knocking his game, because I love watching this kid’s game as well.

Until 2 p.m. Pacific Time, NBA.com will be showing an inside view of the NBA training camp (which I’m sure will be aired at a later time as well). For more information on Team USA, make sure you check out the official website. I’ll try and keep you guys as updated as possible on LO and the rest of Team USA.

June 10, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02195866 Boston Celtics player Tony Allen (R) tries to stop a drive against Los Angeles Lakers player Shannon Brown (L) during the first half of game four of the NBA Finals at TD Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 10 June 2010. The Lakers lead the series over the Celtics 2-1.

The draft is long past.  Free agency is nearly a month old.  Summer league has just ended.  Andwhile we’re still nearly 2 months away from the start of training camp, most teams are nearly completely built withonly a few moves aroundthe edges yet to be completed.  So, I figure now is as good a time as any to take a look around the league at some of the teams andhow they’re coming together.  We’ll start with our very own Lakers…

*With Raja Bell spurning the Lakers for a second stint with the Jazz, the Lakers have moved on to re-signing Shannon Brown.  At this point, I think Brown is the best option on the market for LA andI am hopeful that a deal can get done to bring back the high rising combo guard.  I understand that many would still like the Lakers to make a run at T-Mac or at Matt Barnes, but in the end I’d rather have the guy that knows the system, is comfortable in his role, and is well liked by his teammates in the Staples Center locker room.    If Brown is indeed brought back andwe make the assumption that both Lakers 2nd rounders make the team, the Lakers are looking at 12 players on their roster – Fisher, Kobe, Artest, Pau, Bynum, Blake, Odom, Sasha, Brown, Walton, Caracter, and Ebanks.  If the Lakers look to carry 13 players (like they did last season) adding a big man that can play some minutes at C is in order. We’ve discussed this before, so I won’t discuss names as the usual suspects have not changed.  However, the Lakers may also look to add another guard andthe name being floated around is the Guard from Harvard, Jeremy Lin.  It’s been reported that the Lakers have contacted Lin’s agent to discuss him joining the Lakers and I must say that I’m intrigued.  Lin’s surely a season or two away from being a contributor, but at least one person has already said that Lin could be a “Derek Fisher” type of guard as his savvy and competitiveness are two things that shine through when watching him play.  So, this is something to continue to watch.

*The Miami Heat sure are rounding out their roster nicely.  Brought in to flank the Pep Boys (my nickname for Wade/Lebron/Bosh) are Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Big Z, Jamaal Magloire, and James Jones.  Those guys join Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony, and 2ndround picks Dexter Pittman, and Jarvis Varnado.  That’s 12 guys is all of them stick with Juwan Howard expected to be the 13th when he signs a deal within the next few days.  And while the there’s some older guys in that group and a couple of 2nd rounders (that likely won’t see any time), that’s a solid few role players to play next to the Heat’s big guns.  If I was a Heat fan, I’d still be worried about the lack of real size (outside of Z) and whether or not a crunch time line up of Wade/Miller/Lebron/Haslem/Bosh has enough toughness on the glass anddefensive presence in the paint.  But, other teams will also need to be concerned with a trio on the wing like the Heat can offer while also having mobile bigs that can play the pick and pop game quite nicely.  No one will know how this will work until the games start, but I will give Riles credit for bringing this team together in a way that many doubted as possible when “the decision” was first announced.

*The other team that I’ve been impressed with is the Chicago Bulls.  They’ve added Boozer, Korver, and Brewer to the Rose/Noah/Deng/Gibson mix andnow that looks like a pretty complete team with a nice mix of complementary pieces that should work well together.  Obviously the key is the continued development of Rose andwhether Boozer can keep up his high level of play (I have little doubts about either), but if those things happen the Bulls will have a very good team that could easily slide into that top 3 or 4 in the East with Miami, Orlando, and Boston.

*Speaking of Orlando and Boston, they’ve been a bit under the radar in the off-season but should still be considered major threats.  They’ve essentially held on to the rosters that got them to the ECF this past season and they’ll surely be hungry to try and get back to the Finals next year.  Yes, Boston is a year older and have added Jermaine O’Neal to replace ‘Sheed while losing Tony Allen to Memphis.  Andthey still must deal with a recovering Perkins that won’t be in action early in the season.  But, they’re still in the Matt Barnes “sweepstakes” andwith Doc, Pierce, Allen, andKG all returning with a steadily improving Rondo, I don’t think we can write them off quite yet.  As for Orlando, they held onto Redick and have returned every major piece.  They still have Dwight and Jameer and if Lewis can have a semi-bounce back season they’ll also be a major threat to win the East.  I mean, who in that conference really guards Howard well?

*Earlier I mentioned Raja Bell andhis signing with the Jazz.  We’ll Utah is another team that has been quietly good this off-season.  Sure they lost Boozer and Korver to the Bulls.  They also let the Blazers over pay for Wesley Matthews (whom I like, just not at the salary he got in the first year).  But, they’ve added Bell (who is a very good shooter in his own right and will be better on D than Matthews and light years ahead of Korver) and they traded for Al Jefferson from the ‘Wolves.  So, they’ve essentially replaced Boozer and Matthews/Korver with Big Al and Bell, still have Deron (who is a monster) and have AK47 who is surely now recovered from the calf strain that limited him in the playoffs.  When you look at that team, I like a crunch time line up of Deron, Bell, AK47, Milsap, and Jefferson.  And when Okur recovers from his achilles injury, that’s another weapon that they may be able to use.

*As for the rest of the West, lets just say it’s a mixed bag.  I think Dallas overpaid for Haywood and that they had to be hoping for more than Chandler when trading Dampier’s non-guaranteed deal.  Meanwhile Denver needed more size and rebounding in their front court and they signed Al Harrington to a full mid-level deal.  Houston is a team that I really like if Yao is back healthy as I think their top 8 guys (Brooks, Martin, Battier, Scola, Yao, Ariza, Lowry, Brad Miller) are good pieces for Adelman’s system andyou know they’ll defend well.  And the Spurs have also had a quietly effective off-season by getting a commitment from Tiago Splitter while also Jedi mind tricking Richard Jefferson to opt out of his contract while (reportedly) still in talks to potentially bring him back for much cheaper.

My final thoughts on all of this is that we’ve likely seen the exporting to the East of enough talent that we may now see more conference parity than we’ve seen in recent years.  The West will still be tough with the Lakers, the still up andcoming OKC, Portland, Houston, Spurs, Mavs, Nuggs, and Suns (who added Turk, Childress, and Warrick to make up for Amar’e going to the Knicks).  But the East is now much more respectable with anywhere from 2-4 very good teams at the top and teams like the Bucks, Hawks, ‘Cats and even Knicks still talented enough to push a team in a series.  Too bad we’re still two months away from seeing it all unfold.