NBA PM: Summer’s Best Moves?
A quick survey of the NBA landscape shows a great deal of work that’s as yet undone. The reason, of course, is that the league is mired in a lockout, and teams have been unable to transact the business of roster moves that would normally be vying with summer league to grab headlines this time of year. Still, one team really stands out when you look at how much they have accomplished despite the limitations placed on their working environment.
The Indiana Pacers wasted no time getting down to business this summer, motivated in no small part by the lockout that we all knew was coming. They kicked off their summer moves by re-signing Frank Vogel as their head coach, a move that his players lobbied for and that made a lot of sense based on his success after taking over for Jim O’Brien mid-season last year. Vogel wasn’t the sexiest name out there, but he was the man who got the Pacers back to the playoffs by making the most of his talent. There’s something to be said for continuity, especially considering how likely it is that there will be a very short training camp before a lockout shortened schedule can be comprised.
On draft night the Pacers were among the many movers and shakers, and wound up acquiring point guard George Hill from the San Antonio Spurs. Indiana drafted small forward Kawhi Leonard with the 15th overall pick in the draft, which made little sense before the trade was announced. Instead of another small forward Indiana landed one of the best back-up point guards in the league. Hill has been a key member of the Spurs organization, and he will bring his talent as well as his winning mentality to a bench that was sadly lacking in players who knew what it meant to win. Hill just missed the Spurs’ last title run, but just spending three seasons in that organization gave him invaluable experience that will help the Pacers long-term.
Indiana’s next two moves hardly grabbed headlines, but they were significant, nonetheless.
First, they added Brian Shaw to Vogel’s coaching staff. Shaw was widely believed to be the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, where he served on Phil Jackson’s staff from 2004 to 2011, gaining championship experience and the confidence of none other than Kobe Bryant. Shaw is the kind of person who can step in and help Vogel lead the Pacers to the next level. He’s won as a player and as an assistant and will have the immediate respect of his new players. The Pacers got better the moment Shaw joined the organization.
Second, the Pacers added former Portland Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard to their front office staff. Pritchard was involved in talks with several teams regarding front office positions and was close to signing with the Boston Celtics before taking the job in Indiana. Team president Larry Bird is starting to talk about retirement, and Pritchard could be the man groomed to replace Bird. One thing’s for sure – draft night will be much more interesting with Pritchard back in the mix. His draft night moves made him something of a legend in Portland, where he became known as the Wizard of the Draft.
The Pacers aren’t finished by any stretch. Roughly half of their salary cap evaporated on July 1st, with the oft-injured Mike Dunleavy, seldom-used TJ Ford, Jeff Foster and the absent Jamaal Tinsley all coming off the books. Hill will take Ford’s roster spot, but the Pacers still have a coupe of holes to fill. They have had internal discussions about adding a savvy veteran like Shane Battier or Grant Hill to help the young core mature a little faster, and they are also expected to have enough cap space to go after someone like free agent forward Carl Landry.
There will be time for additional roster adjustments later, but for now the Pacers are ahead of the pack in terms of making the most of their lockout-shortened summer. They will certainly be ahead of the game once the lockout ends and the NBA gets back to business.
Butler and the Mavericks
Before Caron Butler went down with a season-ending knee injury the Dallas Mavericks looked like the team to beat in the Western Conference last season. They were fresh off a stretch that saw them win 16 of 17 games, including wins over the powerhouse teams from both conferences. At the time he went down, Butler was the Mavs’ third-leading scorer behind Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry at 15 points per game, and his defense was proving to be the missing link for Dallas on the perimeter.
To be frank, the Mavericks looked like anything but a championship team after Butler went down. Many picked them to lose to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs after they limped down the stretch of the regular season, and still more expected the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to make quick work of them. Instead, Dallas proved everyone wrong by taking out the Lakers, OKC Thunder and then the Miami HEAT en route to winning their first championship, an accomplishment made all the more remarkable by the fact that they did it without a significant starter.
Butler was there throughout, working hard to try and get back for the playoffs, but the simple fact is that an ACL injury takes sixth months to heal, even with the very best trainers and treatment that money can buy. He never made it back out onto the court, but his hard work and dedication were a factor for his team, nonetheless.
“Oh yeah, I was doing two-a-days, I was working extremely hard, I was working out 3-on-3, 2-on-2 all that,” Butler tells Jeff Kaplan of ESPN Dallas. “I finally was going through the preparation with the team. In the offensive shootarounds I was able to play LeBron James on the scout team and start helping the team get prepared, so I was on my way. They brought my jersey, they brought my shoes, all my padding and gear that I wear in the games and they brought it on the trip and said I may have an opportunity to play. So, I was really like just looking forward to the opportunity, but I was glad it happened the way it did. We got the title so that’s all that really matters.”
Mavs GM Donnie Nelson made it clear immediately following the championship celebration that he wanted his key free agents back next season, including Butler. Today Butler and his agent, Raymond Brothers, have taken to the airwaves to make his desire to return to Dallas clear.
“You hear a lot of teams and guys say this, but on that team all anyone ever cared about was winning and I think it was sincere. I think it was real and I think it was authentic,” says Butler. “Just all they cared about was winning. Whatever coach told us we should do or had to do to make that happen, to accomplish our goal, that’s what we did, and you saw that in the play. You saw guys, we were nine or 10 deep that could have been a starter on any team in the NBA — but guys just making the sacrifice. You know, me not playing in the fourth, other guys playing less minutes, Shawn Marion coming off the bench, other guys taking a lesser role and deferring more. It was a special thing to be a part of and it was a collective effort all the way around. It was truly special.”
The Mavericks are hopeful that with a healthy Caron Butler back in the mix they have a better than average shot at defending their championship, but there are plenty of questions that have to be answered before a contract can be signed. Whatever form the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement takes, it will most assuredly include a lower salary cap and possibly even a hard cap. Since the Mavs are one of the teams that is consistently over the cap, that presents a problem. Even with Tyson Chandler, Butler, JJ Barea, and a handful of other smaller contracts off the books as of July 1st, the Mavs still have over $60 million in salary commitments for 2011-12. That’s a higher number than most estimate the cap will be under the new CBA, and the Mavs have only nine players under contract.
That’s one reason the CBA talks aren’t going as well as everyone hoped. For teams to live under a massively lower cap it’s going to mean restructuring existing contracts and making significant moves to assure they can have the required 12 players on the roster when opening day finally rolls around. Dallas is just one of many teams who will have to make some hard decisions about how to move forward.
It’s great that Butler wants to be back, and the Mavericks will certainly do whatever they can to re-sign him, but at the end of the day they may find themselves unable to lock up move than one of their three key free agents. Unless they can find a taker for Brendan Haywood, the choice may come down to Butler or Chandler, and quality big men are hard to come by. That would be a very hard choice, indeed.
Howard “Dream-ing” Again
Last summer Dwight Howard followed in the footsteps of Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming, seeking out the advice of Hall Of Fame center Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon in an effort to take his game to the next level. O’Neal was also a member of the Magic when he sought out Olajuwon, who had just beaten him in the 2005 NBA Finals, and Dream’s advice to O’Neal was not all that different from his advice to Dwight: you got to do more than just dunk.
In his first sessions with Olajuwon, D12 worked on his footwork, his jump-hook, and even a mid-range bank-shot, three areas in which we saw notable improvements from Howard in 2010-11. As Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel points out, Howard averaged a career-best 22.9 points per game while hitting a career-best 39.6% from between 10 and 15 feet last season. This summer, Howard is hoping to add a couple of more facets to his game as he works out with one of the great centers of all time.
This time around Howard is looking to Olajuwon to help him in two specific areas. The first is obvious, as Dwight’s primary weakness continues to be the free throw line. Olajuwon shot 71% from the foul line for his career, and was just under 80% in his prime. Howard would love to find that kind of touch from the line, and is also hoping Olajuwon can help him continue to add to his mid-range offensive game.
The mark of a truly great player is that he consistently looks for ways to improve, and it’s great to see Dwight Howard working hard to elevate his game to new heights despite the fact that he’s already the best center in the NBA. He’s certainly chosen the right teacher, too. If Dream can’t help him, no one can.
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