Last year, the epicenter of the NBA resided in South Beach as scores of NBA columnists and media flocked to Miami to catch a glimpse of the Big 3. This season, the focus has shifted 3,000 miles west to LA as the city of Angels becomes the premier destination spot for big name players and stars looking to up their national exposure.
The Clippers overhauled their roster, exchanging their youth for superstar Chris Paul and veteran leadership, claiming Chauncey Billups off of amnesty waivers and signing free-agent forward Caron Butler. Most agree these offseason moves have turned the most laughable franchise in all of sports into legit title contenders and perhaps the marquee team in LA.
The Lakers, on the other hand, nearly overhauled their own roster in exchange for Paul, only to see the trade nixed by owner/GM/commissioner David Stern. Hurt by the team’s disloyalty, Lamar Odom requested a trade, ultimately being sent to the Mavs for an $8.9 million trade exception, putting the Lakers in position for a potential Dwight Howard deal when Orlando puts him back on the market near this season’s trade deadline.
Let’s go 3,000 miles east and look at the Knicks, who are also being mentioned as possible title contenders. The Knicks added much-needed defensive presence in Tyson Chandler. By doing so, New York was forced to amnesty Billups. The Knicks replaced Billups by signing Baron Davis after he passed through amnesty waivers as well as added veteran point guard Mike Bibby. What is being missed among all the excitement in NYC is that a bench that was weak last year was decimated this offseason. The Knicks lost Shawne Williams, Sheldan Williams, Ronny Turiaf, Anthony Carter, Derrick Brown, Roger Mason and Andy Rautlins. Granted, these are not household names. Hell, these are guys are the fringe of the NBA. Still, another year together could have only helped a top-heavy Knicks team that relies heavily on Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire for scoring. This ultimately brings me to my point. In a lockout-shortened season, continuity is key.
With only two preseason games to get acclimated, teams with roster overhauls will have a difficult time adjusting to one another. Just look at last year’s Miami Heat. The Heat began the regular season just 9-8. Now, they finished the season 58-24 (the second best record in the East) but with only a week or two to get acquainted, teams with dramatic changes to their roster will find the first half the season frustrating and impatient fans may not like what they see.
Teams like the Clippers and Knicks, teams that won the offseason with their shrewd off-season pickups, will underachieve this season. And don’t think I forgot about the Mavs. Yes, they basically stole from the Lakers, adding Lamar Odom for essentially nothing. But they also lost their anchor on defense (Chandler), spark off the bench (J.J. Barea), and their grit and toughness (Caron Butler). Replacing those three with Vince Carter, Delonte West and Brandon Wright will not make it an easy repeat for Dirk and the Mavs.
Meanwhile, if I were a betting man, I would keep an eye on the Heat, Sixers, Grizzlies, Thunder and Bulls. I’m not exactly going out on a limb here by telling you that the Heat and Bulls (last year’s eastern conference finals matchup) are title contenders. Ditto for the Thunder. But the fact remains that these five teams added to their roster with precision. Richard Hamilton is the perfect fit for a Bulls team in need of scoring at the shooting guard spot. Shane Battier will be a calming influence for a Heat team that struggled down the stretch in close games. The Thunder, Sixers and Grizzlies each have a solid young nucleus with a nice mix of veterans that will help their teams navigate tough stretches of back-to-back-to-back games. It is also that infusion of youth that will help keep those teams in games during the third game of back-to-back-to-backs when their veterans are gassed. According to 82games.com, the Sixers starting rotation of Holiday, Meeks, Iguodala, Brand and Hawes played 775 game minutes together.
So excuse me for raining on the parades of the Clippers and Knicks. But in a lockout shortened season, with only two games for the new players and coaching staffs to get to know one another, the teams that stood pat this offseason will ultimately thrive.