By Ben Fisher
An off-season in professional sports is every bit as competitive as its in-season portion, a period defined by winners and losers. Perhaps at no time in NBA history has this been more pronounced that this summer, as the fortunes of no less than seven franchises were transformed through a free agency bonanza.
Identifying the winners is easy, with the Miami Heat at the forefront with their new Big Three in place, while the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks also added marquee pieces. But it is the supposed ‘losers’ who have faced a more interesting off-season in that they’ve been tasked with finding ways to move on without one of their key ingredients from a year ago.
Even the most casual of NBA observers can understand the pain that permeated Cleveland in the wake of LeBron James’ all-too-public breakup with the hometown team with whom he spent his first seven seasons. Once James announced that he was ‘taking his talents to South Beach’ during ESPN’s widely-panned debacle known as “The Decision,” the Cavaliers were sent reeling as they witnessed the loss of the player that was, really, their only conceivable option in free agency.
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So where do they go from here? This is a roster that, with Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, J.J. Hickson and Anthony Parker still in tow, is by no means barren. Those names, plus new additions Ramon Sessions and Ryan Hollins, along with new head coach Byron Scott, may help keep the Cavs in the play-off mix, but will hardly help them maintain their place among the East’s top teams. Hickson is a nice building block and the haul of draft picks from the James’ sign-and-trade (two first’s and two second’s) will help, but Cleveland faces a long road ahead to return to contender status.
To add insult to injury, owner Dan Gilbert’s infamous letter may have satisfied some angry fans, but it likely gave some players and agents pause in wondering whether they want to risk falling at the mercy of such heated words if they sign with – and then possibly leave – Cleveland.
If Miami ripped out Cleveland’s heart with its acquisition of James, then they offered Toronto Raptors’ fans a blow to the gut by getting Chris Bosh to join the Heat. The blow to the Raptors was softened by the expected nature of Bosh’s exit and the lack of team highlights during his tenure (3-8 play-off record over seven seasons). However, it still left the team with a gaping hole, having lost their scoring and rebound leader from last season.
GM Bryan Colangelo tried to move past the Bosh era via off-season transactions, but was only partially successful. While he did re-sign Amir Johnson, trade Hedo Turkoglu for Leandro Barbosa and sign Linas Kleiza, he had a near-complete deal for Tyson Chandler and Boris Diaw scuttled in the 11th hour and could not close out a sign-and-trade for Matt Barnes.
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Yet in spite of the current woes faced by the team, there are reasons for optimism among the Raptors faithful. The team, after all, has a strong young talent base in DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems and rookie Ed Davis to go along with Andrea Bargnani while also armed with future cap space, a $14 million trade exception and two first-round picks in next year’s deep draft.
The Raptors were hardly the only team to lose a marquee big man this off-season, as the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz both reacted quickly as they found themselves losing out on Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer, respectively.
As the Suns lost one premier Steve Nash target in Stoudemire, they quickly recovered with a pair of additions that fit the ‘run-and-gun’ style. Turkoglu, a versatile point forward who should be able to adapt to Phoenix’s up-tempo game, came over from Toronto in exchange for Barbosa and should absorb much of the scoring load lost in Stoudemire’s departure. The Suns also re-upped with Channing Frye, who thrived under Alvin Gentry, and added Hakim Warrick. This is, however, still Nash’s team and whether they can remain contenders in the West rests solely on his shoulders.
Of these four teams, only the Jazz managed to replace their exiting superstar with another star playing the same position. The addition of Al Jefferson from Minnesota for a mere pittance (Kosta Koufos and two first rounders) ensured that the loss of Boozer would be the least of Utah’s problems. Unfortunately, they do have others. Even a team with an imposing core of Jefferson, Deron Williams, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur can ill afford to lose three rotation players – Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Boozer – all of whom went to the Bulls. The additions of Raja Bell and rookie Gordon Hayward will also help, but it remains to be seen whether Utah can maintain their standing among the West’s elite.
The NBA is a superstar-driven league, something which these squads could find out the hard way. But the league landscape is ever-changing and each of these teams is armed with some of the tools necessary in moving forward. Time will tell just how well they use those tools.