With the first month of the NBA season seemingly set to be wiped out, it’s about the time that basketball writers start writing the expected “Who will lose the most by missing the season?” column. So with no evident Rogue of the Week this week, here’s a different spin on the lockout: the top five teams or players that will MOST benefit from missing an entire season.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland is bad. Really bad. And unlike the Timberwolves, the only team that lost more than the Cavs in 2010-11, they don’t have a glut of young talent or a veritable stud like Kevin Love. Cleveland also has $55 million committed in salary in 2011-12, twelfth-most in the NBA, with $29 million of that going to Antawn Jamison and Baron Davis, two guys who won’t be around by the time Cleveland is good again. Jamison comes off the books at season’s end, while Davis has a $14 million player option that he’ll probably exercise (no one else will pay that for him on the open market).
Still, getting rid of Jamison without paying him while getting another presumably high pick in the draft that they can use to get a big man (preferably one bigger and more experienced than Tristan Thompson) means that a lost season wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Cavs. And, despite packing the house last season with over 20,000 fans per game [Editor's Note: the Cavs had great attendance numbers last year because the team forced season ticket holders in '09-10 to re-up for the following year in order to attend playoff games in LeBron's last season in Cleveland.], I don’t think the people of Cleveland will mind missing another season of Christian Eyenga and Manny Harris.
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The only drawback is that Kyrie Irving and Thompson don’t get the chance to improve on the court, something they could have achieved in college (see below). One more thing: a canceled season means one more year of LeBron James without a ring.
4. Bad teams in need of a big man
If the season is canceled, that means that the 2012 NBA Draft order is likely to look pretty similar to the 2011 NBA Draft order. And that’s a good thing for those crappy teams in need of a big man, because the 2012 draft promises to be chock full of centers and power forwards. Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Baylor’s Perry Jones, and North Carolina’s John Henson will all likely come out after rebuffing the 2011 draft. Add to that freshmen like Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and North Carolina’s James McAdoo, and the teams at the top of the draft will be spoiled for choices.
So who fits the bill?
Toronto is in desperate need of an inside presence, especially considering that their top pick in the ’11 draft, Jonas Valanciunas, might not be leaving his Lithuanian club for a while. Chris Kaman is in the final year of his contract with the Clippers, and I’m sure they’d like a talented youngster to pair with Blake Griffin. Sacramento had one of the worst frontcourts in the league last year and could certainly use another banger in there, preferably a no-nonsense guy that keeps DeMarcus Cousins in check.
3. Teams with massive contract albatrosses
Falling into this category: the Magic (owe Gilbert Arenas $62 million through 2013-14), the Hawks (owe Joe Johnson $97 million through 2015-16), and the Wizards (owe Rashard Lewis $46 million through 2012-13). There are a bunch of other teams that have guys ranging from mildly to extremely overpaid, but these three teams will probably appreciate the lockout most, perhaps followed by the Grizzlies (owe Rudy Gay $68 million through 2014-15). A season-long lockout means one year less paying out a ridiculous figure to a guy who doesn’t deserve it. Orlando and Washington, who swapped the contracts of Arenas and Lewis in December, will be particularly grateful, considering Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay actually produce on the court despite their bloated salaries.
While these guys will all have multiple seasons left on their deals if the league resumes in time for the 2012-13 season (and their salaries only continue to escalate after that), their owners will save a lot of money by not paying them in 2011-12. Another potential benefit for the owners of these teams is the proposed “amnesty clause” that would allow teams to dump the contract of one player, meaning that they would still have to pay him, yet it wouldn’t count against the cap. This could speed up the rebuilding process in Washington and create space for a Dwight Howard sidekick in Orlando (if Dwight stays, of course).
2. College players that elected to stay in school an extra year
I’m talking about guys like Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones, and any of the UNC guys (Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, and John Henson). Here's what bothered me about the 2011 Draft: why did underclassmen declare for it when they knew full-well there was going to be a lockout? They weren’t going to get paid much (if at all) because of the lockout, and now they’ve been thrown into a new life as a professional at age 20 (give or take a year). They’re on their own as far as finding pickup games, coaches and workout programs, and since they’ve never been through an NBA off-season, they don’t really know what to do. If they stayed in college, here’s what they would have had instead:
- Tons of fun (you had fun in college, right?)
- A dedicated coaching staff. You know, one that can talk to them and everything.
- Real practice sessions
- Easy access to a gym and training staff
- Actual games against real teams
- A chance to play in the greatest basketball tournament in the world
Coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, and Roy Williams have been prepping collegians for the NBA for decades. An extra year in college is one more year for a potential draftee to get stronger and work on holes in his game. When the lockout finally ends, who’s going to be better off: the NBA Draft Class of 2011, who sat on their asses for a whole year, or the NBA Draft Class of 2012, who prepared for the league the same way that every other rookie has prepared for the league?
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Sure, OKC has a ton of momentum following a season in which they won 55 games and advanced to the franchise’s first conference finals since 1996. Kevin Durant is entering his prime, and Russell Westbrook figures to be there soon. Yet losing a season might be the best thing that could happen to OKC. First, the Thunder are in an advantageous position with regards to the salary cap. All their key pieces are under contract for 2012-13, save for Westbrook (who is a restricted free agent), and the team only has $44 million committed for that season, meaning that they won’t have to do a lot of restructuring if there’s a tougher new CBA. That’s not the case for their main rivals in the West.
Dallas has $44 million committed, but that doesn’t include contracts for Jason Terry or Jason Kidd (remember, veterans can command more $ than Westbrook, who will be entering his fifth season in 2012). San Antonio also has $44 million committed, but that doesn’t include a contract for Tim Duncan. And the Lakers have a whopping $67 million committed in 2012-13 and $61 million committed (to four players) in 2013-14. Compared to these teams, Oklahoma City is in a much better position cap-wise, ensuring that they won’t have to re-configure their roster and could even add another piece easily should the need arise.
Beyond their competitors’ cap situations, take a look at the cores of the top four Western teams from last season (age at opening night of 2012-13 season in parentheses):
Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki (34), Jason Terry (35), Jason Kidd (39), Shawn Marion (34), Tyson Chandler (30), J.J. Barea (28)
Spurs: Tony Parker (30), Richard Jefferson (32), Manu Ginobili (35), Tim Duncan (36), George Hill (26), DeJuan Blair (23)
Lakers: Kobe Bryant (34), Pau Gasol (32), Lamar Odom (33), Metta World Peace (33), Derek Fisher (38), Shannon Brown (26), Andrew Bynum (25)
Thunder: Kevin Durant (24), Russell Westbrook (24), Serge Ibaka (23), James Harden (23), Kendrick Perkins (28), Thabo Sefolosha (28)
Now it might be that an extended break is just what the doctor ordered for some of those veterans, allowing them to come back rested and refreshed. But on the other hand, the first three teams on this list have a much smaller championship window than the Thunder, simply because of the age of their rosters. No one would count those teams out in 2011-12, but the simple fact is most of the older players will decline with age, while most of the younger players will get better with age. OKC is the only current Western contender that fields a team comprised of mostly younger players.
So the smart money is for them to get better and the other teams to get worse. Someday soon, OKC will rule the West. A season-long lockout means one less season that is ruled by somebody else.