While the playoffs rage on, it is still a fine time to stop for a minute and consider those who have already been knocked out. So we begin our annual Fall Out series, in which we assess the departed and their future prospects. The losers have been gone for at least a week and this gives us a little more perspective and avoids quickly pronouncing failure and success. Today, we look at the Eastern Conference:
1. Chicago Bulls: Losing in the first round as one seed really hurts. In the case of Chicago, the hurt is slightly different than those of past one seeds to be knocked out. There was no shocking upset here but rather a loss off Derrick Rose, which made an upset much more likely. One could imagine that the loss still was a bit surprising because even without Rose the Bulls were a very good team this year. Even so, the Bulls were going win a title without Rose. Instead, the Bulls are left with losing a shot at a title and spending next season without their best player, as well as a possibility that Rose won’t be the same player when he comes back. In short, the whole situation sucks. Going forward, the Bulls will probably be in the playoffs in 2012-13 but the gaping hole at the point will prevent any meaningful contention.
At the moment, the team is pretty much locked into the roster it has. Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng have contracts for at least three more seasons, all at pretty big money. While all three could be traded, only Noah has both the youth and reasonable salary to command actual good value in return. Noah my actually be worth trading too since his strengths (defense/rebounding) can possibly be replaced by Taj Gibson on the cheap. Noah, in turn, could fetch a scoring guard that the team needed before Rose got hurt and even more so. We aren’t saying Noah should definitely be traded for a shooting guard but he is the prime candidate if the right opportunity presents itself.
As for Boozer, he is destined to be considered another Bulls big ticket free agent bust a la Ron Mercer and Ben Wallace. But Boozer is nowhere near so disappointing a bust. His raw numbers look down because he played his fewest minutes per game since his rookie year (29.5). In reality, he improved upon his 2010-11 numbers and his PER shows him as an asset at 19.7. Yes, Boozer has his downsides: he won’t ever reach his career highs of five years ago and his lack of defense is notable on the Bulls and, at 30, he isn’t going to be getting any better. Nor is any team going to assume the three years and $46 million without sending back a bad contract. The only way to clear Boozer from the cap is to amnesty him and the production right now justifies his roster spot.
Chicago should hover at the 45-win mark next year but all eyes will be on Rose’s return. That is a bit of limbo for fans but it is more hope than most NBA teams have.
2. New York Knicks: Weird season for the Knicks. It was several seasons in one really. We won’t recap the rollercoaster events but, at the end of the day, the Knicks are Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin and some role players. The first test of the off-season will be to see whether the NBPA’s challenge of the restricted free agency rules for waiver wire picks ups (Lin and Steve Novak) will be left intact. If so, the Knicks can basically offer Lin and Novak more cash than anyone else. If not, both players will hit the open market and the Knicks could be outbid by teams with cap room. The reports indicate that the NBPA challenge is a longshot because the CBA did not specifically provide for unrestricted free agency for such players. Hopefully, these sources are correct because the Knicks will be totally screwed if they lose Lin, the only above-average NBA point on the roster.
Assuming Lin does return, the other issue is that Knicks are locked into a roster that is not a title contender. Carmelo should be the same really good scoring forward for the next three years but Amare is a problem. His numbers were down markedly this season and he looked a lot less athletic. A look at Amare’s similarity scores at Basketball-Reference show a few players that fell off to a lower level for a variety of reasons (Elton Brand, Marques Johnson, Grant Hill). Hopefully, Amare’s explosiveness returns but it’s safe to say that most GMs would greatly prefer having Booze and his contract going forward than Stoudemire and his contract.
At best, we are looking at the Knicks staying on the 45-win treadmill next year unless they keep Lin and Lin turns into Steve Nash and Amare gets back some of his mojo. This won’t be a boring team. The team they have is entertaining and far preferable to the crap that had been at MSG the last decade but the realistic ceiling is low.
3. Orlando Magic: The Magic finally got around to firing Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy this week but the flux continues. It seems that it is probably still too late to keep Dwight Howard. The Magic are capped out with all sorts of middling talent and hard feelings are sure to remain even if the Magic could make an impact move to convince Howard to stay. On top of this, Howard’s back may make him a bad bet for a team that isn’t great anyway. Bringing Howard back entails too much risk. If Howard is still injured, his value will tank and Magic won’t be able to trade or keep him. If Howard is healthy, the media circus continues on a team that still isn’t a title contender. Orlando should avoid the circus and just trade Howard now and get the best possible return it can (some young talent and cap relief) as the Nets will surely overpay because they need the hope of Howard now to build the Brooklyn buzz.
Van Gundy deserved a better fate, as his coaching was consistent and strong. Alas, he got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and he didn’t exactly manage the PR aspects of this pressure cooker well. We are sure to see him coach again somewhere soon. As for Smith, his tenure looks much worse in retrospect than it did at the time. Remember, Smith didn’t actually draft Howard, he was inherited from previous GM John Weisbrod (who missed spectacularly on all non-Howard related decisions). So, Smith came to the GM slot with Howard to build around. Here are Smith’s major decisions as GM since his hiring in the spring of 2005:
-2004-05 Season: Drafted Fran Vazquez at the 11th pick in the 2005 draft. Vazquez never came to the United States. The draft was thin at that point but Danny Granger and local product David Lee were available.
-2005-06: Smith’s did a nice job clearing out the waste, dumping Steve Francis’ contract on Isaiah Thomas and the Knicks in 2005-06. The Magic had the 11th pick again and took J.J. Redick, who has been a decent pro and not a terrible pick (Rajon Rondo and Kyle Lowry were available but were not really hot prospects).
-2006-07: Smith didn’t do much but fire Brian Hill as coach and replaced him with Van Gundy, which worked out pretty well.
-2007-08: Smith brought in big ticket free agent Rashard Lewis. This was an obvious overpay for a good player but Smith wanted to put some talent around Howard to make him happy. An overpay was acceptable but $118 million for six years was a bit more than necessary to lock up Lewis. Smith also brought over Marcin Gortat after drafting him back in 2005 in the second-round.
-2008-09: The Magic were now pretty good and Smith tried to add some useful talent to push the team over the top. Their draft pick (22nd pick) Courtney Lee was solid and Rafer Alston played some surprisingly nice ball in the playoffs for a retread. Orlando upsets Cleveland but loses to Los Angeles in the NBA Finals. This is the apex of Smith’s tenure in Orlando.
-2009-10: Magic trade Alston and Lee for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson and let Toronto overpay for Hedo Turkoglu. Smith also nabs the useful Matt Barnes and Brandon Bass. The Magic win 59 games again and put up a better SRS rating than in 2008-09. The team still loses to a very good Boston team in the second round.
-2010-11: Panic time. Smith sign Chris Duhon to an offer sheet and crap out. Mid-way through the season, Smith bites the bullet and trades Carter, Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, and a first-rounder for Jason Richardson, Earl Clark, and Turkoglu. Smith overrated Richardson, thinking he was way better than V.C., though there was little evidence of this on paper. Throwing in Gortat and taking Turkoglu’s bad contract only made the deal worse. Smith also trades Lewis, who had declined in Orlando for Gilbert Arenas, who was beyond decline. Orlando loses in the first round to Atlanta and the chaos we referenced above begin and continues until Smith was fired.
In retrospect, Smith’s time in Orlando was decent until he felt forced to make moves. Lewis was a mistake but losing a very good center like Gortat without upgrading two-guard was a forgotten but pretty terrible move. The Arenas trade had no shot of working and smacked of true desperation. If Smith had hit on one of his early draft picks and kept Gortat, he might’ve avoided the nightmare 2011-12. Smith isn’t really an awful GM but it was time to blow this up and start over with someone new.
4. Atlanta Hawks: A familiar theme of the first round losers is being stuck on the treadmill of good but not great. This is the first time since 2007-08 that Atlanta didn’t win its first round series but the team was still pretty good. Without Al Horford most of the year, the Hawks were quite competitive. Atlanta is a thin team with a few great talents (Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Horford) and one potentially good player (Jeff Teague). But the Hawks are totally capped out and owe Johnson about $100 million over the next four seasons. This will eventually require Atlanta to eat the contract but, for now, the Hawks will be satisfied with another mid-level seed and a shot at the second round.
Another big decision looming is Josh Smith. He has one year left on his contract and is rumored to prefer to leave Atlanta. Last time he was a free agent, Smith signed an offer sheet with Memphis and forced Atlanta to match it to keep him. Smith is unrestricted this time and he is probably the Hawks’ best player. Atlanta isn’t too excited but having a big payroll and the Johnson contract probably precludes a big payday for Smith as well. If so, Atlanta needs to trade Smith, who has a ton of value and could swing the right team to title contender. Since Smith isn’t as big a name as Howard, the Hawks could enter next year with Smith on the team if no great offers fly in the door. Trading Smith (if he is a goner) will have to happen though as it is the only way to add some talent to a team that would look pretty bad if his lost for nothing as a free agent.