Suns guard Nash looks to drive on Mavericks center Mahinmi during their NBA basketball game in Dallas, Texas

The Inbounds: Free Agency and the Magical Musical Chairs


Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy. 

If the Pacers don’t match Hibbert’s offer, then Batum could go to Minnesota.

If the Bulls don’t match Asik’s offer, O.J. Mayo could wind up a Bull.

If the Joe Johnson to the Nets trade goes through, Dwight Howard may be a Laker next season.

If Nash goes to Toronto, Kidd could wind up in New York, and Jose Calderon could be a Laker. If he goes to New York, Lin could be a Raptor.

Welcome to the offseason musical chairs game, 2012 edition.

Player movement is the central commodity in the NBA. In a lot of ways, it’s the engine that makes things run. It drives front office decisions and fan interest. The busiest time of the year for scribes isn’t the NBA Finals, it’s this time, when players are whipping from one team to another in trades and free agency.

But there’s a special environment this year, driven by several factors. For starters, the new CBA has created a different set of priorities. The idea of simply matching any offer for a restricted free agent like Omer Asik and dealing with the luxury tax was never a popular one for some teams (even rich teams like the Bulls, who have staved off the tax at all costs in the past), but now it’s sheer poison. The advanced punitive measures enacted in the new CBA, along with the threat of the repeater tax in 2014 have created an environment where every addition is carefully considered.

That’s not to say all of the deals won’t make your heads spin. But from Brandon Bass and David West’s short-term deals signed last December to the “either or” nature of so many deals to come in the next two weeks, the environment has shifted.

Additionally, the super-teams are mucking with this whole thing. Combinations of superstars means title contention, which means players are tempted to take less money to play there, which in turn pushes those superstar teams to slough off their excess, putting them on the market.

Throw in the complicted nature of restricted free agency and a light class without too many that are locks to return, and you have a very delicate ecosystem undergoing some fairly substantial changes, at least around the edges.

Another big secret that often gets lost this time of year is how much of an outlier 2010 was. Stars just don’t often change teams. We’re seeing it this year with Deron Williams looking very likely to head back to Brooklyn with the Nets, and Kevin Garnett staying “home” with the Celtics. It’s difficult for teams to just let go of players and structures they’ve had success with in the past.

The outlier, of course, is Steve Nash, and that shows you the situation the Suns are in. It takes a pretty self-aware and humble front office group to recognize that a two-time MVP can’t help their team at this point and it’s time for a new direction. But that’s what they’ve done.

Nash’s choice has engendered debate. The Raptors have reportedly offered a three-year, $36 million offer for the native son to return to the Maple Leaf nation. To accept, Nash would be spurning better chances to win a title for essentially money (and the prospect of returning “home” to finish his career). If LeBron James was killed for taking less money to try to win a title in Miami, and we tend to revolt against players taking the money, why aren’t we torching Nash for the same?

And it’s a valid criticism. But the root of that is not that we should bash Nash. It’s that a player’s circumstances and feelings matter, and we should respect it and maybe chill out with what we feel a player should do. One set of absurd standards and ridiculous criticism doesn’t mean we should apply those same poor ideas to other people. It means we should never have applied them in the first place.

If Nash goes to Toronto, the Knicks may move towards Jason Kidd, the idea being that he can serve as a mentor to Jeremy Lin (should the Knicks be able to match a poison pill offer from Toronto). There’s debate about whether that’s a good idea. After all, what can Kidd really do for Lin, and what can he give the Knicks at his age?

But the answer to those questions is a lot, and a lot. Kidd famously mentored Deron Williams during the Olympics and international competition process. It’s not just recognizing defenses, understanding where to put the ball, and how to read the opponent. It’s handling pressure, it’s dealing with coaches and teammates, it’s intangibles. And as far as his on-court contributions? In the ISOMelo offense, the best thing you can have is a point guard who can set the frame and then get out of the way and hit a three. That’s become Jason Kidd over the past three years. He’s not going to be an exhilirating playmaker. But the Knicks’ new offense isn’t geared that way anyway. Kidd’s a fit.

The Portland-Hibbert-Pacers-Batum situation may be the most interesting musical chairs scenario.

Consider this: there’s a three-day matching period that goes on after the moratorium ends on the 11th. Say a team lands Nicolas Batum to a huge contract before the Blazers can get Roy Hibbert inked to an offer sheet. Then the Blazers ink Hibbert, putting a hold on their cap space while Indiana debates. If Indiana were to hold out until the last minute, then match, the Blazers would have had their cap space held by the Hibbert deal, not match Batum, and lose out on Hibbert. Timing is fun!

Now, there’s a million ways this won’t become an issue, but it does represent the complexities in play for these teams.

And then, of course, there’s the Nets situation and the relationship with Dwight Howard and the Magic.

If the Nets go all in on Joe Johnson (and we’ll talk about this one tomorrow), then that means there’s no room for Dwight Howard. Which means Howard would have to consider what team that isn’t on his list he wants to play for. Can he get along with Kobe? Is he willing to play in Houston? Does San Francisco mesh with his religious upbringing? The Nets went halfway in another direction with the Gerald Wallace signing. Bringing in Joe Johnson locks in their core. Do that, and the Dwight Howard situation becomes somehow more insane.

But if they do land Dwight, then what does Atlanta do? Is that their best and only shot at dumping Joe Johnson’s contract?

Oh, and if the Bulls match Omer Asik’s offer from Houston, they’re amnestying Carlos Boozer at some point. But waiting to amnesty Boozer means there’s less of a chance another team will take on part of his contract.

This isn’t rocket science. But to a degree, it is game theory. Welcome to the 2012 NBA Free Agency period. Choose wisely.

This is chess, it ain’t checkers.

Did we mention LeBron James was dunking all over Knicks? Watch for yourself.

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LeBron James isn’t the only story out of the NBA season opener — Kyrie Irving had 29 points, Kevin Love had 23, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose were shotmaking.

But mostly, LeBron James was dunking. And racking up a triple-double (19 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds). But mostly just dunking. Like you see above. Or there is this alley-oop.

Or, there was this putback throwdown.

And we can throw in a block on Courtney Lee just for fun.

Cavaliers moving ball, LeBron James dunking in season opener

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the first quarter against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers were not in mid-season form on opening night — they started the game 3-of-12 from the floor and were 4-of-21 from three in the first half.

But they were showing flashes.

Like the LeBron James dunk above. Or this stretch of ball movement below.

The Cavaliers led the Knicks 48-45 at the half.

Watch LeBron James’ speech after getting his ring in Cleveland

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“At this point, if you’re not from here, live here, play here, dedicate yourself to Cleveland, then it makes no sense for you to live at this point — Cleveland against the world!”

And with that, the Q went nuts.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers got their rings and raised a banner in Cleveland — the first title banner in that city in 52 seasons (although the Indians are trying to have their say on the matter across the street). It was emotional for everyone in the building, and particularly the hometown boy LeBron.

Check out the full ring ceremony.

Best foot forward: 76ers’ Embiid set for long-awaited debut

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, of Spain, during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) With a dunk contest, half court shots and “Juju on that Beat ” dancing contest finished, Joel Embiid turned back toward Philadelphia 76ers fans at an open practice.

Instead of scurrying off to the locker room, Embiid stuck around for selfies with fans sitting on all sides of the court, stretching mobiles high over his 7-foot-2 frame to squeeze as many fans as he could into each snapshot .

Embiid even entertained in 1-on-1 games – against little kids.

Embiid has the joyous personality of a kid himself. Social media posts include him crushing on Rihanna or teasing an Australian-born teammate that he’ll get deported if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. The 76ers posted a Vine last season of Embiid throwing down a between-the-legs dunk at warmups that blew up NBA-centric Twitter feeds and offered fans a fleeting look at the potential ahead.

“Philadelphia’s going to love him,” coach Brett Brown said.

The city has waited 29 months to love the 22-year-old Embiid for his impact on the court.

The Sixers have stripped the bubble wrap off Embiid and the No. 3 overall pick of the 2014 draft is set to make his debut Wednesday night against Oklahoma City after two foot surgeries, countless days of rehab, gallons of Shirley Temples and inherited expectations that he is the savior for a woebegone franchise that has made a farce of competitive basketball.

Embiid, who grew up playing soccer and volleyball and didn’t play basketball until 2011, is no longer the raw project out of Kansas. He’s grown 3 inches and beefed up to about 275 pounds to better handle the daily grind of battling the NBA’s biggest big men.

“Where I was three years ago, I’m not even close to what I am right now,” Embiid said. “My game has gotten so much better. The past three years, if you watch the game tape, I’m not the same guy.”

Embiid had a fantastic freshman season with the Jayhawks, averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds. He blocked 72 shots to earn Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.

He might have been the No. 1 overall pick in `14 – a spot that went to Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins – had he had not suffered from a balky back and needed surgery for a stress fracture in his right foot shortly before the draft. Embiid, who knew only his native Cameroon before college, failed to really adjust to life without daily organized basketball. His weight ballooned, and he was booted from a road trip because of a petulant attitude. Part of his weight gain was blamed on a junk food diet washed down with that mix of ginger ale and a splash of grenadine garnished with a maraschino cherry commonly known as a Shirley Temple .

His personal life was rocked in October 2014 when his 13-year-old brother Arthur died in a car crash in Africa.

“It’s been really hard,” Embiid said.

Embiid was expected to anchor the rebuild in 2015 for a Sixers organization that had scorched their roster and abandoned a competitive season in hopes of gobbling lottery picks. But a second surgery of the navicular bone on the right foot in August 2015 cost him his sophomore season.

Embiid was devastated but handled his time off with greater seriousness in his workouts and a mission to return as a dominant center. The 76ers even shipped Embiid to a sports science facility and sports medicine hospital in Qatar to rehab.

“When I left college, I felt I wasn’t ready for NBA life,” Embiid said. “But since I’ve been in the league, the support I’ve had around me from (former president) Sam Hinkie, the coaching staff, they’ve just been on me. That’s what I usually need. When somebody’s on me, I can usually do better.”

The Sixers played it safe this year and held Embiid out of summer league. Brown, in his fourth season, entered training camp with a cautious plan to limit Embiid’s minutes and games when the schedule is packed.

Embiid, well, he left his training wheels in the dust.

He averaged 11.6 points over all seven preseason games. Embiid played 20 minutes a game as the preseason ended and Brown said he would consider playing his starting center more often. Brown would ideally lessen Embiid’s load early and help him avoid the same fate of other centers who had careers curtailed by foot injuries, like Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

In the preseason, Embiid flashed some wow moments that had his teammates hooting and hollering on the bench. But Embiid sometimes tried too hard to be the showstopper and was a turnover machine.

“At times, he just reminds me of a yearling, trying to find his balance,” Brown said. “He wants to score. He wants to dominate. How about the passion he plays with? You can’t coach that. And he has `it.”‘

So who plays with him? The Sixers have had more key players out with injuries under Brown than they have had competing for playing time.

Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick this year, is sidelined indefinitely with a broken bone in his right foot. Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in the `13 draft, is out at least a month after surgery on his left knee. Starting point guard Jerryd Bayless is sidelined with a ligament injury in his left wrist. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia’s leading scorer and rebounder, is restricted as he recovers from surgery on his left knee.

The Sixers went 10-72 last season and have won 27 games in Embiid’s two seasons on the bench.

“Having to sit on the bench and watch us lose almost every night has been hard,” Embiid said.

Embiid took note of the hype that happened across the street during one of his visits to the Philadelphia Eagles sideline. Carson Wentz went from unknown rookie to whipping fans into a “Wentzamania” frenzy with his quick start.

“I think it’s our turn,” Embiid said.