The Inbounds: Free Agency and the Magical Musical Chairs

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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.

Report: Kawhi Leonard and Spurs must repair ‘broken’ relationship before San Antonio offers super-max extension

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The Spurs can offer Kawhi Leonard a super-max contract extension – which projects to be worth $219 million over five years – this offseason.

Will they?

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

The relationship between Kawhi Leonard is broken, and it’s got to be put back together again before the Spurs are going to make that kind of commitment to a player. And that’s going to take a lot of talking, communication and some comprise here in the next few months before the Spurs can make that offer. But the idea that an organization like the Spurs are going to just blindly walk in and give the biggest contract in franchise history to a player who has behaved the last few months like he doesn’t want to be a part of them, it’s not going to happen that way. So, there’s a lot of repairing that’s going to be done before they even make that offer, I believe.

Leonard will reportedly meet with San Antonio for an exit interview, and that’s the next big step toward mending fences.

Remember, LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade last summer. Then, he and Gregg Popovich talked and got on the same page. Aldridge just had an excellent season for the Spurs. Handling unhappy players is part of the job. When they’re as good as Aldridge and Leonard, it’s worth making the effort to find common ground.

If San Antonio finds enough with Leonard to offer him the super-max extension, the next question becomes: Will he sign it? He might prefer to move on.

But nobody is that far. The big benchmark in this process is the Spurs offering or not offering the super-max extension. They must determine whether or not they will.

Report: Heat to explore Hassan Whiteside trade options

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Is there much demand for Hassan Whiteside around the NBA marketplace?

The pro-Whiteside camp can point to some raw numbers: He averaged 14 points and 11.4 rebounds a game this season (and 17 and 14 a season ago), he shot 54 percent from the floor, and had a PER of 24.1.

However, his shortcomings were on full display in the playoffs. In the first two games, when Philadelphia played small, Whiteside didn’t have a place on the court and saw limited minutes. When Joel Embiid returned things got worse — in the three games matched up against Embiid, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Whiteside played just 10 minutes in Game 5, where he was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. All through the series, Whiteside complained about his lack of minutes.

Whiteside and Erik Spoelstra are not on the same page, and the Heat would like to move him in a trade… but good luck with that. From Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

The Heat is expected to explore a Whiteside trade, with the center due $24.4 million and $27.1 million in the final two years of his contract.

In a tight financial market, the Heat are going to struggle to find a team with the space (or willing to create the space) to take on $51.5 million over two seasons. Even if they do, the Heat are going to have to attach sweeteners — multiple first round picks, or a pick and young players that interest teams (Kelly Olynyk or Bam Adebayo, for example). It’s going to be a lot to give up to get out of that contract. Maybe in the summer of 2019, when the market loosens up and Whiteside is an expiring contract, they more easily can find a deal. This summer it would be difficult.

But expect the Heat (and Whiteside’s agent) to look for a trade. It’s time to part ways, it just may not be that simple to do.

PBT Podcast: What went wrong and what’s next for Trail Blazers?

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It was embarrassing, and left both fans and players of the Trail Blazers angry and frustrated — Portland was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans.

Now what happens in Portland? Is Terry Stotts in danger as the coach? What about GM Neil Olshey? Would they consider trading C.J. McCollum? Is there any way to offload the contract of Evan Turner?

Kurt Helin and the Northeast’s own Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest podcast, and Blazers fans may not like the answers. The pair also touch on other series around the league, like do the Pelicans have a shot against the Warriors? And, as required by NBA law, they touch on the Sixers run.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”