The Works: Another Curse of Greg Oden; Joakim Noah's Perils
But first, Greg Oden lives again and dies again, all at once.
The Doused Phoenix
The legend of Greg Oden continues to ... well, something. You could say "grow," but in the macro sense, that's simply not true, for, at this pace, in 50 years precious few will be eager to discuss Oden's legacy. "Twist" or "develop in odd, gourd-like ways" are probably better suited verbs in this case.
This case: Oden has stopped drinking and partying (good) and has patellar tendinitis, can't practice and won't be ready for the start of the season (bad, bad, bad). Ace Oregonian beat man Jason Quick got the story of Oden's turn for the mundane, which actually happened 10 months ago and isn't actually a complete rejection of alcohol or fun. Oden just realized his reputation preceded him, and that it'd probably be best for his image and body to stop partying so hard. And so he instituted a limit on his club attendance. Good for him.
He has also, with the help of his mom, learned to accept that Kevin Durant is better than him, despite Oden going No. 1 over KD in the '07 draft. That's got to be difficult; I wonder, in all seriousness, if KD winning an MVP -- showing superiority over not just Oden but Kobe, LeBron, Dwight and everyone -- would help Greg's internal healing process.
It's the knee that takes center stage, though, and it's not pretty. The team says Oden now has jumper's knee, which could require regular rest once the knee itself is ready for regular practice. That time is not now: Oden won't be on the floor for the start of training camp today, and he said he won't be ready for the season opener on Oct. 26. That is a huge blow to the title (Western Conference or otherwise) prospects of the Blazers, precisely because while Oden has been a massive disappointment due to injuries, when he's on the court he's everything we thought he'd be: a game-changing beast.
Below, I talk about '11 free agents and the massive uncertainty surrounding them. Oden stands out as by far the most interesting case to watch. There's less than zero chance the Blazers and Oden agree to an early extension by the end of this month, setting the former No. 1 pick on a clear path to restricted free agency in '11. He holds within that cursed body more potential than any big man in the league. Blake Griffin? DeMarcus Cousins? Derrick Favors? No, no, no. Oden's ceiling is higher in every case.
But his floor is through the basement, past the water table, halfway to the bottom of the sea. His floor is already realized: broken, angry and invisible on the court. That -- this -- is the worst case scenario. And since we've seen it (for going on a fourth consecutive season now), it's more real. The truth is that this is the floor for all promising players. Even the greatest can be derailed. But when we know what a failed Oden looks like, it's just so much easier to see that becoming his legacy.
That's what Oden has to overcome in the next year: prove to the Blazers or some other team he's not a failure, that he can and will overcome this, that this version of him won't be what people remember in 50 years. KD may have the lead in terms of success, but Oden's story is the one that resonates and provides constant fodder for our hearts. (TZ)
Be Careful What You Push For
Joakim Noah and the Bulls have four weeks to find each other in the middle. Noah is negotiating an early extension with the Bulls; in fact, these negotiations were the reason Noah skipped playing for the French national team at the FIBA World Championship. The only other '07 first-round draftee to sign an early extension so far was Kevin Durant, who did so quickly and quietly, as almost all sure-bet max players do. Noah, Al Horford and Jeff Green might end up as the only players of their class to settle business this summer instead of reaching restricted free agency a year from now.
A year from now, that is, assuming the league and union find a labor solution, something no one assumes. That's why this last month of negotiating is fraught with such peril for Noah and the Bulls, because no one knows what the league will look like the next time the parties can negotiate.
Remember when FanHouse's Sam Amick laid out what the owners would be looking to institute in collective bargaining in 2011? A hard cap below the current cap level that would require teams to cut players at discounts to shrink payroll down to the threshold, in the process crushing new player salaries. Whether that will happen (and how long a lockout it would take to get players to accede to it) remains to be seen. But that's what the owners want: a smaller, harder cap.
Of course, that adds danger to Noah's demands -- everyone knows the time to get that paper is now. In 12 months, it might not be there. But here's the danger from the team side: if there's a hard cap less than the current soft cap level, and Noah is a free agent, how in the world will the Bulls be able to sign him?
The labor strife to come and sure-bet lockout means trouble for everyone involved, not just the players who stand to lose millions. We view a lockout in the macro sense: teams will make money in the long-run, and tamp down player salaries, and even have zero payroll for a few months while things get sorted out. But everything is local, and every team will certainly have differing outcomes.
Back when Amick laid out the owners' vision, he noted that the Heat could be forced to toss one of its three All-Stars over the side of the boat. The same could go for the Lakers, whose top three players by salary (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum) are on the books for a combined $58.8 million in the post-CBA 2011-12 season. The Spurs, who have upwards of $55 million on the book for '11-12, could be forced to watch Tony Parker skate off. As the Bulls potentially become cuffed regarding Noah, so could the Hawks ($50M in '11-12 salary) with Horford.
The Blazers are in a weird spot with Oden, as explained above. The team has $58 million locked up in '11-12. How tragic would it be if Oden finally gets things right, makes a huge impact on the floor, and has to walk away because the Blazers can't sign him under new cap rules? All that patience, unrewarded.
The weird thing is that it seems few teams are actually making plans or decisions based on the prospect of a markedly different environment. With the potential for so many free agents to be suddenly available, few teams -- even bad teams -- have made a conscious effort to maximize flexibility and cap space.
For the top contenders, that's understandable. And maybe it's just too hard to prepare for the unknown. There's a reason Costco sells earthquake kits instead of leaving it to people to create their own. I just get the feeling all 30 teams are preparing for the 2010-11 season, even though the result of said season seems like a foregone conclusion, and with little to no regard for the seasons in which they might actually have a chance. (TZ)
The Works Season Previews: Minnesota Timberwolves
Nobody has the entire National Basketball Association at his fingertips, and believe it or not, the brains of Msr. Ziller and Msr. Shoals are not connected by tape and electrical wire. To get prepped -- and pumped -- for the upcoming season, we will interrogate each about the darkest corners of this league. For each team, some questions. And for each question, some answers. Right now, the Wolves.
TZ: Have the Wolves improved at all over last season's 15-win team?
BS: All Kahn cracks aside, yes, the team is better. Kevin Love is T-Wolves' star-in-the-making, and the only one who might play in the triangle with dramatic results. With Al Jefferson gone, the world is his. Corey Brewer came into his own on offense, which bodes well for a team lacking in any real threatening presence. The team, however comically, is now two deep at every position with, in many cases, young players who have yet to reach their potential. Even someone like Martell Webster, who has been given starting opportunities (when healthy) since 2005, is being given fresh pastures that could give him a chance to break out. At this point, Kahn seems to have filled up each position with multiple, roughly equivalent players. But when no one's special, everybody has a chance to be a star. And the dissonance between Rambis' plan and what his players can do needs to budge somewhere, either by getting more adaptive, or really breaking in maladjusted soldiers like Jonny Flynn.
TZ: After failing in Miami's star-led, all-business environment, will Michael Beasley succeed in Minnesota's chaotic, seemingly rudderless atmosphere?
BS: No one, not even B-Eeeezy, knows if he will succeed. As stated above, the Wild West-like environment of the Wolves gives the former number two overall pick room to make his name. Actually, make that Wild West inside a hall of mirrors, since Beasley needs to prove himself double to get the star's minutes that a truly redemptive story would require. Can he be a role player on a team lacking in competitive gusto? It depends on what that means. Beasley can probably keep his head down and keep from having a negative impact on the Wolves. He can try just hard enough to keep from being a total sieve on defense.
To actually succeed in such a setting, though, a retread need to lift up himself to heights unimagined, and maybe even help the team get better. Given what we have seen from Beasley thus far, this just doesn't seem that likely. It's a lot like Darko, come to think of it. The lack of pressure, and new beginning backdrop, give him room to breathe, and play moderately useful ball. Should we be wowed by the fact that, with nothing on the line, a player once slated for greatness can avoid embarrassing himself? Probably not. Beasley needs to either be a classic "dynamic player on terrible team", which in his case would be considered a step forward, not backward, or somehow take advantage of all the self-help he's no doubt been consuming and excel in rebounding and help defense. Battier sees the future; Beasley's scrambled brain might see into other dimensions.
TZ: Who matters more to the future of the franchise: Ricky Rubio or David Kahn?
BS: Boy, did you step in it. David Kahn has the keys to the team these days, and he's not afraid to show it. Whether you love or hate him, that makes him like a lightweight dictator. He can destroy this team for the foreseeable future, and barring a coup, there's nothing you can do about it. Rubio, though, belongs to the Wolves, and is a major figure in international ball. Even if Minny somehow goes deep into the playoffs, fans will be left thinking "imagine that run with Ricky on the cover."
We learned in Portland and Phoenix, among other places, that owners will never allow GMs to steal their thunder. Unfortunately, it's a fact of sports that no executive can ever overshadow a franchise player. The mere promise of Rubio hangs over this team like the Eye of Mordor, or Jesus surveying Rio -- no matter how high files, how richly his fate is intertwined with Rubio's, or how many times we speak his name, that it's a mere sideshow. Around the league, Kahn is a subject for ridicule. If he does adequately, he will vanish. Rubio, however, persists through good and bad, rain and sleet -- even he stays away for years and becomes a shifty memory.