But first, when did "bad fit" become a good excuse?
It's the Players, Stupid
Carmelo Anthony still may get traded, sooner or later. Yet some of the multi-team scenarios we heard about a few weeks back are looking like ancient history at this point. Would the Nets, who have seen their supposedly raw, years-away rookie Derrick Favors prove himself capable of double-doubles in limited minutes, really want to sacrifice that future for Melo's offense firepower? A lesser known cog in this trade machine fantasy is the Blazers' Nicolas Batum. As of now, according to Ken Berger, the Blazers aren't parting ways with the versatile, affordable 21-year-old with promise galore unless they get Anthony. Anthony on Portland is worth about an hour of good laughs, so let's pause here.
Why am I still drooling out of the side of my face? Well, unless, the Blazers decided to go the Miami route -- tearing up the blueprint that they've clutched onto through several years worth of stormy weather -- a pair of super-wings isn't exactly the Nate McMillan, or Rose City, way of doing things. And, at the risk of making someone angry, Anthony's celebrity and phantom thug-status might not jive with that organization's clean-cut image. Don't get me wrong, I think dude is charming as all get-out, and a perfectly upstanding adult. But that's a sports city hypersensitive to past transgressions, even those of image, and an organization that's full aware of this.
Carmelo Anthony just isn't a good fit for the style, culture, or long-term goals of Portland. Just like when the team had a shot at Amar'e Stoudemire a few seasons back. He might not be for New Jersey, either. Strangely, though, Nicolas Batum -- a far less exalted player -- might be in a similar position.
The Blazers are too smart to readily cut ties with Batum, who is something of a Frenchman's Kevin Durant (maybe there's poetic justice after all). Yet as Berger points out, because of what Portland's out to do on the court, Batum's hypothetical value to Portland, and the price he could command from another team, might not sync up with what he'll be allowed to do on the court. Or, more accurately, what Nate McMillan allows him to do. As Berger writes, "Batum is not only affordable – he's still on his rookie contract – but his value is much greater to faster-paced teams. With their grind-it-out style, the Blazers understand that they don't take full advantage of Batum's open-court abilities".
To be fair, so far, the youngster is having a productive season. He's starting games, getting solid minutes despite the team's deep rotation, and exploded for 19 points and 11 boards in the Blazers' first outing. Still, if you've seen Batum in international competitions, scrimmages, or other more free-flowing situations, you can see what Berger is talking about: the lanky small forward is a lockdown defender who can shoot, handle and pass like a guard, rebound, and make plays like crazy. He was born to play in ... well, any system but Nate McMillan's death slog. Put on a more up-tempo team, Batum wouldn't just be a defensive standout, or a youngster coming into his own. He would be a star.
Am I being over-optimistic here? Does McMillan know much, much more than me about how to win basketball games? Duh, and double-duh. Still, it strikes me as strange that there's not some middle ground. With a player like Batum available, can't the Blazers bend a little bit to admit more of what he does well as an integral part of this team? I would take Batum over LaMarcus Aldridge any day, and yet Aldridge is part of the plan, and fits the template. So the Blazers soldier on, and Batum is a nice accessory who seems doomed to move on.
Call me crazy, but that doesn't seem like the best way to jump-start a would-be dynasty. (BS)
Mike Conley's Contract Week
I have no clue whatsoever how Michael Heisley became a billionaire real estate mogul. On Monday, after a week of negotiation, he agreed to pay Mike Conley $45 million over the next five years. All I know about real estate comes from Monopoly, so pardon my reach. But this is the equivalent of paying $10,000 for Reading Railroad when you've only got one other railroad in hand. It's unnecessary and it makes no sense.
I have no question that when the Grizzlies announce the deal, Heisley's statement will mention something about "an improving young player." BUZZER SOUND.
This is not a skyrocketing young cat ready to burst out all over the league. Conley has tread water for three years, with slight improvements in some areas met with devolution in others. His production is not getting much better at all. And the worst part is that his production is pretty darn bad.
Among the 55 NBA guards who played at least 2,000 minutes last season, Conley ranked 39th in PER and 44th in per-minute Win Shares. Despite having a low usage among that set (18.4 percent, 38th) he was among the less efficient half (108 offensive rating, 32nd). He is, for better or worse, most similar to Hawks guard Mike Bibby, who like Conley is his team's worst starter. The difference? Bibby is on his way out, and the Hawks have mitigated the damaged with Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson, who can handle Bibby's spot between them. The Grizzlies are embracing Conley's suck, handing him $45 million.
Conley has tools -- he's lightning quick, and has quick hands and a decent stroke -- but the execution is all wrong. Did he suddenly figure it out, and only Heisley and the Grizzlies' front office know this? Given that Heisley and Conley's agent/father Mike Conley Sr. (aka the greatest agent in the history of the NBA) only began negotiating a week ago, I would say that the chances the team has learned something magnificent about its point guard to be slim. Unless ... did Conley perform like a beast this week?
Well, there you go: In Memphis' first three games of the season, Conley has substantially outpaced his career numbers in most categories, and the Grizzlies are 2-1. As TBJ's Tas Melas tweeted Tuesday morning, Conley has just invented the "contract week." Given Heisley's NBA track record, we can't rule out that the team owner paid attention to Conley's performance this week, was wowed, and cut that check. It's inane and inexcusable, but totally and completely plausible. So go the Grizzlies, spending huge money for lackluster assets. (TZ)
Tilting at Windmill Dunks
The Hawks managed to sew up Al Horford for less than the maximum; given what agent Arn Tellem convinced Atlanta to pay Joe Johnson for the next six years, this Horford signing should be considered a major team victory. On the open market, Horford, an All-Star and elite defender, would command plenty of attention, and I have no doubt Tellem could have convinced a team with cap space to go max with Horford, forcing Atlanta to match.
Of course, the potential NBA lockout presents the question: What will the new max be? Alas, Horford is probably better off settling for $60 million now than risk meeting a max five-year deal around $40 million, should owners have their way with the players' union. On the flip side, committing a large sum of money to another player puts the Hawks behind the eight-ball.
ESPN's Chad Ford notes that by locking up Horford, the Hawks have put their payroll perilously close to that of the supposed luxury tax threshold going forward. That's actually exaggerated in one sense -- Horford's deal likely starts at $10 million in 2011-12, going up to $14 million in 2015-16. This year's luxury tax is set at $70.3 million; with Horford and Joe Johnson, Atlanta has $63 million tied up in 2011-12.
That leaves more than breathing room -- you can do things with $7 million, even if the NBA eliminates the mid-level exception.
Ford's more important red herring is the whole "The Hawks have to trade Josh Smith now" bit. It's malarkey. Ford argues that because the Hawks don't have the space under the tax to re-sign Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford next summer, they'll have to trade one of their expensive core players, like Smith or Marvin Williams. Since Williams' value isn't too great, Ford suggests Smith will be back on the market.
Here's a much more sane (and by my count far more likely) solution: don't re-sign Jamal Crawford! The guard was fantastic for Atlanta last season, and he figures to help the team greatly this season. But you don't trade Josh Smith so that you can pay a premium for Jamal Crawford. What Ford suggests would make Isiah Thomas blush. It's that bad.
The Hawks knew that upon paying Johnson all that money, things would get tight. The team knew Horford wouldn't come cheap, and that sewing up the core would make keeping Crawford difficult. I mean, it's no surprise the Hawks have barely talked extension with Crawford. He's clearly lower on the totem pole than Johnson and Horford. I would imagine that also places him below Smith, quite possibly the best player on the team.
Furthermore, the Hawks have a scoring-minded Jeff Teague developing at the teat of Mike Bibby, and drafted Jordan Crawford, a potential scoring fireball, to help round out the bench. Atlanta is prepared for the post-Jamal world. There is nothing about their situation that screams desperation.
In three years, when Johnson is 32 years old and making $20 million, things will be different. Things will be worse. Things will be bad. But for now? With Smith locked up, Horford locked up, Johnson and Williams ready to go? Everything is peachy in Atlanta. Relax, y'all. (TZ)
No Extension, No Problem
Conley. Horford. Jared Dudley. Players who pull off extensions without having to once take a crack at free agency (especially the restricted kind) are gods for a day. They're like tweens who get pass second base, or political novices who unseat longstanding incumbents. In some cases -- Mike Conley, I'm talking to you -- it's the kind of bold, brave achievement that should give us all pause. Nevada voters, I'm looking at you.
Sometimes, though, it's not in a fourth-year's best interest to ink a new deal at this point in his career. That would be the player who is not only getting better (teams still can't resist paying for potential), but has a good chance of far exceeding all expectations this season. Denver's Arron Afflalo is one such pro. On a topsy-turvy Nuggets team, Afflalo was a preseason favorite for a breakout. Through the season's first three games, he's gotten over 30 minutes a night, but has seen his touches vary dramatically. Still, Afflalo has found ways to contribute on the boards and defense.
Afflalo told FanHouse that he was "fine" with the situation, and would "put [his] best foot forward this year." And why wouldn't he be? Afflalo has shown that, under the right circumstances, he can be an effective scorer, defensive factor, and solid glue guy. To the front office, he's promising, but unproven, and not astronomically so like perennial Nugget J.R. Smith. Afflalo knows he has value; Denver would prefer to wait until this summer to assess his value. He's not interested in an offer that doesn't take into account what's about to happen. The Nuggets don't want to pay for what's about to happen if it's not going to come true.
Afflalo is similar well-served by this summer's restricted free agency, an institution so icky that it comes dangerously close to the reserve clause of yore. Forget for a second that he has said he would like to remain in Denver; everyone says that. Restricted free agency favors someone like Afflalo, who could benefit immensely from a bidding war so short that no one really knows what hit them. With a good season, Afflalo can capture the imagination of some team or other, whether it's the Nuggets or someone else. There will be a solid offer -- assuming, of course, that he earns it this year -- and A.A. will get paid.
Unrestricted free agency is the free market at its most loose and wild. The far more regimented, compact version of it, which will decide Afflalo's financial future this summer, can cause problems for players looking for a big payday. On the other hand, with someone like Afflalo -- who is looking to up his pay from bench guy to starter -- it's a process that favors some GM saying, simply, "Afflalo? Sure, let's pay him. He's good." After that, no back and forth, no bidder's remorse, no room for revision. Sometimes, "let's get this over with" can favor the sneaky, if attractive, player like Afflalo.
Worth noting, too, that we're talking about a player's contract future unfolding in the shadow of a potential lockout. Not that Afflalo has any choice; the Nuggets aren't offering money this season. And again, everyone acts upbeat when asked about not getting extended. But let's face it, if the lockout really were going to destroy the universe, at least with the certainty everyone's anticipating, then Afflalo might be running for cover. He's not. Much of what we think about extensions and free agencies applies to players who have established themselves, or are otherwise indispensable. Arron Afflalo is the perfect example of someone for whom the system, broken as it is, may end up working out for the best. (BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.