It hasn’t taken the NBA long to pull itself up out the debris of a long and controversial lockout, and thrust itself back into North America’s sporting front pages with some big off-court moves. Already, the abbreviated 2011 off-season (because lockout time is not officially off-season time) has provided basketball geeks with some truly fascinating conversation fodder.
Chris Paul has been at the centre of the league’s latest controversy, not through any fault of his own, any wrong doing or misguided actions, but simply because he is a super star with a soon-to-be-expired contract, and the small market New Orleans Hornets want to get something out of his inevitable departure from the Big Easy.
Briefly, a blockbuster swap looked like a sure thing; Chris Paul would head West to join Kobe in Los Angeles, for which the Hornets would receive celebrity husband Lamar Odom from the Lakers, as well as sharp-shooter Kevin Martin and enormously underrated Argentinian big man Luis Scola from the Houston Rockets, who would get Pau Gasol from L.A.. Understood?
The amount of All-Star calibre talent involved in the deal had NBA insiders wringing their hands with delight, only to have their dreams of drawn-out analysis dashed by commissioner David Stern.
Officially nixed for “basketball reasons” (the league does, after all, own the New Orleans Hornets), there are some who suspect the trade was halted by Stern’s caving to pressure from franchise owners around the league, who were unhappy to see yet another superstar tandem taking shape.
After being briefly resubmitted to the league, the trade was killed a second time, and Chris Paul has started practising with the Hornets in Louisiana.
Despite the drama surrounding the Paul trade, CP3 isn’t the only future free agent grabbing headlines this December. Dwight Howard, who, like Paul, will be unrestricted at the end of this season, has officially asked the Magic for a trade out of Orlando, and talks are already underway with the New Jersey Nets, the Dallas Mavericks, and the refocused Lakers. With both Dwight and Chris likely to be traded before long, the 2012 crop of free agents are providing high intrigue a full year before their contracts actually expire.
But while next year’s free agents are attracting most of the attention this off-season, several of this year’s free agents have already been involved in some interesting moves.
Caron Butler went first, leaving the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks for the dunk factory that is the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s a good move for Butler, signing for three years with a squad that may soon be contenders for the title, particularly if they can grab Chris Paul.
The Clippers, meanwhile, get not only a top-tier two guard, but a gritty, hard-working veteran influence on an upstart squad. Even the Mavs can’t be too disappointed. They won their title with Butler sitting injured on the sidelines, and have since grabbed Lamar Odom from the Lakers at a bargain basement price.
Tyson Chandler also looks to be leaving Dallas for different, if not necessarily greener, pastures. After playing a vital role in the Mavericks’ run to the championship, he’s decided to take his voracious rebounding, his shot-blocking, and his ability to catch stratospheric lobs to the Big Apple. Once again, he’s the sort of player who can really provide the intangibles needed to shape a group of individuals into a team.
He’ll do the low-post dirty work for Amar’e, set big, nasty screens for Carmelo, and descend from the rafters to throw down the occasional Chauncey Billups alley, all the while managing to intimidate opposition scorers in the paint. He transformed the lax defensive culture in Dallas, and may be just what’s needed to cure the feeling of aimlessness pervading the Knicks’ uber-talented roster.
Meanwhile, Shane Battier has declared that he will sign with the Miami Heat. Well known as a lock down defender and more than capable of knocking down the open three (especially from his office in the corner), he’s another guy who brings a hard-working attitude to practice, and real leadership to the locker room. Not a highlight reel player, but he may be exactly what the Heat were lacking to push them that quarter inch they need to the title.
Besides the big-news signings of the three valuable glue guys mentioned above, most of the dealings to date have been relatively minor; the Spurs grabbed TJ Ford to back up Tony Parker, Shannon Brown joined the Suns (which will surely produce some dazzling highlights) along with Sebastian Telfair, T-Mac signed with the Hawks, continuing his descent into the footnotes of the NBA’s history books, and a trio of Denver Nuggets (Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and J.R. Smith) are all headed to China for a season, to the bewilderment of just about everyone.
A lot of players also look like they’re going to stay put. Tayshaun Prince seems to have decided to wind down his career in Detroit, signing a four year deal with the Pistons. Mario Chalmers and James Jones both re-upped with the Heat, ready to take another crack at the title.
Grant Hill re-signed with Phoenix, despite interest from several different teams. And Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia’s long, explosive, potential-drenched small forward signed a big contract with the Sixers, ensuring his place in their on-going rebuild.
And there are still some big names left lingering in free agent limbo. Singularly named Brazilian big man Nene has yet to decide where he wants to play this coming season, and his availability has attracted the attention of many for his defensive ability and good hands around the basket.
Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan are also both widely coveted big men, but are restricted free agents, and will almost certainly be re-signed by the Grizzlies and the Clippers, respectively. Jamal Crawford, meanwhile, who is a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate and all-round smooth operator on the court, would be a welcome addition to any squad in need of an offensive boost from the guard position.
Finally, in sad news that has already been somewhat swept under the rug, Brandon Roy has announced that he will retire from the NBA at the age of only 27. Former Rookie of the Year and 3-time All-Star, Roy was instrumental in re-energizing the Portland Trailblazers organization. Blessed with an effortless jumper from anywhere on the floor, a smooth and elusive handle, and a natural ability to lead by example, his only flaw was a painful lack of cartilage in his knees, a degenerative condition that has stopped him more finally than any NBA defender could manage. B-Roy, you will be missed!
So while this year’s off-season has been significantly shortened in the rush to get games started, there has been no shortage of drama and intrigue. Players are being shifted like trading cards as everyone looks for that perfect fit, that missing piece to the puzzle that is a twelve man opening night roster, the one guy who will push a team from mediocrity to legitimacy, from upstarts to contenders, and, eventually, to that summit of the basketball world, the NBA championship, with or without an asterisk.