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Not all big-name free agents worth max
In an effort to develop a more fulfilling persona, Homer Simpson — inspired, ironically, by the setting on a hair dryer — once declared that he would start barging through life known as Max Power.
LeBron James is one of many free agents making important decisions.
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But agents and max power will be in abundance later this week when the NBA officially kicks off the LeBron James Stimulus Plan Season. During this particular holiday run, LeBron and his team (I don't mean the Cleveland Cavaliers here) will exercise max-contract power as the lead domino for the most anticipated free-agent market in league history.
And while the rest of us sit back and chew on the spectacle, it will be interesting to find out how many players are granted maximum deals. For the record, players receiving the max from their existing teams are bestowed $125 million over six years; getting max bounty from another franchise limits the remuneration to a tidy $97 million over five.
Anyway, a few teams have spent considerable time and effort tossing contracts overboard for the opportunity to woo the names on an impressive list of free agents. What we're attempting to determine is just how many of these candidates actually are worth the loot.
Well, that depends on how we define worth. For example, is a player simply worth what the market coughs up? Should value be underscored by each player's perceived ability to drag his team into championship contention? Is past acquisition of the O'Brien Trophy a requirement? Can a max contract be validated if a player merely resurrects a team's success during the regular season? Is attendance a factor? In these max cases, do we concern ourselves with the length of a player's contract?
The answer to all of these questions is ... yes ... depending on which player we're examining.
We'll begin with James, who will celebrate (we presume) his 26th birthday this year and has steered the Cavaliers to the NBA's best regular-season record the past two seasons. LeBron was voted the Most Valuable Player after each of those campaigns and has presided over the on-court improvements of a franchise that reportedly has more than doubled in value since he joined up shortly after his high school graduation.
LeBron plays well with others, guards the guy he's assigned to with an increased conviction and does most of his basketball work in spectacular fashion. He has been to the Finals once (and lost), but has failed to keep the Cavs from seemingly premature playoff dismissal the past two seasons.
Does he have max power? You bet your sweet marketing machine he does ... for the Cavaliers and everyone else in the league. Does his signing guarantee championships? Not so far. That's what makes spending other people’s money so enjoyable.
Up next is Dwyane Wade, a one-time NBA Finals MVP and a likely candidate to be given $125 million for remaining an employee of the Miami Heat. Even though he has had injury issues and been unable to nudge Michael Beasley closer toward stardom — can that really be his fault, though? — Wade seems worthy of max-contract power. As he’s extremely popular with the highly regarded of his peers, rehiring the 28-year-old D-Wade is expected to generate considerable interest from other top-tier free agents in taking some of the cap bonanza Miami generated by gutting its roster.
If Wade decides to shock the basketball world and become a New York Knick, there's a strong chance a big-name baseline operator would join him. If free agency puts Wade back in sweet home Chicago, the Bulls would have Derrick Rose, Luol Deng (still an asset in rumored trade talks), Joakim Noah and enough cap space left for another talented free-agent playmate. Goodbye, early spring fishing trip.
After Wade and James, who reportedly is far closer to becoming a Bull than the Heat superstar, this max-power checklist gets tricky.
The next candidate is Toronto Raptors power forward Chris Bosh, a 6-foot-11 lefty with the ability to score inside or step outside for jumpers and drives to the rim. At age 25, Bosh checked in with 24 points (on 52 percent shooting) and 11 rebounds per game.
He did all of this for a team that, despite his gaudy numbers, lost 42 games. OK, Bosh wasn't playing with a superstar cast, but there seemed to be more than enough talent to forge a winning record in a shaky conference, right? It seems reasonable to suggest hiring Bosh as a solo investment may not be enough to elevate your franchise to glory. Put him on the Bulls with Rose, Deng and Noah and Chicago would be pretty stinking good, though.
Another power forward seeking the max is Suns center Amar'e Stoudemire, who turns 28 in November. Determining this dude's true value is no hayride. We'll begin (just like he does) on the offensive side, where Stoudemire's post-January renaissance put him at more than 20 points per game for a team that eventually pushed the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
With coach Alvin Gentry’s prodding, Stoudemire's defense was almost reasonable at times, and the rebounding effort improved. But the Suns and their fans still wonder about his commitment in those areas; they also are concerned about investing big money on a long-term deal for a player with past knee and eye injuries.
Maybe the word “past” is as important as owner Robert Sarver's decision on going all-in on a player who has yet to help lead the Suns into the Finals. But can the fast-paced Suns score enough in the halfcourt without Amar'e keeping would-be help defenders away from their perimeter shooters when Steve Nash looks for him in screen-roll designs?
If Sarver says no to Stoudemire's contract wishes, the Suns may go from pretty good and very entertaining to mediocre and potentially dull. That could cost Sarver at the box office and be a bigger risk than granting max power to Stoudemire for multiple seasons. Going rock bottom for a year or two and starting anew doesn't always lead to champagne and parades. Any rebuilding potential might be easier to assess if the Suns had a general manager in place.
The Suns thought they couldn't afford to keep Amar'e Stoudemire. Now can they afford to lose him?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE
So what about Miami, New York or New Jersey — all among Stoudemire's alleged potential destinations? Is he merely a pretty good player who has benefited from Nash's spoon feeding? Actually, Stoudemire was Rookie of the Year and had a pretty strong second season before Nash returned to play in Phoenix. With Nash in control during the second season of Mike D'Antoni's Seven-Seconds-Or-Less attack, Stoudemire experienced another jump in his third pro season. But so did Nash.
Sure, the system created more stat opportunities for everyone in it. But Stoudemire worked quite hard to become more proficient at making pick-and-pop jumpers and the free throws he earned while diving to the rim for pocket passes from Nash. Playing with Nash certainly helps, but Amar'e is not exactly a toad without him.
Some team just has to assess how Stoudemire's presence can affect other free agents or its existing roster and offer accordingly in terms of money and years.
The free-agent power forward roll call includes Utah Jazz strongman Carlos Boozer (29 in November), who rallied from last summer's attempted Salt Lake City escape and had a strong season (19.5 points and 11.2 rebounds). Teaming with Deron Williams and a few bouncy teammates, Boozer helped Utah win 53 games before getting swept by the Lakers in the Western semis.
At about 6-8, Boozer can be a defensive liability and is hardly elite with the ball in his hands. But he's better than most and works well in coach Jerry Sloan's system. Unfortunately, the Jazz handsomely paid backup power forward Paul Millsap last summer and may be unprepared to offer a deal worth what Carlos might command elsewhere.
Even as a dream-team, package-deal element for one of the cap-space franchises, Boozer doesn't seem worthy of max power. He's probably worth more to Utah and its style of play, but Sloan isn't the guy responsible for cutting checks.
By the way, if Dirk Nowitzki opts out in Dallas, owner Mark Cuban would stun everybody if he didn't go max power on the 7-foot former MVP. Dirk may not be legitimately worth $97 million over five years in another town (depends on the town), but unless Cuban works a sign-and-trade involving James, he's worth the max in Dallas if the Mavericks think it’s important to win 50-plus games.
We can add Atlanta Hawks swingman Joe Johnson to the list of names written in the same paragraph with the words “max contract.” Joe was the most reliable player on a team that won 53 games. He plays pretty good defense and can create his own shot. He also made just 39 percent of those shots in 11 playoff games (it was way worse during a sweep by the Orlando Magic).
Some team will pay Johnson very well, but a reflexive max offer, following a whiff on someone like James or Wade, would be a big mistake.
Let's finish in Boston, where Paul Pierce, whose 33rd birthday is coming up, should be given max power only if he opts out and returns to a Celtics team that truly believes it's capable of contending for the next couple of years.
Hey, it's not our money.
As the witching hour approaches, we hope you enjoy the NBA free-agency show. We probably won't see anything like it again ... unless LeBron and his buddies sign three-year contracts next month.
They'll probably be names that several teams would love to touch, even if they lose their max power.
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