Free Agency Update – July 30

Here’s an update on all the NBA free agency buzz over the past week, including news and analysis on the latest with Dwight Howard, the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves making moves and all other resigns and trades. Check it out here.

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Free Agency News – July 8

For the latest free agency news and analysis, click here to take you to my newest article via Reup Sports. Today’s post covers Steve Nash leaving for Los Angeles, Ray Allen heading to Miami, the Timberwolves making moves, a whole lot of point guard swapping and all the other major and minor trades and acquisitions of the past few days.

 

Epic Night in OKC

Despite a monumental effort from Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder outlasted the Minnesota Timberwolves in double overtime with a whopping final score of 149-140. Love finished with 51 points and 14 rebounds, but Wesbrook finished with 45 and Durant had 17 rebounds and 40 points of his own, including a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left that sent the game to double overtime. Durant had put the Thunder up by three with 3.9 seconds left in regulation, but Love hit a three of his own with 1 second left to force overtime. Love had a career-high seven 3-pointers but couldn’t carry the T-Wolves in double overtime as the Thunder never looked back after Westbrook stole the ball and got a three-point play on the first possession.

In addition to all of these impressive stats, James Harden added 25 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists off the bench, including a perfect pass that set up Kevin Durant’s game-tying three in overtime. For the Timberwolves, JJ Barea had a triple double off the bench, finishing with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists.

Love's 51 and Barea's triple double STILL weren't enough for the Timberwolves. Just how good are the Thunder?

The game had a playoff feel despite the fact that only the Thunder look like they will be making the playoffs. The loss was a crushing one for Minnesota, who found a way to compete with the West-leading Thunder despite not having Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic or Michael Beasley. The Timberwolves have been dealing with injury problems since Rubio was declared done for the season with an ACL tear. These injury woes have moved the once uprising T-Wolves out of playoff contention, three and a half games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth spot in the West.

On a night that saw 289 points combined and plenty of highlights, the Thunder got a solid win, not because of their competition, but because of their stars coming up big in the clutch. Love’s 51 gave OKC a challenge, but Durant once again hit big threes when he needed to and Westbrook led the charge right off the bat in double overtime. Harden showed his value as perhaps the best sixth man in the NBA and Nick Collison gave quality minutes off the bench as well. Fisher also came in and contributed, a very positive sign for the postseason. Even though March Madness probably dominated basketball on television last night, this was one game that was a privilege to watch between Love’s 51, Durant and Westbrook putting on a show and a double overtime match that was highly competitive until the end.

Westbrook got a quick steal and three-point play and the Thunder never looked back in double OT

Recent Trends Around the League

Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.

Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.

But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…

The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.

Will Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis be able to coexist?

Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.

The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.

Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.

Gallinari and Nene led the Nuggets to a big overtime win over the Hawks last night

I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.

Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.

Andrew Bynum and Kobe powered the Lakers to a double-overtime victory on the road

Rubio Out For Season With Torn ACL

Minnesota Timberwolves fans just cannot catch a break. Right as the T-Wolves were starting to show promises of making the playoffs and being relevant again, this devastating piece of news hits: Minnesota sensation Ricky Rubio will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee.

Rubio sustained the injury yesterday after a collision with Kobe Bryant in a close loss to the Lakers. The Timberwolves were already playing without superstar Kevin Love, who sat out with back spasms. Love should be back in the lineup tonight, but the loss of Rubio will prevent Minnesota from reaching their full potential this season, and possibly from even making the playoffs. Before the loss to the Lakers, the Timberwolves had won three straight and were one of the hottest teams in the NBA, climbing to the 8th spot in the West. Houston took the spot back with Minnesota’s loss Friday, but and their biggest loss was losing their main facilitator and highlight machine.

Time will tell how Minnesota responds to Rubio’s absence, as Luke Ridnour will have to step up as the main point guard. Look for the Timberwolves to try and trade Beasley for an available, decent point guard before the trade deadline next week. The Timberwolves still have Kevin Love and are still in the playoff picture, but my gut tells me this team won’t be the same without their show-stopping rookie sensation running the offense. Rubio reinvigorated life in Minnesota along with Love but without him in the lineup, the Timberwolves may not be playoff-bound anymore.

Rubio's collision with Kobe will cost Minnesota their promising season

Contender or Pretender?

We’re a little bit past the midway point of the regular season already, so now is a good time to take a look at which teams are contenders and which are just pretenders. We already know that Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami are all definite contenders, but the rest of the league is a little more difficult to make out so far. It’s still early, but here are the picks.

The East

Indiana Pacers – Contender. The Pacers were my sleeper pick at the beginning of the season and they haven’t disappointed so far. They’re currently 3rd in the East and have won their last four games, rebounding from a disappointing five-game losing streak. Indiana has a young core, gained valuable playoff experience last year against the Bulls (in a series that was much closer than its quick 5 game span), and are being led by All-Star seasons from Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. Nobody really pays much attention to them, but they could surprise a few people if they continue to play at a high level.

The Pacers are my sleeper team. Keep them on your radar

Orlando Magic – Pretender. The Magic are having a lot of problems right now, even with Dwight Howard putting up superhuman numbers. Considering that the Magic will try and get all they can for the unhappy Superman as the trade deadline approaches (draft picks might be key here), the Magic aren’t going to be making very much noise this year if he leaves. And what may be even worse for Orlando is if Howard doesn’t leave, as the Magic’s chemistry will continue to suffer with the awkward position that Howard, the team and the entire city of Orlando is in right now.

Superman might be saying goodbye soon

New York Knicks – Contender. The Knicks showed they’re not contenders just yet in a disappointing loss to the Heat, but it’s hard to believe this team won’t develop into a highly competitive playoff team. While I don’t think they have the chemistry to reach the Finals this year, I do believe they can make a decent playoff run and give more competitive teams a run for their money. If Jeremy Lin can keep his turnovers down while making sure Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and JR Smith all get more involved on offense, the Knicks could become a big contender for the next few years.

The revamped Knicks only lack chemistry right now

Boston Celtics – Pretender. I’ve already written about what’s happened to the Celtics, so there are no surprises labeling them as pretenders here. With the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Hawks in the East, I think Boston’s window of opportunity for winning championships is over. The Boston Threeparty is getting too old and Rajon Rondo can’t pick up the scoring load for them. Defense is their best weapon, but it won’t be enough for a substantial playoff run.

Philadelphia 76ers – Pretender. This pick is definitely the riskiest of the bunch, but I don’t think the 76ers have what it takes this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were wrong about this one, but there’s just something about this 76ers team I don’t like. Maybe it’s their current five-game skid. Maybe it’s how different this Philly team is with big man Spencer Hawes sidelined. Or maybe it’s unnecessary and idiotic trick shots like this that suggest the team’s lack of focus. But whatever it is, I don’t believe in the Philadelphia 76ers just yet.

The 76ers are solid. But I'm not a believer yet.

Atlanta Hawks – Contender. I honestly don’t think the Hawks have great chances in the East, but I believe in them more than the Magic, 76ers or Celtics, so I’ve got to put them down as contenders. The absence of Al Horford has really hurt them, but they still have a good record and Josh Smith is putting up great numbers in multiple categories. The Hawks have disappointed fans in the playoffs in the last few years, but I think they have the edge over some of the other teams in the East who are in the playoff running right now.

The Hawks have youth and playoff experience

Cleveland Cavaliers – Pretender. The fact that the Cavs are a part of this discussion at 13-18 shows how set-in-stone the East is already shaping up to be. The Cavs are only 1.5 games behind the Celtics for the 8th spot in the East right now, but even though Boston is not shaping up to be a contender, the Cavs are unlikely candidates to oust them for that final spot this season. Next year looks more promising for the impressive rookie Kyrie Irving, Antawn Jamison and the currently injured Anderson Varejao.

The West

Los Angeles Lakers – Contender. As the season started, the Lakers looked terrible, old and defunct. But then Kobe completely took over the Lakers’ offensive game plan, put the team on his back, and set the wheels in motion for Los Angeles to be tough to beat every time they take the floor. Mike Brown’s defensive coaching fits perfectly with the Lakers because their bench leaves so much to be desired. And now that the Lakers are feeding the ball to their talented big men, they look like a much more complete team. Pau Gasol is having an All-Star season and Andrew Bynum has been putting up fantastic numbers while staying healthy. Derek Fisher needs to contribute more consistently on offense and the Lakers bench is a huge weakness, but Kobe Bryant alone makes the Lakers competitive. Especially in the playoffs.

Kobe still has that will to win that makes the Lakers dangerous

Denver Nuggets – Contender. The Nugets wouldn’t even be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but don’t forget that Denver is a completely different team with Danilo Gallinari and Nene on the floor. Despite the apparent Nuggets’ nosedive recently, they are only a half game back in the standings and will be getting Gallinari back soon. If all goes according to plan, the Nuggets will be peaking when it matters.

Dallas Mavericks – Contender. I was a little torn on this one, but the Mavs should still be seen as contenders for now. Last year, nobody picked Dallas to be a contender at the start of the playoffs, but elevated play from Dirk, Jason Terry and the entire bench showed the world how tough they are to beat when they hit their stride. Even with Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea gone this year, Dirk is starting to pick up his game again and the Mavs are competitive almost every night. If they get hot in the playoffs and get favorable matchups, it’s possible for them to at least reach the Western Conference Finals.

Dirk is starting to play like he wants another championship

Houston Rockets – Pretender. The Rockets have been surprisingly good this season and are currently in the 6th spot in the West. However, I don’t think the Rockets stack up against any of the other contenders with only Luis Scola in the paint. They have fantastic guard play from Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, but other than that, the Rockets lack the necessary depth to make a real playoff run.

Los Angeles Clippers – Contender. The loss of Chauncey Billups is a definite blow and will most likely prevent them from going as far as they might have, but the Clippers are still a force to be reckoned with in the West. Chris Paul has shown the ability to take over late in the game and Blake Griffin’s electrifying play not only produces good numbers, but it also has the ability to ignite the crowd, which could be a definite advantage in the playoffs if they can secure a good seed. The Clippers will need consistent offensive production from Caron Butler and Mo Williams, but they will also need increased production from DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye in the playoffs to be a truly tough team to beat.

Griffin and CP3 are still a formidable force in the West without Billups

Portland Trail Blazers – Pretender. The Blazers are deadly at home, but I don’t think they’ll get enough wins by the end of the season to secure enough home-court advantage for the playoffs when it would matter the most. Portland has an awful road record (5-11), and they’re even starting to drop games at home too (they’ve lost four of their last six at the Rose Garden). And given the age of Portland’s big men behind Aldridge (Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas), if the Trail Blazers have the same unfortunate injury luck they’ve had in the past few years, the bench’s lack of depth may hurt them.

Minnesota Timberwolves – Pretender. It’s hard to call a team a pretender when they are only in playoff contention right now, but since I don’t think the T-Wolves will be contenders this year, I have to label them as pretenders. Rubio and Love are the promising future of Minnesota basketball, but it’s a little too much for fans to ask that their team makes a deep playoff run in their first year together. The future looks promising, but I think the T-Wolves will come up a little short this season, even though I do believe they’ll make the playoffs.

The T-Wolves will make the playoffs. But they might not go very far

San Antonio Spurs – Contender. The Spurs have racked up a big number of wins in the past two regular seasons, and although they were a huge disappointment in the playoffs last year, I think they learned their lesson. Don’t forget this team was the number one seed in the West a year ago, and this year they’ve been streaking without Manu Ginobili on the floor. The Spurs aren’t the most entertaining team in the league, but they know how to win and will start grabbing people’s attention soon.

Memphis Grizzlies – Pretender. Without Zach Randolph on the court, the Grizzlies have to remain pretenders for now. They should be getting Z-Bo back soon and Rudy Gay should have been an All-Star this year, but the Grizzlies should be so much better than they are right now. This is not the same team that stunned the number one-seed San Antonio Spurs and gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a run for their money last year. Part of that can be attributed to Randolph’s absence, but the rest lies in the fact that the Grizzlies don’t always beat the teams they should (Phoenix and Utah twice).

So there you have it. Do you agree with my picks? Or have I unfairly ruled someone out? Sound off in the comments section.

The Rubio Effect

The Minnesota Timberwolves are relevant again. These words should look strange and foreign to you if you’ve followed the NBA at all in the past eight years. Ever since Kevin Garnett was shipped off to Boston in 2007 in a huge deal, Minnesota’s NBA squad has been uninteresting and painful to watch. The Timberwolves have failed to make the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, a depressing statistic made even worse by the fact that the team’s losing record in that time is so dismal. In the six seasons prior to this year, the T-Wolves have an atrocious record of 143-349. Fans have had little to cheer about in the franchise’s 22-year history, especially after the Garnett era. Even with the double-double monster Kevin Love in the paint, the T-Wolves were at the bottom of the West for the second consecutive year with a 17-65 record last year. So even though Minnesota technically still has a losing record at the moment (16-17), how have the lowly T-Wolves become relevant again?

The answer is Ricky Rubio. The Timberwolves have a history of poor management decisions over the years. They traded away the rights to players like Sam Cassell (in exchange for Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers. What do you mean you’ve never heard of them?) and Brandon Roy (for Randy Foye, who was taken out with a season-ending injury). Even trading former MVP Kevin Garnett in a massive deal that got them Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, two draft picks and cash considerations didn’t do enough to help the team in the short term or the long term. So when 2009 draft pick Ricky Rubio didn’t come overseas for two seasons, it looked like Minnesota’s infamously poor drafting had struck again. But luckily for the T-Wolves, Rubio was finally able to play in 2011. And the team hasn’t been the same since.

This is still Kevin Love's team. But Rubio makes them possible playoff contenders

To be fair, Rubio’s number’s aren’t fantastic (11 ppg, 8 apg, and 4 rpg). And neither are the Timberwolves to be perfectly honest. But the fact that they’re in the playoff hunt and making highlights again, along with the fact that we’re even having this discussion speaks volumes about where this young team could be in a few years. Kevin Love, who is averaging 25 points and 14 rebounds a game, will always be the team’s powerhouse in the middle. But Rubio is the reason this team is actually competing this year. Rubio is a purebred point guard: facilitating the offense, setting up his teammates, getting steals and scoring when he needs to. His court vision is impeccable and his flashy passes make the Timberwolves an exciting team to watch for any basketball fan, let alone the diehard Minnesota fan base who have been waiting for a team to believe in. And Rubio does all of this with a giant smile on his face.

Rubio is giving T-Wolves fans something to smile about

The emergence of Nikola Pekovic as a decent scorer and rebounder has certainly helped, along with Michael Beasley’s steady offensive contribution. The West is wide open this year, so it will take a collective effort from Minnesota’s role players to make a run for the playoffs, but even if they come up short this year, that’s okay. Just the fact that they’re in playoff contention matters to T-Wolves fans, even though you can certainly see why making the postseason this year would be a monumental deal. And while Minnesota still lacks what it needs at the small forward and shooting guard position (Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams have been slightly disappointing and Luke Ridnour shouldn’t be the long-term answer here), the T-Wolves are building a young and talented core that solidifies an opinion that has long been seen as ridiculous: The Minnesota Timberwolves are worth watching again.

People may have to start taking this logo seriously again