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The Inbounds: Free Agency and the Magical Musical Chairs

Jul 2, 2012, 12:00 PM EDT

Suns guard Nash looks to drive on Mavericks center Mahinmi during their NBA basketball game in Dallas, Texas Reuters

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy. 

If the Pacers don’t match Hibbert’s offer, then Batum could go to Minnesota.

If the Bulls don’t match Asik’s offer, O.J. Mayo could wind up a Bull.

If the Joe Johnson to the Nets trade goes through, Dwight Howard may be a Laker next season.

If Nash goes to Toronto, Kidd could wind up in New York, and Jose Calderon could be a Laker. If he goes to New York, Lin could be a Raptor.

Welcome to the offseason musical chairs game, 2012 edition.

Player movement is the central commodity in the NBA. In a lot of ways, it’s the engine that makes things run. It drives front office decisions and fan interest. The busiest time of the year for scribes isn’t the NBA Finals, it’s this time, when players are whipping from one team to another in trades and free agency.

But there’s a special environment this year, driven by several factors. For starters, the new CBA has created a different set of priorities. The idea of simply matching any offer for a restricted free agent like Omer Asik and dealing with the luxury tax was never a popular one for some teams (even rich teams like the Bulls, who have staved off the tax at all costs in the past), but now it’s sheer poison. The advanced punitive measures enacted in the new CBA, along with the threat of the repeater tax in 2014 have created an environment where every addition is carefully considered.

That’s not to say all of the deals won’t make your heads spin. But from Brandon Bass and David West‘s short-term deals signed last December to the “either or” nature of so many deals to come in the next two weeks, the environment has shifted.

Additionally, the super-teams are mucking with this whole thing. Combinations of superstars means title contention, which means players are tempted to take less money to play there, which in turn pushes those superstar teams to slough off their excess, putting them on the market.

Throw in the complicted nature of restricted free agency and a light class without too many that are locks to return, and you have a very delicate ecosystem undergoing some fairly substantial changes, at least around the edges.

Another big secret that often gets lost this time of year is how much of an outlier 2010 was. Stars just don’t often change teams. We’re seeing it this year with Deron Williams looking very likely to head back to Brooklyn with the Nets, and Kevin Garnett staying “home” with the Celtics. It’s difficult for teams to just let go of players and structures they’ve had success with in the past.

The outlier, of course, is Steve Nash, and that shows you the situation the Suns are in. It takes a pretty self-aware and humble front office group to recognize that a two-time MVP can’t help their team at this point and it’s time for a new direction. But that’s what they’ve done.

Nash’s choice has engendered debate. The Raptors have reportedly offered a three-year, $36 million offer for the native son to return to the Maple Leaf nation. To accept, Nash would be spurning better chances to win a title for essentially money (and the prospect of returning “home” to finish his career). If LeBron James was killed for taking less money to try to win a title in Miami, and we tend to revolt against players taking the money, why aren’t we torching Nash for the same?

And it’s a valid criticism. But the root of that is not that we should bash Nash. It’s that a player’s circumstances and feelings matter, and we should respect it and maybe chill out with what we feel a player should do. One set of absurd standards and ridiculous criticism doesn’t mean we should apply those same poor ideas to other people. It means we should never have applied them in the first place.

If Nash goes to Toronto, the Knicks may move towards Jason Kidd, the idea being that he can serve as a mentor to Jeremy Lin (should the Knicks be able to match a poison pill offer from Toronto). There’s debate about whether that’s a good idea. After all, what can Kidd really do for Lin, and what can he give the Knicks at his age?

But the answer to those questions is a lot, and a lot. Kidd famously mentored Deron Williams during the Olympics and international competition process. It’s not just recognizing defenses, understanding where to put the ball, and how to read the opponent. It’s handling pressure, it’s dealing with coaches and teammates, it’s intangibles. And as far as his on-court contributions? In the ISOMelo offense, the best thing you can have is a point guard who can set the frame and then get out of the way and hit a three. That’s become Jason Kidd over the past three years. He’s not going to be an exhilirating playmaker. But the Knicks’ new offense isn’t geared that way anyway. Kidd’s a fit.

The Portland-Hibbert-Pacers-Batum situation may be the most interesting musical chairs scenario.

Consider this: there’s a three-day matching period that goes on after the moratorium ends on the 11th. Say a team lands Nicolas Batum to a huge contract before the Blazers can get Roy Hibbert inked to an offer sheet. Then the Blazers ink Hibbert, putting a hold on their cap space while Indiana debates. If Indiana were to hold out until the last minute, then match, the Blazers would have had their cap space held by the Hibbert deal, not match Batum, and lose out on Hibbert. Timing is fun!

Now, there’s a million ways this won’t become an issue, but it does represent the complexities in play for these teams.

And then, of course, there’s the Nets situation and the relationship with Dwight Howard and the Magic.

If the Nets go all in on Joe Johnson (and we’ll talk about this one tomorrow), then that means there’s no room for Dwight Howard. Which means Howard would have to consider what team that isn’t on his list he wants to play for. Can he get along with Kobe? Is he willing to play in Houston? Does San Francisco mesh with his religious upbringing? The Nets went halfway in another direction with the Gerald Wallace signing. Bringing in Joe Johnson locks in their core. Do that, and the Dwight Howard situation becomes somehow more insane.

But if they do land Dwight, then what does Atlanta do? Is that their best and only shot at dumping Joe Johnson’s contract?

Oh, and if the Bulls match Omer Asik’s offer from Houston, they’re amnestying Carlos Boozer at some point. But waiting to amnesty Boozer means there’s less of a chance another team will take on part of his contract.

This isn’t rocket science. But to a degree, it is game theory. Welcome to the 2012 NBA Free Agency period. Choose wisely.

This is chess, it ain’t checkers.

  1. drunkenjunk - Jul 2, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    Nash and Lebron’s situations are totally different.

    • gmen4life33 - Jul 2, 2012 at 12:38 PM

      Yea. People didnt kill LBJ because he took a little less money to play for Heat, they killed him because of HOW he did it. Nash has been all class on how he handled it. And when (if) he chooses to leave the Suns, I am pretty sure his old team and teammates will be told by him in a respectful manner, not on national TV

      • drunkenjunk - Jul 6, 2012 at 1:15 AM

        you said it perfectly. Lebron turned his free agency into a spectacle. Nash will leave Phoenix and still be loved.

  2. 10minusone - Jul 2, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    Superb writing, Matt. “Simply” superb, especially considering the complexity of the subject.

  3. rockthered1286 - Jul 2, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    “If LeBron James was killed for taking less money to try to win a title in Miami, and we tend to revolt against players taking the money, why aren’t we torching Nash for the same?”

    Wrong. The money was never a major issue with James. The issue is and has always been “The Decision,” the post signing party, the promise of “Not 1, not 2, not 3…” and the arrogance that generally surrounds the evil empire.

    Nash on the other hand, is much older, and much more humble. He’s looking at his options: Toronto is offering big money BUT he’s actually from Vancouver, not Toronto (not even close in proximity) so to say “going home” is outlandish. He wants a starting role, and to be paid as such. It just so happens the other teams looking to bring him in happen to be contenders who want to better their teams (who doesn’t want that?)

    So where’s the common ground?

  4. southpaw77 - Jul 2, 2012 at 1:55 PM

    How did Lebron get into the 2012 free agent situation? Come on writer.
    And what pay cut did he take? There is no state tax in Florida compared to a 5.9 percent tax in Ohio on income over 200,000.
    Besides Nash doesn’t have his ego on tv for an hour to announce he’s leaving his homeland behind and then gonna go dance and do a pep rally with the other two top free agents and he never stopped playing in a playoff game like Lebron did in game 5 of the 2010 playoffs.

    • zeedoubleyou - Jul 2, 2012 at 4:06 PM

      “And what pay cut did he take?”

      LeBron, Bosh, and Wade all took about $20 million less than the maximum contract so that Miami could sign free agents and fill out the rest of the roster.

  5. lmvs2012 - Jul 2, 2012 at 3:03 PM

    This is why i love nbc sports talk….cazy THOUGHTS just pop-up….like this players go this team and him going to other team…lol

  6. bullysix - Jul 2, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    If losing Asik, and it gets the Bulls OJ than as a Bulls fan bye Asik. The Bulls can fund another big to get 14-20 minutes a game and score way more than Asik has scored totally in 2 years.

    I think as a starter would never occur with the Bulls, I just can’t see how that would ever happen with Noah on the team. Furthermore the Bulls could have gotten something for Asik, but with Houston back hammering the deal I say either sign and trade him or just let him go.

    • zeedoubleyou - Jul 2, 2012 at 4:07 PM

      Asik already signed the offer sheet from Houston. The Bulls only options are to match or not to match; sign-and-trade is no longer an option.

  7. jigwig13 - Jul 2, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    Didn’t lebron raise money for kids with the decision? Wonder why nobody talks about that they always talk about the actual show..

  8. kvh59 - Jul 2, 2012 at 4:55 PM

    Great comment jigwig…. 2 million dollars for the boys and girls club, but who gives a shit about those kids when you can just hate Lebron instead. How much money did espn make off the decision? but I never hear anyone saying f ESPN, even though it was partly their idea.

  9. fanz928 - Jul 2, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    In thinking Nash stays or go to Toronto but most likely staying

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