The National Basketball Association has placed a premium on its superstar players for more than half a century now. Last year’s coronation of LeBron James as the best basketball player further enforced the perception that the league is driven by its stars. However, the off season acquisitions of less visible players are just as important to a team’s championship prospects as the star player’s ability to dominate. The teams that draft the best and acquire the right pieces in free agency contend for NBA titles. Here are the off season moves that would best insure that the playoff teams of this season return to championship contention next year.
Houston Rockets – The Rockets need to sign Dwight Howard to take the next step towards being a real contender. Howard could possibly be the last real center in the National Basketball Association. His presence forces teams to double when he gets going offensively, and he is always a force on the defensive side of the ball. Combining Howard with the high-scoring James Harden would make a formidable duo that could possibly contend in the Western Conference. He says that Houston is his first choice for free agency, so the Rockets should make a real run at signing him. Howard seems to be more concerned with becoming an entertainer than with becoming a dominant superstar in the league, but his talent is undeniable and he fits the Rockets perfectly. Coach Kevin McHale is one of the most skilled big men that ever played the game, and he could teach the application of his footwork to Dwight in practice everyday. Houston is a great fit for Dwight Howard.
Los Angeles Clippers – Chris Paul has to return to Los Angeles if they want to continue to improve as a team first. He is the heart and soul of the team, and the primary reason for their improvement over the past two seasons. Then, they need to address the head coach Vinnie Del Negro. The Clippers had their best season in their history, however Del Negro has missed some opportunities to solidify his place in management by failing to gain the respect of his star and failing to call the right plays in important moments. His game plan in closing minutes of games is simply to get Paul the basketball in isolation at the top of the key (which is not a bad idea), but he does not make the game easier for him. Del Negro is not a bad coach, but it is questionable how much he helps the team. The final necessity for the franchise is to get more versatile players who do not need the basketball to impact the game. Blake Griffin is a highlight reel with no inside presence and less rebounding prowess than he is given credit for having. DeAndre Jordan is a freak athlete how is minimally productive in the paint despite all the physical tools a player could want. And, the Clippers still need perimeter scoring besides Paul. The team should pursue J.R. Smith or Kevin Martin, though they both seem fairly one-dimensional. J.R. Smith is extremely talented on the offensive end and has superstar talent. He would give Paul a real scoring option on offense who can create his own shot. Kevin Martin possesses a different game, but he would be just as effective with the Clippers because he does not need the basketball to be effective on offense. He scores taking jump shots off screens and off back screens.
Memphis Grizzlies – Memphis has become one of the most physical teams in the league. They pound teams inside on offense with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and bully them on defense with great defenders like Tony Allen, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year (Allen and Conley were finalists for the award this year too). The Grizzlies need scoring punch to contend against the best teams in the league. They have the interior presence that they need, they have good rebounding, and they have excellent individual and team defense. The Grizzlies need a perimeter scorer like Monta Ellis who is dynamic if he is willing to come off the bench. Conley is steady as a point guard, but he is rarely explosive. Allen languishes to score on his own though he is almost impossible to score against in a one-on-one situation. Ellis can get his own shot, and when he is hot, he does not miss.
San Antonio Spurs – The San Antonio Spurs have finally begun to show signs of aging over the last few seasons. Tim Duncan is no longer the focal point of the offense, Ginobli has lost a step, and Tony Parker has replaced Duncan as a solid Most Valuable Player candidate. However, despite slowing down as a whole, they are still a complete team. San Antonio needs to find youth on the perimeter through a trade of Ginobli, or they need to sign a promising big to play next to Duncan to avoid a rebuilding effort. DeMarcus Cousins is the perfect candidate for the Spurs if they decide to add a big man. Duncan would no longer have to dominate against competition because Cousins could bully players under the rim. Plus, the Spurs organization could have a positive effect on him and his attitude. Cousins could learn the finer points of basketball under Duncan and possibly sustain the franchise after Duncan retires, and Parker still has at least 2-3 good seasons in him barring serious injury. If the Spurs decide to bolster their back court instead of adding a big man, then they need to consider a big, explosive guard like J.R. Smith, James Jones, or Sam Young. San Antonio tends to pick guards with dependable jump shots who ease the pressure off the post because they prefer to play basketball inside-out.
Los Angeles Lakers – This proud organization faced a lot of turmoil and scrutiny this year because of decisions made by the junior Buss who now runs the Lakers. He passed on coaching great Phil Jackson because a personal qualm with him though Jackson was clearly the best candidate for the job and signed Mike D’Antoni. Now, the Lakers need to get D’Antoni the personnel that he needs or fire him and hire Phil Jackson. D’Antoni runs a system that relies on having four guys on the court who can hit jumpers. He prefers to have four guards and one stretch 4 who can hit the three pointer, but he has been forced to play Howard and Gasol on the court at the same time and the Lakers have struggled. The first order of business for Los Angeles is to choose which big man that they want to keep. Howard is more dynamic with less skill, but he thrived when the offense was built around him. He also is the better long-term choice because Howard could keep the Lakers in contention for a championship after Kobe retires. They need to re-sign Dwight. But, Gasol fits the D’Antoni system better. His jumper is deadly out to about 18 feet, and he can hit the occasional 3. Plus, Gasol is a much more skilled passer than Howard. If the Lakers fire D’Antoni, then they could conceivably re-sign Howard and keep the team assembled for one more championship run with Kobe.
Golden State Warriors – Health is one of the major concerns of the Warriors. They need to keep Curry and David Lee healthy to compete in the Western conference. Then, they need to find another big man that complements David Lee. With the plethora of shooters that they have a solid big man could make them unstoppable. Cousins would give Golden State a solid high-low punch. Lee is super-explosive when healthy and has good touch out to about 17 feet. He could throw entry passes to Cousins under the rim, and Cousins may be the strongest man in the league right now so he would score easily. If not Cousins, they could make a run at Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum. However, both of these players have injury issues and sometimes seem disinterested. A big man to play with Lee could turn Golden State into a bonafide contender. With Curry and Klay Thompson on the perimeter together, the Warriors may prove to be one of the most challenging teams to play against in the NBA next year.
Denver Nuggets – To say it plain and simple, the Denver Nuggets need a star. The have one of the deepest and most athletic rosters in the NBA. They play the perfect style of basketball to fit their personnel and they have a distinct home court advantage over most teams with the high altitude where they play in Denver. The one thing that has eluded the Nuggets since Carmelo left is a go-to player. The Nuggets need a player who they can give the basketball to in waning seconds and trust that he can create a good shot for himself. Unfortunately, this free agent market has very few stars. The only candidates for this role are Josh Smith and Dwight Howard who have no go-to moves, David West and Rashard Lewis who are undersized (the former in height, the latter in girth), and Andrew Bynum and Al Jefferson who are talented but flawed stars. The Denver Nuggets face some challenges this off season.
Oklahoma City Thunder – First and foremost, the Thunder need to get healthy. They lost Russell Westbrook to a torn meniscus in this years playoffs. Before his injury, they were favorites to repeat as the Western conference champs. Without him, Kevin Durant looked rather one-dimensional at times and OKC looked out of sync. To improve as a team, Oklahoma City needs to get healthy, add a shooter, and add a slasher. They showed less firepower this year than they showed last year. The trade of James Harden hurt their chemistry, their offensive prowess, and cost them one of their best defenders. The pickup of Perry Jones III in last year’s draft was the perfect selection for the Thunder. He is long and athletic. He is more explosive than Harden, though he is less of a shooter. Theoretically, he should have come in and replaced the points left by Harden and been a better defender. But, Jones’ offensive game is still raw even though his skill level is high. He must develop if the Thunder want to compete in the West. They also have the option of pursuing a shooter like Anthony Morrow or a pure scorer like J.R. Smith.