After watching LeBron James walk off the floor after a humiliating loss to the Celtics and an early ouster from the playoffs, it occurred to me that possibly the top four free agents couldn’t have finished the season on a worse note. And, most likely, each of their teams is going to end up paying for it.
Perennial pessimistic Raptor fans were not surprised when, with Chris Bosh out for the rest of the regular season, the team basically gave up and gave away the last playoff seed to Chicago. Many felt this was the last nail in the coffin for Bosh in Toronto and he would leave to go somewhere he had a chance of winning. Most wouldn’t blame him if he did, quite frankly.
Bosh ended the season on the outside looking in as the rest of his free agent class got ready for the second season. Something Bosh had only experienced twice in his seven years in the league. But it wasn’t long before Bosh had to realize that making the playoffs wasn’t the magic elixir it seemed to be. Ask Dwayne Wade, for starters.
Wade’s Heat ended up as the 5th seed, and there were many that felt that they could upset the 4th seeded Celtics. The Celtics were old and played uninspired basketball for the majority of the season. Garnett was a shadow of himself and Rasheed Wallace, their big offseason acquisition, looked almost as disinterested as he did in his last playoff game in Detroit, last season, when he failed to score a point and allowed Detroit to be swept in the first round.
It was Wade’s supporting cast, however, that looked like they didn’t belong, and barely put up any fight on the way to a 4-1 outer in the first round. Never before had Wade’s supporting cast looked as pathetic as in those 5 games against Boston. And never before had there been more of a reason for Wade not to return to Miami.
Wade would not be the first big name free agent to be given a reason to leave his team due to underperforming in the playoffs. Next was Joe Johnson and Atlanta.
Atlanta was coming off their best season in 13 years, winning 53 games, and began the playoffs as a 3rd seed. They barely made it past the feisty Milwaukee Bucks, only to get easily swept in the second round against the Orlando Magic. It was such a bad defeat that the Hawks were not even competitive in one single game against the Magic. It was a humiliating end to a promising season. If there was any doubt whether Johnson would leave the Hawks before, it’s gone now.
At least the Hawks were not expected to really get past the second round of the playoffs. The feeling is that Cleveland and Orlando pretty much had the Conference Finals locked up. Many felt that no matter what LeBron did in the offseason, Cleveland could, at least, live in the now as favourites to win the title.
Not so fast.
That same Boston team that some predicted would lose against the Heat, ended up shocking the Cavs and sending them home in 6 games.
Four of the top free agents, all in different situations, but all with disappointing ends.
The thing is, though, this all could have been predicted.
Bryan Colangelo, Pat Riley, Rick Sund and Danny Ferry all took very different approaches to trying to keep their future free agents. And all had flawed plans.
Colangelo’s Raptors were coming off a disappointing season, and some felt that Colangelo might end up trading Bosh in the summer or before the trade deadline in order to get back what he could for him before he left. Colangelo took a different approach and tried to quickly surround Bosh with enough talent to make him want to stay. It was risky approach, and one that ultimately failed, at least in the sense that the team was not successful.
Colangelo had cap room to spend, and when his first choice of free agent, Trevor Ariza, declined his offer, Colangelo decided that he needed to make a splash in the free agent market in order to give Bosh a reason to stay. Instead of being choosy and realizing that there simply was a free agent available that was worth signing, Colangelo overpaid Turkoglu, ignoring the fact that his lack of defence and rebounding would hurt the team. In essence, Colangelo had a poorer hand than he had hoped, and bluffed. And then lost.
Pat Riley took a very different approach. Unlike Bosh, who needed a reason to stay in Toronto, Riley felt Wade wanted to stay in Miami, and that he had more wiggle room. Instead of spending their free agent money on a lesser player, in the hopes of doing what Colangelo tried to do, Riley played the waiting game. If Riley didn’t spend any money, he’d have enough money to re-sign Wade AND another max free agent (perhaps Bosh) this summer. This was also a gamble, but one that didn’t include paying out big, long term contracts that he would end up regret giving out.
Unfortunately, Riley may not have noticed just how little talent he had accrued since the Heat last won their Championship, and a summer of doing nothing didn’t do anything to help that. Having enough money for Wade and another max player is great, but when there’s virtually no one else on the team with any talent, that’s shooting the team’s chances of re-signing in the foot. Of all the big name free agents, Wade was probably the one most felt was going to re-sign with his team. After seeing what little talent he will return to if he does, no one will be surprised if he signs somewhere else.
Sund and the Atlanta Hawks did have talent. Young talent, too. Sund had just taken over from Billy Knight and took the safe and steady approach. Atlanta had made progress every year and were growing as a team. Sund added Jamaal Crawford, but other than that, simply made sure the rest of the rotation players would return. No reason to mess with success, right?
Well, not quite.
For all the talent Atlanta had, they were not a team anyone expected to be a legitimate contender. A perimeter oriented team without much of an inside scoring threat is not one that generally lasts long in the playoffs. And Joe Johnson, for all his talent, is not someone who you’d want to be the best player on your team. And against Orlando, we discovered why.
While it’s tempting to not stir the pot, Sund should have realized that the current Hawks roster, while good, needed to be altered in order to contend. They are the perfect example that having 6 good players is not better than having 2 great ones. In the NBA, it’s not quantity, it’s quality. Teams are measured by their top two or three players, and while Atlanta has some good ones, none are going to appear on any All NBA team.
When talking quality, it doesn’t get any better than LeBron James. Nearly every GM in the league would give up their entire roster for one LeBron James. He’s that valuable. Danny Ferry decided early on in his career as the Cavs GM that he was going to try and surround LeBron with as many veterans as he could, knowing it’s veteran teams that have the most success. What this meant, though, was that he would be forever retooling and adding. Veterans came, declined and then left, only to be followed by new ones. While most contenders see a slow rise of success, LeBron and the Cavs have seen hills and valleys.
Five years ago, they won 50 games and lost in the Conference semi-finals. The next season, they won 50 games again, but went all the way to the Finals. It looked like this might be the turning point for the team, but they saw a decline in their win total the next season, 45 wins, and lost in the semis once again. The next year they won a Cleveland record 66 games, but were ousted in the Conference Finals by an Orlando team they simply did not match up well against.
With one year left until LeBron would become a free agent, Ferry decided to roll the dice. He traded for an aging Shaquille O’Neal, who had not gotten along well with his Phoenix teammates the year before and ended up not even making the playoffs. Ferry felt, however, that getting Shaq was what Cleveland needed to get by Orlando, the team they felt would be their biggest obstacle to the Finals.
Then they were able to pick up another veteran, Antawn Jamison, the stretch four that Ferry felt the team was missing to compete against Orlando. Ironic, since they didn’t even face Orlando in the playoffs before being ousted. And now, most of the best players on the Cavs are in decline. Shaq might have trouble finding a home next season. Ilgauskus might also, unless he wants to sign somewhere for the minimum. And Jamison, who was supposed to be the guy who put the Cavs over the top, has two more years and nearly $30 million coming to him after doing absolutely nothing in the playoffs but giving LeBron another reason to leave town. Suddenly, that lopsided deal to get Jamison doesn’t look so lopsided anymore.
So before Raptor fans start calling Colangelo a failure for not giving Bosh a reason to stay, remember that he’s not the only GM to fail at the worst time.