We are only week into early July, one week into NBA free agency, and already fans have watched an unfolding arms race between the top title contenders in the league.
It began on June 23, two days before the draft, when the San Antonio Spurs acquired (stole) Richard Jefferson from the Milwaukee Bucks for Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto.
The move gives the already formidable trio of Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan some help, delivering them a borderline All-Star who can score and defend well.
Next came the Cleveland Cavaliers.
On Draft night, Cleveland GM Danny Ferry swapped Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavolvic, $500,000 in cash and a future second round pick with the Suns for Shaquille O'Neal.
On the same night, the Magic gave up Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson.
As free agency came, the defending champion Lakers made a huge splash by committing to top-notch small forward Ron Artest with a three year deal.
The Boston Celtics responded to these moves with a full-court press of Rasheed Wallace by team figures and players to get him to commit to Boston. They also have shown interest in Grant Hill and Stephon Marbury.
The Dallas Mavericks have retained Jason Kidd and appear to be the favorites to sign efficient center Marcin Gortat.
Players are still available for other contenders to make moves, including Chris Anderson, Antonio McDyess, Zaza Pachulia, Allen Iverson, Shawn Marion, Andre Miller and Lamar Odom.
A few lesser tier teams, like Detroit and Toronto, have also made splashes in free agency. Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva have both agreed to sign with Detroit, while Toronto has added Hedo Turkoglu to their front court.
The race for higher talent seems to have mainly taken place in the upper echelon of playoff teams and title contenders which seems to promise for an interesting season.
The exception has been the Rockets, who lost Ron Artest and seem to have compensated by agreeing to terms with the younger Trevor Ariza, and will likely attempt to rebuild in the following years.
Assuming all of the players sign with the aforementioned teams (free agents can't official sign contracts until July 8), what does this mean for the NBA?
For starters, the Lakers are likely to re-sign Odom, making them the clear favorites to repeat in the Western Conference and win a championship. A team led by Bryant, with Gasol, Artest and Odom as your fourth option?
Seriously? When healthy, the Lakers are clear favorites.
The only other way I can see the Lakers shooting themselves in the foot could be chemistry. Artest has a large ego, and could rub the wrong way with Kobe.
Phil Jackson typically coaches head cases and ego-filled guys pretty well, though (see Dennis Rodman or Shaquille O'Neal). If Artest can keep cool and mesh well, the Lakers will be unstoppable.
In the East, the favorite has to be the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their addition of Shaq finally gives LeBron a legit All-Star teammate and go-to-guy besides, well, himself.
Shaq's post presence is far better than anyone the Cavs could throw on Dwight Howard last year and you can't argue with a man who has four championship rings.
Issues include the fact that Cleveland is much better when it goes small and runs, and that the Magic burned the Cavs with pick and roll offense—something Shaq struggles to defend.
The Celtics are probably the next contender likely to win a championship. The addition of Wallace gives them desperately needed length and versatility off the bench.
If they sign Hill, the Celtics will have addressed their two major needs: A backup big and a backup for Pierce. They also need to find a backup point guard.
Factor in the return of a healthy KG and the likely re-signing of Glen "Big Baby" Davis and the Celtics should be a deep, talented, hungry team, just a step down from LA and Cleveland.
Potential risks include Rasheed Wallace, who is a hot-head and sometimes loses focus, but Garnett will likely keep him in check. A true threat is injury, as the Big Three, Wallace and Hill are all well into their 30s.
San Antonio is likely the second best team in the Western Conference, with the addition of Jefferson and draft day steal Dejuan Blair—taken with the No. 37 pick.
The Spurs will always play tough defense, and when healthy, their fab-four is capable of being any of the best teams in the league. Look for them to be Los Angeles’s top threat.
There is some risk in Ginobli, who has been slowed by injuries, and Tim Duncan is getting up there in age, but the Spurs are poised for a title run.
The last true title contender is likely Orlando, who seems to have taken a step back. While Carter is a legit scorer and flashy dunker, he is a career loser who seems to bring a bad attitude and cause distractions wherever he goes.
The Magic also shipped much of their bench away in the deal, and while it certainly was a one sided deal, the Magic now have no depth. Battie and Lee were good role players, and Alston would have been a top notch back up for Jameer Nelson.
With the likely loss of Gortat and the inability to resign Turkoglu because of Carter's salary, the move doesn't make much sense.
The Magic got to the finals because of their three-point shooting and crafty pick and roll offense, with Turkoglu acting as one of the catalyst of the offense. He also played with the more heart in the finals than any other player on the team.
That said, any team with Dwight Howard is a contender. On the flip side, any team coached by Stan Van Gundy is a candidate to choke in the playoffs. I still give Orlando a shot at the title with Howard, Carter, Lewis and a healthy Nelson.
There are also lesser tier teams that are still contenders. The Nuggets are still a threat, but San Antonio certainly improved to a level of talent higher than the Nuggets.
Re-signing Chris Anderson will be the first step to the "Promise Land" after failing to land Artest.
Toronto has a really intriguing front court and should be a fun team to watch rebound from a down year last year. With Turkoglu, All-Star forward Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors have an incredibly versatile and talented team.
The Mavericks seem to be treading water by signing Jason Kidd. Kidd can still play, but barring a move for Shawn Marion or Odom, the Mavericks can't improve enough to push them into one of the top teams in the west.
They are still a solid playoff team, especially if they land Gortat, but their window seems to be closing as far as an NBA power house.
Another team to enter the arms race was the Pistons, who added Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. These are good, young players.
There team seems built more for the future though, and they will likely try to deal Rip Hamilton to be in the running for a top free agent in 2010. Imagine Stuckey, Gordon, Prince, Villanueva and Bosh.
As the offseason progresses, it will be interesting to see which deals go down and who signs where, but already, the top teams are loading up for what already promised to be an exciting 2009-2010 NBA season.
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