In a month of surprises, suspense and a supposedly blasphemous free agent transaction, here's one thing we learnt about the NBA: Anything's Possible!
While David Stern must be delighted with the publicity that the NBA has received worldwide over the past month, the invariable gloom of a lockout now seems more realistic than ever and could threaten the new found verve that this summer brought along with it.
Some teams stayed busy clearing contracts off their books and attempting to free up as much cap space as possible while others simply attempted to hold on to their stars.
The free agency process is a zero sum game—a simple case of plus/minus. I win, you lose. It's almost as simple as that.
So with the impending beginning of what can be dramatically labelled as a "New World Order," here are my thoughts on some of the teams that got busy trying to stock up and the others that were left hanging.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2009-2010 record: 61-21, Reached Second Round)
I say this with the surest of conviction—No team lost out more than the Cavaliers. LeBron James, for his hullabaloo and hubris, was their savior. He brought back a sense of savvy and panache to Cleveland basketball and above all, that unmistakable sense of pride that they could compete with the best.
Now with James gone (and he's taken Zydrunas Ilgauskas too!) Cleveland has a gaping hole that just can't be filled. Dan Gilbert's letter has more or less ensured that players might think twice before signing for such an owner and they haven't exactly been brilliant with their contracts.
What they can hope for is that Mo Williams, Jamison, and Varejao step up and increase their production along with a young and energetic JJ Hickson. They're certainly not going to be in playoff contention but they need to ensure that they stay as far away from the doldrums as possible.
New York Knicks (2009-2010 record: 29-53, Did Not Reach Playoffs)
In retrospect, it's hard to imagine that the Knicks actually ever had a chance of wooing LeBron to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. They had no supporting cast to offer until they signed Amare Stoudemire to a mammoth contract worth $99.7 million over five years. They then promptly traded double-double machine David Lee to the Warriors for Randolph, Azubuike, and Turiaf. This, along with the acquisition of point guard Raymond Felton puts the Knicks in the middle ground.
For one, Stoudemire will no longer get those brilliant splitting passes that he had grown accustomed to back in Phoenix. Although he does possess a silky mid-range jumper, his defense is still horribly suspect and his history of injuries make this five-year deal seem less and less smart.
With D'Antoni keen to develop Gallinari's overall game, I think it might be fair to assume that the Knicks will contend for a playoff berth and improve significantly compared to last season. Whether they can make another push in next year's free agency will depend on how well they play this season. No star wants to join a struggling team.
Atlanta Hawks (2009-2010 record: 53-29, Reached Second Round)
The biggest financial winner in the free agency circus turned out to be Joe Johnson with his puzzling six-year, $119 million deal. It's a difficult decision because Johnson is 29, an All-Star caliber guard with a smooth shot, but he is definitely not a franchise player. In the last year of his contract, he'll be 34 and definitely not worth all that money.
The other alternative was to let him go and maybe the fear of the damage that could do to the Hawks might have forced them to put such a hefty contract on the table.
With a talented surrounding cast of Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, and Mike Bibby, the Hawks will be among the East's better teams, just a tier below the Celtics, Magic, and Heat. They'll be playoff bound but exit early playoff bound.
I could be wrong, but we'll see.
Phoenix Suns (2009-2010 record: 54-28, Reached Western Conference Finals)
It's always the same deal with Phoenix. Just when you feel they've taken a step back they have the ability to prove that basketball can be exciting. This time though, they might have fallen too far back.
With the loss of Stoudemire, the Suns signed the enigmatic Josh Childress as well as Hakim Warrick. In addition to this, they gave up Barbosa and Dwayne Jones for Hedo Turkoglu and re-signed Channing Frye.
The bottom line is that it all still depends on Nash and the growth of Dudley, Frye, and Dragic. The two-time MVP doesn't seem to be getting any older and will still make Phoenix basketball just as exciting. They'll reach the playoffs but might not have enough quality to replicate last season's run.
Chicago Bulls (2009-2010 record: 41-41, Lost in First Round)
Missing out on the LeBron sweepstakes didn't deter these Bulls. If Thibodeau can instill a good enough defensive mindset in the team, we could well be seeing another addition to the Eastern elite. Derrick Rose can only get better and the departure of Kirk Hinrich will be offset by the Bull's other acquisitions.
Carlos Boozer is still a forward with finesse and could form an effective tandem with Rose just as he did with Williams back in Utah. Furthermore, sharp shooter Kyle Korver could provide effective perimeter shooting when required while Noah and Deng complete a formidable starting lineup. The Bulls are now in contention for a Top Four finish and could create enough problems should they come together as a team.
Miami Heat (2009-2010 record: 47-35, Lost in First Round)
If the free agency drama was a boxing competition, Miami not only knocked everyone out in the first fifteen seconds but also sucker-punched its opposition for good measure afterwards.
The greatest free agency coup belongs to Pat Riley and Micky Arison as they first pried All-Star forward Chris Bosh from Toronto and then LeBron James from Cleveland. Re-signing Dwyane Wade earlier ensured the most deadly trio in NBA history. Never before has there been a fusion of three stars entering their primes and hungry for rings.
While there has been numerous debate on how the lack of cap space would lead to a gutted roster, Miami's supporting cast is shaping up well. Trading Beasely allowed the Heat to sign Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, and more importantly, re-sign Haslem and add sharpshooter Mike Miller. The pressure is on and Bosh, James, and Wade will thrive off it.
This is a team that wants to win the whole damn prize so don't expect to see much consistency throughout the regular season. But expect an exciting brand of basketball with LeBron facilitating the offense and Wade slashing through both flanks. Bosh is a finesse big man and needs another big body in the paint for him to be most effective. On any given night, each of these three command double teams. The problem? Basketball allows only five players on court. Now this I can't wait to see!
Numerous other teams have been busy too.
The Lakers signed Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, and Steve Blake while the Celtics took on an aging Jermaine O'Neal. Durant quietly signed an extension with the Thunder while the Grizzlies offered Rudy Gay a humongous $82 million contract for five years, a little less than Durant's! Nowitzki resigned with Dallas obviously believing that he could lead them to postseason success.
The Lakers are still the favorites to win it all because they are an established team with a solid defensive mindset led by the Zen master and an aging but hungry as ever Kobe Bryant.
There's been a slight shift of power to the East but the Celtics and Magic remain good as ever.
Only time will tell. But for now, all eyes remain entrenched firmly on the infantile Miami dynasty.