Five Catergories of NBA Teams: Which One Is Your Team In?

Andrew Ungvari@DrewUngaSenior Writer IJuly 22, 2008

The NBA is a constantly evolving league. Just when teams think they have things figured out, something unexpected happens to throw things out of whack.

Sometimes that unexpected thing can be a pleasant surprise, such as the Bulls winning the draft lottery despite having the ninth-worst record in the NBA.

Other times that unexpected thing can be of the unpleasant variety—such as when your starting point guard/franchise player opts out of his $17.8 million contract to join the Clippers for five years and $65 million.

It's not as if the NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball are any different in that respect.

What separates the NBA from the other three major leagues is the summer of 2010. If you don't believe me, take a look at RealGM.com's list of the 2010 free agents. The list is highlighted by names like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Chris Bosh.

The NBA could undergo a carousel of player movement, resembling that of a fantasy draft.

As a result, the current state of the NBA has put teams into five sub-categories:

We'll call the first of these categories "The Future Is Now". These are the teams that certainly have an eye on the summer of 2010 but are more concerned with the present. Because of the average age of the team and the amount of money being spent on their players, they don't have a choice but to try to win it all now.

The list is as follows:

  • Boston Celtics
  • Los Angeles Lakers
  • San Antonio Spurs
  • Detroit Pistons
  • Dallas Mavericks
  • Phoenix Suns
  • Washington Wizards

The Celtics, Spurs, Pistons, Mavericks, Wizards, and Suns are on the list because they are teams comprised of mostly expensive veterans who are either in their prime or just past it.

The two worst teams on the list, the Suns and Mavericks, proved that they were "all in" at the trade deadline when they traded for Shaquille O'Neal and Jason Kidd, respectively. The Mavs now have nine players on their roster over the age of 30. The Suns have eight. By contrast, the Lakers have one player on their current roster over the age of 30—at least until Kobe turns 30 next month.

These are not the teams who could win it all now. These are the teams who think they could win it all now.

The Lakers are on the list for a different reason. The impending free agency of their franchise player, the NBA's reigning MVP, has dictated that if they are not competing for a championship then he'll have no problem asking for a trade, or walking away at the first opportunity he has to do so.

The Mavericks, Pistons, Celtics, and Lakers should all look very much the same way in 2010 as they do now, because the majority of their core players are all either signed or will be signed past 2010.

The Mavericks have $30 million committed to Jason Terry, DeSagana Diop, and Erick Dampier for 2010-11. That same summer the Mavs will have a $12 million option on Josh Howard's contract and will probably have to re-sign Dirk Nowitzki.

If Nowitzki decides not to opt out, the Mavs will owe him about $21.5 million. If he does opt out, he'll either want more money, or he'll take a slight pay cut in exchange for a longer deal.

Either way, the Mavs are currently looking at about $62 million for just Nowitzki, Howard, Diop, Terry, and Dampier in 2010-11. The salary cap for next season is about $59 million, and their salary will only increase when they re-sign Brandon Bass and possibly Jason Kidd next summer.

It's no wonder that the Mavs have been looking in the recycling bin recently to fill out their roster, with the likes of Keith McLeod, Gerald Green, and James Singleton.

The Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, and Ben Wallace trades taught us that no contract should be considered untradeable. But both O'Neals, when healthy, can still be effective players. I can't imagine the Mavs would be able to trade Dampier's awful contract, unless they were willing to take back a worse contract in return.

The Wallace trade taught us that teams are willing to take back horrible contracts, as long as they don't disrupt the team's long-term strategy—which, in the case of the Cavs, involved no contracts that ran past 2010.

The Celtics have $44 million committed to just Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Kendrick Perkins for the 2010-11 season. That same summer, Ray Allen becomes a free agent. Next summer, they will have to re-sign restricted free agents Glen Davis and Leon Powe, and Rajon Rondo will be eligible for a contract extension that would start in 2010-11.

So unless the Celtics decide to trade Pierce, Allen, or Rondo—which is highly unlikely—this team should look the same in 2010, but with an even higher salary. It's no wonder they didn't match New Orleans' four-year offer to James Posey.

Powe and Davis might fetch more on the open market than the four years and $17 million that Ronny Turiaf got from Golden State, and Rondo is positioning himself for a deal starting at $10 million a year. Don't be surprised if the Celtics choose to let either Powe or Davis walk in free agency.

Don't be surprised either if the Celtics decide to let Ray Allen go when his contract expires after 2009-10. With Allen and Pierce making $40 million combined that year, don't expect Allen to play for the veteran's minimum.

If the Celtics re-sign Powe, Davis, Rondo, and Allen, they could be looking at a salary approaching $75 million for just the septet of Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Perkins, Rondo, Davis, and Powe. The remaining eight players needed to fill out their roster will cost the Celtics double, with the luxury tax.

The Pistons, Spurs, and Suns are very similar in their long-term outlooks. But these teams have the option of either keeping their current lineups intact, or choosing to explore the market in the summer of 2010.

The Pistons have Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince under contract for 2010-11, but the amount of cap space they'll have will be dictated by 1) whether or not they choose to re-sign Rasheed Wallace and/or Antonio McDyess next summer, 2) whether they choose to re-sign Rip Hamilton the following summer, and by 3) which of their current crop of young players they'll try to re-sign to extensions in the next couple of years.

If the Pistons choose to either trade McDyess and/or Wallace or let them walk, they'll be able to re-sign Hamilton, Jason Maxiell, and Amir Johnson—and still the have cap space to go after a big name, since two of their young players, Rodney Stuckey and Aron Afflalo, won't be eligible for extensions until after 2010.

This is why Joe Dumars is the best GM in basketball. Even though the Pistons have only won one championship under him, he's positioned them to have maximum flexibility every year, by getting the better end of every deal he's made and using the draft to build the team's next generation.

Before you remind me that Dumars drafted Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh, let me remind you that the Pistons still won a championship with Darko on their roster, and that Dumars was able to trade Darko to the Magic for the draft pick that became Rodney Stuckey.

The Spurs have only two significant players under contract for 2010-11—Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili will be a free agent and I fully expect the Spurs to do the same thing with Ginobili as they did with Parker and Jason Kidd in 2003. The Spurs made a run at Kidd, and when they struck out they brought back Parker. Look for them to make a run at LeBron, Wade and Kobe or bring back Ginobili on a two-year deal if they fail to land any of the three.

In the meantime, the Spurs are still good enough to compete for championships over the next two seasons with the team they have. Sure, they got bounced by the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals—but it's hard to deny they would have given the Celtics a better run than the Lakers did, based on their experience.

The Wizards might be the most surprising team on this list. Their payroll says "championship contender," but reality says "delusional ownership".

The Wizards have three players on their roster making eight figures. My biggest problem with giving $40 million per year to three players is that Gilbert Arenas is better suited for shooting guard, Antawn Jamison is not a true power forward, and Caron Butler plays a position that's easy to replace.

They still have huge question marks at the positions most difficult to fill—center and point guard—and will have very little cap space to add anyone significant to play either position until Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas, and Antonio Daniels become free agents in 2010. The Wizards could have cap space in 2010, but they might have to use it to fill out their roster with so few players under contract.

The Suns have three huge contracts that expire in the summer of 2010—those of Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal and the opt-out possibility of Amare Stoudemire. Nash has a player option for the 2009-10 season, but is sure to exercise it, and test free agency in 2010 with so many teams under the cap.

If they decide to let O'Neal and Nash go, the would still be able to re-sign Stoudemire and bring in a significant free agent. If they are able to move either Boris Diaw or Leandro Barbosa, then they would be able to retain Stoudemire and bring in two significant free agents.

Because of the average age of their current roster, the Lakers only have two question marks before 2010. The first is, will they trade Lamar Odom, allow him to walk in free agency, or give him a contract extension next summer? The second is, will Kobe Bryant opt out in 2010?

If the Lakers allow Odom to walk, then they'll have the ability to sign someone with their mid-level exemption that wouldn't cost them as much as Odom, even with the luxury tax.

If they trade Odom, they're looking at the same type of financial situation they are currently in, regardless of the player they receive in return.

If they extend Odom, then they better hope he's willing to take less money for more years to remain with the team, or they won't have the ability to add anyone significant until Vladimir Radmanovic's contract expires the year after.

With respect to Kobe Bryant, the Lakers don't have to worry about teams offering Kobe a deal for more money per year. Even a team with cap room wouldn't be able to offer Bryant as much money as the Lakers and still have the money to fill out its roster.

It's highly unlikely that Bryant would choose not to opt out, considering he'll be approaching his 32nd birthday. At 32, he can still get a five-year deal for $100 million or more. If he chooses not to exercise the option, then he won't be able to test the market until he's 34, when it will be unlikely that he'll receive more than four years.

The good news for Lakers fans is that the team overachieved this past season, and they are extremely young. The bad news for Lakers fans is that if they take a step backwards they run the risk of being stuck with an overpriced underachieving team—or worse, the looming prospect of Kobe going elsewhere.

I'll call the next category of NBA teams "The Fine Wines". This group is made up of teams that need only to gain experience and a player here or there before they are competing for an NBA title. This list consists of:

  • New Orleans Hornets
  • Portland Trailblazers
  • Utah Jazz
  • Orlando Magic
  • Philadelphia 76ers

All five of the above-mentioned teams are young teams that are on pace to make a leap next season, solely based on their players getting older. All five have young stars who have yet to enter their prime, and all five have good coaches who don't appear to be leaving any time soon.

It's always fun to be a fan of a team like this because you realize that the journey is much more fun than the destination. There's nothing like being a fan of a team as they go from lottery team to NBA Finalist.

Four of the five teams have big-name free agents to worry about it in the next couple of seasons, but should they re-sign those guys those teams will be competitive for the next three to five years.

The Blazers have three of the top nine players from the 2005 NBA Draft approaching restricted free agency next summer (Martell Webster, Channing Frye, and Ike Diogu), and have three more restricted free agents the following summer in LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Sergio Rodriguez, to go with unrestricted free agents Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw.

With a billionaire owner writing the checks, I fully expect at least half of those guys to get  extensions and the other half to either be let go or traded for something of substance.

The Jazz have already agreed to an extension with Deron Williams, and now need only worry about Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur opting out next summer. There's been chatter this week about Boozer signing an extension. I don't expect Okur to go anywhere.

If Okur decides not to opt out, then he'll be a free agent in 2010. Depending on what the Jazz give Williams and Boozer, they might be able to add a significant free agent in 2010. If not, then they definitely will be able to a year later when Andrei Kirilenko's contract expires.

The Magic only have to worry about last season's Most Improved Player, Hedo Turkoglu. He's got a player option for the 2009-10, and he's sure to opt out, based on the fact that his value has never been higher.

If the Magic sign Turkoglu to an extension, then their lineup will stay intact for a little while, and their success will depend on the development of Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. I fully believe in Howard, but the jury is still out on Nelson living up to the ridiculous extension the Magic gave him last year.

The Magic could decide to trade Turkoglu for a power forward or point guard, depending on how well Tony Battie and Nelson play next season. Turkoglu had a great season, but he plays the position that Rashard Lewis is best at, and Lewis' contract might be the NBA's most untradeable.

The 76ers are currently working on a contract extension for free agent Andre Igoudala. From there, their only significant free agent will be Andre Miller next summer.

Miller seems happy in Philadelphia, and the Sixers signing of Elton Brand has proved that chairman Ed Snider is not afraid to spend money to win. The future success of the team will now depend on the development of Thaddeus Young, and management's ability to replace the outside shooting they lost when they trade Kyle Korver.

The only team from that group that doesn't have to worry about upcoming free agents is New Orleans. They won't have a lot of money to spend in free agency, but they will have the ability to add another free agent at the mid-level without going over the luxury tax.

The third group of teams I'll call "The Wishful Thinkers". This group is made up the nine teams that will either have plenty of cap space in 2010, or are jockeying themselves to have maximum cap space to make a run at the bigger names.

The majority of those teams will strike out in free agency, but their abundance of cap space will allow them to absorb contracts from other teams in the same way the Clippers stole Marcus Camby from the Nuggets.

Here's the list:

  • New Jersey Nets
  • New York Knicks
  • Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Los Angeles Clippers
  • Toronto Raptors
  • Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Miami Heat
  • Memphis Grizzlies
  • Oklahoma City Thunder

The newest member of this list has to be the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers didn't expect to be part of this club—but with the unexpected departure of Elton Brand, they are suddenly one of the more attractive teams on the list.

With a nucleus of Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, Al Thornton, and Eric Gordon, and the expiring contracts of Tim Thomas, Marcus Camby, and Cuttino Mobley, the Clippers have suddenly become the team best-equipped to add a huge free agent and compete for a championship immediately.

New Jersey, Minnesota, Memphis, Miami, Cleveland, and Toronto are the other teams that are in pretty good shape.

New Jersey has been the team most-rumored to be in play for LeBron because they have so many guys still playing on rookie contracts. Even after trading Marcus Williams to the Warriors, the Nets still have Brook Lopez, Sean Williams, Yi Jianlian, Ryan Anderson, Josh Boone, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Maurice Ager on rookie contracts.

The Nets have also given reasonable contracts to Eduardo Najera and Keyon Dooling, and have the expiring contracts of Stromile Swfit in 2009 and Bobby Simmons and Trenton Hassell in 2010.

Miami will have a ton of cap space, but they only have three players under contract. Even with only $12 million committed to Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook, and Marcus Banks, the Heat will have about $50 million to spend—but they'll have to spend it on at least ten players.

The Cavs only have two players under contract after 2010—Daniel Gibson and rookie JJ Hickson, for less than $6 million. But the Cavs have two advantages over all of the other teams. First, they have the ability to give LeBron more years and more money than any other team can offer him.

The second advantage the Cavs have is that they have three eight-figure contracts that expire either this season or next, so they can make a Pau Gasol-like trade to acquire players that would make LeBron happy.

For example, Allen Iverson is in the final year of a contract that pays him close to $22 million. Even if the Nuggets were to allow Iverson to walk, horrible contracts given to Kenyon Martin and Nene would still prevent the Nuggets from having any significant amount of cap space next summer.

What if the Cavs were to offer the Nuggets Ben Wallace, and the expiring contracts of Wally Szczerbiak and Eric Snow for Allen Iverson and Kenyon Martin? The Nuggets would rid themselves of Martin's contract and have plenty of cap space in 2010, and the Cavs would add Allen Iverson. Don't you think LeBron might lean a little closer to staying in Cleveland if he was playing with Iverson?

The Raptors, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, and Oklahoma City will all have plenty of cap space, but none of them have a reputation for being desirable free agent destinations unless you count players like Jason Kapono, Brian Cardinal, and Mark Madsen.

All four of these teams will probably have to overpay to lure free agents, and I don't see any of the big-name free agents signing with them. Chris Bosh will probably stay in Toronto, but he will definitely test the market to see if it's worth taking less money to go somewhere he feels he has a better chance of winning.

What makes the Clippers more attractive than all of those teams is that the Clippers have a nucleus of proven veterans and promising rookies, while the rest of those teams will have to renounce so many players to be able to make big-money offers that they will end up with two or three veterans, three or four guys playing on rookie contracts, and a bunch of cast-offs.

The Knicks are the biggest wild card in all of this. They currently don't have the cap space—but it's no secret that they are trying to create some, and David Stern would love for the team in the league's biggest media market to be competitive.

Before the Clippers traded for Marcus Camby, they offered to take Zach Randolph from the Knicks for Brevin Knight and a future second-round pick—and the Knicks turned it down. The Knicks' new GM, Donnie Walsh, is convinced that under Mike D'Antoni, Randolph's trade value will only increase.

Walsh may have overestimated Randolph's value and might rue the day he said no to the Clippers. What Walsh doesn't realize is that the market for Randolph is already limited. With half of the teams in the NBA trying to clear cap space for 2010, not a lot of teams will be willing to acquire a contract that pays Randolph $17 million per season beyond that.

Now Walsh will have to either hope Jamal Crawford opts out of his contract next year, or that he can convince someone to take Quentin Richardson, Jared Jeffries, or Eddy Curry off his hands.

I'm going to call the fourth list, "The Realists". This list is made up of teams that know they are probably not going to be in play for big-name free agents, so they're going to use trades as their means of getting better.

Here's the list:

  • Indiana Pacers
  • Milwaukee Bucks
  • Sacramento Kings

The Pacers have already made a number of moves this summer to shake things up. They've acquired seven new players and don't appear to be done yet. They'll have a little bit of cap space for next season, but will have contract extensions due to Danny Granger and Jarrett Jack. Look for the Pacers to try and move Jack rather than lock him up now that they've got TJ Ford.

Look for them to move Jack at the deadline or next summer after the contracts of Rasho Nesterovic and Marquis Daniels expire.

The Bucks made a big move this offseason by acquiring Richard Jefferson. They immediately put the Michael Redd trade rumors to rest. They also hired a new coach, and gave reasonable contracts to Tyronn Lue and Malik Allen.

The problem with the Bucks is that they have given the worst contracts to their own free agents of any team in the NBA. They will have no cap space until 2012, so they may have no choice but to move Redd or Jefferson—because nobody will trade for the awful contracts given to Andrew Bogut, Maurice Williams, or Dan Gadzuric.

The Kings have one of the NBA's best general managers in Geoff Petrie. He doesn't make a lot of trades—but when he does, he usually gets the better end. He got Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond, and traded Peja Stojakovic for Ron Artest. He traded an aging Mike Bibby for expiring contracts.

He will probably use Artest as trade bait again to help rid the Kings of Kenny Thomas' contract. Next summer, he'll have the expiring contracts of Thomas, Brad Miller and Shareef Abdur-Rahim to improve the team.

The fifth and final group I'm going to call "The Decapitated Chickens," because I have no idea what they are doing and they seem to be making decisions like chickens with their heads cut off:

  • Golden State Warriors
  • Denver Nuggets
  • Charlotte Bobcats
  • Chicago Bulls
  • Atlanta Hawks

The Warriors fell into this group when Baron Davis decided to join the Clippers. They used the money that was earmarked for Davis and used it to bring in Corey Maggette and Ronny Turiaf—and they still have to re-sign restricted free agents, Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins.

The problem with the Warriors is that they have no identity. They don't know if they're a veteran team with Stephen Jackson, Corey Maggette, and Al Harrington or a rebuilding team with Ellis, Biedrins, Brandan Wrightm and Marco Bellinelli.

Regardless, the Warriors do not look like a playoff team. Instead they look like a team that play each of their players, with the exception of Jackson, out of position. I get that the Warriors want to play up-tempo—but no team has proven that Nellie-ball will get you anywhere if the team doesn't play defense.

The Warriors might have money to spend over the next two seasons, but it still seems as if this team lost whatever progress they made after the trade with the Pacers in 2007.

The Bulls fell into this group as a result of a happy accident. When they won the draft lottery, they were forced to pick a player that plays one of the only positions where the team was set.

As a result, the team is still without the low-post scoring threat they have been searching for since they traded Eddy Curry to the Knicks. The roster is stacked with point guards and small forwards, and they've yet to negotiate contract extensions for Luol Deng or Ben Gordon. They are in great shape for 2010—but that's because they only have Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose under contract.

If the Bulls don't figure out who the nucleus of the team is, then they might get stuck having to keep everybody. By not negotiating with Deng or Gordon, they're running the risk of both guys leaving as unrestricted free agents next year and having nothing to show for it.

The Bobcats finally hired a coach with a pedigree—but we still don't know what they're doing. They drafted DJ Augustin, even though they had Raymond Felton.

They have two players, Sean May and Adam Morrison, who are coming back from serious injuries.

They have yet to negotiate an extension with Emeka Okafor—and now there are rumors that they are trying to trade Gerald Wallace, one year after giving him an extension.

Needless to say, the honeymoon is over for this expansion franchise. It might be time for them to consider trading some of the younger guys for veterans instead of trading Wallace—but trying to predict what the Bobcats are going to do is like trying to predict the weather.

The Hawks are on this list because they have killed whatever momentum they gained by taking the eventual world champs further than the Lakers did. While they once looked like a team on the rise, the Hawks now look they are moving backwards.

Josh Smith wants to be signed and traded or have the head coach replaced, Josh Childress is threatening to play in Greece, and the ownership situation is still unresolved. Some franchises are just cursed.

Then there are the Nuggets. The poor, poor Nuggets. Did anybody think that at the time that the Sixers would end up getting the better end of the Iverson trade?

Less than two years after the trade, the Nuggets have lost their two best defensive players for nothing and still don't have an adequate point guard to replace Andre Miller. The Mavericks and Knicks are also in horrible financial shape—but at least one should make the playoffs while the other can see light at the end of the tunnel.

The Nuggets will not make the playoffs next year. If they insist they aren't going to trade Carmelo Anthony, then look for them to try and move Allen Iverson before the trade deadline. They would prefer to move Nene or Kenyon Martin—but if anybody wanted either of those guys, Denver wouldn't have traded Marcus Camby.

The good news for the Nuggets is that they should be able to keep JR Smith, since nobody else seems interested in signing him to an offer sheet. They also don't have to worry about losing Carmelo in 2010 because he's signed until 2011. By that point, they'll have some cap space—but don't look for them to be any good until then.

When your billionaire owner is married to a Wal-Mart heir and is still afraid of the luxury tax, you should know your team is in trouble.

There is one team that didn't make any of these lists, and that team is the Houston Rockets. I still don't know what to make of this team, but I can't put them in the same class with any of the other teams.

The problem with the Rockets is that their fans seem to be the only people around the NBA who think that Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are franchise players.

Additionally, the roster is unbalanced, with a glut of point guards and very little depth up front. Yet they chose to go after Brent Barry, while taking their time in re-signing Carl Landry.

To make matters worse, they have to watch the Olympics with their fingers crossed, hoping that Yao doesn't suffer a setback or that Luis Scola doesn't choke on his hair.

Where this team ends up will be dependent upon whether they decide to extend McGrady in two years, let him walk, or trade him before then. Should they choose to re-sign him, they'll have very little wiggle room to improve the roster if he and Yao are making upwards of $40 million between them.

Even with the addition of Donte Green and Brent Barry, the Rockets are still not better than the Lakers, Hornets, Jazz, or Spurs, and could finish below the Blazers and/or the Suns in the Western Conference Playoffs.

I'm still extremely impressed by the winning streak they accomplished last year. But after winning 22 in a row, the Rockets finished the season 9-7, then lost to the Jazz in six games.

The Rockets are fooling themselves if they think they are closer to the team that won 22 in a row than they are to the team that lost half of their last 22 games.

So there you have it. All it took was 5,000 words to sum up the entire NBA and the current status of the league's 30 teams.

If you're not happy with what you read, then I need only point you to the Lakers and Celtics. One team missed the playoffs and the other was a seventh-seed that got bounced from the playoffs in five games. A year later, and both teams were in the NBA Finals. Sometimes all it takes is a disgruntled player to light a fire under a general manager.

Take a good look at the NBA right now. Because chances are half the league could playing somewhere else in two years. You may want to hold off on buying that jersey you've had your eye on.

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