Let us be optimistic and sunny for once this summer. The NBA lockout will either end on Monday, or it will cost us real live regular season games. If the latter is the case, we shall have plenty of time to grouse and wring our hands of all the sorrow that still remains. (I'm pretty much tapped out, for what it's worth.) But if the lockout ends, we're in for one hell of a sprint to Game 1, with a condensed free agency, amnesty and trade period to get us there.
As such, let's cheat off of the starting line just a bit and look at which teams need to be on top of their game and ready to go as soon as David Stern drops the green flag. Which teams have the most work to do once the lockout ends? As it turns out, they are all fringe contenders.
"Fringe contenders" might be kind to the Nuggets: they were dismissed in five games in the first round of the NBA playoffs last season by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Further, they have lost Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith to China; it would take some subterfuge to get the players out of those contracts and back into the NBA, thanks to Chinese Basketball Association rules. But the biggest decision for the Nuggets to make will come on Nene, the Brazilian center ready to cash in and compete for a title.
To keep Nene, Denver has to pony up the dollars and convince the big man the team will contend. That means that the team needs help elsewhere on the roster. With Martin gone, the Nuggets are looking at Chris Andersen, Timofey Mozgov and rookie Kenneth Faried as the team's frontcourt. Remember, Nene wouldn't sign an extension before the lockout. That's a clear indicator he wants to test the market. (See note at bottom of column about previous version of this column.)
But he's an unrestricted free agent, so the Nuggets do need to act quickly, or at least be prepared to act quickly. How do you prioritize? How do you show Nene you're serious about contending without blowing your cap space on veterans that would be superfluous if Nene leaves? Because if Nene leaves, you're in rebuild mode. Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson are strong players, and I like Jordan Hamilton (another rookie), but that's just not enough in the powerful West. Nene essentially dictates whether the Nuggets can make another run at it or need to pull back and let the roster grow. Nene is everything to the Nuggets right now.
Elsewhere on the roster, Hamilton should help dull the sting from Chandler leaving; Wil was a restricted free agent anyways, and he plays Gallo's position, so Masai Ujiri and George Karl may have already come to terms with his departure.
Andre Miller also remains in the air. It's unclear whether the Nuggets and Miller renegotiated the deadline by which Denver would have to waive him to take cap space; if so, the Nuggets will likely have a quick decision to make there, one which will also speak to the team's faith in its ability to compete for the playoffs. Rebuilding teams don't need 35-year-old back-up point guards.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Yes, I am being a little liberal on use of the phrase "fringe contenders"; like the Nuggets, the Blazers were excised from the NBA Playoffs in the first round (albeit in six games to the Dallas Mavericks). With the Blazers, it's not a question of contention or rebuilding -- with LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Raymond Felton, this should be a playoff team. But it's a matter of how the Blazers will look, what parts of their past they will take forward that the immediate lockout aftermath will dictate.
Question No. 1 with a bullet is Brandon Roy. He has $69 million remaining on his contract. That's one helluvan amnesty option, especially if the league's amnesty clause wipes money off of the cap in addition to the luxury tax rolls. But at the same time, even hobbled he might be Portland's best perimeter playmaker, he has a still-great rapport with Aldridge, the team's best player, and the Blazers are better with Roy than without. But $69 million, y'all.
Greg Oden is a little different: he hasn't actually contributed much to Portland over the last four seasons. Oden could take the mystery out of his situation by signing the team's (pricey) qualifying offer, which will essentially act as a one-year deal, allowing the lumberjack to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. But if Oden doesn't take the one-year flyer and opts for the chance at stability, and a team (like say, Detroit?) rolls the dice on a multi-year deal ... at what point do the Blazers cut their losses, cap their sunk costs and allow themselves to allow Oden to potentially make his mark somewhere else? Remember that when on the court, Oden has been pretty damned good. This isn't a Hasheem Thabeet situation.
If Oden is gone, and perhaps even if he stays, Portland may also need to consider upgrading the center position (Marcus Camby wasn't great last year). I'd venture to say that Felton and rookie Nolan Smith at the point is an upgrade over Miller and Patty Mills (who the Blazers can retain via restricted free agency); at the very least, adding Felton should help some of the team's shooting problems and be neutral or slightly positive on defense, assuming Felton comes to Portland in shape, which is a tiresome thing to say but needs to be said because, man, look at Raymond Felton, has he been hanging out with Carmelo Anthony or something?
No team is in greater peril as of October 10, 2011, than the Orlando Magic. Otis Smith's job: convince Dwight Howard he can win a championship in O-Town. Otis Smith's (self-inflicted) arsenal: Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu on star contracts, some solid pieces in Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick, and ... not a whole lot of flexibility or potential to improve without some real dice rolls. The Arenas-Rashard Lewis gambit didn't work. The Vince Carter-Jason Richardson gambit didn't work. The Magic got tanked by the Hawks. This is bad, real bad.
The saving grace is that Smith has never been shy, that Stan Van Gundy has never met a challenge he couldn't scream down, that Dwight is so freaking good that he'll cover up a whole lot of deficiencies. I'm not sure what the Magic have in store for the lockout aftermath, but it's bound to be worthy all caps. Desperation can be a man's best friend. Let's go, Otis.
Other teams have big decisions to make, too. There's almost no doubt Memphis will match whatever it takes on Marc Gasol. The Spurs will, I assume, try to buy some flexibility by pawning off Richard Jefferson with an asset. The Mavericks will be put to the test in free agency -- how willing is Mark Cuban to try to buy a second championship with a massive luxury tax bill? The Lakers will immediately put themselves in the Dwight Howard rumor mill, to which I respond with the most bilious words I can. The Heat will grab a few ringchasers, maybe a legit center like Samuel Dalembert. (Dalembert to Miami on the mid-level remains the biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind.) I sense the Hawks will stay even until the new owner's in place; the Celtics have little choice but to hang on for one more run in the Big Four Or So era. The Bulls don't have much wiggle room going forward when you consider the outlays to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer and the max Derrick Rose will sign.
And of course, the teams outside the top tier will attempt to figure out ways to get there, by trying to be opportunistic in trades and free agency, by building around their prized youth. But when April and May roll around, what the teams outlined above do will be what matters most. Get ready for crunch time, part 1.
Correction: This column previously called Chris Andersen a free agent. The Birdman is, in fact, under contract. We regret the error and thank Noam Schiller for the correction.
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