- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Boston Celtics haven't won a championship since 1986, but the trophy-worthy celebrations that began in late July when Bostonians found out that Kevin Garnett is now theirs can continue with this unofficial title:
Best in the East in our annual review of offseason business.
With training camps scheduled to open in less than two weeks, it's a good time to recount how the Celts were resurrected from two decades of gloom, how everyone else in the East fared in their summer dealings and how five 20-points-per-game scorers moved into the weaker conference from the West.
The following, then, is a Nos. 1-to-15, team-by-team ranking based on who has done the East's finest shopping and trading.
Just to be clear, though, the same rules as with last year's inaugural rankings apply: This list is based strictly on the offseason. It's my assessment explaining whose summers I liked and whose summers I didn't. This is not the predicted order of finish for the coming season.
If I'm being totally honest, my opinion of the Danny Ainge regime actually changed on the night of July 11, nearly three weeks before Ainge completed The Great KG Heist. That's when, after another all-day helping of summer-league ball at UNLV, I wound up at the same late-night restaurant as Ainge.
As divine as the world's best fast-food burger is, however, In-N-Out is not where you expect to run into an NBA general manager. Definitely not in Vegas, with so many fine-dining options around town and knowing what kind of expense accounts front-office chiefs carry.
So I was unavoidably impressed. I'm well aware my In-N-Out obsession is unhealthy on numerous levels, but I couldn't help over-inflating the significance of this unlikely meeting. In an instant, Ainge seemed shrewder than ever before, bypassing the pricy Strip because he knew where the sumptuous double-doubles were.
He was finishing up just as I had placed my order and I even stopped by his booth to jokingly say that his dinner choice had to rank as one of his best-ever moves running the Celtics. The joke came out sounding a lot more condescending than I had intended, but Ainge smiled politely anyway. Maybe he already knew then, after numerous huddles in the gym with Timberwolves counterpart Kevin McHale, that he'd soon be making a trade that would hush all the know-it-alls like me.
Even if he didn't know yet -- and even in the likely event that this little tale doesn't move you like it did me -- Ainge has to have won back considerable esteem with his maneuverings since draft day. He has to be the early Executive of the Year favorite, even if Ainge couldn't have pulled off his KG coup unless his buddy McHale was so eager to help the Celtics er, so hot for Al Jefferson.
Focus all you want on the challenges Boston faces in getting Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to mesh or the unproven cast around three guys who didn't even make the playoffs last season or Ainge and Garnett's inability to convince Reggie Miller to unretire. Just don't forget to applaud the Celts' willingness to commit about $60 million a season on three thirtysomethings at a time when dodging the luxury tax is a primary objective in almost every NBA city.
I've heard and read lots of negativity about how ghastly Ainge's roster looks once you get past the names Garnett, Allen and Pierce. But this is 2007, not 1987. How much do the Celtics really need around their new-age Big Three to win the East? I admire their willingness to gamble and be bold at a time when the conference is so up for grabs.
Trading for Allen and KG in the space of about a month? That makes the Celts clear winners of the offseason in the East, starting with the well-fed GM.
The Pistons paid more than they wanted to in re-signing Chauncey Billups for $60 million over five years at nearly 31. They paid more than they wanted to in retaining restricted free agent Amir Johnson, who got a lot of money ($11 million over three years) for someone who has logged a whopping 163 minutes in the NBA.
The view here is that Joe Dumars quietly has changed the dynamic of his team more than people think. It's not the overhaul lots of us were calling for after Detroit flamed out with four straight losses to Cleveland, but Johnson, Stein Line favorite Jason Maxiell and rookie guard Rodney Stuckey form a promising trio of kiddies to mix with the Pistons' veteran mainstays.
Then there's the bonus news that Rasheed Wallace, with his stock dipping perilously close to Portland levels, has dropped 25 pounds after a variety of ankle problems. Doubts remain about 'Sheed and Flip Saunders co-existing for another season, but 'Sheed's serious approach only adds to the sentiment that Detroit might be fresher and deeper than anyone imagined after that meltdown in the East finals.
We'll have to see how much burn guys like Johnson and Stuckey actually get, but could it be that these Pistons are actually extending their shelf life?
It's a possibility raised by folks like the Western Conference executive who told me during summer-league play about the athletic No. 15 overall pick: "You can't say this about a lot of guys here, but I think Stuckey's stuff translates [to the NBA game]."
They ensured that Dwight Howard will not be leaving Central Florida early like Shaquille O'Neal. They beat out Sacramento for Stan Van Gundy to bail themselves out of the Billy Donovan disaster. They were also the only top-eight team from the East to make a major move, with most of the big action coming from lottery teams: Boston, Charlotte and New York.
Add it all up and the Magic clearly had one of the East's better summers.
Yet you can't help asking one question: Is Rashard Lewis an automatic All-Star in the East?
He obviously should be for almost $120 million, but let's do the math.
Lewis is a big forward who can move and score effortlessly, but he's never been a defensive or rebounding force. If we're adhering to the positions used on last season's All-Star ballot, how does Lewis crack a top five in the East that features LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Jermaine O'Neal and the new Boston tandem of Pierce and Garnett? At best you'd have to put him in the next tier that's headlined by guys like Caron Butler and Luol Deng.
Shouldn't the Magic be getting more for the sums they've invested?
The downside of a nine-figure deal that made nearly every other 2007 summer signing seem miniscule is hearing about that price tag every day for the rest of your life. That goes for Lewis and the Magic, who have lots to do to convince the world that the splashiest move in the free agent season of 2007 was the wisest expenditure.
With memories of Shaq's 1996 departure still so fresh, Orlando clearly felt it had to do something spectacular to convince Howard to make a long-term commitment to stay. The Magic indeed went on to secure Howard's signature on a contract extension and saved themselves on the coaching front with Van Gundy after the coup of swiping Donovan away from Florida backfired, moves that ensured Orlando's placement up here in spite of the Lewis debate.
But that debate will continue indefinitely because the Magic, after all the cash splashed on Lewis, still have some significant roster vacancies after the exits of Darko Milicic and Grant Hill and with a backcourt that remains suspect. For almost $120 million, Lewis will be expected to help Howard and Van Gundy immediately lift the club into the top half of the East, but that's no given.
So the biggest winner from Orlando's busy summer, at this point, has to be Tony Dutt -- the agent who got Lewis that deal.
Yet you can understand why the Bucks feel victorious no matter what skeptics say. For awhile there, it looked as though they were going to get neither of their top two offseason targets, with Williams threatening to bolt for Miami because the Bucks' initial offer wasn't close to where it ended up ... and with Yi seemingly determined to hold out well into the season in an attempt to force Milwaukee to trade him.
To have secured both signatures by Sept. 1? A dream double for Milwaukee.
Uncertainty will linger about Williams living up to his new contract, about Yi coping with the pressure and expectations his demands and anti-Milwaukee stance created and about how various Bucks (primarily Michael Redd, Charlie Villanueva and Bobby Simmons) rebound from last season's injuries.
The Bucks also have to soothe the anger of Charlie Bell after matching Miami's offer sheet to Bell when the restricted free-agent guard badly wanted to leave. Then there's another little saga to diffuse, with Andrew Bogut coming back to the States after a June newspaper interview in Australia in which he was quoted as saying, "The public's got it right -- a lot of NBA stars are arrogant and like to spend lots of money and have lots of girlfriends and all that."
But the Bucks understandably believe that they can work through a lot of those issues after the scares and turbulence of the offseason. Good health alone should make Milwaukee one of the league's most improved teams.
(I'm told, incidentally, that Bogut has already apologized via phone for his comments to Redd, Williams and Simmons.)
The Nets might have trumped Boston for the top spot on this list had they snagged Jermaine O'Neal with an offer headlined by Richard Jefferson and Nenad Krstic. You can make a strong case that the Celtics' new trio wouldn't be the biggest in the East if New Jersey were about to team O'Neal with Jason Kidd and Vince Carter -- especially given how good Kidd looked in Las Vegas with Team USA.
Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that rejection from the Pacers ruined New Jersey's summer. Carter re-signed quickly without even considering other options, Jamaal Magloire is a sensible signing given what he cost, and the widely held suspicion around the league is that the loss of Mikki Moore isn't as damaging as it looks because Moore's breakthrough success last season was so dependent on Kidd.
Getting back among the East's elite likely depends on the state of Krstic's development after missing almost a full season after knee surgery, whether Magloire can supply the frontcourt muscle Krstic doesn't provide, and how Jefferson rebounds from his own health woes and the prospect of being moved.
But there is one other source of hope: New Jersey appears to be on the short list of places O'Neal would like to go if he leaves Indy. So perhaps there's still a chance he winds up a Net.
After prying Ben Wallace away from Detroit last summer, this summer always was going to be a lot quieter in Chicago.
The Bulls still did some good business, though, re-signing the handy Andres Nocioni at a less-than-outlandish number ($37.5 million over five years with a team option in 2012-13 for $7.5 million) and adding Joe Smith and rookie Joakim Noah to their frontcourt rotation. Any concerns about Noah's shoulder and fashion sense, furthermore, are offset by the fact that he qualifies as a bit of a steal at No. 9, given his integral role on a Florida team that just won back-to-back NCAA titles.
The good news, then, is that John Paxson still has a decent fistful of assets if he and Scott Skiles ever decide to stray from their ensemble-cast approach to try a more star-based look. The bad news: Garnett is no longer an option after years of KG-to-Chicago scenarios proposed by our venerable columnist colleague Sam Smith, while Memphis is clearly doing everything it can to keep Pau Gasol and keep him happy, as evidenced by the Grizzlies' dogged trade pursuit of Gasol's compatriot Juan Carlos Navarro.
So with its two most natural trade targets suddenly unavailable, what big names are even left to link to the Bulls besides fantasy wish Kobe Bryant?
Follow-up question: How much lower should we drop the Bulls on this list if Luol Deng isn't signed to a contract extension before the Halloween deadline?
As hot as Spanish hoopsters are these days, there's bound to be some disappointment among Wiz fans that the draft rights to Juan Carlos Navarro were traded to Memphis without one of Europe's best guards ever dribbling a ball in Washington.
But I'd counter that Ernie Grunfeld's personnel record in Washington has earned him the benefit of the doubt. I also doubt that Navarro would have been willing to leave mighty Barcelona to sign a one-year deal with the Wiz for a mere $538,090, as he did in Memphis because the Grizz had no more money left, making it the only way Navarro could have hooked up with his countryman and close friend Pau Gasol..
Grunfeld's other recent gambles in the nation's capital -- namely declining to match big offer sheets to restricted free agents Larry Hughes and Jared Jeffries and replacing them with the likes of Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson -- have worked out rather well for the Wiz. So if Grunfeld felt it was wiser to trade Navarro and the complexities involved in buying out his Barcelona deal to Memphis for a future first-round pick, it's difficult to question him.
Grunfeld preferred instead to focus on re-signing Stevenson and Andray Blatche, and secured long-term deals with both that average a reasonable $3 million annually. The Wiz, believe, furthermore, that they'll get some of that long-awaited improvement from their big men this season with a bigger role for Blatche, a full season of 2006 free-agent signee Darius Songaila (who was out until February last season) and spot contributions from 2006 first-round pick Oleksiy Pecherov.
No one's suggesting that the Wiz have nothing to worry about. The mercurial Gilbert Arenas is coming back from a knee injury that knocked him out of the playoffs, so we'll have to see if Gil (a) bounces back as well as he's predictably promising; (b) continues to co-exist peacefully with coach Eddie Jordan and (c) can lead this small, defensively-challenged squad to significant playoff success before he becomes a free agent next summer. Blatche's recent arrest for soliciting an undercover police officer for prostitution, when he was on the verge of signing his new deal, was another alarm bell.
Yet it seems safe to suggest that they haven't set themselves way back by parting with Navarro. The Wiz naturally prefer to focus on the fact that they were actually leading the East halfway through the season and were derailed by the injuries to Butler and Arenas.
If you were expecting the Raps to try to do something splashy to make another big move up the East ladder, you were disappointed. Jason Kapono and Carlos Delfino are the only newcomers of note in Canada.
But let's be real. The Raps are ahead of schedule after winning their division in the first full season with Bryan Colangelo in charge. Rushing to change too much, when they're still finding out exactly what they have, wouldn't make sense.
It's better to do what Colangelo did, opting for subtle tweaks and rewarding coach Sam Mitchell with some security while waiting to see how the Chris Bosh/Andrea Bargnani tag team progresses.
If Raps fans want to fret about something, it should be health. Bosh had to leave Team USA with a foot ailment and Jorge Garbajosa came back earlier than he should have from his gruesome leg and ankle injuries so he wouldn't miss playing for Spain when his country played host to the European Championships. Getting a full season out of those two and confirming that neither faces long-term issues is far more important for Toronto's long-term prospects than cracking the 50-win plateau or repeating as Atlantic champs.
For years I've been quietly urging myself not to be one of those guys who always chides the Bobcats for never spending and then second-guesses them when they finally do spend. Can't help it, though.
Their summer biz raised the strong possibility of improvement but also plenty of questions. If they end up making the playoffs, I had them too low on the list. But I'm far from sold.
Taking on the big Jason Richardson contract could indeed address Charlotte's longstanding need for a dependable go-to scorer, but I will continue to quibble over his go-to status if he continues to shoot below 70 percent from the line. It's happened for four straight seasons, which continually cuts into Richardson's aggressiveness and effectiveness because his free throw and ballhandling issues make him a reluctant driver.
You also can expect folks to keep asking if J-Rich was really the right guy to be the first big-money Bobcat until we know for sure that he can play alongside the versatile Gerald Wallace and sharpshooting Matt Carroll, who also landed nice deals from the Bobs in free agency.
Yet there are even bigger question marks, without even getting to my inevitable curiosity about rookie guard Bobby Brown's chances of making the team in training camp.
2. You can't ignore his injury history, but why has there been so little talk of a contract extension for Emeka Okafor -- only the Bobs' best big man -- if they're suddenly busy locking up core pieces?
3. And most crucially, what if Sam Vincent isn't ready to be a head coach, as some in Dallas suspect?
Jordan choosing a former teammate to replace Bernie Bickerstaff on the bench shocked absolutely no one, just as you couldn't be at all surprised that longtime MJ cronies Rod Higgins and Buzz Peterson landed in Charlotte's front office. But Jordan's choice of Vincent raised multiple eyebrows even in Mavsland, where Vincent just completed his only season as an NBA assistant.
10. New York Knicks
For all my skepticism about Zach Randolph's ability to share space down low with Eddy Curry -- as well as the bigger doubts about Randolph being able to dodge off-court trouble in New York -- it would be pretty cynical to find fault with the acquisition of a proven 20-10 guy who's only 26. Isiah Thomas seemingly ensured high summertime marks when he acquired Randolph on draft day for Steve Francis and Channing Frye, even from serial Isiah bashers.
You barely remember that Isiah managed to acquire Randolph at a minimal cost and with a limited cache of tradable assets when Zeke is on trial for sexual harassment. As a sidebar to all the lurid and damaging accusations Isiah is absorbing in a Manhattan courtroom, Stephon Marbury's sanity is being publicly questioned after a string of statements and displays that "could generously be described as odd or goofy or perhaps erratic," in the words of the New York Times' Howard Beck, except that "no one has been that generous."
Throw in the fact that getting to the playoffs in the East should be tougher than it was last season, given the upgrades in Boston and Orlando alone, and there goes any notion of a celebratory offseason.
11. Atlanta Hawks
There's been a rush in some circles to congratulate the Hawks for finally drafting well. I suspect you won't be surprised to hear that I'm not in the same rush.
Al Horford might have been the most coveted commodity in the draft not named Oden or Durant. Acie Law is indeed a well-regarded point guard. Those two alone, though, aren't likely to transform this team into playoff material and certainly won't convince me to absolve the Hawks for passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in the 2005 draft -- and then Brandon Roy in '06 -- so they could take Marvin Williams and Shelden Williams, respectively.
It's not like the front-office sins are limited to recent drafts, either. The Hawks had multiple young assets to offer in trades and did bubkes, apparently still paralyzed by the ownership battle between Steve Belkin and his former partners.
Even if Belkin appears to be most responsible for the inactivity -- which suggests things might change someday if his former partners finally can force him out through legal channels -- I can't let go of a story that comes from multiple sources I trust: How the Hawks, reportedly at Belkin's insistence, were going to say no to taking on Amare Stoudemire if a three-way trade on draft day could have been worked out with Phoenix and Minnesota to send Garnett to the Suns and Horford (via the No. 3 overall pick) to the Wolves.
The Suns maintain that they never came close to trading Stoudemire and that all the talks in this case were between the Hawks and Wolves on the assumption that Phoenix would participate. Fine. But let's go ahead and assume for a moment that the Suns were willing.
The Hawks, as the story goes, were still going to end up saying no to trading for Amare. That kills me.
There was enough smoke coming from this trade scenario to convince Joe Johnson to call his former Suns teammate and tell Stoudemire that he hoped to see him in Atlanta. But the Hawks' dysfunctional ownership group, by all accounts, was going to block this deal even if Phoenix wanted it to go through.
Think about that.
It would be a mistake to presume that the Cavaliers wanted to follow up their Cinderella trip to the NBA Finals by doing absolutely nothing. They were very close in July to completing a trade that would have netted Mike Bibby and Luis Scola.
The problem? That double score likely would have hiked Cleveland's payroll well past $70 million, which is one big reason that the trade unraveled.
The Cavs, furthermore, face that harsh financial reality and the minimal wiggle room to make improvements for at least one more year, when a handful of contracts (Donyell Marshall, Eric Snow, Damon Jones and Drew Gooden) can be shopped as 2008-09 expiring deals.
Until then? The Cavs can make a risky deal like the aforementioned Bibby scenario and pay a ridiculous luxury-tax bill at the end of the next couple seasons because of their 2005 foibles. Or they can hope, like last season, that the poor return they're getting from their summer of '05 spending spree -- which bestowed lavish contracts upon Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Marshall and Damon Jones -- can't stop the LeBron James juggernaut from towing this franchise forward.
Cavs personnel chief Danny Ferry has been chasing Bibby hard since the February trading deadline, resulting in the widespread expectation that Bibby will wind up in Cleveland eventually in spite of the costs involved. The immediate consolation for Ferry is that Cleveland apparently has convinced the rest of the league that it will match any offer sheet presented to restricted free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, leading to the likelihood that both players will play this season on a one-year tender offer before becoming unrestricted free agents next summer.
A year ago, Philly was snidely ragged here for its Seinfeldian summer. A summer, in other words, about nothing.
More eventful, yes, but only slightly.
The Sixers were hoping that the draft picks they had stockpiled at the heart of their post-Allen Iverson strategy would lead to a significant draft-day trade. But they didn't, forcing Sixers boss Billy King to add two more mid first-rounders -- Thaddeus Young and Jason Smith -- to a roster of role players.
Rebounding machine Reggie Evans was a nice pickup this month and third-year guard Louis Williams showed some summer-league promise, but the Sixers will spend their first full season AAI (After AI) featuring a couple Andres (Iguodala and Miller) and a slew of one-dimensional players (Kyle Korver, Evans and Samuel Dalembert) as opposed to a clear-cut cornerstone or two they can build upon.
Perhaps a couple of these kids -- like, say, Williams -- will develop quickly and give the Sixers more trade options than they have now. Until then, I'm afraid, Philly fans aren't going to see much more than effort and decent chemistry.
14. Indiana Pacers
Their string of troubles with the law was freshly extended by the arrest of Shawne Williams.
Their plan to wait out the Lakers -- convinced that L.A. would eventually agree to part with Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum in exchange for Jermaine O'Neal -- hasn't brought them any closer to an actual trade after three months of waiting.
Proud as we were when Indy came to ESPN.com to hire their new coach, we are obliged to point out that Jim O'Brien has walked into a mess. The roster, as currently constituted, will force O'Brien to resurrect the careers of Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy and Jamaal Tinsley if these Pacers hope to do anything this season.
I wouldn't advocate just giving O'Neal away, because he's a proven 20-10 guy and getting better defensively as he gets older. He's become one of the league's foremost interior defensive forces.
But Indy's bloated payroll and resulting lack of flexibility offers little hope for change, with nearly $45 million committed in 2007-08 just to O'Neal and the aforementioned trio (Dunleavy, Murphy and Tinsley) that isn't attracting any trade interest.
So whether it's dealing O'Neal away for the closest thing he can get to an Odom-Bynum type of combo or moving their star for a package of youngsters, draft picks and cap-friendly contracts as Philadelphia (Allen Iverson) and Minnesota (Kevin Garnett) did, what other options does Larry Bird have?
15. Miami Heat
We never expected Pat Riley to emerge from one of his self-imposed summertime exiles to announce that he's suddenly willing to coach for three more seasons. Yet we also never expected to see Riley let Jason Kapono, James Posey and Eddie Jones bolt in free agency . . . and then lose two free-agent faceoffs with those not-so-free spenders from Milwaukee.
None of the above developments is a surprise on par with the (still) stunning news that Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway are reuniting, but you get the point. This hasn't been the sort of offseason any of us anticipated after the Heat's title defense ended in a first-round sweep by Chicago.
The problem? Although Riley gave himself "an F this summer" during a recent radio appearance in response to the Heat's offseason inactivity, economics -- as with almost every team we're writing about here -- have restricted his ability to make changes.
But Riley must be feeling the pressure from his own grade, because the Heat -- after initially vowing to add to their luxury-tax bill only if it meant signing a free agent of Mo Williams' caliber -- decided to make a run at Bucks teammate Charlie Bell when they couldn't pry Williams away from Milwaukee.
Yet that only set up the Bucks to thwart Riley again and pile onto that F. After bumping its offer to Williams past the 50 million plateau to neuter Miami's richest pitch, Milwaukee matched the 18-plus million offer sheet Bell signed with the Heat as a restricted free agent.
Bell could have only helped so much, but now Riley can't even count on that much, with Hardaway's unlikely comeback at age 36 and a gamble on Lakers castoff Smush Parker headlining the Heat's summer.
Beyond that? Miami has only promised Dorell Wright that he's finally going to get some minutes ... and gotten older.
If form holds, Parker isn't dependable enough to make a major difference and Hardaway's return to Shaq's side is bound to provide more for us media types than for the Heat. Riley, in other words, is depending on Shaq -- and Alonzo Mourning in his farewell campaign -- to get through the season with no major health setbacks, while also praying Dwyane Wade doesn't miss too much of November in his ongoing recovery from shoulder and knee surgery.
Those are the surprises Riley needs to see now.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann