What's coming down the line in '09?
The Year Of The Cavs
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: I predict that 2009 will be the year of the Cavs. Sure the Cavs are
in a position to win the NBA title in '09, but that's not what I'm talking about.
I predict Cavs GM Danny Ferry and owner Dan Gilbert will pull out all the stops to make sure LeBron James can't come up with a good reason to leave in the summer of 2010. By most accounts, LeBron is ready and willing to bolt Cleveland in 18 months. The Cavs have to be proactive now to stop that from happening.
It won't make sense for the Cavs to wait until the summer of 2010, when they'll be competing with the likes of New York and New Jersey, among other big markets, for free agents. They're better off doing something now that gives them the pieces that make it impossible for LeBron to leave. How do they do it? Believe it or not, I don't think winning a title in 2009 will help things.
What LeBron wants and needs is a team loaded with young players that can compete for the next decade, not just this season and the next. That starts with finding a talented young player for Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract by the trade deadline.
It also includes shopping Ben Wallace's expiring contract in the summer of 2009 for a team desperate to join the other Joneses under the cap in 2010. And it probably will include dangling Zydrunas Ilgausakas and his expiring contract to a team that thinks Z could put it over the top this season or next.
If the Cavs can turn those assets into a young big man with potential, a high draft pick or two, or another under-28 All-Star, LeBron might be compelled to stay. If they stand pat or play it conservatively, Ferry and Gilbert forever will be known as the guys who let the hometown hero get away.
The Recession All-Stars
Henry Abbott, ESPN TrueHoop: I don't know which team it will be. But a great team will, I predict, be built by an owner who is willing to spend in 2009.
This economic pain is broad and real, even for the billionaires who run NBA teams. Not only are teams themselves feeling the pinch -- would you want to be selling sponsorships or luxury boxes in this economy? -- but the owners' core incomes often come from currently miserable economic sectors like real estate investments, mortgages, construction or automobiles. On top of that, thanks to a fairly hard salary cap and guaranteed contracts, in the NBA (unlike in baseball or European soccer), big spending on player contracts can hurt a team, by tying up big dollars and precious roster spots with injured or underperforming players.
So I predict many, if not most, owners, will direct their GMs to cut salaries this year, where possible. They will acquire draft picks and cap space and retool when the economy is alive again.
Then it will be like the housing industry. If everyone's selling to raise cash ... boy, wouldn't it be a nice time to have some cash. It's bargain city out there.
I'm sure at least a handful of owners are ready to spend and will spend 2009 stalking the best of those contracts everyone else will be shedding. And of those teams spending more this year, in all likelihood, at least one will get the mix just right, and a great new team will be born of opportunism.
Detroit's Run Officially Ends
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: I know it doesn't make me Nostradamus to say the East will come down to Boston and Cleveland. But if there's a third team that can disrupt the expected Eastern Conference final, I say it's Orlando, not Detroit. The nice little run the Pistons had is officially over. Not only will they fail to reach the conference finals for the first time in seven years, but they will be ousted from the playoffs in the first round -- by Atlanta!
The Hawks have the athleticism, mental toughness and clutch play to beat the still-complacent, up-and-down Pistons. Detroit's early exit will lead to wholesale changes, although first-year coach Michael Curry will be safe (as he should be).
The very fruitful Rasheed Wallace era will end as the Pistons let him walk away in free agency or maybe through a sign-and-trade. I wouldn't be surprised to see Wallace sign in Philly or Boston. He'd be a great addition to either squad.
The short-lived Allen Iverson era also will end, with Iverson leaving via free agency. I can't call a landing spot for him at this point. The Iverson-Chauncey Billups trade still won't go down as a failure because: a) The Pistons weren't going to win the East with Billups, and b) the trade will give them major cap room for 2009 or 2010. And you better believe president Joe Dumars will make the most of the Pistons' flexibility, rebuilding them into a conference contender within a few years.
Spreading The Wealth
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The NBA luxury tax was designed to, as an oft-used phrase in the 2008 presidential campaigns went, spread the wealth around. In 2009, the tax could wind up redistributing talent around the league.
Several general managers have said they expect luxury tax avoidance to play a major role in trade decisions this year. That's why they'll be on the lookout for what one called "a Marcus Camby situation." Maybe we should make it an official part of the collective bargaining agreement lexicon, like the Larry Bird exception. A Camby situation refers to a team trading a quality player because of tax ramifications, as was the case this past summer when the Nuggets sent the league's reigning shot-block king and a recent defensive player of the year to the Clippers in exchange for a trade exception and the right to swap second-round picks in the 2010 draft. The deal left Camby mystified and Nuggets fans horrified, but it cleared out Camby's $10 million salary and put the Nuggets in position to get below the tax threshold.
As it's turned out, the Nuggets have moved into the heart of the playoff picture, following another deal that shipped out Allen Iverson's expiring contact for Chauncey Billups. And the Clippers reverted to being the Clippers. But what if a trade has the effect of Pau Gasol going from Memphis to the Lakers, a financially motivated move by the Grizzlies that boosted Los Angeles to the best record in the Western Conference and a trip to the NBA Finals last season?
With the tax threshold at $71.15 million this season, teams with payrolls in the $70 million range and records in the sub-.500 range will be worth watching as the Feb. 19 trade deadline approaches, even if they are shaving just a little by trading "down" within the 25 percent salary range allowed by the collective bargaining agreement. Perhaps Toronto would unload a shooter like Jason Kapono. Or maybe the Raptors could decide it's time to end the Andrea Bargnani experiment. The Bucks, on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, already are starting to pop up in trade rumors. The next month (which features a favorable schedule) could determine whether they're making moves to lock up a playoff spot or save dollars on the spreadsheet.
The salary cap was supposed to both maintain competitive balance and mandate fiscal sanity when it was implemented in 1984. It contained enough loopholes to allow determined agents, general managers and owners to keep escalating salaries and payrolls, which brought about the need for another spending deterrent in the form of the luxury tax. Teams that exceeded the tax level have to pay a 100 percent, dollar-for-dollar surcharge into a pool that is divided among the teams that were obedient little children and remained below the tax threshold. A team that signs a player who puts it over the tax gets hit three ways: the player's salary, the tax on the salary and the funds lost by not participating in the shared tax pool. It's roster shaping by incentive, financial incentive. And soon enough, we'll learn whether teams see the letter W as standing for winning, or wallet.
The Return Of Josh
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Josh Childress will return to the NBA next season, and commissioner David Stern will not be able to keep the smile off his face at his first news conference for the 2009-10 season.
The whole idea that European leagues would start luring talent away from the NBA in increasing droves or lure a superstar for a gazillion dollars never made much sense, but Childress' hasty return will drive the point home. For European owners, the financial infrastructure simply isn't there for every team to pay two or three current NBA players the money necessary to lure them over the pond, as well as pay the home-grown stars.
Yeah, the dough is tax-free; yeah, you get a car and a chef and free apartment -- the fact is, it's still an entirely different culture and an entirely different style of play. The average NBA player can afford all the above-mentioned perks, see friends and family, and still salt away a big chunk of his income. Living well in isolation is still living in isolation.
Keep in mind, Childress, as a well-rounded Stanford alum, is the rare NBA player who could appreciate the cultural experience of living in another country for a year. If that holds no appeal and the money isn't convincing enough, there is no other attraction. No one becomes a global icon by dominating in Italy or Greece. No one is recognized as one of the best players in the world by helping Real Madrid to a title. Nenad Krstic said as much when he left Moscow after a half-season to join the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Think about it -- he's leaving one of the most lavish, winning teams in all of Europe, based in one of its most cosmopolitan cities, to join the NBA's losingest team in one of its least sophisticated cities. And, by all accounts, it's a dream come true.
None of this, by the way, is to cast aspersions on the international game or foreign leagues. It's simply that the idea that the NBA has legitimate competition is being fostered by those who resent its stranglehold on the world's best talent and what it's doing with it.
The end of Josh's excellent adventure will make that clear.
Focus Will Be On Worst Team Ever, Not Best
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Back on Christmas Eve, a fairly decent case could be made that either the Boston Celtics or the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to spend at least the first few weeks of the new year asserting themselves as a possible 72-win team.
That's right, a team that might actually threaten the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' best regular season ever, a 72-10 campaign in Michael Jordan's first full season back from his aborted professional baseball career, a season that began the Bulls' second three-peat.
Going into their Christmas game against the Lakers, the Celtics were ahead of the Bulls' pace, sitting on a 27-2 record. But fast forward to New Year's Eve, with three losses in four games on their just-completed West Coast swing, and we're not quite feeling that 73-9 thing anymore.
And the Cavs? Well, at this point, we feel every superstar in the league is competing for second place in the MVP race behind LeBron James. But the Cavs' poor performance Tuesday night in Miami dropped their record to 26-5 (they have played two fewer games than the 28-5 Celtics) and cost them an opportunity to become the pursued rather than the pursuer in the Eastern Conference.
So while we're especially looking forward to the Cavs-Celtics clashes on Jan. 9, March 6 and April 9, plus an epic battle in the Eastern Conference finals, there will be no prediction here of either of those teams tying or breaking the Bulls' record for regular-season victories.
Nope, the only prediction of historical proportions that we're willing to make is this:
If there's a team that's going to threaten any win-loss records, it's the Oklahoma City Thunder, who stand a strong chance of remaining relevant throughout the remainder of the season solely for their ineptitude, possibly ending up being more awful than the worst team in NBA history, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who didn't win their fourth game that season until Jan. 7 and finished 9-73.
And something tells me there are plenty of people in Seattle who are hoping, out of spite and malice toward Clay Bennett -- the man who moved the SuperSonics out of Seattle -- that this prediction comes true.
Coaching Hot Seat Cools Off
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The first day of 2009 will mark the 17th consecutive day a coach has not been fired.
That qualifies as hard news.
But after a whopping six coaches were canned in a 24-day span before Christmas -- doubling the previous NBA record of three and after just one in-season coaching change (Chicago firing Scott Skiles) was made in 2007-08 -- our crystal ball says we won't see any more firings until after the regular season.
OK, OK. Maybe there will be one more no one in coaching circles anticipates right now, given how volatile this business is these days. Yet it appears the coaching carousel has really (and mercifully) stopped spinning until the end of the regular season.
Eight teams began this season with new coaches. Six teams just made changes. And when you scan the other half of the league for coaches in trouble, there are good reasons to argue against any of the four coaches with records well under .500 being asked to leave in season.
• Memphis' Marc Iavaroni has the young Grizzlies playing nearly .500 ball at home ... and has received pretty strong public backing from Grizz owner Michael Heisley that his job is safe for the rest of the season. You can dismiss it as the dreaded "vote of confidence," but none of the six coaches fired since Nov. 22 received the level of on-the-record support Iavaroni got when Heisley announced earlier this month that "I'm behind him 100 percent."
• Golden State's Don Nelson just beat Boston without Monta Ellis, Jamal Crawford and Corey Maggette and just received a contract extension in October. So even if Nelson were trying to get himself fired, as has been suggested by various media types, given the stunning lack of defense and focus we've seen from the Warriors at times, it's not going to happen, after the Dubs locked themselves into paying Nellie $12 million over the next two seasons.
• In Indiana, Jim O'Brien is Larry Bird's guy, handpicked by Bird in his first coaching selection since succeeding Donnie Walsh as the Pacers' lead decision-maker. The Pacers certainly expected to be better, but they aren't deep enough in this early stage of their rebuilding to cope with a steady stream of injuries, most notably Mike Dunleavy's season-long absence.
• Dunleavy's father, meanwhile, probably is even safer in Clipperland than Nelson is in Oakland because of his financial insulation. With Mike Dunleavy Sr. now in charge of personnel as well, Clippers owner Donald Sterling would have to pay off Dunleavy's lucrative contract (he's due $10-plus million over two years after this season) and likely find two replacements, one for the bench and one for the front office. Even the idea that Dunleavy would restrict himself to GM duties and replace himself with assistant coach Kim Hughes looks like a long shot, no matter how much happier that would make Baron Davis.
Don't fret, though. You can be sure the carousel will be spinning again soon enough, in April and May, with the likes of Flip Saunders, Eddie Jordan, Avery Johnson and Sam Mitchell on the market and playoff disappointments leading to another change or three.
I'd say we've seen enough turnover for one season anyway. Haven't we?
Shrinking Salary CapJohn Hollinger, ESPN.com: If you're looking for a significant development to watch in 2009, look no further than the economy's effect on the salary cap -- something that will have major implications as soon as the February trade deadline.
Throughout the salary cap era, the modus operandi has been that the league's salary cap increases every season. This has been largely true over the past two decades and has become the cornerstone of both team cap planning and player contracts (most of which contain 10 percent annual raises).
Plug a serious recession into the equation, however, and things change. Dramatically.
The 2009-10 cap number is based on the league's revenues in 2008-09 -- the league adds 4.5 percent to the non-TV basketball revenue from the previous season, then adds the value of that season's TV contract, and from that, presto, a cap number churns out.
Since the cap number is basically an estimate of what the current season's revenues will be, that 4.5 percent is key. There's a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that allows the league to "make up" cap money if the cap was set too high a year earlier (the players have the same provision if it was set too low).
While much of the league's revenue for this season (season tickets, sponsorships, etc.) came in a long time ago, and thus wasn't affected by the changing economic conditions, there still should be enough of an effect on the revenue to make the revenue increase this season less than 4.5 percent -- kicking in the make-up provision in 2009-10.
The net effect, multiple league sources tell me, is that the cap is likely to increase little, if any, next season. Whether it increases will depend largely on team's walk-up sales the rest of the season.
That has huge implications league-wide because the luxury tax level moves in lockstep with the cap. Teams have built their salary structures on the assumption of a rising tax -- but instead, many teams are locked into salaries for next season that will increase 10 percent without any corresponding increase in the tax level.
The upshot is if the tax level doesn't rise, at least 12 teams are threatening to be over next season's tax level on current contracts alone -- including several teams that have been adamant about staying under it in the past.
That, in turn, is likely to make the next 12 months very interesting from a trade perspective, as teams try to move contracts to position themselves under the suddenly lowered tax line. We also might see shockingly little activity in the free-agent market, as too many teams will have their hands tied by financial considerations.
And if you think the summer of 2009 looks bad, just wait until the much-hyped summer of 2010. First, the league's revenues are likely to be much lower in 2009-10 than they are this season, and that's the number that's the basis for setting the 2010-11 cap. The many season-ticket holders and sponsors who couldn't get out of their commitments this fall instead will jump ship a year from now, creating a revenue shortfall league-wide.
That, in turn, will result in the make-up provision having a major effect in the summer of 2010. And since the cap in 2010 will have been set off a lowered revenue base, it will turn into a double-whammy.
To illustrate, I modeled a situation in which league revenues increase by 2 percent in 2008-09 but declined by 3 percent in 2009-10. I'm not saying this will happen, but just humor me for a second.
If that were the case, the cap would decrease by about 0.5 percent in 2008-09 ... and then it would decrease by a whopping 5.6 percent in 2009-10. The cap would go all the way down to $55.2 million that year.
Remember all those teams that projected to be able to offer max deals to the likes of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010? Those projections were based on a cap number in the $60 million range, not the $50 million range; needless to say, some of them might have to rework their plans. And others, like the Knicks, might not find it so easy to squeeze in two max-level contracts under the cap if it's not at the $63-65 million level we heard thrown around this fall.
Players will feel the effects as well. Max- and mid-level contracts will be scaled lower, and in general, free-agent money will be far less plentiful. It also means fewer players are likely to opt out of contracts over the next two summers.
So as we go into 2009, pay attention to all that arcane financial data and contract legalese that goes into setting the cap level. The effect could end up being far greater than anything that takes place on the court.
ESPN.COM'S LOOK AT THE YEAR AHEAD
What to expect across the sports spectrum in 2009? ESPN.com offers things you might see coming, some you won't and some that will just flat-out surprise. Predictions to consider: