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The Jump: Risers and Fallers

The 2009-10 NBA season is the beginning of the balance of power shifting in the Western Conference. Let me state that this process is not going to happen overnight, but there are three small market teams that are up and coming, with the traditional powers starting to slope downhill (outside of the Los Angeles Lakers, who will stay at the top as long as Kobe Bryant keeps playing at this level).

Rising

Oklahoma City Thunder:

Out of the teams that I have on the rise the Oklahoma City Thunder have the most upside. As we have talked about in The Jump before, Thunder GM Sam Presti has done a phenomenal job building this team. One thing OKC has done better than any team in the league is taking advantage of teams who are trying to save money and avoid the luxury tax. They took on Matt Harpring’s contract from the Jazz and got rookie PG Eric Maynor (lots of potential and can play alongside Russell Westbrook). Presti acquired Kurt Thomas with two Suns first round picks for absolutely nothing.

Core

Kevin Durant-21 years old
Jeff Green-23 years old
James Harden- 20 years old
Serge Ibaka- 20 years old…Ibaka was one of the first round draft picks acquired in the Suns deal
B.J. Mullens- 20 years old
Thabo Sefolosha- 25 years old
Russell Westbrook- 21 years old
Eric Maynor- 22 years old

What is most intriguing about the Thunder is that the core is going to expand next season. They will be well under the salary cap (all of the above players are under contract and their cap number is a very low $40 million) and they have the Suns’ first round pick, their own 1st round pick and two second round picks. The one weakness of the Oklahoma City Thunder is that they do not have a true low post presence. If they could somehow talk Chris Bosh into signing with them, the Thunder would win the Northwest Division.

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento Kings GM Geoff Petrie has completely turned the Kings franchise around in the last two NBA drafts. Petrie selected Memphis guard Tyreke Evans (boy was I wrong about him) with the 4th pick when the sexy pick would have been PG Ricky Rubio. Evans has been the best rookie since LeBron James. With their second first round pick the Kings took SF Omri Casspi out of Israel. Casspi has been the most surprising rookie to me; I don’t think I have ever seen a rookie play so confidently. In the last two weeks the Kings have played the Lakers tough twice and in both games Omri Casspi was not afraid to stand up to Kobe Bryant. In the 2008 draft they snagged Jason Thompson with the 12th pick out of Rider who is a young and upcoming power forward prospects.

Core

Omri Casspi- 21 years old
Tyreke Evans- 20 years old
Donte Greene- 21 years old
Spencer Hawes- 21 years old
Jason Thompson- 23 years old
Francisco Garcia- 28 years old
Sergio Rodriguez- 23 years old
Beno Udrih- 27 years old
Kevin Martin- 26 years old

The Kings only have $41 million in contracts locked up next year leaving them significant cap space to be aggressive in the off season. Every one of those players listed above is under contract besides Sergio Rodriguez, who is a restricted free agent. Even though the Kings are well under the cap it has always been difficult to attract big time free agents to play in Sacramento. The best way for the Kings to get top flight talent is through trades or the draft. The two faces of the Kings since they moved to Sactown in 1985 have been Mitch Richmond and Chris Webber. Richmond was acquired through a trade with the Golden State Warriors with Billy Owens as the centerpiece, and they got Chris Webber from the Washington Wizards while sending off Richmond as the centerpiece. With it being unlikely that Petrie is going to be able to bring in a top flight free agent, the Kings need to decide if a Kevin Martin-Tyreke Evans backcourt will work long term. I like Evans as a two guard and want to see Martin moved for a true point guard who can make the game easier for all of the young talent that Sacramento has compiled.

Memphis Grizzlies

Out of the three teams I am discussing the Grizzlies are in the toughest situation. Two of the three centerpieces of the current roster- Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay- are not signed long term. Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace has to decide if he wants to re-sign Gay this summer and Randolph in two summers. For Memphis to take that next step forward it is all going to depend on if OJ Mayo can get to the Brandon Roy/Joe Johnson star level, and if they decide to build around Gay if he can get to that same plateau. In the ladder of today’s NBA players I put Joe Johnson/Brandon Roy a level below the true superstars-LeBron James/Kobe Bryant/Dwayne Wade.

core

Mike Conley-22 years old
Marc Gasol- 24 years old
Rudy Gay- 23 years old
OJ Mayo-22 years old
Zach Randolph- 28 years old
Hasheem Thabeet-22 years old
DeMarre Carroll-23 years old
Sam Young- 24 years old
Darrell Arthur- 21 years old

The Grizz core is clearly not as strong as the Kings and Thunder. Their cap space situation going into next year is around $47 million, but that will go up if they decide to give Gay between $10-$12 million. The saving grace for the Memphis Grizzlies has been the development of center Marc Gasol, who has made the “giving away” of Pau Gasol to the Lakers look not nearly as bad. If he continues to progress and turns into a top flight NBA center that is an excellent building block.

I left the Portland Trailblazers out of the teams on the rise because I feel that they screwed up building this team. Portland had an opportunity to take multiple young pieces with high upside and turn them into a star player. These players no longer have the same value: Lamarcus Aldridge- solid PF who will never be a star; Rudy Fernandez- talented damaged goods; Martell Webster- mediocre player, and Travis Outlaw- nice role player. I think they were nuts to give Aldridge the amount of money they did this summer. As good as Brandon Roy is he will never be Kobe Bryant/LeBron James/Dwayne Wade good. He could be a part of an NBA Championship team, but he cannot be the best player.

Declining

These teams have all hit their peak and will need to make significant changes before they are truly contenders for a NBA Championship.

Phoenix Suns

Phoenix is at a stage where they do not know what they are as a basketball team and this is a dangerous thing. They are not good enough to win a playoff series against an elite team, but they are good enough to make it interesting. Steve Nash is the best player on the team and he is 35 years old. The second best player on the team is Amare Stoudemire. He has a player option for the 2010-2011 season that can get him $17 million. STAT believes he is a franchise players and deserves to be paid like it. Suns General Manager Steve Kerr has a tough decision to make regarding whether they should throw a “max” contract at the up and down power forward.

Core

Louis Amundson-27 years old
Leandro Barbosa-27 years old
Earl Clark-21 years old
Goran Dragic-23 years old
Jared Dudley-24 years old
Channing Frye-26 years old
Grant Hill-37 years old
Steve Nash-35 years old
Jason Richardson-28 years old
Amare Stoudemire-27 years old

Looking at that core the Suns have young role players in place that are solid compliments to a superstar player (Dudley, Frye, Dragic and Barbosa). The problem for Phoenix is going to be to find that player to build around once Nash hangs them up. The Suns have no cap flexibility going into free agency this summer and if they give Amare Stoudemire what he wants they will be stuck in mediocrity till the second half of this decade.

Denver Nuggets

The key for whether the Denver Nuggets can sustain success will be their ability to resign Carmelo Anthony. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh headline this summer’s free agency class-Melo is the biggest name the following summer. Outside of J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and Anthony the Nuggets are an aging team. They need to rebuild their front court and Nene Hilario, who is in the prime of his career, has said he does not see himself playing basketball much past his current contract which runs out in 2011/2012(player option).

Core

Carmelo Anthony- 25 years old
Chauncey Billups- 33 years old
J.R. Smith- 24 years old
Chris Anderson- 31 years old
Nene Hilario- 27 years old
Kenyon Martin- 32 years old
Ty Lawson- 22 years old
Arron Afflalo- 24 years old

The Nuggets have no flexibility this summer as their salary cap number is over $70 million. They do have their back court set for the next 4-6 years with Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith. If Carmelo does re-sign they should be able to retool on the fly, but I see this team taking a couple steps back before they take another step forward.

Dallas Mavericks

As much as I love this Dallas Mavericks team (Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki is my favorite unit of 5 in the entire league) this Mavericks team is going to take a bad fall as their core players continue to get older. They have Terry signed through the age of 34, Jason Kidd through the age of 38 and Shawn Marion through the age of 35. All three players are already past their prime- imagine them two years down the road.

Core

Dirk Nowitzki- 31 years old
Erick Dampier- 34 years old
Drew Gooden- 28 years old
Josh Howard- 29 years old
Kris Humphries- 24 years old
Jason Kidd- 36 years old
Shawn Marion- 31 years old
Jason Terry- 32 years old
Tim Thomas- 32 years old
Rodrique Beaubois- 21 years old

I am interested to see how the Mavericks handle the trading deadline. With how Dirk Nowitzki is playing this season this could be their best shot to take down the Lakers. With the current team I don’t think they are good enough, but if they are willing to sacrifice Rodrique Beaubois (rookie PG with tons of upside) , Josh Howard (expiring contract plus solid player) and Drew Gooden (expiring contract) that could get them the missing piece they need to compete with Los Angeles before the aging Mavericks flame out. The Mavericks have no cap flexibility this summer, as they have $65 million in contracts locked up if Dirk Nowitzki picks up his option and the Mavs pick up the team option on Josh Howard.

San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs big 3 run looks like it is finally coming to an end (I wish I would have realized this before the season when I picked them to be NBA Champs-DAMMIT!!!!). Manu Ginobili no longer looks like the same player- all of the long playoff runs and playing for his country have finally taken its toll. Tim Duncan is having a great season, but he can no longer play more than 32 minutes a night. Tony Parker is an old 27, taking the same beating as Ginobili playing internationally and having long playoff runs every year of his NBA career. The Spurs have a couple of nice role players, but as Ginobili and Duncan’s careers wind down there is no one on the current roster ready to pick up the slack.

Core

Tim Duncan- 33 years old
Manu Ginobili- 32 years old
Tony Parker- 27 years old
DeJuan Blair- 20 years old
Keith Bogans- 29 years old
Matt Boner- 29 years old
Michael Finley- 36 years old
George Hill-2 3 years old
Roger Mason- 29 years old
Antonio McDyess- 35 years old
Theo Ratliff 36 years old

As much as Greg Popovich is loyal and loves the players that have won him titles in the past decade he has to realize that this team’s window has closed. A plan to replace Ginobili and Duncan needs to be established or else the transition from one Spurs era to the next is going to be an ugly one. San Antonio has no flexibility this summer with $54 million in contracts. They also have decisions to make on Ginobili, Mason, Finley, Ratliff and Bogans who are all free agents.

I left the Utah Jazz out of the declining teams because they were never truly a contender to win the NBA Championship. I understand they made the Western Conference Finals two years ago, but no one with a level head actually believed they had a chance to win that series.