See, I told you not to panic!
This year's lineup is coming together quite nicely, considering most people here believed we were a near-lottery team before Nellie reaffirmed his genius by making us both short term contenders to be a playoff dark horse - and long term contenders for our future behind Dirk's superstar replacement.
- Backup center: Hopefully this will be filled by the amnesty bid for former number 1 pick Elton Brand, who will also likely back up Dirk at PF with Brandan Wright and Bernard James alternating shifts where necessary. If we lose bids for both Brand and Luis Scola, we still have about $8 million in salary to use to add a bit more depth than Brandan Wright and Bernard James.
- Legitimate starting/closing SG: Rodrigue Beaubois and Vince Carter probably aren't what we want starting and closing out games. Re-sign Delonte West and/or pick up a...
- Dedicated 3 point threat. Dirk, Darren Collison and Carter were all about 36% 3PT shooters and Dahntay Jones was a 42.9% 3PT shooter last year. While Dahntay may play a nice, complementary Stevenson-esque role, it would be nice to have one more dedicated three-ball threat; a player like Marco Bellinelli (37.7%), Randy Foye (38.6%) or John Lucas (39.3%) (who would also be a reliable backup PG) would make up for the loss of Terry's 37.8% 3-pt shooting and help us could close out games in close situations.
Despite these holes, the front office deserves a belated round of applause for free agency so far...
- Zero bad contracts and more cap space available for next summer with the Haywood amnesty.
- Likely almost $30 million in expiring contracts and team options that can be used in trade deadline moves to get players we want from teams looking for cap relief.
- Far younger, faster, more athletic in the backcourt. We have a multiple combo guard types (Roddy, Cunningham, DoJo) and wings that can switch between SG and SF (Carter, Dahntay Jones). Hopefully we'll add yet another combo guard in Delonte West, and the SG and backup PG positions will be a constant competition for playing time.
- Far better offensively in the frontcourt – probably the best offensive frontcourt rotation in team history if we get Brand. About even with last year defensively, probably little better if we get Brand.
- One of the best things about an improved frontcourt on offense is that the best big defender will usually take Dirk, leaving Kaman or Brand/Scola open to score more efficiently than they did previously. Also, our FT% from our centers is bound to take a big jump without Haywood's bricklaying skills.
- Still have the most important pieces of last year's core (Dirk's offense and Marion's defense), without the deadweight of Haywood and Odom and the age-related production declines and liabilities of Kidd and Terry (as much as we'll miss those two emotionally).
- Preliminary stat crunching shows marked improvement in just about every statistical and efficiency measurement from last year.
- Proven once again that we truly have a stellar front office that can turn water into wine. This will be important to convince big name free agents to sign here with an empty roster of Dirk, Marion (if he's not traded), Cunningham and $26 million in cap space.
- Since it's likely 12 out of 15 of our players would be in potential contract years, they have additional motivation to perform.
To be honest, I was really never convinced paying Deron Williams + Dirk + Marion 80% of our cap space would be enough to make us a legitimate championship contender. Instead, with a few more feasible pieces we have a deep, well rounded, hungry team that actually lines up rather nicely next to our championship team's rotation.
While we don't have a dominant defensive C like Chandler, we'd have two bigs besides Dirk that can consistently put up double-doubles. Kaman was tied for 31st in the league for most double-doubles with 15, and was just as likely to put up a double-double per game played last year as Chandler (32% of both players' games were double-doubles). Brand and Dirk were both tied at 45th with 11. And I'm hoping their production improves even more with more options defenders have to account for.
If Darren Collison can return to his rookie offensive numbers or better with more playing time, a good system and a great frontcourt to feed to, and if he can keep up with Westbrook and the like on D, he will be an improvement over both Kidd and J.J. Barea.
The only position that doesn't hold up to the championship squad is shooting guard, but there's a lot of pieces there that might work out. Roddy, West and Cunningham all have enormous potential, and Jones and Carter have plenty to bring to the table as well. I can't see SG as a big weakness if it remains deep, athletic and competitive for playing time. As mentioned, Dahntay may be a feasible starter if he can bring what Stevenson did – gritty defense and solid three-ball.
The point is, there's plenty of cause for optimism. Training camp will help our new players get our system in place, unlike last year. With a successful amnesty bid (or two) and avoiding major injuries, I think we have a team that can hold its own against the Clippers, Grizzlies, Nuggets, etc. and, with the right dose of luck and chemistry, maybe even give LAL, SAS and OKC a run for their money. We also still have a team that may have a second big name star or two this time next summer. You just never know.