Author Archives: Sean Highkin

Tomorrow Never Knows

My life as a Blazers fan has been dominated by five words: “Point Guard of the Future.” Since Damon Stoudamire, a different potential floor general has been brought in nearly every year, each one casting a fleeting spell on the city of Portland, making us believe that they were “the one.” First came Sebastian Telfair. Then Jarrett Jack. Then Sergio Rodriguez. Then Jerryd Bayless. Then Patty Mills (okay, not really). In between these homegrown talents, always affixed with tags like “he’s got a ton of potential,” came veterans ranging from semi-serviceable (Steve Blake) to rock-solid (Andre Miller).  Since the Blazers infamously traded down for Martell Webster in 2005 rather than draft Chris Paul or Deron Williams, their point guard position has been a revolving door of mediocrity.

I spent most of these years following the team purely as a fan, dabbling occasionally in blogging—first on Blazersedge fan posts, then briefly (and regrettably) at Bleacher Report, then on my own long-since-deleted blog—before covering the team on a regular basis during the 2010-11 season at the FanSided site Rip City Project. That season featured a lot of personal firsts for me in this field, and a lot of lasts for the team: the last of Brandon Roy in a Blazers uniform, the last doubts being erased about LaMarcus Aldridge’s status as a franchise player, and the last full season of Nate McMillan.

My first post on Hardwood Paroxysm was published on July 18, 2011, and my final words here come a little over 20 months later. That time, the most enjoyable of my adult life, has been bookended by the most loathsome of Blazers point guards at one end and by far the most exciting at the other. Together, Raymond Felton and Damian Lillard tell the story of the evolution of my approach to fandom and understanding of this game.

Writing about basketball regularly and becoming integrated into the Twitter community that surrounds the NBA has a funny way of turning one’s fandom upside down. All it takes are a few weeks with League Pass and a few friendships built with bloggers from other teams for your entire outlook to transform itself completely. I’m still a Blazers fan, and I likely always will be—some things never leave you, and no sports-related experience will ever rival going to playoff games with my dad during the Damon/Sheed/Sabonis years, or the actualization of Brandon Roy’s immense potential. But now I self-identify as a fan of the NBA first and my team second. I watch everybody, I have favorite players from all around the league, and I generally try to take a nonpartisan approach when I watch and analyze. You have no choice but to do that, because stats and video are so readily accessible in 2013 that there will be no shortage of people waiting to call you out if it seems like you’re just defending “your guy.”

With that said, it was nearly impossible for me not to let my fan side take over last Thursday as I watched Lillard dominate Felton’s return to the Rose Garden on TNT. I have a complicated relationship with Blazers fans at large, at least the ones I encounter online. There’s a thin line between prideful support of a small-market team in a one-sport town with a lengthy history, and a comical persecution complex, and the Rip City faithful overstep those boundaries with an alarming regularity. It has the effect of making me extra critical of someone like Lillard, purely as a gut-level defense mechanism against people I encounter all too often on Twitter making the ridiculous claim that the rookie is already a top-five point guard. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy every second of Felton’s return and the convincing drubbing the Blazers performed on the Knicks.

The Felton thing is nearly impossible to explain to out-of-towners, but I’ll try. There is no fanbase in the NBA that is kinder to former players, regardless of skill level, than the people of Portland. Joel Przybilla could probably get elected governor of Oregon if he wanted. Travis Outlaw hasn’t had a relevant NBA moment since the 2008-09 season, but he’s guaranteed a standing ovation twice a year when the Kings visit. Dave Twardzik, who played in Portland for four seasons (from 1976-80) and amassed a 14.9 PER during that time, has his jersey hanging in the Rose Garden rafters. There are three things any player has to do to guarantee eternal, undying love from Blazer Nation: stay in shape, at least pretend to care, and don’t make excuses or throw the coach under the bus. Felton failed on all three counts, and failed so spectacularly and brazenly that the shower of boos that greeted him last Thursday eclipsed both Dwight Howard’s return to Orlando and Carmelo Anthony’s to Denver. It didn’t help his case any that he spent the summer promising to score 50 in his return, and ended the night with 11 points on 12 shots.

The most common counterpoint to the Felton vitriol centers around the idea that his awfulness last season meant that the front office was finally driven to blow up the roster, leading to the trade of Gerald Wallace to the Nets that landed the pick they would eventually use on Lillard. There is some validity to this, certainly. If Felton had played passably, they likely would have re-signed him last summer and continued down the path of perennial 8-seeds and first-round exits. The rebuild Neil Olshey is currently orchestrating around Lillard, Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum is both necessary and (so far) well-executed. But Felton robbed me of one last bit of innocence I held onto as a fan. For the first time ever, I was actively rooting for my team to lose as many games as possible to improve their draft position. I’m pretty pro-tanking in general and always have been, but this stance forced me to be “that guy” at a few gatherings of friends, explaining why I was hoping our favorite team would lose and invoking some complicated CBA and salary-cap jargon that should be the last thing on anyone’s mind in the moment while they’re watching a basketball game. This kind of cynicism is bred by players like Felton and obliterated by players like Lillard, whom I’ve loved watching take over games this season even though I know that the Blazers’ ping-pong ball count will suffer.

Lillard is Felton’s polar opposite. Most of the way through his rookie season, he’s delivering on the promise of every underwhelming would-be franchise point guard the Blazers have trotted out over the past decade. He’s a gifted, athletic playmaker with a penchant for hitting late-game shots that has given me more than a few Roy flashbacks. He isn’t a perfect player by any means—his defense is still a liability, and his shot selection can be suspect at times—but he’s improved every month of his rookie season in noticeable ways, and his work ethic has already made him a fan favorite. He’s going to be in Portland for a while, and the team and the city should feel great about that. As a Blazers fan, I’m overjoyed that we finally have someone running the point that I can believe in. As a basketball fan, I’m thrilled that we have another stellar young point guard to add to a multiplying crop of them, a group that includes Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, and Ty Lawson.

I spent my first year at Hardwood Paroxysm struggling to find reasons to continue watching Felton dribble the ball off his foot and act like it wasn’t his fault he showed up to camp out of shape. My final post comes as the Blazers are wrapping up a similarly lottery-bound season, but I don’t need anyone to convince me to watch Lillard put the finishing touches on a Rookie of the Year-caliber season. In a few days, I’m officially beginning a new gig blogging about the NBA full-time for a major national media outlet. I can’t divulge specifics quite yet, but you will definitely hear about it very soon. My excitement about this opportunity is matched only by my gratitude towards Matt Moore for bringing me on at HP two summers ago (and generally being the greatest); Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz for the support and resources they’ve given me in that time as a member of the TrueHoop Network; Coup and SJ at Rip City Project for giving me my first real shot in 2010; and the dozens of writers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with since then. I’ve seriously lost count, but you know who you are, and I wouldn’t be writing this without every one of you.

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/JADubin5/status/300787865372205056"]

Birdman: An Appreciation

There has been no shortage of things written about the Miami Heat’s 23-game win streak. Most of the focus is, as it should be, on LeBron’s slow, inevitable march to immortality. But if you put aside the clinical but visceral thrill of watching the best player of the past 15 years find new ways to mutilate opponents every night, there’s been something else about the Heat’s dominant seven weeks that’s been just as enjoyable for me, if not more so. However you feel about the Heat, there is no downside to Chris “Birdman” Andersen being back in our lives in a major way, and the fact that he is legitimately helping a title contender in 2013 is one of the unlikeliest but coolest codas to one of the most unusual careers in recent memory.

Birdman is a pioneer in a lot of ways. He was the first player ever to be called up from the D-League to the NBA in 2001. He was the first to be reinstated to the league after receiving a lifetime ban for violating drug policy. He is possibly the most tattooed player in NBA history, no small feat. The most important thing to remember about him, however, is that he is responsible for the hands-down greatest performance in NBA dunk-contest history, from 2005:

If you can get past the jarring sight of an uninked Birdman, the genius of this performance is apparent. He brought out a crowd of people to stand on the court, the most pointless of all possible props (and I’m generally someone who thinks all props are evil), and then missed the same dunk eight times in a row. It was a brilliant commentary on the overcommercialization of the dunk contest, and considering how awful the last two have been, it now feels as ahead of its time as The Velvet Underground & Nico. In addition to featuring a Birdman that had yet to discover the tattoo parlor, it also included a cameo from then-rookie J.R. Smith. It’s impossible to imagine Smith existing in a world without Twitter (which wouldn’t launch until 2006), but one has to think that he simply asked girls if they were trying to get the pipe via T-Mail on his Sidekick. But I digress.

Birdman’s personal life took a turn for the worse around that time, which led to his much-publicized substance-abuse problems (he has steadfastly refused to say which drugs he used, but the NBA’s “drugs of abuse” list includes cocaine, heroin, and methamphatamine). His 2006 ban from the NBA was overturned in 2008, and he played out the season in New Orleans before signing with the Nuggets the following summer. He is synonymous with the 2008-09 Nuggets, one of the most enjoyable teams of the past few years. They’re primarily known as the only team Carmelo Anthony has ever led out of the first round of the playoffs, but that team also featured a still-in-his-prime Chauncey Billups, Andersen’s former Hornets teammate J.R. Smith (who, along with Kenyon Martin, formed undoubtedly the greatest trio of bad tattoo decisions in the history of professional sports), noted villain Dahntay Jones, and apparently Johan Petro, although I have no recollection of him being on that team. Birdman was the rebounding and shot-blocking force behind that team’s Conference Finals run. Think Kenneth Faried if you cut off his dreads and turned each individual hair into an ink-needle line. His story of addiction and recovery made him a fan favorite as well.

Birdman’s career in Denver never reached those heights again, unfortunately. Injuries and declining play eventually pushed him out of the Nuggets’ rotation, and he was waived last summer under the amnesty clause. Earlier this season, during one of those “Are the Heat in trouble?” periods of the news cycle that always seem to conveniently ignore that the Heat have LeBron James and every other team in the league doesn’t, Miami signed Birdman to a 10-day contract to shore up their rebounding. It was the kind of signing that is usually mocked for taking up a roster spot for someone past their prime that could have been used on a D-Leaguer. But in this case, it worked. Birdman is currently third on the team in total rebounding percentage, including second in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Andersen played his first game with the Heat on January 25, about a week before they began the win streak. Before then, the team’s total rebounding percentage was 48.5. Since Birdman entered the rotation, that number has jumped to 49.7. He’s only playing 13.1 minutes per game, but he’s pulling down 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes and providing a much-needed defensive spark.

More importantly, he starred in the only “Harlem Shake” video I ever have or ever will watch:

There’s something comforting about one of the oddest players in the league settling into the “veteran leadership” stage of his career after a career that’s included so many missed dunks, drugs, and playoff teams that have fallen short. There’s a pretty good chance that Birdman will get a ring this June, and maybe more if the Heat choose to re-sign him. And that seems sort of right.

NBA Heads to Philippines for Exhibition Game

The Philippines' new MOA Arena. Photo via InterAKTV.

The Philippines’ new MOA Arena. Photo via InterAKTV.

The NBA is making good on its promise to expand on its international footprint even further. A source told the Filipino site InterAKTV that the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets will play a preseason game next season in the Philippines, the details of which will be announced Tuesday:

“Hans Sy was invited by Commissioner Stern during the All-Star Game, and Hans told the Commissioner that he has an arena that is suitable for hosting one of the NBA games,” said Junel Baculi, the athletic director of National University which is part of the SM Group. NU hosted this UAAP season, whose games were played at the MOA Arena.

The country has long been crazy about NBA basketball, but has not drawn consideration as a venue for the league’s games because of a lack of a suitable venue. With the state-of-the-art MOA Arena, that has changed.

via SM MOA Arena to host Pacers versus Rockets, first NBA preseason game in the Philippines

During their All-Star Weekend media availability, NBA commissioner David Stern and his 2014 successor, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, stressed a commitment to grow the sport of basketball across the globe. The Philippines make sense as a target market for the league—the country’s passion for basketball has been well documented, most notably in Rafe Bartholomew’s excellent book Pacific Rims. The MOA Arena is, by all accounts, an ideal facility for an NBA game, and a Rockets-Pacers matchup would give fans the chance to see some of the NBA’s most exciting young stars, including Jeremy Lin, James Harden, and Paul George. This move is a win for everybody involved, and should do wonders to grow the popularity of the NBA.

VIDEO: Serge Ibaka Hits Blake Griffin in the Groin

(video via Beyond the Buzzer)

Serge Ibaka appeared to deliberately hit Blake Griffin in the groin as they battled for position late in the fourth quarter of the Thunder’s 108-104 Sunday win over the Clippers. Although Ibaka’s eyes were looking at the ball as Matt Barnes drained a three-pointer, the hit was pretty clear-cut, and should have been an easy Flagrant Two call. But it was simply ruled a Flagrant One, which allowed Ibaka to stay in the game, and he made a couple of big plays down the stretch that sealed the win for the Thunder.

Whether the NBA decides to do anything about Ibaka’s hit remains to be seen. The fourth-year big man doesn’t have a reputation as a dirty player—if Reggie Evans, Stephen Jackson, or even Ibaka’s teammate Kendrick Perkins had been the culprit, the punishment would have likely been much more severe. But the playoff implications of this game, and the fact that Griffin is one of the NBA’s most high-profile stars, should drive the league to do something. Plus, you know, he hit him in the privates and clearly wasn’t going for the ball or Griffin’s hands. One thing is certain: there will be no love lost between these two teams if they meet in May or June.

Andrew Bynum Considering Surgery, Future Up in the Air

and-bynum

When the Philadelphia 76ers traded for Andrew Bynum as part of the four-team August blockbuster that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, they thought they had landed a franchise center. But Bynum has yet to appear in a single game for the Sixers as he’s battled chronic knee problems, and following a recent setback, things are looking bleak going forward:

The 76ers and center Andrew Bynum are considering arthroscopic surgery on the player’s right knee in order to clean out loose cartilage, a procedure that would likely end the season for the center for whom they traded so many young assets, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Bynum suffered a setback in the form of swelling in his right knee following his participation in a five-on-five scrimmage, first reported in the Inquirer, last Friday. While the Sixers have been unable to practice recently due to the schedule, Bynum would not have been able to participate due to the swelling in his knee, which was also first reported by the Inquirer on Friday.

via Season-ending surgery a possibility for Bynum | Philadelphia Inquirer

This news puts the Sixers in a tough spot: Bynum is a free agent this summer, and if healthy, would surely command a max or near-max contract on the open market. Now, Sixers GM Tony DiLeo must decide whether he’s ready to mortgage the team’s future by giving Bynum that money without the guarantee that he’ll return at full strength. He may simply choose to cut his losses and chalk it up to a bold move that didn’t pan out.

Doug Collins has started to get restless about the return the Sixers got on the Bynum trade, and to be fair, they gave up a lot for him. Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless are blossoming in Orlando, and Andre Iguodala continues to be one of the most reliable and underrated defenders in the league as he helps power Denver to a playoff run. But the Sixers were a team treading water before the Bynum deal, and the decision to swing for the fences by bringing in a franchise-level talent, albeit one with some injury risk, is one any team would make. It doesn’t sound like Bynum will play anytime soon for Philly, but that doesn’t mean the call to trade for him was made in vain.

Lion Face/Lemon Face, 2/25/13: The Wilson Chandler Show

Lion Face: Bradley Beal

The Wizards’ third overall pick had another stellar game, something that’s becoming a regularity for him lately. His shooting mastery was the only thing watchable about a game that featured plenty of ugliness on both sides.

Lemon Face: Literally everything else about Wizards-Raptors

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/MikePradaSBN/status/306200237612085248"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/stackmack/status/306200818296700928"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/ekoreen/status/306206468405878786"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/DamianTrillard/status/306229892008251393"]

Lion Face: Al Horford

20/20 games are an automatic Lion Face. Horford finished with 23 points and 22 boards.

Lemon Face: The Pistons

The Hawks’ 11-point margin of victory doesn’t really do justice to how bad the Pistons looked last night. I take back everything I’ve said about wanting Andre Drummond to take his time coming back, strictly for watchability’s sake.

Lion Face: The Manimal, Pierre, and Iguodala

The three Nuggets most known for throwing down monster dunks put on a show last night against the Lakers. Seemingly every other Denver possession resulted in a transition dunk by Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, or Andre Iguodala:

Lion Face: Wilson Chandler’s Breakout Game

The possessions that weren’t dunks were probably buckets for Wilson Chandler, who had an excellent game after being given a last-minute start for an injured Danilo Gallinari. He finished with 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting including 3-of-5 from three-point range, and four rebounds. Masai Ujiri has already emailed his highlight video out to every GM in the league in preparation for this summer.

Lemon Face: Dwight Howard

This photo (courtesy of our friend Mike Prada at SB Nation) sums up Dwight’s defensive effort better than I could:

737167608

Lion Face: Paul Pierce

Pierce dominated the fourth quarter of a surprisingly fun Jazz-Celtics game, hitting several key shots to force an overtime, and a few more in the extra period to put the Jazz away and keep the Celtics in playoff position.

Sean & Jovan Compare NBA Players to Rappers

2013 NBA All-Star Game

A couple weeks ago, I appeared on ClipperBlog Live, a Google Hangout-based show held after every Clippers game on HP’s TrueHoop sister site ClipperBlog. I’d made a few appearances previously, but this was my first time appearing with my friend, CB writer and (briefly) HP alum Jovan Buha. Among other things, we discussed Drake, someone Jovan and I have had differing opinions about over the years. Because CBL was supposedly a basketball podcast, we started comparing him to different NBA players, and got the idea to do a full show where we attempted to find contemporary NBA counterparts to several dozen rappers. It went two hours. A handful of people watched the whole thing live, and they have our eternal love and gratitude. They know who they are. For the rest of you, here it is in its entirety, along with a cheat sheet to help you find your favorite rapper.

2:25 – Kanye West

4:58 – Lil Wayne

6:53 – OutKast

10:56 – A$AP Rocky

13:44 – Chief Keef

14:10 – Lil B

15:30 – Common

19:40 – J. Cole

23:15 – Jay-Z and Nas

31:35 – Dr. Dre

35:09 – Eminem

39:05 – The Game

42:21 – 50 Cent

46:35 – T.I.

49:25 – Wiz Khalifa

51:33 – 2 Chainz

53:53 – Wale

56:45 – Drake

1:04:33 – Soulja Boy

1:07:41 – Big Sean

1:12:03 – Which rapper is Derek Fisher?

1:14:58 – Diddy

1:17:34 – Lupe Fiasco

1:22:46 – Rick Ross

1:24:38 – Kendrick Lamar

1:26:37 – Meek Mill

1:28:57 – Future

1:32:41 – Snoop Dogg

1:40:25 – The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac

1:43:38 – The Roots

15 Footer, 2/25/2013: Playoff Implications (Or Not)

Photo via Heiko Brinkmann on Flickr.

Photo via Heiko Brinkmann on Flickr.

As February draws to a close, we’re getting to the point in the season where every game that isn’t in the Bobcats-Suns tier has playoff implications. Teams are on the edges of the race for the eighth seed, attempting to hold home-court advantage, and praying they can play their way out of an unfavorable first-round matchup. With one exception, today’s games all have at least some bearing on the playoff pictures in each conference.

Wizards at Raptors (7:00pm ET)

Two teams that might be on the periphery of the playoff picture if they hadn’t started the season so terribly. The Wizards pulled out an upset over the Rockets on Saturday, and the Raptors ain’t the Rockets. Toronto has been playing well lately, though. Rudy Gay has proven himself to be a legitimate late-game option, and Kyle Lowry is back to some semblance of his early-season play now that Jose Calderon isn’t starting ahead of him. KLOE and John Wall is a very Twitter matchup, and Bradley Beal has had more freedom since the Wizards traded Jordan Crawford. We might be talking about this game as a playoff preview in a few years. For now, it’s at least going to be entertaining.

Hawks at Pistons (7:30pm ET)

Quick tangent: This morning, it was reported that Andre Drummond could be on track to return as soon as a week from now, after suffering a stress fracture in his lower back. The Pistons are currently six games out of the eighth seed in the playoffs. A team in the Western Conference that’s also on the outside looking in at the playoff picture at the moment also has an enormously talented center who came back early from back surgery. It hasn’t gone great for them. Detroit isn’t making the playoffs, and they own their own draft pick this June. Wouldn’t it make more sense to hold Drummond out the rest of the year, let him take his time to recover, and make sure that the potential franchise cornerstone of a team with a suddenly promising future doesn’t hurt his long-term health most of the way through his rookie season? Meh. With Brandon Knight hurt and Will Bynum suspended, the Pistons will be shorthanded. There will be a lot of Rodney Stuckey and a lot of Charlie Villanueva. The Hawks are trying to solidify a playoff spot and claw their way up to home-court advantage. Do the math.

Lakers at Nuggets (9:00pm ET)

The Nuggets already used their amnesty on Chris Andersen. The Lakers have not used their amnesty on anybody. Has anyone suggested lately, particularly the owner of another Western Conference playoff hopeful, that LA should use it on Kobe? It’s something I haven’t heard about, if it’s even happened at all. Anyway, this is a must-win for the Lakers. Every game going forward will be a must-win, so that’s not saying a lot, but the Nuggets are pretty firmly entrenched in a playoff spot, so a win against them would be a huge confidence boost for LA. Andre Iguodala guarding Kobe should be riveting. Plus, Dwight and JaVale. Even Jared Dubin can’t say argue that Pierre is the more annoying of the two centers.

Celtics at Jazz (9:00pm ET)

Two teams trying to stay afloat in the playoff pictures in their respective conferences. The Celtics’ offense looked pretty rough last night against the Blazers, and they’re on the second end of a road back-to-back. They’ve won a lot of games since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, but nobody really thinks that hot streak is sustainable in any way. The Jordan Crawford Celtics Experience has been fun so far, though, especially now that Terrence Williams is in the mix on a 10-day contract. It’s the Marbury/Francis of backup wings. Post-Rondo, the only real reason to watch the Celtics is to hope that it turns into a blowout and Fab Melo gets some garbage minutes. As for the Jazz, they got blown out by the Clippers on Saturday and cling to a two-game lead in the loss column over the Rockets for the seventh seed. The Lakers are gaining on both of them. It won’t be pretty basketball, but it’s one of those games we’re obligated to watch because of the playoff implications.

Two Sides to Every Rebuild

Photo via marc falardeau on Flickr.

Photo via marc falardeau on Flickr.

When the Cavs and Magic face off tonight, they will have a lot of things in common. Both teams have redefined or are in the process of redefining their identities following the loss of the best players in their respective histories. They’ve taken more or less the same approach to the rebuilding process, although the Cavs are two years further along and already have one player around whom to shape their roster. Neither team has much to play for at this point in the season beyond ping-pong balls, and both are in the business of developing the talents that may or may not be their future.

The Cavs and the Magic each began the season with one veteran player who is perennially underrated and is the type of talent that makes everyone say they’d “love to see him on a contender.” Both have been constantly on the trade block for the last several years, but were either too injured or too highly valued to be dealt. If Anderson Varejao was healthy, he would have likely headlined Thursday’s trading deadline along with J.J. Redick. Redick was shipped from the Magic to the Bucks for a pretty solid package of expiring money and young talent, probably similar to what Cleveland could have hoped for in return for Varejao. Tonight’s game will mark the debut of Doron Lamb, Tobias Harris, and Beno Udrih in Magic uniforms. It’ll take some time for them to get acclimated in Jacque Vaughn’s rotation. The Cavs also have Kyrie Irving. This game could get ugly quickly for the Magic—not that the entire season hasn’t been for them.

When LeBron James left the Cavs for the Heat in 2010, Cleveland bottomed out. They trotted out one of the worst rosters in NBA history, a mishmash of non-contributing veterans and “young talent” without a lot of upside, and were rewarded with the top pick in the 2011 draft. The Magic are on pace to rack up a similarly impressive number of losses in the first season of the post-Dwight Howard era. The difference is that they have four players acquired this offseason (Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn, Nikola Vucevic, and Moe Harkless) who already look like they will be legitimate rotation players with productive NBA careers. And that’s before you add Lamb and Harris. This amount of losing is much easier for a franchise to swallow when it’s done with this much young talent already in place before they land their Kyrie Irving. They’re banking on the 2013 or (more likely) 2014 drafts and the 2014 free-agent class for that.

The earliest the Cavs will realistically contend for a title again is the 2014-15 season, and it’s obvious what has to happen for that pipe dream to become reality. LeBron can become a free agent, and there are already rumblings that he’s eyeing a return to the team that drafted him. Whether he would leave Miami if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still reasonably healthy is a different discussion, as is the idea of LeBron and Dan Gilbert mending fences after LeBron’s ridiculous TV special and Gilbert’s somehow more ridiculous Comic Sans open letter. But put the undisputed best player in the world on a team with the premier young point guard, the blossoming Tristan Thompson, and two more years’ worth of lottery picks, and yeah, I’d say that team would contend. If they don’t land LeBron, they might be another couple of years away beyond that. But they’re on the right track.

The Magic’s future title hopes rest largely at the feet of one high-schooler, and their path there is even less certain. Orlando is banking on continuing to bottom out next season and landing Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 draft. And even if that happens, Wiggins has to live up to the “best high-school prospect since LeBron” hype, which isn’t unthinkable or even unrealistic but also isn’t a sure thing. There are other paths back to contention, but as Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, and LeBron himself have shown us, the best way for a small-market team to get great ad stay great is to land a transcendent, once-in-a-generation-level talent in the draft. That player doesn’t appear to be in this year’s draft, so the Magic are playing the long game and hoping for Wiggins or Jabari Parker.

Tonight’s game between these two teams doesn’t matter a great deal, but it does give us a chance to view two case studies in modern-day NBA roster building and rebuilding in action, at various levels of completion.

Welcome to Atlanta, where we got options

rofltosh (Flickr)

rofltosh (Flickr)

The Hawks didn’t trade Josh Smith on Thursday. This was the closest thing to a blockbuster that could have feasibly happened before the deadline, and Danny Ferry opted to ride out the final year of Smith’s contract. This isn’t an ideal scenario for the Hawks, but it’s not a disaster, and in some ways could work to their advantage this summer.

Smith seems pretty unhappy in Atlanta, and Ferry is understandably not thrilled about giving him the five-year max it will probably take to keep him. The best solution for both sides would appear to be a fresh start, but there is one scenario in which bringing him back makes sense. The Hawks’ ultimate play, ever since Ferry unloaded Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, has been the free agency of Dwight Howard. I’m not one to believe Howard, especially in light of his recent back and shoulder issues, will walk away from the extra year and $20 million he could get by staying with the Lakers, as miserable as he is wearing purple and gold. But if he does decide to leave, the Hawks have three things working in their favor. Dwight is from Atlanta, but who knows how much that will factor in. They have Al Horford on a phenomenal value contract that could make the Lakers extremely amenable to a sign-and-trade if it’s clear Howard wants out. And they have Smith, with whom Howard is notoriously tight. If it’s what it takes to get Howard to Atlanta, it would be difficult for Ferry to justify not maxing Smith out.

But let’s say Howard is staying in LA, the most realistic outcome. The Hawks still control Smith’s bird rights, which could be beneficial for both parties. Teams were unwilling to give up valuable players and picks for Smith before the deadline, because they had no guarantee that he would re-sign. Anyone negotiating a sign-and-trade with the Hawks this summer is doing so with the knowledge that he wants to be there long-term. This will open Smith’s options up beyond just teams with cap room, because the Hawks can take on salary in a S&T if it makes sense to do so. Their roster is undefined because they did not make a trade, but their options are not limited by it.

After the Howard pursuit, Ferry’s next-highest priority is Jeff Teague. Unless they have an opportunity to sign-and-trade Teague for Chris Paul (and it’s even less likely that CP3 would leave the Clippers than that Howard will leave the Lakers), they’re not going to do better on the market. The value for young, athletic point guards was more or less set in the $40-48 million range with last fall’s extensions for Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, and Stephen Curry. If Teague gets an offer in that range, matching it should be a no-brainer for Ferry.

From there, if they miss out on all of the big-name free agents, the Hawks’ best bet may be to simply rent their cap space, taking on short-term salary through free-agent deals or unbalanced trades, preferably while collecting picks and other assets, and gear up for the 2014 free-agent class. Ferry’s eagerness to dump Johnson and Williams makes one think this is his approach, but he needs to be careful not to screw it up by giving out another crippling long-term deal to a player who doesn’t move the needle. Not trading Josh Smith on Thursday doesn’t forward that plan, but it doesn’t necessarily hinder it, either.