Thoughts About “The Decision”

As one of the millions spurned by the false advances of LeBron James, I know that it’s easy to get involved in the emotional aspect of “The Decision.” But now that some time has passed perhaps some of the passion has subsided, it’s time to look at the move from a more even headed perspective. (And if your anger hasn’t subsided, then here’s a great way to let everyone know how you feel.)

Naturally people are resistant to change, and LeBron’s choice shocked the public. At the surface was his egocentric media circus. There’s no doubt that James turned some people off based on how he handled this decision. Stringing along a few million fans, having a prime time show in his honor, hand picking the host, then proclaiming “South Beach” in front of children from the North East showed a disconnect from the common person. Had he made his decision humbly, profusely thanked the people of Ohio, and didn’t celebrate with a Heat jersey in July like he won an NBA championship then LeBron’s image might have survived the move largely in tact.

“The Decision” seemed unfathomable; it was a radical departure from history. Last year, the New York Times’ Howard Beck wrote:

[A team signing a free agent superstar] is probably doomed to fail because of one immutable, rarely acknowledged truth: superstar free agency barely exists in the N.B.A.

It has been almost 13 years since Shaquille O’Neal jilted the Orlando Magic and altered the N.B.A. landscape by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a modern anomaly, not a precedent. Few superstars have made free-agent moves since then.

It is not an accident.

“It’s built right into the system,” said Lon Babby, an agent whose client list includes Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Ray Allen. “They don’t want guys to leave.”

By “they,” Babby means N.B.A. officials, whose quest for parity and cost control has created a market that rewards superstars for staying put and punishes them for leaving.

Combine financial self-interest with the N.B.A.’s complex salary-cap rules, and a result is a market in which superstars have little incentive to move.

“This succession of agreements has resulted in a hard salary cap,” said Arn Tellem, one of the N.B.A.’s most influential agents, “and has really, I think, eliminated for the most part free agency for the high-end players.”

The most critical element at work is the cap on individual salaries. Those limits did not exist in 1996, when the Lakers outbid the Magic and signed O’Neal to a $121 million contract.

Today, no team can be outbid for its own free agent unless it wants to be.

The best example is Nash, who in 2004 left Dallas to sign a five-year, $60 million deal with Phoenix. The Mavericks could have matched or exceeded the offer, but they were worried about Nash’s age (he was 30), health and breakneck style.

If the system is a burden to elite players, it is a boon for the league, which prizes franchise stability, and for fans, who almost never have to say goodbye to their heroes.

The choice of James has taken common wisdom and stood it on its ear. It was such a departure from the established definition of “a great player” that even former NBA stars came out against LeBron. Michael Jordan said he would never have called up Bird and Magic in a quest to win a championship. Charles Barkley noted that James tarnished his legacy by going to “Wade’s team.” While Knick great Walt Frazier succinctly stated that LeBron “took the easy way out.”

James’ choice was an affront to the sense of competitive balance. The average fan saw the trio of James, Wade, and Bosh as the playground equivalent of putting the three biggest kids on the same team so they can run the court all day long. For children, there’s no fun in stacking the odds to beat up on the weak. But playground ethics goes against the professional athletes’ rule of winning at all costs. Players are lauded for whatever will bring their team victory, including bending the rules. Fans often enjoy the hometown player who gets away with a fistful of jersey. Players are valued for wins the team earns and on a more granular level the number of rings they own. Jordan validated this theory when he pronounced Kobe to be superior to James, even though Bryant’s only real edge is better teammates.

The problem is that championships are a function of team, but they are often applied as measuring sticks for an individual. In some ways the public has themselves to blame for irrationally setting such odd standards. Jordan didn’t win a championship until he was teamed with Pippen (and Phil Jackson). Frazier played alongside a gaggle of Hall of Famers en route to his two championships (Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Monroe, and Lucas). Barkley chased a championship in Phoenix, and later as a third fiddle in Houston. The rules are clear: players are expected to do everything they can to win, and championships define players. Since good teammates win championships, then the most logical conclusion for an athlete is to find the best teammates possible in order to maintain their individual legacy. LeBron’s choice is simply the next logical step based on the criteria by which he will be judged.

But can the hatred last? True Hoop’s Henry Abbott likens LeBron’s case to Kevin Garnett who languished in Minnesota before teaming up in Boston with Allen and Pierce.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself what your end goal is: To win the individual sport of being the man, or the team sport of basketball? They usually go together. There’s a reason Bryant and Jordan have all those championship rings.

But sometimes the best thing for basketball is to not put everything on your shoulders, and instead get some help.

Think about Kevin Garnett. There are several different really smart analyses to show that when he was in Minnesota losing all those games he was literally the best player in the NBA (the same analysis, over the last two years, would say James is that player now). If you use some kind of smart objective metrics, Garnett’s is the name that comes up most from those years. But Garnett had no help! After he grew distraught with the team’s endless rebuilding, the Timberwolves found him a home in Boston with some serious help in the form of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Even though Garnett did not play his best basketball in Boston, he did his best winning there, and the result has been a profound transformation of both how the world sees Garnett and how the city of Boston feels about basketball in the 2000s. It’s a model anyone would want to copy — a new home with talented teammates became a story of pure, unrestrained basketball joy for all involved who aren’t Timberwolves fans.

Although at the time, much of the vitriol was aimed above Garnett’s at Minnesota GM and former Celtic player Kevin McHale for handing his former team another trophy. Nevertheless today the Boston trio is no more or less hated than expected. In fact as Henry asserts, Garnett is viewed more positively for his role on a championship team.

Baseball’s Curt Flood, a pioneer of free agency for athletes, was vilified by his actions not just by the public, but with fellow players as well. Flood once returned to his locker to find a funeral wreath on it. In fact there are parallels between Flood and James. Both players simply sought the ability to go where they wished, and the public recoiled because they felt that decision would ruin the game. And although there will be many people who resent LeBron no matter what he does (mostly in Cleveland, New York, Chicago, and whatever cities he defeats on the way to a championship), there will be others who after he wins a title will view him in a positive light. Because as the old saying goes, everybody loves a winner.

More important than how this decision affects LeBron, is how it affects the choices athletes will make. Free agency in a capped league, like the amateur draft, is meant to help the weaker teams become more competitive. Teams with superstars should already be near the cap, and those without should be far enough below to sign them. However reality paints a different picture. Star players bypass the cities they wish to avoid and instead force their way onto a preferred franchise. Kareem did it to the Bucks in the 70s, Shaq did it twice, and Kobe did it before he was even drafted. As a result, the rest of the league usually ends up overpaying for the non-super stars.

Already with the ability to chose their destination (within reason) players have an upper hand in a game considered to be run by front offices. It would be like Karpov and Kasparov sitting down to play, but Karpov’s queen decides it would be easier to win if she decided to play alongside Kasparov’s queen. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh’s choice could start a trend in the league. The Heat were in no shortage of finding talented players with which to surround Miami Thrice. Other superstars like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have been rumored to wish to team up in order to create their own super team. In a few years, building teams with multiple superstars could be the norm around the NBA. In other terms what is going to stop Karpov’s rooks, knights, and bishops from all seeing better odds by going elsewhere, leaving a bunch of pawns and a defenseless king?

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic on the course laid out in the future. Change usually brings the negative out in people, and I’m sure there were fans that thought the worst of every change, whether it be racial integration, the three point line, or instant replay. The end of the reserve clause in baseball was supposed to be the death of sports, but just about every league has survived post free agency.

Maybe the NBA can thrive under these new conditions. It didn’t seem that the league was hurt by the dynasties of the Celtics, Lakers, or Bulls in the 80s & 90s. Nor did the rivalry between the Spurs, Lakers, Mavs, and Suns bore fans in the 00s. Perhaps franchises will aim for loads of cap space instead of overpaying for marginal talent. A handful of super teams would make the latter rounds of the playoffs much more interesting. Furthermore any Cinderella team, one without a group of superstars, would instantly become a sweetheart to all cities without playoff representation.

By creating a super team, LeBron has changed the rules of the game. Potentially he ushered a new era in sports where the best athletes choose their team and teammates. Although by doing so, LeBron has unintentionally recast himself as the league’s villain. However if this trend of creating teams of multiple All Stars pioneered by James becomes established as the norm, then history might view him in a more kind light.

Top 10 Ways the LeBron Special Goes Down

10. LeBron announces his decision 30 seconds into the special, then turns to stunned ESPN studio guy and says back to you.

9. James encourages viewing audience to play a drinking game with him. Every time an ESPN montage shows a dunk – drink!

8. LeBron reveals that we’re all in a sideways universe, and that we should be remembering soon that we are all friends. Except for Ben Linus.

7. James decides he’s going to remain in Cleveland, but instead of the Cavs selects to play for minor league baseball team the Akron Aeros. Says he needs to get out of Jordan’s shaddow & surpass his .202 batting average.

6. James announces he’s going to sign with Chicago. Newly signed free agent Carlos Boozer comes on stage with the contract. LeBron rips it up & throws it Boozer’s face yelling “SEE HOW IT FEELS?”

5. Citing too much pressure, LeBron decides to play in Miami as long as he’s considered the third wheel. Says he prefers to come of the bench and just be a regular NBA rotation player. Asks if anyone knows what kind of donuts Wade & Bosh like?

4. Steven A. Smith and LeBron James re-enact the infamous Piper’s Pit with Jimmy Snuka.

3. After 55 minutes of build-up including videos of James’ history, speculation of the future landscape of the NBA, and that cool touch screen ESPN uses for free agency LeBron says he’s staying in Cleveland. The result is 25,000 people tweet the same exact thing at the same exact time “WTF?”.

2. James announces that Akron is now an independent nation. A coronation ceremony follows, with James being crowned King to Devo performing “Whip-It.”

1. LeBron James says he’ll allow each team to give him one task. The first team that selects a task that he’s physically unable to do will be the team he chooses to sign with. The Cavs owner asks for a 720 slam dunk. LeBron takes the ball jumps in the air & spins twice before jamming it. The Bulls owner requests a blindfolded three point shot. LeBron covers his eyes & sinks it with ease. Miami owner challenges LeBron to score against their two best players, Bosh and Wade. LeBron beats Wade with a crossover and dunks on Bosh. The Knicks owner steps up and says “sign with the Clippers.” LeBron James says “New York it is!”

The Remastered Michael Jordan

Two things happen this week that seem momentous but really aren’t. Except that they kind of are.

Yesterday, (when love was such an easy game to play), a remastered edition of The Beatles’ entire catalogue was released, much to the delight of millions of people who already own copies of all of their records.

On Friday, Michael Jordan (for whom Game 1 of the 1992 Finals was such an easy game to play) will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, a foregone conclusion that would have come to pass five years ago had Jordan not (temporarily) traded his golf clubs for a Wizards jersey in 2001, two years shy of becoming eligible for first ballot enshrinement.

So it is that the worlds of rock music and professional basketball turn their respective eyes to the greatest icons in their respective histories, despite the fact that neither icon has created anything new, accomplished anything unexpected, or done anything else to warrant the attention being newly heaped upon them (especially not that awful Okafor for Chandler trade). And yet, somehow, I have spent the better part of the week with the Beatles playing on my iPod and am in the midst of DVRing 9 hours of NBA TV’s Jordan marathon (including the double nickel, which I will revisit out of the masochism with which visitors to a website named KnickerBlogger should be well acquainted).

The lesson, I suppose, is that truly transcendent greatness, the kind that gets inside its observers and re-emerges as either influence or obsession, doesn’t ever stop. Icons capable of so thoroughly dominating the cultural consciousness at the height of their greatness end up defining those cultures long after that greatness subsides. Some people desperately search for excuses to revisit the experience of buying Beatles albums (Oh, the harmonies on Abbey Road sound good this time? You’re kidding!) because they want to recapture the awe they felt hearing them for the first time; other (or in some cases the same) people use Jordan’s Hall of Fame Induction as an excuse to watch 20 year old basketball games for the fifth time without seeming like they’re (completely) crazy.

We buy into contrived excuses to revisit that kind of brilliance for two reasons. The first reason is that the kind of greatness in which the Beatles and Jordan traffic is irreplicableirreplicable because no one, not the Kinks or Kobe, not Oasis or LeBron, can ever be exactly what The Beatles or Jordan were (and still are), mean exactly what The Beatles or Jordan meant (and still mean). Through their achievements and connotations (both good and bad), both have carved out places in the zeitgeist whose impact can be equalled, possibly even surpassed, but never duplicated.

The second reason we keep going back for more is that transcendent greatness is inexhaustible. Much like the second half of Abbey Road or the crescendos in A Day in the Life, Jordan’s series winning jumper over Craig Ehlo in the first round of the 1989 playoffs never stops producing goosebumps. Neither does his dunk on Ewing in the ’91 playoffs (which gives me a rare goosebumps/nausea combo), his hand-switching finish against the Lakers in that season’s Finals, the Flu Game in the ’97 finals, the ’98 title-winner over Bryon Russell, or any of a dozen other moments, each of which is, individually, made greater by awareness of the whole; in Jordan’s case, success is all the more meaningful because so few failures exist to counterbalance it (on the court, at least).

The elephant in the room here is that I am a Knicks fan and, as such, I (and most of the people visiting this site) rooted against a great many of the accomplishments that are now being aggrandized in this space. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that some of the very moments that served to keep the Knicks titleless throughout my youth would become the moments that I held in the highest esteem little more than a decade later. But, in the end, Michael Jordan’s induction into the Hall of Fame is not only a celebration of his brilliance, but also a celebration of brilliance itself. We watch the highlights and re-read the columns and anticipate his induction speech for the same reason that the opening chords of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band continue to boost listeners’ pulses four decades after they were recorded.

Because greatness is always worth celebrating and always worth revisiting. Even if we need a dumb excuse to do it.

Congratulations to Michael Jordan from a fan base that respects you as much as it hates you. The most fitting tribute we can offer you is a comment board filled with memories of times you crushed us.

Similarity Scores, Part 1

Kobe Bryant is the next Jordan. Dwight Howard is the next Alonzo Mourning. Mardy Collins is the next Jason Kidd. Comparing two players allow us to communicate lots of information with a few words. If someone says that LeBron James is like Oscar Robertson, you would imagine LeBron being strong, versatile, agile, great, etc. Or perhaps that’s how you might picture the Big O, depending on how old you are.

Comparing two players is also useful when you’re evaluating players. Find a historical player similar to a youngster, and you have a good idea of how he might develop. However identifying similar players can be difficult and subjective. Is LeBron the next Jordan, Magic, or Robertson? In order to take some of the guesswork out of the equation, I’ve created a similarity score using statistics. Since per-game and accumulated stats are dependent on playing time and don’t adequately reflect a player’s skill level, I’ve decided to go with standardized (z-scores) per minute stats. Originally I used just about every stat the NBA officially keeps track of, but the results didn’t pass the smell test. It didn’t make sense for personal fouls to be worth the same as points. Therefore I decided to use weighted stats, and broke them into three categories.

The first and most important category is scoring. No other historically recorded statistic is more integral to a player’s worth. Some players are expected to run the offense and have a high number of assists, while others are on the floor primarily to rebound, but few do both. However just about everyone on the court is expected to score at some point or another. Even players that score infrequently or inefficiently should be more similar to those of the same ilk. Hence I made scoring worth approximately half a player’s comparison score.

Originally I had added many aspects of scoring, but I found that they tended to take away from the main focus: efficiency and volume. Oddly I also saw better results when I limited scoring to just three stats: TS%, eFG%, and PTS/36. Since the first two are compilations of different aspects of scoring, I feel justified leaving things out like free throw percentage or three pointers attempted. And the results seemed to get better when I gave more priority to the percentages, and less to points. This is due to a wider variety in efficiency than volume. Lots of players can average 20pts/36, but few can do it at 60% TS%. Currently TS% and eFG% are both worth twice as much as PTS/36.

I split the rest of the stats into two sections which I call (for lack of better terms) “Small Man” and “Big Man”. “Small Man” is worth about a third and consists of three parts: AST/36, STL/36, TO/36. I found that assists tend to separate contrasting players better, and ranked it equal to the other two combined. “Big Man” is worth about a fifth and is OREB/36, DREB/36, BLK/36 and PF/36. Rebounding combined (but not individually) is more valuable than blocks, and fouls are minuscule, but present.

In the end, I’ve come up with a system that although has subjective elements, should provide objectivity across the board. The similarity scores use the same equation for every player, so there isn’t any bias in that respect. In other words I could try to make Jamal Crawford more similar to Michael Jordan, but that would likely make other players that are more close to him get even closer. In future I may tweak the weights, but essentially the process is the same.

Since I plan on adding these to the report cards, let’s start with the guy I missed, Chris Duhon’s 2009 season compared to others at the age of 26.

0.000 Chris Duhon G 2009 NYK 79 12.2 .570 .515 10.9 3.0 7.0 0.9 2.7
0.044 Vinny Del Negro G 1993 SAS 73 13.9 .563 .514 12.8 3.8 6.9 1.0 2.2
0.052 Brad Davis G 1982 DAL 82 14.5 .569 .524 13.7 3.1 7.0 1.0 2.2
0.096 Steve Henson G 1995 POR 37 12.1 .613 .564 11.3 2.5 8.1 0.9 2.8
0.101 Vern Fleming G 1989 IND 76 15.8 .572 .517 15.3 4.4 7.0 1.1 2.7
0.105 Rex Walters G 1997 PHI 59 13.0 .571 .543 13.9 3.7 3.9 1.0 2.1
0.107 Jacque Vaughn G 2002 ATL 82 13.1 .547 .498 10.5 3.3 6.8 1.3 2.2
0.116 John Crotty G 1996 CLE 58 13.0 .590 .482 10.0 3.2 6.0 1.3 3.0
0.117 Luke Walton F 2007 LAL 60 14.7 .551 .517 12.4 5.5 4.7 1.1 2.1
0.120 Sherman Douglas G 1993 BOS 79 13.5 .518 .504 11.5 3.0 9.5 0.9 3.0
0.121 Phil Ford G 1983 TOT 77 10.4 .525 .480 11.7 2.3 6.5 1.2 3.0

The first thing to notice is the z-sum table, which is the similarity score. The lower the number this is, the more similar the players are. Duhon is most similar to Del Negro and Davis, with a drop off to Henson & the others. So what does something like this tell us about Duhon? Looking over the list we see lots of mediocre players and no All Stars. So the chance that Duhon will develop into something superior to his current form is rare. As for the comparables, in two of the next three years, Del Negro would have his most productive seasons. And much like Duhon, Davis languished as a reserve before catching on in his 26th year. He would become the starter for the Mavericks, and ride out a few bad seasons until the team turned things around in the mid-80s.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

Ko-be like Mike?

For me, watching Kobe Bryant play invokes some weird feelings. His style most resembles that of Michael Jordan, and if you were a Knick fan during the 90s then memories of Jordan are always a mixed bag. Although he was New York’s biggest nemesis, he used his ability on the court to transcend basketball and become a worldly icon. One minute he was flashing his million dollar smile in a commercial, the next he was ripping the hearts out of Knick fans.

As a basketball fan of the 80s & 90s, it’s hard to deny Jordan’s greatness. At his peak he was the closest thing to perfection on the basketball court; it seemed that he was the only one capable of stopping himself from winning a championship. So when I see Kobe Bryant who closely resembles Michael’s game, my instinct is to put them on the same level. And I’m not the only one.

“Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan… Kobe can do everything Michael did, and even a few things Michael couldn’t do. Kobe is just as good a defender. His killer instinct is just as pronounced. He can shoot, finish and explode. And just like Jordan, the more he’s pissed off, the more unstoppable he is.” —Jemele Hill, ESPN

“I played with both Kobe and Michael. I would have to say that Kobe Bryant is the better player. Kobe has a much better shot, handles the ball better, and just has more tricks to go along with his game. And just look at his career…he already has 3 rings and he’s going for his fourth this year.” — John Salley, former NBA player

“Kobe is arguably in the top 10 players of all time and is still in his prime. I dislike the guy and would find him hard to root for if he were a Knick, but he is the 2nd best all-around player in the league and singlehandedly would make just abut any current lottery team a playoff contender.” — Z-man, KnickerBlogger reader

“The more I watch Kobe Bryant rip through the NBA playoffs, the more drawn I become to the idea that he has become a little bit better basketball player than Michael Jordan. If you use your eyes, and you’re not wearing Jordan-colored sunglasses, you can see it.” — Anthony Wilson,

“I believe Kobe Bryant is a more talented offensive player than Michael Jordan. Looking at both players’ game film, Kobe is a better ball handler and plays much more comfortably on the perimeter than Jordan. Kobe also has better shooting range and a wider variety of moves compared to Jordan, who prefers to use mid-range game and post game.” — Ling Ge, Bleacher Report

While most of the quotes I chose were from people who thought that Bryant was a better player, it’s realistic to think that there’s a sizable percentage of fans that think Bryant is on the same level as Jordan. But is this true? Let’s compare their statistics at the same age.

Jordan vs. Kobe Scoring (per-36 minutes)

Player | Year |   G |  PER |  TS% | eFG% |  FGA | 3PA |  3P% | FTA |  FT% | PTS
Bryant | 2009 | 948 | 23.6 | .558 | .488 | 18.9 | 3.7 | .341 | 7.6 | .840 | 24.8
Jordan | 1993 | 667 | 29.8 | .589 | .526 | 21.8 | 1.3 | .301 | 8.4 | .846 | 30.0

Jordan vs. Kobe Non-Scoring (per-36 minutes)

Player | Year | ORB | DRB | TRB | AST | STL | BLK | TOV | PF
Bryant | 2009 | 1.2 | 4.0 | 5.2 | 4.6 | 1.5 | 0.6 | 2.9 | 2.6
Jordan | 1993 | 1.6 | 4.3 | 5.9 | 5.5 | 2.5 | 1.0 | 2.8 | 2.7

Their games appear similar to the naked eye, but from these numbers it’s clear that Jordan was far superior to Bryant. As John Salley noted Bryant does have a better shot (especially from three), but Jordan’s superior interior game (including getting to the line) made him a more potent scorer. And Michael was a better all around player. Jordan was better in scoring efficiency (eFG%/TS%), scoring volume (pts/36), rebounding, steals, assists, and blocks.

Although Kobe is good in many areas, Jordan was flat out dominant. If you count all the seasons where a player averaged 30 pts/36 with a true shooting percentage over 58.9% (Jordan’s averages at Kobe’s age) since the 3-point era, you’ll find only 4 such seasons. Three belong to Jordan, and the fourth is Kiki Vandeweghe. Do the same with Kobe’s averages (24.8 pts/36, 55.8 ts%), and you’ll find 113 seasons. Kobe only has 4 of those seasons, while Jordan appears on that list 10 times.

The reason I bring this comparison up is to qualify the importance of statistics. Before looking up the numbers, my brain linked the two players because of their similar style of play. Granted there was always a section of grey matter that questioned their equality due to Bryant’s lack of a title as his team’s centerpiece. Because of their resemblances, my subconscious made a connection between the pair. This is known as “representativeness heuristic” where:

People tend to judge the probability of an event by finding a ‘comparable known’ event and assuming that the probabilities will be similar. As a part of creating meaning from what we experience, we need to classify things. If something does not fit exactly into a known category, we will approximate with the nearest class available.

In other words since Kobe plays like Jordan, and is similar enough to him, people attribute Jordan’s other attributes to Kobe. But in reality this is false. Bryant is a good player, but nowhere near Michael’s level. And without statistics that subtle but important difference may not be clear.

Daring to Dream

It’s a big day on the NBA calendar: the official salary cap for the 2008-2009 season was announced ($58,680,000) and it’s the first day free agents can officially sign contracts. The biggest news is Elton Brand spurning the Clippers and his friend Baron Davis, apparently agreeing to a 5-year, $82 million contract with Philadelphia. The Warriors are reportedly signing Corey Maggette to a 5-year, $50 million deal. Most important — at least to Knicks fans — Brand’s move may create an opening to move Zach Randolph.

Randolph won’t be anyone’s first choice. But if you want to take a glass half-full attitude, the Clippers and Warriors have significant cap room, fantasies of competing for the playoffs, a hole at power forward and — very possibly — no one to take their money in free agency. Assuming the Davis and Maggette reports are accurate, the Clippers have $14 million in cap space left, while the Warriors have about $17 million. As far as unrestricted free agents — forget it. The best one left is James Posey, then it’s guys like Ricky Davis and Brent Barry. The plum prizes are restricted, meaning their teams can match any offer. Still, when big offers start flying, it’s no surprise when someone flinches. Here are five guys who could wreck our Randolph plans — in order of likelihood that they’ll sign with Clippers or Warriors.

Emeka Okafor — There’s been almost no news from Charlotte, but Okafor was uninterested in an offer starting at $12-13 million a year, and 10 days ago Michael Jordan was grumbling to the papers. Given Okafor’s injury history and the signs of bad blood, I won’t be surprised to see him walk if the Warriors (or Clippers) make an offer starting around $13 million. Still, as of now, the Warriors reported top choice is…

Josh Smith — Smith is a thrill to watch, Atlanta’s star gate attraction and still just 22 years old. He’s also clashed with his coaches and has plenty of holes in his game. The Hawks keep saying they’ll match any offer, but the owners are notoriously cheap. It would be a public relations disaster not to match… but if the Warriors make a huge offer, the Hawks might throw in the towel. Channeling my inner Sam Smith, the Hawks could also look at trade options. Utah or Miami might take Smith for Carlos Boozer or Shawn Marion; that would give the Hawks a short-term upgrade and massive cap room next summer. The Hawks also need money to pay…

Josh Childress — No star power, but stat-heads know him as an extremely efficient offensive player, a good rebounder for a guard and a solid defender. I doubt the Hawks will let Smith AND Childress walk, but if they pony up for Smith, I don’t think they’ll pay more than the mid-level ($5.58 million) for their 6th man. On the other hand, I don’t know if the Clips or Warriors will make him an offer.

Andre Iguodala — Iggy is far less likely to move than these others. With Brand in town, the 76ers think they can make a title run with their current lineup, and they may be right. Still, if offers for Iguodala hit the $14 million range, the Sixers might look at trade options, for a more traditional shooter/scorer. Michael Redd and Tracy McGrady spring to mind. More likely to happen in February, if at all.

Luol Deng — Since the Bulls wouldn’t trade him for Kobe, they’ll be matching offers. That’s going to dog this guy for the rest of his career.

Also worry about…

Ben Gordon — Now here’s a restricted free agent with a good chance of moving. Yeah, he’s a two-guard, but it matters to our Randolph hopes because the Bulls might decide to move Hinrich instead, in a reported trade for Al Harrington. With Harrington out of the picture, the Warriors would have to take on Zach’s full salary — making it an even longer shot.

Andris Biedrins — It’s assumed the Warriors will sign him to an extension, but if you hear they’re having second thoughts, it means they’re trying to save money for a run at one of the other guys.

Free Agent Roundup — Day 1

Baron Davis has reportedly agreed to a 5-year, $65 million deal with the Clippers. No offers or signings are official before July 9th, when the the league announces the final salary cap figures. Apparently it takes eight days for a team of chipmunks to work the slide rules over on Park Avenue.

Assuming a cap number in the realm of $58,130,000 – what I saw on real GM – just four teams have significant cap room.  WIthout Davis, Golden State has the most — about $24 million. However, they also need to save up to re-sign Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins. They can go over the cap to sign them, but own Chris Cohan has said he wants to avoid the luxury tax. Meanwhile, Memphis has about $15 million to spend, as do the Clippers – if they renounce rights to Corey Maggette, as expected.  Philadelphia has about $12 million in space, assuming they keep Andre Iguodala. It’s even worse, actually, for the free agents – Memphis is supposedly in money-saving mode and is not expected to break open the bank for anyone. Seattle has about $8 million to offer, while every other team is limited to the mid-level (about $6 million) or else seeking a “sign-and-trade” if they want to get in on the action. 

Disclaimer: I occasionally saw Billy Knight at a Starbucks near my office, but now that he’s been fired I have no inside line. Therefore the information here is second-hand guesswork.  

Gilbert Arenas

     Arenas is reportedly weighing “max” offers from both Washington and Golden State. Call it a toss-up. Arenas has said he wants to stay in DC, but prior to his coming East no one thought he would ever leave his home state of California. Meanwhile, the Maloof brothers reportedly said they would give up their entire roster to get Arenas to Sacramento. Unless David Stern says he’ll let the Wiz play 15 vs. 5, I don’t think it’s worth it. Seriously, though – if Arenas is set on leaving, you have to think the Wizards would consider a deal involving Kevin Martin, a bad contract and a 1st round pick. 

 Elton Brand – Unrestricted

     Brand says he wants to stay and form a dream team with Davis. He also has Hollywood roots, as a successful film producer (like the Wernor Herzog-helmed “Rescue Dawn.”)  

Corey Maggette – Unrestricted

     Expect the Clippers to renounce Maggette, in order to re-sign Brand.  Then, unless Philadelphia or Golden States wants to pay him, it looks like Maggette will be taking the mid-level. The smart money is on Orlando, where he lives in the offseason and which is reported to be ready to make an offer.

DeSagana Diop – Unrestricted

   Reports are that Dallas will bring him home, offering the full mid-level.

Josh Smith – Restricted

     Philadelphia is reportedly set to make an offer starting at $11 million a year. The Hawks have vowed to match, but Sekou Smith, the astute beat writer for the Hawks, is pessimistic.

 Emeka Okafor – Restricted

    Last year Okafor turned down an offer in the $12 million range, and no one has enough cap room to offer that much, so it’s likely he stays in Charlotte. But there are reports of discord – Michael Jordan is fuming. If the two sides don’t calm down, Charlotte might look for a place to trade their big man. 

 Monta Ellis – Restricted

     Ellis might have been in play if Baron Davis had stayed put. As things stand, there’s no way the Warriors let him leave. They’ll match any offer.

 Ben Gordon – Restricted

    There’s no clear front-runner. Actually, Gordon had such a bad year that his value may have dropped to the point where the Bulls can afford to keep him.

 Other restricted free agents like Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala and Josh Childress, are assumed to be re-signing, since their teams are likely to match any offer.

Sign and Trade

     The sign-and-trade route is more complicated. It requires a team willing to let its star walk, another team willing to make an offer and a star who actually wants to go to the new team. For example, Miami reportedly loves Brand, and Pat Riley did sign him to an offer sheet a few years back. He’s only in L.A. because the Clippers matched it. Shawn Marion probably isn’t enough, but if Riley offered Michael Beasley and salaries to match – wouldn’t the Clips at least consider it?

     Another team that hasn’t been mentioned – but maybe should – is Detroit.  Joe Dumars says he’s willing to swap any of his starting five, and says he wants to make a big splash.  Houston – with risk-taking, stat-loving GM Daryl Morey – could also be a dark horse. Tracy McGrady is an injury risk, and the team actually has a better record without Yao Ming the past two years. Either might be tradeable in the right deal.