jose

In order to give Arsenalist a break from his insane-post-a-day commitment, I had the chance to sit down with Kevin McElroy, über blogger from the ESPN TrueHoop Affiliate Knickerblogger, to talk about the Knicks, the Eastern Conference and the Raptors (with an especially interesting take on the state of the Raptors and BC himself):

Q. How did the Knicks do this off-season? Talk about drafts, trades and free agent signings as well as ownership/management changes.

Kevin McElroy: The answer to this question is necessarily relative to expectations. By any normal measure, this was the Knicks best summer since the mid-90’s. Their failed pursuit for LeWyane Bosh aside, the Knicks brought in Amare Stoudemire, a five-time all-star with three top-ten scoring seasons who also happens to be the active career leader in true shooting percentage. While concerns about the riskiness of the acquisition (especially those relating to Stoudemire’s injury history) are understandable, the rarity with which players of Stoudemire’s caliber can be had without forfeiting any tradeable assets makes the signing a worthwhile gamble. The David Lee trade — in which the Knicks gave up a player that they had already made redundant and received two valuable role players and a freakish athlete with world-class upside in return — was the best player for player(s) swap the Knicks have made since they brought in Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby; if Anthony Randolph develops, it will go down as even better than those trades.

I worry about Raymond Felton eating up valuable cap space, but I get the feeling that his signing was about keeping Amare happy enough to keep telling his buddies how great things were in New York — Felton’s contract should be moveable if he becomes the final obstacle to bringing in another star. I hated the Knicks’ play-it-safe strategy on draft night, but based upon the summers that Landry Fields and Lance Stephenson have had, my opinion on the matter has softened. Fields will hang around for 10 years and be a useful role player for the Knicks in the near term.

Q. Who came out the bigger winner AND loser in the Atlantic Division?

KM: I’ll exclude the Knicks from the conversation here since I’ve already discussed their offseason. I think the Celtics are the winners by default, mostly because they were the only Atlantic Division team good enough to focus their off-season on filling their remaining needs rather than blindly overhauling the team and hoping it would work out. I’m not crazy about their Shaquisition for the same reason I wasn’t crazy about it when he was Shaquired by Phoenix or Cleveland, but at the veteran minimum it’s a low risk move and they can always tell him to go away if he becomes a problem.

As for the biggest losers, the Nets’ mind-bendingly bizarre assortment of free agent signings gets the nod even in a division where Toronto lost their franchise leader in scoring and rebounding just as he was entering his prime. Better build that arena, Brooklyn, or Johan Petro will be plying his trade elsewhere!

Q. Last season we saw a dog fight from 5-9 in the East for a playoff appearance (the Raptors dropped from 5th to 9th rapidly at the tail-end of the season). What are your predictions for this upcoming season? Who are your dark horses to watch out for?

KM: Obviously the Heat jump out of that dog fight and into the top 3, arguably the top 1. I think this will be another season in which the Eastern Conference can be separated into pretty well-defined tiers. The Tier 1 teams — Miami, Orlando, Boston — seem fairly insurmountable at the top of the pyramid, although if the Celtics all get old at the same time, they could feasibly drop into Tier 2. For now, Tier 2 is Atlanta, Chicago, and probably Milwaukee, all of whom should qualify for the postseason comfortably and will be primarily concerned with finishing 5th or better and thus avoiding the Tier 1 teams in the first round. Tier 3 is where it gets a bit hairy: Charlotte has to be viewed as the 7th best team going into the year, but New York has much greater upside and is the only team outside of Tiers 1 and 2 with a chance to vault into the top 6 if everything goes right.

If things implode for the Knicks — and, let’s face it, why shouldn’t they — The Pacers, Sixers, and Cavs are all in the picture for one of the last two playoff spots. One more quick point that nobody is talking about: I will not be surprised if strength of schedule becomes a decisive factor in the Eastern Conference this year. The Bobcats have to play a whopping 15 games against the Heat, Magic, and Hawks, while the Knicks and Sixers will play each other five times and have 10 games each against the Nets and Raps. Could be enough to bump the Bobcats down to ninth in a tight East.

Q. Is what happened in Miami bad for the league? On the one hand, players are taking control of their own futures (as best as possible); but on the other, the rich just seem to get richer.

KM: I swore a lifelong oath of hatred against the Miami Heat the day that Pat Riley hopped the fence back in 1995, but the answer to this question is still “no.” In the long-term, this has to be viewed as good for the league, and not just because it will allow us to see something we’ve never seen before (which it will) and give other fan bases a unifying enemy (which it also will). The reason I’m glad it happened, and happened when it did, is that it has placed everything from cap rules to player tampering to the merits of “Superteams” at the forefront of the conversation, just before a watershed CBA renegotiation. This is the best way for basketball fans and writers to have any kind of a voice about the future of the league. Maybe I’m dreaming on that but, at a time when the NBA seems desperate to drum up demand for its product, it will have an unprecedented opportunity to gauge public opinion on nearly every issue that is likely to come up this summer. We may all be thanking LeWyane Bosh before this is over.

(Was that convincing? No? Darn it. I really hate the Heat.)

Q. Do you share the view that playing in Toronto is similar to playing in Europe, and not very appealing to American born players? What’s your take on the Raptors and Toronto as a destination for the NBA elite?

KM: I think there are five or six “destination cities” in the League right now — LA, Miami, New York, Chicago, maybe one or two of the Texas cities — and I don’t think Toronto is one of them. But I think it’s still a long way up from playing in Europe and doubt the Canadian border has much of a practical effect on players’ decisions. Most NBA cities become appealing destinations if and only if their resident teams employ players and executives that are appealing to NBA free agents, which the post-Bosh Raptors probably don’t. The problem is that Toronto’s previous attempts at building around a franchise player were based upon guys whose personalities were not conducive to being the first major building block on a team in a non-destination city. It only takes one super-talented, super-loyal star — think Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard — to attract top players to a place that once seemed to be on the NBA periphery. The problem, of course, is finding that guy. Clearly, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh didn’t fit the description.

Q. What’s your take on Bryan Colangelo and the job he’s done for the Raptors? Could he have held on to Bosh had he made other choices? Did he make a huge mistake by not trading him earlier? What about the type of team he is trying to build in Toronto?

KM: I think Bosh was always leaving — he’s a very good second option alongside an elite scoring wing with good court vision; now he gets to play with two of them. It’s interesting to think about how things would have played out for Toronto if Bosh and T-Mac had come along at about the same time — they would have complemented each other brilliantly, maybe well enough that they both would have wanted to stay. As for Colangelo, I think he was probably doomed from the start. His mandate was to focus singularly on the retention of a player who was 1) probably always going to leave and 2) probably not good enough to be the best player on a great team anyway. To the extent that this strategy has failed (in the departure of Bosh) or set the franchise back (due to the shortsightedness of some of Toronto’s acquisitions), that failure is more associated with the flaws of the mandate (which fall at the feet of ownership) than with any flaws in execution (which would fall at the feet of Colangelo). That said, Toronto clearly needs to dive head-first into overhaul mode and that necessarily involves a conversation regarding whether Colangelo remains the right man for what is now a very different job.