by MARK GREY
Sometime within the next two weeks, the NBA title will find its way back to a familiar place. While it’s the play of both the Lakers and the Celtics that has gotten them to June, it’s the moves that both teams made last off-season that will determine what happens next. Although neither Rasheed Wallace nor Ron Artest were the highest priced players to switch teams last off-season, they have had the most impact.
Every off-season, dozens of former and future All-Stars switch teams as both players and clubs alike attempt to find the perfect fit. Whether it be signing a young free agent or trading for an established veteran, each move has a different purpose.
There are signings where a young team hopes to add veteran leadership to get the to the next level, such as Andre Miller going to Portland. Then there are signings like Matt Barnes in Orlando or Leon Powe in Cleveland, where teams are looking to add depth to an already strong team. Off-season additions like Hedo Turkoglu in Toronto also occur, where a team wants to let its superstar know they are trying to win.There are signings like Richard Jefferson in San Antonio where teams let it be known that they are not ready for rebuilding just yet. You even have signings where teams just have money so they spend it simply to say they did something -- like the 90 million spent on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva combined.
While all these different types of player movements are great and make for an exciting (or so they say) regular season, there is a small handful of player signings that impact where the NBA title will end up. These are the signings whose sole purposes are to win a ring right now - when one player is brought in to fill in that one small hole that seems to be preventing a team from playing for the title in June.
After being embarrassed by Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers brought in Shaq with the idea that when they faced the Magic in the playoffs, he would be able to guard Howard one on one. The Magic, who proved to be talented enough to make it all the way to the Finals, where they were beaten by the more athletic Los Angeles Lakers, brought in Vince Carter with the hopes of adding a high scoring wing player with the ability to create his own shot. The Dallas Mavericks made a midseason trade to bring in Caron Butler, a tough athletic perimeter defender, because they knew the road to the Finals went through Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. While all of these moves were made with title hopes, none of them panned out. In fact, all three turned out to be non-factors in the playoffs.
After a mediocre regular season for both Artest and Wallace, both have done just what their teams brought them in to do and its paying off. Neither the Celtics nor the Lakers brought in their technical loving All Stars with hopes of them taking over games, but rather to fill one specific role each. After winning the NBA title in 2008, the Celtics found themselves ousted in the second round by the Magic. The Celtics had no answer for Howard down low, and the 6’10” three-point shooting Rashard Lewis created match up problems that proved to be more then the Celts could handle. This year, armed with a 6’10” three point shooting power forward of their own, Boston steam rolled over the Magic. While Wallace did very little that showed up in the box scores, his ability to guard Howard one on one on the defensive end as well as spread the floor on the offensive end allowed Rondo to penetrate and is exactly what the Celtics brought him in for. After essentially taking the regular season off, Wallace has proven to be vital cog in the Celtics' title run.
Despite winning the title last year, the Lakers knew they were going to have to make some changes if they wanted a repeat. In the off-season, the Lakers made a risky move by trading a young developing Trevor Ariza for the controversial Artest. The Lakers knew they would miss the athleticism and slashing ability of Ariza, but also knew they had to get tougher and more physical on defense. The possibility of running into the 260 pound LeBron James in the Finals made the trade for Artest make sense. With the addition of Artest, Bryant no longer has to exert as much energy on the defensive end chasing around the other team's best player, which allows him to be fresher on the offensive end where the Lakers need him most. Artest’s wide range of defensive ability and toughness allows the Lakers the use of several different defensive match ups. On a team full of players labeled as soft, Artest adds that junkyard dog element that the Lakers were missing.
The Lakers and Celtics have both found their way back to the Finals, which is evidence that their off season moves have paid off. Now they just need their additions to step up and play their roles. While the entire basketball world focuses on the free agent class of 2010, two members of the '09 class still have some business to finish.