Nuggets are offseason champs

Some two months since anointing the Denver Nuggets as the mid-July leaders in the Free Agent Frenzy of 2004, I've seen nothing that necessitates a rewrite. The Nuggets are still our biggest winners.

Houston (Tracy McGrady, Dikembe Mutombo, Bob Sura), Utah (Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur,) and Miami (Shaquille O'Neal) had big summers, too. Detroit (Antonio McDyess) and San Antonio (Brent Barry) made their usual well-reasoned upgrades. Even Dallas rallied after a dreadful start, with what amounts to the risky swap of Steve Nash for Erick Dampier.

Yet it's Kiki Vandeweghe, for me, who got the most done.

The expected signing of Greg Buckner would complete a nice haul for Vandeweghe, who had previously made a splash by acquiring Kenyon Martin ... and re-signing Marcus Camby ... and without having to part with bruising forward Nene or perimeter dead-eye Voshon Lenard.

If Vandeweghe and the unextended, under-fire Jeff Bzdezlik agree on anything, it's that Denver badly needed a perimeter defender to throw at high-scoring swingmen, because Anthony has a better chance defensively against bigger bodies. Buckner, who knows Kiki well from their Mavericks days together, has the potential to be a wing stopper if he can stay healthy. He's also a handy fallback after Vandeweghe's unsuccessful attempts to trade Nikoloz Tskitishvili for the salary-cap room that might have landed Trenton Hassell or Darius Miles.

Not that Kiki is overly concerned about what we think now. He's primarily interested in the grades that come after the regular season, or maybe even after the playoffs, when it's clear whether the Nuggets have lived up to their new top-four expectations in the West. Vandeweghe's too cautious to celebrate anything yet, even though his fourth season approaches with so much of his long-range plan having already materialized.

"It's a three- or four-year process and even that's pretty quick," Vandeweghe says. "But we've got one chance to build this the right way, and after this year we'll either have done it or not done it."

From here, if not quite a done deal, it looks like the Nuggets have been redone beautifully.

  • I'm hearing ...

    That Portland and Boston engaged in some exploratory trade talks last spring on a deal that would have featured Paul Pierce and Zach Randolph swapping teams, in spite of the fact their salaries don't come close to matching. Some six months later, while small-for-big certainly must hold some appeal for the Celtics, Pierce is going nowhere as an all-but-untouchable. The Blazers, of course, wouldn't even consider trading Randolph -- especially for a swingman, even a swingman as good as Pierce -- if not for concerns about his off-court comportment. Skill-wise he's a franchise player, but the Blazers, as you know, are intent on building around especially skillful good citizens ...

    And that Gary Payton will be in training camp with the Celtics, even though he hasn't officially notified them yet. Which means Boston, if nothing else, will have one of the most interesting teams in the East, with Payton and Ricky Davis flanking Pierce for new coach Doc Rivers. Throw in Mark Blount and a rehabilitated Raef LaFrentz and, again, Boston looks interesting at the very least after several months of Danny Ainge-bashing ...

    And that T.J. Ford's public declarations of optimism don't change the fact that it's a long shot he'll play at all this season. Sadly for the Bucks and for Ford, entities that both exceeded expectations last season, this remains a potentially career-ending injury.

  • One possible explanation for the leaguewide willingness to splash big dollars this offseason: Teams have been notified that a forthcoming $37 million lump-sum payment to the Lakers from a local cable operator should - stress should -- increase Basketball Related Income this summer by roughly $74 million.

    If that payment goes through, as expected, the probability of the luxury tax being triggered next season could be as low as 10 percent. That's according to University of North Carolina-Greensboro economics professor Dan Rosenbaum, our longtime luxury-tax expert. Rosenbaum estimates the probability of a luxury tax after the 2004-05 season at 50 percent if the lump-sum payment to the Lakers is held up in court or for any other reason.

    It's no stretch, mind you, to suggest that the hard line commissioner David Stern has taken in labor negotiations with the union -- seeking a more stringent luxury tax- - is because he has just seen how teams spend when they don't expect a luxury tax.

  • I love the tryout concept for Team USA. It appears that USA Basketball and I are (finally) on the same page, judging by ESPN.com's story last week about tryouts in the works for the team that must qualify next summer for the 2006 World Championships in Japan.

    OK, granted, the NBA's biggest names are certain to be insulted by the notion that they have to earn a spot on the squad like Michael Jordan and Leon Wood did -- and Charles Barkley and John Stockton didn't -- in 1984. So what? The biggest names aren't making themselves available for national-team duty as it is. And if the biggest names didn't come rushing back to Team USA after the 2002 World Championships debacle in Indianapolis, they're certainly not going to be volunteering now, after the bashing our 2004 Olympians took. USA Basketball can't worry about the biggest names any more.

    If you stage tryouts, you guarantee several things. You ensure that you have a group of players that definitely wants to be there. You make team selection more about basketball and less about marketing. And you start to get some sense of who plays well together, which is what the public clearly wants.

    America doesn't want or expect another Dream Team, since we all know there can't be another one. America wants a T-E-A-M, and tryouts can generate one better than the committee method of throwing supposed stars together.

  • None of the above, mind you, changes the fact that American-born NBA players everywhere should be embarrassed about the state of modern shooting ... and thus taking a thousand shots every day to get ready for training camp.

    Dads across America, incidentally, are no longer dreaming solely of raising little left-handed pitchers in their backyard. The dream now is raising spot-up shooters who can make open jumpers for their country.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.