The NBA offseason has seen a little bit of everything - the deepest draft in years, trades, amnesty clauses, unexpected changes of address, and a dose of (L)insanity.
The biggest domino has yet to fall. Dwight Howard's soap opera still has some sand left in the hourglass (and hopefully still does by the time this column reaches your hands), but it's not too early to label some of the offseason's winners and losers.
The defending champs haven't made many moves this offseason, but signing Ray Allen away from the rival Celtics clinches their inclusion on this list. The 3-point attack of Mike Miller and Shane Battier devastated the Thunder in the NBA Finals, making Oklahoma City pay every time they sent a help defender at LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Toss the most prolific 3-point shooter in league history into the rotation, and the Heat are once again the favorites in the Eastern Conference. Allen won't have to beat himself up running through triple screens to get open in Miami. LeBron does the heavy work for his shooters, penetrating the defense before kicking out for open catch-and-shoot looks. If he's healthy, Allen should thrive in the reduced role.
Miami got another piece of good news this summer when Miller decided to return for another season. Miller had been considering retirement after battling through severe back pain last year. The Heat also signed Rashard Lewis, adding yet another 3-point marksman to the roster. Miami isn't invincible. The Heat are still thin in the frontcourt, and age and fatigue could become a factor next postseason, especially in the supporting cast. Nevertheless, LeBron & Co. have to be considered a good bet to return to the Finals until someone in the East ends their reign.
Danny Ainge spent the summer propping open the Celtics championship window a little wider. Ray Allen took a pay cut to bolt for South Beach, but signing a similarly streaky sharpshooter in Jason Terry was a nice way for Boston to rebound. The discord between Allen and point guard Rajon Rondo wasn't even an open secret by season's end, and Allen's departure was about as surprising as Katie Holmes split from Tom Cruise. The fact that the former Big 3 charter member left for the rival Heat at a steep discount speaks volumes about the decline of Allen's relationship with the Celtics. The Celtics began to take off when breakout guard Avery Bradley was inserted into the starting lineup last season, and Terry should be able to give Boston a nice dose of firepower off the bench.
Boston's biggest signings came from within the organization. Kevin Garnett's postseason proved one of the league's most interesting characters still has plenty of game left in his legs, and the Celtics added depth to the frontcourt that should help keep the veteran fresh. Brandon Bass is coming off his best season as a pro, and Chris Wilcox is capable of providing solid spot duty off the bench. Re-signing both should add continuity to what has been a revolving door in the Boston supporting cast. Picking up Jared Sullinger at No. 21 in the draft was a steal. The Ohio St. product has looked impressive in summer league action. Fab Melo is a project at center, but Boston has the depth to bring him along slowly. Jeff Green is an X-factor coming off heart surgery. If the 25-year-old can build on the potential he flashed with the Thunder, Boston could have a building block that, like Rondo and Bradley, can help the C's contend both now and in the post-Garnett/Paul Pierce future. Greg Stiemsma appears on the way out, but bringing back Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus would give Boston its deepest roster in years.
Page 2 of 4 - Los Angeles Lakers
One of the most underrated aspects of the Olympics has been the platform they have provided Kobe Bryant this summer. Kobe made headlines for suggesting that this year's Olympic team could have handled the original Dream Team, and later called David Stern's plan for an age limit on future Olympic teams "stupid." Right or wrong, Kobe hasn't been shy about sharing his opinions. Maybe he's playing up the role of the unabashed, grizzled old veteran, or maybe he's just giddy about his Lakers returning to title contention after a two-year hiatus.
Acquiring Steve Nash was an unexpected coup for the Lakers, one that vaulted L.A. back into the finals picture. Both Nash and Kobe have dominated the ball in the past, and it will be interesting to see how the two mesh in the same backcourt. Nash is the ultimate point guard; he will find a way to make it work. The Lakers also signed talented veteran Antawn Jamison in an under-the-radar move that gives the squad some desperately needed depth. Adding Jamison and Nash is a clear sign that LA is intent on maximizing the championship potential of Kobe's last few elite years in the league. Nash should work well with big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum - always assuming the Lakers don't find a way to pry Dwight Howard away from Orlando.
The Nets stacked on debt like the federal government this summer, committing over $300 million in contracts to Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Mirza Teletovic, Reggie Evans, C.J. Watson and Jerry Stackhouse. Of course, the Nets are another franchise whose offseason has to be viewed through the prism of the Howard sweepstakes. Although the Nets couldn't convince Orlando to grant Howard's demand for a new Brooklyn address, Brooklyn did a good job of building a team that should shoot from the lottery to a top-five seed in the Eastern Conference.
Adding Johnson and his mega-contract convinced Williams to say no to his hometown Dallas Mavericks and make the move to Brooklyn's Barclays Center, which would have been a $1 billion boondoggle if the Nets couldn't put a product on the floor capable of drawing in fans. The teaming of Williams and Johnson gives the Nets perhaps the premier backcourt in the league. With less of an offensive burden on their shoulders, they should free each other up to remind everyone of just why they received those max contracts. Lopez became underrated over the past few seasons, hampered by injuries and bad teams in Jersey. He's capable of averaging 20 points a night, and the always-active Humphries can help mask his deficiencies on the glass. The Nets still have promising second-year pro MarShon Brooks coming off the bench. If Howard starts the season in a Magic jersey, don't be surprised if the trade talks are rekindled in January, this time with the Nets holding the upper hand in the negotiations.
Page 3 of 4 - LOSERS
New York Knicks
It's hard to fathom how the offseason could have veered so far off the tracks for the Knicks - but then again, these are the James Dolan Knicks. Instead of quickly moving to resign Jeremy Lin to a favorable contract, the Knicks told the popular point guard sensation to go test the open market. Lin did just that, receiving a lucrative three-year offer from the Rockets. After years of profligate spending, the Knicks suddenly balked at the potential luxury tax ramifications of Lin's contract, letting "Linsanity" move on to Houston without receiving anything in return.
Jason Kidd was originally signed with the intent of serving as a mentor to the 23-year-old Lin, but Kidd will now back up veteran Raymond Felton. The UNC product played the best basketball of his career during a 54-game stretch with the Mike D'Antoni Knicks in 2010-11, building great pick and roll chemistry with Amare Stoudemire before being shipped to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade. The pressure will be on Felton to play well early, or the Madison Square Garden crowd will surely find a creative way to highlight Lin's absence from the lineup.
New York lost Landry Fields to Toronto, and the acquisitions of ex-Knicks Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby may only serve to remind fans of better days when those players were key cogs on playoff teams - in the 1990s. Stoudemire never got into a rhythm last season, as the offense stagnated when Lin wasn't working his magic. Stoudemire and Anthony have to find a way to complement each other, or New York fans might find themselves turning away from another disjointed Knicks possession to check their phones for the score of the Brooklyn game.
Mark Cuban hasn't had this much trouble with an acquisition since his bid to take over Tequila Avion from that stubborn Carlos character. The Mavericks swung for the fences and came up empty on luring Deron Williams back to his hometown of Dallas, then watched Steve Nash and Jason Kidd move elsewhere. After striking out on their main targets, Dallas added a slew of solid, if unspectacular, veterans to the mix - OJ Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand. That's not exactly the haul that Mavs fans had in mind when Dallas essentially abdicated its title defense last summer, letting center Tyson Chandler walk away in free agency in order to maintain financial flexibility.
Like the Lakers, the Mavericks have a superstar who isn't getting any younger. While L.A. has reloaded around Kobe, Dallas has surrounded Dirk Nowitzki with a squad that's probably just good enough to get eliminated from the first round of the playoffs.
Houston's dogged pursuit of Dwight Howard has become somewhat painful to watch. Despite receiving zero signals that Howard is interested in a long-term marriage with Houston, the Rockets have kept the flame burning for the superstar center, structuring their entire offseason around a possible trade, piling up draft picks and even using the amnesty clause on power forward Luis Scola. That's a lot of effort for what is likely a one-year rental.
Page 4 of 4 - The Rockets may be better served by bottoming out and rebuilding with youth, like the current Western Conference champs did. That's what is likely to happen if the Howard trade doesn't come to fruition. How Jeremy Lin fits into the Houston puzzle remains up in the air, given the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the roster.