Sunday, July 02, 2006

Transaction Review: Peja Goes to New Orleans, er, Oklahoma City

Peja Stokavoic's signing with New Orleans is a surprise, but in lots of ways it makes sense. The Hornets had some money to spend and when a team like that has the cash ("a team like that" meaning not your typical top free agent destination), they have to use it when the opportunity presents itself. For all the times we heard it was a lock that Stojakovic was returning to Indiana, it never made all that much sense. His total disappearance, due to injury, in the playoffs certainly couldn't have been looked upon too fondly and the team has spent its last two first round picks on SFs. Indiana may have a big hole in their offense next season, but they smartly didn't give a near-max contract to a 29-year old player who has had a single great season in his career and has been rather ordinary the past two seasons. John Holinger's PER stat isn't the end-all, be-all for a player's value but it was good enough to recognize LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony as the top three SFs in the league last year. Stojakovic ranked 15th at the position, right in between Hedo Turkoglu and Ruben Patterson. Just sayin'...

Granted, Stojakovic looked more like his old self during his time in Indiana, with his FG% returning to a respectable level while showing an increased tenacity on the boards. But even in a league where you have to overpay to get players, paying $13 million per season for a guy like Stojakovic, who isn't going to get any better from here on out, seems a bit much. All that said, it does make the Hornets a pretty intriguing team next season, and has some very serious fantasy implications on both teams.

The Hornets have their superstar in Chris Paul and now have two legitimate complementary near-stars in Stojakovic and David West. The fact that Paul and West are still on their bargain rookie contracts makes Stojakovic's contract more reasonable for the Hornets. When it's time for West and then Paul to receive extenstions, then things might get complicated. Those three should provide a vast majority of the offense for the Hornets next year. Having a reliable (hopefully) outside shooter like Stojakovic should make Paul even more effective. As a second-year player, he's a legitimate second-round pick. Lots of people were waiting for West to slow down as the year went on, but it never happened. West doesn't project as a dominant offensive player -- he topped 25 points just four times last season -- so it's not like Stojakovic's presence should have an adverse affect on his numbers. Instead, he should be able to continue to go about his business and be an especially strong #3 option. I do think he may be a bit overrated on draft day, just because he lacks a dominant secondary skill and you can't count on him to shoot 51% again.

What can we expect from Peja? It would be best if when looking at his career line you could cross out 2003-2004. All it's good for is clouding your judgment. He established career highs that season in points, rebounds, steals, 3PM and minutes. Maybe he'll do it again, but there's no reason to count on it. It would be fair to expect 20/6/2 with 2.5 3s. You might want to project more, and he might be able to pump in a few more points and 3s, but it's probably time to stop expecting another 03-04, or at least drafting that way. Basically, what he did with Indiana last season is a pretty good idea of what to expect next year. And don't forget that it often takes players a bit of time to adjust to a new environment. Joe Johnson was a big disappointment last Novemeber before turning it on in December and maintaining that pace for the rest of the year.

The real fantasy intrigue is back on Indiana. It would be shocking if Jermaine O'Neal went anywhere and he'll remain the top option, although his fragility the past couple years may make you think twice before spending a second round pick on him. Stephen Jackson is the apparent #2 option, but that's just not a role he's best suited for, at least for a team that considers itself a serious playoff contender. He's good, but just not that good. He's still a mid-round pick. I'm excited for Danny Granger's potential, but I won't be the only one. Granger's rookie season didn't look all that special-- he finished an ordinary 115th on the Player Rater -- but he did that while receiving just 22.6 mpg. He reminds me of Shane Battier in his ability to contribute just a bit in 3s, steals and blocks; with more minutes and his expected improvement, he's a threat to be a 1-1-1 guy. (It's worth noting that after taking just 93 3s in 78 regular season games, Granger attempted 16 -- while making 9 -- in just 6 postseason contests.) Prorate Granger's rookie stats out to 34 mpg and you get 11.3/7.4/1.8 with 0.6 3s, 1.1 steals and 1.2 blocks. And there's no reason why he shouldn't get better. It's never the safest strategy to draft a ton of guys and then need them to post better numbers than they ever have in the past to justify their draft position. And all it takes is one overeager person in your league in love with the upside of youngsters to turn Granger from a bargain into a bust. Reaching rarely works out. But Granger has a real chance to emerge as one of those do-it-all SFs that are becoming more common around the league.

Of course, it remains to be seen what the Pacers are up to over the rest of the summer. Al Harrington could be back in the fold, and that might render all that Granger talk a moot point. The Pacers are definitely in need of someone who can put some points on the board, and it doesn't look like that answer is going to come from within. Fred Jones and Sarunas Jasikevicius are nice players, but haven't really shown they're reliable top offensive options, and Granger's not really a scorer either. Expect the Pacers to make a move, but someone on the squad right now is likely going to have to step it up regardless.

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