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August 10, 2009

Kleiza Goes to Greece

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:53 pm

Greek power Olympiakos, which famously signed Josh Childress last summer, has added more NBA veterans. First, Olympiakos signed former Houston guard Von Wafer, who found a limited market for his volume scoring this summer. Then, Yahoo! Sports reported that Olympiakos signed Denver restricted free agent Linas Kleiza to a two-year, $12.2 million contract.

Because the Rockets weren’t apparently counting on having Wafer back (second-round pick Jermaine Taylor figures to fill his role as a scorer off the bench), it is the Kleiza deal that has much more significant NBA implications. The Nuggets hoped to get back Kleiza, whether he played for the 1-year qualifying offer ($2.7 million) or signed a longer-term deal. Though Denver will be over the tax no matter what, Friday’s trade bribing the Memphis Grizzlies with a lottery-protected first-round pick to take on the $3.7 million contract of center Steven Hunter gave the team some breathing room as far as an offer to Kleiza.

Alas, even if the Nuggets weren’t paying twice Kleiza’s salary because of the luxury-tax penalty, matching Olympiakos’ offer would have been a mistake. I’m surprised they were willing to offer so much money to a player who has been, at best, league average so far during his NBA career. Granted, Kleiza is young – not quite 25 at the start of the 2009-10 season – but even the mid-level over an extended period would have been a bit of a reach, and Olympiakos offered more per year than that amount. The biggest surprise to me is that Olympiakos was willing to offer so much with more valuable RFAs like David Lee and Nate Robinson still in limbo. (Counter-point: Kleiza was probably more willing to return to the continent than Americans were to play overseas, he’s familiar with FIBA rules from his international experience for Lithuania and his style is a good fit for the European game.)

On the court, I’m not sure this is all bad for Denver. Kleiza’s departure opens up a spot in the rotation for Renaldo Balkman, who has always come out well by my numbers; in fewer than 800 minutes last season, he was worth nearly 3 Wins Above Replacement Player (and also had far better on-off numbers, per Balkman’s aggressive defense can help offset the shooting the Nuggets will lose.

The bigger issue is simply depth. Denver has 10 players under contract and needs to fill out its roster, if not its rotation, and Balkman was a luxury as a fourth forward in a three-player rotation. Kleiza’s departure would seemingly make it more likely the Nuggets bring back Anthony Carter as a third point guard and veteran presence, while at least one of the other spots will need to go to a frontcourt player. Steve Novak might be an interesting target for Denver, as a better shooter than Kleiza (albeit not nearly as well-rounded a player) who should come at a reasonable price barring the Clippers matching the offer to the restricted free agent. James Singleton is another interesting option, though it has been reported he is likey to return to the Mavericks. Beyond that, the Nuggets will have to get creative to round out their roster.

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