In the aftermath of the James Harden trade, a few executives around the league raised the same question: What if Thunder GM Sam Presti looked at LeBron James reaching his apex and decided taking a small step back this season wouldn’t be such a bad thing? Especially if in doing so, the Thunder could recalibrate their personnel to peak when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were in their primes — and when LeBron would join Dwyane Wade on the wrong side of the age curve? In other words: It might be best to wait out Miami and the current Lakers core, likely to be together for just two years.
I doubt concerns about Miami or the Lakers ranked anywhere near the luxury tax and the diminishing returns of having three ball-dominant stars in Presti’s approach to Harden trade — if such LeBron-centric concerns even popped into his head at all. But the rumblings did get at an issue NBA thinkers kick around a lot: Is it possible or advisable to time your team’s rise to avoid overlap with an historically great juggernaut? And more broadly: Should GMs even consider the state of other teams in making their own trades and free agency signings? Should we rip the Sixers or Nuggets for enabling the Dwight Howard era in Los Angeles?1
A source familiar with the Howard trade confirms the Nuggets got involved only after Howard was earmarked for Los Angeles via a three-way deal that would have sent Andre Iguodala to Orlando.
The Nuggets are instructive, because they may be a working example of a team that has decided to punt on possible title contention as Miami enters its LeBron-era prime. In the Nene/JaVale McGee deal, the Nuggets took a massive present-day step back by trading an accomplished veteran big man for perhaps the single biggest unknown in the league — a kook who might have an untapped upside that could emerge, along with Kenneth Faried’s jump shot, when LeBron hits 30. The Iguodala deal appears to be a counterexample on the surface, since Denver acquired a current All-Star. But they shipped away two veteran rotation guys to do it (Arron Afflalo is only 21 months younger than Iggy), and if you caught Denver GM Masai Ujiri in an honest moment, I bet he’d cite the long-term salary cap savings brought by that deal as just as big a motivation as Iguodala’s elite defense.2
I’d also bet good money Ujiri would scoff at the idea that the Nuggets are real contenders this season.
The Nuggets are also instructive because they came upon this “wait out Miami” strategy by accident. In Year 1 of LeBron’s South Beach experiment, the Nuggets had a franchise superstar who was both unhappy and not really a franchise superstar. They also found an impatient suitor for that superstar in the Knicks, and so they improvised and dealt for a package of young guys and draft picks that suddenly represented their new franchise plan.
And that’s the thing: Lots of the teams in “wait out Miami” mode are there through sheer luck or awfulness — or some combination of both. The Hornets and Cavaliers are in perfect position for this strategy, but neither wanted to sacrifice a top-five overall player to get there, and both required Ping-Pong ball fortune to right themselves. The Clippers, conversely, might be coming together at exactly the “wrong” time, but you don’t pass up the chance to get a top-five player when it comes around.
Becoming a championship contender is so difficult, and requires so much luck, that rigging the timeline strikes most executives as both a fool’s errand and anathema to their competitive instincts. The first step is nabbing a top-10 guy, and that typically involves “winning” a high draft pick in the right draft year and/or hoping the team right above you makes a mistake; the “Thunder model” is not actually a thing, but it wouldn’t even be a bogus conceit if not for the existence of Greg Oden. The next steps involve getting higher-than-expected value from a free agent signing or two, and nailing at least one other draft pick outside the top five. The idea of doing all of those things and then somehow artificially delaying the process to account for a mini-dynasty elsewhere is sort of ludicrous.
If you have some pieces, you’re almost there, and if you’re almost there, you go for it — even if the chances of toppling a superpower are slim. “If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” says Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Mark Cuban, the Mavs’ owner, agrees: “One sprained toe or two, and the competitive landscape changes,” he says. “You don’t want to miss that opportunity. You should always put the best team you can on the floor within the parameters you have set for yourself.”
Cuban should know: His 2010-11 Mavs are widely cited as the best recent example of an unlikely champion that went for it anyway, reached a new level at the right time, got a few breaks, and suddenly found themselves holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy.3 Cuban allowed for the possibility that the new collective bargaining agreement, with its roster-building restrictions for taxpayers, will force some teams to open the vault only when they think an extra bit of spending will get them into that 5 percent group. But that’s a different sort of caution than surrendering to the Heat.
That title run wasn’t all that shocking. That Mavs team had a fantastic record and an elite point differential when Dirk Nowitzki was healthy, and it played very well that season against top teams. Even so, Dallas got a number of “breaks” any title team needs: the sudden implosion of the Lakers during a sweep in which the first three games were essentially toss-ups Dallas won in crunch time; random timely contributions from Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovic that kept Dallas afloat when Nowitzki sat; very good health among their core; the injury to Manu Ginobili and the early elimination of the Spurs; and whatever the hell happened to LeBron in the Finals.
It’s tough to find even a single team that might be in position to pump the brakes on contention in this sense. But if there’s one, it’s the Pacers, and even they are (sort of) an example of why this kind of thinking exists more in the realm of theory. The Pacers are a very nice team with a 25-year-old maxed-out center (Roy Hibbert), a solid 26-year-old caretaker point guard (George Hill), and a 22-year-old wing (Paul George) who stands as the player who could jump Indiana up a level. This season, they are clearly inferior to a healthy Miami team. If I were Kevin Pritchard or Donnie Walsh, I’d at least kick around the idea of dealing Danny Granger and/or David West now for a first-round pick who (if they’re very lucky) might mature into a high-quality starter right when George hits his prime and the Miami guys are well past theirs.
But two real-world concerns kick in:
1. The Pacers’ ownership cares deeply about attendance and good community vibes as they cement the franchise’s recovery from the Malice at the Palace and the subsequent feel-bad tear-down. To take a temporary step back now would be disastrous and perhaps even irresponsible, and would almost certainly meet with a stern “no chance” from Herb Simon.4
If Paul George emerges as a stud in Granger’s early-season absence, that might change the discussion, but someone still has to take Granger’s spot, and no bench player is quite ready to do that.
2. The Pacers were up 2-1 on Miami in the conference semifinals only five months ago! Wade and Erik Spoelstra were yelling at each other, Chris Bosh was hurt, and there was a real chance Indiana was heading to the Finals. They still lost in six games when James and Wade went bananas, but the Pacers stand as proof that the “5 percent theory” has serious merit. The smartass retort would be that they only had a chance because of Bosh’s injury, but that’s exactly the point. Luck is always — always — a huge factor in deciding the NBA champion; you’d be hard-pressed to find even a single postseason in which a contender didn’t deal with at least one injury that tilted the landscape just a bit.
Luck swings the other way, too. A team intentionally holding back its own ascendancy risks another team nabbing a franchise player through the draft or a trade in the meantime.
The Grizzlies and pre–Danny Ferry Hawks might qualify on the surface, but neither quite works. Any deal to break up the Memphis core this season would qualify more as smart management (in the event Memphis underperforms) than intentional delay; Memphis’s four key players are all at least 25 years old — Zach Randolph is 31 — and they raise major luxury tax concerns going forward.
And though it’s tempting to see Atlanta, and similar prior examples, as a team that voluntarily took a step back in the face of a powerhouse, the Joe Johnson–era Hawks never proved they were in that “5 percent category.” They were annual conference semifinals roadkill.
Sure, the “go for it” doctrine can create a perennial bridesmaid — the 1990s Jazz, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. But those Utah teams came mighty close to dethroning the unbeatable Bulls (as did the 1997-98 Pacers and the early-1990s Knicks), and Phoenix fans rightfully bring up all the bad luck those teams suffered faster than you can say “Robert Horry.”
Presti has surely at least contemplated the idea that inadvertently taking a small step back wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. But as I wrote after the Harden deal, finances forced Oklahoma City’s hand, and within that imposed reality, they sought a middle ground: acquire a solid complementary player that could help the team remain a real championship threat given continued development of the holdover stars, while also clearing the cap sheet and piling up more cheap young assets. Presti had the option to wait — to “go for it” with the same core — but he chose not to. That doesn’t mean he’s willingly yielding the floor to LeBron.
Ten Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The spacing in Denver.
I was a bit of a Denver skeptic to start, but my skepticism mostly concerned their front-line defense. That was an issue in Denver’s exciting loss to Miami over the weekend, but their 116-point explosion in that game only jumped Denver to 22nd in points per possession through Sunday. Their offense sputtered against Philadelphia and Orlando, and it’s already clear that Denver is going to struggle to generate spacing for its pick-and-roll attack with Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington gone. Danilo Gallinari has forgotten how to shoot, the starting big man tandem has limited range, and teams just don’t pay close attention to Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, or Corey Brewer behind the 3-point line. Defenders are a step closer to the paint than they were last season, and that step is fatal to driving and passing lanes.
The Nuggets will get better, obviously. George Karl is a brilliant coach, and he’s still tinkering with the pieces, playing with his frontcourt rotation and figuring out what the heck Wilson Chandler is. They’ll get their fast-break attack in gear once they start generating more turnovers, and those transition chances will result in more free throws — the driving force of Denver’s elite offense last season.
But the issues on both sides of the ball are real.
2. Gold jerseys.
Hooray for the Cavaliers’ new jerseys, the Pacers’ mustard-yellow home numbers, and the golden “NOLA” duds the Hornets break out now and then. Funny thing is, I don’t really enjoy yellow or gold in actual life. If you have a yellow car, I’m probably mocking you as you drive by. I don’t think I own even one yellow shirt, though an ex-girlfriend forced one upon me years ago.
But on a basketball court, they just work somehow. The Lakers should burn their alternate home whites immediately.
3. The Cavaliers’ bench.
My lord, this is ugly. C.J. Miles is shooting 18 percent (4-of-22) and must be happy Rodney Stuckey (1-of-23) is around to deflect some attention. Luke Walton is a nice person and a smart player, but he has no place on an NBA court at this point. Donald Sloan and J.J. Barea will forever be known as the first victims of the league’s new anti-flopping rule, and in a stunning upset, Sloan’s flop was more humiliatingly ridiculous than Barea’s. But, hey, Kyrie Irving is here, Dion Waiters has looked explosive, and Tristan Thompson seems determined to turn himself into an active, impactful defender.
4. The Kyle Lowry experience.
If you don’t like watching this guy play, we cannot be friends. Lowry has always been fantastic to watch, flying around the court like a bulldog on speed, harassing opposing point guards, appearing next to shocked big men who suddenly don’t have the ball anymore, and raining those moonball 3s that seem to have a high swish percentage.
A week in, Lowry has completely transformed the Raptors into one of the league’s most watchable teams. He’s shooting almost 60 percent, leading the team in rebounds-per-game (but not per minute), and working as the foundation of intriguing dual point guard lineups that turn Jose Calderon into a dangerous spot-up shooter. More important, he fits this system like a glove. The Raptors want to push the pace on offense and clog the paint above all else on defense, and those twin philosophies give Lowry free rein to run with the ball and help even more aggressively in the lane. So much fun to watch.
5. Spencer Hawes’s mullet.
This needs no explanation.
6. Jeremy Lin’s off-ball defense.
The early knocks on Lin’s defense centered around his alleged lack of quickness and inability to stay in front of opposing point guards. But the larger issues might be off the ball, where Lin is vulnerable to smart back-cuts because of his tendencies to ball-watch and bait opponents into passing to his man as if he were an NFL cornerback with closing speed.
7. Omer Asik’s up-and-under game.
Asik is shooting 35 percent. Do you know how hard that is for a big man who takes nearly 100 percent of his shots from point-blank range? Even so, he has already tried at least two delightfully awkward up-and-under moves while finishing pick-and-roll plays, and he made one of them with a soft touch off the glass. Asik barely gets off the ground, giving his up-and-unders an air of drama and crisis: Can he actually go from one side of the rim to the other without committing a rarely-seen up-and-down violation? Don’t stop trying, Omer!
8. Trevor Ariza’s shot selection.
Ariza has a lot to offer. He’s a smart passer when he wants to be, a useful spot-up shooter, and a solid defender so good at snagging steals I once labeled him “Magnet Hands.” But I might throw my remote through the television if he sabotages another Washington possession by launching a lazy off-the-dribble 20-footer with plenty of time on the shot clock.
9. The experience of watching the Pistons.
How is this team still unwatchable? It seems like they run the same play on 50 percent of their possessions: Tayshaun Prince screens for Brandon Knight in a pick-and-roll on the left side of the floor while Rodney Stuckey runs around two screens on the right side. It’s a play lots of teams run, but everything with Detroit is scrunched a couple of steps inside the 3-point line since so few guys on this team can shoot from outside 20 feet. The Pistons may need to play Kyle Singler more, if only to have at least one plus 3-point shooter on the court.
10. Klay Thompson’s defense.
As a long-range gunner with barely a season of NBA experience, Thompson just seems like a guy who should be a poor defender. But the more I watch him, the more he looks like a really solid defender. He moves around well, with a good understanding of rotations and the general team concept. He’s a willing worker with good balance; he can close out hard on shooters while keeping his feet steady enough to prevent a blow-by drive. Thompson has a chance to be a really, really good all-around player.