Three NBA Teams That Scrapped Their Roster Flexibility This Summer
The process of constructing a top-tier NBA roster requires luck, resources, and an incredibly specific sense of timing. Salary cap openings don't come along every off-season, and thus teams are forced to carefully assemble salaries that expire at specific times, in addition to the considerations that come with piecing together a core that's progresses along the same timeline.
As such, teams typically enter the off-season with a number of difficult decisions regarding their salary cap outlook; weighing short-term addition against long-term investment is par for the course in any league with a salary cap, and though a soft-cap system affords teams some leeway, it's hardly enough to negate the incessant complications of building a winning roster.
Yet at some point, a team surrenders the possibilities that come along with cap flexibility in order to boost or cement their roster with whatever happens to be available. Here's a closer look at three teams that made a decision—deliberately or inadvertently—that followed along those lines this summer, and sacrificed future flexibility for the sake of acquiring more immediate assets.
The conclusion of the 2011-2012 NBA season looked to be the end of Boston's exalted "Big Three," and in some sense that was the case. Ray Allen's departure in free agency brought an unquestionable end to the Celtics triad that had been in place since the summer of 2007, if only on the most superficial level. The current era of Boston Celtics basketball lives on, as a re-signed Kevin Garnett will help maintain the status quo, while the additions of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee will help to round out what was one of the weakest benches in the NBA last season.
That's all well and good, particularly considering how successful Boston was in the 2012 Playoffs. That said, in re-signing Garnett and recommitting to their current core, the Celtics have solidified themselves salary-wise without adding any pieces that would really vault them over the Miami Heat. GM Danny Ainge has nonetheless given his team a shot should anything go wrong for Miami along the way, but Boston isn't even a convincing second-best team in the East given the rise of the Indiana Pacers and the rebound potential of the Chicago Bulls. It's wonderful to see Garnett hanging around the NBA after playing such an incredible season, but after all of that build up, is a haul of Terry and Lee (plus the costly re-signing of the marginally useful Jeff Green) really going to put the Celtics over the top?
It's a fanciful notion for a team that plays a truly engaging and consistently engaged defense, and yet one that isn't at all unpleasant given this team's run. In a vacuum, it may have been more prudent for Ainge to fold and attempt to reset his roster without seeing it wilt away. Yet with all that this core has given to Boston, it deserved—in the sense of that word that we tend to use in sports—a chance to ride this thing out. The cold business of basketball may have preached another path and another lesson, but it's hard to blame the Celtics for ignoring warning signs and hold on to a successful (if aging) core.
The Brooklyn Nets wanted to re-sign Deron Williams so badly that they sacrificed any and every sliver of flexibility in order to secure his stay. Williams is a tremendous enough talent to warrant a pretty hefty investment, but we may think quite differently of Brooklyn's decision-making when they're running on a treadmill squarely out of contention in just a few years' time.
Williams is terrific, Joe Johnson should be far more efficient working off the ball, Gerald Wallace is a tremendous piece to have around, and Brook Lopez is more promising than many seem to think.
But excepting Williams, the latter three are now a cemented core that can't be excavated for trade value. Wallace's contract is the most trade-friendly of all three, and yet that deal will still pay a slowed, 34-year-old Wallace over $10 million in its final season (2015-2016). Mikhail Prokhorov footed the bill so that the Nets could add some substantial pieces, but by picking up three incredibly well-paid semi-stars to complement his max-salary centerpiece, Brooklyn has trapped itself in salary limbo.
There are some pieces around the periphery that could pan out better than expected or at some point be worth dealing. Barring those possibilities, we're looking at a very good team that lacks the kind of personnel necessary to engineer an elite defense. There's real offensive potential within the Nets' new core, but sinking every hope of future cap space in order to mold a merely solid starting lineup isn't exactly a winning formula. Brooklyn will keep inching along with peripheral additions and the development of Lopez, Mirza Teletovic, and MarShon Brooks, but they have a long way to go before being able to claim a division crown, much less justify their investments with legitimate contention.
Portland Trail Blazers
Unlike the Celtics and the Nets, the Portland Trail Blazers have managed to handcuff themselves with a single move: the decision to match the four-year, $46.5 million offer sheet given to Nicolas Batum. It's not an altogether disastrous decision, and it's not terribly relevant to ponder if Batum's game is specifically worth such an incredible sum. The far more important consideration is if this is the right move for the Blazers at this particular time, and considering Portland's semi-rebuilding state and the oodles of cap room that could have been at the team's disposal for next summer, it doesn't make all that much sense that the Blazers would commit so much of their space under the cap to a player who doesn't figure to be an actual building block.
All of which is to say that the Blazers' blunder has less to do with Batum—who is a fine player—and more to do with Portland's current situation. LaMarcus Aldridge is already on the books for $14 million in the 2012-2013 season, and even more over the two subsequent seasons. The Blazers did a fine job of clearing out every other substantial salary commitment beyond the $6 million-plus owed to Wesley Matthews over each of the next three seasons, leaving the rest of the roster to be filled with cap-friendly rookie deals and modest, short-term contracts. That's a surprisingly deft foundation for a team without a stabilized general manager, and yet Portland will muck up that outlook by bringing back a non-essential piece on an inflated deal.
The idea of losing Batum outright may have been difficult, but the Blazers are lucky enough to have a patient star and some up-and-coming talent. Why not bank on those pieces and take a shot as a serious free-agent destination for the next few seasons, as opposed to stepping out of the max-salary derby before it even begins?