Hope comes in many flavors in professional sports (justified, misguided, etc.), and its primary facilitator is the mere potential for change. We so often believe that prospects will grow into something more than they are, that coaches will get the most out of a plucky roster and that general managers will use every resource to pull in the best talent available.
Followers of any team have their pipe dreams, and when the trade and free-agent markets open up to reveal the assets to be had, it's only natural to wonder what might become of a certain team if all the pieces were to fall into place.
No team had that kind of flawless offseason this time around, but more than a few angled to have one somewhere down the line. A handful of teams opted to clear out cap space and liquidate assets rather than mire in mediocrity, and though these GMs-turned-alchemists may not all conjure gold, one can't fault them for trying.
In the summer of 2010, the Atlanta Hawks made a six-year, $119 million mistake. The risk of losing a solid player like Joe Johnson was apparently so daunting that Atlanta committed salary cap suicide just to avoid that possibility, thereby inking its longtime focal point to what—at the time—was considered to be an untradeable contract.
But even Johnson's mammoth deal proved movable under the right context, as the Nets supplied the truck, dollies and manpower to move Johnson's weighty contract all the way to Brooklyn. Desperation and a lack of alternatives made Johnson the Nets' default option, and newly-hired Hawks GM Danny Ferry took advantage of an invaluable opportunity.
On face, Johnson may be too good of a player to surrender for expiring assets, but the deal he agreed to in 2010 plagues his franchise with dead weight. Where there should be room to sign another complementary player, there is instead only further obligation to an aging star, all the more reason for the Hawks to rid themselves of the burden and retool their lineups.
With Johnson (and the middling Marvin Williams) no longer in Atlanta, the Hawks have become relevant players in the lottery to land Dwight Howard and a team to watch going forward.
Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague form a compelling center for a rebuilding roster, and if Ferry can figure out how to earn this hard-earned cap space into a real reward, the Hawks could soon rise well beyond their all-too-familiar place in the median of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
It may not be completely fair to include the Mavericks on this list considering that they already had the pre-existing cap space to (potentially) sign Deron Williams, yet the work that Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban did to fill out their roster without sacrificing their long-term goals is deserving of far more than a mere honorable mention.
After all, the Mavericks didn't simply fill out their roster with flotsam; Dallas managed to make some pretty impressive additions while working well within its own financial guidelines. Elton Brand and Chris Kaman will fill out the frontcourt while playing under contract for a single season. O.J. Mayo was signed at an incredible bargain and has a second-year player option that would again bring him back to Dallas at an incredible bargain.
Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones were acquired in exchange for a free agent (Ian Mahinmi) whom the Mavs had little expressed interest in retaining, and neither has guaranteed salary beyond this coming season. That's a tremendous bunch to add to the other Maverick holdovers and enough to guarantee competitive basketball without making Dallas any less relevant in next summer's free-agent market.
Whiffing on Williams was painful for the Mavs, but they've rebounded beautifully. They won't contend during their quasi-rebuild, but they'll certainly compete.
Between the deals given to Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Rockets are, on some level, a counterintuitive inclusion on this list. But roster flexibility comes in many forms, and while Houston has committed relatively sizable salary to those two complementary players, they also amnestied Luis Scola, passed on re-signing Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee and Marcus Camby, and traded Kyle Lowry for a future lottery pick.
That gives Houston a drastically different financial profile than it had a year ago, and in place of all that outgoing talent, the Rockets have piled up young, useful assets.
Royce White, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lamb all have the potential to be quality NBA players, and each is slotted to pull an incredibly modest $1-$2.5 million per year over the next four seasons. Those kinds of deals make for fantastic trade filler, and while there's a possibility that one or more of those three prospects don't pan out over the next few years, each of the Rockets' 2012 first-round selections is affordable enough to include in a potential deal without penalty.
And that's a worst-case scenario; all three of the aforementioned players have some bit of home run potential, and if Daryl Morey and the Rockets get just a bit lucky, they could have a nice assets on their hands.
And so it goes with virtually the entire Rockets roster. Patrick Patterson, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris—this is a team flooded with attractive and team-friendly rookie-scale deals that are kind on the Rockets' cap as they sort through an array of prospects.
Add up all the guaranteed money, and Houston's payroll is a bit higher than one might expect. Yet with so many tradeable pieces—and ultimately reasonable deals for Lin and Asik—that sum total hardly matters.