Winning an NBA title is a lot like baking a cake: It requires time, patience and just the right mix of ingredients. Even with these three things, there are 30 bakers out there, and only one can be crowned champion. Crucially, not all teams know how to back, and some of them are trying to make a red velvet cake out of nothing but flour and beet juice.
With the free-agency period already yielding an avalanche of deals in advance of the league's July 10 moratorium on signings, it can be hard to keep track of who went where and what next season's rosters will look like. But at the very top, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors snagged the two most talented free agents on the market.
Dwight Howard is a Rocket; Andre Iguodala is a Dub. You're on notice, Western Conference.
Both the Rockets and Warriors put a scare into an elite opponent in this year's playoffs, and their free-agency additions only serve to make them better. The West is a stacked conference, however, and it will be difficult for either team to manage even home-court advantage in the first round.
Even the casual NBA fan has by now learned the conclusion to our long national Dwightmare—Howard is heading to the Houston Rockets.
Kobe Bryant immediately pounced, unfollowing Howard on Twitter within hours of the news; the Black Mamba also Instagrammed a photo of himself and Pau Gasol in an embrace. I doubt that Dwight cares after inking an $88 million deal, but many fans giggled at the slight after Howard's cringe-worthy season with the Lake Show.
This represents a new start for Howard, his second such in two years, and he will seek to put an embarrassing year in Los Angeles behind him. Howard still posted pretty averages last season of 17.1 points, 12.4 boards, 2.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per game, but even these did not live up to his capability, and he never seemed to buy in on the Lakers' system.
The Golden State Warriors numbered among several teams that lost out on the sweepstakes for the shaky Superman. But the free-agency wheels were already in motion for them, and they pulled off one of the all-time great salary-cap trades with the Utah Jazz.
Improbably, the Warriors coerced Utah to take the bloated and essentially useless contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins in exchange for first-round picks in 2014 and 2017, plus several second-round picks. With this, the Dubs cleared $24 million in cap space and created enough room to sign Iguodala.
The Jazz had plenty of time to talk since they certainly weren't busy re-signing their own free-agent forwards, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, who ended up with the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks respectively.
But signing Iggy came at a further price. The next day, Golden State watched as Jarrett Jack signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Carl Landry inked a deal with the Sacramento Kings (per Bay Area News Group's Marcus Thompson and Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports). These subtractions will loom large for the Warriors, who will now find their bench significantly shorter.
In a curious quirk of the trade, Golden State's decision to trade their pick in 2017 instead of 2016 or 2018 means they will be unable to trade their first-rounder in 2015 and 2016, barring the acquisition of an additional pick. Of course, the Warriors hope that those picks will come late in the first round and end up being inconsequential, but they have constrained their own ability to use their draft picks as trade bait in the near future.
While Howard is patently the bigger impact as a signing, Iguodala is the safer play. Howard brings dual worries with him to Houston. His ailing labrum and balky back are at risk for yet another injury, and his prima donna behavior has been a morale murderer for at least two consecutive seasons.
Though Howard could take the Rockets to new heights, Iguodala provides more quality relative to his risk. He brings tremendous athleticism and dogged defense, and he should fit seamlessly into the Dubs' small run-and-gun rotation.
What to Expect
Last season, Houston finished sixth in the league in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency. Golden State ranked 10th in offensive efficiency and 13th in defensive efficiency.
But when the stakes were at their highest, the defensive metrics grew worse in the postseason. Among all 16 teams, the Warriors gave up the fourth-most points per game this postseason while Houston allowed the second-most.
And even though Howard and Iguodala are both renowned for their D, neither will be enough to solve the defensive woes at their new landing spots. Dwight's and Iggy's teams performed equally poorly in the 2013 postseason, with the L.A. Lakers yielding the third most points in the playoffs and the Denver Nuggets allowing the most of any team.
With Howard, the Lakers' defense actually got worse (although many New York Knicks fans might be quick to blame coach and offensive fetishist Mike D'Antoni for this). After allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions in 2011-12, that number increased to 103.6 points per 100 the next season despite adding a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard.
Next season, Howard will join emerging superstar James Harden, who finished third in the league in scoring last season with 26.3 points per game. Harden proved he can be more than a sixth man, as he carried the Rockets throughout the season. He also enjoyed a strong postseason as Houston put a scare into the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1.
Chandler Parsons displayed his skills for all to see and continued his strong output from the regular season (38.5 percent from downtown on 5.2 attempts, 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game). He serves as the third in Houston's new Big 2.5.
The problem created by signing Howard is twofold, and they both involve last year's starting center Omer Asik. His contract needs to be moved in order to give Howard his money, and he has "no interest in being Howard's backup or playing next to him," according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.
Yes, Dwight is a great rebounder, among the league's very best, but Asik was the only solid presence on the glass for the Rockets last season. Unseating the 27-year-old Turk makes the acquisition of Howard less helpful, as they did not add to an area they were weak in last year, but instead upgraded.
Last season, Asik posted handsome averages of 10.1 points and 11.7 boards. Chandler Parsons was second on the team in rebounding with 5.3 per game and Harden was third (4.9 per game), which speaks to the downfall of stacking your team with undersized swingmen and stretch 4s.
As for the Dubs, Iguodala will join Stephen Curry and David Lee (assuming they keep him) to form a somewhat underwhelming Big Three in the Bay Area. It's a solid signing, and kudos is due to the Warriors' front office for clearing cap room for the deal.
Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes (and Draymond Green) make losing Jack and Landry less painful, but signing Iguodala also commits them to a small-ball lineup and places a lot of pressure on Andrew Bogut to remain healthy (assuming they keep him too). Still, at 10.9 per game, Bogut somehow finished fifth in the league in rebounding last year.
Based on the results from last year's playoff series with Denver, Golden State is a force to be reckoned with when they go small, as most teams lack the firepower to keep up. Unfortunately, gone is Jack, their electric sixth man who was so central to helping them past the Nuggets, so the Warriors' chemistry could take time to develop.
While each team improved with the deals to be sure, both were forced to make sacrifices of crucial current players, and drastic improvement is likely to be slow in coming for either.
The Wild, Wild West
Chemistry takes time, even for NBA superstars. Just ask the 2010-11 Miami Heat.
There's absolutely no reason to think their either the Rockets or Warriors will represent the West in the 2014 NBA Finals, but their prospects for 2015 or '16 are looking stronger by the day.
I'm on record as saying the L.A. Clippers are the new favorites out West. After extracting coach Doc Rivers from the Boston Celtics and re-signing Chris Paul to five-year deal, the Clips wasted no time in forging ahead at full-steam.
They shifted talented backup point guard Eric Bledsoe in a three-team deal that netted them a pair of rangy wings in Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick. Soon after, they retained their own rangy wing in Matt Barnes.
The Clippers addressed all their needs and have suddenly constructed a team worthy of being the odds-on favorite to represent the West in the finals.
Of course, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies might have something to say about that. These four teams have the savvy, pedigree and talent to remain atop the West for the next few seasons. The Rockets and Warriors don't yet have the complete rotation to challenge them, and other contenders to worry about are emerging as well.
Last year's No. 3 seed, the Denver Nuggets, are a team in flux, but they have a core of unheralded young talents who make them a constant threat, and they are one of the league's toughest teams at home. Don't forget about the Dallas Mavericks and L.A. Lakers, two franchises with money and the drive to win. Even lottery teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers have significantly improved this offseason.
While the Rockets and Warriors have each improved by adding the biggest free agents on the market, the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder and Grizzlies remain the class of the Western Conference, at least for now.