When the Miami Heat reeled in LeBron James and Chris Bosh during the 2010 offseason, they sent a message that the NBA was moving in the direction of an era of “superteams” and that the only way to contend for a championship would be to bring in as much top-shelf talent as possible.
While a number of teams continue to prefer building slowly through the draft, the success of the Heat over the past three seasons has prompted a number of other clubs to eschew this idea, instead opting to collect assets to offer another team looking to move their star player or to entice a marquee free agent to join their franchise.
In the past few months, both the Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets have gone all in on the superteam concept.
Houston’s general manager, Daryl Morey, spent years stockpiling assets to use in a major trade, while Brooklyn’s GM, Billy King, took advantage of the Boston Celtics’ desire to rebuild and offered them a package of first-round draft picks and role players for their star forwards.
Both teams had attempted to build their rosters slowly but struggled, perpetually fighting for the eighth seed while not improving in the Rockets’ case and simply failing to get enough young pieces with upside in the case of the Nets.
The Rockets started by dealing for James Harden in 2012 and then used that move to convince Dwight Howard to sign with the squad, a decision that necessitated clearing salary cap space by parting ways with role players and young draft picks like Thomas Robinson, Royce White and Carlos Delfino.
The Rockets now have their franchise pillars in place; although they will be paying Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik both nearly $15 million in the 2014-15 season unless they can move them before then.
Brooklyn dealt for disgruntled star Deron Williams at the 2011 trade deadline, sending guard Devin Harris, rookie big man Derrick Favors and two first-round draft picks to the Utah Jazz for their point guard.
The Nets then made an even riskier gamble, shipping out Kris Humphries’ expiring contract, up-and-coming 2-guard MarShon Brooks and three first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 for Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Kevin Garnett of the Celtics. Though they were able to offload the remaining three-years and $30 million of Gerald Wallace’s deal, they have built one of the oldest and most expensive nuclei for a title-contending team in league history.
In 2013-14, Brooklyn’s starting lineup alone will earn a staggering $81 million and features three key pieces in Joe Johnson, Pierce and Garnett who are 32, 35 and 37 years old, respectively.
With KG’s mileage and Johnson and Pierce struggling with their efficiency as scorers, Brooklyn has created a title window for itself that may only last one or two seasons while also stripping the team of practically every asset it has over the next few years.
Though the Nets are one of the most talented teams in the league on paper, the same thing was said about the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012, who then proceeded to go 45-37 and were swept in the playoffs. That team had a roster that featured Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison, proving that having big names does not instantly guarantee success.
The team that swept them, the San Antonio Spurs, can be viewed as the exact opposite of teams like Brooklyn and Los Angeles in terms of construction. Though the Spurs have star players in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, they have found success in recent seasons based on their ability to find diamonds in the rough through the draft and to successfully develop young pieces into valuable role players on cheap deals.
Thanks to general manager RC Buford and veteran coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have been able to turn outcast players like Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen and Gary Neal into key contributors by making them buy into their roles within the organization.
They have also gotten their star players to believe in the team-first concept, sacrificing their own individual statistics for the greater good of the team. By scouting well and establishing a clear system, San Antonio has managed to maximize the value of players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, both of whom were stellar in the 2013 postseason.
The Spurs have come a long way from the days when Tim Duncan and David Robinson carried a cast of underwhelming role players to the championship, as they are now fully capable of winning even when their stars are not playing to their full potential.
The Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder have adopted similar strategies to the Spurs’ model. Instead of going for home-run deals to bring in star talent, they have built through the draft and through savvy smaller trades.
Indiana’s 2013 playoff stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert were brought on slowly, not thrown into the fire by the franchise. Neither was ready to be the go-to player when they entered the league, but both have made major strides under Frank Vogel’s staff and appear to be All-Star talents for the foreseeable future.
Indiana has also developed former benchwarmer Lance Stephenson into a starting-caliber 2-guard and took advantage of David West’s knee injury to sign him on a discount back in 2011.
By embracing a hard-nosed, defense-first style, the Pacers were able to achieve success in 2012-13 despite getting virtually no help from former All-Star forward Danny Granger. They played ferocious team defense, dictated the pace of their games and funneled the ball in to Hibbert and West down low.
Though Oklahoma City boasts superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they are superstars the team drafted and developed thanks to the work of head coach Scott Brooks and wunderkind GM Sam Presti.
Despite being one of the league’s older teams, the Spurs have managed to stay relevant in the league because of their depth and established system, while the Thunder and Pacers figure to be fixtures in the championship hunt for the next decade as long as their core players can stay healthy.
Still, with the success of the Heat, Lakers and even the Big Three-era Celtics, assembling superteams has become the NBA’s new in-vogue style. However, it does not guarantee sustained success for the Nets and Rockets.
We’ve already touched on the age of Brooklyn’s roster, but it bears repeating for a team that is looking to play deep into May and June. In the 2012-13 season, both Garnett and Pierce looked exhausted by the time the playoffs rolled around, and Pierce in particular struggled against the tenacious defense of the New York Knicks, turning the ball over and having difficulty creating shots.
There is also the problem of their play on the defensive end of the court. Though Garnett is still an elite defensive presence, he has lost a step due to injuries and cannot be counted on to be a one-man anchor the way he was in his prime for Boston or the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Pierce, Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez are all considered average-to-poor individual defenders, and it is worth questioning how this team will be able to play against an uptempo offense like that of the Miami Heat or Golden State Warriors.
Still, Brooklyn has created a team that, in the short term, has as good a chance of winning the Eastern Conference as any team besides Miami. They have plenty of playoff experience, boast two veteran leaders in Pierce and Garnett and now have a number of options to go to down the stretch of close games.
Having those go-to options down the stretch is key for Brooklyn, as that is an issue that has haunted many teams in the playoffs who opted to build through the draft instead of through blockbuster trades and signings. Both the Pacers and the Denver Nuggets went into the playoffs with high expectations but struggled at times because they did not have a star player who could consistently knock down shots or get to the foul line at will late in games.
Though new coach Jason Kidd will have to carefully manage the minutes of Pierce, Garnett and Terry to keep them from breaking down they should be virtually guaranteed a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Houston Rockets should also experience success in 2013-14, although they are in a tougher situation given the brutal nature of the Western Conference. Though Houston has improved dramatically with the Howard deal, they have not necessarily vaulted over Oklahoma City, San Antonio or even Golden State and the L.A. Clippers to ensure themselves home-court advantage.
They also committed $88 million to a player who was good with the Lakers, but nowhere near his once-dominant self. Howard should be healthier than he was playing with a bad back and torn labrum in Los Angeles, but a back injury is one that can have potentially devastating effects for a player, especially one as reliant on athleticism and explosiveness as Howard.
With a lucrative extension coming for Chandler Parsons in the 2015 offseason and Harden’s salary continuing to escalate, the Rockets will also have little financial flexibility going forward and could be in a difficult situation if Howard’s injury problems prove to be ongoing.
However, they should be a nightmare to contain on the offensive end if nothing else. The Harden-Howard pick-and-roll will be among the best in the league, and they have enough outside shooting to create plenty of room down low for Howard to work on the block while Harden and Parsons slash without the basketball.
The potential of the Howard-Harden tandem is what ultimately made Houston roll the dice with D12 and it is what keeps GMs attempting to bring in superstar talent even if it seems illogical at times. Few NBA teams win the title without at least one stud player, and in recent years the number of required stars appears to have grown to two or three.
Miami has James, Wade and Bosh. L.A. had Gasol and Bryant. Boston had Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen all at the end of their respective primes. Even San Antonio, when they won titles over the past decade, were far more dependent on the production of Duncan and Parker than they are as currently constructed.
The problem, of course, arises when there is no support around those superstars. The 2010-11 Heat had a ghastly second unit that could not even tread water without James, Wade or Bosh on the floor. Adding pieces like Shane Battier, Allen and Chris Andersen helped them get over the hump and win back-to-back titles.
Likewise, the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Lakers teams boasted established talents like Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher when they won back-to-back titles, and Boston had role players like Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and James Posey to take some of the pressure off of their three stars.
What hurt Los Angeles in 2012-13, and what could potentially hurt Brooklyn in 2013-14, is that they need those quality role players in case of injury, foul trouble or general fatigue. Though the Lakers were lucky enough to have Earl Clark when Gasol went down, they were forced to depend on players like Steve Blake, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon in place of Nash for much of the season.
The Lakers have always been a team willing to spend and deal away draft picks and young assets to contend in the present, and while that strategy has proved highly successful in the past, it came back to haunt the team during the 2012-13 campaign and could do so again in the near future.
If Los Angeles had a few young, talented prospects they could have potentially survived the injury bug better, but they were forced to lean even more heavily on Bryant, who eventually broke down, as underachieving free agents and past second-round selections could not get it done without him routinely playing 40-plus minutes per night.
Now, without Howard their future looks bleak, as the team will have to depend on free agency to reload around Bryant, since none of their young players possess much upside. That also may have factored into Howard’s decision, as he saw the Lakers an aging team that had a very uncertain future once Gasol and Bryant were no longer in town.
This is, of course, not to say that building through the draft is a foolproof strategy. Teams like San Antonio, Indiana and Oklahoma City have had plenty of luck in selecting impact players late in the draft, but that is typically not the norm, and there is always an element of luck when a team makes a selection.
Plenty of clubs have struck out when attempting to build through the draft, and there is also the problem of keeping players once they blossom, an issue the Thunder experienced with Harden and the Pacers faced when Hibbert signed a max offer sheet with the Portland Trail Blazers as a restricted free agent.
Even when a draft-based building process is the best idea for a team, it is not always feasible. In order to do it a team needs an owner and management who are willing to endure a few disappointing seasons in an effort to bring in elite talent.
As we saw with the New Orleans Pelicans bringing in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans and the Milwaukee Bucks signing Zaza Pachulia and O.J. Mayo, sometimes an owner or high-ranking executive is unwilling to fully bottom-out and embrace a rebuild, forcing the front office to scrape together enough talent to chase a playoff spot, even if it is only an eighth seed.
In which direction is the league moving?
Additionally, building through the draft becomes harder over time as the team improves. San Antonio, despite all of their success, has not picked higher than 20th since Duncan came to town in 1997.
However, the league itself is attempting to make it harder for teams to simply spend their way to relevancy in free agency. The new CBA features harsher punishments for teams in the luxury tax and has made it easier for teams to keep their own free agents, allowing them to offer more years and money than their competitors.
Some owners, like Mikhail Prokhorov or Mark Cuban, will continue to shell out money in the face of the penalties, but the majority of teams have attempted to become more conservative and have begun to value draft picks more and more over time as they represent inexpensive sources of production.
As Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted in his piece on free agency, only one first-round draft pick was exchanged at the 2013 trade deadline, a far lower number than in seasons past. Many teams are now clinging to their picks for dear life instead of including them in bigger trades or using them to grab some immediate help.
If that trend continues, it will signal that the superteam mentality may not be a lasting one in the NBA. Though it is difficult to expect two first-round picks to replace the production of an All-Star player, they do provide depth and cap flexibility in a league where those two traits are becoming more and more valuable.
Ultimately, though the Nets and Rockets have built superteams that appear poised to contend for the next few seasons, they are likely not indicative of the direction the league as a whole is heading.
Bringing in superstars will always be the goal of free agency, but the idea of sacrificing the future of a franchise to chase immediate success is one that will be more difficult to support as luxury tax penalties add up and teams have the upper hand in retaining their own players.
While watching Howard patrol the paint in Houston and KG and Pierce swish outside shots in Brooklyn, it is important to remember that few marquee free agents typically act as Howard did, and it is not every day that Hall of Fame tandems become available on the trade block.
In short, the Nets and Rockets represent the present of the league, but not necessarily its future. The 2011 lockout was about increasing parity in the NBA, and that is something that will come at the expense of superteams, barring players taking staggering salary cuts to team up and chase rings.
Follow me on Twitter. It won’t be the worst decision you make today.