NBA offseasons are like cats: There are many ways to skin 'em.
In a proverbial sense, that is. (Please, PETA, don't come after me!)
For some teams, that means scrapping what they have, collecting assets and starting a long, painful rebuilding process. The Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz have all taken this approach this summer without apology—or outright acknowledgement, for that matter.
For others, that means making an effort to win games and win over despondent fans. The owners of the New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte Bobcats, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons have demanded that their front offices set up their squads to make such strides, albeit with varying outlooks for each.
And for a select few, the summer is about making the leap from good to great.
So far this year, that group has been headlined by the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. All four have successfully parlayed the promise of a superstar-led roster and the appeal of a major media market to turn themselves from mere playoff hopefuls into fringe contenders and beyond.
To recap: The Nets pried Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from the Celtics and practically stole Andrei Kirilenko out from under everyone's noses; the Clippers ignited Boston's fire sale by bringing Doc Rivers aboard, kept Chris Paul and added J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley by way of a three-team trade; the Warriors dumped salary onto the Jazz to make room for Andre Iguodala; and the Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes.
In each of those four cases, the team in question was buoyed, to some degree, by the following four factors in pursuit of a successful offseason.
1. Ownership that's willing to spend
The strength of any well-run organization in the NBA (or any sport, for that matter) trickles down from the top. It's incumbent upon ownership to be involved, but not too involved; to approve, support and contribute to a plan without doing it all itself or, on the flip side, abdicating entirely to its basketball people.
Oh, and it's crucial that ownership not be too tight with its purse strings.
Clippers owner and noted cheapskate Donald Sterling only recently began to realize this. Over the last three seasons, Sterling has signed off on hundreds of millions of dollars in player contracts, including Blake Griffin's $94.5 million extension, Chris Paul's new $107 million deal and eight-figure pacts for DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes.
In fact, if all else holds, the Clippers will dip into the luxury tax in 2013-14 for the first time in franchise history, per ShamSports.
And that's before factoring in that Sterling will be paying Doc Rivers $7 million a year—more than any other coach in the league—to lead the Clips for the next three.
Guess what? All that spending has the Clippers poised not only to put together their first-ever three-year postseason streak, but also legitimately contend for a title.
(Must be getting mighty frosty in the underworld right about now...)
Mikhail Prokhorov has had no such reservations about spending money since assuming control of the Brooklyn Nets in the spring of 2010. He boldly proclaimed that the Nets would win a title within five years and has done everything to back that up, save for actually bringing home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
At this rate, he probably won't stop hemorrhaging cash until he does. The addition of four key pieces to a roster that was among the league's priciest to begin with has pushed Brooklyn's salary obligations north of $100 million, with a record-smashing luxury tax bill on the way.
Not that Prokhorov will mind. The guy's practically made of money.
Joe Lacob, Peter Guber and company haven't been quite as aggressive (and frivolous) since acquiring the Warriors just a few months after Prokhorov rose to power in New Jersey.
That doesn't mean they've been stingy. If anything, they've done their darndest to get out from under the myriad mistakes made by the previous regime. This month alone, they went so far as to give up a basket of draft picks to entice the Jazz into taking on some of Golden State's obligations.
It's been a piecemeal process, replacing useless assets with useful ones little by little, but it's paid off. The Dubs are coming off their most exciting season since the "We Believe" campaign in 2006-07, and they should be able to build on that success with the addition of Andre Iguodala.
That move, and the ultimately lost pursuit of Dwight Howard, required that ownership not only take on money now, but also resign itself to a lack of cheap assets with which to wheel and deal going forward.
Those are the same sorts of assets that the Rockets turned into James Harden last year and with which they cleared room enough to sign Dwight Howard outright this year.
Only once has Houston paid luxury taxes under the auspices of Les Alexander (in 2010-11), though the organization has been plenty aggressive anyway. The Rockets went for broke in 2004, when they traded for Tracy McGrady, and again in 2008, when they added Ron Artest to a core of T-Mac and Yao Ming, only to see their plans backfire when the latter two superstars succumbed to injury.
A half-decade later, the Rockets are relevant again, with an exciting inside-out combo and enough financial flexibility under the luxury tax threshold to allow general manager Daryl Morey to make moves around the fringes as he sees fit.
2. An opportunistic front office
Morey's star has risen to the top of his profession as a result of his coups over the last 10 months. His patience, foresight and opportunism in stockpiling assets has allowed him to both transform the Rockets into title contenders and set a new standard to which his peers are now aspiring.
Like, say, Bob Myers, Morey's counterpart with the Warriors.
Myers came surprisingly close to convincing Dwight Howard to push for a sign-and-trade to Golden State. And though the Warriors lost on that front, they won on the whole by trimming the fat from their roster and adding an All-Star, in Andre Iguodala, whose own decision made Dwight think twice about his and now keeps Golden State on the up-and-up in the Association.
By thinking creatively, Myers was able to pounce on an opportunity to improve his team's prospects, even while the imminent departures of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry pointed to the Dubs taking a significant step back.
Chances are, Nets GM Billy King wouldn't garner such glowing reports from folks around the league. He's been known to dole out some dangerous deals ($40 million over four years to Gerald Wallace?) and execute head-scratching trades (sending the pick that became Damian Lillard to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Wallace, who would've been a free agent anyway).
Despite his subpar reputation, King deserves some kudos for what he's done with the Nets over the last two summers. In that time, he's engineered a trade for Joe Johnson that convinced Deron Williams to stay, came oh-so-close to snagging Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic, and flipped Wallace and a slew of other contracts and draft picks to Boston for KG, Pierce and JET.
Sure, it helps that King essentially had a blank check with which to operate. But, to his credit, Billy recognized that the C's veterans were available and moved swiftly to take them off Danny Ainge's hands once it became clear that the Clippers couldn't consummate a trade without retribution from the league office.
It's tough to tell who, exactly, was in charge of that mess on the Clips end or even who is now. Gary Sacks was promoted to vice president of basketball operations last summer after Neil Olshey bolted for the same gig in Portland. Once Olshey left, Sacks worked with Vinny Del Negro and Chris Paul to stock the roster for another playoff run.
Now, Doc Rivers is the head coach and the team's senior vice president, albeit more at CP3's behest than anyone else's, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
Still, Sacks was savvy enough to soothe Sterling's concerns about shelling out bucks for Rivers, and, with plenty of help from Doc, has since orchestrated a complicated, three-team trade that saw Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler exchanged for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.
3. A resident superstar or two
As nice as those additions are for the Clippers, they wouldn't have mattered (or even come to be) had it not been for the team's incumbent star power.
The NBA is, has been, and likely always will be a star's league.
The teams that employ stars win, and those that don't, don't. Teams like the 2004 Detroit Pistons and last year's Denver Nuggets didn't establish a new paradigm for basketball success so much as turn out to be rare exceptions.
The Clippers didn't begin to turn the corner from perennial laughingstock to potential powerhouse until they landed the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, with which they selected Blake Griffin.
Even then, LA had to wait a whole year to see what Griffin had in store after the high-flying forward out of Oklahoma injured his knee during an NBA Summer League game.
But once everyone saw what Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were capable of, the floodgates of interest opened. Chris Paul added the Clips to his wish list after the New Orleans Hornets' post-lockout trade with the Lakers fell through. Like clockwork, CP3 was on his way to LA to wear red, white and blue.
Once Paul and Griffin were a pair, hungry veterans came out of the woodwork to lend a hand to LA's ascension. Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups came aboard in 2011. Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill followed suit in 2012. And now, Redick, Dudley and Darren Collison have flocked west to fill out Rivers' rotation after Paul declared his intention to stay in LA.
This group of Clippers would have a spot sewn up among the top four in the West if not for the Rockets' rise through the on-paper ranks. With Dwight Howard joining James Harden, Houston now appears set for home court of some sort in next year's playoffs.
Howard's arrival, among other things, represents a culmination of a franchise transformation in Houston that began when Daryl Morey stole James Harden from the Oklahoma City in a deal that cost the Rockets Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a few so-so draft picks.
Last summer, the Rockets were dogged in their quest to bring Dwight to Space City, only to see him question the lack of a discernible foundation.
What a difference a year makes.
Howard was traded to the Lakers that August and subsequently spent a tumultuous year in LA while watching Harden's Rockets mature into an exciting young club from afar. If not for the Beard's emergence in Houston (and OKC's reluctance to pay him), it's entirely possible that Dwight would've re-upped with the Lakers, however begrudgingly.
Dwight was nearly lured to the Nets months before the Lakers took him off the Magic's hands. Howard didn't exactly shy away from persistent rumors that he wanted to play alongside D-Will with the Nets, even while he was suiting up in Orlando night after night.
Clearly, Dwight didn't end up in Brooklyn, but the Nets haven't exactly come up empty-handed since. With D-Will, Johnson and Brook Lopez on board, the Nets were able to snap their streak of five straight trips to the lottery while nearly advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
In all likelihood, Garnett wouldn't have waived the no-trade clause in his contract to join a club without postseason aspirations, and the Nets wouldn't have established said aspirations had Williams chosen to sign with his hometown Dallas Mavericks last summer.
Nor would the Warriors have been able to lure Andre Iguodala away from the Denver Nuggets without an exciting young core of their own. Iggy witnessed Stephen Curry's coming-of-age firsthand as his Nuggets succumbed to Curry's Warriors in a six-game first-round playoff series this past spring.
That performance, with Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes chipping in, got the Dubs a meeting with Dwight, which, in itself, was enough to boost the franchise's cachet in the eyes of other free agents. Since sealing the deal with Iguodala, Golden State has attracted the likes of Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas and Jermaine O'Neal to fill out the roster at bargain-basement prices.
4. Luck...and lots of it
Ultimately, though, "winning" an NBA offseason is a matter of the dice rolling one way or another.
That's how the Warriors might've wound up had the Sacramento Kings not pulled their more lucrative offer to Iggy before he could make up his mind. That's how the cookie might've crumbled for the Rockets if Dwight's lone season with the Lakers hadn't been such a mess or if Houston hadn't been ready to receive James Harden from the Thunder last year.
Or, for that matter, if David Stern hadn't put the kibosh on Chris Paul wearing purple and gold immediately after the lockout ended in December of 2011.
The Nets might not have had the opportunity to relieve the C's of their financial baggage had the Clippers and representatives for Doc Rivers and Chris Paul been more discreet about swapping Doc for a draft pick and then exchanging players in separate deals.
And the Clips, for their part, wouldn't be on the brink of contention without Boston's desire to free themselves from Doc's contract or "basketball reasons" or the fortuitous bounce of ping-pong balls more than four years ago.
In reality, a front office can play all of its cards perfectly over the course of a given summer. With the proper process in a place, a team can choose the "right" prospects in the draft, execute the "right" trades, and sign the "right" players at the "right" prices via free agency.
But, as they say about the best-laid plans, those put in place by the brightest basketball minds don't always (or even usually) pan out. Daryl Morey could be looking for work right now. So, too, could Billy King. The Warriors and the Clippers could still be trudging through the bottom of the Western Conference, hoping to hit it big on draft day.
Because, like just about everything in the NBA, a successful offseason comes down to luck—and how the fortunate handle the results of their dice roll.
Or the kind of cat they skin, or whatever other clumsy, colloquial metaphor you want to throw into the mix.
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