Masai Ujiri is one of three NBA general managers who recapped the latest trends in NBA decision-making.
Framing a roster in today’s NBA is far more intricate than the barstool GM can understand.
Trades and signings within the league's salary restrictions have become too complicated, crushing the clueless proposals of sports talk radio callers:
“No, sir. Rajon Rondo is not going to the Toronto Raptors for Rudy Gay.”
Today’s general managers must navigate the complexities of the current collective bargaining agreement. The 2011 deal introduced the following changes:
- Teams must control spending, as they face much steeper fines for exceeding the luxury tax threshold of $71.7 million.
- Teams that go above the luxury tax will receive only $3 million as their mid-level exception instead of the full $5 million, limiting their ability to add talent to a roster.
- No sign-and-trades are possible for teams that are $4 million over the luxury threshold. There are also stricter salary-matching requirements for teams above the luxury tax line that want to trade.
- All franchises must spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap, creating circumstances in which teams may actually need to sign or trade for players just to raise their salary floor.
All of these rule changes have transformed the methods in which a roster can be built, demanding that GMs control spending and requiring minds that understand law and math as much as basketball.
It's confusing stuff. If the CBA had a logo, it would be of Jerry West shrugging his shoulders.
Luckily, Bleacher Report borrowed the brains of three young and talented NBA GMs: Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors, Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors and Dennis Lindsey of the Utah Jazz.
The trio of decision-makers walked us through the league’s recent offseason.
Masai Ujiri: I think it’s a trending league. There are trends happening that come and go. At one point it was the high school players, at another time it was international players and at some point it was the Big Three. A new trend is probably going to come soon.
The point is, and the challenge is, how do you create that new trend? We can’t all sit here and get Big Threes or a stud European player. We all have to create new ways.
When I can’t sleep, I’m thinking what it is that I can do to build a team and make our team successful through all these different trends. It's a great thing and it’s great to continue to have it, but I guarantee something else is going to come up, that’s how quick-minded these GMs are.
It’s not like superstars are everywhere. We talk about Big Threes, but you can only have a few sets of Big Threes. Where are we going to find the other guys? There are 30 teams. I’ll tell you what, these guys are so smart and competitive, it’s a war out there. Nobody is sitting down and waiting for anybody. Everybody is trying to build their team and trying to build winning programs.
Bob Myers: We just tried to do what we always do and make our team better, and do it in a responsible manner. One, because you never want to lose money in whatever position you’re in and two, we’re in a business where you are operating under a collective bargaining agreement.
You are in a competitive environment already, but there is a side of it where you have to operate within certain guidelines. Any dollar you spend is a dollar you can spend on something else, so you have to be smart about how you spend. For us, we don’t really label our philosophy as much as just say, let’s try to get better, and if we see an opportunity that makes sense for us—financially, team-wise, chemistry-wise—let’s do it.
Dennis Lindsey: Every team, market and ownership group has its sets of positives and realities to deal with. A positive for the the Utah Jazz was the ability to build around John Stockton and Karl Malone on a perennial basis. When those players retire, you have to re-create yourself.
Certainly there are cities that are free-agent destinations, and there are certain cities that attract star players because they have a star player. There are particular organizations that feel like they have to build teams organically through the draft and grow their core from the ground up.
At the end of the day, there are three ways to acquire players: to draft them, trade for them or sign them as a free agents, and it’s always been that way, albeit with different sets of rules. There are many ways to do it in combination and different levels to do it at, but again you can become championship-caliber in several different ways.
Clearly my experience in San Antonio will weigh heavily on how I feel the best way to do it is, the most sustainable way. I think every market, ownership, current duration of the team has its different strengths and challenges.
Bob Myers: I think people are being more fiscally responsible and maybe a bit more conservative. Teams were not as aggressive on spending. The top-of-the-line free agents weren’t able to demand high-level compensation, though some of that middle class did get compensated as normal.
Overall, though, I think a pretty decent portion was paid less than in the past.
Masai Ujiri: We were very cognizant of money spent. Whether a team is starting from scratch, doing it through free agency or trying to tweak a team, I think teams are very cognizant of what kind of dollars they spend and how they do it. Some teams have big-time money and really get after it, but it’s still within the long-term plan to win.
Dennis Lindsey: Whenever there is a new collective bargaining agreement in any league, teams, capologists or lawyers are trying to get their arms around the rules. Mechanically, what’s different on a micro level? On a macro level, certainly the tax system and aggressive penalties have come into play within teams’ long-term planning and short-term planning because of repeater tax issues.
Many teams were anticipating a set of rules with the new CBA and did some real pre-CBA planning. It’s more than a one-year thing; several teams have planned for this.
Masai Ujiri: On a general level, you want to do your due diligence with how much you are spending. It varies from team to team, on the kind of players you like and how you want to build your team.
If you’re talking about my team, right now we’re in the state, with me obviously just getting the job, of studying the team and figuring it out as we go. So this means there was not a lot of long-term spending.
Bob Myers: Our opinion, and I think most teams recognize there are only so many dollars to spend and the luxury tax is very punitive. Fortunately for me and our front office, we work with an ownership group that is willing to go into the tax if it makes sense competitive-wise.
But that doesn’t mean you go in just to go in; there has to be a purpose to it.
Dennis Lindsey: I think there are certain teams that have been planning for a new collective bargaining agreement for a while. Clearly, Mark Cuban has spoken to his approach and the Mavericks' moves reflected the coming CBA.
You get into different markets, ownerships and philosophies, relative to where each management team sees their team’s timeline: Are they championship competitive? Are they playoff competitive? Or are they in the middle of a rebuild/reload situation?
I don’t think it’s the new CBA in a vacuum; I think it’s the CBA relative to your own team’s particulars.
Masai Ujiri: Yes, but it has to make sense for each team obviously. You see a couple teams do deals, and the teams are either looking to win now or to rebuild, so the deal makes sense on both ends. It comes down to the goals of the individual teams.
It’s not like you’re going to call a team and push them into something they don’t want to do; it has to fit. There are certain teams in the NBA, all at different phases or points, so trades are always going to happen in the NBA. It’s kind of the cool thing about the league, right?
Bob Myers: Anytime you do any deal, if you are talking about a trade, you hope it works for both teams. Thankfully the NBA is comprised of a lot of different timelines in regards to teams.
Some teams are on the cusp of winning championships, some teams are young and growing through the draft.
If you can find a partner that fits what your timeline is and the deal also fits what their timeline is, you can possibly make a deal. I think it’s collaborative in some sense, but teams are going to do what’s best for them more than helping other teams. It’s still about finding a partner the deal works for.
Dennis Lindsey: It’s hard to comment on the league as a whole because you get so wrapped up in your business.
But I think there are always natural trade partners: “I have two point guards and need a big, and you have two bigs and need a point guard”—those teams are probably going to have a conversation during the course of the year, that’s common sense.
You have certain teams that are leveraged relative to the tax, team-building or position, and another team has a way to alleviate some of the pressure and they start talking about deal points.
Additionally, these 30 owners are all highly successful business people, so there is always a bottom-line factor relative to team-building. Fortunately, the relationship to spending and winning is not a 1:1 relationship. Certainly of late, there is more a correlation between spending and winning.
Again, there have been teams that have been pretty disciplined relative to their budget that have won at the highest levels.
Masai Ujiri: It’s funny. When Brian (Colangelo) hired me as assistant GM in Toronto (in 2008) and I was working with Mark Warkentien in Denver, I asked them hundreds of questions about the CBA in trying to learn it.
Steve Fruitman was our cap guy in Toronto, and one day he looked at me and said: “Some of these things don’t make sense until they actually happen. We all learn as we go.” You try to study as much as you can. In my mind, I think I know it all, but you never do—that’s the truth. You keep trying to learn and learn, and to be honest, there is so much to learn.
We also all try to figure out ways to gain advantages through the language of the CBA and going around it. I used to always ask Pete D'Alessandro: “Can we really do that? Call the NBA and ask, make sure we can really do that.” It always happens, we are all so happy in thinking we have gone around it, and all of the sudden you can’t.
That’s the truth, as much as we try to study, there are different ways to try and get around it sometimes.
Bob Myers: Yeah, always. Maybe it’s a small piece of minutia that hasn’t been explored. The CBA, like any legal document, there's holes in it. Has everything been uncovered? I don’t believe so.
I will also say you have some very smart people working in front offices around the league that either have legal or mathematical, statistical backgrounds that are working every day for an edge.
I think you’ve got probably, in this day and age, the brightest minds that have ever sat in front offices, whether it’s in general manager jobs, assistant GMs, player personnel or analytical directors.
You’ve got some very bright people poring over the CBA and analyzing it, trying to get around certain things or utilizing certain tools. I would never believe everything has been solved. It’s like anything, you look hard enough to find things that benefit you.
Dennis Lindsey: There is always an educational process going on. Whether you are above the luxury tax or below it, there is a different set of rules. So you are probably doing quite a few refreshers relative to where you are within the set of rules and procedures.
When you are below the salary cap, certainly your ability to maneuver is much greater, so you have a wider set of options to choose from. That’s an ongoing process that you’re looking at the rules relative to your salary cap and where you’re at within the competitive landscape.
Masai Ujiri: Every team is looking around saying, “How or why did you do that?” It just depends on the team. You see what you want and you go for it. That’s the nature of the business. You do your homework and you go with your instincts.
You see how much a guy is worth to the team, what you think it will bring to your organization and then you go for it. Every single team is going to overpay or underpay; it’s going to happen here or there. Sometimes it’s just luck.
Trust me, I’m in no position to say this player was worth it or wasn’t worth it because it depends on the team.
Bob Myers: That’s hard to answer generally. Every team values players differently. They value what that player brings to their team. It’s hard for me to gauge what players got paid from other teams because what we would have paid would be very different. There may be free agents that would be worth more to us and less to another team because of a positional need or a dynamite fit.
It’s in the eye of the beholder like anything; this is an art as much as it is a science. I tried, personally, not to speculate and make knee-jerk reactions to free-agent signings. You don’t know, to be honest, whether it’s your own player or any player assigned to any team, how that contract is going to play out.
I can tell you most of the time it’s going to be different than what you envisioned. Whether you are going to get a great deal or a less-than-great deal, you don’t know.
There’s a human element to this. It’s hard to say what contracts are good or not; all you can do is make the best judgement call you can and try to be fiscally responsible.
Dennis Lindsey: I think there is always supply and demand. Thirty different teams are going to have, many times, 30 different needs. Sometimes, 10 of the 30 teams have the same need and there are only two players out there, so eight get left out and so those two players’ values get raised based upon the supply and demand for the position.
I think you have those situations, and again that really gets back to where you are in your team building: Are you in a talent-acquisition phase? In a rebuilding situation? Or are you in a position of strategic need, where you need one particular skill set or position, and you go into free agency or the trade season to go get that?
Spending was down
The constant and clear point that each of the three GMs continued to circle back to was that NBA franchises are no longer willing to hand out long-term, big-money deals unless they are absolutely sure it's for superstar talent.
It's not overly complicated. Spending was down this recent offseason as teams deal within the constraints of the CBA.
Ujiri's Raptors didn't have the spending flexibility this summer to dish out high-priced contracts. But he also didn't risk multiple years of the future just for the sake of a shake-up. He didn't move Rudy Gay's $17.8 million contract (that becomes a $19.3 million player option in 2014-15) just to gain another long-term contract in return. He did, however, free up salary flexibility while gaining three future draft picks when he sent Andrea Bargnani (two years, $22 million) to the New York Knicks.
This will allow Ujiri to evaluate his team—specifically the highly paid Gay—this upcoming season. At worst, the team has spending flexibility next summer and a top pick in a loaded draft. Looking ahead to eventual spending freedom is a key for any NBA teams that must avoid sizable luxury tax penalties.
Collaboration between teams
All three GMs recognized the league is comprised of three types of teams: those ready to win a title, those ready to contend for a playoff spot and those seeking to rebuild.
The key in collaboration is finding teams within different "buckets." Some teams may be looking to stockpile draft picks, others may be looking to find financial flexibility and some need a piece to grow as a contender.
Both Myers and Lindsey fall into different buckets, as the Warriors are a contending team out West and the Jazz are rebuilding their roster.
This allowed Myers and Lindsey to work together on a three-way deal (that also included the Denver Nuggets) to benefit their teams' futures. Utah acquired the expiring contracts of Andris Biedrins, Brandon Rush and Richard Jefferson in order to gain future draft picks. The deal allowed the Warriors to complete the sign-and-trade addition of star Andre Iguodala.
In the deal, both teams created more flexible salary situations into the future.
It was interesting to hear the GMs discuss superteams as a trend. I think sometimes we all have a habit of losing perspective when we see a new style of roster-building pay off two years in a row.
None of them, especially Lindsey or Ujiri, seemed shaken by what seems like a fleeting strategy. No multiple-superstar roster other than the current Miami Heat or the 2008 Boston Celtics has been successful. So why flinch?
Lindsey used his former employer, the San Antonio Spurs, as a more prevalent example of a sustainable championship model. Ujiri believes it will eventually give way to another trend, citing a shortage of available superstars to even form another superteam.
Finding advantages through the CBA
The best part about speaking with any GM is attempting to remove the veil of secrecy they all seek to maintain.
But when it came to the one question in regard to navigating the ins and outs of the still-fresh CBA, each of them came clean: all front offices work tirelessly to find loopholes or side routes around certain rules. Staffs of capologists, lawyers and other more brainy positions are all on the job.
It's the nature of the competitive business.