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Navigating the NBA's Maddening Yet Necessary Cycle of Change

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Navigating the NBA's Maddening Yet Necessary Cycle of Change
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If you're a fan of the NBA, you know the feeling.

The season starts, as the 2013-14 edition just has. You turn on your TV to get your hoops fix, or you trek out to the arena to cheer on your favorite team.

Either way, you know some of the names on the backs of the jerseys. They're guys you've rooted for before, guys you've watched contribute to a familiar cause.

Others may ring a bell, but you'd recognize them better in different colors. You ask yourself (or the person nearest you), "Since when does So-And-So play for Team X? Did he ditch Team Y? Are my eyes deceiving me? What happened?!"

Still more are entirely foreign, to the extent that you're pulling for (or pushing against) them based entirely on what they're wearing, rather than on who they are. You might judge them solely on the peculiarity of the surnames stitched on the back of their jerseys.

I believe Jerry Seinfeld put it best—the guy was always way ahead of his time.

Indeed, being a fan of any major sport, basketball included, can feel like filling a cheering section for Nike, Adidas or Under Armour. And if the clothes you root for aren't accompanied by a goofy mascot, it's that much tougher to establish anything more than a material connection (pun alert!) to the team in question.

Coping with roster turnover is tougher than ever in today's NBA. The parameters of the latest collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players (e.g. shorter contracts, stingier exceptions, harsher luxury tax penalties) have made the sport's summer silly season even sillier while leaving fans to pick up the pieces come fall.

"Where's the loyalty?" you wonder. "Why don't superstars stay put? Does anyone take pride in beating the best rather than joining them? Magic Johnson/Larry Bird/Michael Jordan/(insert other old-school legend here) would never have skipped town to join a superteam!"

Loyalty may be item No. 1 on the agenda for you or any number of fans out there, but—sorry to burst your bubble—it has little to do with the way the Association actually operates behind the scenes. As it happens, there's plenty of truth underlying the played-out platitude about the NBA being a business.

See, basketball isn't exempt from the same economic forces about which the Wu-Tang Clan once pontificated. The difference is, money isn't the only serious consideration that factors into decisions big and small in the NBA. If anything, winning is more important, especially in a league whose overall profitability is improving by the year, hand over fist.

Trouble is, with parity being paramount to the NBA's own ambitions, building and sustaining a stable winner over time has become more difficult than ever. Change, then, isn't so much an affront to fan loyalty as it is an unavoidable, if not integral, fact of life in the NBA.

It's one that players, coaches and GMs alike are forced to confront every day, at the intersection between money and on-court success. It's one that, ultimately, makes the fan experience that much more exciting.

 

Turning a Fieldhouse into a Fieldhome

If you're a player in the NBA, your decisions regarding future employment are often dictated by both money and a desire to win.

That's assuming the decision is yours to make at all. For superstars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, whose talent demands long-term commitments with trails of zeros attached, free agency is a rarity to be relished. Hence, the hoopla that arises whenever a marquee name hits the open market.

Players of that caliber are often afforded the privilege of filling up their bank accounts and chasing championships at the same time. After all, the best of the best in the NBA are the ones who can win wherever and with whomever. Put LeBron on just about any team and, chances are, that team is going to be a title contender, if for no other reason than the mere presence of the best player on planet Earth.

Roy Hibbert isn't in that category just yet, but he's not all that far off, either. The All-Star center for the Indiana Pacers played like a man among men during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Hibbert averaged 22.1 points (on 55.7 percent shooting) and 10.4 rebounds in just under 40 minutes a game to help Indy push Miami to the brink of elimination.

This, after signing a max offer sheet to stay with the Pacers as a restricted free agent during the summer of 2012. Hibbert, though, insists his own job security had nothing to do with his postseason improvement.

"The type of game I play and the person who I am, I hope to be able to stick around here for a long time," Hibbert recently told Bleacher Report. "I mean, you never know. It’s a business. But my focus is just to get better and help the team get better."

For Hibbert, the job security that comes with a lucrative contract is, in terms of basketball, merely a means to be a part of a stable, successful core that's established itself in the Circle City since Frank Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien as the head coach during the 2010-11 season.

"It was bad before Frank took over," Hibbert added. "It was just a real negative environment to the point where I didn’t know if I could be on the team anymore."

That's no longer the case for Hibbert, who clearly takes pride in being an integral part of the Pacers' winning culture, both on and off the court.

"My first year, first couple years, there were a lot of cliques in the locker room," Hibbert recalled. "Guys didn’t hang out with each other. It was like, as soon as practice was done, certain people would talk to certain people.

"We’re a family and, for the most part, during the preseason, we all go out to dinner. We all like spending time with each other. I’ve said that before with teams that I’ve been on, but it doesn’t feel the same way like the last two years."

That kind of a family atmosphere takes time and effort to establish—of the sort that's so difficult to conjure consistently within the whirling dervish that the NBA has become. With players, coaches and executives constantly on the move, camaraderie of the sort that Indy has fostered should be cherished, appreciated and maximized at every turn.

Hibbert marveled at how Pacers executives Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard had managed to build a juggernaut without the benefit of superstar lottery picks like those the Oklahoma City Thunder used to become perennial contenders in the Western Conference.

"Nobody on our team is flashy, per se—except for Paul George, he’s a high-flying superstar," Hibbert said. "But we’ve cultivated a community environment where it’s hard work, no superstars per se, no attitude, no egos, and it helps us get to where we want to be."

Where the Pacers are is among a handful of franchises that might rightly be considered models for their NBA counterparts in this day and age. Sure, players shuffle into and out of the locker room, but everyone the front office brings in jibes with the hard-working, team-first ethos that propels the Pacers along.

Said Hibbert, "They’ve really done a good job of knowing the temperature of the team and bringing in people just like us."

With that identity has come success between the lines—the Pacers have advanced one round further in the playoffs in each of the last three years—and, just as importantly, a renewed relationship with the team's fans.

"During the brawl [the 2004 Malice at the Palace between the Pacers and the Detroit Pistons], we lost a lot of fans and lost a lot of our connection with the fans," Hibbert said. "Now, we’re always on our best behavior, but we try to do things that go above and beyond to reach out to them."

Those efforts include community events, speaking engagements and players (including Hibbert) buying out whole sections at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and filling them, on their own dimes, with fans. That sort of relationship between a team and its fans is difficult to maintain when the faces of the organization are always changing.

The Pacers needn't worry about that, though. Their entire core (Hibbert, Paul George, George Hill and David West) is signed through at least the next three seasons. Such stability has allowed Indy's stars to form a collective bond beyond that of co-workers, one that more closely resembles that of a brotherhood.

It's also freed Hibbert to improve his own repertoire while, naturally, bolstering the championship hopes of the machinery in which he is such a key cog.

 

Money Matters

The vast majority of players, though, can't and don't impact the prospects of a team, much less the entire landscape of the league, when they decide whether to stay put or change locales. As such, many are left to choose between taking less money to compete for a title, as Ray Allen did when he signed with the Miami Heat in July of 2012, or eschew W's for dollar signs, as Al Jefferson did when he joined the Charlotte Bobcats this past summer.

To be sure, there's nothing wrong with what Big Al did or what countless others before him have chosen to do. The opportunity to be compensated handsomely for playing basketball professionally is a fleeting one for most. The toll that such physical exertion exacts on a player's body, combined with the annual influx of fresh blood into the league, means that a number of those drawing big paychecks today won't be doing so tomorrow.

Depending on who you ask, the average NBA career lasts between 4.8 and 6.2 years, which means your run-of-the-mill pro is out of the Association before the age of 30. That doesn't leave a guy much time in which to maximize his earning potential, to stock up on the sort of cash he'll likely need to ride out the rest of his life once his playing days are done.

Some, like Magic Johnson and Jamal Mashburn, have enjoyed tremendous success as businessmen in their post-athletic lives. Unfortunately, their stories seem more to be the exceptions that prove the rule: that athletes, even rich ones, are prone to winding up broke.

Assuming, of course, that the player in question, free agent or otherwise, gets to stack bills to that extent at all. Every year, dozens upon dozens of the world's best ballers take their talents to the NBA's summer leagues and training camps in search of whatever scraps teams may have left at the ends of their respective benches.

According to RealGM, a rookie at the very bottom of the pay scale can still take home a salary of $490,180—a strong number by just about any standard.

Except the NBA's own. Two years ago, the league boasted an average salary of $5.15 million (per NBA.com's Steve Aschburner). If you've managed to log 10 or more years of service, you can't currently take home any less than $1,399,507 for a full season's work.

But if you're operating on the minimum-salary scale, you're probably not spending an entire season with one team. You might not even be hanging around the NBA the entire time.

Rather, players of that ilk have to bounce between 10-day contracts, D-League stints, trips overseas and time wiled away on the waiver wire.

 

A Journeyman By Trade

This is to say nothing of the myriad other players who have little to no say in how their careers proceed. Most players can be traded from city to city on a whim, sometimes without so much as a phone call from the ones who put the deal together. Only a select few tenured stars (i.e. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan) wield complete no-trade clauses in their contracts.

The rest, like Luis Scola, can only hope to find a place to call home and hang around long enough for it to become so. Scola spent five seasons with the Houston Rockets before he was cut via the one-time amnesty provision in 2012. He then signed with the Phoenix Suns, who sent him to the Indiana Pacers this summer in a deal for Gerald Green, Mason Plumlee and a first-round pick.

"I think the biggest challenge with changing teams is outside the court," Scola told B/R. "Getting a new place to live, getting a school for the kids, all the paper work and all those things. Those are the most challenging things about changing teams."

In the Argentine's estimation, acclimating oneself to new teammates and a new system on a new team is the easy part.

"That’s more natural for us," he said. "It may take a couple weeks, but that’s what the preseason is for.

"On the other hand, all of the paper work and all that other stuff, that will weigh on your mind. You’re not used to doing that."

These difficulties of professional nomadism are so often lost on the viewing public. All we see are guys playing basketball. Rarely do we see them as human beings, faced with many of the same difficult decisions that family men confront.

Rarely, too, do we realize that the NBA's policies regarding player movement are far different from those employed in other countries.

"The difference is, in the NBA, you only get to choose sometimes," added Scola, who played in Argentina and Spain before making his way stateside. "Sometimes you get traded, and you don’t get to choose. It can happen in the beginning of the year, and you don’t get a say."

Elsewhere, players don't have to accept a trade if they don't want to.

"You sign a contract with a team," said Scola. "That means that if they’re going to move you, then they’re going to have to ask you for your permission. You can always say no, which is most likely the case.

"It’s hard. Players don’t want to move, and they end up not being moved because they’re not forced to. So, if you don’t want to, you just don’t move."

That doesn't mean that change is necessarily a bad thing. In Scola's estimation, "Sometimes you’re due for a change." Surely he didn't mind switching from the Suns, who are all but ticketed for a fourth straight trip to the NBA draft lottery, to the Pacers, who've been pegged as one of the top challengers to the Heat's reign atop the Eastern Conference this season.

When it comes to connecting to fans in a new city, Scola says it's all about performing well on the court. Everything else will take care of itself.

"I believe that connection will grow naturally if you do the right things on the court," he said. "I don’t think you have to do anything special. I just believe you have to work hard and be smart outside the court, and then if you do the right things on the court, then the relationship will grow. If you don’t do the right thing on the court, then it doesn’t matter what you do off the court because fans won’t like you."

Scola, though, finds it easier to satiate the expectations of fans when he's in a stable situation: "I like to stay in one place. I don’t like to move. For me, it’s very important to have stability and to know the system and know my teammates. I know the city and everything about it, and that makes it easier to play and to perform."

 

The Voices in Their Ears

Players aren't the only ones who benefit from secure work environs. Coaches can and often do cash in on having strong, consistent rosters at their disposal.

The trouble is, in today's NBA, wins and losses aren't always enough to ensure job security. The goings-on of this summer's coaching carousel are evidence of as much.

George Karl, Lionel Hollins and Vinny Del Negro all enjoyed historic seasons with their respective franchises in 2012-13. Karl was named the NBA's Coach of the Year. Hollins guided the Memphis Grizzlies to their first-ever Western Conference Finals. Del Negro oversaw a Los Angeles Clippers squad that captured its only Pacific Division crown to date. All three teams set NBA franchise records for single-season win totals.

And yet, all three of those coaches currently find themselves out of work. Del Negro was replaced by former Boston Celtics head man Doc Rivers, while the other two were supplanted by as-yet-unproven assistants—Brian Shaw in Denver, Dave Joerger in Memphis. Larry Drew, Jim Boylan and P.J. Carlesimo were let go by playoff teams as well.

"I don’t think anybody really likes it, especially people in the coaching profession," Frank Vogel told B/R. "But I think, big picture-wise, forget the fact that I’m a coach. I don’t think it’s good for the game.

"Giving a coach an opportunity to get the job done over a number of years is an important element in succeeding in this game. I think there’s always a short window in mind, and a coach is always going to make the best short-term decisions, and that’s not always in the best interest of the team."

Vogel, though, isn't concerned that the rash of firings and hirings over the last six-and-a-half months or so is symptomatic of a building epidemic among coaches and teams. Instead, it's merely a matter of timing.

Of the 13 vacancies that've opened up since April, 10 have been filled by rookie head coaches. The other three (Rivers to L.A., Drew to the Milwaukee Bucks and Maurice Cheeks to the Detroit Pistons) are taking over teams with legitimate playoff hopes.

Both hiring strategies (i.e. retreads versus fresh faces) have their perks. According to Grantland's Jared Dubin, recycled coaches fare slightly better off the bat than do their new counterparts, though the latter have posted higher winning percentages over the long haul with their new team.

NBA Head Coaching Hires Since 1996
Retread First-Timer Average
Win % at Takeover .419 .418 .418
Win % First Year .441 .416 .431
Win % Tenure .495 .517 .504

Grantland

In a perfect world, a franchise wouldn't have to change coaches at all. Four of the top five teams in the NBA today have followed the same voice for at least the last three years.

Tenures and Records of NBA's Top Coaches Through 2012-13
Years Reg. Season Record Win % Playoff Record Win %
Popovich (SAS) 17 905-423 .681 133-83 .616
Spoelstra (MIA) 5 260-134 .660 50-29 .633
Thibodeau (CHI) 3 157-73 .683 16-18 .471
Brooks (OKC) 5 234-147 .614 29-25 .537

Basketball Reference

The lone exception? You guessed it—Frank Vogel, who's been in charge of the Pacers since halfway through the 2010-11 season. Vogel, who got his start as a video coordinator for Rick Pitino in Boston, took over for journeyman coach Jim O'Brien on an interim basis that season. Since then, Indy has won 60 percent of its games, with a solid 18-17 postseason record to boot.

Said Vogel of the change: "We were a team that was trying to take that next step—struggling to do so—but we had a lot of young players that were still finding their way. What I did is, I just tried to come in and give them a fresh approach. We changed our style of play, more than anything, and just tried to instill belief in these guys."

You could say, then, that Vogel's ascendancy is proof that change on the sideline can be a good thing, even (perhaps especially) when the person taking over has never held a head gig before. A new voice with original ideas can make all the difference. 

"There’s only so many games a coach can coach until the team starts kind of floating," Donnie Walsh, a longtime GM and current consultant for basketball operations in Indy, told B/R. "Sometimes you bring in another coach, and that jabs that up a bit. But there’s no rule for that. You just have to see how it’s going."

The key, it seems, is to find someone who commands the trust and respect of his players and is on the same page with ownership and management. Karl and Hollins both clashed with their superiors. Del Negro got along well enough with Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the team's shifting regime, but he never seemed to be taken seriously by his own players. 

Drew guided a ho-hum Atlanta Hawks squad to the playoffs in each of his three seasons, but he could never get past the second round with a nucleus that's been largely disbanded. Boylan and Carlesimo both took over on interim bases and, as such, weren't expected to be retained in the first place. 

Vogel has had no such issues of which to speak. On the court, he's guided the Pacers to the precipice of greatness and hopes to do so again in 2013-14.

"It’s a really exciting and very rewarding and fun thing to be a part of," added Vogel. "I feel very fortunate to have been put in this position to coach this team because, like I said, we were a team that was close to taking that step. We’ve been able to do it over the last couple of years."

Off the court, he's built and maintained a strong, communicative relationship with Indy's front office, which has bolstered his own position within the organization and had a trickle-down effect on the team.

"They’re perfect bosses, so to speak," said Vogel in praise of the Pacers' front-office trio (i.e. Bird, Pritchard and Walsh) and the organization they've assembled. "They let you do your job. They let you have input on the personnel decisions. There’s a healthy line of communication, and there’s a healthy line of trust. They’ve given me a great deal of trust in how to run this team, and I’ve got a great deal of trust in the personnel decisions they make and how they run the organization.

"I think, the way our team runs, our organization is becoming a bit of a gold standard in the NBA."

 

MGMT is the Key

Donnie Walsh (bottom left), Kevin Pritchard (right) and Larry Bird watch the Pacers play during the 2013 preseason.

A standard of the sort to which most teams aspire and of which the recent (and rampant) turnover in the coaching ranks might simply be a temporary symptom.

It's long been common practice for new GMs and front-office executives to install their "own people" throughout an organization upon arrival. But with the pressure from ambitious (if not anxious) owners to do more with less at an all-time high, those in charge of making personnel decisions appear to have eschewed loyalty for efficacy.

That isn't always so bad. For GMs, stability within an organization is only as good as the wins and losses to which it leads on the court.

"If you’ve won the championship two or three years," said Walsh, "then I think it’s important to keep the guys who got you there. If it’s a building situation, then I think you could make those changes, and it could be carried on.

"But it doesn’t make it easier. I would say that, because nobody has the same vision, so you’re operating on one vision for two years, then you change and go to another vision for three years. I don’t know if you can keep it consistent, but unless you’re winning the championship and you don’t want to change, then I think that makes it a little more difficult, but it’s been done and can be done."

Finding a good GM is one thing. Having that GM succeed in his position, with all of the novel obstacles to building a consistent title contender, is another.

Walsh is more familiar than most with how the rules of the management game have changed over the years. He's spent most of the last 27 years in the Pacers' front office in some capacity. 

Walsh was responsible for the then-controversial (but ultimately fruitful) decision to draft UCLA star Reggie Miller over Indiana legend Steve Alford in 1986. With Miller as his centerpiece, Walsh shaped and reshaped a roster that allowed the Pacers to remain one of the Eastern Conference's most competitive clubs for the better part of two decades.

It was during his three-year stint with the New York Knicks, though, that Walsh learned the most important lesson of all for GMs in today's NBA—"that keeping your cap flexible is really important." Added Walsh, "You’ve just got to discipline yourself to make sure that your team’s salary can be changed a certain amount every two years, three years, somewhere in there, so you don’t get stuck forever."

He should know. When Walsh arrived in the spring of 2008, the Knicks were a losing operation trapped in salary cap purgatory, reeling from the mistakes of the Isiah Thomas regime. Walsh made it his mission to clear up the Knicks' cap so that they could do what New York-based teams have traditionally done: attract top-tier talent via free agency.

"I said it the first day I was there to the press: I think the way for us to go forward is to try to bring down our cap and get into free agency and try to get some players in here," Walsh said. "They could form another team because what we’ve been doing so far really hasn’t worked."

/Getty Images

Slowly but surely, Walsh cleaned up the Knicks' books, to the point where they were able to sign Amar'e Stoudemire, then still an All-Star, to a five-year, $100 million deal in 2010 and trade for Carmelo Anthony the following year. Walsh returned to Indianapolis in 2011, but he left behind the foundation of a team that will be gunning for its fourth straight playoff appearance in 2014.

The cities in which Walsh has worked may be vastly different in terms of population and expectation, but to him, building a steady, winning operation comes down to the same basic principle, no matter where you are: finding and keeping the right players.

"You have to be very careful that you select a group of players that are going to fit into the culture that you want," Walsh said. "When you’re in the draft or you’re looking at trades, you’re very careful not to select somebody out of that culture.

"Once you get players that have the talent and fit into the culture, then you have to keep them. The longer you have them, the effect of it multiplies dramatically, because if you get guys that you feel want to play hard, want to win, aren’t looking out for their individual stats—they understand that if you win, everybody will benefit—all those kinds of qualities. And when you get them, and it starts working, then you really have to go out of your way to keep them."

There comes a time, though, when parting ways with players becomes a necessity for any organization. Players decline as they get older. Their expectations change, as do those of the team around them. Sometimes, the pieces just don't fit anymore. Loyalty can and does factor into how some of these cases are handled.

"If you’ve had a player for a long time and he’s really played well for you, then it’s going to have to be either we don’t do anything with him, or we do something with him," Walsh said. "The difference is going to be, if we do it, it could be a great move for the franchise to stay this way. You can’t just do it out of emotion. It either won’t work for the player or for you."

Stability, then, is important, but only insofar as that which is being held together is actually good for the organization going forward. How does Walsh, or any other GM, know when it's time to make a change?

"Your record will tell you that," Walsh said. "You know what you’re team can do, and if they’re not doing it, then it’s time to do something, particularly with a team you’ve had for a while."

 

A Solid Foundation

/Getty Images

Records do, indeed, reveal quite a bit about the importance of continuity in the NBA.

Think of the elite teams in today's NBA: the Heat, the Spurs, the Bulls, the Pacers, the Thunder and the Grizzlies. What do they all have in common?

A core group of three players who've been together for at least three years. In fact, if you look around the NBA, you'll find that there are nearly as many teams whose top three players are new to each other (seven) than there are squads with sturdy triads (eight).

NBA's Core 3's
"Core 3" Years Reg. Season Record Playoff Record
ATL Horford-Teague-Millsap 0 N/A N/A
BOS Rondo-Bass-Green 2 80-67 13-13
BKN Lopez-Williams-Johnson 1 49-33 3-4
CHA Henderson-Walker-Biyombo 2 28-120 N/A
CHI Deng-Rose-Noah 5 194-118 15-19
CLE Irving-Thompson-Varejao 2 45-103 N/A
DAL Nowitzki-Marion-Ellis 0 N/A N/A
DEN Lawson-Gallinari-Faried 2 95-53 5-8
DET Drummond-Monroe-Smith 0 N/A N/A
GSW Curry-Thompson-Lee 2 70-78 6-6
HOU Harden-Howard-Parsons 0 N/A N/A
IND Hibbert-George-Granger 3 128-101 18-17
LAC Paul-Griffin-Jordan 2 96-52 6-11
LAL Bryant-Gasol-Nash 1 45-37 0-4
MEM Gasol-Randolph-Conley 4 183-129 18-17
MIA James-Wade-Bosh 3 170-60 46-21
MIL Ilyasova-Sanders-Mayo 0 N/A N/A
NOP Davis-Holiday-Gordon 0 N/A N/A
NYK Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler 2 90-58 7-10
OKC Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka 4 212-100 29-25
ORL Nelson-Afflalo-Davis 1 20-62 N/A
PHI Young-Turner-Hawes 3 110-120 8-10
PHX Dragic-Bledsoe-Len 0 N/A N/A
POR Aldridge-Batum-Lillard 1 33-49 N/A
SAC Cousins-Thompson-Thornton 3 74-156 N/A
SAS Duncan-Parker-Ginobili 11 626-260 102-61
TOR DeRozan-Gay-Lowry 1 34-48 N/A
UTA Hayward-Kanter-Favors 2 79-69 0-4
WAS Wall-Beal-Nene 1 29-53 N/A

Basketball Reference

(Note: For the core groups, partial seasons together are counted as whole ones in this exercise.)

Considered this way, the average "core three" in the NBA today has been intact for fewer than two seasons. The difference in records between those with stable cores and those without is astounding.

Wins, Losses and Longevity
# of Teams Reg. Season Record Playoff Record
Cores of 3+ Seasons 7 1697-1038 (.620) 236-170 (.581)
Everyone Else 23 793-822 (.491) 40-60 (.400)

Basketball Reference

That disparity also makes perfect, intuitive sense. Those groups that work well together are more likely to stick, while those that don't, aren't.

Likewise, the longer a collection of players remains intact, the more familiar they'll be with one another and the better they'll perform as a unit. It's the same notion that's allowed the Argentinian national teams of which Scola's been an integral part to flourish on the global stage.

"We’ve been playing with the same guys for 10 years or more than that," Scola said. "That made things easier. We formed a very strong bond, and it was reflected on the court."

Vogel, Scola's new coach, would concur: "That’s a big part of winning at this level and having a team overachieve, whatever the talent is, is chemistry and togetherness. When you’ve got guys that are high IQ...I think that really just helps to be the difference-maker."

This isn't exactly a secret, unless you're not familiar with "The Secret," as told to Bill Simmons by Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas: that the secret about basketball is that it isn’t about basketball; it's about relationships. It takes time and patience for players to develop strong bonds between one another, for coaches to foster those bonds and for front-office folks to find players who fit with one another.

Every player brings a different personality to the locker room, with a different niche to fill. Some lead, while others follow. Some lend levity to serious squads with jokes and pranks, while others remind their teammates of the gravity of any given situation. There's as much need for youthful exuberance, when the season becomes a slog, as there is for the patience and wisdom of veterans, when the going gets tough in crucial moments.

The balance between all those aspects that characterizes a championship-caliber culture often takes months, if not years, to find. Yet it can all be thrown out of whack in an instant by a single, catastrophic event, be it a blockbuster trade, a breach of trust in the locker room or, say, a full-on brawl. Walsh saw firsthand how an such an incident can decimate even the sturdiest of contenders, "because it’s so far away from what you want that you have to confront it, and it’s not going to get better."

Tough times call for tough decisions, many of which can be unpopular among a team's fanbase.

"If you really believe in, let’s say, some maneuver you’re making and you believe it’s going to help your team," said Walsh, "the way you think about it is, it might not be popular when you announce it, but you have to have the confidence to think that if I do this, I think we’re going to have a much better team and so I’m going to do it, and then the fans will see that it worked. If it doesn’t, then you know, well, I won’t be around that long [laughs]."

Those changes, like any made by teams and players, aren't meant to rub fans the wrong way. Rather, they're attempts to cope with the realities of a league that, more than ever, is looking to encourage parity and fan engagement through instability.

 

Fun For Fans

/Getty Images

Ultimately, that sort of constant change is good for the fan experience. It makes the summer months more exciting, as trades and signings take center stage. More importantly, it makes the NBA less predictable—game to game, playoff series to playoff series, season to season—like the NFL and MLB.

Gamblers may not like that, and fans may not care to learn new names every year. But on the whole, more people will embrace the NBA if they feel like their favorite teams can win the title, regardless of the size of the local market or the depth of the owner's pockets. The league will be more fun if the Larry O'Brien Trophy isn't tossed around between the same handful of teams like a hot potato.

We should see some of the positive effects of this chaotic push for parity in 2013-14. Both conferences are loaded with teams that could conceivably take home the title. There are no fewer than three teams (the Bulls, the Pacers and the Nets) that are prepared to give the Heat a run for their money in the East. Out West, a dogfight's brewing between as many as six stacked squads (the Spurs, the Thunder, the Clippers, the Grizzlies, the Rockets and the Warriors).

And that's to say nothing of the 10 to 12 teams that will be battling on the fringes of the playoff picture on either side. Even those organizations currently in "Tank Mode" figure to be back in the thick of things if/when the prospects they land in the loaded 2014 NBA draft develop into stars.

Change isn’t easy, even less so when it’s constant, but oftentimes—in the NBA as in life—it’s for the best.

Regardless of what Seinfeld says.

 

The times, they are a-changin'. Let's talk about 'em on Twitter!

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