In today's NBA, a dollar doesn't buy what it used to.
That's not a comment on any kind of inflationary trend in the league's economy. Rather, it's a signal that the amount of money teams spend nowadays doesn't matter nearly as much as the people who are doing the spending.
Essentially, a brainier class of NBA executive has arisen over the past few seasons. General managers like Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers, Ryan McDonough of the Phoenix Suns and Neil Olshey of the Portland Trail Blazers are proving that spending smart is more important than buying big.
As a result, teams in major markets who've never had to think critically about every penny are struggling to live up to expectations, while leaner, sharper franchises are rebuilding at light speed.
Trouble at the Top
The stunning failure of the Brooklyn Nets has been one of the most fascinating early-season storylines, thanks largely to the expectations that came along with such a cosmically bloated payroll. Brooklyn has more than $102 million devoted to player salaries this season, which doesn't even count the tax payment of at least $80 million it will have to make at the end of the year.
General manager Billy King has always operated under Prokhorov's "Win now" mandate, and that edict has led the Nets to where they are today. Lacking any flexibility, Brooklyn is stuck paying a collection of aged and infirm veterans as though they were still stars.
Of the Nets' many massive contracts, only Brook Lopez's deal, which pays him around $47 million over the next three seasons, could be categorized as reasonable.
The New York Knicks aren't too far behind, boasting the NBA's second-highest payroll while struggling to the Eastern Conference's second-worst record. If anything, the Knicks are far worse off than the Nets because of James Dolan, the mercurial owner who doesn't seem to understand how to employ people who'll spend his money intelligently.
The Knicks' mismanagement of assets also extends to their draft picks, which means that even if they wind up "earning" a high lottery selection this season, the pick won't belong to them. They gave up their 2014 first-rounder in the deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony more than two years ago.
New York is hitching its hopes to Anthony re-signing with the team when he exercises his early-termination option this summer. Of course, if 'Melo sticks around on a long-term deal, the Knicks might even be worse off than if he had walked away for nothing.
As you can see, things are looking pretty grim for the NBA's two most free-spending organizations. They've shelled out top dollar but have wound up at the bottom of the standings.
Smart Mainstays and Fast Risers
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a couple of wildly successful teams that have parlayed smart spending into prime playoff positions.
The historically shrewd San Antonio Spurs are one of those teams, but it's not particularly revelatory to mention them among the NBA's sharpest squads. According to ShamSports.com, no fewer than 19 teams have spent more than the Spurs on this year's rosters, but just two—the Indiana Pacers and the Blazers—have higher winning percentages.
Portland, in particular, is a terrific example of how fresh thinking can help get the most out of every cent.
Olshey told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
It's so important that this team performs well – and does it with the right kind of guys. It's not just winning, but how we win, how we lose, how guys play, how guys treat the fans.
And you know, that's what accelerated it for me. It would be great to come in with a three-to-five-year plan, slowly rebuild, but about five minutes after I got here, I realized: We're going to have to pick the pace up on this.
Despite a sense of urgency and an owner with some of the deepest pockets in the league (Paul Allen's net worth is approximately $15.8 billion, according to Forbes), Olshey spent wisely in signing Dorell Wright and Mo Williams to below-market deals. He also swung a couple of slick moves to get Thomas Robinson and Robin Lopez, bolstering the team's previously nonexistent frontcourt depth.
Basically, he did the little things. Now, Portland is enjoying big success, despite the league's No. 19 payroll.
There are sharp teams outperforming expectations everywhere. The Atlanta Hawks are looking like the third-best team in the East, despite spending more than just three other NBA clubs.
Even the teams many suspected would lose games on purpose this year are putting together surprising starts.
The Suns are above .500 because McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek have embraced analytics, given young players the freedom to develop and generally caught the rest of the NBA sleeping. In fact, Phoenix's rebuilding efforts might be hampered by the team's sudden and surprising success.
All McDonough cares about is building a long-term foundation, though. So seeing as the Suns are way ahead of schedule, he's probably OK with some sooner-than-expected, draft-damaging wins.
Per Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:
"Walking in there, the main thing I wanted to do is upgrade the talent," said McDonough, who moved or released five of the team’s top nine scorers from last season. "And do it in a fashion that was sustainable for the long term. I didn’t want to try to take any shortcuts or try any quick fixes."
To slightly lesser extents, the Sixers, Orlando Magic and even the Charlotte Bobcats are enjoying surprising success while working with limited resources. All three of those teams have forward-thinking coaches and executive staffs that have either fully embraced analytics or are at least warming up to the idea.
In short, there's a smarter way to build winners in the NBA. And some of the league's smaller markets have wised up faster than the big boys.
This is the part where we mention that the 2013-14 campaign is only a quarter of the way finished. As such, it's only right to point out that many of the early-season trends we've seen so far are likely to level off—or even reverse entirely.
Seeing as smart cookies like Hinkie and McDonough are big on analytics, they'd probably be the first to mention that regression to the mean is coming.
The Nets and Knicks can't possibly be this bad all season. And sooner or later, mounting losses could sap some of the good vibes from the Sixers, Magic and Suns.
But the Blazers look legit, and nobody should even have to mention that the low-payroll Spurs aren't going anywhere.
The league is changing, and teams are finding out the hard way that they can't just buy their way to the top anymore. Brains matter more than big bucks.
As long as the smart teams continue to get more for their money, and the lumbering, outdated big-market behemoths still blow cash like it's going out of style, the gap between the haves and have-nots is only going to get narrower.
The NBA won't be totally upside down all year, but the trends we've seen so far indicate that it has reached some kind of tipping point.
*All salary information courtesy of ShamSports.com unless otherwise indicated.
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