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DUMMYBALL: How the NBA's Rich Teams Fell Behind the Future

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DUMMYBALL: How the NBA's Rich Teams Fell Behind the Future
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This past Dec. 8 marked the two-year anniversary of the end of the NBA's last lockout. This date in 2011 marked the night that the owners and the players ratified the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that commissioner David Stern, National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) director Billy Hunter and NBPA president Derek Fisher had spearheaded during the weeks and months of agony that led up to the end of the aforementioned labor impasse.

Much has changed since then, to say the least.

Stern announced in October of 2012 that he'd be ceding his post to current deputy commissioner Adam Silver on Feb. 1, 2014—the 30th anniversary of Stern's ascension to the NBA's top job following the retirement of Larry O'Brien.

Hunter was booted from his post with the NBPA during All-Star Weekend this past February—by a unanimous vote, no less—after allegations of improprieties involving Hunter's family and union business surfaced.

Fisher now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Los Angeles Clippers All-Star Chris Paul recently assuming duties as the new union head.

But those transitions among management personnel are insignificant compared to the shift in front office paradigms that the latest CBA has wrought across the basketball landscape.

New, more stringent rules governing spending (i.e. a harsher luxury tax, more restrictions on tax-spending teams, shorter contracts, etc.) have done more than just tamp down player salaries; they've practically transformed the way teams do business.

Well, most teams, anyway. For the vast majority of NBA franchises, the league's new world order has necessitated smarter management, more careful planning, a greater embrace of new-fangled basketball economics and the eschewing of yesterday's conventional wisdom, among other things.

 

Meet the "Elite"

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There remain a select few teams, though, that don't play by the revised rules—or, rather, don't seem to feel that they need to. Chief among them are the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.

All three teams play in elite media markets and reap the benefits of their respective locations. The Lakers and Knicks both profit handsomely from their local TV deals, while the Nets have made major inroads into the Big Apple since relocating from New Jersey to Brooklyn in the fall of 2012.

Not surprisingly then, all three depend on ownership that is ready, willing and able to spend significant dollars toward the end of keeping their respective teams competitive.

Knicks owner James Dolan draws much of his financial might from his father's media empire. Nets head man Mikhail Prokhorov made his billions through a series of shady business deals in post-Soviet Russia. The Buss family has built up a solid fortune since the late Dr. Jerry Buss acquired the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979, although it is nothing compared to the wealth that Dolan and Prokhorov have amassed outside of the business of basketball.

Each team's ownership also puts a premium on star power. The Knicks dumped half their roster to pry Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets in 2011, and they have gone out of their way to keep him content ever since. The same goes for the Nets, who sacrificed a vat of valuable assets to acquire and retain Deron Williams that same February. Kobe Bryant's recent $48 million extension was just the latest in a long line of gestures of loyalty made by the Lakers to their long-time superstar.

You know what else these three franchises share? Top-five payrolls (the Nets and Knicks are first and second).

Oh, and losing records.

The Lakers have been hovering around .500 all season and have just dipped back under that mark after losing both of Kobe Bryant's first two games back from a torn Achilles tendon. The Nets and Knicks have been particularly pitiful for a range of reasons—injuries, new arrivals and old drama among them—with a grim combined record of 13-29 between Gotham's clubs this season.

These big-money, big-market teams have each been victimized by the cold comfort provided by their vast resources and outdated basketball philosophies that guide their respective front offices.

 

If It Ain't Broke...

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All three of these teams have been driven by the desire to "win now" since the new CBA came into effect.

The Lakers (Kobe Bryant) and the Knicks (Carmelo Anthony) both sport superstars of whose elite talents they've attempted to take full advantage of, while the Nets hoped to make a major splash immediately after the opening of the Barclays Center last season.

For L.A. and New York, those efforts began almost immediately after the lockout was lifted.

The Knicks were among the first teams to make a splash that December, with the signing of free-agent center Tyson Chandler. A pivotal part of the Dallas Mavericks' 2010-11 championship run, Chandler immediately improved the Knicks' porous defense, earning 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors along the way.

But Chandler's arrival came at a heavy price. To clear enough cap room to ink Chandler to his four-year, $58 million deal, the Knicks chose to exercise the new CBA's one-time amnesty provision—whereby they could cut one player's salary without luxury-tax ramifications—on Chauncey Billups. That decision left New York not only without a competent point guard, but it also left them without much recourse for dumping the deal signed in 2010 by Amar'e Stoudemire.

Now, the Knicks can do little more than wait for the remainder of Stoudemire's five-year, $100 million pact to expire—assuming, of course, that their front office is unable to find some other sucker to take on the second coming of Allan Houston.

Chandler hasn't exactly been a picture of health himself, either. He missed 16 games last season with a neck injury, and this season, he has been out since early November with a fractured leg. Chandler is still arguably New York's most important player, though at his age (31) and with his health issues, it's tough not to wonder whether or not his salary (more than $14 million this year and next) has now far outstripped his actual value.

Meanwhile, the Knicks have struggled to find someone who can handle the team's point guard duties competently and consistently. New York limped through the first two months of the season without a passable floor general to orchestrate Mike D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll offense before stumbling upon Jeremy Lin in February of 2012.

But "Linsanity" didn't last long in New York City. D'Antoni succumbed to the heat of the Knicks' proverbial kitchen and skipped town in mid-March of that same season. Less than two weeks later, Lin suffered a season-ending knee injury and then left for the Houston Rockets the following summer after the Knicks declined to so much as tender him a contract offer.

Rumors swirled that Carmelo Anthony, New York's franchise cornerstone, wasn't fond of Lin's ball-dominant style of play. More importantly, the Knicks, feigning interest in luxury-tax ramifications, decided that the "poison pill" offer sheet the Rockets had extended to Lin just wasn't worth matching.

Instead, general manager Glen Grunwald traded for Raymond Felton, who'd been a revelation in New York prior to his inclusion in the blockbuster deal for 'Melo, and brought in a pair of aging ball-handlers in 39-year-old Jason Kidd and 35-year-old "rookie" Pablo Prigioni.

 

Coast-to-Coast Calamity

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The Lakers' recent decline also began with a point guard controversy of sorts.

L.A. seemed set for a new era of dominance after word broke that it had acquired Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets in December of 2011, in the midst of the lockout.

But David Stern, acting as the final decider for the league-owned Hornets, put the kibosh on that deal— perhaps at the behest of some of the small-market owners who'd pushed for the labor stoppage in the first place.

That shocking turn of events changed the course of Lakers history in rather dramatic fashion. Lamar Odom, who would have been on his way to New Orleans, demanded a trade of his own after that, and he had his wish granted when the Lakers dumped him on the Dallas Mavericks. Pau Gasol, once slated to join the Houston Rockets, swallowed his pride (for the umpteenth time) and continued to soldier on in the purple and gold.

The next summer, GM Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss went back to the drawing board and came up with what seemed at the time to be a fool-proof championship plan.

First, they swooped in from seemingly out of nowhere to snag Steve Nash from the rival Phoenix Suns, ahead of the New York Knicks and the Toronto Raptors, both of whom were presumed to be the front-runners in the race for his services. Then, they pulled off the predictable: They acquired Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic in a complex, four-team trade that sent All-Star center Andrew Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers—with whom Bynum played exactly as many minutes for the team as you or I did, on account of chronic knee problems.

The Lakers, it seemed, had made out like bandits once again, for the umpteenth time in their glorious history. They'd shored up their situation at point guard—a "problem" spot since Nick Van Exel last suited up for the team—and parlayed one young, oft-injured big man for arguably the best pivot on planet Earth.

In theory? They became an instant title contender. In practice? Not even close.

Injuries up and down the roster laid the foundation for what turned out to be a disastrous season. Howard was nowhere near 100-percent healed from back surgery that he underwent the previous spring; Nash suffered a leg injury in the second game of the season, from which he still has yet to fully recover; Pau Gasol's knees were worn down from (among other things) his stewardship of Spain to the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics; and, last but certainly not least, Kobe tore his Achilles in mid-April to all but quash any lingering hopes that the Lakers had of advancing in the playoffs.

In between trips to the training room, the Lakers were undone by an early-season coaching change (Mike D'Antoni taking over for Mike Brown), drama in the locker room (particularly between Kobe and Dwight) and, sadly, the death of Dr. Buss.

By season's end, L.A. had but 45 wins—none in the postseason—to show for the nearly $100 million spent on player salaries and the five draft picks (first-rounders in 2013, 2015 and 2017; second-rounders in 2013 and 2014) used to acquire the team's two new, hobbled superstars.

 

A Crash-and-Burn Copycat

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Tragedy aside, the Nets have seen a similar story unfold on their side of the country so far this year.

Like the Lakers, they first got into the business of building what would become, on paper, a "superteam" in the summer of 2012. Mikhail Prokhorov, who'd acquired an 80 percent stake in the franchise in May of 2011, was eager to make a big splash upon the squad's arrival in Brooklyn in the fall of 2012.

First and foremost, that meant retaining the Nets' top assets in Deron Williams and Brook Lopez.

The latter wasn't too difficult. Lopez was a restricted free agent, meaning his incumbent team could match any outside offer for his services. After trying every which way to trade Lopez for Dwight Howard, the Nets settled on keeping their skilled, young center for four years and nearly $61 million.

The tougher sell came on account of the former. Williams was a restricted free agent who was presumably nonplussed by the organization's results during the season-and-a-half he spent in New Jersey.

Who could blame him? The Nets lost a whopping 58 games in 2010-11 and managed to lose 44 more during the 66-game, lockout-shortened season in 2011-12.

To convince Williams, whose only other realistic suitor was the Dallas Mavericks, to stick around for the impending jump across the Hudson River, Nets GM Billy King did what any old-school executive with the backing of a billionaire Bond villain would: He mortgaged the team's future and then took out a loan to pay off that mortgage.

Classic "Great Recession" stuff, folks.

The selloff began at the 2012 trade deadline, when the Nets shipped their first-round pick in that June's draft to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Gerald Wallace. There were only a few, well, massive problems with this move:

1. Wallace was due to hit free agency that summer. Hence, the Nets could have plucked him off the market without giving up any of their own assets.

2. The team ended up re-signing Wallace—a high-energy role player who, on the cusp of his 30th birthday, was ripe for a serious drop-off in the strength and athleticism on which his game relies—for four years and $40 million. And that was not because Wallace was such a hot commodity. In essence, the Nets ended up bidding against the themselves.

3. The pick that went to Rip City was only top-three protected. It ultimately landed in the sixth spot, from which the Blazers pounced on some 22-year-old kid from a small school.

His name? Damian Lillard. Just your run-of-the-mill unanimous 2012-13 Rookie of the Year.

After swinging and missing on not one, but two separate attempts to extract Dwight from Orlando, King turned southward to seal D-Will's return. The Atlanta Hawks, with Danny Ferry newly installed as the GM, were looking to shake up their roster in an attempt to escape the NBA's muddled middle.

In that change, King saw an opportunity to strike for another expensive star. For the price of some salary cap flotsam and a haul of draft options (a 2013 first-rounder, a 2017 second-rounder, the options to swap first-rounders in 2014 and 2015), the Nets had themselves Joe Johnson, a six-time All-Star at shooting guard—along with the more than $90 million he'd be owed over the next four years.

 

When More Isn't Better

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From left to right: Billy King, Mikhail Prokhorov, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry

But King wasn't done—for that summer, yes, but for the following one, not even close.

The Nets' 49-win season in 2012-13—while a massive jump up from the 46 combined wins the team had amassed over the previous two years—was nonetheless registered as a disappointment after Avery Johnson was fired and Brooklyn was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the injury-ravaged Chicago Bulls. King didn't have many options for improving the team, what with the team's $86 million in committed salary for 2013-14 and all.

What King did have, though, were some tradable salaries, more picks and the guile to use a loophole of sorts in the CBA to his advantage. All he needed was a willing trading partner, most likely a team gearing up for a rebuild by dangling its veterans on the open market.

Enter the Boston Celtics, who had tried to unload "Ubuntu" on the Los Angeles Clippers, but, due to a seemingly never-ending series of leaks, wound up simply letting go of head coach Doc Rivers. (Who's already having issues with long-time Clips owner Donald Sterling, by the way).

King pounced on the aging trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, sending a bevy of cap-fillers and a heap of draft picks to Boston. Among those picks were two first-rounders owed outright (2016, 2018), the option to swap first-rounders in 2017 and a 2014 first-rounder that would be either Brooklyn's or Atlanta's, depending on whether the Hawks wanted to swap.

Thus, the Nets had all but sapped their store of cheap future players with potential between 2013 and 2018.

And, if you hadn't noticed, the value of those picks is only going up now that they've left Billy King's control. At the moment, the Nets are 7-14, just 2.5 games out of last place in the awful Eastern Conference.

Like the Lakers before them, the Nets have unraveled early on under the strain of incessant injury woes. Five of the Nets' top seven players (Pierce, D-Will, Lopez, Terry and Andrei Kirilenko) have already missed significant time, in addition to the age-related declines of Garnett and Johnson. Throw in a 40-year-old Jason Kidd, fresh out of retirement and coaching experience, taking over on the bench, and—voila!—you've got a perfect recipe for disaster.

 

Nixing Picks

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But as bad as Billy King's big gamble looks in retrospect, at least it looked good in one time-related tense. It appeared to be a coup at the time, though the risks weren't exactly hidden. Putting a team together, however talented, with a one-year window and a rookie head coach didn't turn out to be a good bet.

As for the other New York franchise, the Knicks' trade for Andrea Bargnani this offseason never generated a positive buzz, nor did it add much upside to the equation. New York pretty much just traded the actual Steve Novak for a better, more expensive Steve Novak at a cost of a 2016 first-rounder and two second-rounders. 

This, after already promising a 2014 first-rounder and a slew of second-rounders to the Nuggets for Carmelo Anthony—the very star whose retention the Bargnani trade was intended to influence. New York felt the need to improve upon a 54-win season that ended with an Atlantic Division title and a second-round exit from the playoffs, but, like the Nets, had little recourse for doing so.

Evidently, Glen Grunwald, who was deposed from his post as Knicks GM just prior to the opening of training camp, thought it best to dish out more draft picks for a 7-footer who prefers to sling threes and doesn't do much in the way of defense or rebounding.

Who could blame him? After all, the only way to improve upon a frontcourt filled with three guys earning eight-figure salaries is to add a fourth...right?

As a result, the Knicks will be capped and taxed from here to Timbuktu until the summer of 2015 and may not have much wiggle room then if Melo does, indeed, re-up for the max in July of 2014. The absence of draft picks will make it that much tougher for new GM Steve Mills, who's a neophyte when it comes to the nitty gritty of being a GM, to suffuse the locker room with fresh, young blood.

But hey, at least the Knicks aren't the Nets. Brooklyn's roster is old, injury-prone and scheduled to clog up the cap sheet until at least 2016. And, remember, the Nets have already compromised their draft position for two years beyond the Knicks' current commitments.

Of the three teams discussed herein, the Lakers' outlook is the brightest—and not just because the sun always shines in L.A. They own their first-rounders in 2014 and 2016, with top-tier protections on those disbursed from 2015 and 2017. Moreover, the cap sheet is due to clear up in a big way by the time summer rolls around.

Unfortunately, the Lakers have already committed a huge chunk of that new-found flexibility to Kobe in his twilight years. Bryant quickly (and gladly) accepted L.A.'s offer of two years and $48 million—an offer that was made weeks before the team had a chance to see how the 35-year-old Mamba would look on the heels of an Achilles injury. (Pun intended. Sorry I'm not sorry.)

Like all things Kobe-related, the extension became a divisive issue among the basketball cognoscenti. Many argued that Bryant should have lived up to his desire to compete for championships at any cost by taking less and also that the Lakers should have waited to see what the new Kobe could do and/or made him a more meager offer.

Some, including the Lakers themselves (by implication anyway), suggested that taking care of Bryant in this way wouldn't hurt the team's ability to add players that much. More importantly, it also sends a signal to future franchise-changing talents in search of new homes that L.A. values loyalty and star power and would take care of those elite players who pledged to do the same.

Perhaps that's been the Knicks' aim in appealing to the power players at Creative Artists Agency, though guaranteeing the salary of Chris Smith to appease his brother, J.R. Smith, seems like a strange way of conveying that commitment.

 

Out With the Old...

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That might have been true in the past and, to some extent, it may still hold true today. But the fact remains—for the Lakers, Knicks and Nets alike—that champions were always difficult to build through free agency and are even tougher to put together through those means under the latest CBA.

Even the Miami Heat, who fashioned the core of a two-time title winner around the draw of Dwyane Wade's star power and the sands of South Beach, didn't pull LeBron James and Chris Bosh out of thin air. And they will have the chance to retool their roster in the summers to come, depending on what Wade, James and Bosh decide to do about the opt-out clauses in their contracts.

For the most part, the top teams of today were built through planning and preparedness over a number of years.

The Indiana Pacers, Miami's biggest (and only real) challenger in the Eastern Conference, struck gold on a series of so-so first-round spots and used their cap space judiciously to sign-and-trade for supporting pieces. So, too, did the San Antonio Spurs and the Denver Nuggets, albeit long after landing prime-time performers with plum picks.

The same could be said of just about most of the major selections made in recent years by the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder, in particular, were slammed for parting ways with James Harden for pennies on the dollar, but they're not much worse for wear now than they were two years ago, with two of the key pieces from that trade (Jeremy Lamb and the pick that became rookie Steven Adams) combining with Reggie Jackson to give OKC its deepest bench yet. That, and the Thunder won't have the entirety of their cap space tied up in just four players for the foreseeable future.

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As for the Houston Rockets, they stockpiled assets and bided their time until Harden came available as their way out of treading water. Cap space, picks and prospects got the job done, thereby giving the Rockets the foundational piece needed to lure Dwight Howard away from L.A. this past summer.

The Los Angeles Clippers followed a similar blueprint just prior to that, though they did it with a top draft prospect (Blake Griffin) paving the way for a blockbuster trade (Chris Paul), rather than with a major trade setting the stage for a free-agent addition.

That's what the Dallas Mavericks tried to do with Dirk Nowitzki. The additions of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, while surprising in their efficacy this season, didn't drum up much excitement after the Mavs struck out on D-Will and Dwight in consecutive summers.

The Lakers and the Knicks can only hope that the superior glitz and glamour of Los Angeles and New York (compared to Dallas) will be enough to put them in the driver's seat for some of the league's most prized free agents in the coming years. The Nets, on the other hand, will have to cross their fingers and pray that those they've brought in to carry the franchise going forward will still be young and/or healthy enough to serve as the backbone of a competitive club over the long haul.

None of these bets looks like particularly good one at the moment. Location matters to many, though in today's wide world of sports, winning is the quickest way to becoming a global brand. You don't see Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who play in one of the league's smallest media markets, scraping the bottom of the barrel for endorsement deals, do you?

The Lakers, Knicks and Nets can all lean on the appeal of their own brands if they so choose. But at the end of the day, they'll have to play by the same rules that everyone else does, regardless of their financial might.

That is, if they don't want the popularity and relevancy of those brands to go the way of the wisdom of yesteryear that was used to build them up in the first place. 

 

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