Much as it would like to present a facade steeped in entertainment, the NBA is a business.
And just like any business, it's filled with plenty of investments.
These come in various forms, of course. Some involve taking chances on individual players, whether through the draft, free agency or a trade. Others revolve around challenging the status quo and scouting in different ways, building a competitive team in a manner that's unique or attempting to change a long-established culture or identity.
Unfortunately, the majority of investments don't work out.
Only one team can win a title each year, and the other 29 squads in the Association are left trying to rationalize defeat and figure out how they can be more successful during the next season. Some of their investments may have worked out, but many surely didn't.
Every once in a while, though, a gamble comes around that allows the people involved to strike gold.
Looking back through the last decade of NBA history, which we're referring to as "recent NBA history," there are a handful that stand out. These investments have had sweeping ramifications, and the people involved can look back on the past with pride.
Once upon a time, teams didn't always feel the need to throw together a trio of superstars in a single lineup.
Michael Jordan was on a level above the rest of his teammates, though there was certainly a triumvirate of talent on the Chicago Bulls' three-peat squads. In the early 2000s, the Los Angeles Lakers dominated, and the San Antonio Spurs made a dynastic claim. Though Gregg Popovich's team used the original Big Three, it was comprised solely of homegrown talent.
Then the Boston Celtics changed things.
After going 24-58 during the 2006-07 season, the C's made some drastic changes during the offseason. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen both joined Paul Pierce, and Boston pulled a Hercules, going from zero to hero in just a single summer.
Not only did the Celtics win 66 games during the regular season, a mark that still remains the No. 3 mark in this franchise's history, but they ran through the NBA's gauntlet and emerged with a trophy as K.G. lifted his head up to the rafters of the TD Garden and screamed about how anything is possible.
The Celtics took a risk, trying to turn around a franchise while depending on the coexistence of three superstars, and it worked.
Then they were copied by the Miami Heat.
LeBron James moved on to South Beach during the summer of 2010, and he was joined by Chris Bosh, who left behind his No. 1 role with the Toronto Raptors. It took a sacrifice of finances and ego, and it wasn't until Dwyane Wade accepted his secondary slot in the Miami trio that the Heat were able to win the first of their two titles.
"If I was a selfish, then this team never would have been assembled, but with this team assembled and if I was a selfish guy, it never would have worked—myself and LeBron both being alphas,” the All-Star 2-guard told the Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman. “It would have never worked if I was selfish."
This was a new style of team composition, and it was admittedly fraught with risks. While talent was plentiful, egos and inevitably heavy expenditures make the concept of a "Big Three" a disastrous one.
So far, it's been rather successful.
It's hard to remember now, but Kobe Bryant's time with the Los Angeles Lakers hasn't always been golden and wonderful.
Remember when the Lakers were struggling prior to the acquisition of Pau Gasol? Remember how the Mamba was the subject of never-ending discussion on sports radio shows because he actually requested a trade?
He was in the middle of a seven-year deal worth $136.4 million, and the Lakers had every reason to get that off the books and start over. As good as Kobe was, a disgruntled superstar wasn't going to do wonders for the Lake Show.
ESPN's NBA Research and Information Specialist Peter D. Newmann wrote the following at the time:
He is the only player in the NBA that has a no-trade clause in his contract. He has a no-trade clause for at least two more seasons, at which time he can opt out of his current contract (after the 2008-09 season). If he exercises his option to become a free agent, he would walk away from a combined $47.8 million for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. The only way the Lakers could trade Bryant is if he waived his no-trade clause, which means the team would need Bryant's approval to trade him.
Back then, it seemed possible that Kobe could play the next two seasons in lackluster fashion, then leave the Lakers with nothing in return. Kind of like Carmelo Anthony was forcing the Denver Nuggets' hand a few years back, in a way.
Instead, the Lakers kept him.
Kobe won the first and only MVP of his career the very next season, then the acquisition of Gasol spurred the Purple and Gold to win back-to-back titles. As the basketball-watching world surely knows, the Mamba has since signed multiple extensions and remains the centerpiece of the organization.
The picture above wouldn't have been possible without stubbornness on the part of the Lakers.
The Indiana Pacers believed in the players they drafted.
Roy Hibbert was picked at No. 17 in the 2008 NBA draft, and it took him a few seasons to become a valuable center. But the Pacers stuck with him, allowing him to blossom into the Defensive Player of the Year favorite and the foundation of a historically excellent point-preventing unit.
Paul George was picked at No. 10 in the 2010 NBA draft, and it took him a few seasons to develop into an unquestioned superstar. The Pacers gave him opportunities to develop, increasing his responsibilities gradually each and every year until he became a two-way star.
Lance Stephenson was picked at No. 40 in the 2010 NBA draft, and it took him until this year to become a truly valuable player. The Pacers developed him quietly over the past few seasons, and now he's playing so well that he can legitimately be called an All-Star snub.
That trio wasn't guaranteed to work out.
Indiana easily could've given up on one or more of the players, but instead Brian Shaw kept working on them before he departed to join the Denver Nuggets as a head coach. And the development only continued in his absence.
All the while, a terrific front office surrounded this core with players who complemented them. Grabbing George Hill from the San Antonio Spurs was an underrated move, and signing David West in free agency was even more important.
But it's still all about the investments in the draft.
The Pacers aren't an organization willing to pay large luxury-tax bills, so they're dependent on building a competitive squad internally. No title has been brought to Indiana yet, but this team should now be considered one of the true favorites for the 2014 championship.
The Portland Trail Blazers aren't primed to compete for the 2014 championship in the same way the Indiana Pacers are. They lack the necessary experience and defensive presence, which will be particularly problematic against the elite teams in the Western Conference.
However, they deserve to be featured just as heavily because Rip City is in fantastic shape moving forward.
The Blazers have followed a similar blueprint to the one used by Larry Bird and the Pacers front office—internal development, building through the draft and counting on chemistry. But all of their pieces are still growing and should be calling Portland home for a long time.
That's the difference between Rip City and Indiana, because there's a chance Lance Stephenson could escape in free agency this offseason if the team is stubbornly refusing to break past the luxury-tax barrier.
Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge is open to signing a long-term extension with the team that stole him away from the Chicago Bulls on the day he was drafted into the NBA.
"To leave a legacy with one team and win a championship here and to be here my whole career," he told Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune, "that would be great."
The entire core—Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum—is signed through the end of the 2014-15 campaign, and it's tough to imagine Lillard in particular failing to get any better.
Portland is a surprise contender during the 2013-14 season, but the long-term plan is even more impressive.
Between the Blazers, Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder, NBA general managers are proving that it's still possible to build a championship-caliber roster through the draft.
Technically, we can move beyond the last decade when analyzing how the San Antonio Spurs' willingness to look overseas has drastically improved the franchise's chances of competing for a title year after year.
That would allow me to bring Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili into the equation, and it's tough to argue against the value each foreign superstar has provided the Spurs over his time wearing that black jersey you see up above.
However, the French point guard and Argentine shooting guard aren't needed to make the point.
After all, the Spurs do more than draft international prospects late in the draft, though you can certainly give them credit for picking up Ian Mahinmi in 2005, Tiago Splitter in 2007 and Goran Dragic in 2008. They also actively scout overseas competition so that they can find players who have flamed out in the Association and inexplicably failed to stick on any NBA roster.
Danny Green is just one example.
Here's what the Associated Press wrote on the topic, via NBA.com:
There is Danny Green, who was cut three times and spent a summer in Slovenia, drilling every 3-pointer in sight and running away with the finals MVP award.
There is Gary Neal, who was undrafted out of Towson University and spent three years kicking around Turkey, Spain and Italy before being discovered by the Spurs, scoring 24 points in a Game 3 victory that put them back in control.
There is Boris Diaw, the once-promising Frenchman who was on his way out of the league before the Spurs brought him in, playing surprisingly stingy defense on LeBron James and finding Manu Ginobili cutting to the basket for easy buckets in a Game 5 win that moved the Spurs one victory away from the franchise's fifth title.
It hasn't gone unnoticed around the league.
"Pop and R.C. deserve a lot of credit for having the foresight to invest the time [in international scouting], and provide a lot of opportunities," Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti said to the Washington Post's Jason Reid, referring to Gregg Popovich and San Antonio GM R.C. Buford. "Certainly, they not only did an excellent job in identifying players, but also in creating an environment and a system where those players would want to play and would be capable of thriving."
This is not the norm in the NBA.
The Spurs are one of the few organizations that has consistently invested in international scouting and player development. Just look at the franchise's record over the last decade.
It's worked, and it's inspired many teams to follow a similar course of action.
The Houston Rockets' general manager is known for two things above all else: his penchant for crunching numbers and his all-consuming love for star players.
Newsflash. It works.
During the 2011-12 season, the Rockets' depth chart looked like this (sorted by minutes played, not games started):
- Point guard: Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry, Jonny Flynn, Earl Boykins, Courtney Fortson
- Shooting guard: Courtney Lee, Kevin Martin, Terrence Williams
- Small forward: Chandler Parsons, Chase Budinger
- Power forward: Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Jeff Adrien
- Center: Samuel Dalembert, Jordan Hill, Marcus Camby, Greg Smith, Hasheem Thabeet
Where are the stars?
Dragic and Lowry hadn't yet earned that title, and neither had Parsons. You could make an argument for Martin, but that's about it.
The squad went 34-32 during the lockout-shortened season, finishing two games shy of the final postseason berth in the Western Conference.
Then Morey started wheeling and dealing. Over the course of two offseasons, he's turned the depth chart into this current version, per Rotoworld.com:
- Point guard: Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin, Aaron Brooks, Isaiah Canaan, Royal Ivey
- Shooting guard: James Harden, Reggie Williams
- Small forward: Chandler Parsons, Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia, Ronnie Brewer, Robert Covington
- Power forward: Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith
- Center: Dwight Howard, Omer Asik
Parsons and Smith are the only holdovers, but the key is the addition of both Harden and Howard. With those two on the roster—one acquired via trade, the other through free agency—Morey has gained a pair of legitimate superstars.
During Howard's first season in a Rockets uniform, he's already helped steer this team into the realm of title contenders. With both players under contract for a while, the ceiling this squad now enjoys is quite high.
Morey gambled by acquiring plenty of draft picks and movable contracts. Then he gambled even more by going all-in with a few superstars.
Now the future is brighter than could've been imagined a few years back.
In August 2010, Rey Jefferson wrote about the five worst trades in NBA history for DimeMag.com.
Ranking No. 4 was the swap of Gasols, about which he wrote:
This trade helped boost L.A. back into championship front-runners; they have been to the NBA Final every year since Pau has joined the team. But it doesn’t look completely terrible now that Pau’s little brother is panning out pretty well for the Grizz, so unlike the other trades on this list, Memphis didn’t exactly get nothing in return.
In 2008, the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Pau Gasol and a second-round pick that would become Devin Ebanks for Marc Gasol, Javaris Crittenton, Kwame Brown and two first-round picks, which would turn into Greivis Vasquez and Donte Greene.
At the time, it was viewed as a horrible deal. Two years later, after the Lakers had used Pau to win two more championships and push Kobe Bryant much further up the all-time ranks, Jefferson's opinion was the prevailing one.
Even though Marc was starting to contribute to the Memphis Grizzlies, this was still one of the biggest ripoffs in NBA history.
But not anymore.
"Marc Gasol has become a Memphis cornerstone," wrote Berry Tramel for NewsOK.com at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. "The trade chiefly was brother for brother. And both franchises prospered."
There's no taking away credit from the Lakers for winning the early portion of this sibling swap, but it's evened out as the younger brother's career has progressed in Memphis. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is one of the league's premier centers, and he's a true building block for a Grizz team that is looming as a no-one-wants-to-play-them-in-the-playoffs kind of squad.
Oh, and Marc is only 29 years old, plays a style that doesn't rely on the kind of athleticism that can be sapped by age and has shown no indication of leaving Memphis anytime soon.
The Grizzlies invested in him by trading away the man who was—at the time—the best player in franchise history. It may have seemed silly at the time, but it's paying off now.
It's always risky to select a prospect from a mid-major.
Without the benefit of playing against high-level competition throughout college, players have to undergo an even steeper learning curve. Teams drafting them run the risk that they were padding their stats against weak competition, leaving more of a mirage than anything that will legitimately translate into professional success.
Maybe it's the depth of talent at the collegiate level, but small-school guards have been panning out quite nicely over the last few years.
Just look at this year's All-Star backcourt in the Western Conference if you want proof.
It will prominently feature two first-time All-Stars: Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. Respectively, they went to Davidson and Weber State, schools that aren't exactly known for perennial domination of the NCAA.
While Curry has developed into one of the NBA's best offensive players, carrying the Golden State Warriors with his exploits from beyond the arc and severely underrated skills as a distributor, Lillard is certainly on the rise with the Blazers. The second-year floor general has a great pull-up jumper, and the rest of his game is coming around rather nicely.
It takes guts to chance a high draft pick on a player from a small school, but it's already paid gigantic dividends for both Rip City and the Dubs.
Curry and Lillard won't be the last in this mold, either.
Attempt to divorce yourself from the past.
The way the Oklahoma City Thunder came into existence was absolutely terrible. The underhanded dealings of Clay Bennett have left him a deserving villain in Seattle, and the loss of the SuperSonics was nothing short of a travesty.
The rainy city in the Pacific Northwest had done a fantastic job supporting its team, and I have nothing but sympathy for the residents who suddenly lost a squad they had grown up cheering for.
However, that doesn't prevent the NBA from having made a great investment by bringing basketball to OKC.
The city has fully embraced Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the Thunder, and the hometown crowd has become widely known as one of the most passionate fanbases the Association has to offer.
Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, I ranked all 30 fan experiences in the NBA, based on affordability (both tickets and discretionary spending), the environment, the arena and the product. The Thunder finished at No. 1, and they led the San Antonio Spurs (No. 2) and the rest of the Association by a rather large margin.
That alone is a good indicator that OKC has provided one heck of a return on the NBA's investment, but so too are attendance figures, which come courtesy of ESPN.
The Thunder are one of seven teams to fill their home arena to capacity during the average contest in 2013-14, and this is the third season in a row in which they can claim such a lofty percentage. During the 2010-11 season, they filled up "only" 99.7 of Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Oklahoma City has become a terrific basketball city, even if that unfortunately had to come at the expense of Seattle.
Much as was the case with Seattle on the previous slide, this return on investment has a right to anger fans of another team. Los Angeles Lakers supporters can continue spewing vitriol at David Stern for blocking the trade that would have sent Chris Paul into a purple-and-gold uniform.
But the past is irreversible, and CP3 is now on the Los Angeles Clippers. At least he's still playing in the Staples Center?
He was traded along with multiple second-round picks, and the New Orleans Hornets received Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and a first-round pick that would turn into Austin Rivers. But the fairness of the deal isn't the point here.
Instead, it's all about the culture change for the Clippers.
This was a franchise that was strongly viewed as the little brother in Los Angeles. The Clippers had been the laughingstock of the NBA for years, and they'd advanced to the postseason only once since the turn of the century.
With CP3 in the fold, that suddenly changed.
Now the Clippers—though they have yet to experience any playoff success—are viewed as true contenders. They're full of long-term promise thanks to the presences of Paul and Blake Griffin, and they're legitimately thought of as a potential destination for great players.
They're also relevant. They show up on SportsCenter, get talked about ad nauseam and are generally held in rather high esteem.
It's amazing what one superstar can do.
Even if Paul retired at the end of the 2013-14 season (he won't), his tenure with LAC would have been incredibly positive, simply because he'd have completely changed the perception of this formerly beleaguered organization.