Lakers, Knicks Finding Salary-Cap Space and Big-Market Allure Are Fool's Gold

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 8, 2015

B/R via USA Today Images

In the frenzied early hours of NBA free agency, with cash flowing and promises flying, Greg Monroe—Age: 25; Position: forward; Upside: highpaused to consider his options.

New York offered the grandest stage.

The Lakers offered the glitziest legacy.

Portland offered a partnership with a dazzling young point guard.

Monroe would be wealthy no matter where he landed. Every suitor was armed with the same four-year, $50 million contract, the maximum allowed under league rules.

Monroe rebuffed them all and chose the Milwaukee Bucks, a small-market franchise in a cold-weather city, where the NBA spotlight rarely shines.

This is NBA free agency in 2015. The old rules no longer apply.

The Broadway glare? Monroe doesn't need it. Hollywood glamor? Monroe rejected it.

What Monroe craved most, after five torturous seasons in Detroit, was a winning environment. He found it on the left bank of Lake Michigan.

"His priorities were stability and the chance to make the playoffs as quickly as he could," said Monroe's agent, David Falk. "After he evaluated all the four teams, he felt that Milwaukee had the most pieces in place already to make the playoffs the quickest."

The Bucks crashed the playoffs last spring, ahead of schedule, with a jubilant core of rising stars. They are built to win now, while the Knicks and Lakers continue wandering aimlessly in the wilderness known as "rebuilding."

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15:  Greg Monroe #10 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against Jason Smith #14 of the New York Knicks on April 15, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Monroe chose small-town glory over big-market fameand in doing so sent a message that should resonate in every NBA city: Times have changed.

Every NBA game is now available on League Pass, with streaming on tablets and mobile phones. Social media has given every player a direct link to his fans. The NBA's biggest pitchmen reside in Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant) and Cleveland (LeBron James).

Whatever marketing advantages New York and L.A. once had have been blunted. The world is flat.

"It really doesn't matter where you are," Bryan Colangelo, the former Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors executive, said on Bleacher Report Radio. "I think what these players have done is they've made the statement and said, 'Look, it's about money, but it's also about putting myself in a situation where I can win and be with a good organization.'"

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 27:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers drives to the basket against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2015 at the Moda Center in Port
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

The Lakers wooed LaMarcus Aldridge, but the perennial All-Star chose San Antonio, where he could contend for titles immediately.

The Knicks had visions of luring Marc Gasol, but the All-Star center decided he was happiest in Memphis.

And across the NBA, nearly every elite free agent stayed put this summer. Only two changed teams: Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan, who left the L.A. Clippers for the Dallas Mavericks.

The Knicks? They had to settle for Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo—a solid haul, but not franchise-altering.

The Lakers? They snagged Roy Hibbert in a trade and signed Brandon Bass and Lou Williams—enough to make them interesting, but not a playoff team.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 14: David Lee #10 of the Golden State Warriors boxes out James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Five of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 14, 2015 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Celtics? They traded for David Lee (a salary dump from Golden State) and signed Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebkoall modest additions.

"B-level free agents," Colangelo called them.

Think about that. Three of the NBA's most storied franchises, in three of the nation's biggest markets, effectively struck out in free agency. No Kevin Love. No Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler. No Gasol, or Aldridge, or Jordan.

The Knicks and Lakers hoarded salary-cap roomjettisoning players as necessaryin the belief that the elite players would flock to New York and Los Angeles. They couldn't even land Monroe, a second-tier player.

"They're just not attractive right now," Colangelo said.   

The lesson here is a familiar one: NBA free agency is rarely the path to title contention. Rebuilding strictly with cap room, more often than not, is a fool's errand.

The superstars rarely move in free agency, because the entire NBA system is designed to keep them home, rewarding them with longer, richer contracts for staying put. And 98 percent of the time, it works.

Love was, according to multiple sources, profoundly unhappy in Cleveland this past season. Yet he agreed to stay, taking a five-year, $110 million deal that he could not have received anywhere else. The most Love could have received from another team was $80 million over four years.

Meanwhile, the rules of restricted free agency kept Leonard (Spurs), Butler (Bulls) and Draymond Green (Warriors) from even considering other teams.

It all underscores a point that superagent Arn Tellem made to me six years ago, when I was writing for the New York Times: The NBA's collective bargaining agreement had "eliminated, for the most part, free agency for the high-end players." The financial inducement to stay put is just too powerful.

Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando for Los Angeles in 1996, in an era before "max" contracts, when the Lakers could simply outbid their rivals. That is no longer the case.

Former Lakers GM Jerry West lured Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers from Orlando in 1996 with a $121 million contract.
Former Lakers GM Jerry West lured Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers from Orlando in 1996 with a $121 million contract.HANS DERYK/Associated Press

As I noted in that 2009 story, in the 12 years that followed O'Neal's decision, just three in-their-prime franchise stars changed teams via free agency: Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Steve Nash. (Hill and McGrady went to Orlando in 2000. Nash went to Phoenix in 2004. And Nash only left Dallas because the Mavericks balked at paying him the max.)

NBA trends have not significantly changed since then, despite some notable exceptions.

In 2010, LeBron James and Chris Bosh left their teams to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. That same summer, Amar'e Stoudemire left Phoenix for New York, in one of the wildest summers in modern history.

Miami quickly built a superteam, and he was rewarded with four straight trips to the Finals and two championships. But that was an aberration. And James is a profound anomalya future Hall of Famer who has changed teams in free agency twice during his prime.

Dwight Howard bucked the trend in 2013, leaving the Lakers for Houston and $30 million on the table. But Howard was thoroughly disenchanted with the Lakers, having spent a rocky year alongside Kobe Bryant. Howard didn't leave. He fled.

And of course, James became a double-anomaly last year, when he left Miami to return to Cleveland.

Some good, vital players, have migrated via free agency in recent years: Andre Iguodala (Denver to Golden State in 2013), Jamal Crawford (Atlanta to L.A. Clippers in 2012), Tyson Chandler (Dallas to New York in 2011). Jordan, primarily a defensive force, also falls into this category.

But the truly elite? The perennial All-NBA first-teamers? The MVP candidates? The franchise cornerstones? Good luck landing them.

Carmelo Anthony was courted by the Rockets and Bulls last summer but chose to remain with the rebuilding Knicks.
Carmelo Anthony was courted by the Rockets and Bulls last summer but chose to remain with the rebuilding Knicks.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Between 1997 and 2008, the following superstars became free agents and stayed put: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton, Ray Allen, Stoudemire, John Stockton, Karl Malone and David Robinson. (By the time Malone and Payton joined the Lakers in 2003, they were nearing retirement.)

Since 2009, the following superstars have also stayed put in free agency: Wade, Pierce, Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. The Houston Rockets made an all-out push for Bosh and Anthony last summer and came up empty.

"Obviously, the cap-room strategy doesn't work for everyone," said Colangelo, who signed Nash in 2004.

Creating cap space usually means jettisoning players, and "if you do so, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage from a standpoint of that competitive edge that these players are now looking for," Colangelo said.

Put another way: Aldridge wasn't leaving the Blazers to become part of a rebuilding effort in Los Angeles or New York.

In an earlier era, a major-market team could have tempted a player like Aldridge with more money. But in a max-salary era, the Spurs can offer just as much as the Knicks, and a better roster to boot.

But there are other benefits to cap room. It gives a team flexibility, a chance to hit the reset button and reimagine the roster, even if the end result is simply a better batch of role players.

Philadelphia has used its cap room as a repository for unwanted contracts, extracting draft picks as payment. The Lakers turned their room into Hibbert, who not long ago was celebrated as one of the game's best defensive centers. And the Knicks' haul of Lopez, Afflalo, Kyle O'Quinn and Derrick Williams provides more stability and upside than the roster they just flushed.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN -  JANUARY 16: Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers looks for the rebound against Greg Monroe #10 of the Detroit Pistons during the game on January 16, 2015 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressl
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

It's easy now to mock the Lakers and Knicks for their free-agent whiffs, to scapegoat the front office (Jim Buss, Phil Jackson) or the ball-hogging star (Bryant, Carmelo Anthony). Easy, but misguided and far too simplistic.

The Lakers and Knicks are fighting history, a nearly two-decade trend in which the best of the best almost always stay home. They are fighting a system that is specifically designed to thwart them. They are fighting a well-constructed, systematic inertia.

The salary cap is set to spike next summer, by at least $20 million, providing the marquee teams with another chance to chase the marquee free agents—Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley, Al Horford, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard.

The odds are against them. But hope, unlike cap room, is infinite.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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