Why This May Have Been Final NBA Offseason to Rebuild Through Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2015

Miami Heat president Pat Riley talks to reporters during a news conference, Thursday, July 9, 2015, in Miami. Goran Dragic has signed his five-year deal with the Miami Heat. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Free-agency-based rebuilds are presented with a lot of pomp and promise in the NBA, their aim simple, their appeal unmistakable.

Skip the process. Sidestep the patience. Shirk the idea that reinventing an entire roster must take years and include recurrent lottery appearances. Create cap space instead. Use that flexibility to reel in established, high-impact free agents who wedge open a championship window quickly, if not right away.

In the most fundamental nutshell, that's the primary pro of rebuilding through free agency: immediacy. But this instant gratification is not guaranteed, not even to the most financially flush suitors.

Cap-dependent projects may be attractive in theory, but they're loaded with more peril than promise. And now, as the league prepares for an unprecedented salary-cap boom in 2016, the glitz and glam and hope initially attached to these "overnight" rebuilds are swiftly fading.

Free-Agent Follies 

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JULY 22:  Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak introduces new players to the media at Toyota Sports Center on July 22, 2015 in El Segundo, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

History isn't inundated with successful overnight rebuilds. The 2007-08 Boston Celtics, the 2010-11 Miami Heat, the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers—they are the standards for this line of thinking, but they're all also exceptions, not the collective rule.

"It's so hard when you go into free agency," Bobby Marks, who spent 20 years in the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets front office, including five as assistant general manager, told Bleacher Report. "You don't really dictate the process, where at least with the draft and trades you kind of do, because you do the research. You're the one actually picking that player in a draft. You're the one making a decision on making a trade. With free agency, you have to pool money, and you're basically lumped in with all the rest of the teams. And it's a rare occurrence where the player and the agent really dictate the process." 

The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers thought they would usher in the next "Showtime" era with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Not only were they wrong, but the dissolution of that core has given way to consecutive free-agent strikeouts in each of the last two offseasons.

The New York Knicks tried their hand at buying a superteam in 2010. They signed Amar'e Stoudemire, then landed Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler soon after. That foundation fizzled out, and the Knicks have been forced to reverse course after failing to get another star this past summer.

The Dallas Mavericks have spent every year since their title-toting 2010-11 campaign preserving cap space only to repeatedly swing and miss on the open market. If not for the uber-unique case of LeBron James, the 2010-11 Heat and 2014-15 Cavaliers might find themselves among the most notable free-agency flops.

Miami's path to championships in 2012 and 2013 is not an everyday blueprint.
Miami's path to championships in 2012 and 2013 is not an everyday blueprint.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

These botched pursuits can be damning, as a team like the Mavericks knows only too well after a futile, yet lengthy dalliance with DeAndre Jordan this past summer.

Time spent recruiting one player, or perhaps a select group of players, is energy that can be devoted elsewhere. If teams emerge from their initial overtures empty-handed, other dominoes will have already fallen. Verbal agreements will have been reached. Contracts may have even been signed.

"It's kind of like a chicken and egg game," Marks said. "You have a lot of contingency plans in case that free agent goes to another team, but you are really at the mercy of the player as far as when he can give you his decision."

A Puzzling Commitment

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 24:  Chandler Parsons #25 stands next to Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks against the Houston Rockets during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2015 at the American Airlines
Glenn James/Getty Images

Nevertheless, interest in the instantaneous rebuild hasn't wholly waned. Cap space will still be a prominent part of what the Knicks and the Lakers do moving forward. The same is true of the draft-pick-light Nets, a team that doesn't enjoy the rights to its own first-round selection until 2019.

Heat president Pat Riley is on record bemoaning the endurance it takes to retool through the draft. Even with James Harden and Dwight Howard already in tow, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is expected to aggressively pursue Kevin Durant next summer.

This continued commitment to free-agency overhauls is surprising, mostly because there's no evidence to suggest offseason success stories remain just that. Twenty-three teams have won at least 72 percent of their regular-season games over the last 10 years. Of the five best players from each of those squads—determined by win-share leaders—less than 25 percent were acquired in free agency:

Most players came via the draft alone (57.8 percent). More than 75 percent were nabbed either through the draft or by way of trade.

That difference is even more stark when looking at the last 10 NBA champions:

The 2012-13 Heat, a product of the LeBron James effect, are the lone ring-wrangler to have a majority of its best players arrive courtesy of the open market. Barely 20 percent of the top-five players from title-caging squads signed with their respective teams in free agency. 

The Collective Bargaining Agreement's Chokehold

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

Still, free-agency pipe dreams live on, sometimes for years, despite this evidence to the contrary. And if the knowledge that most championships are won with homegrown talent and trade imports won't entirely stamp out these unwarranted licenses to sell fans on free-agency rebuilds, what will?

Players are currently given every incentive to remain with the team that drafted them. They spend the first four years of their career chained to a rookie-scale salary, and when it's time for that second contract, they have virtually no leverage.

Incumbent teams can offer the most money. They can also offer that fifth-year money sooner, after a player's third season, a full 12 months before any other suitor.

In the event an early extension isn't reached, players enter restricted free agency following their fourth season, still wielding little to no leverage. While they can pursue offer sheets with outside organizations, their team has the right to match. They can only escape this iron fist by signing their qualifying offer, playing out Year 5 with that franchise and entering unrestricted free agency that following summer (a la Greg Monroe).

But delaying that first lucrative payday is risky. Anything can happen during that fifth season, from trajectory-tapering injuries, to unanticipated regression, to seismic shifts in the free-agency landscape.

Fully aware of this, most players grab that long-term security as soon as possible, which means teams draft players knowing they can retain them for almost a decade.

Durant will have spent eight years with the Oklahoma City Thunder when he hits free agency next summer. After signing an extension with the New Orleans Pelicans, Anthony Davis isn't slated for free agency until 2021, nine years into his career. Even James, who signed a shorter contract with Cleveland coming off his rookie deal, didn't hit unrestricted free agency until he was a seven-year veteran.

The CBA has made it incredibly difficult for losing teams to serve as attractive locales for superstar free agents.
The CBA has made it incredibly difficult for losing teams to serve as attractive locales for superstar free agents.Bill Baptist/Getty Images

When these top talents finally do reach the open market, they're older, and their window to win is smaller. And that directly impacts how they approach the free-agency process.

"Those are guys who are 27, 28 years old, or a little bit older, and probably don't have that many contracts left in them," Marks explained. "If you're that kind of guy, are you going to go to a rebuild and waste a couple of years, or are you going to go to a Milwaukee or Toronto or [another] competitive team?"

Put another way: When Durant explores free agency next summer, he'll be going on 28 and have more than 25,000 regular-season and playoff minutes on his treads. Is he more likely to ditch Oklahoma City for a work-in-progress like the Knicks or Lakers, or will he instead take long, hard looks at ready-made contenders like the Washington Wizards and Rockets?

Rising Cost, Declining Prize

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 04:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)   Deron Williams #8 of the Brooklyn Nets and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder look on during a timeout of their game at Barclays Center on December 4, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New Yor
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Snagging a proven performer is never a bad thing, but timing is everything. And based on when the league's brightest players are gaining full control over their own destinies, defying free agency's odds isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"It gets into a tricky situation when you have a 28-, 29-year-old free agent," Marks admitted. "A lot of teams—not all—look at what they've done in the past and not what their future is going to be."

This isn't just limited to those in the talent-poaching business. It applies to every team.

Players are eligible to be paid more later in their careers, when they've had ample time to prove themselves, but also when they're approaching decline. That's why 2015-16 will mark the 12th straight season in which the NBA's highest-paid player (Kobe Bryant) isn't younger than 30.

"In New Jersey and Brooklyn, we acquired Deron Williams when he was an elite point guard," Marks said. "And basically, the contract that was awarded [to him] was based on previous production. Some teams—and it's not their fault, it's just kind of how it goes—aren't rewarding a guy for what he can do in the future. So if a player is in the fourth year of that contract and he's 33, is he still worth $20, $25 million? Probably not."

"If you go after a main guy and pay him $30 million," Marks continued, "and you haven't done a good job with the draft or you haven't done a good job building up your roster, and each year you're bringing in the minimum, you're bringing in the mid-level guys and [your roster] is a rotating door, then it definitely does shorten your window."

There is no way to buck this trend, at least not yet. And until there is, shelling out max money to players past their prime, while inevitable, will remain unappealing, if only because this system, when successfully exploited, stands to further shrink newly opened title windows.

Salary-Cap Boom Blues

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Some will see the impending salary-cap explosion as an opportunity to game the system. Teams will have more money to spend and, thus, be positioned to line the pockets of the Association's most intriguing names.

But this is true of almost every team. More than half the league can carve out max space in 2016. The sheer volume of suitors will make it even more difficult for rebuilding teams to get in on any superstar sweepstakes. And that's a dangerous spot to be in.

Next summer's pool of available superstars is shallow. James isn't going anywhere. Same goes for Dwyane Wade. There's Durant, Mike Conley, Al Horford, a ginormous chasm and then the rest of the field. This talent disparity won't stop teams from spending. General managers will still be inclined to invest their money in someone, even if it's not their preferred someone.

"The cap is probably going to go up to $89, $90 million," Marks said. "We're going to have a lot of teams with room. A lot of teams did their homework this summer. And I'm concerned there's not enough good players out there to reward them with big-time contracts that we might be seeing. The cap goes up, but also the max salaries go up. It's not like the cap goes up and the max salaries stay the same. So there is a concern that we'll see some major overpaying."

Which, in turn, changes nothing.

Rebuilding teams with cap space will still be at a disadvantage, further compelled to overcompensate players who are either over the hill or under-equipped.

Drafting and Trading Transcends Free Agency

EDMOND, OK - SEPTEMBER 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder poses for a portrait during 2015 NBA Media Day on September 28, 2015 at the Thunder Events Center in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

There are more effective alternatives to the overnight rebuild—especially now, with the salary cap on the brink of eruption.

First-round selections are more valuable than ever. Rookie-scale contracts aren't scheduled to increase with the cap. Teams will still have the chance to land a high-end talent who, on average, earns less than $5 million through the first four years of his career.

Indeed, the draft remains a glorified crapshoot, but as Matt Moore wrote for CBS Sports:

Over the years, most teams are going to wind up in the lottery and will often land at least one instrumental player. Teams are also more likely to keep their own players because they believe in them, which brings up a key point when we look at teams' options for rebuilding. The good players just aren't available.

Those intent on expediting the process and nabbing a superstar who isn't on the cusp of exiting his prime are best served stockpiling trade assets, not unlike the Boston Celtics have done. Teams are more likely to deal top-tier flight risks before they can bolt in free agency. We saw it with Kevin Love, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, and we're going to see it again.

Sometimes, free-agent ventures work out. The San Antonio Spurs (LaMarcus Aldridge) and Milwaukee Bucks (Monroe) landed big fish this past summer. But when there is no tried-and-true core already in place, as with the Lakers and Knicks, offseason coups become unobtainable ambitions—the byproduct of this outdated belief that money and, oftentimes, market size trump all.

Overnight rebuilds, like the one in Cleveland, cannot be the guiding light that drives most other transitioning teams.
Overnight rebuilds, like the one in Cleveland, cannot be the guiding light that drives most other transitioning teams.Jason Miller/Getty Images

"It's harder to do, because the playing field has really leveled and there's not an economic advantage in some of these markets anymore off the court," Marks explained. "If James Harden was in Minnesota, and he was playing at this level, I think he would have gotten the same sneaker deal from Adidas that he did in Houston."

"What teams have done is sold the on-court performance," he continued, "and that's what guys have trended toward more."

With this rise in importance of on-court performance has come the deconstruction of free-agency-reliant rebuilds. The appeal is still there, alive in the thoughts of quick and painless and effective turnarounds. But, in reality, these blueprints have never been truly viable and are now becoming something even less.

All pomp, no promise.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.


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