Don't Blame the Warriors: The NBA's Arms Race Is All About Empowered Superstars

But even top executives will admit this offseason sure is fun
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 5, 2017

Chris Paul ditched the star-spangled Clippers for the Rockets' red glare to boost his championship odds before his prime years slammed shut.

The risk of staying put was simply too great.

The Clippers, in turn, committed $173 million to Blake Griffin, injured limbs and all, because the risk of an All-Star breaking down trumps the risk of irrelevance.

In Indianapolis, the Pacers opted to trade Paul George for a next-to-nothing return—because it beat losing him for literally nothing.

And in Oklahoma City, the Thunder leaped at the chance to acquire Georgefully aware that he might dump them next summer.

Gordon Hayward has a new team. So do Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap. All-Stars, all. Carmelo Anthony is on the trade block. Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge, too.

Teams are scrambling, stars are swapping jerseys and someone just filed a missing persons report on the Eastern Conference.

Welcome to the NBA's summer of instability.

The league has seen wild offseasons, but rarely anything this extreme, this angsty, this weird.

The Atlanta Hawks, a model of dull consistency, just detonated their roster (goodbye, Millsap and Dwight Howard). The Pacers and Chicago Bulls (Butler), erstwhile playoff stalwarts, just gave up. And suddenly, the Sacramento Kingsthe Kings!seem to be trying to win (hello, George Hill and Zach Randolph).

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Blame the Golden State Warriors, if you must, for driving everyone to extremes (Build up! Tear down! Run for your lives!), but the truth is more layered.

Contracts, by virtue of the NBA's labor deal, are shorter than ever, most spanning four years or fewer. Players are hitting free agency more frequently.

Superstars feel more empowered than ever, free to chase rings or dollars or happiness wherever they may.

Rosters are consequently less stable than ever.

"You see this constellation of symptoms that have resulted in this," an Eastern Conference executive told B/R. "Team-building, by nature, is shorter."

So executives are forever on the clock from the moment they acquire a superstar. Stumble, stall out, miss a chance to improve, and the face of your franchise might flee for greener pastures. Or he could deliver an ultimatum"Trade me, or watch me walk."

The two best players in the 2017 Finals were vagabond starsKevin Durant and LeBron James, both of whom left solid contenders when they saw more attractive options.

Hayward just made a similar calculation, ditching a merely solid Utah Jazz team to join a potential powerhouse in Boston.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Paul, disheartened by the Clippers' inertia, used his pending free agency to force a trade to Houston and join MVP runner-up James Harden.

George informed Indiana he'd be leaving as a free agent in 2018, spurring the Pacers to trade him now.

It's an anxious time to be an NBA general manager with an All-Star, and even worse for helpless fans. Nothing is constant. No roster has continuity. Even James, who has taken Cleveland to three straight Finals, reportedly may be looking to leave again next summer.

Five of the 24 players who appeared in February's All-Star Game have since changed teams (including DeMarcus Cousins, who was traded that night). That number could rise if Anthony or Love gets dealt.

Some of this is just happenstance, a perfect storm of unrelated events.

The Hawks are under new management and decided to change direction. So they never offered the 32-year-old Millsap a contract, and he found his payday in Denver. The Bulls simply weren't convinced Butler, for all his talent, could be a franchise centerpiece, so they shipped him to Minnesota.

George was disillusioned in Indiana. Paul had lost faith in the Clippers' front office. Hayward had a chance to reunite with his college coach (and good friend), Brad Stevens.

Their decisions provide another stark reminder that we live in a new age of player autonomy, where quaint notions of team loyalty don't apply.

And yes, competitive imbalance might be driving some decisions, too.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 18: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers high fives James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets during the game on January 18, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
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Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago were all recent contenders who had their hopes crushed by LeBron James. Now all three are rebuilding for a post-James era.

It's likely that Haywardwhose Utah team got swept by the Warriors this springsaw a better chance to contend in the East. And though Paul stayed in the West, the Clippers' utter haplessness against the Warriors (10 straight losses dating back to 2014) surely influenced his move to Houston.

"I think it's all the Warriors, honestly," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said of the league-wide upheaval. "And I think it's players understanding better what it takes to win a championship and taking the appropriate steps to make sure they position themselves to make sure they have the best chance to win."

The Warriors, Morey noted, "looked fairly unbeatable" going 16-1 in the postseason to win the championship. "I think that reality hits you over the head."

The good news? Most teams are trying to bulk up for the challenge, not recoil and plan for 2022. The Rockets, who also added P.J. Tucker, are still exploring a way to land Anthony. The Timberwolves didn't stop at Butler, but also brought in Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. The Nuggets spent big for Millsap. After trading for George, the Thunder agreed to a deal with Patrick Patterson and reportedly may be trying to find a way to add Rudy Gay. And the Clippers licked their wounds, then found a way to acquire Danilo Gallinari.

Will any of it work? Can anyone knock off the Warriors or Cavaliers? Perhaps not, but give teams credit for their boldness.

CHARLOTTE, NC- JUNE 26:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Charlotte Hornets poses for a photo during a press conference at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 26, 2017. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
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"You should either be going for it hard, or planning carefully for the future," Morey said. "You see one of those two things happeningplayers working to get themselves in situations where they have multiple [stars] with them on a great roster, or you have teams saying, 'Hey, I'm going to keep the powder dry and plan for the future day when we can be back in contention.'"

In this age of volatility, every decision becomes a risk-management exercise.

The Thunder are gambling on a one-year rental of George, hoping they can convince him to stay. The Bulls are betting that a long-term rebuild will provide a bigger future payoff than Butler could've provided. Paul is banking on a new partnership in Houston. And the Rockets, despite winning 55 games last season, gave up four rotation players and a first-round pick in the belief that a Paul-Harden tag team can help close the gap on the Warriors.

"We could have floated merrily along as a mid-50s win team," Morey said, acknowledging the chasm between the 67-win Warriors and everyone else. "But you have to recognize when you need another step, and we felt like we did."

It might feel like torture for some fans, but the rush of transactions also makes for spectacular entertainment. Or as one executive put it, "The NBA kicks the NFL's ass in terms of offseason, because of the player movement."

Next summer, it's likely Russell Westbrook will hit the market, along with George, James, Paul, Cousins, Anthony, Aldridge and Isaiah Thomas. The fun and anxiety are just beginning.


Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also co-hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


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