What does the rest of NBA world do now?
My Turner colleague Dennis Scott knows the game, knows the people, knows what players believe and what coaches think. And he knows what at least some folks have been saying—how pointless it may be to compete the next few years, with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers ascendant and back on top of the league.
Why go into the luxury tax to add a max player or two, even if you have the room, when you’re just going to meet Golden State’s death star, or be blocked, seemingly forever, by LeBron James and the Cavs?
And 3-D has a message for all those teams.
Stop whining and get to work.
Couldn’t agree more.
Golden State have put a marker out there that’s going to be extremely hard to replicate. Cleveland are set for as long as James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can remain healthy. But some seem to think that the Warriors engaged in some kind of witchcraft to get where they are today, or that the Cavaliers did something nefarious to convince LeBron to return. But it’s not unfair. It’s a testament to their good planning, good fortune, good coaching and good ownership. And the true competitors in the league aren’t cowed.
“I’m never going to stop trying,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said in an email. “One sprained ankle changes everything.”
There may be a split here between fans, many of whom believe in a Manifest Destiny for their perspective squads, and people that are in the business and have to figure out the best and most cost-effective way to compete with the Cavs and Warriors. It will not be easy. But it is not undoable.
While James is universally respected, many teams believe Golden State (with none of their core players yet 30) have the potential for a longer run than the Cavaliers (with James 32 and already having more than 50,000 NBA regular-season and playoff minutes on his odometer).
“Teams will not take the Cavs into consideration the way they will the Warriors as their sustainability is contingent upon 1 player,” a Western Conference executive texted Sunday. “If Boston drafts well at #1 and is able to add (Utah Jazz free agent Gordon) Hayward they might even be favored next season. As to the Warriors I believe you need to continue to build your roster but with a longer view. The challenge is staying competitive while you do it.”
The stage at which a team finds itself also will likely impact whether it remains aggressive in challenging Cleveland and Golden State, or whether it keeps its powder dry for another day.
“If you are a top 5 team in the league, I think you try to improve your team as much as you can and hope that you catch a break [injury, etc],” a playoff team’s executive texted. “Logic tells you that GS will continue their dominance but you never know what can happen [injury, team chemistry, key defector]. May also look at building your team better but differently … if you are not a top 5 team, you may try to time up your growth to be at its best in 2-3 years. Easy to say, hard to do.”
Said the GM of a Lottery team: “We are proceeding as normal. We are not at that [contending] level but certainly aspire to be. If I was a team whose window was now, yes I would be strategizing how to beat them in a more immediate sense.”
James said last week that the Warriors were “great for basketball”, both in the way they were built and their success. And, from a Finals ratings standpoint, there’s no indication that viewers are bored with the product.
So, I asked James, who knows the history of the game as well as any player, if he thought there was something different about how people perceive the construction of these teams—especially considering the history of the league is rife with super teams. The difference, of course, is that previous super teams were built through teams making astute Draft picks and free-agent signings. Today, the players have much more power to decide where they’re going to go.
“Well, I can see it from both sides,” James said Sunday. “Not going to exactly give you my opinion on how I can see it from both sides. I will at some point in my career. I’m not at that point right now because I know what I say kind of gets—people take it the wrong way. So I have my opinion on how people see it from both sides, and I have pretty good knowledge about it. So a few years from now I’ll tell you how I really feel about the whole situation.
“But they’re a great team. They’re assembled as good as you can be as a professional team, and they’re on a quest to win a championship. You can respect that.”
The Warriors didn’t break any rules, didn’t lie, didn’t collude. They built a championship team despite not having had a top-five Draft pick since 2002 (when they took Mike Dunleavy Jr with the third pick overall). Six teams could have taken Stephen Curry before the Warriors did in 2009—and, indeed, Minnesota had two cracks at him, and passed both times.
Golden State could have traded their rights to Curry to Phoenix for Amar’e Stoudemire, as many believed they would on that Draft night. But the Warriors held on to him. That decision was made, jointly, by then-coach Don Nelson and GM Larry Riley—who then took Klay Thompson with the 11th pick in the first round of 2011 when the Warriors already had Monta Ellis.
The following year, the Warriors took Draymond Green in the second round, and owner Joe Lacob replaced Mark Jackson as coach with Steve Kerr. None of those moves was revolutionary, though the timing of the Jackson firing was a little odd. In the end, though, Lacob was right: Kerr has been as good as anyone could have possibly expected as a first-time coach, even with the talent that was assembled before he got there.
And then, the Warriors got lucky.
Curry opted for the security of a four-year, $44-million extension in 2012, when he was dealing with frequent and disruptive ankle sprains. At the time, many people around the league thought the Warriors were nuts to give Curry that much. All he’s done in those four years is make four straight All-Star teams, win two Kia MVP awards and lead Golden State to three straight Finals. No player in league history has outperformed his contract so dramatically.
Then, the Players’ Union rejected the ‘smoothing’ proposal that the league offered in 2015, which would have spread out the increases from the new $24-billion television deal over several years. Instead of a gradual increase in the salary cap, the cap leapt astronomically in 2016—from $70-million in 2015 to $94.1-million last summer. And that massive increase gave the Warriors the cap room needed to offer Durant a max contract.
“The cap spike gave the league what they got,” said the executive of a contending team.
True. But the Warriors’ excellence putting their roster together made them attractive enough for Durant to bolt from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Philadelphia 76ers had max room, too, if you get my meaning.
Assuming Lacob doesn’t get sticker shock in the next few years—former Nets executive Bobby Marks, now working for The Vertical, estimated last week that it would cost Golden State $1.4-billion in salaries and luxury tax payments to keep the current roster together during the next four years—the Warriors are in position to make an extended run. And that makes everyone around the league reassess their own priorities and choices.
What, for example, does Paul George do? Does he really want to bang his head against the wall playing in LA for the Lakers the next few years—even if he has, shall we say, an understanding from a person or persons of significance that they’ll join him in a year or two? Would he rather take his hacks with, say, John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington?
Or LeBron and Kyrie in Cleveland?
Speaking of which, what do Cleveland do? If they do nothing, the Cavs look to have a red carpet in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future, which is why Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been in no particular hurry to part with his trove of picks in Boston.
Cleveland are leaps and bounds better than everyone in the East. There is only one team—the Warriors—that can reduce the impact of an engaged Tristan Thompson, which can wear out James because of the incessant pressure they put on him and his team, and which can cross Cleveland’s defensive circuitry on a nightly basis.
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“Your mental capacity for that sort of thing has to be very high,” the Cavs’ Kevin Love said. “You have to be locked in at all times, because if you get pushed off or get off the body of one of those guys at the offensive end, they have so many triggers. One guy catches it and it’s a quick trigger, and that triggers something else. They have so many great passers and they’re so unselfish, whether it’s fastbreak or halfcourt, it just makes it very tough on your defense.”
And so, how do you react to that? Do you go all in on a huge summer deal? And if you do, whom do you go after? Or do you make the logical, sensible call: we’re better than 28 other teams, why would we blow up our squad? Chances are we’ll be back here again next June.
Even if they do the seemingly impossible and win four straight games to beat the Warriors, the Cavaliers have to get younger and improve their bench with very limited resources. Cavs GM David Griffin—himself a free agent at season’s end unless he can come to terms with ownership on a new contract—has done a remarkable job adding pieces around James, including Love, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert. But the Cavs’ numerous attempts at finding a quality big man to help Thompson out all failed—injuries waylaid Chris Andersen and Andrew Bogut, and Larry Sanders just wasn’t in NBA condition.
What does Carmelo Anthony do? With veto/approval power on all trades, where could Melo go where he could make a difference? Would he accept the deal that was on the table before the trade deadline, which would have sent him to the LA Clippers? And doesn’t that depend on what Chris Paul does? The rumor mill has been boiling for weeks that he’s more than intrigued by the Spurs.
Speaking of which … what do the Spurs do?
Next season, they could bring back almost all of the group that made the 2016 Western Conference Finals (the toughest call is unrestricted free agent Patty Mills). Forward Johnathan Simmons is restricted, so San Antonio can match any offer. Center Dewyane Dedmon is unrestricted and might join the ranks of other recent backup Spurs centers like Aron Baynes and Boban Marjanovic who earned more lucrative paydays elsewhere (Baynes and Marjanovic are both now in Detroit).
If the Spurs stand pat and don’t go after Paul, they’d potentially have significant cap room in 2018, when LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard would be their only high-ticket players. But if they wait, they wouldn’t get Paul, and there’s no guarantee they’d get Russell Westbrook or any other elite guard that will be unrestricted next summer.
Everyone has to reassess and recalibrate. It’s the reality of the enormous pressure the Warriors and Cavaliers are putting on everyone—not just to compete, but to simply be hopeful.
“Because it’s frustrating if you don’t think you have a chance,” Cuban said in a second email.
“But when you look at what happened to Kawhi [Leonard], to the Clippers, to the Raptors w [Kyle] Lowry, to [Rajon] Rondo vs the Celtics [in the first round]. Injuries are part of the game and it eventually happens in a major way to every team.
“So I’m saying there is always a chance.”
By David Aldridge for NBA.com
First appeared on NBA.com Global