Can you really compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in the long run?
Such is the lot of the top third of the NBA that is not, currently, residing in the Bay or the 216. These are teams that aren’t rebuilding; they’re close, maybe very close, to a breakthrough. Most have had 50-win seasons in multiple seasons, or are a nine-iron away. They have All-Stars and All-NBA talent. They have good coaches, and owners who’ll spend money. They’re good.
But they aren’t the Cavs or the Warriors. And that creates a dynamic that can be uncomfortable to contemplate in an era of $200 million contracts.
An owner really has to want to win to commit the kind of resources that will be necessary to compete -- as much as one can -- with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, or Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson during the next few seasons. Consider the current payroll of the Cavs -- $126 million, which includes max deals for Irving and Love -- and what the Warriors will have to dole out for Durant and Curry, both free agents no one expects to leave, on top of their current $99 million payroll.
But don’t you have to try?
“We’re trying to get from good to great,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey said Friday. “If you’re consistently a 55-win team, you have a chance.”
Morey’s Rockets have changed the NBA, probably for good, into a league that seeks the 3-pointer and the layup/dunk above any other shot. Others have followed with some degree of success -- and, again, the Warriors have hit at a higher success rate. But that doesn’t mean Houston has failed. The Rockets have a superstar in James Harden and a coach in Mike D’Antoni that believes in him and gave him the basketball. They have a style that everyone loves and players want to play there.
But, they went out in the Western Conference semifinals, to San Antonio -- whose coach, Gregg Popovich, has tormented D’Antoni’s best teams for more than a decade.
In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards have a similar trajectory. They had their best season in more than three decades, coming within a game of their first conference finals appearance since 1979. Their new coach, Scott Brooks, fixed a lot of problems, and the team got healthy seasons out of its still-young backcourt, John Wall and Bradley Beal, who finally lived up to their promise.
Both the Rockets and Wizards are in relatively good positions. They don’t have to do anything dramatic this summer. Both have their stars in place contractually, and solid role players under contract for multiple seasons as well. Both have a style of play that makes them extremely difficult to guard night in and night out, and neither should be hindered stylistically in the next couple of years.
But both Houston and Washington face obstacles in their respective conferences -- Golden State and San Antonio block Houston’s path in the West and Cleveland blocks everyone’s path in the East. And the Boston Celtics, who which just knocked the Wizards off in the Eastern Conference semifinals, are likely to only improve its roster this offseason with the top pick in the Draft, millions in cap room to sign a major free agent this summer -- or, using both in some combination, a trade for another superstar to pair with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford.
There is also the problem of rapidly improving teams in each conference (the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz); established teams in each conference that could easily challenge next season (Toronto Raptors and LA Clippers) and past stalwarts that could return to prominence quickly (Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder).
Nothing is guaranteed; both the Wizards and Rockets enjoyed relatively healthy seasons among their core group of players, many of whom had suffered major injuries in seasons past. Would either Houston or Washington or any of the other comfortable teams thus be inclined to take a chance on a big move this offseason that could put either or any of them in a better position to challenge Golden State and Cleveland -- or send the franchise tumbling?
Last week’s announcement that neither Paul George nor Gordon Hayward made any of the All-NBA teams started every non-Indiana and Utah heart a flutter, thinking about the potential possibilities. George with the Wizards? Hayward on the Rockets? Jeebus.
By missing out on those teams, George and Hayward -- at least, this summer -- aren’t eligible for the new Designated Player Exception for veterans available under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The new DPE is only available to players who are still with the teams that initially drafted them and it is designed to make the power of incumbency almost impossible to overcome.
Indiana had already offered George the five-year, $207 million DPE max, contingent on his making one of the All-NBA teams. But he didn’t make one. Now, the Pacers will have to wait until 2018, the last year of George’s deal, like everyone else. George could still get the $207 million from Indy if he were to make an All-NBA team next season, which would still be more than $70 million more than anyone else could offer him.
But the timing is treacherous for the Pacers. If George doesn’t make an All-NBA team in 2017-18, he’d hit unrestricted free agency a little more than a month later. So Indiana still has to consider this summer whether trading George makes more sense than taking such a huge gamble in the summer of 2018.
Hayward missed out on the same five-year, $207 million exception from Utah, though it wouldn’t have begun until next year. Hayward could conceivably opt out of the last year of his current deal, sign a so-called “1+1” contract with the Jazz (one guaranteed season plus one player option year) and still be eligible for the five/$207 deal in ’18 if he made an All-NBA team next season. Or he could just opt out now and test free agency as he’d have any number of suitors.
The Rockets’ models are their Texas brethren -- San Antonio and the Dallas Mavericks. Both the Spurs and Mavericks had extended streaks of regular seasons with 50 or more wins -- 11 straight years for Dallas (2000-11), 18 and counting for San Antonio (1999-present). Yet lost in the Spurs’ remarkable record over the last two decades is how many times they haven’t made The Finals, yet didn’t panic and blow up their team.
The Spurs have been knocked out in the first round four times -- once as the No. 1 seed in the West, in 2010-11. They’ve lost five times in the conference semifinals. But they keep coming back, year after year -- and that’s why they have the five titles. My Turner colleague Chris Webber says it better than anyone: the true championship teams aren’t always the most talented. But they’re always the most stubborn.
Morey says there’s no long-term concern about Harden, who seemed to wilt in the overtime of the crucial Game 5 loss to the Spurs, and who was rendered almost mute on the floor in the Game 6 elimination at home. Nor are the Wizards less bullish on Wall because he missed his last 11 shots from the floor in Game 7 in Boston.
Indeed, Washington thinks more can come with better focus at the start of the season rather than its end.
“In November, you don’t start out 2-8,” one team source said, referring to the Wizards’ awful first month, which was in the end responsible for not only keeping the team from a 50-win season, but may well have cost them a shot at home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
While Nene is Houston’s only significant free agent, the Wizards have more work to do. Starting small forward Otto Porter is a restricted free agent, but Washington is almost certain to match any potential offer and keep him. He’s too good a fit playing off of Wall.
The other, and more immediate problem, is fixing a bench that struggled throughout the season with consistent play and came apart against Boston. A backup point guard better than Brandon Jennings, picked up after being bought out by the New York Knicks in February, is a must, as is keeping Bojan Bogdanovic, also a restricted free agent.
By making third team All-NBA this season, Wall is eligible for the DPE this summer in the form of an extension on his current deal, which runs through 2019. Wall could get an additional four years and, per cap expert Albert Nahmad, $168 million from Washington on top of the remaining $37 million of his current max deal. Or, he could play his contract out and go for a five-year deal in excess of $200 million in ’19. Both are potential risks.
Right now, Wall doesn’t seem inclined to go for the extension, even though it would disappear if he doesn’t make one of the all-league teams next season. It’s likely, given his trajectory, that Wall will wait and see not only what his future play brings, but what potential new revenue streams the league and union might discover in the next few years.
It seems likely that most teams will follow a similar path when it comes to throwing caution to the wind and owner checkbooks onto a pyre to chase LeBron and KD: they’ll get in the passenger seat and let caution be their guide. He’s an excellent driver; drives slow on the driveway.
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