Posted July 26, 2013

Evaluating the summer’s biggest gambles

2013 NBA free agency, 2013 NBA offseason, Rob Mahoney
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry are in win-now mode in Brooklyn. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Championship contenders are built on calculated risk, just as some of the most lowly, cap-strapped franchises are burned by those very same gambles. Such is the way of it in any industry where the desired resources are so limited. Without enough LeBron Jameses to go around, teams are left to talk themselves into less appealing options at all possible price points, and to compete with one another to acquire them. No matter how much scouting and analysis is done beforehand, the final step in any deal is a plunge — to commit salary to a player who may fail, may not fit or may suffer some tragic injury.

All is subject to variability and chance, but at the same time not all gambles are created equal. There are wise risks and less sensible ones, sometimes separated by the thinnest of margins. Today, we’ll parse the probabilities of both extremes in the offseason’s biggest gambles, as identified by the money and resources at stake, the range of possible outcomes and the goals of the teams in question.

Boston Celtics

The gamble: Acquiring the three years and $30.3 million remaining on 31-year-old forward Gerald Wallace’s horrible contract in hopes of enduring it or trading it later.

The assessment: I don’t mind this maneuver much, even if acquiring dead-weight salary is a bad manner of business as a general NBA rule. The Celtics may have had various options in trading either Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce, but they managed to redeem value for both simultaneously in their deal with Brooklyn, while adding Wallace as the only real cost. Unloading 35-year-old guard Jason Terry — who was only of marginal use to the Celtics last season and would be of even less use in the upcoming rebuild — and the $11.5 million he’ll make over the next two seasons also helps make this acquisition more bearable, in addition to the fact that Boston still has plenty of decisions to make on the moderate collection of contracts that remain.

Charting a rebuilding course and cleaning up the cap sheet takes time; much of Wallace’s contract may be a tolerable tax on a team finding its way. Surely Boston would prefer to not have Wallace’s annual $10.1 million salary on its books, but the implications of his cap hit are likely to be minimal given the Celtics’ rebuilding timetable.

Brooklyn Nets

The gamble: Banking completely on the present and surrendering several first-round picks (2014, ’16, ’18, and the right for Boston to swap picks in 2017) in order to land Garnett, Pierce and Terry.

The assessment: Even in recognizing all the good this move does for the Nets this season, I’m not sure it’s really worth the luxury-tax and draft ramifications. What, after all, is the value of an upgrade and culture change that leaves Brooklyn a rung below the first-rate contenders and may last just two seasons? The versatility added should save the Nets’ stale offense, and Garnett alone will salvage so many defensive possessions. But Brooklyn has shaved time off the life of this core by front-loading it with aging players and hefty salary (thus inflating the tax penalties) while discarding a wealth of future assets in the process. 

MANNIX: How Pierce sold Garnett on going to Brooklyn

That said, Mikhail Prokhorov very clearly lives in a different world from the rest of us, and even from the rest of the NBA’s owners, for that matter. Out of a desire to push his team closer to immediate contention, he’ll eat $101.3 million in payroll alone next season before sorting out revenue sharing, other operating costs and the monstrous luxury-tax hit that follows. These may be of little matter to a man with such deep pockets, but racking up a string of seasons as a taxpaying team will come back to burn these Nets as they look to reload after Pierce’s possible exodus in free agency next summer and Garnett’s possible departure the following year. The mission of upgrading the roster was very clearly accomplished, but the cost to the team’s future and flexibility was profound.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The gamble: Signing Andrew Bynum to a two-year deal with $6 million guaranteed in the first season (plus $6.2 million available through performance incentives) and a relatively early guarantee date on the team’s $12.5 million option in the second season.

The assessment: Looks good. Bynum is talented enough to be a potential steal even at a $12 million salary, assuming that he’s able to play regular minutes, and the risk is twice mitigated by two nonguaranteed seasons. The only real pitfall, in my eyes, comes after the first year. Suppose that Bynum struggles early next season or misses games because of injury, only to come on strong late. Would that be proof enough for Cleveland to pick up his entire salary for the 2014-15 season in early July, as would be necessary per his contract stipulations? That could prove to be a tricky decision if Bynum is anything but a clear-cut success or failure with the Cavs — a choice that stands to determine Cleveland’s relevance to next summer’s long-awaited free-agent class.

Dallas Mavericks

The gamble: Relying on guards Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis to achieve defensive subsistence.

The assessment: This one’s pretty definitive. Pairing Calderon and Ellis together on the perimeter will be a glaring defensive problem for both this season and the foreseeable future. Dallas has both guards under contract for the next three years and Calderon signed on for a fourth at a cost of $53 million in total, committing a good chunk of time and money to a combination that will likely prove untenable in coverage. Having Calderon or Ellis would be manageable, but having both requires elite help defense as mitigation. Dallas simply doesn’t have the defenders to manage that kind of rim protection and rotation, putting a lot of pressure on the offense to outscore teams.

Denver Nuggets

The gamble: If only there were just one.

The assessment: To crib from my lengthier look at Denver’s prospects, the 2013-14 Nuggets are banking on the following: center JaVale McGee’s ability to maintain his production and influence as his playing time increases; point guard Ty Lawson’s capacity to create even more offense than he did a season ago; forward Kenneth Faried’s development on both ends of the floor; forward Danilo Gallinari’s recovery and health after having knee surgery; guard Nate Robinson’s ability to contribute without self-detonating; Brian Shaw’s bona fides as a coaching prospect; the viability of this current core, which is set to have Denver capped out for the next three seasons; Gallinari’s and forward Wilson Chandler’s capability to defend elite perimeter scorers; the rebounding upgrade from center Kosta Koufos to J.J. Hickson as a means to help one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league; and the notion that the Western Conference won’t be as deep as advertised.

There’s a lot up in the air for this team, to say the least, all of which corresponds to a wide range of possible outcomes. The Nuggets are no better than a solid playoff team, but a few wrong turns could put them well into the lottery.

29 comments
Holden
Holden

While some teams flail by scrambling up their lineups (Nets and Knicks, for instance), others just focus on trimming their bottom lines.  Yes, the Knicks are dysfunctional--some might say, stupid--but they are TRYING to build a championship team.  

A team that is doing it the RIGHT way, Indiana, assesses its strengths and weaknesses, and formulates a plan which doesn't include chasing one-dimensional players (Bargnani) or coin-flip risks (Bynam).  Rather, chemistry and player development is the focus.

Do you think OKC WANTED to lose Martin?  It had no choice, as it can't afford going over the cap.  With or without Martin, though, OKC will contend in the Western Conference.

Then there is Denver, which won 57 games without a much of an inside presence and lost Gallinari before the playoffs started.  What did the ''braintrust'' do?  He (the owner's son, Josh Kroenke) fired the reigning Coach AND Executives' of the year, traded away his starting center and lost the closest thing they had to an All Star, Andre Igoudala.  Despite statements to the contrary, all these moves were about MONEY--more specifically, SAVING money--and NOT about improving on last year's progress.

Until the NBA installs a HARD CAP, which under NO circumstances could be exceeded, the playing field is tilted towards big-market teams willing to spend a lot more than the OKCs and Denvers of the league.  Salary parity would reward the Pacers and Spurs, and make the Knicks and Nets and Lakers and Clippers less likely to make moves, for the sake of making moves.

The Nuggets will have to do without my $4,000, this year...if only more fans of perennially also-ran teams would follow suit, things might change.  As it stands, The CU Buffs have a better shot at winning the NCAA Tournament than the Nuggets have, winning NBA rings.

Sooner or later, investing one's emotions and money in organizations following the Washington Generals model gets really old.  David Stern, instead of empathizing with the plights of New Orleans, Charlotte, etc., spends his time on international exhibition games and anything else that might expand revenues for the NBA.  

CONTRACTION, not expansion, would improve play in the NBA.  It would also eliminate idiotically huge contracts to marginally talented players.  A guy can dream, can't he?

jsteppling
jsteppling

Knicks fans are always amusing. Maybe you didnt watch bargnani the last couple years. Its not just that he cant and wont defend, or rebound, but he's a lousy player in all respects. He cant move without the ball and his body language is a drain on energy. A disaster. And dumb. I have two complaints with the article. Why is faried listed as a gamble? He's been great...GREAT. might make the USA world cup team. And second, Bynum's deal is a joke. He wont play. He wont last if he does.He has no knees left. This is fantasy land. And josh smith was AWFUL playing the three. Why does this writer suggest he was better than people think. Go back and look at his games in atlanta when he played the three. He simply hasnt the handle, NOR the court sense and vision to play the three.

SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

The Knicks traded for a guy nobody wanted, terrible move.

SARPT1
SARPT1

'the Knicks traded Novak, an elite 3 point shooter..." where, in Practice?. Novak stood at the 3 point line like a statue, was riding the pine after the All Star break, and was completely out of the Playoff rotation. He couldn't guard paint drying, never took a shot inside of 25 feet, couldn't take a 2 year old off the dribble,  had zero ability to move without the ball and shot about 5 free throws the entire season. He had a serviceable  season in 2012, got overpaid and gave the Knicks nothing in return. Bargnani will play 15-20 minutes a game and if he gets 2 rebounds, its two more than Novak had. His worst season was better than Novak's best. Author should try watching the games before commenting.

Braktooth
Braktooth

I'm pretty sure that the Mavs aren't gambling on Calderon and Ellis to make them better defensively. No GM or owner is that stupid. They wanted a more dangerous offense. The fact that their defense will be worse and it might cost them dearly is a valid point, but the way it's framed is completely wrong. I expect better from this column.

DitmasMike
DitmasMike

The Knicks signed Bargnani for one reason -- to force Roy Hibbert out of the paint.  When they play Indiana, they'll use Bargnani on the second unit at center and plant him at the three point line.  If Indiana matches him with a power forward, Bargnani will just shoot over him.  And, although his three-point numbers have been down, be reminded that he's been one of the few options on the Raptors for some time.  So, it has been easy to key on him.  On the Knicks, other teams will have to worry about other players and I expect that his numbers will go up.  As for Steve Novak, his numbers dropped significantly this year and for the second straight playoff run, he was virtually non-existent.  So, I'm not terribly troubled by the trade from that perspective.  I don't love the loss of draft picks, but to suggest that the deal makes no sense only confirms that the author of this article hasn't thought the move through.

DeanHewitt
DeanHewitt

If you take the Garnet/Pierce/Terry trade to Wallace/Humphries in whole, it isn't that bad for the Nets.  Compare salaries per year Nets to Boston.   13/14 - $33 to 22 million,  14/15 -  $17 to $10 million, 15/16 - zero to $10 million.  This is without costs of draft picks Boston took on.  So it is $8 million more.

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@Holden Contraction is foolhardy. The league would be stupid. It's Bad PR, killing hundreds of jobs in that city and spoiling it's NBA ties forever. Why would the owners vote for that?

Also cutting some 24 roster spots is not going to do squat for the quality of play. Which isn't a problem anyway. You're not going to notice. 

JeffandElf
JeffandElf

@Holden As another Nuggets fan, I have a problem with your points about them. First, they did not fire Ujiri, they simply allowed him to have contact with another team when they didn't have to, and were not willing to match the offer for him. That is a hard blow to take, but they certainly didn't fire him. I do agree that it sucked to see Karl go, but to become a true contender they need to lose and Karl is too good of  a coach to be a part of that. If you look at all the best teams in the league right now, how did they get where they are? Sure, a lot of them made great free agent signings, but really, they got where they are through winning the lottery. So, if the Nuggets have to get worse to get better to beat the teams that are willing to outspend, I absolutely will support that. 

I also agree that the Buffaloes have a better chance of winning the NCAA tournament than the Nuggets have.

I keep seeing this argument that the Nuggets are completely capped out over the next three years and have to move forward with this core. There is not a single contract on this team that is an albatross, management has done a wonderful job of signing role players to reasonable contracts that can be moved. I believe that was what Ujiri was in the process of doing, building the assets to make a move for a star. I definitely want to see a hard cap, simply so when these stars sign with the same team, they will actually have to make a sacrifice, unlike now when Lebron, Wade and Bosh are all praised for taking three to four million dollars less on contracts which are guaranteed for over one hundred million dollars. That's not really a sacrifice, even though they did take less than market value for their services.

John265
John265

@Holden I'm so confused by the people who think they're the best "fans" because they support their teams even when they make stupid, poor decisions and suck for a long time.  They're just enabling this behavior by rewarding it with their money. 

DitmasMike
DitmasMike

@jsteppling Bargnani averaged 18 points a game over the last three seasons (12.7, 19.4 and 21).  His shooting percentage  has been in decline, but he was one of the few options on that team.  Bargnani will be a much better player on this team, where other defenders will have to drop off him to defend the middle.  When Bargnani knocks down wide-open threes, that should pull big men out of the paint.  I agree that the Knicks overpaid but to suggest that the deal makes no sense is absurd.

Visionz311
Visionz311

@SARPT1 However, they also gave up multiple draft picks in that trade and took an extra salary, and he is a worse 3 pt shooter who is also a horrible rebounder despite being 7 feet tall.  If you don't see how that was a bad trade, regardless of Novak's skill level, you need to put on your glasses.

John265
John265

@Braktooth they did resign bernard james, and they'll probably play him a bit more.  He's a decent defender.

Lizard_King
Lizard_King

@espn.comment.legend Kobe's a narcissistic fathead and the worst teammate ever.  And he is a chucker.  I'm sorry that should be Chucker with a capital C.  Took more shots (again) than anyone else in the NBA last year and was 151st in FG%.

jsteppling
jsteppling

@DitmasMike nobody is going to leave the paint for Bargs. He is among the worst players Ive ever seen in the nba. If he hadnt been a number one pick he would have been cut two years ago, if not three. Terrible shooter, indifferent about all other aspects of the game. Doesnt try...........and wont move if he doesnt have the ball. And no, ditmas mike, he wasnt one of the options on the raptors.....certainly not the last two years. Why casey played him had to do with trying to trade him. First thing the new gM...GM of the year....Ujiri did was dump bargs. 

Braktooth
Braktooth

@DitmasMike I've been watching Bargs since his rookie season, and he's arguably worse now than he was then. He's terrible. If he's a step above horrid, NY will have gotten off lucky. I wouldn't have traded Novak straight up for him, were I NY.

YehYeh
YehYeh

@DeanHewitt - The trade should be evaluated in the overall context of what Brooklyn accomplished. The team now has 6 all-star players and great depth at every position, and past weaknesses have been eliminated. The rebuilding franchise is already a tremendous success in New York, even before a single game is played.

Holden
Holden

@WCoastPro  We'll never know if the quality of play would be better with contraction, but saying that six fewer teams would be bad for the leagues average level of play is ridiculous.  6 x 15 players = 90 less openings.  Anyhow, I was talking about fewer teams being better for the fans, as the basketball played would be better.

Your point about all those lost jobs and revenue sort of makes mine.  If the league instituted a HARD CAP--which all teams could easily manage, parity amongst teams would exist.  From the business standpoint, more teams might be good for owners content to suck on the big TV teat, but they have only passing interests in winning.

As a sports fan, I want to see stars play other stars, with every team on  equal financial footings.  That's not the case in the NBA...and, since it's not, I couldn't care less what's good or bad for the NBA.

John265
John265

@JeffandElf @Holden Let's get one thing straight.  George Karl was a terrible coach.  It wasn't that they didn't have a big man capable of playing quality minutes, it was that Karl thought that since the other team just lost their leading rebounder (Lee), he could play his man crush Corey Brewer instead.  McGee and Koufos were great all year (to be fair Koufos went into a slump at the end of the season/playoffs, but Brewer has been in a slump his entire career). 

Holden
Holden

@JeffandElf @Holden I thought I changed the way I characterized Ujiri's exit.  No, he wasn't fired...but the Nuggets had no intention of paying him $15 million and acted as if his departure was such a loss.  Their decision to replace him with Connelly, whose record in the NBA, so far, is...well, let's just say letting Ujiri go for Connelly doesn't seem to be a prudent move.

The lottery isn't foreign territory for the Nuggets...and the lottery isn't any guarantee for success.  The Spurs built a dynasty on the lottery.  Ujiri snagged Faried with the 22nd pick.

And, I'm sorry, a 57 win season doesn't spell lottery team!  Last year's team got exposed in the playoffs by Andrew Bogut.  The team was only two years removed from Anthony forcing a trade and, yes, some tweaking was in order.  Oh, losing the team's top scorer, right before the playoffs, had something to do with the Warriors bouncing them, too.

The Nuggets had to be paying George Karl a ton, so they scapegoated him for their inability to find a quality big man capable of playing 30-35 minutes a game.  Connelly can't be making a million dollars a year and Shaw was in no position to negotiate, so he came cheap, to.  THAT is what drives Little Josh's thinking.

It's another reason why lottery picks aren't a way to build a team, when it's run buy the owner's son.  If the picks merit being pick so high, they're not going to hang out here, when they become free agents.  Why would they?  Denver has ZERO NBA championships.  Every other lottery pick the Nuggets have selected, bolted town.  Melo, Mutombo, McDyss, all come to mind.

All this conversation is moot.  The reality is that the NBA is set up to have dominant teams in crucial TV markets.  Dominant teams need foils good enough to keep things exciting, but flawed enough to seldom win big.

The league maintains this unbalance with the bogus cap.  The price of the best seats in the house, at the Pepsi Center, wouldn't merit better than a nosebleed seat, at MSG.  The Knicks are perennially WAY above the cap, but they can make up for that with their own local network, concessions and super spendy tickets.  And, they can afford more spendy front office personnel--in their case especially, I didn't say BETTER...just spendier!

Quality, WINNING organizations are built from the top, down.  There is no truer statement.  With Josh at the top, neither the Avalanche, Nuggets, Rams or Arsonal will ever win squat.  The focus of Stan Kroenke is future acquisitions...I don't think he owns a baseball team, yet, does he?

Stan is in the acquisitions business and Josh does what daddy tells him to do.  I guess they're making money, which is priority one.  Ask Mark Cuban what his top priority is.  That's why Cuban has a ring and the Kroenkes have none.

jsteppling
jsteppling

@DitmasMike @jsteppling mike...with respect, he has HATED in toronto....by coach, GM and fans. You think there is NO reason for that? he's a terrible locker room buy, and saying he tailed off is putting it mildly. No, he was awful. He is a negative.

John265
John265

@DitmasMike @jsteppling Bargnani doesn't knock down open threes though.  He produced negative wins last year.  He does nothing good and a lot of things horribly.  

Skins'Fan
Skins'Fan

@Braktooth @DitmasMike Couln't agree more, Braktooth. Bargs is a lazy defender and even when he's engaged he's below average. His rebounding is, easily, the worst of any 5 in the league and wouldn't even be middle-of-the-road if he played the 3... Leaving all of his "production" to be had on the offensive end where his numbers/percentages have consistently declined for a variety of reasons. If DitmasMike thinks Hibbert will be stuck on him, he clearly didn't watch the postseason. They'd just stick D-West on him, let West rest up so the offense can flow through him at the elbow, and Bargs can't shoot over him... Piss poor trade by the Knicks. As a Raps fan, though, I love it!

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@Holden @WCoastPro

Contracting 20% of the league is such a preposterous and stupid notion that it's not even worth analyzing. Not even the WNBA has done that.  NBA is making a killing globally and in USA and the sport is 2nd most popular in world after soccer. There's enough great players to go around and having all teams on equal financial footing is unrealistic in any league outside of youth leagues and CYO.  Again not even worth arguing. I agree with other DEN fans.

DitmasMike
DitmasMike

@jsteppling @DitmasMike I appreciate the point, but I think a big part of it was that he HATED the Toronto franchise, which has been seriously mismanaged over the last several years and left him as the only legitimate scorer on a relatively untalented roster.  That's not an excuse for his behavior -- he may not be the best guy -- but my only question is: will the Knicks be better after this trade?  I expect that they will be, at least in the short run, since Novak and Camby were giving the team nothing and Bargnani has the potential to be effective.  Time will tell.