Evaluating the summer’s biggest gambles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.