Trust the Process

Daryl Morey has been blasted for his handling of an offseason which saw the Rockets lose Chandler Parsons to the Mavericks and fail to land either of their big targets – Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Morey chose to allow Parsons to hit free agency a year early as a restricted free agent (Parsons would have been unrestricted had he been a free agent next offseason), and waiting for Melo and Bosh to make their decisions gave Dallas the window it needed to feel comfortable making their offer.

Now Houston must move forward without their starting small forward or either of their top free agency targets, plus quality pieces in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, both of whom were dumped to clear cap space for moves this summer. Suffice it to say things didn’t go as planned for Morey.

Whether it’s because of the spotlight on a roster now featuring James Harden and Dwight Howard or simply a matter of people being tired of hearing about Morey’s brilliance, the backlash over an unproductive dip into the free agency pool has been substantial this year. Much has been written questioning Morey’s approach, culminating in this article,  which paints him as something of a con artist, using analytics to blind the media and hide his mediocre results.

The stakes may be higher now that Harden and Howard are in the fold, but Morey and the Rockets have been operating this way for years, for better and for worse. Quibble all you want with the strategy and the outcomes from year to year, but Houston knows how it wants to treat its cap situation and what it wants out of its team, and Morey devised a way to make that happen sometime around 2009. The franchise hasn’t deviated from the plan since.

The process is always the same: acquire assets whenever possible, using a better-than-average understanding of the CBA to bully other teams out of valuable players and picks (like Morey did when signing Asik and Lin, both of whom received contracts structured to make it nearly impossible for the Bulls and Knicks to match their offers), just as long as picking up assets never got in the way of keeping the cap space to sign maximum contracts within reach.

That approach is how Houston landed Harden from the Thunder. No other team could offer Oklahoma City a package of young players, draft picks, and useful expiring contracts. It’s also how they were able to keep their cap clear enough to land Howard.

It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first free agency period in which the team struck out on their top targets. Morey chased Bosh (and others) in 2010, only to come up empty. At that time he was left with a roster built to complement Yao Ming, who would barely ever play again. The Rockets limped through the strike-shortened season that followed, but with Yao gone a rebuild was necessary, and the cap was clean enough to facilitate one.

Assets like Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic went out, and some interesting pieces came back, including a future first-round pick from Toronto that helped seal the Harden deal. While it’s fair to point out that Lowry and Dragic have improved significantly since their time in Houston, it’s also important to see that their departures helped reel in Harden, and the extra cap room (and improved team) got them Howard.

Results can be variable, but Morey continues to successfully operate by his guiding team-building principles. In each of the last three seasons the team’s winning percentage has increased, from .515 in 2011/12 to .549 in 2012/13, and finally all the way up to .659 last season. Not bad for a guy who inherited the crumbling McGrady/Yao Rockets and managed to complete an on-the-fly rebuild without ever dipping below .500.

Now the question is not if the team can make the playoffs, but rather how they can win a title. That’s not a bad leap, and one unsuccessful free agency period isn’t going to change that.

How the Hornets Beat Detroit at Free Agency

Free agency can be a fickle game. Big market teams will always have an advantage in luring top players thanks to deep pockets, high franchise valuations, and desirable locations. Small market teams have to pay a premium for talent, and with salary maximums in place that means offering top contracts to players who can’t earn them elsewhere. The LeBrons and Carmelos of the world aren’t going to be wowed by a $20 million per year offer from Milwaukee when they can get the same deal in Los Angeles or New York. If a small market franchise is banking on free agency to land a key piece, nailing these signings is critical.

Last offseason, two teams lured 2nd-tier free agents to less-desirable markets with huge offers. Detroit inked Josh Smith to a 4-year deal, while Al Jefferson signed in Charlotte for 3 years, with a player option on the final year. Both players are paid the same $13.5 million each year.

Each team had their own motivations for wanting to test the free agency waters. The Hornets (formerly Bobcats) had attempted to tank and build through the lottery for years, but had missed out on stars like Anthony Davis, instead landing talented but flawed players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo. Michael Jordan has taken a longer-term approach to team building than might have been expected, but GM Rich Cho needed to put a better product on the floor after a couple of seasons fielding some of the worst teams in history.

Unlike Charlotte, who felt the need to change course after striking out on the lottery strategy, the Pistons under Joe Dumars used free agency as a core part of their team-building strategy, creating cap space every few years to replenish their team. This practice yielded the notoriously bad Ben Gordon/Charlie Villanueva duo in 2009, but Dumars rolled the dice again in 2013 with Smith and Brandon Jennings. They were brought in to augment promising young players Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe while jump-starting the rebuild that had been languishing since ‘09.

The results for each team couldn’t have been more different. Charlotte rode Jefferson’s 3rd team All-NBA season to a surprise playoff berth with a scrappy team, while Smith struggled mightily in Detroit, submitting his worst season in years. That seems simple enough – Charlotte won their free agency gamble and Detroit lost theirs.

But the nuances of each player’s situation shed light on what it takes for a team outside of the league’s glamour markets to win. Charlotte had a specific plan for Big Al. His post scoring propped up an offense that otherwise would have been one of the absolute worst in the league. Attempts were made to paper over the team’s lack of shooting to provide as much space for his post ups as possible, including the insertion of Josh McRoberts at power forward. Only so much could be done with the lack of shooting available, but the Hornets avoided the offensive efficiency cellar thanks to the addition of Jefferson.

That was enough of an improvement to make the playoffs given the huge leaps the squad made defensively, moving from dead last in the league two years running to 5th overall. This improvement occurred based almost exclusively due to scheme changes, and it came even when adding a known liability at a key position in Jefferson. Head coach Steve Clifford tweaked his defensive strategy to account for Al’s lack of mobility. All told, adding Jefferson and managing one of the best defenses in the league is one of the biggest surprises of last season. Charlotte found ways to maximize his strengths and hide his weaknesses.

Detroit, on the other hand, seemed at times to be actively looking for ways to get the worst out of Smith. His habit of hoisting long jumpers without any hope of making them caused his last fan-base to yell “NO!!!” every time he wound up from 21 feet? Play him with two post players who force him outside where he will be compelled to shoot constantly! He excels as a weakside defender in the post, thwarting drives with his shot-blocking? Drag him away from the paint and make him guard opposing perimeter players!

The Pistons could not have put Smith in a worse position, and his many weaknesses shone brightly on a team with no spacing and a glut in the paint. Defensively he is at his best at power forward, patrolling the paint or jumping out to squash pick and rolls with his better-than-average quickness for a 4. When forced to guard small forwards his quickness became a liability, and the weakside shot-blocking was all but extinguished. On the other end playing him in the post affords several advantages – his shooting habits aren’t indulged, his quickness and smart passing are maximized, and he can use his explosiveness to finish rolls, lobs, and face up drives with authority.

Smith isn’t nearly as bad as he seemed last year, but unless he (or one of the Monroe/Drummond duo) changes teams, it’s hard to see him playing any better. Meanwhile the Hornets are hoping to improve on their strong showing last season by further building around Jefferson. They’ve added small-ball stretch 4 Marvin Williams and the mercurial talents of Lance Stephenson to open up the floor more for Jefferson (and generally bring in more talent).

The Smith/Jennings duo was the final straw for Detroit, who moved on from Dumars as GM in favor of Stan Van Gundy. It remains to be seen whether Smith will be on the roster on opening night, but it is clear that he serves as yet another cautionary tale. Small market teams looking to make a splash in free agency should take note – if they want to be part of a success story, they’ll need to commit to putting their top signing in a position to actually succeed, just like Jefferson has in the Queen City.

Miami Is Following the Dallas Plan

So you’ve lost LeBron James, and with him the chance to legitimately compete for a title next year. Do you blow it all up and start from scratch? Pat Riley says no.

Dwyane Wade was unlikely to ever leave, unless both he and the Heat decided they would both be better off without each other. Likewise, the immortal Udonis Haslem was guaranteed (behind closed doors anyway) to get another contract to make up for his convenient-for-the-team free agency decisions. Beyond that, the cupboard was completely bare. It seemed that Chris Bosh would bolt for Houston, and that Miami would be in for a stretch of lottery visits and low playoff seeds as an aging Wade toiled with young players and waited for the draft picks to pile up.

Characteristically, Riley wanted no part of that, especially given his age and the need to keep Wade around. Instead of going the popular Oklahoma City route of bottoming out for higher draft picks when assembling the next version of the team, he began following the model of another Finals foe – the Dallas Mavericks.

Re-signing Bosh came as a surprise to many in the wake of James’ decision to return to Cleveland, but it gives the Heat a clear direction over the next few years. Like the Mavs, they will look to complement their core duo with a rotating cast of veterans while keeping the cap sheet clean enough to take advantage of any free agency coups they may manage to pull off.

Dallas, led by Mark Cuban, has perfected this strategy over the past few years. Rather than rebuild, they seek out deals for mid-tier veteran contracts while waiting for a big-time free agent to finally bite on their offers. Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, and Devin Harris formed a workable backcourt last season to support still-effective superstar Dirk Nowitzki, and none of the three was a huge burden on the team’s cap long term. Calderon may have eventually become just that, but Cuban flipped him for familiar face Tyson Chandler, who is on the last year of his deal. One veteran out, another in.

So far Riley has managed to lure Luol Deng as the major signing of the offseason, filling the gaping hole at small forward with a capable two-way player. Deng comes on a relatively cheap 2 year, $20 million deal.

As currently constructed, the Heat, featuring Wade, Deng, and Bosh, plus newly signed power forward Josh McRoberts, rookie point guard Shabazz Napier, and re-signed vets Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers, will be in a position to compete for something like the 4th seed in the East. That’s nothing to scoff at for a team that just lost the best player in the game. If the cap continues to rise as expected, next offseason the Heat will still have close to max cap room, and will be free to pursue top free agents. If they miss out on the big names, look for Riley to look for more bargain veterans who can add to the product on the floor in the short term without sacrificing the team’s flexibility in the long term.

Moving on from being one of the teams with enough talent to contend for a championship can be tough, but both the Mavericks and the Heat are hoping that you don’t have to bottom out to reach the top again.

U.S.A. Doomed to Cycle of Apathy

The FIBA World Cup is fast approaching, and it, along with the Olympics, is one of the two most prestigious international basketball tournaments in the world. U.S.A. Basketball features the deepest and most talented collection of players on the planet, but with that comes some unenviable expectations: finish first or be considered a failure.

Those expectations of world dominance make perfect sense if the full stable of available talent is at U.S.A. Basketball’s disposal. After all, who could beat a starting five of Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard? Add in a bench with Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, James Harden, Blake Griffin, and John Wall and the team would be completely unstoppable, able to play any style or match up to any opponent big or small.

Unfortunately, the team making the trip to Spain won’t be quite so strong.

Howard and James have done this all before, and as they reach the later parts of their prime they value the offseason’s relaxation over participating in a tournament that Americans view as second to the Olympics. Love has pulled out due to his desire to leave Minnesota via trade as soon as possible, and Griffin and Portland big LaMarcus Aldridge have also removed themselves from the squad.

That leaves the team thin up front, a potentially fatal flaw given that the main challengers in the tournament, the hosting Spanish team, feature a fearsome frontcourt trio of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. Spain won’t be able to compete with Durant or the array of American guards, but a dominating interior performance and some cold shooting by the U.S. could swing the tournament.

In the long run, that may be a good thing.

An unexpected loss would do wonders for American interest in international play, both among players and fans. The country has fallen into a tired cycle with the international game. Most tournaments end with the U.S. atop the gold medal stand, usually after a string of 40-point blowouts of teams featuring one or two NBA players at best. A team with an NBA star and two or three other decent players may make a final or semi-final game close, but the contest will never really be in doubt.

Over time this dominance is taken for granted. Increasingly apathetic players skip tournaments until a depleted squad or two fails to bring home gold. Suddenly interest spikes. Basketball is a sport dominated by Americans; the best players in the world play in the NBA, and the quality and depth of talent available to U.S.A. Basketball is unrivaled, so why won’t the best of the best come out to play?

Suddenly, with the spotlight re-lit and the very fabric of American basketball in question, the top players sign up. They say they’re here to stay. They say they’re part of the program, here to show everyone that the U.S. still has a stranglehold on the rest of the world when it comes to putting a ball through a hoop. Then the cycle starts anew.

This happened with the Dream Team in 1992, who came together after a collection of college players failed to win gold in the ‘88 Olympics. Then subsequent teams kept winning. With NBA players in the games of course the U.S. would win, or so the thinking went. But over time fewer and fewer big names joined up. Instead of established vets, unproven young stars and troublesome older players got the call, and no thought was put into fit or style of play.

Then the early 2000s teams, featuring a mix of redundant veterans and unproven young players (with little shooting in the mix) fell apart in a few tournaments, losing to more cohesive teams from Greece and Argentina. These teams had played together for years, had been built from complementary players, and featured the top talent from their countries.

So in 2008 the Redeem Team was born. Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant were on board as the elder statesmen, an array of flexible and (now) in their prime players, including LeBron and Carmelo Anthony, teamed up to bring back the gold. American basketball was saved.

Yet here comes another tournament with flagging attendance and a possible kryptonite for opponents to exploit.

The U.S. teams have created this cycle due to their dominance. Blowing every opponent out of the gym doesn’t make for a compelling narrative or particularly interesting viewing. The best American teams have no equal, especially if they are made up of the same players for a few tournaments in a row. That inevitably leads to boredom from fans and players, and that’s how a potentially interesting tournament is now missing so many of its top attractions – there’s no reason to show up if no one is watching anyway.

Americans care about international basketball only when their dominance is threatened. Once the threat is gone, everything can go back to normal. That’s why the only way for U.S.A. basketball to recruit the absolute best players is to play up the revenge/redemption factor. If you never lose, there’s no revenge to be had.

Basketball is a popular sport internationally, and more talented players are coming from outside the U.S. every year. If the risk of losing major tournaments ever becomes a sustained threat, international play will become a priority for Americans. Until then, players’ and fans’ interest in the proceedings will inevitably rise and fall opposite the team’s results.

Where’s the Love for Bledsoe and Monroe?

Restricted free agents have traditionally lingered on the market while teams focused their energies on the unrestricted lot. They have sat and waited for some brave team to make an offer, only to have it matched by their original team. This allowed teams to focus on other needs while their own RFAs had their market set for them, lowering the risk of an overpay. The players had little say in the matter – they could either try to force their team’s hand by signing an offer sheet, threaten to take the one-year qualifying offer (an empty threat), or wait out the process and take what they could get.

This offseason was different. Both Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons signed lucrative offer sheets soon after the moratorium on new contracts was lifted and forced their teams to make tough decisions about their futures. Hayward’s offer sheet from the Hornets was ultimately matched by Utah, but he landed more money than he was expected to and will be the highest paid player on the Jazz for at least a couple of years.

Parsons didn’t even need to be a free agent this offseason, but Houston set its sights high, making him restricted while aiming for Carmelo Anthony and then Chris Bosh, hoping to wrap up its business with Parsons after landing one of the big fish. While they waited for those two situations to shake out, Dallas signed Parsons to a huge 3 year, $45 million deal to force the Rockets’ hand. After striking out on their top targets, Houston opted to seek out a less expensive small forward in Trevor Ariza to fill the void, allowing Parsons to leave for the Mavs.

While they may not have gotten full control over where they spend their next few years, these two moves opened the door for the possibility that RFAs may have more leverage than ever before. Perhaps the market conditions were finally favoring players coming off of their rookie deals, instead of leading them into a false and perfunctory free agency.

A little over a week removed from the early spectacle of this year’s free agency period that doesn’t seem to be the case. While Hayward and Parsons enjoyed some negotiating leverage, the other two big names in this situation, Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe, have seen little activity.

Bledsoe proved his value last season starting for a surprisingly frisky Suns team that nearly made the playoffs after being projected to finish near the bottom of the league. He missed a chunk of time to injury (a bit of a concern after similar issues in L.A.), but when he was on the floor he meshed well with Goran Dragic to form a fantastic dual-point guard backcourt. His energy and athleticism help him break down defenses and get to the rim, and on the other end he harnesses that athleticism to play tenacious on-ball defense.

An increasingly respectable 3-point shot has legitimized one of Bledsoe’s few weaknesses, and he has the ability to play either backcourt spot.Teams with cap space should be trying to lure him away with a tricky offer sheet that will make the Suns think twice before matching, especially now that Isaiah Thomas has signed on as another point guard in the Phoenix backcourt, but so far it hasn’t happened. As of now the only action on the Bledsoe front is a rumor about the Lakers trying to orchestrate a sign and trade.

Monroe is a bit of a different case. While Bledsoe played well for an over-achieving team, Monroe went about his work in the clogged paint in Detroit. The Pistons struggled all season, and at times were completely unwatchable because of their no-space offense featuring three non-shooting post players in the starting lineup. Monroe can score in the paint and rebounds well, but no one who needs the ball in the paint was going to look too good playing next to Andre Drummond and Josh Smith – there were simply too many bodies in the paint.

Monroe is a solid offensive building block, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired. His ability to get steals thanks to his quick hands doesn’t make up for his lack of quickness, which leads to a lot of blow-bys and bad positioning. In the right scheme this could be covered up, but Detroit (at least with last year’s squad) isn’t the place to make that happen.

The Pistons need to clear some space in the frontcourt, and Monroe has his flaws – a team could conceivably acquire him by working out a sign and trade or simply overpaying to force Detroit to decide how much it wants to keep him. It seems that Stan Van Gundy would prefer to trade Smith rather than Monroe, but a good offer could easily net the solid young big. Again though, no one seems willing to pull the trigger.

So what makes Parsons and Hayward different from Bledsoe and Monroe? Why do the former get the big contracts and leverage while the latter play the waiting game?

Positional scarcity plays a huge factor. Wings are harder to come by than either point guards or power forwards, so they are in much higher demand. When a good one comes available teams feel the need to pounce. Truly elite power forwards and point guards would receive the same kind of attention, but Monroe and Bledsoe are a tier or two below that level.

Another reason is timing: no team wants to occupy cap space with an offer to a RFA when other players may get signed away during the waiting period. If the original team matches the offer, you risk walking away with nothing. It only makes sense if you can take advantage of the other team’s timing, as Dallas did to Houston, or if you think the offer may not be matched. Phoenix may well have made it clear that they intend to match all offers to Bledsoe, turning the act of signing him to an offer sheet into a pointless waste of time and flexibility.

After the initial rush on restricted free agents had died down, the teams that started with major cap space had mostly spent it. There are still a few teams lurking, but both they and the teams holding these players’ rights are in no hurry now. They can calmly navigate the waters with most teams done making their major moves, and Bledsoe and Monroe will suffer for the lack of suitors. As much as things change, it appears they always stay the same, and this year’s notable restricted free agents will once have to deal with a dried up market and the knowledge that their teams have more control over their futures than they do.