HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — A year ago this time the Houston Rockets were on the eve of the biggest upset of the summer, stealing Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers and winning the NBA’s free agency sweepstakes by bagging the biggest name on the market.
Roughly 200 miles to the west, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs were busy licking their wounds from an epic collapse in The Finals against Miami, gazing inward instead of at the free agent frenzy that was brewing.
When Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw changed the course of the 2014 Finals last month, it was the triumph of organic growth over the splash and dash of free agency, of the hot-and-now approach over the slow burn that is a player development machine in San Antonio that is the envy of not only the entire NBA but any professional sports franchise around the globe.
The Spurs win big in June and leave July to the Rockets and others who aspire to join them on that elite level of consistent powers around the league, a short list that includes just the Spurs, Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Indiana Pacers over the past four years.
That won’t stop the free agency craziness from kicking into high gear at midnight. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and the rest of a robust free agent crop will make sure that the attempt to make a splash trumps the status quo between now and July 10, when the moratorium for free agents to sign new deals ends.
In a copycat league, the one thing that few teams can emulate is the Spurs’ ability to — let’s borrow a phrase from Heat boss Pat Riley — “stay the course.” The Heat are attempting to do so with their core group of James, Bosh, Wade and Udonis Haslem all opting out of their deals to give Riley the ultimate flexibility to keep them together with restructured deals.
“It’s easy to tout the Spurs method and process when you’re sitting on five championships in 15 years and you have Timmy, Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili] to work with,” said an assistant general manager of an Eastern Conference team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in recent years. “That’s operating from a position of power that basically no one else in the league can operate from other than maybe Miami. The problem we deal with now is the Draft doesn’t provide the consistent home run to build and pulling off great trades, under this new CBA, are a bit more complicated than they used to be. So you’re almost left with free agency and only free agency as the best way to instantly upgrade your team. It’s not the only way, but it’s often the quickest path to where you’re trying to go.”
Tell that to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose mastery of the cap and free agency is in a stratosphere of its own, given the way he piles up assets, works them and then does it all over again every summer.
Just don’t tell the Portland Trail Blazers, who bounced Howard, James Harden and the Rockets from the playoffs this season with homegrown talents LaMarcus Aldridge, Damien Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and last summer’s free agent bargain Robin Lopez leading the way.
As long there’s a chance that reaching for the stars, and really the superstars, can result in the Heat’s summer haul of 2010, the Spurs’ approach will continue to be the exception and not the norm. It’s rare that the circumstances will present the sort of potential Hall of Fame pot of gold the Spurs tinker with now.
The fantasy basketball nature of the tip-off of free agency, which includes an endless number of scenarios — from the plausible to the utterly and completely far-fetched — fills the appetite of fan bases more interested in dreaming big than recognizing the realities of team building in today’s NBA.
For all of the heavy lifting the Heat did in 2010, their results ended up being 50-50 in four years of championship hunting. And the two teams that whacked them, the Mavericks in 2011 and the Spurs last month, were largely organic outfits that took the mighty Heat apart in those matchups. (And Spurs fans will point to the 2013 Finals and their team being 28 seconds away from winning that series in six games.)
It’s a theoretical gamble, choosing which way to go, that each franchise has to evaluate and weigh on its own.
The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks have decisions to make this summer about their respective paths. They have quality core groups that could continue to be grown and matured organically, or at least in a subtle fashion that does not include surrendering that cap flexibility on a player that doesn’t guarantee the elevation desired. But they each also have ample cap space that allows them to at least present themselves as players for high-profile free agents like James and Anthony.
A slow-burn approach, as rewarding as it can be when it finally comes together, is a tough sell when there are superstars out there waiting for someone to step up with an offer. From all indications the Suns are going all in on the pursuit of both James and Anthony, with the assets in future drafts, a young core and $20 million in cap space to wheel and deal in whatever way necessary to attract superstars.
With the projected salary cap at an estimated $63.2 million and the luxury tax threshold estimated at roughly $77 million, the Hawks will also enter free agency tonight with about $15 million in cap space to chase a superstar, or a couple of All-Star caliber talents, over the course of the next 10 days.
Whatever they choose, they do so knowing that there is an enormous difference between winning big in July and free agency compared to winning big when it really counts — in June.