Win Big in June, Not July!

VIDEO: The Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes last July but it didn’t matter come playoff time

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.


  1. Kirby Record says:

    The points in this article that stand out so much are “stay the course” and 5 titles in 15 years. The Spurs are justifiably lauded here but their success rate in titles is 1/3 or 33%. The Heat are 100% in getting to the Finals with the s-called big three, and 50% in titles but are regarded by the critics as failures. The great MJ got 6 titles in 15 years, yet James is blasted for his only two of four with his Heat trio. Just doesn’t make sense but sports fans aren’t too strong in logic.

  2. JM says:

    All that matters is player management and development. The Heat sustained a championship run for four years and went 2/4. We can’t overlook that just because they got whipped by the Spurs. Yes, June is the month where winning matters most in the NBA. Free agents are certainly a boost to a team if used properly like the Heat had done. But if you can’t find the right combinations for players acquired and set unrealistic expectations, that will be major disappointment. This time, the Spurs retained the majority of their last year’s team and won it due to player development and continuity. Teams should weigh the importance of both free agents acquired and the team continuity.

  3. Bu says:

    It also depends on how the NBA refs officiate.

  4. Reposted ESPN Comments says:

    As much as I agree with the point of the article (which looks like, “Free agency is at least as big a gamble as trying to play smart in the draft and trade market”), the Heat are the major exception. How whacked-out are your expectations when you’re downplaying 4 straight Finals appearances and 2 wins?

    “For all of the heavy lifting the Heat did in 2010, their results ended up being 50-50 in four years of championship hunting.” What? I’m sure the homegrown Thunder would love to be 50/50 on championships. Hell, my Spurs would be happy to have that record over the past 4 years. That’s not “for all of the…” it’s “Thanks to the…”

  5. bballjunkie1 says:

    Javier, one more, the Spurs dont keep players that doesnt have what they need, case in point Green was cut now he owns most 3’s in finals game.The list contiues Nazar Muhammad, just recently Blair etc etc. Not wasting time, seeing the big picture is priceless because u dont burn out your players, with weak links. i look at Miami and after first championship loss, would have had Chalmers on the block, he was never going to be a Rose, Bledsoe,Chris Paul, to name a few, so when u have a Lebron who could play point, a young player like Cole could have seen more minutes, thats how u develop players. Being able to recognize when u are asking someone to give u something their incapable of giving. Spurs are very good at.

    • ... says:

      green hasnt been cut you idiot

      • Ken Webber says:

        Green was cut TWICE by the Spurs. It “spurred” his development and after hard work showed he deserved the roster spot he has now. Check your facts before calling someone an idiot, idiot.

  6. Javier Garcia says:

    It´s seems to me very easy and very common this days to minimize the long time achivement of the Spurs. This article referes to a comment made by an executive of an East Conference team, that says that it is easy when you have the talent that the Spurs have. Ok… let me see if I recall this correctly, but both Ginobili and Parker where very (VERY) low picks in their respective drafts. They were there for ANYONE before the Spurs and so… the history went.

    Then there were some experiments that didn´t work all that good (Richard Jefferson for example),

    Also it wasn´t easy to pay the learning curve. I even recall that in 2003 FINALS Parker went benched by Speedy Claxon, for example. It took time for him to develop his steady form that he has today (and a more than steady jump shot). Also Ginobili didn´t exactly take the league by storm at first, he establish himself and then of course he shine with a couple of years behind his belt.

    The player development, the very systema and focus the team sell to their players, the philosophy that represents San Antonio´s way, is something nobody wants to pay. It´s just too slow, too hard, too tricky… and lets be serious, the other way is far more simple: Let´s throw a bunch of cash.

    Buuuut… that didn´t pan out theses year, true? Lets see how the Heat thing comes out, but I think this is the blueprint: OK. Three didn´t seem enought now… lets skip a game plan and that system thing… lets get more talent and don´t pay them as they deserve.

    Lebron, Wade, Bosh, exceptional players. But Miami?? Lets just say for what we see in the Finals, get the ball to Lebron and… well, it is his problem to make the team win.

    But there is some of a good measurement about how much value has a San Antonio than a Heat Championship in display in the 2014 Finals. The fans leaving the court (and the team) early in those defeats in Miami. In San Antonio?? Even in the most loopsided defeat or in the more heartbreaking one, they stay. They take part of the defeat. In Miami? No, lets take just the victorys.

    • Average Joe says:

      Therein lies the cause of the difference in methodology of building a franchise. SA fans are more loyal, and take more pride in their team than most teams’ fans. So it’s easy for them to sell the “playoff team” card, without winning championships. Heat fans are, well, more prone to abandon their team than many NBA teams’ fans when they’re not winning, as evidenced by this year’s title series. To put it simply, they need a lineup with stars that bring excitement, winning, and of course, revenue to the team. There are a lot of teams like this, not just the Heat. It was always about the fans, the people who pay for seats, snacks, merchandise. The difference is in their collective behavior regarding winning or losing.

  7. Connor says:

    “Stay the course,” is a phrase that did not originate with Pat Riley, who copied it, but from Peter Lynch 20 years ago. Lynch worked for Fidelity Investments and was the tremendous mutual fund manager of the Fidelity mutual fund – The Magellan Fund.

  8. Kimmy says:

    I think the Hawks shoul shoot for that one all star player. Whoever that is. I also think once Al Horford returns, this team will be just fine. I’m more concerned with the future of OKC. What are they going to do to address and replace Perkins, Thabo, Thabeet, Butler and Fisher?

  9. Chuck says:

    Seek ou, your site has written one more column without a word about the Thunder who were the second best team in the league, and unlike the Heat they don’t have to maneuver and manipulate their roster. Their six best players are still under 26, unlike the Spurs and the decrepit Heat. It is likely that when all of the pistons-season dust settles, the Heat might be a shell of the selves. And the Thunder still have a tasty mid-level exemption available.