In the summer of 2010, the mantra for the NBA’s lottery teams was to acquire max cap space, for a run at LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Amare, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer, Rudy Gay, and David Lee. Half the league lined up hoping to score big. The results? The Heat got their Big 3. Everyone else? The Knicks, Bulls, and Warriors have seen Amare, Boozer, and Lee as albatrosses (the Warriors playoff run was triggered by Lee’s injury, and Boozer has not been the number two the Bulls hoped for next to Derrick Rose). The Hawks and Grizzlies already traded away Johnson and Gay. And every other cap room team that summer did not get a big name.
After the Big 3 teamed up in Miami, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Amare Stoudemire reportedly had a wedding toast where they said they would team up with the Knicks. And when Melo arrived in New York to give the Knicks two of the three players, most teams felt the writing was on the wall. Stars were going to force their way to the Heat, Knicks, Lakers, Bulls, and Mavericks. Everyone else: you may as well build through the draft, because if you try to trade for a star he will blow the trade up by deciding not to resign with you. You started to see what you are seeing now: multiple teams “Rigging for Wiggins” and building patiently through the draft. Teams like Oklahoma City, and Orlando after the Dwightmare, have been praised for working to win this way.
But then, something happened. On February 23, 2011, Billy King broke new ground, trading two lottery draft picks and a third pick for Deron Williams. The move was one that had pundits in shock, and was viewed negatively around the league. How could a team that has failed to attract free agents in the 2010 summer trade 2 lottery picks, and a third pick, for a soon to be free agent already envisioning teaming up with other stars in Dallas? Pundits continued to criticize the deal as Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter developed in Utah, and the Nets were slow in adding pieces around Williams as his free agency approached. New Jersey was not a destination stars had earmarked, after all, and those in the know felt that if you were not one of those teams the stars discussed in text messages which each other, you should focus on the draft instead.
But, what ultimately happened? The Nets built a roster Williams believed he could win with and got him to resign. They got Kevin Garnett to waive his no trade clause to come to Brooklyn only because they had Williams, and got Andrei Kirilenko to take a paycut again only because of the Williams decision. The trade opened the door to the Nets building the team they have now. For the price of Favors, Kanter, and eventually Gorgui Dieng, it was well worth it.
King’s success in retaining Williams ultimately showed that star players do not make their decisions concerning where to play years in advance, leaving the rest of the league without hope. Their decisions are based on where they believe they will fit best at the moment they sign their contract. The Nets were not that team for names like Williams before they acquired him, but made themselves into that team with hard work: hard work that other GM’s around the league duplicated.
Neil Olshey was criticized by some when he was the Clippers’ GM for trading for Chris Paul, because of his impending free agency. Everyone assumed Paul was a lock for joining his friend Melo with the Knicks; that he was a sure thing to complete that wedding toast triumvirate. But that never bothered Olshey, who believed that in acquiring Blake Griffin, spending more money, and building a team of strong veterans around Paul and Griffin, that he could take a once moribund Clippers organization and show Paul that this was a new premier destination that he should lock in with. And the gamble worked. Amidst some reports this offseason that Paul was unsatisfied with DeAndre Jordan, or demanded that the Clippers fire Del Negro and acquire Doc Rivers, the Clippers kept their man.
And then later this summer, Daryl Morey scored the final coup. As of this time last year, Morey started to face pressure from critics who did not believe in his grand plan to acquire a star by accruing assets in the hopes a trade would materialize. It was said he needed to accept bottoming out and building through the draft: the stars did not want to come to Houston. But Morey was persistent, and went all in by acquiring a lottery pick for Kyle Lowry that could be used in a big deal. The result? He pulled off the James Harden trade, and then Dwight Howard came because Harden was already in place. No Harden, no Howard.
King paved the way with the Williams trade, and then Olshey and Morey followed suit. The thought process is eminently logical. To build a title contender in the NBA, you need to acquire a foundational player to build around, as Daryl Morey says in this piece. And you have three ways of getting him: free agency, the draft, or via trade. For teams like the Nets, Clippers, and Rockets, which pre trade were unattractive to free agents, they had two choices: draft him or trade for him. They chose making a trade.
And while many have chosen the draft as their avenue, for all the risk King, and then Morey and Olshey took on the draft is not without its risks. Sure, the Thunder and Spurs acquired star talent by building through the draft. But look around the league. Teams like the Kings, Bobcats, Raptors, and Suns have been out of the playoffs for years, with draft picks that either have not panned out (Jimmer Fredette, Andrea Bargnani, Kendall Marshall), or have turned into solid, but not franchise transforming, players (Demarcus Cousins, Gerald Henderson). You only get one draft a year in building your team. Some drafts do not even produce franchise altering talent. Other drafts do, but present the risk that those players are off the board when you pick, or that you and most of the league miss on that player. The best draft of the last 10 years, in 2003, had just 3 franchise altering talents in LeBron, Wade, and Melo: more commonly there is no such player, or only one such player, and the rest of the draft just produces solid rotation players. Trading for a star also presents more certainty in that you know who you’re acquiring. What if the Thunder picked Greg Oden and OJ Mayo instead of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? Would Kevin Love be a lock to stay if the Wolves did not pass on Westbrook? In the ultimate end, the draft is a method of acquiring a franchise player, not the exclusive method. What matters, at the end of the day, is getting that player, however you can.
King was definitely bold when he chose to deal picks for a noncommittal star in Williams. But he knew he had seventeen months to turn his maybe into a yes, and that getting that yes was all that mattered. And while he created disbelief across the league, and his move in some ways was unprecedented, he helped establish a trend. Olshey followed suit in making a similar deal for Paul, and Morey in turn stripped down a 43-39 team for a chance at dealing for a Harden level player in the hopes the deal would lead to star #2 down the road.
All three GM’s believed in what they were developing in their respective cities, believed that stars would want to be a part of that. They believed that these players at their core were not about picking a specific team or teammate, but about winning. And they took their chance on their franchise, their market, and their ability as expert salesmen to get their man and make it work. Were their methods orthodox? Maybe not. But only one thing matters to them. Williams, Paul, and Howard will head up the Nets, Clippers, and Rockets for the next foreseeable future. They got their foundational player.