We all know the drill. A superstar draws in more stars, and for the teams without a single one, their only hope is to trade for one, or hope the lottery balls fall in their favor, so they too can feel the ripple effect. It’s been that way for decades, even if parts of that logic is actually flawed.
Let’s look at the current New York Knicks with Carmelo Anthony headlining the squad. The Knicks enjoyed a tremendous off-season compared to previous installments, in strong part due to Anthony’s presence which attracted Arron Afflalo specifically. This is obviously a good thing, and the Knicks would love to have another summer like this one.
Well, they can, but only by sheer coincidence.
The cap is rising next year, which ultimately allows New York to spend more money, but if it hadn’t, the team would be stuck with Anthony, the gathered talent from this summer, and not much else. The reason for that is Anthony’s enormous deal, which eats up so much cap space that money are generally limited to spend elsewhere after their initial spending spree.
For years, teams have spent oodles of cap space on a star in the hopes of attracting more down the line. It’s worked for some, most notably Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant post-Shaq, and Dwyane Wade, but it’s far from a bulletproof plan.
Boston had a plethora of young players and picks to spend in trades (not unlike their current position ironically), L.A. made one of the most lopsided deals of the century, given that no one knew how good Marc Gasol would become, and Miami was simply the beneficiary of the three amigos choosing that particular destination.
What would make a lot more sense, especially for established stars, is locating a team that has a young All-Star caliber player currently on their rookie deal, instead of falling back on the tired “I want to win now” argument, which is blatantly ridiculous.
Imagine the Pelicans having $30 million in raw cap space. Would any A-list star not consider teaming up with Anthony Davis, just because he isn’t seven years deep?
Teaming up with a young talent, would be financially clever for most stars. Most likely, the team in question has rid themselves of long-term deals given to subpar talent, and is operating in a low-cost system that is just waiting for the player to develop, so they can go spend big in free agency. In other words, money would be available, or at the least easier to clear compared to teams with huge payrolls.
Pairing a max deal player with an All-Star caliber player on a rookie deal allows for downright nasty flexibility going forward, even opening up the possibility of a second max type talent, pending the players you surround them.
And yet, this approach is rarely, if ever, seen. Teams with young elite talent frequently finds solid pieces in free agency, but never top tier talent. The Bulls with Derrick Rose fetched Carlos Boozer. New Orleans with Davis signed Tyreke Evans. The Clippers hit a home run with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, but that was through trade, and after a vetoed deal that would have sent Paul to the Lakers.
Looking ahead, the Minnesota Timberwolves is the team to target if you’re a star, but it’d have to be sooner than later. Andrew Wiggins has another three years on his rookie deal, and Karl-Anthony Towns four. Additionally, the team has several rookie deals on their roster, taking up the traditional role player salaries, but with the added bonus of further potential.
Basically, Minnesota offers the best chance of sustainable success, simply because of their unique combination of potential and salary flexibility, even if their core players aren’t yet in their prime.
(They’d have to move both Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic to maximize their cap space opportunities, but worse deals have been moved to reach such a target.)
A Kevin Durant as a small-ball four flanked by Wiggins and Towns would allow not only for immediate success, but also allow for follow-up moves the following season. Who wouldn’t be interested in joining such a team, if a max offer can be cleared?
Whether it’s due to familiarity via being in the same draft class, sharing the court multiple times over All-Star weekends, or going up against one another for years, there seems to be a preference for stars in locating someone they’re close to. Wade, LeBron, and Bosh came from the same draft class, and shared a bond off of that, as all three made it big. It was second nature to team up given that closeness, and after two rings it’s tough to argue against it.
Going back to New York and Carmelo for a moment, there are rumors circulating that the 31-year old was none too pleased about the Kristaps Porzingis selection. He wanted someone who could help right away. That’s a fair ask for someone that age, but it illustrates an internal age/experience bias most players have in regards to team building, which doesn’t always make sense, in that talent seems to come as a secondary.
Derrick Rose allegedly wanted Joe Johnson just a few years ago, which points to something else, too. Players aren’t necessarily aware of the production level of other stars. Where fans and observers see strengths and weaknesses, players see a familiar face and a reputation. Brandon Bass just made a point of throwing Kobe back into the “best player in the league” conversation, which admittedly could be just a few kind words thrown his teammate’s way, but if not, then Bass is kidding himself.
The NBA star of tomorrow possess financial advantages so ridiculously beneficial to top tier free agents, that it opens the door for the making of a Big Three, or even four if the team is willing to pay top tax dollar when extension time rolls around. Not taking a serious look at the younger generation is essentially costing some opportunities to become year-in, year-out playoff participants.
The Portland Trail Blazers must be kicking themselves for their current situation, since this was the last summer in which they technically could have taken advantage of Damian Lillard’s deal. They had a terrific team they were trying to keep together, so admittedly it was a different situation, but from next year and onwards, Lillard’s cap hit is going to be extreme, thus lessening their open dollar amount.
The same is true for New Orleans and Davis, and Tyreke Evans isn’t exactly the kind of haul they dreamed about, but the one they could get given the the way stars prefer kindred spirits. After Davis’ first season it was apparent to not only New Orleans but the whole league that they had a franchise talent on their hands. Evans, to his credit, understood that and signed, despite not being the top-tier type talent I’m alluding to. With Eric Gordon locked up on a deal that significantly overpaid him, the Pellies were pretty much screwed when Davis took the inevitable big leap for season two, and followed that up with a borderline MVP-type season three.
The lesson of the day thus is two-fold; players need to accept production for what it is, and stop the age/experience bias, and teams with young elite talent need to make themselves free agency targets sooner than later. Waiting for an already terrific player to develop further is simply not taking advantage of the situation. Thus, if your team gets the first pick, or drafts a once-in-a-generation talent, you better hope they follow that up with a firesale.