Implications of the NBA's Summer of DiscontentThis has been a very interesting NBA offseason in terms of moves made, moves not made and the ongoing results of moves made in recent years.
It would have been a lot of fun to watch Golden State battle Oklahoma City at least one more time in the Western Conference Finals. Instead, Kevin Durant--whose Thunder had the Warriors on the ropes but failed three times to deliver the knockout blow--joined forces with the players who had just dashed his championship hopes. Kevin Durant has every right to leave Oklahoma City but that does not mean that he was right to do so or that it is wrong to articulate thoughtful disagreement with his choice (a level of discourse that does not include calling his move "wack" or burning his jersey). Durant's departure is the equivalent of Julius Erving joining the Boston Celtics in 1981-82 after his Philadelphia 76ers squandered a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Erving led the 76ers back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1982 and the 76ers decisively won game seven in Boston after allowing the Celtics to win two straight games to tie the series.
Durant's conduct prior to joining the Warriors is disingenuous. Supposedly he had no plans to leave Oklahoma City but just wanted to see what options existed. I don't buy that story. You don't go to the Hamptons to be wined and dined by suitors unless you have a wandering eye. Paul Newman once said that he saw no reason to go out for hamburger when he had steak at home. The whole Hamptons business is even more pathetic when you consider that the Thunder owner and other team personnel crowded into a low budget hotel because all of the other hotels in the region were booked. After spending nearly a decade with the Thunder, Durant could not find room for his colleagues at his sprawling place? Or he could not tell them, "Guys, go back home. I've made my decision"?
Durant has said before that the grass is not always greener on the other side. He was critical of LeBron James' move from Cleveland to Miami, sending out this tweet after the "Decision": "Now everybody wanna play for the Heat and the Lakers? Let's go back to being competitive and going at these people."
It will be interesting to see how this turns out. The odds are that the Warriors will win at least one championship with this newly assembled super team: they are absolutely stacked with talent, they are well coached and they replaced arguably the weakest link in the starting lineup that won the 2015 championship with a four-time scoring champion/one-time former MVP. However, injuries, chemistry issues or some other unforeseen circumstances could intervene. The Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio never won a title. Philadelphia's "Wonder Five" blew a 2-0 lead in the 1977 NBA Finals and the 76ers had almost completely overhauled their roster by the time they made it back to the Finals in 1980. Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton led the Lakers to the 2004 Finals but lost to a younger and more cohesive Detroit team. Each of those super teams had flaws that are clearly evident in retrospect, even if the flaws may have been less obvious in the moment, while the Warriors are young, unselfish and have no obvious flaws other than a lack of size/rim protection--but nothing is promised or guaranteed regarding an 82 game marathon followed by the grueling race to 16 postseason wins.
Whether or not Durant wins a championship in Golden State, the disappointing thing about this is that the budding Warriors-Thunder rivalry could have been one for the ages if they faced each other in the playoffs at least one or two more times. The Thunder with Durant had a better chance of beating the Warriors than any other Western Conference team. It is wrong to suggest that Durant had to leave because the Thunder did not have enough talent to win a title. Oklahoma City has the second best regular season record in the NBA since 2012 (i.e., after the supposedly disastrous James Harden trade). The Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals four times in the past six years. They beat the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in the 2016 playoffs and after that they had the defending champion Golden State Warriors on the brink of elimination. The Thunder's failure to beat the Warriors stems, in no small part, from Durant's woeful play in clutch moments of that series, including 1-7 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter of game six at home.
So this is not about the Thunder front office failing to surround Durant with enough talent.
It would have been nice to see Durant respond to the loss in the 2016 Western Conference Finals by working on his game and his mindset during the summer so that he could start the 2016-17 season with a new sense of purpose. That is what Larry Bird did after his Celtics missed the Finals in 1982 and 1983. He emerged as a three-time MVP and he added two more championships to his 1981 title. That is what Magic Johnson did after his gaffes in the 1984 Finals led some to call him "Tragic" Johnson. Johnson won championships in 1985 and 1987-88, along with three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90). That is what Isiah Thomas did after the Pistons came up short versus the Celtics and then the Lakers in 1987 and 1988. Thomas led the Pistons to back to back championships in 1989-90, winning the Finals MVP in 1990.
Durant has the right to leave. He did not handle the situation optimally but he also did not turn it into a farce and a circus like the one LeBron James created six years ago. As a fan of the sport and of competition in general, I just wish that Durant had tried at least one more time to beat the Warriors.
While the headline story is Durant's departure, the biggest subplot is how this will affect the arc of Russell Westbrook's career. One might have thought that Durant's departure guaranteed that Westbrook would either be traded or else leave Oklahoma City of his own volition but instead Westbrook signed a two year contract extension with the Thunder. Westbrook displayed a very Kobe-esque way of thinking: I am not going to run from this challenge but I am going to go into battle with my teammates and do my best.
Westbrook could put up some historic statistics this season: 30 ppg, 10 apg, 8 rpg is not out of the question. The Thunder are no longer championship contenders but with Westbrook putting up Oscar Robertson numbers they should be a solid playoff team.
Whatever criticisms can be made of Durant's decision, his primary motivation does appear to be winning. In his opinion, going to Golden State is his best opportunity to win a championship and he does not care what ex-players, media members or fans think about his choice.
In contrast, at every turning point of his career, Carmelo Anthony has chosen money over winning.
While Kobe Bryant has been criticized for the big contracts he received at the end of his career, those deals were lifetime achievement awards from a franchise that can afford such beneficence in no small part because Bryant played a leading role on five championship teams. The Lakers had enough money left over to acquire a big-time free agent even after paying Bryant but no big-time free agents want to play for the Lakers--and since that remains true after Bryant's retirement, we can shut down the idea that Bryant's presence/shot selection scared off stars in their prime who feared that their numbers would dip while playing alongside Bryant and we can lay the blame where it belongs, namely with Jim Buss, who has mismanaged the franchise since his father's death.
In contrast, Anthony's huge New York contract is not a reward for winning and it is an impediment toward acquiring the help that he needs to win--and make no mistake that Anthony would need a lot more help to win a championship than Bryant did or LeBron James does.
Anthony engineered his departure from Denver in such a fashion that the Knicks had to gut their roster to acquire Anthony; as a result, two years after Anthony left Denver the Nuggets posted their best regular season record since the NBA-ABA merger. Meanwhile, the Knicks have been going nowhere fast for years but Anthony's primary concern is staying in the media capital of the world, where he can maximize his earnings on and off of the court. Like Durant, Anthony has the right to make that choice but after Anthony's career ends with no championships he will not be deserving of any sympathy in that regard.
Speaking of Anthony's Knicks, "stat gurus" (and many others) lambasted Isiah Thomas' front office work with the Knicks but the real problem is James Dolan. Thomas was a solid personnel evaluator in Toronto and a solid coach with the Pacers. Larry Brown is a Hall of Fame coach, as is Phil Jackson. Thomas, Brown and Jackson each failed to get the Knicks anywhere close to championship contention. No one has been able to turn the Knicks around under Dolan's ownership and that trend will likely continue.
Phil Jackson's attempt this summer to build Chicago East in New York with the acquisitions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah inspired Rose to make a delusional comment about the Knicks being a "super team" like Golden State. The Knicks are probably not even a top four team in the East. Noah seems to be done physically, Rose is a solid player but does not seem likely to regain MVP status and Anthony is not the right guy to lead a championship quest.
Jackson's tenure in New York thus far has been long on Charley Rosen ghost written aphorisms and short on actual results but the Zen Master is laughing all the way to the bank; neither the Bulls nor the Lakers gave him the Kobe Bryant-lifetime achievement award contract but Dolan has done so. Jackson's ability as a coach to take a group of men and mold them into champions is undeniable but Jackson's ability to construct a championship roster from the ground up is unproven.
Charles Oakley once said of the post-Jackson/Jordan/Pippen Bulls, "They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."
The Dallas Mavericks never had a dynasty, nor are they a "coffee shop" now but Mark Cuban's decision to break up the 2011 championship team did not turn out very well. Cuban is widely praised as an innovative owner. While he has clearly received a significant financial return on his investment in the Dallas Mavericks, under his direction the team has made some odd personnel decisions. In the wake of Dallas' lone championship, Cuban broke up the team's nucleus and the franchise has never been the same. A lot has been said about the supposed value of breaking up a team one year too early as opposed to one year too late but the great danger in messing with championship chemistry is that you might never find the right ingredients at the right time again.
Would the Mavericks have definitely repeated as champions if he had kept the roster intact? That is the wrong question. The right question is, "Did the Mavericks have a better chance to win a championship by sticking with proven winners or by trying to get younger with an eye toward landing a big-name free agent?" Free agents are not flocking to Dallas. Cuban would have been better served standing pat to make a run at the 2012 title. If the Mavericks fell short, then if Cuban so desired he could have broken up the team after the 2012 season and the Mavericks would not be any worse off than they are now--but at least they would have taken their best shot at capturing a second title.
The Mavericks have faced the San Antonio Spurs six times in the playoffs, with the Spurs winning four of those series. On two occasions, the Spurs went on to take the NBA championship after eliminating the Mavericks. Tim Duncan played a key role in that rivalry and his retirement merits its own special article.
Many teams fall apart after their superstar retires (or even slightly before he retires, if the superstar has declined significantly and/or is plagued by injuries). The Spurs will no doubt miss Duncan--particularly as a leader and as a defensive anchor in the paint--but they are well positioned to continue to be a championship contender with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and free agent acquisition Pau Gasol leading the way while veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fill lesser but still important roles. The Spurs went 67-15 last season. Gasol is a better offensive player than Duncan was at this stage of Duncan's career but Gasol is not as good defensively; assuming good health and expected performances from the rest of the players in the team's rotation, the Spurs should still be a 60 win team this season. Gasol is at his best when there is not pressure on him to be the number one option; he thrived with the Lakers as a second option behind Kobe Bryant and he is perfectly suited--in both skill set and temperament--to fit in with San Antonio's philosophy of sharing the ball and not relying on any one player to carry the load.
It has become rare for a superstar to spend his entire career with one franchise the way that Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant did. Although there were some rocky moments in Dwyane Wade's relationship with the Miami Heat, it seemed likely that Wade would be a one-franchise superstar. Instead, Wade's ego clashed with Pat Riley's ego and Wade will now finish his career in his hometown of Chicago. Such late career transitions do not automatically end badly but they rarely end spectacularly well, either.
Wade and Heat President Pat Riley have butted heads for years, though in the past they always mended fences (at least publicly). When Wade refused to sign an extension with the Heat several years ago but asked Riley to add some talent to the roster, Riley very publicly told Wade to either re-sign with the team or keep his mouth shut about how Riley ran the operation. The Cleveland Cavaliers let LeBron James run the ship and that approach has led to one championship (albeit after James learned under Riley for four years in Miami) but Riley has won seven championships as a coach/executive by doing things his way.
Wade took less money to enable the Heat to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh but it is not like the Heat put a gun to Wade's head; Wade knew that the only way he was going to win another championship was to bring in at least one more superstar, so he made the necessary choice to facilitate that process. The end result was that Wade added four Finals appearances and two championships to his resume, which not only raises his status in basketball history but also increases his marketability (hence enabling him to recoup at least some of the salary that he voluntarily gave up).
Wade is still a very good player. He was arguably Miami's best player during the 2015-16 regular season, though the "stat gurus" may disagree with that contention. Wade performed even better during the playoffs, leading the Heat in scoring and assists while ranking third in rebounding. However, Miami was not quite a championship contender even with Wade playing as well as he can reasonably be expected to play at this stage of his career. Therefore, Riley was correct to prioritize the re-signing of Hassan Whiteside (the young big man who could become the franchise's cornerstone player if he continues to develop his game and his maturity) and the pursuit of a free agent star to help Wade carry the load. After signing Whiteside and failing to attract Durant or any other star, Riley turned his focus to Wade. The Heat's final offer to Wade was perfectly reasonable considering Wade's age and performance level but by that point in the process Wade's pride prevented him from returning to Miami. He felt disrespected and shunned, even though Riley was actually doing the best job he could to put the pieces in place for Wade to win a fourth championship. Wade is not going to win a title as a fading star in Chicago. What is the Bulls' track record of building championship teams since the departure of Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? Refer to the Charles Oakley quote above.
These situations are not easy to handle for either side. After the 76ers seriously considered trading Julius Erving to the Clippers near the end of Erving's career, Erving almost signed with the Utah Jazz as a free agent; Erving's pride was stung--just like Wade's is now--but Erving wisely took the longer view of things and he enjoyed a farewell tour as a 76er that became the model for all such farewell tours to come. Erving played for two franchises during the wild and woolly ABA days but he spent his entire 11 year NBA career with one team. Whether or not Wade ever admits it, when his Chicago days are done he will look back and wish that he had stayed with the Heat.
Maybe Riley could have or should have handled the public process more smoothly. Maybe Wade should have a more realistic understanding of how the business of basketball works. I have thought about this situation a lot and I have concluded that both sides had legitimate arguments in their favor; Riley is not a bad guy here, nor is Wade. That said, the best solution would have been to put the egos aside and enable Wade to stay with the Heat for life. Wade's last years in Chicago will probably not evoke the dreary ends of the careers of Johnny Unitas or Willie Mays but they also will not likely add much to his legacy.
The final outcome is not optimal for either party: the Heat are now in danger of missing the playoffs completely without Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson (not to mention the uncertain health status of Chris Bosh), while the Bulls will be lucky to make it past the first round. Instead of Wade taking a victory lap in Miami, he will end his career as no better than the second option on a new team that will not win a championship.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:16 PM