The NBA Arms Race

So, if you didn’t surmise this after 2015, the Golden State Warriors are the new standard by which NBA teams must measure themselves. They must be on vacation cracking up right now! The Warriors haven’t just changed the mathematical approach to basketball, they’ve damn near perfected the game. Their roster isn’t a collection of all-stars, they’re a well thought out and assembled unit. I know, I know… they do actually have four all-stars…but they’re not just four all-stars, they’re the perfect four all-stars.

KD doesn’t need but five shots to seemingly score 30 points a night. Steph is a game-breaking shooter who’s only weaknesses maybe his unselfishness. Klay is “The Human Torch” (though he sometimes forgets how to activate his powers, i.e. the entire 2017 playoffs until about Game 3 or 4 of the Finals) and can sleepwalk into 20-point quarters without even needing to dribble the ball. Pair that, with the fact that he is the best wing defender in the league (not named Kawhi Leonard), and you realize why GS never traded him for Kevin Love (prior to the 2015 season) or reportedly for Paul George (apparently, that almost happened before George went to OKC). Last but not least is “Basketball’s Universal Remote” Dreymond Green. He makes everything work; taking Steph off the ball when needed, guarding anyone, injecting the team with toughness, and heavily impacting the game all without scoring a single point.

Those four all-stars and an alpaca starting at center would be hard enough to dethrone, and that’s just the core. Throw in Zaza, Iggy, Livingston, and new additions like Swaggy P, Omar Caspi (you might be saying who?? but you won’t after he shoots 50% from 3-PT this season), and the potential best value draft pick from this 2017 class, Jordan Bell, and it’s just not fair.

THIS TEAM IS PERFECT!

So, it’s established early, I’m a huge proponent of this Warriors team and more interestingly, what their next level dominance (and the new TV dollars) has turned the NBA into. It’s now being dubbed “The NBA Arms Race”, the philosophy being, “If you consider yourself a contender and can add an all-star to your roster, don’t think, DO IT!” Trade picks, trade ancillary pieces, get two additional teams involved in a trade to make the salaries work, promise you’ll rename the team after the player you want if he signs a max extension (imagine the Oklahoma City Westbrooks or the Houston Hardens), do whatever it takes, because the days of sitting idle in the off-season and still hoping to compete are over.

The following is a breakdown of the teams who either considered themselves contenders a season ago, are contenders going into this season, or have been perennial contenders for the last few seasons. I’m specifically looking at what these teams have done this off-season to not just get better, but to beat the Warriors. Getting marginally better in the NBA these days is like trying to measure the amount of heat a candle burning a few feet away from the sun is giving off. Even if you could, what would it matter?

Cavaliers

Let’s start with the obvious; the team that basically lost the last three finals to this Warriors team, the reigning contenders in the East (I know they won the second matchup, but let’s not pretend a lot of things that probably won’t happen again, had to happen in order for the Cavs to take that one in seven). Again, starting with the obvious, they are the only team on this list of contenders that currently doesn’t have a GM in place. The reason, you might ask, well…because Dan Gilbert is a dick, that’s why. He reportedly offered to pay Griffin less than head coach, Tyrone Lue, which makes no sense. When Griff said no, like the smart man he is, Gilbert let him bounce. Then in typical Danny G fashion, he low-balled Chauncey Billups (who probably isn’t qualified to be a GM anyway) and thus, some guy named Koby (pronounced but not spelled the same as the cool Kobe) is currently acting as the interim GM.

Shout out to Dan Gilbert for being so bad at his job that he can run the greatest thing to ever happen to Cleveland sports out of town not once, but twice. At least he’ll get to hide behind a championship trophy this time. The moves this Gilbert/Koby pairing have made must have LeBron staring at his phone, scratching what’s left of his hair out like a typical confused Knicks’ fan when their Bleacher Report updates them to the everyday lunacy that is New York Knicks basketball. While Golden State retained Shawn Livingston, the Cavs signed the old, slow, and bad at all things other than occasional wide-open shot making, but especially bad at defense, Jose Calderon.

Again, the Warriors retain Andre Iguodala, and Zaza Pachulia, allowing them to keep the core rotation intact, and add players like Nick…sorry, Swaggy P, Omir Caspi, and their draft picks Jordan Bell (a Dreymond Green in training) to ensure they don’t just stay atop the NBA, but that they continue pulling away from every team in it. What was the Cavs’ ace in the hole move? Signing what people thought was every championship contender’s missing piece if it were 2013 again, Jeff Green.

So when it comes to why I’m convinced LeBron is out of there in 2018 (other than that article that basically told you he was), pick your reason; Dan Gilbert, the non GM (a byproduct of Gilbert), the fact that the Celtics might be better (the only thing the Celtics aren’t better at than Cleveland is having a LeBron James born in Boston), the fact that the Warriors have been and continue to get better, or the simplest one; LeBron is 32 with only so many prime years left and a $20 million dollar mansion in Brentwood, CA that he might want to live in sooner versus later.

This has been a terrible off-season for the Cavs and its clear things are about to go right back to the way they were before LeBron decided to re-grace them with his presence. Bron’s playing this next season with one foot out the door, Kyrie Irving has already hinted at wanting to be traded to Chicago (or probably anywhere that isn’t Cleveland), and Kevin Love’s name is mentioned in a trade scenario every six hours or so. Dan Gilbert doesn’t like when anyone else has the power, and now that he has technically won that long lost World Title, he quickly stripped David Griffin and in turn LeBron (the pairing largely responsible for the blueprint leading to said Title) of that power. Again, shout out to Dan Gilbert for being so terrible at his job that LeBron, who wants nothing more than to win titles with his hometown team (something Wizards or Hornets fans would have killed for this summer as KD and Steph respectively were free agents), would rather be vilified for leaving, again, than stay and suffer with this owner.

I know guys, I’m surprised you’re still playing too.

Spurs

This has been a very un-Spurs kind of off-season. It looks like the Spurs let one of their classic “Where Did He Come From” Gems, Jonathan Simmons, walk as an unrestricted free agent. Much like the Patriots in football, when the Spurs let a player walk, or are willing to trade one of their players for one of yours, they’re always right and know something your team doesn’t know. So, when I saw Simmons was walking, I figured the Spurs must know something everyone else doesn’t, because at the price tag he’ll command, you re-sign a young, two-way player like Simmons. That’s a steal… at least for a team like the Spurs you’d think it is.

As I write this, Simmons and the Magic have just agreed to a three-year deal (at just $20 million owed), and suddenly I feel like selling any stock in Simmons I might have previously purchased. Sorry Orlando, I almost like what you’re building down there and everything, but Jonathon Simmons on the Spurs > Jonathan Simmons on the Magic (quite frankly, “Any NBA Player” on the Spurs > “Any NBA Player” on any other team not the Warriors).

Also unusual for the Spurs was this very Mavericks-/Kings-/Nets-esque signing of Rudy Gay, aka “The Curse “ (I gave him that nickname because teams do better the season following his departure i.e. Grizzlies, Raptors, and soon to be Kings. I mean the Kings already have young players like Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Frank Mason III, Harry Gyles, and Malachi Richardson in place a short time after Gay hit the open market. The worst of those names are rotational pieces and the best are potential stars.

Again, I want to say the Spurs know something I don’t. However, in this case, I think they know what everyone knows; it takes more to beat the Warriors. Whether it’s more size, more shooting, more defense, more position-less players, or for some reason, more ball-dominant, inefficient mid-range shooters, every team in the NBA needs to add more something to even come close to competing with Golden State. Having said that, I am not about to convince myself Pop will work some kind of sorcery on Gay to make him this entirely different player, who isn’t terribly ineffective. I’m more inclined to say that the Spurs, like a lot of the league, are out of options. Adding insult to injury, San Antonio is forced to sit back and watch as the Warriors take San Antonio’s most recent championship blue print and run it with superior talent, to perfection and at a level unreachable for the rest of the league.

I know thinking that the Spurs are in trouble is wrong, but did it look weird to anyone this season to watch teams like the Rockets, Cavs or even the Sixers (yeah that’s right, I’m using the Sixers to make this point!) play with more pace, space, and ball/player movement than the Spurs did? The Spurs offense, in now its fourth different incarnation under Pop, is to give the ball to Kawhi and hope he can create something. Outside of that, the Lamarcus Aldridge thing just isn’t working out like they thought it would, Ginobli and Parker should both officially retire if they haven’t already, Danny Green has had his two worst shooting season from 3-PT land (33% in 2015 and 37% last season) since his second year in the league (2010 when he shot 36%), and Pau Gasol (who is somehow their starting center still, I guess, I don’t know really. Maybe it’s David Lee, which again, yikes…), is averaging career lows in everything, including playing time.

While I might not want to go all the way out there on that branch and bury the Spurs completely, I don’t think they can compete with Golden State, Rudy Gay or no Rudy Gay (I probably liked their chances better without Gay but, too late for that). Maybe it isn’t such a ridiculous thing to believe that a 20-year championship window might finally be closing, but somehow because it’s the Spurs, they make me feel some kind of way for believing that. Forget keeping up with the Warriors, I don’t know if the Spurs are doing enough to keep up with last year’s fringe contenders like Houston or even now OKC. With Kawhi going into his prime, I’m sure Pop wants to stick it out perhaps a little bit longer, but you do have to wonder, how many more seasons can end in a sweep at the hands of the Warriors before Pop hangs it up as unquestionably one of the greatest coaches in professional sports history?

Celtics

Is it possible to be jealous of this franchise, want to be a fan of their squad, and at the same time, despise them and all that they stand for? Well, that’s how I feel about the C’s right now, and I’m made even more confused having to route for my Duke brethren and the newest young Celtic stud, Jayson Tatum. The Celtics enjoy the unique luxury of competing for a title while employing another team to tank on their behalf. It’s brilliant! I am a huge subscriber to The Process in Philly, but the Celtics signature Tank-And-Win might take the cake for best front-office philosophy ever. Even if that philosophy hinged on a team as erratic as the Nets mortgaging their whole future because their crazy Russian blood and oil money Billionaire owner promised a championship within his first five years as an owner in Brooklyn.

It didn’t take a deep reading of the tealeaves to deduce Gordon Hayward was going to dip Utah for Boston as soon as he could. Easily forgotten, Hayward was on his way out the door to Charlotte as a restricted free agent a few seasons back, but Utah decided to match the offer. That should have been a clear indicator, Hayward had no emotional ties keeping him in Utah, and moving to the Eastern Conference is just a smart business decision. Especially when it means linking up with a great front office, your old coach, a healthy fusion of veterans and young talent, and a franchise that seems to always be in position to compete for titles. Plus, let’s be real: he’s one of the few white all-stars in the NBA, and the only city that might appreciate and shower him with more love than Salt Lake City, Utah, is Boston, Massachusetts.

Anyway, we kind of knew the Hayward thing was coming. What we didn’t know was what the Celtics planned to do with their number three draft pick (after trading number one to Philly and moving two spots down). When Danny Ainge let it be known, “We think we can get the player we would have taken at #1 with the #3 slot” all signs pointed to Jayson Tatum, who some scouts believed was flat out the best player in this draft and would go on to have the better career of Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson or De’Aaron Foxx. Having watched Tatum all season at Duke, I knew his ceiling was crazy high and that his good was really good, but I didn’t realize he would look this comfortable, right away.

Fair warning; “It’s just the Summer League” hater guy can stop reading this paragraph now. Anyway, if you haven’t watched Tatum play some Summer League ball yet, A) I don’t blame you because it’s NBA Summer League and even I have to question my life decisions while watching, but B) it’s worth a watch simply to check out the level of difficulty some of the shots he is comfortable not just making, but taking (it may surprise you the amount of NBA prospects/players that can’t even get up the difficult shots, let alone make them). Tatum’s footwork is season-veteran good. I’ve seen him work smaller guards in the mid-post with immaculate post footwork, then while running the point, I watched him split a trap, Euro-step the help defender like he was a folding chair in an open gym workout drill, and casually lay in the finish. I hadn’t jumped out of my seat like that for a Summer League game since…well, since ever. I really have found myself watching a wild amount of Summer League basketball this year. Sending a third shout out to Adam Silver, the NBA, and their TV partners for really maximizing the new dollars and giving us these nightly Summer League triple headers in the dog days of summer.

Rockets

If this piece were a concert, the Houston Rockets would undoubtedly be the song everyone has been waiting to hear. No team has embraced the NBA Arms Race like Houston. Hell, technically they started this race long before the Warriors even came to be. Trading two-strippers, a young up-and-coming astronaut, and a few drums of oil (three of the most Houston things I can think of as someone who’s never been) for James Harden in 2012 was the Rockets’ head start, and they haven’t stopped trying to sign All-Stars ever since.

After LeBron dismantled the Big-3 in Miami, Houston had a deal/sign and trade in place to land Chris Bosh until the Heat came flying in with truckloads of money at the last second keeping Bosh in Miami. The next season, Houston signed Dwight Howard, you know, back when that was still something a lot of teams actually wanted to do. The perception of Howard’s tenure in Houston now is one of failure, but as far as I’m concerned, going to the Western Conference Finals and winning a couple games against the soon to be 2014–15 Champion Warriors, was a successful season. After the 2015–16 season, Howard leaves. The 2016 season goes great. Eric Gordon wins 6th man, James Harden was a close 2nd for the MVP (averaging a near triple-double, and only losing to Mr. Triple-Double), the Rockets advance to the 2nd round of the playoffs, and yet GM, Daryl “Get Me That Free Agent All-Star” Morey, looks at his roster, and sees one lone All-Star. This is unacceptable by his standard and he pukes just a tiny bit into his mouth, just disgusted.

The rest of this section is told through Daryl Morey’s inner monologue, at least the way I see it. D-Mo is Daryl’s inner-gangsta, demanding Daryl disregard all f — -s and assemble a team of All-Stars, no matter what position the players, whether they get along, or what the cost is.

Daryl: This shall not stand!

D-Mo: Yo, Chris Paul!!

Daryl: Chris Paul? Is that really an option? We are right up against the salary cap as it is. Thanks Ryan Anderson! Awesome as that would be, we simply can’t afford him.

D-Mo: Anderson huh? Want me to ‘take care of him?’

Daryl: Well even if we did somehow have Ryan jettisoned into space, after the memorial for his strange disappearance and the settlement cost with his family, we still wouldn’t have the cap space. Plus, that solution seems maybe a little too permanent. I like your spirit though.

D-Mo: True, true. … hmmm(going deep into thought, of an already inner monologue, possibly redundant) got it! Let’s not sign him as a free agent. Let’s convince the Clippers since he’s going to walk as a free agent anyway, have him opt in and we’ll trade them all the players we don’t really want or need, in exchange for Paul. And since they think they’re losing him regardless, they’d be happy if they even got one stripper, let alone a young astronaut prospect.

Daryl: Wow, that’s brilliant! But wait? If the Clippers know he wants to come here, and they know we don’t have the space to sign him as a free agent, wouldn’t they just force his hand to opt-in and give it one final run with Blake, DeAndre, and whoever else they can wrangle up? Or force his hand to walk to another team rather than help send him to a rival?

D-Mac: Probably not. It’ll look bad if fans find out the team let their H.O.F, franchise cornerstone walk for nothing when there was a trade on the table. And best believe, I’ll leak the shit out of that!

Daryl: Good point. So, we get Chris to opt-in, and all we have to do to free the cap space is give the Clippers the exact pieces needed to make that happen. Also, we’ll throw in a 2018 first round pick so it looks like they’re getting a first round pick, but in reality, it will likely be somewhere around the 26th or 27th spot. It will look like a win-win, but in reality, it’s just a win-for us.

D-Mac: Exactly, now… how do we fool these Knicks’ shmucks into trading us Melo for absolutely nothing of value? I’m thinking… Anderson. He fits the mold of a classic Knicks’ god-awful overpaid acquisition.

Thunder

With the title for second best team in the West potentially up for grabs, the Thunder couldn’t afford to sit still and still have a legitimate shot at convincing Westbrook to re-sign for the extended future. Westbrook walked into the 2016–17 locker room and his second-best player was Stephen Adams, who at best is a 6th man for most NBA teams. His starting shooting guard, Andre Roberson, doesn’t meet the essential qualifications for his title shooting, and over the last four or so seasons, the Thunder has lead the league in talent relinquished to other teams through one form or the other (James Harden, Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Dion Waiters, Kevin Durant, and most recently, Serge Ibaka). It was time to make a move that finally brought in an All-Star, not sent one away. Enter “2 Beatles”, aka, Paul George, to keep Westbrook from exploding into an angry ball of fire.

Now let’s not look at this move for more than what it is. This is a potential one-year rental/gamble in the hopes that this Westbrook/George combo has a successful enough 2017–18 season that they both chose to re-sign long term in OKC. Unlikely as that is, (since both Westbrook and George are LA guys, who have both expressed varying levels of interest in playing for the hometown team) it’s a move that needed to be made from a front office standpoint. The only philosophy should be collecting stars and then giving those stars as many complimentary pieces as possible. George was step one. The next steps were adding marginally improved rotational guys like Patrick Patterson, Marcus Thornton, Raymond Felton, and hopefully, draft pick, Terrance Ferguson. Once the sum of these pieces are totaled up, hopefully the Thunder are one round better than they were this past season.

I also don’t want to overvalue what George’s on-court presence means to OKC. While Durant and Westbrook were up 3–1 on the 2015–16 Warriors, even they couldn’t close it out (thanks in large part to an unbelievable game from the previously mentioned “Human Torch”). Great as those two were together, post Harden’s departure, the Durant/Westbrook pairing never made The Finals, and while admittedly injury played a significant factor in several seasons, we can all agree George isn’t Durant. Because he isn’t, and because he is just one player, I don’t think OKC is in any better a position to defeat Golden State this season than they’ve been in any of the past three seasons. However, on paper, it looks like they are making the necessary effort and sometimes, in the face of this Warriors dominance, the effort card is all there is to play.