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Paul Flannery | January 11, 2015

Sunday Shootaround

Hope fuels trades in the new age of NBA parity

Hope fuels trades in the new age of NBA parity

In hindsight, this wasn’t so much a shock as a culmination of events months in the making. Had he been able, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin would have long ago made the moves that spun the NBA around last week when he acquired Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from New York in addition to Timofey Mozgov from the Nuggets. There were, after all, rumors as far back as late August that Griffin was trying to land the center who played for coach David Blatt’s superb Russian national team.

"We would have done all of these things much sooner if we could’ve," Griffin told reporters after the deals were finished. "If we could have done this in training camp, we would have done the same thing."

The trade machinations were fascinating. It was two separate deals that were really one -- the second first round pick that went to Denver for Mozgov was picked up for dealing Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City. But the maneuvering began last summer when Griffin turned a little over a million dollars of cap space into draft picks, non-guaranteed contracts and a trade exception. (ESPN’s Brian Windhorst has a terrific summary.)

That’s how the NBA does business in this day and age. Every deal matters and every throw-in is important. It requires front office savvy and an advanced degree in capology to pull something like this off, and Griffin has engineered a dramatic overhaul in his first full season on the job.

There are exactly four players left from the Cavs’ roster when Griffin took over last February -- Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Matthew Dellavedova. The rest have been cast off or packaged. None of this happens without LeBron James and Griffin played a role in that as well, dealing Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev to open up enough space to bring James home. That in turn set in motion the trade that brought Kevin Love to Ohio.

The huge question is whether this ad-hoc team will be able to reach its potential on the court, something the initial version of the Cavs failed to do. Mozgov and Shumpert offer a necessary infusion of defensive-minded players at positions of need, while Smith is the ultimate wild card, capable of shooting you in or out of games at any time.

It will require an awful lot of in-season adjustments from Blatt, who is already tasked with turning three superstar talents into a cohesive offensive unit. It will require a significant buy-in from players who barely know each other. It will also require a clean bill of health the rest of the way, which is an even bigger concern since they’ve already lost Varejao for the season and James for two weeks with knee concerns. That’s in addition to an aging supporting cast that may have already been overextended.

It’s a gamble insofar as Griffin has nearly exhausted all of his assets in an attempt to make the roster whole. (Brendan Haywood’s contract remains, but its value goes up the longer he stays put.) It’s also a gamble in that the Cavs have barely played .500 ball this season and have rarely resembled a contending team. Griffin has been preaching patience, but his moves suggest something else and they’re in line with an approach more and more teams seem willing to take this season.

More than a month before the Feb. 19 trade deadline, the dealmaking has begun in earnest. Already, we’ve had Rajon Rondo traded to the Mavericks and the unexpected release of Josh Smith, who signed with the rival Rockets.

On Friday, Danny Ainge continued his liquidation sale by trading Brandan Wright to Phoenix for a top-12 protected first round pick via Minnesota that will likely be converted to a pair of second rounders. Ainge was also set to move to Jeff Green to Memphis for Tayshaun Prince and another first rounder with other players potentially spun off to New Orleans.

With teams now willing to add on the margins, there’s likely to be more trades on the horizon. Boston still has a few veterans to move and Denver is loaded with moveable players if the Nuggets choose to go that route. There’s even the tantalizing possibility emerging in New York of a Carmelo Anthony trade. At the moment Melo speculation is exactly that, but in this rapidly-changing environment nothing can be considered off limits.

There are compelling reasons for teams to make drastic changes at midseason. The looming television deal and possibility of a rapidly expanding salary cap makes the financial considerations more palatable. Shorter contracts and a smarter application of roster resources like the mid-level exception have reduced the number of albatross deals. But the biggest reason is a concept that has eluded the NBA forever: parity.

For years, we’ve scoffed at the notion that true parity can ever exist in the NBA. Each generation has a dominant superstar or two and those superstars tend to win the majority of the championships. Each season a small handful of teams emerge as legitimate contenders, leaving everyone else playing for something less fulfilling than a title. With little incentive to add talent, the trade market has been flat in recent years.

Consider that at this time a year ago, the top two teams in each conference were Miami and Indiana in the East and San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the West. A few twists of fate here and there and that’s what we got in the conference finals. For league devotees, this kind of unsurprising result is proof that the NBA season is the fairest of the major sports. For casual fans, this kind of metronomic consistency is a boring turnoff until playoff time.

This season has given us something far different. There are five teams with legitimate aspirations of winning the East: Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, Washington and Cleveland, and none that could be considered a favorite. Out West, nearly every team that makes the playoffs has a decent case for reaching the Finals, including Oklahoma City who is still fighting to get into the picture.

With each argument in favor of a potential contender comes a dissenting counter: The Warriors are the closest thing we have to a consensus favorite but will Andrew Bogut make it through the playoffs in one piece? Will the Rockets defend when it matters most? Will the Grizzlies score? Back East, the question is even more opaque: Are any of these teams actually good enough to pull this off?

That sort of open-ended debate is good for the league. It adds meaningful subtext to the long slog of the 82-game season, while also making the trade season wild and unpredictable. Even the race for Most Valuable Player is as wide-open as its ever been.

Basketball will never be football or even baseball, where teams can turn around quickly and seasons are reduced to the whims of winner-take-all postseason games or (relatively) short series. Except in extremely rare instances, rebuilding isn’t as simple as spending huge money in free agency and there is still a huge gap between the upper tier and the lower class of teams.

What’s changed is the rapid disappearance of the middle class. Rather than sink into the abyss of mediocrity, teams on the fringe are rapidly spinning off players to an expanding group of contenders. The cost is less tangible: draft picks, cap space and trade exceptions. For the rebuilding teams, their chance at glory exists only on paper and their timeframe is nebulous. But for the contenders, time is of the essence.

The mere fact that we’ve almost reached the midway point of the NBA season and no one really knows who will win the title makes this a truly compelling season. One season does not make a paradigm shift, but it has been enough to make one wonder if this transition year is really the beginning of an entirely new era. One that’s marked by shorter windows for contention and a willingness to take aggressive risks.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

It’s often been said that the NBA is a players’ league and that’s true to an extent: talent wins and players often set the tone as much as coaches. But as our understanding of the game has increased thanks to tools like Synergy and advanced statistics, so has our understanding of coaching methods. Here are five sideline maestros making a significant impact.

Stan Van Gundy: Dumping Josh Smith was an addition by subtraction move mainly because it allowed Van Gundy to coach the way he wanted to coach. Smith is doing just fine in Houston, but he was obviously a poor fit for Van Gundy’s style of play. With a four-out system that emphasizes spacing and shooting (this will be a reoccuring theme), the Pistons are suddenly playing as well as anyone in the league. If he can help Andre Drummond reach his potential as the next Dwight Howard, the Pistons will be set for years and Stan will be in his element.

Steve Kerr: It’s impossible to talk about Kerr without talking about Mark Jackson. That’s a little unfair to both as Jackson’s last season with Golden State was hampered by injuries and a thin bench. Yet, Kerr made several key personnel moves by starting Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes while bringing Andre Iguodala and now David Lee off the bench. His assistant coaches -- Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams -- have also brought much to the mix. Kerr may have taken over at exactly the right time, but his work has helped calm what had been a messy transfer of power.

Jason Kidd: For all that has been written about his backstage power plays, what are we to make of Kidd as a coach? His Brooklyn team showed little life early, and then his smaller lineups helped the Nets find their footing. With Milwaukee, he’s been able to balance the needs of developing younger players while integrating veterans into one the league’s most unlikely success stories. Perhaps most encouragingly, Kidd has little use for conventional lineups or strategies. Whether it’s using Giannis Antetokounmpo in the pick-and-roll or posting up Kendall Marshall, the Bucks are constantly coming up with wrinkles that keep opponents guessing.

Mike Budenholzer: The Hawks made no significant moves last summer to get appreciably better. Stuck in a holding pattern after the removal of general manager Danny Ferry, they entered the season with almost exactly the same cast as the one that went 38-44 a year ago. Getting Al Horford back from injury was huge, but the real story behind Atlanta’s surge to the top of the East is found in a system that emphasizes ball movement and spacing. Bud brought the beautiful game philosophy with him from San Antonio and with a year to understand the system, his players are running it with precision and panache.

Rick Carlisle: Long regarded as one of the game’s best tacticians, Carlisle had an offense that was producing at historic records of efficiency when the Mavericks made the Rajon Rondo trade. After an initial adjustment period, Carlisle has employed a deep rotation that maximizes his players’ talents while limiting their weaknesses. That’s one of the most important elements to coaching at this level and few do it better than Carlisle.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

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Drive & Kick back? DRIVE & KICK BACK! I went deep with Scott Cacciola on the Knicks.

Is Kemba clutch?

If this keeps up Kemba Walker’s going to need a nickname like Kemba Klutch or something, but better. Tom Ziller weighs in on the guard’s clutchiness.

The amazing Hawks

The Hawks are straight fire, as Yaron Weltzman tells us. Ka-Kaw!

Stan's team

So are the Pistons. Mike Prada details all the changes that have taken place under Stan Van Gundy since Josh Smith was released.

Two steps back

Russell Westbrook is slumping, which is bad news for a Thunder team still digging out from their injury-ravaged start. Jesus Gomez takes stock.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"My motto is when in doubt, shoot the ball." -- J.R. Smith, philosopher.

Reaction: Let’s apply J.R.’s life lessons across the spectrum. For editors: When it doubt, add a comma. For lawyers: When in doubt, file a lawsuit. For doctors: When in doubt, perform an operation. For writers: When in doubt, ask J.R. Smith a question. On second thought, these are all terrible ideas. Except for the last one.

"I hope our fans get out and vote and don't put it in the hands of the coaches. And if the coaches don't do it, I'm probably going to get in a physical fight with those guys." -- Raptors coach Dwane Casey promoting the All-Star candidacy of Kyle Lowry.

Reaction: Lowry currently sits third in the East backcourt picture behind John Wall and Dwyane Wade, so without a late push from the Raptor Republic coach Casey may have to throw down with his brethren. It shouldn’t come to this, of course. Lowry should have been an All-Star last year and should be one again this year. Don’t make Casey angry, fellow coaches.

"I got into it like with every guy my rookie year. I had enemies on every team my rookie year. It was part of the way–I had to make my way, you know? But now, I have a reputation of playing hard, so … I think when you first come in off the back (of the bench) and I was playing like I was playing, it’s like, ‘Man, who is this?’ But after everybody knows who you are, they get used to it, they say that’s how he is. Guys respect a hard worker." -- Draymond Green, who is quickly becoming everyone’s favorite player.

Reaction: Green is one of the league’s most fascinating players. He’s a big reason why the decision to not trade for Kevin Love has worked out so well for the Dubs and his restricted free agency will be one of the key subplots of the offseason. No one saw this coming when he entered the NBA as a second round pick, but self-made players are the lifeblood of the league.

"I think that by the kind of emotions that they show, you can tell who's really doing it for the team and who's really feeling, like, 'All eyes on me.’ You can tell by how they go about handling it. Honestly, I was just trying to win the game. I was scared there was a possibility we let this one slip." -- Blazers guard Damian Lillard describing the difference between hero ball and being the hero.

Reaction: Dame may be splitting hairs here, but I think he’s getting to an important truth about taking big shots. There’s a certain necessary arrogance that comes with the territory and astute players know the difference between carrying the load and jacking up shots. We can debate clutch all day, but there’s a feel that separates the big-shot artists from the chuckers. That probably can’t be quantified, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.