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