The death of long-term planning in the NBA
By Michael Pina
Illustrations by Lindsay Mound
It’s late September on the eighth floor of Brooklyn’s ultra modern HSS Practice Facility in Sunset Park. Seated behind a podium that overlooks a room full of reporters, Sean Marks is beaming. Just a couple months ago, his Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, in effect executing one of the biggest free agency coups in recent NBA history.
For the next 35 minutes, Marks handles the crowd with thoughtful answers, occasionally sidestepping more delicate topics with playful sarcasm. Even though the mood is mostly jubilant, this preseason press conference is bit with a very real tension. Marks must balance his team’s high expectations with the fragility of his own good fortune. Deep down, he, and every other front office executive in the NBA, knows one thing right now: there’s no time to stop and celebrate because everything can — and probably will — change in a year. Or three months. Or the blink of an eye. For some general managers, franchise-altering decisions are being made outside of their control and over their head.
Marks is eventually asked about this topic, how challenging it is to see any long-term vision through in an NBA that feels more volatile by the day. He starts to chuckle as his eyes widen.
“There’s never really those opportunities to take a deep sigh and say ‘OK, great’. It’s a player’s league. Players have shown that. They’re dictating really more than GMs, coaches, how and when, where they want to go and so forth,” he said. “All we can do is put out the best environment that we see fit for these guys … and hopefully [they] gravitate and want to be part of it.”
A few minutes later, Marks circles back to the topic: “These guys want to have ownership. They want to have ownership in, you name it, how we fly, the hotels we stay in, what plays we’re running out of an ATO … things are different now.”
Even though the Nets are located in a vibrant metropolis, they have zero NBA championships and only one playoff series win in the last 12 years. This did not faze Durant or Irving, two billion-watt all-stars most recently employed by universally-respected organizations that know how to win. They left objectively beneficial situations for themselves as basketball players to explore the unknown. When studied within an offseason that changed the NBA forever, they were indicative of an era that’s tilting the league on its axis. One defined by complete and total unpredictability. Seriously, nobody knows anything.
In addition to Durant stepping away from arguably the greatest team of all time as Irving’s officially backtracked on the Boston Celtics, Kawhi Leonard fled the Toronto Raptors a few weeks after he won Finals MVP, Paul George had second thoughts about Oklahoma City despite signing a four-year contract just 12 months prior — a move that caught every executive interviewed for this story off guard — Anthony Davis sacrificed a season of his career to strong arm his way out of New Orleans, and Jimmy Butler took less money to be a lone wolf in Miami.
Players are well within their right to make these decisions, but a few still liquified traditional norms by showing even more control over their own careers; as growing trends collide with the NBA’s established guidelines — including but not limited to: shortened contracts, the wave of new ownership, a rising salary cap, and the overwhelming influence of social media — the ability for any team to accurately forecast its own future has all but evaporated.
When Leonard left the champs it wasn’t a shock, but it did come without precedent. A splash of cold water still feels like a splash of cold water, even if someone gives you months to prepare for it. “[Kawhi’s decision] just basically told me OK, now we’re in a league where you can’t expect anyone to stay,” one assistant general manager in the Eastern Conference told SB Nation. “It opened up the floodgates. Anything is possible.”
And even though George’s trade request netted the Thunder plenty of ammo to build themselves back up, it still sent a chill down the spine of several front-office executives who know they could be next. Coming out of the summer we just had, approaching a season that reflects just how fluid the league is, the question of how front offices will wade through it all is both timely and worth exploring. How is long-term planning even possible in the face of constant change?
With the caveat that contingencies, luck, and the ability to adapt on the fly has always mattered, in several hours of conversation with over a dozen front office employees, nearly all acknowledge that it’s never been more difficult to strategically build than it is right now.
That said, it’s so hard to make a blanket statement about 30 franchises at any given time. Even though all work with the same Collective Bargaining Agreement, they also operate with different budgets, based on dissimilar abilities to generate revenue. Not all teams have the same goals, either. But all are vulnerable to evolution. The NBA’s hastening pace of change brings new challenges, and how they respond in the years ahead will be as fascinating as it is important.
Some teams that used to project six, seven, eight years down the road no longer try. Three, four, five-year forecasts are standard endeavors, but even with guaranteed rookie-scale contracts as long as they are, long-term plans have become a dead sprint into the abyss. As they were recently described by one general manager in the Eastern Conference: “It’s like building a brand new house around a sink hole.”
The root of this tectonic shift is money. In 2016, revenue from television contracts incited the largest salary cap increase in league history, by a mile. The cap for the 2019-20 season is $109.14 million. Five years ago it was $63.06. According to Spotrac, at the time the average salary signed by a free agent was $4.67 million. That figure more than doubled this past offseason, rounding out at $11.95 million. In total, $3,512,553,423 worth of contracts have been signed since July 1. That’s more than every dollar distributed to free agents in 2011, 2012, and 2013 combined.
What led us here didn’t happen overnight. When a new CBA was ratified in 2011, the maximium length of any contract was cut from six years down to five, luxury tax penalties became more punitive, and cap holds were reduced. Those changes, to say nothing of other revenue streams provided by sneaker companies and other lucrative endorsement opportunities, greased the marketplace.
“The money has gotten so much bigger,” Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk told SB Nation. “You see guys willing to part with the super max, but they’re still signing $150 million deals. I don’t want to say [the difference in money] doesn’t matter because it obviously does, but they’re still going to be well taken care of for the rest of their lives, and still be able to take care of their families.”
If neither winning nor money are the be all end all as a star charts his career, how can any team understand what a player wants, much less provide it? Front office members have differing opinions as to why stars are more receptive to change than they previously were. Some put responsibility at the feet of LeBron James. Not in a negative way, but as the very best player of his generation James naturally doubles as a spokesman for his own value system.
James is arguably the most powerful athlete in professional sports, and well over 90 percent of the league’s player pool isn’t fit to behave as he does. But his moves, going back to 2010’s Decision, helped fellow stars better understand their potential sway over a franchise.
Since 2016, he’s repeatedly traded guaranteed money for leverage, and even on his current four-year contract (that has a fourth-year player option) there’s an urgent responsibility for his front office to fulfill his wishes — as Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told ESPN: “When a player of James’ stature puts his trust in the organization I think there’s an implicit bilateral trust going back saying: ‘We’re going to do everything we can to put you in a position to win more championships, because that’s what you’re about.’”
This goes much deeper than any one player’s individual choice, though. NBA players reflect society. Our world is always moving faster than it once did, technology spurring the rate of acceleration. It’s an irreversible phenomenon that can be attributed to so many different factors, but in all walks of life — including the NBA — impatience is pervasive.
“The days of working for GM, IBM or whoever for your entire life are long gone. The notion of a career with a single employer that results in a gold watch at age 65 are long gone,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an email to SB Nation. “Today’s 20 somethings expect to be a free agent looking for their next job from the minute they walk in the door of their first job. There is no reason to expect 20 something NBA players to be any different.”
Attention spans are shrinking, and that reverberates through NBA players and fans. To embark on any long-term plan is to use a road map that was drawn with invisible ink. The landscape is constantly regenerating in a different form. “I think for now you can’t count on anyone to stay with you,” ones assistant general manager said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or 12-year veteran MVP candidate. That’s just the way the league is. So much uncertainty, so many guys on eggshells, so to speak. Everyone wants instant success and it’s so hard.”
As players become less predictable, the pressure to win that’s placed on general managers is as high as ever. For those guiding teams that have a young all-star, the challenge lies in having to appease him without losing sight of the future. They must balance short-term trades, when it’s the right time to enter the tax, and how many future assets are worth sacrificing. Go all-in too soon and the eventual rebuild will be that much harder, with a clogged cap and forfeited draft picks. Wait too long and said young star may lose faith and seek another home. Screw up that bad and the mess will be somebody else’s to clean up, though.
Nobody’s willingness to be patient is more paramount than whoever bought the team. Several front office executives interviewed for this story believe the increasing strain on their ability to craft a long-term plan can be attributed to the injection of a new type of owner. (Only eight have been with their team for at least 20 years.) Hedge-fund managers, venture capitalists, and those who secured their wealth in Silicon Valley aren’t used to steady, conservative proposals. They want to see the upshot sooner than later.
“It all sounds good in a ball room, until you start playing games and that owner looks bad at the Board of Governors, and his team is losing and he’s in the lottery and his fans are pissed and his season ticket holders aren’t happy and he’s hearing gripes from his sponsors and suddenly that timeline is accelerated,” one general manager told SB Nation. “Whatever plan you give your owner, internally you better know you can pull it off in about half the amount of time.”
About two thirds of the NBA’s general managers have held their position for fewer than five seasons. “The change is always going to come with the GM and the coach, because that’s easy,” he continued. “The disparity between salaries just keeps increasing. If you’ve got a $125 million pay roll, are you really going to be reluctant to fire your GM who’s making $3 or 4 million bucks?”
That doesn’t mean the days of linear, started-from-the-bottom team building are extinct. Not even close. In theory, the advantage patient organizations will have over those obsessed with a quick fix will only swell. But being patient is so much easier said than done. It’s tempting to veer off course, cut corners, and max out a player who isn’t worth it. “Obviously we’d love to push the button sooner than later,” one front-office executive told SB Nation. “But you’ve got to let the process [play out] and not skip steps. The worst thing you can do is sign a — I hate to say it — but sign a Chandler Parsons.”
All this highlights how important it is for ownership and the front office to constantly communicate, have self-discipline, and use cap space in a strategic way. It’s a tricky waiting game, knowing few jobs aren’t 100 percent secure unless your name is Pat Riley or Danny Ainge, while also acknowledging the need to sit tight for the right piece who makes sense on your roster and in your culture.
“We’re going to have $70 million in cap space more than likely this upcoming summer,” Schlenk said. “Just because you have it doesn’t mean you have to go spend it and sign a bunch of guys. We’re an instant-result society now, with everyone having phones in our hands and they can get any answer to any information they want immediately, and so it’s something we spend a lot of time talking about, more macro level, just with our guys and trying to get our young guys that are all 20, 21, 22 to understand that they’re not going to hit their peaks as basketball players until they’re 26, 27, 28.”
The plight of the modern NBA executive can’t be told without acknowledging the growing divide between big and small markets. Leonard, George, and Davis just went to Los Angeles one summer after James signed with the Lakers. Durant and Irving are now in New York. Kemba Walker went to Boston.
“It all comes down to one thing: There are about six or seven teams in the league that have to figure out the free agents, and then there about 23 of us that have to draft well and retain our players,” a Western Conference general manager told SB Nation. “That’s it.”
In an increasingly unstable ecosystem, a narrower margin for error demands an even more strict adherence to certain principles as front offices figure out what they want to be and how long it will take them to get there. Winning a championship is not impossible in a small market, but contending without a stellar draft record is. From Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, almost every small-market team that’s competitive has hit in the draft and then retained its all-star-level talent. The years between a rookie season and the day a third contract extension can be offered are where a solid infrastructure is more important than ever.
“The small-market teams tend to really go out of their way to accomodate an elite player because they are harder to get,” Indiana Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan said. “From the player’s perspective, they’ve got to think, ‘Hey, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, this small market team has bent over backwards to take care of me and help me develop,’ and I think the notion is ‘OK I can go play for this other team that’s gonna be so much better,’ and that isn’t always the case.”
Small markets have no choice but to strengthen every aspect of their own environment to the best of their ability. They pour millions of dollars into cutting-edge practice facilities, provide the most convenient travel accommodations, and even make the family room at home games as pleasant as possible. Every detail matters. Every year, with the goal of creating a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere, the Hawks invite their players’ families to a BBQ in Atlanta. Team employees throughout the league attend their player’s fundraisers and support their charities. They use official social media accounts to promote issues players support, and amplify their voices.
“It starts by being sincere with people, being straight up with people,” Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said. “It’s not a Stockholm Syndrome, but you do tend to love that first place if it’s a good experience.”
In the end, all of it’s an effort to make players feel like they’re a priority. To invest in nutritionists, massage therapists, mental health counselors, and different post-career initiatives. “The most interesting aspect of this is that it mirrors what is happening in other high skill environments and businesses in general,” Cuban wrote. “To hire and retain the best scientists, entertainers, programmers etc., it is not just salary that matters. Businesses have to create work environments that make people want to go to work at.”
Large-market teams can’t ignore any of this, either. Even after they sign stars to those massive third deals, the window to win big can close once that player re-enters free agency if they didn’t cultivate the right atmosphere. The Nets and Clippers will be tested almost immediately. The Lakers can lose Anthony Davis next summer.
Smart teams, regardless of their market, understand that appealing to star players doesn’t happen overnight, and the various methods they’ve taken to reshape how they’re perceived aren’t new. This has always been important, but never more than today. When he was first hired by the Houston Rockets in 2005, Rafael Stone — now the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations — set out to improve the franchise’s relationship with former players. He scheduled one-on-one dinners with those who still lived in the Houston area, to broaden their familiarity and comfort around the organization. “The selfish piece of that was we wanted to have a reputation as a player-friendly team,” Stone told SB Nation. “Players aren’t dumb, so it’s not just the guys on the team. It’s everybody.”
Two schools of thought materialize for every general manager who wants to keep their star. Are you a caretaker for that one player and trying to deal with them as an individual, keeping them happy so that they don’t end up looking elsewhere? Or are you a caretaker for an organization, and that organization envelops players into a culture they want to be a part of? When asked how much energy is spent committing to one of those two paths in today’s league, one general manager didn’t hesitate: “It’s all consuming.”
Most stars have chosen to emulate James’ off-court behavior to the best of their ability, but what happens if Giannis Antetokounmpo — who’s on track to grab the baton from James sometime in the very near future, if he hasn’t already — decides to stick it out with the Milwaukee Bucks, bunker down and accept the ups and downs that come with loyalty? If he chooses to eschew today’s trend, will other stars follow? Will the chaos level out?
The consensus among front-office executives is split. “Clearly there are a lot of personal reasons why players are going other places,” one assistant general manager said. “Kawhi made a very personal decision. Kyrie clearly was uncomfortable, made a personal decision. And same with Kevin. And I suspect we’re going to continue to see that.”
Some wonder if we may even witness a league where unhappy rookie-extension candidates will try and force their way to a different team, despite the fact that restricted free agency looms on the horizon, as Kristaps Porzingis did last season. But others interviewed for this story believe what we’re seeing is somewhat of an aberration. Everything will eventually settle down. Too many players will leave solid foundations in search of something perfect, and get burned. DeMarcus Cousins, who reportedly declined a two-year, $40 million offer by New Orleans before the Golden State Warriors snatched him up for the mid-level exception, was held up several times as a cautionary tale. No player can know what the future holds, either, and the fear of leaving guaranteed money on the table will act as a deterrent, as it once did. Everything is cyclical.
“I’ve been in the game 40 years and it’s hard to put people in categories or generations,” Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told SB Nation. “Everybody is unique. There’s some guys that think more like guys did in certain eras, and guys in Generation Y or Generation Z — I don’t know what they call it now [laughs] — but I think everybody is unique, and I look at every individual’s circumstance as a unique one.”
That belief is sound and may prove to be true in the long run. NBA players have the same job but that doesn’t mean they’re bound to view life in the same way. Their experiences, families, and principles are different. Their backgrounds are increasingly global.
At the same time, teams aren’t helpless. As long as a player is under contract, he’s a commodity. The Clippers shipped Blake Griffin to Detroit months after they sold him on being “a Clipper for life,” at a time when they were desperate not to lose him for nothing. The New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder traded their best players where they wanted to go because they just so happened to receive unprecedented asset bounties in return. That’s not a coincidence.
“Look, players are making decisions that affect organizations. Organizations make decisions that affect players as well,” Orlando Magic general manager John Hammond said. “This is not just a one-way street, that we’re sitting here at the mercy of the players.”
But if Giannis leaves for a larger market, what response will the owners spending billions of dollars to buy into the league have four years from now when they can opt out of the current CBA? And what impact will so many alterations to the league’s landscape have on the actual product, where the continuity all general managers desire is replaced by the need to keep options open?
“It’s a team game. We’ve shortened training camp. We’ve shortened preseason. We don’t practice nearly as much as we used to so players can continue to play at a high level,” one assistant GM said. “But the teams that win at the highest level typically have obtained a level of continuity where when they get to the playoffs they’re playing at a level and communicating at a level other teams can’t get to.”
In the meantime, front offices across the NBA will do their best to chart durable plans that allow as much flexibility as possible. They’ll sell owners on how they can climb back to the top by targeting different areas of growth and ways they can make their organization appeal to free agents.
The Hawks are one team that’s firmly committed to a five-year plan, one that requires patience, sharp scouting, and cultural buy-in. But they, too, know they aren’t immune to the winds of change. “Fortunately, just because of where we are, we’re not feeling that right now,” Schlenk said. “But I guess that could change tomorrow.” He paused for a moment and then started to laugh. “All it takes is one of my young guys to say ‘I want out of here.’”
What looms ahead may be a golden age for asset accumulation, filled with opportunities to pounce on situations that otherwise wouldn’t appear in a more rigid environment. One small example being when the Washington Wizards acquired Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, and a 2022 2nd round pick from the Lakers by involving themselves in the Davis trade. (They received all that for $1 million.)
Such fluidity may also create a cycle where non-glamour markets must consider trading their best players as soon as they catch whiff — AKA once an extension gets turned down — that they will explore options in free agency. The more years players have on their contract, the more assets can be asked for in a trade. And if you’re already bad and own all your own draft picks, adding even more may be the best path towards something special, especially if the alternative is overpaying in free agency for a pretty good, but not great, supplementary piece. (Imagine what the Minnesota Timberwolves could extract from another team if they shopped Karl-Anthony Towns instead of going all in on an uphill battle over the next three years to build a contender around him?)
The NBA will never have parity that rivals the NFL, but the days of a super-team juggernaut, a la the Warriors, may not be possible during a time of perpetual disruption. That creates the possibility — as is the case this season — where more teams than has been the historical norm believe they can actually win a championship. And that hope, fresh in the minds of front office members who just saw Toronto win it all, can potentially create an environment where trade-deadline demand for significant upgrades are an annual occurrence. The willingness to tolerate risk will increase dramatically.
It’s depressing to think teams should function in a framework that entices them to constantly surrender elite young talent for future assets, knowing how difficult it is to hit on someone like Towns, Bradley Beal, or Devin Booker in the first place. But losing them for nothing is a death blow. Cultural alignment, and the rising need to ensure your franchise player, owner, GM, and coach are always rowing in the same direction, is the only way to avoid it. That’s much easier said than done, though.
“That’s what makes the NBA so difficult [right now],” one front-office executive said. “Team building takes time.”