The NBA is in an unpredictable time where there are more viable title contenders from season to season than in any other era since the late 1970s. The impatience of a certain class of stars, shorter contract lengths across the NBA and a repeater luxury tax system have all combined to create truncated windows for contenders. For a league that built itself on decade-spanning dynasties, it is challenging to conceptualize the near impossibility of a durability that exists for teams to sustain their success beyond a period of five or six years.
Teams have increasingly responded to the complexities of these conditions by edging themselves optimistically all the way in on the present or by entirely embracing multi-year teardowns to stockpile future picks from other teams while also maximizing their own lottery odds. They are entering a period of hibernation in hopes of someday, not sure when, returning as an unstoppable monster multiplied by their own draft picks and those of the former contenders now obliterated.
Three of the four most recent title winners, the Raptors, Lakers and Bucks, made bold trades that paid off in the immediate season thereafter. When zooming out further, the through-line for title winners are significant trades that bolstered their odds. Trades take two parties, and the number of teams willing to cooperate on the other side has increased significantly. Players selected in the draft, particularly in the second half of the draft, rarely make immediate impact to title contenders. These players are clearly worth more to rebuilding teams, and trading future picks is the liquid currency of our time to facilitate these megatrades like prison cigarettes.
Coming out of the Sam Hinkie period with the 76ers, there is more buy-in from ownership and fan bases that comprehensively bottoming out is a more attractive plan than continuing indefinitely in the middle. Title contenders and the franchises overflowing with future picks have been conveniently foregrounded and encouraged, while the only teams that find the middle habitable are ones like Sacramento that have been unwittingly rebuilding for nearly two decades. Less depressing are the teams in the middle either going on the elevator up or down.
There has been a narrowing of options on how to build a title team, just as there has been a narrowing of stylistic options on the court with how many teams uniformly hunt three-pointers.
If things don’t work out as hoped, there is at least a noble failure in going all-in on your ambition. Eleven NBA franchises have never won a championship, and six have never reached the Finals. There is a fragility to windows of title contention beyond just injuries. The major trade maximizes that window when it is certain to exist, even if it creates a fraught liability downstream. The chaos for the range of options available to teams on both sides of this equation is thrilling.
The NBA not only likes the luxury tax because of how it spreads revenue to low revenue teams, but that it also creates “a player sharing component.” The league has sought greater parity coming out of the 2011 CBA into the Adam Silver tenure, to make itself more like the NFL, and it inarguably has succeeded in the years following the 2015-2018 hegemony of Warriors-Cavaliers. The likelihood of two franchises playing each other in four straight Finals again is incalculably small. A single team reaching the Finals in four straight seasons again is even unlikely. Someone once aptly joked that Silver’s dream for the NBA is for every team to win one title every 30 years. We don’t quite have that annoyingly egalitarian scenario, but the dynasty era ends once Stephen Curry retires. The superteam era doesn’t create dynasties as much as short-lived comets that sometimes work out handsomely and sometimes remain strictly theoretical.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons have famously been used as the exception to the rule that a superstar is table stakes to win a championship, but perhaps they’re not disproving that rule as much as they were the initial example of how teams need to go all-in to win a title in this era. Detroit acquired Rasheed Wallace at the 2004 deadline before becoming a title winner against the misshapen Lakers that themselves had gone all-in on the present by bringing in a pair of end-of-career Hall of Famers in Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
Since the 2004 Pistons, the San Antonio Spurs in 2005, 2007 and again in 2014 are the only franchise that wasn’t turbo-boosted by this kind of dramatic move. With Tim Duncan and a draft day trade for Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are the exception in this category.
The 2006 Heat traded for Shaquille O’Neal.
The 2008 Celtics traded for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
The 2009 Lakers had traded for Pau Gasol the season before.
The 2011 Mavericks responded to the nadir of the Dirk Nowitzki era in 2007 by trading for Jason Kidd a few months later, while also relentlessly tinkering on the margins by acquiring the likes of Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion.
The Heat not only created the necessary cap space to sign LeBron James and Dwyane Wade by gutting their roster, including a No. 2 overall pick from the season before, but they sent out bundles of first-round picks to execute sign-and-trades that allowed them to round out their depth by keeping Udonis Haslem and signing Mike Miller.
The 2015 Warriors sent a pair of first-round picks to the Jazz in 2013 to create cap space to sign Andre Iguodala.
The 2016 Cavaliers traded out two No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, plus an additional first-round pick for Kevin Love.
The 2019 Raptors traded for one season of an injury-plagued Kawhi Leonard.
Entering the burn all of the boats era, the Lakers traded all their draft assets and two former No. 2 overall picks in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram for Anthony Davis in 2019.
The 2021 Bucks sent all of their future picks to the Pelicans for Jrue Holiday, though that trade should contain an Eric Bledsoe contract asterisk when compared to other trades of this category.
The 2022 Warriors didn’t give up future draft capital in the same way, but they did execute a somewhat risky series of transactions by maneuvering future picks to turn Kevin Durant into D’Angelo Russell and then Andrew Wiggins. They also had a salary plus luxury tax bill that is completely unavailable to 27 or 28 other franchises.
These are the obvious success stories.
The 2013 Nets are the familiar embodiment of this strategy turning into disaster, not only because of how they topped out in the second round, but for the result of Boston winding up with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. This is of course the dream scenario for teams trading out a dollar bill for the 10 dimes of future picks. The 2019 Rockets that traded Chris Paul and picks to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook at least put pick protections on what they sent out. The Chris Paul Clippers and Carmelo Anthony Knicks strung together a few competitive seasons before coming up well short.
One championship won means it was unambiguously worth it, but even for most franchises that fall short, the downside hasn’t really borne out as being catastrophic.
This season, the Clippers, Sixers, Nets, Bucks, Hawks, Cavaliers, Lakers, Wolves and Bulls have done just about everything they can reasonably do to compete in terms of mortgaging the future. The Warriors and Celtics aren’t too far behind, though they still have a bit more remaining in their arsenals. The Suns, despite reaching the Finals in 2021 and finishing with the best record last season, continue to hold all of their picks while also publicly eschewing the draft. After splitting a pair of 10s in trading for Westbrook, they’re on the precipice of another loan shark move by sending out 2027 and 2029 for what will probably be a marginal return as they attempt to revive a corpse.
The Mavericks, Heat and Knicks are desperate to pull off this type of move and the considerable advantages it provides once one becomes available to them. The Pelicans can bundle their own picks with future picks from the Bucks and Lakers to add another piece to a playoff team should they decide they can afford the luxury tax.
The Grizzlies and Nuggets appear to be the only teams who could reasonably be called contenders that aren’t eager to hasten their odds to play this game. That posture could change in an instant ,and they have each kicked the tires on the likes of Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant.
A select group of teams maximizing their title chances by any means necessary is smart, well-intentioned business. If that group becomes overwhelmingly large, then it becomes delusional for the ones risking it all without a realistic path. We are soon approaching that edge based on the trajectory evidenced this past offseason.
If the Thunder (or Jazz for that matter) are successful in their demolition and slow food rebuild, and are able to grow a contender out of all these picks, I wonder how it will look different than the 2010s team. In terms of drafting stars, that worked out so perfectly that it is challenging to envision it being matched again. Even if it did, how many years would it remain affordable to their ownership in a more punitive luxury tax environment than the one they confronted in 2012 with the James Harden trade? Most teams see the spending of the Warriors and Clippers and respond by seeking an even more severe luxury tax and overlook the reality that it will besiege them far more adversely if they have the good fortune of building out a roster of players good enough to warrant those types of contracts. Any small-market team that votes against counting players drafted by their own team at a reduced level for calculating the luxury tax is doing so in a short-sighted way.
The Bucks have sustained a big three for multiple years, but they have a pricey offseason ahead with Khris Middleton. They also have trimmed on the margins, such as PJ Tucker, that tangibly lessened their team. Milwaukee also has the unique position of having a player who could end up being considered a top-10 historical great.
Are teams of this era better than the great ones of the past that we lionize? Probably not since the 1960s Celtics were one of fewer than a dozen teams. The 1980s Lakers and Celtics were made from almost mythical trades and drafts. The 1990s Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The 2017 and 2018 Warriors undoubtedly have come the closest, but that run of true dominance lasted only three years in spectacularly anxious fashion by the end.
What’s clear is that you still need a superstar or two in their unquestioned prime and the right blend of role players, but you also cannot afford any passengers on the floor during late-round games. The 16-game player vs. 82-game player thing has already become cliche, but it is far too easy and advantageous to play any opponent who can’t adequately defend or shoot off the floor or favorably exploit him while he remains on it. Superior teams don’t have any weak links, and that increasingly means paying full freight financially and in every asset not bolted down.
Teams on the high end getting better at all costs should theoretically make for more entertaining games in May and June. Teams on the low end looking to methodically assemble something great theoretically sell their fans a behemoth hope. The NBA is far less pyramidal now and instead more closely resembles an hourglass.
The franchises in the middle unwilling to gamble the short term and also incapable of affording a multi-year teardown may unfortunately be transported from the mediocrity treadmill to a rat maze. It also minimizes the journey for most very good but not great teams and needlessly makes everything a zero sum game.
Above all, this is a star league. Always has been and it always will be. Nobody wants to see any truly great player waste seasons in impossible situations that aren’t commensurate with their station. The teams housing stars that aren’t doing everything possible to support them have become too conspicuous to ignore.
The masterpieces in the Finals achieved by Steph, Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi and Durant over the past five years were assisted by this expansive all-or-nothing environment. Nearly every true superstar has a chance to win the title this season, which is undeniably in the best interest of the league.