The sudden clustering of six contending teams in the Western Conference isn’t just a testament to how quickly the Clippers, Rockets and Warriors turned offseason moves into championship hopes. It’s also a test of how, exactly, the NBA’s latest collective bargaining agreement will impact the league going forward.
The buzz surrounding Dwight Howard’s decision to become a Houston Rocket – and Andre Igoudala going to Golden State, and the Clippers re-signing Chris Paul, hiring Doc Rivers and adding Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick – includes the noise of fans who suddenly believe they’re contenders.
But in the crowded Western Conference there’s also a clear demarcation line between two very different types of teams with realistic aspirations for a championship: those that can grow in big ways from the outside and those that must grow in big ways from the inside.
In the latter group sits the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies, with owners or business realities that make them more like penny-pinchers than profligate spenders. In the former are the Houston Rockets, the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers, big-market teams with the means and willingness to turn dollar signs into Ws. The Los Angeles Lakers will be back there, too, next season, armed with almost unlimited cap room, the will to spend and a bumper free-agent crop.
Memphis, coming off a Western Conference finals appearance, has that team intact and some cap room if it wants to add minor pieces, and the Spurs will keep their aging nucleus in place after barely losing to the Miami Heat in the Finals.
But it’s the gulf between the Thunder and Rockets that most clearly illustrates the two different approaches.
In trading James Harden to the Rockets a year ago, the Thunder enabled Houston’s rise while also dealing with their own small-market realities. Houston can and did spend. The Thunder must stay either below the cap or barely above it.
Houston, as shown by Howard’s arrival, can attract big-time talent. The Thunder almost certainly must grow their own and then decide which players to cut loose if that choice is forced on them. It’s hard to see a Paul or Howard or LeBron or ‘Melo choosing to make Oklahoma City home as anything other than a rookie who got drafted there.
This is Sam Presti’s predicament as the Thunder general manager. He will surely be criticized for not just letting Harden leave but for sending him to a team in his own conference that turned Harden’s presence into a lure for Howard.
Without Harden, the Rockets are not a threat to the Thunder’s perch at or near the top of the Western Conference.
But the fact is the CBA’s punishing luxury-tax requirements – particularly for teams that hit the repeater tax – is most challenging in small markets, where ownership isn’t blessed with big TV deals that make coughing up dollars easier to stomach.
Whereas the Lakers were able to pay $29 million in luxury tax for last season’s underperforming team, the Spurs and Thunder must win through a much different formula: get lucky and be smart enough to draft stars (David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook) and keep them for the long term because those players either take less money than they could have made elsewhere (Spurs) or got max-like deals despite playing in a less desirable town than, well, almost anywhere else in the NBA (Thunder).
That’s not easy. And that’s just the core. Both teams – to compete with opponents that can add a Paul and then retain him, or a Howard, or an Igoudala, or whatever stars the Lakers snag next offseason – must then build carefully around that nucleus the same way.
For the Spurs to top the West again, along with the health of their aging stars, they absolutely must have Kawhi Leonard grow into a star during his low-paying rookie deal. Ditto the Thunder with players such as Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson or even Perry Jones.
The Spurs’ stars have already matured into full-grown Hall of Fame players, and their success now rests in pushing back Father Time as long as possible. The Thunder, as great as Durant and Westbrook have been, must hope those two players’ best days are in front of them. They must continue to grow for the Thunder to keep pace.
Whereas the Rockets could throw max money at Howard – and credit them, no doubt, for having the means and cap room to do it – and the Lakers can spend tens of millions of dollars on taxes while paying an aging and injured Kobe Bryant a whopping $30 million, it’s different in smaller markets. Memphis was not active this year in free agency despite demonstrating in the playoffs that it is a player away from perhaps being a champion. Minnesota just spent $30 million on Kevin Martin for four years – the Timberwolves must overpay just to hope they land the piece that makes them a seven or eight seed. And the Thunder, who lost Martin, the guy that came over in the Harden trade, have to hope Serge Ibaka develops as quickly as his salary has.
Ibaka made about $2 million last season. That jumps to more than $12 million this season, which means he basically takes Martin’s spot on the roster.
The Thunder budget as though they’re living paycheck to paycheck because if their cupboard ever goes bare it’s unlikely to be filled by top-tier free agents deciding to make that city home. Much of their competition can run up big, sexy tabs and bank on the fact their cities are not turnoffs.
Next season and the ones beyond will be fascinating for the Western Conference. Watching the Rockets, Warriors and Clippers will be great theater in terms of who gains dominance. But watching the Spurs and Thunder will be equally fascinating for a lesson in how the CBA will shape the league in the years to come.