Is the perfect roster blend for each position to have a star, or near star, starter; a more than adequate backup that is pushing the starter; and an adequate third stringer in case #1 or 2 go down? In a perfect world, without egos, caps, and taxes, yes. But we live in an imperfect world and the NBA certainly exists in a multi-flawed and contentious environment. So what are the realities and how do you (well, Danny) construct the best compromise?
Dateline: August 4, 2012 57 days until training camp
The quick answer on reality is that the only way to pay five star starters is for at least a couple of them to still be on rookie contracts. Even then, having a second string of players who are capable of pushing those stars becomes cost prohibitive. And the “adequate” third string will have to be constructed of rookies and minimum vet bargains. Even if you can put this together for a year, those rookie contracts end and paying the piper will hamstring future operations. With the new CBA owners won’t be able to soar into Luxury Land without losing the ability to add anything but rookies and subpar (or at least subpar salaried) players in the upcoming years.
Look around the Association. Even the powerhouse teams boast at most three stars, and to pay them the supporting cast has to drop off rapidly. Even the most glamorous of these creations are filling out a roster with the NBA equivalent of string and baling wire. The poster child of these star gatherings is Miami. They have benefited since the signing celebration from the glitter of South Beach and the star-power of their Big 3egos to attract ring chasers. These groupies-in-long-shorts have sacrificed earning power to become bit players and hangers-on, jesters at the royal court, for a chance at the hardware that comes with sitting atop the NBA heap. Never mind that the “sacrifices” have come at the end of careers in which they have already banked tens of millions of dollars and the only things they share with the common man is a fear and mistrust of the IRS and muggers (but that’s a column for another day). Sometimes they get solid journeymen like Shane Battier. More frequently they get washed up nearly-were’s like Mike Miller or Juwan Howard. This year they get former All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Both are ancient in NBA years and in injury mileage. Lewis is probably best known for having an “untradeable” (unconscionable and insane also fit) contract that has been improbably moved multiple times in the NBA money equivalent of a hide-the-pea shell game. An unmitigated disaster after Orlando lavished a $118M/6yr free agent contract upon him, his latest coup was securing a $14M buyout from New Orleans to NOT play for them. That means that Rashard raked in $109M over the last five years while struggling to play at even an “average” NBA level. Yet he is “sacrificing” to play the next two seasons with King James for a paltry $2.4M (added to his buyout cash). In the case of Ray Allen, he has recast himself as a player unwilling to morph into a role player as his career wound down in Boston—exactly what he says he is willing to do in Miami. They may have to hire an additional team bus just to carry the egos. Let’s just say that filling out a team around three stars consuming nearly 80% of the salary cap is challenging.
Accede for a moment that you just can’t pay for a “best” roster blend, so what is the most workable compromise? Professional basketball, more so than any other sport, lends itself to a top-heavy construction. It has the fewest participants on the field of action of any team sport. Consequently the best players have the most influence, and to a far greater degree than in any other group enterprise. It makes sense to put your wallet where the rubber meets the hardwood.
Strangely, the house that Ainge built in 2007 seems to be one of the most unlikely success stories, at least for multiple-year excellence. He assembled three superstars in the twilights of their careers when their skills were declining but their costs were still rising. In ‘07-‘08 Danny devoted his entire salary cap to the Big Three ($56M) and surrounded them with rookies, holdovers (Rondo and Perkins) at or near rookie scale, and free agent scraps off the bargain pu-pu platter. Perhaps no team has ever been more top heavy.
Given the new CBA, perhaps the best one can hope for is to assemble superior starters, put in place adequate replacements, and add filler. In this light Danny’s accomplishments this summer are all the more impressive. At every position there is an above average starter (giving Bass the benefit of the doubt). At every position there is an experienced backup, most above the quality expected for second stringers. Finally at every position there is a developing youth, some stellar and others quite raw or borderline. On paper, this team is significantly better than the group of bloodied and battle weary warriors that limped off the court in June two months ago–out of time, out of bodies, and out of the playoffs. If the 2008 Champions were Aces and Spaces that rode Lady Luck and Ubuntu to victory, the current squad might be characterized as a full house, kings high; with the next two hands already dealt–holding a flush, and two pair. In modern conflict, a strong army or navy alone seldom prevails. Integrated force warfare brings the full might of each force, leveraged with and through the capacities of adjunct systems. So too may the efficacy of three units combine to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Boston, and all points beyond