The elite, mediocre and tanking teams of NBA free agency

NBA Free AgencyThrough its teams’ spending decisions during the recent free agency season, the NBA has been stratified into three distinct groups: the powerhouses, the teams striving for mediocrity and the tanking contingent.

Because of that I anticipate a season with a distribution that falls well below an “ideal” Lorenz Curve (as we were tested on in Dr. Ely’s Economics midterm on Monday) with so many different teams taking such different strategies that will likely lead to much disparity and a wide dispersion of winning percentages. That should mean the 2013-14 season will boast perhaps five or six elite teams in each conference that should make for an incredible playoff season yet many more tanking for what is expected to be one of the top drafts ever.

Those teams can be grouped as follows:

Powerhouses

Although Miami and Oklahoma City — the league’s top two regular season teams a year ago — largely stayed pat, they will be joined at the top of the NBA by several teams that made big acquisitions.

That started in Houston where the Rockets pulled off the biggest move of the summer by convincing Dwight Howard to leave the Lakers for Houston. Suddenly Daryl Morey’s strategy of winning small trades that accumulate has paid off in a big way as in the last calendar years he has acquired the two stars he needs to become an elite team, one from a variety of quality assets and the other to play with that first star. It has been thought that you need to become terrible to get good in the NBA (see below) yet Morey was able to do it by staying mediocre for several years while stockpiling the assets he needed for his big moves. With Morey proving so adept at finding valuable role players over the years, you have to like Houston’s present/future with two stars to headline that kind of team.

Golden State certainly jumped a few rungs with the addition of do-everything swingman Andre Iguodala. The UA product will fill in all the holes on the Warriors’ roster with his Swiss Army Knife kind of game that’s always played better with better players around him. He’s a lockdown defender who can also facilitate on offense. The Warriors also re-stocked their bench after losing key reserves Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.

The Clippers were perhaps the biggest winners of all by re-signing Chris Paul in a no drama move (AKA not the Dwight situation) and then adding a slew of role players. They turned prized trade asset Eric Bledsoe into perhaps their two starting swingmen (Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick) and then somehow convinced Darren Collison to sign for just under $2 million a season. Although they are a bit thin upfront behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have the kind of star power, quality depth and coaching prowess with Doc Rivers to win a title.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets became a legitimate contender by mortgaging their future in a trade with the Boston Celtics that netted them Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce before also signing Andrei Kirilenko. They will be paying roughly the GDP of Russia in luxury taxes the next few years, but they will be very good. So could the Cleveland Cavs, if Andrew Bynum returns to health, as Dan Gilbert’s squad has come a long way in the three years since LeBron departed now featuring a young talented roster that could crack the playoffs in the East.

Jumping on the treadmill of mediocrity

With Morey’s Rockets being the exception that proves the rule, the worst place in the NBA is to be square in the middle. That’s particularly the case this season with so many elite teams and so many terrible teams vying for a chance to draft the league’s next great player. So therefore it made no sense to me that perennial lottery participants like the Pistons and Bobcats doled out some of the biggest contracts this offseason in an effort to, what? Become merely OK?

The Pistons signed the biggest non-Dwight/CP3 free agent by throwing $56 million at Josh Smith. He’s a nice player but will only push them closer to mediocrity while potentially stunting the growth of their young top tier big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. They could eventually form the core of a Detroit playoff team, but it’s doubtful their ceiling is much higher.

The Bobcats pulled a head scratcher by coming to terms with Al Jefferson at three years and $41 million. As bad of luck as Charlotte has had in the lottery the last few years, this would be the season to really try their hand at it. I understand the fact that they can’t try to be terrible forever, but they are far enough from contending that merely getting a little bit better makes no sense in such a perfect year to tank.

The Sacramento Kings didn’t make a big move for playoff contention, but giving Carl Landry almost $7 million when they are already filled with big men and nowhere near contending in the West doesn’t compute.

Finally, it’s strange for the Los Angeles Lakers to be anywhere but the first part of this list, yet they are squarely between tanking and going for it. Because Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are on their roster, they have no choice but to go for it, yet it’s hard to see how a team that barely made the playoffs with Dwight Howard will do any damage without him and with Kobe missing a chunk of the season. Yet instead of making tank moves, the Lakers have signed a few vets to quasi-contend. That will likely make them a bubble playoff team that neither appeases the vets or allows them to bottom out for the lottery pick they need to be the next Lakers star. Of course, if they sign LeBron and Melo next summer like every Lakers fan seems to think, they could probably live with a year of mediocrity.

Milwaukee isn’t nearly as sexy as the Lakers, yet they made a bunch of signings that would be OK by themselves yet as a whole put them squarely in the middle of the league.

Two and a half years ago at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Mark Cuban vowed his Mavericks would be bad enough to get its next star once the Dirk era ended and the team could no longer be excellent. Dirk is still around yet after whiffing on Dwight, the Mavericks opted for Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon and appear destined for a spot in the middle of the NBA. Those moves were puzzling for a Mavs squad that is putting a “playing for the eighth seed” kind of core around Dirk in his twilight years.

The tankers

Tanking season has become a staple of the NBA in late March and early April yet it started on draft night this season.

The Philadelphia 76ers blew up their team by trading their best player, Jrue Holiday, for Nerlens Noel and a protected 2014 pick before letting Bynum walk to Cleveland for nothing. After years of mediocrity, they are set to bottom out under new GM Sam Hinkie. It makes sense after the Bynum acquisition turned out to be a bust, as now the Sixers have two pieces toward their revival in lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams and Noel, and could pick two more next summer.

The Celtics seem to have every draft pick from now until infinity (or at least the Nets’ 2014, 2016 and 2018 picks along with the option to swap picks in 2017), not to mention an extra pick from the Clippers for Rivers. If the Nets’ aging core busts, this could be a monumental deal. Even if it doesn’t, the Celtics possess the kind of assets to help them rebuild after bottoming out in the ideal year to do just that.

The Utah Jazz let the Golden State Warriors borrow plenty of salary space by absorbing the contracts of Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush so they could make their offseason additions in return for firsts in 2014 and 2017 and a handful of seconds. They also let their two best players walk in Jefferson and Paul Millsap, but it’s not so bad since they leave behind a core of solid young players along with the additional draft picks that should put the Jazz on the upward trajectory before long.

The Phoenix Suns, who entered the offseason as perhaps the least talented team in basketball, added a dynamic young player in Eric Bledsoe for the low price of Jared Dudley and a second-rounder. The Suns were able to make that trade happen by absorbing Caron Butler’s contract into cap space, which is another reason why moves like the Bobcats signing Jefferson is so puzzling (due to the opportunity cost of cap space for moves like this they gave up in return). That economist cost seems far too high to me. By adding a young stud without particularly impacting their tanking chances, the Suns have accomplished what they needed to this offseason.

Final Thought

This offseason has set the NBA up to be about the elite, the mediocre and the barely trying. To me the smartest teams reside in either the first or last groups, as if you don’t possess enough talent to compete in this top-heavy season you are better off trying to be bad enough to obtain the kind of draft pick that can change your franchise’s fortunes next offseason.

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