• One Big Thing: Be really good or really bad

    In most professional sports, you either want to be on the very top or the very bottom. It’s pretty cruel, but that’s just the way of the world. You’ve seen it play out amongst the league’s annual contenders and the, uh, ‘asset compiling strategy’ employed by guys like Sam Hinkie.

    This can’t possibly be the first time you’ve heard that sentiment, but I felt it was worth rehashing on Free Agency Eve. Yes, I’m writing this on Thursday night even though it won’t drop until Saturday. I’d do that for you.

    There’s going to be all kinds of money flying, but bad value will be bad value at some point. The cap won’t rise forever, and you don’t want to be stuck footing the bill to linger amongst the league’s ‘also-rans.’

    Hinkie’s process, for as much as it may concern those who crow about the integrity of the sport, was a good idea. There was no sense in working with a merely okay core that would never be good enough to win a title or appeal enough to lure a superstar free agent. Basketball is often a star’s game, and if you can’t get one you’re best served clearing the deck and trying again.

    If you’re going to be bad, be bad. Go for it. Get those high picks, build them up and then eventually you’ll have three or four or five young guys on the upswing who happen to be extremely talented. That might lure a star down the line. The road has been rocky, but the process has been right.

    It’s incredibly difficult to get to the top, as it requires some good luck and the right people at the right time. Once you get there, it’s about staying there. It’s going out and getting a guy like LaMarcus Aldridge to soften the blow of losing your longtime cornerstones. It’s about small shrewd moves that pay off in the long run that help sustain excellence.

    Where you don’t want to be is the middle. I’ve written about the jump from good to great being the hardest one to make before, and that goes double this time of year.

    When you’re stuck in the middle, you have a pretty full cap sheet full of pretty good players. And then what? You can’t easily clear space for a star free agent. You don’t have the high draft picks with the best odds at stardom and success.

    You could tear it down, but that’s not going to look great amongst fans and possibly ownership. You could keep trying, but the odds aren’t great.

    The New York Knicks can’t honestly believe that a Derrick Rose / Joakim Noah / Carmelo Anthony core can win a championship in 2016. So what are they doing? What’s the point? Getting past-prime big names doesn’t boost your reputation as a relevant basketball destination. It makes you look desperate and out of touch.

    Being mired in mediocrity, too good for the very bottom but too bad for the serious threats, is where the danger lies. When you’re good but not great, it’s hard to plug a hole in the dam without opening another.

    Take, for example, the Thunder’s rumored asking price for Serge Ibaka. Ibaka would’ve been a lovely fit on the Toronto Raptors who are in dire need of an athletic power forward who can stretch the floor. For all intents and purposes, Ibaka is a guy they should’ve gone hard after.

    I used the past tense because the Thunder asked for Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson and the 9th pick in the draft. There’s no doubt that Ibaka makes the Raptors starting unit much much better. But to get him, they would need completely tear apart their (very effective) bench. Patterson was a versatile defender who often played starters minutes, while losing Joseph would put undue stress on Kyle Lowry. It’s not like those two can be replaced cheaply this summer. That’s even before we talk about the implications of losing Norman Powell and the pick. The starting five works better, but it’s not worth it.

    This summer provides some fascinating case studies for teams who are staring down the dreaded middle of the pack. The money, either from these teams or their competitors, will surely force some hands.

    The Atlanta Hawks are really good, but that could change very fast. If Al Horford leaves, then what? It’s doubtful that they get better without Al. The remaining pieces are an aging Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroeder and Kent Bazemore. Let’s say Horford does leave and the Hawks re-sign Bazemore. Is that group good enough to get through Cleveland? Toronto? Miami? Boston?

    If Horford goes, it might behoove the Hawks to strip it down. Maybe keep Bazemore, but don’t hang up on any offers. Trade Millsap and get some picks for the future. Or keep trying as Millsap and Korver get older and try to squeeze out a final gasp or two. The Hawks’ future hinges on Horford’s decision and their own faith in Bazemore. Most options leave the Hawks firmly in the middle, and the only way out looks incredibly painful.

    What to make of Houston? Who can possibly get the Rockets back to serious contention? The Rockets generally try to bring in talented guys and figure it out later, which is honestly not the worst approach.

    But is there enough talent out there that could A) conceivably fit and B) actually want to go to Houston? They’re struggling to get meetings with top guys and the idea of sharing a Big 3 mantle with James Harden gets less appealing every day. Daryl Morey is a sharp guy, but it’s looking like this roster foundation just simply isn’t good enough.

    For a prideful guy like that, admitting defeat is tough. But barring a miracle, the Rockets are stuck; too talented to tank but too awkward a fit to hang with the league’s elite.

    How about Dallas? Is there anyone out there who thinks that this team is ready for a post-Dirk world? They surprised last season and have some interesting guys on board, but the moves they make this summer will go a very long way towards determining their fate.

    They apparently love Hassan Whiteside, but who goes around him? What if Whiteside never develops into a good team defender or chooses another location? Chandler Parsons did the team a favor by taking himself off the books, but Dallas could really go either way. They’re one foot in and one foot out. In to do right by Dirk and take one last crack at winning, out to build the next foundation of Mavericks basketball.

    Watching teams have their hands forced is one of the best underlying stories of every free agency days. Who panics and spends money to run in place? Who sucks it up and braces for the rebuild? And who connects for a home run?

    There’s lots of rhetorical questions here and there’s even more that have no right answer. While we won’t truly know what teams had successful summers until the games get played, we might have some pretty good ideas by Monday morning.

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