Making the Right Choices: Do Top NBA Teams Spend Wisely?

Denver Nuggets:

Oh Melo. When GM Masai Ujiri took the position of general manager in 2010, he had more than a handful of problems to deal with, the most significant being Melo’s free agency turmoil. What could have been a disaster for the Nuggets however, ended up being a victory: not only for Denver but for teams everywhere that have been held hostage by superstar players. Ujiri robbed the Knicks, and gained a plethora of quality less-thans. And coach George Karl couldn’t be happier. Now he could run teams to death with his high speed, high altitude small ball. And it would only get better.

In a trade that seemingly solidified the Lakers’ status on top of the West, the Nuggets managed to bring in the perfect piece to their high energy, defensive system: Andre Iguodala. In what could have been a miserable post break-up tragedy, the Nuggets have managed to find “someone better” to meet their needs.

From what we can see, the Nuggets have the potential to rival the Spurs as one of the most cost efficient teams in the West. JaVale McGee is really the only player that is significantly overpaid, and when you take into account the fact that centers were going at a high price not too long ago, that expenditure seems reasonable. And while JaVale may the be the subject of one too many NBA memes, the fact that he is a seven foot, 252 pound 24 year old with tremendous upside should not be overlooked.

Two of the most popular Nuggets, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, are on board for cheap as well. As a rookie, Faried was a godsend. What player has had more rebounding instinct since Rodman? Some would say Love, but Faried is a rebounding prodigy. The Nuggets love energy players, and Faried is all about the energy. And despite Lawson’s miserable stint overseas, his production cannot be overstated. Put simply, he is the engine that drives the Nuggets’ high speed offense. The Nuggets are certainly getting the most bang for their buck out of these two. Of all the teams, I believe the Nuggets’ have done the best job of paying their players the appropriate salary.

Oklahoma City Thunder:

No one team has been luckier than the Oklahoma City Thunder. To strike gold three times in the draft? Come on. That kind of frequency demands more than luck, and the maestro behind the Thunder’s success has been general manager Sam Presti. But in the past few days, Presti has surprised even the most bold of GM’s. He traded away James Harden.

Just like in Moneyball, running a small franchise requires that you take bigger risks than an owner of a big market franchise would. There is no massive reserve of money to draw back from. Small teams equals big risks. As in, trading away an Olympic medalist-Sixth Man of the Year-Near Franchise Player type of risk. Is this a wise business choice? Or did Presti make one of the biggest mistakes of his professional management career? Observe the following graphs.

This is the Oklahoma City Thunder before the trade:

Let’s first look at the team as a whole. There is no denying that Presti has constructed a high-performance squad for cheap. The only player that could be considered overpaid (and I doubt he is the biggest attraction on the team) is Kendrick Perkins. And as mentioned before, centers come at a higher price these days. That’s why the Lakers trade for Dwight Howard was such a big deal. Dominant centers don’t come very often.

The trick here, however, is that Harden was due for an extension, and he is a max contract player. For a player of his caliber, anything short of a max contract would be considered a snub of desperate proportions. Serge Ibaka received a contract extension only weeks earlier, and one would expect Thunder management to keep the team together for one more title run. It seems that Presti wanted to pull the trigger a little earlier and hope for the best. The one thing these graphs do not show is total salary accrued, which means that although a player may be paid what they are worth, that does not mean that the team isn’t over the cap. So although signing Harden to a max contract extension may not have put him over the trend line, it would have sent the Thunder as a team over the cap. The Thunder couldn’t afford that.

Let’s look at the Thunder post-trade.

It appears as if the Thunder have sacrificed their title chances in the short term for flexibility and possibility in the long term. In terms of talent this year and payroll, Kevin Martin for James Harden makes no sense. In fact, Martin could be considered one of the more overpaid players in the league.

However, Martin’s contract expires after this year. This fact puts the Thunder in a favorable position to renegotiate next year, and remain under the trend line as a whole. And it’s not as if Martin doesn’t meet their needs. He’s a high volume scorer (although not capable of much else), and will provide a bigger offensive punch off the bench than Harden did. And for those keeping score at home, the other players on the Thunder roster who were above the expected salary line were shipped out in this trade as well.

In summary, it seems that the Thunder haven’t given up much in terms of on floor talent, and have still increased their flexibility for years to come. In this CBA atmosphere, banking on one player’s production while paying out of your nose may be a bigger risk than trading him away for suitable replacements. While the general public may view the trade as disastrous to team chemistry and paranoia based, the reality is that Sam Presti can’t control team chemistry. What he can control is how much he is willing to pay to get the results he wants.

Next Page: Conclusion

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