When the Boston Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007, it changed the game. The two future Hall of Famers, combined with longtime Celtic Paul Pierce, created a "Big Three." When they won the NBA title less than 12 months later, the mold for winning had changed.
This made every team—at least in the back of its mind—wonder how it could make a deal or two that would turn it from also-ran to champion.
The Miami Heat elevated the chase for talent even further in 2010.
Like many of their rivals, they had spent recent seasons clearing their salary cap in hopes of signing LeBron James or one of the other coveted members of a 2010 free-agent class featuring Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer.
When they retained Wade while also acquiring James and Bosh, the world was flipped upside down.
Everyone began thinking this was the new model: Rid your books of bad salaries and look to sign a free-agent bonanza.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
The San Antonio Spurs have always presented an alternative. And in this year's playoffs, four of the remaining six teams show that building—slowly and surely, even forgoing a superstar—can also get you into the NBA's final four.
(NOTE: Throughout, players acquired on draft day via trade are considered to have been acquired through the draft.)
The Golden State Warriors' three most important players this postseason have all been drafted by the team.
The Warriors have had the good fortune of high picks, selecting all of Stephen Curry (seventh pick in 2009), Klay Thompson (11th pick in 2011) and Harrison Barnes (seventh pick in 2012) in the top 11 over a four-year stretch.
But Golden State's current ascension shows how well a team can do even if it doesn't have a top-five pick. There were questions surrounding all three of these young players when they entered the league, and all three have already exceeded expectations.
That is superb drafting.
The big-man spots were filled out by trade, first when the Warriors moved a package that amounted to very little (Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike and Ronny Turiaf) for David Lee in a sign-and-trade deal.
Acquiring Andrew Bogut cost more: professional scorer Monta Ellis. But the result was the final step in changing the offense from an isolation-based attack toward a more ball-movement-oriented one.
Jarrett Jack (acquired in a trade that cost only Dorell Wright), Draymond Green (a 2012 second-round draft pick) and Carl Landry (signed cheaply in free agency last summer) round out the rotation.
Between finding all the right players and the right coach, the Warriors have adeptly put together one of the most exciting and promising teams in the NBA. They may come up short in making it to the Western Conference finals this year, but nobody expected that anyway.
They have already overachieved. And this is just the beginning.
The front office of the Indiana Pacers, a team on the verge of making the Eastern Conference finals, has built its team in a similar way. But given where they they have drafted, they might deserve even more acclaim.
Paul George, the defensive stalwart who became an All-Star this year, was selected 10th overall in 2010. But the other two starters acquired through the draft, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, were taken 17th and 40th overall in the 2008 and 2010 drafts, respectively.
George Hill was also acquired on draft day, an acquisition that cost Indiana only its 15th pick in 2011. The team's other draftee in the playoff rotation, Tyler Hansbrough, was taken 13th overall in 2009.
In short, the Pacers managed to find three starters and one useful reserve using nothing but picks ranging from No. 10 to 17 and a fourth starter with a second-round pick. Not too shabby.
The fifth starter—and arguably most important considering his role in changing the team's culture—was signed as a free agent. Though Indiana fans have long bemoaned their team's ability to attract any marquee signings, David West chose the Midwest over his other best offer following the lockout, which reportedly came from the Celtics.
Two other players of note arrived as the result of an oft-criticized trade.
Last offseason, the Pacers dealt water-bug guard Darren Collison (and Dahntay Jones) for center Ian Mahinmi. In addition to getting the big man, this freed up the backup point guard role, which the team immediately filled through free agency with D.J. Augustin.
The two have had their struggles this season—Augustin early, Mahinmi late—but both have risen their play of late to help the Pacers take a 3-1 lead over the New York Knicks in their series that could end Thursday in Game 5.
Sam Young and Jeff Pendergraph, two semi-regular playoff contributors, were both picked up for low-level free-agent contracts.
Nobody thought the Memphis Grizzlies were building a juggernaut when they traded for Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol.
But in this case, it's the quiet ones you have to watch for.
No frontcourt in the NBA is more imposing, and along with a seemingly ho-hum free-agent pickup in Tony Allen, this team has forged a "Grit 'n Grind" identity that few teams can match.
The other critical move: drafting Mike Conley and signing him to a large extension.
Those core four are the heart and soul of this team, and their talents have been lifted by a surprisingly potent surrounding cast.
Tayshaun Prince is the fifth starter, and it was the midseason deal that brought him in and sent out Rudy Gay that arguably set all this current success in motion. The team was left for dead after the deal. The move was carried out for long-term financial reasons, and—so we in the media said—the team had gotten worse by hemorrhaging talent in favor of profits.
Not at all.
The team used that dynamic to fuel a late-season push that carried into the playoffs and now has it in the Western Conference finals. Prince has fit in nicely with the team's substance-over-style identity.
While that remains at the center of everything, the team has also gotten great contributions at times from Jerryd Bayless (signed as an unheralded free agent), Quincy Pondexter (grabbed in a mundane trade), Darrell Arthur (drafted) and Keyon Dooling (signed for the playoff run in April).
To the SportsCenter-watching world, it is a team of nobodies.
To the Western Conference, it might soon be its representative in the NBA Finals.
Everyone knows how the Heat were assembled: In the summer of 2010, Wade, James and Bosh formed together like Voltron.
The league will never be the same.
Given how much these three players take home in salary, however, team architect Pat Riley knew he would have to get creative to fill out the roster. Along with help from his coach Erik Spoelstra's "space and pace" philosophy, he found an ideal surrounding cast, relying largely on overpaid castoffs and unwanted role players.
Ray Allen was the big get through free agency last summer. Mike Miller was acquired the same way two years earlier, as the Heat spent their mid-level exception to lock up the sharpshooter long-term.
Shane Battier was convinced to sign for cheap after the lockout ended. It is this phenomenon—rich veterans' willingness to take little pay for a big chance to win—that Riley has been able to count on to pick up the final pieces of what is likely to be the league's next back-to-back champions.
Rashard Lewis, too, chose the Heat, which were able to dust him off the scrap heap and stick him in the corner for a minimum contract. Miami was able to do the same with Chris Andersen.
Udonis Haslem, though having never played in the NBA, was last decade's Birdman. The team picked him up for cheap as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and he repaid the favor in 2010, bypassing a larger payday to stay with his buddy Wade in Miami.
The team hasn't been completely bought, however.
Wade was of course drafted by the Heat in 2003. And Mario Chalmers and the increasingly productive Norris Cole were both acquired in the draft in recent seasons.
The critics will always say this team is an unholy Frankenstein's monster. To some, LeBron may never live down his Decision to "team up" with his rivals rather than walk his own path in Cleveland.
But does it really matter?
The team had a unique opportunity to put together a champion in a flash, and it has already pulled it off once. The second is likely only another few weeks away.
(NOTE: James and Bosh were technically acquired by trade. Due to the structure of the former CBA, it made more sense for Miami to entice their former teams with a few draft picks so it could ensure its new superstars were signed to the most favorable contracts.)
The New York Knicks always have the strangest teams. This year's incarnation, a top-heavy roster of seemingly mismatched parts and old folks, blended together perfectly in the regular season.
There were bumps along the way, but whenever someone went down, another player filled in.
Jason Kidd, who is 40 years old and was signed in free agency in 2011, began playing huge minutes after an injury sidelined Raymond Felton, who the Knicks employed for half a season before packaging him in the Carmelo Anthony trade but then reacquiring in free agency last summer.
Then there was the trio of Rasheed Wallace (signed out of retirement), Marcus Camby (acquired in a trade centered around Toney Douglas) and Kurt Thomas (picked up via trade). Each did his part for a few games when New York lacked better options.
When Thomas went down for the year with injury, Kenyon Martin was signed. He hadn't played for any team this season until the Knicks gave him a deal in February.
In the backcourt, Pablo Prigioni, a free-agent signing plucked from Spain, jumped into a starting role late in the season during a resurgent stretch that earned the team the No. 2 seed in the East.
All of this was what it took to compile a supporting cast around the team's marque players, Carmelo Anthony (picked up in a blockbuster midseason deal in February 2011), Tyson Chandler (signed as a free agent later in 2011) and J.R. Smith (a free-agent pickup after he returned from playing in China during the lockout).
The team may now be coming apart at the seams, however.
Everyone is struggling, and the team's 2011 draft pick, Iman Shupert, is mending a sore knee. Many fans want to see more of Chris Copeland and Steve Novak, two lethal shooters who have thrived at times this season despite being signed only as bench fodder.
Still, the job that the Knicks front office has done this year has been remarkable.
Not only has the team been able to find all these players from the island of misfit toys, but it has given Mike Woodson players that he could turn into an offense that at times looks like the league's best.
The San Antonio Spurs are less of a professional basketball team and more of a program. They got their guys a decade or more ago in the draft (Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in 1997, Manu Ginobili in the second round in 1999 and Tony Parker with the 28th pick in 2001), and they have since continued to rotate the surrounding parts while never losing a step.
Coach Gregg Popovich has changed his style, and general manager R.C. Buford has changed the roster, but nothing has changed: The Spurs remain able to win with any cast.
Kawhi Leonard is the team's greatest recent get and best hope for the future. The draft-day trade it made to acquire Leonard (giving up George Hill in a difficult choice) has been one of the best moves the franchise has made in a decade where almost everything has seemed to work out.
Tiago Splitter, too, was grabbed on draft day. Though the Spurs were not able to bring him over from Brazil for years, the decision to draft him in 2007 (with the 28th pick, no less) has proved critical to helping the team make another run at the title.
Amazingly, Danny Green is the only player among the team's top six players in minutes per game this postseason who was not drafted by San Antonio. He was picked up when the Spurs were one of the few teams that showed interest in him as a free agent after he was waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010.
Boris Diaw and Gary Neal were grabbed through similarly non-marquee free-agent deals, while Matt Bonner may be one of the most Spurs-eque acquisitions. He was a "who cares?" member of a 2006 trade that sent Rasho Nesterovic to the Toronto Raptors—and then he stuck around for the next seven years, even starting 67 games in 2008-09.
At some point, you just have to shake your head.
They do it every time.
Unfortunately, it's a tough model to mimic. Instead, teams continue to try to hope for the Heat route (convincing a franchise-changer to come in free agency) and usually settle for the Oklahoma City Thunder path (lose a ton of games and try to draft a franchise-changer or two).
Those ways can work. We have watched it happen.
But if we end up seeing that three of the final four teams left standing (San Antonio, Indiana and Memphis) were built more through long-term planning and savvy pickups, it may change the game again.
General managers may start to consider looking less for a headline-making splash and more for an available player who fits their culture.
Nobody can replicate San Antonio's "Program"—but any team can build its own. The Pacers and Grizzlies are showing that it is possible to become a contender the old-fashioned way.
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