The 2013 Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers has been fascinating for so many reasons that extend beyond the brilliance of the basketball being played between these two powerhouses.
Not the least of which is the contrast in the way these teams were built, and the crosscurrents of in-the-moment NBA history that each team's plan represents—even more so when considering the Memphis Grizzlies' run to the Western Conference Finals.
The Old Way: Flash in the Pan
The Heat's plan is a familiar one to anyone who's tracked the league over the last three years, if not longer: Clear cap space for a superstar (or two...or three), leverage that star power to attract role players (Shane Battier, Ray Allen) at below-market rates, develop some fringe talent in-house (Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole) and spring for surprise contributors (Chris Andersen) when appropriate.
In celestial terms, one might liken Pat Riley's approach to a supernova. He seized the opportunity during the summer of 2010 (after doing plenty of legwork behind the scenes, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports) to form a title contender, the likes of which had rarely been seen before, in a quick and powerful burst.
The Heat became contenders overnight, just as they had six years earlier when Riley, an opportunist through and through, took Shaquille O'Neal off the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
But Riley's approach, while successful in fits and spurts, certainly has its downside. Nabbing players in the midst of their respective primes means that the championship window, while open at the moment, isn't likely to stay that way for long.
And when it slams shut, it does so abruptly, resulting in a cosmic collapse.
That's what happened to the Shaq-Dwyane Wade Heat, who fell into a 15-67 abyss just two years after lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. That team didn't age gracefully by any stretch, forcing Riley to sell off the Heat's spare parts for whatever he could get and start over once again.
And that may well be what happens this time around. Wade's troublesome knees have rendered him only an occasional superstar. His salary, along with those of LeBron James and Chris Bosh, figures to leave the Heat capped out and in need of yet another makeover within the next year or two.
In short, Miami's approach to team building isn't a sustainable one, especially under the auspices of the new, more restrictive collective bargaining agreement. It still works to some extent, though, because Miami is a destination city for the sorts of rich young men who fill the NBA.
And because there's no substitute for superstars.
The 'New' Way: Long-Term Flexibility is King
This is the way the Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies have gone about their business.
Both squads are based in small markets that can't count on free-spending owners and massive TV contracts to paper over their less appealing locales with...well, a certain kind of paper. Both have rosters that have been carefully constructed from the ground up over an extended period of time.
And both, because of their more modest fiscal situations and lack of big-market appeal, operate within very thin margins for error, thereby magnifying the importance of every move.
Also, both began the rebuilds that led them to this year's conference finals in the aftermath of a franchise cornerstone's departure.
In Indy, the story dates back to 2005, the year Reggie Miller retired. The Malice at the Palace in 2004 had already given Larry Bird, then the Pacers' president of basketball operations, cause to strip down the team's roster, in addition to sealing Reggie's decision to hang 'em up.
The Pacers spent four long years outside of the playoff picture between 2006 and 2010. During that time, Bird shuffled and reshuffled his team's deck through trades and free agency. That included dumping Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington and the rest of the remnants from the group whose actions stained the organization to its core.
All the while, Bird hustled the NBA draft in search of building blocks.
In 2005, he added Danny Granger with the 17th pick. In 2008, he sent a crumbling Jermaine O'Neal (and Nathan Jawai) to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for a package that included soon-to-be-rookie Roy Hibbert, who'd been the 17th pick that year. Two years later, Bird hit the jackpot with Paul George and Lance Stephenson and swapped the 15th pick (Kawhi Leonard) for George Hill in 2011.
Not that Larry Legend hit a home run every time he stepped to the plate. For instance, in 2009, he passed up a slew of quality players (i.e. Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson) to "snag" Tyler Hansbrough with the 13th pick.
But Bird did well to make up for his mistakes and fill holes through trades and free-agent signings. He and Donnie Walsh, his colleague and successor, have also been limited along the way by owner Herb Simon's tight pursestrings.
Such was the case this past summer, when the Pacers depleted their bench in a trade for Ian Mahinmi rather than signing Mahinmi outright and keeping Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones around.
That move didn't look any better once Walsh used the money he'd freed up to sign D.J. Augustin and Sam Young.
But, as bad as those maneuvers may seem now, they're not at all out of step with the hit-or-miss nature of team building in the NBA. Even the best general managers are bound to misfire from time to time. The key is in how executives accentuate their successes and respond to their failures.
Player development often plays a significant part in this process. Indy has done an excellent job of that of late, as this year's edition has shown.
The Pacers' staff has done well to turn Hibbert, once a bumbling bigfoot, into a smart, savvy and skilled center. Stephenson, once a trouble-making phenom from Brooklyn, has been turned into a tough, productive attack dog a la Ron Artest. Paul George, once a raw athlete without a jump shot, has become a budding superstar. George Hill, once Tony Parker's inconsistent backup, is a full-time starter.
Not to mention Granger, who might otherwise be an X-factor off the bench for these Pacers if not for his knees problems.
Chris Wallace is all too familiar with both the pratfalls of being a GM and the importance of player development and opportunism.
The Memphis Grizzlies' exec, whose role in the organization has shrunk with the arrivals of John Hollinger and Jason Levien amidst new ownership, has had his fair share of head-scratchers that have since turned out in his favor.
Chief among them was the trade that "gift-wrapped" Pau Gasol to the Lakers in 2008. At the time, Wallace and the Grizz were lambasted for delivering the Lakers back to championship contention while bringing in an underwhelming return of Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and some first-round picks.
Of course, what's so often forgotten about that trade is that Marc Gasol, who was still playing in Spain at the time, was the biggest prize for Memphis in that deal. He arrived stateside the following season and has since established himself as arguably the best all-around center in the NBA.
Less controversial, then and now, were Wallace's selection of Mike Conley with the fourth pick in the 2007 draft, his snagging of Zach Randolph for Quentin Richardson in 2009 and his trade that turned Greivis Vasquez into Quincy Pondexter in 2012.
To be sure, Wallace wasn't entirely responsible for building the team that was just swept out of the Western Conference Finals. His power within the organization had slipped by the time Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby were salary-dumped on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Rudy Gay gave way to Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye.
Rudy's preexistence in Memphis wasn't Wallace's doing, either. It was Jerry West who, in 2006, had the foresight to swap Shane Battier to the Houston Rockets for Gay's draft rights in a package that included the forgettable Stromile Swift.
And, truth be told, there's no ignoring Wallace's myriad blunders along the way—from signing Darko Milicic and Allen Iverson to swapping Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo and taking Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 pick in 2009.
Ahead of James Harden, Stephen Curry, et al.
The Importance of Coaching
Whether you've stumbled into a contender (like Wallace's Grizzlies) or built one up carefully (like Bird and Walsh's Pacers), no team can be complete without the right coach.
And, as the cases of Memphis and Indy indicate, the right coach can make all the difference in actualizing a team's potential and masking the mistakes made by the front office.
Lionel Hollins and Frank Vogel are both defensive-minded coaches who preach toughness and tenacity, albeit on the basis of very different backgrounds.
Hollins was an All-Star and a champion in his days as a pro. He knows all about the perils of NBA culture firsthand, from the ecstasy of winning a title with Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers to the agony of injuries derailing dreams for the future.
He knows better than most how fleeting success can be, how long it takes to put together a winning operation and how important it is to appreciate that machinery when it's in motion.
He's an old-school coach, first and foremost, who believes in the importance of relationships and establishing an identity for his team that reflects his own no-nonsense sensibilities.
He's cast a disdainful eye toward the creep of scientific modernity into the "intangible" world of basketball, as he made clear with his comments about Memphis' new regime and its decision to cut salary by trading Rudy Gay earlier this season (via John Rohde of the Oklahoman).
Vogel, on the other hand, never played professionally. He got his start in coaching as a video coordinator for the Boston Celtics when Rick Pitino ran that organization.
Vogel went on to cut his teeth as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers and as a scout for the Lakers and the Washington Wizards before landing a job in Indy behind Jim O'Brien, whom he replaced on an interim basis in 2011. Vogel was all of 37 at the time and owned the label of "Youngest Coach in the NBA" until Jacque Vaughn took over for the Orlando Magic this past season.
And, unlike Hollins, Vogel has wholeheartedly embraced the advanced stats revolution in the NBA. He can thank his extensive background in scouting for his willingness to consider any and all information in formulating game plans from night to night.
Obvious differences aside, these coaches grew along with their squads to the extent that they're now among the most respected members of their profession. They share a commitment to an organizational vision, a belief in well-developed teamwork on the defensive end and an understanding that you don't have to play a pretty brand of basketball built around superstars to succeed in this league.
Still No Substitutes
To a point, anyway. The Grizzlies' grit-and-grind was pushed out of the playoffs by the precision of the San Antonio Spurs. As for the Pacers, they've outhustled and outmuscled the Heat for the most part but still have no answer for the sheer talent of LeBron James.
As well as the Grizzlies and the Pacers have fared given their respective circumstances, there's still no substitute for star power and, to a lesser extent, the appeal of beach city living (in Miami's case) and/or a winning tradition (in San Antonio's case). If you can organize your efforts around the preternatural gifts of a Tim Duncan, a Tony Parker, a LeBron or a Wade, then, by all means, do that.
But if you don't have a transcendent star at your disposal, then it's on you to plan carefully, draft wisely, sign and trade shrewdly and hope against hope that Lady Luck allows the ingredients to congeal properly and in appropriate time.
And even then, you'll probably have to deal with those star-studded squads anyway. Tough life, indeed.
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