Championship contenders are built on calculated risk, just as some of the most lowly, cap-strapped franchises are burned by those very same gambles. Such is the way of it in any industry where the desired resources are so limited. Without enough LeBron Jameses to go around, teams are left to talk themselves into less appealing options at all possible price points, and to compete with one another to acquire them. No matter how much scouting and analysis is done beforehand, the final step in any deal is a plunge -- to commit salary to a player who may fail, may not fit or may suffer some tragic injury.
All is subject to variability and chance, but at the same time not all gambles are created equal. There are wise risks and less sensible ones, sometimes separated by the thinnest of margins. Today, we'll parse the probabilities of both extremes in the offseason's biggest gambles, as identified by the money and resources at stake, the range of possible outcomes and the goals of the teams in question.
The gamble: Acquiring the three years and $30.3 million remaining on 31-year-old forward Gerald Wallace's horrible contract in hopes of enduring it or trading it later.
The assessment: I don't mind this maneuver much, even if acquiring dead-weight salary is a bad manner of business as a general NBA rule. The Celtics may have had various options in trading either Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce, but they managed to redeem value for both simultaneously in their deal with Brooklyn, while adding Wallace as the only real cost. Unloading 35-year-old guard Jason Terry -- who was only of marginal use to the Celtics last season and would be of even less use in the upcoming rebuild -- and the $11.5 million he'll make over the next two seasons also helps make this acquisition more bearable, in addition to the fact that Boston still has plenty of decisions to make on the moderate collection of contracts that remain.
Charting a rebuilding course and cleaning up the cap sheet takes time; much of Wallace's contract may be a tolerable tax on a team finding its way. Surely Boston would prefer to not have Wallace's annual $10.1 million salary on its books, but the implications of his cap hit are likely to be minimal given the Celtics' rebuilding timetable.
The gamble: Banking completely on the present and surrendering several first-round picks (2014, '16, '18, and the right for Boston to swap picks in 2017) in order to land Garnett, Pierce and Terry.
The assessment: Even in recognizing all the good this move does for the Nets this season, I'm not sure it's really worth the luxury-tax and draft ramifications. What, after all, is the value of an upgrade and culture change that leaves Brooklyn a rung below the first-rate contenders and may last just two seasons? The versatility added should save the Nets' stale offense, and Garnett alone will salvage so many defensive possessions. But Brooklyn has shaved time off the life of this core by front-loading it with aging players and hefty salary (thus inflating the tax penalties) while discarding a wealth of future assets in the process.
That said, Mikhail Prokhorov very clearly lives in a different world from the rest of us, and even from the rest of the NBA's owners, for that matter. Out of a desire to push his team closer to immediate contention, he'll eat $101.3 million in payroll alone next season before sorting out revenue sharing, other operating costs and the monstrous luxury-tax hit that follows. These may be of little matter to a man with such deep pockets, but racking up a string of seasons as a taxpaying team will come back to burn these Nets as they look to reload after Pierce's possible exodus in free agency next summer and Garnett's possible departure the following year. The mission of upgrading the roster was very clearly accomplished, but the cost to the team's future and flexibility was profound.
The gamble: Signing Andrew Bynum to a two-year deal with $6 million guaranteed in the first season (plus $6.2 million available through performance incentives) and a relatively early guarantee date on the team's $12.5 million option in the second season.
The assessment: Looks good. Bynum is talented enough to be a potential steal even at a $12 million salary, assuming that he's able to play regular minutes, and the risk is twice mitigated by two nonguaranteed seasons. The only real pitfall, in my eyes, comes after the first year. Suppose that Bynum struggles early next season or misses games because of injury, only to come on strong late. Would that be proof enough for Cleveland to pick up his entire salary for the 2014-15 season in early July, as would be necessary per his contract stipulations? That could prove to be a tricky decision if Bynum is anything but a clear-cut success or failure with the Cavs -- a choice that stands to determine Cleveland's relevance to next summer's long-awaited free-agent class.
The assessment: This one's pretty definitive. Pairing Calderon and Ellis together on the perimeter will be a glaring defensive problem for both this season and the foreseeable future. Dallas has both guards under contract for the next three years and Calderon signed on for a fourth at a cost of $53 million in total, committing a good chunk of time and money to a combination that will likely prove untenable in coverage. Having Calderon or Ellis would be manageable, but having both requires elite help defense as mitigation. Dallas simply doesn't have the defenders to manage that kind of rim protection and rotation, putting a lot of pressure on the offense to outscore teams.
The gamble: If only there were just one.
The assessment: To crib from my lengthier look at Denver's prospects, the 2013-14 Nuggets are banking on the following: center JaVale McGee’s ability to maintain his production and influence as his playing time increases; point guard Ty Lawson’s capacity to create even more offense than he did a season ago; forward Kenneth Faried’s development on both ends of the floor; forward Danilo Gallinari’s recovery and health after having knee surgery; guard Nate Robinson’s ability to contribute without self-detonating; Brian Shaw’s bona fides as a coaching prospect; the viability of this current core, which is set to have Denver capped out for the next three seasons; Gallinari’s and forward Wilson Chandler’s capability to defend elite perimeter scorers; the rebounding upgrade from center Kosta Koufos to J.J. Hickson as a means to help one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league; and the notion that the Western Conference won’t be as deep as advertised.
There’s a lot up in the air for this team, to say the least, all of which corresponds to a wide range of possible outcomes. The Nuggets are no better than a solid playoff team, but a few wrong turns could put them well into the lottery.
The gamble: Hoping Josh Smith, who signed a four-year, $54 million contract, can work alongside two conventional big men (Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond) as a small forward, and/or retain his trade value to give the Pistons a high-level asset.
The assessment: I'm in favor, and explained why at length here. Ultimately, Smith's appeal boils down to three factors:
1. He's a better small-forward option than many would have you believe, and a colossal upgrade over Detroit's lackluster options from last season.
2. Adding Smith is a huge defensive play for a team that ranked 24th in points allowed per possession last season and has two raw defensive big men who could stand to learn a thing or two.
3. At worst, his deal is sub-max and movable. Even if sharing time between both forward spots isn't purely optimal, Smith will retain trade value and could be shipped out if the fit isn't as expected or if the team's internal development renders him redundant.
Los Angeles Clippers
The gamble: Loading up a roster with quality perimeter players as a means to hide the lack of frontcourt depth.
The assessment: I'm skeptical, even in acknowledging that the Clippers will be one of the better teams in the West next season and an uncompromising scoring juggernaut regardless of their faults. Replacing former coach Vinny Del Negro with Doc Rivers should help deepen the offensive playbook and instill hope with a proven defensive system, but a lot rides on Blake Griffin's and DeAndre Jordan's joint ability to play huge minutes (their sole backups are Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins) and thrive in their control of the weak side of the floor.
Boston's defense under Rivers worked so effectively because Garnett had such a flawless command of quasi-zone coverage when keeping tabs on the weak side. I'm not quite convinced that Griffin and Jordan will be up to that challenge. They'll still be fine, and will likely improve in reading the floor and rotating on time. There's just a clear divide between "getting better" and "title-worthy," and I'd expect the Clippers' defense to lean toward the former.
New Orleans Pelicans
The gamble: Sacrificing cap space and draft picks (one of which was used to select Nerlens Noel, another which could come into play for the vaunted 2014 draft) to acquire Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, completing a strange and fascinating core.
The assessment: I'm higher on what the Pelicans have done than most, largely because of the potential for offensive synergy between their high-usage perimeter players and high-efficiency big men. There isn't a definitive star in the bunch, but Evans, Holiday and guard Eric Gordon form the foundation of a balanced, well-spaced offense suitable to all involved. Evans can handle the ball without monopolizing it. Holiday can run the show while still having a chance to play off the ball, as he did well with Andre Iguodala in Philadelphia. Gordon -- if engaged -- can fill in the gaps by spacing the floor and getting to the foul line.
Big men Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis, though, create the most intrigue as valuable, shot-wise offensive players who can manipulate defenses without even touching the ball. Every Davis roll and Anderson spot-up warrants concerted defensive attention, making things easier for the Pelicans' creators. It'll be awkward getting all the pieces to fit initially, but New Orleans could become a very solid offensive team quickly if coach Monty Williams brings a more creative flair to the base offense.
The defensive end is a bit trickier, but the Pelicans are in decent position with an elite big-man prospect in Davis and the very versatile Holiday serving as the base of a cogent system. Gordon, too, can lock in to play solid D when so inclined, though his waffling interest, Evans' lack of focus and Anderson's struggles could well create some problems.
New York Knicks
The gamble: Acquiring a poor defender and miserable rebounder (7-footer Andrea Bargnani) to log major minutes.
The assessment: I’m flummoxed that the Knicks, even with limited options to acquire talent, would consider obtaining Bargnani a wise basketball move. Bargnani, 27, compounds the biggest problems the Knicks faced a season ago. His presence -- along with that of forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire -- will force center Tyson Chandler to manage multiple defensive liabilities at all times. As good as Chandler is (or can be; he wasn't looking quite himself late last season), that's asking far too much.
To lay things out simply: New York traded an elite three-point shooter (Steve Novak) for a below-average one (Bargnani has made only 32.3 percent from long range in the last three seasons), added salary, complicated the sensible option of playing Anthony at power forward, widened the gaps in its defense and gave up three draft picks for the privilege. Good show, gents.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The gamble: Allowing Kevin Martin to walk in free agency without a clear substitute.
The assessment: If the James Harden trade didn't already make it abundantly clear that the Thunder take the luxury-tax penalty seriously, consider that they just parted ways with the highly efficient Martin -- a prime acquisition in the Harden deal -- and haven't used their mid-level exception so far. Getting Russell Westbrook back will cure much of what ailed Oklahoma City in the postseason, but Martin was a component of nearly every top Thunder lineup last season. The Thunder can get by (and contend) without him based on the excellence of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but they'll also have to lean more consistently on third-year guard Reggie Jackson and second-year guard Jeremy Lamb to fill minutes and fit neatly alongside the other core rotation players.
I'm optimistic about OKC's chances to pull that off, but admittedly curious to see how Jackson and Lamb fare. Jackson showed legitimate progress through Westbrook's postseason absence, but he's in no way the complementary cutter and shooter that Harden and Martin were for the Thunder -- a difference that could make him a slightly more awkward fit alongside the Thunder's two stars. (Durant, Westbrook and Jackson played just over 100 minutes together last season.) Lamb, on the other hand, just isn't NBA-tested after playing only 147 minutes as a rookie. Though he's scored well in the D-League and summer league, he doesn't have much to draw from in terms of baseline chemistry with his Thunder teammates.
Both players could well answer the call with strong individual seasons. But let's not understate the risk of trading Harden, parting ways with Martin, and trusting two young players to pick up the slack.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com. Salary data courtesy of Sham Sports.