LAS VEGAS -- The big summer transactions were all wrapped up by the time the NBA's cognoscenti touched down at McCarren Airport late last week for Las Vegas Summer League. There might have been fewer deals to execute, but at the SW Steakhouse in the Wynn and at Rod Thorn's retirement party, the league's basketball ops movers were taking inventory of where the league stood after one of the most frenetic weeks in league history. Here's what a couple dozen conversations with general managers, front-office execs, coaches, scouts and analytics staffers turned up:
About that moratorium ...
DeAndre Jordan's U-turn between Los Angeles and Dallas produced very little agreement on the matter of the NBA's free-agency moratorium period, but it did spark a whole bunch of ideas about how to tweak it.
A few execs expressed serious concern about what Jordan's decision portends for the future. Some felt he and the Clippers violated a long-standing decorum. "We're all thieves, but there's honor among thieves," says an exec.
A few others weren't bothered by a breach of decorum so much as the precedent they fear Jordan may have set for future offseasons. They envision a world where any agreement in principle made during the first week of July would be nothing more than a soft commitment, with the freedom to change course later.
Several ideas were prescribed as a solution. One general manager who requested anonymity because financing a college education for one's children is expensive enough without fines suggested that the league eliminate the moratorium altogether. In order to come up with a cap number by July 1, any revenue generated by the NBA during the final week of June would be assigned to the next fiscal year. Alternatively, the free agency period could be delayed altogether until July 9.
On the opposite side of the opinion spectrum, several execs rolled their eyes at the constant talk of the moratorium, which they saw as a hysterical overreaction to a rare event that occurs, at least publicly, only every several years.
"I'm all for a serious conversation about as long as everyone will admit that free agency has always been conducted at Chicago pre-draft camp [in May] as it is," says one such exec. Another emphasized that the modern NBA is a place where players are the most aggressive recruiters, and those pitches happen 7-52-365 at dinners, weddings, parties and in arena tunnels.
After a busy free agency, there are typically a few deals that front-office people can't resist taking a shot at during summer league -- but not this year. Even those tempted to raise an eyebrow at three years and $20 million for Aron Baynes or four years and $30 million for Cory Joseph conceded that the league is embarking on a 36-month bubble before salaries catch up to the salary cap, which is due to explode to approximately $108 million two summers from now. Executive after executive, irrespective of style or background, had virtually identical answers when asked to name the biggest takeaway from the offseason:
A greater demand for players than supply, a dynamic that isn't going to change anytime soon.
In that spirit, the inflationary dollars have solidified a belief among general managers that there's little reason to hoard cap space because what, pray tell, are you saving it for? That's especially true now that so many big-name free agents who could've opted for shorter deals took longer guarantees. Why did they?
"Security is seductive, and in that sense it was a win-win for players and teams. And now with fewer free agents on the board, it's just pushing up the money for next year." Daryl Morey
"Security is seductive, and in that sense it was a win-win for players and teams," Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey says. "And now with fewer free agents on the board, it's just pushing up the money for next year."
Armed with more than $20 million in additional cap space and fewer marquee players to spend it on, the number of teams below the salary floor by the start of the 2016-17 season might exceed the number of those who are paying the luxury tax.
Know who's really freaking out in Vegas? First, the folks on the business side of NBA franchises, who have to find enough revenue streams to pay for all those new salaries. The national TV money will help, but there's a sense that they'll need to keep turning over cushions to get to $108 million. Second, franchises that count on revenue sharing that's generated from luxury-tax payments, which are almost certain to fall for a couple of years while the tax line rises.
The result of all this and the messages being heard from both the league and Michele Roberts is a growing pessimism that there will be a work stoppage in 2017, despite Adam Silver's recent comments suggesting there may not be any need for a lockout. "Actually pessimism isn't enough," says one exec. "There's a virtual certainty."
They might bear the brunt of the cap explosion next summer, but many small- and middle-market front offices were in good spirits following the free-agency drive. Greg Monroe chose Milwaukee over the NBA's glam destination, and even though LaMarcus Aldridge pulled up stakes in Portland, he relocated to San Antonio, where David West signed up, passing up millions in the process.
"Players are looking for situations that fit for them from a basketball perspective," Milwaukee Bucks executive David Morway says. "And small-market teams can help themselves with a focus on character and the right culture."
Several coaches and GMs pointed to the Utah Jazz as an apt model -- a young core that's growing up together under a development-oriented coach -- where culture is an equalizer for markets often seen as less desirable.
"And you didn't see [Jazz general manager] Dennis [Lindsey] run out and throw stupid money at a couple of free agents so they could jump three spots in the West," says a rival GM. "With all the new money, he can always do that next year or the year after that."
This sentiment was echoed by a couple of other front-office people -- the idea that it's not always smart to add a player just because you can.
"At the end of the day, there's only one ball and only nine or 10 rotation slots," one general manager says. "It's not just about whether you can afford a player within the framework of the salary cap now or in the future. We're still in the personnel management business, not just the cap management business."
All of this points back to the idea that the battle for talent isn't necessarily a battle between big cities and small outposts. Players with leverage go where they think they win.
You blinded me with science ... so now what?
Heavy investment in player health and medical services was widely cited by coaches and general managers as the most intensive area of growth over the past year or two. Laggards in 2015 would've been regarded as cyborg organizations even four years ago in a league in which the majority of teams have an analytics department, medical staffs well-steeped in preventative training and optical technology tracking player movements.
So how do we identify the organizations who are leading the way?
"The variable is whether those elements are listening to each other," says one general manager. "Are all the data points connected? How are they interpreted? Does everyone feel like they have a seat at the table? Or is it just individual silos of information?"
There's a difference between creating a budget line and actually implementing the new techniques. For example, one NBA head coach jokes that sometimes he feels that he's been assigned the unofficial role of "guy in charge of the new s---," because the higher-ups aren't as passionate about innovation, but they want to check the box.
But the most curious organizations are already looking for the next place where they can gain a competitive advantage on the league, and most feel that realm is injury maintenance, the ability to get a player back to 90 or 95 percent quickly and safely.
"Whoever can figure out how to reduce the swelling in the human body will be miles ahead of everyone else," says one front-office executive.
Rest and recovery was another popular talking point, namely that what was once regarded as an exotic method by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich of managing minutes over the course of the season, is now commonplace. One general manager added that the new science, as well as Popovich's reputation, has put pressure on some young coaches who are torn between adopting best practices and winning tonight's game because their jobs are on the line.
"Versatility is the name of the game," Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says. "In the Finals there were a bunch of basketball players on the court. That's what the league is looking for -- players who can do many things and guard many positions."
Don't get Coach Spo wrong -- upside, length and athleticism are all still coveted attributes. But more and more, scouts and basketball ops people are looking for specific ready-made skills and, above all, guys with a willingness to learn and fit into a culture.
"Stromile Swift went second [in the 2000 draft] 15 years ago, and today I'm not sure I know more than a handful of teams that would pick him in the top 10 these days. It's not enough to look like a basketball player anymore. You have to have the desire to become one," says an NBA scout.
Circling back to the small-market conversation, these teams are less inclined to take chances on what one exec called "fringe character guys," because it might upset the culture that is regarded as an essential ingredient they need to build a sustainable program.