With the opening of training camps across the league this week, teams (and fans) begin to wonder whether their offseason approach was the correct one.
For some, the tactic was to strip down the roster in hopes of a rebuild through the 2014 draft. Most, though, spent the offseason trying to improve on-court production. We will soon know whether teams made the right moves to get better, or if their offseason was a "swing-and-a-miss."
The non-tankers have a number of roster-building directions at their disposal.
Andrew Tobolowsky of Mavs Moneyball, a companion blog on SB Nation, looked at those options in a post this week. There’s the obvious splash of a superstar player—one like Dwight Howard or Andre Iguodala. Then there’s the secondary option of signing players with the hopes of finding an elite player in the future.
But, as Tobolowsky rightly points out, there is also a third option: Sign the best players available… and don’t worry about that elite player coming.
In his words, "there's a pretty big difference between trying to get the best players you can while leaving room to make a big FA splash and trying to get the best players you can."
In Dallas, those "leaving room to make a big FA splash" moves last year included claiming Elton Brand in the amnesty bidding pool, acquiring O.J. Mayo on a discount and grabbing Darren Collison for Ian Mahinmi. However, when the team wasn’t able to nab anyone of the big names this summer, the approach changed, and all three of those players have moved on to new teams.
In a renewed and altered effort this summer to "get the best players you can," Dallas ended up with Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris and Samuel Dalembert. Clearly, none of those players is a star like Howard or Iguodala, but their collective addition is undoubtedly a step up from last summer’s gain.
"But here the Mavericks can see, clear as day, what's true about NBA free agency," Tobolowsky declares. "If you use it to try to get good pieces, you absolutely can. If you use it to try to get centerpieces, you probably can't."
The overall success of that approach was seen during that stretch too. Dallas, in saving for the "big" free agent, whiffed on a top player (Deron Williams), causing the team to miss the playoffs last year. You could even argue the team’s poor 2012-13 season would have led them out of contention for this summer’s top free agent group if they "went for it" again. So really, missing out in one summer had lasting effects for at least one season (and summer) after the fact.
Portland seems to be dealing with the same problem Dallas faced the last few summers.
Although the Portland Trail Blazers, like Dallas, have gone after top-flight free agents such as Roy Hibbert and Tiago Splitter, GM Neil Olshey ultimately chose to avoid handing long-term deals this summer.
At what point, though, does that strategy run its course? Should the Blazers eventually give up on the short-contract approach in order to keep their cap flexibility, or should they continue holding out hope the "final piece to the puzzle" is on the horizon?
This season will help provide insight into the answer.
The Blazers did get good value on a number of the players acquired in the offseason—namely Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez and Mo Williams. In a way, the Blazers allowed themselves to be like the Mavs and not go all out this offseason for a superstar. Instead, most of the players they signed were on two-year deals, allowing 2015 to potentially be both the summer of LaMarcus Aldridge (whose deal expires then) as well that marquee free agent, if Portland pursues a path towards maximum cap flexibility.
In essence, they may be giving the "get the best players you can" approach a trial run before deciding how to look at the Summer of Aldridge.
After 2015, though, there will likely have to be a commitment from Olshey and the rest of the front office.
Do they keep flexibility in going for broke? Or do they get the best assets available, knowing that "one piece" likely isn’t realistic?
If Olsey unequivocally believes he can land a top free agent, Summer 2015 could be a wild ride. But if he decides to be more realistic, like Dallas did this summer, the focus could shift dramatically.
That shift, if Dallas tells us anything, may be the direction worth taking.