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The Law Of Small Numbers

Part of what makes basketball so fun is that it combines the collaborative play of team sports with individual dominance. Even though team quality matters a great deal, we know that stars win championships in the NBA.

Five years ago, I dug out the stat for my old site that since 1956, only five teams had ever won an NBA championship without a player who won or would win an MVP award.

Even more astoundingly, only the Detroit Pistons have won a championship without a player who had already won an MVP award since 1981 when the Boston Celtics took the title on a team that had a pre-MVP Larry Bird along with Parish, McHale, and Tiny Archibald. Both of those streaks have added another six champions since that piece was written.

While Kevin Love does not factor heavily into the conversation of players who could win the MVP, he has been an elite player before the age of 26.

NBA teams understand this and value elite talent. We see this throughout the transaction system. The other reason why high-quality players fetch such high prices is that there are not enough of them to go around.

I call this the NBA’s law of small numbers: if you have a valuable asset rare enough, teams will find a way to make it happen.

The Miami Heat cleared their books via sorcery to create the three-player allure strong enough to draw LeBron James away from other opportunities in 2010, and this year we have seen quality franchises like the Houston Rockets combine space for a max player with a strong roster.

All of these factors make the Golden State Warriors’ apparent caginess at getting a Kevin Love deal completed dangerous for their future. While taking a quick glance at the market for Love around draft day could have led to confidence in Oakland, any concept that letting the string play out would be to their advantage would be deeply misguided. After all, the other effect of the NBA’s law of small numbers is that some teams do not get what they want.

In this case, that could potentially be three potential teams: Houston, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers if LeBron ends up there. With LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and possibly Chris Bosh sitting as the major difference-makers this time with exactly none of them spending last season with any of those three teams, it always stood to reason that at least one or more of them would miss out on the best of the best.

Inevitably, whatever franchises end up without a chair when the music stops will turn to Kevin Love. This should scare the Warriors because each of those teams holds assets that they cannot match should those teams choose to deploy them: Chicago possesses a high-end young player in Jimmy Butler on the same salary timeline as Klay Thompson and quality cost-controlled players that could help Minnesota now in Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, while Houston has a series of fun young prospects and a shiny new draft pick from New Orleans, and Cleveland has a whole ton of assets if they can pick up the best player in the sport with cap space.

Flip Saunders may like Klay Thompson quite a bit and may see David Lee as an asset despite his contract. Even then, the Bulls and Cavs could put together trade offers to blow Golden State’s out of the water. While we do not know if those teams will enter the Kevin Love derby, the mere possibility should have indicated that the Warriors needed to push hard for a good deal instead of a slight chance at a steal.

The even more jarring fact is that the Warriors would have needed to make a big sacrifice somewhere even if they somehow added Kevin Love without losing Klay Thompson in the process. For the 2015-16 season, a team that has never paid the luxury tax would have commitments to Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Love with both Thompson and Draymond Green in line for substantial raises. Simply put, I would not have expected Joe Lacob and company to foot that kind of luxury tax bill for two-plus seasons even with a new arena on the horizon. That means at least one of those key pieces would have to go anyway- why not use one to make this trade happen?

If the reporting on this story has been correct, the Warriors better have an ace in their pocket or pray for a huge season from Thompson because playing the long game rarely pays off when non-major markets go after elite young players.

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