Remember “the process,” as in “Trust the Process”?
For a couple of years, that was the catchphrase of the Philadelphia 76ers as they waited for their multiple lottery picks to get healthy and be able to play together to form a potential playoff team.
Eventually, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ready to go, and the 76ers advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the 2018 playoffs. And then, they faced the reality of today’s NBA — waiting is not the right move.
Multiple pieces of that squad moved on, then the 76ers got anxious and made multiple deals for Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and others.
The result? Another trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they were a Kawhi Leonard last-second shot from going to overtime in Game 7 against the eventual NBA champs.
Philadelphia tried to do what others were doing, building with trades rather than waiting for young talent to mature.
It’s something you see all around the league these days — the NBA has always been a copy-cat league, so it’s no surprise — with teams jettisoning draft picks and young players to go for the gusto with the big move.
Setting The Example
The best example of not standing pat is the reigning NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors. At this time last year, Toronto was coming off a crushing four-game sweep by Cleveland in the conference semifinals and wondering if they needed to make moves or run it back with the same squad. After all, they had the reigning Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey and a pair of All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who led them to the top record in the Eastern Conference.
But team president Masai Ujiri decided to roll the dice and make some bold moves, letting Casey go and hiring first-year coach Nick Nurse, then trading DeRozan, a beloved player by the Raptors fans, to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green. With Leonard having sat out most of the 2017-18 season and one year away from free agency, it was a big risk.
Twelve months later and most would say it was worth the risk, with Toronto winning its first NBA title behind Leonard and Nurse.
Another suitor for Leonard last summer was Boston, which had been building up assets of its own and had advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before falling in seven games to the Cavaliers. General manager and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had Leonard and Anthony Davis on his wish list, and plenty of draft picks and players that he could have sent to get either one.
But Ainge decided against blowing things up to try for one of those players, instead believing that the Celtics’ young core would grow together along with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and take that next step this year.
Unfortunately, while that looked nice on paper, in reality, personalities conflicted, Boston disappointed with the fourth-best record in the East and a lopsided five-game loss to the Bucks in the playoffs. Now the Celtics aren’t looking so good, with Irving and Al Horford both planning to leave in free agency, and the team’s multiple draft picks in Thursday’s NBA Draft not exactly exciting the Boston faithful.
Standing pat may have seemed like the way to go, but would things have been different if Ainge had made a bold move to go for Leonard last summer to pair with Irving? We’ll never know.
The Trend Continues
What we do know is that executives are looking at bold moves as the way to go more and more. Look at the Los Angeles Lakers, who just gave up almost everyone on their roster as well as multiple future draft picks for Davis. Yes, LeBron James is getting older, but the young core of the Lakers looked good when everyone was healthy a year ago. Now that young core will be in New Orleans with Zion Williamson rather than in LA with James.
The road to the NBA Finals seems more open than it has been in recent years, with James not being as dominant a force as he once was, and the Warriors dealing with a pair of potentially season-long injuries, assuming they’re able to re-sign Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
There’s a saying that opportunity favors the bold. In the NBA, that couldn’t be more apropos these days. It should make for an interesting summer as we see who makes the next bold move.