For the better part of this century, the prevailing practice in the NBA has become one in which a losing team will normally try to shed itself of as much salary as possible, with the end game being to use that cap space in the hopes of luring two or more superstars to turn the team around, and then fill out the remaining roster spots with either draft picks or league veterans who are willing to play for the minimum, rather than building through the draft with quality young talent and supplementing that with role players who fit the overall scheme, with the emphasis being roster continuity and depth over recognizable star power.

-ac5ff9679ecfa1cdOne merely has to look at this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers, who had a war chest of young players that they gladly gave up in order to fit LeBron James and Kevin Love into the same cap space and lineup that Kyrie Irving occupied, and suffered from lack of depth once injuries struck in the postseason. The Houston Rockets surprised many by making the Western Conference finals this year, led by the superstar tandem of James Harden and Dwight Howard, along with veteran acquisitions like Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, and several players still on rookie contract (like Terrance Jones and Patrick Beverly). Failed attempts to replicate the success of 2007-08 Boston Celtics and the 2010- 2014 Miami Heat have happened more often than not (The Amar’e/Melo Knicks, the Deron Williams/Joe Johnson/KG/Pierce Brooklyn Nets, and the Steve Nash/Kobe/Howard/Pau Gasol Los Angeles Lakers experiment all standout), while fewer teams truly seem committed to using draft picks, cap space, and young players as more than trading tools to add the names that sell seats rather than attempt to build a quality roster that could wear down a team without similar depth.

The Golden State Warriors are proof of what quality draft picks and an emphasis on player development are capable of in a league filled with star power. The Warriors had the opportunity to blow up their core to acquire Love, but thanks to Jerry West they decided to keep Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and it paid dividends. The rebuild started in 2009 after a 29-53 season that saw them miss the playoffs for 14th time in 15 seasons, when they grabbed little known Davidson guard Stephen Curry with the seventh pick in the draft. In his rookie season, the Warriors went 26-56 as their roster was too guard heavy and couldn’t compete with the legitimate big men of the Western Conference. The next year they traded for David Lee, who would be one of the larger contracts on the team and a valuable piece next to Curry as the team ended the season 36-46. That offseason saw Klay Thompson added with the 11th pick in the draft, which created a backcourt logjam between Thompson, Curry, and incumbant combo guard Monta Ellis. After finishing the next season 23-43 the front office chose to make a bold stand and traded Ellis (who was approaching his free agency period) to the Milwaukee Bucks for oft-injured center Andrew Bogut, solidifying the direction of the Warriors as a complete team under the direction of Curry and Thompson in the backcourt. The depth of this roster came after that trade, as the 2012 draft saw them add three players who had major roles in their championship run- swingman Harrison Barnes with the seventh pick, center Festus Ezeli with the 30th pick, and then the home run of a pick- Draymond Green with the 35th pick of the draft. But as great as the core of Curry, Thompson, Lee, Bogut, Barnes, and Green became they needed a leader who could provide the intangibles and thrive without the ball, and they got that leader in 2013, when Andre Iguodala was acquired in a sign-and-trade with the Nuggets. Iguodala’s abilities as a defender and versatility set the tone that Green and Barnes followed to breakout year’s this past season, and he did while scoring less per game than he ever had in his career, and playing less than 30 minutes a game in his two seasons since the trade.

790075_1280x720The fact that this was a complete team effort, with even Curry taking a backseat to his teammates at times, gave first year head coach Steve Kerr great flexibility not just in terms of in-game matchups, but to start 6’6″ career small forward at center and be confident that the speed of the Warriors could take down the older, banged-up Cavaliers in the finals. The fact that this was a team effort also meant that every player was free to excel in their given role, rather than having to defer to a centralized attack relying on only two or three players to provide the majority of the offense. The fact that this was a team effort also meant that the league’s MVP had no problem deferring to his teammates like Iguodala, who averaged less than 27 minutes a game during the regular season. The fact that this was a team effort also meant a deep rotation which also included veteran acquisitions such as guards Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa and center Marresse Speights, while the Cavaliers seemingly ran out of players, despite valiant efforts from Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, and of course Lebron.

This is not the first time in recent history we have seen a team with a solid core of young talent break into the superstar dominated landscape. In 2012, the Philadelphia 76ers took advantage of Derrick Rose’s knee injury to shock the first seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Under Doug Collins, the 35-31 76ers looked to have a solid young core that took the experienced Boston Celtics to seven games, and seemed to have a bright future ahead of it. Then the front office got involved in a four team trade that saw them jettison Andre Iguodala and little-used Nikola Vucevic in an attempt to land their superstar, who was Andrew Bynum. The Sixers haven’t sniffed the playoffs since, and don’t seem to have any idea how to change that. The Indiana Pacers of recent years seemed destined for big things, until Paul George suffered his gruesome injury in Olympic play and the team couldn’t compete this year having also lost Lance Stephenson to free agency. The Oklahoma City Thunder are another team that built through the draft, as both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were high picks from their days as the Seattle SuperSonics, but they haven’t been the same since Harden was traded to the Rockets, and may see their window close in both leave in free agency after next season.

The San Antonio Spurs of the last 16 years and the Detroit Pistons from 2003-04 are blueprints of what great team building can do in a superstar dominated NBA. The Spurs are naturally built around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, but because of the system of Gregg Popovich and the selfish attitudes of its stars, will forever be ripe for other players to shine, as evident by rising stud Kawhi Leonard, sharpshooter Danny Green, and stalwarts Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner, who form a formidable complement to Duncan up front, despite not greatly excelling individually. The Pistons, composed of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed and Ben Wallace in the starting lineup and Antonio McDyess, Mehmet Okur and Carlos Arroyo off the bench; a combination that shattered the Kobe/Shaq/Karl Malone/Gary Payton experiment with the Lakers and took the Spurs to seven games in 2005. Add the Warriors of 2014-15 to this list of teams who still believe in the value of a full roster as opposed to two or three stars and a group of lesser tier players. While teams like the Knicks and Nets continue to eschew the desire to draft/acquire and develop younger players in the hopes of grabbing the right veteran, the Warriors prove that while the road may be long, it is still possible to grow a winner from the ground up in the NBA and that banking on superstars over a solid roster does not guarantee champion glory.

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