One of the enduring storylines of the 2021 postseason was the relatively early guarantee of a new champion. With the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics knocked out, no team that reached the second round had won an NBA title since 1983. One of the two teams still standing, the Phoenix Suns, has never won a championship. The Milwaukee Bucks last did so 50 years ago, in 1971. A new uniform is going to be crowned champion, but more broadly, that novelty can be applied to the players wearing them as well, and how their teams managed to acquire them.
This will be the first Finals series since 2006 not to feature LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry. Six of the past nine Finals MVPs, divided entirely amongst James and Kevin Durant, arrived on their teams through free agency. The superteam era laid out a narrow roadmap to the title: Assemble a few stars in one place, surround them with low-cost draft picks, mid-level signings and veteran ring-chasers and watch the jewelry roll in.
Neither the Bucks nor the Suns had that pathway available to them, but it would hardly be fair to suggest that they took traditional paths to this point, either. Milwaukee is built around a No. 15 pick. The Suns picked in the lottery only a season ago. No GM could ever hope to replicate what either has accomplished. But there are lessons to be learned from each team, especially as we move toward an era in which the NBA's traditional big-market powers are going to face asset and financial limitations. So before the Bucks and Suns duke it out, it's worth asking what franchises in similar positions can learn from the only two teams left in the 2021 postseason.
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Follow the five percent rule
"If you've got even a 5 percent chance to win the title -- and that group includes a very small number of teams every year -- you've gotta be focused all on winning the title," Daryl Morey told Zach Lowe in 2012. It's a bit of logic that sounds simple on its face, but is almost impossible to evaluate in real time. What does a five percent title shot even look like in the superteam era? At their peak, did the Durant-era Warriors have a 50 percent chance at winning it all? Was it 80 percent? Where will the Nets land next season? How many percentage points is the presence of a single MVP candidate worth? It's an attempt at quantifying something that is not only subjective, but entirely unpredictable for reasons that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban explained to Lowe in that same story. "One sprained toe or two, and the competitive landscape changes," he says. "You don't want to miss that opportunity. You should always put the best team you can on the floor within the parameters you have set for yourself."
The sprained toe corollary is, essentially, what led to the Finals matchup we're about to watch. Anthony Davis strained his groin. Kawhi Leonard tweaked his knee. Kyrie Irving landed awkwardly and Trae Young stepped on an official. The 2021 playoffs have been crueler and more random than most, but scarcely does a title run come without any complications. Davis played through a heel injury in the 2020 Finals. The Raptors won a title without OG Anunoby. The 2018 Warriors lost Andre Iguodala for most of the last two rounds. It doesn't take much to bump five percent up to 25 percent. These weren't career-altering injuries, but they didn't need to be. Sprain an ankle in the regular season and you might be back in a week. Sprain an ankle in the wrong playoff game and your season might be over in a week. That's the point of the five percent guideline. If you're that close, going all-in positions you to capitalize when the worst inevitably occurs.
That's what the Bucks did when they traded what meager draft capital they had left for a then-35-year-old P.J. Tucker at the deadline. The move not only gave them their primary Durant defender, but insulated them against their own worst-case outcomes. Had they not acquired Tucker, losing Donte DiVincenzo might have strained their already limited bench. Tucker played 38 minutes in Game 7 of the Brooklyn series. Who gets those minutes if he wasn't around to fill them? Thanasis Antetokounmpo? D.J. Wilson? The Nets came inches short of knocking out the Bucks regardless. The Tucker trade gave them their razor-thin advantage. Eventually, it turned their five percent title shot into a far bigger one.
Phoenix started further behind than the Bucks did. The Suns' all-in move wasn't made from the five percent platform that Morey and Cuban advocated for. Rather, it got them there in the first place. Phoenix was a lottery team before Chris Paul, but it likely wouldn't have been this season even without him. Its blossoming young players had just gone 8-0 in the Orlando bubble. Something was bubbling even before the Paul deal. Most observers figured that something would be a low-end playoff berth. Phoenix had the foresight to recognize that a low-end playoff team plus Paul might equal something far greater.
"Might" is the operative word here. Neither the Suns nor the Bucks built on guarantees. Neither came remotely close to championship favorite status even entering the postseason. They didn't have to. Building heavy title favorites like the Nets is a pipe dream to most franchises. The Suns and Bucks didn't cower in the face of more traditional powers. They built themselves up so that if those powers faltered, they'd be ready to fill the vacuum. They did, and they earned a trip to the Finals because of it.
Bad contracts are relative
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said that the four-year, $160 million contract that Morey signed Chris Paul to in 2018 was the "worst that he'd ever seen in business or sports," according to ESPN's Tim MacMahon. Of course, he was proven wrong on several levels, but fear of the deal wasn't limited to Houston. Milwaukee was reportedly skittish as well. According to The Athletic's Eric Nehm and Sam Amick, Bucks ownership was afraid of the deal as well, and that motivated their decision to pursue Jrue Holiday instead.
But Phoenix recognized something that few other teams tend to grasp: No contract is inherently good or bad. Its value must be considered on a case-by-case basis as it relates to a team's overall goals and finances. Even if Paul had regressed due to age and injuries, the Suns recognized that the opportunity cost of adding him to their specific balance sheet was minimal.
Prior to the Paul deal, they were looking at roughly $25 million in cap space. Paul may have cost over $41 million, but with Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio and Ty Jerome going out in the deal, he wouldn't deprive them of much flexibility. Paul was a massive upgrade at point guard, but because the Suns started with so much room to work with, they were still able to get creative in finishing the roster around him. They decided to operate above the cap so that they could use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Jae Crowder and Bird rights on Dario Saric, filling their holes at power forward and backup center, respectively. With Paul as the new point guard, those were the last two spots in the rotation that needed to be shored up anyway. Adding Paul didn't prevent the Suns from doing so. The opportunity cost was minimal.
All adding Paul did in practice was prevent the Suns from pursuing a younger but inferior alternative in free agency with that $25 million in space. Had the Suns taken that route, they wouldn't have been able to operate above the cap, and would therefore not have Saric or Crowder right now. There just wasn't much downside risk in the short-term. Even if there was long-term risk with the rest of the roster getting expensive, Paul's deal had only two years left on it. If he hadn't worked out, they could have used his $45 million expiring contract in a trade for a younger point guard on a longer-term deal in the 2021 offseason if they'd needed to.
The Bucks didn't have to think about opportunity cost in trading for and re-signing Holiday. With Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe under multi-year contracts, there was no feasible scenario in which they could have created the cap space necessary to sign a star next to Antetokounmpo in the near future anyway. So they didn't bother. They used Bledsoe as salary flotsam in the Holiday deal and extended him knowing that they never would have had the flexibility to replace him if he'd left. In basketball terms, that meant there was no downside to giving him a four-year max extension. It wouldn't have prevented them from doing anything else.
It was a lesson the Bucks learned firsthand in 2019. They signed-and-traded Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers for largely financial purposes. Brogdon's absence as a shot-creator and point-of-attack defender is what ultimately spurred the Holiday trade. Milwaukee's financial fears cost it Brogdon. It changed course quickly enough to rectify that mistakes with Holiday even if doing so might pose problems down the line. Paying him the max at 34 won't sting so badly if the Bucks get a championship out of the arrangement.
Timelines are overrated
There's a certain hubris inherent to the concept of roster timelines. Putting together a winning roster under any circumstances is hard enough. Doing so with the added restriction of ensuring that all key players are at similar ages is nearly impossible and usually boils down to luck. The Nuggets are a prime example of this. Imagine they'd landed their second-round MVP five years earlier. Suddenly they're too good to draft Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr.
But it's a double jackpot that GMs still try to hit constantly, and the five percent rule might play a part in that. Put the right core together for a decade and even if it's imperfect, it has so many bites at the apple that it's easier to imagine breaking through once or twice. It lowers the bar. Give yourself only a few seasons and the blend has to be basically perfect.
Phoenix bet that adding Paul and Crowder to a group of young players ideally suited to its skill sets would be good enough to offset the shorter theoretical window its age differences would create. The Suns bet correctly. They could have drafted Tyrese Haliburton or signed a younger free-agent point guard, but neither option would have given them the short-term upside Paul did. The long-term is so unpredictable that delaying contention when it is immediately available just carries too much risk. Think of all the great young teams that never put it all together for even a single meaningful run.
On some level, the Bucks might regret playing the timeline game in sitting out the Paul sweepstakes. After all, if the Suns didn't have him, they wouldn't be left to oppose Milwaukee. But the Bucks YOLO'd the trade deadline by acquiring Tucker, and Antetokounmpo's impending free agency complicated Milwaukee's 2020 offseason. Had they acquired Paul over Holiday and lost in the postseason without Antetokounmpo's signature on an extension, they would've been forced to try to sell him on re-signing with a team whose second-best player was 36 and ringless.
Once they knew Giannis was around for the long haul, they threw caution to the wind with the Tucker trade. The results have been stellar, and if there is a single lesson to be taken from both teams here, that's it. Championships aren't won by accident. They are earned through intentional risks. The Bucks and the Suns went for it, and as a result, one of them is going to win the title.