In the NBA, or any professional sports league, there are three basic types of teams: Those trying to win now, those trying to rebuild for the future and those trying to do a little of both. The general manager of a team in the latter group has one hell of a tough job on his hands.
It's not to say the first two jobs are easy. But at least they're clear. The Lakers are playing for next summer. The Cavaliers are playing against next summer. With the threat of LeBron James leaving in free agency, they are putting everything, and everyone -- even Kyrie Irving -- on the table, future be damned.
This has been the way since LeBron James returned: Win now, worry about everything else later. With that clear a mandate, trading No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love in 2014 was a no-brainer.
This year, the Boston Celtics had the No. 1 overall pick, only a much muddier mandate: Be as good as possible right now, but not at the expense of the future. That's a tough line to walk. Boston GM Danny Ainge deftly did so, netting Gordon Hayward in free agency without compromising any of his young talent or coveted draft picks (Avery Bradley was traded, but something had to give). In fact, Ainge snagged an extra potential top-five selection by moving that No. 1 pick to Philadelphia, and he still got his man in Jayson Tatum at No. 3 overall.
That's a pretty sweet summer, yet there are questions about whether Boston should have gone harder after Jimmy Butler or Paul George, guys who could help a team ready to win now more than Tatum potentially will. But they know what they have in Tatum. Or, more specifically, how long they have it. This is where it gets sticky, because while George was a potential one-year rental and Butler has only two years left on his deal, Tatum is under Boston's control for the next four years on a rookie scale.
It's all hindsight now for the Celtics. George is in Oklahoma City; Butler in Minnesota; Chris Paul in Houston. Those three teams are going for it, whatever it means, because they're still long shots to compete with Golden State in the West. The new fruit dangling in front of the entire league is Irving -- and, man, is he a tough case.
Irving, who has two years left on his contract, wants out of Cleveland but won't commit long-term to any team. That's at least partly why Phoenix has been-- the same reason Boston held so tight to Tatum, in addition to Ainge loving Tatum's game. It's all about player control. For Phoenix, it's perhaps easier to pass on that trade because even with Irving there's a good chance they miss the playoffs in the West.
The Suns also have a pretty rosy cap situation to go with lots of young talent (Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Jackson are all younger than 21), which means they could, theoretically, put together a contender via trade over the next few years. But that's just a plan, and in the NBA, plans don't come together far more often than they do. Time was when the Suns were supposedly on LaMarcus Aldridge's short list. They also were supposed to get one of the first meetings with Blake Griffin this summer.
Irving is available now, and players of his caliber are rarely on the trade market mid-contract. Sure, any club would love to get a franchise player for the max term, but two years is better than the one Oklahoma City is guaranteed with George, or the one Houston is guaranteed with Paul. The question becomes: How far is looking too far down the road?
That's an even tougher question to answer in Minnesota, which is far closer to competing than Phoenix. The Wolves were on Irving's list of preferred trade partners. For argument's sake, let's say they could get him if they were to send Wiggins back to Cleveland, as ironic as that would be. Should they do it? Irving is a better player than Wiggins now, but the Wolves could give Wiggins a max extension and lock him up for the next six years, while Irving could leave right alongside Butler in two years. And then where are they? Looking to trade Karl-Anthony Towns before losing him, too, and suddenly the whole team is blown up?
A GM could think himself into paralysis. Every move has a pinball effect, and a bad decision can be catastrophic. Rockets GM Daryl Morey is a dice roller. He made the move for Paul and may do the same for Carmelo Anthony. But a lot of people feel Anthony won't improve Houston, and Paul can leave after a year just like George can bolt on OKC. But Morey believes " ," and in a lot of ways, it's hard to argue with him. Paul was there for the taking, Anthony may be, so Morey is taking his shot.
Further complicating these decisions is the dramatic conference imbalance. Mark Cuban has said if the Mavericks were in the East, , and it would be understandable if Phoenix -- or certainly Minnesota -- would be more apt to deal for Irving if they weren't staring down Golden State, San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City for a top-four seed. Hell, if Irving is playing for Minnesota in the East, they're an absolute Finals contender -- if not the favorite.
In varying capacities, this is the new way of the league. Teams need multiple stars to compete at the highest level, and short of hitting a home run in free agency, the only option for landing those marquee players is trading prospects and/or picks -- and the team control that goes with them. Nothing comes for free. It's a really tough call, and your expectations have to be clear. Is it championship or bust? If it is, you pass on a lot of these potential deals because they likely don't get you past the Warriors anyway.
Think about it: If trading some prospects for a great player results in a second-round playoff exit, was it worth it? What about a conference finals berth? It's easy to say a team like Boston or Minnesota or Houston, or maybe even Phoenix with its cap situation, should look to put itself in position to strike when the time is right. But what constitutes striking? And when is the right time?
There are a lot of GMs trying to answer those questions. Irving is out there. Anthony is out there. The way this summer has gone, half the superstars in the league may be on the block by the trade deadline. Deciding to pull the trigger for one of them is not going to get any easier.