The NBA will always be a copycat league, so long as the winning formula can be replicated. For instance, shooting more 3s or defending ball screens in a certain way is something that, theoretically, every team can do.
What every team can’t do is get multiple future Hall of Famers on its roster. The Golden State Warriors, despite what people might yell at DeMarcus Cousins, have not ruined the league; they just can’t be copied. But they have forced teams accustomed to cheating off of each other’s papers to come up with different answers.
Not long ago, the preferred way to get off the treadmill of mediocrity was to blow it up and acquire as many lottery picks as possible. The rise of teams like Philadelphia and Boston, who each have two recent top-three picks among their core, provided a blueprint. But general managers have mostly wisened up and are hoarding their first-round selections. The days of first-round picks being dealt without protections—even for established superstars—are all but dead.
If you can’t get great players via unrestricted free agency, and if you can’t get great players with high lottery picks that no team is willing to trade, what’s the next best thing?
Good players. Lots of them. As many as you can round up without completely jeopardizing your future cap space.
The Los Angeles Clippers, currently fourth in the Western Conference at 17-9, have fully leaned into that approach. The departures of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan should have resulted in a hard reset, but the acquisition of Sixth Man of the Year candidates like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell—the latter was considered a throw-in to the trade that sent Paul to Houston—have kept the Clippers in contention without sacrificing their shot at signing a big free agent next summer.
The joke going into the season was that the Clippers starters were not drastically better than their bench; now it’s looking like a genuine team-building strategy. The logic behind it is clear enough: The league is obsessed with rest, and starters on the whole are playing fewer minutes per game than they ever have before. (Do you hear that, Tom Thibodeau?) Anthony Davis currently leads the NBA in average minutes, at 36.8; in the 2013-14 season, eight players averaged more than that.
Teams with multiple max-contract players also don’t have the cap flexibility—or, if they’re in the luxury tax, even the bigger midlevel exceptions—to chase midrange talents and sixth-man types. The arms race to load up on star power has left quality rotation players available, and the Clippers, for one, have focused their recent efforts on stocking up on them, turning Griffin and Paul into six rotation players who average a combined 152 minutes and 76.2 points per game and have only $16 million in guaranteed money on the books for the 2019-20 season. The Clippers avoided the temptation to tank last season, traded for a brand-new rotation, and still nabbed a potential franchise cornerstone late in the lottery in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Drafting well is the ultimate equalizer, but restricted free agency is a sandbox the big boys can’t play in. Teams usually don’t want to tie up resources in someone who isn’t regarded as a perfect fit, but there are productive players who spend much of the summer waiting for the phone to ring, mainly because the market is depressed and the process is messy. Teams with max-salary players know they can’t steal those restricted free agents without a sizable offer, because the originating team can simply match.
Trading for restricted free agents before they hit the market is one of the best values available that capped-out teams just don’t participate in. (The Warriors, for instance, have focused their non-superstar transactions on signing established veterans to provide immediate rotation help.) Sometimes, this backfires—like when the Bulls were forced to match Sacramento’s ridiculous offer for Zach LaVine, the cornerstone of the Jimmy Butler trade—but it’s still a risk worth taking, because the team that has the RFA’s rights holds most of the cards in negotiations.
Harrell, who was a restricted free agent this past offseason for the Clippers, is averaging nearly 22 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes, is fourth in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, and is seventh in PER. The Clippers re-signed him to a two-year deal worth $12 million late in the offseason.
It’s not just the Clippers who have seen success by working around the edges and going deep. Solid depth has been the leading catalyst for most of the league’s surprise stories so far. Denver’s all-bench lineup of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, and Mason Plumlee has the best defensive rating (77.8) of any lineup in the league that has played at least 50 minutes together. Indiana’s second unit of Cory Joseph, Aaron Holiday, Doug McDermott, Thaddeus Young, and Domantas Sabonis has the 10th-best net rating of all lineups so far (minimum 50 minutes played). Bench success has helped the Pacers maintain ground in the East standings without Victor Oladipo (7-4 in Dipo’s 11 straight absences because of a sore right knee); and the Nuggets will now need their reserves to step up after injuries to Paul Millsap and Gary Harris. Toronto is one of the deepest teams in the league, and has been dominant even with Kawhi Leonard taking rest days while he ramps back up to full speed. The Raptors’ best lineup in net rating doesn’t even include him.
On the flip side, teams that have followed the “Big Three” model have seen mixed results. Houston is in a tailspin on both ends of the floor and is getting almost nothing from its bench. Washington has more than $70 million in salary invested in John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. this season and hasn’t been above .500 at any point.
Will things change once the playoffs start? Toronto’s second unit crushed opposing teams last season, but that was all rendered irrelevant when LeBron James cruised into town for playoff games. When rotations tighten and players have more time to rest between games, depth will naturally matter less. LeBron, of course, is unique. Not every superstar can hold up under the weight of having to carry his team for 82 games. Home-court advantage helps. Fatigue accumulates. Those things matter.
But just how much? Loading up on depth and being as competitive as possible instead of bottoming out is admirable, and probably rooted more in reality than thinking Kevin Durant is coming to your city. But, the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks aside, rarely has a one-star team investing in depth resulted in anything other than an impressive regular-season win total and an early exit. There’s still some value in that, though, as it’s easier to sell a free agent on being the final piece for a team with a winning culture than being the savior that pulls a destitute franchise out of the gutter. That’s what the Clippers are banking on.
Operating in the shadow of Golden State can feel futile, but give credit to the teams who have opted to survive and advance by stockpiling as many good players as possible. At least for now, it’s working.