Monday, May 14, 2012

Material Differences

By Jonathan Lowe

They say that opposites attract. It supposedly rings true in life, love, and business. The same can be said throughout the world of basketball. We usually peer in at the "contrast in styles" between opponents. It could feature a uptempo squad versus a defensively staunch team, or jump shooting bombers against players built for the paint. But as the NBA's conference semifinals get underway, there is another stark difference in these series.

Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert took a pot shot at Miami earlier in the week, saying his team made the playoffs "the right way" when it comes to building a team. Among each of the eight remaining contenders, there has been at least one player that has made a difference via trade or free agency. However, the use of that philosophy is what provides the gap in each franchise's thought process.

San Antonio vs. L.A. Clippers

The Spurs are the probably the most unassuming champions in any professional sport over the last decade ... and they've mostly done it by drafting well. When Tim Duncan was taken number one overall in 1997, everyone knew they were getting one heck of a player. Two years later, the pairing of him with David Robinson was too much for the league to handle. Over the next four years, the organization would turn a project and a chance into the building blocks for a juggernaut. Manu Ginobili (57th overall, second to last in 1999 draft) and Tony Parker (28th overall, last in first round of 2001 draft) formed the tri-pronged attack that led to three titles since 2002.

Now, those pieces are wise veterans (or, in other terms, old). But that doesn't bother San Antonio. They've rebuilt their core of youthful exuberance with more crafty decision making. Frontcourt players Tiago Splitter (2007) and DeJuan Blair (2009) were drafted, along with backcourt mates James Anderson (2010) and Cory Joseph (2011). Rookie Kawhi Leonard became part of the team through a draft-day trade for George Hill (another Spurs draftee). These men are part of the future of the franchise. But will the past and future meet to make the present fruitful?

The Clippers began their trek on the same path. Young super-stud Blake Griffin justifies his number one overall pick in terms of jaw-dropping highlight appeal. But L.A. had more of a core to offer with Al Thornton (2007), Eric Gordon (2008), and Al-Farouq Aminu (2010) a part of the action. Those three guys are gone now, partly due to a deal that brought elite point guard Chris Paul to the bright lights of SoCal.

Putting Paul next to Griffin gave the Clips instant relevance and buzz. They've lived up to it fairly well. Now, with key veteran stars Kenyon Martin and Caron Butler around to solidify the roster, there's a chance that Donald Sterling's wallet might actually pay some dividends.

Oklahoma City vs. L.A. Lakers

The Thunder they started this ascension to the top of the Western Conference in another age (or time zone). The franchise was located in Seattle when they selected Kevin Durant with the second overall pick in 2007 (and got fifth overall pick Jeff Green in the famed Ray Allen trade). The next year, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka joined the fold as the organization relocated to their new home. In 2009, James Harden (current Sixth Man of the Year) was selected by the team.

This is the base for the Northwest Division champs. The main addition outside of draft night was Kendrick Perkins, who was traded for Green in 2011. With the defensive stopper in the middle, many think that their time is now. However, they will have a tall task to overcome.

On the opposite side, you have the Lakers and their tradition that goes back to the days of Wilt Chamberlain back in the late 1960s. Their leader, Kobe Bryant, may have flown to stardom through the Draft, but the surrounding cast is another story. Other than big man Andrew Bynum, this L.A. story was constructed outside of town.

The second-in-command, Pau Gasol, was acquired through one of those "highway robbery" trades. Metta World Peace came to the squad via free agency when he was simply known as Ron Artest from Queensbridge. Ramon Sessions just got there mid-season. Role players Matt Barnes and Steve Blake came in after playing with at least one other organization. Can their tradition of acquiring outside talent equal success this time around?

Boston vs. Philadelphia

The Celtics brought together their own version of a free agency "Big Three" when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined forced with Paul Pierce in 2007. It's resulted in one title, another Finals appearance, and a return to Garden Glory for fans in the Northeast. It has been five years since everything turned for the better, but all three pieces are still around and still a threat.

Danny Ainge is trying to replicate what R.C. Buford is doing in San Antonio. Rajon Rondo (draft rights acquired from Phoenix in 2006) has arguably become the leader of the squad. Drafted role players Avery Bradley (2010) and E'twaun Moore (2011) are providing sparks in the backcourt. However, these team still has the fingerprints of the Superstar Triad all over it. We'll find out if that experience can help them churn out one last run.

The 76ers looked to build on their rising team in 2008 when they made a splash by signing free agent Elton Brand. Several people, including myself, thought this was an important move that would set the team up to be a contender. Although Brand has turned out to be a key cog in the team's resurgence, it plain didn't work at the outset.

The main reason for Philly's run back to the postseason happened in the board room. Andre Iguodala's selection in the 2004 lottery set the first piece in place. The Sixers went on to take Lou Williams (2005 second round), Thaddeus Young (2007 lottery), Jrue Holiday (2009 first round), and Evan Turner (2010 second overall) in following years. It's these decisions that have helped the franchise get their playoff series win since 2003. And they'll tell you that they're not done yet.

Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

You guys know the story. Miami is where the latest, greatest version of the free agent sweepstakes is playing out. The newest version of the "Big Three" came about to a lot of fanfare on South Beach and a WHOLE lot of jeering around the rest of the country. LeBron James and Chris Bosh believe it'll be much easier to win a ring with Dwyane Wade than without. They got within two games of accomplishing that on the first try.

Now they have a year of playoff scrutiny and competition under their belts, which meant doom for the Knicks. Some have the Heat as the outright favorites for the title, largely based on the talent of these three. But, like I said, you guys know that.

What you may not be aware of is the new look Pacers. Until last week, the organization hadn't won a playoff series in seven years. That drought came to an end because the experience much of the young core got in last year's postseason. It was only the second time in that situation for team star Danny Granger (2005 first round pick). It was the first time for Hibbert (2008 draft day trade from Toronto), Tyler Hansbrough (2009 lottery), and Paul George (2010 lottery).

They've turned around the fortunes of this stagnant franchise. And the additions of former New Orleans Hornets David West (free agency) and Darren Collison (trade) could make this team a dark horse now and in the near future. They only just have to beat the favorites to do it.

So what's the better way to bring a squad to championship form? Do you grow the talent from seedlings up or purchase the best talent from the free agency market? The next two weeks could give us an answer.

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