But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.
– Robert Burns, To a Mouse
Paul George’s injury during Friday’s Team USA scrimmage was a particularly graphic (so I’ve been told at least. I have not seen it and hope never to do so) reminder that in sports as in life, the future is not guaranteed. NBA teams are right to take into account the long-term view of their teams in making personnel decisions. But, too often, the desire for “flexibility” and upside renders a team stuck on “pretty good” until it’s too late.
Indiana’s status as an Eastern Conference contender is in all likelihood closed for the next several years. To the extent the Pacers were ever a genuine threat (rather than the last team standing in Miami’s way after the aging of the Celtics, the implosion of the Knicks and Derrick Rose’s 3 playoff run hiatus) the loss of George for probably all of 2014-15 and perhaps a good chunk of the following season alongside Lance Stephenson’s defection to Charlotte leaves them too bereft of talent to be a real threat. This definitely unlucky for Indiana, but not uniquely so.
Since 2000, a non-exclusive list of teams who’s championship windows were slammed closed due to injury or dramatic loss of form from one or more key (generally very highly compensated) players includes: Portland, Chicago, Orlando, Houston, Sacramento, Boston, Miami, Washington, Phoenix, New York, Golden State and both Los Angeles franchises. Almost every other team suffered key losses which effectively ended seasons if not team-eras. This isn’t even counting such things as the demolition of the Artest-led Pacers following the Malice at the Palace or the gutting of Utah, Denver, Cleveland and Minnesota (once and perhaps again) by the free agency or forced trade of elite players.
Almost all of these teams were expecting a much longer window. Had management somehow known the exact date of a franchise-changing occurrence surely they certainly would have been more aggressive at pursuing short-term improvements in the hope of securing a championship while a title was still a possibility.
To put it another way, that could just as easily have been Kevin Durant on the ground is Las Vegas as it was Paul George. What then of Oklahoma City’s continued and curious stance of keeping options open rather than doing everything possible to really go after a ring? Sure there are the excuses of injuries to Westbrook and Ibaka. But the proactive trade of James Harden and the unwillingness or inability to add to the Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka core in a meaningful way has left them out-manned despite having 3 of the most dynamic young players in the game on their roster.
If Durant were to suffer serious injury tomorrow (whether on team USA duty or in the other basketball he’d surely be playing, despite the concerns of team owners who choose to take that term too literally), it would be unfortunate, but not unforeseen. The unwillingness to go “all-in” and acquire the last piece or two of a almost complete puzzle would be shown to be the epitome of penny-wise and pound-foolish.
In a way, the Indiana moves most derided this season were the ones most indicative of a realization that their time was now or never. Though the signing of Andrew Bynum, the acquisition of Evan Turner and to a lesser degree the trade for Luis Scola didn’t really pan out, these were instances of the wrong move at the right time. Miami was vulnerable this year, and with that little something extra, maybe the Pacers would have had the honor of being dismantled by the Spurs instead of the Heat. But Larry Bird and company knew Stephenson might be gone after the year, that David West only has so many years left as a front-line player and the cupboard was largely bare of prospects to fill in or assets to acquire replacements. So maybe these now-or-never moves weren’t the right moves, but they were better than simply watching a pretty good team atrophy into mediocrity.
The biggest news story in the league today is the rumored Kevin Love-for-Andrew Wiggins swap between the Wolves and Cavs. One of the very worst arguments against the deal from the perspective of Cleveland is the notion that they have potentially 9 years of Wiggins before he can become an unrestricted free agent. This is factually true, but by 2022, LeBron James will have been past his dominant prime for 5 years, a new CBA and at least one television deal will have been negotiated, Wiggins might have flamed out. Who really knows what the league will look like much past 2018 well enough to really plan for it? For Cleveland the time is now, unless they want to be stuck thinking wistfully of a future that never came to pass.