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Building a Conference Champion: Eastern Edition

My continuing series on NBA strategy and team-building progresses with an overview of how the Eastern Conference NBA Finalists of the last decade were constructed.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Five Photo by Elise Amendola - Pool/Getty Images

Part 1 of this series on team-building in the NBA focused on two teams’ approaches to winning that have either failed or are still in development: Billy King’s swing for the fences trade, and Sam Hinkie’s Process. This article, then, is a look at Eastern Conference teams that have gone the full distance in the NBA over the past decade (those that have made the NBA Finals)— how they were created, and why they succeeded.

Cleveland Cavaliers: 2015-2017

Key Players:

Drafted: Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova (2015-2016 only)

Free Agent: LeBron James, Richard Jefferson

Trade: Kevin Love, JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Timofey Mozgov (2015-2016 only)

How the Team Was Built: For all the talk of a “Big 3” in Cleveland, there would be no Cavaliers dynasty without LeBron James. His arrival in the summer of 2014 sparked the Kevin Love trade, immediately transforming the Cavs from a struggling young team to one competing for a championship. The rest of the team fell into place around the three stars, dependent on ring-chasing veterans (Jefferson being the best of them) and a couple younger holdovers. The final pieces to the puzzle came in the middle of the 2015 season, when Dion Waiters and some picks were shipped out for Smith, Shumpert, and Mozgov. The team has mostly been the same since, albeit with some changes around the margins. The Cavs are probably the least organic of the teams on this list, with the fewest significant home-grown players.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: The Cavaliers’ dynasty might be just as luck-driven as the Warriors. Before LeBron came back, the Cavs were awful, putting out terrible teams with young players who didn’t seem to be improving. However, they were blessed with landing three #1 overall picks in four years, including two incredible leaps in 2011 and 2014. 2011 yielded Irving, without whom LeBron wouldn’t have returned to Cleveland, while 2014 (Andrew Wiggins) enabled the Kevin Love trade. The Cavaliers pre-LeBron weren’t going through a “Process”, they were just bad. And they might still be bad if LeBron weren’t from Akron and hadn’t played his formative years in Cleveland. No other team in the NBA had that on their resume, and LeBron’s drive to win a ring for his former hometown is what led to his triumphant return. In other words, Cleveland was more fortunate than strategic (though their moves since LeBron has returned have mostly been very shrewd).

Miami Heat: 2011-2014

Key Players:

Drafted: Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole (2012-2014 only), Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony (Undrafted free agent)

Free Agent: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen (2013-2014 only), Shane Battier (2012-2014 only), Chris Anderson (2013-2014 only), Mike Miller, James Jones

Trade: None

How the Team Was Built: The Miami Heat’s dominance in the early 2010s was founded on The Decision: LeBron’s choice to leave Cleveland for the sunny climes of Miami, joining up with his good friends Wade and Bosh. This is not to underrate Bosh (Wade was already in Miami) -- he was perhaps the best big man in the NBA in his prime, and certainly the most versatile. But LeBron in Miami was perhaps the greatest force in NBA history, a titanic hurricane of scoring, playmaking, defense, and everything else on the basketball court. Most of the surrounding cast were present from the beginning, with only a couple key role players coming on later. The core around the Big 3 were veteran shooters such as Battier, Miller, and Allen, players who were used to the high tensions and pressures of playoff basketball already. This did come back to bite the Heat in 2014, as those same veterans were exhausted by the time the Finals began, worn out from years of deep playoff runs. This team might be the most mercenary of any of those analyzed—only a few players were drafted, and no significant players arrived via trade. Instead, it was the greatest collection of ring-chasing veterans until the current Golden State Warriors.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: Pat Riley definitely played the long game leading up to the summer of The Decision. He carefully managed his team so that there was plenty of cap space—and even more that could be readily cleared out if he got word that LeBron (or Bosh, or Amar’e) was coming. The summer of 2010 happened to have an unbeatable free agent class, and Riley was ready to exploit it. He did have the benefit of already possessing one Dwyane Wade, but everything else involved cap and asset management. After the Big 3 were in town, the rest was easy. Teams always attempt to possess as much cap flexibility as possible, but an opportunity like that of summer 2010 won’t come around very often.

Boston Celtics: 2008 & 2010

Key Players:

Drafted: Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Tony Allen, Leon Powe (2008 only)

Free Agent: Rasheed Wallace (2010 only), Eddie House (2008 only), James Posey (2008 only)

Trade: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Nate Robinson (2010 only)

How the Team Was Built: The Boston Celtics came together in the summer of 2007, when Danny Ainge pulled off two massive blockbusters, acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for a bevy of draft picks, prospects, and salary cap fillers. Most of those assets turned out to be not so great, making the trades even more of a win for the Celtics. The Celtics are interesting in that they were built largely on their own drafted players and the assets that their prospects were able to obtain. Only a few free agents were key contributors over the years, and the Celtics’ starting five was identical from 2008-2010. Even as Garnett, Pierce, and Allen aged, Rondo came into his own, and became perhaps the Celtics’ best player towards the end of their run. The Celtics fit together very organically, and that could be the reason they remained so good for so long.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: Ainge basically pulled a “Daryl Morey” before Morey—accumulating assets to move at the right moment for star players. There was no way he could have known that Garnett and Allen in particular would be available at the exact moments they were, but once they were on the market, he was ready to pounce. The other item of note is that Ainge was able to retain his best prospects (or at least the prospects who would become the best players) in Rondo and Perkins, while receiving great value for mediocrities such as Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair. Perhaps the current team that is most notably following the Ainge path is the Los Angeles Lakers: they are stockpiling an immense reserve of young players, but are willing to move a bunch of them for the right star player (Paul George?). In fact, the Celtics were just like most other rebuilding teams, except for the fact that they had a veteran star in Pierce. They mere capitalized on their situation the best.

Orlando Magic: 2009

Key Players:

Drafted: Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, JJ Redick, Courtney Lee, Marcin Gortat

Free Agent: Rashard Lewis (Sign and Trade), Hedo Turkoglu, Anthony Johnson, Mickael Pietrus

Trade: Rafer Alston

How the Team Was Built: The Orlando Magic’s great run in the late 2000’s is the first built primarily on internal development and a team slowly built up. Three of their starters were Magic “born and raised” (Howard, Nelson, and Lee/Redick), while another (Turkoglu) had been picked up several years earlier as a young player. Their long climb towards the Finals was therefore the result of improvement of existing pieces rather than a jump made by a trade or signing. Really, the only major move that the Magic undertook in the period leading up to their Finals run was their trade for Lewis in 2007. And while Lewis was quite good, he was probably the third best player on the team, possibly even fourth. Other acquisitions such as Alston and Pietrus played important roles, but weren’t part of the core of the team. Howard was a superstar, the second-best player in the NBA in his prime, and the rest of the Magic had grown up around him. In fact, when the Magic started falling apart a year or two later, it was primarily due to changing their roster too much after that one failure in the Finals.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: The Orlando Magic (if they won a championship) is what every rebuilding team aspires to become. After Grant Hill’s injuries crippled a potential dynasty in the early 2000s, the Magic went to the draft, and chose a future Hall of Famer in Howard. Capable sidekicks such as Nelson and Redick were added and developed over time, and the Magic slowly grew from lottery dweller to playoff team to contenders. To make that final push, veterans were added, and the result was the last Eastern Conference team to beat LeBron (the Celtics did in 2010, but they had already done so in 2008). While the Process was a much more deliberate strategy of acquiring a bunch of draft picks and young players, the end result of it would probably look something like the Orlando Magic of 2009 (with Joel Embiid doing his best Dwight impression).

Conclusion: Only four teams have made it out of the East in the past decade. Of those, the last seven years have been taken up by the Heat and the Cavaliers, both the home of one LeBron James. Neither the Cavs nor the Heat represent a model that is imminently imitable to building a championship team. The Cavs got insane lottery luck that enabled them to accumulate enough assets to bring LeBron home, but even that required LeBron’s one-of-a-kind connection with the city of Cleveland. Similarly, the Heat Big 3 was a unique situation: three superstar friends hitting free agency in one summer, a team with enough room/flexibility for all three of them, and enough supporting characters to bring it all together. The Boston and Orlando models are a bit more replicable, but neither is easy. The former needed an All-NBA player and enough assets to bring in two more (within weeks of each other) while still retaining core pieces, and the latter was centered around the most dominant big man of his era. Teams can try to manage cap space ala Miami, or stockpile assets like Boston or Cleveland, or build a young core into a contender as Orlando did. There are many paths to success in the NBA, but all are difficult. Most importantly, all require a heaping helping of luck.