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The Vertical Front-Office Insider Bobby Marks, a former 20-year executive with the Nets, examines how the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors were built.
There is a common misconception that Cleveland and Golden State are operating under a different set of rules.
How can two teams appear in three straight NBA Finals under the complex and often stifling rules of the salary cap?
Well, they have drafted well, made shrewd trades and, of course, had a little bit of luck.
But both teams also received plenty of help from teams not competing in the Finals.
More than half of the teams in the league played an indirect role in helping to construct the powerhouse rosters for Golden State and Cleveland.
For Cavaliers GM David Griffin and Warriors GM Bob Myers, the process of putting together their respective rosters started when both were second in command.
Griffin spent years four years in Cleveland under then-GM Chris Grant, and Myers served as an apprentice to Warriors GM Larry Riley for one year.
Here is how Griffin and Myers turned once-dormant franchises into the two best teams in the league – with a little help from their rivals.
Kyrie Irving: The Cavaliers’ selection of Irving with the first pick in 2011 came with some draft-lottery fortune.
Cleveland, which acquired the Clippers’ 2011 unprotected first-round pick in exchange for taking on Baron Davis’ contract, was projected to get the No. 8 overall selection. But the Cavs won the top pick with only a 2.8 percent chance to do so and landed an All-Star point guard.
Irving earns $17.6 million and is in the second year of a $94.3 million rookie extension signed in July 2014. His salary ranks sixth among point guards.
Tristan Thompson: Thompson, an excellent offensive rebounder, is the other half of Cleveland’s 2011 draft class.
The fourth overall pick earns $15.3 million and is in the second year of a five-year, $82 million contract signed in October 2015. His salary ranks 15th among centers.
Kay Felder: Cleveland paid $2.4 million last June to Atlanta for the No. 54 selection to draft Felder. He appeared in 42 games this season but has been inactive during the playoffs.
Steph Curry: The reigning two-time MVP was selected with the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft.
Signed to a four-year, $44 million rookie extension in 2012, Curry is in the last year of his contract.
His $12.1 million salary this season ranks 15th among point guards.
Klay Thompson: Thompson was selected 11th in 2011.
The three-time All-Star is in the second year of a $68.9 million rookie extension signed in October 2014.
His $16.6 million salary this season ranks eighth among shooting guards.
Draymond Green: Green was selected with the 35th pick in 2012.
The pick was acquired along with Troy Murphy in a 2011 trade with the Nets.
The two-time All-Defensive Team selection is in the second-year of a five-year, $82 million contract signed in 2015.
His $15.3 million salary ranks 11th among power forwards.
Kevon Looney and Damian Jones: Both players were selected with the last pick in the first round, Looney in 2015 and Jones the following year.
They are development projects with hopes of earning bigger roles next season.
Patrick McCaw: Selected with the 38th pick in 2016, McCaw has developed into a rotational player in his first season.
Golden State purchased the pick from Milwaukee for $2.4 million.
McCaw signed to a two-year contract, earning $543,000 this season.
Kevin Love: The All-Star is one of five players on the Cleveland roster acquired via trade.
Love was acquired in August 2014 as part of a blockbuster trade in which Minnesota received Thaddeus Young, Andrew Wiggins and former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. Philadelphia, which sent Young to Minnesota, received a lottery-protected 2015 first-round pick from Miami, Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved.
The Miami first was acquired from Cleveland in 2010, when LeBron James was signed and traded to Miami.
On an expiring contract at the time of the trade, Love signed a five-year, $113.2 million contract in 2015.
Love’s $21.1 million salary ranks fifth among power forwards.
J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert: Smith, the starter at shooting guard, and Shumpert, a top reserve off the bench, were acquired in January 2015.
The two guards were acquired from New York as part of a five-player, three-team trade in which Cleveland sent Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City.
New York received Lance Thomas, Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk and the Cavaliers’ 2019 second-round pick.
Cleveland also received a 2015 first-round pick from Oklahoma City that was eventually sent to the Nuggets in exchange for Timofey Mozgov.
Shumpert and Smith were in the last year of their contracts at the time of the trade and re-signed with Cleveland during the summer of 2015.
Shumpert signed a four-year, $40 million contract, and Smith a two-year, $10.3 million deal (player option in the second year).
Smith opted out and signed for four years and $56.9 million last October.
Channing Frye: Originally signed to a four-year $32 million contract by Orlando in 2014, Channing Frye was traded to Cleveland in a salary-cap dump in February 2015.
To take on Frye’s contract, Cleveland – in a previous trade – sent a 2018 first-round pick (eventually amended to 2017) and Anderson Varejao to Portland.
Frye’s current salary is $7.8 million and is under contract through the 2017-18 season.
Kyle Korver: Korver’s tenure in Cleveland started in January.
He was part of a three-player trade with Atlanta in which the Hawks acquired Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams and a 2019 first-round pick (protected Nos. 1-10).
Korver is in the last year of a four-year, $24 million contract he signed with Atlanta in 2013.
Andre Iguodala: Shedding salary in 2013 came with a steep price for Golden State.
Over the cap and with an agreement in place to sign Iguodala as a free agent, Golden State shipped Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson – $19 million in salary – to Utah.
In return, Utah received four draft picks: a 2014 first, 2016 second, 2017 first and 2017 second.
The 2014 first turned into Rodney Hood, and Utah shipped the 2017 second-round pick from the Warriors to Philadelphia with Tibor Pleiss.
As part of a sign-and-trade transaction, Iguodala signed a four-year, $48 million contract with Denver before joining the Warriors.
To help facilitate the trade, Denver received a 2018 second-round pick from Golden State.
LeBron James: Cleveland began free agency in July 2014 at $11.3 million under the salary cap.
While the Cavaliers didn’t have a commitment from LeBron James at the start of the summer, management began the process of creating cap space.
As part of a three-team deal, Cleveland traded the $1.7 million contract of Tyler Zeller – along with their own 2015 first-round pick – to the Celtics, and sent Sergey Karasev ($1.5 million) and Jarrett Jack ($6.3 million) to Brooklyn.
Brooklyn also sent Marcus Thornton to the Celtics.
The 2015 first-round pick from the Cavs and Marcus Thornton helped the Celtics acquire Isaiah Thomas from Phoenix in February 2015.
The cap-clearing moves gave the Cavaliers $20.8 million in cap space, which was enough to sign James.
Richard Jefferson: Originally committing to Dallas in the summer of 2015, Jefferson signed a one-year minimum contract with Cleveland in August.
Cleveland sign Jefferson in July to a three-year, $7.6 million contract using the tax mid-level exception. The third year is non-guaranteed.
Deron Williams and Derrick Williams: Both players were waived before the March 1 playoff eligibility deadline.
Derrick Williams, waived by Miami in early February, signed consecutive 10-day contracts and signed for the rest of the season on a pro-rated, one-year minimum deal.
Deron Williams, waived February 23 by Dallas, signed a pro-rated, one-year minimum contract.
Both players were paid their full salaries by their former teams, Derrick Williams at $4.6 million and Deron Williams at $9 million.
James Jones, Dahntay Jones and Edy Tavares: A fixture since James’ arrival in 2014, James Jones is on his third one-year minimum contract with the Cavs.
Dahntay Jones and Tavares were signed on the last day of this season.
Dahntay Jones signed a one-day, pro-rated minimum contract.
Tavares was signed to a three-year contract, with the first year pro-rated to reflect the last day of the season.
Cleveland used part of the tax mid-level exception to sign Tavares, and the second and third years of his deal are non-guaranteed.
Kevin Durant: The Warriors used salary-cap gymnastics last summers to sign Durant.
When free agency began, the Warriors needed $26.5 million in room to sign Durant.
Once Durant committed on July 4, the following steps occurred:
1. The unrestricted free-agent holds of Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Ian Clark, James McAdoo, Brandon Rush and Anderson Varejao were renounced.
2. Qualifying offers were withdrawn for Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, and their cap holds were renounced.
3. The contract of Andrew Bogut and a 2019 or 2020 second-round pick was traded to Dallas.
The three moves gave Golden State the necessary room so sign Durant to a max salary.
Shaun Livingston and Zaza Pachulia: Livingston was signed to a three-year, $16.6 million contract in 2014.
The Warriors, over the cap at the time, used the full mid-level exception to sign Livingston.
Pachulia was signed to a one-year $2.9 million contract last summer, with Golden State using the room mid-level exception once cap space was used to sign Durant.
Ian Clark: A returning player from last year, Clark signed a one-year minimum contract in early July.
Matt Barnes: Waived by Sacramento in late February, Matt Barnes signed a one-year, pro-rated minimum contract March 2.
David West: After opting out of a $1.5 million minimum contract with San Antonio for the 2016-17 season, West signed the same contract with Golden State.
James McAdoo: Like Clark, McAdoo is a holdover from the previous season. He signed a one-year minimum contract.
JaVale McGee: What started as a training camp invite has turned into a key role for McGee. McGee was signed to a one-year minimum contract with guaranteed trigger dates throughout the season.
As you can see, both franchises were clear in their championship missions. They were savvy in most of their moves and maximized their windows of opportunity. But you can’t deny some of the assists they received in free agency and on the trade front. After all, many of those moves would not have occurred without the participation of numerous teams throughout the league.