During the past three seasons, Austin Carr has often said, “Kyrie has got to pass the ball. He can’t just dribble it.” That’s been said with lots of enthusiasm when the Cavs have been down during a fourth quarter, and Kyrie Irving’s hero ball was being thwarted by double teams. LeBron James even said Kyrie needs to be a point guard first and a scorer second last week. While it is definitely true that assists result in a healthy offense that generates easy points, they actually are just one tiny factor in creating a transcendent offense. Let me pass you some stats to get this assist talk started. (more…)
Archive for the ‘Building a Winner’ Category
The Cavaliers organization is preparing to fold up the paint-splatted tarps, take down the scaffolding and scrub everyone from finger nails to elbows with Lava soap, signaling an end to one of the wildest rebuilds in league history. But, this October will not the first time LeBron James has tightened the draw-string on a pair of wine and gold shorts. So, it seems fitting to take this mid-summer’s time when the NBA news cycle has finally (finally!) receded to its yearly low tide to take a look back on some of the other Cavs teams LeBron James has led and where the starters on those clubs, those not-quite-ready-for-championship players, are now.
Let’s start at the very beginning… with your 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers.
So I hear there are some relatively big free agent names out there this summer. Something to do with the 2003 Draft Class. Details. I assume that all those fine gentlemen will make the appropriate choices (fight the urge to say Decision) for themselves and their respective families. Depending on how this all shakes down, some fortunate teams will be in a rush to free cap space in an effort to sign a max salary player. The Cavaliers have an interesting slate of 2015 draft picks that could come in handy when attempting to
steal acquire another team’s cap-clogging assets.
Houston has been very aggressive in its effort to land Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, or Chris Bosh.
*In not-so-insignificant-news that I am clearly attempting to downplay for our collective sanity, LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul has reportedly met with Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Cleveland to discuss LeBron’s future; not to mention the insanity about Dan Gilbert’s plane flying to Florida, yesterday, Chris Broussard’s tweet, and the subsequent internet freakout. We live in a world with a 1440 minute news cycle.
If Houston were to lure a big time free agent to play with James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets would be required to do some serious cap management. If they match whatever contract offer restricted free agent, Chandler Parsons signs, GM Daryl Morey will have to earn his Dork Elvis moniker. Many smart teams are calmly waiting for those large dominoes to fall.
As evidenced by the seven International players on the Spurs, it is clearly a good idea to look outside of the good ole’ USA to find basketball talent. In part 2 of the “International Men of Mystery” we will check out a couple teenagers whose birth certificates require verification, and a player whom the Cavs clearly like in Damjan Rudez (who is reportedly meeting with the Cavs, today).
Related news: The Cavs are looking at David Blatt for the head coaching job. The American born coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv would bring an understanding of the International game to Cleveland. He coached the Russian National Team to a Bronze medal in 2012. It would be an intriguing hire.
As always, I have a set of scouting questions that help to discern whether a player’s skill-set will translate well to the NBA’s basketball culture.
Editors Note: Please welcome new Staff Writer, and CtB European correspondent, Ben Werth.
I yell out “Check up top.” General dillydallying continues, and I yell again. “BALL UP TOP.” Okay, maybe something is lost in translation. I try a different tactic. “Der Ball ganz oben, bitte?” That combined with the well known International Sign of “putting my hands out to receive a pass” have the desired effect. I’m pretty sure my whack literal translation was not what yielded the ball.
“What do you guys usually play? 12 win by two, or 21 straight? All ones?” I generally detest playing with ones and twos in pickup ball. The NBA short corner three is ridiculously inefficient compared to that two for one advantage. Good thing most normal people can’t shoot.
“Okay!” says one lithe baller.
“Okay, what? Bis zwölf, oder was?” Have I been talking to myself?
The value of individual basketball players is coming into focus, and while individual player metrics are the holy grail of baseball, there needs to be a somewhat more holistic approach to team building in the NBA than the “moneyball” approach of maximizing the value of contracts by more rigorously modeling that which leads to winning. I’m not sure how much GMs worry about chemistry in major league baseball. Does it really matter if your center fielder and left-handed relief pitcher (that throws two pitches) get along? There is very little on-field chemistry in baseball. Obviously, the chemistry between pitchers and catchers is supremely important, but after that, your middle infielders should probably practice together? (Right?)
Basketball is different, because players aren’t confined to specific roles in space and time. In baseball, team-building from a positional standpoint and managing player roles is fairly obvious. (I’m not implying that team-building or managing is simple – I’m saying that it’s easy to fill a hole at catcher. You sign the best catcher you can afford and position him behind the plate. You don’t really have to take the other guys on the field into consideration.) Even if that lefty with two pitches is absolutely dominant, most managers know not to immediately promote him to starter and no GM is going to give him a 10 year 300 million dollar deal, even if he has a mind blowing BABIP. He’ll probably mostly face lefties and bottom of the lineup righties. Teams have figured this stuff out.
Basketball, in some cases, is losing the structure of traditional position roles. Rule changes have morphed the game from an inside-outside attack to hyper-athletic guards initiating offense with dribble penetration and kicking out to spot-up shooters. Stretch 4s and 5s are more common than back to the basket big men. The most successful franchise of the past 15 years, the Spurs, more closely resembles a shape-shifting amoeba than a traditional box-and-1, house-shaped offense. These changes necessitate a better understanding of chemistry and fit. Assembling the greatest collection of individual talent does not guarantee greatness in the NBA, the 2012-2013 Lakers being the most recent example of this.
Part 5 – The other champions of the last 20 years
It’s Friday and this series is on a downward trajectory, so today the post will quickly look at the other four champions of the last twenty years, starting with the greatest team of all time.
Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls
Chicago’s 1990’s dynasty was the last NBA champion built primarily on the strength of multiple elite lottery selections. Their construction was more similar to today’s Bulls though, (arduous, 10 year lottery dip) than today’s Thunder (easy-in, easy-out lottery based contender). Prior to drafting Jordan, the Bulls picked in the top ten in seven of eight drafts, including four top-fives. This ended with them back in the lottery in 1984, where they hit the jackpot and drafted the greatest of all time at #3. The next year, they made a lottery pick swap and nabbed Charles Oakley. Two years after that, using a pick acquired from New York for 29 year old journeyman center Jawann Oldham, the Bulls traded it and a future first rounder to draft Scottie Pippen at #5. Horace Grant was picked 10th, Charles Oakley and a future selection were traded for Bill Cartwright & Will Perdue, and the Bulls were set up for their first three-peat.
For their second three-peat, the core of Jordan and Pippen was supplemented with Toni Kukoc (29th pick in 1990), Dennis Rodman (maniac, acquired for Will Perdue) and a couple of free agents (Steve Kerr and Ron Harper).
Honestly, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this; clearly, drafting the G.O.A.T = multiple championships. Duh.
1994 & 1995 Houston Rockets
In 1983 and 1984, the Rockets chose 1st, 3rd, and 1st, ending up with Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray and Hakeem Olajuwon. That group won 47 games per season over 4 years and played in one NBA finals, before Sampson and McCray were traded. Over the next five seasons, the Rockets averaged 47 wins while making it beyond the 1st round of the playoffs only once. In his tenth season, Olajuwon embarked on one of the greatest two-year playoff runs in history, but McCray and Sampson…not so much. McCray contributed to the championships by being traded for Otis Thorpe, the second most used player on the 1994 team. Thorpe was then traded for Clyde Drexler, the second most valuable player on the 1995 team. The other main cogs on the champs were mid to late draft picks: Vernon Maxwell (47th in ’88, purchased from Spurs), Robert Horry (11th in ’92), Sam Cassell (24th in ’93), and Carl Herrera (12th in ’90). Mario Elie was acquired by trading a 2nd round draft pick and Kenny Smith was acquired in a trade for John Lucas and a future 1st rounder.
1999 San Antonio Spurs
After drafting 10th, 1st (David Robinson), 10th, and 3rd (Sean Elliot) from 1986 through 1989, the Spurs went on a seven year run where they averaged 55 wins. Unfortunately, this run was marked by several playoff failures, as the team only reached one conference championship. In 1996 – 1997, David Robinson and Sean Elliot got hurt and the Spurs struggled, finishing with 20 wins. These struggles amounted to the greatest thing that ever happened to the franchise though; the Spurs won the lottery and drafted the best power forward of all time. Tim Duncan turned the team into dynasty. The 1999 team was built around Duncan, Robinson, Elliot and a slew of role players acquired as cheap free agents.
2006 Miami Heat
The final champ of the last twenty years is the Dwayne Wade – Shaq Miami Heat. This team was built around one top eight pick and NBA players’ insatiable desire to play in Miami. Wade was drafted 5th in one of the better drafts of all time. Shaq and Eddie Jones were acquired via trade, while the rest of the team was free agents.
The best teams of the 1990’s were definitely more high lottery-driven than the cream of the 2000’s, but other than the Bulls, not overwhelmingly. The Malone / Stockton Jazz and Barkley Suns didn’t rely on a several year run of high lottery picks. After a decade in the lottery, the Bulls struck gold drafting the most talented, driven player ever. Using a pick acquired by trading a 4 point, 4 rebound career average player, they snagged Scottie Pippen. This is the ultimate lottery success story (if only Kyrie can be the next MJ…).
The Rockets and Spurs built “good” teams through the lottery. The Rockets had three top-three picks in two years, and for nine years after that, they averaged 47 wins. Ten years later, the prize of that draft haul spearheaded two championships with epic playoff performances.
The Spurs late 80’s drafts built a really solid team that routinely underperformed in the playoffs. As that core was nearing the end of their primes, an irreproducible sequence of events landed the player that created into a dynasty.
As has been discussed here previously, the assembly of the best teams of the 2000’s was accomplished with very little assistance from the high lottery. Ten years from now, maybe I’ll look back and realize how dumb this series was, after the reign of the Durant – Westbrook – Harden Thunder, the Griffin – Paul Clippers (Paul acquired for Eric Gordon), the Love-Rubio Wolves, and the five-time-defending-champion Irving & Davis Cavaliers.
Maybe not though. By 2015, Love could be with the Lakers and Rubio in Spain. The Clippers may fall apart, because they’re the Clippers. The five-time champ Cavs…that’s a lock. Regardless of how the 2010’s unfold, the basic tenets established in these posts are correct; good management and decision making will always be more important that draft position. Cleveland has a good thing started with Irving, Thompson, Gee, Varejao, future draft picks and cap flexibility; regardless of 2012 draft position, a winner is constructible. If it is not, it’s probable they have themselves to blame.
Thanks to anyone who read all five days. Hopefully they were fun and informative for all.
Part 4, the Demise of “One-Star” teams
Something I meant to do at the start of this series was give credit to basketball-reference.com, an amazing source of NBA content. It really is astounding how much information they’ve accumulated there (also I’ll note to check out the links below, too. Lebron commented on playing for Cleveland again).
Over the last two days, we’ve seen how the best recent teams were built, forming a case for organizational excellence far exceeding the need for multiple lottery picks. You may be saying, “What an idiot this guys is. I saw what happened with the Cavs, Hornets, and Jazz as one-star teams. Is that what this guy wants to happen again?”
You’ve asked a great question. There could be very valuable lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of those teams. Let’s take a deeper look at what went wrong.
Lebron James’ Cavs (first 5 years)
The Cavs inability to quickly build a contender after the 2003 draft really started in 1997, when they traded their 2005 first round pick for Wesley Person.
Aside from that, most of Cleveland’s problems can be summarized through a little game. You’ll need a few things: seven hats, paper and a pen. We’ll see if you can randomly build a better team from 2000 to 2007 than the Cavs did. To start, in 2 separate hats, place the following names:
- Luke Jackson, Andris Biedrins, Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, Kris Humphries and Al Jefferson.
- Jared Dudley, Wilson Chandler, Rudy Fernandez, Morris Almond, Aaron Brooks, Arron Afflalo, Tiago Splitter, Alando Tucker.
Draw one name from the first hat and two names from the second. The first hat represents the player the Cavs picked 10th in 2004 and the five players selected after. The second hat is the players picked within five of the 2007 first round picks that the Cavs traded in 2005 to acquire Sasha Pavlovic and Jiri Welsch. Did you end up with a better assortment of basketball players than Jackson, Pavlovic, and Welsch? If you did, your random selections worked out better than what Cleveland actually got!
In the next four hats, put in the following names:
- Jamal Crawford, Chris Mihm, Joel Pryzbilla, Keyon Dooling, Jerome Moiso and Etan Thomas
- Brendan Haywood, Joe Forte, Jerryl Sasser, Brandon Armstrong, Raul Lopez, Gerald Wallace
- Desagana Diop, Rodney White, Joe Johnson, Kedrick Brown, Vlad Radmanovic, Richard Jefferson
- Dejuan Wagner, Nene, Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris Wilcox, Caron Butler, Jared Jeffries
Draw from each hat. The first name in each list is a player the Cavs selected in the 2000 to 2002 drafts. Unfortunately, the Cavs traded Crawford for Mihm and Haywood for Michael Doleac. Doh! Did your random selections fare better than Mihm, Doleac, Diop and Wagner? Your random selections could have been the young team the Cavs entered 2003 with.
You’re probably thinking, “This is painful; Why is he making me do this?” You raise a good point; I’m mean. The point is there were real opportunities to build a nice team spread throughout these drafts. Combined with the Carlos Boozer debacle of 2004 and the Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall & Damon Jones free agency bonanza of 2005; the Cavs made only two obviously good personnel moves over the span of 8 years: the 2003 draft and trading for Varejao. By the time the 61 & 66 game winners were built; the 2008 Olympics had already occurred, and the seeds of defection sowed.
Over the last couple paragraphs, you’ve probably been thinking, “If the Cavs had Crawford, Haywood, and Amar’e, they may not have picked #1.” I’ll concede that. Using the win shares per 48 minutes at basketball-reference, if I give Mihm’s minutes to 23-year-old Haywood, Smush Parker’s minutes to 22-year-old Crawford, and Diop’s minutes to 20-year-old Stoudemire; that adds 5 wins. Instead of having the league’s worst record, Cleveland has the second worst record, with a worst-case scenario of picking 5th in the draft. So for the seventh hat:
- Lebron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.
Maybe the 8 names you drew, plus Varejao, Ilgauskas & a free agent, form the core of the championship that Lebron didn’t obtain.
Chris Paul’s Hornets
Chris Paul’s time in New Orleans was cursed. The circumstances are twisted and tragic; I’m probably not qualified to cover it. Two months after he was drafted, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the team packed up for Oklahoma City. Five years after that, the NBA acquired the nearly bankrupt team. Chris Paul’s time in NO never stood a chance.
From a personnel perspective, he entered to the scattered remains of tropical storm Baron Davis, inheriting a team consisting of young David West (18th pick in 2003), 19-year-old J.R. Smith (18th pick in 2004), Chris Anderson (less than a year from a drug suspension), and Brandon Bass (33rd in 2005). Behind Paul’s brilliance, West, a trade of PJ Brown & Smith for Tyson Chandler, and the acquisition of Peja Stojakovic via Indiana salary dump; the Hornets rapidly improved to 56 wins in Paul’s third season.
Then they tailed off towards becoming a gnat to be swatted on the way to someone else’s championship. Some of this was precipitated by whiffs in the 2006 & 2007 drafts (picking 12th, 15th & 13th missing on gaining Sefolosha, Stuckey and Nick Young) . Stojakovic had been acquired at age 29 and was unable to produce up to the value of his 5 years & $63 million contract. At age 30, Morris Peterson was signed for 4 years & $24 million and at 32, James Posey for 4 years and $25 million. The effects of bad salary cap management and going broke started kicking in; they sold their 2008 draft pick and let Jannero Pargo head to Russia. To get rid of Peterson’s contract, they unloaded the 11th pick in 2010. A trade of Tyson Chandler for Emeka Okafor took place; at the time this was debatable, with hindsight, clearly it was misconceived. At the same age and similarly skilled, Chandler only had 2 years & $24 million left on his contract compared to Okafor’s 5 & 65. With the NBA taking the team over in December 2010, the countdown to Paul’s exit was on.
Deron Williams’ Jazz
In the second season after the Malone & Stockton era, the Jazz won 26 games and picked Williams 3rd in the draft. When he entered, the team was a lot more set than the Cavs or Hornets. Probably too set. The year before Williams came aboard, Mehmet Okur received a 5 year, $40 million contract and Carlos Boozer, 6 & 70. In the off-season when they drafted Williams, Andrei Kirilenko was given a 6 year, $86 million extension. Matt Harpring was under contract for $6 million per.
With the addition of Deron and two solid rookies the next year (Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap), the core was etched in stone. Eventual extensions to Williams and Millsap, combined with the aforementioned long-term deals, pushed the Jazz into luxury tax territory . To combat this, in 2009 they traded Eric Maynor (20th pick) in order to get rid of Harpring’s contract. They found Wes Mathews as an undrafted free agent, but after one season let him walk as a restricted free agent. Ronnie Brewer was traded for a future draft pick. Finally in 2010, Williams was done with the un-rebuilding and demanded a trade.
In addition to discarding Maynor, Matthews, and Ronnie Brewer to avoid the luxury tax; the Jazz missed on a couple of late draft picks. Morris Almond busted at #25 in 2007 with Aaron Brooks, Arron Afflalo and Tiago Splitter going 26 – 28. In 2008, it was Kosta Koufos with Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum and George Hill the next three to go.
So to wrap this up, better cap management and drafting could have reasonably given the Utah Jazz a 2010 core of Williams, Maynor, Matthews, Brewer, Gordon Hayward, CJ Miles, Ibaka, Millsap and cap space. Does Williams demand to leave that team? We’ll never know.
What the Cavs can learn
The failures of these teams boil down to poor cap management and decision making, and to some extent, impatience.
The 2003 – 2008 Cavs’ problems were a combination of poor personnel decisions and impatience. Trading three first rounders before surfacing as a true contender was a mistake. Coming away with nothing from the six draft picks they did make surrounding 2003 was very damaging when viewed alongside the availalble talent selected nearby.
The Hornets and Jazz both exhibited horrible salary cap management and jettisoned young talent because of it. For NO, full mid-level exceptions to 30-something players helped mold their demise. As a whole, the mid-level exception has been great for middle-of-the-road NBA players; it’s been horrible for the teams that sign them. Bidding against themselves shot Utah in the foot; their 2004 & 2005 free agency extravaganza was more damaging than Cleveland’s. I suppose teams need to set a player’s worth going into negotiations, and if the player demands more than that…hold firm and call their bluff . They may walk, but in a salary cap / luxury tax world, there aren’t alot of players worth 6 years and $86 million.
The plight of these three teams is avoidable (although New Orleans was dealt a very tough hand), even without today’s Cavs going back for another top five pick. To build around Irving and Thompson, Cleveland has to hit their draft picks, regardless of where. Some teams regularly accomplish this in the middle parts of the draft, including most of the team’s covered on Tuesday and Wednesday. As the Cavs add free agents, a keen eye will need kept on future cap ramifications, considering the likely extensions to Irving and other youngsters they’ll acquire. Prudence in free agency is a must; of the six teams discussed in parts 2 and 3, the big free agents were: Shaq, Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups. That’s about it. The three teams above were much more active in the market. Free agency can be very dangerous, treading carefully is important.
See you tomorrow, with a final installment taking a quick look at the other four championship squads of the last twenty years.
Part 3: The rest of the best from 2001 – 2002 through 2010 – 2011
Today we’ll look at the remainder of the best teams of the last ten years to see what lessons can be learned from their assembly.
Phoenix started this timeframe headlined by a trio of Stephon Marbury, Anfernee Hardaway and Shawn Marion (picked 9th in 1999). In 2002, they drafted Amar’e Stoudermire with the 9th pick in the draft, followed by Leandro Barbosa at #28 in 2003. Joe Johnson was acquired as filler in a trade where Boston got Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers. Trodding through a few middling seasons, they eventually traded Marbury and Hardaway for a return of little consequence. The trade resulted in the Suns bottoming out in 2003 – 2004 with 29 wins, drafting Luol Deng, and trading him for Jackson Vroman and a future draft pick.
What? That sounds like a pretty inauspicious start towards accumulating the 4th most wins of the last ten years. Except we know what happens next; Steve Nash (and Quentin Richardson) are signed as free agents, and the fledgling Suns become the NBA’s most exciting team. Eventually Joe Johnson is traded for Boris Diaw, Raja Bell & Grant Hill enter as free agents…and the Suns go on a 4 year run of 58 wins per season.
The Suns were the first of these four teams to make their mark with a non-max free agent. Nash’s contract was 6 years, $65 million and represents an aspect of what several commenters are discussing; finding the right players for a team’s system and letting them develop within the system. The confluence of Mike D’Antoni, Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion is a great example.
Also registering 48 wins per season, the Pistons ranked 5th most successful. Detroit started this period embarking on a string of seven straight fifty win seasons with one championship. The run started with a team that looked nothing like the champs; the 50 game winners of 2001 – 2002 were built around Jerry Stackhouse, Cliff Robinson, Chucky Atkins, Jon Barry, and Ben Wallace. Of the players we all associate with the champs, Wallace had been acquired in the sign-and-trade when Grant Hill left for Orlando. By the next season, an overhaul had begun; Chauncey BIllips was signed as a free agent and Jerry Stackhouse was traded to Washington for Richard Hamilton. Though still just a bench player, Tayshaun Prince was drafted 23rd that summer. By 2003 – 2004, the transformation was complete; those four players and Mehmet Okur (drafted 37th in 2001) were the Pistons five leading minutes-earners. Notorious troublemaker Rasheed Wallace was acquired through trading dead salary and two late first-round picks; the next season, the Pistons won a championship.
Every year they kept filling the bench with low-cost free agents (Antonio McDyess, Chris Webber) and late 1st round draft picks (Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, Jason Maxiell, Carlos Delfino) to complete their 7 year, 54 win-per-season run. Eventually they blew it all up by trading Billups for Allen Iverson.
The Pistons were built with one lottery pick and this was indirectly (Ben Wallace). Stackhouse was acquired by trading Theo Ratliff (Pistons 16th pick in 1995). Another big winner, built primarily through trades, free agents and mid or late first round draft picks. If drafting in the high lottery this off-season doesn’t pan out, this could be something for the Cavs to emulate.
The final signature franchise of the last ten years is the Boston Celtics, averaging 47 wins. From 2001 – 2002 through 2004 – 2005, Boston was built around Antoine Walker (6th pick in 1996) and Paul Pierce (10th pick in ’98), as they muddled around between 33 and 49 wins. One thing they did accomplish during this time is accumulate usable players late in the draft: Al Jefferson (15th in 2004), Delonte West (24th in 2004), Tony Allen (25th in 2004), Ryan Gomes (50th in 2005), and Kendrick Perkins (27th in 2003). For what it’s worth, all five of these players are rotation players for potential 2012 playoff teams. Rajon Rondo was selected 21st in 2006 and the aforementioned crew of 25-and-under players plus Pierce, Gerald Green (18th in 2005) & Sebastian Telfair formed the Celtics 2006 – 2007 roster. They were horrible and despite the 2nd worst record in the league, ended up with the 5th pick.
Then the luck of the Irish intervened. On draft day, Ray Allen and Glen Davis (35th pick in that draft) were acquired for the aforementioned lottery pick, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak. One month later, Kevin Garnett came aboard for a package including Jefferson, Gomes, Green, Telfair and future first rounders.
The core of this team was built using one pick better than 10th. I wouldn’t credit this to a large Boston market either. No marquee free agents were signed. Before the Celtics acquired Allen; Garnett had demanded to be traded but refused a deal to Boston. He wanted sent to Phoenix, to play alongside Nash. The Suns wouldn’t part with Amar’e, the Celtics offer ended up as the best package, and Garnett finally agreed to go play with the Pierce & Allen Celtics and form a “Big 3”.
Also the Celtics had a great mid-to-late draft run from 2003 – 2006. Using picks from 15th to 50th, they acquired Rondo, Perkins, Jefferson, West, Gomes, & Tony Allen. That’s a playoff team, right?
What this means to the Cavs
I’m going to keep beating this into the ground, but the thing that jumps off the page about these six teams is how few high lottery chances were needed to construct the teams. Of their signature teams & players of the last ten years, top 8 draft slots were used to acquire:
- Tim Duncan
- Michael Finley acquired by the Mavs by trading former #2 pick Jason Kidd
- Ben Wallace acquired by the Pistons as part of sign-and-trade of former #3 pick Grant Hill
- Ray Allen acquired by the Celtics for the 5th pick in 2007 plus Delonte West
That’s the list. Six teams, 3000 regular season wins and nine championships in ten years and the list is four players, and only one was the actual drafted player. Here are some lottery runs these teams had leading up to this:
- Boston drafted Antoine Walker 6th in 1996, Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer 3rd and 6th in 1997 and Paul Pierce 10th in 1998, peaking with 49 wins.
- Dallas picked 4th, 4th, and 2nd, ending up with Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jimmy Jackson. Everyone thought this was awesome until they had to blow it up after a couple of seasons.
The historical evidence continues to pile up that there’s no reason to think that drafting in the high lottery is vital to future success. The list of recent teams taking a quick, few year dip into the lottery and emerging as contenders is…the present day Thunder. Overwhelmingly, the elite franchises are built through smart trades, value free agency pursuits, and mid-to-low draft picks. As several commenter’s have noted; continuity, good scouting & player development, and incorporating the right players into a system (thanks for further defining my giant umbrella of “good management”) are how team’s punch their tickets to Titletown. The lottery is a gamble; you either hit it big, or miss & go back next year. That’s totally fine, if the Cavs hit on a really high pick again this year and score another young star – that is OUTSTANDING. If they score a top 5 pick and draft an average player, well that’s a squandered opportunity. If they pick 11th…they can make that work too. The Cavs hit the lottery once and scored a franchise changer; now it’s time to make the most of wherever their draft picks are, along with their trade assets and cap space.
And that’s my segue into the discussion of potentially trading Varejao. I’m firmly entrenched in the camp that Varejao should only be traded if the return is an accomplished young player. The teams described above traded valuable, established veterans on a couple of occasions:
- Jason Kidd from the Mavericks for Michael Finley & Sam Cassell, after Finley made 1st team all-rookie
- Pistons trading Stackhouse for Rip Hamilton, after Hamilton scored 18 & 20 points per game in the previous two seasons
To trade Varejao, I’d hope to see something similar. I don’t have a good idea of who this “accomplished young player” should be, and perhaps I should hesitate to speculate. I’m not that wise though, so maybe a scenario like: Oklahoma City loses in the finals this year, victimized by their defense (currently 14th in the NBA and 22nd in defensive rebounding). Based on this, they decide to shake things up by offering the Cavs James Harden and Cole Aldrich for Anderson Varejao and Alonzo Gee. Part of OKC’s rationale is also that this allows them to avoid the huge luxury tax hit that will come along with extending Harden and Ibaka.
With that, I’m done for today. Tomorrow I’ll go in a different direction and take a look at the issues that plagued some recent “one star” teams: the first five years of the Lebron Cavs, the Chris Paul Hornets, and Deron Williams Jazz. What lessons can the Cavs learn from the eventual demise of these teams?
Part 2a: How did the best teams of the last 10 years get there?
The first step I took when researching this was to check if high-lottery teams were more likely to be better in five years than mid-lottery teams or borderline playoff teams. The answer was no; on average, every draft range regresses to the mean. From the 2001 – 2002 season through 2005 – 2006:
- The teams with the five worst records in each season (23 wins per season) averaged 39.8 wins in the 5th season after their ineptitude.
- The teams finishing with the 6th – 10th worst records (33 wins per season), improved to 41.2 wins 5 years later.
- The teams with the 11th – 15th worst records (40 wins per season), decreased to 38.4 wins per season.
All this really told me was that there’s nothing simple and draft related about building a winner. From there I started digging deeper, into what lead to the greatest success stories of the last 10 years. San Antonio, Dallas and the Lakers were the three teams that averaged 50 or more wins per season from 2001 – 2002 through 2010 – 2011. How did they get there?
The Spurs averaged 58 wins per season. That’s really amazing, but what’s even more astounding is the personnel they started the period with. In October 2001, Spurs fans probably thought re-building was imminent. Their under-30 core was basically one player. Fortunately, Tim Duncan was one of the best big men of all time, but there appeared to be very little around him. Antonio Daniels, Malik Rose and Charles Smith were already in their “primes” as average to below average NBA players. The newcomers were the 28th pick in the draft (19 year old Frenchman Tony Parker), Bruce Bowen (30 year old all-defense wing with 37% career field goal shooting and only 33% on threes), and Stephen Jackson (signed to 2 year, $1.2 million contract). David Robinson was 36 and Sean Elliot, Avery Johnson, and Vinny Del Negro were retired. With no lottery picks on the horizon, everyone must have been scouring the lists of upcoming free agents.
Except we know how this story ends; two seasons later the Spurs are again the NBA’s best. Parker averages 16 a game with Jackson tallying 12. Bruce Bowen continues a streak towards 8 straight all-defensive teams, while becoming a 3-pt marksman (41% during his Spurs career). The player they drafted 57th in the 1999 draft comes to the US and embarks on a hall-of-fame career. A series of well-considered free agents (Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Fabricio Oberto), trades (Nazr Mohammed), and late draft picks (George Hill, Dejuan Blair) leads to two more championships and the nearly 60 wins-per-season decade.
The Mavericks won 57 games per season over the last ten years. Their early decade success required the use of one top 8 draft pick. And that was an indirect use, as they traded Jason Kidd (2nd pick in the 1994 draft) for Michael Finley. Another player responsible for a lot of wins, before leaving as a free agent is Steve Nash, who was acquired by trading a Mavs 9th pick (Shawn Marion). Also contributing to a lot of wins from 2003 to 2009 was Josh Howard, who was drafted 29th.
The construction of their champions is convoluted, but it never required higher than a 9th pick (Dirk Nowitzki). I’ll again note that when referring to not requiring better than a 9th pick, I mean Dallas’ picks; several players were drafted by other teams at better spots in the draft, but the Mavs acquired them through other means. Basically, Dallas’ success was built on always being willing to take on longer term salary, while upgrading to the right mix of players. It started when they traded Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard for Raef Lafrentz and Nick Van Exel. LaFrentz eventually became Antoine Walker, who became Jason Terry. Van Exel became Antawn Jamison, whose value returned Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse. Harris and two late 1st rounders brought back Jason Kidd, while Stackhouse’s expiring contract (plus cash) was eventually used towards acquiring Shawn Marion. Finally Tyson Chandler was acquired for Erick Dampier’s expiring contract (who was acquired via trade, essentially for two late 1st round draft picks and cash) and JJ Barea was an undrafted free agent.
In summary, Dallas’ 10 years of success was built by indirectly using one high-lottery draft pick from seven years prior, two other top-ten draft slots, a video-game like series of trades, and cash.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Shaq and Pau acquisitions could basically only happen to the Lakers, so they’ll be addressed briefly. Still though, they were built while never using a pick higher than 10th.
Aside from Shaq landing in Hollywood as a free agent, Kobe was scored with the 13th pick in the draft, when NBA teams still weren’t sure about drafting high-school kids. The rest of the core of their three-peat team consisted of Derek Fisher who was picked 24th in the draft, Rick Fox a free agent, and Robert Horry gained through trading Cedric Ceballos. The 2009 & 2010 champs relied on Andrew Bynum being snagged 10th. Pau Gasol came aboard through what appeared to be a heavily lopsided trade; Kwame Brown, Pau’s brother Marc (48th pick in previous year’s draft, had not come to NBA yet) and two future, surely end-of-first-round draft picks. Shaq was then eventually traded for Lamar Odom, which rounded out this squad.
What this means for the Cavs
None of these teams are easily duplicated (Shaq’s not walking through the door), but that’s not the point.
The top 3 teams of the last ten years relied on two total draft selections inside the top 8 to build their cores: Tim Duncan and Michael Finley (We can debate about including David Robinson. He was the #1 pick fourteen years earlier and played only the first two seasons of these ten, while averaging 10 & 8). Compared to the less capable teams that drafted early in the lottery repeatedly, either immediately proceeding or early in these ten years (Memphis, Clippers, Toronto), that’s a pretty sharp contrast. The teams were built by signing free agents at a good value, making great talent evaluations later in the draft, and always getting the better end of a trade.
Besides LA, I can’t say market size was a huge influence either. San Antonio was the original small market model team in the NBA. Dallas was an atrocity before Nowitzki and Mark Cuban came around, averaging 20 wins per season through the 1990’s. Their “big three” top 5 draft picks of Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson brought them to a summit of 36 wins before needing to be dismantled. Cuban’s willingness to spend was immensely important in building their championship team, but they never had to lure a free agent through “big city, bright lights!” Assembling the original Nowitzki, Nash, Finley, Howard core occurred very organically. Through trades; Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard eventually became Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd. Basically they made a lot more good decisions than bad decisions for a long time, with wheels greased by Cuban’s money.
The Cavs have one blue-chip talent, tons of draft picks, and plenty of cap space; they should be able to reasonably duplicate the Spurs. Probably not to the tune of three championships, but at least a 55 win contender.
Perhaps based on the Dallas model of “never let a good expiring contract go to waste”, the Cavs can flip Jamison’s expiring contract to a floundering team for a longer, non-horrible contract that could also eventually be traded as an expiring contract for another upgrade. Maybe this was even a reason to keep Baron Davis around. It is interesting that neither the Spurs nor Mavericks assembled their cores with a big free agent signing; Dallas in particular always chose to trade expirings instead of waiting & gaining the cap space.
I don’t want these posts to be misconstrued that the high lottery is inherently worthless. If the Cavs fail this year and end up with a top 3 pick, my reaction will not be “what a disaster!” At the same time, the likelihood has to be acknowledged that the losing may not result in the asset everyone hopes for. This recent-NBA history lesson leads to the conclusion that there’s no reason to hope for losses. The assets and cap flexibility the Cavs have accumulated are sufficient, without needing further failure. Tomorrow we’ll look at the next best teams of the last ten years: Detroit, Phoenix, and Boston, and continue to build on the themes of “good management / decision making = winner, high lottery = crap shoot”.