Archive for February, 2012

LeBron Might Return to Cleveland, Sharks Might Sprout Legs and Wage Holy War upon the Iberian Peninsula

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

“LeBron on playing with Cavs again: ‘You can’t predict future…If I decide to come back hopefully the fans will accept me.'” [Brian Windhorst]

“Not that I’m around him every day, but today was the most contrite I’ve heard LeBron since he left. Amazed what he said about Dan Gilbert” [Jason Lloyd]

“LeBron on Dan Gilbert: ‘He said what he said out of anger. He probably would want to take that back but I made a mistake too.'” [Brian Windhorst]

“LBJ on if he could ever play for Dan Gilbert’s team again: ‘Dan is not the coach. I’ll play for any coach. Let’s see what happens.'” [Jason Lloyd]

Have at it, commenters!

Recap: Pacers 87, Cavs 98

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

After losing five of their last seven, the Cavs defeated the Pacers in a game that wasn’t all that competitive.

–Kyrie Irving looked himself in his first game back from a concussion that sidelined him for a week and a half. He flashed a portion of his offensive arsenal in the opening quarter, scoring at the rim, on a pull-up bank shot, behind the arc, and in transition. What I liked most tonight from Irving is how he controlled the pace of the game when he was the lone point guard in the backcourt (when he was paired with Ramon Sessions, Sessions did Sessions things while Irving spotted up in the corner). There was a point in the first quarter when, in semi-transition, he spurted past a defender and forced the other one to foul him as he converted the lay-in. I think Chris Paul comparisons can wait until Irving enters his third or fourth year in the league, but if there’s a Paulian aspect to Irving’s game, it’s that he dictates to the defense the pace at which he’s going to play.

–Semih Erden! The Turk played the pick and roll game pretty competently tonight. Irving and Sessions slipped him a couple of nice passes in the first half that resulted in easy dunks and lay-ups. Roy Hibbert put up some points on him with that near-unblockable hook shot he’s developed, but it’s hard to fault Erden for that. One minor concern to take away from an otherwise impressive game: Erden has to finish stronger at the rim. A couple of times, he caught a pass with a chance to flush it, and he failed to throw the ball down, resulting in a trip to the line for a pair of free throws. You’re 7-foot, 240 pounts, Semih: make them tackle you if they want to prevent a dunk.

–Ryan Hollins checked into the game in the first quarter and immediately picked up an off-the-ball offensive foul just as Omri Casspi was about to take a wide open three. I hate him.

–I was going to make a joke about being positive that Antawn Jamison missed every single three he took no matter what the box score says, but the almighty box score is informing me that my joke is a fact. So instead, I’m going to submerge myself in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan and scream for a few minutes.

–I find it disconcerting how little I talk about Tristan Thompson in game recaps. I mean, I know he’s been banged up, but his impact on a lot of Cavs games this year has been negligible. I’m starting to have recurring nightmares about Jonas Valančiūnas (I insist upon proper diacritical marks!) dunking on Tristan Thompson, and then giving him the Hook ‘Em Horns sign as he trots back down the court.

–Omri Casspi is lucky I’m conserving all of my hate for the next time Ryan Hollins does something stupid. Because he has been a semi-secret disaster this season. He was 3-10 tonight, and a decent number of those misses were uncontested three-pointers.

–Boobie Gibson went down early in the game with what the announcers were calling a sprained ankle. (More news on that tomorrow, I would assume.) I think we’ve reached the point where we can finally slap Gibson with the dreaded “injury-prone” tag. Dude just can’t stay on the court.

–The Cavs won this game in the first half; they went into the break with an 18-point lead. Indiana looked flat (this was the second night of a back-to-back for the struggling Pacers), and the Cavs, due in part to their light schedule over the last week, were spry. The defense was solid, the ball moved quickly on the offensive end, and their effort on the boards was commendable.

The Cavaliers’ next game is at home against Miami on Friday. Until tomorrow, friends.

Building a Winner, Part 3

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

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 Suns

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.

Detroit

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.

Boston

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?

Links to the Present: February 15, 2012

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

“I told them I hope that the last game was a one-time hangover. I understand from a player’s standpoint, when you’re missing someone as important as Andy is to us, I understand that you’re going to probably feel a little disappointment or sadness that he’s not out there because he gives you everything he’s got. But like I’ve said in the past, it gives other guys opportunities and they better be ready to step up and take the challenge. Hopefully everybody is over with that and we understand that he’s not going to be here for a few days. We still have to move on.” [Byron Scott on Saturday’s loss against Philadelphia]

“Guard Ramon Sessions has averaged 18.3 points and 12.3 assists in his three games in the starting lineup in place of Kyrie Irving. He’s now soared past Irving as the Cavs’ assist leader, 5.7 to 5.1. It’s been almost a year since a Cavs player had back-to-back double-digit assist nights. Sessions had 13 and 16 assists, respectively, against the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee. The last time it happened was by Sessions on Feb. 7, 2011 vs. Dallas (13) and Feb. 9, 2011 against Detroit (12).” [CBS Sports]

“In the last meeting, the Pacers killed Cleveland on the boards, 60-49. They also had significantly more points in the paint, 52-44. Much of that had to do with Roy Hibbert. Hibbert alone grabbed 5 offensive rebounds, and the Pacers as a whole grabbed 17. When you give up that many offensive boards, you consistently give the other team a second chance to score. When that happens, you generally lose games. With Anderson Varejao still out with a broken wrist, it will be mostly up to Semih Erden to try to hold his own on the glass against all-star Roy Hibbert. If Erden struggles, don’t be surprised if Scott opts to use Tristan Thompson at center for portions of the game.” [Conrad Kaczmarek on tonight’s game against Indiana]

“BScott said Anthony Parker (lower back) might return to games next week. May return to non-contract drills later this week” [PDCavsInsider]

“The Cavaliers have activated Kyrie Irving, who missed the previous three games with a concussion. He will be in the lineup tonight against the Indiana Pacers, and is expected to start. Irving got a concussion in the Cavaliers’ loss in Miami on Feb. 7.” [Tom Reed]

Building a Winner, Part 2

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

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?

San Antonio

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.

Dallas

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”.

Links to the Present: February 14, 2012

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

“Kyrie Irving participated in non-contact drills [Monday] at practice, inching him closer to a return to the court Wednesday night when the Cavs host the Indiana Pacers. Irving has not been medically cleared from the concussion he suffered last week, but the running, agility and non-contact work are the final steps before he can receive clearance from team and league doctors. Cavs coach Byron Scott typically likes players coming off an injury to at least get one practice in before they play. If Irving can get cleared prior to tomorrow’s practice, it’s likely he would play against the Pacers.” [Jason Lloyd]

“Christian Eyenga’s to-do list is fairly simple. Improve his English, improve his driving, and improve his defense. (Or, in the words of Eyenga, himself: ‘I learn about English. I don’t crush the car no more. Now my next step is to learn about defense.’) English is essential and not crushing the car no more is always a good thing. (The Congolese transplant had some difficulty navigating his rig in the snow last winter.) But if you ask Coach Scott, the third item on Christian’s list is probably the most vital to his NBA success and survival.” [Joe Gabriele]

“The loss of Anderson Varejao is likely to send this team into a free-fall, much like the one it experienced last year.  They will not lose 26 games in a row again as long as Kyrie Irving is getting the minutes that used to belong to Mo Williams and Manny Harris, but it is going to get bad.  This team was on the raggedy edge to begin with, and trying to replace Varejao with the likes of Samardo Samuels and Ryan Hollins is like replacing Peyton Manning with Kerry Collins.” [Michael Curry]

Conrad Kaczmarek over at Fear the Sword is confident Kyrie Irving will play against the Pacers on Wednesday.

A Poem for Anderson Varejao

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

—until you can’t
hold mouth straight
like swamp
weeds
under alligator
snout.

The dreams are over
and morningspoil clings to joints.

Sight forgets him.
He steals into the room’s
cold oil.

Anger wraps
around his wrists
like wind beneath
a bird’s bones
or the smell
of wet moss
set aflame.

Dancing like
windswept steam
he flings an
elbow into his
second foe’s forehead.

Tufts of feathers
grow on his back.
White and gray
anthills.

Sunlight
reaches into
the ashblood
and glows
it fishscale
like the
pink lining of
a siren’s
lungs.

He did not see
the man with ears
poking through
hair like vegetables through
the undergrowth. The man
who moved like
a fingernail through
velvet and
made his rage
remember the
floor.

His howls
puddle into
ink-limbed sleep.
The air
groans
with a stone in its belly.

Building a Winner, Part One

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Since the Cavs descended to the NBA’s bottom last year, everyone has been thinking about moving back to the top.  There are alot of ideas: Accumulate draft picks…don’t get too good, too fast…don’t build a losing culture, etc.  Every idea has merits, and leaves me questioning what moves really build winners in the NBA.

This month, instead of a Destination: 2013, I will be posting a five part series on Building a Winner.  The posts will look at most of the signature teams of the last twenty years, looking at the personnel moves that drove their success.  Lessons learned from these teams will be applied to the Cavs current situation.  Obviously there is no one rule for constructing a great team, but these posts basically boil down to:

  • There’s no magic associated with picking high in the lottery for a few years in a row.   Continued trips to the lottery are more likely to result in mediocrity, rather than building a championship contender.
  • Good teams make the right personnel decisions.  It’s really that simple.  This happens through all sorts of means, but the exemplary teams make the most of what they have; the lesser teams squander it.

In Part one, I’ll start by exploring the first bullet.

Part 1: Why the “OKC plan” is barely a plan

The Thunder are current NBA darlings; they’re young and exciting and poised to be an NBA contender for at least the next half-decade.  This was accomplished through accumulating draft picks, maintaining salary cap flexibility, and pulling off shrewd trades using those assets.  This post certainly is not intended to downplay the brilliance of what OKC has assembled; it’s intended to show that the plan rarely works this well.

The list of solid role players acquired through excellent scouting and taking advantage of other team’s cap mismanagement is impressive: Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Eric Maynor, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Daequan Cook; each player occupying valuable roles within the OKC system.  Still though, the difference between the Thunder and any number of 45 win teams is their back-to-back-to-back high lottery draft picks: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Unfortunately, this is where the whole setup fails to be a “plan”.  Making this work requires a lot of luck; the Sonics had an 80% chance of NOT drafting 1st or 2nd when they picked Durant.  In 2009, they had a 37% chance of their ping-pong ball rising to the top three.  Beyond that, they had to rely on other teams selecting lesser players instead of their stars: Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley, OJ Mayo, and Greg Oden all came off the board prior to their picks.  If the paint on a ping-pong ball is a little heavier or Memphis was better at drafting, then OKC looks a lot different.  A recent John Hollinger post on ESPN explains that this year’s Thunder rely on their “big 3” for a higher proportion of scoring than any other team in the league.  If one or two of these picks goes differently, the Thunder are probably not dreaming of championship parades.

No amount of genius can guarantee three stars in three drafts (or even two in two).  For reference, the other three year runs on the high lottery in the last ten years include:

  • As an expansion team, Charlotte drafted #2 in 2004, #5 and 13 in 2005, #3 in 2006 and #8 in 2007.  Emeka Okafor, Ray Felton, Sean May, Adam Morrison, and Brandan Wright aren’t raising any Bobcats banners anytime soon.
  • After scoring Chris Bosh at #4 in 2003; over the next three years, the Raptors chose Rafael Araujo at #8, Charlie Villanueva at #7 (with Joey Graham at #16 that year) and Andrea Bargnani at #1.   Ummmm…Bargnani hasn’t been a complete failure.
  • From 2007 – 2009 (same three years as the Thunder), the Grizzlies ended up with Mike Conley Jr, OJ Mayo, and Hasheem Thabeet in the top five (Mayo and Thabeet came before the Thunder picks).  For good measure, they also drafted in the top six for eight years from 1995 to 2002, all for the eventual benefit of building a 50 win team.
  • Minnesota has picked in the lottery forever, making seven top-seven picks in the last six years (with three additional first round picks).  They’ve finally got a few keepers and should be a playoff team soon.
  • Atlanta accumulated losses to the tune of a top six every year from 2004 – 2007, eventually building the playoff road-bump that they are today.
  • I’m starting to get depressed; the Clippers picked in the top eight for four years in a row, including #2 and #3 picks.  Alas, they are not retiring Darius Miles’ jersey.
  • Finally, over the last three years, Sacremento has finished with the league’s worst, 3rd worst and 5th worst records.  For their pain; they’ve built a nucleus of Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmer Fredette.  That group at least surpasses OKC at one thing – getting coaches fired.

Many of these teams drafted poorly, but the ratio of “teams that built contenders from lottery scratch” to “teams that did not” is really lopsided.  The lottery is a crap shoot, starting with the need to get your ping pong balls vacuumed out of glass sphere.  Add that to projecting the future exploits of 19 year olds, and the result is pretty frequently continued mediocrity.  Speaking of, there is another young NBA contender built through the draft.

The Chicago Bulls are not a “lottery success story” in any easily definable way.  From 2000 – 2007, the Bulls picked #4, #9, #2, #4, #2, #7, #3, #7, #2 and #9.  Where did that leave them?  Back in the lottery, as a 33 – 49 team.  Fate smiled on them and with a 1.7% chance to win the lottery, they were able to add Derrick Rose, who became the youngest MVP in league history.  Besides the fact it took ten years, that’s pretty irreproducible.  Luckily for Cleveland, Irving came with the first dip into the lottery.

What this means for the Cavs

The concept for this series of posts as well as much of the writing happened before the Varejao injury.  This whole five day series started with the simple question, “Is it really that bad if the Cavs end up with the 11th pick?”  Based on the experiences of the nine teams discussed above and the construction of the thirteen teams covered over the next four days; my answer is no.  Really good teams are built through all sorts of means, and most rarely relied on picking in the lottery.  The eight championship franchises of the last twenty years relied on a total of 10 of their own top eight picks, either directly or indirectly (i.e. trading a player they drafted in the top 8 for something useful).  The signature teams of this timeframe were built by making good personnel decisions, using whatever was available to them.   There’s minimal correlation between having multiple high lottery picks and eventually winning championships.

Obviously recent injuries have increased the likelihood of failure for the Cavs this year, but over the next five days, I’ll show why it’s not justified to feel the need to root for losses.   The difference between 20 and 28 wins in 2011 -2012 is one of a multitude of factors that will influence Cleveland’s path to contention.   With Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, seven more 1st round draft picks, and plenty of salary cap flexibility; the Cavs are able to build a contender regardless of 2012’s draft position.  Whether they do so, is up to them.

What is the value of spite? A short musing on LeBron James, Cleveland, and this Girl I Used To Love Irrationally, by Ryan Braun:

Monday, February 13th, 2012

In “honor” of LeBron’s coming to town this week:

Now here we have an interesting dilemma, and I’d urge you to think it through before arriving at any, let’s say, decisions…

You know what? Let’s not even start with LeBron. Let’s start with a conveniently analogous anecdote.

****

When I was 22 (a year older than CTB’s own C.S. McGowan), the first girl I’d ever dated broke up with me. I’d made mistakes along the way — mixtapes are cute, but you better be a real lumberjack if you want to bookend one with Aladdin — still, the dumping seemed irrational. I was caring, attentive and I put out reasonably well for a nebbish, sexually-terrified faux-adult whose romantic repertoire prior to that relationship consisted of saying “I’m going to kiss you in 10 seconds,” and then counting down the remaining :09.

In spite of all that, she left me for a disinterested 28-year-old physical therapist.

It was brutal.

It was why, for months afterward, I refused to rehab anything professionally.

And it’s kind of related to the debate at hand.

*****

Two weeks ago, I stumbled on Sam Amico’s now semi-dated article re: the prospects of LeBron returning to Cleveland, and it was that which got me thinking about this again (both the LeBron situation and my beautiful ex — the latter pictured below in a visual approximation).

I’m sure you’ve all read the story.

There is talk, Amico writes, that LeBron is discontent in Miami — “less-than-thrilled with certain aspects of the Heat organization.” It’s not Wade and Bosh, SA continues, it’s “the heavy-handed and disciplined style of Pat Riley.”

None of this is particularly substantive or surprising. That Brian Windhorst corroborated kept me from writing off the return possibility without first giving it some thought…but I did give it some thought and came to the conclusion that we’ll see Obama as governor of Mississippi before we see LeBron, as Windhorst speculates, back in Cleveland and honored with a statue.

To even get us to the precipice of a return would require not only Dan Gilbert’s acceptance of a LeBron reconciliation, but an apology from LeBron himself, plus a general admission of wrongdoing. In other words, LeBron would have to publicly take some responsibility for the split with Cleveland and at least in some capacity, publicly admit he may have done a thing or two to draw Gilbert’s ire.

None of the above is going to happen, and perhaps because of that, the likelihood of the above happening is not really what I’m interested in.

I’m interested in us.

I’m interested in what we might do if the situation presented itself.

*****

When that girl broke up with me, I sulked pretty bad.

I didn’t leave the house for a week. My mom gave me a bell I could ring for ice cream and I just stayed in bed for the whole seven days. It wasn’t a good look for a 22-year-old, and about the only thing I gained from the wallowing was an abject certainty that Night Court was underrated.

I also made possible the taking of this picture:

Dark, dark days.

But then, as if forced to by my mother, the next Monday I got up and moved on with my life. I got a job as the production office intern for a movie filming locally and made such an impression delivering lunches that I was offered a job in Los Angeles, also delivering lunches.

My mom spent a week in bed with the ice cream bell, and then I left.

I won’t say my motivation was to become a famous actor solely to spite the girl who’d left me… but I will write it.

My motivation for moving was to become a famous actor solely to spite this girl who’d dumped me.

I’d never acted.

I’d never been to Los Angeles.

It was a healthy and financially pragmatic move.

But it did do one thing; it allowed me the time and the space to recover. It allowed me to move on with my life. It allowed me to start anew (and/or metaphorically draft Kyrie Irving depending on where you are in the analogy.).

Within three years, I was shopping at Whole Foods and driving a Prius. I was still delivering lunches, but now they were fancy.

I didn’t see that girl again for three years, and I really wasn’t planning on initiating anything ever again until she emailed me one day totally out of the blue…to see how I was doing, to see “how life was treating me,” and to see if I’d be attending the wedding of one of our college friends in a couple of months.

And so we started talking, and reminiscing, and telling each other that there were no hard feelings.

I said I’d be going to the wedding and staying in the recommended hotel.

She asked me what floor I was staying on.

*****

My biggest issue with the sports fan of the 21st century is the following: With very few exceptions, the 21st century sports fan is f’ing fickle! I haven’t been alive long enough to definitively state that things haven’t always been this way…but I’m pretty sure that things haven’t always been this way.

Sports have become a mixed bag of opportunism and sentimentality, admittedly for me as much as anyone. I mourned the departure of Big Z, but in no way did I take issue with his trade. I’ve despised the high-profile player movement of the past few years, but I’m the same guy who was pitching Dwight Howard to Cleveland last week.

And now, in analyzing the tenets of immediate gratification (something that, again, I seek as much as anyone)…I’m starting to wonder at what point will opportunism snuff out the sentimentality that gives sports its heart in the first place? And if that’s a possibility, how far gone are we already?

From the booing of home teams in even the most hallowed of locales (its happening from Cleveland to Green Bay), to the relatively crass pursuit of big-time free-agents in every major sport (again, Dwight Howard), I feel like the opportunism is taking over. This is probably a positive in the NFL-ian way that it keeps everything interesting for everyone always…but it’s not so good in the crafting of true loyalty, of true fans, and ultimately, of the lovable “throwback” players we keep pining for.

There’s a romantic (if idealistic) group of sports fans craving a better kind of athlete.

I think in order to facilitate that, we may need a better kind of fan.

Someone for whom opportunism is not the priority.

*****

That said, I totally get why it is.

We’re back at the reception now and I’ve had four glasses of wine plus I really can’t hold my liquor (At all. That “I’m drunk” picture came after a lone White Russian.) and the/that/my girl is looking more pretty than is probably appropriate at a wedding with a bride.

I asked her how her grad school was going and she told me about her residency.

She asked me how my acting was going and I told her about my appearance in a Swedish life insurance commercial.

And then we just stared at each other for a moment…after which time she asked me if I wanted to see some of the things she’d learned in medical school.

I’ve never been hit on in my life…except for potentially that.

“What floor are you on?”

My floor.

Jim Gray walks in and he sets up the camera.

I am not a role model.

*****

What would you say to LeBron James if he asked to come back (and/or asked you up to room 304)?

First remove the backdrop of improbability, and then, with as much hypothetical honesty as you can muster, ask yourself what would you do if the only thing standing between a 29-year-old LeBron returning to Cleveland, returning to a team featuring an abundance of young talent, a blooming superstar in Kyrie Irving, and potentially another in Harrison Kidd-Davis, was you…

What would you do if the only thing standing between a Cleveland team and a 3-4 year championship run was the return of LeBron James?

In that very specific case (coincidentally, an amplified version of so many other cases)… what is the value of spite, and in how much of that spite lies your credibility as a sports fan (or in my case, as a man in general)? In how much of it lies your ability/right to enjoy a championship?

When LeBron James left for Miami, he was most roundly criticized for copping out.

We’d hoped he’d be the greatest player of the past twenty years, and instead he ended up choosing to play with his only real rival in the league while complaining about “the pressure of going out, scoring 30 every night.”

“Championships are championships,” LeBron ultimately said. The ends justify the means, because presumably, no one remembers the means.

If history proves him right (and while I sincerely hope that won’t be the case, I do realize it might be), would you be willing to sacrifice championship ends for a means that ultimately may not be remembered?

I think the obvious answer is, “Yes, of course. Pride over title any day of the week.”

And I think that’s what I’d want to say… I just hope I’d say it.

I spent my fourth year in Los Angeles listening to way too much Aladdin.

AWARDS WATCH (39.4% of the way through the season):

NBA MVP – LeBron James, SF, Miami Heat (27.9 ppg, 8.2 reb, 6.9 ast). The real purpose of this article was to compare LeBron James to a girl (WIN)…unfortunately, that girl is playing about three levels higher than anyone else is this season. I don’t know if he’s recovered enough good will to actually win MVP, but he clearly should if Miami ends up anywhere near the top of the league. Along those lines, the Heat are a game back of the Bulls and Thunder right now and while he’s tailed off a bit lately, LeBron has been dominant in keeping the Heat afloat despite inconsitent assistance from Dwyane Wade.

CAVALIER MVP – Andy Varejao, PF/C (10.8 ppg, 11.5 reb, 1.7 ast). I’m in the camp that wants a better draft pick and I still thought the Varejao injury was devastating. Andy’s been playing at an All-Star level all year, and to see that momentum interrupted by such a fluky play is immensely frustrating. Silver lining: There’ll be a lot less pressure on him when we land Anthony Davis.

NBA COY– Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers. I don’t think the Sixers are a threat in the East, but boy are they are fun to watch. They’re young, they’re well-rounded and they share the ball. I fear they’ll end up a well-constructed team held back by lack of star power…  but in the meantime, much of the credit for their resurgence should go to Collins.

CAVALIER COY – Byron Scott. I’ve made jokes every week about Byron’s lack of competition for this spot, but in truth I’m really impressed with the job he’s done this year. The games we’ve not competed have been few and far between, and the development of our youth (by far the season’s most important facet) seems to be going remarkably well. Tristan Thompson may have plateaued, but Kyrie Irving and Alonzo Gee get better with each passing week.

CO-NBA ROY – Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves (10.9 ppg, 4.5 reb, 8.7 ast) & Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers (18.0 ppg, 3.5 reb, 5.1 ast). I still think Kyrie’s the better player, but with KI missing a few games courtesy of Dwyane Wade’s knee I think it’s fair that Rubio be acknowledged as well. Ricky’s shooting is a substantial limitation, but it’s one some other stars share. It’s striking how much of his game resembles Rondo’s. Rubio is such a good set-up man and he’s far more active defensively than I initially gave him credit for. Ultimately, I don’t know if I see the athleticism to make up for his inability to shoot comfortably from the perimeter…but if he carves out a niche as a poor man’s Jason Kidd/Rondo, I think Minnesota will deal.

CAVALIER ROY – Kyrie Irving, PG. Since I last did this, Kyrie’s started winning games down the stretch single-handedly. It’s been kind of astonishing to watch. I don’t know if he can make the type of jump LeBron did from Year One to Year Two, but he also might not have as much distance to travel. If he can condition himself to the point where he can run (really run) 36 minutes a game… we’ll all have to reassess what his ceiling might be.

…………………..

Ryan Braun writes at CFAAP.com, and posts a picture with an article once every two Sundays (which he often does barely and by PST technicality). He appreciates your reading, and also you in general.

As a Cleveland sports fan, optimism can prove evasive

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Well, so much for happy thoughts.  Apparently Varejao has a fractured wrist and is out indefinitely.