Building a Winner, Part One

February 13th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

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.