Building a Winner, Part 2

February 14th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

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”.