Building a Winner, Part 3

February 15th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

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.


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?