Building a Winner, Part 4

February 16th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

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.