Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Do Team Building Models Really Exist in the NBA?

Behold, one of the most successful people in sports history!
It’s become an annual tradition, at this point in the NBA playoffs, for writers and analysts across the sport to praise the league’s top teams for their “team building models.” Dozens of columns are written describing every personnel move the Thunder have made in the last five years, and numerous statistical breakdowns are drawn up describing how and why the Spurs made the moves they made.

The most in vogue “team building model” this year is certainly the Indiana Pacers’ model, constructed by The Legend himself. After some very lean years following the infamous Palace Brawl, Bird patiently enacted a complete overhaul of the franchise, a move that culminated in him being named Executive of the Year last week.
There’s no doubt that Bird deserves the award, as well as the effusive praise he’s received along the way. As we’ll examine later on, Bird’s successful rebuild is one of the most remarkable achievements in league history. But does that make it a “model?” Can another team really look at the Pacers and emulate what they’ve done? Could Bird himself even pull it off if he had to start all over again?

The more I’ve studied the NBA and how successful teams are constructed, the more I’ve realized that “team building models” are the sports equivalent to the classic “work at home and get rich” scams. They sound fantastic, and even sometimes legit. But go after one and you’re more than likely going to end up broke and unemployed.

Take the Pacers, for example. Here is how their top seven scorers were acquired:

Danny Granger – 17th overall pick
David West – 2 year free agent deal
Roy Hibbert – 17th overall pick
Paul George – 10th overall pick
Darren Collison – Trade (team gave up Troy Murphy in a 4-team trade)
George Hill – Trade (team gave up the 15th overall pick)
Tyler Hansbrough – 13th overall pick

Larry Bird, somehow, parlayed zero major assets into a championship contender. And believe me, the pile of mid-first round picks the Pacers have had to build off of are definitely NOT major assets. A GM would be fortunate if his 17th overall pick turned into a solid rotation player, so to land two All-Star building blocks in Granger and Hibbert…well, there is no amount of words I can use to convey how unfathomable that is.

Now, does that sound like a “model” to you? How could a GM reasonably look at the Pacers and think, “hey, maybe I should try to accomplish the impossible, too!” Even head coach Frank Vogel acknowledged the unlikely nature of Bird’s endeavor, saying "If you look at how this particular team has been built, it's really remarkable. To be able to build this team with mid-lottery picks and trades is just -- it's near impossible to do."

In truth, it IS impossible. Going back through past NBA Finals matchups, I couldn’t find any team that wasn’t manned by some combination of high draft picks and/or max contract type acquisitions, save maybe the mid-2000’s Pistons. That’s a telling fact, as is the track record of other teams who’ve had piles of mid first round picks. Here’s what it typically looks like:

1992 – Randy Woods (#16)
1993 – Terry Dehere (#13)
1994 – Eric Piatkowski (#15)
1995 – Brent Barry (#15)
1996 – Lorenzen Wright (#7)
1997 – Maurice Taylor (#14)
1998 – Brian Skinner (#22)
2000 – Keyon Dooling (#10)
2000 – Quintin Richardson (#18)
2002 – Melvin Ely (#12)

In case you didn’t catch on, that list represents a recent stretch of Clippers’ mid first round picks. While most teams might not be THAT unsuccessful, the above grouping is sadly representative of what you can expect. So no, the Pacers’ “model” isn’t a model at all. It’s a really smart guy (Larry Bird) doing a superior job of scouting and drafting. If that wasn’t already your team’s plan, then I’m not sure what to tell you.

Of course, the Bird “model” isn’t the only one talked about. The Spurs and Thunder have been, perhaps, the two most talked about “models” over the last few seasons. But again, I’m not sure there’s truly a “model” there. For the Spurs, the model is built on a timely injury to David Robinson that resulted in the team landing Tim Duncan with the #1 overall pick. And for the Thunder, the model is built on being horrific for four straight years, piling up a ton of really high picks, and being fortunate enough to be on the clock when Kevin Durant was still on the board.

While I might be oversimplifying things a bit, especially given the inordinate amount of smart moves those two franchises have made, there’s no way to ignore the incredible luck both the Spurs and Thunder benefited from. If Robinson hadn’t suffered the only major injury of his entire career, the Spurs wouldn’t have Tim Duncan, and they would almost assuredly still have zero titles. If the Blazers had been scared off by Oden’s knees, then OKC would be in the unfortunate place of having totally wasted the #1 overall pick. Be assured, they would NOT be in the Western Conference Finals.

But since “team building models” are all the rage, let’s play ball and come up with a real one, shall we?

1. Hire Smart People

It’s not hard to recognize that the league’s top teams are almost uniformly run by smart guys. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, Sam Presti of the Thunder, Larry Bird of the Pacers…these are the types of guys that build championship teams. And while luck is certainly a huge factor, it’s no coincidence that the above men win most of their trades, and hit on most of their draft picks. Simply put, they’re smarter than you, and they’re better at their job than you. If you want to build an NBA contender, you absolutely must have one of these guys at the helm. Of course, this is what makes the “retread” strategy so stupid. Why would you hire a person who has a track record of failing? Why wouldn’t you steer away from that person? In a related story, none of the guys I mentioned above have been fired from front office jobs.

2. Get Lucky

Sports fans don’t want to admit this, but luck is a major part of sports. With it, you can claim multiple championships. Without it, you may never sniff a title. This is especially true in the NBA, when you have to get lucky with ping-pong balls to get a good pick, but it also has to happen in the right year. The Spurs weren’t lucky because the ping-pong balls bounced their way, they were lucky because they just happened to suck in the year that produced the greatest PF to ever play the game. After all, what good is the #1 overall pick if there isn’t a #1 overall type player available? Would the Spurs have won four championships if Andrew Bogut was the big prize? Or Andrea Bargnani?

3. Don’t Overspend on Role Players

If you get lucky and land a Lebron James, you still have to put a team around him. The Cavs grossly overspent on role players, and it eventually cost them their best player. In this instance, the Spurs and Thunder have created a repeatable model in that they showed how valuable payroll flexibility can be. Ironically, this is the stage the Pacers are now at. With many of their young players eligible for extensions in the next year or two, Bird will be faced with the difficult task of deciding who is and who isn’t vital to the team’s long term plans.

And there you have it, a team building model. Make good decisions and hope things go your way. Doesn’t sound like the type of glorified “pathway” the media cracks it up to be, does it? It rarely is. That’s what makes Larry Bird’s work so impressive. There was no roadmap, no formula for building his team. There was  a guy hiring a good coach, making good draft choices, taking advantage of lucky breaks like Danny Granger sliding way too far in the draft, and not spending like a drunken sailor in free agency. Congratulations, Larry Legend. You deserve it.

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