On June 19, 2016, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver handed over the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who took a momentary pause before thrusting the trophy above his shoulders. Re-enacting the ultimate scene
from The Lion King of success replicated in all sports across the globe. That single moment was built in the years that came before. It required a combination of luck, perfect timing, trial & error and of course, a wayward son finding his way back home.
We often equate a teams success to 16 people – 15 players and a head coach. But whilst there is no doubt these people are the major cog for success, it’s the franchise architects that were originally tasked in bringing these 16 people together. We often forget about these front office staff operating behind the scenes and hidden in offices filled with game tape, scouting reports and whiteboards scribbled with names of potential draft picks and wishful trade targets. We find ourselves talking about trades, draft picks, free agency signings and the merry-go-round of NBA coaches all the time. What we don’t discuss is what lies behind those draft selections, trades and signings – the method or philosophy that a successful franchise employed to build their championship calibre teams.
So how do teams put together their rosters? Take a journey with me as we search for the beauty (or ugliness) in all the chaos. Over two parts, we will place 7 NBA franchises under the microscope to evaluate their team building methods. Their approaches all differ, with some more successful than others but we may just gain a greater appreciation for those pulling the strings.
CHARLOTTE HORNETS – THE PICASSO METHOD
Who Are They?
Owner – Michael Jordan
General Manager – Rich Cho
Head Coach – Steve Clifford
The Hornets’ approach could equally be titled the ‘Sooner or Later It Just Has to Work Out Right?’ method. Until a major slide saw them slip outside the top eight (triggering the knee-jerk reaction that is the Miles Plumlee trade), the Hornets were playing some damn good ball and looking to go to back-to-back playoffs for the first time in Charlotte 2.0’s history. So, we can say that something has gone right – namely Walker Charlotte Ranger (possibly the worst, but also possibly the best All-Star Game Promo in the history of the NBA. It’s the fact that the theme song was written by Spencer Hawes that makes it oh-so-special. Google/ Youtube it right now. Even if you’ve already seen it. Watch it again right now) and the damn fine trade that brought in Nicholas Batum.
What’s The Philosophy?
That’s a horrible list of picks. Quick sidenote: name the player that has TWO NBA Championship rings? The answer: Adam Morrison (won two with the Lakers).
Unfortunately the Bobcats / Hornets have spent the majority of their time searching for a player they could build their franchise around. In that light, Okafor was the right pick at the time. We forget that as a second overall pick (Dwight Howard was first overall), Okafor won NBA Rookie of the Year in 2005, and had proven worth as the go-to guy on the UConn team that achieved College ball glory the year before. In many ways, the Bobcats entered the NBA a year too late. It could have been a lot different if they had a top-2 selection in the once-in-twenty-year type draft that was 2003 (although, they probably would have selected Darko Milicic).
But Okafor would never improve his offensive game (15ppg in his rookie year was his career high). Gerald Wallace was a key get in the expansion draft, but the Bobcats were never going to pin all their hopes on him. Adam Morrison, Jason Richardson and Stephen Jackson all followed. And whilst Jackson led the Bobcats to their first ever playoff appearance since re-entering the competition, he only lasted two seasons (traded for Corey Maggette and Bismack Biyombo) in the navy blue and bright orange. The newfound success (if we can call it that) of Charlotte 2.0 is on the back of seemingly reaching for Kemba Walker in 2011, finally finding the right guy from UConn to build around.
With Walker in tow, they added Al Jefferson for a one-two, guard-forward punch, selected an NBA Elite Defender in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (still with some offensive potential) and selected a capable-but-will-never-be-dominant Centre in Cody Zeller. Solid bench additions of Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb and Marco Bellinelli add impact depth. They also executed the best trade in Charlotte 2.0’s short history when they shipped Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson to the Blazers for Nicolas Batum. Still, it took over a decade for the Hornets 2.0 to achieve their first playoff victory (in a 3-4 series defeat against the Heat last season).
Does It Work?
Not since the sneaky collaboration of the Pistons in 2004. The Picasso Method is the common approach to building a team, especially a team that is searching for a true star to build around. The majority of teams do not have glittering draft records, nor have the infrastructure in place nor the patience to develop young players. The result is more and more pressure placed on the front office staff. This culminates in long term strategy being displaced in favour of short term job security, which results in a mismatch of players (another good example, see Magic of Orlando). Generally, they have been obtained ad hoc, never to form a cohesive unit, or propel a budding star to establish the franchise around. This creates a revolving series of risky moves (often because of a knee jerk reaction to poor performance) by a front office that is just hoping that like a Picasso painting, all these mismatched parts can find some form of beauty.
SACRAMENTO KINGS – THE USED CAR SALESMAN METHOD
Who Are They?
Owner – Vivek Ranadive
General Manager – Vlade Divac
Head Coach – Dave Joerger
Ironically (and as if to prove my point) the team that epitomised the Used Car Salesman Method has just decided to abandon it. To some that may mean what follows is slightly redundant, but on the contrary, the Kings trading Boogie Cousins – the Atlas of their franchise – for what amounts to about 25 cents on the dollar best demonstrates the intricacies and proves the fallacies of this particular method of team building.
Traditionally, the Kings’ good:bad decision ratio is about one:five (the Boogie deal falls into the ‘bad’ category). They have demonstrated a tendency to draft poorly, trade poorly, use free agency poorly and go through coaches like Khloe Kardashian goes through NBA players. But, they cashed in all their chips when the multi-talented, multi-positional and multi-attitudinal Boogie Cousins fell into their laps with the fifth pick of the 2010 draft. For the first time since Chris Webber, the Kings had a definitive NBA star to build their future around. This is what forms the key difference with the Picasso Method, the establishment of a franchise player. Yet, like a used car salesman who somehow finds themselves with a sleek-and-sexy Porsche with a minor fault in their run-down car yard, and surrounds it with once-cool-but-now-way-past-their-prime Italian sports cars, the Kings surrounded Boogie with players that no other team really wanted.
What’s The Philosophy?
The main point of the philosophy is acquiring once-thought-of-talent with the hope that they will rediscover star quality form as a result of playing alongside their franchise pillar. In this mould, the Kings threw around Boogie a myriad of players including Darren Collison, Rudy Gay, a-banged-up-prima-donna Rajon Rondo, Ty Lawson… the list goes on. All in the vain hope that the essence of Boogie would rub off on them and make them like new (a phenomenon that shall henceforth be known as the ‘Boogie shine’).
For the teams that utilise the Used Car Salesman Method, a good swarm of solid draft picks is required to bring it all together. Think Tristan Thompson (for rebounding prowess) and Matthew Dellavedova (energy/ defence prowess) for the Cavs. Good drafting also provides an insurance policy should your big-time off-season moves not work out, or as in the case of the Kings, your once-bright future centred around your franchise pillar suddenly becomes bleak. Unfortunately for the Kings, their draft history is bad, leaving them in a post-Boogie vortex that will likely be filled with more disappointment.
Since they drafted Boogie, the Kings selected eight players in the first round. One of those (Jimmer Fredette) is no longer in the NBA, two were traded after one season on the roster (Nik Stauskas and Thomas Robinson) and Ben McLemore averaged career lows across the board prior to Boogie being shipped on. The average selection of the Kings post-Boogie was pick 12 (which was heavily influenced by trading pick 8 for 13 and 28 in 2016, if they didn’t make that trade the average is pick 9). But in part, the drafting strategy of the Kings since Boogie seemed illogical.
They selected Willie Cauley-Stein (can’t shoot, can’t post up, will only get in Boogie’s way, but he can defend!), Nik Stauskas (can’t score, can’t defend, can’t create for others, but he can shoot!) and Thomas Robinson (jack-of-all trades, master of none type) just to name a few, and you can see why the Kings only won a collective 172 games with Boogie on the roster. Now, overlooking the post-Boogie landscape, there is no natural fit to fill the void, demonstrating the importance of talent insurance that stems from relatively high draft picks.
This method of team building is not unique to the Kings. It has become the pathway for many teams who are starved of higher success but have a franchise player to build around follow. In a pseudo attempt at keeping Jimmy Butler happy and trying to win games to stay relevant in the East, the Bulls adopted this method and attracted an ageing, non-long-range shooting Dwayne Wade and the banged-up-prima-donna Rajon Rondo, definitively moving on from the Derrick Rose era. Phil Jackson is in the middle of his masterful rendition of the ‘New York Knicks Train Wreck’, employing the Used Car Salesman Method in going all-in with Melo, picking up a used-up Derrick Rose and washed-up Joakim Noah.
Does It Work?
It does not. It is important not to confuse the 2016 Cavs, the 2012 and 2013 Miami Heat, and the 2008 Boston Celtics with this method. These teams all used major moves to obtain two current stars. The Used Car Salesman Method is about surrounding a franchise talent with once-star players, or could-be (but not likely to be) star players in the hope that it will all work out. The Kings have found themselves at the most logical conclusion of this method, trading the franchise pillar. It is no coincidence that at the same time the Bulls have engaged in pre-trade deadline talks to offload Jimmy Butler, and the Knicks have realised that Porzingod is the future, thus utilising not-so-subtle attempts to force Melo to scuttle his no trade clause and agree to a trade where it is likely that the Knicks (like the Kings) will get 25 cents on the dollar for their former franchise pillar. So what’s next for the Kings? Mr. Ranadive, say hello to The Picasso Method.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS – THE MOST HUMBLEST METHOD
Who Are They?
Owner – Peter Holt
General Manager – RC Buford
Head Coach – Gregg Popovich
I’ve never travelled to San Antonio, but I assume that somewhere in that city is a shrine to David Robinsons’ 1997 broken foot. It was on the back of that broken foot that led to the Spurs struggling (read tanking), and finishing with the first-overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. That pick turned out to be Tim Duncan. The Power Forward (or Centre) revolutionised the franchise, resulting in multiple NBA rings and a culture that is truly the envy of not just every franchise in the NBA, but most of world sport.
What’s The Philosophy?
The philosophy of humbleness that sits behind the Spurs’ method has seen them bring in guys like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili who have not hesitated to bend to the ‘Humble One’. Really, name one ‘problem player’ from the Spurs in the twenty years since Duncan was drafted? I can’t think of one destabilising influence. It helps that Coach Pop and RC Buford aren’t the kind of dudes to take any shit, but still, you get my point. They even have shown success in seamlessly amalgamating more volatile players, such as Stephen Jackson into their line-up. As demonstrated by comparing to that of the Hornets and Kings, the Spurs’ first round draft selection record speaks volumes for their success.
The highest pick they’ve had since 2004? Pick 20. The average pick since 2004? Pick 27. Though the Spurs have traded for players selected higher on draft night such as Kawhi Leonard at 15 in 2011. Of those players, almost all of them have demonstrated they’re at the very least handy NBA level players, (with special praise going to George Hill, who is doing some great things in Utah). The above list – though devoid of star power – demonstrates the reason why the Spurs have made the playoffs for the last twenty straight years.
The more recent success of the Spurs has been in large part due to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who were the two amigos to Timmy D before Leonard exploded in the 2013/14 Finals. But again, we see the humbleness origins in both. Ginobili (pick 57 in 1999) was the sixth man in three of the four championship winning teams despite clearly being good enough to start, and Parker (pick 28 in 2001) is renowned for his philanthropy. But the real showing of humbleness is how both Ginobili and Parker stayed with the Spurs and chose to be Timmy D’s lieutenants, despite the numerous opportunities to be the big banana somewhere else. In fact, loyalty is a huge trait for the Spurs, as demonstrated by Gregg Popovich almost forcing Boban Marjanovic to sign a substantially better deal with the Pistons in the off-season.
A quick glance at the Spurs’ 2013/14 Championship winning squad further demonstrates their humble philosophy with names like Patty Mills (a second round pick), Danny Green (picked up from the D-League after being waived by the Cavs) and Boris Diaw (has been criticised for being too unselfish). There is a clear mandate on the Spurs that you give yourself up for the good of the team.
Now we find ourselves in the post-Timmy D era, and the Spurs haven’t seemed to deviate from their philosophy in the slightest. They were aggressive in bringing in LaMarcus Aldridge (humble dude) to team up with the guy that Timmy D handed the ‘Most Humble Baton’ to (Kawhi Leonard). It’s why the Spurs have made the playoffs every single year since Tim Duncan was drafted and why there is every reason to believe that under the Leonard-led Spurs, that trend will continue.
Does It Work?
Timmy D’s ringed hand screams “YES!”. Compare the Spurs’ philosophy with that of the Knicks, the Kings, the Bulls or the Hornets and one thing stands out. Stability. The Spurs back themselves in with selecting the right draft picks (and again for the third time, the Spurs have made the playoffs every single year since 1997 with an average of pick 27 since 2004), free agency signings and trades (e.g. Kawhi Leonard for George Hill) that all fit within the humbleness philosophy. Then there’s the greatness of Pop & Co. If this seems on the outset if the Spurs’ method is dull and boring, so it should. That’s exactly the way the San Antonio Spurs want it to be. The result has been an almost unceremonious record of five NBA Championships in the last twenty years, none of which were back-to-back.
That’s all for Part One of “How (Not) To Build A Roster” but stay tuned for the next and final edition, where I will look at how Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Portland and Philadelphia go about building their teams – ending with a summary of what works and why.