How (Not) To Build A Roster – Part Two

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The trade deadline has passed and the buyout merry-go-round is starting to slow down. If there was ever a time to follow up on our investigation into how NBA teams go about building their roster – after we looked at how the Hornets, Kings and Spurs went about it in Part 1 – that time is now. So, get out your copy of the NBA CBA Agreement, fire up ESPN.com’s NBA Trade Machine and follow me on a journey through the methods of the Blazers, Bucks, Nets and the Sixers. Let’s get our Sam Hinkie on!

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PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS – THE MID MAJOR METHOD 

Who Are They?
Owner – Paul Allen
General Manager – Neil Olshey
Head Coach – Terry Stotts

I am a firm believer that there is such a thing as basketball purgatory. It is the state a team finds itself in when it is too good to be one of the bad teams, but not good enough to be one of the better teams. It can be very difficult for a team to recover from basketball purgatory, as teams generally will not have high enough draft selections to obtain elite youngsters and either not enough cash available or not successful enough to draw in top of the line free agents. If a team finds itself in basketball purgatory, it has to manufacture a way to continue to move up. The Blazers were in basketball purgatory entering into the 2012 NBA draft.

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Portland First Round Talent 2004-2016

What’s The Philosophy?
When the Blazers selected Damian Lillard on draft night, it was against conventional wisdom. Dame was a guy that dominated College ball because he should have dominated College ball. He was the best player in the Big Sky (not renowned for harbouring NBA talent) by that far you couldn’t tell who was number two. But coming into the NBA and playing against NBA proven point guards that had once hailed from the pantheon of great college basketball teams like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, we thought that he wouldn’t stand a chance. But we were wrong.

A few years later, a player from Lehigh showed all the same characteristics as Lillard, and again it was Portland who took the punt on CJ McCollum. Neither were really ‘reaches’ in their respective draft years, but what was different was the fact that with LaMarcus Aldridge, they were looked at to form the core three for their future. Generally, all players selected from lesser known schools are selected to ultimately fill a role (like Luke Babbitt and Elliot Williams in 2010), not to form a triumvirate for a franchise’s future.

Look, it might not be a mid-major thing per se and it is hard to confidently speculate, noting that Blazers have not used a first-round draft pick over the last three drafts. But drafting Lillard and McCollum certainly was a deviation from their recent draft history of drafting college stars or established international talent. It might be a throwback to the ghost of Brandon Roy, a Senior who stayed in College to pound himself into a leader. Then put the Portland franchise on his back for a few years, before blowing out his knees (which may or may not have been a result of said franchise carrying) and the Blazers identifying those same characteristics they saw in Roy’s peak years residing in CJ-3 and DL-0. We don’t know. We also don’t know if truly these two can co-exist (both have struggled to guard their own shadows at times) and bring Portland the glory they saw Greg Oden and Sam Bowie leading them towards. But still, no other team has benefited more from talent from lesser known NCAA Conferences than the Portland Trailblazers. And that is what the philosophy is, going against the grain and drafting talent from non-traditionalist basketball schools in the hope that they can translate their mid-major dominance to the NBA.

Does It Work?
The Warriors have shown that it certainly can help. Larry Bird (Indiana State though he originally played for the University of Indiana), Scottie Pippen (University of Central Arkansas – which isn’t even a Division 1 school), and more recently Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State), and Steph Curry (Davidson) all were key in Championship runs and other notables include Dan ‘Thunder Dan’ Majerle (Central Michigan Chippewas, also Thunder Dan is a great nickname for an NBA Star or porn star) who only makes this list because I lost a bet to a fellow co-writer. We are yet to see a team being led wholly by three mid-major players, but it certainly is a method to try and get out of basketball purgatory.

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MILWAUKEE BUCKS – THE INTERNATIONAL MEN OF MYSTERY METHOD 

Who Are They?
Owner – Wesley R. Edens & Marc Lasry
General Manager – John Hammond
Head Coach – Jason Kidd

Like the Portland Trailblazers, the Bucks found themselves being bad but not bad enough for a few years and were perennially drafting in the 6-15 range. Unless you get lucky with a mid-major talent (e.g. Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard or Kawhi Leonard), or it’s the 2003 NBA Draft, the chances are you aren’t going to find any players at those picks to build your team around and lead you to the promised land.

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Milwaukee First Round Talent 2004 – 2016

What’s The Philosophy?
To buck the trend, Milwaukee decided to go the International option and take Giannis Antetokounmpo (Giannis Alphabet from now on) with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft. More recently, the Bucks bucked the trend again selecting Thon Maker at 10 last year.

Obviously, there is a large international contingent in the NBA. We’ve seen International-non-College-playing players selected with the top overall pick (Andrea Bargnani, and watch out for Luka Doncic from Real Madrid in 2018), and every year there is a healthy spattering of international talent from across the globe that make their mark in the NBA. But most are well known to NBA scouts at draft time, and many are drafted and left to marinate for a few years in the Euroleague to play against men. At the very least, this provides a comparative yard-stick for scouts, ensuring some clarity as to what these international players will bring to the NBA. Where this philosophy differs, is that every so often International Men of Mystery grace the draft. Players who are athletically gifted enough to perform at an elite NBA level but have never been scrutinised against decent competition (for us Aussie’s, Dante Exum fits this bill), so there is no way to know how they will adapt. Milwaukee as the current pioneers of this method didn’t shy away because of the doubts. They saw it as an opportunity and bucked the trend (I’m sorry I keep using this pun, but really, how many moose/deer/buck puns are there?).

Giannis Alphabet came almost from nowhere. A Grecian by way of Nigeria, he was spotted in the Greek Second Division (not known for harbouring NBA talent) whilst putting up 8 points, 5 boards a game. He was athletically gifted at 6’10 and could run like a deer (new pun alert!), but what was his yard stick? The deep dark vaults of the NBA are filled with the remains of uber-athletic players who failed to make an impact in the big league, who are now discarded and forgotten about. The lack of clarity over how Giannis Alphabet could adapt to the NBA caused him to fall to pick 15 in 2013, widely recognised at the time as one of the worst NBA drafts ever.

It helps that Giannis is a sponge, that he’s grown and that he has hands the size of industrial-grade buckets so the ball is like a marble in his hands, but still, credit must go to the Bucks for taking the shot (does this count as a pun?). They’ve also done it with Thon Maker, who whilst has had more exposure from the NBA Camps that are run for High School talent, not being exposed to College ball and playing his last High School season in Canada subjected Maker to the same kind of scrutiny Giannis Alphabet endured. Fingers crossed it’ll work out for them.

Does It Work?
Maybe. It’s too early to tell. Every team has an international player on it. But those players are known. They’ve been identified in their teens, watched through Junior Championships, through NBA Global Camps, through the Euroleague, or watched extensively if they enrol with an American College. There is rarely any degree of anonymity with  international players anymore. So the success of those true mystery men is yet to be determined. At the very least they’re exciting to watch, and gives ones spellcheck a horrendous time.

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BROOKLYN NETS- THE BET EVERYTHING ON RED METHOD

Who Are They?
Owner – Mikhail Prokhorov
General Manager – Sean Marks
Head Coach – Kenny Atkinson

In 2012, when New Jersey moved to Brooklyn, the powers that be wanted to win and win straight away, which is essentially Endear-Yourself-To-Your-New-City’s-Fans-101. The quickest way to do that was basically leverage everything they had for star power and hire a Head Coach who hadn’t ever been a coach at any level at any stage.

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Brooklyn First Round Talent 2004-2016

What’s The Philosophy?
The Nets traded Gerald Wallace, Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans for Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, Paul Pierce and DJ White. That trade on face value doesn’t really seem to be too bad, does it? Marshon Brooks had showed something to that point in his NBA career and Kris Humphries was handy. What did push it into the land of the all-or-nothings were the three first-round picks and a right to pick swap in 2017 that were also included in the deal.

But that’s not all. The Nets also traded Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams and a first-round draft pick for Joe Johnson. Farmar, Morrow and Stevenson were serviceable. Plus, in a trade for Deron Williams the year before, the Nets gave away two more first-round picks, Derrick Favors and Devin Harris.

But that is still not all. In March 2012, before the Garnett/ Pierce/ Terry trade, the Nets traded for Gerald Wallace from Portland in a package deal of Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and their 2012 first-round pick.

That is a bunch of first-round draft picks for: KG (gone), Paul Pierce (gone), Jason Terry (gone), DJ White (gone), Joe Johnson (gone), Deron Williams (gone) and Gerald Wallace (gone through the trade that brought in KG, Terry and Pierce). Look, in 2013/14 season, with a line-up of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, KG and Brook Lopez you would expect them to be damn good and potentially fighting for a ring (they finished 6th in the East, got trounced 4-1 to the Heat in the second round of the playoffs, and then Kidd bolted for Milwaukee). They certainly went all in, kind of like placing all your savings on red on a Las Vegas roulette wheel. But it just didn’t work out. Fast forward to 2017 and the Nets suck and will suck for a while. They have no tradeable assets outside of Brook Lopez, and their pick this year will be swapped with the Celtics, losing a golden opportunity to get one of Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball as franchise guys.

Does It Work?
Those first-round draft picks the Nets gave away? Enes Kanter, Damian Lillard, Shane Larkin, Gorgui Dieng, James Young, Kelly Oubre, Jaylen Brown and Fultz/Ball/Josh Jackson/Dennis Smith Jr. One comparison that comes to mind is when the New Orleans Jazz traded (for compensation purposes) first round picks in 1977-79 for Gail Goodrich, one of which turned out to be Magic Johnson. The Jazz never got close to winning a ring, and nor will the Nets any time soon.

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PHILADELPHIA 76ERS – THE HODOR METHOD

Who Are They?
Owner – Joshua Harris
General Manager – Bryan Colangelo
Head Coach – Brett Brown

Yes, the obligatory pop culture/ Game of Thrones reference. In my head, during his time roving the halls of the Wells Fargo Arena, Sam Hinkie would make a bee-line for anyone in his path, stare them down and yell ‘Assets!’ before moving on to the next intern that crossed his path. Hinkie’s method of obtaining and storing draft picks during his time at Philly should become the stuff of legend, and that’s before you consider the drafting of five players who all play more-or-less the same position and two of those drafted having long-term injuries on draft night which wiped out their first years in the NBA.

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Philadelphia First Round Talen 2004-2016

What’s The Philosophy?
This philosophy of team building has been trialled before with good results. The most prominent examples are the Boston Celtics (both currently and in the past resulting in the KG and Ray Allen trades) and with Seattle/OKC with the Durant-Green-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka era. The philosophy is simple; trade away most of your talent and obtain as many first-round picks as possible, creating a circular effect. Less talent leads to the semi-intended/semi-unintended consequence of tanking, obtaining higher assets (through higher draft picks) for more potential trades (see Michael Carter-Williams as an example). The difference between Philly, and Celtics (x2) and the team-that-Durant-built-and-then-ripped-its-heart-out is that the Sixers are adopting a steroid-infused version of it. The Allen-Pierce-KG Celtics era was built on the back of this philosophy, with the Celts cashing in all their chips to form a Championship winning team. Some of those same chips went to Seattle/ OKC, where if it wasn’t for a major James Harden pay-day which OKC couldn’t/ didn’t want to afford, they may have found themselves in the state that the Golden State Warriors find themselves in now. Philly though have taken it to a whole new level.

We are yet to see the full results of this method for the Sixers yet and they have enough ‘Assets!’ to take on a hybrid of the Celts and Seattle/ OKC situation. Perhaps seeking to trade in some of their chips for established talent. We now know Joel Embiid was worth the wait, David Nash recently made the unequivocal case that Dario Saric is the Rookie of the Year and we haven’t yet seen Ben Simmons. The Sixers will have the Lakers’ pick if it falls outside the top 3 (a potentially defining ‘Is the NBA rigged?’ moment) and their own pick which they can swap with the Kings (only if the Kings’ pick falls inside the top 10). Jahil Okafor and Nerlens Noel alternated between showing glimpses of elite talent and DNP-CD’s in the ‘Asset-To-Be-Traded Race’ (Okafor led and than was pipped at the finish line by Noel, trading him for 40 cents on the dollar) and I am also pretty sure that in the next few years the Sixers have 1,500 draft picks and will have a second round all to themselves in one of the next three drafts. Now that Bryan Conagelo is running the show, it seems as if we will start to see the morphing of Philly into something. The question is, will it be worth the wait? Who knows, but at least we have Joel Embiid to provide us with the half-time entertainment.

Does It Work?
It worked for the Celtics in ’08, but they already had Paul Pierce. It also worked for the Cavs in ’16, but they were able to lure back LeBron James, and we can’t forget two first overall picks – Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett- were shipped off for Kevin Love, and the first overall pick that landed Kyrie Irving was originally the Clippers’. No semi-successful team using this model has started from scratch before with the exception of the Thunder, which looked like it would work before the organisation softened with Harden and were then unexpectedly bitten by the Durantula. So it can work, but the Sixers will need the right combination of elite talent (Embiid, Simmons and Saric are a good start), luck (Embiid playing 30 games in 3 years and Simmons suffering a season ending Jones fracture on the last day of training camp are not great signs) and a front office willing to keep them around (who knows?).

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Clearly, there is no one way to build a team. Different teams employ different strategies dependant on their situation. Historically though, it all seems to point to finding your franchise guy and building around them, usually to form a ‘big 3’. But, we may be starting to witness that conventionality changing. The ‘big 3’ method (KG, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce at the Celtics, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum at the Lakers, LeBron, Wade, Bosh at the Heat) may be moving towards a four-star method thanks to the massive increase in cap space and the Golden State Warriors. Admittedly, the Spurs’ demolition of the Heat in 2014 may have started the trend with Duncan, Parker, Leonard and Ginobili, but none of those guys – maybe with exception of Leonard who wasn’t the uber-star he is today – weren’t stars in the way that Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are stars. We could soon see a new morphing of more teams throwing more assets away in search of talent, or of throwing talent away in the search for more assets. Who knows? The NBA is after all, a weird and wonderful world. At least we will always have the memory of Sam Hinkie, and his epic resignation letter.


All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

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