Treadmill [tred-mil] – noun – an exercise machine that allows the user to walk or run in place, usually on a continuous moving belt.
NBA Treadmill [en-bee-ay tred-mil] – noun – an idea machine that results in a NBA franchise remaining in place, usually on a continuous cycle of mediocrity.
If you are anything like me, the treadmill is one of your most hated objects. In the literal sense, the treadmill would have to be one of the most mundane ways to get in your exercise. Give me two hours straight of pickup basketball any day of the week in order to attempt to stay in shape. Figuratively speaking, the NBA treadmill is a place where fans dreams for their franchise go to die and is the stuff of nightmares for the General Managers that control them. Unlike those of us who detest exercise though, the treadmill is very easy to get on in the NBA world and extremely hard to get off. No matter how hard you try.
Tim Connelly (Denver), Ryan McDonough (Phoenix) and Rob Hennigan (Orlando) all have experience with this notion but perhaps that’s not all they have in common. All three got the top job within roughly a year of each other and were charged with the tough task of taking their new franchise to the top. Suns’ GM, McDonough, discussed on a podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski that the three also share a close friendship. Young men in a typically old man’s game. The similarities don’t stop there but the NBA is a fast moving beast and only those who can adapt tend to survive.
In a demanding landscape where moves can be over analysed and done to death, it is important to look at things in isolation with the benefit of hindsight. Despite the similarities in philosophy, it is clear all three are now at very different stages of the process. Let’s take a look at how their journeys as GM have gone so far, running the spotlight over their transaction history and assessing their chances of escaping the treadmill.
Denver Nuggets – Tim Connelly
The Denver Nuggets were blindsided by the departure of Masai Ujiri to Toronto after the 2012/13 season. Having just won 57 games and awarded Executive Of The Year, Ujiri was certainly revered for the job he had done in Denver. Enter Tim Connelly. An Assistant GM in New Orleans with over 10 years experience working in Louisiana and Washington prior to that. He was taking over a team that had a lot of talent but had been bounced from the 1st Round four years in a row. To be critical, they were potentially already rooted to the NBA Treadmill. It was Connelly’s job to get them off it, either by elevating them to the next level or starting again. It appears his plan was to go the first route. At least initially.
Connelly – Introductory Presser “I see I am the luckiest guy in the world…. I told Josh it is rare where you get jobs like this with a roster with this much talent. I am familiar with all the guys, I know a few of them pretty well. This is a 57-win team, and again, it is about growing on that. The foundation is there; I think we just have to build off that firm foundation and get some internal growth from some role players, also be opportunistic with trades and free agency and maximize our draft picks. The cupboard is full with an excellent roster.”
It was a somewhat bizarre beginning for Connelly, with George Karl let go between the void of GM’s being in place at the Nuggets. He brought in Brian Shaw almost immediately and just as quickly July 1st hit. Impending Free Agent, Andre Iguodala, had decided to bolt to the Bay and all of a sudden the 13/14 Nuggets were missing their GM, Head Coach and franchise leader from the previous season.
The firm foundation was starting to look a little more shaky and Connelly brought in three free agents of his own that weren’t exactly world beaters; JJ Hickson, Nate Robinson and Timofey Mozgov. The result was a 36-46 campaign and the NBA Treadmill was certainly screaming for Denver to jump on board. Connelly didn’t panic. Instead he appeared to change his course and refuse to be locked into Plan A. After dealing Kosta Koufos and then Andre Miller at the deadline, the Nuggets made a series of franchise altering moves between the Trade Deadline’s of 2014 and 2015. Simply put, that period was the peak of Connelly’s short GM career to date.
Connelly began to completely alter the foundation he spoke about in 2013. Fournier, Mozgov, Robinson and Afflalo were all shipped out but when Denver also moved McGee’s contract by giving up an asset, the direction was very clear. Chandler, Gallinari and Faried escaped the exile (all signed in 2015 to team friendly contracts) and were now joined by a bunch of new young talent. Connelly was not about to accept mediocrity but it didn’t guarantee that the Nuggets could avoid it.
The shift in direction (plus injuries) certainly had the
desired likely results. The Nuggets went on to win 30 games in 14/15 and Shaw was let go as the Head Coach with 23 games remaining in the season. Mike Malone was hired for 15/16 and from the outside looking in at least, the Nuggets seemed stuck in one place. The past two seasons resulted in win totals in the thirties and they appear to be followed by two more. That doesn’t give you access to top end talent unless you have some Lottery luck. So why the sudden optimism? Well for starters, a win total in the thirties in season 16/17 may just have you in the playoffs. What better way to launch into next season than some playoff experience for your exciting young core? Despite the decreased odds, Connelly has managed to hit on a lot of his draft picks, spearheaded by none other than Nikola Jokic.
Connelly – Post ’17 Trade Deadline “We’d be remiss to not acknowledge how impactful he’s been (Jokic) and now just start making decisions with him in mind. I think the first one you saw was Plumlee…in no way did we envision Nikola playing at this level, this soon…moving forward every decision that we contemplate will be done thinking of Nikola.”
Tim Connelly / Denver Nuggets – Jumping Off The Treadmill
Tim Connelly and his Nuggets are the best placed of the three teams to escape the torture of the NBA Treadmill. Some would say a four year tenure that includes win totals all in the thirties screams mediocrity. Hinkie would be rolling in the metaphoric grave the Sixers buried him in. The ‘new’ NBA would tell you that if you aren’t competing, then you should be bottoming out completely to bring in the best talent. Some NBA cities don’t have that luxury though and Denver is certainly one of those. Instead, Connelly backed his scouting experience by bringing in great talent with the picks he had. All while resisting the urge to overpay in order to attract any big Free Agents to Denver. Yes, there were a few unsuccessful FA courtships, headlined by Dwyane Wade this past July. However, it is my belief that was an exercise in boosting both parties future leverage rather than any genuine belief they would connect.
Being risk averse in the NBA, is a very risky play in itself. Where the most common result would be a team that neither competes nor has a chance to get exponentially better. “It’s me!” yells the NBA Treadmill. Enter Jokic & Co. Other than a small blip in the form of Emmanuel Mudiay, Connelly has drafted Jokic, Harris, Murray, Beasley and Hernangomez in the last two years. That’s a helluva recent draft bounty to follow up your trade purple patch and the type of luck one needs under this strategy. So many rotation players on rookie-scale contracts further protects the ton of cap space created by the lack of Free Agent signings in Denver.
It’s official, the Nuggets are off the treadmill. Perhaps luck was involved (we all need it!) but they jumped under their own power and have all the ingredients to ensure they can build again on a strong foundation. This time, one that Connelly created on his own.
Phoenix Suns – Ryan McDonough
Ryan McDonough was hired in his early 30’s after spending 10 years with the Boston Celtics. As he put it in his introductory press conference, he wasn’t going to leave unless a “spectacular opportunity” came up. That is certainly one way to describe how the Suns organisation sat in 2013. The team was still fresh off saying goodbye to it’s 7 Seconds Or Less era, fired Alvin Gentry halfway through the season and managed to win just 25 games. That was
bad good enough for the worst record in the Western Conference and McDonough was charged with resurrecting the franchise once more.
McDonough – Introductory Presser “It’s going to be a combination of drafting players, making sure they develop. We are also going to examine trades, we are going to be aggressive in free agency and really explore all the options that are available to us…trying to get the best players through whatever means necessary…not every move is going to be perfect, you’ll probably make some mistakes but if you’re willing to work at it and correct some of those mistakes and again if you’re unafraid then that can lead to some great results.”
The new GM in Phoenix started with a long to-do-list but one thing was for sure, he had no intention of getting on the NBA Treadmill. This is where some would argue the luck of the Irish didn’t come with him from Boston. Three Eastern Conference teams finished with worse records than the Suns and McDonough’s first franchise changing asset, became merely the 5th overall pick in possibly the worst draft in recent history. The result; Maryland Centre, Alex Len. Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley were all then shipped out for extra draft choices and young talent in the form of Eric Bledsoe. Phoenix were going all in on the rebuild and being setup for a 13/14 campaign focused on development and youth. What came next was an underdog team overachieving (48-34), just missing out on the playoffs and newly hired Head Coach, Jeff Hornacek, almost winning COTY honours in his first year. Great, right?
Wrong. Despite appearing to have all the time he needed to rebuild the franchise, 48 wins created a whole heap of expectation. All this for a fanbase and owner that simply put, doesn’t need any excuse to crank up the pressure. McDonough began to stray from his plan, at least a little. The Suns took an overachieving team and threw them straight onto the NBA Treadmill, where all dreams of Finals can be kissed goodbye. The bad mistakes he predicted, Ryan certainly made a few.
The mistakes in no set order; persisting with a 3 PG lineup, killing the relationship with Goran Dragic, trading Isaiah Thomas for pennies, giving up a great 1st Round pick for Brandon Knight (and re-signing him), chasing LaMarcus Aldridge / isolating the Morris Twins in the process and signing Tyson Chandler for 4 years/$52Million as Aldridge bait. A lot of this led to terrible team chemistry issues and the franchise becoming the laughing stock of the NBA community. All of which resulted in the eventual firing of McDonough’s first Head Coach appointment, Jeff Hornacek.
Yet for all the bad, McDonough has largely been a victim of his own success and he is not given enough credit for his ‘wins’. Truth be told, you don’t land on the treadmill if it’s all bad. The 3 PG lineup worked when it was cohesive, Isaiah Thomas was a brilliant Free Agency move, the draft record has been solid headlined by Booker at 13, somehow the Suns ended up with three first round picks for disgruntled Dragic/Kieff and Aldridge was THAT close to coming to the Valley. Just as he predicted, McDonough added talent however he could and he was aggressive. He just wasn’t perfect. Fast forward and it is March ’17 with only a handful of games left in the 16/17 campaign.
McDonough – Post ’17 Trade Deadline “We’ve kind of gone half way with the youth movement a little bit, I think we’ll be more committed to it…we might take some lumps along the way in terms of wins and losses but we really want to see exactly what we have…young guys leading that charge and that will be great for us not only for the present but also the future.”
Ryan McDonough / Phoenix Suns – Falling Off The Treadmill
The McDonough led Phoenix Suns have fallen off the NBA Treadmill and into the rebuild fire once more, to hopefully find a franchise changing talent. Inexperience (and Boston pedigree) likely led to a number of shortcuts being taken in order to expedite the process. However after a shaky period, McDonough has got the Suns to a point where he can perhaps afford the luxury of starting over and not being too concerned for his job. It appears his owner, Robert Sarver, is content with the idea too. He has gained a second life and just as he noted in his first ever press conference, he is determined to correct his mistakes and be unafraid.
Drafting to this point may have saved his job but his trading may very well keep it. The assets collected from the Isaiah Thomas and Morris Twins trades were bundled with the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic, in order to move up for Marquese Chriss. Dragan Bender, a likely Top 3 pick this off season, all their own picks and a couple of Miami picks too, give the Suns plenty of chances at top tier talent. The NBA is about star power after all. There is a chance Devin Booker is already that franchise cornerstone for McDonough and the Suns. Although it is not as certain as a player like Jokic and McDonough would be a little jealous of his good friend Connelly right now.
Instead, McDonough has doubled down and pushed all his chips into the middle of the table to increase the likelihood of hitting the star jackpot. The quicker that comes off, the more assets he then has to be as aggressive as he likes to stay off the treadmill this time.
Orlando Magic – Rob Hennigan
A 30 year old Rob Hennigan was introduced to the wider basketball community, as the newest and youngest General Manager in the NBA. Despite stints in San Antonio and Oklahoma City under two of the league’s best GM’s, there was still an overwhelming sense of surprise at Orlando’s appointment. Hennigan had been brought in after the departure of Stan Van Gundy and the curtain was ready to fall on arguably the best period of Magic basketball ever. Despite his age, the new Orlando GM talked the talk of his previous employers from the very beginning. Outlining his excitement to begin the job and setting lofty goals for the future of the franchise, all while preaching systematic and sustainable growth.
Hennigan – Introductory Presser “Simply put our goal is to build an elite basketball operation….I think there are three concepts we need to stay true to. The first is to stay strategic (explains how every decision will be to a strategy)….staying systematic (reiterated discipline and consistency to stick to process)…and if we can stay strategic and we can stay systematic, the end goal is to be sustainable. I’m excited to get to work…roll our sleeves up…try to get incremental gains and incremental success.”
Before Hennigan and the Magic could embark on this new voyage, they had a problem to deal with. Dwight Howard and his trade request. Hennigan certainly wasted no time, trading Howard in undoubtedly the best transaction on his 5 year resume. Out; Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark and Dwight. In; Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and five future draft selections. Bookended by trades of Ryan Anderson and JJ Redick (at the ’13 deadline), the Magic were certainly out with the old and in with the new era.
Orlando appointed Jacque Vaughn to lead them into the future and the brief seemed clear. Armed with some youth from the Dwight trade, the Magic appeared to be beginning a slow build which resulted in 20 and 23 win seasons in the first two years. Unfortunately for Hennigan, he shared Ryan McDonough’s bad luck when it came to his worst seasons. As noted previously, the 2014 draft was not the ideal time to land your best pick and Victor Oladipo was the Magic’s reward. In 2015, Orlando moved back a spot in the lottery and missed out on the clear top three of Wiggins, Parker and Embiid. Aaron Gordon was the consolation prize there. Neither were going to change the course of the franchise.
It was at this point that Rob Hennigan began to lose patience or perhaps succumbed to pressure from his owner. In the Gordon draft, he gave up two first round picks for the price of one. Simply to move up two spots and draft Elfrid Payton to become the new franchise Point Guard. Coach Vaughn led the team for a further 52 games (15-37) during the 14/15 season before being let go, in what can only seen as a desperate attempt to save face by Hennigan. Another terrible end to a season concluded and 25 total wins was an improvement on paper only.
Enter big mistake number two. If the Payton deal was the trigger, then the hiring of Scott Skiles was undoubtedly the bullet and the string of events that followed was the blood bath. Mario Hezonja drafted at #5, Mo Harkless let go for nothing, Tobias Harris traded for Jennings and Ilyasova, Skiles resigning after one classic treadmill season, Jeff Green given $15 million for one year (cap space created by moving Harris) and Serge Ibaka brought in on a rental for the cost of Oladipo, Ilyasova and a ’16 first round pick. It’s brutal reading.
Hennigan – Pre ’17 Trade Deadline “I think the next phase is sort of twofold. One is: Let’s harness the potential and the capability all of us know we have currently on the team. We need to refine that. We need to harness that. We need to get back to a defensive-minded brand of basketball. And then we need to look elsewhere to continue to add to the team, continue to find experience, shooting, feel for the game, et cetera.”
Rob Hennigan / Orlando Magic – Chained To The Treadmill
Does this sound like the same man from the introductory press conference? You could have fooled me. It seems the confident young GM that walked through the door back in 2012 has been chewed up and spat out by the high pressure stakes of running a NBA franchise. Despite his best intentions, there is little strategy, system or sustainability to the transaction history over the last five seasons. Before the damage was done, Hennigan managed to get an extension on his contract to the end of the 17/18 season. Let’s get one thing straight, that is the only reason he currently still has a job in Orlando.
Hennigan’s last guaranteed season will feature a Magic roster with no identity and unlike his GM buddies, no clear shot at franchise changing talent. Biyombo, Fournier, Gordon, Payton, Vucevic, Ross, Augustin and Hezonja all have contracts to play for Frank Vogel next season. It’s a forgettable roster for a Head Coach who probably wishes he could forget his first season and a GM who surely wants to forget anything ever happened after the haul he received for Howard. Hennigan’s days appear to be numbered and that is why the Magic will unfortunately be chained to the NBA Treadmill while he remains in charge.
Orlando should pray like hell they win the number one pick in the upcoming draft and then fire Hennigan before he tries to trade it. That’s the level of addition and subtraction needed in Orlando, if they want to escape the treadmill any time soon.
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