“Our industry is akin to a G.I. jumping out of a helicopter in Vietnam. We know what hill we want to take. We have an idea how we are going to get there. But, you need to rely on your platoon to get it done.”
Dallas Mavericks General Manager Donnie Nelson was never a general for the U.S. military, but he knows something about creating a winner. Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! Sports both rated him in the top three of NBA personnel bosses during recent articles and the Mavs have posted 10 consecutive 50-win seasons.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that there is this magical formula to win an NBA championship,” Nelson tells Dime. “Certainly, if you’ve got superstar players, it certainly helps and sometimes that can seal the deal. But, there are all kinds of different ways to do it.”
Yes, not every franchise is fortunate enough to land a Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan or Larry Bird. It takes more than bad breaks and tanking. Sometimes, it’s just all timing. Cleveland and Orlando struck gold in the 2003 and 2004 NBA Drafts. But, two years later, Toronto got the leftovers. Minnesota General Manager David Kahn, in the midst of his own rebuilding situation, says that makes it difficult because, more than anything, great players make great organizations.
“That sounds obvious or simplistic,” says Kahn. “But if you go back through history, very rarely will you have a championship team that doesn’t have one or sometimes two players who are at the top of their field.”
Take a look at the champions from the past decade: Lakers back-to-back, Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Spurs, Pistons, Spurs, and a Lakers three-peat. While these ring winners have the formula figured out – get lucky and find a transcendent talent or two, keep them in the mix and surrounded them with veteran role players – the rest of the NBA can’t always do it this way. Luck, location and money all play a role in how a team is built.
Ask Cleveland and LeBron James. Some of the failed Cavs signings over the past half-decade include Antawn Jamison ($11 million per year), Mo Williams ($8M), Larry Hughes ($13M), Drew Gooden ($7M) and Damon Jones ($4M). $43 million spent and even with a Hall of Fame talent like James, they won as many titles as the Nets. Look at Allen Iverson and the Sixers, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks or Karl Malone and John Stockton with the Jazz. All first-ballot Hall of Famers and they never won rings.
This year’s Phoenix Suns made the Western Conference Finals sporting rotation players that were second-round picks (Jared Dudley), traded-for second-rounders (Goran Dragic), a player banished from two teams in four years (Channing Frye) and one soon-to-be 38-year old (Grant Hill). They had no one averaging 25 points a game and no player who ever proved they could lead a team to the Finals. Even their general manager, Steve Kerr, has more rings as a player than the entire roster combined. Front office financial restrictions forced them to give up Joe Johnson and draft picks that turned out to be Luol Deng, Rudy Fernandez and Rajon Rondo. The luxuries certain franchises enjoy don’t always work in places like Phoenix, let alone Memphis, Charlotte and Minnesota.
“Everyone’s got a blueprint and it very seldom pans out the way that you script it,” Nelson said. “This is an industry that can change on a dime and you’ve got to go into it with an open mind. When things present themselves, you just have to hope that you make more great decisions than not.”
All of this year’s conference finalists got there with differing game plans. Besides the Suns money-strapped method, the Boston Celtics made the final four on the basis of a few monster trades. They blew up a young, lottery team to have a shot at a few despondent stars. The Orlando Magic drafted a cornerstone at number one overall six years ago and spent the past few seasons easing from first-round flameouts to Finals participants. Every move GM Otis Smith made was done to complement Dwight Howard. And finally, there are the Lakers. Besides the Pau Gasol gift, L.A. used the post-Shaq years building consistency and familiarity within their roster.
But what happens when your team doesn’t have Superman or the Black Mamba? Teams like Atlanta, Utah and Houston are stuck in the middle. They are all good enough to win a round or two in the playoffs but none look like championship contenders. Is it enough to make the playoffs every year? Will the fans keep coming if someone decides to blow a squad up and start over?
“It’s huge (trying to find those 1 or 2 truly special players),” Kahn said. “It’s just huge.”
Of course, building from the bottom guarantees nothing. The Clippers teams of the first half of the decade assembled a flood of talent through yearly-scheduled trips to the lottery. From 1998 until 2004, L.A. never once held a draft position below eight. Those seven picks netted them multiple high school All-Americans (Darius Miles, Tyson Chandler, Shaun Livingston), some seasoned collegiate big men (Michael Olowokandi, Chris Wilcox, Chris Kaman) and one of the best multi-talented forwards of the past few decades (Lamar Odom). Yet, despite it all, the Clips franchise struggled to a winning percentage of .358 during that time.
Nelson says the selection process is like predicting real estate values. Kahn believes the draft would be the preferred method of rebuilding if it wasn’t so unpredictable.
“I think it’s hard if you are not picking near the top for a couple of years,” says Kahn. “Most of the teams that tend to have the great players were fortunate to have either the first or a very high pick during a year in which it really mattered like Cleveland with LeBron (James) and Orlando with Dwight Howard.”
Recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder also remade themselves through the draft. Their four best players were all high lottery picks, although the Celtics initially chose Jeff Green and traded him to the Thunder on draft night. Another probable starter next season, Serge Ibaka, was a first round pick of theirs as well.
GM Sam Presti refused to give large contracts to proven players like David Lee and Paul Millsap in free agency. Instead, he’s focused on developing his young talent and saving cap space. Now, Oklahoma City is considered the best young team in the league. Yet, the presence of 21-year old Kevin Durant may be the only difference between this unit and those Clippers teams of the past decade.
“Their whole team is a different team without Durant,” Kahn said. “Building through the draft would be the preferred method, but it is easier said than done.”
Nelson reiterates there is no scout in the league batting 1.000.
“The landscape of this industry changes daily, sometimes hourly,” he said. “You have to know the market cold, whether it’s the college kids or the current NBA players, players overseas, players in the minor leagues.”
No team represents that unpredictability better than the Celtics. After a few successful playoff runs behind Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker in the first half of this decade, Boston thought their roster had hit its ceiling. They blew it up and tried stockpiling draft picks. Walker was shipped out to Dallas and Pierce became the centerpiece.
Despite constant attempts to rationalize first-round picks like Gerald Green and Marcus Banks, GM Danny Ainge eventually realized he had to make a splash to save his job. Even with talents like Pierce, Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo, Boston stumbled to a 24-58 finish in 2007. Once the lottery balls determined there would be no Greg Oden or Durant in Beantown, the outlook appeared even bleaker.
But after missing out in the draft, Ainge turned two first-round picks and some young talent that had yet to make any all-star games, and still haven’t, into Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and a championship banner.
Now, Boston just played in their second Finals in the past three years after catapulting from 24 to 66 wins in 2008.
“In our industry, you could get a phone call that could change the complete task of your franchise,” Nelson said. “Major transactions are certainly in this current climate we are in. There are some big pieces that potentially could be moving around the board which has a trickle affect on everything.”
Since finishing with just 34 wins in 2005, the Lakers have improved much more slowly. They haven’t had the cap space to land a big name free agent nor have they been open to shredding their core. But, GM Mitch Kupchak made due with the draft picks he could.
They drafted Jordan Farmar in the back end of the first round and found rotation players Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and later Marc Gasol in the second round. Their lone lottery venture netted Andrew Bynum.
Other than that, L.A. made subtle moves to complement their core. Derek Fisher was brought back in 2008. Trevor Ariza was uncovered in a small trade with Orlando. He was eventually “swapped” for Ron Artest. Also, Shannon Brown was a thrown-in for a trade where the main attraction for L.A. was getting rid of Vlad Radmanovic’s contract.
“I think (familiarity) is a balancing act,” Kahn said. “On the one hand, you don’t want to do things impulsively or impatiently. If you have a core nucleus, then you would ideally like it to grow together.
“But, you also have to be opportunistic. If an opportunity occurs to change the team and it might even involve a small amount of risk, but there is a payoff perhaps of adding that really singular piece to the team, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do it.”
L.A.’s acquisition of Pau Gasol often overshadows the other work put in. His presence was the final piece to a core that was together for multiple years. In 2005, the Lakers failed to make the playoffs. The next two seasons ended in first round losses. Since then, they’ve been to three straight Finals.
Unlike football or baseball, only the few teams with legitimate superstars begin every NBA season with a chance to win a title. It’s just that everyone has a different way of getting there.
“I think it is no accident,” Kahn said. “I think the best teams are typically the ones that have the one or two players who are capable of doing things that everybody else can’t do.”