Off the Iron: To Retool or Not to Retool?

Jared Wade is the author of Both Teams Played Hard and Eight Points, Nine Seconds. He wears a neat hat. He’s also now a contributing writer to Hardwood Paroxysm. His Off the Iron column will appear regularly here at HP. Enjoy. -MM

If we’ve learned anything about team success since the new millennium, it’s that staying on top is hard.

The Shaq/Kobe Lakers looked like one of the most dominant teams of all time for a five-year stretch, but Diesel was soon traded and the franchise that made it to four out of five Finals went right back to living through a Nick Van Exel Era-esque 34-win season. The Nets dominated the Eastern Conference for a two-year stretch that led to two Finals appearances but have been unable to even make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals since. The Mavericks made it to one Finals, suffered a heart-shattering loss and never made it out of the second round again. The team that beat Dallas, the Miami Heat, won the title and then won a grand total of three playoff games during the following three years.

Really, only the Spurs have been able retool and reload their roster well enough to remain a contender for the full decade. Whatever Gregg Popovich and RC Buford have been doing in San Antonio is working. And with the exception of Stephen Jackson, the general plan has seemed to be “Let’s keep everyone who helped us be successful last season as long as they haven’t lost too much due to age and then add a complementary piece or two.”

This philosophy, of course, isn’t the only successful way to operate a team, but the four banners now hanging in the Alamo Dome make a pretty good argument that it’s the best way to do so in the modern NBA. And from this perspective, the offseason decisions made thus far by general managers Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers and Otis Smith of the Magic seem to lie somewhere between curious and self-destructive.

The Lakers chose Ron Artest over Trevor Ariza and, possibly, Lamar Odom. Depending on your outlook, the order is debatable, but most people would agree that Ariza and Odom were the third and fourth most important players on a championship team. Now, it’s possible that neither will be retained and, instead, one of the more volatile, high-risk/high-reward players in the history of the NBA has joined the roster.

Obviously, Artest is a more dynamic player than Ariza – and maybe even more so than Odom too. But he is also obviously more of a gamble. Trevor may not be a consistent scorer in the half-court, but he was a rock for the Lakers last year in the Playoffs. More than anyone except for Kobe and Gasol, he was the guy that you knew would show up every game. His point total might vary depending on how many open threes he got or how many transition points the Lakers could generate, but his defense, his slashing, his threat to knock down jumpers and his heady play did not waver. And whether it was stealing that end-of-game in-bounds pass against Denver in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals or scoring 13 points in the third quarter of the Lakers key overtime victory in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, it seemed that Ariza always came up big when Los Angeles needed a spark.

Now, Ron Artest can do things offensively that Ariza will never be capable of doing. There’s no disputing who the more talented player is. But, conversely, we all know some of the other things Artest is capable of that Ariza would never do – and I’m not just talking about the off-the-court shenanigans, although those things are significant. Even on the court, Ron goes through full games where his shot selection is just horrible. He has stretches where he seemingly gets tired of just being a defensive presence (albeit one that was much, much more daunting back in 2004) and decides that he wants to show everyone that he has a multifaceted offensive game as well. He starts taking step-back jumpers. He starts trying to cross people over. He falls in love with the three-pointer. All these things are outside his wheelhouse and he does them at highly inopportune times.

Moreover, it’s rare to see a franchise willingly replace a younger, more reliable player with an older, more combustible one – particularly on a team that should be trying to win the next two NBA titles. Though the reasons to question to acquisition are different, there may be a parallel here with the Mavericks’ decision to exchange Devin Harris for Jason Kidd. Dallas was admittedly coming from a place of greater desperation and no one is expecting Ariza to break out like Devin did in Jersey – he’s just not that type of player – but the reasoning seems just as counter-intuitive.

In the end, going from Trevor Ariza to Ron Artest feels like a baseball team with a guy on second and no outs trying to steal third. If it works, the manager is a genius and just put his squad in a better position to score/win; but if the guy gets thrown out, the manager just took an unnecessary, foolhardy risk.

The Magic’s decision to trade for Vince Carter is even more puzzling. Why not just re-sign Hedo Turkoglu, keep Courtney Lee and bring back a healthy Jameer Nelson? Clearly, Orlando might not have won that Celtics series if Boston was at full strength and the Magic shot a historically good percentage from three during a few wins over Cleveland, but they did nevertheless make it to the Finals without their All-Star point guard. And although they lost 4-1 against the Lakers, two overtime losses and a missed Courtney Lee alley-oop suggest that they weren’t that far from the promised land.

It’s understandable and commendable that Magic Otis Smith is still trying to improve despite past success, but is turning your back on your second most important player and key offensive facilitator in favor of an oft-maligned scorer – especially if it means giving up an inexpensive, defensive-minded guard who just got Finals experience as a rookie – really the best course?

Vince definitely adds a whole new level to that offense and will make the Magic a more tradition team, but that’s just another reason why this move is odd. You would think a GM who just put together a nontraditional team that played Rashard Lewis at power forward and turned Hedo Turkoglu into a border-line All-Star point-forward would stick to that plan, if for nothing else than to just show everyone else how smart he is.
On the other hand, maybe the best time the retool to roster is when you are on top. Joe Dumars and the Detroit Pistons learned the hard way what can happen if you just “over-stay” the course.

The Pistons went to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, including two consecutive Finals appearances and one NBA title. Throughout this time, the roster remained nearly unchanged after Rasheed Wallace was acquired. The method of success was simple: Let the starting five play most of the minutes and rely on a few steady veterans like Antonio McDyess and Lindsey Hunter to bolster the second string.

Eventually, however, salary cap realities forced Joe Dumars to let Ben Wallace walk for nothing and the Chris Webber experiment proved ineffective, forcing draft picks like Jason Maxiell and Rodney Stuckey to take on larger roles than they were capable of filling. Dee-troit basketball crumbled from within and the once model franchise has now been gutted for an on-the-fly rebuilding effort based on high-risk trades and free agent signings.

If Dumars had intervened back in 2005 by trading for a potentially franchise-changing player like Vince Carter, it’s possible that the Pistons would have (a) been remembered as more than the Atlanta Braves of the NBA, and (b) be better positioned now to continue contending.

Ultimately, none of us know whether or not what the Lakers and Magic have done this offseason will bring them back to the Finals next year. (And if Los Angeles actually does bring back Lamar Odom, it would be hard to argue that simply losing Ariza in favor of Artest even actually constitutes “retooling” the roster.) The old adage, of course, is that if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

Looking across the League, it would seem that all the major contenders are certainly trying to get better. Cleveland added Shaq. Boston signed Rasheed. LA brought in Artest. Orlando traded for Vince. For the Cavs and Celtics, however, these changes were all additions to the current team – neither franchise had to give up any of its key cogs.

The real question, then, for Los Angeles and Orlando is whether or not they are actually getting better or just getting different.

Seth Carstens