Tag Archives: Rebuilding

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Boston Celtics

Photo: Helen Thorn/Flickr

2012-’13 Record: 41-40

New Faces: Brad Stevens (Head coach); Keith Bogans, Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Donte Green and Gerald Wallace

New Places: Doc Rivers (Head coach, Clippers); Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White (Brooklyn); Shavlik Randolph, Terrence Williams, and Kris Joseph (Waived); Fab Melo

Draft: Kelly Olynyk (via Dallas)

Whether or not Danny Ainge will admit it, this summer marks the end of an era for the Celtics. It’s hard to sell a rebuild to any fanbase, especially be the Celtics’, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck…it probably is a duck.  So, I understand why Ainge or anyone in Boston is trying to avoid publicly calling it one. But it’s pretty obvious, and you can’t fault them for looking to the future at this point.

Gone are championship team fixtures Pierce and Garnett, and Terry as well. In come Humphries (The face of  the 2013-’14 Celtics for half a season?), Brooks, Bogans, and Wallace’s bloated contract. More evidence of a rebuild: Boston received up to four 1st round picks in the Pierce/Garnett deal from Brooklyn in 2014, 2016 and 2018, with the option to swap picks in 2017.

The Celtics also made a great move toward the future in acquiring Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk on draft. Terrific in the half-court, Olynyk works well in the pick ‘n roll, which should make Rajon Rondo happy when he returns. He also shot 70 percent at the rim during his senior season in college which, if that ability translates, should make everyone happy. Paired with Humphries’ ability to rebound (when healthy), the Celtics could potentially have a nice frontcourt pairing by season’s end.

Boston’s offseason has set them up well for the future. Aside from the picks, they will have some cap flexibility down the road. Humphries’ contract comes off of the books after this season; the last two years of Bogans’ deal are unguaranteed, saving them up to $10 million after this season; and with the expiring contract of Brandon Bass and Brooks’ team option after 2015, the Celtics could have an extra $7 million for Rajon Rondo as he will be simultaneously due for a new extension then as well.

It may not be a fun prospect to face being just five years removed from raising a championship banner, but the Celtics will likely be able to return to contention sooner than if they chose not rebuild and decided to make another run for the sixth seed instead. They’ll have Rondo, Avery Bradley, and some other decent pieces, but they will be terrible. Yet, if you’re going to be terrible you may as well do it just in time for the revered 2014 draft. Sometimes rebuilding isn’t so bad.

Daryl Morey’s Moment

The Rockets’ willingness to trade for Howard — even without the All-Star center’s signature on a contract extension — is an open secret around the league. But it’s believed that two top-eight picks, assuming Houston managed to complete trades with both Sacramento and Toronto, would seriously pique the interest of new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, who could then quickly start following the same sort of roster-building blueprint relied on by his previous employers in Oklahoma City.

via Rockets set sights on moving up in draft | ESPN.com

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Daryl Morey throw his hat in the ring when a marquee big man has become available. His Rockets almost landed Pau Gasol twice between last offseason and March’s trading deadline, and he even made a dark-horse bid for Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010. He signed Pau’s brother Marc to a massive offer sheet in December that Memphis ultimately matched. It’s not hard to look at Morey’s history of almost-moves and predict this latest attempt to extricate the most dominant big man since Shaq from an impossible (and excruciating) situation in Orlando.

A run at Dwight Howard is the move Morey has been building towards since he took over as GM in Houston in 2007. His modus operandi the entire time has been asset accumulation and value hunting, with the assumption being that eventually one of these assets will allow him to make a blockbuster move. Unfortunately, his Rockets teams have paid the price of mediocrity for his efforts, spending most of his tenure in the dreaded purgatory that is the back end of the draft lottery and the back end of the playoffs. The middle is the worst place for an NBA team to be—just ask the Suns, Blazers, or Hawks of the past half-decade. Teams that simply exist without vaulting into title contention or bottoming out and landing an impact player in the draft are the most hopeless of all. But what separates the Rockets from the teams with whom they share a tier on the food chain has been Morey’s tradable assets, sitting and waiting to be converted from promise to substance.

 Amid a report that stated the Houston Rockets are hoping to amass enough trade assets to make a deal with the Orlando Magic for Dwight Howard–even though Howard would only be in Houston for one season before becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2013 — a source with knowledge of Howard’s thinking said Monday that there was “not a chance” Howard would be persuaded to remain in Houston if traded there, and would leave next summer to sign elsewhere.

via Report: “Not a Chance” Dwight Howard Stays in Houston if Traded There | NBA.com

The revelation that the notoriously wishy-washy Howard doesn’t find Houston as appealing as, say, Brooklyn isn’t exactly earth-shaking. Around All-Star weekend, when Howard’s diva act was at its most embarrassing, I posited the theory that he was demanding a trade to a bigger market not out of his own desire to play in one but because that was what the cool kids were doing. And in light of his hilariously inexplicable last-minute opt-in that seemed prompted more by Twitter backlash than anything else, it’s hard to look at any of Howard’s reasoning behind where he wants to play as anything more than a blindfolded game of darts. This instability and volatility on the part of Howard and his handlers would probably scare off most teams from taking this gamble. But this appears to be the perfect moment for Morey to strike.

If the Rockets use Lowry, whose contract is itself one of Morey’s more cost-effective chips given how good he is, to leverage their way into two picks in the top 10 and flip those picks and Samuel Dalambert’s partially-guaranteed contract to Orlando for Howard, they’ll still have room to work. Morey can ship out Kevin Martin’s expiring contract for younger players or future first-round picks, accumulating more assets but also improving the team in the short term. Essentially, Morey would be putting everything into a one-season run with Howard, and no matter what happens afterward, it will provide his team with a sense of direction, something they haven’t had in a while.

Let’s say the retooled Rockets make a deep playoff run, and Howard falls in love with Houston. This is no guarantee, because Howard’s decision-making process is as reliable as a BlackBerry. But by that same token, it can’t be ruled out. If the Rockets can convince Howard to stay, then they have an honest-to-goodness superstar, one of the five best players on the planet, aged 27, to build around—at the toughest position to find that kind of talent, no less. This would be a pretty enviable position for a GM as sharp as Morey to find himself in. And if Howard bolts for Brooklyn? Well, a full-on rebuild of the “We’re going to be 2012 Charlotte Bobcats-level bad and land a franchise player in the top of the draft” variety is much easier to sell to your fans when you’ve just shown them that you’re not afraid to take a gamble on Dwight Howard when the opportunity presents itself. Either one of these options is more desirable than what the Rockets have been doing for the past five years. An opportunity this tailor-made for Morey’s approach isn’t going to come along every year.

Drafting, Tanking, and Incentivizing in the NBA

Image via sixthstation on Flickr

The purpose of the draft is to identify the best young talent from around the country and the world and siphon it into the league. The draft helps bad teams get better, and it tries to make sure that every team–if they play their cards right–has a fair shot at winning a title someday. For the most part, this system works. Teams do get better, and bad teams are rarely bad forever.

The NBA draft isn’t just about teams getting draft picks, though. It’s about teams staying competitive. Some do this by drafting the league’s new stars, and others do it through trading picks to acquire veterans. The NBA draft has gone through many mutations over the lifetime of the league. Age limits, lottery positions, two rounds: these are all modern adaptations of the draft. What’s to say a few more changes couldn’t make it work even better? Any change to the draft, however, needs to keep in mind the following things:

  1. Bad teams need to get better;
  2. Good teams need to be able to stay good;
  3. Assets need to be fungible (ie: teams can trade picks for other goods of what they deem to be equal value); and
  4. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is going to make paying players more expensive down the road.

Some areas related to the draft and fungible team assets that will be addressed:

  1. Tanking (See also);
  2. Teams getting their title windows slammed shut because of the luxury tax; and
  3. The increasing relevance of the NBA Development League.

With all of these things in mind, I’ve got a solution that I think would work for all parties: teams good, bad, and mediocre; markets of all sizes. It’s obviously not perfect, and there are a lot of financial considerations of which I’m not aware, but I think this might be a good place to start.

Structure of the Draft

  • 60 picks
  • 3 Rounds, 20 picks per round
  • Round 1
    • Picks 1-14 will be distributed through the same draft lottery system as is currently in place
    • Picks 15-20 will distributed to teams with the best records after becoming mathematically eliminated from playoff contention
      • If the teams are eliminated in April, then award the picks to teams remaining with highest win percentage
    • Players’ contracts are guaranteed in the same manner as they are for today’s first round picks
    • If a team has two picks in the first round, instead of picking twice, the team can bundle the percentages of the two picks into one pick. In a year where a team is particularly interested in only acquiring one player, this will increase the team’s odds of acquiring the first pick. The freed pick spot will be distributed via 30-team lottery, all teams with the same odds. If a team is awarded the draft pick and does not want it, it can forfeit the pick in favor of Traded Player Exception or a Luxury Tax break in the amount of the average salary of all players drafted in the 1st round.
  • Round 2
    • Draft picks on 2-year contracts. First year guaranteed, second year is team option
    • Picks will be distributed via lottery, all teams with the same odds. Teams in the lottery will be all 14 non-playoff teams + all 8 first round playoff losers.
    • The two teams of the 22 that are not awarded picks will get a TPE or luxury tax break in the amount of the average salary of all players drafted in the 2nd round.
    • Teams can opt out of the second round in favor of being awarded the TPE/Tax break. If they opt out, the open spot is assigned randomly to one of the two teams not included in the round. If two or more teams opt out, a random even-team-odds assignment will be done for any remaining spots in the 2nd round.
  • Round 3
    • Eligible players can be 18+ years old
    • Even-odds lottery for all 30 teams, with the same opt-out ability as above
    • Same luxury tax/TPE benefit as above, but the amount will be for the average salary of the 3rd round
    • All players drafted are sent to the NBDL affiliate and can only be called up by drafted team, unless rights are traded
    • Players cannot be called up until they are 19
    • All contracts are guaranteed for at least the NBDL minimum salary, and they have the same call-up program and stipulations as currently exist.

This draft strategy keeps in mind the fact that not every team even wants a draft pick. Some teams would rather have the cap relief. This system also deters tanking because you get explicit benefits in the first and 2nd rounds for not tanking. One topic, which I’d like to delve into further (and where Sean has dabbled a bit) is in the use explicit use of the NBA Development League vis-a-vis the NBA draft. This would probably require a substantial investment in and expansion of the current NBDL, and it would require (or maybe it would encourage) the NBDL to be a true farm system for every NBA team.  These draft modifications also make the NBDL more relevant by eliminating one-and-done players in college and making them more accessible to the NBA. Fans and teams can see higher levels competition in the D-League, while still giving young NBA players a forum to play instead of college or overseas.

I’d written a previous post on modifying the structure of the draft, and I think these ideas are definitely not mutually exclusive. Will it work? Maybe. I don’t think it would shake up the league too much, aside from the increased investment in NBDL teams. Any suggestions or modifications are welcome in the comments. Have at it!

Clusters of Scarcity

Revolution

Photo by a100tim via Flickr

Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopSpeakU, and now Hardwood Paroxysm, because you know, we felt like we didn’t have enough people writing here. He begins today in a discussion of talent clusters from the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and the confluence of megastardom. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh. He’s also a pretty smart dude. – Ed.

Revolutions, loud and subtle, all share certain characteristics. New fronts are progressively opened, expanded and solidified, and the assimilation of advanced statistical analysis into the standard NBA experience is no exception to this revolutionary repetition. One of these new bubbles of creative production has been the move from evaluating individual players to evaluating combinations of players. Mountains of lineup and unit data are now publicly available, but these numbers are still mostly historically descriptive in nature. They look back at the recent past and tell us what happened. When it comes to examining why something happened or what circumstances may make it likely to happen again, statistical analysis hasn’t had much more to offer than that old stand-by – subjective observation.

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, three different analytic methods were presented,  each using numeric data to answer the precise questions of how to best fit players together and ensure synergistic skills sets are on the floor. Of the three, I found ‘Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How A Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other’ by Robert Ayer, the most compelling. I will admit, with just a modicum of shame, that Ayer’s paper appealed to me because enough of his method was explained in the presentation that I could, in my own rudimentary way, access and use the information.

The title of the paper refers to two and three-man combinations of a team’s best players. Ayer’s method involved defining players by clusters of statistical production. This clustering looks beyond traditional positions to the types of production that are provided by different players. For example Pau Gasol-ish power forwards are considered differently than Ryan Anderson-ish power forwards. He then ran a multiple regression analysis to determine the extent to which certain combinations of those player clusters, among a team’s two or three best players, affected that team’s win total. The NBA’s Efficiency Rating was the metric used for separating out a team’s three best players.

The clusters Ayer identified are below, with his descriptions and examples.

Cluster 1 – Limited, role-playing centers: Erick Dampier, Tree Rollins
Cluster 2 – High scoring, dynamic guards, typically not great three-point shooters, or if they are they don’t shoot very many: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady, Adrian Dantley
Cluster 3 – Somewhat limited, role-playing backcourt players: John Paxson, J.J. Barea
Cluster 4 – Wing, three-point shooters: Dan Majerle, Shane Battier
Cluster 5 – Dynamic, well-rounded power forwards, strong rebounding, dynamic 3’s: Chris Webber, Pau Gasol, Kevin McHale
Cluster 7 – High scoring, high assists, high steals, high turnover point guards, who don’t shoot three-pointers: Kevin Johnson, Isiah Thomas
Cluster 8 – Multi-faceted, high scoring wings, with high assists for their position who are great three-point shooters: Paul Pierce, Danny Ainge
Cluster 9 – Pass first, low scoring point guards: Avery Johnson, Mark Jackson
Cluster 10 – Limited 4’s, very strong rebounders, defense oriented: Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Buck Williams
Cluster 11 – Three-point shooting bigs: Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Detlef Schrempf
Cluster 12 – High scoring post players, high rebounds, high blocks: Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson
Cluster 13 – Well-rounded small forwards; generally don’t shoot many three-pointers: Luol Deng, James Worthy
Cluster 14 – Role-playing big men without an exceptional skill, but contribute in several categories: Udonis Haslem, Kurt Thomas

Here were the combinations he found to have an effect on team performance:

Big 2’s

  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 2: +3.97 wins
  • Cluster 10 – Cluster 12: +4.69 wins
  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 8: +4.35 wins
  • Cluster 8 – Cluster 11: +4.75 wins
  • Cluster 8 – Cluster 12: +7.59 wins
  • Cluster 8 – Cluster 8: -4.05 wins

Big 3’s

  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 2 – Cluster 5: +3.70 wins
  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 5 – Cluster 8: +3.43 wins
  • Cluster 7 – Cluster 8 – Cluster 12: +13.60 wins
  • Cluster 8 – Cluster 10 – Cluster 12: +5.43 wins
  • Cluster 5 – Cluster 5 – Cluster 9: -8.47 wins
  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 2 – Cluster 7: -4.78 wins
  • Cluster 5 – Cluster 8 – Cluster 8: -3.61 wins

It’s important to note that these relationships are ‘talent agnostic’. Having a 2-2-5 combination among your best three players has historically been worth an extra 3.7 wins. However, if your team has 20 win talent, including those three best players, that combination only bumps you up to 23 or 24 wins.

Intrigued by this entire project I decided to try and overlay Ayer’s player clusters with this season’s data, and see if any teams appear to have one of the statistically significant combinations he identified. I used similarity scores to place the top three players on each NBA team into one of those clusters. Like Ayer, I used the NBA’s Efficiency Rating to determine the top three players on each team.

The individual results can be found here. The first sheet of the spreadsheet contains the master results. There are also sheets, listed across the bottom, for each player showing how their statistics fit into each cluster.
Here are the teams that had statistically significant combinations:

Big 2’s

  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 2: +3.97 wins
    • Miami Heat: LeBron James (2) – Dwyane Wade (2)
    • Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant (2) – Russell Westbrook (2)

Big 3’s

  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 2 – Cluster 5: +3.70 wins
    • Miami Heat: LeBron James (2) – Dwyane Wade (2) – Chris Bosh (5)
  • Cluster 2 – Cluster 5 – Cluster 8: +3.43 wins
    • Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins (5) – Tyreke Evans (2) – Marcus Thornton (8)

In his presentation at Sloan, Ayer highlighted the positive value of a pair of Cluster 2 (High-scoring dynamic guards) players as a finding that bucked conventional wisdom. Looking at this season’s data we find two perfect examples of successful combinations swimming against the current of public opinion. The Heat and the Thunder are both elite teams, but there is a steady Gregorian chant from fans and analysts alike that their success is because immense talent is overwhelming the bad fit and duplication of their top players. The idea persists that their ceiling has somehow been lowered by the particular arrangements of talent. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that duplication of skills and good player fit are not mutually exclusive.

No team this season has hit the ultimate jackpot with the 7-8-12 combination that Ayers found to be worth +13.60 wins. But the Clippers weren’t far off. They have their Cluster 7 player in Chris Paul. They have their Cluster 12 player in Blake Griffin. That gaping hole the Clippers have been sporting all season at shooting guard would be a perfect place to plug in that Cluster 8 player, the ‘Multi-faceted, high-scoring, high-assist, 3PT shooting wing’. The Timberwolves are in the same boat with a Cluster 12 in Kevin Love and Cluster 7 in Ricky Rubio. Finding a talented Cluster 8 could be the difference in both team’s long-term success.

Golden State is also an interesting situation. Up until the trade deadline they had a 5-8-8 combo, with David Lee, Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, worth -3.61 wins. Just removing Ellis may prove to provide some measure of relief through addition by subtraction.

As interesting as what Ayer’s work is for evaluating current and potential player combinations, I was just as interested in what his clustering work reveals about the makeup of the NBA and the scarcity of talent at certain positions. Our data set here is somewhat skewed because we’re looking at the top three players for each team as opposed to the 90 best players in the NBA. Still there are some striking holes.

The chart below is an analysis of the prevalence and relative talent of each player cluster. The blue bars represent the number of players from our group of 90 that fell into each cluster. The black lines stretch from the Efficiency rating of the least talented player in that cluster to the most talented player in that cluster. The red diamonds are the average Efficiency Rating for all the players in that cluster. If you’re unfamiliar with Efficiency Rating it’s a per game average calculated with this formula: ((Points + Rebounds + Assists + Steals + Blocks) – ((Field Goals Att. – Field Goals Made) + (Free Throws Att. – Free Throws Made) + Turnovers)). To put the numbers into context, LeBron James leads the league with an EFF of 30.0. An average NBA player comes in around 10.0.

There is a lot going on in this graph, but look closely and you’ll see a fairly clear representation of how scarcity affects team building. The scarcity on this graph is of two different varieties. In our set of 90 players not a single one fell into Cluster 1 or 3. This is not because those player-types are few and far between, but because we were looking only at the three most productive players for each team. Cluster 12s on the other hand are rare in our sample because they are rare everywhere. Just three appeared in our sample, and it would be difficult to spot another three anywhere else in the league. That group also had the highest average Efficiency Rating of any player cluster.

Productive players in Cluster 8, 10 and 11 are fairly common, but few provide an elite level of production. It seems like relying on these types of players to drive a team, may lead an organization to set up camp on the 40-win plateau, trying to milk out a few extra wins a season with luck and a strategically designed supporting cast.

Clusters 8 and 2 appear in almost every single positive combination that Ayer identified, and a large group of players fell into both clusters. However, while it’s difficult to find elite production in Cluster 8, the average Cluster 2 player in our group had an EFF of 19.9, roughly twice the league average. While teams have shifted focus towards elite point guards or the handful of dominant big men, here is proof that the Jordan/Iverson model of building around an elite wing scorer still has merit.

While I really enjoyed Ayer’s work and think there is a lot to chew on here, I would be remiss in wrapping up with mentioning a few concerns I have about the clustering techniques. Ayer’s used per game averages to define his clusters. In a large study, over many seasons, it was probably plenty accurate. In just looking at a single season like I did, it almost certainly skewed the clustering for the handful of players who come off the bench and play significantly less minutes than some of their counterparts.

As I’m sure many of you did, I also found the way he described each cluster confusing. The moniker Cluster 1 or Cluster 3 means nothing to any of us, so Ayer has added some descriptive details about each. I appreciate the rationale for this but on some level it’s self-defeating.

The clusters provide a richer statistical complexity than the common terms he’s used to describe each. Cluster 11, is described as ‘Three-point shooting bigs’. But there is more to the cluster than that, otherwise the whole clustering exercise wouldn’t be necessary. Kemba Walker fell into this cluster. He is clearly not a three-point shooting big, but he is most certainly a Cluster 11. The generic terms used to describe SOME characteristics of MOST of the players in the Cluster omit some of the nuance of the way players are clustered.

While this ultimately has no bearing on the results or conclusions, I’m sure some readers have had a knee-jerk reaction that made it tougher to buy into this admittedly lengthy post. One of the challenges of a project as ambitious as Ayer’s is that there is no language to act as a bridge between the new and old ways of describing players. The solution is to use the new language consistently and comprehensively, but in the meantime it must be acknowledged that this will leave some basketball fans on the outside.

Podcast Paroxsym: TANKAPALOOZA

In our latest installment of Podcast Paroxysm, we discuss tanking. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it point-shaving? Should we rest good pieces and give D-Leaguers time to shine? Is effort enough to salve the wounds of being terrible? How do teams rebuild? WHAT OTHER CHOICE DO WE HAVE?

All that, plus a re-hashing of the OKC Model, draft luck, and the Ramon Sessions trade.

So sit back, relax, and let Matt, Conrad, Steve, Sean, Jared, and myself lull you into aural bliss.

Entering The Demilitarized Zone

It’s better to be terrible than mediocre. That’s what pretty much anybody who follows the NBA will tell you about rebuilding a team. Hanging around at the fringe of the playoffs for a couple of years can set your franchise back for many more to come. A team that has some decent pieces, but not enough to feasibly compete in the near future can easily find itself in this kind of “NBA purgatory”. You do not want to end up in a situation where you narrowly miss the playoffs, have the 13th or 14th pick in the draft, and then miss out on any potential superstars. It’s inevitable, however, that some teams will find themselves in this situation every year. The solution to this problem is easy, really…

(explosion sounds)

Tanking.

I’m not so concerned with the idea that the lottery somehow needs to be fixed to avoid tanking. Instead, I prefer to focus on the system that is currently in place. As it stands now, you’ve got a weighted lottery and the worse your team is, the better chance you have at jumping into the top three picks. Therefore, once you’ve recognized that the team is unable to actually compete, tanking for a better draft pick is probably the best strategy. It’s easy to say that as someone simply observing from the outside, but how many fans really want to get on board with that idea? Obviously, fans want what is best for their team –but does that include rooting for losses in order to improve draft position?

I don’t mean to always bring the Cavaliers into it, but they are one of the teams currently dealing with this exact situation and it can be applied to several teams across the league. At the trade deadline, the Cavs were a handful of games out of the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference (despite being several games below .500). At that point, you’ve got a decision to make: gun for that last playoff spot or liquidize assets and build for the longterm. It’s fairly apparent that they decided upon the latter (trading away Ramon Sessions, simply attempting to acquire draft picks instead of current players, etc.). In my opinion, that was the correct move. It’s important for the front office to identify the fact that the current core is not adequate as currently composed. The Cavs are still a couple of impact pieces away from having a solid core to build around and eventually make a run at the postseason. Unfortunately once you make that realization, there’s still 30 games left to be played in the season. Now what?

So you’re a fan of a team that isn’t going to make the playoffs or even if they do make the playoffs, they will likely be the victims of a demoralizing beatdown — what do you do? When they think with their brains, most NBA fans know that it’s beneficial for their team to be as bad as possible, get a better draft pick, and then build around that young core of players. However, many fans do not think with their brains, they think with their hearts. How do you go from passionately rooting for a team every night to hoping that they lose just to acquire more ping-pong balls in the lottery? In short (and I’m speaking from experience), you don’t. When I sit down to watch my favorite team play, I’m watching and reacting as if I want them to win. Every night. And this is despite the fact that I know all too well that losing and getting better lottery odds is what’s truly best for the franchise. When the Cavs aren’t playing, I’m anxiously watching the scoreboard of the teams surrounding Cleveland at the bottom of the standings, hoping that they’ll pull off a win and jump the Cavs. After the Cavs lose, I’m understandably bummed out, as any fan would be when their team loses. After about 10 minutes or so, I remember: damn, that was a good loss.

It’s easily one of the most uncomfortable and peculiar feelings for a fan. It feels morally wrong to be rooting against your team. You’ve got that little part of you that’s saying, man, if only we got into the playoffs, we could really up our game and give Chicago a scare. How do you sit there and watch you team actively blowout the existing roster in order to completely tank the remainder of the season, as the Blazers recently did? You’ve got Warriors fans booing their owner because he traded away a fan favorite, with the team’s best long-term interests in mind. Ultimately, I’ve come to deal with it by basically playing two roles. Most of the time, I’m working as an armchair general manager. When my team isn’t playing, I’m reading scouting reports and hoping that they can lose just a few more games to move up and grab this prospect — it’s all-out tank mode. Once my team takes the court, however, we’ve entered the demilitarized zone. I want to win — no tanks allowed.

Starting Over Again

Image via christopher.peplin on Flickr

I find myself looking at this Wizards trade and thinking to myself “OK, now we’re heading in a good direction. Throw out the old mindset, and bring in some high-level thinking.” Then I read things like this, and I feel a little cheated. Not completely cheated, but more like “Wow. My GM was totally outsmarted by that other GM, but it’s OK because that other GM sounds like he’s smarter than everyone.” But this isn’t the first time my GM has been outsmarted, and usually the other person outsmarting him isn’t as cunning as Ujiri (or at least as cunning as Mark Deeks paints him). The phrase “God, why doesn’t Ted Leonsis just freakin’ fire Ernie Grunfeld already?” has crossed my mind numerous times over the past two seasons, and that thought crossed my mind again after this trade went down.

This is the first of a few sensible moves the Wizards need to make. The next step is firing Ernie Grunfeld. Why fire him instead of letting his contract expire at the end of the season? Because this team needs to rebuild NOW and acquire rebuilding assets NOW, and Grunfeld (and his former boss, the late Abe Pollin) had been bad at managing both personnel and finances. The sooner a new GM is in place that has a vision for rebuilding and clearing the books, the better for Washington. Grunfeld is not that man. He’ll find a place somewhere, but not in Washington.

-Me, after Flip Saunders got fired in January

As a Fan, I want my team to move forward, and it cannot do so with bad personnel and with a management structure that’s responsible for bringing in that bad personnel and the lousy contracts for each person.

As a Person, though, why do I want this other person to be fired? Why do I want him to lose his livelihood, to no longer be able to provide for his family? I don’t know Ernie Grunfeld. I know of him. I’ve never met him. I know his resume, and I know his experience in the league. I’ve read his press releases, I’ve seen his work, and I’ve listened to his interviews. But I don’t know him. How can I wish so much ill on this man that I’ve never met?

I sat down wanting to write some sort of brash open letter, one that specifically broke down Grunfeld’s errors as GM of the Wizards. It’d be a long list, for sure. And there aren’t that many good moves. Most of the good moves he made were no-brainers (drafting Wall) or trading away players that he drafted or signed to absurd contracts. Cleaning up your own mess shouldn’t get you commended. My mom never praised me for cleaning my room after I destroyed it, it was just expected of me. And after all the listing of what he did for the Wizards and did to the Wizards, I would have said something like “And Ted Leonsis, this is why you have to fire him.”

But the man who put the “talent” together, Grunfeld, has been holding this team back for years. He held the Butler/Jamison/Arenas core together long after it had gone rotten. I don’t think he’s got much of a mind for advanced stats; if he did, why would they have traded FOR Jordan Crawford? Why was Blatche given a multi-year extension? These guys are not efficient, and they don’t play well off Wall, the supposed focal point of this team.

Ernie’s contract winds up at the end of this season. If he were to stay til then, I’d imagine he wouldn’t be resigned. Leonsis likely kept him because he wanted to be prudent about managing the team finances, so firing him and paying another GM when this team is lottery bound and in transition anyway seemed like not enough of an investment. But if this team is lotterybound, wouldn’t you want a GOOD GM, who can eye good draft and trade talent, to get you a core going forward? Regardless, if Ernie stays on, I rescind my cult worship of Leonsis.

-Me, again, being a jerk

Who the f*** am I to decide his fate?

So as my Fanaticism and my Humanism battle it out for supremacy in this uphill path towards season-ticket renewal, here’s my attempt to level the two sides out:

The Wizards are an organization that is still suffering from the aftereffects of some bad personnel decisions. These decisions were both in contract distribution and in the attitudes of some players and other personnel. With a marquee point guard, a new coach on the horizon, and a new owner, this franchise needs to move in a direction away from that past. The team needs to rid itself of assets and acquire draft picks and flexibility in the process. Even if the draft picks are low, they can often be packaged later on for higher ones–picks around which a team can build a new core. The future of the franchise as a winning organization, a free-agency target, and a championship contender depends on moving away from that past. I hope the decision to bring the Wizards down that path are responsible, measured, and fair.

Trade Deadline: Portland is Tank City

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The Portland Trail Blazers were finally the ones to do it. In a series of moves, the GM-less Blazers embraced a philosophy that has been espoused by NBA pundits, writers and bloggers for a while now: they have broken up a middling fringe playoff team that was never going to contend for a championship as it was currently constructed, content to bottom out for the rest of this season and build from scratch through the draft and free agency. And they fired the coach of the sinking ship for good measure.

When the Blazers traded multiple first round picks for Gerald Wallace last season, it was with the intention of adding him to a blossoming core that included a budding star in LaMarcus Aldridge, a once-and-possibly-future star in Brandon Roy, rising youngsters like Nic Batum and Wesley Mathews and the possibly returning defensive stalwart center Greg Oden (at the time). When they then moved Andre Miller for Raymond Felton on draft day in 2011, it seemed they had completed the nucleus of what should have been a Western Conference contender for the next half-decade.

Despite Roy’s retirement and Oden’s umpteenth knee injury, the Blazers started off the season on fire. Nate McMillan’s normally slow and deliberate bunch was running up and down the floor with abandon, Felton and Aldridge had developed instant chemistry in the pick-and-roll, Mathews and Batum were filling the wings capably, Jamal Crawford was providing scoring off the bench and at 7-2 after the first couple weeks of the season, this group looked like legitimate contenders. Even as their record slid back toward .500 as the season moved along, their point differential suggested that they were much better than that record might indicate.

But somewhere along the way, it appears that McMillan lost the team and they began to implode. It’s gotten really ugly. The Blazers have gone 5-11 since February 11th, losing 7 games by double digits. This last week, in what seemed to be the final straw, they got blown out in 4 of their 5 roadies, beating only the Wizards. The Timberwolves, Celtics, Pacers and Knicks beat them by a combined 89 points (a 42-point loss to the Knicks yesterday helped things).

So whoever is really running the Blazers, whether it’s owner Paul Allen or interim General Manager Chad Buchanon, woke up today and decided that this group wasn’t working to work out and the only solution was to burn it all down. And burn it down they did. Gerald Wallace was sent to the New Jersey Nets for Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and the Nets’ top-3 protected 2012 first round pick. Marcus Camby was shipped to Houston for Hasheem Thabeet, Johnny Flynn and a future second round pick. Nate McMillan was sent packing. The Blazers, undoubtedly, are worse today than they were yesterday.

Wallace was their second best player after LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the most consistent forwards in the league. He’s a very capable defender on both the wing and the block, can play the 3 or the 4 and is a terrific rebounder and terror in the open court. Camby, despite his offensive limitations, is still an extremely sound defensive center. Without them, Portland’s slightly above averaged 13th ranked defense will get worse, as will their slightly below average 17th ranked rebounding rate. McMillan had been the coach of the team since 2005. His 34-year old assistant Kaleb Canales will take the reins. The Blazers currently sit in 11th place in the Western Conference, and without Wallace and Camby, they should drop even further in the standings.

The players they acquired won’t be very useful this season, and what remains of the team that imploded shouldn’t get much better. They’re bottoming out, plain and simple. For the rest of the year, they’ll embrace the suck. And it’s the right move, because things will get better, sooner.

Tanking the season isn’t the most admirable strategy, but it’s not against the rules. Embracing the letter of the law, if not exactly the spirit, will help the Blazers more than it will hurt them. The team likely won’t be very fun to watch for the rest of this season, but at least management recognized a situation that wasn’t working, formulated a plan and set it in motion. The Blazers will be brutal for a while, but they’ll be better off down the road.

Portland still has Aldridge under contract through the 2014-15 season, and they now have three years in which to assemble a team that will make him want to stick around even longer than that. They’ll likely have two lottery picks in what is one of the deepest drafts in years – their own and New Jersey’s as long as it doesn’t land in the top 3 – and have just $26 million in committed salary for next season without options. Batum will be a restricted free agent, and now that Wallace is gone it’s hard to see the Blazers not matching whatever he gets offered on the open market. And even though Dwight Howard will not hit free agency this summer, there will still be a robust group of players available that can help Portland build toward a brighter future.

Taking “The OKC Model” with a Grain of Salt

Image via wscullin on Flickr

“You guys, our team sucks. We should just do the OKC Model.”

“Hey, if we had done the OKC Model instead of what we’re doing now, we would have won a championship already.”

“You know, the best way to rebuild is through the OKC Model.”

“It’s the best way. Teams like Indiana and Philly that are good this year had to wait forever. Tanking and building piece-by-piece is the way to go.”

“It’s the only viable option for small markets to rebuild.”

Wait wait wait… Slow down, and think about this for a second, OK?

There’s a common attitude in sports that winning makes bad memories go away. Oh, your team used to suck and it’s a playoff team now? Well we’ll just forget the 7 straight years of horrible, horrible play. And that’s fine, and really, as a fan, you take losing as long as you know there’s a chance that winning is coming over the horizon soon. If your team is stuck in a grind of terrible play, or if your team is stuck in purgatory (in the NBA, this is being a perennial 7-11 seed), then some sort of  “rebuild” has to enter the picture. Usually the rebuild takes the form of acquiring talent, jettisoning players for more talent, jettisoning players for flexibility, somehow-or-other picking up a couple of draft picks, or any and all combinations of the above. All of these options have the same goal in mind: Our team is bad, and to get better, we need to shake things up.

It seems that no other team has better exemplified this strategy over the past few season as the Oklahoma City Thunder, nee Seattle SuperSonics. In the past 15 years, this team went from bad to meh to winning their division to meh to bad to awful . . . then came the 2007 draft and the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons.

With the 5th worst record, the Sonics picked 2nd, and with that pick came a franchise player and a bright new future. The team took part in the offseason deal that turned the 2008 Celtics into NBA Champions by sending Ray Allen and the pick that became Big Baby to the Celtics for the 5th pick (Jeff Green), Wally Szczerbiak, and Delonte West (Boston would also acquire Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves in exchange for a package that included Al Jefferson as the centerpiece. Jefferson would later be traded to Utah.). The Sonics also completed a second massive offseason deal to jettison Rashard Lewis on a sign-and-trade to Orlando in exchange for a future 2nd-rounder a hefty trade exception, which they flipped for Kurt Thomas and two first-rounders from Phoenix. The next season saw Seattle flipping Wally and Delonte to Cleveland in another blockbuster trade to help a third team in the East vie for an NBA championship.

So after all of this, GM Sam Presti was seen as a genius for turning a bunch of enormous contracts into a bajillion first and second round draft picks plus a ton of cap space.Those picks turned into Jeff Green, Russel Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Carl Landry, DJ White, James Harden, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Bryon Mullens (to name a few). A handful of draft-day trades have happened since (Mullens to Charlotte, Landry to Houston, Beaubois to Dallas), but this is where SEA/OKC began to assemble the core you see today.

I believe Presti absolutely did a great job in turning some stagnating assets into lots of cap space and draft picks. Before him, Seattle’s history was basically a championship in the 1970s, a few deep playoff runs (including a Finals appearance in the 1990s), and lots of fans devoted to a fun-yet-average team. And luckily for Presti, he was able to prey on teams like Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, and Phoenix who were willing to give up those things in exchange for title contention. So far, it looks like only Boston has been able to say their trade paid dividends.

PJ Carlesimo was the head coach of the team during this time (you may remember PJ as the guy that Latrell Sprewell choked), and boy were his teams bad. Maybe they were supposed to be bad, but boy were they bad regardless. So bad that PJ got fired during his first season in OKC. The team started turning around the following season once Scott Brooks took over head coaching duties, and once the young guys started playing together more. More time with Brooks, a few more trades for Presti, and this Thunder team has really turned into something special.

But during that time where the team was faltering, then hitting bottom, then climbing up to the top, the team was going through some massive franchise changes that had nothing to do with coaching and personnel. You may remember this, and this, and this, and this, and this.

 

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There is a risk to perpetual basketball mediocrity. That risk lies in an owner no longer wanting to own a team (which has happened in dozens of cities over the entire course of the history of professional hoops). There exists another risk in an owner caring substantially more about making money than making a competitive ball club. Then there’s another risk: the owner could be so disconnected from the city where the team resides that he has no qualms about moving it. There’s not much more of a betrayal to a sports fanbase than having your team taken away. Even the most jilted Cleveland fans (and I used to be one of these) would rather have their franchise player leave them on live television than to have their team taken away from them. Just ask which name is more reviled in Cleveland: LeBron James or Art Modell? Chances are, you’re going to get the same answer over and over.

In our revisionist times, people seem to miss the fact that OKC’s very recent history involves a massive franchise upheaval that happened at the same time the team was shedding assets to acquire picks and flexibility. The two may seem like different processes happening at different levels, but they will always be interrelated. With Presti on board, Bennett and the ownership were able to shed some bulky contracts of good or once-good players (Allen, Lewis, Szczerbiak) to lower the payroll. After Nate MacMillan left Seattle for a gig in Portland, the management brought in a coach without a proven track-record for winning who basically allowed the team to perform at a level that could only be seen as tanking, and he was sacked about a month into the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City. What are we left with now? A team full of players on rookie contracts, an interim coach, and a fresh start in OKC.

Presti’s contribution to “The OKC Model” is clear: acquire picks, acquire tradeable and expiring contracts, and if you can find a team that thinks they are 1-2 pieces away from contending, milk them for everything they’ve got. Then you draft young studs, build up, and try not to panic and make any hasty moves will the walls are crumbling around you.

The rest of the model, though, is cloudy. Presti’s stoicism was an important factor in Seattle/OKC’s restructuring, but the rest of the model cannot be dissociated from its more volatile and unpredictable context. Let’s not forget some of these draft picks wouldn’t have been as high had the owner not hired a coach that was bad enough to keep this team in the lottery for two seasons. And what about drafting Durant? Statistically, they were slotted to get the 5th pick. Had they lucked into the first pick, they would have picked Greg Oden (the then-consensus number one overall pick). The top 5 in that draft in order? Oden, Durant, Horford, Mike Conley Jr, and Jeff Green. At their peaks, all of these players are great contributions to teams. Only one is a franchise player: KD. So, how do you model ping-pong balls? How do you project that the number one overall pick is going to have recurring health issues? How are you to know that Jeff Green, who you also took then traded for an excellent defensive center in Kendrick Perkins, would have a health issue that sidelines him as well?

So luck into drafting a superstar that isn’t the consensus superstar that everyone else agrees upon, hire a bad coach to ensure your team is bad, jettison large contracts to four teams desperate to keep their franchise players in hopes that they can contend for a championship in exchange for expiring contracts and draft picks, and then draft complements to the superstar with all these new-found picks. And to ensure you keep the core together, give all of the players you drafted early extensions.

With the aftermath of the lockout being a stricter salary cap (that the owners wanted) coming down the pike, we now see this successful project being threatened. Can they afford to keep their core together to contend for multiple championships? Will it be financially possible in the scope of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement? Are their pieces set, or are there more moves to make it perfect? Are any of the pieces interchangeable parts? Will the model win them even one championship? If not, is the model a failure? Is it a failure if it wins them no more than one championship? How narrow is this title window?

So when we say “The OKC Model,” we have to be careful to define what we’re talking about. Are we talking about a GM that was able to flip veteran assets for picks and luck into some great spots in the lottery, but also had a good head on his shoulders to complete a roster? Or a core of young players that is being confined by the new CBA? Or maybe an owner that flushed assets to run out of town? Can any of these really be isolated from the others?