Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Past as Guide in the NBA

The NBA playoffs are in full swing, but the Conference Finals means that all but four teams are already planning for the future. The NBA itself can’t resist looking ahead, as a defining event for some lucky team, the Draft Lottery, is fast approaching, scheduled for May 19, in beautiful Secaucus, New Jersey. It's worth taking a break from the playoffs to think about how teams arrive at whatever destination marks their fate.

A perusal of how franchises are constructed reveals some fascinating patterns. The GMs and coaches have changed--even the owners have flipped for some of these teams--but in many cases teams continue to follow highly idiosyncratic templates.

Take the Texas trio, for example: San Antonio and Houston have been defined for the past quarter-century by No. 1 overall draft picks of the 84 inches and up variety (in addition to the obvious personalities, don't forget about Ralph Sampson). These teams have had the good fortune to be bad in years preceding the professional arrival of franchise centers; the various decision-makers of these franchises have needed to focus only on building supporting casts for these fortuitous focal points. While this precision-awfulness can’t be counted on as a management strategy, these teams have managed to win six out of the past 15 titles.

Dallas, on the other hand, has seemed incapable of building through the draft. The vaunted Triple-J's of the '90's amounted to precious little. Even Nowitzki, the driving force of the franchise for the past decade, was acquired through a trade. The same goes for Nash, Finley, and the current version of Kidd, etc. Josh Howard, Mr. Irrelevant of the first round of the 2003 draft, was an afterthought for most of his own draft. Mark Cuban might have tried to buy the Cubs, but his franchise's method of team building more closely resembles that of the Yankees. And like the team from the Bronx, the aging Mavs team seems to be drifting away from its championship window.

The Celtics have repeatedly built championship-winning teams through a strategy of craftiness. Russell, McHale and Parish were all acquired through trades revolving around the draft. The contemporary team is the only one of my lifetime to betray a hint of a hired-gun championship, with three perennial All-Stars teaming together to win a title. And Larry Bird has not one but two talent-acquisition rules named after him: the Larry Bird Collegiate Rule (which disallows teams from drafting and retaining the rights to players before they are ready to enter the NBA) and the Larry Bird Exception (which allows teams to, basically, exceed the salary cap to resign their own players.) Through the Bird Rules, the NBA has mitigated this Boston advantage, by, respectively, eliminating a loophole and extending a loophole to be utilized by all teams. But the Celtics still maintain one edge: the other GMs of the league can’t seem to stop trading future Hall-of-Famers to Boston.

The Jazz, perhaps befitting their host state, have found a formula that works and have stuck with it for the last twenty years: team a top-notch, pass-first point guard with a power-forward of average height (for the position) but above-average bulk. The current iteration of the team even employs two of these power-forwards, in case the notoriously unfaithful Boozer decides to leave.

Orlando has a distinct habit of drafting physically dominant big-men who dunk ferociously and have some sort of Superman complex. We'll see if Howard can match Shaq by reaching an NBA Finals, and we'll see if he can exceed Shaq by winning one in Disney’s backyard. Not only that, but for the early part of this decade, it was nearly impossible not to see McGrady as a replacement version of Penny Hardaway, playing the role of tall and lanky guard wearing #1 on their shirts, eventually leaving Orlando on diverse but equally disappointing terms.

Chicago, meanwhile, has acquired its best players through what comes closest in the NBA to dumb luck. The greatest player in league history is available at the third pick of the draft? The Bulls are lucky enough to hold the third pick in that draft. A premier point guard in an era of ultra-important guard play is available in the draft the season after the Bulls finish with only the ninth worst record? No problem, Chicago doesn't need more than a 1.7% chance of employing Derrick Rose.

Which brings us to Portland. Will this franchise never learn to draft game-changing talent over mediocre 84 inchers, even if they already have All-Stars lined up at shooting guard? Will this reputation lead to some future draft in which Portland overcompensates for previous blunders, and bypasses a world-class center in favor of a decent swingman, all to avoid adding to the legacy of Bowie and Oden?

With very rare exceptions, basketball players don’t change in meaningful ways. Sure, they may add facets to their games (a post-up move here, or a few ticks of free throw percentage there) but this infrequently leads to dramatic new directions in the narrative of the player. Even the Most Improved Player Award winners have routinely been the beneficiary of either normal development or increased opportunity. It might not only be the players, though, who are unable to change; NBA franchises seem to be stuck in their peculiar ways of team-construction. As teams look to build for the future, they all need to contend with their own pasts.

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