What wins NBA championships?
This one is easy. Talent wins championships. I made the case a couple of years ago that money wins championships, but that’s really only true if the money buys talent.
I wrote about this (at great length) in 2010, here and here. I examined which position is arguably more important to a championship run, and I looked at the role of money spent. But with the advent of repeat champion Miami Heat, the rules may be changing, and I think we might be better served to look forward rather than into the past to find answers.
The new CBA is designed to minimize the ability of big-market teams to outspend smaller markets, and hog all the talent. It does seem to be having some effect – the Lakers are hamstrung until they find out what Dwight will do (and probably even after that.) Boston is dumping salary and preparing for a quick rebuild. The Nets are spending like a drunken Russian sailor, and the Heat are surrounding their big three with guys willing to play for peanuts to get a ring. That seems to be working for them, by the way.
Still, the Heat, Lakers, or Nets model is not one that will work in Phoenix in the long run. We’ve certainly watched a lot of players, from Joe Johnson to Shawn Marion to Amar’e drift off to greener pastures over the years. Fortunately, there are a couple of models that can be studied (and, I will posit, have been studied by our FO), the San Antonio Spurs model, the Denver Nuggets model, the Houston model, and the Seattle/OKC model.
This is typically where I would start with my tl:dr portion of the post, lining up stats to prove my case. I’m going to try not to do that this time, and just hit the high points, leaving a lot open to discussion. I’ve done quite a bit of research on the SA model, and I believe Ryan McDonough has, as well. So lets start with that one.
San Antonio has been a team that has competed almost every year of their existence in the NBA, thanks largely to the acquisition of first David Robinson in 1989, and second, Tim Duncan in 1997. Robinson, the number one overall pick in 1987, finished his obligation to the US Navy before coming to the Spurs in 89 – which allowed them to also nab Sean Elliot with the 3rd pick in 1989, and trade for Terry Cummings, fostering the biggest one-year turnaround in NBA history, going from 21-61 in 1988-89 to 56-26 the next year. Since then, they have won at least 57% of their games each year, except for one year – 1996-97, where they dropped to .246 and were awarded the first round pick in 1997 – Tim Duncan.
Twin Towers – 1999 – 2002
This nabbed the Spurs their first championship in 1999, in a strike shortened season. Duncan was the Finals MVP. Robinson got his ring, which he deserved. They competed for a little while, and were still good, but Duncan got hurt, and the Spurs were knocked out by the Suns (yay!) and then the Shaq/Kobe Lakers.
The Big Three:
This ain’t your Miami Big Three. This is one overall #1 draft pick, Manu Ginobili as the 57th pick in 1999, and Tony Parker (28th pick in 2001). I really doubt people were jumping up and down in 2001 screaming “We got our big THREEEEEEEEE!!!”. But this is one of the keys to their ultimate success. They not only got these guys, but they have kept them for their entire careers. It’s been a key to their success that Tony Parker’s salary has never crippled their cap, maxing out at $13.5 million in 10/11, and is now entering his 3rd year of 4 at 12.5 mil. Not bad, but certainly not max for a 5 time all-star and former Finals MVP. And Ginobili peaked at $14.1 mil last year, and just re-signed for 7 mil a year for two years. This allowed the Spurs to surround the Big Three with specialist role-players, inventing the “3-and-D” player 12 years before it became a commonly used phrase. And let’s not discount Popovich’s contributions, either.
I will refer you to Wikipedia for the rest – but any Suns fan knows the history. They not only cruised through regular seasons, but were built for the playoffs. Stephen Jackson, Steve Kerr, Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, and Steve Smith are some of the guys who contributed to their success. Only Steve Smith of that group had a relatively high salary, getting 19.5 mil for two seasons. In the most recent iteration, the Big Three was aided by Kawhi Leonard (15thpick in 2011), Danny Green (46th pick in 2009), Tiago Splitter (28th pick in 2007) and Gary Neal (undrafted in 2007). Part of this is great talent evaluation, and part of it is having a system where guys like that, with specific skill sets, can thrive. The Big Three makes that possible.
The OKC model
This is basically the “suck hard for a lot of years and stockpile a decades worth of assets” plan. It’s worked very well, netting them Kevin Durant (2nd pick in 2007), Russel Westbrook (4th overall in 2008), Serge Ibaka (24th in 2008), James Harden (3rd pick in 2009). Great picks, but definitely not on a par with the Spurs as far as value. It’s tough that they have so many high picks (sob), but it does make the mathematics a bit harder. Those guys get paid – even from the very beginning. With so many picks clustered together, it forced them to deal James Harden away for cap reasons. Those reasons didn’t exist when they drafted them, either. The new CBA is going to hurt them quite a bit going forward. To their credit, though, they drafted guys who will stay there, and they still have a lot of assets.
The OKC model is more top heavy than the Spurs model. Everyone envies having 4 stars on the same team, but nobody can afford to pay them year after year, especially in a small market. So, Harden went – but he returned long-term assets. OKC’s success going forward will depend on a delicate balance of salary vs. return.
The Denver Model
This is one I personally like. Take an asset (Melo) and turn it into a scrappy, no-star speed fest that is fun to watch. Unfortunately, we won’t get to see that play out, because they have already started blowing it up. They’ve lost their star GM, fired the Coach of the Year, shipped out their starting center in favor of a guy with a BBIQ in the single digits, and are in danger of losing their defensive star to free agency. Even if they keep Iggy, they’ve lost the salary cap flexibility they need to improve much going forward. I see this as a grand experiment gone awry – too bad. They’ll still be good, but it will take some magic from their new GM to make this into a team that can actually contend for a title. But for a minute there…
The Houston Model
Another interesting study – acquire assets, no matter what they are, and trade, trade, trade. This is a work in progress, and it remains to be seen how well it can work. Harden was a brilliant, opportunistic move. They have lots of great draft picks who are outperforming their expectations. But I think their single minded pursuit of Dwight Howard is ill advised. The reason is, that championship teams have stars – but they perform better in the playoffs. Kobe, Magic, Bird, Wade – those guys stepped it up to another level when the heat was on. That is contra-indicated in the case of Howard. But we’ll see – if they get him. Maybe the fates will protect them from themselves. For certain, nothing has been proven with this model, and if they have to give up Lin and Asik to get Dwight, I really wonder what they’re left with.
The Phoenix Suns model:
The Suns are one of the most successful franchises in the history of the NBA – but no title. Oh, how close we came – but players peeled off, one by one, always leaving us just short of that elusive title. Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Kurt Thomas, Amar’e- all left for different, but less than ideal reasons. Still, it was because we were mired in that OKC model – very good, but too much salary to sustain. Great, fun, entertaining years – but (Maxwell Smart voice) “Missed it by THAT much…”. And now – the bottom.
So, what do we do from here? Whatever it is, we’ve already started.
In the binary fashion of BSotS, Lance Blanks was good – and then he sucked. There is no middle ground, apparently. But I will make the case that if he could do no good, at least he did little harm, long term.
What did he do? First, he ended the Turkoglu experiment, by getting rid of JRich, Clark, and Hedo, and getting back Gortat, Vince Carter, and Pietrus, and a first round draft pick, and 3 million dollars. That was good – but then he dumped Pietrus for nothing, lost Carter (and his huge expiring) for nothing (although the lockout was a big factor in that situation, and I don’t put all of the blame on Blanks for that.) He cleared a bunch of cap space, and took a gamble on Beasley, without locking him up too long term, and largely kept the cap space intact, which allowed McDonough to execute the recent Eric Bledsoe trade. He got picks for Lopez, and a pick for taking a one year flier on WJ, and got us Dragic. He got 4 picks (+$3 mil) for Nash, who could have gone for nothing. He got us PJ Tucker. He got us a second round pick from Toronto for Telfair that was used in the Bledsoe deal. He got us Jermaine O’Neal, and a very underpriced Scola. He drafted Morris and Marshall – predictable, easy ones – which, I guess, still could turn out OK. So while I don’t like what Blanks did, and I hated him when I heard that he left the NW combine early, he left us in decent shape to rebuild. I know conventional wisdom has made Sarver or Babby the architects of all the good stuff, and Blanks the scapegoat for all the bad – but overall, he could have done a lot worse (and nearly did with the Gordon offer). I guess what I’m saying is, it could have been a LOT worse, and looked at in its totality, he actually did some good stuff.
But what McDonough has done is better already, and it seems to me to target the best parts of all these models. First, he got his coach, Jeff Hornacek. More on this later.
He then picked Alex Len, who (IMO) he thinks could be a Duncan-esque player. Now, don’t take that too far – he’s not Duncan, and McDonough never said he would be, nor did I. Timmay was dominant coming out of college, and the clear first overall pick (in a weak draft, btw), and a HOF’er, but the similarities revolve around the words big, fundamental, and versatility. IF he develops the moves he’s shown, and IF he develops physically, he could indeed be at least some percentage of the same kind of player that Tim Duncan is. The kind of guy who can hold down the middle and do a lot of things on both ends, while quick, cold-blooded players swirl around him and snipers cover him from far away. Where is it a win – 80%? 90%? Not sure. It’s a good gamble, and he certainly knows more about it than I do. But my point is, it’s the kind of move that could allow us to begin rebuilding in the same way that the Spurs did – not necessarily when they got Duncan, but more like when they got Robinson. No one will really know if it was a good gamble until the end of Len’s rookie contract. He’s very young, and very raw.
Next, he drafted Goodwin, 18 years old and chock full of “potential”. This is a pick that Blanks got us, but McDonough still owns it. Again, at 18 yo, we won’t know for a few years, but It seems like a good gamble with sound reasoning to me, even if he fits the traditional mold of an SG more than a PG to me.
And now, the Bledsoe trade. High risk, high reward all the way here, and certainly not a position of “need” for the Suns. But trading Dudley and a 2nd round pick for a player who could turn out to be a star is exactly the kind of gamble we need to make. It seems to me that we’re looking for Parkers and Ginobilis everywhere.
Back to Hornacek. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s sitting right beside McDonough, and that they have a plan. What I hope is that it’s something new and unconventional, like when we came out in 2009 with Channing Frye lighting it up from outside. I hope it’s game-changing, revolutionary, and successful. But whatever it is, it’s a plan – of some kind. I hope we’re all surprised. But we have a free year to try everything – even getting Beasley to play better. But we are taking on a lot of talent that can't shoot. We have to develop players, and that means putting them in situations where they can thrive, so I don't think there's any tanking to be done. It may happen anyway, though... We can’t lose this season, I don’t think. Unless…
First: In order to implement any of these models, it will take immense discipline. We will have to get better players. There is no sense in drafting future journeymen – they are everywhere. Every draft pick and trade should be a swing for the fences, and if McD bats .300, it will be a success. As many stunningly good draft picks and acquisitions as San Antonio has made, there are still a lot more guys that never made it to the NBA. But when they hit, they hit big.
Second, we have to win every trade – at least in potential. The Bledsoe case is a good one – if he’s good, he’ll be great – could be an all star. Same with Goodwin – I don’t think there’s a lot of middle ground – it should be boom or bust. I will expect more trades and pickups like this, and I will be watching the summer league and the D-League carefully.
Third, we have to keep our powder dry until the time is right. I was going to profile the New Orleans model, because I thought it was a pretty good one – until the Evans deal. I think, given the circumstances, that they pulled the trigger a year too early and reached a little too far. I also think they saved Blanks and the Suns from themselves when they matched on the Gordon offer. I really believe that if we had gotten Gordon, we never would have gotten McDonough. When we go into the 2014-15 season, we will have a lot of cap space, a year to evaluate what we’ve got, and a tempting FA pool. That would be too soon to try to get good.
Fourth, we have to maximize every asset. I know that most people here think we should just shit-can half the roster, but to me, the most encouraging move that McD has made is to bring back Shannon Brown. Sure, he could have gone away for only 1.75 mil, and it cost us 1.75 mil to bring him back, but apparently, McDonough doesn’t think 1.75 mil is chump change. Brown is relatively young, athletic, and has one big correctible problem – efficiency. He could be valuable to our team, or he could be valuable to another team. But he’s an asset. So is PJ Tucker – some team is going to want him at the deadline, some team who is making a playoff push and who needs a defensive stalwart on the perimeter – and who can only bring in league minimum players. He could easily bring a 2015 or 16 first round pick – most teams don’t think that far ahead. Luis Scola is a huge asset – and will fit in a mid-level exception. Gortat is valuable as a mentor, as an expiring contract, and a really good player. Even Beasley is an asset – he’s not efficient, but he could be worth a gamble to a playoff-bound team. So…maximize them. Maximize them ALL!!!
Fifth: Stop hoping. Stop waiting for guys like Beasley and WJ to find their inner LeBron. If you're going to take a chance, take chances on young, cheap draft picks, because you can take more of them. Hire the guys that can already do the job later- kinda like when we brought Steve Nash to the Valley. Remember him? Hire winners who hate to lose.
Last, and most important: Build a culture. We've had a lot of happy talk from the Blabby about building a winning culture, and respecting our past - right before we sent Nash and Hill out of here and became losers. Well, this time, do it. Make this a place players want to play, and keep all the players you want to keep. If you build it they will come.
We are still in the first baby steps of building our model. We need stars to build around. And not the kind available to us in Free Agency right now - that's for later. We need a roster full of stars, and I don't care if they play well with each other, or fill a need - the easiest way to get a star is to trade a star for him.
It remains to be seen if we are following one model or another – sometimes, circumstances drive things more than intent. But we’ve taken at least a couple of steps down a good path. I hope we keep on it – and I hope we get lucky.