Why Draft Strategy and Not Market Size Is the Key Difference for NBA Teams
In late August, Businessweek released its second-annual statistical study of the "Smartest Spenders in Sports". Their survey considered money spent per win but also took into account wins over .500 and postseason success over the last five years.
The rankings for the NBA would hardly surprise anyone who's followed the league during that time. The top tier includes teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat, the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The bottom is home to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Washington Wizards, the Charlotte Bobcats, the New York Knicks and the now-Brooklyn Nets, among others.
And the "middle class" is occupied, in part, by the Utah Jazz, the Phoenix Suns, the Houston Rockets, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers.
What do teams in each tier have in common?
Certainly not market size. For all the crowing by owners during the lockout about the unfair advantage that "big-market" teams have over those in more modestly-populated metropolitan areas, it would seem that such disparities have little bearing on basketball success, even (or, perhaps, especially) when factoring in the economics of the game.
For example, only four of the NBA's top-10 teams by market size—the Lakers (tied for third with the Clippers), the Bulls (fifth), the Mavericks (eighth) and the Celtics (10th)—rank in the upper crust of the league according to Businessweek's metrics over the last half-decade. That leaves five such teams—the Knicks and Nets (tied for first), the Clippers (tied for third), the Raptors (seventh) and the Warriors (ninth)—among the winning-impoverished and only one—the sixth-place Sixers—in the median.
The bottom tier also features its fair share of small-market teams (five from the NBA's bottom-10, to be exact), though two (the Spurs and the Thunder) checked in among the most prosperous six, while the Magic, hailing from the 20th-biggest NBA market of Orlando, were fourth.
And for all the waxing poetic about how the Heat have the unfair advantage of playing in Miami, their local television market is only the 17th-largest in the league.
So again I ask, what might the teams in each tier have in common?
How about the NBA Draft? Might it be that the most consistently successful franchises are the ones that make the wisest choices on draft day and/or the most prudent use of the assets acquired therein? Conversely, might those that've struggled be the "victims" of poor draft strategy, while the results for those in the middle have been mixed?
Some teams make for rather easy case studies in each category. The Thunder, for instance, had the good fortune of nailing top-four picks in three consecutive drafts, dating back to when Kevin Durant was hired on by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007. The Spurs, after whose success OKC's has supposedly been patterned, were fortunate to land two No. 1 picks (David Robinson and Tim Duncan), but have since retooled their winning machinery around hidden gems like Tony Parker (No. 28 in 2001), Manu Ginobili (No. 57 in 1999) and Kawhi Leonard (No. 15 in 2011).
On the other side of the spectrum, there's no shortage of botched picks to be found, like, say, Adam Morrison (No. 3 to the Bobcats in 2006), Kwame Brown (No. 1 to the Wizards in 2001), Wesley Johnson (No. 4 to the Timberwolves in 2010), Joe Alexander (No. 8 to the Bucks in 2008), Rafael Araujo (No. 8 to the Raptors in 2004), Jordan Hill (No. 8 to the Knicks in 2009), Spencer Hawes (No. 10 to the Kings in 2007), Shaun Livingston (No. 4 to the Clippers in 2004), Patrick O'Bryant (No. 9 to the Warriors in 2006) and Terrence Williams (No. 11 to the Nets in 2009).
And even that list is far from complete.
In between, there are the Trail Blazers, who hit it big with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge but missed even bigger with Greg Oden; the Suns, who did well to draft Shawn Marion and Amar'e Stoudemire but sold off Luol Deng and Rajon Rondo for pennies on the eventual dollar; the Houston Rockets, who had a star in Yao Ming but could've had more had they hung on to Rudy Gay and/or Nicolas Batum; the Sixers, who've drafted a slew of solid players over the years (i.e. Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday), but have yet to find a bona fide star among them; and the Pistons, who had the foresight to select Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur but undermined their own operation with Rodney White and (who could forget?) Darko Milicic.
That being said, there's a case to be made for market size—or rather, market attractiveness—in all of this. The Cavaliers struggled to attract marquee players to Cleveland and later lost their own (LeBron James) on account of that failure. The Nuggets have drafted well for some time (Nikoloz Tskitishvili aside), but were victimized by Carmelo Anthony's attraction to brighter lights in bigger cities. The Jazz, for their part, were smart enough to see such a situation developing with Deron Williams and promptly cashed him in for young players and picks to add to their own well-drafted core.
On the flip side, the Lakers, the Heat, the Knicks, the Nets and the Clippers—inhabitants of bustling metropolises all—have managed to capitalize on the supposed plight of small-market teams, which, in the absence of freer spending on contracts, can't always offer the sort of money that would put concerns about quality of life and organizational prestige out of the picture.
But to pin the successes of the league's best teams over the last five years on market size would overlook the role the draft has played in their achievements. The Lakers traded for Kobe Bryant on draft night in 1996, took Andrew Bynum with the 10th pick in 2005 and groomed him into Dwight bait, acquired Pau Gasol for a package that included a pair of prospects (Javaris Crittenton and Marc Gasol) and added Steve Nash for a basket of draft choices. Likewise, the Celtics held Paul Pierce's affections after drafting him in 1998 and brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston on the strength of draft-related assets. The Mavs have undergone many a makeover in recent years, but have always arranged their roster around Dirk Nowitzki, who went one pick ahead of Pierce in 1998.
And the Heat, for all of the draw of sun and sand on South Beach, wouldn't likely have landed LeBron and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010 without the loyalty of Dwyane Wade, on whom Pat Riley spent the fifth pick in the vaunted 2003 draft.
Dig even deeper and still another trend emerges, one that divides those who draft for "need" or size and those who go for the best player available, regardless of position. In 2003, the Pistons picked Darko over Carmelo when they had Tayshaun Prince at small forward. In 2005, the Bucks took Andrew Bogut first and the Hawks opted for Marvin Williams second, thereby leaving Chris Paul and Deron Williams on the board. The Blazers passed on Kevin Durant for Greg Oden in 2007 and, to a lesser extent, the Grizzlies sprung for Hasheem Thabeet instead of, say, James Harden or Ricky Rubio in 2009.
Such picks might've gone against the brand of "conventional wisdom" that favors filling holes and gambling on big guys, but would've these organizations with a greater overall quotient of talent, with which any GM worth his salt can turn into better-fitting parts if need be.
Which is more important for NBA success?
Size, it would seem, has a way of mystifying front offices into making regrettable moves, just as it's been used as cover for those who feel (honestly or otherwise) that the NBA's business model is rigged one way or another.
Granted, those are two very different kinds of size—the former pertaining to the height and weight of a given player and the latter to the citizenry surrounding a particular franchise.
But the point remains, size may matter in the NBA, but it's hardly the be-all and end-all of success that some would suggest. What matters most is that a team use its resources wisely, that its scouts cast a wide net, that it commit wholeheartedly to player development and that its front office utilize the draft as an engine for roster improvement.
And, above all, that it get lucky on occasion, if not several times in succession, and that the organization in question be prepared to take full advantage of those breaks.
Perhaps Alfred P. Doolittle would've made for a passable NBA GM after all...
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