Very often, the simplest of concepts go overlooked. When attempting to build a winning NBA program, an inept general manager is likely to look at some of the NBA’s successful franchises and try to replicate their model of success.
Over the last 10 years, six different teams have won the NBA championship—the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.
With the exception of two of them (2004 Pistons and 2012 Heat), each of the winning teams either drafted or traded for the player that would win the NBA Finals MVP.
Since the league began anointing an NBA Finals MVP in 1969, only eight times has the recipient of the award been someone who was not drafted or acquired by his team on draft night.
So yes, there is a copious amount of evidence that suggests the key to this whole thing is rebuilding through the draft.
But times have changed, and there is a major case to be made for teams electing to build through free agency. That’s especially the case after the ratification of the 2011 NBA collective bargaining agreement.
The idea of simply “building through the draft” assumes that losing scores of games and amassing lottery picks is some sure-fire way to draft young players who will not only fit together, but who will be good enough, collectively, to win big in the NBA.
Obviously, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the epitome of a franchise that has succeeded in that regard. But drafting is risky business. For each LeBron James and Kevin Durant, there are 10 Darko Milicics and Adam Morrisons.
The draft is a bit of a crapshoot, and if you’re going to depend on making the right decisions in three or four successive drafts, you’re probably much more likely to end up like the pre-Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls than Sam Presti’s Thunder.
In the post-Michael Jordan era, the Bulls have had 13 draft picks in the top 20. It’s safe to say that they nailed it with Derrick Rose, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft. Joakim Noah, who they selected ninth overall in the 2007 draft, was also a win, as was Luol Deng, who was actually drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2004 but was immediately traded to the Bulls to satisfy a prior trade.
But during this time period, the Bulls also selected James Johnson (2009), Ben Gordon (2004), Kirk Hinrich (2003), Jay Williams (2002), Eddy Curry (2001), Marcus Fizer (2000), Chris Mihm (2000) and Ron Artest (1999).
They also made two other good decisions in drafting LaMarcus Aldridge with the second overall pick in the 2006 draft and Elton Brand with the first overall pick in the 1999 draft, but they botched both of them.
Aldridge was immediately traded to the Portland Trail Blazers for Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa, and Brand—after sharing the 1999-2000 Rookie of the Year award with Steve Francis—was traded for Tyson Chandler in 2001.
The Bulls' experience of the past 10 years is one that we’ve seen in the past (the Los Angeles Clippers of the mid to late 1990s) and one that we’re probably seeing before our eyes with the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors.
Teams bottom out, amass high draft picks and spend many, many years floundering because they botch the picks or otherwise fail to acquire players who can succeed with one another.
Building through the draft is probably the most satisfying way to build a contending team, mainly because it affords a team and its fanbase the opportunity to watch young players grow and develop.
But building a team that way—and keeping it together—is one of the more difficult things to do in this league. It was that way even before the era of the NBA’s super-duper luxury tax.
That difficulty is why the San Antonio Spurs are universally revered amongst NBA circles. Presti, who was groomed in the Spurs organization, has done a magnificent job of replicating their model.
But here’s a fair question to ask: Wouldn’t things be completely different for the Thunder if the Portland Trail Blazers selected Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden with the first overall pick of the 2007 draft?
And what if the Memphis Grizzlies general manager, Chris Wallace, thought that Russell Westbrook was better than O.J. Mayo?
If he did, Minnesota's Kevin McHale would have drafted Westbrook with the third overall pick of the 2008 draft and traded him to the Grizzlies for Kevin Love. But Wallace didn’t see that, so McHale took the guy Wallace wanted, and that was Mayo.
The point is that the Thunder model of success is atypical and requires a great deal of skill in talent evaluation and a whole bunch of luck.
Although building a winner through free agency is difficult, in the near future, things may get a bit easier. Before recently, the type of Hall of Fame talent that a team could build around rarely hit the free-agent market. By rule, a team holding a player’s Bird rights could offer him the most money, and historically that’s been enough.
However, as I said a few weeks ago, times are changing in the NBA. Fewer players of today’s generation will be willing to attach their careers and legacies to losing programs, and teams with winning traditions or solid foundations know this.
Because general managers around the league know that by chasing and signing free agents, they can reduce their reliance on getting lucky in the draft and still build a winner.
That’s the answer. When building a team through free agency, for the most part, a shrewd general manager should be able to make wise decisions and not needlessly throw tens of millions of dollars at fringe talent and supporting players. He’d have a reliable body of work upon which to evaluate a player, know strengths and weaknesses and make an informed decision.
Knowing what you’re getting for your money is a much better proposition than thinking you’re drafting the next Tim Duncan when all you’ve got is Kurt Thomas.
No, you can’t pay a supporting actor lead money, but in the cases of Gilbert Arenas (Washington Wizards), Tracy McGrady (Orlando Magic), Steve Nash (Phoenix Suns), Chauncey Billups (Detroit Pistons) and Shaquille O’Neal (Los Angeles Lakers), the general managers in charge made wise investments in these free agents, and they all paid off, even though only the latter two were able to deliver championships to their team.
It’s true—building through free agency can mitigate risk.
The other major reason to build a team via free agency is because of the limitations set forth by the NBA’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement. I wrote on it in detail in a July column I wrote for SheridanHoops, but below is the short version.
Under the new CBA, contracts will be shorter, and that means players will become free agents more frequently over the course of their careers. A four-year free-agent deal is the new norm.
In addition, the new CBA actually contains a loophole that will certainly be closed the next time the league and the players union renegotiate.
In short, rather than signing extensions with their current teams, the CBA has actually given players incentive to become free agents. Only by becoming a free agent may a player sign a five-year deal with the team that holds his Bird rights.
It makes little sense since teams whose stars are in the final year of their deals will sit on pins and needles like the Brooklyn Nets did last year with Deron Williams and the Philadelphia 76ers will do this year with Andrew Bynum. But that’s what will happen.
Last, the luxury tax.
Beginning with the 2013-2014 NBA season, NBA teams will pay a new incremental luxury tax, and the result is that most of the NBA’s teams are going to reduce their spending. That’s exactly what we’re seeing right now between the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden, and it’s exactly why Harden may ultimately become a free agent and leave the Thunder.
Though the sides have until Oct. 31 to come to an agreement, the fact that a move that should be a no-brainer has taken so long is evidence enough.
The end result of these factors simply means that more players will be hitting free agency, and because of the reduction in maximum contract lengths, they’ll be hitting free agency more frequently.
Free agency: You’ve gotta be in it to win it.
So rather than depending on drafting a Hall of Famer that can lead a team to a championship, a general manager may be wiser to attempt to build a team through free agency.
Over the next two years, the free-agent market is likely to include Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Lowry, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, Marcin Gortat and Andrew Bogut…just to name a few.
In July 2013 and 2014, I’d love to have Mark Cuban’s checkbook, because I don’t think small-market teams like the Utah Jazz or Milwaukee Bucks will be willing to enter luxury tax territory.
In the NBA, times are changing. In attempting to level the playing field, the league may have actually facilitated more player movement.
On behalf of all who cover the league during the month of July, I sarcastically say thanks to the league.
The silver lining in all of this? Perhaps we’ll see less tanking. Because at the end of the day, you have a much better chance of signing an impact free agent to help your team than you do of drafting Kevin Durant.
That’s why building through free agency may not be such a bad idea after all.