How to Build a Championship 'System' in the NBA

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How to Build a Championship 'System' in the NBA
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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade constitute the on-court foundation of the Miami Heat's winning "system."

When it comes to success in the NBA, no three organizations currently exemplify the depth and breadth of what it takes to win quite like the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Each of those three fits into a different place in basketball chronology. The Spurs are "Yesterday," the team that's already won titles and maintained a spot amongst the elite despite the aging of its central superstars.

Manu Ginobili has looked like a shell of his former self this season, though second-year swingman Kawhi Leonard appears poised to poach Gino's place in San Antonio's hierarchy. It certainly helps, too, that Tim Duncan is playing like the Ponce de Leon of the NBA and Tony Parker is mounting a serious case for MVP runner-up.

The Heat are "Today." They've won a title and are well on their way to winning another thanks to three superstars—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—in their respective primes and a supporting cast replete with savvy, sweet-shooting veterans. They'll continue to contend for championships so long as their Big Three remains intact and the rest of the roster isn't whittled down too much by the rules and restrictions of the league's latest collective bargaining agreement.

And, last, but certainly not least, the Thunder are "Tomorrow." They have the talent to compete for the Western Conference crown and perhaps push the Heat in the NBA Finals right now. But more than anything, this team is built to outlast its chief competitors. Its top three players—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—are all under the age of 25.

The James Harden trade was a painful one to make, but it landed the Thunder a likely lottery pick in the 2013 NBA draft and freed up plenty of cap space going forward. Chances are, OKC will eventually have its day in the sun so long as the front office continues to manage its assets as prudently as it has to this point.

But beyond distinctions in temporal placement, there are certain common ties that bind all three of these pillars of pro basketball and others that distinguish them along different axes.

 

One Direction

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At a very basic level, all three of these teams share a strong, top-down vision and organizational structure. In each case, there's (at least) one mastermind at the top who has both the support of an ownership group that doesn't meddle too much in basketball affairs and the ear of the front office and the coaching staff to implement whatever "grand plan" there is for the future.

The Spurs' success has been the product of Gregg Popovich's managerial largesse over a period that's lasted nearly 20 years now. Pop took over as the general manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations in San Antonio in 1994 after Peter Holt's group bought the team from Red McCombs. Pop had been an assistant with the Spurs under Larry Brown during the late 1980s and early 1990s and ceded total control of the front office during the 1996-97 season, just prior to Tim Duncan's arrival.

A man of military training, Pop's disciplined and highly organized style of leadership became the font from which the rest of the franchise's success would emanate.

In 2002, the team's primary front-office duties fell to RC Buford, a longtime Pop confidante dating back to their days on Larry Brown's staff at Kansas, though Popovich remains influential in all of the Spurs' personnel decisions and on the bench, where he's overseen four championship squads.

Of course, the players have had everything to do with the success the Spurs have enjoyed with Popovich leading the way. It's much "easier" to compete for the Larry O'Brien Trophy year in and year out when you have the greatest power forward of all time on your side.

But it's just important to have ownership working with you as well. In Pop's case, he has Peter Holt, the principal owner of the Spurs. Holt just so happens to be an influential member of the NBA's Board of Governors and was deeply involved in tense negotiations with the Players' Union during the 2011 lockout.

As involved as Holt is with the league as a whole, he's shown himself to be the type of owner who doesn't meddle too heavily in the day-to-day basketball operations of his own outfit. His largely laissez-faire approach has allowed Popovich to do what he does best and the Spurs to thrive as a result.

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Thunder general manager Sam Presti is a follower of the Popovich gospel.

A similar pattern has emerged in OKC. In June of 2007, Clay Bennett (a.k.a. Public Enemy No. 1 in Seattle) handed over the reins of the then-Seattle SuperSonics to Sam Presti, who had been an assistant general manager working under RC Buford in San Antonio. Shortly thereafter, Presti selected Kevin Durant with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 NBA draft and hired PJ Carlesimo away from Popovich's staff.

Less than two years later, Carlesimo was axed after the Thunder got off to a 1-12 start during their inaugural season in Oklahoma City. Scott Brooks, one of Carlesimo's assistants, took over on an interim basis and has since led the Thunder to four playoff appearances, including a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals.

The Heat, against whom Brooks' OKC squad fell short last June, have been guided by Hall of Fame guru Pat Riley. Riles' affiliation with Miami began when he was hired away from the New York Knicks to be the team president, general manager and head coach in 1995.

He receded back into Miami's front office just prior to Dwyane Wade's rookie season in 2003, but returned to the sideline in December of 2005 after trading for Shaquille O'Neal in 2004 and firing Stan Van Gundy in the wake of a disappointing 11-10 start to the 2005-06 campaign.

Riley oversaw Miami's run to the title in 2006, but stepped down into a front office gig just two years later, when the Heat finished with the worst record in the NBA. Since becoming team president, Riley has built yet another championship squad, this time around Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

But, rather than using Miami's talent and dominance as another excuse to add to his stacked coaching resume, Riles has entrusted Erik Spoelstra, a former video coordinator, with those duties. Spo's thus far managed to withstand the incessant scrutiny and criticism that comes with such a high-profile job, thanks in no small part to the unwavering faith that Riley has shown in him.

Likewise, Riley's faith in a largely unproven coach like Spoelstra was likely strengthened by that of Micky Arison. It was Arison who brought Riles to Miami upon purchasing the team in 1995, and who has entrusted Pat with the particulars of the organization's basketball operations ever since. 

 

A Personnel Touch

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Where Riley and the Heat diverge from Pop's Spurs and Presti's Thunder is in how they've gone about acquiring and developing talent and filling out their respective rosters.

Riles has parlayed Arison's financial might, the appeal of South Beach and his own legendary cachet into two titles by way of a high-risk, high-reward, boom-or-bust approach to team-building. His first title in Miami came after not one, but two blockbuster trades executed within three years of coming up aces on Dwyane Wade. He pried an unhappy Shaq from the Los Angeles Lakers and, in 2005, spun Eddie Jones, Qyntel Woods and Rasual Butler into Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey—all key contributors to the 2006 title-winning team.

But Riles' reliance on pricey veterans and his decision to reward O'Neal with a massive extension hamstrung the organization for the next two seasons before Pat stepped back into a more focused role as the Heat's personnel guru.

Spoelstra led Miami to two first-round playoff exits immediately thereafter. All the while, Riles was busy plotting for the summer of 2010, when he'd use free agency, rather than trades, to thrust the Heat back into a boom period. He emptied the roster of nearly everyone of financial consequence, save for Mario Chalmers.

And then, with that boatload of cap space, Riley re-signed D-Wade, whom he'd already tasked with luring LeBron and Bosh to South Beach. The plan worked to perfection, resulting in arguably the greatest free-agency coup in NBA history and (so far) two consecutive trips to the Finals.

Aside from Chalmers and Norris Cole, Riles has leaned on veteran acquisitions to fill in the gaps. He flashed some cash at Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller and stuffed the roster with cheap placeholders like Juwan Howard and Ronny Turiaf. Then, he brought in the likes of Shane Battier in 2011 and Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in 2012 with the "We're Awesome, You Know You Want to Take a Pay Cut to Play With Us" exception.

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Riles once again did a marvelous job of leveraging his team's limited player assets and rich circumstantial perks (i.e. living in south Florida, playing with stars, working for a Hall of Fame overlord) to put his team in position to win right away.

However, as with the Shaq-Wade Heat, these Heatles may well be due for a rapid decline within the next year or two. Ray Allen and Mike Miller are on their last legs. Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen are all well into their 30s. With the supporting cast on the downslope and Dwyane Wade feeling the effects of Father Time, it won't be long before Riles has to retool his roster to keep the Heat competitive.

But, the new collective bargaining agreement has rendered such a task an onerous one under Miami's current circumstances. The salaries of the Heat's Big Three, while already severely discounted by free-market standards, will nonetheless push Miami into treacherous financial territory in the coming years.

By 2014-15, each player will be raking in upwards of $20 million, which, along with the takes for Miller, Haslem, Cole and Joel Anthony, will push Miami's payroll well above the likely luxury tax line at more than $78 million. That, in turn, will leave Riley with a limited box of tools with which to refresh his roster via trades and free agency and, perhaps, an impetus to rebuild.

Unless, of course, he can once again spin lead into gold by using his slicked-haired hoops alchemy and/or convince a host of productive veterans to sign for the minimum.

On the other hand, the Spurs and the Thunder needn't concern themselves with inevitable trips over the NBA's fiscal cliff. Their front offices have set themselves up in such a way as to be solvent and flexible enough to ride the proverbial wave for the foreseeable future.

That is, assuming those in charge continue to act prudently, which, given each organization's track record, isn't much of a stretch to suggest. The Spurs in particular have managed to thrive for the better part of two decades on the strength of a scouting operation that's unearthed no shortage of gems, both foreign and domestic, to serve as Tim Duncan's support.

Aside from Timmy, San Antonio's current core consists of two late first-round picks (Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter), a second-round pick (Manu Ginobili), a mid-first-round pick (Kawhi Leonard) acquired in exchange for a player on the tail-end of his rookie contract and a slew of cheap free agents (Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal) who were signed off the scrap heap.

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Along the way, Popovich and Buford have been careful not to clog the team's cap with bad contracts while retooling the roster to suit the changing corporeal realities of its stars.

The lone, noteworthy exception: Richard Jefferson, whose contract was jettisoned (along with a first-round pick) at last year's trade deadline in exchange for Popovich favorite Stephen Jackson.

And, where once the Spurs' success was predicated on a low-post-oriented approach with Duncan at the fore, they've since switched up their approach to better suit Tony Parker's particular talents. Nowadays, San Antonio pushes the pace, runs tons of pick-and-roll and spreads the floor with three-point shooters.

Many of these same fingerprints can be found on OKC's every move, as well they should be. Like the Spurs, the Thunder are located in a relatively small market that isn't particularly appealing to most free agents. Their profit margins are (supposedly) thin on account of the limited resources associated with their location, and as such, it's imperative that they operate in a frugal manner and avoid the league's harsh luxury tax penalties.

OKC also sports a trio of stars (Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka) who've committed themselves to the franchise's future at below-market rates. The first two were picked up by way of top-four picks in the NBA draft, while the third came aboard as a late first-rounder.

Sam Presti has since flipped one former top-five pick (Jeff Green) for a valuable veteran big man (Kendrick Perkins) and another (James Harden) for a reliable bench scorer (Kevin Martin) and a collection of young, cheap assets (Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks). In both cases, Presti managed to avoid paying a premium to keep impending restricted free agents while bringing back chips that would prove crucial, both long-term and short.

It'll be some time before we know whether Presti's moves prove as prescient over the long term as Pop and Buford's have in San Antonio. However, it's clear that the OKC pupil has taken after his former masters in San Antonio and that those moves may well render the Thunder a "dynastender" in the Spurs' category in the coming years.

 

Fortune Favors the Fortunate

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But what truly connects the Heat, the Spurs and the Thunder to each other, as well as to just about any top-notch run in sports history, is luck.

And the brain power to capitalize on that luck, and the expertise and foresight to prolong the lifespan of that luck for a good, long while.

The origin of Miami's good fortune can be traced back to Wade. The Heat happened to own the No. 5 pick in the superstar-heavy 2003 NBA draft, and also happened to take a chance on a kid from Marquette who'd starred in that year's NCAA Tournament.

And who also happened to develop strong off-court relationships with LeBron and Bosh thereafter.

Riles played his cards to perfection with Wade and was smart to target the free-agency season of 2010 for his next big move. But even he couldn't guarantee that Wade would return, much less lure LeBron away from his hometown team.

(On the other hand, steering Chris Bosh away from the Toronto Raptors? Let's just say he probably didn't need to channel his inner Ron Popeil to get that one done.)

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Really, all Riley had to do was one-up Jerry West, his one-time teammate with the Lakers, by dwarfing the Shaq signing in 1996 with three of his own, and the rest took care of itself. Easy, right?

The Spurs and the Thunder certainly wouldn't be where they are today without plenty of luck, particularly as it pertains to ping pong balls.

San Antonio put up the third-worst record during the 1996-97 season after losing David Robinson, a Hall of Famer in his own right, to a broken foot early on. But that was good enough to vault the Spurs past the Boston Celtics to the top of the pecking order, where they happened upon an all-time great.

OKC benefited from a similar stroke of good luck—also at the expense of the Celtics, ironically enough—when they, as the Sonics, snagged the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. The Portland Trail Blazers sprung for Greg Oden (a.k.a. the "Safe Pick") at No. 1, leaving the sweet-shooting Texas product on the board for Seattle.

Despite KD's Rookie of the Year campaign alongside Ray Allen, the Sonics stunk up the joint to the point where they wound up with the fourth pick in 2008. Few had UCLA's Russell Westbrook pegged for a good choice at that point—much less a budding superstar—especially with Kevin Love, his heralded collegiate teammate, still up for grabs.

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But Presti's faith in Westy was rewarded. So too were his decisions to sign-and-stash Serge Ibaka with the 24th pick in 2008 and to stack up on the perimeter with James Harden in 2009.

In other words, if there's anything to be gleaned from the triumphs of the three current owners of the best records in the NBA, it's that success—be it of the feast-or-famine variety or of the steady-diet-of-solid variety—is usually the byproduct of draft-day luck.

And some shrewd maneuvering thereafter.

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