Back in October, before the 2013-14 NBA season had officially tipped, Bleacher Report's own Ric Bucher hinted presciently at potential philosophical tensions that could affect the league's refreshed ranks of general managers as they went about building teams for the private equity-minded owners that hired them:
Once upon a time, back when the majority of owners had franchises whose value already had trebled their original purchase price, team executives were under far less scrutiny—and the demand for immediate and constant results simply wasn’t the same. Making the playoffs, by and large, assured continued employment and, more often than not, served as grounds for a contract extension or raise.
Those days are gone. The combination of seeing a host of 50-plus-win coaches get the axe (Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, George Karl) and new faces taking charge of basketball operations for nearly one-third of the league has many executives less worried about the formula for success than the formula for survival.
Bucher went on to highlight how these owners, most with backgrounds in the worlds of business and high finance, have demanded that their executives put together championship-caliber clubs in short order within the confines of tighter budgets—even more so since the latest collective bargaining agreement ushered in stricter luxury-tax penalties.
But while the business of basketball has changed tremendously (at the behest of commissioner Adam Silver's chief constituents), the job of building a basketball team and the challenges attendant to that task are largely the same. It still takes time to acquire and groom talent and even more to find the right mix of talent and allow it to coalesce into a quality product.
And since so many owners are no longer content to simply qualify for the playoffs, the quality of said product had better be Grade A.
That, allegedly, is what drove the likes of the Boston Celtics' Danny Ainge, the Atlanta Hawks' Danny Ferry, Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers, the Utah Jazz's Dennis Lindsey and Ryan McDonough of the Phoenix Suns to embark upon the full-scale roster teardowns that marked the summer of 2013. It also probably played a part in the decisions by Dell Demps in 2011 and Rob Hennigan in 2012 to turn down trades for Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, respectively, that would've kept the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic competitive, albeit not at their former capacities, in favor of more future-oriented packages of picks, young players and cap casualties in return for their disgruntled superstars.
Rather than allow their respective squads to hang around the middle of the pack indefinitely, these GMs opted for more aggressive rebuilds, making their teams markedly worse in the interim to improve their chances of adding cheap, elite talent soon and accelerating their teams' ascent to the top.
Ferry recently went so far as to spell that out plainly. "We're not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that's not our goal," the Hawks GM told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "We're trying to build something that's good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so."
Tanking: A Front-Office Conspiracy?
Still, aside from Ainge's case—in which the "reset" button was overdue for a hit, with Rajon Rondo injured, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce aging and Doc Rivers angling for a way out—there's something fishy about the way many of the league's executives went about setting the stage for what's been popularly described as "tanking."
Have these and other GMs advocated rebuilding programs not solely as a means of winning championships but also to preserve their own employment?
Grantland's Bill Simmons pondered the possibility at February's trade deadline:
Here’s a theory for you: If you’re a GM, what’s the best way to make sure you’ll stay employed for four to five years? The answer: Blow everything up, bottom out, build around young players/cap space/lottery picks, make a bunch of first-round picks, and sell the “illusion of hope” to your fans. What the new wave of young GMs like Sam Hinkie, Ryan McDonough and Rob Hennigan are doing is extremely smart — both from a basketball standpoint and a self-preservation standpoint — because it’s hard for anyone to say “YOU FAILED!” when you’re executing a multiyear plan that can’t be judged until 2016 or 2017 at the earliest.
The Sports Guy might be onto something here. Take the case of the Utah Jazz, which Simmons considered in a similar light last month:
Right now, Utah gets Golden State’s 23rd pick. You know what’s not mentioned enough? Utah allowed Al Jefferson (killing it in Charlotte) and Paul Millsap (an All-Star) to leave so they could take on $24 million of bodies…just to eventually get the 23rd pick in the 2014 draft and a 2017 unprotected pick, as well as some unabashed 2014 self-sabotage.
The Jazz won 43 games with those two on board last season, leaving them just outside the Western Conference playoff picture. It's reasonable to think that Jefferson and Millsap might've performed like All-Stars in Salt Lake City this season, just as they have in Charlotte and Atlanta, had the Jazz made an effort to keep them.
And with promising young perimeter players like Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and rookie Trey Burke on hand, Utah's ceiling wasn't limited to whatever heights Jefferson and Millsap could push it.
That being said, there was some logic behind Utah GM Dennis Lindsey's decision to let Jefferson and Millsap leave for nothing. For one, Utah had two young bigs, in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, waiting in the wings. So long as Jefferson and Millsap were around, Favors and Kanter would struggle to find enough playing time up front with which to develop or, at the very least, give the Jazz a clearer picture of what they had.
(Of course, the Jazz could've accomplished that and gotten something in return had they opted to trade Jefferson and Millsap at last year's deadline, but that would've likely dropped them out of the playoff race in the middle of the season.)
As good as Jefferson and Millsap were and have proved to be this season, neither grades out as a superstar capable of carrying a team to a championship. Nor do any of the youngsters who were (and still are) in Utah.
As such, the Jazz had to find a way to acquire one. And, since Salt Lake City isn't all that attractive to big-name free agents—or to incumbent stars, for that matter (see: Williams, Deron)—the team felt it best to pursue a potential franchise cornerstone by way of the 2014 draft.
That's left the Jazz with the worst record in the Western Conference and, in turn, an excellent shot at a top-five pick.
McDonough's moves since joining the Suns front office are even easier to justify. Phoenix was already terrible, due in large part to the previous regime's failure to properly prepare for the post-Steve Nash era. In trading away Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat (among others), McDonough was merely clearing away the muck left behind by his predecessors so that he and the Suns brain trust could start fresh, with young players and cap space in the fold.
The Suns' surprising success this season has merely accelerated the team's rebuilding timetable while leaving them with plenty of picks and financial flexibility to build around the unorthodox backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The fact that Phoenix, with its warm weather and relative proximity to Los Angeles, is an attractive destination for free agents only brightens the Suns' outlook, both immediately and long term.
Flippant Futility in Philly
Philly doesn't usually come to mind in such discussions of free agency, though it probably should. After all, it's the fourth-largest TV market in the country (per Nielsen), with easy access to the rest of the Eastern seaboard.
All things being equal, the City of Brotherly Love may not beat out the likes of New York, L.A., Chicago and Dallas, but with the proper winning infrastructure in place, who's to say the Sixers couldn't make some noise on the open market?
Their cupboard certainly wasn't bare prior to Hinkie's arrival. The flop that became of Philly's place in the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum-Andre Iguodala trade likely cost Tony DiLeo his job in the Sixers front office, but it didn't leave the team destitute. The Sixers still had a 23-year-old All-Star point guard, Jrue Holiday, a former No. 2 pick in Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, a sweet-shooting center, and Thaddeus Young, a versatile scorer on an agreeable deal.
As disappointing as the 2012-13 season turned out to be, after the Sixers serendipitously snuck to the brink of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, there wasn't any apparent need to strip-mine the roster entirely to usher in the embarrassment that's become of the 2013-14 campaign.
Unless, of course, the Sixers were so nonplussed with Holiday that adding a rookie like Michael Carter-Williams was enough to move them to action. The package that Hinkie extracted from the New Orleans Pelicans for Holiday (i.e. a year of rehab from Nerlens Noel and a pick that's likely to land in the lower rungs of this year's lottery) all but assured that the Sixers would be terrible.
His decision to sell off Turner and Hawes at the deadline for peanuts merely solidified the team's historic slide that came shortly thereafter.
The Sixers' historic heritage, from Wilt Chamberlain to Julius Erving to Allen Iverson, can't hurt in that regard, either.
Hinkie's approach makes plenty of sense according to the modern conventional wisdom of the NBA. His Sixers could emerge in the next couple of years as a force in the Eastern Conference. Philly could enter the 2014-15 season with as many as four talented youngsters—Carter-Williams, Noel and whomever the team takes with its two lottery picks—to build around, with Thaddeus Young serving as the sage, veteran voice.
Moreover, Hinkie's ways might not seem so suspect if he were operating a franchise in a small, cold-weather locale like Salt Lake City or Milwaukee.
But Philly, while cold, isn't small like the city in which the Jazz play. Nor were the Sixers already as close to the bottom of the barrel as the Suns were when McDonough initiated his "Extreme Makeover."
And considering how much of a brainchild Hinkie is believed to be, he must've been aware of many of the same facts that TrueHoop's Henry Abbott cited two years ago in dispelling the myth that "tanking" provides a tried-and-true path to championship contention.
Was dismantling the roster piecemeal really the best Hinkie could come up with for fixing the Sixers? Or might that strategy have been his choice because it afforded him the most time to do his job and, in turn, the most time to keep his job in the first place?
Appearances may point to nefariously selfish motives on Hinkie's behalf, ones that left Sixers fans to slog through an unsightly season replete with D-Leaguers and no-names.
Still, Simmons' latest conspiracy doesn't necessarily pass muster, even in Philly's case. Zach Lowe's more sober rebuttal paints a far less sinister picture:
Job preservation is a bigger driver of transactions than a lot of fans realize, and teardowns can fall under that category. But in some of the cases you mention, and maybe all of them, the GMs are new and came in with a mandate from ownership to rebuild/tear down. So they are not changing course in order to save their jobs. They do, however, get a long window.
Just as today's hands-on owners played pivotal parts in picking their GMs, so, too, did many of them participate in setting the agendas that their choices would be asked to execute. It's possible that those hires had some influence in convincing their employers that rebuilding was the proper course of action, though we'll probably never know for sure.
Owners telling their GMs what to do isn't unique to the younger, more forward-thinking members of the former, though. The Milwaukee Bucks' failed attempt to hang around the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and the Pelicans' push to do the same in the West, so early in the Anthony Davis era, aren't at all perplexing when factoring in the desires of Herb Kohl and Tom Benson, both among the oldest owners in the NBA, to see their respective squads win right away, rather than wait for what might be a bigger payoff down the road.
Of course, every situation is different. The vast majority of NBA owners want to win, but all have different ideas about how that success is best achieved—and different timetables for achieving it. The same holds true for GMs, each of whom has a unique palette of players, prospects, picks, coaches, contracts and demands to take into account when crafting a plan.
It's possible that self-preservation factored into the equation for some of the league's newer executives. After all, who in that position wouldn't want as much job security as possible?
But to suggest that most (or even all) of the GMs overseeing rebuilds in today's NBA ripped apart their teams for their own benefit would ignore the central role played by the owners who hired them in the supposed fiasco that's taken place at the bottom of the league's standings this season.
If there's any conspiracy at play here, it might not be one of GMs fooling owners. Rather, it could be the owners getting one over on fans by convincing them to support squads that allow for friendlier profit margins, with the well-reasoned (but slim) hope of future success as the reward.
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