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Baseball has moneyball, the NFL has Ron Wolf's philosophy that you should "spend your high picks on linemen, get a good QB, and you can pick Robert Brooks late in the draft," but what about the NBA?
What are the shortcuts to success if you plan to compete on the same level as the Packers and Athletics have competed on?
This is going to be the beginning of a large project for me, and by reading this you are acknowledging that anything you read is strictly my property.
I believe there is a way to build in the NBA. There is a set of philosophies that very few teams are following, and yet, if you follow them, you can always be a good year or two away from being a legitimate contender.
So here goes...
1. Get lucky
As time has gone on, I have been convinced that you are what you draft. Since 1991, ten champions have been based in some way around a uber number one pick like Shaq, Hakeem, Duncan or Robinson. In that time, six more have been won by Michael Jordan, who only failed to be a number one pick because Hakeem was there and because Portland had Drexler from the previous draft.
Only two teams have won despite having a player that makes most reasonable people say "hey, they got lucky." In the case of Los Angeles and Miami having Shaq, he may not have been drafted there, but, due to weather and other factors external to the effectiveness of management, they were pre-selected by him as his preferred destination.
But that leads to an important question. Most of the time you will not luck into Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan. Most of the time you won't even luck into Derrick Rose or the third pick Michael Jordan. Ninety nine percent of the time you will be building your team much more like a poker player than if you had the settling assurance of having a player like Jordan.
That leads us to the next square on the board game if you will.
2. When you don't get lucky, don't commit to a wrong way that looks like the right way
The fact is, most NBA fans don't know the intricacies of the game. By any logical estimation, 95 percent of NBA fans will look at a fifty win team, be satisfied, and have no thought whatsoever of the future chances of the team based on the real potential of key players or of the difference between a "true" shooting guard or a combo guard.
To most NBA fans who pay the bills, whether sitting in seats or viewing on television, 45-50 wins on a young team means that logically the sky is the limit.
Reality paints a different story. Reality shows you that there is a pecking order. True centers (and in some eras it can take less to be a true center) and point guards win in the NBA.
If they're not winning, you can bet that a combination of very good true center plus position X is winning, and if that's not winning you're now in the land of Michael Jordan or a glaring exception.
In terms of where the very good players are placed on a championship team, or where their realistic position is, or where they lack limitations (Tim Duncan), here are the results since Russell retired:
Titles since 1969
Hall of fame C and PG on the same team- 11
Hall of fame C only- seven
Hall of fame C and Hall of fame SF/SG- seven
Michael Jordan- six
Hall of fame C and PG with 5+ all star appearances- two
C with at least four all star appearances plus PG with at least five all star appearance- three
There is pretty convincing evidence that while some teams have a great SF and some teams have a great SG, almost all of the teams demonstrate an organizational capacity for understanding the center position to at least a very good extent.
Even if you're only talking about Robert Parish, you're well advised to at least do that well there, and then move on to building the rest of your team.
A great center like David Robinson guarantees you nothing, but at the same time, I can provide you with plenty of negative guarantees if your center is Tyrone Hill.
Simple conclusion—You must "deal with" the center position effectively if you're going to have a chance to win a championship. If you don't, it will deal with you at some point.
3. Who has won without a center since Russell was drafted?
In the 52 years since Russell was drafted, only three teams have won without a center or forward/center with at least four all star appearances or Michael Jordan. Those three teams are:
And that's only if you count Rasheed Wallace, who just went to his forth all star game, as strictly a forward.
This is important, because in an attempt to acknowledge that center is as important to basketball as the offensive line is in football, you will encounter naysayers who will say things like "look at the Bulls with Jordan" or "look what the Celtics just did."
Let's look at the Bulls with Jordan. That team had the greatest player ever and another top 25 player who is probably a top ten defender all-time by anyone's estimation. So, counting Jordan, you have two top ten defenders all-time and a guy who can score 30 PPG on 50 percent FG, which is about what Jordan's stats were when he last retired from the Chicago Bulls.
Think about that. So, when people say "look at Jordan's Bulls" the immediate response needs to be "when someone gets two non-centers like that on one team again, they should do whatever they want."
Centers rule in the NBA, but the idea that there will never be exceptions is insane. There's an exception to everything. But think about this. To the Jordan/four time all star center rule, there has only been six percent of championship teams who met an exception in 52 years. The key to any exception is to ask yourself a key question. As a GM, how likely is it that I can imitate what this exceptional team did. The answer is, not very likely.
Then you look at Detroit. Dumars made some very solid moves. Not taking Dwyane Wade aside, he put together a good team before Wallace arrived. But, without getting Rasheed Wallace essentially for free, that's all the Pistons were gonna be.
They were going to be a "good" team that probably could have made a couple conference finals. So the question becomes, if you build like Dumars did, can you count on getting a player like Rasheed for free? The answer is no.
That leaves only Rick Barry's Warriors, who won a title in perhaps the worst era in NBA history, as the lone example of a team that ignored the center position and still won a ring.
4. If you are largely what you draft, then what do you do if you're not drafting Olajuwon, Jordan or even Rose?
The answer is simple—you try to acquire true centers and true point guards. Maybe you get a guy with Hakeem's size who can stand tall but isn't gifted at scoring in the post. That's better than Mark West or putting Amare Stoudemire at center, where his best skills will be lost as he wears down over the course of the season.
Roy Hibbert, Brad Miller or Andrew Bogut is better than thinking you'll be nice in April with Joakim Noah or Andris Biedrins.
Look at the Indiana Pacers for example. They've never gotten a great center, but they have acquired Rik Smits, Antonio Davis, Dale Davis, Brad Miller, Jeff Foster and now Roy Hibbert. They've made a statement.
Their statement is "Hey, maybe we haven't lucked out and got Patrick Ewing, but we understand center is important, so we're going to try to get the best centers we can." That will be a much better strategy over time than a team like the Warriors, who basically says "Hey, we've never had a center, we obviously don't understand the position, so let's just not try. Hey guys, the game is changing; we'll just run the other centers ragged by putting a faster player out there."
The problem with this thinking is that by the second round of the playoffs, teams get back in transition and "running non-centers" wear down physically. You can't run for 90-96 games and think that all the sudden you're going to have the legs to battle bigger players in a halfcourt seven game slugfest. See the '07 Warriors v. Jazz.
The reason I must highlight Indiana as an example of good management is that if Portland wins, the "new style" crowd will say "yeah, but they got lucky." Indiana has gotten anything but lucky.
But what they did do was to commit to a PG clearly capable of averaging 9.0+ APG in TJ Ford (he averaged 6.1 APG in 24.8 MPG this year) and a 285 lbs. center who, while not having the skill of a Tim Duncan or Patrick Ewing, also won't be muscled by anyone, including Kendrick Perkins.
Why did they do this? Because Larry Bird realizes a fact that all NBA GMs need to realize. For every 20 competent players that you acquire at combo guard, power forward or small forward, there might be 2-3 true centers, PGs or SGs of the same caliber available.
Sure, Boston won with Pierce, Allen and Garnett. But did you notice they also had two role players at center and PG each with a glaringly positive attribute? Rondo is a true PG with insane athleticism and Perkins is a true center who is ridiculously physical.
The Celtics didn't role with a great 2-3-4 trio and then two "non answers" at center and point guard. Perkins and Rondo caused Gasol and Fisher to have fits in the Finals.
Larry Bird realized that you can go out and get Danny Granger or Mike Dunleavy fairly easily. If you're just an NBA fan who likes "good players" and you don't realize the significant difference between a good player who is 6'9" 235 and a good player who is 6'11" 260, you need to read up on supply and demand and the effects on price.
Dwyane Wade may be hard to get. But even if you have him, if you have no answer at center and/or PG (since he does have PG skills), you won't win. What if you have Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion and Udonis Haslem and now you add Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo to the mix? Now you're ready to clinch series victories late in the playoffs.
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