How to build an NBA winner

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about an alternative course for small market NBA teams: the Seattle Scientists. The Scientists model would capitalize on unconventional, undervalued assets in the NBA — fitness, effort, and intelligence — and run an offensive/defensive press to catch opponents flat  footed.

Today, I propose an entirely different approach: The South Beach Talents. This strategy is harder to implement for small market teams, but the risk level is very low. It will almost surely succeed if you can pull it off. There are three steps:

  1. Acquire as many assets as possible (draft picks, young players with promising upside, expiring contracts) and clear cap space
  2. Leverage these assets to land a top 15 player or get lucky in the draft
  3. Leverage any remaining assets and get your new top 15 player to recruit another top 15 player
The hardest step is step 2. Not many top 15 players are available by trade, and you’ll have a lot of competition for top 15 free agents. If you’re in a small market, top shelf free agents probably won’t be interested, so you’ll have to make a trade work.

This strategy is effective because one or two guys can dominate an NBA game. Simmons agrees:

I think the NBA should look more like Hollywood’s movie structure. I think middle-class guys should make half of what they make now, and stars should make even more.

Instead of overpaying for 5 “middle-class guys” at their inflated market price, you should trade all those guys (and some draft picks — who cares) for a couple stars. Put me and my three brothers on the court with them (we’re available for a plate of pasta a night), and you’ll be a favorite to win it all. If you don’t believe me, consider all the deals involving top players since 2006:

  • Denver Nuggets acquired Allen Iverson in 2006 for mid-level garbage and two picks.
  • Boston Celtics acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007. For Garnett, they gave up Al Jefferson, two picks, a pile of low/mid-level garbage, and cash; for Allen, they threw some more poop and even got Big Baby Davis in the deal.
  • Three teams traded for Zach Randolph in three years: Knicks (2007), Clippers (2008), and Grizzlies (2009). Washed up Steve Francis was the best player traded in any of these deals.
  • Detroit Pistons acquired Allen Iverson in 2008 for Chauncey Billups and a nobody.
  • Los Angeles Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008 for Marc Gasol (rookie), low/mid-level garbage, and two picks.
  • Miami Heat acquired free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh for a total of 6 draft picks.
  • New York Knicks acquired free agent Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010 and Carmelo Anthony in 2011. For Stoudemire, they gave up one pick; For Anthony, they gave up a few exciting prospects, 3 picks, and cash, but also got three backups in return.
  • New Jersey Nets acquired Deron Williams in 2011 for good prospect Derrick Favors, mid-level junk, two picks, and cash.
  • Los Angeles Clippers acquired Chris Paul last week for good prospect Eric Gordon, mid-level junk, and a pick, but also got two picks in return.

These 9 sets of trades and signings converted the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks, Heat, and Clippers into immediate championship contenders, and favorites in three cases (if you don’t agree about the Clippers, check out their latest exploits with Blake Griffin playing limited minutes due to foul trouble). The Celtics and Lakers have both won championships since these trades. The Heat will probably win one soon.

The Nuggets had two strong seasons with Iverson and Carmelo but bombed out in the playoffs both times. The Grizzlies (Randolph’s eventual landing place) won their first playoff series ever last year. The Pistons infuriated Iverson by putting him on the bench and never got past step 2. The Nets are treading water at step 2 — they should throw EVERYTHING at Dwight Howard to complete the transformation.

Now consider these teams: Timberwolves, Thunder, Nuggets, 76ers, Knicks, Clippers, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Raptors, Suns, Jazz, and Hornets. Each of these teams gave up at least one of the top players in the deals above (the Nuggets did it twice). The Knicks and Clippers ended up following the South Beach Talents model later. Among the others, only the Thunder and Nuggets look good right now.

The strange thing about the South Beach Talents in practice is that it should work great in any market (since salaries are controlled), but players have convinced themselves that they need to be in a big market. The conclusion I draw from this is that moving to a big market is about increasing your endorsement checks, not about winning.

Memphis is the only true small market that has landed any of the stars listed above, and they don’t really reflect what the Talents stand for. Randolph is (was?) considered a bad character guy, plus they did step 3 the hard way by surrounding him with strong mid-level guys. I would advise small market teams to offer crazy trades for stars all the time, and do something exciting like the Scientists model while they wait for some fool to bite.

Note: The Heat are experts at the South Beach Talents model; before the LeBron era, they gave up Lamar Odom and Caron Butler for Shaq in 2004 and promptly won a championship with him and Dwyane Wade. The only other transactions since 2006 that might qualify for my list above are the Knicks acquisition of Steve Francis (2006), the Kings acquisition of Metta World Peace a.k.a. Ron Artest (2006), and the Bulls signing of Ben Wallace (2006). However, Francis had a bad year for the Magic before he was traded, Artest was coming off the Palace Brawl and a long suspension, and Ben Wallace is not a scorer.

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7 responses to “How to build an NBA winner

  1. Generally agree with that. College football is, I think, a useful comparison here. With compensation capped (in theory, anyway), there should presumably be recruiting equality. The opposite seems to be true – the same 20-25 teams tend to dominate recruiting sweepstakes and there is relatively little variation among the top teams. Facilities, draft prospects, and tradition, including the popularity of the sport at the school, seem to matter. Similarly, as you say, endorsement potential matters, but also, I think, some forms of compensation that are harder to measure. Players want to live in NYC, LeBron wants to go clubbing in South Beach, no one wants to live in dilapidated rust belt cities (sorry Tyler) and, sadly, no one wants to live in Canada.

    • You always have to make it about Canada. My dream for the Pistons is to turn into the Detroit Scientists with the current team (in which case I’m sure they would make the playoffs, even with their dilapidated roster), and hold out hope that they can transform to the Detroit Talents at some point. As you say, no one wants to live there, but if we can just once hit a home run in the draft, then we can presumably achieve step 3 with some fellow out there who actually wants a championship and not just endorsements.

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