By Jackson Daignault ’18
In an era of super teams and tanking, winning in the NBA has never been so complex.
This pressure to win strains general managers between two choices: hoping to contend against super teams (see Golden State Warriors, or wherever Lebron James plays) or tanking and hoping to accumulate enough top tier young talent to eventually challenge other contenders.
Often times, teams become stuck between the two, ending in the worst situation a team can be in: mediocrity.
Basketball and the NBA is about winning, so why attempt to lose?
Some teams, like the Atlanta Hawks, take that approach in their decisions: Sure Lebron and the Warriors run the league, but a freak injury to a top player and suddenly the next best team has a real chance to win.
Yes, in the 2014-2015 season, the Hawks won 60 games and were the number one seed in the East. Technically they had a chance to dethrone the King; however, the team did not have enough superpower talent in the long run, eventually getting swept. The entire NBA landscape essentially knew that the Hawks would not be able to beat Lebron and the Cavaliers.
Since 2007, the Hawks have made the playoffs every year, going as far as the Conference Finals. While those teams were not bad by any means, they were not talented enough to challenge the top dogs in the Conference, or bad enough to obtain top talent through the draft. This is every general manager’s worst nightmare.
This approach of wanting to be able to win every year can have its drawbacks, best exemplified by the Hawks 10 year period of falling short in the playoffs.
The complexity of the NBA landscape results in general managers having to take these two approaches. With superstar players like Kevin Durant leaving, there is no certainty in talent for the next year. Gone are the days of loyalty and respect. Instead, a large amount of players have shifted their focus on one thing: wining. Lebron’s decision to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami triggered players to jump ship to the next best team.
This poses the question: Should teams attempt to build through the draft and develop their talent, or should they assemble their team in a way to attract superstars?
The Golden State Warriors originally took the draft approach, pre-KD. The Dubs took Steph Curry in the summer of 2009, and rode with him through his ups and downs and various injuries. Two years later, they drafted Klay Thompson and a year later they took Draymond Green in the second round. The Warriors had acquired All-Star forward, David Lee, in the summer of 2010 and were hoping to pair their young talent with the established veteran. Eventually in 2012, the Warriors made the playoffs as the two seed in the West. Bob Myers, GM of the Warriors, had done his part to acquire a former All-Star, as well as talent through the draft. The Warriors later went on to beat a depleted Cavaliers roster in the finals and a season later clinched the best regular season in NBA history. The majority of the Warriors talent and success was established through the draft, developing their players to the best of their abilities.
This draft approach is not always successful, however. The Philadelphia 76ers have also attempted to build through the draft, having a top three selection in the past three drafts, while also acquiring other top young talent (Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric). However, the Sixers have not fared as well as the Warriors, having not put together a winning season since 2011-2012. The Sixers went full in on “the process” as Sam Hinkie called it, attempting to gather talent and take risks on players in order to succeed in the far future. This plan has not worked as well as many Sixers fans and members of the organization would have liked. The Sixers have not traded for established talent, but instead banked on their own drafting and development of players. They have not set themselves up to acquire a super star, despite being linked to a Jimmy Butler deadline trade. The Sixers were unable to capitalize on the talent they acquired, though they still sit on the end of the standings, again in a position to potentially acquire two young, yet unproven lottery picks in this year’s draft.
Teams like the Miami Heat were able to set themselves up for a superteam with a large amount of cap space as well as a superstar in Dwyane Wade. However, teams like the Boston Celtics have not been able to assemble a team of that caliber, since pulling off one of the NBA’s most lopsided trades in NBA history. The Celtics were able to acquire top lottery talent in Marcus Smart, while also holding top caliber talent in Isaiah Thomas. They had set themselves up for a super team in the summer of Kevin Durant, signing four time All-Star Al Horford and still having max cap space in hopes of acquiring Durant. The rhetoric that the Celtics were “one piece away” was throbbing in General Manager, Danny Ainge’s, ear. He put together the best recruitment pitch possible, traveling to the Hamptons and bringing Boston players such as Thomas, as well as five-time Super Bowl Champion Quarterback, Tom Brady, to Durant. In the end, the pitch was not enough for Durant, and he signed a two year deal with the Warriors. The Celtics had “struck out” on their opportunity to create a super team, but still had the draft pick of the projected worst team in the league, which many expected to be number one overall.
While the Celtics technically did not get the result they wanted, they still were in a good position to contend in the future, while also growing and competing with the talent they had as the number one seed in the East.
As a result of this disparity in talent in the NBA in accordance with superteams, it has become quite apparent that it is simply not possible to gain contender status without one super star leading the way.
Lebron James’ teams are always competitive, as he has only missed the playoffs twice in his career. General Managers are constantly looking for superstar talent to contend with super teams like the Warriors and Cavaliers, if the hundreds of Celtics trade rumors this past trade deadline didn’t already prove that.
While some General Managers value the draft, while others value free agency, one thing is certain: you need star power to be able to contend for championships. This need for star power puts General Managers in a difficult situation. Trying to build a team top to bottom of good role players is a dying breed in the NBA, and these teams with star power (see Cavaliers, Warriors) have completely taken over the league. A team with lack of star power (see Miami Heat) struggle to contend or even make the playoffs, while middle of the pack teams with at least one star player (See Indiana Pacers with Paul George) are able to make some noise.
There is no right or wrong answer to winning in the NBA. Every front office has a different vision than the other, and their decision-making reflects that. Some overvalue their players, while some undervalue them. The increase in departure during free agency results in this disparity of talent in the NBA.
Many teams, like the Celtics, are one piece away from challenging the top teams. Others, like the Sixers, still have a way to go.
The moral of the story is that the NBA is the most complex it has ever been. There are endless ways to win, and as a result the pressure is on for General Managers. Every front office is one “Decision” away from pure fulfilment, or pure disappointment.