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Building an NBA champion and the curse of conflicting interests


Tuesday night after the Sixers game something interesting happened, and it wasn't just Jodie Meeks near record setting night.

Our own Michael Levin was a guest on Spike Eskin's show on 94 WIP. Michael and I have both been guests on the show multiple times, and I highly recommend giving Spike's show a listen if you haven't done so already. He's the rare host with a new age way of thinking on a medium largely dominated by old school thinking. There's legitimately good basketball talk going on in the show, and if you've been listening to the Philadelphia sports radio scene for any amount of time you know that's rare.

On the show, Michael was talking about building a winner, and how winning now shouldn't necessarily be the primary goal. Basically, all the stuff we've been advocating for the last 5 6 7 years to try to accelerate our path to contention.

Then, as Michael was talking about why the Sixers should be intentionally trying to lose not necessarily have winning as their top priority, Adam Aron, Sixers CEO, called in. Spike initially bumped Michael to talk to the man in charge of the Sixers, but Adam was courteous enough to let a lowly blogger (albeit one whose organization is credentialed with his team) finish talking while he sat on hold.

I was about to call into Spike's show to offer my opinion, but for various reasons wasn't able to. Instead, I'm going to put it in written form here. Some of it will be largely overlapping what Michael wrote about yesterday, but we have a couple of off days and this is a topic that, as a college basketball scout and a 76ers fan who wants a championship, is near and dear to my heart. It showed exactly why the owner (or ownership group) is the most crucial ingredient in building a champion.

Let's get this out of the way, the best way to build is through the draft. You look at any true contender, from Oklahoma City, to the Lakers, to the Spurs, Heat, Bulls, Celtics, and Mavs, they all acquired a superstar on draft night.

There's also no denying that the top of the draft produces the most franchise players. You might get lucky and find a Paul Pierce or Dirk Nowitzki drop, or you may find the extremely rare scenario where an 18 year old kid forces his way to your team, but those are exceptions. If you scan through the top players in the league, the majority are top 5 picks.

(Also, I consider players who you acquire by trading your draft pick to be one in the same. After all, if you acquire Ray Allen for the 5th pick in the draft, you still needed to be bad enough to get that 5th pick in the draft.)

Sure, there are outliers, exceptions to the rule, such as the Detroit Pistons, the model the Sixers have been promoting since moving on from Allen Iverson. But building a contender through a series of shrewd trades for all-stars rather than obtaining a superstar in the draft has been virtually unreplicated in the past 25 years.

Some people will lose focus and say "Look, Shaq was traded. Chris Paul was traded. LeBron and Bosh moved." The problem is they moved to teams with established superstars. That initial superstar, the one that brings you relevance and attracts other superstars to your team, is almost unequivocally acquired through the draft.

Yet some people will say "the draft doesn't guarantee anything. Look at the Clippers!" Of course. Yet what they fail to realize is that no strategy is a guarantee. All strategies require a combination of the right amount of luck and the right decision. Any strategy that has decision makers making poor decision is bound to fail. That's not proof that the draft isn't the prime place to mine superstar talent.

What they never bring up are the failed attempts to bring a superstar in through free agency, or the failed attempts to acquire one through trades. I say attempts because not only do those categories include the players signed to be franchise players that didn't work out (Elton Brand) and the trades that were completed to bring in a superstar (Chris Webber), but also the free agent signings and trades that didn't materialize in the first place. At least in the draft you have the opportunity every year. In free agency, you're subject to the whims of Dwight Howard or LeBron James, without the precedent of superstar free agents changing teams to take a lesser salary to go to a mid-pack team without an existing superstar. You're often times stuck with no legitimate option.

No, you're not guaranteed a superstar in the draft. You just have a higher probability of getting one than the other avenues.

Despite my appreciation for Andre Iguodala -- it seems as if I'm one of the last supporters he has in the media -- I have in the past suggested trading Iguodala. Not for salary cap space or for the team to get better, as most of his detractors propose, but with the explicit purpose of losing to rebuild through the draft. As long as Iguodala is on the team, we'll be competitive throughout his prime.

It has to be remembered, though, that this was in my own fairy tale world, where I was the owner, GM, and coach. It's not hard to see why front offices don't employ this strategy more often.

All you have to do is look back at our beleaguered former GM and currents Nets general manager Billy King to realize why front office executives might not have the long term best interest of the club at heart. Still upset over his firing in December 2007, roughly one year after trading away former face of the franchise Allen Iverson, King has been fairly honest about why he's more worried about now than the future with the Nets.

"I'm not going to sit here and say we'll wait for the future because the future is not promised to anybody," King said earlier this year. "I've been in the situation where we have a three-year plan, a four-year plan, sometimes you're not there to finish it out."

Now, obviously, this isn't a post to debate whether King warranted being relieved of his duties. He made his mistakes, and that's ancient history, but it ties directly into the fears any GM without the utmost backing and job security would have when trying to execute the plan us bloggers so readily encourage.

Next up, the coach. The notion that Doug Collins should be be playing Evan Turner over Jodie Meeks so the Sixers can see what they have and develop Turner regardless of wins is completely and utterly unrealistic. Again, this isn't debating whether Jodie or Evan help the team win more, that topic has been argued to death. But, if Doug Collins believes Jodie starting gives the team their best chance to win, there's no way you can expect him to do anything else.

In the "lose to get better" crowd, there are two examples that are almost universally regarded as being successes: The Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. As Rich Cho has since alluded to, the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't exactly do their best to field a winning team, and while the 20-62 season under coach P.J. Carlesimo got the Thunder Russell Westbrook to add to rookie Kevin Durant, Carlesimo was fired only 95 games into his Thunder career.

Perhaps a better tale is the story of Bob Hill, long forgotten coach of the San Antonio Spurs, the Wally Pip of basketball. Bob Hill guided the Spurs to back-to-back excellent seasons where he went a combined 121-43, advancing to the second round of the playoffs one year and the Western Conference Finals the other. Injuries devastated the Spurs during his 3rd year, as David Robinson and Sean Elliot combined to miss 119 games. Bob Hill was fired just 18 games into the season despite his prior success and the legitimate factors for their losing, and Greg Popovich, former Spurs assistant under Larry Brown and then Spurs GM, took over.

Popovich didn't exactly have a ton of success with the group, guiding them to a 17-47 record the remainder of the year. The reasons San Antonio was losing were largely beyond the coach. The Spurs had the fortune of being terrible the year Tim Duncan was in the draft, added him to an already talented team and immediately became contenders. Popovich would win a championship in only his second year as head coach, winning a total of 4 so far with Spurs.

Even with prior success, both regular season and post season, and legitimate reasons why the Spurs were underachieving, losing cost Bob Hill his job, and his chance to coach a dynasty. Popovich went on to become a record setting coach on his way to Springfield when he decides to stop coaching. Bob Hill got one more chance to coach in the NBA, a 1.5 year stint with the rapidly declining Seattle Supersonics, ironically. David Robinson's broken foot, and the losing that followed, essentially cost Bob Hill his career.

Coaches are hired based on their resume, and wins/losses being the primary factor. This league will re-hire mediocre but very rarely will they re-hire terrible. There's virtually no precedent for a coach to perform terribly while a team is acquiring talent and retain his job, yet there's very real precedent for coaches, even those who have had past success, to lose their jobs while injuries or rebuilding are going on.

You try making that sales pitch to any kind of established coach, he's going to turn you down. Even a young coach with any kind of pedigree will wait until a better situation comes along for his first chance to prove himself. You're asking a coach to place an amount of trust in you that hasn't been earned. You may even be sincere, but that doesn't mean they'll believe you. So your only option is essentially hiring a horrible coach who won't get a shot in any other scenario. Is that the coach you want molding Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner?

And that's even assuming you'll find a coach whose competitive drive won't make him go postal over a situation where you're not giving your best effort to win immediately. Having been around Doug Collins, that's clearly not him, and I'm not sure that coach exists. That desire is so firmly established into the core of who they are that I'm not sure they can give that up, even temporarily, even if it logically makes sense, and even if they trust you that losing won't cost them their job, and potentially their career.

Anybody who thinks a coach should have the long term interest of the team as their primary concern is fooling themselves. By and large, the team will make the coach the scapegoat if there's enough pressure to do so. What you saw from Adam Aron last night, a desire to have the building filled and the team talked about, is all Rod Thorn and Doug Collins need to hear in order to know they don't have the leeway to lose.

That's why the owner is the most important part of the equation. Without that piece in place, even the best laid plans are doomed to failure. They're also few and far between, and most don't have the basketball pedigree to take on such a risky approach. I'm not sure whether Tuesday night was proof of which side the Sixers new owners fall into (you can make your determination of that by listening here). CEO speak has to be taken into account, and telling the fans he's okay with losing isn't necessarily the best route to go. But it wasn't confidence inspiring.

It needs to be remembered that these are business people. They bought an undervalued, distressed property. Their focus on winning games and filling the arena was hardly shocking, even if it was somewhat of a disappointment.

So what other avenues are left for Sixers fans to acquire the superstar they need? The amnesty exception opened up a possibility, particularly with Dwight Howard's interesting statements about not wanting to join a team and be second fiddle, but his decision not to exercise his option has killed that chance. An injury, something like David Robinson's with the Spurs, is an option, essentially forcing the Sixers to lose against their wishes. Or, Doug Collins can leave the team (as he normally does), and the Sixers can make a devastating mistake (re: hiring Eddie Jordan) and become terrible on the merit of their front office. The Sixers "lucked" into that situation a few years ago, under-performing relative to the talent they had on their roster, but unfortunately it's becoming more evident that they had the misfortune of doing it in a year where there wasn't a superstar available.

The curse of mediocrity in the NBA.

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