Tuesday, February 24, 2015

KD to DC

Ever since the James Harden trade, people have been trying to dream up ways to get Kevin Durant out of Oklahoma City. The most common involve him going home to DC in 2016 in much the same way LeBron James returned to Cleveland. He would get to be in a new Big Three with a pair of star young guards and he would be playing in one of the biggest media markets in the NBA - this would be the perfect opportunity for him to take his star to the next level rather than stay in a small market with cheap ownership for the rest of his career.

The idea makes sense on the surface, but once you start to look at it more closely, it's not too hard to poke a lot of holes in it. For starters, most NBA players don't want to play in their home city. There are too many distractions and too many people with their hands out. Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge both grew up in Dallas and neither has ever expressed much interest in making a return home. What happened with LeBron is more the exception than the rule. KD is a fairly private guy who choose to go to college in Texas rather than stay home. If LeBron had played college, he would have went to Akron or Ohio State.

Wall and Beal are good and there's a sense that this is a young team on the rise, but there's a lot less in DC than meets the eye. They are 33-23 on the season, which is only 1.5 games ahead of OKC despite having most of their players and playing in the much easier conference. They are fifth in the East and they are 1-10 against the other top 4 teams in the conference. If the current standings hold, they would be matched up with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round and they would be beaten like a drum.

If you don't believe me, ask yourself who guards LeBron James on this team? Paul Pierce? This isn't 2008. The modern NBA is a game of wings - you can't really run out a 37-year old Paul Pierce as your biggest wing defender in your starting line-up and expect to win a championship. He should be coming off the bench like Vince Carter at this point in his career. I was surprised the Wizards let Trevor Ariza walk because there was no way they were going to be able to replace his size and athleticism as a perimeter defender. They don't really have much behind Pierce either. They have 35-year old Rasual Butler and 21-year old Otto Porter, a guy whose still finding his way in the league and almost certainly won't be getting much rope in the playoffs.

When you go up and down the roster, that's the first thing that jumps out. The Wizards have a bunch of old dudes on the back end of their careers. Maybe that helps them in the playoffs or maybe it doesn't. The Wizards seems to be under the impression they are playing in the mid 1990's Eastern Conference - they have built a massive team with veteran experience that plays two post men, pounds the ball inside and fires up mid-range jumpers. When they played the Atlanta Hawks a few weeks ago, it was like watching Polish cavalrymen charge into Nazi tanks.

How exactly are Nene and Marcin Gortat supposed to defend Al Horford and Paul Millsap 20+ feet from the basket? The only way they can get stretch big men back is on the other end of the floor, where they can use their size to try and punish them in the box. The problem is that strategy takes the ball out of Wall and Beal's hands and keeps them locked in the half-court rather than using their speed to get the game going up and down. John Wall would kill for the kind of driving lanes that Jeff Teague gets in Atlanta or that his old Kentucky running buddy Eric Bledsoe gets in Phoenix.

It's the same story off the bench, as Washington has grabbed on to every conventional-sized PF who shoots mid-range jumpers like it's the biggest market inefficiency in the game. Kris Humphries, Dejuan Blair, Kevin Seraphin, Drew Gooden - Gooden is the only one of the bunch who can even play the pick-and-pop game out to the three-point line. This is a team constructed by two guys who came up in the mid 90's - Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman - and the only way they are going to be a team like the Hawks is if they take a time machine back to 1995.

Let's not forget that the only reason they are even in this situation is they got lucky as hell in two consecutive lotteries. Were it not for Wall and Beal, they could very easily be Sacramento East. Even with all their draft bounties, there was no recognition of the way the game was changing or discernible plan to build the best core possible. Back in 2012, did anyone even think about pairing Wall with Andre Drummond in a spread pick-and-roll offense? Beal is great, but Wall + Drummond would be the most unstoppable two-man game in the league so all you would have to do is find a few shooters and you could do what Stan Van Gundy is doing in Detroit. That's what a modern front office would try to do. Grunfeld played it safe and made the conventional pick, a decision which ended up backfiring on him in 2013.

The Brain Trust

I will never understand why they took Porter at No. 3 overall, knowing that one of the big selling points was his ability to play in the NBA right away and that Grunfeld would almost certainly bury him on the bench behind Ariza and Martell Webster. If you knew the guy wasn't going to contribute immeditaely, why not go with a more high-upside choice like Giannis Antetokounmpo? Knocking them for Giannis and Drummond may be a little unfair, but this is a team that should have at least thought about getting a guy like Nerlens Noel or Alex Len in one of their many forays through the lottery. Nene and Gortat are both in their 30's and their franchise players are both under 25 so why not secure a young high-upside big man in your last trip to the lottery? What is the point of taking an older swingman with a smaller ceiling if he isn't going to play anyway? Because he's the hot name on the mock drafts and he played at Georgetown?

Their best bet to break out of the box they are in is to sign KD in 2016, move him to the 4, start Otto Porter at the 3 and go with a spread pick-and-roll offense with whichever one of their remaining big men hasn't begun to break down. That could be a really good team, but what's in it for KD? Playing at the 4 is hard work - just take a look at the beating Draymond Green takes on a nightly basis in Golden State. In Oklahoma City, he has Serge Ibaka to do all the heavy lifting for him and he still benefits on offense as if he were playing with a smaller player because of Ibaka's ability to spread the floor.

You can spin it forward like once they have KD they will have all the space in the expanded cap room to bring in more FA's, but that's putting the cart before the horse. Are we even sure that Washington DC is a huge free agent destination? This is a franchise that has never won anything in one of the least appealing cities in the US to live in. All of the media people who live in DC try to sneak it in that group of New York, Los Angeles and Miami, but it's not that. New York has Broadway. LA has Rodeo Drive. Miami has South Beach. DC has ... K Street?

If we are talking lifestyle, I can see the appeal of going to Miami and hanging out on the beach year-round or going to NY and hanging out with Jay-Z and Beyonce or playing in front of the biggest stars in Hollywood on a nightly basis. DC is Hollywood for ugly people. People go to LA to be famous and they go to New York to be rich. People go to DC because they are attracted to power, they watched too many episodes of West Wing as a child and they want to change the world. These are not the kind of people you want to see partying with you when you are up in the club. If they were in any other city of the country, they wouldn't even be let in the club. No one's rooting for you if you are playing for DC's team. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, pretty much everyone in the country hates DC. The only difference between DC and Mordor is there's no golden ring and there's no lake of fire we can throw it into that will end their rule.

This a franchise that is going to have to sell winning not location. As it stands, it's hard to see the Wizards jumping the Cavs or the Hawks in the near future. The Raptors have a franchise-caliber big man (Jonas Valanciunas) whose only getting better as he moves into his mid 20's and the Heat have the most talented starting unit 1-5 if they can get everyone healthy next season. The Bucks have a good young core with three guys who should be able to close out games - MCW, Giannis and Jabari Parker - and the Pistons are looking more and more like Van Gundy's old Orlando Magic teams with each passing game. From there, you still have a Pacers team that is getting Paul George and a lottery pick next season. The days of the East being the dregs of the NBA are coming to a close and the window for Washington might already be closing shut.

That's how fast it goes in the NBA. It won't take very long for Wizards fans to go from dreaming about Kevin Durant to wondering whether John Wall will stay for a 3rd contract.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

First Round Picks

It didn't used to always be about draft picks. It wasn't too long ago that the majority of NBA teams were treating their first-round picks like an extra dollar at the strip club. The odds are that a guy you took in the end of the first round wouldn't have much of a chance to crack your rotation and any guy who lasted past the lottery probably didn't have that much upside to begin with. 

These days it's all about gathering assets. There are teams out there hoarding first-round picks and treating them like Scrooge McDuck treats gold bricks. 

If this was the NFL, having eight first-round picks in the next three years would mean a pretty good chance of creating a dynasty. An NFL team has 22 starters and 8-10 crucial reserves and a good portion of their players get seriously injured over the course of a season. NFL teams always need more bodies. 

An NBA team has 5 starters and 3-4 guys off the bench who get minutes and that's it. There's only one basketball and only five guys can play at a time. It doesn't really matter how good your 10th, 11th and 12th men are - they aren't going to play. For that matter, it doesn't really matter how good your 6th, 7th and 8th men are - they aren't going to get many more shots. If a first-round pick comes to a situation where there are established players at his position ahead of him, there isn't all that much he can do. He's not going to beat out guys with more experience than him.

The same thing happens to a lesser extent in college. Is Zach LaVine better than Jordan Adams? Maybe. It didn't matter because Adams was a year ahead of him at UCLA and he had already proven himself as a high-level college player. That's the way the world works. A basketball player can only be as valuable as the role available to them on the team they are on. If you don't draft a guy without having a plan for how to use him, he's probably not going to be very good. There are diminishing returns to the number of young players you can have at any one time.

We saw this play out all over the league in the run-up to the trade deadline. 

Goran Dragic demanded a trade in Phoenix because he kept seeing the Suns bringing in players who take the ball out of his hands and diminish his role on the team. Why sign Isaiah Thomas and draft Tyler Ennis in the first round? How many PG's did Phoenix need? If we leave the IT2 question aside, the reason they drafted Ennis is because they needed to draft someone. They had three first-round picks and a bunch of young players already on their roster so they were going to create a logjam no matter what they did. I suspect they took Bogdan Bogdanovic at No. 27 just because he was going to stay in Europe. They had no real need to stick another guy who was never going to play on the end of their bench.

It didn't really matter how good Ennis was because the odds are he was never going to be able to show it in Phoenix. Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas received contracts worth nearly $100 million this off-season. If you think they were going to take kindly to some rookie coming in and taking away some of their stats, look at what just happened with Goran Dragic. 

A first-round pick is like a car - they lose half their value the second they come off the lot. The same guy whom everyone loved coming into the draft, when the only statistics on him were his sterling NCAA numbers, is now a rookie with a very spotty track record at the NBA level. How much could the Kings have gotten for the No. 8 overall pick in last year's draft at the time? How much could they get for Nik Stauskas now? Once a guy is on the market, everyone else gets suspicious. Why do you want to trade him so fast? More importantly, the team that is trading him loses all of their leverage. I'm not giving you top value if you are trying to trade me a rookie you have fallen out of love with already.

A team with a lot of first-round picks is in a constant rush to turn them into something real - a lottery ticket is going to be more valuable before the lottery than after. Unless it isn't, in which case why would you even consider trying to trade it? 

That's what was going on with the Thunder in last year's draft, when everyone collectively lost their mind about the Josh Huestis thing. Oklahoma City has so many talented young players gathering dust on their bench it's embarrassing. What's the point in adding one more guy that Scott Brooks is never going to play? Why not try to develop Huestis a bit in the D-League and extend out his rookie deal until he's later in his 20's - that's the only way the Thunder are going to be getting any value out of this pick. They couldn't ask a guy who would normally be a first-round pick to take that offer but they could give it to a fringe guy with an interesting skill-set who could see the big picture. With so many young players ahead of him, including another rookie in Mitch McGary, anyone OKC took at No. 29 would have an uphill battle to ever crack the rotation in the near future. 

What the brain trust in OKC has found out is that it doesn't really matter what type of young players you bring in if your coach isn't going to play them. Scott Brooks ain't Greg Popovich - he's got zero time for the big picture. He's trying to win right now which means playing Derek Fisher and Caron Butler as many minutes as their broken down bodies can stand and then more. Whether that actually helps the team win now doesn't really matter because that's what he's going to do. For a young player to grow into a big role, there has to be a big picture perspective about the type of player you bring in to play around him. 

In short, you have to be committed to their success. If you are constantly bringing in young players at the same position every season, some of them are going to look like busts. Not everyone can play at the same time. That's what happened in Sacramento when they took Nik Stauskas the year after they took Ben McLemore. Once that happened, the odds that one of those guys would end up being shopped were astronomical because what coach wants to have two young mistake-prone SG's in his rotation at the same time? Either the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers or a coach who is about to get fired, which is not a knock on the 76ers so much as it as a reality that a coach who plays a lot of young players is going to have a worse win-loss record than a coach who doesn't and that coaches who win more games tend to keep their jobs and get higher salaries.

The ideal scenario for accumulating a bunch of assets is that you will flip them into something else. The problem is that when people make trades, they still look at a player's points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game. There are only so many points, rebounds and assists on a given team at a given time. That's why it's called "a pecking order" - everyone wants their pecks and there aren't enough to go around.

The Suns got the first-round pick they turned into Tyler Ennis in return for Marcin Gortat, a move that was widely praised at the time but seems a little lopsided now. What are the odds that a guy the Wizards took at No. 18 was ever going to see the floor in Washington? Otto Porter can barely get minutes. That isn't to say there weren't a lot of good players taken after the No. 18 pick in last year's draft only that none of them would have gotten much of a chance to show what they could do in Phoenix or Washington.

The good news for the Suns is that it doesn't really matter what they got for Gortat as long as they got him out the door because he was standing in the way of playing time for young C's like Miles Plumlee and Alex Len.

That's how the worm turns in the NBA. Talent is everywhere because as many as 30 first-round picks come into the league each season and there aren't 30 open rotation spots for them to fill. It's kill or be killed in these NBA streets and the vast majority of players know they are one injury or one bad month of play away from losing their jobs and never getting them back. The only guys who aren't keeping track of how many minutes and how many touches they get are old guys who have made a ton of money and just want to win and even then it doesn't happen as often as you would think. Ask Brian Shaw what happens when you try to cut Andre Miller's PT. Was it professional what Miller did to Shaw? I would think not but Dre Miller has been a professional basketball player for 18 years so he would know a lot more about it than me.

Building through the draft is like building a team in general - it's all about how the pieces fit together. The difference is that it's much harder because you are trying to fit together pieces that haven't really even been formed yet. I was a massive nerd as a child so the best analogy I can give for this is how my man J. Michael Straczynski wrote Babylon 5. The reason nerds appreciated Babylon 5 was that it struck to a really strict plot that held together over multiple seasons. This wasn't like Lost where the writers seemed to be making shit up on a week to week basis. You could get into the mythology of Babylon 5 because you knew everything would pay off eventually.

TV for a less cynical age.

How did that work in real life? It got pretty tricky.
"The trouble, of course," wrote Straczynski, "is that unlike writing a novel, where characters exist only on a sheet of paper, actors... can get sick, they can get into contract disputes, they can get hit by meteors... Consequently, in drafting the story for Babylon 5, I made sure... there is a ‘trap door' built into the storyline for every character."
In order to build through the draft, you need to be able to look 2-3 years down the road. The problem is you never really know how a draft pick is going to turn out so you have to plan for things that might not actually happen. The Utah Jazz have to plan for a world where Dante Exum is a really good player but they don't know for sure. They probably planned to be in a world where Trey Burke is a really good player. Things can change pretty fast in the NBA. #FerrisBueller

That's why you really want to get these draft picks right. When the Jazz took Dante Exum, it meant they couldn't really take D'Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay, even if they wound up in the Top 3. There just wouldn't be enough basketballs to go around for all of those guys. Once they drafted Exum, they were deciding that Burke wasn't going to be that nice and they weren't going to be taking any more combo guards in future drafts. There's an opportunity cost for drafting anyone.

It always comes back to opportunity cost. Drafting Joel Embiid makes Nerlens Noel less valuable. Playing Rudy Gobert makes Enes Kanter less valuable. Trading for Dion Waiters makes Reggie Jackson less valuable. Signing Isaiah Thomas makes Goran Dragic less valuable.

Building a team isn't about drafting the best player available and it's not even really about collecting the most assets. It's about having good players AND putting them in the best position to succeed. Having too many talented young players on your roster is a good problem to have, but it's still a problem.