There's a piece over at ESPN by Kevin Arnovitz today on the virtues of tanking rather than fielding a competitive-but-not-championship team. It's setting a new record for "points I disagree with."
Wasn't the initial proposal -- which would've netted the Hornets Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and Doran Gragic -- rejected because it would've made the Hornets too competitive? The Hornets would've been consigned to the NBA's middle class, not competitive enough to win anything meaningful, but not bad enough to secure a future superstar with a high draft pick. While treading water, the Hornets would be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, even if those contracts are of relatively fair value, which they are.
Here are basically Arnovitz's points:
- Tanking is better than being a playoff team and losing in the first round (or even in the second)
- Gutted teams are easier to turn into championship-caliber teams than marginal playoff teams
- the Nuggets are basically a 6-8 seed at best, they should have tanked instead of signing nene and afflalo
The last point I'm going to return to later. First, let's talk about the other two points. I kind of did this the other day in my article on the Eric Gordon trade -- "rebuilding" is basically the NBA management playing the hamster running endlessly in the wheel. There are two key points:
- The playoffs are pure marginal gross profit for an NBA team. This is because players are paid for the regular season, but beyond a per-diem, they don't get paid for the post-season.
- Being the worst team in the league does NOT, in fact, offer very good opportunities to land the coveted "super-star" player. Ask Chicago, who waited about 10 years to land Rose. Or Minnesota, who have NEVER gotten the first pick (their management is terrible but not responsible for this bit of bad luck). The fact is that the #1 overall pick is about 4-6 times more likely to land a championship player than other lottery picks. Yet your chance of the #1 pick is very low, even if you are the worst team in the league.
To point one, if you use the NBA's total payroll to estimate how much a win *costs*, it works out to about $1.5 million. This means that any playoff win is worth at least that much (likely more because of increased attendance). Winning a first round is probably easily worth $10+ million to an NBA franchise. Add to that the fact that a playoff team earns a lot more in regular season revenue than a lottery team and the difference between a lottery team and a playoff team is, financially speaking, huge. As long as you don't overpay for your talent (*cough* knickerbockers *cough*) this is likely to be worth a hell of a lot more than the revenue sharing check the NBA sends you each year, especially once the salary floor moves up to 90% of the cap, which will cost those cap-space-saving teams multiple millions per year in tax payment reductions. If the NBA's revenue sharing plan is really lucrative enough to make this assumption false, then the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat did a pretty poor job negotiating with the small-market teams. In other words, fielding a lottery team costs a fuck-load of money.
To point two, I just don't see the big advantage that the team stocked with cap room and lottery picks has over some other team that just needs "one more piece" to contend. Let's look at those middle-of-the-road teams that Arnovitz dreads so much and see how many of them managed to acquire a superstar:
- The Lakers have done it so often it's practically their business model. Yes, I know, free agents want to go there, but many of their players came in trade or the draft. They were about a 45-win team when they got Shaq. Kobe was drafted. They got Pau for a song (remember how the Lakers were like an 8th seed team with just Kobe? Yeah, Pau is that good).
- The Trailblazers were a middling team when they landed Oden; they were unlucky that he's not healthy, but in the few games he's played, he's played like a premier big man.
- Remember Detroit landing Rasheed Wallace in his prime?
- The perennial first-round-losers Minnesota (the very definition of the type of team that Arnovitz dreads) grabbed both Cassell and Sprewell in 2003 for basically a bunch of expiring deals, and won 61 games in a ridiculously tough western conference. If Cassell had not gone down, I'm about certain they would have defeated the Lakers that year -- the Kings team they beat in the semis was a better team than that Laker team. Admittedly the Wolves had some luck that year with Wally's injury, he was terrible but got lots of minutes, but his injury forced management to play the fantastic Fred Hoiberg lots of minutes instead.
- The Spurs lucked into Tim Duncan when they already had David Robinson, but for the 3rd ring, Ginobli and Parker were pretty instrumental, and they got those players through shrewd drafting. Perhaps they were just flukes, but the fact that the Spurs also grabbed the amazing DeJuan Blair as well makes me suspect otherwise.
- Remember the Rockets grabbing Clyde Drexler? Yeah, that was a good move.
- Remember the Heat trading for Shaq? Yeah, that was smart too.
Now quick, name six "rebuilding teams" that went from zero to contender without luckboxing the #1 pick. What I find especially funny is everyone claiming that they want to use "the OKC model". You know what you need to use that model? Sam ****ing Presti. The OKC model is nothing special, it's just "being better at evaluating talent than all the conventional-wisdom pundits on the other teams". The reason it works is because a) Presti is smart and b) there are teams like the Celtics run by GMs dumb enough to think that Jeff Green is good who are willing to trade with the smart Sam Presti. It should be immediately obvious why this is not going to work for everyone else.
Last thing. Let's talk about the Nuggets.
A couple of key things stand out for the Nuggets: 1) Miller, Lawson, and Afflalo are all great players and Lawson and Afflalo are young and likely to improve. 2) Their starting front line is good and their back-court is great AND deep 3) Losing Melo wasn't that big of a deal, he's highly overrated, and losing Ely and Forbes helped (more minutes for the good players), 4) it's pretty rare for a team not to have at least one negative player on it, and maybe Karl can finally keep Harrington off the floor thanks to the fact that... 5) Faried will be the rookie of the year. OK that last one isn't in the table above, and there is ZERO chance that any NBA beat writers will vote for him, but he'll be the deserved rookie of the year the same way Al Horford was when Durant won it (Durant was terrible as a rookie and it's not named the "most likely to be great in 3 years" award), Rajon Rondo was when Roy won it, and Kevin Love was when Rose won it (again, it's not the "oh well, he'll probably be better than that guy someday even if he isn't now" award, and Love led all players (not rookies, players) in rebounding per 48 that year). Anyway, Faried will rock hard, feel free to bookmark this page and try to mock me for it later. Because I WILL rub every NBA reporter's nose in it with this article in a few years when they all do the "Who could have possibly known?" spiel, just like they all did last year with Kevin Love, even though I ****ing told them.
Anyway, the point is that unless Al Harrington plays a lot of minutes (Brewer wasn't the albatross I thought he was last year, but with Afflalo and Fernandez on the team, I doubt Brewer sees the floor much), this team is going to do some very serious damage this year and I think it's fully capable of winning a 7-game series with any team in the West. I rank them third/fourth behind OKC, San Antonio (whom, AGAIN, everyone is conveniently forgetting) and fighting it out with Dallas. Yes, this team is better than the Lakers (and it's not close unless the Lakers make a deal), better than the Clippers (the starting five, maybe not. But the Nuggets bench will violently abuse LAC's) and better than the Grizzlies (who got older, lost Battier, and overvalue OJ Mayo). Again, I'll be rubbing all the pundits faces in it with this article when they are all babbling mid-season about it. "Who could have possibly known!?" they will scream. And I will be right here to shove this link down their throats.