How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Rebuilding

Posted on January 24, 2011 | 14 Comments

For Christmas, my wife got me Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, which is a fascinating read I would highly recommend, despite the fact (or possibly because of the fact) that it’s over 700 pages. Honestly, I haven’t finished it and the first two chapters are far better than anything that has followed (so far), but it’s still a great read.

So reading the book made think about how to build a Championship team. Well, that and a recent discussion I had with a couple of people online who questioned what I would do to build a Championship team in Toronto.

So, the first chapter in Simmons’ book is called “The Secret” which I won’t get into here, as I think you should read the book yourself. If you’re a basketball fan, it’s a must. And make sure you get the newly updated paperback addition, which is the one I’ve got and has added something like 1400 pages, or something.

Suffice is to say, the “Secret” is the secret to winning an NBA Championship. And it’s something I find infinitely fascinating.

To me, the only goal of any NBA GM should be to build a Championship team. And any fan’s ultimate dream should be for his team to win the NBA Championship. If it’s not, and you would honestly be content with a team that simply competes and possibly make it to the second round of the playoffs, then I have very little in common with you even if we happen to cheer for the same team.

I couldn’t find the quote, but Charles Barkley once said that most of the NBA’s GMs don’t care about winning a Championship. He said there are only a handful of teams that are actually committed to winning a Championship, and the rest are just trying to save their jobs. To them, success is simply building a competitive team, even if it’s at the cost of a Championship.

Let me explain that last sentence.

When Bryan Colangelo took over the Toronto Raptors, the best player on the team was Chris Bosh. Now, Bosh is/was a very good player. A perennial All-Star and a 20-10 big man in a league where that is rare. Colangelo decided to build the team around this All-Star and he went out and surrounded him with a bunch of very good role players, including a couple from Europe, and they went out and won a franchise best 47 games and won the Atlantic Division and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

That 2007 team was a team that was build to compete, but it would never win a Championship. There were several reasons why.

The first is that the team simply didn’t have a lot of “upside”. Upside is a rather vague term and can be a scary thing when referring to player are can’t actually play very well, but exhibits a few skills that make everyone hopeful he might one day be able to. In this respect, though, it simply means that the majority of the players were at or past their prime. Anthony Parker, Jorge Garbajosa, Morris Peterson and Rasho Nesterovic were all, at least, 29 years old. The average age of the all the players who played at least 20 mpg was 26.5 years.

You see, if you want to be competitive, the easiest way to do it is to get a roster full of veterans. Obviously these guys need to know how to play, but you don’t need a superstar if you have a team full of veterans. Philadelphia started the year as one of the worst teams, but the minute they started playing their veterans more over their young players, lo and behold, they started winning.

The other big problem with the Raptors was, unfortunately, Chris Bosh. Now, I’ve often felt that he was unfairly criticized and his accomplishments in Toronto have been minimized since he left, but the fact of the matter is that Bosh is simply not the type of big man who is going to be able to lead your team to a title.

Bosh made the All-NBA 2nd team the year they won 47 games and has done the best he could do. But he’s not a great defensive player, something you pretty much need to be to lead your team to a title, if you’re a big man. You want to know why a team like San Antonio never made a run for Chris Bosh even though many thought he would be perfect to play beside Duncan and eventually replace him? Because they know the secret to winning. And it involves having your best big man also being your defensive anchor.

Colangelo tried for four years to build a team around Bosh, but in the end, failed, partly because he couldn’t get the right parts, but mostly because Bosh was simply not the type of player that you can build around.

Colangelo had a problem immediately after he took over, but Bosh was simply too good and too young, so trading him away would have been ludicrous.

In many ways, Bosh leaving was the best for the Toronto Raptors.

It hurt because players that good simply don’t come around very often. In 15 years, Bosh was one of the two best players in franchise history. In the NBA talent wins and Bosh had loads of talent.

Bosh leaving, however, allowed the team to do something they really needed to do. And that’s rebuild.

Rebuild the team the right way. Build a team that not just competes, but contends.

Fast forward to today. The Raptors get blown out in Orlando and go winless on their recent road trip. And I’m fine with it. Because I know the team is rebuilding and that wins don’t matter. In fact, wins might actually HURT rebuilding. Every win takes the Raptors farther away from a top 3 pick in the draft. And while the draft isn’t a guarantee of anything, it’s always been the safest and surest way to rebuild.

Now watching a team that is basically on the first step to rebuilding is difficult. They lose. A lot. But the losses don’t hurt as much if you see glimpses of the future. To me, the emergence of Ed Davis is probably the best thing of the season. You see, Davis has the type of game that wins. He won in high school and he won in college. Some players are great players, but they don’t know how to win. They don’t understand what it takes to win. Ed Davis does.

This relates to Bill Simmons’ book and his chapter about why Bill Russell is a better player than Wilt Chamberlain. Read it and you’ll understand what I mean.

Not to say that Davis is anything close to a finished product. He is woefully underweight and any shot he takes beyond five feet is an adventure, but he does the little things, he’s got good instincts and he’s not afraid of hard work. Right now, he’s the most promising Raptor and possibly the only untouchable player on the roster.

DeMar DeRozan is developing well and it’s exciting to see him excelling on offense, but he’s still got a lot of work to do in other aspects of the game. Thankfully, he’s just 21 years old, so he’s still got a lot of time, and is a hard worker.

Amir Johnson is playing up to his contract and has possibly the most positive impact on the team when he’s on the court, but he is what he is. Certainly a guy who can be a rotation player, or even a starter, on a contender, but probably will never sniff an All-Star game.

The team has some nice pieces. They won’t win a lot of games, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. As I said, it means there’s more chance of getting a higher pick, but it also means that Colangelo isn’t trapped the way he was when he first took over the team. There’s not an All-Star on the team, so he isn’t forced to build around a flawed player. Realistically, he can trade any player on the team and not get a whole lot of backlash for it, as long as it puts the team on the next step.

In one of my next posts, I’m going to discuss how the Raptors can build a real contender.

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  • sleepz

    Only problem with the Raps is that they don’t believe in defensive anchors. They don’t believe in defence period.

    Colangelo is a GM that worries about selling tickets, not winning championships and you can tell this is the case by the way the roster is comprised and shuffled around every year.

    We force feed a sieve 5 in the lineup to be the premier player on the team and the Raps are once again challenging for worst defensive squad in the league. Cultuer change is needed here.

    Also not sure if you’ve watched Miami play but Bosh looks way better defensively now than playing with a collective group that only believes in scoring the basketball. It’s the Raps GM’s philosophy and until he is gone no ‘rebuilding’ effort will ever be complete.

  • Brain Colangelo

    The book was amazing. Some guys on the Raps may learn the Secret! Davis, Amir, Calderon, for sure. Bargnani – not happening. DeRozan, maybe.

    To win – the Raps need to trade Bargnani for a game-changing point guard and to swap Jose for a true 5. Slot in a defensive-minded, 3-point shooting 3 (classic James Posey) and fast forward three years and you have a very good team. Maybe not a championship team but that will be determined by upside.

  • Sam

    Good article but had to chime in on Simmons’ book. It mostly sucked although I liked his hall of fame pyramid profiles. God Bill needed an editor. Used to like his columns but he’s getting tired.

    And the secret isn’t a secret. Every professional athlete who’s played a team sport knows it – Play as a Team. Wow. Hope that chapter got Isaiah to stop making death threats. It sure didn’t deepen my appreciation of basketball.

    Try the new Free Darko book. A lot more interesting. Better pictures too.

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  • Tinman

    Funny, my wife bought it for me as well(after letting my son know what book). I’m still on the pyramid. Great read, and there is a lot of book there.
    Fantastic writer, albeit Celtics biased.

    I definately got the glass half full feel going as well. Check the standings each morning hoping the Wiz, Kings and Nets(we won’t catch the Cavs)won.
    You keyed in on the three guys, who are ours for next 4 seasons, by the way. Throw in a low lottery pick and we got that good young core.
    All the questions regarding BC and his future. To me, only if he is committed to rebuilding the proper way. Johnson, DeRozan and Davis and whoever is behind draft pick # 3 or better(figers crossed) are at least two to three years away to compete against the big boys.

  • Tinman

    Sam, gotta go out of my way to defend The Sports Guy. The book is a keeper.
    His columns always amuse and entertain. My all tame fav was just a few weeks ago – its was titled The Color Purple. Recommend you track it down.

    But you’re right on about the secret, I believe the secrets out.
    Tim, about the secret you wrote
    “Because they know the secret to winning. And it involves having your best big man also being your defensive anchor.”
    I don’t recall Isaih saying that(although I am not saying I disagree with the notion).
    Thats a knock against the Big Rook ain’t it?

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.

    sleepz,

    Colangelo has not had a history of valuing defense, true, which is one reason I was only cautiously optimistic when he was hired. And while I’m not a fan of shuffling the roster around a lot, I also respect a coach that knows when he doesn’t have enough talent and needs to do something.

    As for Bosh, I have been saying for years that Bosh is a better defender than people were giving him credit for.

    Brain Colangelo,

    I agree with pretty much everything you said.

    Sam,

    The book was hit and miss, much like his columns. I loved the first couple of chapters. And no, it’s not a big secret, but it’s amazing how many people in professional sports don’t seem to know it.

    Tinman,

    I do like the Sports Guy, but I actually think his columns were funnier when he was living in Boston. Especially the draft diary, which used to be hilarious when he was surrounded by his dad and buddy (I can’t remember his name).

    By everything he’s done since Bosh left, Colangelo seems to be committed to rebuilding and not just trying to find a quick solution. The next month will be the big test,

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor

    Tim,

    Technically, the term “re-build” may not apply properly to the Raptors’ present situation, since it implies that something of authentic substance has been built at a previous time.

    Unfortunately, although the Raptors have advanced to the 2nd Round of the NBA Playoffs on one prior occasion, this alone, does not indicate that something of real substance has ever been built during the 16 year history of Toronto’s franchise.

    In fact …

    I might even go so far as to suggest that the management of this team has absolutely no clue regarding what is actually involved in a legitimate “re-building” process, since none of Bryan Colangelo, Maurizio Gherardini, Marc Eversley, Jim Kelly, Jay Triano, PJ Carlesimo, Alex English, Micah Nori, Eric Hughes, Scott Roth, and/or Alvin Williams has extensive first-hand experience when it comes to doing that, as a leader of a real-life basketball operation.

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.

    I don’t think a team has to have had success in order to rebuild. In fact, many rebuilds vastly improve on the original. Either way, I think you’re splitting hairs, here.

    As for experience, I don’t think you necessarily need first hand experience. Besides, no one has had experience at anything until they actually do it for the first time.

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor

    Tim,

    If a team has no prior history of being a high calibre organization then what it’s doing should be properly classified as, “Attempting to build a ‘winner’ from the ground floor up.”

    IMO, this is not the same process, however, as what’s involved with “tearing down” a high calibre organization and, then, “re-building” it in a superior way.

    Others are certainly free to perceive this distinction, as being the equivalent of ‘splitting hairs’, if they wish.

  • Michel G

    So Tim, what do you do if you’re the Pacers, for example? I watched them beat the Lakers last night and was impressed with them. But, they’ll never win a championship with this team. They’ll never get past the Bulls or the Heat. They’ve already tanked, got rid of all their bad contracts, and completed their rebuild. This is the team they have. What do you do if you’re the GM of the Pacers? They are not a destination that free agents covet (David West was not a prized free agent IMO). They will not see the lottery any time soon, so no franchise player will come via the draft. I know you can probably argue that they didn’t tank well enough. Maybe they should’ve traded Granger when his value was high and improve their chances in the lottery. Their highest pick during the so-called ‘rebuild’ was 10th overall. Hard to get elite players picking that low. But drafting in the top five does not guarantee success. Look how many time the Wolves had to pick high in the draft to finally get two players that can potentially form the cornerstone of their franchise.
    If I was a Pacers fan, I wouldn’t have a problem with how they’ve rebuilt the team. After everything went south for the franchise after the mess in Detroit, I think they’ve done a commendable job making the team a competitive one. Unfortunately, not every team can compete for a championship. There’s not enough elite players to go around and it’s become clear that acquiring them is more often based on luck, geography, or the whims of free agent all-stars. I think we would all agree that the Clippers haven’t become relevant because of great management.

    Having said all that, I would still rather be a Raptors fan than a Pacers fan. Some luck in the upcoming draft might net us the franchise all-star we can build around. One can always hope.

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com/picketfence/ Tim W.

    Michel G,

    Thanks for your comment. You bring up a good issue. The Pacers is the perfect example of what I believe the Raptors need to avoid becoming. No, not every team can win a Championship, but a good GM will try and build a team that can. Otherwise, what’s the point? I know a lot of fans would be happy with a team that is competitive and wins a few playoff games. I’m not one of those fans.

    If I’m Larry Bird, the first thing I’d do is fire myself because it was Larry that got the Pacers into the position they are in now. A good team that will never be great. He’s always tried to stay competitive and always tried to take the safe route.

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