Or “Why tanking isn’t such a bad thing”

Posted on December 22, 2011 | 9 Comments

(If you haven’t read the first and second parts, please do, as this post will make a lot more sense if you do)

So in parts 1 and 2, we looked at the 16 year history of the Raptors organization that seemed to be so focused on not losing that it couldn’t manage to actually win, very much. The Raptors have spent nearly their entire existence on the mediocrity treadmill. For an NBA team and it’s fans, that’s basically hell.

So now we turn our attention to a few other franchises, and see what they’ve done.

CLEVELAND FLIRTS WITH A CHAMPIONSHIP

When Cleveland drafted LeBron James, it was probably the greatest turning point in their entire existence. Except for a brief period in the 90′s, the Cavaliers were synonymous with poor management and losing.

When LeBron was drafted, the Cavs roster was made up of a collection of mediocre veterans and a few promising youngsters (Carlos Boozer, Ricky Davis, Darius Miles). the promising, but flawed, youngsters were traded away or left, and in their place came veterans who could help the team immediately.

While they were able to acquire Anderson Varejao, the majority of the moves the Cavs made were either forgettable or one you’d rather forget (trading a first round pick for Jiri Welsch in February and then turning around and trading Welsch for a 2nd round pick- turning a 1st round pick into a second in a matter of months!). Still the team went from 17 wins the season before LeBron, to 35 and then 42 wins. It was obvious this team was on it’s way up.

When Danny Ferry was hired as the Cavs GM, in 2005, he made an immediate splash, signing volume scorer, the 27 year old Larry Hughes to a massive contract, and 32 year old Donyell Marshall (from the Raptors). At that point, of the 8 players that played the most minutes, only 2 were below the age of 26. They did go out and win 50 games and get to the second round of the playoffs, though.

The next season, with Danny Ferry basically standing pat with the roster, the team went out and won 50 games again, this time getting all the way to the Finals. Despite the success in the playoffs, the Cavs didn’t carry over the momentum to the regular season and Ferry decided to shake things up, trading away almost half the roster, and grabbing among others, 33 year old Ben Wallace and 32 year old Joe Smith. The team ended up winning just 45 games and losing again in the second round.

Probably the best move Danny Ferry made as GM, was when he turned Joe Smith into Mo Williams. It was one of the few times that Ferry attempted to make the team younger. And somehow, the Cavs gelled and ended up destroying the league in the regular season, winning 66 games. But then the playoffs came and they got bounced in the Conference Finals by Orlando.

So Ferry pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Ben Wallace to the Suns for Shaquille O’Neal. It was an act of desperation for the Cavs, who felt that winning a Championship was the only way to keep LeBron, who was in the last year of his contract. They then used a good portion of their MLE to sign 34 year old Anthony Parker, and then went out and traded for 33 year old Antawn Jamison. By season’s end, the Cavs had 3 starters who were 33, 34 and 37 and whose best years were well behind them.

Is it any wonder that when LeBron decided to abandon the team, they ended up winning only 19 games the next season?

While the Cavs ended up finding much more success than the Raptors did, using a similar plan, that was mostly due to the fact that LeBron was simply much better than Vince Carter ever was.  And the results ended up being the same. An unsustainable climb by acquiring aging veterans whose stock can only decline.

Like the Raptors, the Cavs had to start making riskier and riskier moves, acquiring older and older players, because when you keep acquiring declining assets, you lose more and more leverage. And just like the Raptors, right near the end they took a risk on an aging Hall of Fame center whose best years were behind him.

OKLAHOMA DECIDES TO GO YOUNG

The Thunder are probably one of the most discussed teams, in terms of building through the draft with youth, but quite frankly, that’s because they’ve done a textbook-like job.

When Sam Presti took over the then Seattle Supersonics, they had just come off a 31 win season, had two 20+ppg All-Stars on the roster, some half decent young talent and a number 2 pick in the draft. After drafting 19 year old Kevin Durant, Presti made a choice that was basically the complete opposite of what the Raptors and Cleveland had done. Keeping former All-Stars, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen would certainly have made the team competitive, possibly even a playoff team with a move or two, Presti wisely decided that at ages 27 and 31, Lewis and Allen were declining assets who would probably be too old to help the team when Durant was entering his prime.

Presti first traded Allen for 5th pick, Jeff Green, as well as Wally Szczerbiak and his expiring contract, and Delonte West, both of whom were ironically traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers just one season later. Then Presti decided not to match Orlando’s massive contract offer for Lewis, leaving the team without their two best players in a matter of days.

Instead of surrounding Durant with veterans, which would have speeded up the team’s development, but limited it’s growth, Presti preached patience, and decided to surround their new franchise player with players his own age, allowing them to grow and develop together. While it meant the team was actually worse the next season, winning just 20 games, they were also able to pick up future All-Star, Russell Westbrook in the next draft. They improved only slightly the next season, again, giving them a top 3 pick, grabbing James Harden.

In just three seasons, the Sonics/Thunder were able to acquire three top 5 picks and the very next season they jumped from 23 wins to 50 wins. They never added one major veteran over the age of 25 and by the time they win 50 games, they only had two rotation players over the age of 25- 26 year old Nenad Krstic, who signed the previous season, and 29 year old Nick Collison, who was the only holdover from the pre-Presti era.

And with a starting of with an average age of just 23 years old, the Oklahoma City Thunder won 55 games last season on their way to a Conference Finals appearance. And it’s certainly not inconceivable that, as long as they are able to keep their core together, the Thunder will be contenders for the next 10 years.

If the Thunder had kept Allen and Lewis, the team would already be trying to figure out how to replace them.

CLIPPERS (MIS)MANAGEMENT

One of the most common arguments again “tanking” is that you don’t want to end up like the Los Angeles Clippers. Of course, that argument may not work anymore, after trading for Chris Paul, but it never really worked anyway.

The problem with the Clippers was not that they were always trying to lose and get high draft picks, it’s that they were simply badly mismanaged and drafted poorly when they got to the draft.

If the Cleveland Cavaliers were synonymous with poor management and losing, the Clippers made them look good.

In their 47 year history, the Clippers have made the playoffs just 7 times. That’s just 2 more than the Raptors, in nearly 3 times the amount of time. To the Clippers, mediocrity would have been a step up. In the last 30 years, the Clippers have drafted in the top ten 23 times. They’ve had a top 5 pick 13 times. Yet, somehow in all that time, they only managed to draft 3 All Stars. Actually, that’s not entirely true. They drafted five All-Stars, but traded away two of them before they became All-Stars. You could probably manage a better drafting record than them by throwing darts at a board. I could probably write and entire post devoted to their poor drafting.

So needless to say, the Clippers have not been successful, but that turned around in the last few years, when they drafted Eric Gordon and then got the 1st pick in the draft the next year and took Blake Griffin. Unlike previous eras, when young players were traded away for veterans either past their prime or who never had one, the Clippers actually started stockpiling their young talent.

While Griffin and Gordon are definitely stars, there’s a question of whether either are the type of elite talent that can lead a team to a Championship. Thankfully, that doesn’t matter since they were able to use their stockpile of youth and Chris Kaman’s expiring contract, to trade for Chris Paul.

Now, what is the difference between what Cleveland and Toronto did and what the Clippers did? There are a couple.

First is that Paul is only 26 years old. He’s not a 31 year old athletic wing player or 33 year old big man.

Secondly, and most importantly, Paul IS their franchise player now. Griffin is a great talent, he’s not the type to make those around him better. He’s not a good passer or stellar defender and most of his scoring is done by being more athletic than his opponent. He is much more suited to a complimentary role, and with Paul running the point, he can now do that.

Without Chris Paul, the Clippers probably had a ceiling similar to the Atlanta Hawks- the second round. The number of teams without a top 10 player on it that have been a true contender, in the last 20-30 years you can count on one hand. And now the Clippers have that.

SO WHAT TO DO?

So this brings us back to the Raptors and this season.

Now there is a portion of Raptor fans who hate to see the Raptors lose intentionally and that nothing good ever comes from tanking. Well, first of all, I don’t think anyone is suggesting the team actually “tank”. That would involve trading away the team’s best players and not giving the team a shot to even be competitive in games. Cleveland and Denver did that and all it got them were LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Er…nevermind.

The Raptors currently have the talent to vie for the top spot in the NBA….draft. So the best thing that Colangelo can do, and seems to be doing, is to just let them play. Don’t try to win a few more games just to make the team look slightly better. In the end that gets you nothing but what Raptor fans have had to put up with for the past 16 years. Mediocrity, at best.

The few more wins that a Tyson Chandler or even a Shane Battier might get you may be the difference between a top 3 pick and yet another good, but not great, draft pick. As 82Games.com showed, there’s a big dropoff after the fifth pick.

When you’re walking the line between mediocrity and being a contender, the difference might be just a few ping pong balls.

Now as I mentioned in the first post, PhDSteve, over at Raptors Republic argued in his latest podcast that it doesn’t really matter where the Raptors pick because there’s no real consensus #1 and the Raptors can get a good PG later in the draft.

That would make sense if the Raptors biggest need is a PG. It isn’t. The Raptors biggest need, far outweighing any position or skill, is a franchise player. Who cares if the Raptors get the best PG in the draft if they still don’t have a franchise player. In the NBA, teams generally only go as far as their best player can take them. Atlanta’s problem is not that they don’t have a good team. It’s that Joe Johnson is a perennial All-Star, but not a truly elite player.

In fact, Toronto’s history shows the limitations teams have without truly elite players. While Vince had the potential to be one of the greats, he never fulfilled that potential and the farthest the team could get with him was the second round. Bosh was a perennial All-Star, but simply not the type of talent that can lift a team above mediocrity.

While there might not be any sure-fire Hall of Famers, like Tim Duncans or LeBron James’, there are still a few potential franchise players in this draft. Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond , Perry Jones and Harrison Barnes have been the most talked about (although I personally am not sure Barnes has any elite skill that would allow him to be a franchise player), but Quincy Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also have some potential. That’s six players, but most likely half are not going to fulfill that potential, so getting first crack is all the more important.

IN CONCLUSION

While pushing towin as many games as you can might seem like a good idea, if your goal is to compete for an NBA Championship, it’s simply not always a sound strategy. While getting one of the worst records in the league certainly is no guarantee of a top 3 pick, it gives you the best chance. It’s been said that the best thing for these young players on the Raptors is to start trying to compete now, but without a franchise player, exactly what would they be competing for? More of what we’ve seen over the last 16 years. And that’s simply not good enough.

 

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  • Swirsky

    Tim,

    Love the articles. I do agree with the general ‘feel’ of them. Toronto needs to build, through youth and the draft, to have long term success (aka. OKC model) No doubt in my mind that is the case.

    Couple details I would like to point out.

    At some point every team needs veterans, and no shortage of them, to be contenders. Its the nature of the beast. The experience they bring benefits the team both on and off the court in incalculable. If we go back through history we’ll see that almost every contender is a ‘veteran’ team (some more than others ofcourse) so,

    1) Grunwald – I think he did things the right way. He had his franchise player, his number 2 and a few young glue guys (Alvin, Mo Pete, Keon) He combined those with a very talented vet (Antonio Davis) and 2 veteran role players (Oakley and Curry). JYD can be thrown in somewhere in the middle of all that. His problem was not how he built the team, it was, in the end the attitudes of his 2 key players (Vince and McGrady). To me part of this was of his own making, specifically with Vince. Allowing Vince to make decisions for the team (ie. the signing of Hakeem) was a mistake. But, when its all said and done, assuming the Raps get their ‘franchise guy’ this year (a big assumption ofcourse) and a 2nd option (Derozan?), with a young core (Val, Ed, Amir) I would very much want the Raps to take a page out of Grunwalds book.

    2) Cleveland – I’m not sure Cleveland’s problem was so much the age of the guys they went after, but rather the players, in general, that they went after. They may have had the ‘most overrated, overpayed, and/or inefficient’ team in the history of basketball (aside from Lebron ofcourse). It was almost as if their GMs went after any player with a name available at that moment without doing any in depth analysis of what that player did or didn’t do. Was there ever a FA or player ‘on the trading block’ their team wasn’t associated with? Honestly it was a mockery of a franchise. They screwed up what was perhaps the greatest opporunity a franchise will ever get… a player of historic proportions.

    Completely unrelated to all your great work. I disagree on Griffin not being a player who makes those around him better. He may not right now, but his almost unstoppable offensive game will, eventually, do that.

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

    Swirsky,

    Thanks. I do agree about adding veterans, it’s just that it’s way too early, in my mind, to start doing that.

    I think Grunwald had the right idea, but I think I think he tried to rush it too much. The only young players that looked like they were definitely part of the core were Vince and McGrady. I think another young player or two would have done them wonders. As for why they ultimately failed, you are right that Vince and McGrady’s personality had something to do with it, but even without that, the window was not big because of the age of the veterans.

    If the Raptors are able to draft a franchise player in this draft, I’d have no problem with adding a veteran player to the rotation. I think at some point it’s useless to add more young players, and the Raptors are almost at that point. I felt the Clippers would have been if they hadn’t got the top pick (Irving was exactly what they needed, in my opinion).

    I also agree partly with what you say about Cleveland, but part of the problem is that they just didn’t have much to bargain with. They simply didn’t have the assets to make a lot of moves to acquire “unflawed” pieces. It’s like the reverse of the red paper clip trade. You keep trading for declining veterans and you’re going to have trouble getting equal value back.

    As for Griffin, I’m a big fan, but I just don’t see him becoming a true franchise player, but maybe I just have trouble seeing it because we haven’t seen anything like him before. I liken him to Karl Malone and Shawn Kemp, a little. Both those guys were great (Kemp was great for a much shorter period) but needed franchise PGs to help their team reach their peaks. A guy like Tim Duncan doesn’t need that because he has more of an effect on his team, with his defense and passing.

  • FPB

    Tim :

    Depends on how Griffin develops.

    Honestly he’s only had one year so far. I think expecting him to be anything better than average last year was a bit much.

    If he can get that athleticism to work for him down-low. Good lord.

  • Tinman

    Your preaching to the choir. Really fail to see the need for this article. Its understood.
    Next year’s draft pick is important. I think BC and the boys are aware of it.

    Shouldn’t use talents as Lebron and Durant as examples. Teams get lucky getting franchise guys, see SA with Duncan, and thats a big first step. And its a big step to success.
    Come to think about it. Bird, Magic, Michael, Hakeem, Robinson and Duncan, Isiah, the various Laker Kobe combinations, you could even add Dirk and Duane’s championships, Shaq fits in somewhere, and Rondo, Pierce and Baby all were parts of the Celts last championship. Sixers who won in 83 got Irving in the merge.

    One team in the last 30 years have one a championship without a major piece coming via the draft, including Miami’s rent a Shaq and Boston’s Big 3(vs2) got big pieces in the draft. The Pistons in 2004. A blip.
    It’s actually a knock against the league. Don’t you thinkl its a shame that only 8 teams have won the championship in the last 30 years. BC has good company.

    But you must admit that trend, with players having more say in the matter, is likely to decrease.

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

    @ Tinman,

    If you think there isn’t a need for this article, take a look at the forums of some of the Raptors sites, including RaptorsHQ. There are plenty of Raptor fans who would rather just compete this year for a playoff spot, than see the team get a top pick.

    And my point is that the Raptors need a talent like Durant or LeBron (an elite talent) in order to contend, and they need a high draft pick to get one of those.

    @Carl J.

    Thanks for the comments and sorry about the lateness of approving it.

    I think the term tanking can be looked at different ways. I’m not a proponent of the Raptors completely tanking, which would mean trading away the team’s best players. I think the team has too many good young pieces to do that (although I’d like to see Barbosa traded and I don’t think I need to say anything about Bargnani). I also think the players and coach should always play to win. While tanking certainly has it’s place (what Seattle/Oklahoma did would be considered tanking) but any player on a team that tanks is pretty much tainted and should be gotten rid of as soon as possible.

    I think, more than anything (including the development of the current players) the Raptors need a franchise player. Without one the Raptors will be doomed for another 5+ years of mediocrity.

  • Tinman

    No-one disagrees that a top talent would help this team or any team for that matter. Jordan = titles. I get it.

    But in order for us to be in a position to get that top pick that would probably mean that Davis doesn’t improve, Amir neither and Demar as well, and I cannot say that that is what I want for my team. Can you?

    I don’t want to get overly excited about our mediocre start to this season nor do I expect to make the playoffs but lets be pleased with what Coach Casey’s squad have given us. And can you discuss it? You just seem to be on a crusade and frankly I think your wrong about tanking.
    First – no player will purposely tank
    Second – an organization that purposely tanks will lose some good pieces along the way- the Karma factor.
    Third – this franchise player you speak of might(?) of been chosen # 5 last year in the draft
    Fourth – you tell Coach Casey to lose on purpose.

    I read over on HQ and I will express my disappointment of your comments on Bargnani. He has rightly been criticized in the past but you cannot help be give KUDO’s to his performance, on both ends of the court. Perfect defensive, not – but you can hold any player in the NBA under the microscope on D,

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

    Believe it or not, Davis, Amir and DeRozan can still improve and the team can still be a bottom 5 team. It’s not as if this is an overly talented team, here. They are winning mostly on grit.

    And I think you completely misunderstand my point about tanking. Tanking is a loaded word that can mean different things. I’ve said many times that you can’t ask players to tank. And I’ve never suggested telling Casey to tank. But the fact is that it’s better for the organization if they don’t try and win this year. I don’t envy the position that Colangelo is in because he’s good some good young pieces that he needs to develop, but he simply doesn’t have enough talent to be anything more than a mediocre team with the pieces he’s got right now.

    As for organizations that purposely tank, there have been plenty that have done it and gotten good results. The Thunder, Cleveland and Denver all tanked and it worked out for them (LeBron and Carmelo leaving were due to bad management, not karma).

    And while the Raptors playing well is a lot more fun for the fans right now, it doesn’t help them achieve what should be the ultimate goal, and that’s to win a Championship.

    As you know, I’m as big a fan of Valanciunas as anyone, but I’m not ready to anoint him a future elite player.

    As for Bargnani, I’m not sure what you have to be disappointed about. What’s happening is what annoys me about people defending Bargnani. Yes, he’s improved. I give him kudos for that. But the crack about the fact that he’s not playing perfect defensive is annoying. I’m not expecting him to play perfect defense. I’m expecting him to play decent defense. And despite his increases effort, his defense is still not acceptable, but because he’s trying harder, everyone wants to overlook that. It’s like we need to give him a break because he’s trying harder. Great. Unfortunately teams aren’t going to not try and take advantage of Bargnani’s defensive weaknesses because he’s “trying harder”. And my point is that, despite trying harder, he simply has not shown the defensive acumen to suggest he’ll ever be anything but a poor defender.

  • FPB

    Tim: Give Bargnani a season. This season. There’s really no improving on D if you don’t try. Maybe he’l get it, maybe he won’t. But technically if his D doens’T improve we won’t win. So it ends up being a situation where the Raptors can’t really lose. Either they get a good pick, or get what was supposed to go with their ancient good pick.

    His FT/FG has gone up in the range of the great scorers. ,377 before the game with Cleveland.

    And aside from PF’s who shoots 3′s like Andersen. He seemed quite well against bigger guys like baby Davis. Using his size and mobility.

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