- What Makes A Great Scorer?
- Top 10 Myths About Andrea Bargnani
- Jonas Valanciunas Is Like Two Cookies (and Amir)
- Is The Big Man Era Over In The NBA?
- What Would Einstein Say About the Raptors Trading for Rudy Gay?
- Seeing Through Colangelo's Reality Distortion Field (Part 1)
- Can The Raptors Contend Without Tanking?
- The Case Against Signing Steve Nash
- An Open Letter to Bryan Colangelo
- 5 Stupid Reasons NOT To Trade Bargnani
- The Gospel According to Allen Iverson
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Posted on September 7, 2012 | 12 Comments
With training camp now a month away, there’s not a whole lot to talk about in regards to the NBA. Case in point? The lead story on RealGM.com is Houston signing an undrafted free agent.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to talk about, especially in regards to the Raptors.
There are two subjects are sure to cause passionate debate if brought up among Raptor fans. The first is Andrea Bargnani, the second is tanking.
You see, the Raptors are in a position that is either great or horrible, depending on who you talk to. After being lottery bound since Chris Bosh took his talents to South Beach, the Raptors have enough talent this season to, at least, compete for a playoff spot. The problem, of course, is they don’t even have an All Star on the roster, so there are some legitimate concerns as to whether making the playoffs would even be beneficial to the team, long term.
For some Raptor fans, the improvement they see in the roster is a step in the right direction. On the surface, that’s true. You can’t become a good team without improving. In fact, the idea for this post came from a discussion on RaptorBlog when they did an article comparing how the Raptors are being built to the Pacer/Grizzly model.
To me, this is a depressing comparison because neither the Pacers nor Grizzlies are contenders or look like they have much hope of ever becoming one. What they seem to be are the heir-apparents to the Atlanta Hawks, the definition of high level mediocrity, who couldn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs.
The founder of the blog, Scott Carefoot, responded with this comment:
I don’t think Colangelo has done a great job as GM, but I’m really tired of people who expect him to tank because of the 1 in whatever chance that it might land a Kevin Durant type of player. The problem with fans like you is that you deal in absolutes rather than reality. There’s no golden ticket to a championship. When you’re in the situation the Raptors are in, you’re better off just trying to build the most competitive team you can and hope that you catch lightning in a bottle one season like the Pistons and Mavericks did.
Interestingly, Scott scoffs at the idea of trying for a franchise player in the draft because of the “1 in whatever chance it might land a Kevin Durant type player”, but then touts trying to “catch lightening in a bottle one season like the Pistons and Mavericks did” as a better option.
What followed was a large debate that involved some good points and some not so good points. Since there was some confusion during the discussion, let me clarify a few points.
- No one is saying that tanking will guarantee anything. All it does is increase your chances of landing a franchise player in the draft.
- Tanking does not mean purposely losing over multiple seasons. It means losing in order to try to acquire a franchise player. Best case scenario, that just takes one season.
- Tanking does not mean you ONLY build though the draft. Some people seem to be under the misconception that if you want the team to tank, that you’re against ever trading to improve the team. Not true.
- Tanking does not mean that anything other than last place and a #1 pick is a failure. The purpose is to draft a franchise player, whether you find him at #1 or #3.
Fans against tanking (or FAT, for short), do bring up some good points. There is a problem, however, with assuming that you can just keep improving a roster until you build it into a contender.
The first problem is that, in the NBA, you need an elite player (at minimum) to really contend for a title. What about Detroit, in 2004? Well, we’ll get to that. Suffice is to say, though, that thinking you can do what Detroit did is setting yourself up for failure, especially in an NBA where just having one elite player probably isn’t enough, anymore, to even get you to the Conference Finals.
So if we assume that you need at least one elite player to truly contend, then things don’t appear hopeful looking at the Raptors’ roster. Not only do they not have an elite player, they don’t even have an All Star. In fact, outside of Jonas Valanciunas, I don’t see anyone on the roster even having the potential to become an All Star (and even his potential is debatable, on that point).
One line of thought is that the Raptors can simply continually upgrade the roster, through trades, free agency and smart drafting, and hope they are able to improve the roster enough to eventually contend. For many Raptor fans, this is the best solution. The team can be competitive AND build a contender at the same time.
There is one problem with this solution, however, and it lies in the “how”. While it’s all well and good to SAY that the Raptors should just continue to improve the team and build a contender, the issue comes up about HOW exactly you would go about doing that.
I won’t debate that the Raptors could, in theory, upgrade their roster through trades, free agents signings and smart drafting. No one denies this, but at some point, if they want to get past the second round of the playoffs, they’re going to need to acquire at least one elite player. And this is where the house of cards begins to fall.
There are three ways to acquire an elite player:
- The draft
- A trade
- Free agency
Fans of the competitive build (as I will call it) point to players like Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and even Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as elite players who were drafted outside of the top 5. They point to these players as proof that you don’t have to be bad to draft a great player.
Unfortunately what this argument doesn’t take into consideration is that it’s very different drafting a team today than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
In the last ten years, three players have been drafted outside of the top 5 that made either the first, second or third All NBA team. Kevin Love, Andrew Bynum and Rajon Rondo.
To put things in perspective, in the previous ten years, there were 21 players drafted outside of the top 5 that went on to appear on an All NBA team. They were:
Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowizki, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Zach Randolph, Kevin Garnett, Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudamire, Ben Wallace, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, Ron Artest, Sam Cassell, Michael Redd, Jermaine O’Neal, Eddie Jones and Vin Baker.
You could say that there are more from the previous ten years because they had more time to make an All NBA team, and you’d be right. To a degree. You see, the vast majority of those players of those players achieved this feat within 5 years of being drafted. That’s enough to account for a slightly higher number, but not seven times as many.
There are some very good reason why it’s become harder to draft an elite player outside of the top five. You just have to take a cursory glance to figure out a couple. Of the 21 players, 9 either came from Europe or high school. Two things have changed in the last ten years. The first is that high school players are no longer eligible to be drafted.
Had players like Kobe, Amare, Garnett, McGrady or even Jermaine O’Neal played even one season of college ball, it’s likely they would have been picked much higher than they were, probably even in the top five. Back when those players were drafted, teams were less willing to take a chance on a high school player, because there so few examples of successful prep-to-NBA successes. Obviously times have changed.
Like high school players, international players who hadn’t played college ball in the US were also considered huge gambles. Few teams had many scouts in Europe, if any, and it was easy for players to slip through the cracks and teams like the Spurs and Mavericks had much better international scouting than any other teams to find gems like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki. Not long after those players achieved their success, did every other NBA team start focusing on finding the next Dirk or Manu, culminating in Detroit passing up Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in order to take the unproven Darko Milicic with the second pick in the 2003 draft.
Needless to say, it’s become MUCH harder to find great European players outside of the top five. Ten years ago, Jonas Valanciunas probably would have been a late first rounder, especially considering he couldn’t come over right away. Last year he’s a top five pick.
And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), it’s also becoming harder to find great college players late in the draft, too. In the last ten years, two second round picks have appeared in an All Star game (Marc Gasol and Mo Williams). In the previous ten years there were seven. And I’ve already detailed how few players drafted outside the top 5, in the last ten years, made an All NBA team.
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say advanced stats have helped college scouting so that fewer good players are falling through the cracks. It’s become easier, at least theoretically, to gauge the impact a college player will have on the NBA, based on his advanced stats. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to argue with the evidence that it’s harder to find good players later in the draft than ever before.
Just ask the San Antonio Spurs, who has been one of the most successful teams, in terms of drafting, in the last 20 years. It’s been ten years that they’ve even been able to draft an above average player.
So is it fair to say that, unless you’re drafting in the top five, you’re chance of finding a great player is slim to none? I’d say so.
So if the Raptors aren’t going to be able to draft an elite player, maybe they can trade for one, right?
Let’s look at the evidence, here.
In the last 10 years, ten All NBA players have been traded while still All Stars- Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson. Denver won all of one playoff game with Iverson, he was basically shoved out of Philadelphia because he was doing more harm than good there (they got better AFTER he left), and it was the start of his decline into oblivion, so let’s remove him from the equation.
Howard, Paul, Anthony, O’Neal and Garnett all had final say over where they were traded (for various reasons), and all went to teams that already had an All NBA player on the roster. With the Raptors lacking even an All Star, and with Toronto not being one of the prime NBA destinations (Los Angeles, Miami, New York, etc), it’s unlikely a franchise player would agree to a trade to Toronto.
Williams was traded for a package that included an unprotected high lottery pick (which ended up being #3), something the Raptors won’t have to offer if they’re fighting for a playoff spot. One of the reasons teams trade elite players is to rebuild, and it’s common for them to want a high lottery pick back to speed the rebuilding process. New Jersey also mortgaged the farm in order to trade for Williams. If he had signed elsewhere this past summer, it would have been devastating, especially considering they still owe Utah one more first round pick.
Joe Johnson is 31 and with an unwieldy contract that Atlanta basically gave away in order to get rid of. He was a perennial All-Star, but simply was never good enough to lead the Hawks past the second round of the playoffs, so it’s obvious if he’s your best player, you’re team is probably not going to be a contender. And that’s exactly why the Hawks gave him away for what amounted to future cap space.
Both McGrady and Bynum were/are phenomenally gifted players who struggled with motivation and injuries. It never worked out for the Rockets, who didn’t get out of the first round with McGrady. We’ll see how it works out for Philadelphia.
It’s hard to point to many successes that the Raptors could use as a model, when trading for an elite player. What makes things look murkier is that the Raptors simply don’t have a whole lot of great assets they could use to trade for an elite player and still remain competitive.
So trading for an elite player could actually make them a worse team. And since most elite players are traded near the end of their contract, the Raptors would have very little time to build around the player before they could leave.
So yes, it’s possible for the Raptors to trade for an elite player, but without an All Star or a high lottery pick to give up, while still having enough talent to compete, the chances of getting one is slim.
It seems to me that some people think that the Raptors could simply upgrade their roster like the one red paperclip guy, turning Gary Forbes into Derrick Rose, when it doesn’t exactly work that way in the NBA. True franchise players are incredibly valuable. It’s not a case of having enough nice assets to trade for one. Teams usually only give up players like that if they feel they are about to lose them for nothing, so you’re going to give up the farm for a guy who could leave in a year.
I’m certainly not against making trades to improve the team once you have an elite player (or two), but I think expecting that you’ll be able to eventually trade for one is setting yourself for disappointment.
This is the route that Bryan Colangelo seems to love to use. Throughout his term in Toronto, he’s shown a love for cap room that has made little sense considering the circumstances and results.
In the last 10 years in the league, there have actually been very few elite players who have left their team to sign with another. In fact there have been four. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudamire and Steve Nash. That’s it. And after what LeBron and Bosh did to Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, I wouldn’t expect a lot of teams waiting until their franchise player is a free agent to lock them up.
That’s not to say that you can’t find some nice players in free agency. Steve Nash should help the Lakers compete for a title, again, Jeremy Lin is an adequate replacement for Kyle Lowry in Houston, and Andrei Kirilenko might be enough to push the T-Wolves into the playoffs for the first time without Kevin Garnett.
They’re nice pickups, sure, but none of them is good enough to turn a mediocre team into a contender and, at this point, none are franchise players (hard to call a 39 year old PG a franchise player). Free agency would be a good option for teams who need complimentary pieces, but not for a team, like the Raptors, who need an elite player. The Lakers can do that. Ninety percent of the rest of the league can’t.
Of course, one counter argument that always seems to come up is that no team has tanked and then went on to win a Championship. It seems like a good argument, but the problem is that it’s hard to quantify exactly what tanking is. The season that David Robinson was hurt, you could argue that the Spurs tanked in order to get Tim Duncan. Boston definitely tanked before trading for Kevin Garnett. They failed to land Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, but acquired enough assets (including the 5th pick in the draft) to grab Ray Allen, which was enough to convince Kevin Garnett to agree to a trade to Boston.
This counter argument also doesn’t take into consideration that the landscape has changed. Teams used to be able to find franchise players anywhere in the top half of the first round. Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Joe Dumars, Alex English and even Larry Bird. All Hall of Fame (or future Hall of Fame) and all drafted outside of the top 5. Who the hell needed to tank when you could find great players anywhere in the draft?
You also have to realize how few teams have actually won titles. In the last 30 years, only 8 different teams have won Championships. You think the Raptors can build a Championship the same way the Lakers have? The same team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash have all either requested to be traded to, or signed with. Why would the Lakers need to tank when players are knocking down their door just to play on the team?
Let’s look at the teams that have won Championships since Michael Jordan left Chicago for good.
The Spurs won with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, both of whom they drafted number one overall. Whether or not they tanked is not the point. The point is they drafted two Hall of Fame big men with number one picks. If the Raptors are able to do this without trying, then great. I don’t think it’s something you can plan, though. Still, the Spurs wouldn’t be the in the position they are right now if they didn’t land Tim Duncan with the top pick in 1997.
Los Angeles won 3 Championships in a row by signing free agent Hall of Fame center, Shaq, and trading a top ten center for a mid-first round pick who turned out to be one of the best players of All TIme. Had he spent even a year in college, he would have probably been a top 5 pick. The Raptors aren’t going to be able to sign a franchise player and there are no more high school players in the draft, anymore. This is not a good blueprint for the Raptors.
The Spurs won again with Tim Duncan, again a #1 pick, as well as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs were able to draft both Parker and Ginobili at a time when international scouting was in it’s infancy and lots of overseas players would fall through the cracks. That’s not the case today, where every team has a big international scouting department.
It’s become almost impossible to find an elite player outside of the top 5 (as I showed earlier) that you can’t plan for it.
Detroit is probably the biggest fluke and worst blueprint to try and follow for any Championship team. First of all, they won their Championship when contenders were in flux and injured (Duncan was hurt, Shaq and Kobe were imploding). They got a future 4 time Defensive PLayer of the Year as a throw in in a sign and trade for their best player (Grant Hill), one of the best clutch players of his generation after bouncing around the league and never living up to his promise, one of the most talented and enigmatic big men in the league for a pittance, and their wing players, both of whom became All-Stars because both were incredibly undervalued at the time. They had FIVE All Stars and two probable Hall of Fame players. This perfect storm of flux throughout the league when they won and somehow being able to acquire 5 All Stars who were incredibly undervalued will never be done again. It’s an impossible blueprint to follow and requires WAY more luck than hoping to land a franchise player with a top 5 pick.
San Antonio won again, with their #1 pick and two international players.
Miami won, having drafted Dwyane Wade with a top 5 pick and after trading for Shaq, who agreed to the trade because he lived in Miami in the offseason, and the team already had Wade. First of all, the Raptors don’t have a player of Wade’s calibre, and a player like Shaq probably wouldn’t agree to a trade to Toronto without a franchise player already on the team.
San Antonio won again.
Boston won, after having drafted Paul Pierce, one of the best players in the league, and then after it became clear they weren’t getting anywhere, tanked for a couple of seasons in order to acquire the assets to trade for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Without Paul Pierce already on the team, Garnett doesn’t agree to the trade. The chance of finding another franchise player outside of the top five today is almost nil.
The Lakers won back to back titles with Kobe Bryant, who the Lakers obviously got as a high school player at a time when high school players were underscouted and undervalued. And now you can’t draft them. They also were able to steal Pau Gasol away from Memphis in what a lot of people felt was one of the most lopsided trade in NBA history, at the time. Not exactly a good blueprint to follow.
Dallas won their title by trading for Dirk Nowitzki right after the draft at a time when international players were not scouted heavily and not thought of very highly. As I previously said, the drafting of Darko since then shows this has changed. Dallas also used Cuban’s deep pockets and willingness to spend by acquiring massive contract after massive contract until they had one of the largest payrolls in the league. The year they won the title, they had the third highest payroll in the league and were paying their top 7 players nearly $70 million. I don’t see the Raptors being able to duplicate either strategy.
And then last year the Miami Heat won, after attracting LeBron James and Chris Bosh to a team that already had Dwyane Wade on it. Without Wade on the team, it’s highly doubtful either LeBron or Bosh would have signed with Miami.
So San Antonio and Miami won by drafting franchise players in the top five. The Lakers won by being the Lakers (attracting Shaq) and taking advantage of the lack of high school scouting. Boston won by drafting Paul Pierce and using his presence to attract better players. Dallas won by taking advantage of the lack of international scouting and by spending more than just about everyone in the league.
I don’t see ANY of those teams being a good example for how a team like Toronto can build a contender without actually having that franchise player first. And trying to copy Detroit is like catching lightening in a bottle.
I don’t see how trying to draft a franchise player in the draft has LESS of a chance of succeeding than trying to somehow acquire a franchise player through a trade or free agency, or by winning without one. If I’m playing the odds, I go with the draft.
In 17 years, the Toronto Raptors have been able to acquire one player who became an All-Star in Toronto. One. And he was borderline at that. And the Raptors gave up a 5th pick to get him. On the other hand, the Raptors have been able to draft two players who became perennial All-Stars, while in Toronto.
During their 17 years, the Raptors have had six top 5 picks. Valanciunas looks like a great pick, but hasn’t played, yet. Of the 5 other ones, 3 were either All-Stars or traded for All Stars, and two became All NBA players.
The problem the Raptors have had is not how they acquired their best players (by losing). It’s what they did AFTER they acquired them. It’s the drafting outside of the lottery, the trades and the free agency that Toronto has not done well enough to surround Vince Carter and Chris Bosh with the talent to build contenders. Yet, that’s exactly the strategy that some people feel the Raptors should do.
And people say I need a reality check. You’ve got to be kidding.
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