NBA PM: How To Rebuild An NBA Franchise
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How To Rebuild An NBA Franchise
One of the hardest things to do in professional sports is rebuild a franchise, so much so that fans and teams alike dread the concept altogether. Still, there are 14 NBA teams currently grappling with the prospect of doing just that, to one degree or another. What’s the best approach? The best way to get a grasp on what it means to completely revamp an NBA franchise is to talk to someone who’s done it, someone like former Indiana Pacers general manager David Morway.
“First, before doing anything else, it’s important to do a thorough evaluation of the entire basketball operation including the status of the roster, the coaching staff, the scouting operation, the support staff, the team culture, the basketball operations infrastructure and the team’s cap situation and financial flexibility going forward,” said Morway, who worked with Larry Bird to help the Pacers bridge the Reggie Miller era and the current up-and-coming team. “In addition, I also think it’s important to spend some time understanding both the history of the franchise as well as how the franchise got to it’s current state. After all of that is done, then it’s important to develop a clear, concise game-plan for moving the franchise forward.”
The popular way for teams to talk about rebuilding now is in the mold of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost a ton of games, landed good draft picks, used them well and developed their talented young players into a championship-caliber team. Of course, they also had the benefit of a franchise move, which ensured rabid fan support during the tough losses, and they also happened to land Kevin Durant, who has turned into an all-world player. It’s fine to talk about doing it the OKC way, but that’s not necessarily something just any team can do.
“I’m not sure that there is one specific way to rebuild a franchise in today’s NBA,” said Morway. “Clearly, drafting well, organically developing your players, establishing cap and financial flexibility and then being opportunistic in using the cap flexibility created in prospective trades and in free agency are key drivers to success. However, how each franchise goes about the specifics of rebuilding is going to be very franchise-specific based on many concerns including timing issues, financial issues, ownership expectations and at some level your fan base tolerance for rebuilding. Just look at Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Miami and the Lakers, for example. Each of them went about rebuilding in different ways using the drivers I mentioned before, yet they each have been very successful over significant periods of time. At the end of the day, the goal is build a franchise that has a clear identity and a sustainable team culture centered around core players who are surrounded by a roster with depth. The one thing you see when you study franchises that have won championships in the past like the Celtics, the Lakers, the Pistons, the Spurs and Miami is a clear and consistent franchise culture that they live by everyday.”
One of the big issues facing teams as they ponder rebuilding is the ever-growing focus on immediate gratification. Fans are closer to their teams than ever before thanks to social media, and through those mediums they can apply enormous pressure on ownership and management to move quickly. That makes it even harder for teams that aren’t in the middle of a move to keep the fans interested while doing what’s necessary to develop a team for the future.
“Yeah, I think there is much more pressure when it comes to all those things, and like I mentioned before, every franchise is very different,” Morway said. “Most importantly though, you need to understand your owner’s expectations and tolerance for rebuilding. At some level it’s important to understand your fan base’s expectations, as well, but when you make decisions you’ve got to be able to tune out all the fans, media and all those other things. The key is making smart basketball decisions, regardless of public perception, that are based on a disciplined decision-making model that follows the game plan established at the outset.”
Smaller NBA markets are always going to have to approach things differently from their large-market counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they will have an automatic advantage. This season, for example, teams like the Thunder, Pacers and Spurs have had a great deal more success than the Lakers, who could afford to outspend them all significantly.
“It’s more difficult for a small market, but that’s the challenge,” admitted Morway. “There are several very successful small market franchises today that have been built with discipline, patience, creativity and above all else a culture and expectation of winning. Players see that and want to be a part of it.”
One way that teams can develop their players is to provide extra support beyond the court to help their young men grow as people as well as players. Morway helped implement such a program in Indiana and he believes it is essential for the growth of a healthy team culture.
“Absolutely, that’s no different than any other proactive corporation or business in the U.S. today,” Morway explained. “They invest in their people and their people are going to perform. You have to do the same thing in the NBA, but in an even more comprehensive fashion. We’re drafting young men that are 19 or 20 years old, for the most part, and we expect them to act like seasoned professionals. Unfortunately, that’s typically not the case. Like most 19- and 20-year-olds, they’re still developing both their on- and off-court skill sets. Yet the scrutiny they’re under on a daily basis when it comes to the media and the fan base is something that is atypical not only for them, but for most of us. As a result, at some level, I think it’s the responsibility of the franchise to help expedite their growth by putting resources and programs in place that are designed specifically to help them develop their off-court skill set. The key with programs like this is patience. You have to remember that it takes time.”
Of course, there’s also the advanced statistical side of team building, made famous by the recent movie “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Morway sees the stats side of the game as important, but only as part of a more holistic approach.
“The analytics movement in the NBA today is definitely a more integral part of the evaluation process and it’s important,” Morway said. “However, it’s still just one piece of a bigger puzzle which also includes, for example, the scouting side, the medical side, the psychological piece and each player’s background history. The more advanced stats we’re looking at today help to develop a clearer picture of the total player and at the end of the day the more information you have the better more solid decisions you’re going to make when it comes to player evaluation. The key issue here is to make intelligent, carefully thought out decisions that stay true to the vision of the franchise.”
The video game age has a tendency to make it harder for NBA fans to understand just how complicated it is to really rebuild a franchise. Unlike in simulations, where a team with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol might go 82-0, the real world is much more complex. There are advanced stats, sure, but there is also a significant psychological component, as well as the court work and the training that go into developing players into a strong, cohesive unit.
David Morway was an integral part of the team that undertook the challenge of rebuilding the Indiana Pacers, and small market or not, the Pacers have clearly made the moves and developed their team to the point where they can compete with anyone, including their large market opponents. It is this all-around approach that will most likely prove most successful as the new NBA collective bargaining agreement starts to make things harder for the team who simply look to spend their way into contention.
James Harden Must Stop Disappearing
There’s little doubt that one of the biggest stories in the NBA this season has been the meteoric rise of Houston Rockets guard James Harden. Traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder prior to the start of the season, Harden went from Sixth Man of the Year candidate to MVP candidate overnight. After averaging 16.8 points in his third season for the Thunder, which included a trip to the NBA Finals, Harden opened his fourth year in the league by dropping 37 points on the Detroit Pistons and then 45 on the Atlanta Hawks, serving notice to the NBA that he was ready to assume command of his own franchise.
Even after the great start, Harden turned out to be incredibly good for the Rockets. Some players have early success in a new role, like Jeremy Lin did in his first month with the New York Knicks last season, but once the scouting report catches up they sometimes struggle to maintain a high level of play. That wasn’t the case for Harden, who averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds on the year, all career bests.
That’s not to say that it’s all wine and roses for Harden, who is still haunted by his tendency to fade when his team needs him most. He disappeared in the NCAA Tournament as Arizona State University’s driving force, and he disappeared in last year’s NBA Finals, when the Thunder needed his contributions the most. After being uncontainable as the Thunder pushed their way through the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, Harden seemed to completely lose sight of his game against the Miami HEAT. He failed to score in double-figures just three times in last year’s playoffs, all three of those were in the Finals, where he averaged just 12.4 points and shot 36 percent from the field.
This is the context in which Rockets fans have begun wondering about their new MVP of late. Harden struggled in Houston’s most important game of the season, a finale against the battered and bruised Lakers. A win would have meant the Rockets faced off with the older, slower Spurs, whereas a loss meant they faced the defending Western Conference Champs from OKC. Harden had a decent game, scoring 30 points, he shot just 8-for-25 from the field, committed eight turnovers and failed to score in the clutch in either the fourth quarter or the overtime period, when superstars normally take over. The Rockets lost, setting up a terrible first round match-up with OKC.
Last night’s Game 1 did little to soothe Rockets fans’ concerns about Harden’s Achilles’ heel. The Thunder, who are more than familiar with Harden’s game, neutralized him early on and he never recovered. James went 9-for-16 from the field and scored 20 points en route to a 120-91 loss. The Rockets were -28 with Harden on the court.
“Believe it or not I think losing like this will be good for us,” Harden said after the game. “We’ll get better out of it; we’ll look at the film and see what we need to do to get better. But just coming out here and being in a playoff atmosphere, on the road, it’s good for us. We just gotta get more rebounds.”
Getting more rebounds will help, but the biggest adjustment that needs to be made won’t happen between now and Wednesday’s Game 2. Harden is a solid piece to build around, but the Rockets are still one significant piece away from challenging a team like the Thunder, who have the Western Conference’s best one-two punch in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Rockets also need some sort of post game, so that when the drive and dish isn’t working they have something else to try. Harden was great for most of the regular season, but the playoffs are an entirely different animal. Teams are going to take you out of your “A-Game” and force you to do something else. In Game 1, the Rockets didn’t have a Plan-B.
It’s also legit to say that Harden has to continue to grow as a player and learn how to handle the pressure of being his team’s number one option in the playoffs. He’s not the first player to struggle in that role and he won’t be the last, but the great players are the ones who thrive on the challenge and rise above it. The Rockets’ best hope is not to win their first round series against the Thunder; that’s a nearly impossible task. What the Rockets hope is that the experience of losing in the first round will be a stepping stone upon which the franchise can grow and learn.
That all starts with James Harden.
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