There is absolutely no chance whatsoever that the Rockets will win an NBA championship this year. But the play hard every night; they’re in every game they play; and they’re incredibly entertaining to watch. I count myself lucky to be a fan. In fact, this may very well be the best season for Houston Rockets fans since 1994-1995? Why is that? Do you want to know the secret? It’s because the Rockets can’t lose.
Every win is a win. But every loss is a win as well. Here’s why:
WHAT MAKES A CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM?
Although it seems obvious, even a brief review of the last 30 years of NBA history (roughly the modern era beginning with Bird and Magic) reveals an undeniable truth: no team can win without drafting a franchise player. Only once in the last three decades has an NBA team won a championship without a true franchise player, the Detroit Pistons in 2004. And in all that time, only one franchise player has switched teams in his prime—Shaquille O’Neal, who signed as a free agent with the Lakers in 1996.
Now what do I mean by a franchise player? I mean not only someone who is the best player on his team, but a player who can carry a team to the finals and give them a legitimate chance to win. A player you can build an entire team around. Not every “franchise” player in the last 30 years has won a title, but all of them, with the exception of two very recent draft picks, have played in the finals, and most have led their teams to victory. My list of franchise players in the last 30 years and their relative draft positions looks like this:
#1 PICKS – 7 FRANCHISE PLAYERS
TOP THREE PICKS – 3 FRANCHISE PLAYERS
Jordan (drafted #3)
Isiah Thomas (drafted #2)
Kevin Durant (drafted #2).
TOP TEN PICKS – 5 FRANCHISE PLAYERS
Larry Bird (drafted #6)
Paul Pierce (drafted #10)
Dirk Nowitski (drafted #9)
Dwayne Wade (drafted #5)
Brandon Roy (drafted #6)
TOP FOURTEEN PICKS – 3 FRANCHISE PLAYERS
Kobe Bryant (drafted #13)
Clyde Drexler (drafted #14)
Karl Malone (drafted #13)
Obviously, you could argue about some of the players on this list. Durant, Roy , even Dwayne Wade may look like very different players in twenty years. By the same token, you could argue that Jason Kidd (drafted #2) or Charles Barkley (drafted #5) belong on this list. And perhaps Bird should be counted as a #1 pick since that’s where he probably would have gone had he come out early. But the overall numbers provide some very interesting insights into franchise building.
First, by my count, the last 30 years have produced only 18 franchise players (and maybe only 9 genuinely dominant players: Bird, Magic, Hakeem , Jordan , Shaq, Kobe , Duncan , Isiah, and LeBron). That means that in any given year, there is no better than a 60% chance that a franchise player is even available in the draft. Likewise, more often than not, that franchise player will not be the first player taken in the draft. Indeed, given that only seven franchise players have been taken #1 in the last three decades, there is only a roughly 23% chance that any year’s first pick will lead his team to a title someday. For every Shaq drafted, there are another three Joe Smiths or Greg Odens taken with the first pick. Moreover, even a slew of high draft picks is no guarantee of access to a franchise changing player. No teams have had more high draft picks in the last three decades than the Clippers, Grizzlies, and Timberwolves; yet by my analysis, those teams have only had the opportunity to draft franchise players a handful of times. The Grizzlies and Clippers passed on Nowitski and Pierce in 1998. All three teams passed on Kobe in 1996, and the Timberwolves drafted–then traded!–Brandon Roy in 2006. But that’s it. The Duncans, Shaqs, Lebrons, and Howards of the last 30 drafts were never in their reach. Those franchises may be inept; but they’ve also been just plain unlucky.
What, you might ask, are the odds of drafting a franchise player in any given year?
With the #1 pick, you have a 60% chance of drafting a franchise player. If you can identify the Kobes (drafted #13) and Drexlers (#14) as easily as you spot the Duncans and Shaqs.
With a top three pick, you have a 36% chance of drafting a franchise player in any given year (based on an analysis of every player picked between #2 and #15 over the last three decades.)
With a top ten pick, you have a 26% chance of drafting a franchise player (based on an analysis of every player picked between #4 and #15 over the last three decades.)
And even with a top fourteen pick, you have a 10% chance of drafting a franchise player in any given year (based on every player picked between #11 and #14 over the last three decades.)
Even more interesting, however, is what all these players have in common, and what sets them apart from the “almost” greats. The franchise player list is composed of seven shooting guards; four centers; three small forwards; two power forwards; and two point guards. Arguably, you might well decide that Tim Duncan should be counted as a center and Isiah Thomas as a shooting guard. If so, that would slant the numbers even more: eight shooting guards; five centers; three small forwards; one power forward and one point guard.
What makes these franchise players special stands out when you compare them with the last three decades of draft picks who didn’t make the cut. A short list of talented, but non-franchise players (i.e., players you couldn’t rely upon as your best player to win a title), would have to include:
I would add to this list a host of players who, while talented, never won a title or made the finals as the best player on their team. That list would include:
Two things seem to set the franchise players apart from the pretenders. The first is that, almost without exception, the franchise players have the ability to impact the game both as crunch time scorers AND as devastating defenders. Indeed, players like Olajuwon , Jordan, Kobe, and Duncan could change games without scoring a point. During Jordan ’s first comeback, he and Pippen routinely broke the will of other teams through their full court defense. I’ve never seen a more fearsome defensive duo than those two during that period. Even franchise players like Larry Bird who were not great individual defenders were often excellent team defenders, who could take opponents entirely out of their game plans. In fact, Bird was a 2nd team All NBA defensive player three times in his career. If you were looking for one defining attribute for a franchise player it would be this: the greatest players of the last 30 years could not only lead the league in scoring if they wanted, they also routinely were first or second team all NBA defenders. Ultimately, that’s the quality that sets the greats (Kobe, Jordan, Hakeem, Duncan) apart from the pretenders (Iverson, Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley).
By contrast, the most questionable franchise players on the list—Durant, Nowitski, and Pierce—are the ones whose defense is the weak part of their game. When you examine the list of talented non-franchise players, the weakness they most commonly exhibit is that they simply had no passion, or no talent, for playing defense. Indeed, some players like Nash and Carter are defensive liabilities. Scoring ability is consistently overrated, and defensive ability is underrated; but what good is it to score 24 pts a night if your opponent is routinely putting up 18-22 against you? This is why the Suns are the most overrated team of the last three decades.
Those talented non-franchise players who could play defense–great players like Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Kidd, inevitably suffered from that other great Achilles heel—they simply could not be counted on to score in crunch time of close game. The Minnesota Timberwolves languished in mediocrity for years because Garnett simply did not have the ability to close out tough games. For all his talent, Garnett, like Chris Webber or Vince Carter, was not a player you could count on to take and make big shots in the last five minutes of an important contest.
The second thing that appears to set most of these franchise players apart is a quality you discussed at length in your book: an unquenchable hatred of losing; a will not just to win, but to dominate; a fierce competitiveness that is as rare as a talented seven footer. This quality doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. It can’t be measured like height or vertical leaping ability. But it’s clearly something that sets players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant apart from the McGradys, Carters, and David Robinsons of the world. This desire to win–coupled with an understanding the “secret,” putting winning and teamwork before anything else–is what sets the great players apart from the very good players.
A third observation follows from the bare numbers: point guards and power forwards are overrated. Or rather, if your best player is a point guard get ready for disappointment. And if your best two players are your point guard and your power forward (Suns, Jazz, Hornets), get ready for big disappointment. History has been vastly unkind to this combination. See, for example, Stockton and Malone, Barkley and Kevin Johnson, Nash and Stoudamire, Payton and Kemp, Webber and Bibby. These combinations are a gamblers dream; I’d bet them every year to NOT win the title if I could.
If your best scorer is also your primary ball handler, there are simply not enough touches for your teammates. Likewise, unless your last name is Duncan or Rodman, it is difficult to dominate games defensively from the power forward position. There is something about the center, shooting guard, and small forward positions that lend themselves more easily to dominance on both ends of the court. If Derrick Fisher’s career stands for anything, it is the principle that good defense, a decent handle, and 36% shooting from three point range are all that a championship contender requires out of their point guard.
BUILDING A CHAMPIONSHIP FRANCHISE
Why are these observations important to franchise building? I’m glad you asked. The worst thing that can happen to a franchise is what happened to the Memphis Grizzlies during the Pau Gasol years or to the Minnesota Timberwolves during the Kevin Garnett era. That is: high level mediocrity. Those teams routinely won 45-50 games a year, and then got swept in the first round. Every year their fans thought, “This is the year,” and every year they were disappointed. It was always an illusion. Teams built around non-franchise players–even great non-franchise players like Chris Webber, Karl Malone, or Charles Barkley–simply do not have what it takes to win a title. The 2004 Detroit Pistons aside, no team has ever won an NBA title in the last 30 years without a crunch time scorer who could also lock down his man, create defensive havoc, and lead his team by example.
Look at the teams who’ve won (and their best player) over the last three decades:
Chicago (Jordan): 6 titles
Los Angeles (Magic): 5 titles
San Antonio (Duncan): 4 titles
Boston (Bird): 3 titles
Los Angeles (Shaq): 3 titles
Houston (Olajuwon): 2 titles
Detroit (Isiah Thomas): 2 titles
Los Angeles (Kobe)
Philadelphia 76's (Moses Malone)
Even when these teams weren’t winning, they often found themselves matched up in the finals against the teams who did. Of all these teams, the only dynasty led by a franchise player not noted for his defensive prowess was Magic Johnson. But Magic in his prime could make an impact on defense when he chose (he led the league in steals in 1982); Magic also had one of the best centers who ever lived (Kareem) guarding the rim.
By contrast, the best players on the great teams who never won a title in that same period all exhibited one of two obvious flaws: either they couldn’t score in crunch time or they couldn’t make an impact on defense.
Utah (Malone) (twice)
New Jersey (Kidd) (twice)
New York Knicks (Ewing)
Seattle Supersonics (Payton, Kemp)
New York Knicks (Allan Houston)
Indiana Pacers (Miller)
Only Lebron James seems seriously out of place on the above list.
What I take from all of this is the following conclusion: NBA champions aren’t built; they’re drafted. It’s an impossible dream to think that your franchise is going to put together two or three very good players (say Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp) and beat one great player (like Jordan ). It’s not going to happen. There have been scores of terrific, highly entertaining teams built over the last 30 years who never had a genuine chance to win. Among them: Nash’s Suns, Barkley’s Suns, Mourning’s Miami Heat, Glen Robinson’s Milwaukee Bucks, and Reggie Miller’s Pacers. The illusion that gets perpetuated over time is the “Oh, if they just got that one break” theory that gets applied to all of these teams. If only the fight hadn’t broken out in the Suns/Spurs series; if only John Starks hadn’t gone 2 for 18 in game 7 of the finals; if only...if only..... But the fact is that the great players find a way to win. There is no “if only” when you talk about their careers. Players like Barkley, Miller, and Kemp never won a title for a good reason–they didn’t have what it takes.
More importantly, though, if your franchise doesn’t have one of these rare two way players, a talent who can score on one end and shut down his man on the other, your team is never going anywhere. You may win a lot games; you may win your division; you may even playoff series. But you will not win a championship. And in many ways, ending up with an “almost” great player as your cornerstone—a Garnett, a Barkley, or a Gasol—is even worse than just being a bad team. Because it condemns you to mediocrity. You will never win a title; but you will never draft high enough that you can acquire a franchise player. The stupidity of teams like the Philadelphia 76s who inked Andre Igodola to a long term near max deal or the Wizards who hitched their franchise to Gilbert Arenas is mind boggling. Signing these players to long term deals guaranteed not just losing seasons but losing millions of dollars at the box office for the foreseeable future.
The great general managers understand this: the only way to win in the NBA is to lose, and lose big. If you don’t have a franchise player, you must lose and keep losing until you can draft a franchise player. Don’t pay Gilbert Arenas 110 million dollars to insure that your team will never make the finals. Don’t keep adding talent around a star like Steve Nash who cannot be your best player. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that adding a scoring machine like Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady will lead you to the promised land. You must lose—and keep losing—until you get that franchise player. Greg Popovitch’s single best decision was refusing to allow David Robinson to come back early in 1997. The Cleveland Cavaliers best coaching hire was John Lucas—a man who would not let pride come between him and the chance to coach Lebron.
An example of what not to do: four years ago, the Houston Rockets were mired in the midst of a terrible season that (deja vu) saw both Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming injured for large chunks of the year. With just seven games left in the season, the Rockets were a dozen games under .500 and playing the Timberwolves in an utterly meaningless game. Deep in the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves had a large lead. Then Jeff Van Gundy inserted recent D-League Call Up, Chuck Hayes. Chuck did not get the losing memo. He proceeded to single handedly track down every rebound and loose ball in the arena, and shame his team into an improbable comeback. Van Gundy refused to lay down and lose this game. In overtime, the Timberwolves–having cheated a guaranteed victory–spent the entire overtime period feeding Mark Madsen at the three point line. Surprise! The Rockets won the game. And by winning they lost. They lost big time. The Rockets finished the season 34-48. The Timberwolves finished 33-49. At the NBA draft, the Timberwolves selected Brandon Roy two spots ahead of the Rockets and traded him to Portland . The Rockets had to settle for a draft day trade for Sean Battier. The rest as they say is history. The Rockets lost out on a player they could have legitimately built around for the next decade. Van Gundy got fired the next season after losing to Utah in a game 7 on the Rockets home floor, because his team’s “closer,” Tracy McGrady, forgot to show up for the 4th quarter.
The fact remains: you can’t build a winner around good players. You must get lucky enough (or smart enough) to draft a franchise player. Only a few come along each decade. Sometimes years pass before another enters the league. (See 1999 to 2001 drafts for example.) You must be willing to keep losing. If you should find yourself forced to draft Kenyon Martin, Steve Francis, Elton Brand, Pau Gasol, or—God forbid—Kwame Brown, then there’s only one responsible choice: trade them for more draft picks. Don’t go about building 40 win teams around players who will never take you any further.
Similarly, if you are the Chicago Bulls, the last thing you do is fire Vinny Del Negro—unless you’re planning on replacing him with Isiah Thomas. You want the most incompetent coach possible. As long as Derrick Rose, your point guard, is the best player on the team, you have no chance of winning anything. You’ve either got to trade Rose, or will yourself back into the lottery. The current league is full of teams that aren’t good enough to win a title and aren’t bad enough to land a lottery pick. Among them? The Utah Jazz, the New Orleans Hornets, the Toronto Raptors, the Charlotte Bobcats, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Phoenix Suns. These teams are like late night cable—all tease, no climax. I’d hate to be among their fans; their management is too scared to tear these teams down; too dumb to realize they’ll never win anything. Instead, these franchises fool themselves into thinking they can “build” a champion without actually possessing a championship caliber player. It’ll never happen. You can’t build your way to a franchise player.
I can’t tell you how to go about identifying franchise players. How could you know in 1996 that Kobe would grow up to be the second coming of Michael Jordan? How could you know that Chris Webber lacked the fire inside to win? It’s rarely obvious on draft day. But it’s almost always obvious within a player’s first three years in the league. The great ones have a will to win (and to improve) that the “almost” great players lack. By year three, the difference between the Elton Brands and the Dwight Howards of the world is usually obvious. The problem is that franchises are too committed to winning, and not committed enough to greatness.
There are a few obvious signs of greatness: shooting guards at 6’6’’ and above with standout athleticism. 6’ 10’’ and above centers with mobility, speed, and a clean bill of health. Small forwards blessed with outstanding shooting and passing touch. These players don’t come around often, but surprisingly teams consistently overrate size, “potential,” and skin color when it comes to evaluating players. (How else do you explain Adam Morrison, Stromile Swift, Darco Milicic, Mike Dunleavy, Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, etc….). For the most part, the greatest franchise players had already enjoyed great success in college ball. They weren’t drafted on “potential.” The weirdest drops in recent NBA draft history (Paul Pierce, Brandon Roy, Chris Paul) followed on the heels of teams falling in love with “potential.” I’ll take a player like Dwayne Wade, who averaged 21.1 points a game for a major college program as a sophomore over a Chris Bosh who averaged 15 and nine boards. I’ll take a Durant who dominated college basketball over a Greg Oden who put up decent but not mind blowing numbers every time. Clyde Drexler had been to the NCAA finals two years in a row, and still dropped to #14 after such luminaries as Steve Stiponovitch, Russell Cross, Ennis Whatley, and Sidney Green had been snapped up. What were these teams thinking?
For a franchise committed to winning, the contrarian move would be to put the same effort into losing games that most teams put into winning. Teams that want to win a championship need to have a five year plan for tearing their franchises down, before try and build them up. Teams don’t want to trade next year’s draft choice. But that 2014 draft pick? Hell, most general managers figure they will be long gone by then. They are more than happy to trade away the distant future for a shot at current redemption. If I’m the Bucks or the Jazz or the Suns, I target 2014 the way most teams have targeted the free agent pool of 2010. I pick out the teams with the worst ownership and make trades hoping to land high picks. Meanwhile, I get rid of all my long term, big money deals. My goal is to create as much cap space as possible for the day I finally land that franchise player. Attendance may suffer, but if I’m 20 million under the cap I’ll still be doing just fine.
Now should the league reward intentional losing? Ideally, no. I was outraged when I saw that Rockets / Timberwolves game back in 2005. But the league does reward losing. And as long as this is the case, the smart teams should take full advantage. The problem is that bad teams like the Clippers can’t even make a concerted effort to lose. They just stumble along, decade after decade, occasionally teasing their fans with false hope but mostly just delivering a constant diet of disappointment. Give me three seasons of tanking over thirty years of unintentional mediocrity. You think Spurs fans wouldn’t trade three lost seasons for another Duncan ? Of course they would. In a heartbeat.
What the Rockets need is what every franchise needs: that one great player you build a team around. I’m hoping Morey finds a way. I’d love to see the Rockets win 50 games this year and make it back to the second round. But if we somehow miss the playoffs, then we have a top 15 pick, and there is always the chance we end up back in the lottery with a shot at greatness. And if we do get that special player, remember that he will look like this: he’ll score; he’ll defend like his life depended on it; and he will hate losing games even more than the most rabid fan. In other words, he will look a lot like Hakeem, even if he’s only 6'6". Thankfully, I believe Daryl Morey understands this, even if many of his competitors do not. We're lucky to have this guy as our general manager.