The point of competitive systems is to reward superior strategy and engagement with success. The NBA has the lottery, but its purpose has been to even talent discrepancies using a weighted chance system to make tanking less attractive. But the entire league isn't supposed to be determined by luck. Luck plays a part in which No. 1 picks become transcendent and which wind up as punch lines. It plays a part in injuries and, to a degree, the bounce of the ball off the rim.
Luck should not decide who's good and who's not. And more than anything, bad management seemingly should limit how much success is achieved, even if you do happen to hit the jackpot in the lottery once.
And yet, here we are.
The big winners of the 2014 NBA offseason are the Cleveland Cavaliers and the big losers are the Houston Rockets. Except Houston has been run well, and Cleveland has been a disaster. Go figure.
After James left in 2010, Dan Gilbert was ... a little upset. There's the letter, sure. But Gilbert pretty much went into petulant child mode. Remember, he was at the forefront of owner outcry over the nixed the Chris Paul deal that would have sent him to the Lakers. After what the Heat pulled, Gilbert essentially decided superteams are the mortal and moral enemy of his empire. Beyond that, he relentlessly pursued the playoffs. He seemed desperate to land a first-round matchup with Miami, to provide Cleveland with a chance at redemption, even though they would have been waxed. This is in part because of how much money he would have made off such an alignment.
He took shortcut after shortcut trying to get back to the playoffs. There was no patience, no rebuilding plan. Drafting Dion Waiters, trying to nab a transcendent surprise talent. Signing Jarrett Jack. Keeping Anderson Varejao. The Cavs spurned a methodical, well-planned rebuild in favor of a win-now-at-all-costs approach. And it was catastrophic. In a system like the NFL, where the worst team gets the No. 1 overall pick and so on, the Cavaliers would have been stuck in neutral, trying to find their way out of mud Gilbert put them in.
Yet the "karmic" gods, or whatever, have rewarded Gilbert, despite his failings. Three No. 1 picks in four years. Three. It's like the basketball gods were giving Gilbert the ultimate "Good Job, Good Effort." That stacked the roster, even if you don't think Anthony Bennett will ever amount to anything. (P.S.: It's too soon for that, the kid has looked good in Summer League.) Remember, in 2012 this same team was partying at the lottery and yelling, "We're never coming back here again!" The Cavs were back the next year. And they won. Again.
And then there's the lockout.
In the lockout, Gilbert led the charge of owners seeking supreme tax penalties on superteams, making them nearly impossible to maintain (beyond Miami, look at what's going on in Brooklyn). It was his side pushing for a bigger percentage of Basketball Related Income. It was his side putting more restrictive limits on what the max stars could make.
Everything that frustrated LeBron James about this season?
Gilbert did that. Everything that James and the players have championed for? Micky Arison may not have been gung-ho about it, but he was more on that side that Gilbert's.
From Bleacher Report.com:
But he couldn't even keep all of his veterans, including one of James' favorites, in part because of the league's new punitive tax measures. Those measures, strongly supported by spurned Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, were directed at least in part at breaking up Big Three-type rosters, or at least making them extraordinarily expensive to maintain and bolster. And after three injury-plagued seasons, Miller was sacrificed, with Micky Arison using the amnesty provision to save roughly $17 million in luxury taxes for the 2013-14 season and create some future flexibility.
That decision backfired, and not just because Miller miraculously played all 82 games for Memphis, shooting 45 percent from three-point range. James started the season irritated by Miller's departure, played the season irritated that Miller wasn't available to fill in for Wade and finished the season irritated that the veterans left behind -- without useful youthful reinforcements -- had broken down. It's impossible to know how much that played into his decision to return to Cleveland, or at least to return earlier than he anticipated, since he wrote in the essay that he always planned to someday.
But it certainly didn't help.
via After LeBron James' Departure, Miami Heat's NBA Debts Keep Piling Up | Bleacher Report.
So Gilbert took vindictive measures against a system that cost him a superstar because he failed to secure enough talent to keep the superstar at home. He ran the team into the ground trying to make the playoffs to no avail. He fired his coach three times in four seasons (including the same guy twice!) and fired his GM. And he made efforts to ensure James and superstars like him would be paid less while also ensuring it would not be viable for those stars to team up with other superstar talent for a long period of time.
For this, he was rewarded with three No. 1 picks and the best player on the planet signing with his team as a free agent.
Life's not fair, but shouldn't it at least make sense at some point in this process?
Gilbert and the Cavs deserve recognition for not doing anything to prevent James from joining the Cavs. And they made the pitch they needed to. But the situation still reads as "Petulant owner lashes out and constantly strikes out but gets rewarded by luck and LeBron's desire for his kids to grow up in Ohio."
This is like if Wile E. Coyote ("Supergenius") wound up catching the Roadrunner.
Meanwhile, on the other side, here's Daryl Morey. He turned Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and picks into James Harden. He cleared space for Dwight Howard and successfully pitched him after years of building a competitive team while also accumulating assets. He found takers for Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, contracts he signed because at the time, they were major talent upgrades. He offered Chris Bosh the chance to compete for a title now, in a role preventing him from having to bang down low and would maximize his talents in a tech-savvy organization with no state income tax.
Instead, he got Trevor Ariza.
The NBA's not fair. And you can ask Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Greg Oden ... or former Bucks owner Herb Kohl, who tried to build a winner the right way during his tenure. But the events of the past four days reveal more than just that simple imbalance. It reveals a legitimate flaw in the NBA's design.
If Gilbert and the other over-pursuant owners hadn't smashed-and-grabbed their gains in the last CBA negotiations (or if the player's union was competent enough to fight back), this doesn't happen. If probabilities don't hit some sort of Hitchhikers-Guide-To-The-Galaxy random-engine level in the lottery, this doesn't happen. But it did.
For all the hemming and hawing about tanking, at least those teams had a plan. They accepted their fates and wanted to build the right way. The Cavaliers instead jumped off a cliff believing they could fly and happened to sprout the wings of fortune. The Rockets designed a masterful engine that would take them to the heavens, and they ran out of fuel before they could escape the atmosphere.
The Spurs are an expertly run team and they have the title. The best-run teams will, over time, be better and poorly run teams the losers. But this remains a fascinating point. The Cavaliers slammed their head into the wall so many times they broke through to Valhalla. The Rockets are good not great after a grand design. There's a lot that goes into this winning thing.
It's better to be lucky than good. But you'd think in a competitive environment that being good would help more and being bad would hurt just as much.