Note: There seems to be a lot of readers who are under the impression that the point of trading players like Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan is to cut payroll. That’s not true. With the team rebuilding, taking back bad contracts isn’t a problem because you won’t need the financial flexibility for a few years, by which time the contracts will have expired. So if the Raptors need to take back a bad contract to get something half decent for Gay (prospect or draft pick), that’s fine.
Also, there seems to be a belief that expiring contracts will somehow be incredibly valuable in the future. I highly doubt it. Not with the shorter contracts that exist now. It’s been suggested that keeping Gay and Andrea Bargnani would allow the Raptors to be able to trade their expiring contracts for something of value.
But let’s look at the numbers here.
The summer that their contracts will expire, there are only three teams projected to be even over the cap. Obviously that will change because of what happens before now and then, but the point is that if a team is going to try and be a player on the free agent market in the summer of 2015, they’re going to be planning ahead, so will most likely not take on any cumbersome contracts they’ll be desperate to unload a year and a half later.
Secondly, and more importantly, take a look at the OTHER expiring contracts of massively overpaid players that teams could trade: Amare Stoudemire ($23.4 million), Carlos Boozer ($16.8 million), Kendrick Perkins ($9.8 million), Tyrus Thomas ($9.4 million), Marcus Thornton ($8.6 million), and it goes on. And those are just the players whose value would basically just be their expiring contract.
The market will be a tad saturated for teams hoping to cash in on their expiring contracts.
But on to the subject of this article…
A Blueprint for Winning
Blowing the team up and stocking back up your roster with players that aren’t going to help you win many games is only the start. You still need to plan for the long term, even if you don’t know exactly who you’ll be building the team around. You need a blueprint of how to win.
I think one of the biggest mistakes most teams make is that they lack a real blueprint of how to build a winning team. And it’s a mistake Colangelo seems to constantly make. If there is a blueprint he has been trying to follow, it certainly hasn’t been obvious. To me, it’s seemed more like his moves were made without a lot of planning, and seemed more reactive than proactive. The alternative is simply that his plan was not a good one.
Now, obviously you’re at the mercy of the level of talent you can acquire, but that’s not what I mean. In the NBA, and basketball in general, there are basic things that help you win, and there are certain types of players that help with those things.
If you look at the teams that have won Championships, over the years, you’ll see a lot of the same things. Especially the closer you look. Out of interest sake, I’ll also take a look at how the Raptors do in these categories.
WORK ETHIC AND PROFESSIONALISM
Winning or even contending for a Championship is difficult enough. Add on having to motivate or babysit players that need extra attention, and you’re asking for trouble. This is especially true for your main guys. The identity of the team trickles down from your top players. You look at the top teams over the years, and the vast majority of them have workaholic franchise players. The underachieving teams generally had guys who coasted on their talent. Case in point, Carmelo Anthony has been out of the first round once in 9 tries.
But it’s not just your alpha dogs that need a good work ethic and professionalism. It may seem obvious, but then you look over the rosters of the mediocre and bad teams and they’re full of guys who too often give an inconsistent effort. Those teams are often willing to gamble more than the better teams on high-risk high-potential players because they’re desperate and need a big payoff, but it’s a vicious cycle. Those gambles rarely work out, especially on bad teams.
Colangelo doesn’t do well in this category. He’s drafted, signed or traded for Andrea Bargnani, Hedo Turkoglu, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and James Johnson, all of whom had either known motivational/consistency issues or checkered backgrounds.
While Gay is supremely talented, his lack of improvement over his career, plus the inconsistent effort he gives on both ends of the court trickles down. And we’re seeing that with the inconsistent play of the entire team.
Take a look around the front offices and coaching staffs of the league, and you’ll see an inordinate number of ex-players who were on Championship teams. Many of the best coaches over the years won Championships as players. Of the eighteen coaches that have won Coach of the Year, in the last 20 years, seven won Championships as players.
And right now, of the six current GMs that have won Championships as GM, four won Championships as players.
It’s not just that those players learned everything by being on a Championship team. It’s that the organizations that won those Championships targeted high IQ players, which is one big reason they won Championships.
The Boston Celtics team that won the 1986 Championship had 5 guys on the team that would go on to become either head coach or GM. Larry Bird won Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, Danny Ainge won Executive of the Year and a title in Boston, and Rick Carlisle won Coach of the Year and a title in Dallas.
One franchise that seems to have figured this out are the San Antonio Spurs. Take a look at their rosters, over the last fifteen years, or so, and you’ll see very few guys who didn’t have high basketball IQs. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Spurs have been the most successful NBA team over the last 15 years when they always have smart players on the floor.
The only current Raptor I can see achieving success in coaching or the front office is Landry Fields. This Raptor team does not have a high basketball IQ, and not just because they are young.
DON’T OVERVALUE ATHLETICISM
On the flip side, too many teams overvalue how athletic a player is. Elite athleticism is nice, but only when in combination with other skills. And it’s not really necessary for a productive NBA career. As long as a player has the minimum amount of athleticism he needs to defend his position, then, chances are, I’d rather take a more skilled player over a more athletic one.
I’m not suggesting avoiding players with elite athleticism, especially when it comes to acquiring your franchise player, but if you look at most NBA Champions, there are generally very few elite athletes. The Spurs currently have the second best record in the league and might have the best chance of beating the Heat in the Finals, and they have only two or three.
That’s one way they end up drafting so well. They forego the athletic, “high-upside” guy in favour of the skilled role players that fit their system. Of course, when you already have a core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, you can afford not to gamble on players with potential.
The 2006 drafted represented a great cross section of why you don’t overvalue athleticism, but why you can’t undervalue it, either. On one hand, you’ve got Tyrus Thomas and Patrick O’Bryant, both elite athletes for their position but both of whom have been major disappointments. On the other hand, you’ve got Adam Morrison and Sheldon Williams, neither of whom had the minimum amount of athletic ability to make any impact in the league.
With athleticism, it’s a balancing act. Brandon Roy wasn’t thought to have the elite athleticism to be an elite player in the league, but if it weren’t for his knees, he would have been.
Lastly, too many times people connect athleticism with defense. DeRozan was thought to have great defensive potential because of his athleticism, but he’s never been even an average defender. On the other hand, players with average athleticism (or worse) have gone on to become superb defenders, like Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen and Ron Artest (when he was Artest).
The best two perimeter defenders on the Raptors are Landry Fields and Allen Anderson, two of the least athletic players on the roster.
I think one reason so many elite athletes don’t become the type of defenders people expect is that they have been able to rely on athleticism, rather than smarts and instincts, to defend players. Unless they have some excellent coaching in their background, which fewer and fewer players seem to have, they come into the NBA with poor defensive instincts.
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE
Speaking of defense, I don’t understand coaches like Mike D’Antoni. There hasn’t been one Championship team that hasn’t been, at least, above average defensively. Ever. It’s pretty much a necessity that you need to be a good defensive team if you have ANY hope of winning a title. Yet defense seems to be an afterthought for D’Antoni.
It’s not just the coach that needs to be good defensively, but the players.
Quick, name the last NBA Champion that did not have, at least, one player who either had been, or would in the next year, make the All Defensive First or Second team.
I’ll give you a clue. You can’t, because there hasn’t been one.
Good defense allows you to stay in games when your shot isn’t falling, which will happen. It will allow you to make stops when you need to at the end of close games.
Dwane Casey certainly preaches defense, but the current roster is not one that plays it consistently. And if you’re not doing it consistently, you’re not doing it.
One issue I have is that Colangelo has never seemed to put a priority on defense. He’s seemed to always believe he can simply plug in a few good defensive players into the rotation and that’s good enough. And we’ve seen enough evidence to realize that’s simply not true.
BIG MEN WHO DEFEND AND REBOUND
While it’s important for the vast majority of the roster to play good defense, it’s EXTREMELY important for your big men to not only defend, but be able to grab boards, because that’s part of defense.
Again, looking at the past NBA Champions, you won’t see a whole lot of big men who can’t defend and rebound. Dirk Nowitzki is often brought up, but he was actually a decent team defender who wasn’t a liability on that end of the floor. Even so, Dallas often underachieved in the playoffs. In between their two Finals appearances, they lost in the first round 3 out of 4 times, once after winning a league best 67 games.
Even if you’ve got a great defensive center, a power forward that isn’t good defensively or on the boards will hurt you, often at the worst times. The NBA doesn’t allow your center to stand in the paint the whole time. Both big men have to be able to protect the basket, or else teams are going to isolate them and take advantage of their weakness. And if they can’t grab the defensive board, then it just gives the opposition another chance to score.
Obviously Raptor fans have seen enough of this to know this is true.
On a related note, I recently had a discussion with a couple of friends of mine, and brought up the fact that there are fewer and fewer big men who are both good scorers and defenders. In fact, if you look at the top scoring big men over the last two seasons, I count three under 30 who are very good on both ends of the floor. Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Al Horford. And you could probably make a case for Chris Bosh, who is a better defender than most Raptor fans probably believed he was.
The two power forwards who have recently ascended to Superstardom, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, are both below average defenders, something I think that will hurt both team’s title chances. When Amare Stoudemire was on the Phoenix Suns, they could never get to the Finals, in part because Amare simply wasn’t a good defender.
I know the recent trend is to have stretch big men who can step outside and draw out the defense, but teams that have historically done well have had a low post threat that can create double teams, score inside and be a guy who can get you a good look down low when the game slows down or the jumpshots stop falling.
That doesn’t necessarily have to be one of your big men. LeBron James is the main post-up threat for Miami. And it wasn’t until LeBron moved into the post, that he won a Championship. Michael Jordan‘s Bulls won their last three titles with him as the team’s only real post scorer.
Having a good post player is especially important in the playoffs, when the game slows down. In the half court, you don’t get the easy looks you do in the regular season. The defense is stingier and the lane shuts down. Having a guy in the post you can throw it into does several things. Obviously there’s the ability to get a high percentage shot close to the basket, but it also makes the defense react, which allow more open looks for teammates.
The lack of legitimate low post scorer (and Russell Westbrook‘s decision making) might be Oklahoma’s biggest achilles heal and what keeps them from winning a Championship until they get one. I think they made two mistakes at the start of the season. First, I think they should have kept James Harden and traded Westbrook. Secondly, I think they should have dealt him for a low post scorer.
The best low post scorer the Raptors ever had was probably Jermaine O’Neal, who played less than half a season. Chris Bosh has always been more of a high post scorer, probably due to his slight build, and saying Hakeem Olajuwon was a shadow of his former self, while a Raptor, is probably an insult to shadows.
In the last couple of weeks, Jonas Valanciunas has shown the makings of a potentially excellent low post scorer. He has pretty good footwork, great hands and a knack for getting the ball in the basket. In his last ten games, he’s shooting 68%, while scoring 15.9 ppg, and a fair number of those shots are either off post ups or jumpshots. This isn’t DeAndre Jordan getting half a dozen lobs at the rim a game.
And he’s been extremely physical, which was an area of concern when he was drafted because he LOOKED like a 19 year old kid with not a whole lot of muscle. In less than two years, he’s filled out so much you have to wonder if he’s spent a little time with Barry Bonds. Really, though, he simply looks like a man now, as opposed to the boy the Raptors drafted two years ago.
He still needs to work on his footwork and get a lot better at seeing the floor (for teammates and help defense) when he’s got the ball, but this is an area where the future is very bright for the Raptors.
The best statistic for offensive efficiency is True Shooting Percentage, which takes into consideration percentage for field goals, threes and free throws. This year, the top three teams are Miami, Oklahoma and San Antonio. Last year, Miami, the eventual Champion, was fourth. The year before, when Dallas won their Championship, they were fourth. A team’s scoring efficiency really can’t be downplayed.
Other than teams that had injuries during the regular season, you can go way back and you’ll see the same results. The true contenders are efficient scorers.
There are two components to efficient scoring. The first is making sure your main scorers get to the line at a high rate, so that they can manufacture points even when the shots aren’t falling. The more consistently your main scorers get to the line, the more consistently they will score, and that means fewer scoring droughts when they are on the floor.
But that’s only part of it.
In basketball, the two best places to shoot is under the basket and behind the 3 point line. Obviously under the basket will give you the best chance to actually make the shot, but a three point gives you more bang for your buck. Shooting 33% from the three point line gives you basically the same points per shot as someone who shoots 50% from inside the arc. And if you take into consideration that three point shots lead to more offensive rebounds, it’s obvious why Raptor’s Director of Analytics, Alex Rucker, wants the Raptors to take more threes.
Now, unfortunately, just taking shots from those two areas isn’t quite good enough. You need to actually make shots from those areas, too. Case in point, according to Hoopdata.com, of the ten teams that have the most attempts at the rim, seven are playoff teams, and only three are expected to win 50 games or more. Of the ten teams that shoot the highest field goal percentage at the rim, nine would make the playoffs, if it were held today, and that includes Miami, San Antonio, the Clippers and Oklahoma, so basically the four teams that have the best chance at getting to the Finals.
Of the ten teams that take the most 3 point shots, only two aren’t playoff teams. And Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma are all in the top five for 3 point percentage.
On the other hand, one of the least efficient shots is the long two. Players rarely shoot a very high percentage shooting them, and unlike the three point shot, they’re not worth any more than a shot closer to the rim.
Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma are all in the bottom ten for attempts from the 16-23 foot range.
Toronto has the eleventh most attempts from that range, largely due to both DeRozan and Gay taking a lot from there.
Things don’t get any better when you look at shots at the rim, where the Raptors are fourth last in the league in attempts. Thankfully, they are 9th in the league in field goal percentage, at the rim. They just need to shoot a lot more shots there.
The opposite is true from 3 point range, where they take the tenth most attempts in the league, but are 6th last in percentage. So maybe the idea of the Raptors taking MORE threes isn’t the best idea.
Knowing where your shots should come from and actually getting them there are two different things. Players will always go back to where they are most comfortable, so you need to have players that are comfortable scoring inside and can hit for a good percentage from outside.
The Raptors are currently 18th in the league in True Shooting percentage, and would be lower if Bargnani weren’t injured, and Gay had been on the roster the whole season, meaning no Ed Davis or Jose Calderon. And this year, the top 3 scorers on the team have below average scoring efficiency, so you can’t even argue that the team is constructed to be offensively efficient. They’re not.
The last one I will discuss is ball movement. If you watch the better teams in the league, most of them have great ball movement. Good ball movement makes the defense work harder, and leads to more open looks. Watch Miami and San Antonio, and you’ll see teams that move the ball better than just about any other team in the league. And it has nothing to do with the fact they have such great players, because Denver also moves the ball extremely well.
What you need is unselfish players who aren’t ball stoppers and make good decisions with the ball.
Once again, this isn’t an area of strength for the Raptors. Both Gay and DeRozan tend to be ball stoppers, and Lowry will take too many quick shots early in the shot clock. Even Valanciunas has been guilty of grinding the offense to a halt when he gets the ball in the post, something he will have to work on.
Now, the one thing I am leaving out is the elite talent that is necessary to truly contend in the NBA. But that’s where the 2nd part of this series comes in.
And obviously a getting a good coach who will focus on those things is important, but the fact is you need to right pieces. And that’s what this article is about.
This is about acquiring the right types of players that will help a team in these areas, which, in turn, helps the team win.
If you look at the areas I’ve listed, it might seem fairly obvious, but it’s apparently not. One just has to look at Colangelo’s moves during his tenure with the Raptors to see that. From drafting Bargnani, to the Hedo Turkoglu signing, all the way up to the Rudy Gay trade, he’s consistently focused on traits in players that don’t help you win.
Not coincidentally, the one roster he had that seemed to follow the above blueprint, to a large degree, was in 2006 when he first took the job. He had a good defensive team that had a lot of high IQ players (Anthony Parker, Jorge Garbajosa, Jose Calderon, Rasho Nesterovic) all of whom moved the ball well. They didn’t over-rely on athletes, and they finished in the top ten for True Shooting Percentage.
The big downfall for that team was the low ceiling, but Colangelo at least seemed to have the right idea. Then he started making high risk-low payoff gambles that made the team worse.
Just looking at Colangelo’s moves, I was tempted to add DON’T OVERPAY ROLE PLAYERS, but team’s have certainly won while overpaying some role players. It does make it more difficult to improve your team, though. And it’s a rule the San Antonio Spurs obsessively try and follow.
Speaking of the San Antonio, to me, they should be the model of how of how to build a team. Now, as I said before, having Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili certainly helps, but if you look at their rosters since Gregg Popovich took over the reigns of the team, in 1994, you’ll see a plan that focuses on all the areas I talked above earlier.
In his first year, he signed Avery Johnson, who went on to coach the Dallas Mavericks to the Finals, Chuck Person, a well respected assistant coach with the Lakers, and Doc Rivers, who coached the Celtics to a Championship. Then the next year he traded for Monty Williams, currently the head coach of the New Orleans
He almost never took chances on risky players, acquired good defensive players and built the core of the team around true professionals who never took a night off and always worked hard.
It just seems to me that if you’re going to build a team, you need to focus on the things that have worked year after year, and have won titles. Because that’s the goal. Or at least it should be.