A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Dwight Howard in Tragic Kingdom

with 4 comments

Image by Carmela Nava via Flickr

And so here we are. Again. Another star at the crossroads.

Odd that a year ago at this time, the idea of superstars changing teams seemed such a longshot, and now it feels so inevitable in the case of Dwight Howard. A lot’s happened in a year, true, but there is more to it than that.

Here today, gone tomorrow

With the apparent trend toward superteams in Miami and New York, there is a fear that every superstar will seek join or form a superteam. This trend though is quite a bit more fragile than most realize. What makes joining such a team sexy to players, is the idea that by simply joining with talent, great team success is sure to follow immediately. This idea is strongly influenced by what happened in the ’07-08 season where the Boston Celtics essentially jettisoned the vast majority of their team to acquire two stars (Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett), and went from being a 24 win team, to having the single best season of the past decade. Then there was also the Lakers acquisition of Pau Gasol and their subsequent move from a solid team to a potential dynasty. These ideas seem to prove that stars who don’t win are simply suffering from a lack of supporting talent around them.

Suppose though that these nouveau superteams fell on their face? If we don’t see the newly formed Big 3 of the Miami Heat (or the New York Knicks) win a title in the next couple seasons then the notion that there’s a shortcut to ultimate glory is going to become a lot less plausible in future stars’ minds. And this possibility is quite real given the fact that Miami still isn’t looking as strong as Cleveland did with LeBron James (and the fact that the Knicks still look positively mediocre).

All that is good news for future teams with superstars, but that reality isn’t likely to come through in time to help the Orlando Magic. Of course, even if it did, what’s happening with the Magic is not a set of circumstances anyone should look at as a norm. Teams with 23 year old superstars don’t typically massively regress as their superstar improves. Any superstar who has lived through such a trend on their team is bound to think that whatever’s going on, better team management who yield better results, thus making it pretty unrealistic to think that said superstar isn’t going to give serious consideration to moving on to greener pastures.

Trying to make your star feel guilty is not a reasonable GMing strategy

I’m struck by Sam Gardner’s piece over at Fox Sports. Here’s the key snippet:

In truth, the best thing Howard can do is be honest — with himself and with his organization. He doesn’t have to come out and say it in the media, and he won’t, but he owes it to Orlando to let them know where his head is.

If he wants to stay, that’s great. He can give Orlando a list of demands, and there’s no doubt they’ll do everything they can to meet every last one of them — because their franchise and their city depend on it.

If it’s new teammates he wants, it’s new teammates he’ll get. If it’s a new coach he wants, it’ll get done.  If it’s another superstar he desires, they’ll find a way to get him one. If he wants more size inside, it happens.

I feel like this is exactly what a franchise should NOT do, despite the fact that I think the article exudes decent, rational intelligence. In fact I’ve been worried that the Magic have already begun doing this. When the Magic essentially blew up their supporting cast earlier this season, I labelled it a panic move. Regardless of whether it was, it has certainly pushed the Magic into an even worse position now.

Understand, first off, maybe he doesn’t know what he wants. It’s tempting to say he should figure it out, but much of the player’s indecision is bound to come from his own uncertainty about where his team is heading. I honestly don’t think LeBron James was planning to leave Cleveland until the Boston series happened. Before that series he had every reason to think his team was on the cusp of a title – after it he know they really weren’t all that close.

LeBron didn’t commit to the Cavs before that time specifically because he wasn’t sure about how strong his team was, and that clearly proved wise in retrospect. Wise enough that I’d urge every upcoming superstar to think the same way.

Second, he’s not a superstar because he knows how best to build an NBA team. Which means that you should not be relying on him to say how to build your team.

Fine to have your star in the discussion, but the reality is, if you follow his ideas, and it all backfires, why on Earth would he feel the need to stick around? You’re going to assume that he feels loyalty to you because you gave him what he wanted? Having “guilt him into staying” as your GM strategy is about the most foolish idea I can imagine. What he wants is to win, and win gloriously. If the team doesn’t win, than he’s going to feel the negative press flung in his direction, having the team say “Well it’s as much your fault as ours because we did what you wanted” is not exactly going to console him. GMS, just do your job, and let the chips fall where they may.

Now, the articles focuses on Howard being honest, and I’ve got no problem with that statement with one clarification: He doesn’t need to be open about his thoughts with the fans or the press, just with his team. It’s true that it’s silly of Howard to talk about not having seen a contract extension when we all know the Magic would draw one up in a heartbeat if that’s what he wanted. However, admitting uncertainty or outright lying to the public doesn’t really do anyone much good.

Howard should be open about his thinking with the Magic, and part of the job of the Magic is to make Howard feel comfortable doing so. If I’m the Magic, I bring Howard into the conversation, tell him what we’re thinking about future strategies, and ask him his thoughts on these things. If the Magic have developed a good relationship with Howard, they should be able to get a sense of how short term his thinking is. See if they can get him on board for recruitment.  As much as I wouldn’t want Howard saying “Acquire Player X”, if there’s a player out there you think would be fantastic to pair with Howard, sell him on that.  I’d certainly imagine that no matter what happens in ’11-12, if Howard sees Chris Paul in Orlando at the end of that tunnel that’s going to make him stick around.

Written by Matt Johnson

May 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Remember, neither Pau nor KG decided to go to their eventual teams as free agents (though I’m sure neither knocked the idea on the head).

    Coach is still king in my book (closely followed by GM, THEN star player). Once players start dictating the roster, you’re going to lose any sort of internal philosophical consistency or, for that matter, chemistry. Dwight is great at blocking shots, rebounding the ball and (of late) scoring in the post.

    He’s not necessarily that good at meshing skillsets, personalities or judging contract lengths or the net worth of a player. This doesn’t mean that he can’t have input into those decisions, as a senior player on whom those decisions would greatly impact. But he either has faith in the GM, Coach and ownership team or he doesn’t.

    That’s a hard call to ask a young man to make, but that’s what he needs to decide.


    May 1, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    • Good anecdotal point on Pau & KG.

      I agree that the player simply needs to decide who he has faith in. The problem with that, is that so much of decisions about faith are made based on previous success, i.e. not really faith at all. Coaches get fired all the time after being given hardly any chance to succeed. GMs become legends often times on the backs decisions that were either obvious or lucky.

      Not easy to know who really knows what they are doing. In the case of Dwight, what is clear is that the Magic have no wind to their sails right now. They regressed, and THEN made to huge trades that changed their chemistry and left them less financially able to make moves than before. That doesn’t mean that Magic management is incompetent, it does mean though that he really can’t expect to win titles any time soon unless something big comes down the pike.

      Matt Johnson

      May 2, 2011 at 12:04 am

  2. I say Denver should S&T Nene & filler for Howard and everyone’s happy. Denver is obviously happy, and Orlando fans will be happy once they realize that Nene is pretty much as good as Howard and that they actually got something for Howard instead of suffering the same fate as Cleveland and Toronto.

    Eric Cartman

    May 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    • Whoa, I thought I was a Nene fan, but as good as Howard? I couldn’t go that far.

      Matt Johnson

      May 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm

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