A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Philadelphia vs Atlanta and the Finish Line + Ensemble title caliber teams

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The Philadelphia 76ers plan to win a championship begins with tanking. The philosophy is to avoid the “middle ground” – meaning to be really bad, to get enough high draft picks/stars to eventually contend and win a title.

Many people who support this plan, point to a team like present day Atlanta as an example of what should be avoided. Atlanta has a good, but only 1st/2nd round caliber playoff team. Without any high draft picks since 2007, they’re lacking in star power. Atlanta is seen as “stuck in the middle” without the upside of teams like Philadelphia or other tankers like Orlando.

However there may be more logic behind the Atlanta plan than it appears. Put it this way – Atlanta may be getting less firepower in the draft, but they’re also closer to the finish line than Philadelphia.

Last year Philadelphia won 19 games and had a 16 win “pythagorean” point differential, but by trading Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes and likely trading Thaddeus Young sometime between now and the trade deadline, their team is probably worse than it was. Atlanta had 38 Ws and had a 40 W pythagorean but their 16-13 record with Al Horford, translates to a 45 W pace. So let’s say we peg Philadelphia as having 15 win talent and Atlanta as 45 W talent going into this offseason. If the goal is to pass 55 Ws for contention to become realistic, that means Philadelphia has to improve by 40 Ws in talent while Atlanta has to improve by 10. This is a huge difference. Improving by 40 Ws requires not just one successful draft pick or free agent signing, but multiple ones. Philadelphia could do great work and still find themselves just at the 45 W position Atlanta is right now. They’re getting more firepower in the draft, but have a far greater task to achieve with it.

As for Atlanta, improving by 10 Ws? Sure it’s difficult, but it can be done. I’ve liked some draft picks they’ve made recently like Dennis Schroeder and Adreian Payne. Neither has to be a superstar to push the Hawks towards mid 50 W status. Finding a “core” player Mike Conley, Jr. or Roy Hibbert from either of those picks could push them to the next level. The Hawks also have cap flexibility to sign other free agents, such as when they signed Paul Millsap last summer or Thabo Sefolosha this summer. One more Millsap type acquisition next year could be enough to elevate them. They’re not a guarantee to get there, but neither is a team like Philadelphia or Orlando guaranteed to make it all the way to contention. They don’t have to run the race as fast as Philadelphia if their starting point is much closer to the finish line.

Another argument against Atlanta is to ask so what if they win as much as the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies have lately, since those teams have neither made the Finals or won the championship. This is true but both teams have more attempts at the bat in upcoming years. As I’ve said in the past, the concept that “you need a superstar to win a championship” has a flaw in how fast the league changes. If you go back 20 years, there’s no analytics-driven GMs, the league is more obsessed with long 2 point jumpers than a slash and kick 3 point game, the CBA and player salaries is unrecognizable, the draft is vastly changed by everyone declaring after 3 or 4 seasons. The NBA in just 20 years has made a “checkers to chess” transformation. The average GM 20 years ago and back is now a terrible GM in 2014. The evidence that teams like the Pacers and Grizzlies can’t win a title is flawed because it relies on decades of NBA history when the league and game was different.

So what if we use more recent evidence? Well first, I would argue 2 of the last 11 champions in the 2004 Pistons and 2014 Spurs are “ensemble” style teams. 2 out of 11 is over 18%, which is a perfectly livable percentage for teams like the Pacers, Grizzlies and Hawks. But this percentage may actually understate things. A position I’ve taken for a while is there can be non-championship winners, that can be as meaningful for determining who can win the title, as much as the teams who did it. How is this possible? Consider the 2013 Spurs, who came within a rebound from sealing it in Game 6. The Spurs should count as much as the 2013 Heat. The difference between those teams in regards to who won, has nothing to do with the Heat having a superstar. The series was a tie someone had to win.

Furthermore in between 2004 and 2014, the 2005 Pistons and 2010 Celtics were two “ensemble” style teams who were leading in the 2nd half of Game 7 of the Finals, making them the next closest behind the 2013 Spurs to winning the title. Again, it’s unlikely to mean much at all that they got beat by the team with a superstar. By beating the other team in 3 games up to that point, they were capable of winning the last quarter or last 15 minutes of the game or so. With such a dead evenly played series, whoever won the last 12 or 15 minutes was likely to be from chance more than anything. It’s unwise to mean the difference between the 2005 Spurs and Pistons or the 2010 Lakers and Celtics has much to do with the superstar make-up of the Spurs and Lakers, especially considering Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant shot poorly from the field in those games. On that note, if someone isn’t as big a believer in the Pistons chance to win Game 7 on the road in 2005, one could also point to the Spurs crucial Game 5 win in Detroit, where Robert Horry’s freakishly clutch shooting spree allowed the Spurs to get to and win in overtime, thus securing a 3-2 lead instead of trailing 3-2 going back to San Antonio. Again, this has little to do with the Pistons lacking the superstar.

So effectively, 18% (2) of the last 11 champions were ensemble-style teams. If including just the 2013 Spurs as title caliber along with those 11, 3 of those 12 (25%) were ensemble teams. If including the 2005 Pistons, 2010 Celtics and 2013 Spurs as more or less equally title caliber as the 11 who won, 5 of 14 (36%) were ensemble teams. All of this makes a Pacers or Grizzlies or Hawks title with an ensemble make-up certainly seem more plausible. It’s conceivable the next 10 years has a swamp of ensemble-style champions, either by chance swinging the other way or a fundamental change in the league’s balance of power because of the CBA and analytics-driven GMs.

Written by jr.

July 29, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Posted in Basketball

Tagged with , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. Your post is rather trite because it is laced with misunderstandings.

    The first misunderstanding is the artificial distinction between having a “superstar” versus an “ensemble” cast. None of the teams who have won the NBA title since 1980 (at least) have had an “ensemble” cast in the sense you mean it. The examples you cite, such as the 04 & 05 Pistons, the 13 & 14 Spurs, etc, are ridiculous ones, that do not support your thesis at all. Both the Spurs and Pistons clearly had top 10 players (more than 1 arguably) on their team. A top 10 player is by definition a star. To look at each example in turn:
    – The Spurs had Tim Duncan in 2013 and 2014. He was an all-nba first teamer in 2013 (closer to being a top 5 player than top 10), and the only real difference in his performance in 2014 was that he was rested more in the regular season (partly thanks to blow outs). In the playoffs he didn’t get rested, so when it mattered he was a top 5-10 guy. Tony Parker hovers between an all-nba 2nd and 3rd teamer. So already the Spurs clearly had “stars”. But the Spurs also had lots of depth, balance, and some other guys whose value is largely concealed by the low minutes they play (e.g. Kawhi would probably have put up something like 18-9-3 on middling playoff team like Atlanta last season). If/when Kawhi gets more minutes and is putting up all-nba numbers will we suddenly pretend he is a different player who “turned the corner”?
    – The Pistons didn’t have any individual player as good as Duncan, but they compensated for that by having a greater spread of all-nba type players. Ben Wallace was a top 10 player in 2004. That’s not my opinion, that’s backed up by MVP voting and all-nba teams. Sheed was an all-nba guy who often didn’t make teams due to bad rep and being on stacked teams, but he was just as talented in 04 as he had been several years earlier as the lead man of the Portland Blazers contender. Billups didn’t have the rep yet in 2004, because of his bizarre career trajectory, but he was clearly a top 10 player at his peak (closer to 10th than 5th obviously). Rip was an all-star calibre guy who hadn’t been recognised yet (because he was young) and Prince was an above average role player. They often had good players off the bench too, and each starter’s skills complimented the rest of the line-up nicely.

    In both cases (much like the Detroit Pistons in the late 80’s) it looks more like a greater number of lesser stars (who also had depth and balance) overcoming teams with only 1-2 stars, but lots of balance and depth. The lesson to draw isn’t one whether “stars v.s non-stars” win titles, the lesson is what concentration of stars is required to win a title. History shows us generally it’s easier to win if you sacrifice depth for a higher concentration of star power at the top, but if you have a sufficient number of all-nba guys you can spread across the roster you have a chance to win without that “top 5” guy (though it requires great coaching, lots of depth, excellent balance, etc). I’m not sure either of those strategies is easy to follow without high level draft picks as a crucial component for success. It is hard to get Lebron/Durant/Shaq, and it is similarly hard to get 3-4 all-nba starters with an all-star/above average role player to round the line-up out. Virtually no teams in post-99 CBA world have been able to successfully assemble contenders (and I mean real, legit contenders, not the F#$@ing Pacers in a weak ass East… the Pacers matched up well with the Heatles and gave them trouble for that reason, but I never felt they were a real shot to win the title. I always felt the Heat would “get serious” and “wake up” as the series went on, and then close it out… and they always did, just like the Spurs used the first round in the last 2 years as a warm up exercise to turn it up a notch).

    There are 1-2 examples of franchises constructing contenders in the post-99 CBA without high lotto picks being an essential component, but they’re rare. The Pistons (who relied on ass backwards luck, and guys who had been underutilised and undervalued, something that’s increasingly rare in the NBA) could be counted as one such franchise, but we’re seeing now how difficult it is to repeat that. That tells me that Joe D didn’t have a magic eye for talent spotting, but that he made the same mistake you did. He thought the key to the Pistons success (both in 04 and the 80’s) was due to an “ensemble” cast of “good” players, not realising both teams had actually had “great” players. There aren’t really any other examples. The Lakers were assembled post 99, and their success in the post-99 period is all due to the fruits of the 96 offseason. The Spurs made lots of great moves, but without Duncan they wouldn’t have been a contender, the Celtics needed high lotto picks to build their contender (the #5 to trade for Ray Allen, which let them get old man KG, and they got top 10 pick Paul Pierce thanks to the 2nd year of their tank job in 98). The Mavs needed a top 10 pick to get Dirk, and that was pre-99 when scouting was much worse. These days a guy like Dirk would be less likely to fall as far as he did (and we have reliable sources indicating he’d have been picked up right after #9, where the Mavs traded down to get him). The Heat needed a top 5 pick to get Wade, which in turn let them get Bosh and Lebron. Even current faux contenders like Indiana needed a top 10 pick like Paul George to make it happen.

    At any rate, it’s far more common in the modern era for contender teams to require high level draft picks as a precondition to build a contender, whether they use those picks as trade bait, or to draft with. The Hawks and 76ers are weird teams to compare, because the Hawks (as far as I can tell) are not necessarily fussed if they become a contender, and have no realistic path to become one. They’re content to be a good playoff team, keep building their fanbase and brand, and try to turn a profit. Only one team can win the title each year, and the Hawks goal is a legitimate one to pursue. Once they’ve built up a nice profit, and the new TV deal has made things more secure, they might decide to blow the team up and try to become contenders. I don’t think their current strategy is being pursued because they legitimately think it is the best path to contention. The sorts of guys they’d need to add to become a legit contender are basically unobtainable to the Hawks without high draft picks. I mean, it’s not technically impossible, but it’s astronomically unlikely. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Hawks will be closer to contention than the 76ers for the foreseeable future, just because Hinkie’s tactics don’t match his strategy, but the teams aren’t trying to do the same thing at all.

    The Lakers are learning this lesson the hard way. They haven’t adjusted to the post-99 CBA world, where each new CBA makes it tougher to build a contender without high picks (and rebuilding periods), and further levels the playing field. Trying to “win now” is a cute goal. but unless you’ve gone through the pain first it’s almost certainly not going to lead you to legitimate contention.

    The one who knocks

    September 30, 2014 at 1:46 am

    • Thanks for the reply.

      All-star caliber talents are needed to win a title, that is true. But there is a difference between the star power of teams like the Grizzlies, Blazers and Pacers had last year and ones like the Heat and Thunder. The conventional wisdom was that you won’t win a title if your best player is someone like Marc Gasol, Lamarcus Aldridge or Paul George due to the history of superstar led title teams recently. 2004 Pistons and 2014 Spurs are clearly different types of title teams than everyone else in the last 20 years.


      September 30, 2014 at 2:36 pm

  2. Again, your labelling of players is leading you to confusion. Firstly, Marc Gasol, LMA and George are not “all-stars”, they are all-nba players. An all-nba player is a top 15 player in the NBA (in the case of those 3 guys top 15 is underselling it), whereas an all-star might not be a top 30 player. All-NBA players almost invariably get the max, and are almost unobtainable on the free agent market (certainly to small market teams). Their acquisition is either exceedingly lucky (like Marc Gasol, who nobody thought would be good), or with top 10 picks (like LMA and George). Mostly it’s the latter, and generally the pick is closer to a top 3-5 pick than it is to a top 10 one.

    Then let’s look at the second error you’ve made. You say that “conventional wisdom” was you couldn’t win a title if your best player was M.Gasol, LMA or George. Well, firstly that conventional wisdom hasn’t been disproved, because none of those 3 guys has won a title. The best of those guys is Marc Gasol, and I don’t think he was better than Tim Duncan in 2013 or 2014. Not in the playoffs, when Duncan was being allowed to play big minutes. The Grizzlies best result so far is the WCFs, which they made only because the Thunder were hurt. LMA has been the best player for a 2nd round team. Paul George’s Pacers would have been knocked out in the first round of the Western playoffs. So the conventional wisdom you cite seems pretty solid.

    But even if the conventional wisdom is wrong, it doesn’t mean much, because to win a title with top 10 players, as opposed to top 5 players, you need more of them. And it is at least as difficult to acquire multiple top 10 players as it is to acquire a single top 5 player. What’s the pathway for the Hawks to acquire 3-4 all-nba teamers through gradual piecemeal moves and upgrades? There isn’t one, and the one they’ve already got they picked 3rd in the draft (by tanking). One the other hand, I’ve made a study of the top 10 picks in the draft, and you can get an all-nba type player about 33% of the time with a top 10 pick. Those odds are much better than the odds you can somehow trade for one (and to trade for one you need assets like a top 10 pick in the first place).

    The one who knocks

    September 30, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    • The main point I was trying it imply is I believe it just matters how good the team is, not whether they get there with a star or an ensemble. If Atlanta got to 58 or 59 wins and 7-8 SRS I wouldn’t see a reason to consider them less of a contender than when OKC and LAC are at that range. The evidence that ensemble teams who peak that high are less dangerous in the playoffs than superstar teams is flawed based on the league changing quickly and the amount of close calls for more ensemble-y teams over the recent small sample size. It just matters how good the team is at basketball.

      It’s another question whether Atlanta can get from 47-48 wins to 57-58 Ws without more star firepower, but they have young players coming down the pipe and free agent opportunities, so adding 10 wins doesn’t seen inconceivable

      And no TD is not a superstar any more than players like Marc Gasol or Paul George. TD in 2014 is 15/10/3 with great D, Marc Gasol during his last full health season in 2013 is 14/8/4 DPOY, but scoring more efficiently. That’s fairly even. The difference between TD, Parker, Manu, Kawhi and to an extent Splitter, was not very big at all on the Spurs.


      September 30, 2014 at 10:58 pm

      • 1) Name me the “ensemble” team who wins 58 or 59 wins, and gets an SRS of 7-8, without either a top 5 player or 3+ all-nba type players on it. They don’t exist. It’s well and good to say “if the Hawks turned straw into gold”, but it’s totally unrealistic to expect them to. They have 1 all-nba guy they tanked for. How could they add 2-3 more realistically?
        2) You’re ignoring the law of diminishing returns. Prime Shaq’s worth 10 wins right? So if we add him to the 1996 Bulls they will go 82-0 right? Wrong. The reality is that at a certain point adding more talent doesn’t do much to move the win needle. There are various reasons for this; the regular season is a long grind, back to backs, etc. Players get tired. Sometimes players on your team have off nights, sometimes other players on other teams have hot nights, coaches rest guys, etc. At a certain point it becomes harder and harder to add wins. Moving from 37 wins to 47 wins is far easier than moving from 47 wins to 57 wins, which is why you see plenty of teams who can make marginal or no improvements and go up or down 10 wins each year (or more), but very few teams who make marginal improvements and go from 48 win and 4 SRS teams to 58 win and 8 SRS teams. Like I said, name me the teams with the Hawks type of talent who have done it. It doesn’t happen. The last 2 years the Spurs rested guys a lot, but still averaged 60 wins. By that logic they should have won 70+ if everyone had played all 82 games. Somehow I doubt it would have worked out that way (and the Spurs were a hell of a lot more talented than the Hawks).
        3) You’re being fooled by Duncan’s stats, and not seeing his impact, especially his D (which doesn’t show up as much with stats) and his post scoring (something that can reliably create offense and open looks even today). To call him a “15-10” player is totally misleading (especially when that’s a product of being rested, and in the playoffs he’s not being rested.Per 36 minutes Duncan was a 19-12-4 player last season. Suddenly he looks a heck of a lot better than George and Gasol. Plus Duncan is on a more talented team, and is being asked to play a lesser role, which naturally depresses his stats. Gasol and (especially) George are being asked to be “the man” on their less talented teams, which helps their stats (though I agree Gasol shouldn’t be judged on his volume stats either, he’s a top 10 player as Duncan is, the point I made still stands though). With some players per 36 minutes aren’t fair to use, because they’re playing a tiny amount of minutes, or in garbage time, but that’s not the case with Duncan.
        4) While Marc Gasol, the pick of the 3 players you mentioned, isn’t far behind Duncan, he’s top 10. That, and 2 other all-star calibre players, and some good role players and balance, is enough to make a healthy Memphis team a 55 win quasi-contender who will never win a title as currently constituted. There is no real way to improve their talent internally sufficiently, and Gasol might leave in free agency to a big market. Either way, how does it help the Hawks (or any middling team). You can’t plan a fluke acquisition like Marc Gasol, who mysteriously fell to the 2nd round, and teams in the middle like the Hawks certainly can’t acquire such a player. The most reliable way to get all-nba players (or top 10 players like Gasol) is via high draft picks.

        The one who knocks

        October 1, 2014 at 12:14 am

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