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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

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