We've seen teams trust the process and fail. We've seen teams say "F--- them picks" without success. So what's the secret? How do you build a champion in the modern NBA? The best way to find out is to look at what has worked.
The King is Dead. Short Live the King.
For starters, we need a level set. A decade of contention might not be achievable anymore. That doesn't mean you can't be good for a decade, it just means that the era of the dynasty appears to be at an end.
From 1980 - 1999, there were only seven different NBA champions: Bulls (x6), Lakers (x5), Celtics (x3), Rockets (x2), Pistons (x2), 76ers (x1), Spurs (x1). We saw teams go to 3+ Finals in a row six different times: Lakers (x2), Bulls(x2), Celtics (x1), Pistons (x1). 2 teams went to six-plus Finals: Lakers (x8), Bulls (x6).
From 2000 - 2019, there were 10 different NBA Champions: Lakers (x5), Spurs (x4), Warriors (x3), Heat (x3), Pistons (x1), Cavs (x1), Raptors (x1), Celtics (x1), Mavs (x1). We only saw teams go to three-plus Finals 5 different times: Lakers (x2), Warriors (x1), Heat (x1), Cavs (x1). The Lakers were the only team to go to six or more Finals. We even saw seven different champions in a 10-year stretch (2010-2019) - the first time that's happened in almost 50 years ('73-'82).
What this means is that there's as much parity in the NBA now as we've ever seen. That's a good thing overall, as this year's playoffs can attest. But we will have to adjust our expectations a bit. Nine Finals appearances in 12 years (Lakers, 1980 - 1991) probably won't happen again.
I C Your B and Raise you an A
There's an exception to every rule: the Warriors ('15 - '19) are the first team to advance to five straight Finals in 60 years (Celtics, '62 - '66). They've also reloaded and appear poised to contend for at least two more seasons. So what is their secret? How have they done what no other team has done in the modern era? The answer to that question is also the answer to how to build a champion: you have to not only understand, but master the CBA.
The NBA CBA is a document so complex that I won't even pretend to understand all the nuances and inner workings, but that's the whole point: those nuances and inner workings can be manipulated to your advantage.
Yeah, yeah, yeah... but what about the Warriors? How did they manipulate the CBA to their advantage? Let's take a closer look:
- They trusted their process: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were both quality players coming out of college, but they weren't Steph and Klay. That took time, and the Warriors gave it to them. This applies to the CBA because you basically control a player through his rookie extension. Since Steph/Klay were both still developing, the Warriors extended them at bargain prices. Steph at $11m and Thompson at $16m. Locking those guys down at those rates was pure genius: even if they didn't develop into superstars, those contracts would be easy to move.
- They say "F--- them picks": The Warriors used their picks to acquire Andre Iquodala, the perfect complement to budding perimeter stars as a starter, and a guy who provided stability off the bench as a reserve. The CBA manipulation was the mechanism used to acquire him: they executed a sign-and-trade, allowing them to offer more than they would have been able to in free agency. With Steph/Klay signed and picks to offer, they had both the cap space and the trade assets to complete the deal.
- They surrounded their youth with veterans: you can't win with youth alone... you need veteran leadership both on the court and in the locker room. That leadership doesn't have to be the best on the team, it just needs to be a good fit. The Warriors didn't have that in veterans David Lee and Monta Ellis, so they moved on - getting value for Ellis in the form of Bogut, the defensive paint presence they needed. While they didn't value for Lee, they did manage to clear his contract from their books, allowing them to add veteran Shaun Livingston as a free agent.
- They managed their assets: this is the most important part and where mastering the CBA is key. The Warriors had an all-star caliber, young SF in Harrison Barnes who was up for his rookie extension. They publicly committed to re-signing him UNTIL someone better came along by the name of Kevin Durant. Yes, they liked Barnes. Yes, they developed Barnes. No, they were not married to Barnes. They had to let him walk for nothing to clear space for Durant, but that's ok: they had Kevin Durant. Once again, locking down Steph/Klay gave them the space they needed to make it happen.
But this is where it gets interesting: Durant wanted out. Durant was hurt. Rather than let him walk for nothing, they agreed to a sign-and-trade for D'Angelo Russell at a value that was WAY too high. Not that Russell sucks, but he isn't a $27m a year guy. Not by a long shot. But that didn't matter, because they had no intention of keeping him. He was flipped almost immediately for Andrew Wiggins and picks (since MN was a crappy team, they knew those picks would be good). They even threw in a first-round pick of their own, but it was so heavily protected that they kept it. In other words: the Warriors turned injured, disgruntled Kevin Durant who wanted to leave anyway and a 2025 second-round pick into 2022 All Star Andrew Wiggins, and the 7th and 36th overall picks in 2021. Let that sink in for a moment.
It's not realistic to think that you're going to copy the Warriors and reach five straight Finals. After all, you can't draft players that aren't available, and what are the odds that a player of Kevin Durant's caliber simply falls into your lap? As with all champions, fortune played a role in their fates. That said, there are some important takeaways:
- GIGO:In programming, it stands for "Garbage In, Garbage Out". Poor data will produce poor results, no matter how sound your programs and processes. In sports, it means it all starts at the top -- people who don't know what they're doing will make bad decisions. Ground breaking concept, I know... but how many times in sports have we seen it completely ignored?
- Draft well: The CBA incentivizes drafting and developing players, giving teams five years of cost-controls to do it. You do NOT have to draft Steph or Klay, but you DO have to draft quality players. A guy who can play every day and give you 25+ quality minutes per game is a good draft pick...even if he never makes an All-Star game. Not only does that player fill a need, but he also has value in trades.
- Manage you assets: you do not have to keep picks, you do not have to keep players. I thought that was common sense, but it seems far more common for people to assume that you have to cling on to your picks for dear life or sign the guys you draft to max extensions no matter how good they are. Managing your assets simply means getting value for them. You really shouldn't let a guy walk for nothing unless you have a better option available. Don't throw away picks. Ever. Remember: you may not value your picks, but other teams do. It's foolish to not get value back for them. Put it like this: if the bluebook on your 1972 Gremlin says $1000, are you going to sell it for $500 because that's all you think it's worth?
- Free agency is a supplement, not a foundation: The CBA has disincentivized free agency through mechanisms like max contracts, Bird Rights and salary caps. As such, it cannot be the foundation of your team - there simply isn't enough cap space to do it. You can still pick up a star (maybe two if you manage you cap well). You can still add depth. But you have to acquire a core of quality NBA players through the draft or trades or you'll find yourself in cap hell.
- There are no quick fixes: It takes time to assemble talent, both in the front office and on the court. Building a champion with a window of 3-5 years is definitely possible, but if you sacrifice long-term franchise health for short-term gain you are courting disaster (pun intended). You can still have a 3-5 year window, but it has to occur after you've assembled your core (with or without a star) .
So yes, if it were that easy, I'd be running a team and not blowing off work by writing fan posts, but that's not important right now. What is important is that there's a model to follow: it won't guarantee success, but it will give you the best chance to get there. Now if the Lakers can just follow it....