Although the title may imply that we are about to talk about the Clippers, given the recent off-court news, we aren’t. Actually today we are going to look at three teams in different places from a competition standpoint, and look into roster building and how to build a playoff contender. We will start with a model team, who better than the reigning NBA champions and best current team in the Association? Golden State will serve as our model example of how to build a team, and then we will play a little bit with the rosters of two non-contenders: the Sixers and Suns. First, let’s take a look at how Golden State built their championship roster and what teams, specifically Phoenix and Philly, might can try to do to replicate their success.
Golden State Warriors- Build-a-Team Workshop Instructors
The Warriors have been very fortunate. I’m not talking about who they did or didn’t see in the playoffs last year, but more in how they assembled their nucleus. If you aren’t a traditional power or big market draw, then you have to get a little lucky to put together a championship roster. Only nine franchises have won an NBA title in my lifetime: Golden State, San Antonio, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, Dallas, and Boston. So, to take stock for a second, you have the two winningest franchises ever (Boston and Los Angeles), Jordan’s Bulls and the third biggest market, Houston (fourth biggest market), Miami (Pat Riley and South Beach), San Antonio (small market but fostered a culture under Popovich that makes players want to play there), Dallas, Golden State and Detroit. The last three all caught the right breaks at the right time to build a champion. So did San Antonio, let’s not forget that they tanked, got lucky and won the Tim Duncan lottery.
Anyway, back to Golden State and how it all came together. Starting with Stephen Curry, who they drafted seventh overall…seventh. (Pause to remember that Minnesota drafted not one, but two point guards ahead of Steph Curry in that draft). Draymond Green was a second round draft pick who became a star. The incomprehensive list of other second rounders to become stars: Dennis Rodman, Alex English, Dennis Johnson, Marc Gasol, Manu Ginobili, DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes were both lottery picks. Thompson was picked after Jimmer Fredette, Bismack Biyombo, and Jan Vesely. Iguodala was traded to the Warriors because he wasn’t going to re-sign with Denver. Festus Ezeli was the last pick of the first round of the 2012 draft and Andrew Bogut and Shaun Livingston are former top-5 picks (Boguts was first overall) who failed to live up to expectations with the team that drafted them partially because of injuries.
Give credit where credit is due to the Warriors’ front office though. They have drafted extremely well with picks of Curry, Barnes, Thompson, Green and Ezeli. All of which have probably met or exceeded their draft pick, with Barnes probably being the most borderline. They acquired Livingston and Bogut, because they saw potential value signings if they could stay healthy, and the gamble paid off. They also traded for Iguodala (and cleared cap space in the process all for the price of Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush) and saw a swiss army knife wing player who fit in perfectly with what they needed. Those are the three things it takes, when you can’t buy a superstar, to build a champion: drafting well, signing value players, and executing the right trades when they present themselves. The Warriors hit the trifecta and it brought them their first title in 40 years last season.
Phoenix Suns- Finding the Right Puzzle Pieces
Call me crazy, but Phoenix has the pieces in place to be a decent team even in the West. Devin Booker was a good pick in last year’s draft, and has the skills to be a good second option on a good team. (I discussed this with Levi earlier tonight and we agreed that Klay Thompson is his ceiling, which is pretty high). If Eric Bledsoe can stay healthy, which may seem like a big “if” now, and it is but there was also a time where people said of the Warriors “if Steph can stay healthy”, then Bledsoe, Booker and Knight are a solid backcourt rotation. Alex Len is a more-than-serviceable center and P.J. Tucker is a solid wing defender and shoots above average from beyond the arc.
I think the biggest thing to decide on where Phoenix needs to go from here is to decide if Bledsoe is a star. If he is, or more importantly if they think he is, then the jump from lottery to eight-seed to contender may not be as far as it seems right now. Honestly, him getting hurt in a year where we knew they weren’t contending may be a positive for the team long term. (Obviously I, nor anyone in the Phoenix organization, wanted Bledsoe to get hurt but bear with me). This is how good teams get better than expected draft picks and make the most of them. Think 1996-1997 Spurs. Were they the worst team in the NBA? No, but their best player got hurt and so they packed it in, won the lottery, drafted Tim Duncan and won five NBA titles. That’s clearly a best-case scenario, but the principle is the same.
Right now Phoenix is 14-34, tied for 4th worst in the NBA, which would give them a 10.35% chance to land the number one overall pick, a.k.a. Ben Simmons, and a 33.5% chance to land a top three pick. They also own all of their own picks currently, and three additional first round picks (one this year, one in 2018 and one in 2021, this year’s was originally Cleveland’s). They don’t really need a point guard or a shooting guard, so their ideal pick would be Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Ivan Rabb, or take a chance on the incredibly named Croatian Dragan Bender. Will any of these guys be stars? Maybe, maybe not, but what if they are? That’s what matters in the NBA. Drafting and acquiring top talent is tough and with the size of the roster every spot counts, but with more opportunities comes a bigger opportunity to land a star. Speaking of which, let’s move on to a team that has taken that philosophy to an extreme…
Philadelphia 76ers- Too Far Bro
Sam Hinkie has taken this whole asset maximization strategy to a whole new level, and it’s not a good one. Let me get this out there, I actually believe in the underlying philosophy of his plan. However, the execution of this plan has been taken way passed the boundaries of realistically working. Even if they land a potential star at this point, there is a really good chance that they just don’t have the quality around him to be of any use. I mean even LeBron James couldn’t get Cleveland a title in his first go-round and he’s one of the three-to-five best players of all time.
Philly does actually have a few things going its way though: 1) they own a boatload of draft picks right now and 2) Nerlens Noel could be an all-star in the near future, as could Jahlil Okafor and 3) if Joel Embiid ever gets healthy (admittedly not something to be confident in) then there are three potential studs in the frontcourt already. One of those guys plus a few draft picks could surely get them an NBA point guard better than a guy whose name is a private religious high school way of saying a four-letter word without actually saying it right? In all fairness to Ish Smith, he is averaging 11.5 points per game and 6.6 assists per game at the moment and has actually played well in Philly. He’s averaging 16 and 8 (points and assists respectively) since his return to Philly. Last two things about Ish before we move on, I can’t get over how much he looks like one of the Somali pirates from “Captain Phillips” and this is his ninth team in five NBA seasons #journeyman.
Other players Philly has to work with right now include: Nik Stauskas (STAUSKAS!!!!!!), Isaiah Canaan, T.J. McConnell, Jerami Grant, and Robert “Bob” Covington. I also was unaware until 45 seconds ago that Elton Brand was on their team. He’s a great chemistry guy for a bad team with worse front office leadership!!! He was a star for the Clippers in the middle of the Donald Sterling era! Philly has also run their franchise appeal down so much that they can’t sign a star in free agency or trade for one without knowing ahead of time that he will walk as soon as possible. On paper, the “tank until you draft enough stars or acquire enough assets to trade for one” theory may work, but in reality it just turns your franchise into one great steaming pile of…manure.
I’m not sure if I drew many definitive conclusions about our teams from today, so I’ll try to briefly hit some here. Golden State doesn’t need to do anything except for keep doing what their doing and maybe give their training staff a raise. It’s in the Suns best interest to keep being lousy this year and hope for a great pick, but I also think they should explore options to unload Markieff Morris. He’s not worth the trouble and is a chemistry killer. Contrary to my earlier statement that Booker, Knight and Bledsoe is a solid backcourt rotation, I actually think it might be in the best interest to shop one of them at the deadline too, and my pick would be Knight. His ceiling is the lowest of the three and his trade value might be the highest right now. Lastly, I felt like I gave Ish Smith a really hard time. I’m sorry Ish. I really do like you, but I find your first name comical. That being said, you are an NBA survivor, you’ve only played an entire season with the same team once in five years.
Credit Cover Photo to Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY Sports