How do you build a championship roster?
That is a question that General Managers and Presidents of Player Personnel must ask themselves every day. What complicates things is while every team starts every season at 0-0 not every team is created equal. What works in one market is not feasible in another. Add in the fact that no two teams are at the same point in their process of building a team and the possibilities for every team are endless. Every decision creates a ripple in the pool of NBA chaos.
My favorite example of the single ripple turning into a tidal, or title, wave is when Anthony Carter’s agent, Bill Duffy, failed to send in the notice to the Miami Heat that he was activating his player option on the last year of his contract. The resulting cap space allowed Miami to sign Lamar Odom. Miami was then able to acquire Shaquille O’Neal for a package with Odom as the centerpiece. Miami would win a championship with the duo of O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. Of course, Odom would also be a key cog in the Lakers’ championship teams in recent years. One seemingly insignificant event played a major role in the process that lead two teams winning a combined three NBA championships.
The bottom line is no one knows what any single transaction will trigger. Even the most mind numbingly obvious decisions, such as drafting Greg Oden number one overall, drafting Carmelo Anthony third overall, or throwing Marc Gasol into a trade for his brother Pau, can prove to be the wrong decision.
In this article I am hoping to dig deeper than hindsight is 20/20. Instead of looking back and realizing a mistake, how can a team look ahead and consistently make the right decisions?
More specifically, how can the Denver Nuggets claim the Larry O’Brien trophy as soon as possible?
What we know about building championship teams change almost every season. Before the Dallas Mavericks won last year it was conventional wisdom held that you needed two Hall-of-Famers or three if not four All-Star caliber players to win it all. Dallas showed that one truly great player with a very good supporting cast, all of which had a defined role, and excelled at their role, could pull it off.
Dallas was a team built primarily through trades. They acquired Dirk Nowitzki via draft night trade, or draft night robbery, when the Mavs sent the rights to the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor to Milwaukee for the man who would become the Teutonic Tormentor. Jason Terry was brought in from Atlanta for Antoine Walker. Jason Kidd was acquired from the Nets in the much maligned Devin Harris deal (by the way they acquired Harris by trade for Antawn Jamison, who they acquired by trade…). Finally Tyson Chandler came to town from Charlotte for a package featuring Erick Dampier’s non-guaranteed contract. The tweaking took years, but everything started with the acquisition and development of Nowitzki.
Before we move on, keep in mind Dallas let Steve Nash walk away to Phoenix for nothing. Nash was an All-Star and went on to become a two time MVP and Cuban just watched him leave. With the money they did not pay Nash, the signed Dampier, who earlier in the paragraph was mentioned when Dallas acquired the second most important player on their championship team, Tyson Chandler. The other thing to keep in mind, it took seven years after Nash left to win that title.
Dallas did very little via the draft, outside of drafting Josh Howard they did not have a significant draft pick in ten years and they also did not improve their team drastically via free agency. However, Mark Cuban regularly paid the luxury tax and their championship team last season had a team payroll above $86 million. Dallas is an example of how aggressive trading can be effective as long as you target the right players with the New York Knicks under Isiah Thomas being the polar opposite.
Dropping back a season we come to the Los Angeles Lakers who won back to back championships. Again, they were built primarily through trades. Kobe Bryant, like Dirk Nowitzki arrived via a draft night trade when Vlade Divac was sent to the Charlotte Hornets many moons ago. Pau Gasol came to LA in the universally despised transaction known as the Pau Gasol Trade. Lamar Odom came to town from Miami in the previously mentioned Shaq trade. Ron Artest was acquired for Trevor Ariza in a trade, of course, Ariza had been acquired via trade from Orlando.
The only key piece in LA that arrived via the draft was Andrew Bynum. Another thing to keep in mind is many players dream of playing for the Lakers in LA in front of movie stars and music moguls. Also, the Lakers make more money than any other team and their team payroll is the highest in the league. Their payroll including money not paid during the lockout, is projected to be over $90 million for the third straight season in 2011-12.
Next we come to the Celtics who won one championship in 2008. They are a fascinating study in team building. Key cog Paul Pierce was brought to Boston in the 1998 NBA Draft with the tenth pick (Denver selected Pierce’s Kansas teammate Raef LaFrentz third overall). Boston acquired the other two members of their Big 3 via trade. Ray Allen was shipped from the then Seattle SuperSonics in exchange for the number five overall selection which was Jeff Green (who the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins for last season). Kevin Garnett was brought to the Land of Leprechauns in a trade with Minnesota that featured Al Jefferson, some other young assets, an expiring contract and two first round picks. Would the trade ever been completed if Minnesota GM Kevin McHale had not played in Boston with Celtics GM Danny Ainge? It certainly does not matter now, but it adds an intriguing ripple. The other key players, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo were drafted by Boston, Rondo’s pick was purchased from Phoenix.
The prerequisite to Boston’s title was a couple years of failure. They acquired enough young talent that they could make an acceptable offer to convince another team to trade an MVP. They were also bad enough to have the fifth pick to offer Seattle for Allen. The interesting thing was they never completely bottomed out and needed a top draft pick to rebuild. Ainge did a good enough job of drafting good players with picks in the teens or later. Al Jefferson was drafted in 2004 with the 15th pick. Gerald Green was selected the next season with the 18th selection. Those two were the top young players that went to the Wolves. They only missed the playoffs two seasons before winning the title with the Big 3 team.
The most recent Spurs title comes up next. San Antonio is a team that acquired their top talent through the draft. While their initial championship run was fueled by their duo of first round pick big men, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, the Spurs later championships came with Duncan supported by a dynamic backcourt. As we have discussed before on this blog the Spurs have been unbelievably lucky. They have been in the lottery three times as a franchise and the last two times, not only have they won the lottery, but they won the lottery in seasons where there was an MVP caliber big man available as opposed to winning the lottery for the Michael Olowokandi draft or the Kenyon Martin draft. The Spurs are proof that winning the lottery is not enough, but who is available the year you win it is just as important. If you are going to lose your MVP for the season, make the upcoming draft features a Hall of Fame big man and then make sure you win the lottery so you are not stuck with Ron Mercer or Tony Battie.
However, before you get jaded about their incredible luck the Spurs proved that they did not need a top draft pick to draft top talent nabbing Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick in the 1999 draft and Tony Parker with the 28th pick in the2001 draft. The Spurs ability to find the diamonds others were overlooking triggered their post David Robinson dynasty. The Spurs proved that they had an equally good eye for free agents as they signed Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry. San Antonio also added amnesty cut Michael Finley as a free agent and he would contribute to their 2007 Championship. San Antonio is a great example to follow as long as you can get your Tim Duncan and then be smarter than everyone else in the league when it comes to the draft and avoid any free agent mistakes. Follow that blueprint and you too can build a team who can be a top contender for more than a decade.
The Miami Heat won the championship in 2007 with two stars that joined the team in different ways. Dwyane Wade was drafted two spots after the Nuggets drafted Carmelo Anthony, and three spots after the Nuggets would have drafted Darko Milicic. Shaquille O’Neal arrived courtesy of the previously discussed trade with the Lakers. The trade featured a player the Heat signed as a free agent, Lamar Odom, and a player they drafted, Caron Butler. Like the Celtics, the Heat had bottomed out and had two bad seasons following the breakup of the Alonzo Mourning teams that were a perennial contender, the second of which resulted in Wade being drafted to play at South Beach.
Other key players were acquired in various ways. Antoine Walker was obtained in what was then the largest trade in NBA history. Contributor James Posey and Jason Williams arrived in the Walker transaction. Udonis Haslem was signed as an undrafted rookie. Miami used the draft, trades and free agency to mold the roster into what they wanted. The Big Question is would the Big Aristotle have signed the Big Extension he agreed to that kept him in Miami long enough to win that title if he was in somewhere like Minnesota or Portland or Denver.
The last title team to study that was put together in an economic climate similar to what we have today is the Detroit Pistons. The 2004 Pistons appear to be the outlier of the group. They built a team short on Hall of Fame talent and only the Wallace (not) brothers had ever been in an All-Star game prior to their title. Plus hot head Rasheed was acquired at the trade deadline and had little time to gel with his new teammates. Looking at their five starters Ben Wallace was the first to arrive as warm body in the sign and trade deal that sent Grant Hill to Orlando. In the summer of 2002 Tayshaun Prince was added in the draft with the 23rd pick and Rip Hamilton was traded from Washington to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse, who Detroit had traded for previously, and Chauncey Billups was signed as a free agent away from the Minnesota Timberwolves where he had started to become the player we know him as today.
The final piece in their championship puzzle arrived on the 2004 trade deadline when Atlanta dumped Wallace for pennies on the dollar after acquiring him from Portland for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Wallace completed the Pistons’ fantastic defense and also provided an offensive boost as a versatile big man who could score on the block or knock down a three. The Pistons core starters proved to be more talented than anyone expected, but they still defied logic as a team with no uber-talented duo. They did not have Kobe or Shaq, let alone Kobe and Shaq, yet they trounced the Lakers and took the powerful Spurs to seven games the next season. They are the only team on the list who did not have a top flight franchise player acquired on draft day. Joe Dumars just happened to find five players who fit perfectly together who fed off each other.
The question then becomes what does any of that mean for the Denver Nuggets?
The latest iteration of the Nuggets was a regular season dynamo that fell apart in the first round of the playoffs. The strength of that team was its depth which has already been decimated by defections to China by three core players. Right now Denver has some nice assets. I believe Ty Lawson is a top ten point guard and he still has great potential. Arron Afflalo is a well-rounded player who can defend and shoot. Danilo Gallinari can score and at least puts forth effort on defense. Rookie Kenneth Faried will be a force on the glass right away and is more athletic than I thought. Wilson Chandler is a restricted free agent whenever he returns from tearing up the competition in China. Gary Forbes has shown promise this summer. Chris Andersen is a solid backup center. Not to mention Denver has a mountain of cap space and an extra first round pick in 2014 from the Knicks.
The most important step to becoming a contender is the Nuggets must be honest about where they are as a franchise and what their goals are. If they are happy to be a fringe playoff team and nothing more, then throw the bank at Nene and be aggressive in the free agent market this year. However, if the goal is winning a championship Denver must look at the way contending teams are built and realize they do what needs to be done.
The lesson recent NBA history has taught us is you do not trade for Tim Duncan. You do not trade for Dwyane Wade. You do not trade for Dirk Nowitzki. The caliber of player you need to win a championship is acquired on draft night typically after a season where quite frankly the team was terrible. Even beyond the championship teams we studied if we look at the most recent crop of contenders we see a high draft pick, the Bulls drafted Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City drafted Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Cleveland drafted LeBron James, Orlando drafted Dwight Howard, Utah drafted Deron Williams, Phoenix drafted Amare Stoudemire, the list goes on and on. Even Miami who built their current roster primarily off of two major sign and trade deals made possible by massive cap space drafted Dwyane Wade and needed him on the roster to get LeBron and Chris Bosh to come to town.
Denver needs to rebuild and bottom out. They must find that franchise star that will be the foundation for a contending team.
As Charlie and Kalen have already discussed the Nuggets are likely to plot the future course of the franchise based on what Nene decides. In my opinion the worst thing Denver can do is base their strategy on Nene. The worst possible outcome being to try to avoid rebuilding by telling Nene that they will top any offer he receives. I would personally pursue my sign and trade options immediately, but ultimately the front office must be willing to let him walk just like Mark Cuban did with Steve Nash.
The next necessary step is to resign Arron Afflalo to a new deal and as Charlie mentioned front load the deal so as to preserve cap space in the future. With Nene no longer on the payroll Denver will need to spend some money to get in the vicinity of the 85% of the cap minimum. Give Afflalo a huge first year salary of $10 million or even more and then fill out the other four years with a salary of $3.0 or $4.0 million.
Denver should part ways with Andre Miller for the same reasons they traded Chauncey. It does not make sense to pay a guy in his mid-thirties on a rebuilding squad. He has a one year deal and should be flipped to a playoff team in exchange for a draft pick, a cheap prospect or two and of course, no long term contracts.
Be patient with the amnesty clause. If Al Harrington needs to be on the books to help hit the minimum salary requirements this season and possibly next season we well. Just know that he will not finish out his contract in Denver.
Leave some space below the minimum team salary in order to facilitate trades with teams interested in saving money. Denver will have the ability to acquire contracts from teams looking to shed salary and in doing so can receive draft picks as compensation.
See if there was any truth to the rumor that the Clippers would part with Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 first round pick in exchange for Gallo. That is consistent with the primary goal of acquisition of high first round picks.
Let the youngsters play. Gary Forbes, Faried, Jordan Hamilton, Timofey Mozgov and even Chukwudiebere Maduabum need to be on the court a lot next season. The result will be important experience and most likely a few more losses.
Hope that by building a team responsibly and with purpose instead of bottoming out through incompetence which has been the typical MO for Denver in the past, the Nuggets horrific lottery luck will finally change and the ping pong balls will bounce their way for the first time in franchise history. They have to move up sometime, right? Anyone? It is possible, isn’t it?
On December 9th the Nuggets have the chance to chart a bright future for the franchise. Whatever direction they choose they will start creating more ripples. Who knows where they will lead.