Huh?! Bear with me.
NBA Championship teams almost always have one of the the following two traits:
- Being a historic franchise in a large market.
- Having one the top few picks in an excellent draft.
We can safely say that the universe of large market teams with a history of winning consists of two teams – and perhaps four in total. Fifty-five percent of the NBA championships have been won by the Celtics or Lakers franchises. That’s 33 out of 60 (yes, I left a couple defunct 40s/50s franchises off). Add the largest market team, the New York Knicks, that have won only twice (sadly), so that takes us to 35.
We also have six Chicago Bulls teams that have won. Chicago is a great market with a long history, but could also be characterized within our second trait: a top pick (#3, some dude named Michael Jordan). Also in that draft was #1 pick Hakeem Olajuwon, who lead his team to back-to-back championships.
We’ve covered 44 out of 60 titles already with three big market franchises and only one draft!
So, what’s left?
The San Antonio Spurs won four (David Robinson #1 pick, Tim Duncan #1 pick), the Bucks won once (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #1 pick), so did the Blazers 1 (#1 pick Bill Walton), 76ers (Moses Malone #5 in ABA) and Heat (Dwyane Wade #5 and Shaq #1). The Detroit Pistons won three, twice with Isiah Thomas (#2 pick). We are now at 54 out of 60 (I left one Detroit team off, see below).
There were only a handful of teams that didn’t directly draft their All-star (2003-04 Pistons only had Darko Miličić as a top pick #2 in 2003 who obviously wasn’t key to that winning season). Otherwise, they drafted smartly higher up and traded for their key players.
I think its fairly clear. You generally win in this league by either being a big market to draw top free agents (Boston, Los Angeles, and New York). There may be a second tier of “big draws”, being Miami and New Jersey with a combination of life style, money and/or marketing power,. But beyond that teams are usually left to the lottery to find cornerstones.
The Toronto Raptors have a good sized market (yes, its a basketball market, our American friends will eventually figure that out). The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is 5.6 million strong and, as Canada’s only team, you could argue the home team for 35 million. Perhaps the size of market is not entirely relevant, since we have little “history” (four winning seasons in fifteen years). NBA players love to visit, but many certainly don’t put Toronto at the top of their free agent list. Its more about its history of winning than weather (though some will argue differently).
So with this knowledge in hand, do we:
- Maximize the expiring deals and TPE to materially improve and take on longer term contracts from financially strapped and/or non-playoff bound teams?
- Spend the remainder of the season developing our youth and trade for youth/picks?
- Somewhere in between?
I argue for #2. We need to look to get top pick. We have Miami’s 1st pick this year which certainly won’t translate into a top pick. But ours may. I’m against tanking as I have debated with Michael Grange over the last couple of years. But I don’t think we were ever far apart – I was more against tanking late in 2009 as it wouldn’t matter much (only a spot or two at best). However, Mr. Grange started his argument to tank earlier and it potentially could have resulted in a much higher pick. I remain against purposely losing. I’m the “honour the game” type of guy. And perhaps this is cheating my argument some, but I do support playing our youth (Davis, DeRozan, Alabi, Bayless, Johnson) “more than normal” minutes than they may “deserve” with the purpose of getting them more experience. I’m all over working on development in game situations where we run plays for our young players even if it may not be the optimal shot. I want at least some of them in late-game situations even if it’s not our best lineup per se.
Isn’t this just another form of tanking? Maybe, depends on exactly how we define it I suppose. However, I propose coaches/management instill in the players the goal is always to win and never “throw” a game. I want the young core to win together. I want them to have a last-second-shot-to-win-it experience. But with playing our inexperienced players and thus suboptimal lineups, we are likely to lose more over the course of the season. I see it as a win-win.
What are the odds that we’d draft a “superstar”?
So what are the odds that we draft a superstar? Thankfully 82games did this exact study.
It appears we likely need a top 5 pick.
“But there are no guarantees” some have argued with me in the past. Yes, its easy to name several top 5 picks that have been busts. But can I easily name many more “game changers”?! (Hint, the answer is yes). “What’s the alternative?”, I ask. Trade our expiring deals for longer deals, but better players? Where does that leave us? Another 7th place finish, first round exit and a high pick? Probably. I’ll take the risk of selecting a high pick bust instead, thank you.
GM, assistants and scouts
There is little use in fans debating whether Chris Bosh was enough of a cornerstone to “build around”. That shipped has sailed and I do not entirely blame management for trying to put those last few pieces around him. It was always a tough task and we could debate the merits all day, but its time to move on. We have what we have and that includes a large TPE and significant expiring contracts. With the CBA around the corner, let’s use our upcoming cap space wisely. Its a big asset.
Salary space to work with…
Let’s look at the 3 to 5 year rebuild despite the urgency to get better now. The Raptors are right in the middle of the pack for attendance despite a poor record. Sell the fans on the build commitment, which involves patience to “do it right”. Draft and trade for young players that have a winning first mindset. Ones that are true teammates. Its difficult, but can me done.
“… it’s hard not to be selfish. The art of winning is complicated by statistics, which for us becomes money. Well, you gotta fight that, find a way around it. And I think we have… // We got 12 guys who are totally committed to winning.” – Isiah Thomas, during the 1989 playoff finals.
It’s a tough balance between letting the young players play through some mistakes, but also creating a culture of accountability. They need to develop the young players by testing them in the heat of battle, and if they don’t perform or neglect their duties, then that will give an indication of where they might lie in the Raptors’ future plans (ahem, Sonny Weems).
If a multi-year plan to build a winner is put forward, is there enough fan support for the idea for MLSE to be bold enough to implement it? Look, very few organisations/owners are willing to suffer through years of losing tens of millions of dollars. It’s just not realistic and I do not expect anything different from ours. Owners have many investment opportunities to generate returns and while a very few are willing to take losses for their “hobby”, its just not realistic for them to endure many years of negative returns. Unless you have $400 million and like to lose money, let’s just accept this.
We do have a supportive base it appears. There are many “fair weather” fans everywhere, but I believe fans will support the franchise in the rebuilding years IF a clear plan is delivered and executed on. MLSE has significant profit leverage if they can build a winner – Maple Leaf Square is just begging to host a multiple playoff series.
MLSE should not be considered a penny-pinching organization. The Raptors have always been in the middle of the pack or closer to the top-third in NBA salaries (currently 15th), so to say they aren’t willing to spend is incorrect. It’s true that they have never shattered the luxury cap barrier, but has there even been a reason to? Have the Raptors ever really been one mid-season move away from something special? Probably not. On this point we may have to take Colangelo’s word that the board is willing to cross the luxury-tax bridge as long as it’s justified towards winning. I noted before in this that winners spend well over the cap. But this post should have been the “prequel” to it. You need to have the foundation in place before you add that last missing piece or two.
So. Things aren’t as bad as ESPN might have you believe, in fact, they’re looking up.