Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Follow-Up Thoughts

I'm still dwelling on the post from yesterday. (Just below this one if you haven't seen it.) The thing that is sticking with me is how many "B to B+" type players play significant roles on those teams. These are players better than the average, but still not your Tim Duncan/Dirk Nowitzki types that you center a team around because their games are either too inconsistent or too one-dimensional. Examples would include Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Terry, Erick Dampier, and Keith Van Horn from Dallas, Jason Williams and Antoine Walker from Miami, or maybe even the Thomas boys in Phoenix.

One of my (probably many) flaws in analyzing the league is that I tend to expect too much from players sometimes. I don't think it's wrong to fault a guy for playing an incomplete game, but no team is made up entirely of Tim Duncans either. Looking at these four teams, clearly there's a place for B-level stars on a winning team.

Notice, though, that all of these less complete stars were brought in after the main stars and the general direction of the team were established. And almost all of them had come from situations where they had failed and/or disappointed because that wasn't the case. There's a lesson in that. I don't know about "never", but I'm pretty comfortable saying that it seldom works to start your team with B-level stars, hoping to add to them later.

For one thing, because they're the best players on the squad and usually carry most of the scoring load (whether that leads to victories or not) those B-level guys often get paid like A-level talent. Even one or two of them can gum up your salary cap but good. For another, either because the pressure of getting the salary and attention forces them to or because they truly believe that they're the man, those "almost-but-not-quite" guys tend to guard the top spot in the team's pecking order...which is probably a bigger deal in the NBA than it should be, but it's there nonetheless. They say that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but NBA teams tend to be as strong as their best player. How many times do you see one of these guys actually move over for another player--especially if that player is younger--even if the player is obviously better? Everyone saw an aging David Robinson make way for Duncan, but the Admiral was a pretty unique guy. Far more often you see conflict, frustration, and eventually trades. (Which is part of why none of these guys are with their original teams.) Often you end up dumping the talent you were trying to add onto.

By contrast...if you already have a core set, adding one or two B-level guys as complementary pieces usually costs less than inking them to brand new contracts. Even if it doesn't, going over the cap when most of your roster is in place doesn't hurt as much as when you're trying to rebuild. And when you already have a LeBron or Nowitzki in place, the players know what they're getting into when they come to the team. It's amazing how problems diminish when that's the case. (This often causes fans from the original teams to grind their teeth in anguish.)

The hallmarks of a team that's building around the wrong people are too much salary, too many expectations of the main player(s), and more losses than look plausible on paper. If this sounds familiar, well...that's pretty much the argument I'm making. Again, we have to ask ourselves whether Zach is an A-list or B-list star. What's more, whether we move him or not we have to be very careful who else we bring to the team. In trade for Z-Bo or in addition to him, acquiring other overpaid B-level talent would be a crippling mistake at this point, even if that led to a few more wins in the short term. Cap space, young guys, and solid vets with modest (or at least short-term) contracts are the assets du jour. B-level stars can be a real help, but only in the right place, at the right time, and for the right salary.

Now I just KNOW somebody will read this and say, "So are we supposed to get C-level guys then?" Obviously not. You do everything you can to get well-rounded players with the potential to develop into A-list guys, because those superstars are your key to success. When some guys inevitably fall short of that goal, that's OK. Just...

A. DON'T overpay them.
B. Don't be afraid to cut bait if it's not the time or place for them to make an impact and you can get reasonable assets in return. I know the analogy is not airtight because of the different developmental cycle, but this happens in baseball all the time as good players are traded for prospects. It often helps both teams in the long run. And...
C. Don't compound your problem by getting more stopgap players with salary issues.

Name recognition is all well and good, but history shows that unless you're adding final pieces to the puzzle, overspending on B-list guys only makes you a perpetual farm team for playoff contenders with better talent and direction.

--Dave (


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