I got a nice e-mail from a fellow named Marco regarding yesterday's post about how much we might improve. He had some great thoughts about our young talent but ended with a sincere question that can be summarized as, "Why don't you think we'll win more this year? Couldn't we make a playoff run?"
My honest answer is that this is sports and anything can happen, but I see the odds as immeasurably long. Don't get me wrong, I'd love it if we did, but I'm prepared for substantially less.
If you're talking about an actual run at a playoff seed, we're simply caught in a numbers game. Dallas, Denver, San Antonio, Phoenix, Sacramento, the Clippers, the Lakers, and Memphis all made the playoffs last year. The first six aren't going anywhere. Memphis may slip a little losing Battier and being unsure of Stoudamire, but they'd still have to fall a long ways and we'd have to climb just as much for us to pass them. And whatever you think of the Lakers, Kobe Bryant will carry that team to some wins. That's eight teams that are all but locks to be better than we are and there are only eight playoff seeds. Even if we were the best of the rest we don't make the postseason this year. And I have doubts about us even earning that label.
It takes two things to win consistently in this league: talent and stability. Most of the arguments you hear for us being better this year center around talent, and rightfully so. I think we are improving in that area. But in doing so we are sacrificing short-term stability.
How important is stability? Look what happens with injuries. The team doesn’t just lose talent, but continuity. How many times have you heard said of a player coming off an injury, "It's going to take a while to work this guy back in?" How many times does a team missing its superstar win a few in his absence but then look really ragged and lose his first game back? Players are not automatically interchangeable, no matter how talented. It's no accident that the worst teams in the league often use the most different starting lineups during the season. Part of that is lack of talent, but the converse is also true. Teams that don't develop a rhythm don't win.
There are also plenty of positive examples of the importance of consistency. What makes a superstar a superstar? It's not just talent. A lot of players have that. It's talent combined with the ability to produce consistently. Clyde Drexler gave you 20, 6, and 5 like clockwork. He wasn't spiking 30 and then giving you 5 the next night. That's what made him great. You could depend on him, build your team and its style of play around him. That's why those early 90's teams didn't just win, they ALWAYS won. They knew they were going to win the moment they entered the gym. This was part of the failing of the late-90's Whitsitt teams. They were massively talented, maybe more so than any of their contemporaries. But you remember players complaining that every year we got 3-4 new players and it took months to assimilate them, if it happened at all. There was no steadiness, no continuity, nothing to build around other than we dominated on paper.
Stability is a key to winning. And right now, despite all of the positive moves and good, young talent, we just don't have it.
Probably the toughest thing for a young player to learn is how to fit into the flow of the game--to make others better and to be made better by others in such a way that leads to team success. It's not that they're slow. The last thing a new person in any venture learns is how to merge into the environment. Your first day on the job you were worried about what you were doing. You barely noticed anybody else. New poker players play their own cards, not the cards of others. It's no different for these kids. I expect Jack and Roy, having four years of college experience (and one year of NBA duty in Jack's case) will have a marginally easier time than most, but neither one of them has had the responsibility they're going to get this year. Webster and Outlaw are obviously still in the early phases of their adjustment and Rodriguez and Aldridge haven't even begun it yet. If you go down that list, that's nearly every player people are excited about making a difference. And they will, just not yet, because they don’t even know who they are as individual players, let alone how to make a difference on a winning team in this league.
The fact that they'll eventually get it down doesn't change the steepness of the immediate learning curve. Even the simple things will take time. For instance, between being brand new to the league and our style of play last year, do you realize that for the most part none of our guards besides Dickau and Dixon have ever thrown an entry pass into the post to an NBA center? Theo didn't post and Joel and Ha got waved off every time they tried. Even Zach didn't post much last year and the entry passes they did make to him looked like differential calculus to these guys. This is a basic, rote move that veteran guards could do in their sleep. They'll be learning it on the job. They'll have to adjust to Magloire and maybe a stronger Zach whose games demand such. (If those young guys look off Magloire like they looked off last year's centers he's going to shove a fist down their throat in practice.) And that's just the simple stuff!
This is exactly why Nate is always saying you need veterans to win. Not because the veterans are all that much more talented than young guys, but because they know how to play, both as individuals and in the team framework, consistently enough to win.
Take a long, honest look at where we are right now. We got less stable at the point by trading Blake and promoting Jack. (Again, maybe more talented
but less stable
.) Plus Dickau is injured and Spanish Chocolate is young and was considered a loose cannon even in a lower league. We're going to get less stable at shooting guard if we fade away from or trade Dixon and rely on Martell and B-Roy. (And Dixon was hardly a paragon of consistency himself.) We're less stable at backup small forward with Outlaw in place of Khryapa. Our starting forwards remain the same but they are also coming off mercurial seasons and are not known for providing stability. Our backup power fowards are both new to the team and one is new to the league. The only position with greater stability is center with the re-signing of Joel and the acquisition of the veteran Magloire who, while new, can't help but be more steady and capable than Theo turned out to be last year. That's two positions in turmoil, two positions shaky, and one slightly improved, albeit by a brand new guy. It's going to take a while to sort that all out.
The point is, we did get more talented, and we are going in the right direction, but the very players we cite as examples are also the players who will, in the short term, lack the stability needed to provide sustained winning either because they're young or because they're new. I doubt we'll even begin to see thing settle down until at least February and I wouldn't be surprised if it took a whole season. That's why I think any chance of a playoff run, or even anything close, would be a miracle.