Title or Bust…Relevancy or the Tank?

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Updated: August 12, 2021
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It is an ideology that tends to waiver on-air and across the pods, not only from analyst to analyst but in the individuals themselves. For certain franchises, whether it is due to their historic context or their small market restrictions, we hear contrasting prescriptions for the long-term development of a roster. The question that needs to be answered first, is a simple one…are goals relative or universal? Too often we allow ourselves to think like the hypothetical fans of a franchise or empathize with its General Manager. We create overly complex human elements for something that is a game. The goal of the game is to be the best in a given season. 20 years from now, nothing else will matter except who won the title. So, what does title or bust really mean, and how does it function for identifying the moves for contenders and non-contenders? There are three categories of teams in the modern era, and with the fluidity of draft capital being exchanged, it has become easier to identify.

True Contenders

The identification of a franchise is inherently subjective. As we just saw in the last 2 years, the Suns, Bucks, and Heat, all were not expected to make the Finals and yet did. However, once a team identifies internally as a contender, all future considerations of draft capital and what the team may look like 6 years down the road should be disregarded as it is irrelevant. This is not subjective, since the majority of the true contenders in the league at the moment have already taken this approach. Both LA teams, the Bucks, and the Heat have already emptied the clip and have extracted as much talent as possible with their draft capital sold on the open market. As we have seen, this approach has resulted in the last two titles, with the Anthony Davis acquisition, and the 3-pick overpay for Jrue Holiday.

The AD trade is easy. He’s young, and arguably a top 5 player, and any team would execute such a trade any day of the week. It is the Holiday trade which is the one that is difficult yet necessary. The Bucks had 3 first-rounders and searched for the best piece available and executed a deal that increased their odds of success. The question at hand is not if the trade was a good trade or even if they won the trade. No, it is the ideology behind the move that is of importance here. Winning a title has just as much to do with luck as it does anything else. A season is a gamble on a multitude of known and unknown variables. The goal for a true contender is to increase the odds of their gamble for the only acceptable outcome, that being a Finals appearance and the title. The overpay for Holiday was exactly that. It brought in an above-average player in place of a below-average starter and it paid off. If it hadn’t, it still would be a move made with the right intention, title or bust.

 All teams that identify themselves as true contenders who still carry future draft picks are playing at a current disadvantage to the teams who have already upgraded their roster with future capital. For example, both the Warriors and 76ers have picks and young players with potential they can package. The concern for the future and the potential of those young yet below-average players should be moved if a deal presents itself which gives them better odds of winning the title. Trading future picks does restrict a franchise’s ability to make moves down the road, but now is all that matters, especially since many of your opponents in their conference have already taken advantage of sending out their draft capital.

Non-Contenders

The main reason that it becomes difficult for contenders to upgrade their rosters is the delusional approach of non-contenders. It may not even be a delusion just a dedication to being a playoff team or “good enough” to appease their young star who they don’t want to leave in free agency. We saw both the Wizards and Bulls make “win-now” moves and yet not one person in their front office could honestly tell you they think these moves have made them contenders this year or even in the upcoming years. They were moves to try to be good enough to appease LaVine for Chicago and Beal for Washington. The fear of losing these players is illogical because there are no moves available where these players win a title as the best player on their rosters. Instead, in a market that is willing to overpay for talent, Beal and LaVine should have been the headline trades of this offseason, allowing Washington to start their slow rebuild, and Chicago begins their soft rebuild. 

Getting Lonzo Ball was a great addition for the Bull’s slow rebuild and yet giving capital up for DeRozan was the exact opposite direction of where they should’ve been going. They have given up all their picks for what? It would be a Michael Jordan miracle if the Bulls even found themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals in the next two years. They should’ve moved Vucevic, LaVine, and Thad Young and started a rebuild around Patrick Williams and the young assets acquired. Instead, they have no future and no hopes for a title. 

Toronto and Indiana are in a similar situation as Chicago. They have above-average players who many teams around the league would be willing to overpay to acquire them. Any move those two teams make to “win-now” would be completely self-defeating for their odds of becoming a future title contender. Sabonis, Turner, Brogdon, LeVert, Siakam, VanVleet, Dragic, and Boucher should all be on the trade block looking for the team who is willing to attach too much potential capital in exchange for win-now pieces. What will most likely happen instead, will these teams will be fighting to make the playoffs and might even trade a pick at the deadline to get a little better but still not be a contender. 

For a GM, this process makes sense. To be relevant is usually enough to extend one’s tenure…but for the only goal, to win a title now or in the future, win-now players should be moved. This must be a priority set by ownership if winning if they every wish to win a title. By creating the cap space and gaining young talent, teams can also overpay in free agency for players in the range of 6-15 million to have solid players around their youth. Then at the deadline, they can see if someone is willing to overpay in capital for that win-now player.  

Future Contenders

 Once pride or an individual’s economic interests are removed, the decisions for the situations above become easier to choose from. Whether they pan out or not is an entirely different issue, but the routes available are clearer, with a transparent logic to operate under. This last grouping though, not only sits in a more subjective space but even once identified, the decisions and routes to follow and the gambles to take are vaster and more uncertain. Future contenders tend to be teams who are already perennial playoff teams and are led by young stars who have yet to fully step into their prime. Internal development may be the key to their transformation from a perennial playoff team to a true contender. The question is, when does the front office pull the trigger on using its draft capital or rookie contracts to bring in the final pieces of the puzzle. Usually, these last pieces are expensive veteran players who are win-now players acquired for a 1-3 year window. It seems simple enough, yet if this move is made too early, the entire title window that was waiting down the road in the star player(s) prime may be wasted.

For example, the Celtics and the Jazz are two very interesting teams to consider where they land when self-identifying. The Celtics with their two wings may be a true contender 2-3 down years down the road simply because of the internal development of Tatum and Brown, however, currently, if they would’ve traded for a star it’s possible they would’ve been a true contender immediately. The question is, does that gamble and the odds of a title merit mortgaging the future? With how loaded the East is at the moment, and the likelihood that at least the Nets will fall off in the next 2-3 years, holding that gamble for a year or two down the road may have been the best choice. However, this has a very big assumption built into it, that Tatum and Brown will sign their max extensions once their current contracts expire.

The Jazz are closer to being a true contender at the moment, and many would argue they already are. However, the internal development of Mitchell may be the missing piece in their puzzle, not additional veteran pieces. However, the ceiling of Mitchell is substantially less than the tandem of Tatum and Brown. Both teams, if they wish to be true contenders now or in the near future must be willing to spend in the luxury tax to compete with the loaded teams in their conference.

The Hawks are an interesting case study from last year. They were not even a future contender going into the 2020-21 season and yet exceeded expectations by making it to the Conference Finals. We saw a similar thing happen with Boston in Tatum’s rookie year. With the Hawks though, they traded some of their draft capital to get Gallinari. Most people now see this as a winning decision since he had a positive impact on the floor and their success in the playoffs. However, on his large contract, age, and health, long-term this may have been a misstep. Now they have too many extensions popping at the same time, and with Gallo, on the books, they are trying to unload Reddish simply because they can’t pay him after deciding to keep John Collins. So, yes Gallinari helped them get to the Eastern Conference Finals this year, but it may be the decision that stops them from getting to the Finals and winning a title when Trae hits his prime 2-3 years down the road.

Conclusion

None of these speculations can be objectively assessed, they are fluid equations that are based on the speculation of odds and roster fit constructions. There are so many unknowns going into the process, it is very difficult even after the fact to identify whether the actions were ultimately a success or failure. The move that is objectively a failure is when non-contenders make moves and acquisitions which mortgage their future and yet does not make them a contender. For example, the New Orleans Pelicans trading draft capital for Valančiūnas. I am a big fan of Valančiūnas on the right team and for the right price, but the Pelicans are nowhere near being a contender. If they went out and traded all of their picks in their piggy bank for Lillard or Beal maybe it would give them a puncher’s chance at a title. But instead, they traded for a mild upgrade at the 5, and let Lonzo Ball basically walk for nothing. Instead of wasting capital, they should be acquiring it along with young players that match Zion’s salary path.

If they truly believe that Zion wants to leave, instead of trying to get him to playoffs to make him happy, they should put him on the market and attempt to get someone to overpay for him. If Brandon Ingram doesn’t look like he will be a part of your future title aspirations, again, look for a team to overpay in assets for his services on a true contender. They’re lucky they didn’t get to sign Kyle Lowry for 100 million, this would’ve been catastrophic for their chances to ever win a title. Would they get to the playoffs? Sure, probably. But the gamble would have basically guaranteed unless Zion turns into the MVP of the league in the next year or 2 that they would never win a title, especially since signing Lowry would’ve let Lonzo walk in restricted free-agency.

The concept of trying to make a star who doesn’t want to be a part of your franchise happy even when they do not currently make your team a contender is absolutely illogical. The Anthony Davis trade was a complete success for New Orleans, and they were even gifted the #1 pick the following year by the basketball gods (or maybe by Adam Silver). But now they have botched the first two years by trading for Adams, now Valančiūnas, and let a key piece of the AD trade walk for a second-round pick. Rebuilding by trading stars is a key moment in a franchise and should not be seen as a defeat, yet what a team does after that event will define if that gamble will have even the opportunity for success.

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