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There are two conventional ways to build a contending NBA team. The first is through free agency. Teams can attract established stars who have proven themselves over a period of time to their teams. This avenue is not available to all the teams in the NBA. Free agents are not always interested in signing with teams in small markets. Rarely do established stars sign big free agent deals to play in Milwaukee or Charlotte. These teams usually end up overpaying average players in order to convince them to play in a small market. Teams that play in big market cities such as Los Angeles or New york have a distinct advantage when it comes to free agency. The Miami Heat are a prime example of a team built via free agency as they managed to sign both Chris Bosh and LeBron James in the summer of 2010.
The second way to build a contending team is through the draft. Building through the draft is an avenue that all teams can take as long as they possess the patience to wait until their young players develop. Furthermore, a team can exert more control on a player they draft even if said player is unhappy. For example, Kyrie Irving is miserable in Cleveland but even after his contract runs out in the 2014/2015 season, he will only be a restricted free agent. Not surprisingly most teams point to the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder as model franchises, as all their best players were drafted and developed in house.
The NBA draft is a lottery with the worst team having the best chance to receive the the top pick and a guarantee of at least having the fourth overall pick. There is a pervasive thought around the league that it is better to be a really bad team and receive a high draft pick than to be a marginal playoff team. As a result, certain teams have been accused over the years of tanking, making their rosters less competitive in the short term in order to acquire high lottery picks that will hopefully be the foundation of their teams in the long run. When David Robinson was injured early during the 1996/1997 season, the San Antonio Spurs gave up on their season and managed to get the 1st overall pick. They drafted Tim Duncan and haven't looked back since.
Before the beginning of the 2013/2014 season, there was a lot of discussion about the incoming draft class of 2014 being potentially the best in over a decade. Given this potential prize, it is not surprising that several teams were and are still under suspicion of tanking. When teams are accused of tanking, the accusations are labeled at the front office and not the players or coaches. Several teams have been accused of putting forth rosters that are devoid of enough talent to compete on a nightly basis.
One such team is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are under the NBA salary cap floor. During the 2013 draft, the 76ers traded their All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for 2013 number 6 pick, Nerlens Noel (who has not played all season due to a knee injury suffered in college), and a 2014 1st round choice (if the pick is outside the top 5). They traded away one of their best players at the 2014 trade deadline, Evan Turner, to the Indiana Pacers for Danny Granger and then they promptly bought Granger out. These are some of the roster moves that have led the 76ers to a 15-46 record as of March 6th 2014, including 15 straight losses. The team has a realistic chance to lose its final 21 games and to bring their total to 36 consecutive losses. Most NBA observers point to the fact that there are only three or four players worthy of being in the NBA on the 76ers roster. As a viewer, watching the 76ers play makes one wonder if they themselves could play in the NBA. 76ers season ticket holders who pay to watch their team get blown out routinely may not be fans of tanking.
The light at the end of the tunnel for the 76ers and other bad teams is the 2014 draft. They hope to acquire a franchise player in the manner of Oklahoma City and San Antonio. But is this strategy worthwhile from a team building perspective? Last week Jerry West stated that the 2014 draft class was not that good and the players did not possess the maturity and ability to change the fortunes of a franchise immediately. They have the potential but they are projects and not the finished article.
Jerry West was not only a distinguished player but was one of the best executives in the history of the NBA and was responsible for building the 'Showtime' Lakers and the championship teams led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. West emphatically stated that the NBA is weaker now than at any point in its history.
All this maneuvering for high lottery picks may not result in the 76ers returning to the NBA elite. A cautionary tale for the 76ers and other teams that are self-sabotaging their seasons is the Cleveland Cavaliers. After LeBron left the team in free agency in 2010, the Cavaliers have not won 40% of their games despite having four top 4 draft picks on their team. The 2013 1st overall pick, Anthony Bennett has had a disastrous rookie season and does not appear to be a franchise player. The Washington Wizards have had four top 6 draft picks since the 2010 draft. Three of those picks were in the top 3 of the draft. Jan Vesely, who was their 6th pick in 2011 was traded near the 2014 trade deadline and the 3rd overall pick of the 2013 draft, Otto Porter, barely plays at all. There is no guarantee that the incoming rookies are as capable of making an impact as players in the past, who stayed longer in college and refined their games.
Even in the case of a great draft pick like Kevin Durant, there is no guarantee that the team will improve immediately. In his first season, Durant's team had a 20-62 record. His second season was Russell Westbrook's first and the team only won 23 games. The team made the leap in his third season when Serge Ibaka and James Harden joined the team, winning 50 games. Not every team can make four great draft picks in a three year period and have the patience and capacity to develop their players internally. The Cavaliers lottery picks since 2011 have not improved since coming into the league with the exception of Kyrie Irving whose talents are not universally praised. His development has been questioned and some think he is a player who is concerned with just his own numbers and does not make his teammates better.
One major detriment of fielding a non-competitive team is the impact it has on the players already on the roster. The 76ers Michael Carter-Williams is the frontrunner for this season's Rookie of the Year Award. Yet playing on a team, which on most nights has no hope of winning, has affected his play. Carter-Williams' statistics have taken a noticeable dive since the turn of the year and he has persisted in taking an inordinate amount of bad three point shots. Since the turn of the year, the presumptive Rookie of the Year is only shooting 38% from the field and 24% from three point range. One must question what Carter-Williams can gain from a season of losing without even being competitive, other than acquiring some bad habits.
More important than drafting high lottery picks is developing them into productive NBA players. San Antonio has three future hall of fame players on its roster and two of them, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, were selected outside of the top 20. The Indiana Pacers currently have the joint best record in the NBA with no high lottery picks. Lance Stephenson was a second round pick, Roy Hibbert was the 17th overall pick and Paul George was the 10th overall pick. The lesson from the Pacers is that high lottery picks and tanking are not essential for a team intent on building a contender through the draft. If franchises decide to build their teams through the draft, they should remember that tanking and receiving a high lottery pick is only part of process. Some lottery picks end up being busts. Even if the draftees are worthy of their draft position, putting those players in good environments and developing them is equally, if not more important than acquiring the players.