Friday, February 19, 2016

A Net Disaster (the down side of 'The Future Is Now' philosophy)

  George Allen was the Washington Redskins football coach in the 1970s and was known for trading his future first round draft picks for aging veterans. When asked about how he would replace the aging players in the future without draft picks, Allen said “The Future Is Now”. Allen was proven right – the Redskins had winning records all 7 years he coached them. The ‘Skins suffered only a mild drop-off when he left the team in 1978, winning half their games in the next four seasons before becoming Super Bowl champions in 1982. The secret to Allen’s success was that even though he traded his draft picks he had a keen eye for talent. The quarterback of the 1982 Redskins was Joe Theismann who Allen acquired from the Miami Dolphins in 1974 for his 1976 first round draft pick. It was a good deal for the Dolphins since Theismann was a 1971 4th round draft pick that went to the Canadian Football league and never played a down for the ‘Fins and a better deal for the Redskins who obtained a two time pro-bowler and 10 year starter for a low first round pick.

  The ‘Future is Now’ strategy is a legitimate strategy to build a championship team. The other main strategy is to build a core group of young players through the draft like the Seattle Seahawks have done. Most teams have a hybrid strategy. The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl two weeks ago with mostly drafted personnel and the free agent signings of Peyton Manning and Demarcus Ware to fill gaping holes at the quarterback and defensive line positions. No matter which strategy is adopted the key to success is being able to get quality players and being healthy at the right time for a championship run.

  In the 1970’s the Yankees epitomized the successful execution of ‘The Future Is Now’ strategy by overbidding for every top free agent on the market and won two championship with the additions of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Goose Gossage to their already playoff ready roster. The strategy was less successful in the 1980’s as the team overreached for mediocre players coming off good seasons. After building a dynasty in the late 1990’s with a youthful core group the team again went astray by overbidding for marginal all-stars like Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina as well as steroid cheated Alex Rodriguez and got to the World Series one between 2002 and 2008. A final bidding spree in 2009 (Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Johnny Damon) netted one championship but not a single World Series appearance since. Now that all major sports have a salary cap or penalties for excessive payroll (a luxury tax) the pendulum has swung towards building a core group of young players because sports teams either can’t fit more than two expensive free agents under the salary cap or eventually decide to slash salary to avoid paying the luxury tax. Since the death of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner the Yankees have been trying to cut payroll to avoid paying the luxury tax. The result has exposed their lack of player development and left them with a mediocre group of players who are either past their prime or whose prime will not be good enough to contribute to a championship team.

  In basketball, the Miami Heat turned the pendulum back to the superstar concept when they acquired superstars LeBron James, Chris Bosh, to join their own drafted superstar Dwyane Wade. This was only possible by James and Bosh taking less money than they could have gotten elsewhere in order to team up and chase a championship. The trio managed 2 championships and 4 finals appearances before James left the team to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers have assembled their own ‘big 3’ by teaming James with Kyrie Irving and trading for all-star forward Kevin Love. Love, James, and Irving all have big contracts and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has a $65 million luxury tax penalty on top of his $110 million dollar payroll. The Cavaliers surely believe the future is now and even replaced their head coach David Blatt despite having the best record in the Eastern Conference in their quest to win this year.

  In 2012 the New Jersey Nets were moving to Brooklyn's new Barclays Center Arena. The Nets were in the midst of a five year losing string which included a league worst 12-70 record in 2010 and were eager to field a competitive team in their new Brooklyn home. To that end, the Nets traded $3 million dollars, 2 first round draft picks, and promising young player Derrick Favors to the Utah Jazz for disgruntled but talented point guard Deron Williams at the end of the 2011-2012 season. In the summer of 2012 the Nets traded a batch of spare parts for Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson. Even though Johnson was a 6 time all-star his $126 million dollar contract made him the league’s highest paid player at the time and the Hawks wanted to clear salary cap space to rebuild. The Net started the season 11-3 and coach Avery Johnson was named NBA coach of the month for November. Johnson didn’t keep his job through December as the Nets lost 10 of 11 games to fall to 14-14.

  The Nets corrected their record under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, winning 35 of their final 44 games, but losing to the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs in 7 games. This wasn’t good enough for Nets owner billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. The Nets replaced Carlesimo with newly retired Jason Kidd and traded for the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the heart of the Celtics 2008 championship team. To get the pair of superstars the Nets traded 5 journeymen players, their 2014,2016, and 2018 first round draft picks and also gave Boston the right to swap 2017 draft picks with the Nets.

  Most trades for draft picks are assigned 'protection' to protect a team from losing a chance at a generational player if they should win the draft lottery. The Los Angeles Lakers traded their 2015 draft pick to Phoenix years ago but were assured of keeping it if the pick should be in the top 5. When the Lakers won the second pick in the draft they kept their pick and assigned their 2016 draft pick to Phoenix but only if it is not in the top 3 of the draft. If it is the Lakers 2017 pick has a similar top 3 protection but in 2018 their first round pick will unconditionally belong to Phoenix. The Nets probably expected their new acquisitions to lead them to top records and low draft picks so they assigned no protections to any of the picks that were traded to the Celtics.

  The 2013-2014 Nets started with a 10-21 record before catching fire once again, winning 38 of their final 51 games to finish with the 5th best record in the Eastern Conference. The Nets won their first round playoff series against the division winning Toronto Raptors but were no match for the eventual champion Miami Heat, losing in 5 games. I doubt this was the ‘Dream Team’ result Prokhorov envisioned while paying a $90 million luxury tax bill on top of the Nets’ $100 million payroll. Coach Jason Kidd demanded more organizational power and when he didn’t get it left to join the Milwaukee Bucks as their coach and main basketball mind. Pierce left as a free agent to join the Washington Wizards and the Nets were still chasing a championship. The 2014 draft pick that went to Boston was the 17th pick which Boston used to get James Young form Kentucky who has not to this point been able to stick with the team.

  The Nets entered the 2014-2015 with new coach Lionel Hollins and a vastly trimmed payroll which only cost Prokhorov and additional $19 in luxury tax payments. The team struggled to stay in the playoff chase, Garnett was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the team eventually claimed the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, losing in 6 games to the Atlanta Hawks. Heading into the 2015-2016 season, the Nets waived Deron Williams and bought out the final 2 years of his contract, leaving Joe Johnson and his unmovable contract and all-star caliber center Brook Lopez as the only two pieces left of what was hoped to be a championship team. The Nets payroll is still $13 million dollars over the salary cap and will pay another luxury tax this year. The team was not projected to be very good and have lived up to expectations with a 14-40 record that is the 3rd worst in the league. Coach Lionel Hollins was fired and long time General Manager Billy King was also relieved of his duties although King has been retained to help the job search for his successor.

  Three short years after trading three first round draft picks to the Celtics for the aging Garnett and Pierce and paying the largest luxury tax ever, the Nets have the third worst record in the league which would give them a chance at a top player in the draft IF they hadn’t traded their pick to the Celtics. Aside from being in the New York market the team is a very unattractive destination for top free agents since the Nets can’t offer more money than other teams and the prospects of winning are minimal. If the Nets are awful in 2017 the Celtics will trade first round picks with them and if the Nets are awful in 2018 the Celtics will get their pick in that year’s draft!

  It looks like the Nets will be awful for the next 5 years and it is likely but not inevitable. The key will be whether the next general manager can pick talent. The Nets have one playoff caliber player in Brook Lopez. There are always quality players that are drafted in the second round or not at all as well as ‘problem’ players that teams are dying to get rid of due to personality or character issues. If the Nets can pick up two or three quality players over the next couple of years they could be a marginal playoff team and start to attract free agents because after all it is still New York. It is an unenviable task but not impossible.

  Yesterday the Nets hired San Antonio Spurs assistant general Manager Sean Marks to be their new General Manager. This makes a lot of sense in that Marks has learned from an organization that has sustained success over two decades but makes little sense in giving the control of the franchise to someone only 5 years removed from being a player. I imagine the Nets were reduced to gambling on a first time GM since I doubt they could attract a top name general manager to take over a franchise with an active owner prone to adopting a ‘win now at all costs’ strategy. Prokhorov recently issued an open letter in which he recounted his mistakes in his ownership of the Nets and Marks thanked the Nets for the opportunity and said he looked forward to “the challenge of creating a unified culture and building a winning team”. I think the challenge will be to Marks patience and believe that as soon as he makes some progress in rebuilding this denuded franchise Prokhorov will renew his push to get a championship using the familiar ‘all-in’ strategy.

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