Strategy column for NBA teams outside big markets
Yes, despite what you've heard, teams outside big markets can compete in today's NBA. Sports attorney Matt Tolnick explains how to do it.
Under the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) and in light of the
precedent created by NBA “Big Threes,” smaller market teams are not going to
thrive by following a “Big Three” model. After all, the best superstar tandems will
be had by Miami, New York, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, and wherever Dwight
Howard ends up.
Teams unable to compete for free agent superstars should not try to (and then wind
up overpaying for non-superstars). Instead, they should focus on signing players
to contracts that can be expected to be good values throughout the length of the
contract term, as these contracts preserve salary cap flexibility. The ultimate goal
for these franchises is to keep and accumulate draft picks and stay flexible enough
to put together an above average run of drafting to a point where most of their key
pieces are on efficient rookie scale deals (e.g. Oklahoma City 2009-10 and 2010-11,
Chicago circa 2009-10, and Indiana 2011-12). As an aside, this is clearly the rationale
that Commissioner Stern employed in vetoing the Chris Paul to Los Angeles Lakers
trade, which would have netted New Orleans significant talent but players who were
long out of their rookie scale contracts. The trade would be less of a rebuild for New
Orleans and more of a short-term solution.
With a talented young core of players under rookie scale contracts, you set your
franchise up to: (a) have the salary cap space to attract a superstar, (b) have trade
assets to trade or sign-and-trade for a superstar, or (c) attract multiple loyal, team-
oriented, leadership-inspiring veterans who have all-star potential ($8-13m/yr
players, such as Tyson Chandler, Brooke Lopez, Rajon Rondo, Eric Gordon, etc.),
should any of your young players develop into superstars.
With the NBA’s new rules which allow teams that draft all-star players the
opportunity to sign them for 30% of the cap (more than any other team can sign
them for), this gives small market teams an increased chance of keeping their young
stars. By keeping salary cap flexibility and with a growing core of young talent, the
team has the chance to attract top-tier free agents. The best time to go “all in” is
when the team has a strong commitment from its young core to stay and prior to
that core re-signing. While there is still cap room available, important free agent
pieces could be signed and when the rookie scale contracts elapse, these young
players could be re-signed using Bird Exceptions. It is absolutely key to have a
desirable enough nucleus of young talent to attract free agents to sign deals that
could be moved in the event that the team’s young players choose not to re-sign.
In addition to the drafting, it is obviously critically important to select the right
free agents to put around the young core. A bad free agent signing could imperil
the team’s chances of keeping its young talent. Seeking to go “all-in” too soon in
an effort to appease young stars has proved a losing strategy. Both Toronto and
Cleveland made expensive acquisitions intended to keep Chris Bosh (trading Roy Hibbert and a 1st round draft pick to eventually acquire Shawn Marion; taking on
Hedo Turkoglu’s deal) and LeBron James (signing Antawn Jamison to a deal two
years longer than LeBron’s commitment) around only to lose their superstars and
be left with salary cap inflexibility.
If the right free agent(s) are signed, then the players under their rookie contracts
have a chance to make the playoffs and possibly advance. Having young players
germinate into stars (or superstars) while playing on playoff teams (i.e. Derrick
Rose, Kevin Durant) can only help convince them to stay past their rookie contracts.
Drafting a superstar and giving him a winning roster, a roster that has grown
together, and a roster not even having entered its prime gives you the best chance of
keeping him long-term.
So basically, I’ve just given the mantra of pretty much every GM ever: do the best
you can given the resources that you expend. So here’s the twist. First, during the
lean roster years (85-95% of the cap with rookie contract players and expiring
deals), you would offer only one-year deals to players unable to be signed to a
clearly favorable contract. Secondly, you spend several extra million dollars on
your scouting department. Make it the deepest in the league. Given the importance
of scouting (i.e. the difference between drafting a franchise player at #9 or #10
versus a bust at #1 or #6 [see 1998 NBA Draft]), scouting is woefully under-invested
The team of scouts and statisticians would include long-time NBA scouts, former
college and professional coaches, former professional basketball players (and
possibly some strong college players who knew they would not make the NBA
and were hungry to get experience with NBA front office work). You could send
multiple scouts on each scouting trip but would prevent them from sharing insights
with each other, at the peril of both of their jobs. This way, you would be making
decisions based upon more information and more unbiased observations than other
GMs. You would be getting a more objective, reality-based view.
Equally importantly, you would be able to test your scouts against one another.
You would have extensive records of the observations, predictions, and
recommendations made by your scouts. Like Wall Street traders or law school
students, your scouts would be competing head-to-head. The result of this
competition would be enlightened decision making when the time came to scale
back the scouting department.
All the while, the fans would be informed of the plan and the timeline that executing
it would require. They would be encouraged to get behind the good, young players
and make them feel as “at home” as possible, hopefully encouraging them to stay.
The fans would have reason to have hope and to believe, knowing that, while money is not being spent hand-over-fist on player payroll, it is being wisely spent to
maximize critical player personnel decision making.
The fans would know that the scouting department is the league’s most committed
and, following the blueprints of Chicago and Oklahoma City, they would know that
the team had a strong chance of a bright future. Patience is a virtue; if fans can trust
their GMs to build a strong foundation, even if it means some lean years at first, then
the franchises, fanbases, and NBA will be better for it.
Read NBA fan reactions and share your opinion in this basketball forum topic.