May 7, 2016, 5:03 pm
The hardest jump to make in basketball, in anything really, is getting better when you’re already good.
Ability doesn’t skyrocket exponentially; it plateaus. You’re limited by all kinds of things, many beyond your control. No team will ever score 500 points in a game because a game is only 48 minutes. Sure, you could have 30 overtimes but don’t hold your breath. I can work on post moves 24/7 but I’m never going to be an NBA center because I’m already 22 and stuck at 5’10”.
How easy is it to make the 76ers better? Add one good guard and nail some of those draft picks and they probably earn a handful of extra wins already. How do you make the Clippers better? You can revamp the bench, but it’ll take some cap gymnastics and roster tweaks. How do you make the Warriors better? If Kevin Durant wakes up on the right side of the bed we might find out. But beyond that, jumping from 73 to 74 wins is going to be a challenge that requires some great luck and a perfect fit. The better you get the harder it becomes.
The salary cap makes it incredibly difficult to keep adding top-level performers. In theory you could form a roster of the 13 best guys in the league, but the odds of them all taking the necessary pay cuts makes that essentially impossible. When you’re good, you need to improve at the margins or tear down and try again.
It’s a crossroads that everyone faces eventually, and so few ever make the jump to great. Most opt for the self-mandated rebuild or “re-tool” whereas teams like New York and Brooklyn chose to keep tossing money and draft picks at presumed quick fixes until they were forced to face the music. Likewise, this is what will make the offseason in Atlanta and Memphis, among other places, so interesting to watch.
So how do you improve when money is tight or the rotation is all but set? Not every team is going to attract the buyout crew looking for a championship ring. You need to add some semblance of immediate, consistent production. You pretty much have to go through the draft and be willing to adapt your philosophy.
For contending teams, the roster is already filled with veterans that have defined roles. If you’re a 13-deep juggernaut, it’s very difficult to have a rookie on the roster when they won’t be getting the minutes they need to develop properly. It’s nice to stash them in Europe or the D-League, but not everyone has that luxury or deems it necessary.
If you’re a team that wants to make noise but realistically can’t win anything, it makes sense to give your rookies some healthy minutes to see what they can really do. Think Myles Turner in Indiana. Or for a sadder story, Frank Kaminsky in Charlotte.
If you have loftier goals but can’t bank on cachet to lure cheap veterans, you need rookies to step up. It helps to hit on some later picks, which might require you to draft a little differently. A little safer, perhaps. Once you pick your guy, you need to use them properly. (Oklahoma City could really use Cameron Payne’s ball handling. Just saying.)
Josh Richardson and Norman Powell are two prime examples of this line of thinking. Older players often get overlooked in the draft because they have less upside. There’s an established baseline, but presumably a lot less room to grow. Higher floor, lower ceiling.
And yet both guys, both seniors, have stepped in to valuable roles on cheap contracts. Cheap is key. Their coaches can toss them on the floor and know that what to expect, while their GM knows he’s getting some nice bang for the buck.
They might not blossom into the stars that other draftees might, but they’re ready to help right away. If you’re on an active roster looking to win now you have to be a part of the solution. They’re ramping up for a serious run and there’s no time for coddling. If that window is open or starting to close, there’s no time to harbor someone who needs minutes but won’t ever get them. They need you and they need you now.
Look at Powell’s spirited Game 5 against the Pacers and Richardson’s white hot deep shooting when Miami ran out of true point guards. They’re playing big roles at a crucial juncture. Chip-in contributions from ready-made players can turn the tide.
I’m not a draftnik by any means, but it’s not difficult to understand that different scenarios will change your strategy. I’m generally a fan of BPA (Best Player Available), but teams need to properly identify what BPA means for them. You don’t have to take a home run cut when all you need is a sacrifice fly.
Cheap, steady production isn’t exactly the new market inefficiency but it is something that gets passed over for flashier performance, especially among younger players. Low-cost consistency can give a helpful boost come playoff time.
When a good framework is in place, the final touches don’t need to be spectacular. Sometimes an unheralded guy gives you just what you need to get a little bit better.