Why the NBA's suck-draft-contend cycle is a problem (with POLL!)

There are about three ways to build a contending team: be in a market with prestige and cash (Los Angeles and Miami), pull in a group of either unheralded or unhappy veterans (Detroit, 2004, Boston) and using what I will call for the purposes of this post the "suck-draft-contend" method. Obviously all Trail Blazers fans are familiar with it, as Kevin Pritchard attempted to implement this method by firesaling all the Blazers' expensive players, drafting promising young ones, and contending that way. There is a strange belief that this is the only "right" way to build a team: Royce Young called it the "sound and socially blessed way to structure a team."

It is my contention that he "suck-draft-contend" cycle is detrimental to the competitive balance of the NBA.  I will begin with an explanation of the "suck-draft-contend" cycle, look at the aspects of the old CBA that made this method viable, and  explain why I believe it is detrimental to the competitive balance of the NBA, namely: (1) because it emphasizes the least skill-oriented aspects of roster management (2) forces almost all the crucial roster construction moves to be made within too limited a window, (3) causes inefficient allocation of player skills (4) and forces teams into irrelevance for too long. Finally, I'll make some suggestions about how these issues might be cured in the new CBA. (if you want to cut to the meat, you may be able to skip parts I and II and still get the gist, though I think they provide necessary background and foundation).


I) How does the method work?

This is pretty self-explanatory, and especially shouldn't require much further elaboration on a Blazers blog, so this will be brief. Basically, at the beginning of the cycle the team is somewhere in the middle of the pack, with no salary-cap flexibility and no assets to acquire better players. They are stuck where the moves necessary to challenge are impossible. To get better, they need to get good players in the draft. To get good players in the draft, the team needs to suck. So the cycle begins, and the team gets rid of some of its expensive and desirable players, getting back either cheaper players or draft picks. There are certain players who are totally untradeable who will just continue to eat up space until the last year of their deals when they will magically be touched by Midas. (Raef Lafrentz I'm looking at you).

Now comes the hard part. The team has successfully sucked for a year, and must pick good players with the draft picks they acquire. If the draft goes wrong, the team will obviously continue to suck. If all goes according to plan, the team will assemble a group of promising young players after a few years of sucking. It will then use the cap space it has acquired to sign some veterans which fill out the spots not occupied by the youngsters, either through free agency or through lobsided trades. Finally, the young players are extended after their rookie contracts are over through Bird Rights, assuring between 8 and 11 NBA championships for the nucleus.

II) Which parts of the CBA make this method so attractive?

A) The insane rights given to a team over its own draft picks.

Not only does a team get exclusive negotiating rights over its players as in the other sports. The NBA also locks its young players into contracts that are far below market rates for the first four years. If that weren't enough, the team can pay its own young player any amount allowed for an individual contract, regardless of how much salary it has committed elsewhere. And if that weren't enough, this right to pay whatever you want to re-sign the player is fully transferrable even after the contract expires! If the point of Bird Rights is to keep players on their own teams, why can teams trade them? Anyway, looking at all these rights together makes clear why the draft is an incredibly desirable way to acquire a good player, although it is somewhat more risky than other methods.

B) The "one year" method of calculating the cap hit.

Because a team doesn't get punished for committing insane amounts of salary in the future (except by having no cap flexibility), it makes sense to take advantage of the cheap rookie deals to create a year or two where your team has a low payroll, then use the capspace to nab an old guy who can help out. Since you can give the guy five years guaranteed and regular raises, even without what appears to be a ton of capspace, you can still make a fairly hefty offer (Hedooooooooooooooooooo).

C) Unforeseen problems? There's an MLE for that!

Well, that's pretty self-explanatory. So long as your owner is willing to spend a bunch of money, you can add one slightly below average player every year. Whether this is advisable is debatable, but it gives a nice excuse for sacrificing all possible future capspace, and then provides a mechanism to continue compromising financial flexibility for five years after that! Hooray!

III) Why is the suck-draft-contend method a problem?

A) It emphasizes the least skill-oriented aspect of roster management

Of course drafting is a skill, and I'd rather have Buford or Presti running my war room than Kahn or I. Thomas. But ultimately, the quality of the player you get is pretty closely correlated to the quality of the pick. And the quality of the pick is determined by a combination of how successfully you suck in the year before your pick and luck. Additionally, drafting is mostly a low-information exercise where luck is a pretty big component (even Buford has his mystifying moments). Why should the system place huge emphasis on the part of roster-building be determined by how bad your team sucks, luck, and more luck?

B) It forces all the crucial moves to be made in too tight a window

By the nature of this method, the team must make essentially all its crucial decisions within a single calendar year (I don't count the draft as "crucial," because you can always just continue to suck and move on to contending later). Not sure your 2-guard's legs will hold up? Too bad, make a decision now! Don't know if you'll need quality big man help going forward more than another playmaker? Too bad, you have to make a five year offer to compete in the free agent market. The suck-draft-contend cycle prohibits a cautious approach in evaluating the team's core, and can cause rash decisions.

C) It causes inefficient allocation of players and player salary

This detriment has two separate components: home-town advantage and timing. First, Bird Rights make it more likely that a team which already has a player under contract will re-sign that player, whether he fits or not. It also gives the player leverage to ask for far more than his market value. He can take his case to the public, and many owners will buckle under pressure from the fans even if the signing is imprudent. And remember, most of these teams are capped-out for the foreseeable future anyway, so the owner and GM can't really make a basketball argument for not overpaying the player. This is a systemic feature resulting in non-rookie and non-max players being overpaid in Bird Rights contracts.

As to timing, a team in the "sign veteran players" phase of the cycle only has a limited window during which they can sign players. These teams are under tremendous pressure to use the cap space to march toward their title goals. However, there are generally only a few players on the market, and most teams will match reasonable offers. That means it is unlikely to find a free agent who will fit and be reasonably compensated. In fact, many teams who sign free agents end up with an overpaid player who doesn't fit, simply because they felt they had to spend the cap money. Hedoooooooooooooooooooooooo. Rashaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard.

D) The whole ordeal takes too long to cycle

At the end of all this, you either have something resembling a title contender, or a steaming pile of garbage. And that steaming pile of garbage isn't cheap... remember all those Bird Rights extensions you handed out, plus the veteran you overpaid to put you over the top, and the mid-level guys who are actually more like replacement level players you signed every year? Well, they still have 4 years guaranteed, and make more money every single year. So now the only possible move is to do the whole thing over again.

Royce Young is right that getting bad to get good is the way to contend for many teams in the NBA. However, the whole deal of needing 2-3 years to tear a team down and another 2-3 years to see if the new core will do anything makes huge numbers of teams terrible to watch. If there was a better way to get good, that would help. It would also help to speed up the cycle...

IV) My suggestions on how to alleviate these problems in the new CBA

--Get rid of the MLE (oopsies)

--Shorter guaranteed contracts (allows teams to rebuild more quickly, and ensures they aren't on the hook for too long)

--Some limitations on Bird Rights to ensure that all the talent isn't stuck on the large market teams or those who successfully sucked and got lucky for a long time.

I know this is a long entry, but hopefully you found it interesting. I think many people see the current system of teams being required to be bad for years before they can become good, and assume that's the way it should be and that's the way it will be. As fans, that mentality needs to be resisted.

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