How Much Different Does the Front Office Really Make?

Dave,

There was plenty of talk about Blazers management even before Larry Miller's on-air blunder last Friday. My question is, how much different does the front office make? With the right guys in suits, is a team like the Blazers much better off than the Lakers or Heat? How much does it matter?

It's a great question, rather reminiscent of the eternal coaching dilemma. Does a great front office create great teams or do great teams make a great front office?

It's pretty certain that any front office that signs, say, Kobe or LeBron is going to look good for a couple years at least. Did those players reach their destination because the staff in question was more excellent than any of their NBA counterparts or were other factors involved in them signing with their respective teams? In the modern NBA, it's the latter. Shaq going to L.A. had little or nothing to do with the respective GM's involved. You couldn't launch a rap career in Orlando, so away he went. (In retrospect that should have been a prime motive for him staying put!)

On the other hand front offices still have to manage the cap, draft, and recruit well to build around that star. Teams without established stars have to maneuver in position to get them, which usually means winning on a budget. Would LeBron have gone to Miami if they had the track record of the Wizards and only $6 million to spend on him? Doubtful. The guys in suits do matter.

Click through to see several ways in which a front office can make a difference (and naturally talk about how this affects the Blazers).

Direction and Resources Provided by Ownership

Owners vary in time, energy, and basketball acumen. Some are hands-on, others hands-off. But all of them provide two things: overall vision for the organization and the finances to fulfill that vision.

Finances are the easier part to analyze, though they're often overstated. The personal pockets of owners and unequal revenue streams among franchises will create haves and have-nots, but there's a limit to the disparity. Salary cap and luxury tax provide brakes to free spending. No owner wants to go head-over-heels in debt either. Write-offs aside, these guys didn't get rich by losing their money. Still, the Lakers' GM has more money to spend than the Bucks'. Those distinctions define the starting point for each franchise.

Owners also supply the initial direction from that starting point. In theory everybody's striving for the same title. In practice there are two kinds of teams: those aiming at championships and those aiming at ratings and ticket sales. No team is entirely one or the other, nor are the goals mutually exclusive. The real question is which will be prioritized higher when a team is forced to choose.

The Lakers and Celtics are prime examples of teams with deep championship histories for whom a title is the only satisfactory conclusion to a season. Each has gone through down periods in recent history. During slumps, they were not considered exemplary. The only question on people's minds was, "What does this team need to do in order to get back into the title hunt?" Each subsequently proved that they'd do nearly anything to get into the picture. Both were rewarded for their efforts.

On the other hand you have the 2011-12 New York Knicks. If this team was assembled for purposes of winning a title their entire front office should be summarily dismissed. But that's not the first goal, nor even the second. Get ratings, sell tickets, justify the cable network and its enormous advertising pool...that's the business at hand. That's why nobody's going to be worried about spending a billion dollars over the next few years on two high-scoring, no-defense-playing, self-centered forwards plus another bundle on point guard Jeremy Lin. Got viewers but no rings? It's all good. Cha-ching!

Some of the league's have-nots also provide examples of the ticket-ratings priority, albeit unintentionally. Teams light years away from contention will sometimes purchase players that make them better than they are currently but have no chance to carry them beyond incremental improvement. This forest-for-the-trees, "any improvement is good improvement" mentality reveals a de facto image-over-substance approach. Hallmarks include just being glad to make the playoffs or scrambling to find a 20-point scorer to put on the front of your media guide.

Either way you go, the owner sets the priorities. The Knicks can afford to be bad, they just can't afford to be uninteresting. (Welcome, Isiah Thomas!) Small market teams can afford to be bad, but only if they can give their fans hope of progress. Some small market teams are willing to be bad for quite a while with no evident progress if they can eventually emerge with a contender. (We're looking at you, Oklahoma City.) The Lakers can't afford to look bad in any case, nor look like they're aiming any lower than the championship of the world. These are ultimately ownership decisions, each franchise being colored by the mandate set down by its owner. This is a critical front office function and yes, it does make a difference.

Drafting/Scouting/Personnel Decisions

Money isn't enough to win a title. You have to spent it on the right players. That includes drafting well to grow internally, making the right trades, and targeting the right free agents. The relative importance of each is determined by the position of the franchise. If you're the Lakers right now you want a guy who's great at trading and free agency and you can probably live with so-so drafting. If you're the Wizards you want a draft guru. Having front office personnel who fit your perceived needs is essential.

Obviously the three areas are interlinked, but for most of the league I'd say drafting would be the first priority, trading the second, free agency the third. The safest way to contention for 90% of franchises is still through the draft. Failure here makes it hard to build because other teams will be loathe to part with really good players in trade or free agency. Trades are the second priority in the abstract because theoretically all players are available at almost all times through trading. You can add a piece or two through free agency but only certain players reach that stage and the pickings go quickly.

This order also hold true in determining the influence of a front office staff, pro or con. Drafting is highly front-office dependent. If your scouting is ineffective or you don't have the right information you're shooting in the dark and you're going to lose to the better-equipped outfit. Pick quality does not always reflect pick order. Front office skill is the most obvious factor in that distinction. Trades are also highly front-office dependent, though you also need cooperation from another franchise to execute. Free agency requires skilled targeting, but as we said both pool and application are more limited. Recruiting isn't a huge factor in the NBA. Players will follow money and opportunity. You either provide them or your don't.

Cap Management

Intertwined among these leaves is the vine of cap management. Cap considerations are more critical now than they've ever been. They're also better understood than they've ever been. Five or six years ago you could still get a jump on opponents by skillful manipulation of the cap. Nowadays the capologist is de rigueur. Nobody makes a move without considering the cap implications first. The proposed Chris Paul to the Lakers trade last summer was shot down not because of talent imbalance, but cap advantage. You wouldn't have heard that screamed a decade ago. Nowadays it's not a matter of knowing the CBA to get ahead, but knowing the CBA as part and parcel of due process, without which you're swinging in the wind.

Organizational Stability

Add all of this together along with interpersonal matters and public perception and you have the more nebulous concept of stability...no less crucial for being harder to define. Like pornography, you kind of know it when you see it. During their decades-long nadir the Clippers suffered not just from lack of talent but from constant coaching changes, parsimonious spending, and a perception as the laughing stock of the league. Forget getting better, they couldn't get out of their own way. When this condition persists the finger has to point at the front office and ownership. Compare that with the last decade in San Antonio, the polar opposite. The Spurs haven't been at the top of the league forever just because they're good. David Robinson started it back in the day and Tim Duncan cemented the talent portion. But they've also been smart, keeping focus and integrity through at least a couple iterations now. Players are the catalyst for that kind of culture but environment incubates and grows it.

Let's return to our original question of how much a front office matters. A good front office alone will not turn a bad team into a great one. In fact you'll probably never know that your front office is good until you see good players on the floor. Good players can thrive under poor management better than good management can survive poor play. But even the best superstar needs to play in a stable, productive environment where the goal is a championship, talent is being replenished through all avenues available, and financial resources are being allocated in a way that allows for growth and renewal. The front office may not be able to create success out of thin air, but without a good front office the air will get so thin around your proven talent that nothing can grow.

Predictably the Blazers are a mixed bag when you look at these areas. Owner Paul Allen has stated that the ultimate goal is a championship, yet the Blazers often act and market themselves as a team that's content with "progress". The recent "reload vs. rebuild" debate was simply another way of rephrasing this very question. Do the Blazers get pretty good quickly so they can look nice on TV or do they try to build for actual contention down the road? Portland's draft and personnel decisions have been suspect over the last few years. Part of that has been their insistence on good cap management, though. Among other things they pursued only players on one-year deals last summer in order to preserve cap space for this off-season. But their organizational stability has been terrible with turnover high and morale low. Nobody knows what's coming next...and not in a good way.

Crewing and stabilizing the front office is the first step in resolving these issues. Plenty of teams have leeway to make mistakes in this area right now. The Blazers have been so shaky that they don't. They have to re-establish consistent direction, message, and most importantly results. Sometimes the front office doesn't make that much of a difference. Sometimes it makes all the difference. The Blazers are far closer to the latter right now than the former.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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