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How to Spot a Winning Argument in the NBA

In this week’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag we talk about winning versus hope.

Charlotte Hornets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Every NBA team wants to win, including your local favorite, the Portland Trail Blazers. Highlights and sentiment are great, but nothing substitutes for great basketball producing sweet victories. The issue, of course, is how do they get there? Or, more particularly, how do you know that your team’s methods are likely to get them there? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Sometimes you seem down or occasionally up about our future chances. Often you respond to GM’s takes with a counter argument. Especially you did with Olshey but on your podcast you seem to with Joe Cronin as well. My question is how do you know the difference? What makes a good argument that will convince you personally?

James

I think I know what you’re getting at, in part because I edited down your question a bit. Here’s a hint for everyone: we seldom print more than 3-5 sentences from any given question. If there’s more, it’s because there’s a ton of necessary detail context and the writer has done an exceptional job with it.

I love reading all your questions. I go through the page-long ones just like the six-word ones. But if you want your query in there mostly unaltered, it’d help to put it at the top of the page and make it as straightforward as possible.

So, on arguments for or against teams or a course of action...

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t view an argument as credible just because I agree with it. I learned this early on in the church world, actually. (The other big venue in which I operate.) I’d often hear congregation members or people at large make claims for or against a religious assertion. Some of those claims I’d agree with. But when I’d ask how they came to that conclusion, their reasoning would actually lead to awfulness. Not everyone who publicly claimed a certain thing was actually representing that thing fairly and well. So I’ve learned to examine the reasoning and motives behind claims rather than just saying, “That guy is right—because I agree with him—ergo his argument is convincing!”

Direction of argument has little to do with its soundness. The first thing I want to know is the same as you want to know: Is this argument factually correct and is the reasoning behind it part of a logical chain that will fit with what we know of the world? This is critically important when examining trade proposals, for example. Desire or need for a trade isn’t enough to get it done. The trade has to work by CBA rules, first and foremost, then by what we know of relative player value and the proclivities of each team involved.

But I think your question goes deeper than that. You’re asking for criteria I use to judge whether an argument is valid/convincing, not just sound. Since team executives almost always make positive statements about the prospects of the teams they run, you’re asking how I know whether a claim that, “Things are looking up!” really means that things are looking up.

This is a hard thing, but I’m going to give you one metric that anybody can use, right on the spot.

When someone makes a claim that Route A, B, or C is going to bring their team victory, ask how many other teams can make that same argument.

All 30 NBA franchises want to win. All 30 are run by professionals with reasonable competence. All have access to the same, finite number of resources: salary as bounded by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, draft picks, trade options. A few have extra perks, but you’re never going to hear the L.A. Lakers GM say, “We’re going to win this year because we have access to nightlife, the movie/celebrity industry, and good weather.” They’re going to reference the same set of factors as everyone else.

If all 30 teams were exactly equal, each would win 50% of their games. That’s the default. If you only make arguments that other teams can also make in similar ways, you haven’t changed the default. It doesn’t matter how good your patter sounds or how much we want to believe it. Distinction, if not uniqueness, is the only way to get a shot at winning it all.

Claims like, “The Blazers are clearing cap space so they have flexibility this summer,” mean little. You can modify somewhat by the ledger sheets of the various franchises and the availability of free agents, but in a given year, many teams will have cap space or equivalent exceptions. It may be better to have them than not, but cap space and salary flexibility do not win. They’re not unique. They’re embedded in the system for all teams.

Even worse are the, “We’re one player away...” or, “If we could just get a second [or third] star...” arguments. They’re true! But how many other teams would be markedly better with another quality player or an extra star on the roster? Literally ALL of them. What if the Minnesota Timberwolves or Chicago Bulls got another high-quality player? They’d be world-beaters too.

Someone—I forget who—once said that the NBA operated in a binary world. You either sell wins or sell hope. Any argument about how you’re getting better that applies to multiple other teams is firmly in the latter category. Wins don’t require such discussion. Wins demonstrate themselves.

This leads to a bit of a circular argument, I suppose. You’ll know you’re winning when you’re winning. That’s unsatisfying, but there’s a corollary to it that matters: you’ll know you’re winning when you don’t have to make those hope-based assertions anymore. In other words, if you have to say, “Just one star away...” you’re not there yet, by definition. You already know where you are by the claims coming out of your, or your GM’s, mouth.

Not all hope is lost. Some claims are unique, or at least limited enough to matter. I don’t often defend things Neil Olshey did as Portland’s President of Basketball Operations, but I understood his mindset in this way: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were, for years, the only truly unique things about Portland’s roster. This probably contributed to the reticence to trade them for anything less than another unique advantage. So, too, with Daryl Morey and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia this season. He made exactly that argument, holding onto his one-of-a-kind asset until it was returned in kind via James Harden.

Teams might point to a Top 3 (not top half or even Top 10) offense or defense, a narrow and particular set of needs to fill via free agency, or a super-high lottery pick as examples of distinct assets that distinguish them, at least at the moment, from peers. Those matter. That’s where the argument for winning starts.

Uniqueness isn’t the only currency that spends on the way to victory. Elite teams aren’t comprised of 15 non-paralleled assets. But a team needs those unique distinctions first, before other claims matter. If you field two blazing superstars or a universe-beating defense coupled with 55 wins the season before, there’s reason to think that a modest acquisition or two in free agency will bring progress. Absent those distinctive aspects, that’s just adding more leaves to the salad on a plate that lacks protein. Salad + Salad = Salad. You need more before you can begin selling it as a five-star meal.

Long story short, when you hear someone—fan or lead executive—claim that their method or variable is the key to success, ask how many other teams would also claim that and whether any aspect of your team makes it more likely to be effective than it would be in any of the others. Then you’ll know whether you’re talking about progress or hope.

Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to blazersub@gmail.com!