Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The false victory of two max contracts...


The final buzzer had barely sounded on the Cleveland Cavalier’s season and already the sports-media machine was gearing up to deal with the real issue left in the NBA season: what (if anything) was LeBron going to do? Not even the remarkably unpredictable Celtic-resurgence could spoil the unleashing of the best NBA free agent related story since Shaq in 1996.

And no one was paying closer attention (and secretly fist-pumping Boston for the only time in their lives) more than Knicks fans. I guarantee, as a fan base, they’re 90% confident that they’re getting LeBron. That the current Knicks roster is atrocious doesn’t seem to matter.

No, instead they’re telling themselves (and with some justification) that given their newly acquired cap-space, the Knicks will not only be able get The Chosen One, but another superstar to boot.

As fans that have been starved of nearly any good news in a decade, no one can fault them for seeing light at the end of the tunnel (unless you’re Reggie Miller). You’d have to credit a group of fans for remaining loyal through some of the worst management spells in recent NBA history.

Best Case Scenario

Supposing LeBron does decide the Knicks are the one and signs on the dotted line, what then? The prevailing wisdom is that New York would have to get another max-contract guy (i.e another superstar) to satiate LeBron’s fixation with “having enough help.”

Hence we can safely say that in order to get LeBron, New York would be (one way or another) committing no less than 45% of their salary cap space for only two players (since they’re effectively having to sign two players in acquiring LeBron.)

Now remember that the current Knicks roster has no more than two and a half quality players (and none of them play guard.) Where does that leave the team? Even if the second superstar is D-Wade or Joe Johnson, they’d still need a lot more depth in the backcourt, especially at point guard.

Where will these reinforcements come from? The Knicks are bereft of a first round pick (they traded the sixth overall pick to the Utah Jazz in a deal where no one remembers what the Knicks got). And with most of their cap space gone after the two big-name signings, additional free agent signings will be tough.

The natural counter argument to this is the 2008 Celtics, who were themselves up against the cap after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Yet it’s worth pointing out that the Celtics had a number of aces in the whole.

While they too had traded their first rounder that season (in the Ray Allen deal), GM Danny Ainge took Glen Davis in the second round (a comparative steal in retrospect). Furthermore, the Celtics previous drafts had produced quality players like Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo (unlike the Knicks who have had a dearth of good drafts in the last ten years.)

They were adding superstars to a roster full of potentially great role players. In other words, it was a totally different scenario then what the Knicks are staring at.

Beware the Galactico

Now I’m not saying the Knicks wouldn't win a championship if they got LeBron and another superstar. After all, they would be adding the best player in the league as well as another top 10 talent. Yet that’s missing the point: the idea of slapping superstars together in a completely inorganic way is not the way to assemble a championship team.

If you don’t believe me (which I’m guessing that you probably don’t) then think about it in terms of precedent. As there is no precedent for this sort of thing in the NBA (adding multiple superDUPERstars in one off-season) then think about it in a more broad concept across all sports.

Baseball:

In baseball, we see this sort of thing all the time. The Yankees have tried this on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of success. Following the success of their largely homegrown championship teams of the late ‘90s, George Steinbrenner famously wrestled control of player acquisitions from his large array of personnel evaluators. This led to Jason Giambi, Jose Contreras, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano etc. None of it worked.

Finally, the outrageous spending strategy secured a title in 2009. Yet was this the best way to win? Was one title in nine years worth the hundreds of millions spent on an army of supposed “final pieces to the puzzle” who fizzled? Other teams have also tried this. 

The Mets famously loaded up on stars in the winter of 2001 only to see it blow up in their stunned faces  (they‘re probably still paying Mo Vaughn for all we know.) The (then) Devil Rays signed up a slew of stars (Jose Canseco, Roberto Hernandez, two-time World Series winner Juan Guzman, Greg Vaughn etc) in 1999.

They hoped this would jump start a winning season and set the tone for their fledgling franchise. Instead, their franchise got set back by a decade. Tampa only achieved success after such a prolonged period of crappiness allowed them to stockpile draft picks and build from within.

Football

There aren’t as many solid examples here as you might think. The Redskins are probably the longest running one though. As I love to say, Daniel Snyder operates like a spoiled teenager who forgot to take his Ritalin.

His signings have been as short term as they were ill-advised (Antwaan Randell-El? Deion?) Even Albert Haynesworth, an undeniably quality player in Tennessee’s system, was added with no thought to how he would mesh with the scheme run in Washington (with predictably bad results thus far).

Soccer

This is the best example by far. In no other sport are the best players able to migrate so often. And no other comparison works quite as well as the infamous “Galacticos” (meaning "superstars") experiment in Madrid at the turn of the 21st century. There, at Real Madrid (known universally for their money almost more than their trophies) the most flagrant display of sport commercialization took place.

Using the unlimited money at their disposal, Real signed Luis Figo (former World Player of the Year), Zinedine Zidane (World Cup winner and former World Player of the Year), Ronaldo (all-time World Cup leading scorer, former World Player of the Year) and, of course, David Beckham.

On paper, this looks even better than what the Knicks could potentially do. Yet it failed miserably. After adding Beckham, the team became too unbalanced and has not been past the quarterfinals in the Champions League since.

Former Real Madrid advisor (and ex A.C. Milan coach) Arrigo Sachi hit the nail on the head when he noted that “The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

This observation was no doubt born from frustration. Sachi, like the merry-go-round of managers Real had in that time, were appalled at the necessity of having to play all the superstars all the time, none of whom thought they should be treated like equal teammates.

The idea that James Dolan should be thinking of (…instead of a way to rehire Isaiah)

Sachi had it right about soccer and the same applies for basketball (as it does in any sport.) When the 
team has to cater too much to its individual pieces and the “collective is trumped”, the ultimate goal of winning also takes a backseat.

Sure LeBron and the second big gun would bring an immediate increase in regular season wins (and, pending injuries, a guaranteed playoff spot) but would they stand up under the microscope of a seven game series in June?

Without any semblance of depth, what happens of if LeBron gets into foul trouble and D-Wade goes cold? There is no third option to lean on because the Knicks had to cater to their superstars (in terms of salary cap space) while neglecting the depth of their team. And what of the defense? A team can afford one player moving freely (as both LeBron and D-wade like to do) but two? That creates holes.

As Sachi noted, that causes the coach to be reactive and not proactive. He went on to say that this “doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplying effect on the players abilities.”

Amen Arrigo, couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s good to have talented players, but it’s better to have balance. The Knicks should sell LeBron on that, not star-power.

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