Perhaps more so than any of the other major professional sports, luck is a major factor in winning a championship in the NBA. In the 1996-97 season, the San Antonio Spurs finished with a record of 20-62, despite having completed the prior year with 59 wins. Their ’96-97 campaign was derailed early due to injuries to superstar David Robinson and Sean Elliot, and the team finished with the third worst record in the league. Then, they managed to jump the two teams with worse records in the draft order when they won the draft lottery. It just so happens that they were rewarded with Tim Duncan, a top ten player of all time. It’s impossible to revise history, but I’d put the odds of the Spurs winning a single championship, let alone four, pretty low had David Robinson not gone down in 1996 with an injury.
Good NBA general managers recognize the importance of luck and put their organizations in position to get lucky. They do this by maintaining as much flexibility as possible through acquiring assets which enable them to keep their options open. The more assets a team has, and the more diverse those assets are, the more ways it can be involved in player transactions that will improve its future. Poor NBA general managers focus on solitary objectives without maintaining a large set of options and flexibility.
Both sides of the flexibility coin can be seen in the trade deadline trade between the Trailblazers and Nets in 2012. The Nets were attempting to build a team of stars, with the hope of winning a championship within a season or two. To accomplish this, the Nets sacrificed all of their financial flexibility, maintaining a roster that had them well over the luxury tax line. They further reduced their roster flexibility by shipping their first round pick to the Blazers in exchange for Gerald Wallace. The Trailblazers, on the other hand, were reeling from the loss of their star, Brandon Roy, and their hopeful franchise player, Greg Oden. Both players suffered chronic injuries that ended their careers early. Trading Wallace gave the Blazers another asset (i.e., another chance to get lucky) for their rebuild. The pick ended up being the 6th pick, which was used to draft Damian Lillard. Since the trade, the Nets and Blazers have gone in opposite directions. The Blazers, behind stellar play of Lillard and Aldridge, have returned to the playoffs, while the Nets have limped along with an aging and very expensive roster.
Another example: the 2006/2007 Boston Celtics were a terrible team. The team was comprised of a disgruntled superstar (Paul Pierce), an up-and-coming post player (Al Jefferson) and middling NBA players at various stages of their careers. The little that Danny Ainge had going for him were the aforementioned players, and options via their own picks, which had not previously been traded. This is not an obscene amount of flexibility, but was enough for Ainge to pounce when the moment was right in the off-season.
Out West, two former playoff teams were facing the reality that hits every NBA team when it becomes clear the championship window has closed. Both of these teams decided to gut their teams and start building for the future, this meant trading away their best players for assets. The SuperSonics were the first that Ainge courted with his options. He was able to pry Ray Allen from them in exchange for a bevy of players and their first round pick (Jeff Green). The bigger prize still lay ahead for Ainge.
Ainge cashed in the rest of his options later that summer when he acquired Kevin Garnett for Al Jefferson, a future pick, and more of those middling players that were wasting away in Boston. Granted, these two trades can be chalked up to shrewd salesmanship on the part of Ainge, but even a skilled salesmen has to have something to sell. Unlike a team like the Nets, who are over the tax threshold, with few assets such as picks to use in trades, the Celtics had maintained a certain level of flexibility and were able to strike when the iron was hot.
During the locker room cleanout, Dennis Lindsey said something which indicated very clearly how he feels about flexibility and options.
“Good decisions are born out of a good set of options.”
Lindsey has done a masterful job of maintaining flexibility and keeping his set of options well stocked. He has brought in countless (well, I guess you could count them, but that seems like a lot of work) free agents to both mini camps as well as 10-day contracts with the squad. Rather than simply letting the majority of the 10-day contract players walk after evaluation, Lindsey signed as many of them as he could to reach the maximum 15 players on the roster. The key is that he signed them to non-guaranteed multi-year deals. This means the Jazz can keep one or more, let one or more walk, or use one or more as trade filler to facilitate a trade. This is forward thinking that gives the Jazz part of a good set of options.
Lindsey has also managed to acquire several picks that will be realized over the course of the next few years. Many of these picks are in the second round and may not amount to anything, but having them is like keeping spare change in your car. You never know when the three dollars in quarters, dimes, and nickels will come in handy and help you in a bind. The second-rounders, along with the non-guaranteed contracts, will likely never be key components of a trade, but they can certainly grease the wheels, and enable a trade to be completed.
Like the writers of Lost, Lindsey doesn’t know exactly how his story will end. He would like to win a championship with the Jazz, but he knows that he will have to get lucky once, or possibly multiple times, with his player transactions. He knows that the more options he has, the more likely he is to get lucky.