Zach Lowe on Colangelo and his take on Ujiri
Old 05-23-2013, 12:00 PM   #1 (permalink)
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In the NBA, a genius can turn into a dolt in a year or two, even if said genius hasn’t actually changed at all. Heck, people are already starting to wonder if Sam Presti is as brilliant as everyone thought he was just eight months ago. News flash: Presti is just as smart today as he was when he had the foresight to mind-trick the Blazers into drafting Greg Oden so that the Sonics could select Kevin Durant, now the second-best player in the league, with the no. 2 pick in the 2007 draft.

Win the draft lottery when the undisputed no. 1 pick is Tim Duncan and you’ll be a genius for a long time, provided some decent health luck. (The Spurs, of course, have been so good for so long because of their culture, their smarts, their front office, and their coaching staff. But Duncan was step no. 1, and step no. 1 is the most important.) Win the draft lottery when Andrea Bargnani is the closest thing to a consensus no. 1 pick, and your genius status will likely fade over time.

The Bargnani pick looks bad in hindsight, and it was the first landmark move of Colangelo’s tenure in Toronto. It looks especially bad because the no. 2 pick, LaMarcus Aldridge, has turned into a foundational piece for the Blazers. But remember: Chicago thought so highly of Aldridge on draft night that they flipped him that same night for the rights to Tyrus Thomas, best known now for never playing and for picking a fight with Paul Silas. This is the multilevel luck factor of the NBA. Winning the lottery is a tremendous stroke of luck, but only if you’re lucky enough to win it in a year when Durant or Duncan or Anthony Davis is quite obviously available at the top.

The moves made by Colangelo, who is transitioning to an amorphous front-office role with the Raptors, after that Bargnani trade obviously haven’t worked in the big picture; the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008, and they’re probably going to be capped out over the next two seasons, with a lot of money earmarked for a lot of underperforming players. The team punted future cap flexibility by dealing Jose Calderon’s expiring contract for Rudy Gay, who is going to have to rediscover his 3-point shot (with new vision!) and do a lot of stuff he’s never done before to earn his $17.9 million salary next season and (if he opts in, which is far from certain) $19.3 million in 2014-15. Trading for Jermaine O’Neal in 2008 didn’t work out, primarily because the Raps surrendered Roy Hibbert, but you could make any GM look like a dunce by going through what he did with picks in the late teens. Trading O’Neal for Shawn Marion a year later wasn’t particularly damaging on its own, but it did allow Miami to open up the LeBron James–Chris Bosh cap space in 2010, and it led to the Hedo Turkoglu horror show (see below).

The Raptors’ usage of cap space before the Gay trade was discouraging. They blew their 2009 space on a disastrous sign-and-trade for Turkoglu, and though lots of us suspected Turk’s best days were behind him, nobody could have predicted how terribly he’d play in Toronto — and how quickly he’d alienate the very polite Canadians. Colangelo deserves credit for getting out of that deal as quickly as he did, dumping Turkoglu on Phoenix in exchange for Leandro Barbosa.

Last summer, the Raps tossed an insane amount of money at Landry Fields, a wing player who cannot shoot at all, partly as a means of blocking the Knicks from trading for the player Toronto really wanted: Steve Nash. The Lakers and Nash’s desire to win a title saved Colangelo from paying Nash something like $10 million per year over three seasons. The Nash-Fields pairing, the team’s intent, would have been a cap catastrophe (captastrophe?).

Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan will earn a combined $20.25 million next season, and though DeRozan is only 23, he hasn’t yet played up to his $9.5 million annual salary. But he’s a good kid, and a hard worker, and Mike Conley’s ascension is a reminder that young guys take some seasoning sometimes.

The Bargnani and DeRozan extensions speak to something of a lack of creativity and/or aggression when it came to Colangelo’s own guys. It would have taken rare courage for a GM to recognize a sunk-cost no. 1 pick early — to deal him when his value was still relatively high, or to offer him a much lower extension, dare him to take the one-year qualifying offer, etc. But the best GMs make moves that occasionally surprise us, because they are working two steps ahead or have come to some internal conclusion, even an uncomfortable one, about one of their own players. Colangelo struggled to do that with his own guys, and now the Raptors are stuck either paying Bargnani way too much or dealing him for nothing.

And that’s almost surprising, because Colangelo is a smart basketball thinker who has done creative, aggressive stuff in the past. He helped build Phoenix teams that literally changed the league. He had Toronto on the forefront of the international game, in terms of both executives (Masai Ujiri, Maurizio Gherardini) and players (Jorge Garbajosa, Jonas Valanciunas). He made a worthy bet on Kyle Lowry, perhaps the league’s most mercurial talent, and saw early the kind of defense-first leader Amir Johnson might become. He was ahead of the game on Tyson Chandler, very nearly closing a deal for him in 2010 that would have given the Raptors a defense-first center who has changed everything for two franchises since then. (The Bobcats pulled out at the last minute.) He invested early, and aggressively, in advanced analytics.

All of which is to say: Colangelo’s record is spotty, just like the record of basically every GM who sticks around long enough to make a lot of decisions. There is more bad than good, especially with the team’s recent use of cap space, but it’s easy to see how things might have turned out differently had the Raptors won the lottery in the right season. Even so, the Lowry-Gay-Johnson-Valanciunas-DeRozan five-man core has promise; the Raps outscored opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions — a larger number than Oklahoma City’s league-leading margin — in 343 minutes with those five on the floor, and it’s fun to think of how good that group might do on offense if Valanciunas develops and the Raps dare to flip DeRozan — one of their own — for some real outside shooting.

Tim Leiweke, the new CEO of the Raps’ ownership conglomerate, concluded that Colangelo was not the right guy to make those future moves. Now he just has to find a replacement, one who is willing to work with Colangelo hovering nearby, input at the ready. This is an attractive job in some ways. The Raps have been a high-payroll team, and they’ve indicated they are willing to exceed the luxury tax by a significant margin if doing so helps Colangelo’s successor build a winner, according to multiple league sources.

They’re coveting Ujiri, up for a new deal in Denver, and he’d be a home run hire — an out-of-the-box thinker who is usually plotting six or seven steps down the line and understands how the league is evolving. He’s also tight with Colangelo, which would either be ideal or awkward. But Ujiri likes his Nuggets team and is curious to see where they might go. Either Denver or Toronto will need to pay him, and if they’re not going to pony up for a guy with Ujiri’s track record, I’m not sure why they are competing in the NBA. If Ujiri passes, the Raps have a half-dozen or so other names in mind. Someone will have a very exciting challenge on their hands.

From Genius to Dolt: On the Intriguing Open Jobs in Toronto and Los Angeles and the Fickle Nature of Success in the NBA - The Triangle Blog - Grantland
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Old 05-23-2013, 02:59 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Some good points. I think he misses the importance of the team culture and the tone set at the top when it comes to teams like SA and Chicago. Yes SA got lucky with Duncan, but they had a team that was winning, with a distinct identity already for many years previous, allowing Duncan to step into a perfect situation. Chicago blew their pick by going with Thomas, but had enough of a culture to be able to recognize that they blew it and then moved on. Colangelo kept seeing something that was never there, namely a player that could be part of a core, which was badly needed here, and he could have been traded as a valuable piece that brought back a piece or picks that could have helped this team move on. Instead the hole just got deeper, and the lack of the right tone being set at the top became utterly obvious.
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Old 05-23-2013, 05:45 PM   #3 (permalink)
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LX, you're right that Duncan stepped into a good situation, but I don't think Lowe's missing the importance of that, since he's talking about why they're super successful in recent years. If you want to push back the timeline, then Lowe could just as easily say the earlier success was greatly assisted by winning Robinson in the lottery. And, imagine no Duncan on the Spurs. Imagine they have the first pick in a Bargnani and Tyrus Thomas draft and take a dud. Robinson retires in 2003. The Spurs would probably still be decent right now because they'd find Ginobili and Parker, but they're not the same juggernaut. Now imagine the Raptors landing a Duncan type in 2006 to pair with Bosh.

The truth is, with few exceptions, there appears to be a symbiotic relationship between talent and winning culture. You need to pass a sufficient threshold of talent to win. And then when you start winning, it's expected to continue, people buy in and a culture develops.

Oh, and even that Chicago team had luck to help build their culture. It's easy to cut your losses on Tyrus Thomas when you nab a gem in Noah the next year, and then get the first overall pick the year after that (D-Rose).

Anyway, I think it was a well balanced article.
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Old 05-23-2013, 05:48 PM   #4 (permalink)
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When I say "win", I'm talking winning big.
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Old 05-23-2013, 07:34 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Bill Haverchuck View Post
LX, you're right that Duncan stepped into a good situation, but I don't think Lowe's missing the importance of that, since he's talking about why they're super successful in recent years. If you want to push back the timeline, then Lowe could just as easily say the earlier success was greatly assisted by winning Robinson in the lottery. And, imagine no Duncan on the Spurs. Imagine they have the first pick in a Bargnani and Tyrus Thomas draft and take a dud. Robinson retires in 2003. The Spurs would probably still be decent right now because they'd find Ginobili and Parker, but they're not the same juggernaut. Now imagine the Raptors landing a Duncan type in 2006 to pair with Bosh.

The truth is, with few exceptions, there appears to be a symbiotic relationship between talent and winning culture. You need to pass a sufficient threshold of talent to win. And then when you start winning, it's expected to continue, people buy in and a culture develops.

Oh, and even that Chicago team had luck to help build their culture. It's easy to cut your losses on Tyrus Thomas when you nab a gem in Noah the next year, and then get the first overall pick the year after that (D-Rose).

Anyway, I think it was a well balanced article.
Oh hell - I didn't mean to be overly critical. I just thought the symbiosis you speak of wasn't really part of it so much. Imagine Tim Duncan going to the Raptors before Vince. Might have turned out like it did with Vince, except without the dunk championship and interference from Mom.

I don't think a team needs to win big for people to buy in. I think they need to see a viable path to winning big, and a lot of that comes from an established culture. We've only had a small dose of that. Nothing sustainable. And I agree with Leiweke that it was never going o happen with a board running the show. Just as it was never, and still might not happen with a clown like Sterling running the show in LA. It was not going to happen sustainably for Golden State without their recent overhaul in terms of the culture, and now I'd say they could be a strong franchise for some time to come, with very little change in overall talent from last year to this year.

So I agree with what you're saying, but differ as to the degree of how the symbiosis plays out.
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Old 05-23-2013, 07:38 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Oh - and there was no way of players buying in with Bargnani in the picture. Not fully. I don't think there's any dismissing that.
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Old 05-23-2013, 07:43 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Haverchuck View Post
LX, you're right that Duncan stepped into a good situation, but I don't think Lowe's missing the importance of that, since he's talking about why they're super successful in recent years.
I may have missed where he qualified his statement regarding recent years. This is what I picked up on.

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The Spurs, of course, have been so good for so long because of their culture, their smarts, their front office, and their coaching staff. But Duncan was step no. 1, and step no. 1 is the most important.
I just don't think Duncan was step number one at all. Nor even Robinson necessarily. How about Larry Brown and the way he approached the game, and what Pops and RC gained from that.
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Old 05-24-2013, 03:03 AM   #8 (permalink)
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I may have missed where he qualified his statement regarding recent years. This is what I picked up on.
No, I guess I made the assumption. But I really think it's what Low intended, because he could just as easily have mentioned Robinson if he wanted to push it back even further. It would make sense to talk about the currently successful rosters that have a number 1 pick, since he's trying to make a point about the crapshoot of 2006

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I just don't think Duncan was step number one at all.
Fair enough. I still think he's making a good point about winning the lottery in a consensus year, though, if you want to push it back to Robinson. The fact is, the Spurs had a lot of luck assisting them in building their teams by winning the lottery during years where there was more of a consensus pick. That's the important point.

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Nor even Robinson necessarily. How about Larry Brown and the way he approached the game, and what Pops and RC gained from that.
I was practically in diapers when Brown first showed up in SA. However, I remembered reading multiple times that Robinson turned that team around instantly when he got back from serving. I double checked. It's true, man. The Spurs sucked the first two years Brown was there. Robinson played like an MVP his rookie year and the team just took off. During Robinson's first season, they improved by 35 wins! Amazing.

Anyway, I don't want to be guilty of downplaying culture either. I just think it's important to recognize the franchise altering nature of a consensus 1st overall pic as opposed to a crapshoot like 2006.

Culture and talent are both important to long term winning. Either one alone will win you some games, but to win big you need both. I think we can agree on that part.
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Old 05-24-2013, 10:56 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Luck, luck, luck...

It's a vicious circle. "You have to have Canadian experience to get your first job in Canada", that kind of deal. It's pretty hard to establish a winning culture without having personnel to win, and for absolute majority of markets, draft is the only place to get that talent, hence luck.

I was soooo relieved after the lottery - I was sure this team is going to win #1 overall pick, seeing as how this draft was so weak.

And SA absolutely lucked out with Duncan - one year Admiral gets injured, the perennial playoff team slides into the lottery and immediately gets #1 in the Duncan draft? Are you kidding me?
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Old 05-24-2013, 01:10 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Luck is important. Knowing how to make the most of that luck is essential. And knowing when to stop counting on a reversal of bad luck doesn't hurt.
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