Tuesday, June 2, 2009

One Long Sleepless Night

What I find most amazing about Orlando’s success is that it comes despite a series of terrible decisions by the general manager, Otis Smith. Firstly, he tried to hire University of Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan as his new coach in 2007, before Donovan changed his mind five days after signing his contract. If you have an MVP-caliber player on your roster, your next coaching hire should represent an affirmative answer to the question, “Could I imagine this coach leading us to victory in the NBA Finals?” While Donovan won two championships as a college coach, the list of college coaches with NO pro experience who have succeeded in the big leagues is nil, to the best of my knowledge. Smith was rescued from his enormous blunder when Donovan took a hike and Stan Van Gundy agreed to coach Orlando. Van Gundy had already proved he could manage a team of raging adults when he took a young Butler-Odom-Wade-Jones-Haslem-Grant team to the second round of the playoffs in 2004 and took a team of Shaquille O’Neal plus Wade, Jones, and Haslem to a couple smiles of fortune away from the NBA Finals against the Pistons the next year. All parties are better off with the eventual coaching allocation.

Orlando, under previous general manager John Weisbrod, had a great summer in 2004, hauling two good draft picks in Nelson and Howard, and signing Hedo Turkoglu as a free agent. When Smith took over in June 2005, though, the general tenor of team management turned awful (or offal?). Orlando’s 2005 draft pick, Spanish center Fran Vázquez, refused to leave Europe despite earlier americophilic statements, and 2006’s draft pick, college yeoman J.J. Redick, proved to be a small and jittery shooter in the pros. In place of Vazquez, Orlando could have taken Danny Granger, Nate Robinson, Jason Maxiell, Linas Kleiza, David Lee, Monta Ellis … or if a center Smith coveted, Andray Blatche and Ronny Turiaf were available. In Redick’s stead, Orlando could have chosen athletic off-guards like Ronnie Brewer or Thabo Sefolosha. A host of point guards, including guys now manning contenders including Rajon Rondo, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, and Kyle Lowry, were available in '06 as well; it would have been nice to have a feisty backup when Jameer Nelson was injured in February 2009.

Smith had a fine 2007, picking up Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat as free agents. However, he blundered quite a bit in trading Trevor Ariza, a skilled wing defender, to the Lakers for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans, neither of whom provide any of the oomph that T.A. does. To be sure, Ariza never showed any aptitude for three-point shooting or steals in the early part of his career, and he has burnished those skills in Los Angeles through extensive and patient practice. Still, Ariza was too athletic to discard so quickly. The 2008-09 period also worked out well for Smith, as described here: he drafted Courtney Lee and signed Mickael Pietrus and Anthony Johnson; later, he acquired Rafer Alston by trade when Nelson injured his shoulder.

I think this story illustrates that blunders in roster management are easily fixable. If Ariza were still on the roster, Smith would not have had reason or financial room to sign Pietrus; if a young PG like Farmar were understudying Nelson when the latter got injured, Farmar would have been thrust into the starting role, which frankly would not have got them to the Finals. (And acquiring Brian Cook later helped Smith acquire Alston.) It would have been nice if Fran Vazquez decided to play Stateside, but Marcin Gortat ably fills his role. But, but! — not all general managers are able to cleanse their errors. Whether out of misguided loyalty, unreasonable optimism, or a refusal to recognize one’s own poor judgment, many GMs choose to stick with their bad moves for far longer than is justified.

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