Friday, December 2, 2011

Worry Not, Flyover Fans

I was on a long trip abroad and somewhat physically infirm for the past couple weeks, but a lot happened in NBA circles. The remnants of the players' union finally agreed with the owners on the framework of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the lockout is more-or-less now over. Immediately thereafter, rumors began flying about potential trade destinations for Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who will be free agents next summer and don't seem inclined to re-sign with their respective current teams.

Fans of teams in smaller burgs tend to lament the inevitable loss of star players. But, first, the loss is not inevitable: Tim Duncan stayed in San Antonio, Kevin Durant seems bound to remain in OKC, and Isiah Thomas spent a whole career in Detroit. And consider that Kevin Garnett stayed in Minnesota for 12 years; save for one year when Sam Cassell played like an All-Star, the team could not assemble quality talent around him. 12 seasons was more than Garnett owed to the team.

Secondly, if your team loses a star, another will come soon enough. Orlando lost Shaq and Penny; Hill and McGrady soon replaced them. When they proved too brittle for the job, Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis rolled into town. Minnesota lost Garnett and now has Love. The Kings of Sacramento once had a robust Webber; now they have a rambunctious Cousins. The annual draft that assigns the best talent to the worst teams tends to do that. Toronto lost Vince Carter but found themselves nurturing a college-aged Bosh. Bosh left, but now Jonas Valanciunas seems poised to shine in T.O. [Toronto is hardly a small market, but its relative unattractiveness for American players makes it comparable to Detroit or Orlando.]

Consider the recent plight of the Grizzlies, a 1995 expansion team. Originally based in Vancouver, the team held Top-6 draft positions every year from 1995 through 2003*, drafting Bryant Reeves, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antonio Daniels, Mike Bibby, and Stromile Swift along the way. Steve Francis, drafted at #2 in 1999, actually refused to play for the team, exhibiting the same Canuckophobia discussed above. Despite the repeated lottery picks, Vancouver could not build a winning team, mostly due to a poor overall talent level in the draft in those years. (None of Vancouver's draft picks could be derided as obviously terrible. They missed Kevin Garnett by just one draft position; nobody thought Kobe Bryant would be a superstar in '96; the '97 draft pool was terrible; and Mike Bibby had won a college championship while Paul Pierce had not. The 2000 draft was possibly the worst ever.) Owner Michael Heisley could not make the economics of pro hoops work in Vancouver, so he moved the team to another relatively small market, Memphis.

*Memphis's 2003 first-round pick, which obtained as #2 in the lottery, was traded to Detroit.

Heisley and his management were determined to start freshly in their new home. The '01 draft night served up a bounty for the Grizzlies, as they acquired rookie Shane Battier with their lottery pick and rookie Pau Gasol via a trade of Abdur-Rahim. Later that summer, they swapped Bibby for Sacramento's flashy disher, Jason Williams. Gasol won Rookie of the Year that season, and this core of players (plus the aforementioned Swift) was able to reach the playoffs in three consecutive springs from 2004 through '06. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies got swept each time, out-talented by Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki. After three straight playoff failures, Gasol wanted out; the team had no apparent intention of improving the roster, and Gasol wanted to win. Memphis sought his exit, also: he was clearly not good enough to captain a championship team, and Memphis had no obvious means of acquiring a better superstar with Gasol on the roster.

Thus, starting in '06, the Grizzlies jettisoned their playoff roster and began rebuilding the team. They traded Battier for a draft pick that became one-and-done college prospect Rudy Gay; they acquired Mike Conley in the '07 draft; they traded Paul Gasol for the draft rights of his brother, Marc Gasol; they drafted O.J. Mayo and Darrell Arthur in the talent-laden 2008 draft; and they later drafted Sam Young, Greivis Vazquez, and Xavier Henry. Those are eight players who began their careers with Memphis and are still part of the team. Combined with veteran Zach Randolph, acquired in a 2009 trade, and defensive ace Tony Allen, signed as a free agent last year, the Grizzlies now have a deadly core that can contend for championships for the next few years. Taken seriously by no one, they rolled over the 4-time champion Spurs and nearly made the Western finals last spring.

Twice now, the Grizzlies have restocked their roster with new stars. Fans in Memphis were despondent one year ago, fearing their team might be contracted, but now they have reason for glee. Even fans in Vancouver need not mope; their city might one day get a new or existing NBA team, notwithstanding the earlier divorce.

The lesson here is that smart roster management can sustain a great team in a small market. Dumb roster management, such as the Timberwolves under Kevin McHale, will lead to naught.

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