Don’t Tank!: The Four Phases of NBA Franchises

Supposedly, the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, and Orlando Magic are all “tanking”: purposefully losing games in order to get a better pick in the 2014 draft, which has been forecasted as completely incredible for years. If that’s the case, they all suck at tanking, since the Suns and Magic have scored more points than their opponents, and the 76ers are 5-6. The Suns are even above .500. The nerve of those players, playing to the best of their ability. When the 76ers started the year 3-0, there was a combination of shock, amusement, bewilderment, and panic. ESPN even published a post about how they needed to blow up the roster, in order to tank better. You know… blow it up again, after trading away their All-Star point guard for a rookie who won’t play this season. This is, in fact, not what the 76ers should do, and articles like that betray a lack of understanding as to how to build a good team for the future. Regardless of how many games the Suns are winning, they are rebuilding the right way. They traded off players that were old, expensive, or otherwise not useful to a rebuilding franchise. In exchange, they get up to four picks in the 2014 first round, and three more in the second. They also have some great young talent on the roster, and even better, their highest-paid player is Goran Dragic at $7.5m (whom I’ve already discussed them trading). Losing games is overrated. Sure, it gives teams better odds of getting that #1 pick, but that’s all it gives: odds, not a guarantee, and it doesn’t shift the odds that dramatically. The worst team in the league only gets a 25% chance at the #1 pick. Playing reasonably well, on the other hand, makes their players more valuable: Markieff Morris, as of this writing, is #10 in the league in PER, and #8 in win shares per 48. During the offseason, you were more likely to hear jokes about Phoenix’s twins than genuine interest, but now people are genuinely impressed with him. Young players, playing well, get you trade offers. And trade offers lead to more draft picks, and more good young players. Sure you and I might know how sample size works, but do New York Knicks executives? As I see it, there are four rough stages to building a team:

  • Acquire long-term assets
  • Get a superstar
  • Build around your star
  • Contend for the title

The tanking that people talk about is usually just acquiring long-term assets, in the form of draft picks and project players. These teams can afford to think five years down the line, and exploit that by nabbing assets from teams that are in a later stage of building their team (commonly referred to as “win now.” The 76ers are a great example here: their oldest players are three 25 year-olds. They have talented players in Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and the current Rookie of the Year frontrunner Michael Carter-Williams. They traded a second-round pick (top 50 protected!) for Tony Wroten, the 25th pick in the 2012 draft, from a team that couldn’t give him any minutes. He’s played more minutes in 11 games with the 76ers than he did in his rookie season with the Grizzlies. He made sports news with a triple-double in his first start (an arbitrary and meaningless measurement, but still kinda cool), and SportsCenter with some impressive plays. [youtube id=”7CV0xTc4EV0″ width=”633″ height=”356″] Ask yourself: if the 76ers asked teams about a trade involving Tony Wroten, what do you think they’d get in return? Probably more than a relevance-protected second-round pick. These teams aren’t going to keep up their initial hot starts, of course. The 76ers have already come back to earth, and with a DRTG (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 108.6, they’re the worst-defending team in basketball. Their margin of victory puts them at 27th overall. But they’ve made people notice them. Defenders of tanking often point to the “Thunder model,” of how the Oklahoma City Thunder swiftly built a championship contender seemingly out of nothing. The way I look at history is that they got absurdly lucky. If we go back to the 2007 draft, when they picked up Kevin Durant, they only had the fifth-worst record, which gave them an 18.5% chance of getting one of the first two picks. But getting the first pick would have probably led them to picking the consensus #1 pick, Greg Oden, so the only situation where their franchise ends up so well is exactly at the #2 slot. The following year, they got slightly unlucky to not get one of the first three picks in the draft, but both Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo have massively underperformed expectations after going second and third in that draft. Russell Westbrook wasn’t really thought of as someone with massive superstar potential, at the time. Serge Ibaka wasn’t even a lottery pick, and they got him in the same draft, and turned him into one of the better forwards in the league. In the next draft, they seemingly reached for James Harden with the third pick (after once again dodging the #2 pick bust Hasheem Thabeet) when mock drafts had Ricky Rubio as an “easy” pick. Obviously, lottery chance affects every franchise, leading to an infinite number of “what-ifs.” But it’s pretty obvious that a team’s expected value from three lottery picks in consecutive years is a lot lower than that of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. That’s an incredible run of draft picks, and most teams would be overjoyed to have one of those players emerge from a non-first-overall pick. Imitating a team that got where they are by that much luck will not lead to very good results. An alternate plan: if you give minutes to a bunch of recent draft picks, project castoffs from other teams, and D-League callups, most of those players will not be good. Some of them will even be atrocious. Back when the 76ers thought they were a decent team, they had a rookie named Nikola Vucevic that they drafted 16th, and got buried in their lineup. He played pretty well for a rookie in his 800-ish minutes. He ended up as a throw-in from the 76ers to the Magic in the four-team Dwight Howard/Andre Iguodala/Andrew Bynum trade, and the Magic actually gave the guy some minutes. He had a startlingly good sophomore season with them, and is exceeding it this year, becoming more efficient on more shots. This will not happen every time, or most of the time, or half the time. But if you’re an asset-acquiring team, you can afford to play a bunch of young guys and find out who’s secretly a pretty good NBA starter. “Pretty good” might sound unexciting, especially in a league where so much depends on the best ten players, but if a guy is winning games for you while making less than $2m a year, as Vucevic is, that’s an incredible deal. All the guys who didn’t work out, the team is free to decline their rookie options, and they’ll probably get 10-day contracts or play overseas after that. If your team can find a couple starters at bargain-bin prices while sifting through junk, that’ll pay off when you move to the next phases of team-building. Teams leave the asset-acquiring stage when they acquire a legitimate superstar. The traditional way (and the expected one from people that talk of tanking) is to acquire one with an early lottery pick. Just like the worst team has better odds, but a low overall chance, of the best pick in a draft, the #1 pick has the best odds, but no guarantee, of being the best player in their draft class. Looking from 2003 (when LeBron was the first pick) through the 2012 draft, the first pick has been superstar-quality six times (LeBron, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis), a very good player twice (John Wall and Andrew Bogut), somewhat of a bust in the case of Andrea Bargnani, and derailed by injury in the case of Greg Oden.  60% chance at a superstar is fantastic, there’s no doubt about that. But looking at things from the opposite direction, the picture is muddied a bit. Of the top 20 players by PER who came into the league in 2003 or later, only three of them were the #1 overall pick. 17 of them were from the lottery, though, with only David West and JJ Hickson being drafted in the non-lottery first round, and Paul Millsap from the second round. The first pick is unquestionably better, there’s no doubt about that, but getting a collection of lottery picks can, taken collectively, give a team just as good odds at a superstar. Drafting a star is so prone to random chance that many teams decide to use their assets to trade for one instead. This has worked out really well for Houston with James Harden, and not quite as well for the some more famous teams, but we’ll get to that. The opportunities to trade for or sign legitimate stars don’t happen often, and when they do, they inevitably result in year-long media assaults that make me want to follow curling or competitive Magic: the Gathering instead. By the nature of the bidding war that teams go through to acquire that player, the acquiring team almost inevitably ends up overpaying, leaving the team with a skeletonized roster ill-equipped to compete alongside that player. In the long run, this is fine and necessary for the franchise to move forward, but it can lead to a lot of doomsday predictions when the “new and improved” team underperforms. The team will probably be saddled with the overpaid castoffs that the star’s former team demanded the acquiring team take with, and the best of the young assets the team got in the previous phase have to get shipped out. At any given time, there are probably fewer than 15 players that I’d consider to be legitimate superstar-quality. It might even be as low as five. This isn’t to disparage the second tier, or to start a meaningless fight over who is or isn’t “elite” a la ESPN screaming head shows, but to caution a team against blowing everything to acquire that most dreaded player: the False Superstar. Some of them are great players, but, as the sports media catchphrase goes, aren’t good enough to be the best player on a championship team. The more sinister ones put up empty numbers. If a team trades their assets and takes on the enormous contract of the false superstar, they might be completely screwed for half a decade. Their assets are all sunk into one big, untradeable contract, and due to sunk costs, they’re resigned to building around their false superstar, leading to early playoff losses or worse. Fans more accustomed to other sports might raise an eyebrow at the importance given to acquiring one single superstar, rather than a solid overall team. What difference does it make if you have one player contributing 20 wins above replacement, or two players contributing ten each? There are a few reasons for this: the easiest is to look at a game of basketball. More than any other sport, an individual player can have a huge impact on every single play. It’s not an exaggeration to say that both team’s gameplans, on both sides of the ball, center around LeBron James every second he’s on the court. Even football quarterbacks can, at most, be the focus of 50% of a team’s attention, unless Peyton Manning takes up free safety at some point. Second, superstar players have an even bigger impact when it comes playoff time. During the regular season, these players might average 36 minutes per game. In the playoffs, it will very often be over 40. LeBron has a career playoff average of 43.1 minutes per game. This is enough of a change to completely exclude the lower parts of a team’s rotation, and the killer second units that propel certain teams through the regular season become less relevant. Lastly and perhaps most importantly: contracts. NBA contracts are capped at a certain amount, according to an unbelievably complex formula that I can neither explain nor comprehend. The gist, though, is that there’s a certain dollar amount that’s a “max contract,” and that’s the most that player can get paid for that time period. Salary cap genius Larry Coon wrote an analysis (behind ESPN’s paywall, unfortunately) of the league’s most underpaid and overpaid players. The two most underpaid players, in terms of absolute difference between salary and value created, are… LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Those are the two best players in the NBA. If a player creates $16m in value per year, and your team pays him $15m per year for this, your team is basically getting screwed. The value in a superstar comes from their surplus value, because all that unspent salary can be spread among the rest of a team’s players. If your highest-paid player is only creating wins at the rate you’re paying them for, that’s a one-way ticket to the middle of the league. Good luck leaving there when you’re paying someone $15m per year. The only way around this is if a team somehow gets stuffed full of Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried clones; ie, players who aren’t stars, but have a star-like gap between their expected and actual salaries. This is impossible, though, because these players are rare (they have to be low draft picks who produce way more than expected), absurdly valuable as trade assets, and their incredible surplus value lasts only as long as their four-year rookie contract. So how does a team avoid a false superstar? A real superstar is either a true two-way monster, like Paul George, Dwight Howard, or LeBron; or they’re so outrageously productive offensively that their defense can be mitigated, like James Harden, Steph Curry, or Kevin Love. A false superstar produces offense, but gives up just as many points on defense. They might also chuck up tons of shots, and expect people to be impressed with their nightly double-double. Do not trade for these players. They will hurt you. As the Knicks have learned since they acquired Carmelo Anthony, getting a star is not the end. The next step is finding where he fits, and getting players that fit around him. For a while, this was looking pretty good: they were playing Carmelo at power forward, where he is excellent offensively and less-bad defensively, next to defensive powerhouse Tyson Chandler and an array of three-point shooters to stretch the floor while Carmelo went to work. Then, they took this extremely solid gameplan and handed it to James Dolan, who used it to wipe his sweaty testicles. It was disgusting, and now they have a roster composed entirely of players who play the same position as Carmelo. melosad Chandler and shooters are a great fit for a team built around Carmelo, because the former players are all low-usage guys, and Carmelo creates value by taking a ton of more-efficient-than-average shots. In theory, this should lead to those low-usage players all being efficient with the shots they end up taking, and playing great defense to compensate for Carmelo’s laziness on that end. This plan is not limited to New York. The general team makeup of a star scorer, a defensive big, and a roster of shooters is on full display in Indiana, San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, and a few other teams are moving toward it. This has led to the increase in emphasis on three-and-D guys, and they’re getting harder to find. It’s not much of a stretch to see a future where the best of this archetype are getting max contracts from teams with money to spend, if they already have the superstar to build around. Andre Iguodala, the rocket-powered version of that player, might not have been the build-around player the 76ers were looking for, but he’s having a grand old time with the Warriors: leading the league with an absurd true shooting of .715, at the lowest usage% since his rookie year. All that’s left after those stages is title contention. Sign the veterans that other teams bought out, trade your near-useless draft picks for bench depth, and cross your fingers that Michael Carter-Williams doesn’t beat you in the Finals.

On the Block – Early Season NBA Trade Assets

Now is the time of the season when reality is setting in. Those miraculous 3-0 starts by teams projected to be in the lottery have turned into more reasonable 4-4 openings, and the better teams have started winning more games than the bad ones. But with reality arriving, so too comes the parts of reality that team owners and general managers didn’t want to admit. Their team that they boldly thought of as a “contender” is actually pretty mediocre. They need to make a trade. ‘Oh god. Who’s out there? Can we give up any organs we’re not using all that often? Everyone’s gonna think that guy we picked up in the second round and shooting 39% is worth something… right?’ Such is the dilemma faced by executives across the nation. I don’t envy them. Okay, fine, I do envy them a lot, but their job is still tough, aside from the being in an air-conditioned office and making hundreds of thousands of dollars to decide the fate of athletes… let’s move on. The Most Important Trade Assets: Rudy Gay Who? [youtube id=”WK7lIjFsGvg” width=”633″ height=”356″] Why is he important? The Toronto Raptors are a fantastic team to ask a fan about to find out their perspective on the game. If you ask a casual fan, they will maybe be able to tell you that either OJ Mayo or Rudy Gay plays for them (Mayo actually plays for Milwaukee, but I get the two of them confused all the time, it’s not a big deal). If you ask a more serious fan, they’ll tell you that they finally have a good player in Rudy Gay to get them buckets at the end of games. If you ask an analytics-oriented person, they’ll roll their eyes derisively at the previous fan, and inform you that there’s some dude named Amir Johnson who plays basketball. The hatred that the analytics-minded have for Rudy Gay has crossed over slightly to the mainstream, in that people will preface their praise with “stat geeks hate him, but…” First, the good news: he’s an above-average defender and rebounder for a small forward. That’s it. That’s all of the good news. The bad news is that the offense – the entire reason teams want him – is actually really bad. He takes a ton of shots, and is not good at taking shots. With point guards, this can be somewhat excused, because their driving and ballhandling opens up shots for other people, but Rudy Gay is a certified non-passer. He hates, hates, hates passing, and on this Raptors team with fellow shot-attempter DeRozan, he’s probably not getting it back if he does. He is a jump shooter that should not shoot jump shots. He is an athletic finisher that shoots barely over 50% from within 8ft (per nba.com/stats), and so far this year he’s down to 36% there. So… why is he important? Because the Raptors secretly have a great three-man core in Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Valanciunas. Getting rid of Gay’s empty possessions will improve them immensely, and hopefully do something about Toronto’s dead-last pace and woeful passing. Tonight’s game featured 114 field goals attempted by the Raptors, and ten assists. That shouldn’t happen, ever, and Rudy Gay’s fingerprints are all over it in the bricks he put up. Who wants him? The good news for My Hero Masai Ujiri is that not everyone agrees with the above assessment. Some share the optimism that his predecessor had when he acquired Gay, hoping that giving their team “a scorer” would make the offense better. This did not work in Toronto, and it will not work outside it, either. Someone will trade for Gay, and probably give up good players to do it. Look for the usual suspects of suspect decision-making, especially among underperforming teams. If the Knicks trade for Gay, I will nearly explode with disaster-awaiting delight. However, that’s probably unlikely, since if the Knicks hear Masai Ujiri calling them again, they should just slam the phone down at this point. Omer Asik Who? [youtube id=”xWln6-0MLhI” width=”633″ height=”356″] Why is he important? Last year, he doubled his career average minutes, going from the best backup center in the league for the Bulls into a league-renowned starting center for the Rockets. He was the same player, of course, and his production despite the extra minutes load vindicated advanced stats people who projected him as a great starter. When he was on the floor for the Rockets, they had a top-ten defense (team DRTG of 104.2, vs a league average of 105.9, per basketball-reference). When he was on the bench, there were few worse defensive teams. It doesn’t get much night-and-day different than that. If offensive and defensive impact were weighted equally in the minds of fans, he would have been an All-Star, but basketball doesn’t work that way. Fans don’t generally see the subtle movements defenders make to guard pick-and-rolls, or the way that a seven-footer will come out of the paint to guard a nimble guard, or how certain defensive bigs can time their jumps perfectly to make at-rim shot attempts seem impossible without fouling. What they see, in Asik’s case, are the hilariously fumbled passes, the inability to bounce the ball more than once (if that), and the horrendous free throw shooting if he does hang onto the ball. The good news for Asik is that the game itself doesn’t much care if you produce in an aesthetically appealing way. Asik does his defense-and-rebounding thing, and he’s one of the best in the league at it. The Rockets, amongst other teams, recognize this, and paid him a starting salary for it. The truth is, he’s just too good to serve as a backup; an elite player playing under 25 minutes is just an inefficient use of resources. The Rockets have also tried some ‘twin towers’ lineups with both him and Dwight Howard playing at the same time, but this is not a long-term solution. Combinations of big men like Sampson-Olajuwan, Duncan-Robinson, and Gasol-Bynum weren’t just throwing two centers out there and having them both act like centers; they worked because the former player in those pairs had an offensive game that was best slightly further from the basket, in the midrange rather than lounging around the basket for dunks. Neither Asik nor Howard can reliably make free throws, so god knows defenses aren’t going to respect them when they catch the ball at the free throw line during a play. And on defense, they’ll certainly be good together (they might even be fantastic), but neither of them need the added safety of another big defender. Howard spent his time anchoring an elite defense that was him and four guys that did not play defense even a little bit. He honed his craft next to Ryan Anderson; he doesn’t need Asik there. Who wants him? About half the teams in the league have a center they’re somewhat confident in going forward, and the other half would love to have an elite defensive big starting for them. I admit that I heard this one from Bill Simmons, but Asik going to New Orleans in exchange for Ryan Anderson almost makes too much sense for it to possibly happen. There will be some competition here, though, and I expect that a lot of teams are making calls about him. Ryan Anderson Who? [youtube id=”1jrm6DJQlLI” width=”633″ height=”356″] Why is he important? The common criticism of Anderson is that he “can’t create his own shot.” My response is a simple “who gives a shit?” He launches about eight three-pointers per 36 minutes, making just under 40% of them. He’s in an elite group of players that are extremely good at shooting threes while still posting above-average usage rates, meaning they aren’t just hanging out waiting for something to happen, they are actively taking shots. Unlike those low-usage players, Anderson has a nifty fake-and-drive maneuver if the defense closes too quickly for a good shot. Somehow, he manages to add extremely good offensive rebounding on top of that. Along with the previously-mentioned Amir Johnson and Asik, he’s a classic adored-by-advanced-stats-followers guy. However good you think he was at the end of his stay in Orlando, there are stats saying he was better than that, even ones that show him to be a top-ten player on the offensive side of the court. New Orleans just isn’t the place for him, though. He’s playing a sixth man role there, which is bad for multiple reasons: he’s not the classic versatile sixth man, as he is very definitely a stretch four, and putting him at small forward will get him embarrassed defensively even more than usual. There’s no getting around it: his defense is bad, and always has been. New Orleans was the first time that his bad defense had, in terms of plus/minus, actually outweighed his offensive contributions. He needs to play next to a rock-solid defensive center, not a developing-but-wiry power forward like Anthony Davis. The two of them on the court together were an unmitigated defensive disaster, and neither of those excellent players deserves to be stuck with someone that brings out the worst qualities in their skillsets. Who wants him? As three-point shooting creeps up in importance year after year, guys like Ryan Anderson become more and more valuable. Anyone that doesn’t have an elite power forward (and make no mistake, that is what Anthony Davis is) shouldn’t turn him down if they could get him, but particularly teams with issues shooting three-pointers like the Bulls and Grizzlies should make an offer. Even if a team has shooters at both guard spots and small forward, taking more three-pointers is just good strategy, and leads to more open looks for the other shooters the better-spaced the floor is. Goran Dragic Who? [youtube id=”IbQ8Jcv_QX0″ width=”633″ height=”356″] Why is he important? Like the two players above, this is a starting-caliber player who’s playing less than 30mpg due to the needs of the franchise. The Suns are trying to rebuild around Eric Bledsoe and their Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of draft picks, and Dragic is a quality point guard gumming up the works. The above paragraph is the same as what I would have written before the season, so now let me admit: I have no idea what’s going on with the Suns. They were supposed to be near-historically terrible, with probably eight players I could not pick out of a police lineup, yet they somehow are, as of this writing, 5-2. I am going to rain on Phoenix’s desert and say that this will not hold up; that no, Eric Bledsoe and Markieff Morris did not just become two of the best players in the NBA, that their 60% shooting on two-pointers will come down to earth (and Bledsoe’s Hardenesque foul drawing can probably come down a bit with it), and that this bunch of randoms will probably not continue to have the 6th-best defense in the league. Even in the midst of this mystifying run, Dragic isn’t having the best year. He is not a shooter, he is not a slasher or an off-the-ball-cut-maker, he is a point guard who runs pick-and-roll and finds open players with the ball in his hands. Bledsoe, on the other hand, has (as noted above) been playing wonderfully while Dragic was injured. To further Bledsoe’s development, and to continue their strategy of trading everyone not currently entombed for draft picks, they’ll almost certainly ship out Dragic for more picks and maybe some prospect PG to back up Bledsoe instead. Who wants him? Dragic is a good starting point guard, but the NBA has become an increasingly point-guard driven league, and merely being good will leave you unwanted by a shockingly large number of teams. (Note to prospective players: practice those wing skills, we’re in short supply of good ones at the moment.) I doubt that anyone will want to pay him 7.5m to play 10mpg in the playoffs, but if none of the teams without a real PG are interested, it might not be terrible for him to go to a team like the Warriors with an injury-prone PG to push them up a few places during the regular season. I hear the Bulls might be looking for someone new. Derrick Rose [youtube id=”TyXrSJpQ_tk” width=”633″ height=”356″] Errata to the piece on Masai Ujiri: I left out something very important about JaVale McGee that really affects my opinion of that trade. McGee suffers from chronic asthma, and the altitude in Denver pretty obviously bothers him. His home/away splits last year are like nothing I’ve ever seen: his TS% was 62.9% on the road, compared with 53.8% at home, and his offensive rebounding was better by about 20%. He even played several more minutes per game on the road than at home. Basically, JaVale McGee cannot be a professional basketball player in Denver, and I hope that Denver’s management realizes this and trades him. Every time I saw JaVale wheezing on the sidelines, I felt genuinely uncomfortable.

Is Masai Ujiri Really That Great?

Everyone should be skeptical of “best executive” awards. This is part of a larger contention that people should be more skeptical in general, but “best executive” awards are a great example. People like to credit the executive with everything that went right in their organization, and blame them for everything that went wrong. The best estimate is that CEO ability has about a .3 correlation with company performance,[1] meaning that the better CEO’s company will outperform a worse-run company about 60% of the time. Luck affects the NBA’s general managers in a big way. If they make a blockbuster trade or have a good season, they’ll look like a genius; if they go years without winning, they’re likely to get fired. It’s an extremely results-oriented, rather than process-oriented, field. If you want to get sad, take a look at the NBA’s past Executive of the Year awards. Bryan Colangelo earned his second EotY honor with the Raptors after the 2006-07 season, when the Raptors won 57% of their regular season games and made the playoffs. Their win percentage after that: .500, .402, .488, .268, .348, .415. Then he gets fired and replaced with Mr. Masai Ujiri, the reigning Executive of the Year. Geoff Petrie had an even worse trajectory. The Kings put him in charge in the mid-90s, and he assembled a fantastic squad in the early 2000s that will be remembered as one of the most fun teams to watch of all time. This got him two EotY awards in three years, the only person to do that until Calangelo did the same a half-decade later. The following year, Petrie’s Kings improved again to 61 wins, winning the West. Their decline started after that, slowly but surely moving from a team that lost game seven of the Western conference finals to the Lakers with prime Shaq and Kobe (in the most bullshit playoff series of all time), to a team that missed the playoffs seven years in a row, including  a 17-win season in 2008-09. Not all of this is the fault of the executives, of course. But that’s part of the point: they didn’t have perfect control; they probably made some good decisions that turned out poorly, but on their ascent, they probably made some bad decisions that turned out well. Luck cuts both ways, and any great seasons that seemingly come out of nowhere are going to regress to the mean the next year, whether you’re executive, coach, or player. Why do I bring up all these downer lookbacks on previous EotY winners? Because I wanted to set the stage for talking about someone that I’ve come to think of as a legitimately fantastic executive: Masai Ujiri. I was shocked for him to win the award, not because I didn’t think he was the best… I was shocked that the league agreed with me. This was a year when his team ended up underperforming in the playoffs, and their team didn’t send a single player to the All-Star game. When going back over his previous transactions, I want to be really careful to separate when he made a deal that was just fantastic, and when he did something that simply ended up turning out well. This is a tricky thing, and hindsight can never perfectly reproduce the information people had going into a decision. First, let’s start off with That Big Trade, the one that put Ujiri on the map: the Carmelo Anthony trade.[2] Denver traded away: Carmelo Anthony, Renaldo Balkman, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Kosta Koufos, Shelden Williams, 2015 second-round pick Denver acquired: Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, 2012 and 2013 second-round picks, 2014 first-round pick, cash The Knicks certainly got the best player in the deal, but it shows the price a team has to pay to get that: three above-average starting players, two of whom were in their early 20s at the time, along with a project big man and an upgrade in second-round picks. Billups was an extremely effective player at the time, but he was aging and earning $13m in that year, and eventually got amnestied. Since it happened, this trade has been held up as the model for trading off one’s star player: clearing roster room and salary, dumping your biggest contract, acquiring several starting-quality young players, and picking up an extra pick in the process. It was thought of as a near-miracle at the time for Denver, and hindsight has made it look even better: Gallinari is coming off his best year ever, and Chandler, though hobbled by injuries, produced much better on a per-minute basis than he ever had before. Raymond Felton was turned into Andre Miller, Jordan Hamilton and a second-round pick in a deal that did more for the lob pass than any trade aside from the Chris Paul one. Kosta Koufos is a noteworthy player here, and I suspect Ujiri just got lucky with this one. He was the only player from Minnesota that Denver acquired, and at the time, he was thought of as being a pretty bad end-of-bench guy. If he was any good, Minnesota would have thought more of sending away a seven-foot center making just over $1m a year on his rookie contract. At the time, he had played just over 1000 career NBA minutes, and had already been a throw-in on a trade from Utah. His true shooting was under .500 midway through his Minnesota season when he got shipped out. Whether Denver had scouted him and seen something that could be developed and cunningly swiped him, or thought nothing of him and Denver’s player development squad had turned him into the defensive presence he is now… I have no idea. The next trade is the one with the most uncertainty still around it. Denver traded away: Nenê Denver acquired: JaVale McGee Analysis of this one comes down to a few things: how much should a good, young team value getting more young players? If a player has played on a high level for many years, and starts playing worse after injury, are they likely to regress back to their higher level of play, or is this the new norm? And, the almost philosophical question: if a person raised in a bad environment ends up bad, can they change when moved to a better one? The Nuggets had, some months earlier, signed Nenê to a monster five-year, $65m contract… the kind that can ruin a team if he turns into an injured shell of his former self. Nenê wasn’t clearly headed in that direction, but he was missing time for injuries, and wasn’t the hyper-efficient Nenê he had been in years past. So, whether by design when they signed the deal or whether they just thought better of the contract afterward, Denver sent him away for the… um… ‘inconsistent’ JaVale McGee. This is an area where I have to be very careful to divorce my non-statistical reactions to watching him play with the factual realities. For people who haven’t done it, watching McGee play is a great time. He catches lobs. He pulls off some amazing moves. He goes for sky-high blocks, and on some of those attempts, actually connects with the ball. But no matter how good his efficiency, rebounding, and block numbers look (quite good, in fact), the plus/minus data tells the real story here: with very few exceptions, his team plays worse on both ends of the court with JaVale on the floor. Nenê does not have that sort of discrepancy between his personal stats and team stats; he has monstrously improved the Wizards when he’s out there for them. JaVale, somehow, made the Wizards worse. But his talent is so obvious. Can Denver’s excellent staff train him to unlearn all those horrific years in Washington, and play like a reasonable basketball player? Watching him, I keep tricking myself into seeing improvements. Then I look back at the numbers, and they’re basically the same as they were with the Wizards: good personal stats, makes his team worse. So, a playoff team sent away an older, injury-prone veteran, effective but waning, for a younger, highly talented player who makes his team worse (at the moment). This is a tough one. I will reluctantly call it a positive for Denver, but it’s extremely close, and part of it hinges on the possibility of a pump-and-dump: acquiring JaVale, convincing the league he’s way better now, shipping him out for someone who’s actually effective. Mr. Ujiri only made four notable trades while in Denver, and we’ve already covered three. The last of his deals seemed to be, at the time, The Big One: Denver traded away: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, 2013 second-round pick, 2014 first-round pick, 2014 second-round pick (clause on this so that Denver will send the worse of their two 2014 second-round picks) Denver acquired: Andre Iguodala When this trade happened, my jaw was on the floor. The Nuggets managed to join in a trade they seemingly had no business being in, and gave up Afflalo (a decent-though-overrated defender and very good shooter with illusions of iso prowess), a first, and somehow dumped the Harrington albatross contract to get Iguodala. How on earth? This one is a difficult in-hindsight trade to evaluate, since Iguodala was a free agent after the season. Making trades based on what a player will decide to do in the future is a bit dicey, and as third-party analysts we’re not entitled to the in-person discussions that players have with their team and agent about where they’d like to go. Iguodala ended up leaving in a sign-and-trade with the Warriors after Ujiri left, and who knows what would have convinced him to stay? If the team had won that series against the Warriors, and the Nuggets had retained Ujiri and Karl… well, maybe the result would have been different. But what Ujiri did was give the Nuggets one of the best wing defensive players in the league, and someone that the transition-based offense put to very good use. With the information we have available, then, I’m going to conclude that this was a great deal, and one any GM would be ecstatic to make, even if it didn’t work out as well as the Nuggets would have liked. Ujiri did other things other than those trades, of course. Drafting is super-important, and he deserves credit for correctly picking Kenneth Faried… sort of. Every mock draft had him going at the 21st spot, to the Portland Trailblazers, which Portland fans will always bring up in discussions of Faried. All Denver did was take the guy that should have gone one slot higher. Also worth noting: many of the basketball analytics-oriented people, including myself, had singled out Faried prior to the draft as someone who was way, way, way better than his projected draft position. Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE model projected him as being the second-best player in the draft, after Kyrie Irving, and there’s a very good case that’s been how things worked out. Saying he only picked him 22nd because he didn’t go 21st is a cop-out, though, since players fall unexpectedly in every draft. MarShon Brooks was expected to go in the mid-teens and fell ten slots below that, and he’s been a solid bench scorer, but nothing to get excited about. Drafting Faried was, both at the time and in hindsight, a blatantly obvious move, but being obvious doesn’t mean it wasn’t correct. Instead, I’d say that about 20 general managers made a mistake by not listening to the advanced stats people and taking Faried sooner. The jury is still out on the rest of his draft picks, since we’ve barely see them play. Fournier could end up being a steal in the late first, but the sample size is way too low to tell. There’s an important aspect we haven’t addressed though: even if Ujiri is the best GM in the league, how much is that worth? Could he be replaced by some guy off the street earning a fraction of his salary? The notoriously cheap Kroenke family aims to find that out, and so far, the answer is: no, and you’re getting a bad value for even trying. Reportedly, the Raptors persuaded Ujiri with an offer of $15m over five years, and the Nuggets wouldn’t even offer half of that annual salary. Instead, they hired Tim Connelly at what must logically be a far cheaper rate. If he could do the same job, then that’s a great deal. So far, he cannot. He has made two trades so far: shipping Kosta Koufos, who I’ve already laid my praise all over and think of as one of the league’s most underrated players, to the Memphis Grizzlies for the near-worthless Darrell Arthur, an offensively inefficient bench forward who’s way worse offensively after a ruptured Achilles. This results in JaVale McGee as the team’s only real center (Mozgov is awful), a log jam at power forward, and a downgrade in talent whether measured by conventional player rankings (150 vs 201 on ESPN’s rankings) or advanced statistics. His other trade is the sign-and-trade to send Iguodala (and cash) out, and receive the thoroughly mediocre 30 year-old Randy Foye in return. As any angry 70 year-old will note, professional athletes are paid a lot. Even Darrell Arthur makes $3m a year, which just happens to be the salary of Ujiri with the Raptors. All it takes for Ujiri to pay for himself over a bargain-bin $500k GM is to produce more than $2.5m a year in value for his franchise. Connelly, in that single Kosta Koufos transaction, probably cost the team far more in value than that, and that’s not even a trade involving players anyone has heard of. Because of how easy it is to sign a player to a bad contract that will burden a team for years (Amar’e Stoudemire, Andris Biedrins, Ben Gordon, etc), it’s pretty crucial to hire a GM that won’t make mistakes that outright terrible. A single year of paying Emeka Okafor to be mediocre costs about the same as Ujiri’s entire five-year contract, and he’s the highest-paid GM in the league. On the other hand, let’s check in with what Ujiri is doing over at his new Toronto home: Toronto traded away: Andrea Bargnani Toronto acquired: Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, 2014 second-round pick, 2016 first-round pick, 2017 second-round pick When Ujiri went over to Toronto, I was incredibly curious whether he’d be able to duplicate those Denver trades where he seems to get way more value than he should have. And holy god, is this a value-laced trade. Bargnani makes almost $12m in his first Knicks season, had a TS of .482 last year, and (depending on who you listen to) is somewhere between average and a train wreck on defense. That contract is something that, seemingly, Toronto would want to dump at all costs, and they somehow got a first-round pick for him… and one of the best three-point shooters in the game… and a couple second-round picks, I guess just to see if the Knicks would go for literally anything. This trade goes beyond lopsided and into the realm of hilarious. When Ujiri went to Toronto, I was crossing my fingers that Denver was on some next-level statistical analysis, paying attention to the aforementioned research on how luck-based executive performance is. But the A vs B of Connelly’s transactions compared to Ujiri couldn’t be clearer: Ujiri is the game’s best general manager, and teams need to start paying their general managers like the crucial decision-makers they are. Because who’d you rather have: him or Darrell Arthur?


[1] James H Steiger, via Daniel Kahneman’s absolutely essential book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Summaries of CEO performance and related subjects are mostly summaries of Chapter 19 in that book.
[2] I’m using basketball-reference for transaction histories (and everything else), but you can get the same info just about anywhere.