Rebuilding 101: Alchemy Experiments
Method 2: Signing superstar(s).
In professional basketball building team chemistry is everything. The problem, of course, is that team chemistry is more alchemy than an exact science. With so many different players who have different styles, skill sets and, most importantly, personalities, it’s almost impossible for a front office to create pure gold from scratch. As a result most general managers tend to build slowly and carefully, adding a piece here, swapping a player or two there.
But occasionally a particularly clever and creative team will break the mold, foregoing the traditional rebuilding process to test their luck in one big experiment. These teams don’t have to Tank n’ Draft; they just make a huge move to recharge their fan base. Rebuilding quickly can be incredibly successful, other times it ends up as the Allan Houston contract. That’s just how alchemy works; sometimes you strike gold, and other times you’re left cash-strapped and doomed to years of mediocrity.
Perhaps the most exemplary alchemist of the past few years is Boston’s general manager Danny Ainge. After years of rebuilding unsuccessfully through the Draft, where the only gem Boston ever found was Paul Pierce, Ainge worked out a master plan. He traded to get future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, giving up the promising Jeff Green and Al Jefferson, but keeping other young players like Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo.
The media was stunned. How would the flippant Pierce, nearly obsessive compulsive Ray Allen, and increasingly volatile Kevin Garnett play together? More importantly could these three completely different players stand to live in the same locker room? Lots of people pandered the moves; they said the Celtics were too old, had too many scorers, and would never mesh into a coherent team.
Then the haters were stunned a second time when the Celts beat the Lakers out in the NBA Finals. This team completed the largest single season turnaround in the history of the NBA. They won the Finals with no previous playoff experience, which is uncommon for even the best teams. And they’re still among the most dangerous teams in the League two years later.
Of course teams have tried the same strategy in the past, albeit with less talent, and been far less successful. The Denver Nuggets traded for Marcus Camby and Nene, drafted Carmelo Anthony, sold the farm for Kenyon Martin, and rebuilt their frontcourt around the tiny twosome of Earl Boykins and Andre Miller. Yes, the Nuggets improved, but they never had enough to make it within a sniff of the second round. Certainly their GM Kiki Vandeweghe was just as inventive as Danny Ainge, but things just didn’t quite work out. Nene and Kenyon Martin were injured just about every game, and, without KMart, Marcus Camby was the only stopper on the squad. This team definitely merged on the offense, but their defensive identity fluctuated between nonexistent and pathetic.
After Boston’s success it was assumed for a while that roster alchemy was the future of basketball. For a brief time teams valued bloated expiring contracts like they were superstar players. There was a time when more press was focused on Raef LaFrentz than LaMarcus Aldridge. But that turned out to be false hope. Even with the chaotic summer of 2010 quickly approaching, very few teams are actually in the position to make a huge splash.
Of course the most well known is the Knicks. This is a team that was so nervous about saving cap space that they’ve neglected to sign their two best players, David Lee and Nate Robinson, beyond the next season. They also refused to sign Ramon Sessions, who would have been an enormous upgrade over the rather unimpressive Chris Duhon, even though he signed an absurdly cheap deal with the Timberwolves. The Knicks are cutting costs to hopefully be able to sign both Prince James and another maximum contract free agent, which would put them in the position to dominate over the entire Association for the next century—at least you’d think that if you only read the Times.
In the recent weeks, however, people are starting to take notice that Manhattan just might be replaced in James’ heart and mind by Brooklyn. The New Jersey Nets have quietly built up a similar amount of room under the cap next summer, but have a much more impressive core of young players to ensure a quick road to a Championship. Next summer they’ll look to do everything in their power to make sure that they pick up a couple of All-Stars to add to their roster, which will probably get the hell out of Jersey for a franchise-reboot to match their new core.
Others like the Bulls, Rockets, Clippers, Heat, Timberwolves and Kings will likely look to make some serious changes in the upcoming offseason. They’ll be swapping contracts and cap space in what promises to either be the biggest realignment of power since the end of the Cold War, or what might be the biggest collective sigh in the history of New York.
That’s just the risk you take when you try to completely overhaul both the roster and the culture of a team. Even when it looks like you’re set to be the big winner things could blow up in your face—or in your knees like KMart and the Nuggets. It’s because, unlike Tank n’ Drafting or limbo tweaking, the alchemy experiment doesn’t depend on luck; it depends wholly on the ingenuity of the practitioner and the quality of the ingredients.
Of course the Celtics were bound to bond together as winners. They were three superstars with minimal skill overlap who all had an overwhelming desire to finish their careers in a positive situation. Danny Ainge knew that all along. And of course the new-look Nuggets and Isiah Thomas Knicks were destined to fail. They didn’t bring together nearly enough talent, and overpaid guys with bad reputations for laziness and attitude issues.
As these organizations brace themselves for the biggest experiment in the history of the League, they need to remember these hard-earned lessons. They’ll have to remember that alchemy isn’t real. It’s impossible to create championship gold from scratch. The best front offices will know that their only hope is to find the just the right pieces, players that have always been invaluable, and let them mold together into a nice little Larry O’Brien trophy.