Rebuilding 101: Limbo Tinkering
Method 3: Make a trade; change your core.
Sometimes you work on something really, really hard. I mean you put in every ounce of effort and every dime that you’ve got to make it absolutely spectacular. Problem is that when the objective is to be the best in the world, really, really hard just doesn’t cut it most of the time.
As the first two parts of this series have shown, building a championship team is about the toughest goal in the Association. Lots of teams think they’ve collected enough talent, hit the luxury tax by extending their stars, add a piece or two, and then sit tight and let their fans salivate. Usually these teams make the Playoffs, with a little luck they’ll get to the second round, and they just might get through to the Conference Championships or the NBA Championships. But of all the teams with stacked rosters, only one takes home the bacon.
Obviously general managers will rinse and repeat the process by rotating their role players, but this rarely has a meaningful effect. Over time those franchise players begin to lose bit by bit of effectiveness, and then one day the teams find themselves trapped as the third- or fourth-best team in their conference with no upside to their aging core.
This is usually a signal to the front office that their window is closing, and they’ll have to make a decision that nobody wants to make. Do you sit and wait, knowing full well that an apocalyptic rash of injuries to every other contender is the only hope? Do you betray your fans and the core by tanking for a nice draft pick? Or do you just take a bit of a chance by tinkering?
Now chances are that unless your name is Nate Robinson, you don’t want to be in limbo in the NBA. Why? Because you’re not winning a championship, but you’re also not improving, which means you have to force improvement. The only problem is that, just like when taking a jumper, forcing it is typically unadvisable.
Consider premier example number one, Steve Kerr of the Phoenix Suns. When Kerr traded the glue that kept his fast break juggernaut together for the hulking colossus that is old Shaquille O’Neal, he famously defended the trade by claiming, “If it works, I’m a genius…If it doesn’t, I’m a moron, I guess.” Steve’s move proved pretty much moronic, since all the big Shaqtus brought to the Suns was a great Shaqrabble commercial and a few expiring contracts after a couple seasons.
And that move also left the Suns trapped in the limbo tinkering phase of rebuilding. They can’t really let franchise face Steve Nash go, but they have too much talent with the core of Nash, Richardson, Hill, and Amar’e to grab an immediate impact player in the Draft. To compound the problem, their bankroll is packed for the next few seasons.
Other teams stuck in limbo include the Pistons, Wizards, Jazz, Bucks, Pacers, Warriors and Bobcats. Sorry to all the fans out there, but these teams are all near the salary cap for the big bang in 2010, none of them are competing for a championship in the upcoming couple years, and they’re all just a bit too good to land a stud draft pick who will put them over the top.
Of course one can end up in limbo in a variety of ways and in many conditions – as is obvious given the Jazz’s perennial decency and the Bobcats constant insistence on having Gerald “Defensive Superstar and Decent Finisher” Wallace as their leading scorer year in and year out. Alright, that statement was probably unfair, since they also had Jason “Wait, Dunk Championships Don’t Equal Efficient Offense?” Richardson leading the charge for a brief stint. Point is that even though teams trapped in limbo come in all shapes and sizes, they’re all crippled by the lack of cap space and bad draft picks. That means the only way out is to trade.
Trading for an impact player typically means giving up some valuable pieces, which also typically means risking the team chemistry. Because of this even trades that seem to be lopsided in terms of talent actually end up negatively affecting their team’s play. Another example besides the Steve Kerr flop is the Piston’s famed Allen Iverson trade. Some people hailed the move as putting Detroit right back at the top of the East; it actually left them looking pathetic and confused, mere sheep to LeBron James’s playoff slaughter.
But there have been positive examples as well, though success typically means an incredibly lopsided deal. The Lakers added Pau Gasol in the middle of a season so tragic that poster-boy Kobe was calling for a trade. With the long, goofy Spaniard on-board the Lakers became instant contenders for the foreseeable future. In turn Kobe was appeased, and though their salary cap is full, at least it is filled with useful players.
And this offseason has seen a few major players who seemed to have hit their ceiling making some major trades: the Hawks added Jamal Crawford for a few wasted talents, the Spurs grabbed Richard Jefferson in exchange for aged wisdom, and the Cavaliers made the biggest splash, in terms of water displacement at least, by taking Shaqopotamus from the Suns.
This summer the tinkerers might just have provided a few more examples of how low you need to go if you want to reach the pinnacle of the Association.