Friday, October 23, 2009

NBA Preview: The Innovator’s Dilemma—Solved?

It seems NBA teams got religion over the offseason: Whittsitism. Bob Whittsit was, of course, the GM of the JailBlazers whose motto seemed to be, “Why not add another star?” Indeed, why not? We witnessed a splurge by the top teams on acquisitions that lived up to St. Whittsit over the offseason. Perhaps none of the moves were quite so bizarre as Whittsit’s moves—in fact, quite a few were pretty smart!—but a large number of teams spent big bucks and took big risks for very uncertain rewards.

I’ve been struggling to explain this behavior, hell, for months now, and it still doesn’t make sense. But here’s my attempt. It’s a lot easier to be Sam Presti than Mitch Kupchak, as Kevin Pritchard is finding out now. It’s easier because if you have a sucky team, you get to clean house, pick high and take on intriguing talents. That’s the easy part. You get a break of a few weeks. Now, Sam Presti has managed the process really well, but still: he hasn’t had to pay anyone. He hasn’t had to make tough decisions on the direction of the team. It’s all youth. Youth is fun. Now, Mitch Kupchak has it harder.

Here’s where The Innovator’s Dilemma comes in. Basically—to bastardize the concept completely for my purposes particularly (i.e. please don’t take my word for it exclusively)—companies that are on top generally find it difficult to innovate and introduce a disruptive technology to market. An example: it would (hypothetically) probably a weird idea for the Post Office to introduce e-mail—it kills their own business. (Again, very simplified example and not 100% accurate, just meant to get the point across). Essentially, NBA teams overcame complacency and tried to innovate.

The Lakers knew that with a few different calls, the Rockets and Nuggets series would have been different. With different injuries, the Magic or Celtics could have done better. The Cavaliers know all these same things. And everybody knows that they know. So the “true” result of last season is effectively a real mystery: we had four titans ready to battle it out, but we never got the donnybrook we fans deserved. And the teams know that. So, instead, they convinced themselves that upgrades were necessary.

And they were available too! With the financial crisis ripping holes in everybody’s balance sheets, bargains were available everywhere, in the NBA economy and the real one. It’s easy, when everything’s on sale, to talk yourself into bad purchases.

There were six teams that made—to my mind—really huge moves, and not coincidentally, they’re the best six teams in the league. They’re the Cavaliers, Celtics, Lakers, Magic, Spurs, Trail Blazers. Half of these teams made smart moves; half of them did not (well, an exception to the Blazers.)

The half that did—Magic, Blazers, Celtics—acquired good players at cheap prices. The players they did acquire fit in with their schemes. Wallace in the Celtic’s defensive scheme is going to cause everyone problems, and his reticence to go into the post is fine—Garnett doesn’t either. It gives the Celtics (potentially) a terrifying three-man big man rotation: anytime Perkins, Garnett and Wallace are your top three, you know you have a ton of options. The Magic signed everyone but Brett Favre, but it worked: they focused on guys who can shoot threes, are versatile, and play decent defense. Vince Carter for Turkoglu makes a ton of sense, and Matt Barnes and Ryan Anderson were born to play for the Magic. The Magic had the best defense last year, and do you realize that their presumed starting lineup (Nelson/Carter/Pietrus/Lewis/Howard) features four players who can put up 20 at any given time? It’s very true. Additionally, Dwight Howard is a top-five player and may become better. (Incidentally, the Magic are my title-winning pick). Everyone agrees about the Spurs’ offseason—it was good—Richard Jefferson should acclimate fine, DaJuan Blair is going to be excellent, etc. etc. Their main question, sadly, is age, and I think basketball fans everywhere—religious and secular alike—said a prayer for Manu Ginobili to make a full recovery.

What those three teams share—in my account at least—is a coherence to their offseason moves. The other three teams didn’t do that. Start with the Blazers. Their offseason suffers mostly from opportunity cost: why, oh, why would you sign Andre Miller when you could have signed Ramon Sessions? Doesn’t that make far more sense for everyone involved? Miller is good, but he doesn’t work for Portland: Miller’s a guard who can’t shoot but loves the fast-paced game; Portland likes and needs guards to space the floor, and plays incredibly slow. It’s a bad marriage. But I don’t think Miller figures as prominently into Portland’s plans as the Cavalier’s acquisitions and the Lakers’. Start with the Cavs. Parker and Moon are fine players, each, and should ameliorate their problems with Rashard Lewis, but that’s weak tea. Besides, Shaq is a player whom I expect to have a significant negative influence in Cleveland.

The stats look fine for Shaq, I grant you, but it’s what he does outside of that that makes me suspicious. For one, Shaq has grown slow: slow about changing ends, slow about defense, slow on offense. That’s bad. On offense, his moves are still effective, but lack the old explosiveness. Every second that Shaq is holding the ball and sizing up the defense is a second that LeBron isn’t doing LeBron things. And while LeBron should be working more off-the-ball, Shaq is probably the wrong player for LeBron to be playing off of: Shaq’s passing, still good, has definitely decreased recently (only 9.2% Assist Rate last season). This isn’t even getting into his defense, particularly his pick-and-roll defense. It’s awful. He can’t hedge, he barely moves—and this is supposed to be the solution to the Magic? The Lewis-Howard pick-roll is going to annihilate the Cavs, should they meet again in the postseason. That’s not even getting into the offcourt issues: Shaq’s moving from the Suns’ exceptional trainers to the Cavs’ (presumably) average ones, meaning he’ll be missing games. Then there’s the fact that Shaq has played for four teams now, before the Cavs. That’s a lot, for an all-time great. And, at every stop, he’s left with acrimony. Shaq still thinks he’s the Man of Steel and all that, but he should think of himself as a rich man’s Joel Przybilla.

This leaves the Lakers. I’m surprised I haven’t heard this justifying analogy more: that since Phil Jackson handled Dennis Rodman well, he should be fine with Artest. This is probably because it’s a pretty insane analogy: though Artest and Rodman are at similar levels of crazy, there are several key, illuminating differences between the two. First, Jackson coached Rodman at the peak of his powers. Now Jackson is old, perpetually injured, and has mused about skipping road trips. That’s got to affect how well he’s able to deal with Artest’s antics. The second key difference is this: Rodman was a clown off-court, but a saint on it. According to Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps, Rodman immediately understood the Triangle Offense and played mostly for his defense and rebounding. Artest, on the other hand, has been brought in to do defense and rebounding, but has never been able to resist the temptation of the pull-up 17 footer with a hand in his face. He will overdribble, and that kills the Triangle, more so than other offenses. I expect trouble. I expect Pau Gasol to be shafted even more than in other years. (Side note: Pau Gasol might just be the most underappreciated player in the league. He is absolutely perfect for this team and this offense. And yet even his team refuses to appreciate that: I counted something like ten separate instances in the 2009 playoffs in which Derek Fisher chose to shoot a bad three rather than pass to a set-up Pau Gasol. But Gasol is so, so very perfect in that offense, and the only two players on the Lakers who appear to like playing with one another are Gasol and Odom. It’s true.)

Obviously, time will tell what happens with this season. But I appreciate the effort teams have brought to the table to try to transcend their flaws. Earlier, they were timid. Now, they appear far more aggressive—too aggressive, if anything. But I’m excited and intrigued for this season.

NBA Finals: Magic over Spurs
Conference Finals: Magic over Cavaliers; Spurs over Lakers

Eastern Conference Standings
Who cares? (in all seriousness, Wizards)
Who cares? (in all seriousness, Heat)
Who cares? (in all seriousness, 76ers)
Who cares? (in all seriousness, Hawks)

Western Conference Standings

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