Wednesday, February 23, 2011

That Escalated Quickly

Now that’s how you do a blockbuster deal, Knicks. You got the part right where you went to a team with a disaffected superstar, and you got the part right where the team looking to trade is desperate…but you failed to combine those two together for the crucial ripoff trade that so often characterizes title-winning teams. (Let’s say your top five teams are, in some order, are the Spurs, Lakers, Bulls, Heat, and Celtics. Three of these teams got critical pieces from ripoff trades; we all know how the Heat brought the band together; the Spurs are the only team that looks like an homage to savvy and scouting and building a team brick by brick. The old-fashioned virtues, you might say. If you were hopelessly nostalgic.)

So the Nets gave up a pair of mediocre players—though Favors is young and mediocre, so it’s possible he might turn into middle-aged and good—with a pair of first-rounders. The first rounders sound significantly better than they actually are: the Nets’ 2011 first rounder will be a lottery pick, but the 2011 draft has been declared mediocre. And, yes, scouts can tell: maybe not the particular order, but their general sense of “good draft” or “bad draft” is pretty accurate. Even if the 2011 draft were average, the Nets’ pick is likely to be in the double-digits, and franchise players typically don’t slip below the seventh pick or so—and that’s if you get lucky. (There are, as always, exceptions—Stockton! Malone! Barkley! Ginobili! Nash!—but they are exceptions and not worth counting on.) No one has a firm opinion on the 2012 draft yet, but the Warriors’ pick is protected from 1-7, meaning that that pick has the same hazards as the 2011 pick. Essentially, the Jazz went out and traded their shiny new Mercedes for two Kias and twenty bucks.

Williams is not as good as his reputation suggests he is, but he is very good and—more importantly—absurdly healthy. For whatever reason, he is the type of NBA player who doesn’t miss games, which is a very valuable quality, though not entirely appreciated. A Williams-and-Brook-Lopez combination might prove deadly, as Lopez can either pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll.

The problem—as just about everyone’s commented by now—is that Williams hasn’t signed an extension and he’s only tied down until the summer of 2012. It’s not nearly as big a problem as people want to make it out to be, but it’s still a problem. First of all, NBA players do still like money, and the Nets can offer more of it than anyone else. Should Williams decide he doesn’t want to re-sign with the nascent Brooklyn Nets, that’s fine—they can just flip him again if they want. If not, it’s still not a big deal: all the Nets have staked are mediocre players.

In the NBA especially, where great players are disproportionately more important than mediocre ones, mediocre players are replaceable. You can find some guy to do a competent job for your team very easily; teams do it all the time. That Kurt Thomas and Juwan Howard are doing competent things for the Bulls and Heat, respectively, despite being a combined 75 years old, demonstrate this perfectly. The only way a mediocre player becomes valuable to you, as a team, is if that player offers some particular characteristic that fits into your team and your scheme perfectly. If you’re, say, the D’Antoni Suns and you need a power forward who shoots threes. Then those mediocre players become valuable, and that’s why the Bulls are scouring the league for an affordable shooting guard who can simultaneously play defense and shoot threes. (The rumors have the Bulls being particularly interested in O.J. Mayo and Courteney Lee. They aren’t great players, but I’d happily trade for either for the right price.)

But the only situation in which these mediocre players become very valuable for your team in particular is if you have a system or concept, and you only get that if you have the great players that define the space for everyone else to inhabit.* You have to be good first, basically. The Nets aren’t good; therefore they don’t have a concept; therefore their mediocre players aren’t particularly valuable to them. Who knows whether their system, in four years, will call for a Devin Harris or a Derrick Favors? No one does. But you can be pretty sure that in four years there’ll be a system for Deron Williams. That’s why you trade for him.

* I’ve always found it amusing when commentators—when talking about a team that needs to rebuild—start by saying, “Well, first you need to decide on a system.” That’s totally incorrect. A system run by bad players often won’t be any good, unless the system is one of those once-in-a-generation systems that just vaporizes the ignorant opposition, like the West Coast Offense. Chances are, if you’re sitting around trying to decide on a system, you don’t have a once-in-a-generation system like the West Coast Offense. Therefore, try to get those good players. Assuming that there’s some consistent way to identify those, which I’m guessing there aren’t.

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