Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The anatomy of a loser


Hello. I haven't posted an article in the last two days. On Monday, it was legitimate; I was off for President's day and was maxing and relaxing. On Tuesday, it was somewhat more legitimate and somewhat less legitimate at the same time; I wrote a straight-up bad article that was not ready for prime time. This past weekend, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Stephon Marbury celebrated their birthdays (February 17th, 20th, and 20th, respectively), and I wanted to do a tribute to all of them, but I ran into some problems:

1. What can I really say about Michael Jordan that hasn't already been said ten ways? All I can do is blubber about how great he is (which I did).

2. Charles Barkley is funnier than I am so my best shot at writing something enjoyable about him is just quoting him (which I did). I think Barkley: Quotables deserves its own standalone on another day.

3. I can't write about Stephon Marbury without going into hyper-defensive "he's good, okay!?" mode (which I did). That is another standalone article that will be written when I can afford to piss people off, and considering I am getting about two to four comments a day, I don't think I'm there yet. I am, however, sorely tempted after reading Bill Simmons' latest offering, where he notes that the all-star game should always have a good point guard (i.e. Steve Nash or Jason Kidd) and mentions possibilities like Marcus Williams, Steve Blake, Deron Williams, Andre Miller, TJ Ford and JOSE CALDERON. Each of those guys would doubtlessly sob uncontrollably if they found out that someone had written that they were better pure point guards than Mr. Stephon Marbury. I feel this thing starting again, but I've got to be focused...

Today, I was just farting around, reading the NBA standings when I noticed something: Boston just lost its 19th out of 20, and for the first time this year, they are worse than the Memphis Grizzlies. Think about that. Boston lost 18 games in a row (having been fairly bad to begin with) and were still not as bad as the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are this bad after twelve years of high draft picks, a salary cap designed to help bad teams, and a couple of short playoff runs. I found myself asking: How can a team like this be so bad?

In my opinion, the Grizzlies have two peers in their pathetic company: The Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers. Yes, the Clippers recently surged, and the Raptors may be in the midst of a resurgence, but these teams have something in common: every time they show signs of getting out of the basement, they throw it all away, start over, and lose fans.

Let me take all of you back to 1995-96, when all three teams had high hopes. Both the Grizzlies and the Raptors were just entering the league, and the Clippers were fielding a playoff team for the first time in a few years. (This, for the record, was also the first year I collected basketball cards seriously, so a lot of stuff about it is seared into my head, like Ed O'Bannon and Joe Smith being two rookie cards that you did not want to pull.) Let's follow along and see if we can discover...

The Anatomy of a Loser

I don't really think it's fair to analyze a team's picks in the expansion draft, because they are forced to choose a bunch of players other teams don't want. For purposes of keeping this focused and [relatively] short, I'm going to ignore the crappy moves that the Clippers had made up until 1995. That said, in 1995, each team's roster looked like this:

Grizzlies:
PG: Greg Anthony
SG: Blue Edwards
SF: Chris King
PF: Ashraf Amaya
C: Bryant Reeves

Bench: Byron Scott, Gerald Wilkins, Eric Murdock;

Notes: Greg Anthony led this team in scoring and assists. Bryant Reeves was second in scoring and first in rebounding. Byron Scott was an effective sixth man (10.2 ppg). Other than that, there's really not that much you can say about this team. Actually, I guess you could say "What a bad team!" Record: 15-67.

Raptors:

PG: Damon Stoudamire
SG: Alvin Robertson
SF: Tracy Murray
PF: Ed Pinckney
C: Oliver Miller

Bench: Doug Christie, Zan Tabak, Carlos Rogers. (and...Jimmy King!)

Notes: Playing Greg Anthony's role for the Raptors, Damon Stoudamire led his team in scoring and assists. Tracy Murray played the role of gunner, averaging 16.2 points per game, with Pig Miller averaging similar statistics to Bryant Reeves. It is interesting how both of these teams had skilled point guards and fat-fuck centers. Again, terrible personnel. Record: 21-61.

LA Clippers:

PG: Pooh Richardson
SG: Malik Sealy/Brent Barry
SF: Rodney Rogers
PF: Loy Vaught
C: Bison Dele (aka Brian Williams) [RIP]

Bench: Lamond Murray, Terry Dehere, Stanley Roberts, Eric Piatowski.

Notes: This team made the playoffs with a 36-46 record next season. I don't know what the basketball gods were thinking. Loy Vaught was the leader of the team (and was actually pretty good before injuries ruined his career). Bison Dele was also pretty solid, and their frontcourt was accompanied by a respectable point guard in Richardson, good shooters in Barry, Dehere, and Rogers, and a decent bench. This was a team in need of a star.

The bottom line: everyone was pretty bad. Each team would crawl out of its suckage and ascend to mediocrity, only to fall back down. Using advanced statistics and calculus and mathematical methods such as triginometry, I made up these charts to show precisely how each team climed the mountain, and descended back down.

The Grizzlies, as you can see from the chart, had the slowest, most consistent path to respectability. They sucked for so long they had to flee their country.

The first reason for this is that they used their first pick (#6) on a crappy player: Bryant "Big Country" Reeves. I agree that getting a solid frontcourt should be paramount for a crappy team, but it is a mistake too often made that high picks are deferentially used on big men. (The NFL in recent years seems to do this with lineman. I don't know why it happens there, either. It seems like in both basketball and football many of the best big men come from later rounds.)

[Just a word on NBA policy here: Why didn't they give the Raptors and the Grizzlies better picks? The first five picks were Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Kevin Garnett. Wouldn't these guys have been ideal for an expansion team?]

Some players that the Grizzlies passed over for Big Country include Damon Stoudamire, Kurt Thomas, Corliss Williamson, Theo Ratliff, Michael Finley, Donyell Marshall, and Eric Snow.

Honestly, though, there was a time when Big Country Reeves seemed like he might make something of himself (he once scored 40!), so I'll give them a pass on that. The next major move was their pick in the next year's draft, Shareef Abdur-Rahim. That year, the Grizzlies' management had also gotten a second first round pick, which it used on Roy Rogers.

Again, it is kind of hard to complain about a great player like Shareef, and it made sense to really fortify the frontcourt, but they did pass over Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Jermaine O'Neal. Would any of those guys have made a big difference? Yeah. The Grizzlies had a skilled big man in Rahim, but they still lacked a good scorer; all they had was a solid frontcourt.

To remedy this they...did nothing until next year, when things started getting freaky. First, they used the fourth pick in the 1997 draft on Antonio Daniels. This is a garbage pick, even in a weak draft. They could have had: Tracy McGrady, Derek Anderson, Brevin Knight, or Stephen Jackson.

Perhaps figuring that Antonio Daniels would be the man to change their team, they signed Bryant Reeves to a 6-year, $65 Million extension. This was a really dumb move. He had been averaging like 16 a game on a very, very bad team, and was just not worth this kind of money. They then traded a first round pick to the Detroit Pistons for Otis Thorpe. That pick eventually became pick number two in the 2003 draft, which could have been used on, oh, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh...

Despite the addition of Otis Thorpe (who they soon traded), the Grizzlies continued to suck, did nothing about it, and got themselves the number two pick in the draft the next year. They drafted Mike Bibby, a great player. Was he really second pick material, though, when they could have had Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, or Paul Pierce? I don't think so.

The pattern developing here is clear: the Grizzlies refused to get a true scorer. They had a point guard, a center, and a power forward, and all of those guys got their points, but there was no one to create pressure from the wings. This team was like the bizarro-Knicks.

Then the team did something that was stupid in many respects. They drafted Steve Francis, a point guard, with the second pick in the draft, and he refused to come. They managed to get a bunch of second-rate players (Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington) and a draft pick in exchange, but there was just a lot of stupidity there. If they had drafted a Shawn Marion, Richard Hamilton, Lamar Odom, or even Wally Szczerbiak, I think it would have made much more sense. Why draft a point guard when one of the only two good players on your team is a point guard?

Still the team continued to suck and still they refused to make moves. They moves they did make were bad; they signed Stephen Jackson but didn't play him and then cut him; They fired an assistant coach named Lawrence Frank.

Because of their lack of movement, the Grizzlies were left to the draft for the third or fourth time, where they again had the second pick (you can see why their ascendancy took so long). They picked up Stromile Swift, a huge bust, and passed on Mike Miller, Desmond Mason, and Quentin Richardson, all guys who could have been the scorer they needed. Did they need a power forward? Not really.

The next move the Grizzlies made moved their star, Mike Bibby, to the Kings for Jason Williams. Why anyone would trade a very good player for a good player with a history of problems is a mystery to me. Anyway, Mike Bibby came within a cat's paw of leading the Kings to the Finals. I'm not sure anyone even remembers Jason Williams being on the Grizz.
At this point, the Grizz had sucked so badly that they had the second and the sixth pick. They drafted Shane Battier (never mind that they could have had Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson, or Zach Randolph). Then, the Grizzlies made a genuine smart move, trading Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jamaal Tinsley for Lorenzen Wright, Brevin Knight, and Pau Gasol. They had finally built a foundation.

Still, there were problems. Someone somehow convinced them to sign Michael Dickerson to a 6-year, $43.3 million dollar contract. The team drafted Drew Gooden when it could have had Amare Stoudemire, Nene, or Chris Wilcox.

The best move the Grizzlies made was hiring old Hubie Brown to coach. He realized that since there wasn't a damn scorer on this team, they ought to all run and use deep lineups, and that's what they did. It worked, because if you're running, who needs a slasher on the wing, right? It was perfect for a team with fundamentals guys (Gooden and Battier) to do the dirty work, a big guy (Gasol) to go to in the post, and a running point guard (Williams).

So why did it all fall apart? Well, they continued what had been a poor record of giving money to the wrong people. They signed James Posey to a 4-year, 22 million dollar contract, Mike Miller to a 6-year extension, Brian Cardinal (!) to a six year, $38 million dollar contract, and Shane Battier to a six year extension. It was like they got so excited to be in the playoffs they were determined to make it last. The final move was signing Pau Gasol for six years. (Why all the six year deals? Three years later, it looks really stupid.)

Problems began when Hubie Brown, who is very, very old, retired. They got rid of Jason Williams and brought in an aging Damon Stoudamire, who subsequently went down for the year. They traded their other blood and guts guy, Shane Battier, for a Gay guy. They left themselves with no point guard, a team that could only succeed under Hubie Brown, and a number of monster contracts that they will pay for for years to come. Now they're the worst team in the league again, and, as my graph shows, all their hard work to overcome bad moves is for naught.


A lot of people think that because of the Clippers' terrible history, they're on the path to sinking to shit again because they are a disappointment this year. There is a lot of ridiculous stuff going on, I will agree, but they still have good coaching and excellent personnel and I don't think they're headed back to the basement (yet). [It is alarming that Corey Maggette has asked to be traded, that the coaches have agreed that he needs to be traded, and that Donald Sterling refuses to trade him because he is "his favorite player". Still, owners have done crazy stuff like this and succeeded nonetheless. {George Steinbrenner once traded a player because he "didn't like the way he left the top button of his uniform undone".}]

The Clippers, in 1995, were getting themselves in to some trouble. They traded the rights to Antonio McDyess for Rodney Rogers (a nice gut-check), and that is after picking him over that Kevin Garnett guy. They did pick up Brent Barry, a decent player.

Their next year's pick was Lorenzen Wright, not a good pick. The team already had a solid frontcourt and needed a scorer. They could have gotten Kobe, Predrag Stojakovic, or Steve Nash. Again, they fell pray to the "we need a big man" syndrome, and did the same thing as the Grizzlies, overlooking their need for a slasher.

Like the Grizzlies, the Clippers spent all year sucking and not doing anything. The next year, they drafted Maurice Taylor, which wasn't terribly objectionable, except that he was not a scorer and the team now needed a point guard and someone who could slash. Malik Sealy was their best option and while I like Malik a lot, he was only good for 14 a night, which does not qualify him as a scorer.

It wouldn't matter, though, because the notoriously cheap Clippers let go of Sealy, leaving them without anyone to do their scoring. Their only semblance of a competant scorer, Brent Barry, was soon traded to the heat for Charles Smith, Ike Austin, and the pick that would become Brian Skinner (what a terrible move).

Of course, the next year, the Clippers would draft the worst first pick ever, Michael Olowokandi, a mountain of crap of a man. Antawn Jamison, Mike Bibby, Vince Carter, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Bonzi Wells, Al Harrington....anyone would have been better than Michael Olowokandi. Who knows what they were thinking. Actually, they were probably thinking "we need to get a great big man since we have a high pick". This doesn't work!

For some reason the Clippers signed Okie-Doke to a 4-year, $15 million dollar contract. Then they sat back made no moves, and watched their team suck. The whole Olowokandi thing was so bad that it might have been the catalyst that jolted the Clippers, forcing them to actually start to make some good moves.

First, they drafted Lamar Odom with the fourth pick in the draft, which was a smart move. They still needed a scorer, and actually got something resembling that by trading for Derek Anderson. Lamar Odom's rookie year was one of hope, but they still needed help.

Jeff McInnis, who was decent at the time was signed to help out at the point guard, and Corey Maggette was picked up for a pick that turned out to be Marcus Williams as well as a couple of others. Now the Clippers had a true, young scorer, a good, versatile forward, and a decent point man. All they lacked was a big guy.

That's where things almost fell apart. The Clippers picked up two players that were almost exactly the same as the guys they already had by drafting Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles. This led to another year of crappiness, which might not have been such a bad thing because it meant they would get the second pick in the draft, Tyson Chandler, who they were able to trade for a great big man, exactly what they needed, in Elton Brand.

This was the move that made them decent. They kept doing smart things, too. They got rid of Darius Miles and brought in Andre Miller, giving themselves a true point guard. They drafted Chris Wilcox. They drafted a decent center, Chris Kaman, in preparation for the loss of Olowokandi, and got a good coach (Mike Dunleavy). Do you see what's happening here? They started making moves rather than relying on the draft, got a good coach, and made sure they had scorers.

The crazy thing is, they kept making good moves. They gained depth by signing Eddie House, Quinton Ross, and Bobby Simmons. They drafted a young point guard out of high school and signed an old one to run the team in the present (Livingston and Cassell). They didn't shove a ton of big contracts in peoples' faces, keep a solid core of players, and keep adding stuff.

They problem is they added too much. They have too much talent to get the ball around, but I think they're just in a period of transition. Once they get Maggette out of there and Cassell gets old, Shaun Livingston will be getting better and Elton Brand will still be a rock. This team will not suck for long, even though they certainly did a good job sucking for a number of years. They followed a very similar pattern to the Grizzlies: they didn't get scorers, and they refused to make moves. They also drafted big men needlesly.

The Raptors are a truly tragic team. They could be a power in the Eastern Conference right now, and they let it slip away. Let's do the the play-by-play:

The Raptors have always done a good job drafting players. Damon Stoudamire was a good pick, and it's always good to have a solid point guard to build the team on. Marcus Camby was also a good pick, giving the Raptors good players at the positions that are hardest to fill.

What the Raptors lacked was....scorers. Damon Stoudamire can still light it up, but he is not the kind of guy you want leading your team in scoring. The Raptors, to be fair, made a decent effort to get one by drafting John Wallace, but he didn't have the talent to make it unless he was hogging the ball. They trotted Doug Christie out there, and he did his job serviceably, but like the Clippers' Malik Sealy, he's just not a scorer.

The Raptors were smart, though, and they drafted Tracy McGrady, looking to the future. Then, they waited, and did nothing, and continued to suck. It was another year before, in a very strange move, they got rid of Damon Stoudamire. I don't know why they did this, and Damon went on to immediate success with the Blazers while the Raptors saddled themselves with Kenny Anderson, Alvin Williams, Gary Trent, and picks that became nobodies. They immediately moved Anderson for Chauncey Billups, which makes this deal seem kind of sensible.

The Raptors then moved Marcus Camby out for Charles Oakley, presuming that their Stoudamire/Camby experiment had to go, I suppose. This was a terrible move, though not as bad as when they traded Chauncey Billups for two first rounders (that would become Jonathan Bender and Morris Peterson).

Fortunately, all these crappy moves put them in the basement, where they did what they were good at, drafting. They got a young Vince Carter and despite lacking a big man or depth, they had a ticket-selling, high-flying, high-scoring motherfucker.

That was it. McGrady and Carter. They started getting better right around the same time, and they should have turned the Raptors into Canada's finest. The Raptors even picked up Antonio Davis to fill out a tough front court, as well as Danny Fortson, and the Junkyard Dog. This team would have been really good. They were in the playoffs and came close to beating the Sixers team that went to the finals. What happened?

Well, they hired Lenny Wilkins, who was not a good coach. They signed both Carter and McGrady to monster extensions. The problem was, they did McGrady as part of a sign and trade, for which they received...Fran Vasquez. Why? Why would anyone let a once-in-a-lifetime player go? I don't understand this.

With Vince Carter as their only scorer, the Raptors went from a great team with tough big guys and two superheros to a team with one scorer and old big guys. Vince was getting hit every night, getting hurt all the time, and the team, as well as Vince Carter, looked bad. His popularity waned, and the Raptors traded him for essentially no one (one of the worst trades of all time).

Now the Raptors are building again, and like they have in the past, are doing so with good draft choices. They may have a genuine scorer in Chris Bosh, but they need another one, and even though they are getting good, are still not at the point they were when they decided to ruin their own team.

What's the moral of all this? If your team sucks, the first thing you should do is find someone to score points. Screw big men, screw point guards, screw everything else. Without a scorer, it's going to be very hard.

The next thing that should be avoided is drafting big men unless they're sure things. With the exception of Pau Gasol, poor big-man drafting absolutely killed these teams.

Finally, don't sign your players long term unless it's to max deals. There are always going to be guys like Bryant Reeves available, and six year contracts are far too risky and committal for a team that already sucks. Spend the money on sure things, like Tracy McGrady.

My favorite team, the Knicks, used to abide by these rules very well until about 1999. In a merry bit of coincidence, they were cast from the upper echelon of NBA teams by the Raptors when the canadian dinasaurs were reaching their Carter-McGrady-fueled peak.

Just another cruel example of the anatomy of a loser.

As always, e-mail me at dontgiveupthebasketballblog@gmail.com

2 comments:

MattG21 said...

Your last paragraph (or so) is a bit of a stretch...McGrady was far from a sure thing coming out of the draft...though they should have kept him -- that was the dumb move. That playoff series (against the Knicks?) was his coming out party and they let him go to Florida...very stupid.

p.s. Oliver Miller isn't the same as Pig Miller. Pig Miller's real name was Anthony Miller. One time SportsCenter showed him playing in a game with a fucking toothpick in his mouth...while starting a fight -- he was a thug motherfucker.

p.p.s. Nice charts.

JimmyValente said...

Shit. I fucked up that Oliver Miller thing.