The Weekside: Many NBA teams would be best off trading for a plan

Dec 16, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks general manager Phil Jackson looks on during a stop in play against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 16, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks general manager Phil Jackson looks on during a stop in play against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /

NBA teams have spent the past week on the phone trying to make overhauls and tweaks to their roster. While no big names have exchanged hands yet, the final hours before last year’s trade deadline turned to chaos as deal after deal poured into the league office for approval in the waning moments.

It has been a hard trade deadline to predict. The salary cap will have an unprecedented spike this summer, jumping by at least $20 million and perhaps more like $25 million. That means over half the league will have huge sums of cash to spend in free agency, albeit on just a few players. With that opportunity looming, it makes sense that some teams would rather wait it out. Why give up something in a trade now when you will get the chance to sign lots of players this summer?

Front offices may be waiting to re-make their team in the offseason rather than at the trade deadline. But regardless of when they do it, that has become a constant for many in this league: Remaking your team.

Of course everyone wants to sign a big-name star that can change the fate of the franchise, but we have seen it more and more in the coaching realm in recent years. The coaching carousel has reached comical proportions. It has become the go-to solution to fix any problem.

Can’t win more than 20 games? Fire your coach. Can’t attract free agents. Fire the coach. Can’t make it past the second round of the playoffs? Coach gotta go.

And of course, each coach brings in a new system and the need for different personnel to match his style of play. So then it’s time to overhaul the roster.

But what if that doesn’t work out? Well, just fire that coach, bring in another one, and look for new players again. Rinse and repeat, while going through more self-reinventions than a college freshmen.

Making drastic moves isn’t always wrong.

The Golden State Warriors canned Mark Jackson after a 50-win season. Some balked. Then Steve Kerr came in, Steph Curry transformed into perhaps the best player we’ve ever seen on a basketball court, and they ran away with the title. Now they’re about to do it again.

So, yes, of course some coaching changes have been utter success stories, shrewd moves that have turned bad teams good and good teams great. And when the game changes — as it is doing now moving towards small ball — a team would be silly to stay the course with leadership and personnel unfit to evolve. The Memphis Grizzlies are one team grappling with that right now. They seems stuck in a past era and might need to be rebuilt from the ground up rather than tweaked in order to catch up to 2016.

Plenty of coach firings, however, just show the lack of strategy in an organization. The moves themselves are always defensible — sometimes sensible — but the need for so many highlight a leaguewide sickness.

Many teams have no plan. They lack culture and rather than trying to put forth any semblance of strategy, they enter into a never-ending churn of remaking themselves just to have something to sell fans. They mistake activity with progress.

What in the world are the Phoenix Suns? What about that organization adheres to any logical consistency? The same goes for the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Orlando Magic. Then there are the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets, overseen by meddling owners who poke and prod at their franchises with sticks either out of boredom or a misguided idea that they understand how a team should be run.

Even some good teams — the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Chicago Bulls — seem much less stable and organized than you would expect. With enough talent, any team can win but it’s always odd to watch a franchise do so in spite of itself. In fairness, the Thunder tried a similar gambit to what the Warriors did in going away from Scott Brooks and trying to install Billy Donovan. The returns have been good, not great, so far, however, so the directional change (even if the previous system was flawed) now looks like some sort of desperate change intended to impress and retain Kevin Durant.

On the other hand, we are seeing a lot of sane operating throughout the league now, too.

That may be why the dysfunction stands out so much. More teams appear are coming around on the idea that having an organizational strategy and approach to doing things can be a competitive advantage. There is no substitute for having great players if you want to win a title. That’s just the reality in a sport where the top players are so much better than the average ones and only five guys take the court at a time. But stable franchises with a plan and direction are proving the value of this philosophy.

The Boston Celtics gave Brad Stevens, a man who had never coached an NBA game in his life, a six-year contract. With that decision, Danny Ainge said right there that he was handing over the reins to Stevens. He believed and trusted in how the former Butler University coach approached the sport. He thought it would work and has watched the new coach come in an establish a way of doing things on the court that makes them better than the sum of their parts. Now the Celtics are overachieving in a way few expected — a way I certainly didn’t expect — when looking at their unimpressive collection of talent.

The Dallas Mavericks have trusted in Rick Carlisle and their front office in a similar way over the years. And all they do is win games year in and year out by putting a good team on the floor. Dirk Nowitzki’s age and some other personnel moves have precluded the Mavs from again contending to make the Finals, but it says a lot that they can miss out on signing DeAndre Jordan last summer and, at least to a degree, misallocate their free agent resources on Chandler Parsons and still be a good team.

The Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers are cut from this cloth as well. Both were expected to struggle this season. But both, under the capable, level-headed direction of Neil Olshey/Terry Stotts and Larry Bird/Frank Vogel, are going to make the playoffs despite being in the middle of a major transition. After losing their cores, neither needed to become 20-win teams for multiple seasons and force fans to suffer through awful nights of basketball before putting a quality squad back on the floor.

The San Antonio Spurs are of course the dream. In Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, they have the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady of the NBA, always winning 50 games, always in the mix for a title, always attracting high-caliber players.

Having a functional organization and a plan won’t win you a ring.

Other than changing coaches, the Houston Rockets have been another hallmark of consistency when it comes to approach. It got them to the Western Conference Finals last season, but now the team seems to be back into asset-sales mode, which in this case is the culture.

The Milwaukee Bucks also appeared to have set themselves on a nice course, bringing in Jason Kidd to run a system while collecting an array of long, athletic players who could thrive under the right leadership. It’s hard to say why, but it simply hasn’t worked.

Regardless of labeling individual situations as successes and failures, though, having an approach just has to be better. Treating a team, from the front office to the coaching staff to the roster, like a fantasy squad where major changes are the norm and nothing is constant, has more flaws than benefits. It might work on occasion — the 2008 Celtics and 2011 Heat have rings to prove that — but you give fans nothing to hang their hat on, nothing to care about other than the guys currently in uniform. And moreover there is simply no way to replicate any success you do find.

This is why, for all the jokes and memes, the Knicks recent moves can be viewed as encouraging.

The Derek Fisher saga and rumors suggest that Phil Jackson made a misguided hire, and firing anybody with so many years and so much money left on their contract screams ineptitude. But on the other hand, Jackson has a plan.

Should an NBA team be trying to steadfastly adhere to this specific plan — running The Triangle — as Phil is doing? That’s debatable. But it is a strategy with a foundation in basketball philosophy, and that has become rare in a league where half the teams seem to lack an idea other than “Let’s try to get Hall of Famers.”

It remains to be seen whether the Knicks Triangle plan will more closely follow the Popovich path, the Stevens route, the Houston roller coaster, the “Good Job, Good Effort” results of the Bucks or something else. And perhaps this all comes crashing down in another two seasons when team owner James Dolan jump back into the mix, trades Kristaps Porzingis for a 35-year-old LeBron, and turns the Knicks back into something closer than the Kings or the Nets.

The Knicks have a plan though. The Knicks!!!

That’s something I wasn’t sure I would ever see again — and it has to serve as a wakeup call to other franchises in the league.

Words With Friends

This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.

1. Blake Griffin will face scrutiny well beyond the trade deadline
by Michael Lee, The Vertical

Griffin opened himself to a level of scrutiny that goes beyond his postseason failures, injury history or any flaws in his gradually diversifying game. Until his broken right hand fully heals and he serves the four-game suspension that came as a result of the fight with Testi, Griffin will continue to have his judgment, focus and maturity questioned. The fight has clouded his future with the franchise and made it reasonable to ponder Griffin continuing his career in another uniform.

2. Amid All-Star festivities, Wall, Melo, Cousins not exactly in a party mood
by Ken Berger, CBS Sports

Annually, All-Star weekend is a showcase for a disgruntled star who is approaching free agency and/or looking to force a trade to a new team. We had the Dwight Howard All-Star experience, the Carmelo All-Star experience, and so on. Now, you have three All-Stars with multiple years left on their contracts on teams that aren’t winning anything anytime soon. It’s enough to make a frustrated star wonder when it’s time to start contemplating his future … “The way my season’s going, I’m happy with the way I’m playing,” Wall said. “But I’m not happy with the way my team’s losing.” Welcome to the club. On one hand, it’s an exclusive one — the 24 best basketball players in the world at this moment, getting ready to showcase their talents on the world stage. On the other hand, some All-Stars are having a better weekend than others.

3. Point-guard purge: Players share their 2015 trade deadline experience
by Jake Fischer, Sports Illustrated

Ramon Sessions laid in his bed rubbing sleep out of his eyes on the morning of Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, when the phone rang. “You don’t need to go to practice,” Sessions’s former agent Jared Karnes told him. It was barely 9 a.m. on the west coast and the Sacramento Kings had traded Sessions to the Washington Wizards for Andre Miller. The swap was one of 11 trades on a day that saw a record 37 players moved ahead of the 2015 trade deadline. Over a third of the traded players were point guards, with 11 ball-handlers shipped literally minutes before the 3 p.m. buzzer sounded. In advance of Thursday’s trade deadline, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the wild purge of point guards in 2015.

4. Cowboy Way: Dirk still loving the ride
by Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated

Unlike Bryant, Nowitzki has no interest in a farewell tour. “I don’t want people to high-five me everywhere I go or make this a big deal about me,” he said. “What [Derek] Jeter did or what the closer, Mariano Rivera, did—every ballpark you get some gifts, you know, sausages in Milwaukee?” Nowitzki shook his head, shifting onto one elbow. “No chance I’d ever do that. I’m not the guy who will say, ‘This is my last year.’ ” He paused. “When I’m gone, I’m gone.”

5. Do Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside fit into the Heat’s future?
by Tom Ziller, SB Nation

Some wild team is going to throw wild money at Whiteside. Riley must be thinking bigger: Dwight Howard, Al Horford, DeMarcus Cousins (who will not be a free agent, but hey you never know). That’s what drives all this trade talk around Whiteside. You can’t imagine Riley paying to keep him this summer, and you can’t imagine Riley letting such a nice asset escape without compensation. It’s a pickle.

What to Watch

San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 pm

It was the shot Chris Paul needed to make. So often throughout his career — fairly or not — he had been criticized for coming up short. For not doing quite enough. For making a mistake down the stretch. That’s why the shot was so big.

Danny Green was guarding him too closely unconscionably far out. Nearly at half-court, CP3 shook Danny Green like nothing, likely taking off on his foray to towards the rim earlier than he wanted. But the time was right. What was Green doing?

The top-of-the-key pick and roll with Blake Griffin wasn’t even needed. Paul had the corner and Green wasn’t catching up. Tim Duncan knew it, abandoning Blake to try, in vain in turns out, to get in Chris Paul’s way. But he didn’t fully commit, noticing how Green was hustling to catch up and letting the younger, quicker defender try to stop Paul.

Instead, Chris was the one who stopped, in a split second going from full speed to standstill with no early warning in a way that only he and a few other ball-handlers in history can. It was Maverick in Top Gun: Hit the airbreaks and he’ll fly right by.

Green was lost. From the soles of his sneakers to the tendons in his legs to the synapses firing in his brain, he could not pause motion like Paul.

Duncan challenges the point guard’s shot but it didn’t matter. Chris Paul had already smoked his defender and he tossed up an off-balance shot softly off the glass and through the cylinder.

With the score tied and 1.0 second remaining in a Game 7 against the defending champs, CP3 hit the biggest shot of his life. The Los Angeles faithful lost their mind. The lowly Clippers — a laughingstock of an organization just one year removed from topping its historically embarrassing performance by making international headlines by having its racist owner forcibly removed — had hopped on Chris Paul’s back to dethrone what has been the model franchise in all of team sports for nearly two decades.

Them being the Clippers, however, it didn’t last.

Mere weeks later, seemingly on their way to the fight of their lives against the surging Warriors, Los Angeles collapsed just like the Clippers should. They coughed up a 19-point lead to the Rockets in Game 6 of the second round while getting outscored 40-15 in the fourth quarter.

It was a fitting embarrassment for the most embarrassing of franchises.

On a personal level, that ending tainted Paul’s game winner. Even in a postseason featuring his greatest moment of glory, the end result was once again something critics could use to discredit his talent.

It might not be fair. But that’s sports.

And now here we are back again, with the two teams back to their expected corners. The Clippers are without their star forward because he broke his hand trying to beat up an equipment manager and the Spurs are a historically great powerhouse that is still somehow flying under the radar (because #StephStuff).

This is just the regular season, but each team has returned to its seemingly preordained place in the league. Not even the best point guard since Magic Johnson can save one side while the other just continues to outclass its peers no matter how many times it changes its cast of characters.