In today’s NBA, front offices either hunt for stars or future assets to build upon. While more teams adopt the all-or-nothing approach, alienation could be disseminating among the players.
Nobody builds a team organically anymore. Assembling kernels of young talent, watering those seeds over the course of multiple seasons, trudging through the quag of tribulations, then harvesting the fruit of that labor became the exception and not the rule.
Nowadays, you either want a queue of blue-chip assets or a lineup of all-stars. But the fastest way to the latter is burning through the former. The most powerful things to wield in today’s NBA are draft picks and cap space. A deep collection of assets provides hope for better tomorrows. It’s the beacon off in the distance you can always see but never touch. They’re figments of imaginary providence, representations of prospective ascendence with no fungible value.
If a team is fortunate enough to obtain that treasure trove of endless potential, the clock starts ticking. After draft picks turn into real, live players, they’re treated like used cars just driven off the lot. They need to produce immediately or get labeled as busts. If they do well enough to get paid on their next contract, they turn into cap-clogging sunk costs — unless they’re among the handful of elite superstars in the league.
Fanbases get sold on limitless promise until that idea gets repackaged to other fanbases for their already-developed stars who didn’t deliver titles or outlived their usefulness. This sequence turned into the lifecycle of the league, exchanging defined apogee for uncharted possibility and vice versa. It’s the get-rich-quick scheme of NBA team building.
It’s more about what could be than what is, but it’s also about instant gratification. In other words, it’s confusing. But that duality guides front offices in the present landscape. While the championship-or-bust #rangzz culture produced this all-or-nothing mindset, it leaves a lot of residual room in the middle. It also marginalizes a lot of players.
Professional sports is a business of millionaires run by a group of billionaires and getting traded or rumored to get traded comes with the territory. But it’s not a fantasy league. Having your name bandied about can’t be good for morale or team chemistry. The struggling Lakers are a good example. Half the team was thrown into a failed trade offer for Anthony Davis before the deadline and they can barely keep their head above .500 since.
Regardless of circumstance, these are still people with emotions and emotions drive decisions. It’s probably why more players are taking matters into their own hands. While requesting trades is nothing new, the abundance in which they’re occurring — from Davis to Marquese Chriss — certainly feels high. Maybe if players weren’t treated purely as contracts or chips to cash in, they’d probably want to stay longer and show loyalty to their teams. And for all the hand-wringing about player autonomy, this is really only a reality for the handful of players at the top and average players are increasingly just chess pieces to be moved by both front offices and the stars who are seeking to out-leverage them.
In all the perpetual upheaval and constant pursuit of superstars also lies the underutilized benefit of team stability.
Roster continuity — defined by Basketball Reference as the percentage of a team’s regular season minutes filled by players from the previous season — generally trended downward leaguewide over time. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, continuity peaked at 77.4% in the 1991-92 season. Last year, it hit 61 percent. Peering deeper at the continuity chart, a positive correlation between higher continuities and team success becomes clear. Of, course some of that is the nature of the beast. Good teams don’t seek change. Bad ones do.
Earlier this decade though, teams realized jogging on the treadmill of mediocrity was the great inefficiency and if you can’t contend for a title, it’s pragmatic to rebuild. That’s why tearing everything down became so en vogue in recent years. But rebuilds don’t always pan out. Or they take way longer than expected. While you don’t want to aspire to mediocrity, there’s valor in perennially competing and established competence — even without winning a championship–– brings value.
What gets forgotten in turning over rosters on the quest for perfection is when teams grow together the fans grow with them.
Take five seconds. Think about your favorite version of your favorite team. I’m willing to bet it’s a group you grew up watching. A group that gelled over several seasons. You became familiar with them and could point out a laundry list of pet plays, individual tendencies and proclivities. That gelling process and fan familiarity only happen through time.
The 1990s Knicks immediately come to mind, a group that gets waxed poetic. Despite never winning a title, they were always tough and always contended. They formed a bond with the city and its fans. Patrick Ewing shone at the forefront, but players like Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and John Starks practically got canonized for their seasons of hard work together.
Fans want their favorite teams to win. But they also want a vested interest in that team. For that to happen, a sea change needs to take place between players and general management.
If the current system of increased expendability drives player restlessness, then it’s a system in need of repair. Perhaps the next wave of smart front offices will abandon star-chasing and opt for keeping their core intact. Continuity precedes chemistry and chemistry leads to winning. Instead of asset stockpiling for eventual trades, embarking on long-haul development and sustained team-building could emerge as the new efficiency goldrush.