Metacognition: What does it take for an NBA franchise to be reinvented?


Where is institutional memory held in an NBA organization and what does it take to change it?

Imagine there is a boat. A beautiful wooden clipper ship with tall masts and pristine sails. She leaves the harbor for her maiden voyage, every piece brand new and unweathered. But as the ship begins her trans-oceanic journeys, a rope snaps, a sail rips, a board begins rotting away. Each is replaced but, over the years, things continue to break. Eventually, after many years of sea-faring and repairs, every single piece of the original boat has been replaced. One-by-one, each board has been substituted with a new piece, every bit of rigging has been swapped out for a newer iteration.

The boat still carries the same name. Because each piece was changed out in a one-for-one replacement, it still has the same form, shape and structure. It looks the same, sails the same, creates the same impression of grandeur as it silently slides into port. Physically, no part of the boat that originally left that first harbor for the maiden voyage still exists. And, yet, here it is bobbing on the waves, sails billowing in the wind.

Is it still the same boat?

This thought experiment is known as the Ship of Theseus and it’s fundamentally a question of identity. If the identity of a complex object is held, fundamentally, in its physical components, then the boat at the end of our example is a new thing. But is the identity distributed equally among the parts? Does each piece that’s replaced create a new splinter identity? Or are there just two boats — the original and the new one after the final original piece has been replaced?

And if the boat at the end of our example is not a new thing, then identity has nothing at all to do with physical components. It exists somewhere else, in the form or function, in the history of the object or in the memories of those who use it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Ship of Theseus lately, especially as I watch teams like the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers drop out of the playoffs and begin the necessary process of identity tweaking and purposeful reinvention.

The Ship of Theseus paradox, or at least the example I used above, is concerned with the preservation of identity. Teams like the Rockets and 76ers, as they plan for the offseason and how to come back better next season, are wandering into this maze from the other direction. Each may have followed their present course to its natural conclusion, gone as far as they can with the identities they’ve been carefully building for years.

It would be impossible, in the span of a single offseason, to replace every physical piece of their organizations. So how do they pick and choose? What pieces need to be swapped out for them to truly make themselves into something other than what they have been?

What does an NBA team have to change to create a different identity?

Not every NBA team is searching for a new identity every season. For some, it’s about nurturing organic growth, waiting for the water and sun they’ve been feeding their young players to blossom. For others, it’s adding a piece here or there, small upgrades to maximize the current model. For an unfortunate few, it’s not about changing identity, it’s about simply summoning a baseline approximation from organizational chaos.

But the Rockets and 76ers, definitely seem like candidates for soul-searching and structural vision-questing. The 76ers have been walking in the same direction for nearly seven years. They began the journey with optimism and purpose but, for at least the last two years, seem to have been blindly charging ahead without much consideration for where they actually were or how much actual distance there was between themselves and their destination. They look up now to find themselves saddled with a pair of on-court leaders who may not be able to work together, and carrying the excess weight of a $200 million commitment to Al Horford and Tobias Harris.

The 76ers have already fired head coach Brett Brown and publicly talked about restructuring their front office, adding a President of Basketball Operations to assist general manager Elton Brand with decisions on personnel. There have also been rumors that Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Alex Rucker and several other analytics-savvy front office staffers may be replaced in favor of “basketball minds.” And then there is the increasing volume of buzz about Mike D’Antoni as the next head coach, with the assumption of sweeping trades to remake the roster in his preferred, up-tempo image.

In theory, the 76ers are exploring change in all of the places we’d assume a basketball team’s identity might live — the coaching staff who make strategic decisions, the personnel who execute them and the executives who facilitate within a larger vision. But what if change is not made in all three areas together? Or what if changes are made, but pull in opposing directions?

One iteration of the rumors from last week is that the 76ers might hire Mike D’Antoni in the hopes of luring James Harden in free agency two years from now. It’s a boldly, perhaps naively, optimistic idea. And from the outside, it rests on the short-sighted understanding of D’Antoni himself as a singular crucible of identity. Two of D’Antoni’s former teams — the Suns and Rockets — are strongly associated with his preferred style of basketball and the retconning assigns that style primarily to his direction.

But the Seven Seconds or Less Suns became who they were because they also had Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. And an owner and front office willing to commit to this vision every time an opportunity to upgrade the roster came, they doubled-down — when Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson left, they went and got Raja Bell and Tim Thomas. Instead of looking for traditional big man depth, they experimented with Boris Diaw. They took a two-year detour with Shaquille O’Neal but rectified it with Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley.

The Rockets took things to an even great extreme — calling all-in on their structural identity with this season’s trade of Clint Capela for Robert Covington. Whether D’Antoni himself personally advocated for the move is irrelevant. In Houston, as in Phoenix, all the different physical pieces were aligned with a holistic vision, even if the details were occasionally muddied.

If the 76ers want change, D’Antoni makes sense because he’s different than Brett Brown. But he won’t single-handedly change their identity. Not if the front office is being reshaped with basketball minds (traditionalists generally seem to have less affection for D’Antoni’s style). Not if the people making personnel decision still think the Shaq Suns were a perfect Venn diagram of strength and speed. Not if the long-term plan is to wait two years for a then-33-year-old shooting guard to maybe choose them in free agency. Not if the unavoidable roster turnover is built around simply separating Simmons and Embiid, picking a favorite and sticking to it.

The Rockets, in moving on from D’Antoni, may find themselves in an even deeper hole. More than any other roster in the league (or, honestly, recent memory) their roster is stylistically inflexible. They are built around James Harden’s strengths and in a way that encourages him to play to the extremes. It seems like Daryl Morey is safe for now and the Rockets arrived at this point because the quantitative evidence his front office uses to make decisions saw this extreme as the best way to maximize their on-court assets. Simply plugging in a new coach with a new system, isn’t just about admitting they may have been wrong (which is almost certainly less of a barrier than many assume). It’s about feeding the same information into the same decision-making systems and trying to find a different conclusion.

Both organizations are in dry dock right now, hoisted on risers, being carefully inspected and waiting for the real work to start. When they are back on the water, in January or whenever the next season starts, they will inevitably be different, by necessity and intention. But will those differences, the swapping of coaches and front office titles, the roster tinkering and system implementation be enough to make something meaningfully new and different? If you want to circle back to the Ship of Theseus and how various disciplines have explored the paradox, you could find yourself in four dimensions, tugging at the fabric of time and space. I don’t have answer that satisfying or complex, I guess I’m just going to watch the boats and see where they go.

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Metacognition is an irregular column series, thinking about how we think about basketball. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.