Assuming the favored Heat beat the Celtics tomorrow and advance to the Finals, it will add to the mountain of evidence suggesting the best way to build a championship team is to acquire elite players.
Yeah, I know: radical statement. But before you lump me with Captain Obvious, remember it’s at odds with the “Detroit model” currently favored by the Hawks.
My view is that there are two kinds of NBA teams–those with top 10 players, and those without–and everything an organization does should be in an attempt to be the former rather than the latter. The Hawks’ view is that they can build a team with three not-quite-elite talents and keep knocking at the door until they become championship contenders.
That’s assuming the Hawks do have aspirations of winning an NBA championship, something that’s not always clear. The franchise often seems more preoccupied with dinging its critics and demanding credit for its successes (and there are many) than raising the bar. That perception is fueled by superficial-but-telling tendencies (such as statements boasting about making the playoffs) and the embrace of a team-building philosophy that rarely leads to a championship.
In a league where superstars contend for titles, the Hawks have tried to do it without one.
“It is going to be very hard for us to get that MVP candidate unless you pick one or two [in the draft],” Rick Sund said last summer. “Or unless you happen to have … free-agent money, to get one in free agency. It’s going to be tough, so we are going to have to do it the hard way.”
The Detroit model certainly is that.
There have been 62 NBA championship teams since 1950, and 57 those teams placed at least one player on one of the top two All-NBA teams in the season they won it. In fact, only 15 of those champions failed to have at least one player voted first team All-NBA (a third five-man All-NBA team was added starting with the 1988-89 season).
Furthermore, only 10 of 62 finals runner-up teams failed to have at least one player considered among the top 10 in the league. That means just 15 of 124 teams to make the finals — 12 percent — did so without a player voted to be among the league’s 10 best.
The Heat or Thunder would add to those totals while the Celtics would not. And chances are if Boston advances it’s because Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce once again rekindle their form from the recent past and/or Rajon Rondo plays to the level that has him on track to reach top 10 status.
The Hawks tried to do build a contender the way the Thunder have done it. They executed the first part of the plan by getting bad enough to get a chance at a high draft pick and lucky enough to land one. The second and most important part, drafting the right players, didn’t go so well.
Making the wrong pick hurts, but it happens. Worse is that instead of cutting their losses and turning Marvin Williams et al into assets they could use to take a shot at acquiring an elite player, the Hawks doubled down. And instead of using Joe Johnson to acquire more assets (draft picks, relatively cheap and productive players, cap space) that hey could parlay into a top 10 player, the Hawks gave him the richest deal in the league.
Now the Hawks aren’t projected to have real cap space until after next season, by which time Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia could be gone, Johnson will be a year older and they’ll have no more than four players under contract. Tough to get an elite talent and complementary players with $15 million or so in cap space.
I understand the calls for a new coach as the answer with this group of Hawks. Sometimes, though, I think that’s the most popular thing because it’s easier to change coaches than acquire a top 10 player. I’d rather have the elite talent–Scott Brooks just beat Gregg Popovich and I’ll go out on a limb and say that had more to do with OKC’s two top 10 players to San Antonio’s one than any Thunder coaching advantage.
The Hawks could try to trade for an established top 10 player. There’s precedent for this with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving (who was actually “sold” to the 76ers by the Nets), Tiny Archibald, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley and Jason Kidd.
Going that route would almost certainly mean the Hawks would have to trade away part of the proverbial “core” and perhaps take a step back in the short term. My feeling is this is less likely to happen if Sund returns as GM. After a season in which injuries legitimately hurt their chances to advance in the playoffs, the Hawks under Sund probably would stay the course.
That’s a defensible position insofar as it keeps a good team intact. It’s not a proven plan as far as contending for a championship, unless you believe Johnson, Josh Smith, or Al Horford can be top 10 players next season. Essentially, the best way for the Hawks to become true championship contenders is for one of their players to be good enough to transcend the Detroit model.
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat