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What is the Formula for NBA Success?

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

By: Mike Patt

Original Date: 9/30/22

Hello sports fans, and welcome back to the IE Sports Radio Blog. Every sports league functions differently in terms of salary planning, roster building, drafting etc. These different functions and attributes lead to unique ways of building a successful team. In the NFL, for example, the usual goal is to get a strong quarterback and build the roster around his skill-set. The NBA has seen their formula change time and time again over the years. Recently, we saw the rise of the big three triggered by the Boston Celtics in 2007 and then copied by the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, and others over the past 15 years. But I raise the question; does this formula still work?

The last time a true big three won a championship was the 2016 Cavaliers with Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Some may argue that this past season’s champion, the Golden State Warriors, fit that description. I would argue that the contributions of Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins made it a more complete team effort than a superstar carry. As we look across the NBA landscape, not many teams have a traditional big three (three superstars and a series of role players who will rarely if ever have to lead the team). Even those that do have some questions, such as the Lakers and Anthony Davis’ health/Russell Westbrook’s inefficiency.

There are a few reasons why this formula is difficult to create or sustain for many teams. The first challenge is money. Many of today’s superstars make well in excess of $40 million per year (19 players to be exact, with another dozen at least $35 million). Bringing three guys together puts you over $120 million in salary, and even though there are ways to eclipse the cap, it is difficult to collect quality role players with than much money tied up. It is also difficult for most teams to convince one superstar to sign/stay with them, let alone three. Then there is the difficulty of getting three egos to mesh together, and finding the right coach/front office to manage said egos.

So if the big three does not work, then what is the approach your time should take? Here are the main building processes I have seen teams utilizing recently that may help guide franchises in the right direction:

The Big Two:

The most natural adjustment is to go from three superstars down to two. Keeping your squad at two superstars allows extra spending money to build a reasonable core around the big two without having to go far above the luxury tax (if at all). Historically, big twos like Karl Malone and John Stockton with the Utah Jazz have been successful for long periods of time. Recently, the LA Lakers won a title with Lebron James and Anthony Davis (yes, I count the bubble), so we can see this works. Several teams are going this route currently, such as the New Jersey Nets with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the LA Clippers with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

Superstar with two Wing men (The Milwaukee Special):

This is a tricky one to execute for most teams. The breakdown is self-explanatory; you have one superstar joined by two players who are not quite elite, but good enough to make some plays and support the main guy. I name this the Milwaukee special for Giannis and his complimentary partners Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. One of the issues is that in order for this to succeed, the lead player has to be durable and carry a heavy load most nights, like a Giannis or LeBron. The wing men need to come at the right price and be okay playing in someone’s shadow. Otherwise, the team will have to do some creative maneuvering of the salary cap.

The Whole Team Approach (The Golden State Special):

Of course there is always this choice. Screw the salary cap, and screw how much penalty you will have to pay. Figure out how to break the cap, and save a portion of your stadium ticket sales to pay the penalty. There are a few concerns that come with this approach. First, it is difficult to find compatible personalities to minimize drama. Second, the expectations for a team with stacked talent would be extraordinarily high. Any type of falter or failure would be met with criticism and excess attention. This can be tough to manage, so the right leaders need to be in place. The Golden State team with Kevin Durant would be the best example, and clearly that worked well.

Just Draft Everyone:

This last approach is relatively new to the group. It’s roots are grounded in “The Process”, a phrase coined by the Philadelphia 76ers a few years back when they were tanking pretty much every year to get the best players available in the draft. Their level of tanking caused lottery rules to change, but then a different variation came to the forefront. Now, the approach is to trade your players for maximum draft capital and start anew. The Oklahoma City Thunder are attempting this, with literally an entire roster of first round picks over the next several years. The Utah Jazz are also on this route, having gained an extra seven picks from trades this past off-season.

Golden State is the only team over the past decade to achieve success with a squad they mostly drafted. Even in their case, you can point to the free agent arrivals of Kevin Durant and Andrew Wiggins as reasons to exempt them from this category. Still, it is a method if you have the talent to trade and acquire draft capital. Let me know in the comments what you think is the best way for an NBA team to build a sustainable championship roster. Or, with the fluidity of free agency, do you think sustainable success will become a thing of the past? Thank you all for reading, and we will see you next time on IE Sports Radio; your direct feed for ALL that is sports.

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