Building a Contender

Photo: Streeter Lecka via Getty Images SportPhoto: Streeter Lecka via Getty Images Sport

Becoming a contender in the NBA isn’t an easy task by any means as only a fraction of the league’s 30 teams have ever won a title. 14 of the league’s 37 possible titles since the 1976 merger have been won by either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics. In all of the NBA’s history, those two teams account for 33 combined championships. All in all, only 17 of the 30 teams now in existence have ever won an NBA championship. Nearly half of the league has never won basketball’s highest award.

For the most part, most of the NBA championships have been won by teams from larger cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Detroit. Smaller markets, like Golden State and San Antonio, have won as well, but only the Spurs are considered a true “small” market in today’s NBA.

This doesn’t mean that winning in a smaller market is impossible; bigger markets winning more titles signifies that smaller markets, like Salt Lake City, have to be more patient when it comes to building a contending NBA team.

Look at the Portland Trail Blazers for example. Way back in 1955, Harry Glickman petitioned the NBA to put a team in Portland, along with putting one in Los Angeles. Glickman was the driving force behind putting an NBA team in Portland, and his efforts underscore how important patience is in the sports business. Glickman spent 15 years working on the deal before the NBA Board of Governors approved it.

Finally, in 1970, the Blazers came into existence as an expansion team. They went 29-53 their first year of play. 1971-72 saw them go 18-64, followed by 21-62 in the 1972-73 season. After a 27-55 season in 1973-74, the team looked to be in disarray. Portland had had three separate head coaches from 1970-74, including a certain Lenny Wilkens, but still couldn’t find a winning formula.

Portland also received two number-one overall draft picks in 1972 and 1974. In ‘72, the team selected LaRue Martin, and then in ‘74, the Blazers drafted Bill Walton with the number one overall pick.

Walton, a Hall-of-Famer and one of the best to ever play, didn’t just waltz into Rip City and fix the place overnight. His rookie season of 1974-75 saw the team go 38-44, followed by a 37-45 mark in 1975-76. After the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, Portland hired Jack Ramsay as head coach and drafted Maurice Lucas in the ABA dispersal draft.

Those changes, coupled with all the hardships, losing seasons, and the coaching carousel, finally paid off for the Blazers. After six years of sub-.500 seasons, Portland finished with their first winning record in franchise history – 49-33 – and went on to win the NBA championship.

The 1977 championship is still the lone title the Blazers have won, but it illustrates a great point. Two number one draft picks, a future Hall-of-Fame coach in Wilkens and a player named to the 50 Greatest All-Time Players list in Walton still took the better part of a decade to win a championship.

That title was won in an NBA that existed nearly 40 years ago and things have changed quite a lot. Big men aren’t the focal point of the offenses anymore, but rather speedy guards and deadly outside shooting. The NBA has grown as well, turning into a multi-billion dollar corporation with a brand that’s globally iconic. Stars such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have taken the simple game of basketball and turned it into an appealing pastime for the entire world.

With the global sensation basketball has become, money has become an ever-important aspect. On the surface, smaller markets don’t seem to be able to compete with larger teams, San Antonio being the exception, due to the lack of money needed to sign and, more importantly, re-sign, big-name free agents who are capable of taking a team to basketball’s biggest stage.

However, a more modern example of patience exists in the same vein of what the Blazers experienced in the 70s.

The Golden State Warriors might be the most tortured franchise in the NBA. They own three NBA championships, but missed out on players like Larry Bird during drafts, and had a penchant for trading away any players who made a lick of difference on the court. Bill Simmons wrote a stellar piece about Golden State’s management problems over on Grantland a few years ago.

Starting in 2002-03, when the Warriors won 38 basketball games, the team didn’t win more than 40 games until the 2006-07 season. Even then, Golden State was only 42-40. They won 48 games in 2007-08, then dropped back off to 29 wins just the following season.

The 2009 draft saw the Warriors select Stephen Curry.  Curry is now a scoring sensation, and was obviously the right draft choice, but he didn’t change things right off the bat either. Curry’s rookie season only saw Golden State win 26 basketball games.

Four years after being drafted, and after a terrible 20-win 2011-12 season, the Warriors finally posted a winning record again behind Curry. Golden State currently owns the six seed in the Western Conference playoff race, and the franchise is obviously rejuvenated in a way it hasn’t been since its last championship in 1975.

These two examples illustrate the value of patience in professional sports, and these are only two stories from the NBA. Any league has stories that exemplify a long time of waiting for a shot at the sport’s highest honor.

If Golden State had decided to deal Curry after his ankle injuries, blow up their team, and start over, it’s safe to say that they wouldn’t be in the thick of this year’s playoff race. Golden State stuck with players they’d invested in, put up with injuries, and now their investment is paying off.

On the flip side of this argument, though, knowing when to restart and rebuild is also paramount. Utah is actually a great example of this. After dealing Deron Williams for Derrick Favors and Devin Harris, the Jazz were faced with a crossroads. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, stellar players in their own right, were still on contract in Salt Lake City. Those teams had a definite ceiling, and once the contracts of the two big players were up, Utah began stockpiling draft picks, young talent, and cap space in order for a rebuild.

The Jazz realized that sticking with their current roster of a few years ago wasn’t going to get them to a championship and a rebuild was necessary. Almost a season into the rebuilding process, Utah hasn’t shown a wealth of improvement, frustrating more than a few fans.

To that, I say look again at Portland and Golden State. Even after those teams drafted fabulous players, they still faced years of losing, growing, and development before they were legitimate contenders. In the Warriors’ case, they’re still trying to break into the upper echelon of the Western Conference.

Rebuilding will take time, and it definitely requires patience on everyone’s part – including the fans. Understanding that a champion isn’t built overnight is incredibly important. That said, Utah’s future looks great – they have no bad contracts, tons of cap room, and the ability to grow.

Watching what the NBA team in Salt Lake City becomes in the next few years is going to be very entertaining indeed.

Posted in Featured Writers