Here is what the Washington Wizards got from their all-out pursuit of Kevin Durant: back in 2014 it got them David Adkins—who coached Durant in high school—as a player development assistant. This is significant because the Wizards have been pretty bad, to put it gently, at developing talent over the past, um, decades, and so player development personnel should generally be hired for reasons other than fairly obscure links to future free agents.
Here is something else it got them: in the 2015 draft it got them Kelly Oubre, who bonded with Durant during two summers at the Kevin Durant Skills Challenge held annually in D.C. I like Oubre, he may turn out to be a fine player, and I’m glad the Wizards selected him. It is inescapable, though, that they moved around in the draft to get him, sacrificed future assets, and passed on players at positions of genuine need. Bobby Portis comes to mind, especially as the Wizards have now given a $64 million contract to a backup center who is old enough that he cannot be a long-term building block.
Here is another bounty of the all-out pursuit: it got them a 2015-16 roster filled with 11 players on expiring contracts. Whether you believe that fact alone accounts for the regression of the Wizards during the regular season and failure to make the playoffs, this point is beyond debate: the Wizards did regress, and badly, and did so with a roster of guys picked not for their excellence or suitability, but for their availability on one-year contracts. This is how they wound up in a situation where they could say with a straight face that their chances were hurt by Alan Anderson’s prolonged recovery from ankle surgery, when his impending ankle surgery was both known before he signed his deal and was a factor in why he was stuck signing a one-year deal in the first place.
Here is another reality of the Durant pursuit: the Wizards opened the season with Kris Humphries listed as a starter, and testing out a whole new style of play with which he’d had virtually no prior experience. Whether you believe Humphries was the intended starter or not is irrelevant: he was one of only two options, the other being Jared Dudley, who was signed despite needing back surgery that would certainly keep him from playing right away, and who was summarily returned to the bench late in the season when the Wizards acquired Markieff Morris out of sheer desperation.
Here is something else it got them: a frustrated John Wall, who has come to believe that this offseason is the biggest of his career, precisely for the reason that more serious, more significant roster moves were delayed in order to position the Wizards for the Durant pursuit this summer. This matters, a lot: Wall played last season on not one but two bum knees, requiring surgery on both this summer. He played under this condition at the helm of a roster manifestly not built to be the best possible supporting cast. He is now rightfully expecting the Wizards to make that effort and sacrifice worthwhile.
Here is something else it got them: Scott Brooks, a perfectly fine and respectable NBA coach who was targeted and hired for his connection to Kevin Durant. In a vacuum, hiring Scott Brooks to coach your NBA team is a credible decision. Paying him $35 million over his five-year contract is a reflection of Brooks’s leverage in negotiations, leverage that was attained via the brazenness of Washington’s pursuit of Durant. The money is really neither here nor there (get that money, Scott)—what’s telling, and potentially important, is that Scott Brooks was the only candidate interviewed for the position.
Here is another return on the Durant pursuit: it put the Wizards in the position of needing to score someone important during free agency, from among a fairly shallow free agent class. We know this because, in articulating his choice to retain Ernie Grunfeld after the disastrous 2015-16 season, Ted Leonsis cited “the plan,” and Grunfeld’s disciplined execution of “the plan.” Ergo the one year contracts were part of a plan. Ergo opening up vast salary cap space was part of the plan. Ergo making a big splash in free agency is part of the plan. Ergo failing to make a big splash in free agency is a deviation from the plan.
Here is yet another consequence of the multi-year Durant plan: it precipitated an all-out hell-or-high-water pursuit of Al Horford, who is older than Durant, less versatile, less suited to Washington’s needs, who has no significant ties to the team or the region, and who—depending upon who you ask—may not be better as a pure basketball player than Nene. Horford took the Wizards seriously and then worked hard to return to the Hawks, before ultimately choosing the Celtics. The Celtics, who are retaining all but one of the key players from last season’s 48-win campaign.
Here is the most recent, most tangible return on the Durant pursuit: a 4-year, $64 million contract for Ian Mahinmi, a C-list celebrity in this summer’s free agency circus who is older than Marcin Gortat and will almost certainly need to be replaced during John Wall’s prime. Mahinmi is a fine player and an overqualified backup—you can decide for yourself if his acquisition is worth everything that precipitated it. You can also use your imagination to figure what John Wall might have said if the Wizards had told him they were punting on the 2015-16 season in order to sign Ian Mahinmi during the off-season. You are probably safe to assume his reaction would have been shared by Wizards season ticket holders.
So, here’s the thing: there is only one Kevin Durant in the whole NBA. Only one team will get to have Kevin Durant. In a sane world, it would not be a disaster for the 29 other NBA teams to wake up tomorrow (or the day after or whichever morning falls after the day when Durant makes his choice) and realize they failed to successfully recruit him, just as it was not a disaster for the 29 other NBA teams to not have him on their rosters this past season.
The problem isn’t that the Wizards failed to successfully recruit Kevin Durant—if that were so, it would also be a problem for, say, the Cavs, or the Warriors. The problem is that the Wizards hired an assistant, drafted a player, trumped up another player, leaned too heavily on another player, brought in a bunch of stiffs, punted on a season, gutted their roster, hired a coach, and retained a disastrously bad General Manager in order to put themselves in a position of having to overpay Ian fucking Mahinmi in a hilariously futile attempt to salvage the disaster of having not successfully recruited Kevin Durant. Not landing Kevin Durant is not a disaster—the disaster is being the kind of franchise that allows it to be a disaster.
When you point this out, though, you will be told that this is a dynamic of the NBA’s hierarchy—in order to be good, you must have Superstars, and in order to get Superstars, you must either draft a Superstar, or trade for a Superstar, or have the cash on hand to sign a Superstar free agent. This, you will be told, is because Superstars are One Thing: men who were preordained for Superstardom, of which there are only a tiny handful. I would like to put forward an addendum to the Superstar Theory: Superstars are very good NBA players who play for very good NBA teams. If you have a very good NBA team, the very good players on your very good NBA team will become Superstars. Then you will not have to acquire Superstars from the draft or free agency or from other teams. You will already have Superstars, because—by being very good and playing for a very good team—they will have met all the requirements of Superstardom.
The thing to do, then, is to build a very good team around the very good players you already have. So, for example, if you have two players on your team who are worth max contracts—like, say, Bradley Beal and John Wall, just to pull a random example—you should not build a roster of one-year rentals around them. You should build a very good team around them, so that you will then have Superstars. Superstars, after all, are a requirement of “competing” according to the Superstar Theory.
NBA fans and basketbloggers have grafted another concept onto their understanding of NBA team dynamics: the Treadmill of Mediocrity. The theory goes that the middle class of the NBA is a dangerous place to be—jumping from this middle class to the upper class is harder, says the theory, than jumping into the upper class straight from the gutter. I would like to put forward an addendum to this theory, as well: the Treadmill of Mediocrity is only a concern for organizations that are not good at what they do.
Here is what I mean: the Wizards won 44 games in the 2013-14 NBA season and won a playoff series. They’d jumped from the NBA’s gutters to the NBA’s middle class. The following regular season they experienced marginal improvement, winning 46 games. They came within an unfortunate injury of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Wizards were solidly an upper-middle-class NBA team. They followed up on this success by bringing a roster into the 2015-16 NBA season that included 11 players on expiring contracts and Kris Humphries starting at power forward. They regressed into mediocrity. Their key acquisition this offseason is Ian Mahinmi. Meanwhile the Celtics, Pacers, Magic, Bucks, and Knicks have all significantly improved their rosters. The Wizards are in real danger of spending another season mired in mediocrity. The problem will not be that the Wizards cannot improve and become contenders—the problem will be that the Wizards selected mediocrity in order to chase a long shot, and the consequence of that self-injury is more mediocrity.
In the four seasons before 2013, the Houston Rockets won 42, 43, 34, and 45 games. The following two seasons they won 54 and 56 games, and played in the Western Conference Finals. They did not sag out of the middle class in order to chase the more profound leap from gutter to contender. They were nimble, and flexible, and made aggressive roster moves designed to keep them competitive and make them better. In the two years before 2014, the Golden State Warriors won 47 and 51 games and never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. The following two seasons they won 67 and 73 games and won a championship. They were nimble, and flexible, and made aggressive roster moves designed to keep them competitive and make them better. In the two seasons before 2015, the Toronto Raptors won 48 and 49 games, and never advanced out of the first round of the playoffs. Last season they won 56 games and played in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were nimble, and flexible, and made aggressive roster moves designed to keep them competitive and make them better.
Because you are a right-thinking NBA fan, you may be saying, “hey, that’s right, none of those guys punted a season in order to chase a long shot!” You’re right, but that’s also not exactly the point. It’s not what those teams did or didn’t do. It is, instead, this: Daryl Morey, Bob Myers, and Masai Ujiri are good at their jobs. Concepts like Tanking and the Superstar Theory and the Treadmill of Mediocrity have managed to convince a lot of NBA fans that it is not possible for one NBA General Manager to be better than another NBA General Manager at anything other than playing the odds. It isn’t possible to draft better in the “crapshoot” player draft than another NBA team, so the solution is to draft more. It isn’t possible to develop players better than another NBA team, so the solution is to stockpile assets that may be traded for players who’ve already developed into Superstars, in the rare circumstance in which such an opportunity arises. It isn’t possible to carefully add pieces to an already good team in order to make them great, and so the solution is to dump everything and play the lottery.
This way of thinking—that the solution to building a competitor isn’t to be good at your job, but rather to acquire superhero players who will win even if you are bad at your job—was the basis of Sam Hinkie’s Process in Philadelphia, but it was also the basis of Ernie Grunfeld’s pursuit of Kevin Durant this offseason. It takes all the other jobs of team construction—building depth, addressing roster cohesion, scouting, player development—out of the hands of the person responsible for building the team and treats them as if they are inherently impossible to do well on purpose. In order to win the way we want to win we have to put all our eggs into this one basket, because all the other tedious, mundane, work-a-day ways of building a great team are basically a crapshoot.
Let’s put some plain language to it: the goal of an NBA organization isn’t to acquire Superstars in order to win games. The goal of an NBA organization is to be good in order to win games. Be good. Not be flexible, or be frugal, or draft well, or sign marquee free agents, or horde draft picks, or acquire valuable assets, or anything else. Be good. If you are good, you will be flexible when you need to be, you will be frugal when frugality is called for, you will draft well, you will acquire important players, you will be attractive to marquee free agents from less good organizations, you will win games, you will make Superstars.
Kevin Durant is not the first player ever selected with the second pick of the first round. That he has turned into a Superstar is not proof that Teams Must Find Superstars In The Draft, it is proof that Oklahoma City Did A Good Job Of Drafting And Developing Kevin Durant. LeBron James is not the first Superstar to switch teams in free agency. That the Heat won two titles with LeBron is not proof that Teams Must Acquire Superstars In Free Agency, it is proof that Miami Did A Good Job Of Building A Super-Team. Kawhi Leonard is not the first player to be drafted after the lottery. That he became a Superstar is not proof that Teams Must Get Lucky In The Draft, he is proof that San Antonio Did A Good Job Drafting And Developing Kawhi Leonard. Be good at your job. Here is a rule: If You Are Good At Your Job, Your Team Will Be Good And Good Things Will Happen.
Maybe someday Wizards fans will get to see that up close. I’m not holding my breath.