As Sam Hinkie checks his numbers, metrics and simultaneous linear equations in an attempt to conjure a starter out of next week’s Kelly Ripa-thin NBA draft, down in South Beach the Heat and Spurs are about to decide the league’s championship. And it’s absolutely no coincidence that the top two teams are also among the best organizations in professional basketball.
That’s the lesson to be learned from this post-season, along with the fact that no matter how good a team might be, injuries can kill its chances. (Hello, Thunder and Bulls.) The Spurs and Heat will finish things up this week, and it is instructive to view their success through the prism of their executive and coaching staffs, rather than just their players.
It doesn’t hurt that San Antonio had the opportunity to draft Tim Duncan first overall in 1997 and that LeBron James “decided” to play for the Heat three years ago. Beyond those bits of good fortune are organizational patterns and personnel combinations that have permitted the teams to thrive. Both have created cultures that encourage creative thinking and consistent prosperity, so much so that they can lure role players to contribute selflessly in the shadows of their stars.
The Spurs are the professional sports equivalent of the Six Sigma business process. Not only do they employ strategies that ensure long-term success, but they also attract people who thrive within their organizations and are therefore coveted by other teams. Four NBA GMs served under Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, and three head coaches were assistants under Gregg Popovich. The Spurs are believers in combining talented basketball people with advanced metrics, but make no mistake: The emphasis is on employing people who know the game and can make educated decisions about players thanks to their experience.
No matter how trendy it might be to use mathematics and proprietary statistical evidence to analyze players, the fact remains that basketball is a sport that relies on the ability to blend players together into a unit that will move the ball on offense and play selflessly at the defensive end. Say what you want about how the numbers help a team, but it takes sharp basketball instincts to determine whether a player is willing to play championship basketball or is more interested in his own fame and fortune. The Spurs have spent more than 15 years doing that. By contrast, the Sixers have spent the post–Allen Iverson era collecting ineffective and often selfish players. (See Bynum, Andrew.)
Hiring Hinkie to run the team runs counter to the Spurs’ model, particularly if he refuses to surround himself with proven, veteran basketball people. If the Sixers’ front office turns into the physics department at MIT, the franchise will not be able to move forward, especially since it has only a couple of legitimate NBA players on the roster and an ugly cap profile for 2013–14. Signing Bynum to a contract would strangle the team’s options even more, not to mention poison its ethos.
While the Spurs practice a collaborative method led by Buford and Popovich, the Heat reflects the vision of president Pat Riley, whose resume is unparalleled in NBA circles. He has won five titles as a coach, one as a player and one as an executive. Say what you want about James’s choosing Miami as his new home, but one of the big reasons he went there was Riley’s presence and the confidence that the team president would surround him, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the supporting cast necessary to thrive. Three consecutive finals appearances later, James’s faith has been rewarded.
But Riley doesn’t do it alone. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is a product of the Miami organization. VP of player personnel Chet Kammerer has spent 30 years as a coach, scout and executive. And don’t be surprised if Spoelstra assistant Chad Kammerer — Chet’s son — is a head coach someday. In other words, Riley has surrounded himself with good basketball people.
Next week, the Sixers will choose from among a collection of uninspiring prospects, only a few of whom will be long-term starters, much less standouts. This draft means incredibly little to the future of the franchise. What matters will be how well Hinkie assembles a front-office unit capable of identifying talent on and off the court and building something that players want to be a part of, rather than focusing so much on the numbers. This is an incredibly important off-season for the Sixers, who must find a way to compete in an increasingly talented Eastern Conference and convince the rest of the league that the clumsy handling of Doug Collins’s exit is not a reflection of how the organization will do business moving forward.
To accomplish that, Hinkie needs to hire people who can identify and accumulate talent that will work together toward a title.
That’s an equation that will produce a winning solution.
• As the Phillies continue their maddening dance with .500, it’s unrealistic to hope that the return of Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley will be the answer to their problems. The bullpen is still erratic — although Michael Stutes has been pitching quite well lately — the starters aren’t too consistent, and the lineup remains populated by free swingers who don’t seem to know that it’s impossible to score a run without first reaching base. With the season’s halfway point less than two weeks away, it’s folly to think this win two, lose three/win three, lose two pattern will produce anything but a post-season at home.
• Roger Goodell’s defense of the Washington NFL team’s racist nickname demonstrates his and the league’s arrogance. To this point, pro football has been undefeated in its various decisions, but this one is a loser. Goodell’s refusal to do what is right is emblematic of a profit-hungry association of billionaire businessmen with little concern about how their actions affect other people. The D.C. team’s moniker is hateful and reminds Native Americans of their abuse at the hands of those who cared little for their rights. Goodell’s actions are cowardly and represent the worst kind of capitalism: that which seeks profit at the expense of others. Since the NFL won’t do the right thing, it’s up to the rest of us to hold it accountable at each turn and reveal that its every move — no matter how noble it may seem — is based only on self-interest.
• It’s time to see whether LeBron James belongs among the NBA’s greatest players. The Spurs clearly have superior depth, but the Heat has James, the game’s best player. Injured Dwyane Wade has been inconsistent, and Chris Bosh has been practically invisible. James can burnish his legend and secure a spot in basketball’s Valhalla by willing Miami to wins in the next two finals games. If he can’t do that, he’ll fall to 1-3 in finals appearances and remain a step below the best of all time.