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The NBA's Mediocrity Treadmill Since 84-85

Fans from around the NBA consistently warn against their teams ending up on the treadmill, when the team is nowhere near contention but is also not in a position to strike it big in the draft lottery. The Toronto Raptors of the past and present are a good example, as are this past season’s Milwaukee Bucks. Mark Cuban and Kevin Pritchard have both spoken out publicly against the treadmill.

Conventional wisdom goes that if a team isn’t cut out to be a legitimate contender, although no one seems to agree as to exactly what a contender is, that team should hope to be utterly horrendous. Acquiring additional chances in the NBA Draft Lottery can land a superstar like Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan or LeBron James, all of whom went first overall. Barring a total win, teams with picks #2 and #3 can still land great players. Examples are Alonzo Mourning, Jason Kidd or Kevin Durant at #2 and players like Grant Hill, Pau Gasol, Al Horford or James Harden at #3.

What hasn’t received adequate attention is how often teams end up on the treadmill. Are teams good at avoiding it? Should they even want to? Any discussion has to start with what the treadmill is – and isn’t.

Defining the Treadmill

In terms of duration, I’ve defined the treadmill as having to last at last three consecutive seasons. This removes teams that happened to have a couple mediocre seasons in a row, as well as teams that had either a glimpse of the big time or a glimpse of high draft pick territory. Whether for better or for worse, I’ve also decided to define the treadmill according to win-loss record.

Why I’m not defining it by playoff success: As tempting as that is, it fails to account for notable outliers in the jump from regular-season expectations to postseason glory. The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, for example, dominated the league with 67 wins but fell in the first round to the 42-win Warriors. Those Warriors were far more of a treadmill team than those Mavericks were – they just won a seven-game series. Picking a team like the present Denver Nuggets, who have fallen in four consecutive first rounds, but have been consistent 50-game winners, reveals a strong team built for contention with an unsatisfying record on the big stage. That’s disappointing but it isn’t mediocre.

Why I’m not defining it by playoff seeding and/or draft pick: These two criteria are essentially the same. They both compare the team in question to the teams around it. This causes problems when accounting for the (dis)parity of a conference in any given season. In the early 2002 Eastern Conference, for example, the decent but not great New Orleans Hornets finished 44-38 yet got the fourth seed, complete with home-court advantage in the first round. In that season’s Western Conference, the 50-32 Timberwolves rode Kevin Garnett to the fifth seed, having to play on the road in a hostile (57-win) Dallas environment in the first round. Two seasons later, those Hornets would be .500 with Jamal Mashburn sidelined permanently while the reloaded Timberwolves would capture the #1 seed. A similar comparison may be made between the 2008 Hawks and Warriors, which finished 37-45 and 48-34 respectively, yet it was the Hawks that made the playoffs. In a strange twist of fate, the Warriors drafted before the Hawks in the 2008 Draft despite having won eleven more games.

Why I’m not defining it by management decision-making: Sometimes acquiring a veteran player is considered a run for a title. Sometimes doing the same is considered a treadmill move. Sometimes standing pat is considered developing young talent. Sometimes doing the same is considered inviting a treadmill. This is far too contentious to code with any accuracy whatsoever.

What I came up with is three versions of the treadmill, designed to roughly correlate to fans’ differing expectations. The first, the Strict Treadmill, is defined by a team winning anywhere from 30 to 40 games. These teams often draft in the 10-14 range. Any team that wins 29 games or less is sufficiently bad the word “mediocre” no longer describes it. Any team .500 or better will at least be sniffing the playoffs in a typical conference in a typical season.

The second, the Moderate Treadmill, is defined by a team winning anywhere from 30 to 45 games. These teams often make the first round but are eliminated. The floor of 30 games is kept. Teams winning 41-45 games are not typically seen as contenders, barring extensive injuries during the regular season and corresponding sterling health during the playoffs.

The third, the Expanded Treadmill is defined by a team winning anywhere from 30 to 49 games. These teams may draft in the late lottery but may also be perennial first-round exit teams that never put together a real run. Teams winning 46-49 games are not typically seen as contenders but may claim high seeds in weak conferences or prove sufficiently pesky that more vaunted teams may not want to play them. This definition of the treadmill is typically reserved for those fan bases, like the Lakers’ and Pistons’ in the 2000s, that expect greatness.

What the Numbers Say

Below is a chart of each team’s treadmill time since the inception of the NBA Draft Lottery in 1985. The chart is also available here, with the first tab showing the frequency of treadmill seasons and the second tab showing when each treadmill stay occurred. The 1984-85 season is the first considered, which coincides with the arrival of David Stern as commissioner.

General notes:

- The numbers under the 3, 4 and 5+ columns for each team indicate how many times a team has been on a treadmill of that many seasons since 1984-85.

- The number under the Total column indicates how many total seasons since 1984-1985 that team has spent on that type of treadmill.

- Current franchise names and locations are used. (e.g.: Sonics show up under Oklahoma City)

- Whenever a season’s year is given, the year given is when that season’s playoffs were played. The 1984-85 season is given as “1985” and so on.

- When considering lockout-shortened seasons, treadmill records are interpolated within the schedule by winning percentage. This results in the following:

Strict: .360-.499
Moderate: .360-.539
Expanded: .360-.599

Houston and Utah are currently on an expanded treadmill, with Houston’s addition of Dwight Howard likely to break their streak. Milwaukee is currently on a strict treadmill.

Each treadmill’s median is also its mode, the way it worked out.

  Strict T-Mill (30-40) Moderate T-Mill (30-45) Expanded T-Mill (30-49)
Team 3 4 5+ Total 3 4 5+ Total 3 4 5+ Total
Hawks 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 1 1 0 7
Celtics 1 1 0 7 1 1 0 7 0 1 1 13
Nets 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 12
Bobcats 1 0 0 3 0 0 1 5 0 0 1 5
Bulls 2 0 0 6 2 0 0 6 1 0 1 9
Cavaliers 1 0 0 3 1 0 0 3 0 0 1 8
Mavericks 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nuggets 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 0 2 0 8
Pistons 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 0 1 0 4
Warriors 0 1 0 4 1 0 1 8 1 0 1 9
Rockets 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 0 2 0 8
Pacers 0 0 1 5 0 1 1 11 1 0 2 15
Clippers 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 1 1 0 7
Lakers 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 6 1 1 0 7
Grizzlies 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Heat 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 5 0 0 1 5
Bucks 1 0 0 3 1 0 1 8 0 1 3 19
Wolves 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 2 0 0 6
Hornets 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 1 11
Knicks 0 1 0 4 0 1 0 4 0 0 1 5
Thunder 0 1 0 4 0 1 0 4 0 0 1 8
Magic 1 0 0 3 1 1 0 7 1 1 0 7
Sixers 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 6 1 0 1 11
Suns 1 0 0 3 1 0 0 3 1 0 0 3
Blazers 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 8
Kings 1 0 0 3 2 0 0 6 2 0 0 6
Spurs 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Raptors 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 0 2 0 8
Jazz 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 2 1 0 10
Wizards 0 1 0 4 0 2 1 15 0 2 1 15
Mean   1.7333   4.4333   7.8
Median   0   4   8
Mode   0   4   8

Some of these treadmill appearances are more relevant than others. Management teams change. What one general manager believed wholeheartedly, another may reject. Franchise locations also change. For example, I highly doubt the Thunder front office is at all worried about resurrecting the treadmill of the mid-‘80s Seattle SuperSonics. To show when each team was on each treadmill, I’ve added a list of each team’s treadmill appearances since 1984-85.

Treadmill Team Start Finish Seasons
Expanded Atlanta 1990 1993 4
Expanded Atlanta 2007 2009 3
Moderate Atlanta 1990 1993 4
Expanded Boston 1993 1996 4
Expanded Boston 1998 2006 9
Moderate Boston 1994 1996 3
Moderate Boston 1998 2001 4
Strict Boston 1994 1996 3
Strict Boston 1998 2001 4
Expanded Brooklyn 1992 1996 5
Expanded Brooklyn 2003 2009 7
Moderate Brooklyn 1992 1996 5
Moderate Brooklyn 2007 2009 3
Strict Brooklyn 2007 2009 3
Expanded Charlotte 2007 2011 5
Moderate Charlotte 2007 2011 5
Strict Charlotte 2007 2009 3
Expanded Chicago 1985 1987 3
Expanded Chicago 2005 2010 6
Moderate Chicago 1985 1987 3
Moderate Chicago 2008 2010 3
Strict Chicago 1985 1987 3
Strict Chicago 2008 2010 3
Expanded Cleveland 1994 2001 8
Moderate Cleveland 1999 2001 3
Strict Cleveland 1999 2001 3
Expanded Denver 1993 1996 4
Expanded Denver 2004 2007 4
Moderate Denver 1993 1996 4
Expanded Detroit 1998 2001 4
Moderate Detroit 1998 2001 4
Expanded Golden State 1989 1991 3
Expanded Golden State 2003 2008 6
Moderate Golden State 1989 1991 3
Moderate Golden State 2003 2007 5
Strict Golden State 2003 2006 4
Expanded Houston 1987 1990 4
Expanded Houston 2010 2013 4
Moderate Houston 2010 2013 4
Expanded Indiana 1990 1994 5
Expanded Indiana 2001 2003 3
Expanded Indiana 2005 2011 7
Moderate Indiana 1990 1993 4
Moderate Indiana 2005 2011 7
Strict Indiana 2007 2011 5
Expanded LA Clippers 1990 1993 4
Expanded LA Clippers 2005 2007 3
Moderate LA Clippers 1990 1993 4
Expanded LA Lakers 1992 1995 4
Expanded LA Lakers 2005 2007 3
Moderate LA Lakers 1992 1994 3
Moderate LA Lakers 2005 2007 3
Expanded Miami 1992 1996 5
Moderate Miami 1992 1996 5
Expanded Milwaukee 1988 1992 5
Expanded Milwaukee 1997 2000 4
Expanded Milwaukee 2002 2006 5
Expanded Milwaukee 2009 2013 5
Moderate Milwaukee 2002 2006 5
Moderate Milwaukee 2011 2013 3
Strict Milwaukee 2011 2013 3
Expanded Minnesota 1997 1999 3
Expanded Minnesota 2005 2007 3
Moderate Minnesota 2005 2007 3
Expanded New Orleans 1992 1994 3
Expanded New Orleans 1999 2003 5
Expanded New Orleans 2009 2011 3
Expanded New York 2001 2005 5
Moderate New York 2002 2005 4
Strict New York 2002 2005 4
Expanded Oklahoma City 1985 1992 8
Moderate Oklahoma City 1985 1988 4
Strict Oklahoma City 1985 1988 4
Expanded Orlando 2000 2003 4
Expanded Orlando 2005 2007 3
Moderate Orlando 2000 2003 4
Moderate Orlando 2005 2007 3
Strict Orlando 2005 2007 3
Expanded Philadelphia 1987 1989 3
Expanded Philadelphia 2002 2009 8
Moderate Philadelphia 2004 2009 6
Expanded Phoenix 1985 1987 3
Moderate Phoenix 1985 1987 3
Strict Phoenix 1985 1987 3
Expanded Portland 1985 1987 3
Expanded Portland 1994 1998 5
Expanded Sacramento 1995 1997 3
Expanded Sacramento 2006 2008 3
Moderate Sacramento 1995 1997 3
Moderate Sacramento 2006 2008 3
Strict Sacramento 1995 1997 3
Expanded Toronto 1999 2002 4
Expanded Toronto 2007 2010 4
Moderate Toronto 2008 2010 3
Expanded Utah 1985 1988 4
Expanded Utah 2002 2004 3
Expanded Utah 2011 2013 3
Moderate Utah 1985 1987 3
Expanded Washington 1985 1991 7
Expanded Washington 1996 1999 4
Expanded Washington 2005 2008 4
Moderate Washington 1985 1991 7
Moderate Washington 1996 1999 4
Moderate Washington 2005 2008 4
Strict Washington 1988 1991 4

Observations

As with seemingly almost any study, there were a lot of expected results and a few interesting surprises. Here are a few I found particularly notable:

Strict (30-40 wins)

- 17 of the league’s 30 teams have not been on the strict treadmill at any time in the past 29 years.

- Of the 13 that have, 11 of them have been on it only once.

- Of those 11, 7 were on it for three years, 3 were on it for four years, and only Indiana was on it longer.

- Indiana’s run on the strict treadmill was in lieu of rebuilding. They drafted Paul George during this time.

- The only two teams that have been on the strict treadmill more than once in the Draft Lottery Era are the Celtics and Bulls. These teams have combined to win eight of the past 29 NBA Championships.

Moderate (30-45 wins)

- Only six teams (Nets, Hornets, Blazers, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Spurs) have never been on the moderate treadmill in the Draft Lottery Era.

- Of the 24 teams that have been on the moderate treadmill, 15 have been on it only once.

- Washington spent 1980-1991 on the moderate treadmill, as well as 15 of the past 29 seasons.

- The Bobcats’ and Wizards’ best stretches in the Draft Lottery Era are part of moderate treadmill runs. The Wizards’ 45 wins in 2004-2005 is the best mark for either team.

Expanded (30-49 wins)

- The only teams that have not been on the expanded treadmill during the Draft Lottery Era are the Mavericks, the Grizzlies and the Spurs. The expanded treadmill happens to almost everyone.

- The Blazers’ expanded treadmill run from 1994-1998 included five straight playoff appearances with no season under 44 wins. This is a treadmill run only in the absolutely most technical sense of the term.

- The Nets are perhaps the ultimate proof as to why the expanded treadmill should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Their seven-year expanded treadmill run in the ‘00s started with a Finals appearance.

- Similarly, Boston’s nine-year expanded treadmill run from 1998-2006 included an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

- The Hawks’ expanded treadmill run from 2007-2009 included seasons of 30, 37 and then 47 wins, the type of progress not associated with the treadmill.

- The Bobcats’, Raptors’ and Wizards’ best stretches in the Draft Lottery Era are part of expanded treadmill runs. The best seasons any of these teams has had are the Raptors’ two 47-win seasons, which occurred during different expanded treadmill runs.

- The Bucks have spent 19 of the past 29 seasons on some form of treadmill. 

What Can We Make of This?

Whether the treadmill is the bane of a fan’s existence or the sign of a team that just needs a few lucky bounces is anyone’s guess. What is apparent, and that should surprise no one, is that the league’s blue-chip franchises can make either the treadmill or tanking work excellently, whereas the less successful franchises have poor outcomes either way. The Celtics, Bulls, Pacers and Blazers have all rebuilt on the fly to create teams that have had deep playoff runs. The Wizards, and their predecessor Bullets, have effectively been on the treadmill for decades. The Spurs and Mavericks have avoided the treadmill by being too good to land within it, whereas the Grizzlies have had a feast-or-famine existence since their inception.

The turn-of-the-millennium Clippers amassed gargantuan amounts of lottery talent yet never achieved a playoff berth to show for it. Conversely, the fire sale of the Thunder in the late 2000s is the largest direct cause of their enormous successes in recent years. Complicating matters, that same fire sale helped the Celtics to a championship – the same Celtics which, prior to a sole season of tanking, had spent nine straight seasons on the most liberally defined treadmill! For teams like the Raptors and Bobcats, the treadmill would actually signal an uptick in their win totals.

One thing is for sure: the treadmill is somehow both more and less common than some might think. While teams tend to fall within the 30-49 win range, as would be expected in such a competitive league, the dreaded never-ending stream of late lottery picks is uncommon. As painful as uncertainty can be, maybe whether a team lands on the treadmill isn’t the most important indicator of its future success.

Matthew Gordon reads way too many books.

No, Really... Do You Need Him?

You're playing your favorite NBA video game. It could be 2K10, it could be Fast Break Basketball ? it doesn't matter. What does matter is that it's the draft and, yet again, the first overall pick has gone to a CPU team.

The team in question stares blankly at the draft board in a way that only a machine can. It sees a draft board containing a couple dominant point guard prospects, a multiple-position Swiss army knife at shooting guard, a power forward with an all-around offensive game and a center who's slated to block shots like Hakeem. The top small forward has ratings worthy of the second round.

Naturally, the computer team has a roster looking something like this: two marginal backups at every position but small forward, and one All-Star small forward. The team drafts the small forward, filling a clear hole in the roster. For a video game draft, it makes some twisted modicum of sense.

Do people actually think this is how the NBA draft works?

One of the most discussed issues in terms of NBA draft strategy is the concept of drafting for need versus drafting the best player available. According to this dichotomy, some teams will do everything to take a player that fits a specific position on the floor, while others will take talent regardless of position. This often breaks down into topics like which teams should follow which strategy, like the common belief that a team closer to contention should have a higher propensity to pick for need. In other cases, the concept of picking for need at all is lambasted severely, with the best player available being the obvious pick.

Unfortunately for those who like to be right, yet fortunately for the others who like surprises, the draft isn't that simple. Different types of players occupy each position on the floor and they often take up more than one. Players' vastly different skill sets and levels of achievement render the concept of a factual best among them useless ? much like the never-ending squabble over who is a top ten player in the league, the same can be said of draft prospects.

The true needs are at skill sets, not positions.

When a team falters, whether in winning 15 games or losing Game 7 of the Finals, it's not because that team lacked a player who could be slotted neatly into a specific position. It's because the team lacked a specific skill set that the missing piece brings to the game. That might sound obvious but it seems to be forgotten around draft time.

A dead horse of an example of the fictitious phenomenon of drafting for positional need is the Raptors' ill-fated decision to draft Rafael Araujo eighth overall in 2004. He was big, NBA ready and could clog the paint in order to make the team good enough to quell Vince Carter's desire for a trade... right? As it turned out, ?Hoffa? played two unsuccessful seasons in Toronto, was traded to Utah, barely left the bench there, and is now playing in his native country of Brazil.

He's the benchmark for disastrous need picks but he wasn't a need pick at all. Why the Raptors drafted him is something only a few ex-members of their brass know. It certainly wasn't for his quickness, shot-blocking or post defense Indeed, Araujo came out of Brigham Young billed as an offensive center, averaging 18.4 points per game in his senior season ? and only 0.8 blocked shots. His lack of speed and awareness were sub-par for a player so dependent upon rebounding to stay on the court. His best attributes, like a jumper out to 18 feet, weren't even what the Carter and Chris Bosh-led Raptors needed.

Looking back, the need pick would have been Andris Biedrins. The best player available would either have been Andre Iguodala or Josh Smith, and the skills both players bring on defense would have satisfied more of the team's needs than Araujo's mass of fouling did anyway. Araujo didn't fill the Raptors' seemingly perpetual need for defense He just filled a position.

Many players can play multiple positions.

The advantage to drafting a player who has a skill set that fits the team rather than a CPU-style plug-in is that the player can contribute in a way that makes the team better. Likewise, drafting the best player available ensures that the most possible talent will be added to the team.

Perhaps most damning to the fabricated notion of picking for a positional need is that most players who are any good can play well whether they're at their own position or someone else's. Aside from the numerous pure point guards and pure centers populating draft boards, the combo guards, wings, combo forwards and position-less big men can be inserted into a lineup fairly easily.

One of the best recent examples is Al Horford. The Hawks were desperate for a point guard and a center in 2007, and top point guard prospect Mike Conley was sitting right in front of them waiting to be picked. Meanwhile, the team had taken Shelden Williams, a power forward with a body type similar to Horford's, the previous year. More relevantly, the Hawks were also converting Josh Smith to power forward. They took Horford anyway, and his All-Star nod this season is a testament to the hard work he's put into becoming one of the cornerstones of the team.

Asking why the Hawks took Al Horford seems silly now. He provided size, defense and rebounding, all in a wide, athletic NBA-ready body. Although he's had to play out of position for almost his entire career, he's contributed more than any of the players at the Hawks' needed positions have. The Hawks, like other teams in their situation, didn't need a position. They needed someone who could give them specific skills and they got him.

It can be impossible to determine the best player available.

One of the defining features of the draft is the uncertainty surrounding it. Any player can be a steal and any player can be a bust. Players come from top-ranked universities, obscure junior colleges, top international basketball programs, and far-away countries that are difficult to pronounce. Their skills span all the ones found in the league, although very few players possess all of them at once.

The search to find the elusive best player available leads teams to adjust their draft boards after each individual March Madness game or mid-June workout. It causes fans to have heated debates over the merits of the NCAA's leading scorer against those of an 18-year old beanpole from halfway across the globe who oozes potential.

With no one in agreement as to what constitutes a best player available, a team aiming to pick that player has no alternative but to craft some makeshift criteria and then snag the player best fitting them. In 2005, that responsibility fell to the Hawks with the second overall pick. The Hawks clearly needed Deron Williams or Chris Paul, and even a CPU would have taken one of the two, but they took North Carolina forward Marvin Williams instead.

Williams's attributes, those of being a 6'9?, athletic forward, overlapped with Smith. His position, and some of his skills, overlapped with Josh Childress. He was clearly not a need pick in any sense of the term. The Hawks had singled him out as the best player available, for whatever reasoning they had determined. As the past five years have proven, largely thanks to the aforementioned Williams and Paul, the Hawks could not have been more wrong.

With examples like these, how can teams identify the best player available?

Many players are taken for completely different reasons.

Some players are drafted for reasons having nothing to do with need or perceived talent. In 2005, the Clippers allegedly promised Russian forward Yaroslav Korolev they would take him with their 12th overall pick so he would stay in the draft. As tormenting as watching Danny Granger fall past them must have been, the Clippers stayed true to their word and picked Korolev anyway. Granger would have satisfied a need or a best talent to the Clippers, as his play in Indiana has no doubt reminded them.

Likewise, some picks are made not based on any production that has come from the player, but on what might happen someday. When the Supersonics saw Saer Sene in 2006, they saw a legitimate seven-footer with a enormous 7'8? wingspan and monstrous athleticism. What they hadn't seen was solid play at a high level of competition. To this day, four years later, they still haven't.

The Bulls decided to take Tyrus Thomas instead of LaMarcus Aldridge in that same draft, going so far as to make a draft-day swap with a Portland team that was drafting two spots later. Aldridge had proven more in college, and indeed, Thomas and future Celtics reserve Glen Davis had to double-team Aldridge in the NCAA tournament that year. Thomas had potential, athleticism, and the still-undefined ?motor?, but Aldridge had two things that Thomas still doesn't have. Aldridge had a higher talent level, and a skill set, not to mention size, that made him more suitable to a Bulls team that was based around a perimeter trio of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng. The Bulls clearly did not take Thomas over Aldridge to fulfill a need of any type or to take the best player available. It was a pick based on potential, like so many others that have gone right or wrong.

The notion that need versus best player available is an unalterable dichotomy has about as much of a point as drafting a player with the outlook of a Korolev. There are as many reasons to draft a player as there are players in the draft. Maybe he's friends with a top free agent the team wants, maybe he's a hometown hero, maybe he has the capability of drawing more fans... whatever it may be, there's a team somewhere, some year, that will use it as justification to hand a young man millions of dollars and, in some cases, the keys to a franchise.

If a player is a good fit on the team, take him. If the player is an apparent shoo-in as the best, like John Wall this year, take him. If his improvement is so drastic against all levels of competition that his potential is impossible to resist, take him. Don't promise to take a player unless, when you're on the clock, he'll still be the player you want.

There's no method in all of this, no rule governing the use of draft picks. There's only the necessity of scouting, evaluating, discussing, repeating those steps about ten thousand times, and then selecting a player who will improve the team.

Matthew Gordon can be reached at matthewpmgordon@gmail.com

Playing The Wrong Way

In 2001, when the Toronto Raptors were at their best, they fell in the second round to a 56-win Philadelphia 76ers team. That 76ers team would go on to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals and then become the only team that postseason to steal a game from the unstoppable Los Angeles Lakers.

Larry Brown, when explaining his coaching strategy for that highly successful 76ers team, created a vision of ?playing the right way?. He never defined it exactly, but in general terms, this notion of the right way to play basketball was exemplified by the players on his team. From gritty forwards George Lynch and Tyrone Hill to Sixth Man of the Year Aaron McKie and even the team's point guard in Eric Snow, everyone paid meticulous attention to defense and rebounding.

Theo Ratliff, and then Dikembe Mutombo after a massive mid-season makeover that also sent Nazr Mohammed to Atlanta, provided the foil to Allen Iverson's flashy offensive style. Whether in the lithe 6'10?, 240-pound Ratliff or the mammoth 7'2? Mutombo, Philadelphia had a dominant shot-blocker who was capable of single-handedly altering a game ? even if he only scored ten points.

Clearly, the vision Brown and then-general manager Billy King established for the team wasn't in isolation. Contenders across the league have built teams with a similar template: acquire at least one star player, establish a hard-nosed culture based on playing a disciplined defensive system, and make a splashy trade if necessary to complete the roster. (In Philadelphia's case, it was necessary to sacrifice a young clutch scorer named Jerry Stackhouse to acquire Ratliff in 1997.)

Among others, the recent dynasties by the Lakers and Spurs have been built in roughly this way, as have the championship Celtics, Pistons and Heat. In some manner or another, on the court and in management war roomss, contenders play the right way.

By now, you're probably wondering how any of this could possibly be relevant to the Raptors.

Defensive woes

Sitting here in 2010, it's not easy to be optimistic while looking over the roster. Aside from reserve forward Amir Johnson, who inconveniently happens to play the same position as Chris Bosh, no one regularly goes out of his way to commit a hard foul. No one other than Bosh averaged seven or more rebounds per game this past season, and Andrea Bargnani (6.2 in 35.0 minutes, which would be fine for a small forward) is the only other player to average over five. Nobody on the Raptors has averaged two blocked shots per game for a whole season since Keon Clark did so on that very same 2001 team, the only Raptors team ever to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.

Allowing 105.9 points per game this season, well above the league average of 100.4, is a telling sign of this 2010 Raptors team's lack of success. No team this season was truly average in terms of allowing points; 99.3 and 101.0 were the closest to the mean. The only team to allow under 100 points per game and miss the playoffs was Detroit, which was second closest to the league average and also had the second slowest pace. Only two teams, the notoriously offensively minded Nuggets and Suns, made the playoffs while allowing more points than the league average.

Getting into the postseason was almost guaranteed by allowing under 100 points per game, a task at which the Raptors failed miserably. The team allowed 100+ points in 58 of its 82 games; in the ugly transition from 31-24 home-court hopeful to 40-42 spring golfer, its opponents reached the century mark in 21 of 27 outings. Among the few teams held under 100 during this span were the cap room-obsessed Knicks, the 12-win Nets, and the aforementioned Pistons.

Perhaps most telling is that when the Raptors did hold opponents under 100, they played playoff-caliber ball. The team went 22-2 in those games. Both losses came late in the season, were against playoff teams (the Nuggets and Heat), were one-possession games, and the Raptors still allowed 97 in each. When the Raptors allowed 96 points or less, they never lost.

The obvious answer is to somehow get the Raptors to allow 96 points, but that's a huge challenge when confronted with reality. The team's dead-last 113.2 opposing points per 100 possessions, tenth-worst in the past 30 seasons, demonstrates a lack of ability to generate stops. A distant second are the Warriors at 111.7, who are still well above the league median of 107.3.

Creating turnovers hasn't been easy either. This season, the Raptors only blocked 384 shots, not far off of the league average of 398, but better than only two of the 16 playoff teams (San Antonio and Portland, both of which have capable defensive big men in Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby).

The Raptors also finished last in the league in steals, with only 469 compared to a league average of 592. Thankfully for their sake, steals weren't a major factor in team success this season, and a high steal total can often be attributed to a fast pace. Not so thankfully, the Raptors managed their mind-bogglingly low steal count while still finishing with the 13th-fastest style of play.

Not addressing key problems

For all that can be said about the deficiencies plaguing the on-court product, the front office hasn't fared much better. For the league's elite teams, there has been a proven way to build a roster, and the Raptors haven't done anything close to it.

The NBA's two most recent champions reached the league's pinnacle in surprisingly similar ways. The Celtics and Lakers each had a perimeter star in his prime (Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, respectively), but each lacked a big-time post player to be a secondary scorer and to anchor the defense Boston was able to use an armory of trade pieces (Al Jefferson, an approximately $13 million expiring contract, and two first-round picks) to acquire Kevin Garnett, who became the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year as the team romped to 66 wins and never looked back.

During that season, Los Angeles traded the rights to Marc Gasol, an approximately $9 million expiring contract in Kwame Brown, and two first-round picks for Pau Gasol. Since then, the Lakers have won the 2008 Western Conference Finals and the 2009 Finals, and are currently the top team in the West. While the Celtics gave more for Garnett, commensurate with the future Hall of Famer's higher trade value at the time, the trades are uncannily similar. Indeed, the Pistons' 2004 pickup of Rasheed Wallace en route to their championship that season followed roughly the same pattern ? the team traded expiring contracts and a first-round pick.

For those wanting the Raptors to become a contender, or wondering why marquee franchises land the Garnetts and Gasols of the world while the Raptors don't, look no further than the accumulated asset bank. Danny Ainge had spent his tenure as general manager tirelessly seeking draft picks and young talent in order to have the kind of stockpile that would allow for such a trade. Even in a trade as maligned as the one that sent Shaq to Miami, the Lakers managed to win back a first-round pick, along with two young players in Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. One of the picks in the Garnett deal, ironically enough, was a pick that Minnesota had given Boston in a prior trade between the teams.

The trend is that in order to have the vaults of picks necessary to pry a disgruntled star from a rebuilding team, those picks have to be acquired in the first place. The Raptors, conversely, have a history not of obtaining extra draft picks, but of trading them away.

Due to being left with draft pick debt that cost the team its first-rounder in 2007, and then his decision to ship the 2008 pick in the T.J. Ford/Jermaine O'Neal trade, Bryan Colangelo will be making only his third first-round selection this coming June despite having been with the team since 2006. Had the Raptors made the playoffs, their pick would have reverted to the Heat, the consequence of Colangelo's inclusion of it in the Jermaine O'Neal/Shawn Marion trade.

What was essentially two first-round picks to turn T.J. Ford into Shawn Marion became disastrous, as the team used its new-found opportunity to land Hedo Turkoglu for $53 million over five years. Turkoglu's contract has emerged as a noose for the team, while his on-court production has suffered considerably. Even though it would be tempting to trade a pick or two as enticement for a team to pick up Turkoglu's contract, the team would be back into pick debt. Even a basic contract dump would be virtually impossible at this point, let alone a deal that could convert Raptor futures into a promising present.

Even more disconcerting is that the Raptors haven't historically been in the market for extra picks. In the 2001 trade that sent Corliss Williamson and scraps to Detroit for Jerome Williams and Eric Montross, for example, the Raptors were the team giving up the draft pick despite also trading the best player in the deal. While the spirit behind gaining Lamond Murray the following year was admirable, the Raptors yet again traded a first-round pick in the exchange.

Only the Damon Stoudamire for Kenny Anderson and Alvin Williams trade, in which the Raptors received two first-rounders and a second-rounder, really stands out among the heap. That trade, of course, was all the way back in 1998.

The soon-to-be-expiring contracts of Reggie Evans ($5,080,000) and Marcus Banks ($4,847,586) allow for a little more hope, but not much. Of the many types of players the Raptors have traded during their 15-year history ? the sulking star, the over-the-hill pint-sized point man, the overpaid benchwarmer ? the expiring contract has not typically been one of them.

A long line of talented expiring Raptors, from Donyell Marshall to Mike James to Morris Peterson, each could have fetched something of note in a trade. Naturally, the Raptors let all of them walk without receiving anything in return... not even, say, a low first-round pick.

Building around Bosh... or not

That 2001 76ers were built around Iverson and didn't deny it. King and Brown wanted to surround Iverson with defensive talent no matter what the cost on the offensive end, and the result was exactly as it sounds. The team played well because Iverson ran the offense and everyone played defense. Having Ratliff/Mutombo in the paint even allowed Iverson, often considered a poor defender, to become a steal-generating menace.

The three-peat Lakers surrounded Bryant and Shaq with players like Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox. Somewhat like the tough guys in Philly, they complemented the team's two stars by playing solid defense and by contributing whatever was needed for the team to win. The current version won a championship with Fisher and Trevor Ariza in identical roles.

The 2008 Celtics had Kendrick Perkins helping Garnett defending the interior, and Rajon Rondo was still seen as a defensive point guard who would defer to his accolade-laden teammates. The 2004-05 Heat complemented their star backcourt with Shaq, who was still such a big post presence that he almost won the MVP in 2005, and Wade and Shaq won the 2006 championship together. When a team has a special player (or few) and is serious about contending, it will identify needs around that player and then fill them.

Early in Bosh's career, a few key aspects of his game and physique became apparent: he wouldn't be able to keep the ball in his hands the majority of the time, he would never be bulky enough to bang around in the post like a true interior scorer, and he would likely never become a dominant shot-blocker. By the logic that most teams with a star player employ, the Raptors should hypothetically have surrounded Bosh with a point guard who can feed him the ball inside, a rebounding center to keep Bosh's body fresh, and to have that same center be an impact defensively in the lane.

For the most part, Bryan Colangelo has done a decent job of putting some of the required pieces around Bosh. He's kept Jose Calderon at point guard, also bringing in Jarrett Jack to add a tough defender who's a friend of Bosh's. DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems and Johnson all play their roles ably. As awful a signing as Turkoglu has looked to be, his acquisition was at least supposedly well-intended.

Frank Ziccarelli's statement in Friday's Toronto Sun that ?Bryan Colangelo has tried to surround Bosh with players and has gone to great lengths to accommodate Bosh? is indicative of many of the franchise's moves, most notably the Jack pickup. However, it fails to address the fact that the organization went to all the effort of expending a first overall pick to ensure that Bosh's most important need would never be met.

Andrea Bargnani is the antithesis of what Bosh needs in the middle. Unwilling to initiate contact in the post, horrendous on the glass and with an offensive game located in large part outside the arc, Bargnani is in no way able to help Bosh bang with opposing big men. On a typical offensive rebound opportunity, Bargnani will already be running back on defense, this leaves only Bosh. At Bosh's slight 235-pound build, he is often matched up against multiple players who weigh more than he does.

Weight matters in the NBA. In Bosh's rookie year, he went down with an injury after an unfortunate collision with the Wizards' 6'9? 290-pound hulk, Jahidi White. Bosh has never played all 82 games in his career, although he did hit 81 once, and tends to miss 10-15 in a typical season. Concerns have also been raised about Bosh's long-term knee health, even prompting the RealGM Raptor faithful to wonder aloud as to whether Bosh should be given a maximum salary. Bosh may look durable when he's grabbing any one of his almost 11 rebounds per game, but not having a stouter player dressing for 30+ minutes a night is proving difficult for the cornerstone forward.

Colangelo's greatest effort to give Bosh help inside was the trade for O'Neal, which I liked at the time and would still defend. Unfortunately, Bosh and O'Neal were given very little in the way of wing talent; more specifically, the starting tandem of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon made about $5 million combined despite neither player being on a rookie contract. In a league in which good starters almost universally command good money, that hardly constitutes accommodation.

It's one thing to make frenzied signing after frantic trade in the name of an abstract accommodation toward a star player. It's another to realize that player's greatest need, observe how the league's elite have answered similar needs (like Dallas's Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood trades to accommodate Dirk Nowitzki), and then act on what has to be done.

Are the Raptors really this bad?

None of this is to say that the Raptors were a total failure this season, or that they have been in general. Had Bosh been available for Sunday's game against the Bulls, it might have ended differently, and the Raptors might be a .500 team with an upcoming playoff berth. Obtaining the privilege of being the NBA playoff equivalent of Meow Mix would have been a hollow prize, but the fact that the Raptors were so close to an at least marginally successful season despite these vast and glaring problems is a testament to the things they've done well.

The Raptors had one of the league's best offenses, not least because Bargnani becomes more intriguing as a scorer with each passing season. Furthermore, Turkoglu finished the season with a sparkling 2.43 assists per turnover, and Calderon is always among the league leaders in that category. Although the offense isn't perfect by any stretch, and its improvement will likely have to start by getting Bargnani more inside touches, it's encouraging.

The team's trade history hasn't always been so bad either. Colangelo's offseason swap of Roko Ukic and Carlos Delfino for Johnson and Weems has given the Raptors a better bench than they've had since they won 47 games in 2006/2007. Johnson and Weems have teamed with DeRozan to give the Raptors just enough athleticism to offset what can't really be termed as much but a lack of athleticism on the part of Bargnani, Turkoglu and Calderon. In that sense, many of the team's pieces do fit.

There's still a long way to go for this team to reach contender status, though, even if Bosh does re-sign in July. If he doesn't, the Raptors will face a level of difficulty unseen since the expansion draft days. If he does, the Raptors will have to build a winner the same way everyone else has ? by improving their defense, by accumulating an asset bank, and by granting Bosh the defensive center he so desperately has to have.

Until the Raptors start playing the right way, on the court and in the front office, don't expect much more out of them than what you see today.

Matthew Gordon can be reached at matthewpmgordon@gmail.com

P.S. There are many other contenders I could have discussed who have employed some variation of the principles I have outlined here. Atlanta's acquisition of Joe Johnson and Orlando's search for defenders and shooters to buttress Dwight Howard are a couple more examples. Due to space concerns, only the most flagrant (pun intended) examples were used.

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