What I did for this study was to look at the past 10 franchises that made the journey to the NBA Finals. Franchises that did not make the Finals are not worthy of this discussion since that is certainly the goal of the Cleveland Cavaliers currently as well as the teams aiming to spend big in the summer of 2010. From these 10 teams, I analyzed all of the various players on their playoff roster as well as the number of minutes each one of these individuals played. What this does is to get an introductory look into how successful playoff teams are built over the course of time. The results give us a hint about how successful teams in the NBA generally treat free agency.
For starters, I will go in order and list these past 10 franchises to make the NBA Finals. I have used these teams in my study to gain some insight as to how these teams, in their most recent journey to the finals, built their roster. Here are these 10 different teams, their results in that particular year as well as the one individual that lead that team in playoff minutes played. The minutes per game figure is their total minutes divided by the number of team playoff games, just for simplicity:
Lakers 09 (win) – Kobe Bryant 40.9 mpg
Magic 09 (lose) – Rashard Lewis 41.1 mpg
Celtics 08 (win) – Paul Pierce 38.1
Spurs 07 (win) – Tony Parker 37.6
Cavs 07 (lose) – LeBron James 44.7
Heat 06 (win) – Dwyane Wade 41.7
Mavericks 06 (lose) – Dirk Nowitzki 42.7
Pistons 04 (win) – R. Hamilton/B. Wallace 40.2
Nets 03 (lose) – Jason Kidd 37.0
76ers 01 (lose) – Allen Iverson 44.2
First of all, it is intriguing to see the various breakdowns in terms of minutes played for the lead player of these teams. LeBron James clearly had the most minutes played for his team per game, with Allen Iverson first, while Jason Kidd in 2003 was last with only 37.0. What did all these teams have in common in the end however? They all lost, showing how that stat has little to do with eventual success.
This led me to then figure out how all of these players arrived on that particular team. Clearly, Kobe Bryant was acquired in an off-season trade following the draft while players such as Paul Pierce, Tony Parker and LeBron James entered their teams through the draft. Rashard Lewis and Dirk Nowitzki were also examples of off-season trades, which leads to the start of my first theory about these successful finalists. Did they most often rely upon trades (off-season or in-season), the draft or via free agency?
The image below is a table that breaks down these 10 teams, the number of individuals that registered the most minutes in order for their team during the playoffs and how they ended up on that team. For example, you can go line-by-line through the top to double-check the work (Hamilton is treated as #1 for Detroit in 04, with Ben Wallace as #2 although it doesn’t matter much since both were acquired through off-season trades):
One of the surprising facets of this study is the finding of only four individuals to rank among the top four of their team in minutes during this span. Follow me there? Thus, of the 40 players to rank in the top four in minutes for these 10 teams, only four of them were acquired to that team via free agency. Here are these players:
Hedo Turkoglu (Magic 09 – signed in 04)
Bruce Bowen (Spurs 07 – signed in 01)
Larry Hughes (Cavs 07 – signed in 05)
Chauncey Billups (Pistons 04 – signed in 02)
Not exactly the superstars that the teams vying for in the summer of 2010 are looking to lure to their team. Essentially, what these very good teams over the past decade have done, is to rely upon trades (usually off-season) and the draft for their key parts to their success. Of the 40 players that ranked in the top four minutes as I mentioned earlier, 29 of them came from off-season trades and the draft.
Moving further down the list, only about 21.7% of all of the free agents for these teams ranked in the top six in minutes. For all of the other acquisitions here is that number: off-season trade = 76.5%, draft = 56.3%, in-season trade 51.7. The estimated average minutes played per team game for these four different types of players are the then the following: off-season trade = 26.1, in-season trade = 21.5, draft = 20.6, free agent signee = 12.2.
In conclusion, what does this show about the recent history of the NBA’s best teams? The pattern for manufacturing a roster has been to most importantly rely upon drafts and trades (usually off-season) trades for the star players. Free agent signings are generally used in this pattern only for players towards the bottom rung of the lineup, usually #’s 7-11 in the playoff rotation in terms of minutes played. Not one single individual has been a free agent signing on these 10 different franchises and then led his team in minutes during the playoffs.
After sending out the preliminary data of this study to my brothers as well as the staff writers here at WFNY, I got the following responses. The purpose of sending out the data early was to gage the responses and see if I was really on to something with this information:
Adam = “They [the free agents] are all role players too despite being in the top 4 in minutes. Even Chauncey Billups wasn’t the best player on that Pistons team. They all played important roles (aside from Larry Hughes) and the Knicks strategy is so flawed on so many levels. This is the highest caliber FA class in history but the NBA has a history of stars staying with their teams, especially now with Bird rights and a shrinking cap.”
Denny = “Taking a look at that data, I agree that FA signings don’t look as important as they’re cracked out to be. But, it’s also clear that off-season trades are pretty important in the grand scheme of things, and as much as it seems that Bosh, Amar’e, etc will go to free-agency, there’s also the possibility of a sign-and-trade with them. If the sign-and-trade data is there as well it might be worth adding.”
Rick = “I think what the Knicks are trying to do is “the Boston model” where they completely re-tool their team with more than one ‘star’ player. It worked for the Celtics. And quite frankly, if they are able to draw two superstars over the summer they will put themselves in contention to be a contender. What if Wade and Bosh joined the Knicks with Harrington and Lee? Tell me that isn’t a top 4 team in the East?”
Rick then brings in the classical argument for why the Knicks believe they will be able to contend immediately in the fall of 2010. The only problem with this analysis is that even the teams with the most salary cap saved for this team, don’t have the certain space to definitively say they can sign two max players. For example, the Knicks have approximately $31.4 million in available salaries, according to salary cap expert Larry Coon of the New York Times. Under an estimated $53 million cap, each max player such as James, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade would be $15.9 million, introducing a major problem for these teams.
What the Knicks would then have to do is the not only relinquish the rights to their best player and All-Star forward David Lee as previously addressed by Rick, but also be creative with their sign-and-trade possibilities. While this may be what some people believe could happen, it ultimately then shows how improbable building through free agency is. The reason why the Boston Celtics were able to build in the fly as they did was because it was through trades for players with longer contracts while giving up much younger players.
So there you have it. All the reasons why teams relying upon the free agent class of 2010 are not in line with how recent teams have built NBA Finalists. Now all we have to do is sit and wait for the next six months as this all plays out. Hopefully, history repeats itself as only those who build through trades and the draft are able to successfully conquer the journey of the NBA Playoffs.
(Top photo above by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images and the second photo of Jay-Z and LeBron is via AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)