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Lessons from the Finals

Apologies for the lack of posting recently ... had company here last weekend.  -MP

I do a variation of this post every year because, like any other sport or industry, the NBA is a copycat organization.  Coaches steal plays from each other and copy them using different players.  Players all try to be the next (blank) instead of themselves, no matter how much they say otherwise.  Teams employ similar schematic styles, which is why it seems so revolutionary when a guy like Mike D'Antoni, who really isn't that different from most coaches, decides he actually wants to encourage fast-break basketball. 

Sarcasm aside, there's actually a lot of value in looking at teams to learn lessons from your own.  This is especially true from a management standpoint, particularly when you consider a team like the Wizards who are somewhere between mediocrity and the Lakers.  What lessons can Wizards management learn from the Lakers and the Magic?  A couple immediately spring to mind.

1.  Spending is important: Matt made this point far more directly than I could, but it's worth noting that the Lakers are a major luxury tax payer.  Their team salary this year is over $78 million, well over the $71.15 million luxury-tax threshold for this year.  That figure doesn't include Andrew Bynum's new four year/$58 million contract extension, which should kick in next year.  That 78 million consists of several players who are probably overpaid.  A healthy Gilbert Arenas is as much of a max player as Pau Gasol.  Lamar Odom may not be worth 10 million, much less 14 million.  Luke Walton got the full mid-level for six years a couple years ago.  Sasha Vujacic and Derek Fisher make MLE money to brick shots and play poor defense (though FIsher is a clutch scorer).  Yet they still won the title because they figured overpaying the right guys was better than letting them go. 

Even though Orlando isn't a tax-paying team yet, they are a good example of the importance of spending as well.  Rashard Lewis was given possibly the most outrageous contract in the post-1999 lockout era a couple offseasons ago when he was a free agent.  Lewis' contract makes Gil's look unbelievably reasonable.  And yet, it's worked out for Orlando because Lewis was exactly what they needed next to Howard.  His ability to shoot the three, score with a mid-range game, defend (most) power forwards adequately and leave the paint to Howard made their style as much as the unique skills of Hedo Turkoglu.  He'll always be overpaid, but it's better to overpay a little than to cut bait in the name of fiscal responsibility.

2.  Coaching matters: The NBA Finals should shatter once and for all that coaching doesn't really matter.  Look at Stan Van Gundy's job with the Magic.  It is an absolute miracle that the Magic finished as the top defensive team in the league this season.  Gilbert Arenas is just as quick laterally as Jameer Nelson and Rafer Alston, except Arenas is taller.  Caron Butler is way quicker than Hedo Turkoglu, and Antawn Jamison is just as much a tweenter as Lewis.  Dominic McGuire is as much a "stopper" from the looks of things as Courtney Lee.  Yet Van Gundy found a way to get those guys to be a part of a league-best defensive unit.  He built a sound scheme and got them to commit maximum effort defensively.  Previous coaches couldn't do that with those guys.  Sure, Dwight Howard helped, but it takes way more than one guy to make a defense.  Van Gundy's coaching made all the difference.  Think about that before you immediately dismiss offhand that an Arenas/Jamison/Butler trio can never be passable defensively.

Meanwhile, Phil Jackson and his assistants once again did a great job, making all the necessary adjustments that Mike Brown couldn't.  Cleveland should have beaten Orlando, but they had a terrible gameplan.  The Lakers had talent, but their defensive looks confused Howard and Turkoglu in ways Cleveland never figured out how to do. 

3.  Finding fits: Both GMs made moves to best suit their coaches.  Mitch Kupchak didn't overpay for Jermaine O'Neal in the 2007 offseason, when Kobe was demanding help.  He instead zeroed in on Pau Gasol, a better fit for the Triangle offense.  Kupchak also overpaid Luke Walton when nobody wanted him, but no player in the NBA is a better fit for the Triangle than Luke.  He only drafted one "pure" point guard (Jordan Farmar), instead gambling on several combo guards that could play next to Kobe.  He held on to Lamar Odom because his vast array of skills are perfect for their offense. 

Otis Smith surrounded Dwight Howard with shooters at the 2 (Lee, Pietrus, Redick), 3 (Turkoglu) and 4 (Lewis).  He overpaid for a wing stopped in Pietrus because the Magic desperately needed one, and it worked out well eventually.  He paid Jameer Nelson before Nelson got any good because he knew how important Nelson was as a team leader.  Say what you want about Otis Smith, but he had the entire package of his team in mind when he made his decisions. 

This is a particularly important lesson for the Wizards.  Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan never were on the same page as far as team needs, and it showed.  Ernie made moves for several players that had no business playing in the Princeton, and Eddie cut off his own hands by not trying to integrate several of Ernie's moves into his system (see Haywood, Brendan).  The two were never perfectly on the same page, and it often showed in a team that was less than the sum of its parts.  Now that Eddie is gone and Flip Saunders is aboard, I hope Ernie learns from his mistakes and allows Flip much more input into the needs of the team. 

4.  No "core for core" trades: I keep coming back to this point, but you don't get better by trading your best guys for someone else's best guys.  The Lakers waited for the perfect opportunity to get a blue-chipper like Gasol for scraps.  Those opportunities are rare, but they come along and are worth waiting for.  Orlando slowly built their team piece-for-piece around Dwight Howard, not making any major core-for-core trades to do so.  These two teams are important lessons for those who subscribe to the "addition by subtraction" theory with our Big 3.  Because of their experience playing with each other, it won't make the team better to make lateral moves involving our core.  The key is using our scraps and finding that team that's looking to rebuild and trade their overpaid (but still good) player.

What other lessons can the Wizards learn from the NBA Finals?