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Looking Across Town: Rebuilding In The NBA Versus The NFL

There isn't a Redskins fan who's been dialed into the team's doings since Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen came to town that would tell you what happened on Sunday was impossible. But achieving a high quality win wasn't something we'd even dare put on our Christmas list for fear of retribution from the football gods.  No doubt, the glut of NYG injuries and a changing of the guard on the offensive line will be the flavor of the moment for embarrassed power ranking pundits starting the Giants at #12 and the 'skins at #31.  And hey, it's only one game.

Or perhaps they might feel compelled to do just the tiniest bit more research than 'beck or grossman lol'.  The Washington Redskins were a house on fire in the wake of the Jim Zorn era, and much of last year's efforts were spent trying to put out fires while clearing away the burned out husk and laying a new foundation.  On the cusp of this season those efforts came to fruition, and well...looks like it worked.  Depth, especially on the O-line, is perilously thin.  That sort of thing is expected when only 15 of the 53 players on the team remain from the pre-makeover days.

Impulsive high-profile signings that generated more jersey sales than impact on the W column got the 'skins the reputation as an organization where you went for pay instead of play.  No more.  With the departures of perennial distraction Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb, focus is on play instead of pretense.  Smart drafting and free-agent signings have solidified the defensive line and made the zone blocking scheme a reality.  Never mind the massive wave of disrespect from the national media fueling a chip on the team's collective shoulder the size of Michael Strahan's hubris.

Of course, there are massive differences between rebuilding an NFL team and NBA team, and this is a Wizards blog.  So let's take a look at a few of the differences on effecting culture change this side of town.

  1. The principle of addition by subtraction.  The NFL has more options here, no doubt, even if the player is an acknowledged cancer.  Contracts aren't guaranteed like they are in the NBA.  The sheer number of players in the NFL and thus corresponding size of the draft makes it possible to get real value back for underperforming players.  Also, having the same players on both sides of the ball in the NBA means skilled contributors are that much harder to come by, that much harder to trade for, making young talent that much more valued (not even considering NBA players typically enjoy healthier career arcs), AND that young talent that much tougher to evaluate.  Easier to get rid of an Albert Haynesworth than a Gilbert Arenas.
  2. Keeping a veteran foundation.  This simply isn't as much of an option in the NBA as it is in the NFL.  High character talent, where talent is so much more difficult to come by in a much smaller talent pool, nearly always commands the higest value the market will bear.  And when the opportunity comes to extract some of that high risk/reward young talent with perhaps a significant draft pick, NBA teams are forced to gamble rather than commit their salary cap.  As a result, employing veteran leadership is difficult when they must be playing to have a position of real authority in practice, the locker room, and on the hardwood.  The amount of playing time a starting-quality veteran deserves can easily hinder the development of the young player who should be learning the ropes.  Especially when reduced minutes for a veteran can be seen as a declining skillset which can affect the size of that next, possibly final, guaranteed multiyear deal.
  3. Time spent in college.  More than any other major sport league in the States, the NBA is a game for athletic freaks, and because of that smaller talent pool, teams are willing to gamble sooner rather than later on what might become an exceptional talent.  This means less life experience and less time learning the game*.  I'd like to reinforce this is no indictment of players; no reason to let your school make more money off your name you won't see a dime of.  These players often have an longer development period which makes a rebuild seem that much longer, and the pressure that much higher.  By attending college for a few years, Kwame Brown would have been drafted lower, but he would have enjoyed far more reasonable expectations based on his draft position.  Though of course few make Roy Hibbert's 'mistake' and go back to college for another year.  But then again, being drafted 17th instead of top 10 gives him a better opportunity to be the best player he can be.  *Note: While not all schools run a pro-style offense in either sport, learning how to learn your sport is valuable experience in and of itself.
  4. Media scrutiny.  Part of this goes back to guaranteed contracts.  Once a player signs one, unless that contract is needed to balance a trade, he's there for the duration.  While the pressure is still on for the guaranteed money, unless an NFL GM is inexplicably attached (Curtis Painter fans, unite!) the contract is not a death sentence.  While an NFL franchise may get lambasted for their organizational practices (hem, hem), an underperforming NBA player is a permanent punchline.  Therefore, the player has to grow without the benefit of a fresh start.  Negative local, or even national, media scrutiny is one more distraction such players (and the team) have to deal with rather than starting fresh.
  5. Achieving buy-in.  This is mostly on a team level, and is definitely a different animal on the NBA stage.  In the NFL, you can cut your cancers out; contracts aren't guaranteed, and you can always find a team willing to part with a low to mid-round draft pick for your talented yet troubled player as a reclamation project.  With them goes part of the media scrutiny that distracts the team, and allows for the veterans to lay the foundation for the new blood to grow and form the nucleus of a contender.  The new blood is able to contribute sooner, having a better grasp of fundamental technique, and typically more intense focus on the sport.

We've spent a lot of time here at Bullets Forever discussing the rebuild, and many of the growing pangs listed above should be more than a little familiar.  It's possible to get more than a little discouraged looking at how far the 'skins have come in two seasons, and how far the Wiz still have to go.  The point is that each franchise has its own road to contender status, and while both still have a long way to go, both teams are on their way.