Managing assets in a "Bridge Year"

Time to make the donuts - USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics have entered the first stage of their rebuild. As fans prepare themselves for lower expectations, much has been made regarding the concept of "tanking". There has been healthy debate as to the value of draft picks, but less discussion about the best environment for developing existing roster talent. This article aims to delve into this essential topic.

Let's start this exploration off with a simple premise - high draft picks are the most valuable asset an organization can have outside of an existing franchise player. There is no guarantee that a high pick will turn into a superstar. However, the odds of acquiring a franchise player are much greater the higher up the draft board you go. In addition to this, high lottery prospects typically enjoy a "grace period" of sorts, where their value remains high over the first 3-4 years of their development. Bottom line, when you draft within the first 7 selections, you are drastically increasing your organizational options for team building.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's take this a step deeper....bear with me, this will be on the final:

There are two factors that impact the premise above. The obvious factor is the perceived quality of a given draft. If the incoming prospects don't project easily into first/second options, their value decreases. The second factor is the perceived talent of the existing prospects already on the roster. This second factor is harder to gauge and often overlooked due to its spurious nature. The basic principle is more simple - the perceived talent of a potential draftee is relative to the perceived talent of an existing prospect.

This is a vital point to consider when an organization begins to map out it's rebuilding strategy. Contrary to popular wisdom, all development environments are NOT created equal. Many often forget this principle when the debate on "tanking" takes on steam. The notion that piping prospects unlimited minutes leads to maximum development is patently false, in almost all instances. This is one of the primary reasons why "slash and burn" rebuilds, such as the post-Jordan Bulls and current Charlotte (soon-to-be) Hornets, often lead to prolonged periods of failure.

Statistical productivity is not synonymous with player development. They are overlapping concepts. Young teams don't often win because they don't understand how to maximize the efficiency of their decisions while remaining productive. This leads to inconsistency and is one of the main reasons why veteran teams are often better at late game execution. When young players have no veteran influences to emulate in the ways of "being a pro" it can take them much longer to change their patterns of behavior to learn how to play "winning" basketball.

Seems obvious, so what's the point?

The point is that most professional talent evaluation takes into account how close a player is to actually contributing to a winning team - not just raw potential and "upside". The further from draft day you go, the more of a premium on meaningful production there is. This is why it is absolutely critical to manage existing assets in a manner that maximizes their speed of development. Rebuilding through draft picks alone isn't enough. You must provide an environment in which to grow them as well.

It's important to create a team atmosphere that reinforces winning habits and mentality. If you put young players in an environment devoid of purpose, consequence, or possibility, they frequently develop bad habits or fail to develop the good habits associated with playing in meaningful game situations. If you put veterans in that same situation they often chafe/check-out at the lack of hope and competitive drive that comes with truly competing. 

For Boston, trading away assets like Rondo and Green for the sake of improving draft position makes little sense at this juncture. They are valuable commodities for basic transition management - players that have the type of experience and ability to set a standard for the younger players to follow. If they are to be retained, giving them a sense of purpose and catering to their maximum performance potential is key. Retaining them doesn't equate to committing them to the team's future core either. They are trade-able at any time and their value is bound to increase with more individual and team success.

Bottom line - a sucker may be born every minute, but if you can't spot him at the table within 5 minutes....don't waste what you've got in-hand while dreaming of the big rake at the end of the rainbow. 

As we've seen numerous times over the past 6-7 years, trade packages for All Star or even franchise players happen with nearly as much frequency as franchise players come into the league via the draft - and its a franchise player that's worth "tanking" for, possibly - not simply an All Star. All Star players are obtainable through much more pragmatic asset management strategies. The depth of this draft and the team's current asset base already ensure a high probability of being in a position to draft a high-caliber talent regardless. It is unlikely this team will "win too much" early on to eliminate a change of direction toward the lottery, if the ceiling of the current group proves to be below par. But it behooves management to put the best product out on the floor early on to adequately establish that ceiling first. Youth will be served either way. 

"Tank-talk" sounds a lot more like waiting for Christmas than it does logical thinking. There are far too many other team assets that do not benefit from purposefully losing by design - especially at the outset of the season. Moving vets for any value is virtually impossible if they aren't excelling in key roles for a competitive team. While their potential yield in trade may not amount to much, it is important that they don't require additional compensation in order to move. Wallace, Bass, and Lee are more likely to cost the team more assets to move if they aren't performing in a role that projects smoothly into another team's need areas. Once playoff contenders start to evaluate their team weaknesses, role players with established track records of reliability become targets - provided that they are currently performing at a high level.

The prospects will get more run and better "stats", but won't learn as much about winning basketball when simply thrown out onto the court to learn through pure trial and error. This will hurt their market value as well. There are no stand-out blue chippers whose value supersedes circumstance - no projected stars yet. Circumstances may change over the course of the season with some of these younger talents. There is the potential for players like Faverani, Olynyk, Sullinger, and Bradley to accelerate in their growth and change the organization's timelines. But, probability suggests that most of these players will benefit early-on from observing more fundamentally consistent play out of their veteran counterparts.

With me so far? Don't worry if you're not. "Tank-a-palooza" is still on the table, even if you're pulling your hair out on my current argument.

The prudent thing to do is play to win and adjust according to circumstance as the season unfolds. Designing a strategy to lose from the outset is to the detriment of every organizational objective and priority outside of the pick itself. That is a price far heavier than an overly simplistic summation that "only a year" is being sacrificed in the process. In an 82 game season, there will be ample opportunity to actually see what the current group is capable of before making a concerted decision to "play for the draft pick". One needs to look no further than last season's Orlando Magic squad to see the benefits of playing veterans early, making strategic trades to open up opportunity for youth, and then close out the season with an eye toward the draft....plenty of time to "rig for Wig" or whatever. 

The 2013 draft will continue to evolve as the year goes on. But this isn't 1997 or 2007 - there is no sure-fire "savior" apparent, nor does the team's asset base require saving as a strategy. It took the "Big 3" era to re-establish Boston as a viable franchise with a "winning" connotation for the modern athlete. As many are quick to point out, Boston does not enjoy fantastic weather or a favorable tax climate. Boston relies on its reputation as an elite franchise to create interest among players in the league.

Further team building problems arise once a franchise is viewed as a "bad situation" due to persistent losing or the perception of a poor team culture. Players talk. The last thing you want to do is throw away the interests of fifteen prideful current NBAers for the possibility of one unknown quantity. This ticks players off. You may believe that the current roster is irrelevant in terms of the future core, but its not. This is a "ballet of BS" moreso than a "bull-in-a-china-shop" job for management this year. It'll be defined by the front office's deftness of touch far more than than is apparent on paper.

The team has not been "built to fail" nor has been built to yield every possible win. It's a development environment built to increase the value of its assets. The direction it takes from this point forward is uncertain, and that's an encouraging thought. The current roster has a chance to prove their meddle, defy expectations, and shift organizational direction. They have a chance to fight, which only stands to benefit management as they negotiate the trade landscape and prepare their go-forward strategy for the offseason.

Come Wednesday night, we're in "real-time" with no concrete path set 6 months out - this is true for all 30 teams. Embrace the organizational development process and enjoy the twists and turns of the ride to come.

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