The curse of the 'competitive' franchise

As David Stern once said, every team is one player away ... Shaquille O’Neal.

But for most unfortunate teams, the enduring question is how to compete for championships without that type of league-altering talent. Without one, the goal is to get into position to acquire a franchise cornerstone, but how does that happen? And if it does, when is the right time to make the big splash?

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

On the “Franchises in Transition” panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, decision-makers from different sports, in charge of organizations at different points on the development spectrum, shed light on their processes and the challenges they face.

Conference organizer Daryl Morey provided the NBA general manager’s perspective, but his fellow panelists helped to underscore both the fruits of and the commitment to forming a plan and sticking to it.

Paraag Marathe (coming off of an unlikely division championship in his first season as COO of the San Francisco 49ers), George Postolos (entering his first season as President and CEO of the rebuilding Houston Astros), Drew Carey (minority owner of the MLS Seattle Sounders), and Rita Benson LeBlanc (owner and executive VP of the New Orleans Saints) apply these values differently in the contexts of the economic models of their respective leagues, but many of their messages were consistent throughout.

They all preached building through the draft and trades, rather than spending big money on the open market. Each sport is different -- the Astros, for example, could outspend other teams and sign every All-Star free agent on the market if their owner so chose and the All-Stars so agreed -- but the consensus among this group was that the most sustainable way to build a team into a contender is to invest in young talent.

And that investment, which Marathe compared to shopping wholesale, pales in comparison to the cost of competing with every other team for premium free agent talent, during which you are often forced to pay retail prices.

Morey referred to “The Winner’s Curse,” that almost every time you sign a fee agent, it means you paid more than anyone else was offering. Short of true superstars, that’s often a dangerous proposition. In the NBA in particular -- with the forces of a strict salary cap, maximum contracts and built-in market disadvantages -- simply offering maximum contracts to the most talented players is often not enough.

Morey inherited two such stars (Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, both of whom he called top-10 players), but has been charged with building the Rockets back into a contender since Yao retired and a hobbled McGrady moved on.

In an effort to “shift the odds in (his) favor,” Morey has attempted to do so simply by bringing in high-quality players. The idea is that by doing so, he will have what it takes to acquire another cornerstone should one become available. This approach has worked with players such as Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola, Chandler Parsons, Aaron Brooks and Goran Dragic.

That his team has been competitive every year has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the fan base can count on a consistent brand of play that generally has the team in playoff contention. However, in a sport where superstars are most often taken in the first couple of picks in the draft, the Rockets are a great example of the downside of patiently building a team -- they aren’t bad enough to give themselves much of a chance at winning the lottery.

As every other panelist alluded to, this component of fielding a competitive team with which fans can connect is vital, at least to some degree. Carey, whose Seattle Sounders have no television contract and depend exclusively on their relationship with fans for revenue, has helped to implement radical initiatives such as a fan council to vote on the GM’s job every four years.

Benson believes strongly that the Saints commitment to the city of New Orleans went hand in hand with creating the right atmosphere to attract and foster the success of Drew Brees, but she also acknowledged the importance of offering the quarterback more money than the Dolphins were offering.

Morey believes that interacting with fans is essential, and that it’s the general manager’s job to sell them on the organization’s plan. He has done that in Houston, but he remains short of his ultimate goal of building a winner.

The biggest challenge for clubs is to honestly assess where they fall on the spectrum. Polostos points out that a lot of teams think and behave like they are one or two players away, but as Morey said, analytics make it hard to argue you are that close when you aren’t.

He believes that only when you are one piece away from title contention do you “overpay” for that missing piece, and he is ready to make his big move. He tried once as a part of the failed first Chris Paul trade, and with the trade deadline less than two weeks away, you can bet that he’ll be busy working to consolidate the assets he’s acquired and cultivated into the star for whom he has so meticulously worked.

Shaquille O’Neal is no longer the final piece for an NBA team, but for a team in Houston’s situation, the player they need might be out there. If they stick to the plan, it’s just a trade away.