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Weighing the cost of winning

With the NBA Draft upon us, new prospects always have a lot to live up to.

Memphis Grizzlies v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The 2019 NBA Draft is rapidly approaching. It’s obvious: Mock Drafts are on every sports media outlet, every blog is writing about potential prospects, and the talking heads of the NBA can’t stop saying the name Zion Williamson. And look, I love the draft just as much as the next person, I’m zoned in on all the prospect profiles. But the draft is fun simply because it is largely unpredictable. And the results of what these draft picks will provide is even more unpredictable.

As our resident GBB skeptic (slash pessimist), I did some research on some of the biggest names in the NBA and the teams that have invest years and millions of dollars into them. The goal? To figure out if the investment has paid off for the team.

In today’s NBA, its almost encouraged to be mobile and flexible in terms of which teams you’ll play for. The term ‘superteam’ is a catchy name for players that stack their team like good old-fashioned pick up basketball. And with the creative minds in the General Manager realm that the NBA has, contracts can get funky to pair players with teams like never before.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

But there are still those players, some are superstars, that hang their hat...er, jersey…on loyalty. Loyalty sounds like a beautiful concept, one that our society prides itself on in many respects, yet in the NBA the significance on loyalty is quickly fading. After researching players that are either with the team that drafted them, or spent extended time with one franchise, the cost of loyalty doesn’t always reap equitable rewards.

The goal of every NBA franchise is to win championships, right? Well, it should be. Even for small markets like Memphis and New Orleans, they at least try to win, despite having a harder time to land big name free agents. So that makes the draft even more important, at least in theory. Another important goal for NBA franchises is to sell tickets, merchandise, and food: to make money. The balance of winning and making money is essential for the league to thrive, and fan spends money to see players they love.

When considering the relationship between a team and player, loyalty from both sides is important. The longer a player stays with a franchise, the better opportunity fans have to fall in love with that player. And there is also a better opportunity to build a team of players that can win a championship, a team built through the draft and free agency. But what happens when loyalty trumps winning (and winning in a significant way)? Or keeping a player that fans love will sacrifice the chance of having a real shot at winning championships?

Let’s start with the peak.

Perfect example: Russell Westbrook

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Love him, hate him, ball hog, hall of famer, stat-padder, elite talent...whatever you want to call him, he is a great player. After 11 seasons, Westbrook is still with the team that drafted him (and please do not say something dumb about him being drafted by the Seattle Supersonics) fourth overall in 2008. A career 23/8/7 scorer with unreal speed and agility, no one can deny that Westbrook is worth the price of admission. Oklahoma City Thunder fans adore him, protect him at all cost, and likely want him to stay forever. But consider his resume of significant wins.

No championships. One NBA Finals (lost 4-1 to MIA). 1-3 in Western Conference Finals. And three first round exits since Kevin Durant left for the Warriors. I’m not here to downplay what Westbrook has achieved - 8 All-Star appearance (2 All-Star Game MVPs) and a regular season MVP are nothing to sneeze at. But how long is Westbrook worth keeping around at almost $30 million a year, and climbing?

The revenue generated off of him wearing an OKC jersey for that community is very high, no denying that. The addition of Paul George two years ago was a welcome site and made the team fun to watch. But it’s starting to look silly to think that with the make up of this team and his play style that OKC will win a championship under Westbrook’s leadership. He may make me eat my words, and that’s fine, yet loyalty trumps winning in this case. The draft provided OKC (Seattle at the time) a chance to become relevant. Yet as the seasons drag on, Westbrook has not provided championships, and if that’s the goal, they have failed.

Great example: Mike Conley

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Now here is where the GBBers will go crazy. Mike Conley was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007 with the fourth overall pick. A career 15/6/3 steady scorer, with the last four season being the most significant in terms of scoring, Mike Conley is a Memphis legend. For the city and community of Memphis, Mike Conley will go down as perhaps the greatest draft triumph in franchise history. As a fan myself, I can agree.

He was an integral part of the ‘Core Four’ that took the NBA by storm, establishing Memphis as a legit NBA city with potential to win in a big way. And man was that a fun era, I still get chills thinking about it. But if the goal is to win championships, and that is what we are told by front offices universally, you have to consider that the Grizzlies have ridden with Mike a little too long.

Seven straight playoff appearances from 2010-2017, four first round exits, and one Western Conference Finals (0-4 to SAS). At the time, it was fun to be a part of that run. Looking from an outsiders perspective, there isn’t much to show for the tenure that the Grizzlies have granted Mike Conley. Once the highest paid player in the league, and set to make more than $32 million next season, the investment in his talents is huge. The draft provided the Memphis Grizzlies this investment opportunity, and yet again loyalty trumps winning.

Other great examples (with less elaboration):

Draft Picks - Significant Wins

Player Team Draft Pick Years w/ Team Significant Wins
Player Team Draft Pick Years w/ Team Significant Wins
DeMar DeRozan Toronto Raptors 2009, 9th pick 9 5 playoff app, one conf. finals
Marc Gasol Memphis Grizzlies 2007, 48th pick, LAL to MEM 12 7 playoff app, one conf. finals
Damian Lillard Portland Trailblazers 2012, 6th pick 7 6 playoff app, one conf. finals
Paul George Indiana Pacers 2010, 10th pick 7 6 playoff app, two conf. finals
Kemba Walker Charlotte Hornets 2011, 9th pick 8 2 playoff app
John Wall Washington Wizards 2010, 1st pick 9 4 playoff app
Kyle Lowry Toronto Raptors 2006, 24th pick 7 6 playoff app, two conf. finals
Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks 1998, 9th pick, MIL to DAL 21 15 playoff app, 3 conf. finals, two finals, one championship
Anthony Davis New Orleans Pelicans 2012, 1st pick 7 2 playoff app

So I know you have examples of players drafted, spending significant time with a team, and have actually produced championships. I am aware of them as well. There are exceptions to every rule, and I am honest enough to admit that loyalty and winning are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Tim Duncan, drafted in 1997, 1st overall by the Spurs, 19 straight playoff appearances with five NBA championships and one finals loss. The loyalty paid off for both parties (throw Manu Ginobili as a similar example as well). Stephen Curry, drafted in 2009 7th overall by the Golden State Warriors, seven straight playoff appearances, four straight finals appearances, and three championships. Dwyane Wade, well over a decade with the Miami Heat, 12 playoff appearances with five NBA Finals and three championships.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

There are of course gems that are found in the draft that are worth protecting, polishing, and letting shine. The value that these draft picks bring to each franchise is more than just NBA championships as well, fans want someone to love. But also as a fan, you have to take a step back and evaluate if a player is leading your team in the direction you ultimately want to go. Sometimes the best decision a team can make is to move on from someone they love in order to make room for a new generation of talent.

This year’s draft, like every year, is a chance to do just that: to find a generational talent that will lead a team to championships. It takes time to build these players up, which is why this list doesn’t include players like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Devin Booker. Yet there is a threshold where loyalty may start to outweigh winning or on court success. If teams prefer loyalty, run with it, but make sure to acknowledge it as well. If the Memphis Grizzlies want to keep Mike Conley in navy and white for his whole career, own that. But understand that the investment in loyalty will not always produce winning in the same measure.

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