Friday, March 6, 2009

Contract years, Developing Talent & Front Office Subterfuge

The work of a General Manager is easy to criticize, yet hard to fully quantify. Team owners are like dragons sleeping on their hoard of gold coins and other priceless treasures. Coaches want to build winning resumes. Players want to get paid. The GM has to be the go-between that gets all these parties (with differing motivations) on the same page. The GM has to get a coach the players he needs to win. The players want the promises they need before signing on the dotted line (salary, role, playing time, etc). And for the team owner, well, the GM has to placate this obstacle on a near daily basis and convince the owners not to devourer the GM on sight -- while suggesting that parting with part of their hoard (on the 1st and 15th of each month) is the smart thing to do.

[Matthew Mitchell -- Draconomicon] Dragon and Hoard

At times the NBA can be distilled to purer components, of winning and losing, and of the honesty of the game. Yet, at other times the NBA can expand into a complex juggling act more akin to micromanagement in a strategy game, or a RTS click-fest. For players, the game is the game. It's simple in that way, and relies on skill, speed and quick reflexes -- a Video Game analogy would be the first person shooter. For coaches, it's series of complex decisions, not unlike the original turn based strategy game called "Chess". (you may have heard of it) The GM, though, has to delve into the previously mentioned RTS click-fest:

But instead, imagine dealing with salaries, egos, scouts, coaches,
players and injuries . . . also less cannons, probably . . .

*Ahem* Back to the point . . . a GM's job is rarely done perfectly because of how difficult it tends to be. Some GM's are great talent evaluators (for example, there's Isiah Thomas, just look at the player's he has drafted in his career, most of them have been All-Stars or award winners in some regard: Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Marcus Camby, Damon Stoudamire, David Lee, and so on) but poor on other sides of their job description. Other GM's have good connections with other teams, and always seem to do business with them (look at Kevin O'Connor and all the deals he has made with Philly over the years). Some GM's are really good with managing money, while others are known for turning things around in short order. At the end of the day, though, the GM is a salesman. He is essentially selling his services to a consumer -- in this case the team owner. Part of sales is to buy low and sell high. Another part of sales is to be consciously deceptive in just what your wares are. That last part does not really apply fully to the GM - Team Owner relationship, but rather to the GM to GM relationship. Sometimes you get a lemon, but you have to pass it off as a safe family sedan. Other times you (as the GM) are working not against the team owner, the other GM's, but the actual assets -- the players and their agents.

You want to keep a good player on your team for the least amount of money it's going to take to keep him there. All Team Owners expect the GM to be able to do such a thing. This part of the job ties in directly with the buy low/sell high and deceptive doctrines. If the first step is acquiring a player (via a Trade, Free Agency or the Draft), then the next step is evaluating that player (though, we hope that some evaluations have taken place before the player is traded for/signed/drafted). The next logical step would be to give playing time to that player and develop him. The last step? Making a decision on that guy -- sign him again when his contract expires, trade him, or let him walk. Parts of the last step depend greatly on each of the previous steps.

  • For example, say the team acquires player A. They evaluate him, see some things they like, some things he needs to improve on, and play him accordingly. He either gets better or worse. If he does well, he becomes more valuable to the team -- and more valuable as a player. His asking price may go up, and making the last step (in this case: deciding to keep him) harder to do. An example of this Jazz fans may be familiar with would be All-Star Mo Williams.
  • Player B, on the other hand, does not appear to have much upside, does not make the most of his chances on the court, and is not in the future plans of the team. They can get rid of him in a variety of ways, the team's disinterest in retaining him opens up options for his removal. An example of this Jazz fans may be familiar with would be Kris Humphries.

It's not always this simple, though.

  • What about Player C . . . the team that drafts him knows him best, and knows that there is hidden potential deep inside. If they go about normally giving him playing time, allow him to develop openly (instead of only during closed practices and workouts with the team), then other GM's may wish to pry him away. Even if the original team wishes to keep him, retaining him may become very difficult as the exposure led to quicker development, which led to a greater player value. This would be repeating the same mistake with Player A all over again. What if, instead, the team decides to develop him secretly, give him less exposure, drive his asking price down, remove interest other GMs would have in him, and basically, keep him on the "down low".

This is pretty much the only way to retain those people that you think *can* blow up (in a good way), without having to give them a lot of money to make them stay. Deron Williams deserves the contract he got. It's an expensive contract though. Some teams are forced to over-pay to retain their talent (don't need to look farther than a young, uninjured Andrei Kirilenko half a decade ago). In general, you want to avoid doing that. If anything, I think we can clearly place the curious case of C.J. Miles as an example of a Player C scenario.

Dec 11 2008 [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty] CJ with the thunder dunk At the end of C.J.'s first season he was getting more playing time, and in the last game of the season he played really well. How well? 23 points (8/13 fg, 2/5 3pt, 5/8 ft), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal -- as a rookie with extend playing time playing against a tough Western Conference team. Every off-season since then there have been fishy things going on. He was a consistent no-show in future summer leagues, but instead opted to work on his game by himself. During times of injury he would be pressed into the starting line-up, only to return to the end of the bench only a few days later. C.J. should have played more than he did in when he was on his rookie contract. The clock struck 12 on C.J.'s contract though, and the Jazz simply put themselves in a situation to match whatever contract someone threw his way by virtue of him being a restricted free agent. No one really bit, not knowing what they would be getting . . . until Oklahoma City offered him a 4 year $15 million dollar contract. We all know how that story ended, as the Jazz eventually matched. Was $3.75 million per season too much for C.J. Miles? Perhaps . . . but at the same time, it's a lot less than it could have been had C.J. been playing like he is now at this time last season. (or perhaps, getting the playing time that he is getting now at this time last season) Back then I thought the Jazz were (in chronological order) a) not developing C.J. enough, b) using him only for spot duty, c) giving his playing time to guys who did not deserve it.

This season Ceejay has been everything from a solid deep threat, a versatile 2nd option on offense, to invisible . . . sometimes all in the same week. This is his 4th season in the league, and his first where he has averaged over 11.5 mpg. I'm sure he would be better, more seasoned player than he currently is if he was playing 20 mpg every season after his rookie campaign. I'm also pretty sure that he wouldn't be on the Jazz then. In effect, one could directly point to a systematic way in which the Jazz brass (Sloan and O'Connor mostly) lowered interest in a prospect, sequestered him from exposure (he only got one short stint in the NBA DL), yet did not develop him for fear of losing him. At the end of the day the Jazz have C.J., but not the C.J. he could be right now, and C.J. is not earning as much as he perhaps thought he would be after his rookie contract expired.

The Jazz financial situation is horrible right now. If it does not improve shortly than there may be a few more Player A type situations in the future with key contributors Paul Millsap and Ronnie Brewer. The Jazz would love to keep them for reasonable contracts, though their development (and production) have elicited quite a bit of exposure. Good for their bank accounts, perhaps not so great for the Jazz.

That's where the micromanagement comes back into play. You want your players to be good, productive and develop . . . but you do not want to lose them to other teams after you put in all the hard work to make them useful. Gilbert Arenas comes to mind, he was drafted, developed, and then left to get paid in free agency. Right now the Jazz are playing the "front office subterfuge game" with some other young players that could possibly be helping the Jazz right now.

Oct 9 2008 [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty] Mo looks to pass Morris Almond: He is a scorer's scorer, who despite having limited quickness and has played defense only once in his life, could be doing a whole lot more for this Jazz team. He's looked horrible in his rookie season with the Jazz where he never got to be involved in the plays that the regular rotation run that get swingmen easy buckets. He didn't play a minute with Deron Williams last year, and was relegated to garbage time spot up shooting from the corner. Reason for not getting playing time: He's behind a few key guys on the depth chart and doesn't rebound or defend as well as others. For some reason this has prevented him from playing one single second in the NBA-DL this season. Something fishy: Why hasn't he played in the D-League at all this season then, if there's no space for him on our current roster? Do the Jazz know that he's a raw gem that only seems to look better when he gets to play?  Utah is healthy now, so there's no real risk to put him in the game at all . . . maybe practice with the Jazz is better than games with the Flash? Or maybe they don't want him to get too much exposure right now? Utah has opted not to extend his contract, so seemingly he is out . . . but maybe they are trying to keep his going rate low so that they *can* still have a shot at retaining him for a while. After all, they scouted him, interviewed him, drafted him, are developing him . . . Harpring's contract expires next year, and the Jazz will need a wing player who can come off that Harpring curl and hit the mid-range jumper. Financial situation aside, that sounds like something the Jazz have in their laps right now with Almond. Alas, this is exactly not the contract type of year a young player wants to have (being buried on the bench). Co-incidentally, this is exactly the type of contract year the Jazz would want him to have . . . after all, they did the same thing with Ceejay, they know what they are doing.

Oct 9 2008 [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty] Fes defends Shaq Kyrylo Fesenko: Very large man (7'1, 300+ lbs.) with the same wingspan and standing reach as Greg Oden -- yet uninjured and a capable passer and interior defender who has, due to injuries, been pressed into defending the likes of Yao Ming to Andrew Bynum . . . and done so well. Very likely that he is more talented than the guy ahead of him on the depth chart (Jarron Collins), but lacks experience, familiarity with the system and seasoning. Reason for not getting playing time: Work ethic and personality appear to anchor this man to the bench, though at some level talent and ability should trump that. Something fishy: As a rookie, this wet behind the ears, 2nd round draft pick center joined the Jazz and played in 70 games, and played over 20 mpg. This player joined a playoff team that was contending for a championship. This player had no experience with the Jazz system prior (as a rookie) and ended up getting playing time over a limited, soft center who had much more experience in the system. This young player was Jarron Collins. What, did you think I was talking about Fesenko? Heck no, Fesenko has played only 200 minutes with the Jazz in his 2 year career, let alone played in 70 (@ 20 per) as a rookie. Why is there such a disparity between Collins' and Fesenko's early careers? I don't know, but it seems kind of fishy to me. Even more fishy is that Fes only had one stint in the NBA-DL this season (8 games), promptly did exactly what we'd want him to do (be a defensive presence who rebounded, blocked and changed shots, shot a high percentage and eventually was averaging a double double) . . . and was called back and never played again. Ever. Hmmmm . . . he improves, shows that he's good at what he does . . . and can be a free agent this season . . . 'need to reel that big boy in, and hide him somewhere!' (which was the original plan with drafting a little known, poorly scouted player from a minor European league in the first place) More so than Almond, I think that Fesenko has a future with the Jazz, or at the very least, in the NBA somewhere as teams always want size, and if the guy is talented, he's going to get a contract somewhere. If you gave him the playing time, I'm pretty sure that he'd be able to get Rookie Millsap type of numbers for sure.

Nov 26 2008 [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty] Put back jam Paul Millsap: Speaking of the 'Sap, he got some great exposure this season. He produced as a starter due to injuries to Carlos Boozer. He's a free agent, and he's going to get paid this off-season. No doubt about it. Interestingly enough, at the first whiff of a hobbled, rusty Carlos Boozer the Jazz sent 'Sap back to the bench and as his fantasy owners know firsthand, 'Sap just hasn't been the same since. Reason for being sent to the bench: Boozer was the starter before he got injured, the Jazz/Sloan doctrine on this is that you cannot lose your starting job due to injury. Something fishy: No one said anything about a starting job, but just let Paul start the first 4-5 games after Boozer comes back and then let Boozer slowly work his way back into playing shape, and then give Boozer the starting spot. A lot of teams do this, they bring a starter back from injury on the bench just to test things out a bit. Out of all of my conspiracies, this is among the weakest -- though I don't see why the Jazz didn't keep starting Millsap for 4 games while Boozer (who was playing limited minutes) worked his way back into starting shape. For one thing, this almost looks like a directed attempt to reduce Millsap's exposure (for the open market). It's probably not, but it just looks fishy -- during a contract year, no less.

Nov 19 2008 [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty] Kosta gets the board Kosta Koufos: Let's just say that if this 19 year old was playing Brook Lopez type of minutes on a bad team we'd see Brook Lopez-ish production out of Kosta. Yet, a guy who is clearly more talented than Collins, and is a very hard worker (much more than Fesenko has shown), is completely lost on this team. Kosta isn't on the active roster right now, isn't playing in the development league, and isn't developing. Reason for not getting playing time: Apparently he doesn't know the plays. Sure, he's a smart shot blocking 7 footer who has a nice offensive game AND is a very hard worker who hustles . . . but he's not going to get to play because by playing him he would then be in a position to actually learn the plays, and then we would have even less of an excuse for why he isn't playing. He's almost a gestalt character that takes the size (mostly) and shot blocking of Fess, with the hustle and work ethic of Collins . . . and gets none of the playing time that he should. Something fishy: There is no good reason not to play this guy, develop him with real NBA minutes, or even send him to the NBA D-League for some in game action. He hasn't seen the developmental league at all in his career, instead getting better by wearing suits next to Carlos Boozer for 50+ games. That's another thing, he got some very minor playing time just because of injuries . . . this season was a prime season to be forced into playing and developing younger talent. Sloan had to work many games without being able to call on veteran bigmen . . . but still he elected to instead play Matt Harpring at power forward. Huh?

It's not that difficult to imagine that the Jazz are hurting their futures by risking not getting these guys playing time because they do not want to lose them to other teams . . . but they also get nothing out of these guys. Other teams play younger players during the regular season so that they may become contributors to that team . . . and even help them in the playoffs. Heck, our team did this with Paul Millsap as a rookie, or Shandon Anderson (more on him later), or Bryon Russell and a host of others. There's no doubt in my mind that if Fess of Kosta were getting 12-15 mpg this season that one of them would be able to contribute in the playoffs for us. Instead the development time has become much longer for a bunch of guys who could be helping us now. Also, it's not that difficult to imagine that the Jazz are hurting the values of their players by flat out burying them during contract years. No playing time = no exposure and no stats = bargain prices. They did this with C.J., and if they had a time machine, would probably like to do so with others as well.

The way that the Jazz develop talent seems to be highly unequal. Some young guys get regular burn, while others don't. This time is directly proportional towards development. I think that Jazz Brass feel the financial side to all of this needs to take precedence over the immediate development and returns from the players on the roster. The Jazz gave good minutes to a solid player (Shandon Anderson) as a rookie, and eventually left the team, the Jazz get nothing in the long term for it. The Jazz gave good minutes to a very talented player (Andrei Kirilenko), and end up having to really over-pay to keep him on the team. The Jazz don't want to get into anything like that again, and now underplay most guys during the span of their rookie contracts, so they they do not have to over-pay.

C.J., only after the Jazz matched an offer he got from another team, is finally getting playing time -- but as a 4th year guard with the potential that he had when he was drafted, he is behind where he should be. They seem to be guilty of doing that with Almond and Fesenko by not playing them in the NBA, nor allowing them to rack up stats in the D-League . . . which would have been a great way to audition for other teams during contract years -- or you know, actually get better and be able to help OUR team.

Some Jazz apologists feel like the practices the Jazz have are of greater value to a younger player than actually playing in the development league, or even playing in the NBA on poorer quality teams. I think that this is a very haughty thing to say . . . especially with how closely the Jazz *can* keep an eye on things with their development team being only a few miles away and the coach of that team is related to Jerry Sloan -- it almost seems like a no-brainer to send the kids down at least once each when none of them are even on the active roster with the Jazz. They threw C.J. a bone once by doing that, by giving him a chance to play, and that improved his morale. Why not do the same for a younger player this season? Sloan even goes out to harp on how great the D-League is, and how he wishes they had that when he first came into the league. If it's so great, why not use it, now that the rest of the guys are healthy?

As for how great the Jazz practices are . . . they rarely get a chance to practice on the road (they only practice on days off, and now at the end of the season, with the playoffs coming up, there may be less than the regular number of practices on off-days), so the younglings are getting even less time to improve than normal. This clearly is the case where the GM, at the behest of saving the team owner money, works with the coaches to screw the players out of money / job satisfaction. Or maybe that's by design, especially in their contract years?