Eating lunch earlier this week, I got to thinking about the New Jersey Nets.
And yeah, I realize this is pathetic. Really, you'd think that there's something more worthwhile to ponder than the 7-56 New Jersey Nets. But either way, instead of wondering about the recent uptick in earthquakes around the world, I had the Nets on my mind.
And when you look at the Nets up close, they're actually in a pretty unique position. In New Jersey, even though they're the worst team in basketball—and worse than every team in sports save for the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions—there's ample reason to be upbeat.
First off, with the worst record in the NBA, the Nets are the favorites to land the number one pick. And with Mikhail Prokhorov waiting in the wings in Russia, they're about to inherit one of the richest men in the world as their owner. Plus, they just broke ground on a stadium that'll allow the team to move to Brooklyn. All things considered, not bad.
But what if the Nets fans had to choose? They could either have the top pick in the draft, or an insanely wealthy owner, willing to spend whatever it takes to win, but not both. What's the choice there? It's not as easy as you think, and when you extend it to other sports, things get even more nuanced. We asked about it on Twitter earlier this week:
And since we asked, we may as well try to give an answer. But first, some corollaries. Obviously, there are a lot of external factors in play. Is the owner going to shut up and sign checks, or will he be a Jerry Jones-type, prowling the sidelines and inserting himself into personnel decisions? And what about the draft pick? There are definitely some can't-miss players that you would make this question moot—Lebron James, for instance, makes everyone forget about a bad owner. But we're talking in hypotheticals here.
Without any knowledge of the owner's style or the top player in the draft class, which would you choose? The insanely rich guy, or the insanely talented guy? Now, let's get down to it. Since the Nets were the ones who inspired all of this, let's start with the NBA.
The NBA is tough, because it's a league dominated by star players. If you don't have a superstar, or even if you've got a superstar that's sort of borderline (Dirk Nowitzki, for instance), there's a ceiling to how far you can advance. The Mavericks are actually a great example. Mark Cuban will spend whatever it takes to give the Mavs the best chance at a championship, but at least partly because of Nowitki's shortcomings as superstar, the Mavs have never been able to get to the top of the mountain.
Then again, under Cuban, the Mavs are competitive year-in and year-out, and they're currently the hottest team in basketball, thanks in large part their owner's willingness to take on the salaries of Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler at the trade deadline. There are two sides to the argument.
Take the player... The NBA is a league where luck matters. A lot. You can have the best management team, a good coach, and a roster full of solid talent, but without a transcendent superstar to take everyone's game to the next level, you're out of luck. At some point, whether it's trading for a talented guy that hasn't quite figured it out or getting lucky in free agency (like the Lakers with Shaquille O'Neal), a team has to catch a lucky break if they want to become a perennial title contender. A superstar doesn't necessarily guarantee championships, but it's the one ingredient you need before you can even start having the conversation.
And again, you can get lucky in a trade or with a home run signing (that almost never happens). Or you can draft someone with the number one pick. Those are the options, and of the three, the draft pick is the only one that's realistic on an annual basis. The number one pick isn't always a home run (ahem... KWAME BROWN), but if you're talking about adding a player that can single-handedly make your franchise relevant and competive, the best chance to do it is through the draft (unless your franchise is the Clippers, in which case said player will immediately have his knees explode.)
Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Lebron James, Yao Ming, Tim Duncan... All number one picks. The NBA is a league designed to highlight the individual, and whether it's Dwyane Wade carrying the Heat to a title, Kevin Durant leading a resurgence in Oklahoma City, or Tim Duncan turning the Spurs into the team of the decade, the list of draft picks that have turned around franchises is long and distinguished. Even if it just means changing the karma for a team, a good draft pick can lead to other good players arriving, good coaches coming on board, and younger players imitating the habits of an All-Star. Basically, they're the bedrock of a successful franchise.
To build a mansion, you need a foundation. Take the pick.
Take the owner... To build a mansion, you also need an owner willing to shell out lots and lots of cash. And who says we need to win championships to be successful? Obviously, that's the goal, but if you've got yourself a playoff team every year, that's not a bad consolation. And especially in the new NBA, where an owner with immense capital is a huge advantage, an owner can buy a playoff team, superstar or not. And what's guaranteed in the draft?
For every year with a cant-miss superstar, there are two years with a forgettable name at the top. Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, Andrew Bogut, Kenyon Martin, Kwame Brown, Michael Olowakandi... Since 1990, the only players to be drafted first overall and then go on to win NBA Titles were Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, and only Duncan won with the team that drafted him. Adding a player like John Wall this spring sounds like a franchise-altering stroke of luck, but just how much success is really guaranteed?
If you take an owner like Mikhail Prokhorov, you've got a guy who you know will spend millions of dollars in luxury tax money, hire whoever a bevy of experts to anchor your front office, and court free agents with private jets, lavish dinners, and all the other perks that come with being one of the richest men in the world. Plus, with the league's current economic landscape, the "Haves" enjoy a huge advantage over the "Have-Nots." Even if the Nets don't get John Wall this year, who's to say they can't buy Chris Paul from a cash-strapped New Orleans team in two years? With an owner like Mikhail Prokhorov, a team will have a chance to be competitive every single year.
Is that worth more than even a "cant-miss" talent at the top of the draft? I say yes.
VERDICT: Take the owner. You may not win championships, but you're guaranteed to have a fun ride. Unless you're a Knicks fan, in which case you should probably jump on the Nets bandwagon.
Take the owner... This is the easiest question of any of the major sports. I can't even mount an argument that you take the player. With Major League Baseball, even if your favorite team lands the number one pick, there's no guarantee that they'll sign him. Remeber when the Nationals were negotiating with Stephen Strasburg, last year's number one pick? They eventually signed him, but it was touch-and-go for a while there. This report was from last July:
The Washington Nationals are not on pace to sign top overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg by the Aug. 17 deadline, a source close to the negotiations told ESPN's Pedro Gomez on Tuesday.
The San Diego State right-hander went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA last season and won the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur player in the United States. He is widely regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in years.
The source said that the Nats have had an ongoing dialogue with Strasburg's adviser, Scott Boras, but have made no offer other than the mandatory minor league tender that all clubs must make to their picks within 10 days of the draft. That is a standard minor league deal that pays the player $1,000 per month but does not include any bonus money.
Even if the Nationals wound up signing him, just the fact that there was a chance Strasburg would go elsewhere tells us everything we need to know about baseball. The best talent goes to the highest bidder, period. Without a salary cap and with a horribly skewed financial landscape, baseball is ruled by the biggest spenders.
Debating the merits of that system is neither here nor there, and it's similarly not worth mentioning that a top draft pick in baseball is even more of a crapshoot than in other sports. It's self-evident: in baseball, having a billionaire owner is worth more than a hundred top draft picks, because at the end of the day, that owner can simply buy those draft picks, or let them mature in someone else's farm system, and then buy them. In baseball, life is unfair.
VERDICT: Take the owner and immediately become conservative on revenue sharing.
This one's a little bit trickier. The NFL is the exact opposite of Major League Basketball. The labyrinthine salary cap, not to mention revenue sharing, ensures that every franchise has an equal shot at building a contender. But at the same time, in football, one great player won't get you as far as it might in basketball or baseball. Let's break it down.
Take the player... A rich owner will only get you so far. Look at Jerry Jones with the Cowboys or Dan Snyder with the Redskins. They would both spend hundred of millions of dollars to buy a Super Bowl if they could, but that's not the way pro football works. Sure, they'll make sure you've got a great stadium and all the peripheral amenities fans could ever want, but ultimately, what matters to football fans is winning.
The New Orleans Saints play in a stadium that's old and falling apart, but their fans love it, and they sell out every game to watch their team. Because the Saints are finally winning. Players make the difference. And yeah, the number one pick only gets you so far, but if it lands a franchise cornerstone at quarterback--or left tackle, or on the defensive line--you've got a damn good start. There's no guarantees that a top draft pick will be successful, but if they are, it can single-handedly rejuvenate a franchise, and provide a building block that lasts for the next decade.
If given the chance, wouldn't you want to roll the dice with Matt Stafford?
Take the owner...The NFL Draft's far from an exact science. Take this year's choices. You could take Sam Bradford, a quarterback who has all the tools to excel at the next level, but who's also coming off significant shoulder injuries, and may have been helped by playing in a pass-happy offense for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. On the other hand, you could take Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh, two defensive tackles that dominated at the college level and would anchor your defensive line for years to come. Or would they?
Defensive lineman taken in the top five are no sure thing--remember Justin Smith for the Bengals or Gerard Warren for the Browns? Of course you don't. They matriculated to Ohio and were infected with the state's mediocrity. This happens more than you think with these supposed sure-thing picks. For every Jake Long, Miami's top pick from two years ago, there's a Mike Williams that gains too much weight and winds up flaming out of the league after two years. At the top of the draft, even the "sure thing" is a pretty big gamble.
And that doesn't even touch on the quarterbacks... At this point, picking a quarterback at the top of the draft is like getting a used car. If it's good, then great! You lucked out. And if it's bad, then you just spent a bunch of money on a crappy car, and you're stuck with it for the next four years. With colleges running more and more spread offenses, every quarterback's putting up ridiculous stats, everyone has the right measurables, and still, it's a complete crapshoot as to what kind of pro you might end up with.
Wouldn't you rather have an owner that's willing to spend money every offseason, pays for a staff of salary cap experts, and shells out millions for the best coaching staff around? Owners can't buy the players, but they can buy the best people to pick the players, and in the NFL, that's the biggest variable left.
VERDICT: Like I said, this one's tough. But ultimately, you gotta take the pick. Not because you're guaranteed to get a franchise cornerstone, but it's actually the lesser of two evils. An owner that's willing to spend endless amounts of money is a good thing in most sports, but in football, it usually leads to a lack of patience.
More than anything, the most successful franchises in football have a common theme: continuity. When you're team's constantly shuffling front office people and the coaching staff, it affects the product on the field. It's just simple logic: A guy breaking the bank every single year is less likely to be patient. The most successful teams in football aren't the ones with the richest owners, but the ones with front office people that have been in place for years.
Like the Colts, for instance. Bill Polian's been masterful in building that team, and the turnover in coaching staffs has been minimal. Even when they've lost an assistant or even head coach Tony Dungy, subordinates are promoted, the schemes remain the same, and the general philosophy does, too. That's what makes them so successful. Plus, drafting Peyton Manning didn't hurt their chances.
This one’s tough because, uh, I know nothing about hockey. But look! Here’s a photo of Ted Leonsis and Alex Ovechkin on draft day. The picture below is the best case scenario for a team. And look at that haircut!
Leonsis is the owner who’s helped rejuvenate the Washington Capitals organization, and Ovechkin is the former number one pick that’s taken them to the next level. So who’s more valuable? Well, the Caps got lucky and wound up with both, so maybe it’s better to look at their biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Penguins were facing serious financial issues, and found themselves filing for bankruptcy and teetering on the brink of relocation. We're talking as recently as 2006-2007. Ultimately, the Penguins were purchased by an ownership group (including Pens legend Mario Lemieux) that agreed to keep the team in Pittsburgh and now, only a few years later, and the notion that Penguins almost went bankrupt sounds ludicrous.
Why did this happen? Sidney Crosby. Once the Penguins drafted the "hockey Lebron James" the franchise became relevant again. Ask yourself: would the Penguins would have been worth $175 million if they didn't have Crosby, the former number one pick, waiting to take the league by storm?
Now, they’ve won a Stanley Cup, and the Penguins games sell out in mere minutes. That's Crosby's doing. Again, operating purely from a position of ignorance on this one, but it seems like, in hockey, one great player goes a longer way than a great owner. As a Washingtonian, it’s nice that the Caps have Ted Leonsis leading their renaissance, but Ovechkin is the reason I want Caps tickets. Make sense?
With each sport, there's definitely wrinkles that I'm forgetting, and in a lot of cases, there are good arguments to made on for either side. So what do you think? Let us know in the comments.