Come every spring we hear the same old rhetoric from NBA GM’s whose teams are headed back to the lottery: “we need to focus on building this team, we need to bring in some of this or that, we need to add one more piece in order to make a serious run”, and on and on about how their team has to acquire talent to improve their circumstances. The prevailing thought process here holds that a team should focus little upon the actions of other teams, only so much as if effects their odds at scoring a free agent. In this sense GM’s tend to focus on absolute gains by trying to acquire talent without regard to overall league activity, the primary concern being the accumulation of as many blue chippers as possible. Imagine, just for one moment, that your team’s GM chose to take a broader view realizing that each free agent loss by a potential opponent, be they a fellow division rival or perennial playoff adversary, improved your team’s chances of success. Thus, your GM approaches free agency through relative gains. The question then is how these different approaches would alter GM behavior. The divergent behavior between these two approaches it seems, would be in assigning values to free agents and potential trade targets.
Let’s take Chicago’s signing of Ben Wallace this past summer as an example. When the signing was first announced many questioned the massive contract Chicago was willing to fork over for an aging, undersized center with no offensive skills. Yet, this season the Bulls improved their record by eight games and advanced to the second round by sweeping a Miami team who bounced them out of the playoffs in six games last year. So in this sense Chicago obviously improved by acquiring Ben. More importantly, however, is how Detroit was effected. The pistons by contrast lost eleven more games this season and until the acquisition of Chris Webber languished behind Cleveland for the top spot in the Central. Now these two teams go at it this weekend, with the Bulls sporting a 4 time Defensive Player of the Year in the middle while the Pistons answer back with a bum-legged, Michigan has-been. The key point here is that Chicago may have over paid for Ben Wallace in terms of the production he’s given them, but he has been of even greater value than his numbers indicate, because his departure from Detroit weakened Chi-town’s chief divisional/playoff opponent.
Granted, this approach does not work in all circumstances, but it should be taken into account in certain situations. This summer we could see similar events play out with Milwaukee and Chauncey Billups. When assessing Billups’s value to the franchise, Milwaukee should take into account the chance to get an elite point guard but also an opportunity to severely wound a divisional foe and possible playoff opponent in the years to come. Thus, any massive contract the Bucks throw out there should be judged not solely on Billups’s contributions in Wisconsin, but also the demeaning effect it has on their neighbors across the crystal waters of Lake Michigan.
note: Adam Jugndahl is a special correspondednt for the NBA Guru.