The Lost Art of Player Development

Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson.

Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson.

In 1990, after having made a head-coaching change that management thought would finally put the Bulls in a position to win, the Detroit Pistons ousted the Chicago Bulls in the conference finals for the second year in a row.  That offseason there were few changes on the Bulls’ roster.  The starting line-up remained the same, and even the rotation remained largely the same, with the exception that sophomore guard B.J. Armstrong got more minutes.  One might fairly expect a team whose unchanged roster failed to reach the finals one year to fail again, barring some serious regression or injury on the part of their in-conference competitors.  But this is not what happened.  The Bulls tore through the Eastern conference playoffs, losing only a single game and playing rosters who had improved or maintained their talent.  The Detroit Pistons, who had beat the Bulls three years in a row, were promptly swept by the Bulls despite being healthy and having what amounted to the same roster as the season before.  The difference for the Bulls was the emergence of Scottie Pippen and role players like B.J. Armstrong.  The Bulls did not make blockbuster deals or a big-name free-agent signing.  Phil Jackson helped to develop the talent they had in house and in turn helped the Bulls go from contender to champion. 

Pippen may not have had a HOF career had he played for a team that didn't focus on player development the way the Bulls did.

Pippen may not have had a HOF career had he played for a team that didn’t focus on player development the way the Bulls did.

As a rookie, Pippen had averaged less than 8 points a game, less than 4 rebounds and barely over 2 assists a game.  He was a good all-around player and had potential, but he was not an All-Star level player.  In his first three season his averages were meek: around 14 points a game, but by his third season, under the tutelage of Jackson, Pippen went from a decent player maker to a great play maker as well as a premiere defender.  By his fourth seasons his shooting percentages, which had been holding him back, skyrocketed and Pippen saw career highs in each statistical category save steals and blocks (where he remained about even) and turnovers and personal fouls (which he reduced; a credit to his improvement). Pippen is a prime example of why teams should embrace player development.  The Hall-of-Fame potential was in Pippen all along, but in other situations, Pippen may not have been able to develop it.

Rajon Rondo was not expected to become an All-Star, but his development extend Boston's champion window.

Rajon Rondo was not expected to become an All-Star, but his development extend Boston’s champion window.

More recently we have seen the same kind of development with the Boston Celtics.  In his rookie season Rajon Rondo was fighting for minutes with Sebastian Tefair and Delonte West.  His shooting percentage was an embarrassing .418 and his assists per36 were a meagre 5.8 a game.  Rondo was simply not an All-Star calibre player.  Then came the trades that saw the Celtics land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.  The Celtics suddenly had no other options at the point other than Rondo.  Coach Doc Rivers, a former point guard himself, helped to mentor Rondo.  His defence improved, his assist-to-turnover ratio improved and his shooting percentage improved.  Rondo went from a bench warmer on a lottery team to a starting point guard on a championship team via player development, and as Paul Pierce, Allen and Garnett aged, Rodno’s game improved to an All-Star level, allowing the Celtics to extend their championship window. 

Without the development of players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, The Spurs would likely not have four banners hanging in their rafters.

Without the development of players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, The Spurs would likely not have four banners hanging in their rafters.

There is perhaps no team in recent memory who has successfully employed player development better than the San Antonio Spurs.  Stephen Jackson couldn’t even make an NBA roster, but the Spurs helped develop him into an All-Star calibre player and a champion.  Bruce Bowen likewise couldn’t make an NBA roster, but the Spurs plugged him into their rotation and he went from bench warmer to one of the longest consecutive-games-started streaks in the league at the time he retired.  Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were picked late in their respective drafts but were developed into HOF players.  Such strong player development has allowed the Spurs to win 4 NBA titles, 5 conference titles, a multitude of division titles and a streak of 15 consecutive seasons at 50 or more wins (or the equivalent winning percentage) without having to reload via big-name free-agent signings or blockbuster trades.  Despite the historical evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness and efficiency of strong player development, few teams seem to embrace it now.

Greg Popovich helped develop Stephen Jackson into quality starter in the NBA, despite being waived by two teams before playing his first game and then being let go by another after his first season.

Greg Popovich helped develop Stephen Jackson into quality starter in the NBA, despite being waived by two teams before playing his first game and then being let go by another after his first season.

Greg Popovich has noted that building a culture and maintaining consistency in management is what has allowed the Spurs to develop a consistent winning plan, but few teams seem to recognize this.  The turnover for coaches is at an all-time high over the last ten years.  There will be no fewer than twelve coaches starting their first full season as head coach with their respective teams this year; over a third of the teams in the NBA.  Of the other teams, few have had coaches for longer than four season.  Tom Thibodeau and Frank Vogel are the longest tenured coaches in the eastern conference and they have only had their current jobs for four seasons each.  In the west, aside from Greg Popovich (who has been coaching the Spurs for 16 seasons), the longest tenured coaches are Rick Carlisle and Scott Brooks (both six years).  No other coach in the western conference has four seasons with his current team.  That means that of the thirty coaches in the league, only five of them have had their job for four years or more.

The Celtics trade Joe Johnson during his rookie reason, only to watch him blossom into an All-Star.  A core of Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Al Jefferson would have been a solid start to a championship team.

The Celtics trade Joe Johnson during his rookie reason, only to watch him blossom into an All-Star. A core of Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Al Jefferson would have been a solid start to a championship team.

The turnover for players is perhaps just as problematic.  The Boston Celtics traded Joe Johnson away during his rookie season because they weren’t happy with his performance.  Johnson would later develop into an All-Star player.   Thomas Robinson was likewise traded during his rookie season and may yet develop into a great talent.  The Philadelphia 76ers seemed all too eager to trade Nikola Vucevic who proved to be as strong a rebounder as Andrew Bynum (though that trade was understandable considering the potential return).  The Nets had quickly given up on Ryan Anderson, who would go on to win the Most Improved Player award, as did Hedu Turkaglu who was let go by the Sacramento Kings.  More recently we’ve seen teams like the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers let go of premiere hustle players like Chris Andersen and Reggie Evans respectably, only to see them help improve other teams in reserve roles. 

Though signing LeBron James has help Miami win two championships, such team-building methods are not viable options for most teams.

Though signing LeBron James has help Miami win two championships, such team-building methods are not viable options for most teams.

It is true that teams like the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers have been able to build contenders via free-agent signings or blockbuster trades (the two teams combine for a total of eight of the last thirteen championships), but such options are not viable for most teams.  Player development was the core of the Celtic historic run in the 60’s, and was also the focus of the Pistons in 89 and 90, as well as the Bulls throughout the 90’s and the Spurs over the last 15 seasons.  Players like: Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ginobili, Parker and Rondo (all of whom had All-Star potential) failed to play at a high level in their rookie seasons, but have since been developed into HOF players.  Other players, like: Stephan Jackson, Bowen, John Salley, Horace Grant, Kendrik Perkins, B.J. Armstrong have all been developed into solid role players that helped teams win championships.  Each of these players had the potential, but so do a lot of other players.  Some teams see the potential in a player and take time to develop it.  Other teams look to clear cap space or trade for future prospects. 

The Pacers are one of the few teams in the NBA that focus on player development.

The Pacers are one of the few teams in the NBA that focus on player development.

Some teams have taken a page out of the Sprus’ playbook.  The Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder both seem invest in player development. The Pacers have seen Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Paul George develop into All-Stars, while the Thunder have picked up players like Hasheem Thabeet with the hopes of developing their talent, and have retained players like Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha with the hopes of developing them into solid role players to support Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  Both teams have seen more success than most other rosters in the league.  In the last two seasons the Thunder and Pacers have lost only to the Miami Heat or the San Antonio Spurs in the post season and are two of only six teams to make the conference finals in the last two years (the other teams being Miami, San Antonio, Boston and Memphis).  That means none of the other 24 teams have fared as well as the Thunder and Pacers.

LBJ and Shaq are the only two free agent MVPs who have brought championships to their respective teams, though both needs the help other other MVP players (Kobe and Wade).

LBJ and Shaq are the only two free agent MVPs who have brought championships to their respective teams, though both needs the help other other MVP players (Kobe and Wade).

While free-agent signings and blockbuster trades can bring you championships, these are not options for most teams, and even for the teams who do have such options, few see championships as a result.  LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal are the only free agents who have played at an MVP level and brought championships to the teams they signed with.  Blockbuster trades happen often, but few result in championships.  The best way to build a team is through the draft, and often times the best way to improve a team is through player development.  Looking back over the last few decades we have seen Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki bring championships to teams with whom they were drafted by (or in the case of Dirk and Kobe, were traded for on draft day).  Even the teams who signed MVPs as free agent needed another MVP player whom they drafted to win.  There is no question, a team needs to draft well to put themselves in a position to win, but drafting well alone is not enough.  A team needs strong player development.  The Spurs have mastered it and the Thunder and Pacers are doing the same.  But for the most part, player development is a lost art.  The teams that don’t have it, had best hope that they are either New York, Los Angeles or Miami, because otherwise they will not be competing for a title. 

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