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NBA AM: The DNA Of An NBA Winner

Building a winning NBA team is not easy. Steve Kyler explores what it takes to succeed in the NBA

Steve Kyler



Rowing Together

In the age of fantasy rosters and NBA2K lineups, there is often a sense that pairing talent together is all that’s required to have success. While talent and elite talent is a fundamental part of winning at the NBA level, it is usually only the smallest of components.

The DNA of a winning organization isn’t always the same, but it usually is comprised of a lot of the same pieces, those piece in various amounts are the formula teams are chasing in their quest to build a winner, and usually why teams are reluctant to tinker with something close.

So, let’s dig into what makes a winning organization:

It Starts With A Star

While the trend in the NBA is super rosters filled with All-Stars, having the right star at the right time in his career is a vital part to success. Take Kyle Lowry in Toronto as an example, Kyle was always a very promising player, but it wasn’t until Lowry landed in Toronto that he checked his own ego and accepted that he was part of the problem. That turned him into the solution. Lowry didn’t miraculously turn into another player, he matured, found a situation that was right for his game and the Raptors and Kyle have reaped success as a result.

The common narrative around the Oklahoma City Thunder and their decision to trade James Harden is that it was about money, and while money did play a factor, the biggest reason the Thunder traded Harden was they did not see him as the player he became in Houston. They saw him as a sixth man on a title contending team. Harden wanted more than that for his career and pushed for guarantees of being a starter. The Thunder didn’t see it that way and ultimately traded him. Would Harden have become the player he is today in OKC? Maybe. But often it is change and situation that turn players into stars. Boston’s Isaiah Thomas showed promise in his stops in Sacramento and Phoenix, but it wasn’t until he found the Celtics that he blossomed into the star he is today.

Not every star in the NBA is a “can’t miss player” like Cleveland’s LeBron James—sometimes it takes more than a high draft pick to find the right star at the right point in his career to have sustained success.

The Glue Guys

As much as stars matter in NBA basketball, the Glue Guys matter almost as much. Who is the guy that’s going to sacrifice his own game to help the team? Who is the guy that will thrive when things go badly? Who is the guy that will keep the team together in good times and bad? Every sustainable winner has at least one. When you ask yourself why teams continue to sign Thabo Selfosha, it’s because everywhere he’s played his teams have had success. Toronto saw the same in DeMarre Carroll, even though he was older and had some injury concerns.

The Glue Guys matter. The Glue Guys do exactly what their nickname implies—they hold the team together. It’s easy to suggest a player is a “glue guy,” but he has to want that role and understand that role. Sixer fans wanted Nerlens Noel to embrace that role, however that was never something he wanted and it is a big reason the Sixers had to trade him. Richard Jefferson has no delusions of why he is on the Cavaliers’ roster, nor does Channing Frye. They both understand their role and embrace it. It is hard to find players that will sacrifice their own earning potential or chance at stardom or the financial rewards that come with being a featured player, which is why it’s hard to find the right glue guys.

The Role Player

Every sustainable winner needs role players, guys that are on the roster for a singular purpose. Like Glue Guys, it’s hard to find productive players that will sacrifice minutes and future money for minor minutes off the bench. Rim defense is an ever-increasing need in the NBA, but having a full-time center is usually expensive for one of quality, which means finding a guy willing to play a role. San Antonio fans may have snickered when the Spurs invested in Dwayne Dedmon, but considering his impact on the team, who is laughing now? The same can be said for the HEAT when they spent on Willie Reed. Both players can contribute starter level minutes if needed, but both were brought in to play a very specific role that each has embraced. Unfortunately, the hard part of team building is finding guys okay with playing eight to 10 minutes per game, these usually end up being players on the decline of their career that are trying to stay in the league or guys that struggle to stay in the roatation. It’s rare to find a role guy in his prime that’s willing to remain in a role long-term. The Orlando Magic have found tremendous individual success with point guard Elfrid Payton playing from the bench—it jump started his season—however, in the long-term he is unlikely going to accept that role, even though it may suit him best. That’s the challenge in team building, finding players willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The salary system in the NBA is not set up to reward that kind of behavior, which makes finding quality long-term role talent harder, unless a team will overpay for it.

Buy In With The Coach

The role of a head coach in the NBA isn’t what it used to be. It’s unlike college, where the tone of the team is set and policed by the coaching staff. The best teams in basketball have a coach-player partnership. That’s a tough thing to make work. Even in San Antonio, where things seem to start and stop with Gregg Popovich, he has gotten the buy-in from his players. It helps that the Spurs have had so much team success, but even with new faces coming into the situation, Popovich has earned the trust of his players, even the ones that don’t play as big a role as maybe they would like.

When you look at the Cavaliers’ decision to part ways with David Blatt, as much as people want to make it about LeBron James, the truth is the roster never bought into what Blatt was about as a coach and even though they won games, it wasn’t the partnership that’s needed to succeed. Why has it worked so well with Brad Stevens in Boston? His players buy in to the concepts and he has the trust of his team. Why are things so up and down in Detroit and Minnesota? They are both rosters full of young guys that still have not sold out to the process yet.

Having a great X’s and O’s coach is nice, but the truly successful coaches are usually not very elaborate in the game planning, it’s about gaining the trust of the roster, putting in a system players can believe in and letting the players lead the way.

A Vision For The Future

As much as Stars, Glue Guys, Role Players and Coaches matter, understanding the path forward is another key to sustained success. The reason there is unwavering unity in Golden State isn’t just because they are winning together, they understand completely what’s going on around them. The Warriors front office involves the core players in decisions, they are advised and consulted on the big things and they trust the leadership to help them achieve the goal and that’s unwavering from ownership down. There are no separate agendas between ownership leadership, coaching and players.

It’s no surprise the teams that are repeatedly drafting in the lottery have rosters full of guys who have no idea what’s going on or where they fit in the future. How can you expect anyone to sacrifice their own personal goals if they don’t understand the team goals and where they fit in the future?

The LA Clippers players know exactly how the summer is going to play out because they are part of the process. That does not mean there won’t be any harsh business decisions to be made, but what it means is when the trade deadline loomed neither Chris Paul or Blake Griffin felt any need to check the rumor mill, because they knew where they stand and what the immediate future is about and their role in it.

Often in sports, the front office neglects the human component of team building. While players do earn ungodly amounts of money, they are people with families and comfort zones and failing to manage that is usually where teams start to come apart.

The truly successful teams have a plan and everyone in the equation understands their role in the plan, that’s usually when success happens the easiest.

Commitment To The Plan

Having a plan is vitally important, however getting everyone to believe in the plan is hard. There are so many agendas in professional sports. Each player is trying to maximize their earnings while becoming the biggest star they can become. Landing a shoe deal, being named an All-Star, getting commercials and endorsements; these are the gems of the sports world and none of them have anything to do directly with team success.

Then factor in the coaching staff. The head coach is trying to keep his job, win games and put in a process to have sustained success, but his own career is short. Coaching contracts are designed to be torn up at some point in the future. Assistant coaches are often looking for their own path up the food chain, they have their own careers to look out for while also not alienating players. Having a bad relationship with a player is a quick way to the exit.

The same is true in the front office. Few General Managers have an unlimited leash, they too answer to someone who likely does not understand the processes of the team. They have budgets to manage, agents to keep happy, a coach to keep focused and a roster of over-priced crybabies, that often can’t see the forest for all the trees. The guys below them are trying to stay in the NBA and advance their own careers and no sooner does a team get its roster right, then they have to go through another draft and free agency. If a team is lucky enough to find a gem late in the draft or in free agency, they have to decide to play him, trade him or pay him and unless you are the Golden State Warriors, the grind of the NBA can be brutal.

With all of these conflicting agendas, no wonder some teams struggle to find their way, let alone buy into and commit to a plan, especially if things start out rocky.

The New York Knicks players have been talking about their situation this week saying they never developed the trust and chemistry they expected, maybe that was because of the injuries in training camp, maybe that was the personalities in the locker room or simply the culture the Knicks organization seems to foster. Maybe it was a mix of all of it.

Building a roster, finding the coach and buying in into the plan all sounds easy, but it’s truly the hardest part of professional sports. Sometimes, from afar, you can see things those in the trenches of a situation can’t see. Sometimes, teams get lost in their own egos or hype. Sometimes, finding the path gets harder as the lines get blurrier without success.

Whatever the reason, some teams just can’t find success because they are not built for it. However, when you really dig into the teams that win frequently they all have the same characteristics. Building a winner is not easy, but spotting one usually is.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies,@BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.


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NBA AM: Calderón’s Late NBA Start

Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.

Joel Brigham



There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.

“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”

Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.

“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”

That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.

“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”

As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.

“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.

“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”

He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.

“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”

The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.

“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”

That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.

“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”

Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.

“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”

He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.

Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.

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Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race

Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.

Jesse Blancarte



When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.

More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.

Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.

Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.

He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”

Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.

“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”

Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.

“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”

Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.

“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”

Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).

The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.

When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.

“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.

He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”

There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.

“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”

Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.

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NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors

The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.

Moke Hamilton



The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.

Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.

Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.

Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.

Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.

Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.

Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.

The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.

There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.

At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.

We may be seeing that now.

En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have.  In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.

As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.

Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.

We’ll find out in short order.

* * * * * *

As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.

Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.

On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.

A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?

With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.

Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.

While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.

For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.

Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.

Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.

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