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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

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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 Daily: Clippers Looking Forward to Teodosic Return

Clippers hanging on and looking forward to Teodosic return, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have had a season of twists and turns. While the season is still young, they’ve dealt with setbacks, mostly in the form of a multitude of injures. In fact, the team’s misfortunes began almost immediately. On Oct 21 (the NBA season started earlier this year), Clippers guard Milos Teodosic went down with a plantar fascia injury. This stands as the first bump in the road for the Clippers, who have seen a number of key players go down.

Following the loss of Chris Paul this past offseason, the Clippers appeared to have salvaged their immediate future through a number of offseason transactions. Under the direction of the front office, which includes Lawrence Frank, VP of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West, a Clippers consultant, the Clippers traded Paul, which helped to remake the roster. West spoke of his approval of the Paul trade before the season started.

“The Clippers feel comfortable that we made out really well. We could have lost him for nothing,” West stated of the Paul trade. “I think it was kind of a win myself.”

The Paul trade brought in Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and helped to eventually bring in Danilo Gallinari. A big part of the offseason makeover was the acquisition of European star Teodosic. Losing Paul meant that the Clippers were going to be without a highly talented, pass-first point guard for the first time since Paul’s acquisition during the 2011-2012 season.

Part of the strategy called for replacing Paul with both Beverley, who could match Paul’s defensive tenacity, and Teodosic, who could match Paul’s vision and passing. While neither player could match Paul’s overall brilliance (and Paul has been brilliant this season for the Rockets), the team hoped to create a winning environment around these two players.

Unfortunately, Teodosic went down quickly. Then Beverley experienced issues with his knee, culminating with season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee in late November. Combine this with Gallinari missing nearly a month with injuries and Blake Griffin going down for the next few months with an MCL sprain of his left knee recently, and the Clippers have struggled to stay competitive with lineups that have often included only one of the team’s opening day starters (center DeAndre Jordan). The franchise shouldn’t be completely surprised by the rash of injuries, as their offseason plan banked on players with questionable injury histories such as Griffin and Gallinari.

To fill in, the Clippers have also made use of a number of young, inexperienced players (not at all common in the Doc Rivers era), including playing 2017 second round pick, guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has benefited from the opportunity as is averaging 16.2 minutes a game and has even started in seven games (of 24 played).  Thornwell confirmed the obvious regarding injuries.

“We’ve been playing without a lot of our core guys,” Thornwell stated.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that injuries have affected the team.

“It’s not just Blake [Griffin]. If it was just Blake, we’d be OK,” Rivers stated recently. “But you miss [Danillo] `Gallo,’ Milos [Teodosic], Patrick Beverley.”

Currently, the team is well below .500 with a 9-15 record, good enough for 11th in the Western Conference. And while the team is ahead of a number of teams destined for the NBA lottery such as the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, they aren’t too far removed from the eighth seed, currently held by the Utah Jazz, who are below .500 (13-14 record). It’s not reasonable for a team that has already suffered a nine-game losing streak and is only 4-6 in the last 10 games to expect another playoff berth, and the team has not yet signaled they have given up on the season.

The Clippers have stayed afloat by being extremely reliant on the individual offensive output of guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams. Give Williams credit, as he has been brilliant recently including a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 23.2 points on 62.7 true shooting percentage and 6.2 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, per nba.com. For reference, Williams has a career true shooting percentage average of 53.3 percent, per basketball-reference.com. However, this doesn’t scream long-term winning formula, nor should it — the team hasn’t recently had reliable offensive output outside of these guards who were originally expected to come off the bench for the Clippers.

Gallinari has since returned and played well in his second game back, an overtime win against the Wizards. Now the team has upgraded Teodosic’s condition to questionable and are hopeful that Teodosic makes his return Monday night against the Raptors.

“He’s ready. He’s close,” Rivers stated, speaking of Teodosic at a recent Clippers practice. “And that will help. In a big way.”

In addition to possibly helping their increasingly remote chances at making the playoffs, the Clippers have other goals. Teodosic is signed to a two-year deal, but the second-year is a player option allowing the European guard to leave after the season. Should Teodosic find that the Clippers are somehow not a good fit or a place where he can find success, he may opt out of the second year. If the team wants to ensure that the 30-year-old guard sees a bright future with the Clippers, they should hope that his return leads to the Clippers playing winning basketball.

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Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman

Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Spencer Davies

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Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?

Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.

Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.

BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?

Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.

BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?

Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.

BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?

Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.

Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.

BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?

Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.

I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.

BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?

Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.

That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.

BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?

Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.

BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?

Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.

BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?

Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.

BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?

Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.

BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?

Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.

The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.

BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.

Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.

BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?

Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.

I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.

BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?

Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.

BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?

Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.

BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?

Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.

Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.

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James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture

James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.

Michael Scotto

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James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.

Over the summer, Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Miami, as first reported by Basketball Insiders. The deal included a fourth-year player option.

“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”

Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).

Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.

“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?

“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”

Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.

“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”

While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.

Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?

“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”

Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.

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