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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: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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