It may be counterintuitive, but there's no correlation in the NBA between player payroll and on-court success. Quite the contrary, actually. Four of the league's six highest-payroll teams missed the playoffs last season, including the league's biggest spendthrift franchise, the New York Knicks, whose $104 million payroll is a quicksand of bad contracts. By contrast, this year's finalists, the San Antonio Spurs and the defending champion Detroit Pistons, rank 24th and 19th out of 30 teams, respectively, in player payroll, according to Web site HoopsHype.com.
So if the key to winning in the NBA isn't having an owner willing to indiscriminately spend vast sums, what is it? Some would say it comes from lucking into dominant players, such as the Spurs' former top pick Tim Duncan. But just as important, and more controllable, is having a front office able to maximize resources.
Look at Detroit and San Antonio again. What these teams have in common, beyond splendid defenses and brilliant coaches, are rosters packed with players who have exceeded the expectations that came with how they were acquired. Surrounding Duncan in San Antonio are former second-round pick Manu Ginobili, an emerging superstar, late first-rounder/championship point guard Tony Parker, scrap-heap free agent turned elite defender Bruce Bowen, and an interior force in Nazr Mohammed, who was acquired for an overpaid role player (Malik Rose) and a couple of very late draft picks. As for the Pistons, their vaunted defense is led by two players who weren't supposed to be stars: Ben Wallace, an undrafted journeyman considered no more than a middling role player when the Pistons acquired him in a trade, and spider-armed Tayshaun Prince, snagged with the 23rd pick in 2002.
This is what good teams do. Look at every other NBA contender, and you'll see a roster spiked with similar success stories. Widely reviled Jordan-era Chicago Bulls executive Jerry Krause was ridiculed for suggesting that it wasn't great players that won championships but great organizations. But he may not have been far off.
Now look at the Grizzlies. The franchise's turnaround from perennial cellar-dweller to playoff participant has been impressive, but it's been the result of a lot of heavy lifting by a cornucopia of too-well-compensated role players. Outside of James Posey's magical spring of 2004 or Pau Gasol's quicker-than-anticipated rookie-year impact, no one on the Grizzlies' roster has dramatically exceeded expectations. On the contrary, rather than being packed with over-performing players, the Grizzlies roster could be said to have the reverse quality: seven lottery picks and nary an all-star among them.
Grizzlies fans still reflexively call Jerry West the game's finest executive, though his record in Memphis has been decidedly mixed. His best moves have been his coaching hires and minor trades. Unless Antonio Burks, Andre Emmett, or Dahntay Jones break out (still a possibility on all counts), West has yet to strike gold on draft day.
Which is why next week's rookie draft is so important. With several free agents and not much wiggle room financially, West needs to come through.
Since the end of the Grizzlies' short playoff run, reports have been rampant that the team is shopping its pick, at number 19, possibly in exchange for cash. West has denied this, but reports persist. And that would be the worst thing the Grizzlies could do. With the meager sum a number-19 pick will command and the league's new collective bargaining agreement likely to limit rookie contracts to only two guaranteed years, the risk is minimal. But the potential rewards are great. Jettisoning the pick in a minor cost-saving measure wouldn't be good business on or off the court.
If you look at every rookie draft from the past 10 years (discounting last year, where it's too soon to judge), there has been an impact player taken between number 19 and the end of the first round every single year: Prince, Parker (28th), Andrei Kirilenko (24th), Jamaal Magloire (19th), and Zach Randolph (19th), to name only a few. There will be an impact player available when the Grizzlies pick at number 19 next Tuesday, perhaps several. And it's incumbent on West and his scouting staff to finally find that player or to use the pick in a trade that will net something more valuable than what you expect from that pick.
It's what good teams do.