I've spent a lot of time thinking about optimal strategies for putting together the most balanced team that exists in harmony. The inspiration: these 2021 Phoenix Suns. Sculpted through the draft, free agency/ trade and patience, this piece isn't meant to go over the acquisition methods and salary cap balances necessary to make a roster hit its stride at the right time.
Instead, we'll discuss the actual mesh on-court and how different positions, skill sets and organizational culture come together to formulate the optimal on-court product. Let's start with the most simplistic, obvious statement to make, but one that is necessary to state: the optimal on-court product is a championship-caliber team. The second obvious statement that also needs to be said: star players win championships.
There's an oversimplification that centers on players either being stars or supporting cast, meaning that only two types of players exist. While it's true that stars anchor these runs, there are ways to win without having a collection of star power. Furthermore, a group of excellent role players, cohesion and identity helps make up for the lack of a star.
In trying to encapsulate this entire concept, I've come up with a model that I believe illustrates how to best build a roster and is flexible enough to bend to the differences in constructing a successful team: the 3 Pillars Approach.
1. The Foundation
This entire metaphor for team-building will mirror the process of building a home. In order for the home to be stable, to survive windy storms and turbulent times, it must have a strong, solid foundation. The pillars we will soon discuss are meaningless unless the framework that is dug into the ground can hold them together.
For successful team-building, the foundation needs to be the organizational culture, leadership and stability. Those are difficult terms to define in clear contexts, or to tell you exactly what it takes to make those traits strong enough to hold up championship-level pillars. But it's harder than you think to sustain, even if it seems easy to build.
Organizations like the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs come to mind first and foremost when it comes to culture. Part of the reason: continuity. They're not digging into the trenches to uproot the foundation that's been/ is being built. They trust their front office and coaches. The same voices are constant year after year.
Instead of focusing on exactly what the successful foundations are built off, it's easier to note times when actions clearly ruin the base of construction. Constant meddling in coaching or drafting decisions from ownership in Sacramento, for example, prevent the Kings from making the playoffs and conquering what is now the NBA's longest playoff drought. The poor cultural developments in Dallas, noted by The Athletic, and unclear organizational reporting structure have prevented the team from quickly building around Luka Doncic. Unwillingness to realize when it's time to rebuild the foundation have elongated Michael Jordan's Charlotte Hornets stay in mediocrity.
What happens under the ground -- what we cannot see on the surface -- is so much more impactful in the security of what is built above ground than any of us know. Players ultimately win championships, but organizations, poor culture and a lack of clarity in process can cause even the most majestic pillars to crumble.
2. The 3 Pillars: A Three Star Approach
Over the last 13 years, the majority of NBA championship teams (and even runner-ups) have been some iteration of a "Big Three", a roster whose three most talented players are of All-Star caliber, and so clearly better than anyone else on their team that the entire structure is built around them.
That's the most efficient and proven path towards creating a champion. The Boston Celtics popularized it with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Miami Heat perfected it with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Cleveland built a similar team around LeBron, and the Warriors have weaponized multiple versions of a big three since.
Here's where the discussion relates to drafting procedures and philosophy: if having multiple star players is the easiest path to winning a title, then the entire process about acquiring young players should center around gaining stars if you don't have them. It's why the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets have undergone massive teardowns to gain multiple picks... the hardest part of the team-building process is in finding out who can be your pillars.
Of course, not every contender can or does have three All-Stars at a time. They can accumulate talent that gets close to it, though, and is still a clearly delineated third option. Each pillar, or player, is made up of some combination of offensive impact, defensive impact and fundamentals/ intangibles. The strongest pillars have all three, or are so dominant at one that they can exist without the others.
3. Filling in the House
An empty house is not a home. While the three pillars ultimately hold up the building and determine how high the ceilings are, it's the surrounding talent that make the team come to life. We've identified four areas to focus on when it comes to getting the best fit/ understanding of a roster.
1. Veteran Talent - In any 'win-now' team there needs to be proven NBA players, talent that has proven it can stick around and perform on a nightly basis. Players who are veterans bring certain intangibles to the table, mainly experience, that is vital.
2. Young Talent - On the same floor of the house as veteran talent is young talent. This is as much about long-term roster building as it is competing for a championship right now. It's also about salary cap navigation: an impactful role player on a rookie scale deal allows the front office to focus on getting more help on the pillars or veteran talent that can help with the heavy lifting.
You can have one form of talent without the other and still have a wonderful team. If it is out of balance, there will become a point where the house needs a major renovation. Too much veteran talent (ex: Cleveland Cavaliers around LeBron James) means that once the pillars are gone there are no youngsters groomed to move into the role. Too much young talent (ex: the 2010 Oklahoma City Thunder) means that even if the pillars are strong, the rest is simply too erratic and can't be trusted on a nightly basis.
3. A Delineated Top-8 - In crunch time games or playoff atmospheres, rotations shorten. Teams who have many buttons they can push are versatile and have adaptability for any opponent, but the most impactful teams are the ones who have five other guys to surround their core who they know belong on the court in a championship game.
4. Spatial Impact - Offense is spacing and spacing is offense. In a game built around scoring more points than your foe, the goal should be to maximize your own ability to create or use space (which creates offense) and limit your opponent's operation in space (which hinders their ability to score).
We could talk for hours about ways to do so: surrounding a prolific post threat with 3-point shooters, running pick-and-roll coverages that keep an elite rim protector close to the basket, switching perimeter actions to negate the point of attack and limit dribble penetration. At the end of the day, the pillars are successful not just if they are strong and stand in relation to one another but if the role players around them maximize their ability in space.
Let's talk about pillars and how they interact with each other. That's an important component to understanding spatial impact. How would a team built around Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook work? Those three pillars all lack the same offensive impact skill: shooting. To play all three together means that the role players would need to focus solely on creating space (shooting) so that the spatial ability of the group is maximized.
Replace Simmons with Bradley Beal and Westbrook with Stephen Curry. Now Giannis is surrounded by two elite 3-point shooters. That not only allows the spacing on offense to improve amongst the three pillars but alleviates the burden on the organization to find role players who solely shoot the ball. The blending of pillars and understanding how they interact is crucial to team-building.
Heading back to drafting procedures, that's where the terms "drafting for fit" or "a superstar in his role" come into play. In the 2020 NBA draft, I had Devin Vassell as a top-four player. Why? He was elite as a role player on both offense and defense that he fits next to and around literally any set of pillars that exist. I valued (for the right team) finding that type of player over swinging on someone who could become a pillar and potentially missing.
One phrase you'll hear me say a lot is "you're either an alpha or you have to fit next to an alpha". I really do believe this when it comes to team-building... but I feel like I need to clarify what (or where) being an alpha is a flexible term...
Building a Winner without Three Individual Pillars
As we mentioned earlier, acquiring three literal All-Stars is a difficult thing to do. If every team could, there would be 90 All-Star-caliber players in the league. But there are plenty of teams who are successful without it.
The reason: they have a clear identity that can serve as a third pillar. Not necessarily identity in the same way that we discuss organizational culture, but identity as a significant trait, skill or team-building strength that has been compiled on the roster. We've identified three areas that can make that pillar stand out.
1. Offensive strength - The way the roster is built brings a certain trait to the table that will, in essence, stand alone as a third pillar. An example can be shooting, pick-and-roll versatility (both a roller and popper), etc.
2. Defensive strength - The same concept on the defensive end, with rim protection, great perimeter defenders, length/ switchability, etc.
3. Quality depth - If a team doesn't have a clearly defined third star, being better than other teams at the 4 and 5 and dividing the responsibility of the third pillar among multiple competent players is certainly an option for building a winner. That happened specifically with the 2011 Dallas Mavericks who won the NBA Championship. Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler were the two dominant pillars at their spots, but the sheer depth of options on their roster (Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Caron Butler) were strong enough to stand as one pillar.
It's important to note that the same components for being inside the house exist. An imbalance between young and old at those veteran role player spots means it will eventually fall; the Mavericks were proof of that. Depth is all well and good, but the team still needs to know who are the top-eight. Spacial fits on both ends in how the team is constructed tactically will always matter.
Under the three pillar approach, there are several teams who seem to have three distinct individuals who can do the job to create a "big three" type of team.
Yes, the Brooklyn Nets are a pretty clear example of this, but so are a few other franchises. In Philadelphia, they have a really strong three-player core. Around them are plenty of pieces who are there specifically because of how they fit next to them. Danny Green and Seth Curry are shooters to provide spacing, which not only maximizes their spatial impact but increases the ability of the pillars to function together. Shake Milton and George Hill are the right type of "point guard" to go next to Simmons and Embiid. Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle are talented young players who help fill in the rotation.
In Golden State back in 2015, they had three stars who blend together so perfectly on offense: the two greatest shooters of all-time and a lightning fast processor who facilitates from a unique position. Look at the rest of their roster: veteran talent in guys like Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston who boosted the team defensively around Curry's weaknesses. Harrison Barnes was additional offense and a solid defender while adding a young body to the group.
Both teams are good examples of how an understanding of your core is necessary to fill out the supplementary players. They also illustrate a team who doesn't have poor fourth options (Seth Curry and Harrison Barnes) and use them better than most teams use their fourth option, but still have a clear top-three talent-wise. That's part of why both teams were title contenders.
Other teams successfully pulling off this model: 2021 Milwaukee Bucks, 2021 Brooklyn Nets, 2008 Boston Celtics, 2015-18 Cleveland Cavaliers, 2008-10 Los Angeles Lakers
Over the last two seasons, more teams with only two true superstars have emerged. I don't view that as a flaw in the three pillar approach, but note that the clear identity of a third pillar is what allows them to emerge. For the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers (as well as cross-town foe Clippers), experience has been their third pillar: a group of seasoned players who, 3 thru 8, can all carry their own weight above average level at their position.
Instead of depth and in intangible factor like experience, the 2020 runner-up Miami Heat were built on an on-court identity around one functional skill: shooting. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, their two best players, needed to be surrounded by the three ball since neither of them shoot it well. What Miami did was not just add shooting in their role player spots (Kendrick Nunn, Kelly Olynyk, Jae Crowder) but to split the third pillar amongst two players who are elite shooters in Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. The presence of two guys there allowed them to change around their offense and feature movement, screens and cutting to serve as the pillar of their offense. It became so effective that they built their roster around it, signing Andre Iguodala late in the season, knowing they'd need a defensive boost.
Other teams successfully pulling off this model: 1998 Chicago Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, length/ size), 2004 Detroit Pistons (Billups, Hamilton, interior defense), 2018 Houston Rockets (Harden, CP3, switchable wing shooters), 2013-4 Indiana Pacers (George, West, defense).
I really don't believe there is one specific way to build a successful team. No real blueprint, no set formula. Much like each house that is built can have beauty in its own way, each team is fascinating and gorgeous in how successful ones are unique from others. The key is in building the house, recognizing the pillars on which the rest of the home can be built and then designing the interior to make those pillars beauty show.