Column (Justin DiBiase): Winning isn’t always everything, especially for a GM

Justin Dibiase

There isn’t a harder job in sports today than that of a general manager of a fringe NBA team. Those teams that meander around the No. 8 seed in both the Eastern and Western Conferences are stuck between getting a shot at a franchise player in the NBA Draft Lottery and attempting to make a run at the playoffs. This is true for all professional sports, but the issue is highlighted significantly in the NBA.

The 14 teams that miss the playoffs are put into a lottery to determine the order of picks in the first round of the draft. This gives the teams more incentive to lose games because even the 10th-worst team in the league has the opportunity to get the first pick.

The disparity in talent between the top teams in the East and West and the No. 8 seeds is so great that it does not make sense for the fringe teams to even think about an NBA Championship.

Take, for example, the Philadelphia 76ers. Ed Stefanski was just hired as the new general manger after Billy King’s terrible tenure mercifully ended. With no marketable star and attendance down 35 percent since Allen Iverson’s heyday, Stefanski needs to look to Philadelphia’s future. There is one slight problem, however; the Sixers aren’t that bad. Despite drawing crowds much smaller than Villanova’s games at the Wachovia Center, the Sixers still have managed to find heart and slip into the eighth playoff spot in the East. Fans still are not responding, and frankly, why should they? There is no reason to believe that the Sixers could even feasibly beat the veteran Boston Celtics, the first seed, once in a seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs.

Stefanski knows that the NBA is a league of substance. If your team isn’t one of the best, it better have a rap-spittin’, trend setting baller who can put up 30 points per game if it wants to put butts in the seats. College basketball teams sell tickets. NBA basketball “teams” do not sell tickets unless they are perennial winners (see the Detroit Pistons). Iverson sells tickets. Dwayne Wade sells tickets. A team with five double-digit scorers does not sell as many tickets as a team with the league’s leading scorer.

Much like many of the other teams, Stefanski cannot help but notice Kansas State’s Michael Beasley as he puts up a 40 point and 17 rebound performance against Big 12 foes. How can he not notice Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan and Derrick Rose? Is Pat Riley honestly supposed to try to improve the Miami Heat’s current nine-win record while the possibility of a Beasley, Shawn Marion and Wade threesome waits on the horizon?

This losing business is a bit more complicated than it appears at first glance, however. A team can benefit greatly from a high draft pick, but what happens when the draft pick they get from losing games is not the savior of the franchise? General managers must be keen enough to make the right choice at the right time in the draft. If they do draft a bust, their season of losing and low-attendance may never be avenged. The Atlanta Hawks are just now beginning to recover from their poor lottery selection of DeMarr Johnson and the trading of Pau Gasol. Also, since the salary cap and luxury tax makes trading extremely difficult in the NBA, the draft is the only saving grace for most NBA franchises.

With every win a fringe NBA team earns this year, a certain increase in attendance is statistically obvious for the current season, as is the decrease in attendance corresponding to losses. However, with each loss, teams are also increasing the possibility of attendance in the future by getting closer and closer to a top draft pick.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Cavs finished the ’02-’03 season tied for the worst record in the league. The city of Cleveland was not at all interested in the Cavs, as they also finished dead last in attendance. With some good fortune, the team obtained the first pick in the ’03 draft, and with that pick it selected a high school player from Ohio by the name of LeBron James. In his first season, “King” James saw his new team’s attendance increase by 65 percent and his team more than double its win total from the previous season. Since then, the Cavs have shot up the attendance charts and now rank third in the NBA behind Chicago and Detroit. James has also added a new dimension to the Cavaliers’ profits in the form of merchandise. His top-selling jersey is always a hot commodity.

This makes the fan wonder, what if the Cavaliers won a few more games during the ’02-’03 season and ended up with the second pick in the draft, selecting another player, such as marginal bust Darko Milicic? Where would the Cavaliers be? Would they have any sort of fan base? Would Milicic be entertaining commercial, shoe and TV deals? Would Cleveland even still have a professional basketball team? It’s funny to think about, but the truth is that even though every win counts, sometimes every loss counts more.

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Justin DiBiase is a junior civil engineering major from Franklinville, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]