The NFL offseason is underway and there are some important events lined up. The NFL Scouting Combine is underway, NFL Free Agency begins on March 9th and the NFL Draft is in late April. This is the most important part of the NFL off-season for every front office. The NBA also just passed one of the busiest times of the year, the trade deadline.
The countless decisions that are going to be made over the next few months in the NFL and the decisions made in the past few days around the NBA will affect both leagues during the 2017 season for many years to come. Therefore, how should teams decide whether they have the opportunity to “win now”, or whether to build for the future?
There’s no easy answer.
In the NBA, the biggest proponent of long-term planning are the Philadelphia 76ers, who are in a league that provides the biggest discrepancy in terms of being able to plan. Typically, in the NBA, a road to relevance takes much longer than in the NFL. The Sixers, among other teams, have been ‘tanking’ for years, but are yet to realize their potential.
“The Process” AKA Joel Embid (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Although, if you are a premier destination in the NBA, it’s easier to become good quickly by acquiring veteran stars via free agency or trade. For example, once Cleveland signed Lebron, it became easy for them to attract other players. In the past, Miami and Boston’s ‘big threes’ were a symbol of all stars attracting each other.
In the NFL, it’s difficult to build a contender through free agency. A team needs an elite coach or quarterback to contend, and those pieces aren’t readily available on the free agent market or in trades.
Back to the NBA.
Top free agents will only go to a team who already have a young core or an established star. Therefore, it is imperative to acquire that star player (most likely through the draft). In the NBA, many teams don’t find themselves with the opportunity to ‘go for it’ in the short term. Realistically, three teams have a shot to win the NBA title this year: the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs. Outside of those three, every other team should be building for the future because they just don’t have the talent to compete.
For the other teams, it would be impossible to play for the near future. There are a few teams, like Boston, Washington, New Orleans, Toronto, Los Angeles (Clippers), etc. Teams who are playoff teams, but aren’t legit title contenders. They are all one-star or big time draft pick away from being real title contenders. A move like that would make these teams title contenders now and for, most likely, the next five or so years.
We only see the Cavs and Warriors making moves for the short term. Just recently, we’ve seen Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams head to the Cavaliers. Both of these players will not come cheap and are well past their prime. They are not going to make the team better two or three years from now, but they might give the Cavs a slight leg up on the Warriors. The Warriors are about to make a similar move with Matt Barnes. He is a veteran player that will add useful depth once Durant is back and since he is a veteran he will be more expensive. However, he is not going to be on this team two or three years from now but might help them against the Cavs in this year’s NBA finals.
When it comes to the NFL, it is more advantageous to plan for the long term. Think about the dominant teams in the NFL. The Steelers, Packers, and Patriots have sustained the most success in the past decade.
Tom Brady winning his 5th Lombardi Trophy (Getty Images)
Now, which of those teams have brought in big name free agents for a ton of money? None of them. New England never looks to overpay players and replaces them through the draft (drafting players is long term). Green Bay always has more players they drafted on their roster than any other team. Most of those players are not immediate impact players, but down the road, they become starters (Ex: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Dont’a Hightower in New England).
Furthermore, the Jimmy Garoppolo pick could not illustrate building for the future better. They used a 2nd round pick on him knowing he wouldn’t play in at least the next five years because he’s behind Tom Brady. Now, three years later, they are going to be able to trade him for a king’s ransom. If they do decide to trade him, this pick will probably materialize further down the road, with the Patriots receiving future draft picks. If they don’t trade him, then they will probably expect him to play after Brady retires (farther in the future). They are the best organization in all of football, and they are the masters at building for the future.
Look at the teams who try to ‘win now’ through free agency. Just a few years ago, the ‘Dream Team’ in Philadelphia had a disastrous season. Jacksonville spent a lot of money this past off season and went on to win three football games. Most teams that try to win now by spending in free agency usually don’t accomplish much.
There is no proven path to winning by playing for the short term. Unless a team was built through long-term planning, the future probably doesn’t bode well for them. There are a few examples of short-term contracts benefiting teams. For example, New England signed Revis to a one-year deal and won that year. Denver signed Talib and he quickly became an anchor for them on defense.
Andre Iguodala’s last game before he joined Golden State (USA Today Sports)
In the NBA, somewhat recently, we saw the Warriors trade (sign and trade with Denver) for Andre Iguodala to help put them over the top. There is no doubt that the moved work, but it is only because they had the main pieces in place, Draymond, Curry, and Thompson.
Playing for the short term is rarely successful, and only truly works if the main talent is already in place. True success in franchises can be found through soundly planning for the future and sticking to the discipline of not overpaying for old talent, but looking for cheaper and younger players that will help the team win two, three, or four years from now.