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Whose NBA Team Is This, Anyway? Part 1

Determining the alpha personalities on each NBA team

Elias Stein/Getty Images
Elias Stein/Getty Images

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?

A dark cave. In the middle, a HOT STOVE BURNING. Thunder.

Enter three Witches.

Witch 1: A 3–1 lead, the favorites choked.
Witch 2: “Wade won’t leave,” the wise did joke.
Witch 3: The faithful cry: “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
All: Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and hot stove bubble!

On the cusp of a new NBA season, there is one question that faces every single NBA club: Whose team is this? It’s not necessarily the owner, or the coach, or in some cases, even the star player. The NBA is in so much flux, it’s hard to keep an eye on the alpha in every locker room. Kevin Durant is a Golden State Warrior. Dwyane Wade will be paid $47 million over two years by the Chicago Bulls to wear a uniform that looks weird on him. Evan Turner, one of the league’s most fantastic weirdos, is proselytizing for the Church of the Latter-Day Midrange as a Portland Trailblazer. Jeremy Lin is the new face and hair of the Brooklyn Nets. And the biggest threat to the Cavaliers making the Finals for the third consecutive season is Tristan Thompson signing on to be Khloe Kardashian’s boyfriend for an undisclosed percentage of his immortal soul. Ten teams have new coaches, and that includes the Kings, who also have a new arena to lose in.

Each new face in a new place carries the potential for new beef with new peeps. Basketball teams have a natural hierarchy, but discovering their particular shape takes time. The job descriptions are the easy part. The GM makes the trades and targets the free agents. The coach designs the system. And the players play. On every team, though, there’s one person whose influence, whether he wields it or not, transcends organizational demarcations.

On the court, a crucial team dynamic is who takes the final shot. The figure whose presence influences that decision the most — whether it’s the player calling his own number, the GM crafting a roster, or the coach scribbling out the play — is the person whose team it is.

Oftentimes these chains of command are clearer from the outside. When LeBron took his talents to South Beach in 2010, it was obvious, to any unbiased observer, that the Miami Heat were his team. But it isn’t hard to imagine Dwyane Wade, having spent his entire career in Miami, thinking that he and James were, at least, equals.

So, how do we decide whose team it is? Using three factors:

Leverage

The more in demand a player or coach is, and the closer they are to the end of their contract, the more leverage they have. This is an oblique measure of talent and scarcity. We’ll measure this on a five-point scale, where one represents the approximate leverage held by Dion Waiters in the summer of 2016 and five is LeBron James.

Standing

This is the accrued effects of a player or coach’s track record. Standing is kind of like the public-facing version of being a good locker room guy; it isn’t uncommon for a team to keep a player around well past his sell-by date simply because of what he means to the organization and fan base. A high level of standing can offset a paucity of leverage. (See: Bryant, Kobe.) In this metric, one represents the level of offseason standing held by Lance Stephenson and five is Tim Duncan.

Power

In a theoretical power struggle between two members of an organization, which person could hypothetically send the other packing? For instance: If, in 2000, a free agent Tim Duncan made it clear to the Spurs that he would only re-sign if Gregg Popovich was let go, Pop would be on the next plane out of town. That’s the measure of power within an organization. A power level of one is equivalent to Anthony Bennett and five is LeBron James.

Quick ground rules:

We’re looking at players, coaches, and GMs only. If we extend the list to owners, the answer to “whose team is it” would always be the owner.

Tuesday, we’ll look at the Eastern Conference. On Wednesday, the Western Conference.

Boston Celtics

Whose team is it? Brad Stevens

When Danny Ainge hired Brad Stevens in the summer of 2013, the plan was: tank.

Be bad for a few seasons, stockpile assets, maybe hit on a star-level player in the draft, and let a young coach learn on the job. Only Stevens ruined the plan by being too good at his job. In his second season, 2014–15, he coached a cobbled-together roster of semi-washed vets, young dudes, and Gigi Datome to a 40–42 record. Last season got them to 48 wins. Stevens has somehow managed to craft an elite defense without rim protection and an egalitarian, top-10 offense with very little 3-point shooting. Basketball nerds touch themselves to YouTube videos of his after-timeout sets. While Stevens’s ability to coach a bonafide superstar, and all the drama that could potentially entail, is still an open question, the Celtics are, without a doubt, his team.

Leverage: 3
While Stevens is undeniably, a top-3 (at least) coach and wouldn’t lack for suitors, he just signed an extension. And, as stated above, 10 teams, including the known money-pits, the Knicks and the Lakers, just hired coaches.

Standing: 4
Noted Boston sports fan and my boss Bill Simmons refers to Stevens as “The President.”

Power: 3.5
There isn’t a player on the roster, including new free-agent acquisition Al Horford, who would win a power struggle with Brad Stevens.

New York Knicks

Whose team is it? Kristaps Porzingis

In the words of Vince Staples: “Don’t show me anyone who plays for the Knicks unless it’s Porzingis.” Kristaps is 21, is 7-foot-3, can handle, shoot 3s, and block shots. He averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks as a rookie, with a 17.7 PER, and posted the ninth-best real-plus minus in the league among power forwards. He’s the Knicks’ best draft pick since Patrick Ewing. I honestly don’t care what happens to any other player on this team besides Kristaps. This is Kristaps’s team, but as long as Carmelo Anthony is on the roster, it’s in everyone’s best interest to pretend that Anthony is the man. This is something that Porzingis seems to understand instinctively.

The Knicks’ overarching organizational goal should be developing Porzingis and surrounding him with complementary players. But this is the Knicks we’re talking about. If Melo approached the front office with a him-or-me ultimatum, I’m pretty sure the Knicks would choose Kristaps. Actually, let’s not talk about this anymore.

Leverage: 3
Kristaps is a future All-Star. But he’s three years away from restricted free agency, with limited leverage.

Standing: 4
We’re talking about Knicks fans here; I’m convinced Kristaps will make the Hall of Fame.

Power: 2
Could Kristaps get Melo traded? Maybe. It would be ugly, but it could happen. Could he get Jeff Hornacek fired? Probably. At the end of the day, though, the Knicks are owned by Jim Dolan, who does whatever the hell he wants while wearing one of 700 fedoras.

Toronto Raptors

Whose team is it? Kyle Lowry

Given the way Lowry played for most of the 2016 playoffs and all of the 2015 playoffs, I’m not so sure this shouldn’t be awarded to Drake. Lowry has had a remarkable career — from a churlish, undersized, bench jockey afterthought in Memphis and Houston to a two-time All-Star with the Raptors. Shaky playoffs aside, he’s coming off the best season of his life and he’s the heart and soul of his team. As he goes, they go. He’ll be a free agent in the summer of 2018.

Leverage: 3
Lowry’s stated intention to test free agency is tempered by his age (31) and the spotty long-term career trajectory of small guards.

Standing: 4
Raptors fans love Kyle Lowry.

Power: 2
Could Lowry get Dwane Casey fired or DeMar DeRozan traded? Doubtful. But he could probably freeze out Jared Sullinger with ease.

Brooklyn Nets

Whose team is it? Sean Marks

As a former San Antonio Spurs assistant general manager and assistant coach, Sean Marks has seen how the very best organization in basketball ran its affairs. He won two championships with the Spurs, one as a player (2005) and one as an assistant (2014). Following the ultimately disastrous regime of Billy King — to be fair, King was only carrying out the wishes of his boss, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, when he subprime mortgaged the team’s future to the Celtics — Marks brings something vital to the Nets: a winning pedigree.

Leverage: 2
Marks has an appealing résumé. He’d certainly find a position in some other team’s front office. But being a rookie GM makes it unlikely that a competing team will get into a bidding war for Sean Marks.

Standing: 2
Nets fans are psyched about Marks, as well they should be. But the team won’t have a first-round pick until 2019. The most Marks can do, right now, is change the drapes as the house burns down.

Power: 4
The only one in the organization with more juice than Marks right now is Mikhail Prokhorov.

Also, it’s Sean Marks’s team because you can’t name more than two players in this photograph from Nets media day 2016. This is Danny Ainge’s screensaver.

Philadelphia 76ers

Whose team is it? Joel Embiid

As far as I’m concerned, the lyrics to “We Major” should be:

Just those lines repeated for the duration of the song … which should last 12–15 years, barring injury.

Last week, ahead of the preseason matchup with the Grizzlies, Joel Hans Embiid, the jewel in the dented crown that is Sam Hinkie’s process, popped up in Chandler Parsons’s Instagram mentions, promising Chandler that he would “cook your ass tomorrow.” This was perfect. Parsons had surgery on his right knee in March and isn’t expected to play in the preseason. Whatever. Someone’s ass had to get cooked.

In 13 minutes, facing off against the Memphis’s frontline battleships, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Embiid scored 13 points, pulled down five rebounds, blocked a shot, and hucked two 3s (he missed both). Days later, against the Wizards, Embiid got John Wall on a switch at the 3-point line and proceeded to lock the All-Star guard up, throw away the key, bury the jail underground, and build a parking lot over the hole.

Joel Embiid major.

Leverage: 3
JOEL EMBIID IS GOING TO REVOLUTIONIZE THE NBA, but there’s that whole thing with [knocks on wood until my knuckles bleed and the downstairs neighbor comes up to complain] with his feet.

Standing: 4
Pretty sure a random selection of Sixers fans would choose to get stabbed with broken bottles if it meant Embiid would have a long career.

Power: 2
Embiid could probably get every player not named Ben Simmons or Dario Saric traded. Could he get Brett Brown fired? Probably not this season. Could he get Brian Colangelo fired? Probably not this contract.

Indiana Pacers

Whose team is it? Larry Bird

Larry Bird traded Roy Hibbert, once the heart of his squad, to the Lakers with no fanfare and little stated fondness for Roy’s many important contributions. Then Bird told Frank Vogel, the architect of his team’s defensive identity, to hit the damn bricks, and told the media that Vogel begged for his job. Bird wants the Pacers to play smaller, faster, more modern. So, guess what the Pacers are going to do? Paul George doesn’t like playing power forward? Wah-wah. Too bad. It’s Larry Bird’s freaking team.

Leverage: 3
I can’t see Bird taking a job with another organization. He could threaten to step down. Which would work because …

Standing: 5
Larry Bird is a goddamn Indiana legend. The dude’s face looks like a corn maze.

Power: 4
Larry Bird could trade prime Paul George for 10 cents on the dollar and Herb Simon would probably shrug.

Milwaukee Bucks

Whose team is it? Giannis Antetokounmpo

Two things altered the future of the Bucks: The final evolution of Dark Giannis, who emerged into this world in full demonic form during the 2015 playoffs when he checked Mike Dunleavy Jr.’s milky ass into the front row. And Giannis playing point guard after Michael Carter-Williams went down with an injury. (MCW unintentionally paving the way for an evolutionary shift in the point guard position will be his greatest gift to the game.)

The latter is probably my favorite random occurrence of the 2015–16 season. Watching a 6-foot-11 player with a pterodactyl wingspan pull down a rebound, spark the break, then Eurostep into a dunk was the closest thing this side of Russell Westbrook to basketball cocaine. Even if you didn’t watch the games, the fact that something amazing happened is obvious from the Greek Freak’s season splits. Before the All-Star break, Giannis averaged 15.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists. After the break, those numbers ballooned to 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists. The Freak signed a four-year, $100 million extension this summer, meaning the Bucks will be his team for the foreseeable future.

Leverage: 2
Giannis has stated his desire to spend his entire career in Milwaukee and just signed an extension for one year, and a few million, less than a max.

Standing: 4
It’s Giannis.

Power: 3
Giannis could probably get Jabari Parker traded. And I think if it came down to a theoretical struggle between him and Jason Kidd, it would be Kidd packing his bags. But Kidd hasn’t lost an internecine feud yet, so I’m not sure.

Chicago Bulls

Whose team is it? Jimmy Butler

Aside from the Warriors, Chicago is the hardest team to solve for. Who do the Bulls belong to? Thirteen-year veteran, 12-time All-Star, three-time champion, and Chicago native Dwyane Wade insisted in July that it’s Jimmy Butler’s team: “He’s a 26-year-old that can play 40 minutes if coach wants him to, and maybe more,” Wade said at his introductory presser. “I ain’t trying to do all that. And we’re going to depend on him a lot.”

Rajon Rondo, who signed a two-year, $28 million deal this offseason, and is, implausibly, now the Bulls’ best backcourt 3-point option, agreed: “Jimmy’s the youngest, he’s the engine here. It’ll be Jimmy, Wade, and then it will be a pecking order.”

Wade has experience with situations like this from every perspective, and from every phase of his career. He deferred to LeBron during Miami’s Big Three era, and he was a second-year player when Miami acquired Shaquille O’Neal from the Lakers. Shaq was similarly deferential to Wade at his introductory press conference ahead of the 2004–05 season.

“I remember when Shaquille O’Neal came to Miami,” Wade said. “Coming from the Lakers, three championships, came to Miami, we had no championships at the time … He said, ‘It’s Dwyane Wade’s team.’”

Sounds great. Until you remember that, by the time the 2005 playoffs rolled around, a worn-down Shaq on a minutes restriction was complaining about not getting the ball enough. Or that Stan Van Gundy, whose trust in a rookie Wade was crucial to the guard’s development, stepped down in the middle of the next season, in part, allegedly, because he and O’Neal didn’t get along.

Then there’s this:

Which, fine, the internet is the worst. But — and this is just a feeling — it seems like whenever a more experienced person mentions age when ostentatiously deferring to a younger person, that means “you’ll do all the heavy lifting, and I’ll swoop in and make the decisions.”

Leverage: 2
Jimmy signed a five-year, $92 million extension in 2015. But this year’s Bulls could be very bad. It’s quite possible that Bulls GM Gar Forman decides to blow the whole thing up, and Butler is his most valuable asset.

Standing: 3
Who doesn’t love Jimmy Butler?

Power: 2
This could go up to three if the Bulls don’t go into tank mode.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Whose team is it? LeBron James

LeBron James is the greatest player alive, the most powerful NBA player ever, and he’s shooting with a hot pair of dice. He got Tristan Thompson paid. He got J.R. Smith more paid than even J.R. Smith’s agent could have possibly imagined. He carried Cleveland to its first major sports title in five decades on his brawny shoulders, probably got hair plugs, was funny in Trainwreck, shut up Pat Riley, and now he’s getting mad at his teammates for leaving their dirty-ass drawers strewn around the locker room.

Leverage: 5
James pioneered the two-year contract (with a second-year opt-out) structure precisely to engineer maximum leverage.

Standing: 5
The question is not “will they build statues to LeBron in Ohio?” It’s how many will they build?

Power: 5
Take everything stated above and factor in his close relationship with good friend/agent Rich Paul, and you have the most powerful NBA player ever.

Detroit Pistons

Whose team is it? Stan Van Gundy

“You can’t hire the employee before the boss,” Stan Van Gundy said last February. “That just doesn’t make any sense to me.” That’s not a problem for SVG; as both Detroit’s president of basketball operations and coach, he’s one of a handful of league figures (Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, Mike Budenholzer) who have both coaching and front-office positions with their teams.

Van Gundy has total control over every aspect of his team. He approves trades, drafts players, and draws up the plays. One of his first moves as Pistons majordomo was waiving Josh Smith, who was then a year and a half into a four-year, $54 million deal and shooting at a clip that suggested he’d probably miss a wall while trying to pee on it from a foot away. (Sidebar: Josh Smith draining various bullshit 3s and single-handedly beating the Clippers in Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals is the strongest proof we have that God exists and is a troll.)

Lately, SVG has been working on ironing out his players’ penchant for isos by not letting them dribble in practice.

Leverage: 4
Assuming things in Detroit don’t fall apart in the most disastrous way possible, SVG would find no lack of suitors throughout the league.

Standing: 3
He’s the most competent coach and president the Pistons have had since the salad days of 2004.

Power: 4
Waiving Smith was a pretty clear indication that Van Gundy has the conch.

Miami Heat

Whose team is it? Pat Riley

Who else? Riles, along with his jangling bag of rings, has taken some L’s in the past two years. The end of the Big Three era came with startling swiftness, but Riley has come back from worse, and he’s as ruthless as ever. This is Miami we’re talking about — beautiful scenery, beautiful people, and no Florida income tax. Free agents will always give the Heat a meeting. And Riley has pieces in Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside to swing a deal.

Leverage: 3
You’d think this would be higher, but Pat, at 71 years old, doesn’t have much cachet outside of Miami.

Standing: 5
Riley throwing his rings on the table is now the stuff of legends.

Power: 4.5
Again, would be a five, but he’s 71. A young-looking 71, though; the guy looks like he bathes in human blood.

Atlanta Hawks

Whose team is it? Mike Budenholzer

For the same basic reasons as Stan Van Gundy — same hybrid coach/executive position — but in a much, much, much more boring way.

Leverage: 4
Spurs protégés are sought after throughout the league and the world.

Standing: 3
Gotta win a game in the conference finals before this goes up.

Power: 4
Dwight Howard’s deadass better not step out of line and start crying about touches or see what happens.

Washington Wizards

Whose team is it? John Wall

Teammate and rival Bradley Beal is tied for the third-richest contract in the NBA, and makes around $8.5 million more per year than Wall. Scott Brooks has experience with coaching two headstrong superstars and owns an impressive collection of eyeglass frames. But Wall is the Wizards’ best player, coming off his best statistical season (19.9 points, 10.2 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals) and he’s got absolutely nothing to lose at this point. The Wiz — from top to bottom, as an organization — and their fans freaking debased themselves in the most shameful and servile fashion, this side of the Lakers’ “Stay” Dwight Howard billboards, to try to convince Kevin Durant to sign with his hometown Wizards. “Every day, everybody said KD-to-DC,” Wall said, after KD signed with Golden State. “Coming to our games wearing all the Kevin Durant stuff, he didn’t like it at that time because you should cheer for the team that you got. That might sway him.” In the past few months, John Wall has ripped his teammates, the team, AND THE FANS, and the response, by and large, has been “Yeah, he’s probably right.” This is John Wall’s team.

Leverage: 3.5
John Wall is one of the best point guards in the league and everyone knows he’s unhappy. This would be a four except that there are more talented point guards in the NBA than anyone can remember.

Standing: 3
He ripped Wizards fans and no one really cared.

Power: 2
At the end of the day, could he get Beal traded? Probably not.

Charlotte Hornets

Whose team is it? Kemba Walker

Of course, this should be Michael Jordan, but, no owners.

Point guards are naturally overrepresented on this list because they can simply just call their own numbers. Kemba has been doing that since college. Last season, though, was different. Walker augmented his gamboling playground dribble drives with a reworked shooting form and the best 3-point percentage of his career, 37 percent on 6.0 attempts per game. If those percentages hold, Kemba just answered the final, lingering question that’s dogged him since he came out of UConn.

Leverage: 3.5
Kemba signed a four-year, $48 million extension in 2014, and that number looks pretty, pretty, pretty good under the current salary cap.

Standing: 2
I love Kemba Walker’s game, but it’s not like he’s delivering the Hornets to a guaranteed second-round playoff appearance every single year.

Power: 2
Kemba’s contract is so tradable that I’m not sure he would actually win a him-or-me power struggle. But 1–1.5 feels too low.

Orlando Magic

Whose team is it? TBD but it’s probably Serge Ibaka

Leverage: 2
Standing: 2
Power: 2