The Manner In Which One Builds A Perennial Contender

Jamie Sabau

With the WNBA trade deadline just around the corner, now is as good a time as any to contemplate, well, the manner in which one builds a perennial contender.

As I mentioned in this comment back in June, this is a topic that interests me, not just in the WNBA but in professional sports in general. I also mention there that, as a fan of Pittsburgh's professional sports teams, I have in front of me two excellent examples of how to do so (the Steelers and Penguins) and one of how not to do so (the Pirates, the near-certainty that they will have a winning season this year notwithstanding). In the comment just below mine, Nate wondered just how much commonality, if any, there is between different leagues and sports in this area. Let's find out!

Before one can answer Nate's question, one has to consider how it's done in other leagues/sports. So, if you'll pardon the excursion through not one but THREE other sports (and through male leagues to boot!), here's a quick summary of what the Steelers and Penguins do right and what the Pirates (mostly) do wrong.

* Drafting/development: The Steelers and Penguins draft well despite usually picking toward the bottom of each round in their respective leagues' drafts and (in the Penguins' case) not always having a first-round pick (more on that in a moment). This has the effect of seeding their lineups with young players who don't put too much of a strain on the salary cap. Once they have them, both teams bring their players along at the right pace--not too fast, not too slow. The Steelers never start a player before he can handle it, often watching him flourish in a minor role before he takes on a major role (for instance, Hines Ward and James Harrison were both special-teams standouts before becoming starters). As for the Penguins, they don't have draftees go pro before they're ready, don't bring guys up from the minors too soon, and often have them pay their dues as third- or fourth-liners or in third-defenseman pairings before they get to be top-six forwards or top-four defensemen. When a guy does stand out right away, though (think Maurkice Pouncey for the Steelers or Sidney Crosby or Marc-Andre Fleury for the Penguins), they don't hesitate to make the most of him. By contrast, the Pirates flub draft picks, especially first-round draft picks, for a variety of reasons so wide it borders on comical (such as in 2007, when they took Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters because Moskos was more signable) and alternate between moving guys too quickly or too slowly through their minor-league system.

* Trades: With its hard salary cap, trades are few and far between in the NFL, and the Steelers are no exception (although they did acquire Jerome Bettis in a trade). Trades involving draft picks are somewhat more common in the NFL, and while the Steelers don't make many such trades, when they do, they generally make them count (they traded up in the first round of the 2006 draft to get Santonio Holmes). The NHL has a soft cap and thus more trades, and the Penguins are no less inclined to trade than anyone else. When they trade, they have a knack not only for coming out ahead in trades, but in getting value for both the present and the future (Pascal Dupuis was more or less a throw-in in the trade that brought Marian Hossa to the Penguins). The only time the Penguins deviate from this formula is when they feel they are close to a championship and become willing to part with more future value, such as high draft picks, for more present value, as they did at the trade deadline this past spring. The Pirates, meanwhile, rarely get back more than 50 cents or so on the dollar in trades and seem not to know what to do when they're close (witness their modestly successful deadline deals in '11 and '12 and their decision to stand pat this year).

* Free agency: Despite the differences in their respective leagues' caps, the Steelers and Penguins use free agency in much the same way. When their homegrown players hit free agency, they re-sign them if it's financially prudent to do so and/or they can't be readily replaced from within; they neither break the bank for anyone short of an absolutely irreplaceable superstar (say, Crosby or Ben Roethlisberger) nor hang on to their own guys just because they're their own guys (witness James Harrison leaving the Steelers). Other teams' free agents, in turn, are used mostly to fill in gaps in and around their homegrown core, with no one signed to a contract longer or richer than his age or ability would merit (James Farrior got a larger contract than, say, Flozell Adams for a reason). Neither one of them even attempts to build a team entirely, or even mostly, out of free agents. Being in an uncapped league, the Pirates could theoretically do so, but they are too cheap to sign big-name free agents (Russell Martin being a very rare exception) and too inept to find diamonds in the rough (ditto for Francisco Liriano).

What about basketball, though? Quoting an NBA TV show, Nate says of the L. A. Lakers' success in the early 2000s that "it came down to the Lakers having two dominant stars, a great coach, and very good role players." This lines up with the NBA team-building philosophy of the famous sportswriter Bill Simmons, who on pages 47 and 48 of his book The Book of Basketball (the source of most of what I know about basketball in general and the NBA in particular) lays out his philosophy: one great player, one or two elite wingmen, high-quality role players/character guys, a coaching staff that puts the team first, health in the playoffs, and a lucky break or two.

Is the WNBA the same way? Let's say for the sake of argument that it is. How does a team get to the point described by Simmons--superstar, wingman/men (wingwoman/wingwomen?), role players? How many of the bullet points above apply to getting to that point?

Simply stated, ALL of them! Let's look at those bullet points again.

* Drafting/development: Unless one's team occupies one of those rare no-brainer spots in the draft (as the Mercury and Shock did in '13's first round), making smart picks in the draft is vital. As it does in other sports/leagues, it seeds one's lineup with young, hungry, inexpensive players. And once one drafts them, one HAS to give them a chance. Second- and third-rounders MUST get legitimate chances to make the team. First-rounders MUST get a chance to play regularly as rookies (and MUST be all but guaranteed to make the team as rookies). Letting rookies rot on the bench, whether first-rounders or not, accomplishes NOTHING, especially when one's team is out of contention.

* Trades: The sorts of trades a team makes must be dictated by where it is in the cycle of contention (a concept discussed here by Albert). When a team is rebuilding, trades MUST provide more of their potential payoff in the future than the present (in other words, younger players and/or draft picks should come back). When a team is close, though, it's okay to sacrifice some of the future (a draft pick, a youngster rotting on the bench) for that last missing puzzle piece to put the team over the top now. And when making trades, one must be aware of, and realistic about, the value of all of the assets involved in both directions of the trade (no trading of a dollar for two quarters).

* Free agency: Most of what I said about how the Steelers and Penguins approach free agency applies here as well, so I won't repeat it. There are two other things I'd like to point out, though--contenders MUST avoid OGS as far as keeping their own free agents or signing other teams' free agents with local connections go, and NO contender EVER allows a free agent to block a rookie first-round draft pick!

So that's how one builds a perennial contender, in the WNBA or any other league/sport. The draft is a team's foundation, while other methods of player procurement are tools used in different ways at different times depending on where the team is in its quest for a championship. What do you think about all of this? Let's discuss it below!

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