Patience scores championships

There are no quick fixes in sports. That is evident in the way many teams have tried to gather as much talent as possible and aim to win a championship with just one regular season under their belts.

A prime example is the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. There is no denying that Kevin Garnett is still one of the top three players in the NBA, Ray Allen is one of the best sharpshooters in the game, and Paul Pierce can take over a game at any time. In today’s NBA, though, it is not enough to have two guys like it was just a few years ago. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have been playing together for the San Antonio Spurs for several years. This is their second championship together.

But while the Spurs have been struggling in the playoffs, much of that is due to a tough schedule that included the Suns and up-start Hornets. The Celtics have been struggling due to their inexperience in road playoff games. Against Atlanta, the Celtics could not handle the Hawks’ emotional play, and dropped three close games on the road. The Celtics playoff run is by no means over, but in the Finals they are facing a team that has played together for at least the last four seasons. Of the Pistons’ five starters, only Antonio McDyess has been with this team for less than five straight seasons.

Speaking of the Pistons, this is a almost the same Pistons team that manhandled the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. During the regular season, the Lakers had three players that shattered 1,000 points (Bryant, O’Neal and Payton) and Karl Malone would have if he played the entire season. They did not count on Detroit having already played together for a year and gaining the experience to win as a team.

This trend does not just happen in basketball. Our own Atlanta Braves won their 1995 title with the majority of their players having only played Atlanta uniforms in the majors. Of the nine everyday position players, only Fred McGriff and Marquis Grissom had ever played for another major league team. Of the eight pitchers that threw more than 50 innings in the season, only Greg Maddux pitched for another team in the majors.

There are several other examples: the 2006 Indianapolis Colts that won the Super Bowl had 22 starters, none of which ever started for another NFL team; the 1999 and 2003 Florida Marlins that built their team around prospects and guys they developed through their system; the Spurs of the last decade, a team that builds themselves through excellent scouting and the draft; the 2003-04 Yellow Jackets basketball team that made it to the Final Four, all of whose players had been on campus for at least one season.

One of the reasons perceivably good teams may be going down the drain these days is simple: owners in sports are too hands-on. Some of the more famous owners, Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones, the Steinbrenners and the Atlanta Falcons’ Arthur Blank, can often be seen on the sidelines and are prominently involved in the day-to-day operations of the team. What is the point of hiring a general manager to handle day-to-day operations if they are just going to do it themselves? Many of the hand-on owners are very successful businessmen and have the sense of what it takes to run a business, and in a way, a sports team is a business. But it’s not the same. The human element and predictability in sports is much harder to assign values to than in a typical business. An owner usually cannot look at his team’s roster and say that their team is one that can win 12-14 games in a regular season. And even if it does, how will they fare in the championship game?

So in a roundabout way, what I’m trying to say is that fans (and owners) just need to be patient. If they hire a general manager whom they trust, who hires a coach or manager they trust, things will fall into place eventually. The pieces they put together will be, if not a championship team, a playoff team.

I have been a New Orleans Saints fan all my life and even I was surprised by their 10-win season in 2006. They came back down to earth last year with a 7-9 record but have shored up their defense and should be considered a title contender with many of their skilled players having played together the last two seasons.

In that same span, the hometown Falcons have gone 8-8 and 4-12. But, despite the firing of a player’s coach and one leaving in the middle of his first season, the Falcons have finally gotten on the right track. Now if Mr. Blank knows he needs to be patient and let his people do their job, he can build a winner with the right guys on the field.