In King Lear, when the Duke of Albany said, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,” he was not speaking about his experiences as the general manager of an NBA team. The fundamental idea there, however, is one that many NBA franchises have been heaving away at with great force: “Perfect is the enemy of good”
Consider some recent examples. Last year’s Indiana Pacers, fresh off of giving the Miami Heat hell in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals, looked poised to make a championship run. In the name of taking that next step, they acquired big man Andrew Bynum midseason and traded away the little-used Danny Granger for Evan Turner. Sure, they finished as the Number One seed in the East and played Miami tough in the Conference Finals yet again, but along the way they lost something integral. They were just not the same team.
Last season’s Phoenix Suns were everyone’s favorite feel-good story: a team that was supposed to be one of the league’s worst playing with grit and determination under first-year coach Jeff Hornacek, even challenging for a playoff spot in the rugged West. Prior to this season, everyone was wondering who would be this year’s Suns – the young, weird team that would make everyone believe. But after making the most of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt, Phoenix signed Isaiah Thomas, created a logjam, and eventually had to unload both Dragic and Thomas at the deadline. What was once one of the league’s funnest teams now seems like a cranky mess.
Teams are constantly working to find an edge, but the pace and scale of their moves has seemed particularly outsized this year. There were the Sacramento Kings, who got off to a surprising 9-5 start, then cooled off once DeMarcus Cousins missed a chunk of time with viral meningitis. The team responded by firing head coach Mike Malone, who was largely seen as instrumental in getting Cousins to produce like an early season MVP. Under interim coach Tyrone Corbin they went 7-21, before hiring George Karl, who’s guided them to a 3-4 record so far – not bad, even if they’re not quite playing jazz just yet.
Then there are the Philadelphia 76ers, who aren’t content to acquire good talent, but are instead continually angling for greater talent down the road. At the deadline, they traded last season’s Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams for a first-round pick, and breakout rookie K.J. McDaniels – whose level of production was huge for a second-round pick – for a future second-round pick they hope can be as good as McDaniels already was.
And then there are the Denver Nuggets.
The saga that led to the firing of head coach Brian Shaw this week begins even further back than the Pacers’ gambles. At the end of the 2012-13 season, Denver fired head coach George Karl after nine consecutive playoff appearances and a season that saw them win 57 games. Although at least part of their concern was financial (Karl was entering the last year of his contract), there must also have been a sense that he had taken this team as far as he could – under Karl, the Nuggets were bounced in the first round of the playoffs eight times – and that, with a different coach at the helm, Denver could finally reach the next level.
Changing the way the team played certainly seemed to be part of Shaw’s plan when he was hired.
“It won’t be the same breakneck pace that it was last year,” Shaw said at the time. “My experience playing (in L.A.), we played the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns, teams that got up and down, made it a fast pace and won a lot of games during the regular season – that didn’t necessarily translate to going deep into the playoffs. So, we will play a more traditional style in terms of trying to develop an inside game.”
The problem, though, was that the talent Shaw had didn’t line up with that plan. Neither Kenneth Faried nor JaVale McGee are (or were, since McGee’s gone) traditional back-to-the-basket big men. And one of the Nuggets’ greatest advantages remains running other teams unaccustomed to Denver’s high altitude off their home floor. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, “every Denver team since the ABA-NBA merger that has won at least 50 games has ranked in the league’s top five in pace.”
And yet Denver ranks fifth in pace this season. Shaw couldn’t get the team he wanted, so he played with the team he had, but he either never had them on his side or lost them entirely – and was fired on Tuesday. Determining who was at fault in the Nuggets’ situation is not what I’m after, though. Because the debacle in Denver this season (and last) represents the downside of what happens when a team gives up on the good enough to chase a greater ideal.
Yet this is by no means an exact science; two of the NBA’s biggest success stories this year – the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies – both jettisoned successful coaches in the recent past, replacing Mark Jackson and Lionel Hollins with unproven commodities Steve Kerr and Dave Joerger, respectively. Both teams got measurably better. You could even loop the fairy tale season of the Atlanta Hawks into this template, given how several years ago they cut ties with marquee players Joe Johnson and Josh Smith in spite of repeated playoff appearances and built something better.
“Perfect is the enemy of good” is generally understood as an admonishment, a reminder that striving for perfection can mean giving up on the solid, the serviceable, the functional. But this is the NBA. When you look at a team like last year’s San Antonio Spurs, you realize that perfect is precisely what these teams have to be. The margins are just too slim.
Just about every NBA executive will say just what Denver GM Tim Connelly said following Shaw’s firing: “Competing for championships is our goal.” Where teams once believed they could struggle their way from the lottery to first-round exits to extended playoff runs to the Promised Land, teams like the Sixers – and maybe now the Nuggets – have begun to believe that good is the enemy of perfect. And nothing less than perfect will do.