Smart Wins

Pistons poised to thrive under reality of new NBA labor deal

We’re still learning about the implications of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, struck last December. And when I say “we,” I mean it in both the broadest possible sense – the public at large – and in increasingly narrower bands, including educated and interested outsiders with an eye for interpreting the CBA’s legalese and even NBA teams whose business models are governed by it.

But it’s fair to say we know this much about the agreement that ended the five-month lockout last Thanksgiving weekend and enabled an abbreviated but legitimate NBA season: Smart wins.

It will be more important than ever to spend draft choices and dollars wisely. Draft picks give a team control of a player while his earning power is comparatively limited. Blow draft picks and you must overspend in free agency. Make mistakes in free agency, which can be a minefield given the variables of chemistry and coaching and systems, and the ramifications can be immense. Pretty soon your payroll is into tax territory, and the new CBA makes that a very hostile neighborhood.

It was never strictly about who could spend the most money, of course. Madison Square Garden’s rafters would be groaning under the weight of NBA championship banners had that been the case. And the power of money wasn’t eradicated by the new CBA, either, as the pull of major markets remains for acknowledged superstars like Deron Williams, who chose Brooklyn over hometown Dallas, and Dwight Howard, who may or may not have recently expanded his preferred destinations list from one (New York) to two (New York, Los Angeles).

But there is a greater premium on smarts under the new CBA than the old one. And that’s nothing but good news for the Pistons.

We can’t know with certainty what private plans Tom Gores’ ownership team have discussed with Joe Dumars and his staff about the franchise’s future, of course, but their public comments – from the “State of the Pistons” event held at The Palace in May and televised since on Fox Sports Detroit to Gores’ declarations on draft night – should be extremely encouraging for Pistons fans. The message was clear: Expectations are high, but shortcuts will be avoided. Work hard, work smart, work together. That’s the mantra.

Shortcuts put franchises in deep financial distress – not to mention CBA-imposed handcuffs – the type it took the Knicks years to dig out from under. They eventually brought in the highly respected Donnie Walsh to perform the NBA equivalent of cleaning out a hoarder’s house. He spent a few seasons doing nothing but dumping bad contracts, at the expense of future draft picks in some cases, for a run at LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They wound up settling for Amare Stoudemire in that Summer of LeBron before trading for Carmelo Anthony in what Walsh, in his heart of hearts, probably saw as another reckless shortcut.

So more than ever, thanks to the new CBA, smart wins. Smart is the business of the Gores group. They’ve structured their Platinum Equity dynamo on a business model principled on mergers and acquisitions and operations – that third piece, operations, unique and critical to them, learning more about a business than the next guy and figuring out a way to operate it more profitably instead of merely stripping it down for the value of its parts.

The way it applies to the NBA is to think of “profit” as “wins,” since winning is the stock in trade of professional sports. Just as you rarely take a flagging business and turn it to overnight profitability, neither do you swoop in and turn a team on a treadmill into a champion immediately, barring unusual circumstances. (See: Heat, Miami, where palm trees and ocean air aided Pat Riley’s scorched-earth rebuilding.) The Pistons had extenuating circumstances themselves, an ownership limbo that prevented an earlier turnaround, but it’s full speed ahead now.

One of the first moves the Pistons made when the lockout ended, though it went largely unnoticed in the crush of free agency and other transactions stuffed into the pipeline to allow the harried start of business, was to hire Ken Catanella from NBA offices.

It was Joe Dumars’ hire all the way, his idea. He’d long wanted a salary cap expert as part of the basketball operations staff, talking about it often with Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond when Hammond was here as Joe D’s No. 2. The Gores team, led by Bob Wentworth and Phil Norment, gave him the go-ahead to conduct the search and hire the person of his choice. Dumars asked around and kept hearing one name: Ken Catanella.

Catanella played basketball at Division III power Amherst and then professionally in Germany, where he first got his feet wet on the management side, putting together a championship team. He returned to a successful Wall Street career, dealing in arena and stadium financing, before getting his master’s of business degree from Duke, where he also served as a grad assistant to Mike Krzyzewski specializing in statistical analysis.

That led to a stint under Rod Thorn in New Jersey, where he plunged deeper into statistical analysis, even as it applied to scouting players. The NBA came calling, hiring Catanella to completely overhaul its gathering and dissemination of statistics, but once that task was completed it made him the point man on crunching numbers for the purpose of negotiating the new CBA with regard to salary cap implications.

Catanella prefers to work in the background, but he’s become a major piece of Dumars’ administration. Dumars likes his executives to get out of their offices and “smell the gym,” as he puts it and that’s what Catanella was looking to find in his next stop – a job that allows him to integrate his deep understanding of statistical relevance with his roots as a basketball junkie with an eye toward player evaluation.

Dumars was open about the motivation for last month’s Ben Gordon-Corey Maggette swap. Joe D has long coveted Maggette’s ability to attack the rim and get to the foul line, but the deal was at least as much about the cap space it will allow the Pistons to have next off-season. Catanella is integral to any and all planning for how to create – and how to maximize the utilization of – that cap space, including ways to structure contracts that create opportunities other teams might not foresee.

“He’s a huge resource,” Dumars said. “You hear people talk about the new CBA and how you have to prepare for the new CBA, well, we have a guy who was a part of the negotiations. He knows the intricacies of the new CBA as well as anybody does. It’s been huge to just walk over to his office and ask, ‘How is this going to impact us a year from now, two years from now.’ Ken has been great.”

The Pistons had made a series of smart moves, including the drafting of franchise cornerstones Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, before the old CBA expired. The new CBA makes it more important than ever to avoid reckless mistakes. There’s a newfound premium on smarts in today’s NBA. The Pistons appear headed for the dean’s list.