NBA Team Building as a Feedback Loop: Revisiting the Second-Tier Universe Cup

First of all, this is officially my 100th NBA article! If you’re interested, here’s a link to the other 99 that I’ve written. Since I wanted to make this article special, I’ve decided to give you an inside glimpse of a team building thought experiment that occupies much of my NBA headspace. I call it the Second-Tier Universe Cup. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote a seven-part series exploring this thought experiment back in 2017. (Again, if you’re interested, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7).

Here are the rules governing this thought experiment:

  1. You must select a 12-man roster
  2. Only player-seasons starting with the 2000-01 season are eligible.
  3. You must select a specific season (though I sometimes find this to be the most pedantic aspect of the exercise).
  4. Injuries are still a factor, but you can argue that injuries might look different in a specific case.
  5. Your team must play an 82-game season followed by a traditional playoff format.
  6. Teams play under the modern NBA rules.
  7. You must select a coach who hasn’t won coach of the year.
  8. Finally (and the true intrigue of the exercise), you cannot choose a player if he has won MVP, Finals MVP, or First Team All-NBA at any point in his career. Because of this, the following 47 players are ineligible.

I decided to revisit this for my 100th article not only because it is a fun and addicting exercise but because it is the best feedback loop that I’ve found to check my own beliefs about the NBA. I plan on overviewing why I find it so important along with briefly outlining my 12-man roster based on these rules. I’ll do my best to not burden you with 20 minutes of reading.

Team Building as a Feedback Loop

About a month ago, I wrote about how algorithms can be better and more consistent than our mental calculi because algorithms use feedback loops. By this I mean that you can peel back the curtain of an algorithm’s inputs to check why an output is what it is. The Second-Tier Universe Cup (STUC) is my best method of using a feedback loop with my own team building philosophy. Basketball theory is nothing unless you can translate it into praxis, and forming a team beginning only with your theoretical underpinnings forces you to confront those beliefs and actual make decisions based on them.

The reason that it’s imperative to use the strict structure of the STUC is that apex NBA players ruin the fun of team building. If I opened up this exercise to any player post 2001, most would toss out a lineup similar to Curry, Kobe, LeBron, Garnett, and Shaq. You don’t need to consider team building in that context because at a certain point, talent outweighs everything else. That’s no fun. Stripping away the best players forces you to consider a player’s strengths, especially weaknesses, and how they fit in the modern game.

Confronting My Team Building Philosophy

Even as recently as a couple of years ago, my thoughts about how to build the best team differ quite a bit from now. Above all else, I valued portability which mostly translated to a player’s ability to shoot, pass, and defend multiple positions. While a seemingly noble philosophy, my mistake was believing that every player needed to be maximized to his fullest extent even if it meant only using players who were significantly less talented.

Maybe it’s because of the 2021 season being weird or how the current game is played, but my team building philosophy currently boils down to the following maxims.

  1. Players who toggle between being a primary and secondary creator are invaluable. This includes big men who can operate in the post.
  2. The team must be flexible enough to handle a wide array of play styles (big, small, skilled, scrambled, etc.). This does NOT mean every player has to be this flexible.
  3. If possible, avoid players who are true detriments on either offense or defense. If you have to pick though, avoid players who can be ignored on offense.
  4. A couple of great defenders are necessary, but having the majority of your players simply being above average defenders is adequate.
  5. Pure shooters are overrated. They must bring more to the table.

Based on these rules, let’s get to my current iteration of the Second-Tier Universe Cup Roster

My Second-Tier Universe Cup Roster

Well, here it is.

Mike Conley 2017G
Kyle Lowry 2018G
Ray Allen 2001G
Manu Ginobili 2008G
Klay Thompson 2016G/F
Gordon Hayward 2016F
Jimmy Butler 2017F
Jayson Tatum 2021F
Andrei Kirilenko 2004F/C
Draymond Green 2016F/C
Pau Gasol 2009C/PF
Joel Embiid 2021C
Rick AdelmanCoach
Am I biased towards recent players because they’re closest to the modern game or because of recency bias? Probably a healthy dose of both.

Whenever all-stars, All-NBA teams, or awards are announced, people generally jump on the “snub” discourse. I’ll briefly get to that, but first, I just want to celebrate how awesome this team is.

Unpacking My Roster

What I like most about this team is that I could randomly throw out any five players (in a way that makes positional sense), and that lineup will have minimal weaknesses. Following that idea, I think the worst offensive lineup would be Lowry, Thompson, Hayward, Kirilenko, and Draymond; the worst defensive lineup would be Conley, Allen, Hayward, Tatum, and Gasol. Even when my goal is to construct a bad lineup, it’s nearly impossible not to at least see some way that they would make it work. No matter who is out there, nobody is truly being attacked on defense, and nobody can be left alone on offense (except Draymond, but his passing chops make up for it).

There are a few reasons that the group works so well together. First, about half of the roster could be a primary initiator in short spurts. At the same time, none of them have ever had the term “ball hog” thrown at them (Embiid is probably the closest).

Second, seven of the twelve players have shot over 40% from 3 at some point in their careers, but I didn’t sacrifice creation or defense for shooting. Klay Thompson is the closest to being a typical “pure shooter,” but his ability to go supernova on the biggest stage is just different, and his switchability on defense greased the Warriors’ system. Ray Allen is the weakest defender on the team, but I never considered him a sieve on the level of other offensive superstars.

Third, Embiid and Gasol are hyper talented centers who can beat a team in multiple ways. You can’t truly play a five-out offense with either one, but both are great midrange shooters, and Gasol would’ve had a field day flexing his passing ability in today’s NBA. Running him in the Bam position in a Miami type offense would be truly beautiful. Also, If either one is in the game, the defense would have a difficult time going small because they’re so dominant in the paint.

Finally, a couple of injuries shouldn’t completely derail the roster. In a worst case scenario, let’s say Butler, Embiid, and Lowry are out. In this case, Gasol can still burden a huge load at center, Hawyard/Ginobili/Tatum/Allen can handle ballhandling responsibilities, and the trio of Draymond, Kirilenko, and Tatum allow for some fun and funky big men lineups that don’t sacrifice much on defense or offense.

The only player who I’m slightly concerned about is Andrei Kirilenko. I was close to including Shawn Marion over him (thoughts in a moment), but I found AK47’s unique combination of constant movement on both offense and defense to be ideal for the modern NBA. However, I can’t think of a defining Kirilenko moment (besides being dunked on in 2007) beyond that to assuage my concerns. Regardless, he’s the secret to a fully switchable lineup (Ginobili, Klay, Butler, Kirilenko, and Draymond), so I decided to take a risk on him.

My Changed Philosophy on Big Men

Had you asked me two years ago, I probably would’ve argued for guys like Bam Adebayo or Ben Wallace. Bam has shown flashes of self creation, but I’ve become an acolyte for big men scoring in the paint. An offense centered around a big post presence definitely won’t yield high-end regular season numbers. However, when the playoffs become a time for exploitation, your team needs to be proficient everywhere on the court. The Bucks showed how to exploit Bam by forcing him to try and score. Big Ben was shockingly bad on offense. Bam’s rolling and passing ability make him close to making the cut for me, but I wanted a couple of guys who have shown that the toughest defenses can’t slow them down.

In short, you do not want an offense built on post ups. You do, however, need a post up threat for the ideal offense.

Addressing the “Snubs”

Yes, some very good players didn’t make the team. Yes, I can make the case for almost all of them. No I didn’t lose (that much) sleep over any of them. For the curious, here’s a one-ish sentence explanation for why some players didn’t make the team.

Carmelo Anthony: I’m not convinced that he was ever scalable. His best offensive team was built solely around him, and their ceiling wasn’t very high.

Vince Carter: Tremendous shooter and tough shot maker, but I’m concerned about his self-creation off the bounce. I thought about him a lot.

Chris Bosh: You could convince me of taking him over Gasol. I just like Gasol’s low post work and passing better.

Blake Griffin: I’m skeptical of strict 4s that can’t really play the 5 because of rim protection woes. Plus, his three-point shooting didn’t overlap with his prime.

Shawn Marion: A truly woeful creator for himself and others, and seasons when he wasn’t with a Nash-like point guard weren’t great. (Keep your eyes open for a forthcoming article about him).

Peja Stojakovic: Too much of a liability on defense.

Ben Wallace: Too much of a liability on offense.

John Wall: Not sure what he provides without the ball in his hands.

Elton Brand: Similar concerns as Griffin without the passing.

Bam Adebayo: I have enough switching defenders, and I don’t want to play him at the 4. His self creation isn’t what I’m looking for either.

Kyrie Irving: To me, Kyrie is the most difficult player to think about for a variety of reasons which would require a full article just to unpack. At the end of the day, my concerns about his injuries and defense swung me away from him.

Victor Oladipo: Injury concerns. Also, was 2017 just a fluke outlier?

Goran Dragic: Concerned about his defense.

Brandon Roy: I’m not sure how scalable his game is. His defense also concerns me along with the looming risk of injury.

Gilbert Arenas: Man, there’s just a lot.

Yao Ming: I want Yao on this team so badly. I just don’t know how well his defense translates to today.

Deron Williams: His defense concerns me. There were also some concerning quotes about his mentality in Brooklyn.

Kevin Love: Concerned about his defense.

I’m Always Questioning My Team Building Philosophy

Every year my notions about good team building are challenged. Without the anchor of the Second-Tier Universe Cup I wouldn’t have a clear way to communicate those changes or my current beliefs. Do I think that this team is perfect? No, and I’m sure some of you will develop your own teams that you can confidently defend over mine. That’s the point though. When you can’t work with MVPs or members of All-NBA First Team, you’re challenged to work with flaws in a way that reflects the team building challenges of most NBA executives. It’s a good lesson in trying to determine the optimal ways to enhance a player’s strengths instead of dismissing them because of their weaknesses.

Cody Houdek is a writer and podcaster for Premium Hoops where he co-hosts Sense and Scalability. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articlesvideos, and podcastshere.

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