Summer Goals: A Basketball Off-Season and the Race to Build a Winner

The following has been excerpted from my latest book, Summer Goals, due to hit newsstands in early November. More details will become available as the release date nears.

PROLOGUE

June 20, 2000

LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant stands in the Staples Center dressing room, smiling and squinting.

“I didn’t know champagne burned so much when it gets in your eyes,” he says.

Moments earlier, Bryant had clinched Game Six of the 2000 NBA Finals, making four straight free throws in the final minute and lifting the Los Angeles Lakers to a 4-2 series win over the Indiana Pacers and the title.

“I’m numb; I’m just numb right now,” Bryant says, champagne still dripping from the top of his head.

Every Lakers season is well-documented, simply because the team plays in a major media market such as Los Angeles. But this title makes a particularly good story, as Phil Jackson won it in his first year coaching the organization — following six championships with the Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.

Along with that, Lakers center and Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal won his first championship in eight seasons.

“I want to thank you all for believing in us,” O’Neal tells the Staples Center crowd as he clutches the MVP trophy. “We’re going to get one next year, too.”

It’s the type of celebration that all basketball executives watch in envy, the type they aim to put together for their own teams. They appreciated how Lakers general manager Jerry West shaped his franchise, finding the right players to build a winner, then the perfect coach to lead those players.

To the rest of the league, this Lakers’ championship means one thing — everyone is again 0-0.

That is why opposing GMs and other basketball minds are glad the regular season and playoffs have ended. This is their time to shine. They have the NBA draft next week. They can start negotiating with free agents in two weeks. They can sign those players shortly after that.

This is the off-season, the only season in which a front-office man can dream.

There will be contract talks and trades, planning and plotting, wheeling and dealing. A few GMs will even fire, then hire, a coach for their team. And it will all likely happen between now and September, when the balls roll out for another training camp.

Now, however, winning and losing have nothing to do with crisp passing, steady shooting or gritty defending.

This is the game as it’splayed in the summer, and for NBA GM’s it is the most important game of all.

CHAPTER ONE: DRAFTING PLANS

May 23

HOUSTON — Carroll Dawson is sitting in his office and thinking about the 2000 NBA Draft. Dawson is the Houston Rockets’ general manager, which means thinking about the draft is his job. He has been in the player acquisition business for 40 years, which means thinking about the NBA draft is his job.

Dawson has been in the player acquisition business for 40 years, spending some of that time with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. He has also worked in Baylor University’s sports department. Today, he mostly thinks about how he would like to leave this sometimes thankless business altogether. “I want out,” he says.

No matter, Dawson is still on the Rockets’ payroll and he still needs to find some young talent to help rebuild the team. Sure, the draft is a month away, but it’s never too early to start making a list of possible selections. That’s especially true when you’re the Rockets, a club that had its share of problems on its way to a forgetful 34-38 finish.

Dawson breaks from his off-season thoughts just long enough to answer the phone. A sportswriter is calling, and strangely enough, it is Dawson who starts asking the questions.

“Did you by chance play basketball in college?” Dawson asks.

“Sort of,” the reporter replies. “I sat the bench at a little junior college.”

“Were you any good,” Dawson asks.

“Not really,” the reporter admits, before making an attempt at some self-deprecating humor. “I was what they called the ‘slow guard.’ There was the point guard, the shooting guard … and then there was me.”

Dawson pauses, not allowing technicalities such as speed and height to break his spirit.

“Can you be in shape by rookie camp?” he asks.

Dawson is joking, but the message is clear. The Rockets need warm, available bodies — yesterday. Dawson is well into his quest to find them, even if it means is first prospect is a former junior college guard with no quickness.

After all, these are desperate times for the Rockets. The back-to-back championships of the mid-1990s feel like 100 years ago, as the Rockets are coming off a season in which they didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in almost 20 years.

So like all NBA general managers, Dawson is already compiling a list for free agency. He has put together an entire board of the top draft prospects, ranking them in order, from Nos. 1 to 85.

“We have the ninth (overall) pick, but as always, that could change,” Dawson says. “We could move up, we could move down, we could trade it for a veteran, we could land more picks. I’m not even going to pretend to know. We haven’t even started those conversations yet. But when we do, well, that’s when you know the offseason has started. That’s when guys like me really get to work, and it never really ends.”