Controlling The Center: How Chess Principles Provide Insight Into Optimal Basketball Rebuilding

The phrase “he’s playing chess, not checkers” is often used to describe strategic moves in a variety of sports. However, the principles behind chess have complexity not captured in this  simple expression. These principles are the foundation of the game and underlie every decision that either seizes a minute advantage or avoids a disastrous false step. These principles aid in navigating the chess board, but when applied to sports management, they can also inform every stage of rebuilding a franchise. In fact, this off-season has provided key examples of these lessons and their application. 

The Opening: Stockpile Draft Capital & Embrace Tanking

In the opening, the goal is to develop pieces, castle the king to safety, and create a sturdy pawn base. There are no tactics or short-term combinations to win substantial material yet, so the path in mind must be strategy, or long-term planning. In its essence, the opening – if done well – lends itself to marginal improvements of the position until a strong yet flexible structure exits. 

  • Develop, develop, develop 

This concept of patient development can be translated into the early stages of a rebuild, where franchises are light-years away from championship aspirations. Acquiring draft capital and playing the lottery bestows franchises young talent – or pieces in the case of chess. Those pieces can perform checkmate (or win a championship) in the distant future, but they must first be on the board. . 

The Pistons used this strategy in their deal with the Knicks by absorbing large salaries to acquire draft capital. Because New York was desperate to clear space for Jalen Brunson, the Pistons leveraged their cap space and received two second round picks and cash for taking on Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks. Detroit was then able to lure the Hornets with those picks and use them to trade for Jalen Duren, who is now the center of the future for Detroit. It’s unclear when capital can be the catalyst for a trade, so hoarding picks in the early rebuild can often lead to optimal outcomes. 

The Thunder have been using this strategy for years and jump at the chance to acquire draft picks. They absorbed JaMychal Green’s contract from the Nuggets because they desired a future 1st round pick from them. Although it may not seem like much, that selection may pay huge dividends down the road for the Thunder. During the draft, Oklahoma City cashed in a small slice of their war chest for the opportunity to draft Ousmane Dieng, who can become a vital piece for them. Development is key, and the best way to accomplish this is through draft selections. 

  • Protect the king 

The king is a crucial piece in the endgame, but it has to survive until that phase of the game. For franchises, the king represents their young star. Their form of protection is extending the player for five years so that they don’t have to worry about losing him. The Thunder, for example, extended Shai Gilgeous-Alexander early and protected their king for years to come. It’s unwise to enter the middlegame with a loose king, just as it’s risky to build around a star who doesn’t have a secure future with the team. 

The Middlegame: Active Free Agency & Trade Market 

With the king secure and pieces developed, the middlegame begins. The goal of this stage is to enter the endgame with a winning position. It may sound simple, but the complex thoughts, plans, and moves that compose this objective are far from simple. Tactics will come into play here to win pieces; this translates to the free agent and trade market. 

  • Preventative moves to deter future attacks

While formulating a plan is essential, it’s also necessary to envision the opponent’s plan and defend against it. Preventative moves that deter future dangers will stabilize the position and improve the king’s safety. The Thunder wisely performed a Preventative move this off-season by extending defensive ace Luguentz Dort. They could have allowed him to play out his contract and attempt to sign him in unrestricted free agency next year; however, they extended him for five years. 

Dort is now ecstatic with his contract, and the Thunder don’t have the concern over the next off-season about Dort departing for a larger sum. With the way he is trending, the contract may look like an utter steal after this season. Overall, Oklahoma City avoided a potential disaster by extending Dort earlier than they had to and retained him at a bargain price. The Celtics had a similar situation with Robert Williams last summer, and their decision to extend him looks stellar. 

  • Use pins to maneuver and attack 

One of the most efficient ways to set up an attack is to utilize a pin, which is when a piece cannot be moved because it would uncover a more valuable one that could be captured if it did. For example, if a queen and knight are on the same diagonal, and a bishop is x-raying the queen through the knight, then the knight would be pinned. If franchises can understand when a pin is occurring in basketball terms, they can take full advantage of the situation. 

The Trail Blazers masterfully poached Gary Payton II in this fashion from the Warriors. Because Joe Lacob, the Warriors owner, was unwilling to increase his gargantuan luxury tax bill even further, the Blazers recognized that they could lure Payton away with more money. The Warriors front office couldn’t re-sign Payton, a vital role player, at the Blazers price because they were in a sense pinned from Lacob’s unwillingness to pay a larger luxury tax. The Blazers added a key defender and rotation piece who can aid their championship hopes through this hesitancy of Lacob. 

  • Optimize piece placement before launching an assault 

Paul Morphy, one of the most talented chess savants in history, said the following: “help your pieces so they can help you.” Prematurely embarking on a major attack without the pieces being on the optimal squares can bring despair to a promising setup, so coordination is essential. Just as the pieces must coordinate smoothly, franchises have to assemble a dynamic roster that accentuates each other’s strengths and hides each other’s weaknesses. 

The Nuggets traded Will Barton and Monte Morris – two effective players – for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith. Denver desperately needed perimeter defense around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, so Caldwell-Pope, a superior defender, blends with them better than Barton and Morris. Jokic and Murray will perform at a higher level with Caldwell-Pope as a running mate even though Barton and Morris may be better players in a vacuum. The Nuggets now have a piece on the optimal square supporting their stars, which will raise the lethality of their assault on the trophy. 

Philadelphia has continuously fallen short of a championship, but they signed defensive forward PJ Tucker this off-season to rectify their past failures. His on-ball defense, size, and ability to switch will improve the 76ers defense. His catch and shoot talent also provides Joel Embiid with a deadly outlet, so teams cannot double cover as frequently. Although Tucker will never be an All-Star, his style of play meshes perfectly with the 76ers (and basically every team). Philadelphia made a wise move trying to shore up their weaknesses and optimize the lineup around Embiid. With Tucker on the court, the 76ers have improved the coordination of their pieces and boosted their championship odds. They can now hopefully enter the playoffs in a better position to succeed. 

  • Sacrifice material for a winning position 

The goal of chess is not to be up in material at the end of the game – it is to checkmate the opposing king, even if it only happens with two pieces remaining. Sacrificing a piece is an extremely common and effective catalyst for an assault, although the other attackers must be placed optimally for it to work. For basketball, this means surrendering draft capital and young talent for an established star veteran who can take the team over the top. 

The Timberwolves acquired Rudy Gobert from the Jazz for a massive haul because they believed it was time to be aggressive in order to win an immediate title. The amount of draft capital lost was startling, but Gobert certainly brings a defensive presence to this squad. Towns and Gobert provide a unique look for Minnesota, and they are surrounded by Edwards, Russell, and McDaniels. Their ability to win a championship has definitely increased through this acquisition, but time will tell if their pieces were optimally placed for this trade. 

Other star names on the market include Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell. Part of the reason they have not been traded is that franchises are deciding whether parting with a ludicrous package would be premature for their championship hopes. Would the Knicks truly be a top tier threat if they surrendered their draft future and Toppin for Mitchell? 

There are countless examples of franchises prematurely trading young talent for a veteran. The Kings stunned the NBA world by sending Tyrese Haliburton to the Pacers for Domantas Sabonis because that addition didn’t even make them a playoff threat. It intrinsically felt foolish because the principles of developing and optimal piece placement was ignored. Overall, every franchise will eventually be at a crossroads, and their ability to be realistic about their chances will determine who is checkmated. 

The Endgame: Championship or Resign

If a player successfully and methodically played the middlegame, then they should hold a better or winning position entering the endgame. At this point, precision is key. One mistake and the opponent may squeeze out a draw despite entering the phase in an undesirable state. 

  • Rook behind a passed pawn

A passed pawn is a pawn with no opposing pawns in front of it, so it can theoretically advance to the back rank and promote to a queen. They are valuable because they tie down the opposing king and pieces. Placing a rook in the same file behind it will facilitate its advancement and protect it. Without the rook, it’s unlikely it will pose the same threat. The pawn, or role player, needs the leadership of the rook, or star, to succeed. 

Franchises have to find a star who can stay calm under pressure and enhance the role players just like the rook. Stephen Curry is an excellent example of a recent leader who calmed the role players, absorbed the pressure, and allowed them to play at a higher level. While Draymond isn’t a role player, he admitted that Curry making himself enemy number one in Boston eased his burden and facilitated his play. Leadership is essential in the endgame because a slight miscalculation that doesn’t gain the best advantage can destroy winning chances. If Curry didn’t aid Draymond, his play may have suffered, and the Celtics could be hanging another banner instead of the Warriors. 

  • Know when to resign 

The worst situation a franchise can be stuck in is mediocrity, or a draw. Grandmasters often never experience checkmate on the board because they resign knowing it’s a doomed game. Although it may sting, trading a core that didn’t work out is often the best move long-term. 

The Jazz were clearly never going to win a championship with the Gobert and Mitchell duo, so they gave the green light to Danny Ainge’s eagerness to rebuild. With the amount of picks they are about to have, the Jazz are starting the opening in a great position. They have a blank slate, and the sky’s the limit for them. The Spurs also made this decision, as Dejounte Murray was traded to the Hawks for future unprotected picks. San Antonio is targeting Victor Wembanyama, who can become a powerful king for them. The fact that the Jazz and Spurs refused to stubbornly trudge ahead with an ill-fated core will behoove them, and as legendary player Pal Benko once said, “patience is the most valuable trait of the endgame player.” 

Braxton has been writing for Lineups since December 2021 with the majority of his articles focused on the NBA. He is currently a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he has spent the last few years working with various UPenn athletics teams and contributing to the UPenn Sports Analytics Group.

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