The Smartest Teams in Sports

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIJanuary 4, 2012

The Smartest Teams in Sports

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    In the long and storied history of professional team sports, there are a handful of teams that continually seem to rise above their foes, whether it is capturing championships, making annual playoff appearances, or being able to figure out how to stay competitive even though you might be in a very small market city.

    We want to look at a number of factors in trying to determine who are the 10 smartest teams in professional sports. We want to see a specific degree of success, whether it is championships or making the postseason. We also want to see continual success over the years, as opposed to teams that make occasional noise in the playoffs and then you don't hear from them again for the next five years or longer.

    Finally, we want to see what these teams do to keep their talent in house, and what clever things they have been able to do to bring in new resources to guarantee that their teams will remain competitive for many years to come. These teams should have one successful draft class after another, and it doesn't hurt the reputation of these teams to be shrewd in making trades as well.

    With all of those factors in mind, we present the 10 smartest teams in sports.

Minnesota Twins

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    The Minnesota Twins are a great example of a small-market team that has found a way to continue to stay competitive in baseball and be an annual threat to be in the playoffs.

    The Twins do a good job of bringing up their own players from the minors and watching them flourish into American League MVPs, as was the case with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.

    Terry Ryan was the general manager of the Twins for 12 years until he stepped down in 2007. Ryan has come back to the team as general manager again after a four-year absence, and looks to bring the Twins back to the postseason again.

    Some of Ryan's memorable moves included trading for David "Big Papi" Ortiz, Joe Mays, Cristian Guzman, Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, Johan Santana, Rick Reed and Jason Bartlett. After the 2002 season. Baseball America named the Twins the Organization of the Year, and the Sporting News named Terry Ryan Executive of the Year.

    During the past decade, the Twins qualified for the playoffs in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010. Not too bad for a small market team that can't afford to sign expensive free agent players.


AC Milan

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    We wanted to include soccer in our presentation due to the large number of soccer fans that are all around the world. Of all the soccer teams out there worthy of consideration, we selected AC Milan as the team that is one of the smartest organizations.

    What makes the AC Milan team so smart? For starters, they have been run by Adriano Galliani, who has served as their VP and CEO since 1986. Under Galliani's tenure, the team has won five European Cup/UEFA Champions League titles and has also won eight Serie A titles.

    Galliani keeps the roster filled with talent, which is the goal of every smart executive. He does it by either acquiring potential stars when they are young and he grooms them, or he will purchase older players, who are about to have their contracts expire.

    Several examples of his deals would be landing stars like Robinho from Manchester City and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from FC Barcelona at cheaper prices.

    By keeping a mixture of older veterans and up-and-coming stars, AC Milan has found a way to continue to churn out strong teams and remain competitive year after year.

Tampa Bay Rays

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    The Tampa Bay Rays fortunes began to turn in 2008, right after the team changed their name to just the Rays. The team had finished in last place in nine of their first 10 years, so their fortunes were bound to change sooner than later.

    According to a Business Week article, over the past five years, the Rays have had the third lowest average payroll in baseball at $49 million, but despite that managed to play in the postseason three different times.

    Part of the reason for their success is that the Rays have a very well stocked farm system. The Rays traded away veteran players for potential stars down the road. They have also stocked their minor league system with very strong pitching, which is a sure-fire way to cure some of the team's weaknesses.

    The general manager for the Rays is Andrew Friedman. Since 2007, the Rays have turned in four-straight winning seasons. They won two A.L. East championships and won the AL pennant in 2008. In recent years the Rays have traded for players like Sean Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano. They had painfully watched as free agents like Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena left for other teams.

    The Rays have their hands tied behind their back due to low annual attendance figures from the local Tampa Bay area. The poor attendance forces them to trade away veteran players for prospects. Recent trades of Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett combined to net the team nine total prospects in return.

    With young starts like Evan Longoria, David Price, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, James Shields and Matt Moore on board, the Rays figure to be competitive for many years to come. Their days of being a last-place team are going to be a distant memory.

Baltimore Ravens

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    The Baltimore Ravens' general manager is Ozzie Newsome. He is fondly referred to as the "Wizard of Oz" for his ability to make things happen on the football field. That nickname was given to Newsome by his college football coach, the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant. You will also hear the phrase "In Oz We Trust," which is in reference to his ability to make things happen off the football field.

    Newsome makes the needed moves to keep his Ravens team competitive every year. Recent examples were witnessed when Newsome released veterans Todd Heap and Derrick Mason. They were replaced by three young players in Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta and rookie Torrey Smith. In addition, Newsome gave up a later-round draft pick to acquire speedy receiver Lee Evans.

    The Ravens have qualified for the playoffs in the NFL in five of the past six seasons. Once again in 2011, the Ravens will be advancing to the playoffs, this time as the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

    Newsome has a reputation in the NFL as having a shrewd mind for making trades. As long as he continues to operate the way that he has been conducting business, the Baltimore Ravens can look forward to being a viable annual playoff-contending team in the AFC North division.

New England Patriots

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    Another team that has made a number of smart moves is the New England Patriots. Led by their veteran head coach Bill Belichick, who also doubles as the general manager of the team, the Patriots continue to find ways to stay atop the AFC standings. Once again, the Patriots are a threat to add another Super Bowl trophy to their collection in 2011, as the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

    From 2000 to present, only two teams in the NFL have been able to win multiple Super Bowls, and that would be the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots are the only team that has won it all three times in that span, having accomplished the feat in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

    Since then, the Patriots have continued their remarkable run by qualifying for the playoffs every year, with the exception of 2008. In 2007, the Patriots finished the regular season 16-0, only to lose the Super Bowl to Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

    One of the things that Belichick does to keep his team re-stocked with talent is his ability to manipulate the rest of the NFL with respect to trading up and down for draft picks, which he stockpiles to his advantage. He also excels at trading away veteran players for draft picks, such as Randy Moss and Richard Seymour. Another trademark of Belichick is the way he uses offensive players on defense, and defensive players on offense. That is something Belichick does that is unique among NFL coaches.

    Belichick demonstrated his prowess in the draft in 2010 by selecting the dynamic tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The pair has been wrecking havoc on the NFL since they joined the league, as if All-Pro quarterback Tom Brady needed any more weapons to add to his options.

    Even though the Patriots defense is not as strong as they used to be, teams are still going to have to score more than Brady and the offense will create, so the Patriots like their chances. We will see how well that strategy pans out as the playoffs start this weekend.

    For an interesting listen to Bill Belichick the coach, here is a YouTube video that I thought you might enjoy hearing.

Detroit Red Wings

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    The Detroit Red Wings organization is run by Ken Holland, who has been in charge of running the Red Wings for the past 14 years. It is difficult to think of any other general manager in professional sports that can claim a better track record or results than Holland. The Red Wings have qualified for the playoffs in an amazing stretch of 20 straight years.

    Just consider the following: From when the Red Wings hired Holland in 1997 to the start of the 2011 season, Detroit has won more games (741) than any other NHL team. That stretch includes 106 wins in the playoffs and 635 wins in the regular season. The Red Wings under Holland have won the Stanley Cup three times (1998, 2002 and 2008) and have won the Central Division title 10 different times.

    Holland believes in promoting the Red Wings' home-grown talent and building around them. Examples of the home-grown players would be Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. He is so successful in the job that Sports named him the NHL General Manager of the Decade (2000-2009). Holland has been responsible for drafting young talent such as Vyacheslav Kozlov, Darren McCarty, Chris Osgood and Martin Lapointe.

    Other examples of the Red Wings' brilliance was the four-year stretch of 50 or more wins and breaking their own record of 11 straight years of at least 100 points. Over the years, Holland has traded for players like Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios, Ulf Samuelsson, Bill Ranford and Wendel Clark. His brilliant moves aren't just limited to trades, as key free-agent signings include Fredrik Olausson, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Marian Hossa, Mike Modano and Brian Rafalski.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    As you have probably noticed by now, the smartest teams also happen to be the ones that have been able to show the greatest amount of stability and consistency in their front offices. Having long-tenured general managers and knowing your internal organization is being run soundly from top to bottom exudes a great feeling of confidence for a professional team—knowing that ownership and management are behind you.

    Since their inception as a team, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been run by the Rooney family. It began with Art Rooney, moved to his son Dan Rooney and then will eventually be run by his son, Art Rooney II. That is what I am referring to by stability—keeping the team within the family that runs things the right way.

    Look at the Steelers legacy of head coaches. From Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin. Very little turnover in the coaching ranks is another way to give the players a sense of strong tradition and knowing what to expect from one year to the next. 

    As we sighted in the earlier slide on the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the only other NFL team that has been able to win the Super Bowl championship multiple times (twice) since 2000. To demonstrate how great the Steelers team has been, consider that since the NFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have had a winning percentage over .600 (.609), have qualified for the playoffs 25 times and have played in 15 AFC Championships.

    The Steelers have won six of their eight Super Bowl appearances and are the only NFL team since 1978 that has turned in a season of 12 losses or more.

Boston Red Sox

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    The Boston Red Sox are one of only two teams in Major League Baseball that have been able to win more than one World Series trophy over the past 10 years. The other team is the St. Louis Cardinals.

    The Boston Red Sox have been able to advance to the top of MLB by making important trades, developing plenty of talent in the minor leagues that allowed them to have enough trade chips to pull off the big deals that put them over the top.

    General Manager Theo Epstein was a key executive for the team that was responsible for orchestrating many moves. He also stuck with manager Terry Francona, who seemed to have the perfect temperament to manage the team and deal with Red Sox Nation media. The Red Sox gelled under Francona, who led the Red Sox to the postseason five times and to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. 

    Examples of Epstein's better moves include trading for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Curt Schilling. He drafted Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia. He signed free agents Dice K, Hideki Okajima, Bill Mueller and David Ortiz. He put in waiver claims that netted Bronson Arroyo and Kevin Millar.

    Now that Epstein is gone to the Chicago Cubs, and Francona has been replaced by Bobby Valentine, it will be interesting to see how well the Red Sox compete and how much longer they can continue as a dominating team in MLB. 

Green Bay Packers

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    The Green Bay Packers are an interesting organization to examine, as the Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States. The defending Super Bowl champions finished the 2011 season with the NFL's best regular season record of 15-1 and seem well-positioned to defend their Super Bowl title.

    The Packers have 13 league championships to their credit, which is the most of any NFL team. They have won four of those titles in the Super Bowl, in 1967, 1968, 1997 and 2011.

    Smart trades and drafts have been part of the Packers success story. Starting with general manager Ron Wolf who traded a first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Falcons for quarterback Brett Favre to current general manager and EVP Ted Thompson, who traded three draft picks to move up and draft Clay Matthews III, the Packers have been able to make the right moves to keep their team in contention.

    The Packers were besieged by injuries in 2010, yet somehow found a way to bring in enough players to replace the injured starters and make an improbable run as a No. 6 Wild Card team to go on and capture the Super Bowl championship. While the rest of the NFL was busy trying to sign free agents for the 2011 season, the Packers were able to select their team from all of the talent they kept in house from the 2010 season. That is a credit to Ted Thompson and his staff.

    With Aaron Rodgers playing at an ever better level than he did last year, the Packers seem well positioned to make a long run at the playoffs for many years to come. NFL teams could learn a lot by studying how the Packers have built their organization into the team that it has become.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    From 2000 to present day, no team in professional sports has emerged as champions more often than the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers made it to the NBA finals in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2010. They won it all every year except 2004 and 2008.

    It is one thing to be good, but it is another thing to continue to find ways to stay ahead of your competition. From the owner Dr. Jerry Buss, to the general managers like Mitch Kupchak and Jerry West before him, the Lakers have made the right moves at the right time to bring some of the most elite basketball talent around the world to play at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

    From great trades to great draft picks, the duo of Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak have excelled at what they do. Some examples of great trades include Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mychal Thompson, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Glen Rice and Byron Scott. There was also the drafting of Magic Johnson, Andrew Bynum and James Worthy and the free agent signing of Shaquille O'Neal. 

    The Lakers attempted yet again to swing a major deal, this time to acquire Chris Paul, but NBA Commissioner David Stearn denied the trade. While the Lakers' run at a dynasty may be coming to an end with head coach Phil Jackson's retirement, the Lakers will be a threat in the playoffs as long as Kobe Bryant can continue to play at his normal outstanding level.