10 Steps to Turning a Rotten NBA Franchise into a Winner
So you want to build a team that can contend for the NBA title, do you?
Maybe you're like the Atlanta Hawks, a squad whose ceiling extended to the second round of the playoffs and that, thus, needed to be scrapped. Maybe you're like the New Orleans Hornets or the Orlando Magic, who are looking to rebuild in the wake of losing wantaway superstars (i.e. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard).
Or, maybe you're more like the Charlotte Bobcats or the Sacramento Kings, two franchises seemingly stuck in a cycle of mediocrity.
Wherever your franchise may be in the grand scheme of those currently outside of the championship conversation, here are 10 not-so-easy (and rather time-consuming) steps for constructing a roster capable of lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Note: The order of these steps is anything but set in stone.
Step 1: Bottom out
In basketball, as in life, to climb to the top of the mountain, one must first find out how deep the adjacent valley runs.
For NBA teams, that means losing...a lot. The kids like to call it "tanking."
Fans may not care for seeing their team finish at the bottom of the standings, and most players and coaches worth their weight in salt don't and won't care for it, either.
But stinking it up on the court can serve as an excuse of sorts for wiping the slate clean. Perhaps your team had a troublesome "culture" brewing in the locker room, but won just enough to avoid an "Extreme Makeover," if only enough to sniff the postseason.
Once the winning stops, management needs no other pretenses for dumping all the supposedly bad apples who ran the operation rotten to the core—on the court, on the sidelines, in the front office, etc.—and summarily replacing them with a new regime.
Examples: Charlotte Bobcats (2011-12), New Orleans Hornets (2011-12), Cleveland Cavaliers (2010-11)
Step 2: Fill the Front Office and the Coaching Staff with Compatible People
Once the tabula has been thoroughly rasa'd (or, in some cases, before), those at the top of the organization can go about filling in the blanks at each step down the ladder.
The key is to make sure that everyone involved in basketball operations—most notably the general manager and the coach—are on the same page. Whoever's in charge must set the tone and employ people below him/her with whom he/she can work well. They shouldn't feel the need to agree on everything, but should be able to challenge and question one another in a constructive manner.
So long as there's a broader philosophy charting the course and intelligent, forward-thinking minds at the wheel, the proverbial ship has an excellent chance of reaching its preferred destination in the standings at some point down the line.
Examples: Sam Presti (2007) and Scott Brooks (2008) in OKC, Dell Demps and Monty Williams (both 2010) in New Orleans, R.C. Buford (1997) and Gregg Popovich (1996) in San Antonio
Step 3: Hit It Big in the Lottery
Hiring the right people to run the coaching staff and the front office is particularly crucial when a terrible team scores big in the NBA draft lottery. That could mean getting the first pick or even just inching closer to the top.
And if a given draft is particularly deep, then moving down might not always be the worst thing, either.
The pick itself is irrelevant if the people in charge don't use it properly and/or if the player chosen turns out to be a bust on his own. Just ask the Washington Wizards in 2001, the Detroit Pistons in 2003, the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007 and the Memphis Grizzlies in 2009.
On the flip side, if the front office lands a prime spot in the draft and nails the selection, then the franchise may well see its fortunes flipped and its overall outlook brightened in a hurry.
Examples: LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers (2003), Dwight Howard to the Orlando Magic (2004), Kevin Durant to the Seattle SuperSonics (2007), Blake Griffin to the Los Angeles Clippers (2009), Kyrie Irving to the Cavs (2011)
Step 4: Trade for Young Players and Draft Picks
Before, during or even after a given draft, a franchise in rebuilding mode will likely look to clean out its locker room...and all the nincompoops who inhabit it.
OK, so maybe the players aren't all nincompoops, but, for a newly-installed regime, they're assets that can be exchanged on the trade market, at the very least.
The aim for any front office in such a situation should be to turn veterans and poor-fitting players into unproven youngsters and valuable draft picks. Perhaps the team has an elder statesman or two who've attracted interest from contending teams as role players to be swapped for. Perhaps there's a bona fide star on hand who doesn't want to be there anymore or whose talents would simply be wasted on a team that's destined for a period of miserable mediocrity.
Whatever the case may be, it's incumbent upon those managing the whole operation to cash its chips for pieces that can be used to build a solid foundation over the long-term—be it directly or via another trade—rather than for short-term solutions that don't bring the team any closer to contention.
Examples: Ray Allen with the Sonics (2007), Pau Gasol with the Grizzlies (2008), Chris Paul with the Hornets (2011), Dwight Howard with the Magic (TBD)
Step 5: Bottom Out (Again)
Rebuilding the "right" way requires heaps of patience from everyone involved (i.e. fans, season ticket buyers, players, coaches, player personnel folks, etc.), since the process itself often necessitates at least another year or two of losing even after the initial ripping out of the floor.
After all, one young star can make all the difference between being a perennial lottery loser and dancing on the fringes of the playoffs, but it takes no fewer than two singular talents to put a team in position to compete for the top prize down the line.
Unless, of course, the operating philosophy of an organization dictates that the team's success be built around, say, one superstar and a cast of solid supporters, or perhaps a deep roster that's long on good players, but lacks even one "great" player.
In that case, the rebuilding process tends to take even longer, as teams like the Indiana Pacers and the Philadelphia 76ers have shown in recent years that there's no substitute for time when it comes to accumulating a complete rotation.
For the most part, though, the most tried-and-true way of going about Phase 2 of a full rebuild is to keep losing on the court while management does its job off of it.
Examples: Sonics/Thunder (2007-08, 2008-09), Cavaliers (2011-12)
Step 6: Hit It Big in the Lottery (Again)
Of course, persistent mediocrity isn't any good in the long run unless the assets garnered from it are used properly.
Ideally, Year 2 (and possibly Year 3) of the rebuilding project would yield another valuable draft pick, perhaps even one(s) in the top half of the lottery. Add those prospects into the mix with the existing foundation, with its budding star in the middle, and watch the team grow.
Examples: Russell Westbrook (2008) and James Harden (2009) to OKC
Step 7: Find Steals in the Late 1st And/or the 2nd Round of the Draft
Building through the draft isn't just about the blue-chippers at the top, though. Any roster designed to sustain success over an extended period of time typically includes at least a player or two who were taken in the late first round or at some point in the second round of the draft.
They certainly don't have to be stars, though gems can certainly help to accelerate the rebuilding process. Strong international scouting contingents can and often do turn up excellent and undervalued prospects overseas.
Still, more important is the pursuit of potential rotation players who can compete for spots in training camp and fill specific roles ably if they should make the final roster.
Examples: Serge Ibaka to the Thunder (2008), Taj Gibson to the Bulls (2009), Manu Ginobili (1999) and Tony Parker (2001) to the Spurs
Step 8: Reserve Some Financial Flexibility for a Big Move
Along the way, it's always prudent for a team on the upswing to keep its options open if/when the opportunity to participate in a blockbuster move should present itself.
That could mean springing for a marquee free agent, trading for an available star or jumping in on a multi-team transaction to pick up and/or shed a few pieces.
If a team plays its cards right under these circumstances, it could wind up in the championship conversation much sooner than expected.
Examples: Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers (1996), Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder (2011), Chris Paul to the Clippers (2011)
Step 9: Fill out the Rest of the Roster Via Free Agency
Free agency isn't only for stargazing, though, especially if the goal is to build a sustainable contender. Once the front office has established a strong foundation of draftees and trade acquisitions, it need only dip into the fringes of free agency to plug holes.
Need a backup big man? A second-string point guard? How about a three-point specialist off the bench?
Those sorts of players can all be signed at a discount on the open market if the GM in question plays his cards right.
Examples: the Spurs (always), the Thunder (2010, 2011), the Bulls (2010, 2011)
Step 10: Give the Roster Time to Grow Together
As with any delicious dish that's been carefully assembled for eventual consumption, the most important ingredient for a championship rebuild, in the end, is time.
Once the proper pieces are in place, it's up to the front office and the coaching staff to allow the players the time and the leeway to learn how to play together and develop a collective chemistry, all the while making the tweaks and adjustments when necessary.
In due time, the team will learn how to win and finally deliver the franchise in question from the problems that've held it asunder for so long.
Examples: the Thunder (2009-today), the Sixers (2010-today), the Grizzlies (2009-today)