NBA Rebuilding Projects That Are Right on Track
The worst place an NBA team can be is the dreaded "middle," which is why there's no shame in what the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers (to name a few) are doing to bottom out and start over.
No two rebuilding efforts are exactly alike—they're kind of like snowflakes that way—but a hasty tear-down job without a coherent plan can leave teams out in the cold for years at a time.
Some teams never figure out the best way to engineer a quick demolition, as sentiment and a fear of fan backlash can prevent a full commitment to starting over. Others struggle to begin the construction process intelligently by making shrewd draft picks. Still more fail to carry out that final step by spending too quickly on non-transformative players.
And in the case of the Charlotte Bobcats, well...all of the above screw-ups apply.
A quick scan through the NBA teams in various stages of successful rebuilds shows there are lots of ways to go from bottom to top without spending too much time in the middle.
The Celtics are in the earliest stages of their rebuilding effort, but what they've done so far proves they're not afraid to make bold moves in an effort to construct another dynasty.
By shipping out Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the C's ripped off the Band-Aid quickly, resulting in a short burst of pain, but ultimately cutting the suffering as short as possible. Nobody would have wanted to watch KG and Pierce try to drag an average Boston squad to yet another early postseason exit.
In letting go of their iconic stars, the Celtics secured a bunch of draft picks and assured themselves of a bottom-five finish this season.
Plus, they seized the opportunity to replace the departed Doc Rivers with Brad Stevens, who'll get a chance to cut his teeth in a zero-pressure environment.
Boston is only a few steps into the process, but it has already shown the decisiveness and forward-thinking attitude necessary to rebuild quickly.
Dwight Howard gave the Magic lemons when he jerked them around and then ultimately forced a trade last summer, but by netting Nikola Vucevic and committing to a fresh start, the Magic brewed a tall, frosty pitcher of NBA lemonade.
And you thought Florida was famous for its oranges.
In addition to winning the Howard trade, Orlando made a couple of smaller moves that resulted in a handful of promising pieces. Andrew Nicholson had a solid rookie year, flashing the smooth mid-range touch and polished offensive game that will pair nicely with Vucevic's post presence.
And by acquiring Tobias Harris for J.J. Redick at last year's deadline, the Magic picked up their small forward of the future for an asset that was going to walk in free agency anyway.
Then, Orlando resisted the urge to shoot the moon on draft day, snatching the hard-working, high-character Victor Oladipo at No. 2. He may never be a star, but his intensity and raw athleticism give the Magic a very safe but potentially very useful guard.
And if Oladipo ends up grasping the point guard position that the Magic seem intent on letting him play, Orlando could take a massive leap forward in what's already been a highly successful rebuilding process.
One of the biggest keys to starting over is being comfortable with moves that could alienate some shortsighted fans. In trading All-Star Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a future pick on draft day, the 76ers proved they were more than willing to do just that.
Unpopular moves seem to naturally follow whenever executives with analytics backgrounds take power. Daryl Morey has been wheeling and dealing for years, John Hollinger shipped out Rudy Gay almost as soon as he took the reins in Memphis, and Sam Hinkie sent Holiday packing when he took over in Philly.
Morey and Hollinger's decisions paid off in big ways, and there's reason to believe that Hinkie's will as well.
Holiday's value was at its peak, and a little scrutiny of his lackluster second half indicates that his All-Star selection might not have been repeatable in the future. So by getting Noel, the man who would have been picked No. 1 if not for his health history, and securing a coveted first-round pick in next year's draft, the Sixers made about three bold decisions at once.
Plus, Philly is making no effort whatsoever to put a winning product on the floor this year, which means it understands one of the most effective components of a successful rebuild: the unabashed tank job.
In yet another case of a top-tier front office immediately making a difference, the NBA's 2012 Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, started making moves to rebuild the Toronto Raptors from the moment he came over from the Denver Nuggets.
Toronto didn't have the ability to make wholesale changes, but Ujiri embraced an opportunistic attitude to maximize the value of the few assets he had on hand.
When the New York Knicks came calling for Andrea Bargnani, Ujiri probably had to avoid breaking out in laughter, but then he immediately swapped the overpaid scorer for picks and cheap contracts. Considering the Raptors had been discussing using the amnesty provision on Bargnani for more than a year, getting anything in return for him constituted a major coup.
Rudy Gay is still comically overpaid, but the Raptors have some young talent in Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson. Plus, they're under the luxury tax line this season and will have just $44 million committed to salaries in 2014-15, per Hoopshype.
The Raptors aren't where they want to be yet, but they're definitely on the right track.
Sometimes, it's the moves teams don't make that end up being the difference between a quick rebuild and a slow march toward mediocrity.
Don't be mistaken; the Sacramento Kings have undergone huge changes lately. A new ownership group with deep pockets and a commitment to building a winner the right way is in place. Coupled with a new, no-nonsense head coach in Mike Malone, the Kings now boast the best leadership core they've had in more than a decade.
But by avoiding the temptation to change the culture by trading DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings displayed the kind of thoughtful patience that could help them shoot up the standings sooner rather than later.
See, there's really no way to be sure whether Cousins has failed to develop because of something that's wrong with him, or if it's because the Kings' previous culture was so hopelessly toxic that nobody had a chance to improve.
In scientific parlance, the Cousins experiment has lacked a control.
If it turns out to be the former, Sacramento will have no trouble dealing the talented, frustrating big man later this season. But if the previous culture, which has now undergone a major positive change, was the source of Cousins' stunted development, he could quickly turn into one of the league's most valuable players.
There's no harm in waiting to see how things play out. In exercising some patience, the Kings might meet with a nice reward.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a little different from the rest of the teams mentioned here because they may very well have just completed their rebuilding process.
A three-year inflow of lottery picks helped take the Cavs out of the depression of the post-LeBron James era and into a promising future, and now they're ready to start turning all of that lottery luck into some actual wins.
Kyrie Irving is a star, Tristan Thompson showed promise last year, and Anthony Bennett and Dion Waiters give the team a ton of youthful promise.
But the acquisition of Andrew Bynum could be the final step toward a return to the playoffs.
Of course, even if the low-risk Bynum signing doesn't work out, a healthy Anderson Varejao (whom the team resisted the urge to trade last year) could still give the Cavs enough to compete.
After burning down the franchise, the Cavaliers appear prepared to rise from the ashes.