The Cleveland Cavaliers got the first half of the traditional rebuilding process right: They lost a bunch of games and accumulated high lottery picks for three straight seasons following the departure of LeBron James.
But starting over isn't just about accumulating talent via the draft. It's about having smart decision-makers in key positions who can pick the right talent and then mold it into a functional team.
In other words, it's the second half of the rebuilding process—the part that requires fresh thinking and a top-down approach—that has been much, much more difficult for Cleveland.
Clever executives and coaches who are willing to embrace new ideas are the most important assets in the effort to turn a loser into a winner. Without them, no quantity of top-five picks will necessarily alter a franchise's fortunes.
Because without intelligent, thoughtful leadership, there's no guarantee that those picks will be used wisely. And even if they are, it's much harder to develop raw talent without fashioning the right environment.
The Cavs are 7-13 right now and boast a per-game differential of minus-7.3 points. Based on that margin, Cleveland should actually be even lower in the standings than it currently is. Per ESPN, only the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks have posted worse differentials.
The current roster is the product of three years of utter futility. Cleveland won 19 games in 2010-11, nabbing the first overall pick and taking Kyrie Irving. If we're going to fault the Cavs, this probably isn't the place to start. Just about every other franchise in the league would have grabbed Irving at No.1, and Cleveland's lack of a viable point guard made the pick glaringly obvious.
Taking Tristan Thompson at No. 4 is harder to defend, especially with Jonas Valanciunas, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard coming off the board a few selections after the power forward.
The Cavaliers took Dion Waiters with the fourth pick in the 2012 draft after winning just 21 games in the preceding season. The shooting guard is looking like a major bust and to make matters worse, he reportedly clashed with Irving and Thompson in a players-only meeting earlier this season.
Confrontation between Cavs players reported by ESPN involved Dion Waiters, source says. Waiters sat out last night, didn't travel today.— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) November 16, 2013
Considering that Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond were options that went off the board after Waiters, the decision to draft him looks even worse.
Of course, no chronicling of the Cavs' draft mistakes would be complete without mentioning Anthony Bennett, this year's No. 1 overall selection. Bennett's immense struggles include some startlingly awful shooting numbers. He has made just 22.8 percent of his attempts from the field, 37.5 percent of his foul shots and 19 percent of his triples.
He's young, which means there's still a ton of time for him to change the course of his career. But it's almost impossible to imagine him in the league five years from now, let alone playing well enough to ever justify being the No. 1 pick.
Botched drafts aren't even the main problem for the Cavs. Really, they're a symptom of a deeper-seeded disease.
Owner Dan Gilbert has presided over all of these selections, and he has to shoulder much of the blame for the team's total inability to develop players as well. He all but destroyed any illusions of professionalism when he penned that infamous anti-LeBron James letter to Cleveland fans. And now the stalled development of his team should also be calling his competence into question.
General manager Chris Grant has made all of the aforementioned Cavaliers picks, and his hiring falls squarely at Gilbert's feet. Whatever failures belong to Grant, some measure of each also belongs to Gilbert.
Grant is the man in charge of personnel, which includes players, coaches and staff. So, the Cavs' lack of player development is his fault, too.
Ultimately, if we look only at the Cavaliers as an example, we've got proof that losing isn't necessarily the safest way to (eventually) start winning.
But when we also consider what other teams are doing in their own rebuilding efforts, the difficulty of tanking becomes even more obvious.
There's a new crop of teams that are rebuilding more intelligently. They've opted to start at the top, getting new coaches (not retreads like Mike Brown), hiring analytics-based executives and generally approaching tear-down efforts with more of a plan than Cleveland's "just lose, baby" mantra.
The Phoenix Suns snatched Ryan McDonough from the Boston Celtics and installed him as general manager. Almost immediately, he stripped away costly veterans and cut bait with low-character guys like Michael Beasley. He was concerned with creating a winning environment above all else.
Jeff Hornacek was named coach, Eric Bledsoe came over via trade and before you knew it, the Suns were among the league's biggest surprises. Currently sitting at 11-9, Phoenix's young players are learning how to win well ahead of schedule.
The Philadelphia 76ers hired Sam Hinkie away from the Houston Rockets, tabbed San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown as head coach and gave the ball to rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Essentially, the Sixers have embraced analytics and enjoyed a level of immediate success that has most experts befuddled.
Keep in mind that the Sixers are still gunning for a high lottery pick. But they're even doing that with great care.
In the past, teams at a talent disadvantage always slowed the pace, subscribing to the sensible theory that a faster tempo and more possessions would only give superior opponents more chances to succeed.
That's a decision that keeps fans entertained, and it should eventually result in plenty of losses. But the real genius of adopting a fast pace is that potential trade assets—like Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes—wind up with inflated per-game statistics.
It's a win-win-win move for the Sixers.
The list of teams that are building more intelligently could go on for a while. The Boston Celtics wisely hired Brad Stevens to create a new culture well before the lottery picks start pouring in. And the Orlando Magic's front office has been active in trades for the better part of two years.
Tanking: A Dying Practice?
Here's the upshot: Dumping high-priced veterans, losing games and trying to build through the draft has long been a widely accepted method for rebuilding. It'll continue to be popular as long as we see promising draft classes like the one coming up in 2014.
But we're learning that bottoming out is just part of the picture. The construction of a sound front office, the presence of a smart coach and maybe even a little sneaky stuff is much more important.
Rebuilding doesn't necessarily start with a lottery ticket anymore.