Stakes Are High in NBA's Ugly Race to Rebuild

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Stakes Are High in NBA's Ugly Race to Rebuild
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Rebuilding is already a trying task in the NBA, routinely headlined by ugly and, at times, directionless franchises.

Plotting and preparing for future success has become an even more grisly endeavor this season. A loaded draft class awaits victors of the lottery, increasing the volume of awful and lost organizations searching for a semi-quick fix.

Some general managers and front offices have their wits about them. They meticulously planned for this year, when being bad would be good. Others inadvertently stumbled into this fray of losing.

Almost all of them have been impacted by vicious pools of revolving uncertainty, seeing their restructuring efforts unseated by surprising wins or unexpected bottom-feeders. And really, it's nobody's fault.

Except it is.

Blame the Eastern Conference for reshaping the race to rebuild, turning it into a sideshow disfigured by high-stakes indecision.

 

Chaos Out East

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"When I was in the Western Conference, everybody was talking about how the West is so much better," New York Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony told ESPN New York in August. "But now, the power has shifted back into the Eastern Conference, so we’re ready. We’re excited about that."

Even then, when the Eastern Conference was gearing up for increased top-heavy competition, 'Melo was wrong. Now he's dead wrong.

As of Jan. 29, four Eastern Conference teams are over .500, or 26.7 percent of the entire conference. That's it. And only two of the top five teams—Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers—have a winning percentage above 53.

Worse still, three of five projected powerhouses—Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Knicks—are, in fact, outside the top five. Injuries (Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez), trades (Luol Deng) and underperforming factions (Knicks, Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons) have thrown the conference for a whirl-and-a-half.

The ensuing chaos has left plenty of teams in flux, trying to figure out what they're doing.

 

Those Well Off

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Milwaukee Bucks

Worst team in the league. They were supposed to contend for a bottom-three playoff spot and are instead bottoming out. This is a good thing, and it gives them a solid chance of landing a top-three pick this summer.

 

Orlando Magic

Orlando has plenty of nice young pieces, some of which aren't playing enough (Andrew Nicholson). With Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic in tow, this team will be perfectly content and able to rebuild through the draft.

 

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers aren't historically bad as promised, but so what? Michael Carter-Williams is a stud, Nerlens Noelthough injuredis a solid building block and they could realistically wind up with two lottery picks this summer. That's how you tank—I mean, rebuild—properly.

 

Boston Celtics

"Making the playoffs is not a goal," Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn in December. "I need to explain that a little bit."

No need, Danny. We're all on the same page. 

Those comments were made while Boston was perched atop the Atlantic Division. Since then, Ainge has traded Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford, and the Celtics, armed with more first-rounders over the next half-decade than some have fingers, are 0-6 in games Rajon Rondo has played in, dipping 17 games below .500.

In other words, they're right on schedule.

 

The Enigmas

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Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks

Basketball in New York hasn't been pretty. It was supposed to be, if that makes concrete-jungle inhabitants feel any better. (It won't.)

Injuries have consumed both rosters, especially the Nets, who are operating on a one-year title window. The Knicks, meanwhile, aren't much better off, or better off at all. Failing miserably doesn't instill confidence in their ability to re-sign Anthony this summer, who, while (probably) not worth five years and $129 million, is their relevancy lifeline.

Prevailing wisdom would have the Knicks and Nets blow it up. But both are caught between a rock and an impossible situation.

The assets either have to offer aren't particularly valuable. Tanking also does nothing. Brooklyn doesn't own the rights to its own first-rounder until 2019, while New York's 2014 first-round draft pick is being sent to the Denver Nuggets.

With the East being so bad, it's created false hope, reason enough to stand pat in hopes the Knicks and Nets can make something happen this year.

 

Washington Wizards

John Wall and friends are supposed to be better.

Playing .500 basketball may earn them a top-five spot, but that only ensures them of a first-round appearance and likely exit, nothing more. 

Washington has over $70 million committed to this roster, so it's in win-now mode. The Wizards just aren't winning all that much, which has them looking to shake things up via trade, according to BasketballInsiders.com's Alex Kennedy.

 

Atlanta Hawks

Losing Al Horford should have forced them to enter rebuilding mode, but the Hawks soldier on, a potential top-three Eastern Conference team.

Despite their position in the standings, it can also be argued they're going nowhere special. Unloading their assets in an attempt to snag a valuable lottery pick is a possibility, especially since the Nets—who the Hawks can swap first-round selections with—are no longer tracking in that direction.

 

The Stuck

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Cleveland Cavaliers

Another projected playoff team gone rogue.

The Andrew Bynum situation reflects poorly on their infrastructure, as does their inability to turn things around with Deng. Kyrie Irving is pouting, and the Cavs are still outside the playoff picture. 

Finishing late in the lottery won't do much for them with Deng set to hit free agency this summer. But with the East's eighth seed just a couple games away, a playoff berth is within their grasp.

Cleveland is stuck in the middle and needs to pick a direction: up or down. The middle is not where it wants to be.

 

Detroit Pistons

Spending $80 million(ish) on Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith did little to improve Detroit's postseason chances.

Nabbing a playoff berth is still very possible, but what happens if the Pistons get in? They play their way towards a first-round exit, that's what.

With Greg Monroe approaching restricted free agency and Andre Drummond the team's only surefire building block, the Pistons are chasing mediocrity without a clear path to reach the next level.

 

Chicago Bulls

In the Bulls' defense, they tried to move their needle in the right direction. Coach Tom Thibodeau's resilient cadre just wouldn't let them.

Chicago went 8-4 after trading Deng and is now within one game of home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. And if the Bulls aren't ousted then, they'll be picked apart in the second round. They just don't have the star power or talent to contend without Rose and Deng.

Escaping no man's land demands they make more moves, a decision that's tough to embrace when a playoff berth is so readily available.

 

Charlotte Bobcats

Now is when it should pay to be the Bobcats.

A team that hasn't won more than 34 games since 2010-11 was perfectly positioned to snag a potentially franchise-altering lottery pick. But then Charlotte signed Al Jefferson—started battling injuries to him and Kemba Walkerand finds itself toiling away somewhere between the lottery and an early playoff exit.

 

Toronto Raptors

General manager Masai Ujiri tried to make things right, unloading Rudy Gay's contract on the Sacramento Kings. 

Addition by subtraction has come into play since then. The Raptors have catapulted themselves to the top of the Atlantic Division. Securing any kind of playoff berth could be enough for a franchise that hasn't made the postseason in five years, but ESPN's Marc Stein says Ujiri is still undecided:

Trading Lowry would indicate the Raptors are prepared to continue the tank job Ujiri started, but the high asking price suggests they're fine right where they are.

The problem is that Toronto doesn't have a certifiable building block to move forward with. Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are all possibilities, but at this point, shouldn't Toronto be looking for sure things?

 

Impact On Western Conference

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Most of the Western Conference is fine.

Unlike the East, the West is largely made up of contenders. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, among others, don't have to worry about being impacted by the putrid dealings out East.

Fringe-playoff teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Nuggets are all in slight predicaments, but each has a core worth building around, impending cap space or, in Memphis' case, caught fire.

The Minnesota Timberwolves aren't so lucky. While they're one of four squads in the top 10 of offensive and defensive efficiency—Clippers, Spurs and Thunder—the 'Wolves are still sitting outside the playoff picture. With Kevin Love's future up in the air, some would have them dump him and others, and start rebuilding through the draft now before they're screwed come 2015.

But the East is so bad that even if the Timberwolves—or Los Angeles Lakers or News Orleans Pelicans—deliberately tank, there's no guarantee it culminates in anything other than a mid-lottery selection, which is what each is headed for now anyway.

It might be worth it for the Pelicans to hold a fire sale since their first-round pick is only top-five protected, otherwise the Lakers and Timberwolves may be better off remaining idle, even though the playoffs could prove out of reach.

Basically, the indecision out East—to rebuild or tank, or not to rebuild or tank?—forces some Western Conference teams into a holding pattern. 

 

Ugly and Confusing

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Mayhem. For every team that isn't a legitimate contender or tanker—those stuck in the middle—life is absolute mayhem.

A few tanking—excuse me, rebuilding—efforts, like the Celtics, got it right. Others haven't been so lucky. Or should I say too lucky? The unsightly Eastern Conference has made it so very few teams are actually out of the playoff picture.

That kind of uncertainty spurs false hope and indecision. Do affected teams go for a playoff berth, or do they further unload and jump-start a rebuild? And for those who have already tried for the latter—Raptors, Bulls, etc.—and remained in the playoff chase, is there any use fighting any further? Should they just accept an early playoff exit and move on?

Residual damage trickles over to the Western Conference. What's the point in trying to be really bad when there will always be (much) worse teams out East. Seven of the league's worst 10 outfits hail from the Eastern Conference, after all.

What's a team without a clear direction to do?

Not even those in control know. Pick wrong, and present failures, whatever they may be, destroy future hope, leaving the race to rebuild and various quests for redemption unpredictable and exhausting as ever.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference

**Salary and draft information via ShamSports and RealGM.

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