Ranking the Biggest Rebuilding Projects in the NBA
With the 2014-15 NBA season still in its infancy, this may well become premature prediction time for the basketball world.
Early-season struggles or strong starts out of the gate will be overanalyzed, despite our knowledge of the marathon-style of an 82-game schedule.
But for the seven rebuilding clubs on this list, there are no dangers in rushing to judgment. Their respective places on the road to relevance are already known.
Some can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; others cannot. Our challenge is here to examine the path each club is facing and find out which of the league's rebuilding projects are the most daunting.
So, we graded the following teams on four different categories: excitement (nothing is worse than a team that is bad and boring), talent (how many actual pieces are already in place), tools (draft picks and free-agency pull, things these franchises will use to pull off the rebuild) and time frame (how long these projects are going to take).
Each category was given a score between one and five to give us what we'll call each team's rebuilding score. The higher the score, the "better off" these teams are sitting—fun to watch, prepared for the future or perhaps a combination of both.
Conversely, the lower the score, the longer these franchises will have to wait to see any signs of life.
No. 7: Boston Celtics
This is the highest possible score, and it still feels low.
Think about it. The Boston Celtics have contract-year Rajon Rondo, who flirted with a triple-double (13 points, 12 assists and seven boards) his first time out.
Stretch bigs Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger are trying to prove themselves capable of being centerpieces. Rookie Marcus Smart plays with relentless energy, Jeff Green can explode at any time and Marcus Thornton's hot streaks are as exciting as any reserves'.
With the creative mind of Brad Stevens overseeing the entire operation, this team should be on everyone's League Pass watch list.
Rebuilding clubs aren't supposed to have an in-his-prime superstar. Yet, provided they don't deal him, the Celtics have just that in Rondo. The four-time All-Star could fetch a hefty return on the trade market, but Boston may decide his court vision and championship experience make him the perfect player to guide this transition.
The sky is the limit for the 20-year-old Smart if he can add a consistent perimeter shot to his arsenal. Olynyk, Sullinger and Brandon Bass give Boston an intriguing mix of frontcourt scoring from inside and out.
If defensive hound Avery Bradley continues developing at the opposite end, the Celtics could have a lethal three-headed monster in the backcourt.
Despite their storied past, the Celtics haven't had much luck attracting premier free agents.
But their cupboard is so well-stocked with future draft picks, they don't need to go the free-agent route to find help. As an old Brooklyn Nets team continues to age, those unprotected first-round picks coming to Boston in 2016 and 2018 could become extremely valuable.
Time Frame: 5
The Celtics won't be contending for a title anytime soon, but they should compete for a playoff spot relatively soon if Rondo sticks around. Boston may ultimately decide to hit the reset button, but if not, it could be nearing the end of the post-Big Three rebuild.
Rebuilding Score: 19
No. 6: Milwaukee Bucks
It's hard to say how well this Milwaukee Bucks roster will perform this season, but it is definitely going to be a fun one.
Between sophomore Giannis Antetokounmpo and No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, the Bucks have two of the most electric young talents in the business. With Larry Sanders and John Henson protecting the paint, this team can compile highlight reels at the defensive end alone.
Milwaukee also has a pair of veterans desperately seeking bounce-back seasons in O.J. Mayo and Ersan Ilyasova. If Brandon Knight can't score an extension by Friday night, the scoring point guard will have extra incentive to build off last year's breakout effort (17.9 points and 4.9 assists).
While the Bucks haven't fully embraced a youth movement, a lot of their future building blocks have started to fall into place.
Neither Parker nor Antetokounmpo have yet to celebrate their 20th birthdays. Knight is only 22 years old. Henson won't turn 24 until December, and Sanders still has a couple of weeks left to enjoy being 25.
The Bucks are young, long and athletic. And new coach Jason Kidd plans to incorporate those strengths into his blueprint.
"We're pretty athletic and we have guys with some speed that can help us defensively and offensively," Kidd said, per Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel. "Right now this team is starting to come together as a team: counting on one another, setting screens and sharing the ball."
Unless the Bucks ship out some of their young prospects, finding external help isn't going to be easy.
Since taking over in 2008, general manager John Hammond's biggest free-agent acquisition to date is probably Mayo. And the shooting guard promptly delivered one of the worst seasons of his career in 2013-14 (11.7 points on 40.7 percent shooting).
Milwaukee doesn't have many future picks coming in or going out. The Bucks have one first-round credit on the horizon, but it's coming from the Los Angeles Clippers and will not arrive until 2017 at the earliest.
Time Frame: 4
The Bucks haven't lacked direction in recent seasons, but they spent a lot of time chasing mediocrity. Finally bottoming out last year (league-worst 15 wins) helped them land Parker, and they had previously found good draft value in Antetokounmpo (15th pick in 2013), Henson (14th in 2012) and Sanders (15th in 2010).
Combine that young talent with new owners and a new coach, and the future looks pretty bright in Milwaukee. More importantly, it seems exponentially closer than it did last season.
Rebuilding Score: 15
No. 5: Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves have one of the league's best passers in Ricky Rubio and two of its highest fliers in rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. That combination alone garners a pretty significant score in this department.
But it's not just about those three players. It's more about the philosophical shift this team took when it flipped Kevin Love in a three-team exchange that brought back Wiggins, last year's top pick Anthony Bennett and athletic veteran Thaddeus Young.
If people were wondering how the post-Love Wolves would look, that deal provided the answer.
"That trade all of a sudden shifted the identity of the Wolves from a team content with walking up the floor and setting up the halfcourt offense to a team that wanted to get out a run," wrote Timberwolves.com's Dane Mizutani.
To recycle a refrain commonly heard during the Love era, the Wolves would have a shot at the playoffs if they somehow found their way to the Eastern Conference.
That's not a knock on the East, either. Minnesota has talent.
But the franchise failed to net a perfect-five score here for two reasons.
One, it still has more veteran players than a rebuilding club should. That is especially problematic when guys like Mo Williams, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic are blocking the paths in front of LaVine, Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng.
Plus, it's tough to gauge how good Minnesota's young players will become. Wiggins and LaVine are incredibly raw, and Bennett is looking to rebound from a woeful rookie year.
The best news in this category is really just not-as-bad-as-it-could-be news. The Wolves owe their 2015 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns, but it's top-12 protected for each of the next two drafts. If it hasn't changed hands by then, it will turn into second-round selections in 2016 and 2017.
Considering the depth of the Western Conference, the Wolves' record could be bad enough both years to keep that pick.
Minnesota has never been a destination franchise for free agents, and losing a player of Love's caliber is only going to hurt that area.
Still, if the Wolves can keep their own first-round picks, those should have good value. And Minnesota might be able to find something helpful on the trade market if it opts to deal some of its veterans.
Time Frame: 4
The Timberwolves' young talent—more specifically, the tantalizing Wiggins—will determine if this grade is too high or too low. If those players can adjust to this level faster than expected, keeping the veterans around might allow Minnesota to make some noise sooner than later.
But a transitional period seems more likely, although it could be a fairly quick one.
Rebuilding Score: 14
No. 4: Utah Jazz
There are reasons to watch the Utah Jazz in action.
Derrick Favors is one of the league's most underrated players. The former No. 3 pick shows well from nearly every angle of the stat sheet (16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks over his first two games), and he has the athleticism to live above the rim.
Australian import Dante Exum possesses freakish physical gifts, making the 19-year-old a highlight-waiting-to-happen. Gordon Hayward has a versatile skill set, Trey Burke combines confidence with scoring ability and Rudy Gobert looks ready for the bright lights.
First-year coach Quin Snyder has a sharp offensive mind that emphasizes floor spacing and movement of body and ball.
Individually, the Jazz have a number of guys capable of putting on a good show. But it could take some time before the collective picture reaches its complete aesthetic potential.
Not only is this roster good, it is also incredibly young. Save for the 26-year-old Trevor Booker, Utah's top nine-man rotation is under the age of 25.
And despite that fact, a lot of these guys come with track records. Hayward was one of only five players to average at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists last season. Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, Favors and Burke all tallied above 12 points on a nightly basis in 2013-14.
Some rebuilding clubs have so many question marks, the chance of everything going horribly wrong looms as a constant threat. That fear does not—or should not, at least—exist in Salt Lake City.
But there is one pressing concern in Utah: This team may lack a true centerpiece. Unless Favors and Hayward make tremendous strides, they both project as complementary pieces. The Jazz might have to hope that the unproven Exum can eventually become a dominant force.
Not to keep singing the same tune but the Jazz haven't had much pull with top-flight free agents. So, even if the league's new media-rights deal makes Hayward's $63 million contract look better, Utah might not have a lot of buying power on the open market.
The draft front looks different, though it may appear stronger than it seems. On the plus side, Utah doesn't owe anyone draft picks, and it has a boatload of them coming in. But all of those incoming selections are second-rounders, except a 2017 pick from the Golden State Warriors, which might fall in the latter portion of the first round.
Time Frame: 4
Like a lot of teams on this list, Utah is heavily dependent on internal growth. Unless one of these players unearths a path to stardom, the Jazz could have trouble becoming anything better than good.
That said, the Jazz should be able to make a faster leap up to good than most of these clubs.
Rebuilding Score: 13
No. 3: Orlando Magic
Blame the injury imp for this rating not being higher. When the Orlando Magic lost Victor Oladipo to a facial fracture, a lot of their intrigue followed him out the door.
But credit rookies Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon for keeping this number from falling any further. The former is a long (6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan, per DraftExpress), athletic point guard with an eye for playmaking and the fire for pesky defending. The latter is a human highlight reel, with a defensive ceiling that can't be seen from the ground floor.
"His blend of explosive quickness and textbook fundamentals allows him to keep even the best attackers in front of him," Bleacher Report's Daniel O'Brien wrote of Gordon. "In addition, he holds his own against interior scorers with his strength and vertical bounce."
However, Orlando loses some points here for carving out a rotation spot for Ben Gordon. The 31-year-old posted a putrid 6.4 player efficiency rating for the then-Charlotte Bobcats last season, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Nikola Vucevic did enough during his first three seasons in the league to secure a four-year, $53 million contract extension from the Magic. But early indications are the best is yet to come for the 24-year-old. During his first two games of the 2014-15 campaign, he has racked up ridiculous per-game averages of 19.0 points and 17.5 rebounds.
If everything goes according to plan, Orlando should have both its backcourt and center spot taken care of for the long haul. If Oladipo and Payton can find any consistency from range, the Magic could have a nasty two-way combination at the guard spots.
Shifting to the forwards, though, things get a little murky. Tobias Harris seems to have a firm grip at the 4 spot, which puts former first-round pick Andrew Nicholson in a precarious position. And if the arrival of Aaron Gordon hadn't put enough heat on Maurice Harkless, the fact the 21-year-old did not play in either of Orlando's first two games may have sparked a raging inferno under his seat.
The Magic gave 31-year-old Channing Frye a four-year, $32 million deal this offseason. They handed out a two-year, $9 million deal to whatever is left of Ben Gordon (though, they at least hold a team option for the second season).
That says everything you need to know about Orlando's success on the free-agent market.
Shifting the focus over to the draft, the only debt the Magic need to pay is sending their second-round pick next summer to the Philadelphia 76ers. They also could collect three second-round selections over the next two years, along with a top-five protected first-round choice from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017.
Time Frame: 3
Orlando is entering its third season since Dwight Howard left, and the franchise is starting to get a bit antsy. While no team should rebuild forever, chasing past-their-prime veterans and giving them significant minutes is not the way to go.
If the Magic can be a little more patient, they could reap some potentially special rewards a little further down the line.
Rebuilding Score: 12
No. 2: Los Angeles Lakers
This is the reality for the Los Angeles Lakers: two games in the books and two double-digit losses on record. But Kobe Bryant, predictably, has no interest in accepting that fate.
Unfortunately, they are. And regardless how unsightly their record might get, Bryant will never give up on this group.
That's where the excitement lies with this team. And, no, this is not a sinister desire to see the Mamba crash and burn in a situation he cannot win. Rather, it's an appreciation for being able to witness a once-in-a-generation talent give everything left in his 36-year-old frame to keep fighting the odds.
But looking beyond Bryant, there just isn't much to see here. Steve Nash and Julius Randle are both lost for the year. Nick Young is sidelined for the foreseeable future with a thumb injury. Jeremy Lin has had a brutal start to his Lakers' career (6.5 points, 30 percent shooting, 3.5 assists against 3.0 turnovers). Carlos Boozer is still Carlos Boozer.
It’s rough right now, and it might get worse going forward.
The Lakers’ most important piece of the future (Randle) had all of 14 minutes to inspire hope before suffering a broken leg. It’s hard to say who even qualifies as being the next in line.
Ed Davis has impressed (12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks), but he is 25 years old and has four forgettable seasons on his resume. Lin keeps looking further removed from the Linsanity craze and certainly not in a good way. Former lottery picks Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry are fighting uphill battles to validate their lofty draft positions.
You could make an argument that Bryant is actually the biggest piece of the Lakers’ future, just for the way he could impact their ability to bring in help from the outside. Considering how few prospects are on this roster, that might be L.A.’s only way to dig out of this hole.
Luckily, the Lakers’ brand still carries significant weight around the league. Between their rich history, market size and picturesque climate, they have a number of different cards they can put on the table for perspective targets.
However, they’ll need to work around Bryant’s salary ($25 million in 2015-16) if they hope to land a big fish next summer. If that’s not possible, it could take another year to really put those advantages to work.
And that’s an issue, because the Lakers do not have another avenue to add an impact player. Unless their 2015 pick falls inside the top five, it will belong to the Suns. And they’ll have to send another first-rounder to the Magic two years after shipping one to Phoenix.
Time Frame: 2
Really, this score should probably be a one. When you consider how little help is there and how tough it might be to find some, this rebuild could be agonizingly long.
That being said, these are still the Lakers. And history says this franchise has an uncanny ability to reload one way or another.
Rebuilding Score: 9
No. 1: Philadelphia 76ers
Unless you're checking the progress of Nerlens Noel's totally rebuilt shooting form—judging by his 2-of-11 showing his first time out, it's still a long ways out—you would be hard-pressed to find a reason to watch the Philadelphia 76ers.
Reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams remains sidelined after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in June's draft, could miss a significant chunk (if not all) of his rookie year while working his way back from a stress fracture in his foot. Fellow rookie Dario Saric may not come stateside until 2016, a source told NJ.com's Eliot Shorr-Parks.
The most exciting thing about this depleted group might be the way other teams run up the scoreboard against them.
Despite the lack of excitement now, there is a chance this team has already assembled a lot of impact pieces for later on.
Carter-Williams already had the chance to showcase his skills, and his ability to play with pace could be a key component in making these pieces fit. Noel projects as a menacing defender and above-the-rim finisher at worst or a potential star should that shot ever come around.
Embiid, dubbed "the center of our universe" by Sixers coach Brett Brown in early October, has superstar-level skills if he can just stay healthy. Embiid flashed some major two-way ability during his lone season at Kansas, whether shaking defenders on the low block or showing a frightening level of comfort away from the basket.
And the versatile, intelligent Saric tied for the most votes as the best international player not in the NBA during NBA.com's annual GM survey.
The Sixers are loaded with cap space, but their young guys need to develop—or even play—in order to maximize the use of those funds.
A much clearer path to adding talent comes via the draft, where the Sixers are overloaded with picks coming their way. Almost all are second-round choices, except for a top-10 protected pick due from the Miami Heat next summer, but there are enough of them to help increase their value.
Not to mention that Philly's own picks should hold tremendous value for at least the new few years.
Time Frame: 1
The Sixers have a clear plan in place. Not every club on this list can make that claim.
But it's a blueprint that will take years to come together. And that's assuming their prospects reach their full potential, which is always a gamble.
Rebuilding Score: 7