Does Veteran Leadership Actually Help an NBA Rebuild?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 12, 2015

This is a question Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie has probably grappled with many times.
This is a question Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie has probably grappled with many times.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from Carl Landry, who has played all of zero minutes while rehabbing a torn ligament in his right wrist, the Philadelphia 76ers don't boast the services of a single player who entered the world prior to the 1990s. Robert Covington, born on Dec. 14, 1990, is the oldest member of this downtrodden franchise to step onto the court during live action. 

On the flip side, the Los Angeles Lakers are utilizing a different strategy as they attempt to move out of the Western Conference's basement. 

Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass, Lou Williams and Metta World Peace have all been in the NBA for at least a decade, while Nick Young and Roy Hibbert are now both on the wrong side of 30. Unlike the Sixers, they're brimming over with veteran presences.

Is one strategy better than the other? It depends on the extent to which you buy into the notion that the leadership of experienced players can help expedite and enhance a rebuild. 

As of yet, there's no one overarching answer. 

Not Much Consistency

Throughout recent NBA history, plenty of different franchises have bottomed out, establishing themselves as some of the worst teams of all time before slowly crawling back toward respectability. But there hasn't been any semblance of consistency in their approaches, leading to a complete absence of tried-and-true blueprints. 

If you need proof, let's take a gander at these four rebuilds, all of which occurred within the last dozen years.

1. 2004-05 Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks hit rock bottom in 2004-05. And much like the rebuilding Chicago Bulls before them, who finally bounced back from Michael Jordan's 1998 retirement with a playoff berth in '05, they didn't hesitate to hold on to a number of veterans at the beginning of the rebuild—Kenny Anderson (13 years of experience), Jon Barry (12), Tom Gugliotta (12) and Kevin Willis (19). 

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 9:  Jon Barry #20 of the Atlanta Hawks drives against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game at Philips Arena on November 11, 2004 in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Cavaliers won 93-79.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

They got much younger the next season, though they didn't take the process to nearly the same extreme as the Bulls before them, who went into the 2000-01 campaign with 28-year-old Fred Hoiberg as the oldest player. 

A 32-year-old Tony Delk played just one game before he was waived and subsequently signed by the Detroit Pistons, and 30-year-old John Thomas followed a similar trajectory. Tyronn Lue (28 at the time) and Al Harrington (25) ended up serving as the old men on the roster.

With young up-and-comers growing, it didn't take the Hawks long to get back into the playoffs, as they did so in 2008 despite losing more games than they won. 

2. 2009-10 Minnesota Timberwolves

When the 2009-10 Minnesota Timberwolves compiled a 15-67 record, they went the entire season without rostering any veterans who fit our arbitrary 10-year definition. Brian Cardinal came closest, as he entered the campaign with nine years of experience under his belt. 

Since then, the 'Wolves have yet to get back into the postseason, though they've experimented with a few different styles of roster construction.

Most of the iterations have remained quite young, but the front office has never hesitated to add a few experienced players into the mix while trying to compile the right youthful pieces. Older contributors such as Kevin Martin, Ronny Turiaf, Andrei Kirilenko and Luke Ridnour have graced the roster at various times. 

Nov 27, 2015; Sacramento, CA, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin (23) dribbles the ball against the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Right now, Minnesota is taking things to an extreme by using Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett to help mentor its many young talents. We haven't seen such drastic age splits on a rebuilding team in quite some time, and the end results remain unknown.

But at least the process currently appears to be working. 

3. 2009-10 New Jersey Nets

Though the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets were one of the worst teams in NBA history, winners of only 12 games in 82 attempts, they bottomed out with a surprisingly old roster.

We often see rebuilding teams where the majority of players under contract have yet to celebrate their 25th birthday, but the majority of these Nets were 26 or older: Chris Quinn (26), Devin Harris (26), Jarvis Hayes (28), Bobby Simmons (29), Keyon Dooling (29), Trenton Hassell (30), Tony Battie (33), Eduardo Najera (33) and Rafer Alston (33). 

That said, it's tough to make any firm connection between the veteran-laden nature of that roster and the fact that the Nets got into the playoffs only three years later. Of the aforementioned players, Harris was the only one who returned for the 2010-11 campaign, and even he wasn't on the roster when the Nets finally moved out of the lottery. 

4. 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 22: Corey Maggette #50 of the Charlotte Bobcats dribbles against Marvin Williams #24 of the Atlanta Hawks during a preseason game on December 22, 2011 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Probably the most famous awful team in recent memory, the Charlotte Bobcats actually handed a decent chunk of their 2011-12 minutes to players with at least 10 years of experience—DeSagana Diop, Corey Maggette and Eduardo Najera. The members of that trio aren't former stars you'd typically want serving as veteran mentors, but they did help shape the young Charlotte minds. 

Two years later, the Bobcats had moved back into the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. And though none of the first-year vets were still on the roster, Charlotte had spent big bucks in free agency for Al Jefferson to join the squad as one of a few experienced players. 

A Matter of Culture

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 28: Nene #42 of the Washington Wizards drives against the Detroit Pistons during the game at the Verizon Center on December 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Do any of those stories sound like perfect parallels? They shouldn't.

Other teams outside of those four have gone through rebuilding periods in varying ways, but that quartet encapsulates just how differently franchises can go about achieving fairly similar results. Still, every situation is entirely different, which is what makes it so difficult to identify any significant trends. 

Typically, veterans are brought on for one of three reasons.

They can actually make a noticeable impact on the floor, which speaks for itself. They can help mentor younger players, sharing pearls of wisdom that help improve their on- and off-court abilities. Again, that speaks for itself.

Finally, they can help change the culture of an organization. 

The underlying tone makes a significant difference in the progression of young careers. While a winning mentality can breed success, a losing one can lead to ignominious records and far too much unhappiness. The glaring dichotomy is why we so often see struggling teams bring in the right veterans while cutting ties with undisciplined negative influences, as the Washington Wizards did a few years back. 

After winning a combined 68 games over a three-season span, the braintrust in the nation's capital was understandably tired of losing. The Wizards had become a pushover for most opponents while enabling shot-chucking players with a decisive lack of discipline, which led to a big trade near the end of the 2012-13 campaign.

Out went Nick Young and JaVale McGee. In came Nene, among other pieces. 

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 23: Nene #42 of the Washington Wizards against the Golden State Warriors on March 23, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph,
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"That's why the Washington Wizards are making a stab at a change in culture by acquiring Nene, Denver’s 29-year-old Brazilian center, for McGee in a three-team deal that also sent Young to the Clippers," Mike Wise wrote for the Washington Post in the immediate aftermath of the multiteam swap. "It's a culture change as much as it is a change in the pivot."

The next season, Washington was back in the playoffs and actually advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The drastic and sudden turnaround was about more than the talent acquired in the Nene trade and the subsequent one that landed Marcin Gortat. Bringing in Martell Webster, Garrett Temple and Al Harrington helped, as did the midseason signing of Drew Gooden, which began as a string of 10-day contracts. 

Washington president Ted Leonsis was especially enthused about the Harrington addition, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's Ben Standig

Someone like Al, who is like a coach on the floor. He's been around. He knows good organization, good situations. He too wanted to be here. Likes the city, likes the front office, likes the players - and players talk. They know right away whether it would be a good situation for them to be in and will they be happy here.

Not every attempted change goes so well, though. 

Avoiding the Pitfalls

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 04:  Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on as Kobe Bryant #24 prepares to inbounds the ball against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 4, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and a
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Though there's plenty of reason to worry about situations featuring a dearth of veteran presences (see: Jahlil Okafor's off-court issues as a rookie in Philadelphia), rostering experienced players is by no means a guarantee.

Here, we turn to the current Los Angeles Lakers, who are using their veterans in a way that could end up stunting the growth of D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. When you draft talented young players who are supposed to assert themselves as franchise cornerstones, you might actually want to play them.

The temptation is to let veterans stay on the court in crucial situations, as that allows you to chase a few extra wins, possibly earning a bit more job security in the process. When looking at the long-term health of a franchise, it's not a good plan. But it's exactly what head coach Byron Scott is doing.

Per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News

After Russell failed to receive late run in a blowout loss—presumably, the perfectly meaningless situation that should give him the ability to learn on the job—Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer attempted to come up with an alternate explanation for the inexplicable benchings: 

Now, there is always a very good chance that there are things going on behind the scenes, conflicts we've never heard of, entirely good reasons why Byron Scott chose not to play a franchise cornerstone that needs development minutes in a blowout game featuring Nick Young missing all three of his fourth quarter shots and Marcelo Huertas playing nearly nine fourth quarter minutes on the same night he did this.

That's Byron Scott’s last defense. That we don't know about something that a 19-year old did. Impugning him without any proof. Something we're entirely making up in our own heads, away from the cameras, that somehow makes it OK to run an NBA team like this.

And if we turn to Randle and Russell themselves, they're also struggling to find explanations for the pine time, per CBS Sport's James Herbert

"I've never been in this position, so I don't know how it's going to affect myself," Russell said. "But I ain't expect it to happen like that. So if I was the problem or if I was the change that needed to happen to better the team, then I guess it was worth it."

While Randle kept his answers as short as possible, Russell at least offered that he "thought I was starting to figure it out" before this happened, adding that he does not think it would stunt his growth. One reporter asked, given the demotion, if he ever thinks about his draft position and the fact he's supposed to be a big part of the Lakers' rebuilding project.

This is precisely what rebuilding teams want to avoid. 

It's better if the burgeoning superstar reflects on the past and understands exactly what led to his development than if he looks back and laughs, as Russell indicated he may one day do. It's advantageous if the veterans aren't being used as hindrances, but instead as role models—like Kevin Garnett with this year's Minnesota Timberwolves.

AUBURN HILLS, MI - DECEMBER 6:  Kobe Bryant #24 and D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the game against the Detroit Pistons on December 6, 2015 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
B. Sevald/Einstein/Getty Images

When used properly, veterans really do aid rebuilds.

They serve as integral parts of every squad that climbs away from ineptitude, and you won't find a successful turnaround period at any point in NBA history that didn't feature at least a few older players helping tutor the younger ones. Even the Sixers, who have taken the youth movement to an extreme, are now looking into signing a vet. 

"That's one change you can expect under new chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo, and possibly before Christmas," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe recently reported. "The Sixers are going to sign another veteran to guide the flock. Keep an eye on Elton Brand."

And so long as Brand is used in the right way, it will help.

Flocks always need guidance. 

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