Analyzing the Successes and Failures of Rebuilding in the NBA

Nick Cohen

No other professional sports league stresses rebuilding quite like the NBA. Anyone who has followed the league for a while knows all of the terminology by now: expiring contracts, superstars, salary caps, assets, trade exceptions, draft picks, the list goes on. Every season, teams are continuously grouped into four categories: contenders, pretenders, mediocre teams stuck in transition, and teams in rebuilding mode.


The contenders are just that, contenders. They are the select few teams that are talented, well-coached, and experienced enough to win the championship. The San Antonio Spurs have been a perfect example for the past decade. They’ve won 5 titles with the same core of players: first it was David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and following the former’s retirement, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili rotated in. Under the tutelage of Gregg Popovitch, the Spurs have been the NBA’s only consistent contender for the past decade.


Then there are pretenders. Teams that are good enough to qualify for the playoffs every year, but who don’t have the talent nor the longevity to win the title. See the Atlanta Hawks. They’ve made the playoffs in the past 7 seasons, and have made it out of the first round three times. However, the conference semifinals are as far as they have advanced. In fact, in their 45 year history as the Atlanta Hawks, they’ve never advanced further than the second round of the playoffs.


After the pretenders, there are the unfortunate teams that are struck in transition. Teams that consistently miss the playoffs, sustain losing records, and don’t really show any signs of life or direction. Take the Detroit Pistons. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, and they’ve won less than 20 games in four of the past five seasons. While they’ve had potential in some years, and have quality NBA players (Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe) they’ve been through five head coaches and have still been unable to find a winning formula.


And then, there are the rebuilding teams, the ones that garner the focus of this article.


Here are how all of the NBA teams currently stack up:


Contenders: Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls


Pretenders: Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans


Stuck in Transition: Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings


Rebuilding: Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics


So, the question is: how can the three lower tiers of NBA teams reach the top tier? How can NBA teams become contenders? There are a few key pieces that put teams over the top. They are: a franchise player, above average role players, a string of highly successful draft picks, good contracts, smart dealings in free agency, a proven system, and a strong head coach. When you look at the contending teams in the NBA, you see that they have almost all of these factors. Let’s take a look.


The Franchise Player:

The NBA is a star-driven league. While other leagues such as the NFL, the MLB, or soccer leagues stress team cohesiveness the most, the NBA’s best teams are led by the best players. There are very, very few exceptions: the 2004 Pistons, whose bruising, defensive style of play shocked the basketball world, and arguably the 2011 Mavericks, who had one superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, and an extensive supporting cast. Since then, championship teams have been led by their superstars: The Big Three’s of Boston, San Antonio, and Miami, and dynamic duos like Shaq and Kobe and Kobe and Pau. Each contending team needs a superstar, a go-to player, one that will rise to the occasion. While it is often that teams need multiple superstars to really contend, one transcendent player and a very, very strong supporting cast (again, see 2011 Mavericks) will be able to get the job done. Look at the contending teams now, and you’ll see that this mold is beginning to come to the forefront. The Warriors and the Grizzlies, the two best teams in the league up to this point, are led by one superstar: Stephen Curry and Marc Gasol. The Spurs still have Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Houston has James Harden and Dwight Howard. The Thunder are led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, the list goes on. Even the labeled ‘pretenders,’ teams that are a move away from actual contention, have their stars in place: John Wall, Damian Lillard, and Anthony Davis stand out. The first, and most paramount step towards NBA contention is a franchise player, and it’s clear that teams cannot win without one. But, as the current NBA landscape proves, one superstar isn’t even close to enough to contend.


The Supporting Cast:

Obtaining a stellar NBA supporting cast is a very difficult thing to achieve. If anything, it’s the most difficult. In order to get a franchise player, a team can make one major free agency signing, or succeed with one high draft pick. But to fill out the rest of the roster, general manager’s need to get several draft picks right, make several smart moves in free agency, create a good blend of young players and veterans, and perhaps most importantly, allow financial flexibility by not getting involved in albatross contracts. When you look at a team like the Knicks, for example, they’ve failed in nearly every regard. They have their superstar in Carmelo Anthony, but they’ve failed on several draft picks, or failed to develop them enough, or simply bailed on them. Jordan Hill, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler were shipped off far too early, and Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. have been speculated to follow suit. The Knicks roster isn’t young enough, it has too many terrible contracts (Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargniani) and some of the moves they’ve made in free agency are just poor (resigning JR Smith to a four year deal). When you look at the Spurs, they’ve done just the opposite. Their four best players, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard, were all drafted by San Antonio. The moves they’ve made in free agency are brilliant- Boris Diaw, Marco Bellineli, etc, all fit the mold of what player they want. They don’t have any terrible contracts, and they’ve set the team up so when Duncan eventually hangs up his shoes, they still have a foundation to build around. It’s ingenious.


The System:

Every team needs an identity. For the pretenders and the teams lost in translation, they don’t have one. They try to wheel and deal as much as possible in order to put together a contending roster. They try to assemble great teams on paper, but often times, they fail to materialize. The Pistons, for example, looked great on paper with Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, Drummond, and Monroe. On the court however, they are a poorly spaced, trigger heavy team that uses little to no cohesion. The Spurs (I know I keep coming back to them, but they’re just that good) have a system that’s been working for years. They pass the ball harmoniously, take only good shots, shy away from individual brilliance, and try and play basketball the way it should be played: as a team. In a league driven by stars, the Spurs as a team have redefined the limits of success in the NBA. The other contenders in the league also have identiies, from the trigger-happy, offensive minded Rockets, who have built a roster to compliment Harden and Howard, to the stingy, defensive Bulls, who have veterans like Pau Gasol to compliment young players like Rose and Jimmy Butler, who play like veterans. Then you have the teams with no direction, from the Kings, who have been futile in building a roster around DeMarcus Cousins, to the Knicks, who have been trying to implement the triangle offense with a team that doesn’t fit the system. A proven identity, a system that players and coaches alike buy into, make the mold of a true championship contender.


The Head Coach:

Every great team needs a great leader. Having a competent, smart, successful head coach is paramount towards NBA success. Gregg Popovitch has been doing it for years in San Antonio. Phil Jackson was a major reason why the Bulls of the 90’s and the Lakers of the 2000’s were so dominant. Contemporary head coaching stars like Tom Thibideau in Chicago, Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City, Doc Rivers in Los Angeles all have had significant impacts on their teams. And, of course, who could forget about the new batch head coaches: Boston’s Brad Stevens, Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, and Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek. They instill their philosophies, they rally they troops, and they produce results time and time again. Every true title contender needs to have a top notch head coach.


Now, lets take a look at teams who have successfully rebuilt, compare them to teams who have unsuccessfully rebuilt, and then analyze the direction of the teams currently rebuilding.


The Successes:

Golden State Warriors: The Golden State Warriors are a perfect example of a successful rebuild. From 2008-20012, the Warriors didn’t make the playoffs, and recorded under 30 wins in three of those four seasons. They were at the bottom of the Western Conference, letting down the raucous fans at the Oracle Arena. Now, they have the NBA’s best record, and are one of the leagues most exciting teams. More than that, they have established themselves as a true title contender. Here’s how they perfected the rebuild:

The Franchise Player: Stephen Curry. Golden State got him with the 8th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, a sharpshooting point guard out of Davidson. He’s gone from talented rookie to rising star to a locked in Top 10 player in the league, currently in the conversation for the leagues third best player and best point guard. Averaging 23.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, Curry is rising to new heights, and his team is following suit. At 26 years of age, he still has a long, prosperous career ahead of him.

The Supporting Cast: The Warriors are in the ’11 Mavericks mode, surrounding their star, Curry, with a brilliant and complete team. They have a string of successful draft picks, from sharpshooting Klay Thompson, who is becoming a star himself, to Draymond Green, a second round pick that has been invaluable for the Warriors as a stretch 4, to Harrison Barnes, who still has tremendous potential.  Those three picks alone can boast more than most other teams draft classes in the past five years entirely. Free agency and trade wise, the Warriors have done incredibly well. They acquired David Lee from the Knicks about 5 years ago, and the power forward has paid huge dividends at power forward. They shipped mercurial scorer Monta Ellis to Milwaukee in exchange for Andrew Bogut, who is becoming a defensive force at center. And most importantly, they signed all-around weapon Andre Iguodala, who brings experience, scoring, and defense to the team on a nightly basis, and is a contender for 6th Man of the Year.

The System: The Warriors are a guard heavy team, who are nearly unbeatable when Curry and Thompson are on the mark. But with Lee, Bogut, Iguodala, Green and Barnes, this team can score in so many other ways. They are a diversified group and are very well organized and well spaced. The players compliment each other well, which is perhaps most important.

The Head Coach: Steve Kerr has always been a brilliant basketball mind. He spent time in the Phoenix Suns front office, and also served as a color commentator for TNT’s coverage of the NBA. His transition into the position of head coach has been seamless, and his early successes can not be stressed enough. While Kerr is a rookie head coach, his basketball IQ and knowledge of the game rival some of the league’s greatest coaching minds.


Los Angeles Clippers: Once a league laughingstock, and seemingly eternally playing second fiddle to the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers have quickly risen to NBA prominence. Some of the moves made by the front office suggest that this team is in fact here to stay. Here’s how they got from 18 consecutive losing seasons to two consecutive 50 win seasons.

The Franchise Player: The Clippers have not one, but two franchise players, and they acquired them in different ways. They have Blake Griffin, the former first overall pick who has transformed into one of the games premier power forwards, and Chris Paul, whose veteran leadership and incredible skill set make him one of, if not the leagues best point guard. The tandem of Griffin and Paul is arguably the games best 1-2 punch.

The Supporting Cast: While not as strong as other supporting casts, the Clippers have done well to surround their star players with talent. The starting 5 of Paul- JJ Reddick- Matt Barnes- Griffin- DeAndre Jordan ranks among the best in the league in terms of on court efficiency. Jordan is a brilliant rim protector, Reddick and Barnes are great spot up shooters, and Jamal Crawford is as dangerous as any player off the bench. Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis were smart free agency acquisitions, and Jordan Farmar is a seasoned, battle tested backup point guard.

The System: The Clippers love to let Chris Paul create, whether running the pick and roll with Jordan or kicking it out to their bevy of three point threats. But what makes them even more dangerous is Blake Griffins new offensive capabilities. He can face up or go with his back to basket, making him a multi dimensional threat that defenses must respect. That opens up holes for Paul to exploit, which he does so very often. Offensively, the Clippers rank first in the NBA in points per possession, with 1.31, as well as third in field goal percentage.

The Head Coach: Doc Rivers won a title in Boston, and he is one of the most experienced, well-respected, and ultimately one of the best coaches in the NBA. Rivers landing in Los Angeles was the final move in terms of elevating their contender status– Vinny Del Negro didn’t stand a chance.


Washington Wizards: After 5 consecutive losing seasons, the Wizards finally returned to the postseason a year ago, and made it to the second round as well. They’ve kept their momentum going, and currently have one of the best records in the Eastern Conference.

The Franchise Player: Does John Wall ring a bell? The former #1 overall pick is quickly turning into one of the leagues best point guards. Lightning quick off the dribble, Wall is one of the most explosive players in the league. At 24, Wall is averaging over 17 points and 10 assists, and is arguably the best point guard in the East.

The Supporting Cast: Wall is surrounded by a very strong group of players. Paul Pierce, Marcin Gortat, and Nene were all excellent acquisitions, and Bradley Beal is turning into quite the player at shooting guard. The Wizards have other solid role players, like Kevin Seraphin, Kris Humphries, and Andre Miller. This team is one-two pieces away from contending for a title, and a stronger second unit could make all the difference.

The System: Wall has all the autonomy in the world under Randy Wittman, and his distributing skills are much improved. Nene and Gortat are capable post scorers, meaning that the entire Wizards starting 5 can create their own shot.

The Head Coach: Randy Wittman has led this renaissance in Washignton. After failing to win over 20 games in his first full season in charge, Wittman is on his way to coaching two playoff teams in a row. That in itself should garner him some time to develop the squad.

The Failures:

New York Knicks: The Knicks haven’t really been a contender since Patrick Ewing played center for them, and don’t let the 54 win 2012-13 season convince you otherwise. Yes, they won 54 games, but the way their roster was shaped, they were never going to win the title. They relied to much on the three point shot and on Tyson Chandler’s defense, and when their shooters fell cold and when Roy Hibbert thoroughly manhandled Chandler in the series against the Pacers, not even leading scorer Carmelo Anthony could save them. Ever since that playoff defeat, the Knicks have been abysmal, and have fallen back into the depths of the NBA’s worst teams. Here’s how they failed to properly rebuild.

The Franchise Player: They went very, very hard for LeBron James and failed in the summer of 2010, and general manager Donnie Walsh panicked and signed Amar’e Stoudemire to a max deal. After the first half of Stoudemire’s first season in New York, Walsh looked like a genius, but then the toll of playing 42 minutes a night at center started to hinder the former Phoenix Sun. Ever since Carmelo Anthony’s arrival, Stoudemire has been a shell of himself, and has gone from one of the most feared scorers in the league to a streaky scorer off the bench. Carmelo Anthony has been the man since he arrived from Denver, and he has, to an extent, played the part. An MVP candidate in the 54 win season, and a threat to score 40 points a night, Anthony continues to show why he is one of the leagues best scorers. But with his lack of a supporting cast and his deficiencies in other areas, it is clear that just Anthony cannot win a title by himself.

The Supporting Cast: If the Knicks hadn’t traded for Anthony, and instead had waited until he was a free agent, we could be talking about a completely different team. But the Knicks felt it necessary to acquire Anthony as soon as possible, and sent out some of their best assets to get him. The team’s supporting cast took a big hit with the losses of Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, but two years ago, they found a group of role players that actually complimented Anthony as much as possible– so much so that they were probably one star or even one above-average player away from title contention. Raymond Felton had a career renaissance in his first full year with the team, Tyson Chandler was a domineering defensive force, JR Smith was 6th man of the year, Jason Kidd provided leadership, and Iman Shumpert, Pablo Prigioni, Steve Novak, and others all had career years in what was a wildly successful season for the Knicks. Most of those guys are still on the roster, but they simply aren’t as good. Smith has been a shell of himself, the Knicks lack a true rim protector, Jose Caulderon is an average point guard, and the Knicks are continuously bogged down by the massive contracts of Stoudemire and Andrea Bargniani. The team has given Anthony little to no support, and they have paid the price greatly.

The System: The system that worked so well for the Knicks in 2012-13 was simple: Let Anthony score, space the floor with three point shooters, run the occasional pick and roll with Ray Felton and Chandler. It worked very well. The Knicks had one of the best offenses in the league, they shot the lights out from three, Chandler was among the league leaders in field goal percentage, and Anthony led the team in scoring. But in 2013-14, they reverted to a lot of isolation basketball. They lost a lot of their shooters. Felton completely lost his impetus, and the team often stood around and let Anthony chuck up 30 shots a game. That isn’t how to win basketball games, and as a result, the Knicks finished 9th in the East and missed the playoffs. Head coach Mike Woodson was fired, and rookie head coach Derek Fisher was brought in to implmemet Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. That hasn’t worked yet, as the team is struggling to mesh with the triangle’s blueprint, and as a result, the team is off to the worst start in franchise history.

The Head Coach: Derek Fisher isn’t perfect. He’s a rookie coach, he has a bad team, and the system he’s been asked to implement doesn’t really fit the roster he has. But he’s also yet to find a starting lineup and rotation that really fits his team, and there are murmurs about poor team chemistry and a divided locker room. Some fans have suggested that Jackson fire Fisher, but it’s unfair to judge him too much given the predicament he is in. Additionally, comparing Fisher to Steve Kerr is unfair, since the latter inherited a much more favorable team in the Warriors. Give Fisher some time before making too many criticisms.


Sacramento Kings:


Detroit Pistons:


The Current Rebuilders:

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers are on pace for a second consecutive losing season and a second consecutive season without playoff basketball. How will they rebuild?

The Franchise Player: The Lakers do in fact have a franchise player, but Kobe Bryant’s existence on this team is significantly hindering their chances of rebuilding. Bryant is making $23,500,000 this season, and will make $25,000,000 next season. And while the Laker legend is currently third in the league in points per game, he is 36 and isn’t the player he once was. It makes little sense for the Lakers to continue paying him this much, but his resume and pedigree make him untouchable. Bryant is keeping the Lakers competitive enough that they won’t cash in with a top draft pick, and he’s making so much money that the Lakers don’t have enough cash to rebuild their roster.

The Supporting Cast: The Lakers roster are essentially spare parts that are assembled into an NBA roster. Looking at the team now, and I see maybe two players that will play into the team’s immediate future: Ed Davis and Julius Randle. Ronnie Price, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young, and Wes Johnson are all outcasts who failed to impress at their last team. Lin never was going to work in Houston. Boozer is a shell of the player he once was. Johnson’s career is defined by unmet potential. And Nick Young is better known for his antics than his play.

The System: We don’t really have a grasp of what their system is. It is likely that in two years, Randle will be the only player left from the current roster. Major upheaval is coming in LA, so without any idea of who will be playing and coaching the team in two years, no system is currently in place.

The Head Coach: Byron Scott is, for me, the epitome of an average head coach. In his 11 full seasons with the Nets, Hornets, and Cavaliers, he’s amassed a winning record only four times. He has a career win percentage of .444. Ever since his heyday with the Nets, where he led New Jersey to two conserve NBA finals, he hasn’t been an effective head coach, and he’s been fired twice. The Lakers need a marquee, marquee name to be their head coach of the future, and it’s clear that Scott is just a temporary replacement.

How long until they can contend again: Longer than Lakers fans like to admit. This team can’t really start to overhaul until Kobe hangs them up, which should be after the 2015-16 season. It could be a while before the Lakers present a winning team to their fans.


Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers have given rebuilding a new definition: they’ve continuously shipped off their good players for draft picks, young talent, and fillers, and their roster is decimated as a result.

The Franchise Player: They don’t have one that we know of. As of now, they have Michael Carter-Williams, who is a starting point guard in the NBA, but not a star, and Nerlens Noel, who is a defensive stud at center but not a star. Joel Embiid is yet to play an NBA game, but some people have compared him to Hakeem Olajuwon. If he pans out like Olajuwon, then they have a star player. He needs to get healthy first.

The Supporting Cast: The 76ers have an unbelievable amount of cap space. They have the lowest total combined salary in the NBA, which means when they feel it’s appropriate, they will pounce and fill out the roster with competent NBA players. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Noel, Carter-Williams, Hollis Thompson and Tony Wroten are all contenders to stick around, but the roster will be significantly different in a few years.

The System: Similarly to the Lakers, there is no system. They need to develop the system on the players they have, and the players they have are very temporary. Once they get that elusive franchise player to build around, they can start to develop an identity.

The Head Coach: Time will tell if Brett Brown will stick around as head coach, but its unlikely that he’ll be the man spearheading Philly’s ultimate rejuvenation.

How long until they can contend again: It all depends on the next 7 months. If Embiid is as good as advertised, and if they get a guy like Duke’s Jhalil Okafor in the draft, they could go all in on free agency and produce a playoff team in 1-2 years. If Embiid isn’t as good as advertised and they screw up the lottery, who knows how long it will take. The 76ers are definitely on the right track, however, and Philly fans can take solace in that much.


Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge has torn down the roster completely. Gone are the big 3, gone is Rajon Rondo… any resemblance of the 2008 title team has been traded or lost in free agency. New coach, new players, and a new direction.

The Franchise Player: They don’t have one yet, but Boston has money to spend and an appealing market. A storied franchise, a young and exciting head coach, and a big market town. Whether they lure a big free agent or get lucky on a draft pick will determine how long they will stay on the outside of the playoffs.

The Supporting Cast: Danny Ainge has actually assembled a very competent supporting cast. Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, and Jared Sullinger can all start in the NBA, and the former two can be starters on a contending team. Other young pieces, like Kelly Olynyk, James Young, Marcus Smart, and Tyler Zeller are serviceable role players. This roster is probably a star point guard and center away from contention.

The System: See Lakers and 76ers. A common trend among NBA teams is they build a system around their star. Boston has no star, and therefore no system.

The Head Coach: Brad Stevens is one of the brightest young coaching minds. After leading Butler to two consecutive NCAA title games, he has taken over the Celtics and has them going in the right direction. There is no doubt that he is the coach of the future– something that other rebuilding teams cannot boast.

How long until they can contend again: Give them three years. Ainge will continue to develop the roster, and the Celtics will cash on at least one big name. It takes a lot of patience to rebuild in a big market, but Ainge has done it before, and he will do it again.


New York Knicks: I already went through the Knicks during my analysis of unsuccessful rebuilds, so I’ll pose the question: how long until this team contends again? It could be next season. If they snatch Okafor or another potential franchise guy to pair with Carmelo Anthony, they can use their cap space towards rebuilding the roster. Instead of giving out two risky max contracts, they can sign very good players like Aaron Afflalo, Wes Matthews, or Paul Millsap, and a few role players to truly build a contending roster. What they shouldn’t do is panic, trade for Lance Stephenson, overpay Greg Monroe, and be a decent team for a few years before repeating this same process. But surely Phil Jackson knows better? Time will tell.


Others: Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks: The Magic, Jazz, and Bucks are all small market teams, yes, but they all have a plethora of young talent. The Bucks may already have their star man in Jabari Parker, but if/when Orlando and Utah get their guy, they will have a competent, young roster around them. In a weak East, Milwaukee can probably push for the 8th seed by seasons end.


Conclusion: Does it work?

Better than people think. When you take examples like Golden State and the Clippers, it’s clear that a great draft pick can really bring the best out of years and years of careful planning. When Steph Curry and Blake Griffin began to truly rise to stardom, the rest of the team was already developed. That’s why when teams like Boston or Philly, who have been putting in piece after piece for years, finally strike gold on that one draft pick, or lure in that marquee name, they can elevate themselves back to contender status. For some, rebuilding means tanking: starting from complete scratch, fire selling assets left and right, but for others, it’s a more drawn out process, including making small trades, getting good young players, and waiting for that moment to pounce. This is the time to truly respect the NBA’s parity: The Lakers and Celtics aren’t good teams anymore. They’re both rebuilding. Meanwhile, the Clippers, the Warriors, the Hawks, are all thriving, showing that the NBA’s circle of life isn’t dominated by only the big boys. Rebuilding is a tangible thing, and it’s been happening before our very eyes for years. Is it always successful? No, but that’s a different story.


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