Where Rebuilding Happens
Fans hate watching their team struggle. Thankfully, teams turn things around fairly quickly.
by Leo Sepkowitz
It seems like just yesterday we were watching fans in Cleveland react to LeBron James deserting them by burning his jersey and sobbing in bars. He left the Cavs with nothing. No young talent, no high draft picks, no rings and no money… nada. The team’s future looked about as bleak as it could get.
Fast forward to today. Certainly James’ departure burned a hole in the heart of Cavs fans that hasn’t been filled since, but the future of the franchise has completely turned around. Where there was no young talent, there is now Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. Where there were no picks, there is now the fifth overall selection in a deep 2012 Draft. Where there were no rings, there are, well, still no rings.
But where there was no salary flexibility, there is—you guessed it—salary flexibility! Plus, where there were 19 wins in the first year of the post-LeBron era, there are now 21 in a lockout-shortened season (they were on pace for 26 in an 82-game season).
Cleveland is still not Playoff team, and likely won’t be in the next year or two. But this James-less squad has given Cavs fans something they likely didn’t think they’d be able to grasp this early—hope.
When talking about rebuilding, one cannot resist talking about the Oklahoma City Thunder, who did it perfectly. In ‘07-08, the team, led by then rookie Kevin Durant, won 20 games while they were still the Sonics.
The following season they won just 23 despite adding Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka through the Draft. They selected James Harden the following season and climbed all the way to 50 wins. They followed that with 55 the season after and 47 this season (one which was, again, shortened by the lockout—they were on pace for 58 wins in an 82-game season).
The Cavs have actually had a better win percentage over the past two seasons than the Seattle City Sonic Thunders did in Durant’s first two seasons. Does that mean the Cavs are about to win 50 games? No. But it seems like near certainty that they will continue their upward trend toward success.
Cleveland is hardly the only team in the middle of a rebuilding process. Take the Pistons, for example. Long gone are the days of Big Shot Billups, Rip Hamilton, The Wallace Brothers and all the rest, and here instead are the days of overpaying for Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon and Tayshaun Prince.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel for these guys, too. Their win percentage has increased in each of the past two seasons, and if only they could shed their bad contracts they’d have a serious future. For in 2010 they grabbed Greg Monroe with their lottery pick and followed it up with another young stud in Brandon Knight last season. With those two as the cornerstones, as well as the ninth pick in this year’s Draft, Detroit’s future is looking a little brighter than you might think.
Rounding out the worst teams in the East are New Jersey, Toronto, Charlotte and Washington. The Nets will be in Brooklyn next year, and if they are able to re-sign all of their free agents, they’ll run out a starting lineup featuring Deron Williams, MarShon Brooks, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez when their brand new arena—the Barclays Center—debuts. Not bad.
Toronto has building blocks in DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani, Ed Davis, Jonas Valanciunas as well as the right to the eighth pick in the upcoming Draft. Charlotte was absolutely abysmal this season, but selected Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo in the lottery last season and owns the second overall pick in this year’s Draft. The Wizards pick right after Charlotte, and will be looking to bring in a good young player who can compliment John Wall and Nene.
All of those teams are bad now, but with any luck can be real forces in the future. Of course it’s easy to say that the Nets will lose their free agents, Valanciunas will be a bust so Toronto will stay stuck in the mud, MJ will somehow find a way to further ruin the Bobcats and that Wall shoots and turns it over way too much to run the show on a successful team. But the point is that all of these teams have something that is, thanks to how the League is setup, impressively easy to come by in the NBA—hope.
Looking to the Western Conference, the bottom feeders are the Hornets, Kings, Blazers and Warriors. None of these teams are in bad positions, either. The Hornets picked up Eric Gordon and the 10th overall pick when they were forced to move Chris Paul. More importantly, they, with or without David Stern’s help, won the lottery and the right to draft Anthony Davis. If Davis is half the player many believe he is, they should be in the Western Conference Playoff mix before long.
Sacramento has serious young pieces in DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Jimmer Fredette and Marcus Thornton, not to mention Jason Thompson and Isaiah Thomas. They also hold the fifth pick in the upcoming Draft. Portland fell apart this season, but own both the sixth and 11th picks in the Draft, and with LaMarcus Aldridge rapidly developing into one of the League’s premier big men, they should be back on their feet in no time.
Golden State has a great young backcourt with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and picked up the center they so badly needed via their mid-season trade for Andrew Bogut. In addition, they may have overpaid for David Lee, but he’s a very solid power forward. If they can nab a productive wing player (I.e. not Dorell Wright) with the seventh overall pick, they could really have something going.
Every team isn’t going to win 50 games every year. Every team isn’t going to win 40 or even 30 and sometimes not everyone reaches 20 no matter how balanced the League is. But the way the NBA is setup, with the Draft, small rosters and a salary cap, it’s not impossible to go worst-to-first fairly quickly, and it’s relatively (again, relatively) easy to go worst-to-respectable in a matter of a few years.
The Spurs leapt from 20 wins in the ‘96-97 season all the way up to 56 after drafting Tim Duncan. In fairness, the 20-win season was an odd one for San Antonio, who had been very successful in the years leading up to it, but Duncan’s impact was obvious.
Throughout the entire ‘90s, the Mavericks eclipsed 30 wins just once, and fell short of 20 wins three times. In 1998 they drafted Dirk Nowitzki and brought in Steve Nash, but won only 19 games. But in the ‘99-00 season, Dirk, the then sophomore, saw a big surge in minutes and led Dallas to a 40-win season. They hadn’t won less than 50 games since then until they won 36 this year (which was, for the third time, lockout shortened.)
The Nets won 26 games in the ‘00-01 season and drafted Kenyon Martin with the first overall pick in the offseason. They shot up to 52 wins the next season and reached the finals in both ’02 and ’03. Of course, Jason Kidd had a lot to do with that, too.
The year before LeBron arrived in Cleveland, the team won just 17 games. His rookie year he more than doubled that total. They tacked on another seven wins the following season, eight more the year after that and by then it was clear that the Cavs were past their early 2000’s woes.
Carmelo Anthony took a 17-win Nuggets team and delivered a 43-39 record in his rookie season. The Rockets won 28 games the year before they selected Yao first overall but improved by 15 games his rookie season. The Magic showed the same improvement when they drafted Dwight Howard in 2004. Dwyane Wade increased the Heat’s win total by 17 games in his rookie campaign. The Timberwolves nearly doubled their win percentage this season—Ricky Rubio’s first in the League.
The list of rookies bringing instant success to struggling franchises goes on and on. Shaq did it. MJ did it (though not to the degree that you might think). Magic did it.
Sometimes wins don’t come immediately. That’s fine too. The Celtics won fewer games in Larry Bird’s rookie year (29) than they did the year before they selected him (32). Failure didn’t last long, though, as starting in Bird’s second year (‘79-80), through ‘92-93, the Celtics went at least as far as the Eastern Conference Finals every year.
Sometimes it’s less about striking gold in the lottery and more about steady drafting and picking up a productive free agent or two for a number of years to build a strong nucleus. Sometimes a team doesn’t feel like waiting and trades for a couple superstars in hopes that they’ll mesh on and off the court. There are a number of ways to revitalize a franchise, none necessarily better than the next.
Yes, the League has flaws. The Celtics have appeared in five straight Eastern Conference Championships. The Heat have two of the game’s top-five or top-10 players and another in the top-30. Despite a salary cap, the Lakers’ and Mavs’ payrolls are significantly higher than most teams’ because their owners have deeper pockets than most. But things are rarely perfectly fair.
The NBA is a League where every single team’s fan base has legitimate hope for either the short-term, long-term or both, and that’s pretty amazing.