The rebuilding process is risky, and requires some luck.
by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer
In today’s NBA landscape, we have three clear tiers of teams: championship contenders, playoff contenders and sure-fire lottery teams.
The Sixers, Jazz, Suns, Kings and Magic seem destined to send representatives to the lottery in late May. What separates these five teams from the other 25 teams in the League is that they are all years away from annually competing for a playoff berth. Tanking, rebuilding, going through a makeover; call it whatever you want. These teams are in the process of changing the direction of their entire franchise.
But, this isn’t always the easiest task, even if it’s easy to map out.
Teams have to draft effectively—whether that strategy is selecting players based on need or value. They also have to stock up on assets, which could be draft picks or expiring contracts. Then, once all is said and done, the GM has to pull the trigger on a trade or big free agency signing in order to add to the young talent he’s already acquired and fostered. A large quantity of luck is also necessary.
History shows us that it plays out one of two ways: The process either quickly reboots the franchise or keeps them stuck writhing in mediocrity or trapped in the League’s cellar. Recently, we’ve seen the Warriors, Thunder, Rockets and Clippers escape from the tight grasps of the basement and catapult themselves into contention. But we’ve also played witness to the struggles of the Kings, Bobcats and Wizards over the past five years, too.
How do teams ultimately screw up the rebuilding process or capitalize on the opportunity? Let’s put the Kings and the Rockets under the microscope.
In ’98-99, or better known as Chris Webber’s first season in Sacramento, the Kings made the Playoffs in a lockout-shortened season with a 27-23 record and ultimately fell to John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in the first round. Three years later, the Kings were inches away from reaching the Finals. And while CWebb and coach Rick Adelman never led Sac-Town to the promised land, the Kings would make the Playoffs for eight straight seasons.
Then, the Kings shipped Webber to the Sixers in February of 2005, and Adelman was fired following the ’05-06 season after a first-round playoff exit. The Kings have not returned to the postseason since. Sacramento has failed to put together a winning season in each of the last seven years and they haven’t won more than 28 games since ’07-08.
Since the Kings cleaned house and decided to rebuild their brand and franchise, they’ve actually done a quality job drafting players. Since 2008, the Kings have drafted Jason Thompson, Tyreke Evans, Omri Casspi, DeMarcus Cousins, Bismack Biyombo, Isaiah Thomas, Thomas Robinson—not including this 2013 rookie class of Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum. With six quality players drafted over the past five years (Biyombo was traded to Charlotte), how come the Kings haven’t been able to start building a winning culture and team?
Sacramento has repeatedly brought in veterans and traded for players who have quelled the developments of their young players—not players who will help their young guys mature and improve. The Kings also kept bringing in players who all had very similar skills, not complementary talents. For example, pairing a gunner like Kevin Martin with Tyreke Evans won’t help the Rookie of the Year blossom. Drafting Jimmer Fredette in the lottery makes no sense if Evans and Marcus Thornton would combine for a 47.2 usage rate the very next season?
Look at their roster for this season, the Kings have five guards who like to score, six power forwards, Greivis Vasquez and Ray McCallum, Travis Outlaw and Cole Aldrich, and the biggest question mark in the League in DeMarcus Cousins. Will that team be able to play defense and grow together as a unit on that side of the ball? Most likely not. Will that team be able to run a sophisticated offensive system that moves the ball? Most likely not. They at least have a better chance to be more competitive next year with more veteran presence in Vasquez and Carl Landry. But overall, the Kings haven’t had a system in place to develop young talent in more than half a decade.
Contrast that with the Houston Rockets, who have successfully been able to rebuild their franchise after moving on from the Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming era.
The Rockets never broke their roster down and started from scratch, but they’ve been super-effective in rebuilding. Since Ming’s last real season in ’08-09, where the Rockets made the Playoffs as the 5-seed in the West, Houston was the ninth-best team in the conference in the subsequent three seasons. How did they remain competitive without losing two arguable Hall of Famers? Since 2008, the Rockets drafted Nicolas Batum, Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris, Terrence Jones, Royce White, Jeremy Lamb and Isaiah Canaan while also making short-term commitments to free agents like Trevor Ariza, Brad Miller, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Sammy Dalembert, Greg Smith and Earl Boykins.
Houston added the likes of Chase Budinger, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Jordan Hill, Jared Jefferies, Jonny Flynn, Goran Dragic, Terrence Williams, Courtney Lee, Shaun Livingston, Jon Brockman, Jon Leuer, Marcus Camby, Derek Fisher and Hilton Armstrong through trades since ’09-10 as well.
Obviously, they acquired enough pieces and young, valuable players in order to trade for James Harden while keeping cap flexibility open for a big free-agent signing like Dwight Howard and are now fully equipped for a run at the Western Conference crown this upcoming season. All hail Daryl Morey.
Both the Kings and Rockets stockpiled “assets” and valuable young players over the past five years, but only one of the two teams was able to flip those players for impact blue-chippers and superstar-caliber talent.
So, as the five teams that are currently rebuilding prepare for their respective futures, they’d be wise to take note at how Houston turned things around and attempt to avoid the path of the Kings as diligently as possible. Essentially, rebuilding can either turn out really, really good or really, really bad. There isn’t much of an in-between.