Remixing The Rebuild

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets

by Jake Fischer

On December 19, 2006, I awoke and slumbered sleepy-eyed to my designated seat at my family’s kitchen table. Before he left for work every morning, my father would leave the day’s sports section from the Philadelphia Inquirer at my seat, usually with a post-it note attached and some barely legible commentary scribbled on top. That morning I learned the Sixers had traded Allen Iverson, my favorite player, to the Denver Nuggets for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two 2007 first-round picks.

The Sixers turned those two picks into Jason Smith and some guy named Petteri Koponen.

You know how the rest of the story goes: The Sixers were trapped in mediocrity for the next seven years before Sam Hinkie arrived in Philadelphia this summer. Hinkie, with the blessing of the new Joshua Harris-led ownership, has torn the remains of the Billy King/Ed Stefanski/Doug Collins era roster down to the ground. The Sixers are now 15-45 heading into tonight’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder and gone are Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand, Andrew Bynum, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. With their own pick looking like a top-5 lock and the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2014 lottery pick likely on its way to Philly as well, the Sixers are widely viewed as having a bright future ahead of them.

But it took seven years since trading Allen Iverson to say that the Sixers are finally moving in a positive direction.

This scenario is the same that’s ongoing in Minnesota and Boston. With Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo’s contracts respectively expiring in the near future, the Timberwolves and Celtics were forced to seriously consider dealing their franchise players two weeks ago at the February 20 trade deadline. The asking price for Rondo was reportedly a young player, such as Chandler Parsons, and two future first-round picks. That’s not a bad haul for a franchise cornerstone, but the reality of the situation is teams hardly ever receive productive compensation for trading a superstar or perennial All-Star.

Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul. Have the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans used their returns on trading their superstar player for a motley group of assets? The fact of the matter is, as one Eastern Conference front office executive noted, that the majority of NBA rebuilds fail. There simply is no cookie-cutter formula on how to turn losing a franchise player into an annual title contender.

Hinkie is essentially starting from ground zero. Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic have retooled thanks to a large haul for Dwight Howard. When Howard, along with Earl Clark and Chris Duhon, was dealt to Los Angeles, the Magic received Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, Mo Harkless, Nik Vucevic, three future first-round picks and a 2013 second-round pick (Romero Osby). Essentially, 10 players to fill the void of one 6-11 center and two bench players. Even though we’ve entered this age of advanced analytics, simple math tells us that that many players create a logjam on a team’s 15-man roster. Sure, the Magic have a bunch of young pieces in place, but will head coach Jacque Vaughn have the opportunity to develop those young players when only five guys can play on the court at once?

Basically, with these last four superstars being traded for enormous packages of young players and future picks, the majority have took a turn toward the fate of Philadelphia post-Iverson. Which begs the question, could NBA teams benefit from simply letting a guy like Love or Rondo walk for…nothing?

Front office folk around the League essentially laughed in my face when I asked them the question off the record. In a sport that’s just as much about acquiring “future assets” as it is winning, how could you possibly let a player who can sell tickets and bring you to the Playoffs walk without getting anything of value in return?

In the cases of Williams, Anthony and Paul, the Jazz, Nuggets and Pelicans have all failed to return to the level they were at before trading their superstar. The Jazz’s future is yet to be determined and will likely hinge on whether or not they’re able to re-sign Gordon Hayward this summer. Other than that dilemma, Utah turned Williams into Derrick Favors, Enes Kantor and dealt the other pick it got for D-Will—which ultimately turned out to be Gorgui Dieng—for Trey Burke. Not bad. The Pelicans have one of the youngest and most promising stars in Anthony Davis—who was not a direct product of the CP3 trade—but their future also relies on the health and success of Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and whatever happens with Eric Gordon over the remainder of his big contract. But the question still remains if New Orleans’ return for Paul—Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman and a 2012 first-round pick that became Austin Rivers—was sufficient.

The case for Denver is cut and dry: It was a failure. The Nuggets received Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mosgov, Kosta Koufos, cash, a 2012 second-round pick (Quincy Miller) a 2013 second-round pick (Romero Osby, who was selected by Orlando as part of the aforementioned Howard deal) and the Knicks’ 2014 first-round pick for Carmelo Anthony, Renaldo Balkman, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Shelden Wiliams and a 2015 second-round pick. That’s a big group of quality players, but unless the Nuggets can draft a franchise-changing player with the Knicks’ pick this June, they would have essentially traded one of the 15 best players in the League in Melo for a bunch of high-quality players who can compete as a feisty first-round playoff team. But that doesn’t bring you back into title contention. Remember, the Nuggs dealt Melo just two years after they gave the Lakers a terrific fight in the Western Conference finals.

If Denver can’t grab a Melo-caliber player in this year’s Draft, the rebuild from the Anthony era will be a complete failure, wasting three seasons in which the Nuggets could have let Anthony walk and immediately began rebuilding. See the point? Denver’s haul of starting-caliber players ultimately kept it relevant, but it’s now trapped in no-man’s land: not bad enough to get a high draft pick, but not good enough to win a Playoff series.

The Lakers didn’t choose so, but Howard walked this summer to sign with Houston, leaving Los Angeles with nothing in return for the All-Star center. But if the Lakers didn’t offer Kobe Bryant his enormous contract, they would be sitting on tons of upcoming cap room, what will be a very high lottery pick this summer and exciting young role player-reclamation projects like Kent Bazemore, MarShon Brooks, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson currently on the roster. That’s not a bad spot to be in.

Minnesota isn’t L.A., however. What in the world does cap space mean to the Timberwolves? The Celtics have a long history of success and elegance, but would a surplus of cap space be able to deliver a big-time free agent to match with the young players they’ll ultimately draft if they lose a bunch of games after potentially letting Rondo walk for free?

The concept is definitely risky business, but again, most traditionally styled rebuilds fail anyway. Perhaps jump-starting what may be an inevitable rebuild re-do five years ahead of time might be something NBA teams should seriously look into by letting superstar-caliber players like Love and Rondo walk for nothing.

NBA executives think that’s crazy talk. But we live in a crazy world.