We are well acclimated to claims of “rebuilding” being met with charges of “tanking” when teams aggressively clear veteran salary and acquire assets while plummeting to the bottom of the standings. However you view teams that go into win-later mode, the reality is that many franchises are convinced that the method is the best bet to build a long-term winner.
I’ve summarized the moves for each team that won 25 games or fewer last season. This excludes the Lakers and Kings, teams in the Western Conference with recent records and expectations that typify a rebuild, but front offices using the free agent and trade markets to gain older, more expensive talent in ways that defy a standard rebuild.
- Orlando: The Magic began the offseason by trading away their best veteran piece in Arron Afflalo, the kind of move typical for a team doubling down on rebuilding efforts. However, they have since added veteran free agents Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, and Luke Ridnour, all of whom could be more productive as starters then their younger positional counterparts in Orlando. The Magic also added lottery picks in point guard Elfrid Payton and power forward Aaron Gordon to their young core of Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, and Tobias Harris. Orlando owns all of its future first-round draft picks, and is owed many second rounders in the next few years. Head coach Jacque Vaughn is the longest tenured among these teams, entering just his third season on the bench.
- Milwaukee: The new Bucks owners are resigned to a rebuild that will take years to complete, but the team didn’t arrive in this position by design. Milwaukee followed up a playoff berth in 2013 with moves meant to maintain competitiveness, but injuries and poor performance sunk them last season. However, Giannis Antetokounmpo, selected outside of the lottery by the Bucks last year, has proven to be a talent more in line with the top tier of the draft. They added phenom Jabari Parker with this year’s No. 2 pick, as well as head coach Jason Kidd after his unceremonious departure from Brooklyn. The first year of Larry Sanders‘ four-year, $44MM contract kicks in this season, and the team is also locked into pricey contracts with Ersan Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo, and Zaza Pachulia for at least the next two seasons. The Bucks have made modest backcourt additions in Jerryd Bayless and Kendall Marshall this offseason. Milwaukee owns all of its future first-round draft picks, and is owed many second rounders in the next few years.
- Philadelphia: Largely viewed as the most calculated tanker in the league, the Sixers haven’t done much to sway that notion this summer, including putting up resistance to a proposed rules change that would decrease the odds that the very worst teams land the No. 1 draft pick. Philadelphia is still below the salary floor for 2014/15, and has yet to sign a free agent despite having a roster that many view as heavy on D-League talent and light on true NBA-caliber players. A year after acquiring Nerlens Noel in a draft-night trade, GM Sam Hinkie drafted two players that the team doesn’t count on seeing on the court this season in Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. The team made a shrewd deal in acquiring Saric, regaining control of its first-round pick in the 2017 draft from the Magic, who received Payton, the Sixers original No. 10 pick. Michael Carter-Williams just won rookie of the year, but Thaddeus Young could still be moved to facilitate a Kevin Love trade and gain Philadelphia even more assets. Brett Brown had little to smile about in his first year as a head coach outside of the team’s surprise 3-0 start, but is a believer in the team’s intentional process. The Sixers will owe their 2015 first-round pick to the Celtics if it falls outside the top 14–a seeming impossibility–but otherwise will convey two second-round picks to Boston, of which they have an abundance.
- Boston: Celtics GM Danny Ainge has preached patience, but there have been plenty of rumblings about his eagerness to jumpstart Boston’s rebuilding efforts with a blockbuster deal, the loudest of which surround Kevin Love. So far, Ainge has been forced to stay the course, with a modest free agency period (Bayless and Kris Humpries leaving, Evan Turner arriving, Avery Bradley remaining) bolstered by the additions of No. 6 pick Marcus Smart and No. 17 selection James Young. The team also took on more salary burdens in deals for Marcus Thornton and Tyler Zeller that netted them more future assets. The team is on track to free up cap room in 2015 and 2016, and Rajon Rondo‘s free agency next summer will play a crucial part in where the team is headed, and how fast. Brad Stevens is another sophomore coach that signed up expecting a long-term process requiring patience. The Celtics own all of their first-round picks, and will receive up to six extra first rounders from other teams through 2018.
- Utah: The Jazz retained Gordon Hayward this summer, and the 24-year-old projects to be the team’s oldest starter. Utah drafted point guard Dante Exum to play alongside Trey Burke and Alec Burks in a young, developing backcourt. The team let Marvin Williams leave as a free agent, and brought in veteran forwards in Steve Novak and Trevor Booker via the trade and free agent market, respectively. The Jazz let former twin towers Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson walk as free agents prior to the 2013/14 season to make way for their young frontcourt pieces in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, who have showed promise but have yet to excel as a post tandem. The team hired new coach Quin Snyder from the Spurs coaching tree, and will hope the rookie coach can bring some of the San Antonio magic to Salt Lake City. The Jazz own all of their picks moving forward, and are owed one first rounder and seven second rounders through 2018.
Which team do you think is closest to seeing the fruits of their rebuild? A team like the Magic would appear to be moving forward more aggressively than the ultra-methodical Sixers, but an impatient shortcut to team improvement could end up stalling a team’s ultimate resurgence. Meanwhile, a team like Boston appears more likely to turn their assets into star players, but until they do, there is less to be excited about from their developing roster than some of the other clubs.
Weigh in with your vote, and state your case in the comments.