Tank Health: A Rebuild Check-Up

An NBA franchise is much like a human body. Humans have lots of parts within them  you have to be sure all of the parts are working correctly to keep the body healthy. Similarly, there are lots of aspects to doing well in the NBA that all have to coexist and work properly to have sustained success. Look at teams like the Spurs and the Celtics. They have solid coaching staffs, a good amount of talent on their roster, a system that players buy into and use on the court, a city behind them, a competent owner, and so on and so on. These aspects are like the heart, liver and brain; they have important jobs in the NBA organism and keep things going well if they all are healthy. Teams have success with these things in unison, but for struggling teams, some of these organs my be failing and are causing the team to not do so well. While some teams in are blatantly going through the rebuilding process, it is important to make sure they are doing it correctly as so they don’t hurt themselves in the future (like how you would want to consult a physician before a new weight loss regime or taking some vague “performance” pills you ordered online). Much like us, we have to go to regular visits with doctors and dentists to make sure everything is healthy and good to go. In this blog, I will don my stethoscope and head mirror and perform check-ups on some struggling teams in the NBA and see how their rebuild is going.

Hawks

After having lots of success in the Paul Millsap and Al Horford era, the Atlanta Hawks have committed to the rebuild by moving on from these players over the past two offseasons. Now the Hawks are tied for the worst record in the NBA at 13-31 and are looking to seasons past 2018. They have a solid coach in Mike Budenholzer, who as voted they C.O.T. Y three seasons ago. If he wants to stay in Atlanta through this process, he would be a good candidate to bring them back to glory. He has a Spurs-like system installed there, both philosophically and in their offensive sets, and it would be a good place for young players to develop. For their current roster, they have some decent players in Dennis Schroder, John Collins and Taurean Prince that will be helpful in the rebuild. The Hawks also have some terrible contracts on their hands, however, that could hamper their ability to bring in future players. Contracts like that of Kent Bazemore (three years, $54 million remaining) and Miles Plumlee (three years, $37 million remaining) could have the potential of handicapping the Hawks’ salary cap structure. If they could find a way to move even one of these contracts it would go a long way in their future development. Though the city of Atlanta has had a history of having trouble with supporting their teams and attendance (the Hawks currently have the worst average attendance in the NBA at around 14,000 per game), the local Hawks fans have shown in the past that they will support this team when they are good (averaged 17,000 from 2015-2016). Them, along with owner Antony Ressler, have shown that they will support this team when they turn things around at the end of this rebuild. When Atlanta gets the talent they are looking for in the 2018 and 2019 draft, they will go back to being a consistent playoff team in the East again.

Diagnosis: On track, back to the playoffs by 2022

Magic

When the Orlando Magic came to the decision to move on from their seemingly franchise player Dwight Howard in 2012, it was a sign that they were looking to rebuild their roster and look for the next chapter of Magic greats. Unfortunately, the only things Orlando has to show from this time are Nikola Vucevic (who they got directly from that trade), Arron Afflalo (who only played for the Magic from 2012-2014 and just came back this season), Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. Now, Howard’s career has taken the downturn since he left Orlando, but it is still shocking to consider what the Magic got in return for him when you consider what Howard’s value was back then. He was an All-NBA center and Orlando was unable to cash in on moving him. To the present day, the Magic still are not very good, going a whooping 145-310 since that trade and are still in a rebuilding phase. Orlando still doesn’t have the tools to be a playoff team in the East and are lacking talent on the roster. Magic fans have looked to Gordon and Payton to be the franchise level players but both have failed to live up to those expectations. Both have flaws in their game and Gordon is rumored to be on his way out as free agent this year, leaving the team with even less then they already have. They do have an exciting prospect in Jonathon Isaac but he alone will not save this team. Orlando is really going to have to hit a home run with their next few years’ lottery picks but that is easier said then done. As far as a coach and system for the Magic, Frank Vogel has had his moments of greatness in the NBA, like his time as the coach of the Paul George-Roy Hibbert Pacers, but his message has fallen flat in his time in Florida. He was seemingly brought in to build a winner in Orlando but the team has either been stagnant or going backward. Vogel is likely to be let go at the end of 2018, which adds another variable into this rebuilding process. A coaching change always effects the team and how things are run and it is yet to be seen how things will go. The one bright spot for the Magic is their fan base.  Despite all the heartbreak, all the dysfunction and all the losing, Orlando still has a solid attendance rate this season at 17, 895 fans per game and have averaged around 17,730 per game over the past three seasons. Having a great fan base is a key factor in the rebuilding process. If the fans will still come and watch when you are bad, it shows they are committed to the team and will  surely show up in flocks when they are good again. For the Magic, this rebuild has been a long process, and stands to be even longer as they will need at least one or two more young lottery-type talents to push the team to the next level. They will be among the bottom of the standings for at least the next two seasons but there should be some light at the end of the tunnel for this organization, even if it is dim and flickering.

Diagnosis: Slower than normal, will be bad through 2020 but could be back in the playoffs by 2023 if drafting and coach selection is executed correctly.

Nets

One of the most infamous trades in recent NBA history was one involving Billy King (then Nets GM) moving a huge haul of future potential for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry (all over 36 at that point) in 2013. Along with some veteran players, the Celtics received a 2014 first round pick (James Young), a 2016 first round pick (Jaylen Brown), a 2017 first round pick (which ended becoming Jayson Tatum through another trade). Now, it is hard to say whether the Nets would have taken those players if they were in those exact spots, but it hard to believe Brooklyn would give up the chances of getting young talented players like that for an extremely near-sighted win-now move. Many blogs and news articles have been devoted to how much of a travesty that move was, so I will move on from it but it is worth noting when you consider the Nets’ success in this decade. Brooklyn has been near the bottom of the NBA since 2015 and is in a powerless rebuild thanks to all their picks belonging to another team. They will gain the rights back to their own first round selection in 2019 but it still stands that they have missed out on a lot of draft capital in recent years. Despite losing out on that Brooklyn’s GM Sean Marks has done an incredible job in recent years acquiring young talent with potential since he took over in 2016. Marks has made moves to take chances on players that have yet to reach their potential but are young enough to still be developed. The two key examples are D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor. Both Okafor and Russell had problems on the team that drafted them and were looking for a way out. Marks made two low risk trades to acquire them; losing only Brook Lopez, a 2017 late first round pick (which turned into Kyle Kuzma unfortunately) and Trevor Booker. If either of these players can find their way and begin to live up to their potential, Brooklyn will have two great talents they got on the cheap. When you combine those two with players the Nets already had; like Caris LaVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn has a surprising solid core that can become something special if they keep going the way they are going. Part of the reason they have all developed so well has to do with their coach Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson, who served as an assistant under both Mike D’Antoni and Mike Budenholzer, has brought new life to this team and has installed a system that is both fun to watch for fans and is functional in today’s NBA climate. He has been key to revitalizing the Nets organization and is the exact hire they needed at that time. As for off the court variables, the Nets have a major attendance problem and ownership concerns. Brooklyn, despite being a borough of the largest city in the U.S. and being in a town with rich basketball history, ranks among the lowest in attendance with an average of 15,769 fans per game in the Barclays Center. This has been a trend since the franchise’s move from New Jersey and their attendance problems my still stem from scorned fans in the area. It also hurts that the team has been lackluster but it will be interesting to see what happens when the team is through their rebuild. The Nets are set to change owners in coming years as Joseph Tsai, a Taiwanese businessman, bought 49% of the team last year and will look to become a majority owner by 2021. Tsai does not have a lot of history as a sports owner (he owns a lacrosse team in San Diego) but the uncertainty is enough to concern Nets fans. All in all, Brooklyn is closer to being good team now then they have been since that trade was made. Despite giving up all those picks, the Nets have a bright future with the talent they have and the coach who is running the team. They will likely be a lower end lottery team in 2019 but it not unreasonable to expect the Nets in the playoffs soon.

Diagnosis: Ahead of schedule, playoffs by 2020, could be Eastern Conference contenders by 2021

Suns

Despite having more success at this point in the season compared to other teams on this list (16-29 as of today), the Phoenix Suns are still a team that is rebuilding and has been for a few years. The Suns have been a sub-.500 team since 2013 and have selected from the top 14 spots in the NBA draft each year since then (including three top 10 selections in 2016 and 2017). With those picks Phoenix has had some misses (Alex Len, Marquese Chriss at this point in his development) but have mainly done well with their picks. T.J. Warren has taken a step forward this season and looks like a solid NBA player. Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson have both shown the potential to be good or even great NBA players some day. But, most importantly, they landed Devin Booker, who has shown himself to be an franchise level talent who is still only 21 years old.  If he continues along in his development and can elevate the play of Bender, Jackson and some of the other young players, this roster will be a great squad in the coming years. For the Suns to truly elevate themselves however, they will need to move on from some veteran contracts. Contracts like Brandon Knight ($44 million over next three years) and Tyson Chandler ($26.5 million over next two seasons) have the potential to be a big handicap for the Suns and they need to make an effort to move at least one of the contracts sooner rather than later (preferably the Knight one). As far as a coach and system for Phoenix, that is a bit more in flux. They got rid of their former coach Earl Watson at the beginning of this season and have had Jay Triano serving as the interim coach since then. While he has brought the team up from their Watson levels and has them playing some decent basketball, he has not presented himself as the long term answer just yet. He will surely be interviewed for the full time spot, but it is more likely that the Suns bring in a new coach to install a system for the players to grow in and hopefully be a part of for a long time. Phoenix currently ranks as the 21st team in the NBA in terms of average attendance with 16,717 fans per game. This number is on par with the attendance rates the Suns have had over the past three seasons, meaning that the fans seem to be willing to support them through the rebuild. All things considered, this team is the closest to coming out of the rebuild on this list. If they land the right coach this offseason and hit on their 2018 draft pick, they could realistically be contending in the Western Conference by 2020.

Diagnosis: Near the end of the build, contending in the West by 2020.

 

Kings

For the last “patient” on this list, this one is the most confusing case of all. The Sacramento Kings have honestly never been good in my lifetime, and certainly since I began to follow basketball. They seem to always be picking in the top 10 of the draft and, in fact, they haven’t been .500 since 2005 and hasn’t picked outside of the NBA draft lottery since 2006. That’s over a decade of ineptitude. The worst part of it is they have had an incredible stretch of bad drafting in that time. The only notable names on the list of players taken by Sacramento have been De’Aaron Fox (who has been fairly impressive this season but it is yet to be seen what will happen with his development), Tyreke Evans (who is just now coming back into the form he had as a rookie), Willie Cauley-Stein, and DeMarcus Cousins (who I will get to in a moment). It’s rough to have a losing streak this long but it is even more troublesome to not capitalize on the draft capital that you are afforded for being that bad. The best player the Kings ever got their hands on in this time was Cousins. He was a firecracker, surely, but was a perennial All-Star who, for better or worse, was the face of the franchise during his time there. But their relationship came to an end last season when the Kings front office accepted a lesser deal (you read that right, GM Vlade Divac admitted to this) from the Pelicans and sent him to New Orleans for Langston Galloway (not on the team anymore), Tyreke Evans (not on the team anymore, is balling out in Memphis this year though), Buddy Hield (averaging 12.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.9 SPG at 24 MPG), Harry Giles (on IR for multiple knee injuries), and Justin Jackson (averaging 5 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.2 SPG at 17 MPG). To lose a blue chip talent for this return is almost as bad as the Dwight Howard move. Now, their current roster is not completely hopeless. They have some young pieces in Fox, Cauley-Stein and Hield but this core is not quite enough to turn the franchise around. They will need to succeed in the next couple drafts and add some more youth to accelerate the rebuild. Speaking of youth, the Kings took another rebuild misstep by adding multiple old and expensive players to their salary. By signing George Hill ($57 million over next three years), Zach Randolph ($24 million over the next two seasons) and Bogdon Bogdanovic ($27 million over the next three years), Sacramento has not only taken away playing time that could go to their developing young players but has locked up their salary cap and puts them in a tough situation if they wanted to sign anyone in the next few seasons. The Kings roster situation is a mess but could be resolved by some smart management and getting more elite talent at the top of the draft. As for factors outside of the roster, the Kings have some advantages. Their city has shown them support over the years. So much so that they vehemently fought the NBA to keep their team in Sacramento. It shows their fan base cares about the organization and will continue to support them, despite this bad stretch. Sacramento also has a solid coach in Dave Joerger.  The Kings’ head coaching job was a feared position when Cousins was in town, as he open feuded with almost everyone they had. However, Joerger seemed to have the best relationship with Cousins and could have been the answer to keeping him happy (if they kept him in town). But, in Cousins’ absence, Joerger has done well with this young core and seems to be a liked man in Sacramento and looks to be the one who could lead this team out of this rebuild. All in all, even if the Kings have been a terrible organization for over 10 years and aren’t close to being competitive in the West yet, there should still be hope for their fans. It may be a small amount, but there is hope to be had. The Kings have the beginnings of a good core and with one or two more high draft picks and continuity at the coaching position, we could see the Kings playoff basketball in the not-quite-distant future.

Diagnosis: Messy, but on their way. Need more talent. Could be a playoff team by 2022.

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