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The Art of the Rebuild

Teams have started embracing the word that owners have no patience for, front offices have no direction in, coaches dread, and players fear: Rebuild.

It took an artist to craft this team.
It took an artist to craft this team.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In August of 2012 the Philadelphia 76ers completed a blockbuster trade that sent forward Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets, forward Maurice Harkless and center Nikola Vucevic to the Orlando Magic, acquired guard Jason Richardson from the Magic, and center Andrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers.

The 76ers were coming off a second round playoff loss, in seven games, to the Boston Celtics. At the time they were seen as a team on the rise. Consecutive playoff appearances, a young second overall pick in Evan Turner, budding point guard Jrue Holiday, a fourth year combo forward in Thaddeus Young, and star swingman Andre Iguodala.

The Sixers thought they were right on the cusp of being a true contender, they had built the supporting cast and just needed that missing piece: a franchise player. With the Dwight Howard Fiasco transpiring in Orlando, the Sixers thought they had an opportunity to solidify their championship window.

Two years later the Philadelphia 76ers completed a season in which they won 19 games, traded away or released every player from that team except forward Arnett Moultrie, drafted a new budding point guard in Michael Carter-Williams, two centers in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid that have or are sitting out their rookie years, and own 21 draft picks over the next four years.

What happened? It’s called a rebuild, and the 76ers are attempting one of the most ambitious ones in recent memory.

Their plan is ambitious only in the thoroughness in the way they are going about their business. Tanking. Profusely. Will it work? Is it the only way? Let’s see:

Rebuild Through Trades

Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey entered the 2009-10 season with a team that sat in the upper echelon of the NBA. Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and a top 5 defense. A team that had ran off three consecutive 50+ win seasons, held (at the time) the second longest win streak in NBA history (22 – despite losing Yao Ming after 12 games), and had finally reached the second round (albeit without McGrady).

After three years in his post, Morey was riding the wave of championship contention. That is until Yao Ming suffered his second stress fracture in as many years and McGrady’s body finally broke all the way down. McGrady was traded that February and just like that the Rockets window was closed.

Three seasons later, Houston was back it in. How’d Morey do it? Trading like a mad man.

*Key Transactions Highlighted*

Every key signing or acquisition was directly related to a trade. In three short years Morey turned the Rockets back into a power in the Western Conference. He didn’t wait to draft and develop players, he aggressively acquired assets and made power moves to re-open the championship window.

It’s a bit too early to declare it a complete success, but so far, so good.

Rebuild Through Free Agency

The Decision. Two words is all I need to say, and it all comes rushing back to you. During the 2009-10 season the Miami Heat had been preparing. Three years prior Dwyane Wade, Cleveland Cavalier forward LeBron James, and Toronto Raptor forward Chris Bosh accepted three-year extensions with their eyes on entering unrestricted free agency at the same time.

As James prepped for the media storm that was The Decision, Miami Heat team president Pat Riley mastermind the greatest coup in free agent history. Wisely staggering every contract on the team so that those contracts came off the books that season, Riley could renounce the rights to every player freeing up enough cap room to make some major deals. That’s exactly what he did.

On July 9th, 2010, the Heat renounced the rights to every free agent, (though they’re officially listed as a sign-and-trade) and signed James, Bosh and Wade to deals.

Three years removed from a 15-67 season, and five years removed from a 2006 championship, Riley had rebuilt the Heat overnight into the favorites to dominate for the next decade.

Over the next four years and two championships, Miami built a contender almost exclusively off of veterans on minimum and/or near-minimum contracts (Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Mike Bibby, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Chris Anderson, Joel Anthony, Rashard Lewis), and reclamation projects (Michael Beasley, Greg Oden).

It was a success in context, but with no youth in the pipeline, the Heat became old and slow just as fast as they were built up. LeBron left this summer back to Cleveland, effectively closing Miami’s championship window.

Rebuild Through the Draft

I won’t go there. Back to the details of 2008. Not now. I will say the final case studies are two very successful draft strategies that the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and soon others hope to duplicate.

They’re also the hardest.

Kevin Durant and Greg Oden were the clear cut picks in the 2007 draft. Sam Presti, GM of the Seattle SuperSonics, was full bore into rebuilding the team from the ground up. Gone were pillars Ray Allen (to Boston) and Rashard Lewis (to Orlando). In came draftees Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. They won 20 games.

In the year of the greatest tragedy in sports history, Presti ended up with another high draft pick, selecting mercurial point guard Russell Westbrook. It was the steal he acquired in the 24th pick, that really set the chains in motion. Serge Ibaka took a few years, but he would eventually develop into another star from the draft. They won 23 games.

With the third overall pick in the 2009 draft, Presti selected the final piece to the puzzle. James Harden solidified a young group that catapulted the Thunder into championship contention, and though he has since been traded (along with Jeff Green), the core is still in place. They’re working on their sixth 50+ win season since then.

The other case is also a very unique one. The San Antonio Spurs drafted Tim Duncan in 1997, first overall. They haven’t had a pick higher than 20th overall since. They've won 5 championships with Duncan, including last season. The Spurs have rebuilt around Duncan primarily with 2nd round picks. Now I use the word rebuild very carefully here. It’s more like retool, but for contenders the formula is worth noting. Here is the list of notable picks the Spurs have drafted since 1997:

*Players that played on the Spurs are highlighted*

That’s insane. Safe to say, it has also worked.

Rebuilding is done in many ways, there clearly is no one true way, nor is there one true correct way. In many of these cases the organizations have also included the others’ tactics (i.e. trades that accompany good drafting) in support of their own.

One thing can be said: from the owner(s), to the front office, to the players, to the fans, everyone must buy-in. Philadelphia or any other franchise can’t truly rebuild without first building solidarity in their plans.

Now, that’s the real art.