Monday, January 28, 2008

The Play Call: A Rebuilding Project

The "20 Players We Want Freed From Captivity" piece and subsequent comments got us thinking about rebuilding. It's a word that's thrown around a lot, but seldom attached to any meaning. Usually it's just a word for after a major player has been traded or retired, or when a team has gone to hell. But the Heat aren't rebuilding, they're just bad. The Pacers aren't really rebuilding, they're just trying to plug in better players to a roster that's past its prime. So what is rebuilding? What does it actually involve, and how do you do it well? As usual, we assumed we had no clue, and decided to seek answers from those we consider smarter than us. Here's what we asked.

1. The word "rebuilding" is tossed around a lot in the NBA. How you would you define the ideal model for rebuilding?
2. To that end, would you consider your team in a rebuilding mode, and how are they doing in following that ideal model?
3. If, in fact, you do think you are rebuilding, what two players are absolutely indispensable? What two players would you choose to build around?

Here's what our panel had to say.


Tom Ziller from SacTown Royalty is a legend in NBA blogging. With the Kings in the last season of the old guard and looking towards the future, he had this to say about a team that's undergoing another rebuild:

1. There are a bunch of models, I'd say, and surprise! All require some luck. Like hitting the lottery jackpot the year Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are coming out. Or watching Chris Paul slip to #4. Or watching Dwyane Wade slip to #4. No great rebuild in the modern NBA has come without at least one killer draft pick. Dallas with Dirk, L.A. with Kobe (both technically trades, but only technically). Boston's a slight exception, though the drafting of Al Jefferson made the KG trade possible. Beyond getting lucky, the best models use some sort of salary flexibility to open up avenues in the free agent or trade market. This isn't necessarily a fire sale (look at Phoenix, who still had a decent roster and tons of salary when it landed Nash), but it seems you generally need to absolve yourself of a hefty contract or two. I don't think Portland's the ideal example right now, because they seemed to fall into two great trades (for Roy and Aldridge) and got an improbably #1 pick. Utah, though, has just made solid moves (though perhaps they overpaid AK).

2. The Kings are rebuilding. It's a matter of whether that rebuild gets going in a big way in the next month, or if the commencement gets put off to the summer or beyond. But Geoff Petrie has admitted the roster's got to be turned over to a degree. And that's the first step, I suppose. Petrie's most recent signing -- Mikki Moore -- followed Petrie's own rebuild schedule, and I have little problem with it.

3. Only one King is absolutely indispensable -- Kevin Martin. I'd be crushed if he were traded. I'd like to also keep (but wouldn't be crushed if they left in a larger deal) Francisco Garcia and Spencer Hawes, as well. And I'm a bit smitten with John Salmons and Quincy Douby, too. But at this point, build around Martin. He's one piece of your Tri-force.


Josh Coleman from 3 Shades of Blue was a great source, covering a team that has gone from playoff contender to true rebuilding project. He pontificated on how the Grizz have done:

1. Rebuilding, in the most ideal sense, is moving older players with bigger contracts for younger players on their first contract, draft picks and/or expiring deals. That usually means suffering a setback in terms of wins for 1 or 2 seasons, but offers more promise for the future. Kiki Vandeweghe did this in Denver and Bryan Colangelo did it in Phoenix successfully.

2. I think that the Grizzlies have been trying to rebuild since the 2005 offseason when they moved Jason Williams, James Posey and Bonzi Wells. They took on veterans with fairly sizable contracts in the form of Eddie Jones and Bobby Jackson. They took the next step when they traded Shane Battier, a member of their "core group", for the rights to Rudy Gay and the contract filler that is Stromile Swift. If they take another step, it will be the trade of either Pau Gasol or Mike Miller, although I think either possibility is unlikely until the offseason. So to answer the question, "Yes" they are rebuilding, albeit in a slower, more controlled manner than many would have anticipated, given the constant trade rumors that swirl around the team.

3. If you were to make me the GM of the Grizzlies today, the two players that I would absolutely keep are Rudy Gay and Mike Conley. Rudy Gay is already a star and could eventually become a Superstar if he continues to develop at this staggering rate. Mike Conley is the prototypical point guard. Rod Benson had this to say about him after playing alongside him in the Summer League: "It was on this day that my love affair with Mike Conley Jr. began. Running the pick and roll with this guy is like a dream. No matter where I was on the court, he could find me. I bet that Mike Conley could find Osama bin Laden…if he was open." I'd love to say Pau Gasol just to mess with you and with the readers, but given his contract and the fact that he is not a #1 option and will never become one, you cannot list him in that category. If you gave me three players, he'd make the list though. I'd love to see this team built around those three for the next 5 years.


Tom Lewis from Indy Cornrows had this to say about the complicated disappointment in Indy:

1. The first step in rebuilding is to admit you have a problem and decide it is time to start over. But, before you can rebuild you have to do the demo work. Determine who stays, who goes and then tear down the team and clear away the rubble. Once the dust settles, a new foundation must be laid that will support a strong rebuilding effort. The foundation must consist of diversified assets, namely young talent, draft picks, cap room, or trade exceptions that offer flexibility when factors arise that are out of your control. Acquiring these valuable assets is far easier said than done in the NBA with the roster and trade rules in place, so any respectable rebuilding plan needs to include a contingency plan when trying to unload big contracts for underperforming players. In other words, call Kevin McHale.

2. Publicly, the Pacers are not following this definition. Several times over the past couple of years, Larry Bird has stated that he doesn't thinking fans wouldn't stand for blowing up the team and suffering through a couple of 20 win seasons. Guess what? Fans aren't too enamored with the current situation which requires the team to fight like hell to remain a mediocre, middle of the pack team that may make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Just ask the thousands of seats at the Fieldhouse that haven't had a fan join them for a game all year. Now, behind the scenes I have to believe the Pacers are trying to break things down quietly. All of the trade talks including Jermaine O'Neal reveals the team's intentions. J.O. is the linchpin to rebuilding because the team is shackled until his max contract is gone. Also, Jim O'Brien needs players who can run, shoot and play defense and I can make an argument for one player (Danny Granger) on the current roster that fits those parameters. So, the team has to be considering wholesale changes. But, again, actually blowing up a team is real hard in the NBA and becomes a daunting task when the key assets that need to be moved (J.O. and Jamaal Tinsley) can't fetch enough value in return to make a legal NBA trade.

3. First of all, I don't think any current players should be untouchable. But if I had to pick two critical assets, I'd start with Danny Granger. He's still blossoming as an all-around player and plays his best when Jermaine O'Neal is out of the lineup. Assuming J.O. wouldn't survive a rebuild, that would help Danny's value to the team. The second player is a crap shoot, but sticking with my plan to gather young talent, Shawne Williams fits the profile. Shawne may never be an All-Star caliber player but he can certainly develop into a solid role player. He's active and can shoot real well. Right now his main problem is finding a position he can defend. But again, he's young with nice upside. Think next gen, Eddie Johnson.

I wouldn't keep either player at all cost, though. With the emergence of Kareem Rush, the Pacers have several capable wing players. If packaging either Granger or Shawne in a deal would land a solid, young point guard, I'd sign off in a hurry.


Finally, I wanted the perspective from a team that had literally built from the ground-up, an expansion team. I asked Brett from Queen City Hoops the same questions. He gave his insight:

1. I would say building would be to look at what Isiah Thomas has done in New York: Then do the exact opposite. But that would be a cheap laugh...and not totally accurate. Because Isiah has managed to do one thing reasonably well - and that is draft. He has turned up keepers in Nate Robinson, David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, and Channing Frye (he did the right thing in drafting the guy anyway).
So, one step in building is to draft well - no matter what position in the draft you are at, get someone who is going to help the team long term. There is a tough balance between looking for a potential star and a guaranteed solid role player - Potential doesn't win games and that is the aim.
Another key to building a squad is depth - as the Bobcats realize anytime they miss one of their core players, see Raymond Felton and the loss to the 76ers the other night. Finding solid rotation players and signing them to reasonable contracts is another must in building a squad - San Antonio has done this better than anyone over the last few years and should be the model for the Bobcats to follow.

2. The Bobcats have had some successes in building and some failures - getting Emeka Okafor and Raymond Felton in the draft brought in 2 solid players who are going to be long time pros. Jared Dudley has shown flashes of being a solid bench player, so I have to applaud the Bobcats' selection of him. But Sean May and Adam Morrison are both big question marks and hurt the overall Bobcats' draft history.

As far as building depth through free agency...they haven't really done much. Jeff McInnis and Derek Anderson serve as backup point guards for the current squad, a move that does not line up with the pricey addition of Jason Richardson this past offseason.

The resigning of Gerald Wallace was done with a reasonable deal and Matt Carroll was within reason - a big test will be in the coming offseason when the team attempts to resign Emeka Okafor. He is no franchise player, but...

3. Emeka is a player the team can build around. He will never be the focal point of an offense, but he is skilled enough to score with his back to the basket. And he is a true force on the defensive end, as a strong rebounder and shot blocking presence. Should the Bobcats not resign him longterm, they are going to have a very frustrated fan base (even more so).

The second player to build around has to be Crash, Gerald Wallce. Only 25, Gerald is continuing to expand his game, approaching border-line All-Star status this year. He is a disruptive force on defense and has developed his offensive game to that of solid secondary option on offense.

That continues to be one of the main issues with this team - solid core, no clearcut leader. Gerald has improved dramatically, but with the game on the line, he is still not strong enough with the ball to be counted on - and the same can be said of the import, Jason Richardson. Richardson has proven to be a great jump shooter, but he does not draw contact and struggles to drive against a determined defense. Emeka is a robot on offense - very methodical and stiff - he can score, but not as a primary option. He is also a black hole - the ball goes in, and either goes up as a shot or heads the other way on a turnover - very rarely does he create for his teammates.

So, between the salaries of Gerald, Matt, and Jason, and the need to resign Emeka, this team does not have much room for change, let alone the addition of the signature player they still lack. As presently constructed, they look to a borderline playoff team and first round fodder for the foreseeable future.

The model seems pretty clear, if you take the consensus among intelligent fans. You need to be willing to part with big contracts, and therefore, big players. You need to be willing to suffer through some 20-win seasons. You need to draft smart, take on contracts that are smart in the long term, and not attempt quick fixes. The dilemma for owners and subsequently, GMs, is the perceived inevitable loss of confidence by the fanbase through losing seasons. The drop in attendance, non-renewal by season ticket-holders, and criticism by the media is perceived as a death knell that must be escaped by a big free agent signing. Or in the case of the Knicks, 12 big free agent signings.

We don't think you have to treat your fanbase like it's an angry mob, however. The fact is that 1. people will come for pro basketball regardless. This is how there are still teams in Atlanta, Sacramento, and Seat...whoops. But the Sonics are leaving because their owner is Darth Vader, not because attendance is down. And you have to accept that there will be hard times when you're building a winner. But working long term, being patient, taking smart contracts, and not looking for the quick fix, can lead to winning, which will bring the people out (unless you're New Orleans. Okay, market's also important, but that's a conversation for another day).

One thing owners and GMs could do is to improve communication during these times. Basketball fans are usually pretty intelligent. If you convey that you're working for the future, that there will be hard times, but that you do have a plan, you're going to strengthen that community of fans, which will help you through. People will still come out, but you have to give them reason to believe in the team.

Of course, if all else fails, just have an old friend and former player as the GM of a team looking to move one of the best players in the league. That helps, too.

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