Rebuilding in the NBA is a difficult proposition for a variety of reasons.
NBA teams can be highly impacted by singular players. It’s not a coincidence that since 1980, out of the four major sports (NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL) the NBA has the least amount of champions. Only ten different NBA franchises have hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy while the NFL has had 15 different champs, the NHL 16 and Major League Baseball 19.
There are a limited number of players of this stature and the team you run does not have a unique goal, all other franchises are trying to accomplish the same thing.
There are a variety of ways to accomplish the task of acquiring a franchise player. The draft is the easiest, but still difficult. It takes being bad in the right year and getting lucky in the lottery. Since 1990, teams ranging from the worst record to the 11th-worst record have won the number-one overall pick. The team with the best odds hasn’t been awarded the first pick since 2004 and has only received it in three of the 23 years.
When a team gets the player to build around through the draft, he is basically under that team’s control for nine years — the length of his rookie contract and the five-year max deal only the team he is currently on has the ability to dish out. Teams don’t have to entertain the idea of losing such a player for a significant amount of time.
This gives the franchise time to craft a roster to fit a star’s unique skill set. A smart team will build around this player with pieces that accentuate what he does well (having another superstar level player doesn’t hurt either). This will lead to success and a comfort level making it difficult for that player to leave. We have seen this accomplished by well-run organizations like San Antonio and Oklahoma City. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it didn’t work out so well for Cleveland.
The second way is through free agency, which can be easier for some teams, depending on location. The money available to players is always going to be about the same, so something about the organization needs to stick out. Numerous teams will be fighting over a limited number of players. The Dallas Mavericks can be held up as a cautionary tale of what can happen if a team fails in free agency.
The third way is through trade. This is the most likely way to acquire such a player if you get unlucky with the draft angle. Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph, Andrew Bynum and Steve Nash are all on their current teams because of trades. I know some of those players aren’t among the league’s elite, but all were All-Stars and centerpieces of significantly good teams at some point during their careers. Normally, if the organization gets the inkling the player will leave as a free agent, they’ll turn to a trade as they don’t want to lose an asset for nothing.
There is a combination of factors that make certain franchises attractive trading partners. It takes years of roster shaping that usually require you to be a bad team for a period of time (there are exceptions to this). Being bad gives you players on rookie contracts that are valuable because of what we talked about above in terms of team control. In this regard, the NBA has become somewhat similar to MLB — players under contract for multiple years that are clearly worth more than they are being paid are extremely valuable commodities. To acquire a superstar-level player, a franchise needs multiple players on contracts like this while also having the appearance of upside. Players with impressive combinations of size, length and athleticism will normally (again there are exceptions) garner more attention because of a belief there is an opportunity to develop a player’s physical traits into on-court success.
The second essential part of acquiring a superstar player is having expiring contracts that add up to significant sum of money or contracts that expire the summer of a loaded free agent class. This is needed as a base to attach the smaller rookie contracts to so the salaries can match and the trade can be in accordance with the NBA’s CBA rules. A team trading a superstar is usually preparing itself for the process of rebuilding — Oklahoma City dealing James Harden and Denver unloading Carmelo Anthony are not your typical situations.
The smartest roster rebuilding occurs by using all three of these options in unison. It takes great patience, preparation, planning, vision and luck to rebuild properly.
Knowing the right year to have cap space or bottom out is something that can be strategized based on the length of contracts you give out as a team. The front office has to have everything mapped out for years ahead. It’s not unreasonable to start looking at players as early as high school freshmen as part of a future plan. It’s a must to have a grasp on what type of talent is on the way and what years it will potentially be available.
Which brings us to the Phoenix Suns.
Through a combination of mistakes, smart moves and some plain dumb luck the Suns are in an excellent position to transition this roster. If you want to really dig deep into what is going on here is a link to my notes I put together for this story. They give specific numbers on Phoenix’s salary situation, league wide salary cap situation, impending draft picks and upcoming free agents over the next two years. The numbers and draft pick information is courtesy of ShamSports.com and realgm.com.
With 10 draft picks over the next three years (could be longer based on protections, but my guess is they get all picks during this time frame) — six first round picks and four second rounders — plus the current players they have under contract and available money to spend, Phoenix will have the ability to essentially flip their entire roster if they so choose. Granted, under new CBA rules, with shorter contracts being commonplace, this will be prevalent with a higher percentage of teams on a more routine basis.
The Suns don’t have close to enough money to outright sign a max free agent this summer; they don’t even have enough to give a max offer sheet on a player shooting for the first deal after his rookie contract runs out. Since they will be under the cap, it’s easier for them to absorb money through a sign and trade. Phoenix does have the requisite number of draft picks, but their players under rookie contracts do not have the upside appearance I discussed earlier. If the Suns wanted to make a move, there are players they could potentially get. But with the situation they are currently in, none of them would be worth giving up future flexibility. The free agents available this summer are more the finishing touches to the final product than the foundation. Going under the assumption Phoenix doesn’t have a realistic chance at trading for Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, the one interesting name left is Andrew Bynum. If the Suns training staff thinks he is salvageable, I would see if Philadelphia had any interest in a sign and trade deal based around Marcin Gortat’s expiring contract, some combination of future drafts picks and choice of another two or three players on the roster. Bynum would give the franchise a true building block and is worth the risk if cleared by training staff/doctors.
I’m going to move along with the idea the Bynum thing doesn’t happen.
With enough roster spots filled and being above the salary floor (every team has to spend a certain amount of money on players according to the CBA), the Suns also have the option to not drastically change this roster going into next season.
Why in the world would a team that currently owns the seventh-worst record in the league not look to improve?
Exhibit A – Andrew Wiggins
Exhibit B – Jabari Parker
Exhibit C – Julius Randle
Exhibit D – Aaron Gordon
All four of those players are expected to be available in the 2014 NBA Draft. There are no guarantees the listed players reach what their potential is thought to be, but the risk/reward of them eventually peaking at the ceiling discussed, plus the odds of actually being in position to get them, is worth not going for a quick fix to mediocrity this summer. That route will be available every offseason; the opportunity to get franchise-changing players through the draft is not. The worst angle that occurs is the Suns would get unlucky in the draft lottery and not get one of the top prospects. Even then they don’t come out empty-handed, an asset will be added no matter where they pick.
And the Suns have the ultimate tanking lottery ticket in Michael Beasley. His negative impact on the court if he played 35 minutes a night without major adjustments to the current roster almost ensures Phoenix ending up with one of the five worst records in the NBA next season. The front office would have to position it publicly they try to figure out whether they want to invest another year of salary in a player they could potentially keep on a partial team option or should they pay him $3,000,000 to go away. If Beasley is bad enough to get the Suns Andrew Wiggins, he becomes a hysterically bad free agent pick up, who indirectly was awesome.
While also tanking, the Suns should be looking at the trade market for other options. With new luxury tax penalties in place, it is going to be difficult for teams to have three max players on their roster. Teams are going to have to make tough decisions on whom to keep — an example we saw with the Thunder this past summer. Keeping an eye on teams around the league that have significant salary on the books and won’t be able to afford giving the player on a rookie deal an extension are prime targets — Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe is a potential example. (I know Phoenix has a solid PG in Goran Dragic, but the Suns aren’t at the point where making the pieces fit together perfectly matters).
As you can see, rebuilding is a multi-level process that takes cohesion with all different parts of a franchise. The scouts, coaching staff and front office all need to be on the same page in regard to what the organization is trying to accomplish. It’s organized chaos with so many different options and paths to potentially follow. If plan one falls through plan two needs to be ready; if plan two doesn’t work onto plan three, and that should continue for an inordinate amount of different options.
For rebuilding to be done correctly, the owner needs to give the front office excessive amount of leniency to deal with years of mediocrity or flat out being bad (like the Rockets did under GM Daryl Morey). If there isn’t this dedication, it usually ends up being worse than actually rebuilding. Franchises overpay for players that aren’t worth it, building rosters that aren’t good enough to make the playoffs or compete for anything more than a first round playoff exit.
If rebuilding is done correctly at some point the needed break will be caught and the organization gets set up for eight to ten years of success.