As the Portland Trail Blazers embark into the New Year, they continue to stand at or near the top of the NBA -- a place that was unexpected for even the most optimistic followers.
The question for 2014 now lands on whether they can sustain this run. More appropriate, however, might be to acknowledge this season's league-wide trend of teams accelerating their rebuild process.
The theme of "rebuild versus reload" is one of the most interesting ones to hit this year's NBA. Teams like Phoenix, Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia are all poised to potentially make playoff runs during their "rebuilding" years, and all four teams also have future assets (young players or draft picks) that could make for an even brighter future.
Tom Ziller of SB Nation wrote about the "one-year rebuild" in his column The Hook this week. The main example of this rebuilding process was Portland's Saturday night opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers have started out scorching hot this year -- by their standards -- already winning 11 games in a season they weren't expected to come close to 20.
"What I didn't realize until watching the Sixers paste the admittedly-bad Kings in Sacramento on Thursday," Ziller writes, "is that [76ers GM Sam] Hinkie has basically squeezed three years of a deep rebuild into one. Assuming [Nerlens] Noel comes in strong and the 2014 draft works out properly, the Sixers could be good as soon as next season."
The 76ers are certainly poised for quite the short-term future. Currently, the franchise shows less than $30 million on their books for next season, plus the addition of guaranteed salaries for first-round draft picks, which are generally quite low. This combination of short-term, quality deals, a young talent like Michael Carter-Williams and plenty of cap space to play with next season could indeed help Philadelphia vastly accelerate its rebuilding timeline.
Philadelphia, though, is hardly the only team that is fast-tracking this development.
The Phoenix Suns, much like Philly, are also a team that is bolting through rebuilding. Currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference, the Suns' overhaul includes the construction of a strong backcourt and a lottery pick player (Alex Len) that has played all of 31 minutes this season. Additionally, as Ziller points out, the Suns also have the rights to a top-13 protected pick from Minnesota, a top-12 protected pick from Washington and Indiana's first round pick, not to mention their own in 2014. These four draft picks, while certainly not as high as Philly's, are all assets to help build a team that's already seven games over .500.
Teams aren't completely foregoing the rebuild process, but they are finding a way to make noise in a season billed as one for development and asset-building. Philadelphia and Phoenix are obviously the two most talked about examples of this process. However, there are a couple of other teams that are facing decisions that could make their development process happen even quicker.
The first is the Toronto Raptors, a team that has won its last five straight, sits a game above .500 and is currently slotted as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Though playing in the East, the Raptors have gone on a tear since trading Rudy Gay, winning ten of their last 13 games. This run was a topic on Raptors HQ last week, where Adam Francis noted that "The Toronto Raptors' recent play, combined with that of their divisional and conference counterparts, is likely giving new GM Masai Ujiri a lot to think about."
Like Phoenix, the Raptors somewhat stumbled upon a potential postseason berth. Some thought the trades of Gay and Andrea Bargnani meant that the Dinos were set for full on tank mode. Instead, the improvement of DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, plus recent draft picks Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, are making the decision much harder. This is without mentioning guard Kyle Lowry, who has led all players in assists in ten of Toronto's last 13 games. While Lowry is a potential trade chip and DeRozan and Johnson may come down to earth as the season progresses, the word "playoffs" is still unexpectedly in the vocabulary of Toronto fans. Coupled with a horrid Atlantic Division, the Raptors stand as another example of a team making the rebuild process look easier than expected.
One final squad that is stumbling into some slight success is the Boston Celtics. Though seven games under .500, the Celts are only a half-game out of the last playoff spot, and they still have All-Star Rajon Rondo (knee) yet to return to action this season. Adding an elite point guard to an already overachieving team could make the playoffs a reality.
In terms of the rebuild, the Celtics are in prime position for the draft. Even if they do make the playoffs this year, they still have the rights to the less favorable of Atlanta's or Brooklyn's picks in this upcoming draft, plus their own. Projecting even further, Boston receives the Clippers' 2015 pick, plus Brooklyn's picks from 2016-2018. In short, the Celtics have a stockpile of draft picks that could make losing Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Doc Rivers a lot easier to swallow in the next few years.
This brings the narrative back home to Rip City. During the last two offseasons, Blazers fans heard buzzwords from the team's front office like "flexibility," "deal flow" and "reload." This approach amounted to a number of assets, including a Rookie of the Year, a bolstered bench, a lethal offensive attack and some rim protection all built around the team's best and most decorated player. The idea of a reload was one the front office stuck to with fans and analysts scoffing at the idea since its inception.
Looking back, the one-year rebuild is not only a trend in the NBA this season, but one achieved by the Blazers in their first season after the shakeup of a new GM, president, coach and overall direction of the team. For Portland, last season can very well be reflected by the present situations of the four teams mentioned above: a one-year rebuild that, with a solid plan and a little luck, got the team immediately back into playoff contention. The future is certainly bright in these cities, then, if Portland is any indication.
Arguably the most surprising teams of the NBA this season are the ones that went from painful and losing to potentially playoff-caliber.
Count Portland in the one-year rebuild category that's worked.