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Anatomy of a Rebuild: A Look Back Through Recent NBA History

The Trail Blazers are heading into a rebuilding phase. What lessons can they glean from other NBA teams that have tackled that challenge in recent memory?

Some rebuilding projects take a lot longer than others.
Some rebuilding projects take a lot longer than others.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The road that lies ahead for the Trail Blazers is uncertain, perhaps a little unpleasant, and almost definitely not the one any of us would have opted for if given the choice. While following a rebuilding team can be interesting as a thought exercise, and maybe there are some who perversely enjoy it because it satisfies some strange predilection toward self-loathing, rooting for a rebuild generally isn't anyone's Plan A.

That said, going through this process is not a death sentence. It can be survived. Looking at recent NBA history, the Blazers are absolutely not the first team to endure a massive personnel shakeup, and they won't be the last, either. Basketball's a zero-sum game, and someone's gotta lose 50 games each season for someone else to win 50. For the moment, it looks like it's Portland's turn to take a couple lumps. So it goes.

The Blazers can get through this. Anyone can. The way I see it, making it out of a rebuild alive is a difficult challenge, but it can be conquered by any organization and fanbase that bring these three crucial elements to the table:

  1. Some sort of assets worth building around. This may mean a star player, talented prospects or, at the very least, some promising draft picks (either to use or package in a trade).
  2. A core group of stakeholders (owner, general manager, coach, key players) who are all on the same page with a long-term vision for the direction of the franchise.
  3. Patience.

If you accept the above to be true, then a quick look at the Trail Blazers would indicate they're in pretty good shape. As for item 1, they've got a little bit of all three different types of assets. They've got their star player in Damian Lillard, some interesting youngsters in Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum and Noah Vonleh et al, and they're likely to have a high draft pick in 2016. (They promised Denver their first-rounder in the Arron Afflalo trade, but that pick was lottery-protected, which means they'll probably keep it and make a top-14 selection.)

As for item 2, the Blazers have good people in place across the board. Paul Allen is a supportive (and deep-pocketed) owner, Neil Olshey is a smart GM with a nose for good assets, Terry Stotts is a solid coach and Lillard is a committed franchise player who just inked a five-year extension. All in all, you've got to be pretty happy with the principal players involved.

Item 3, though. The patience part.

Here's the problem as I see it - it's really hard to sit through a down cycle for your favorite team when you have no idea how long it'll be. Rebuilding sports teams are the only thing that's cruel like this, really. At least if you get thrown in prison, the judge is kind enough to tell you that you'll be out in three to five years. Or if your girlfriend drags you to the new "Pitch Perfect" movie, fortunately you can check IMDB beforehand and know you'll be out of your misery in 115 minutes. A rebuild is different. It might be two years; it might be five. It might go on for damn near forever.

It helps, though, to go into it knowing your history. With past NBA rebuilding projects, what has the trajectory been like? What triggers the rebuild, how long does it take, and what are the major breakthroughs that finally bring the process to a conclusion?

What follows is a look at 10 recent rebuilds in the NBA - some short, some long, some still ongoing. Let's brush up.


Boston Celtics

How the rebuild began: The collapse of Boston's championship team was bound to happen at some point. The C's brought Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce together in 2007 when they were already 32, 31 and 30 years old; the clock was ticking. Finally, in 2012, Allen left in free agency and the other two began to decline, so Danny Ainge shipped KG and Pierce to Brooklyn in the summer of '13. The rebuild was underway.

How it went down: The Celtics won 25 games their first season without the old vets, then won 40 and grabbed a No. 7 playoff seed in year two. There was no one star that carried them - it was an ensemble cast. The group included Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass, holdovers from the old regime. There was Evan Turner, an under-the-radar cheap free agent. Danny Ainge drafted decently to bring in Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger; he also managed his assets shrewdly to make trades for Tyler Zeller, Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas and Jonas Jerebko. Together, that ragtag group of 10 guys constituted a playoff team. There was no silver-bullet solution - Ainge just built methodically by adding one low-key nice piece at a time.

Duration: 2 years. The Celtics might not be title contenders any time soon, but they went from an old, washed-up team in 2013 to a playoff berth in '15. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Milwaukee Bucks

How the rebuild began: The Bucks were a decent team in 2012-13, but it all fell apart on them quickly. They made a big deal of trading Andrew Bogut for Monta Ellis, only to watch him leave in free agency; they swapped out their other high-scoring guard, Brandon Jennings. (The deal brought back Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton, which is fantastic value, but those guys were long-term projects.) Then there were the issues with Larry Sanders, which are too complicated to get into here. Long story short, the Bucks went from a 38-win playoff team to a 15-win laughingstock.

How it went down: ...and then they were back in the playoffs again in 2015. Remarkable how quickly that worked out. The improvement originated with a culture change brought about by Jason Kidd; the incoming coach turned the young Bucks into a scrappy, hustling, defense-first team. Middleton and Knight (and later Michael Carter-Williams, once Knight was moved at the deadline) grew considerably. Those two, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson and a host of other guys, used their length, athleticism and youthful energy to turn the Bucks into a defensive juggernaut - an aggressive switching machine that trapped relentlessly and forced turnovers. The offense wasn't too shabby, either. Like Boston, there was no one superstar that made the difference, but the team effort was pretty beautiful to watch.

Duration: 2 years. Like the Celtics above, they transformed the program overnight. Admirable.

Utah Jazz

How the rebuild began: People forget this one, but it's a great rebuild story - the Jazz made the playoffs in 2010 and 2012 with completely different teams. That '10 team was headlined by Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. Then Booz left for Chicago in 2011 free agency, and Deron was traded at the following deadline when things grew untenable between him and Jerry Sloan. The rebuild was a forced move.

How it went down: The Jazz added a ton of talent during the period between 2010 and '12. You can question the quality of each individual move, but you have to give them credit for showing initiative. They made an aggressive move to get Al Jefferson, giving up Kosta Koufos and two first-round picks (which later became Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas - yikes!), but Jefferson led them to the playoffs, so you can't knock them for it too hard. They built around Big Al by drafting pretty decently - they got Gordon Hayward with the No. 9 pick in 2010 (and acquired the No. 3 pick, Derrick Favors, in the Deron trade). Then in 2011, they had two lottery picks, which they used to nab Enes Kanter at No. 3 and Alec Burks at No. 12. That's four legit rotation players in two drafts, quickly turning them into a promising young team. (Which they still are, by the way, three years later. Favors and Hayward are still around and developing nicely.)

Duration: 2 years. At least that's the interval between the 2010 and '12 playoff berths. Though to be fair, the Jazz are to a degree still building.


New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans

How the rebuild began: This is where these stories get painful. The Hornets in the immediate aftermath of trading Chris Paul were really, really terrible. They moved Paul to the Clippers on Dec. 15, 2011, a date that will live in infamy in the Crescent City; by Feb. 10, 2012, the team was 4-23. Their leading scorer was freakin' Marco Belinelli. Two guys you may have heard of, named Al-Farouq Aminu and Chris Kaman, were among their top five in minutes. Yeesh.

How it went down: Doesn't take a rocket scientist to explain this one - the Hornets got really lucky and won the draft lottery. They were tied for the third-worst record in the NBA in 2011-12, at 21-45, but they leapfrogged Charlotte and Washington to win the No. 1 pick and take Anthony Davis. Just like that, they had a rebuilding plan. From there, they were incredibly aggressive about building around Davis. Perhaps too aggressive. They signed Tyreke Evans for four years and $44 million - that's a lot. They gave up a first-round pick for Omer Asik; for Jrue Holiday, they threw away two first-rounders. You could argue that the Hornets/Pelicans have lost a lot of value by overpaying for supporting players, but what's done is done. The point is, the team was a joke, and now it's relevant again.

Duration: 4 years. They spent the first year effectively tanking for AD; then it took three years for the youngster to develop into the best player on a playoff team. Now they've arrived.

Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder

How the rebuild began: The Sonics in 2005 were a really freakin' fun team. They had the second-best offense in the NBA that year, thanks to the up-tempo, trigger-happy tandem of Allen and Rashard Lewis. Then the team's chemistry began to erode when they started losing in '06 and '07, at which point the Sonics moved Allen to Boston (see also: Celtics section above) and Lewis left in free agency for Orlando (see also: Magic section below).

How it went down: Sam Presti made quite possibly the best series of draft picks in the history of professional sports. I mean, wow. With his first selection, he got lucky - the Blazers got Greg Oden with the No. 1 overall pick in 2007 (sorry guys, but it had to be mentioned), so Kevin Durant was the obvious choice at No. 2. Fair enough. Then Presti struck gold again and again - he got Russell Westbrook at No. 4 in 2008, followed by Serge Ibaka at No. 24, and the following year he nabbed James Harden with the No. 3 pick. I'm not sure if any GM has ever had a better run of four picks in three years. Later on, he would also find quality players in Steven Adams, Reggie Jackson, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones and Mitch McGary - all homegrown.

Duration: 5 years. The Sonics were a playoff team in '05; then it eroded, and they were back in '10 with Durant and Westbrook leading the way. The turnaround took a while, but it eventually made them into a legit title contender. They still are today.

Cleveland Cavaliers

How the rebuild began: This guy named LeBron James played for them. Then, he didn't. You might have heard about this. It was on TV.

How it went down: Like OKC, the Cavs built their roster with a boatload of high lottery picks, but the results weren't obvious at first. They got Kyrie Irving with the No. 1 overall pick the year after LeBron left, which netted them a rising star right away, but their other picks were slow to pan out. Tristan Thompson, who went No. 4 in the same 2011 draft Kyrie headlined, was a mediocre fringe starter for his first few years. Dion Waiters, who was No. 4 the year after, was kinda sorta a bust. Anthony Bennett went No. 1 in 2013, and he looks like an actual bust, hold the "kinda sorta." But all the picks started to add up, and the Cavs' collection of young talent - plus the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, which made the perfect trade chip to bring in Kevin Love - was enough to convince LeBron last summer it was time to come home.

Suddenly, with King James in the fold, it all began to make sense. Every pick had a purpose. Irving was the perfect secondary scorer. Thompson crushed the offensive glass with LeBron by his side. Bennett was a trade chip. Waiters didn't work out in Cleveland, but he brought back Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith in a trade. It's amazing how well you do when (a) you land a super-high pick in every single draft lottery and (b) the best player in the world just happens to call your state home.

Duration: 5 years. On July 8, 2010, LeBron made his "Decision"; on May 26, 2015, the Cavs finished dismantling Atlanta to win the East and return to the Finals. What a journey.


Orlando Magic

How the rebuild began: These are the rebuilds that are still in progress. We don't know when they'll wrap up, but we know how they started. The Magic were great when they had Dwight Howard in the middle, flanked by shooting/playmaking forwards like Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu; they began to decline when the supporting guys drifted away and Howard held the entire league hostage in 2012 with his incessant trade demands. Finally, the Magic moved him that summer. They've won 20, 23 and 25 games in the three seasons since.

How it's going down: Slowly and carefully. Orlando hasn't made any big splashes in free agency or on the trade market; they've simply waited their turn in the draft, picked the best player available and built a young core. It seems to be working OK. The Magic got Victor Oladipo with the No. 2 overall pick in 2013, then Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton with the Nos. 4 and 10 picks in 2014. This year, they snatched up Mario Hezonja fifth. That's a solid collection of young talent. It may take a long, long time for that group to actually compete for a championship, but at least the Magic have hope for the future.

Duration: Their last playoff game was in 2012. When will their next one be - maybe 2017? We'll see.

Philadelphia 76ers

How the rebuild began: Well, it began because Sam Hinkie is a crazy person. Hinkie didn't have to start tanking in the summer of 2013; his team that year had only won 34 games, but he had a decent young core with Holiday (22), Turner (24) and Thaddeus Young (24) all developing. But when Dell Demps and the Hornets came calling with an offer of two first-round picks for Holiday, that was the beginning. Those two picks became Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric. Noel missed a season and Saric still hasn't landed on American soil, so the Sixers were able to keep tanking and tanking.

How it's going down: Uh, yeah, they're still tanking. Though Noel is starting to come into his own, and if summer league is any indication, Jahlil Okafor is a legitimate, healthy, NBA-ready big man. There's a chance that the Sixers will be unterrible by 2016 or '17. Hey, I said a chance. Don't hold me to that.

Duration: Good lord, who knows?

Minnesota Timberwolves

How the rebuild began: Where do I start? The Wolves were great in 2004. They won 58 games and streaked all the way to the West finals, where they were finally eliminated by the Lakers. From there, it fell apart. They had a little injury trouble in '05 and missed the playoffs; then Latrell Sprewell held out for more money that summer and ended up never playing in the NBA again, and the Wolves embraced the rebuild fully when they dumped Sam Cassell on the Clippers. Kevin Garnett, of course, went to Boston two years later.

How it's going down: Yes, it's still going, sadly. Eleven years now - zero playoff berths. A big part of the problem is they've drafted terribly. What do Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, O.J. Mayo, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams have in common? Yes, that's right, they were all picked by the Wolves in the top 10 between 2006 and '11. That's pretty terrible. They've begun to turn things around recently, though. Adding Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and now Karl-Anthony Towns should be enough to get them out of the mud eventually. But man, it's taken long enough.

Duration: Don't ask.


So, you've read all of the above - which of the nine rebuild stories sounds most like the future you envision for your Blazers? If you ask me, the quick retooling seems like the most likely outcome, given where the organization stands now. It wouldn't shock me one bit if the Blazers turned out to be the next Boston or Milwaukee. They've already got a great cornerstone in Damian Lillard, who's a better player than the Celtics' Bradley or the Bucks' Middleton. They've also got intriguing young guys in Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard et al.

This Portland team is too good to tank outright, in my humble opinion. With Lillard and the other decent players on the roster, they're not going to win 15 games - 30 is more like it. They might get the sixth or seventh pick in the draft in 2016, but tanking to chase No. 1 doesn't look like their destiny.

And that's fine. You don't have to get the top overall pick (or even one of the top few) to rebuild successfully. You can add a quality player in the middle of the lottery if you pick well - a guy who can help reform the culture and push you back toward playoff contention right away. Look no further than the Celtics' Smart or the Bucks' Antetokounmpo for living proof.

What you need to survive a rebuild are assets, leadership and patience - and if you ask me, the Blazers have all three. And if they play their cards right from here, they may not require that patience for long.

But that's just my opinion.

What do you think?