Tanking for the #1 Pick? Doesn’t Work: A Blueprint for an NBA Rebuild

There’s a saying in the NBA amongst front office executives that goes a little something like this: “the worst thing you can be is mediocre.” In theory, this is absolutely true. The ultimate goal for twenty-nine NBA teams is to win a championship (no one knows what the 76ers are trying to do…), and in order to do that you have to have a great NBA roster.

But for those teams who don’t have a roster capable of competing for a title, you have two choices.

1. Scrap out 40-45 wins a year, grab a 7 or 8 seed in the playoffs, and then get steamrolled by a title contender. You’ll always be decent, but there’s really no shot you’re bringing home the O’Brien trophy in June.

2. Go into “rebuild mode” wherein you liquidate your assets (aka turning your good players into draft picks and cap room) and be really bad for a season (or a few seasons) in the hopes that you can create the kind of roster that can make a deep run.

It’s a constant cycle of teams trying to improve by acquiring good players and teams trying to tear down by trading away their good players for draftees, who are good and extremely cheap on their rookie contracts, and opening up cap room to entice upper level free agents.

The key word in all of this however is “in theory.” Hell, Sam Hinkie, the GM of the 76ers, has made a career out of “in theory.” He crunches the numbers, he analyzes the analytics…..and his teams lose. A lot.


There’s a lot of things that can happen. Teams can whiff on draft picks (HELLO Charlotte!) or they can be located in a city where free agents would never want to go (HELLO every team not located in California, Texas or Florida!). Clearly roster building is not an exact science, but with a little help from history I’m hoping we can find a (semi-)successful strategy to NBA championship-team-building.

thunder 2012 trio
Brb I’m going to go cry now thinking about what could have been for my Thunder

Everyone looks to the OKC Thunder model as the gold standard for a rebuild. Tank for a couple years, pick up a couple blue chip draftees in the top five, and let the young guns develop together into the dynasty of the future. However, it’s foolhardy to assume that you can replicate the run of luck that the Thunder had.

They were gifted Durant when Portland pulled a classic…uh Portland and drafted Greg Oden. Then a gamble for an athletic yet volatile guard in Russell Westbrook paid off in spades, in addition to hitting a home run at #24 with a raw big man from the Congo in Serge Ibaka (how often do foreign prospects pan out?). Oh and did I mention that Memphis drafted Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden in 2009?

(I promised I wouldn’t mention the Harden trade, I promised I wouldn’t mention the Harden trade, I promised I wouldn’t mention the Harden trade)

In all seriousness, the truth is that tanking doesn’t work. The Thunder hit about 4 home runs in what has to be the greatest run of draft picks in NBA history, and they still haven’t won a title (2016 World Champs tho, no bias at all #ThunderUp). But it’s a lose-lose scenario. Let me explain why.

More than likely, you will whiff on at least a few draft picks. Charlotte and Philadelphia have been living in the lottery longer than a World of Warcraft wizard lives in his mom’s basement, and despite a combined NINE top ten picks between them since 2010, a whopping ZERO of those have become NBA All-Stars. Now you wake up after five years having come no closer to building a contender, and your attendance and fan base has almost certainly called for your head.

Or let’s say that you do what the Thunder did and hit the mother-load of perfect draft picks. Problem solved right? Wrong. You have maybe two or three years in which these players can all play together on their rookie contracts. And in that time, you’re talking about kids who are what, 20? 21? 22 years old? It’s hard to believe that they’ll be ready and mature enough for the biggest stage in basketball (the 2012 Thunder sure weren’t). Then as they mature, these budding stars will start to feel a little cramped, and suddenly one basketball isn’t enough to go around between three or four guys who want 15-20 shots a game. Oh, and they’re each asking for about 20 million bucks a year, plunging you head-first into the luxury tax.

gambling meme
When people ask why I go to the casino so much.

If you’re a small market team that can’t pull an extra hundred million out of your back pocket, you’re forced to start making decisions about who you can let go (sidenote, the fans are going to hate you no matter which young star you choose). Not to mention the fact that you’ve depleted any additional cash for good veteran role players that are essential to any championship team.

Your only option is to take all the money you won gambling, and go back to the casino hoping to hit some more blackjacks in the draft. Unless you can continue to win the lotto with incredible picks, your plan isn’t sustainable. Look at the second generation of Thunder draft picks. Jeremy Lamb? Perry Jones? Mitch McGary? Josh Heustis? To this point they have been far from the kind of support needed to win a title (injuries not withstanding), and I have a hard time seeing any of the lot make an All-Star game.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and yes the most surefire way to become a championship caliber team is to obtain an MVP caliber talent. And while I agree that small market teams with no curb appeal to FAs seemingly have no other option than to deal for a top draft pick in order to hopefully select the next superstar, history has actually shown us that this tactic doesn’t work at all.

Since 1998, there have been seventeen people (18 after this year’s draft) selected with the #1 overall pick (list here). Do you want to know how many have won NBA Championships? Two, and one of those is Andrew Bogut who didn’t even play for the final three games of this year’s Finals. The other is Lebron James, a transcendent superstar who cannot be considered in the same conversation as other #1 picks as there weren’t really any doubts about the type of player he’d be when he was coming up to be drafted.

In fact, only seven out of the group have turned out to be the types of players who can be franchise centerpieces (jury still out on Wiggins and whoever goes #1 in 2015). That’s less than a 50% chance that you’re going to get the type of player that you want or need to build a team around. There have been almost nearly as many (six) #1 overall picks in that time who have never made an All-Star game. Those aren’t great odds.

Let’s look to an equally ingenious GM for blueprint that is more low-risk. Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. When he first took up the post he had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, two perennial All-Stars and the perfect pieces to build your team around. But after three seasons of mediocre playoff appearances, with Yao having foot issues and T-Mac having…T-Mac issues, it was obvious that the current team wasn’t going to win a championship and it was time to rebuild.

While I don’t have time to break down every deal that Morey made in that time, just know that he treated his Rockets like any of us would treat our fantasy football teams. Dozens and dozens of transactions were made, and slowly their team built up its assets while maintaining winning records in 2010, 2011, and 2012. This was achieved by targeting players in the draft, free agency, and trades who are undervalued role players, who then improved and were showcased in lineups without much talent.

Suddenly guys like Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Trevor Ariza, Chandler Parsons, Shane Battier, and Goran Dragic saw their stocks skyrocket, and teams around the league saw valuable pieces that they wanted to trade for, allowing Houston to stockpile draft picks and bring in other undervalued role players. Morey, a former consultant at STATS, Inc. (the pioneer in the analytics movement), was playing moneyball. And it was working.

A live look-in into the mind of possibly-genius, possibly-psychotic, definitely-out-of-the-box mind of Daryl Morey.

Houston became a place that players wanted to play at. Morey was honest with them, telling them that no pieces on the team were permanent, but that they would enjoy their time with the Rockets. The players flourished. But Morey was truly just priming and preparing for a chance to pounce on any superstar who was available.

Eventually, the Thunder took the bait and traded James Harden for a treasure chest (minus the treasure) of assets that looked really attractive in the Houston system. Harden blossomed into one of the top five players in the league, and the team had their centerpiece. From there, Morey didn’t stop building an attractive suitor for players around the league, and when Houston won the Dwight Howard free agency sweepstakes in 2013, suddenly they had a championship caliber roster. With a little more building of the rotation, the Rockets were able to make the 2015 Western Conference Finals.

No losing seasons. No tanking. And yet Morey turned this roster into THIS. Wow. It’s the best way to build a contender unless you’re the Miami Heat and have “The Godfather” Pat Riley and South Beach to attract free agents like…oh…I don’t know…Lebron James? Chris Bosh? Ray Allen? Or even Goran Dragic this year. For teams with pedigree (codeword for great weather and attractive women) like the Heat and Lakers, it’s just cheating.

So what does that mean for the 2015 NBA Draft?? First I need to bust a few myths, as long as you’re just now buying into the moneyball concept.

Myth 1. Young is always better. I’m just absolutely flabbergasted (great word) by how much teams value age. Every year, including this one, guys who are at the elderly age of 21 or 22 drop in the draft in favor of a raw 18 or 19 year old. If a player hasn’t learned how to play by the time he’s matching up against the best players in the world, I have a hard time believing that’s a better alternative than a seasoned, mature prospect who has been a leader in his college locker room. All three of my players below were veteran leaders for their respective schools.

Myth 2. You can’t pass on a big man. Every draft in the history of the NBA has been dominated by big man hype. Why? A dominant big man is the most irreplaceable piece to any franchise. If you can score a superstar big, it’s like owning a pet T-Rex. They’re rare, they look awesome, and everyone is so jealous of you that you completely forget that it doesn’t have very much practical usage. Plus for every franchise big man, there’s DOZENS of bigs who turn out to be really really bad, which is like ordering a T-Rex online and a Lesothosaurus comes. And bad big men can absolutely be found in free agency, and do get signed every year.

oden meme

If you buy into the moneyball concept, then you take the most valuable asset. But how about using common sense for any team and DRAFT THE BEST AVAILABLE BASKETBALL PLAYER. Positions were just created by spectators and the media in order to make the game easier to watch and understand for beginners (euphemism for idiots). I’ll let you in on a little secret: the NBA game is all about matchups. Ask the Warriors. Because of this, versatility is the most important attribute that players can have. Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green are the new era of superstar.

That being said here’s my top three undervalued, versatile assets in the draft that could help your team improve to that next step, or prove to be a nice trade piece once they show their value.

Justin Anderson: Someone please explain to me one way in which Justice Winslow is better than Justin Anderson, other then the fact that he’s two years younger. Everyone is making the Danny Green comparison (three and D!) but to me he could be the next Kawhi Leonard. Elite athlete (6’6, 40+ inch vert, great foot speed), high basketball I.Q., can really defend well positions 1-4 and showed that he can be a really good shooter. Everyone who passes will regret it.

Jerian Grant: Showed he’s a primetime performer in the NCAA tournament, and I really see him as a good teammate. Has great passing vision and the quickness to play point guard, but at 6-5 he has the size to guard 1-3. He’s going to have a long NBA career as a lockdown defender somewhere.

Delon Wright: For all the same reasons. Length, versatility, and the potential to be a lockdown defender. One of the craftiest penetrators I’ve ever seen, and really really good at interior passing. Smart player and by all indications is definitely a culture guy.

So gents, as you watch the NBA draft, don’t get caught up in the hype-machine for the next 6-8 super athlete who is “raw” (codename for not a very good basketball player). When you get to be an NBA GM one day, you’ll thank me.



Comment your opinions below and tell me who you think the most undervalued player in this year’s draft is!

Author: Matt Craig

Chirp City Founder & Director of Content. Hey Bill Simmons, if you're reading this, hire me.

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