There have been so many head-scratching moves in the NBA the last few years, as so many teams have been desperately trying to create cap space for elite players and so few are actually getting what they want. However, while their moves have been somewhat controversial, the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz should all be given some credit for what they’re doing with their squads.
It sounds trite to say that the object of every franchise is to try to put a contender on the floor, but being able to recognize when the current group of guys you’ve assembled isn’t going to bring home a ring is a humbling experience that some general managers have trouble pulling the trigger on.
In recent years, we saw a good amount of successful rebuilding efforts. We saw the Houston Rockets move players in and out of town at an alarming rate and then finally landed their two stars in less than a year. We the Oklahoma City Thunder become one of the best teams in the league, after rebuilding almost entirely through the draft. We saw the Boston Celtics looking aimless for a few years and then finally bringing in enough talent to flip for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, transforming from a clueless, once-proud franchise into a championship team.
That being said, we have seen our fair share of aimless management as well.
After the 2008-09 season ended, the Detroit Pistons had a boatload of cap space. Instead of turning guys like Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince into draft picks or young talent, they kept them on board. Instead of saving their cap space for the following summer, when a host of big names were set to hit the free-agent market, the Pistons gave Ben Gordon $58 million over five years and Charlie Villanueva $37 million over five years. What unfolded next? The team failed to make the playoffs four years in a row and made sure that they didn’t have enough cash to upgrade their roster until this summer.
In retrospect we’re all geniuses, but Joe Dumars should have known back in 2009 that it was time to blow this thing up. Instead of gutting the team and rebuilding with young talent, they tried to patch it up by giving Gordon and Villanueva absurd, lengthy contracts, and it backfired. This summer, the cycle continued, as the Pistons finally had enough money and young assets to start building a winner and instead they got a couple of headaches in Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. While Jennings and Smith are both talented, the Pistons’ best-case scenario for next season is the sixth seed in the East. On the opposite end, their worst-case scenario is missing the playoffs altogether and having to deal with chemistry issues for the near future.
The 76ers, Magic, and Jazz all were forced to start over recently and all three of them have improved their future stock because of it. Here’s a look into their current efforts to try to put a winner on the court once their youngsters take the next step:
What Went Wrong? Andrew Bynum. After the 2011-12 season, the Philadelphia 76ers pulled the trigger on a deal that brought the former Laker to Philly along with Jason Richardson for Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Andre Iguodala and a future first-round pick. At the time, the deal looked ideal for Philly; get rid of Iggy to make room for Evan Turner and bring in one of the most dominant inside forces the game to clog up a need at center.
Unfortunately for the 76ers, Bynum didn’t play a single game this year, Jason Richardson missed most of the season due to injury and the team finished with a 34-48 record, which got Doug Collins canned. The guard-heavy team was last in points per game during the 2012-13 season, as Evan Turner failed to take the next step in his progression, while Jrue Holiday averaged career numbers of 17.7 points and 8.0 assists per game.
What Did They Do This Offseason? Heading into draft night, new GM and vice president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie was ready to make a good first impression. While holding the 11th pick in a weak draft, Hinkie decided to roll the dice and start over. When projected No. 1 overall pick Nerlens Noel dropped to the New Orleans Pelicans at No. 6, the Sixers saw their chance to acquire a 5 and they took it. The Sixers traded star guard Jrue Holiday for Noel and a 2014 first-round pick. Then, with the 11th pick overall, they drafted Michael Carter-Williams. Carter-Williams, a 6’6” point guard from Syracuse, became the Sixers’ new point guard of the future right then and there. In the second round, the team grabbed PF Arsalan Kazemi, a 6’7” Iranian rebounding machine, to add some depth in their frontcourt.
After draft night, the Sixers started snatching up ex-Rockets left and right, which shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise due to Hinkie spending eight years in the Rockets organization prior to coming to Philly. Hinkie first traded a future draft pick for forwards Royce White and the rights to Furkan Aldemir, both of whom were shipped out of Houston to make room for Dwight Howard. Then, Hinkie signed shooting guard James Anderson and center Tim Ohlbrecht to small deals.
Who Are They Building Around? With Evan Turner entering the final year of his rookie deal before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer, it’s unclear whether the team is looking to build around Turner or not. Carter-Williams will certainly be the point guard of the future and Nerlens Noel will be the center of the future; other than those two, it’s up in the air. I believe that they will use this year as a trial for Evan Turner and see if his unique skill set will work next to Carter-Williams’. Turner has struggled at times playing off of the ball, as he isn’t a pure scorer, but instead has the game of a point-forward. With Carter-Williams’ length and ball-handling ability, he and Turner just might be able to even each other out in the backcourt and best-case scenario for Philly is that they emerge one of the better young backcourts in the game. If Turner doesn’t fit next to Carter-Williams, look for Hinkie to try to move him mid-season, while he still has some value.
Thaddeus Young, who is signed through 2015-16 as long as he picks up his $9.7 million player option before the 2015-16 season (safe money says he will because no one is going to give him that kind of money again), will be in a similar situation as Turner. Young is a classic tweener; he’s not quite a 4, but he isn’t a 3 either. Could a defensive-minded center like Noel compensate for Young’s shortcomings as a 4-man? Possibly. Even if Young doesn’t prove that he can be a starting 4 next to Noel, the Sixers will likely hold onto him as a rotational guy.
Youngsters like Lavoy Allen, James Anderson, Royce White (if he’s actually on the court this season) and Arnett Moultrie will all be given a chance to play at some point and I would expect a couple of them to carve out bench roles that they will keep for the near future. Veterans Spencer Hawes and Jason Richardson will likely be on the block, although Hawes may be needed in the middle if Noel has trouble staying healthy (he’s already going to miss part of the season recovering from his ACL injury). Richardson would be a great buy for any contending team in need of some pop, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him moved at some point to a contender.
When Will They Be Relevant Again? It’s definitely going to take some time before the Sixers get everything in order. Carter-Williams and Noel are both very young, and therefore they will probably need at least three years to reach their respective potentials. Both will be given opportunities to play immediately, which will lead to a lot of losses next year in Philly, but will also allow the two to become comfortable with each other’s games. At the earliest, the 76ers will be a playoff team by the 2014-15 season, although I don’t expect Hinkie’s master plan to come together until about 2016-17. Philly fans need to be patient (although that’s not in their genetic makeup), and remember the golden rule of rebuilding; the more you lose, the better draft picks you get.
What Went Wrong? Mediocrity. Since the Jazz lost Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, they’ve been mired in mediocrity. After the 2009-10 season, both players left for greener pastures and the team was forced to shift from a Williams-Boozer duo to a Paul Millsap-Al Jefferson duo, which was semi-successful for three years. After finishing last season at 43-39 and narrowly missing the playoffs, the team went into the summer with both Jefferson and Milsap at unrestricted free agents. With former top-five picks Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter waiting to take over as the team’s lead big men, the Jazz elected to let both of their big men walk.
What Did They Do This Offseason? Heading into the 2013 NBA Draft, the Jazz held the ninth overall pick. Luckily for them, last year’s National Player of the Year, Trey Burke, fell into their laps. Ever since D-Will was traded to the New Jersey Nets, the Jazz have been in dire need of a floor general and they finally found their man. Later in the first round, Utah packaged Erick Green and the 46th overall pick to the cap-strapped Denver Nuggets for C Rudy Gobert. The French-born Gobert is 21 years old, 7’1”, 220 pounds, with an absolutely outrageous wingspan and he’ll be joining the team this coming season.
Shortly after the draft, the Jazz, who now had money under the cap, decided to take on a few contracts in order to accumulate picks. In the deal that sent former Jazz guards Randy Foye and Kevin Murphy to Denver and Golden State respectively, the Jazz received veterans Brandon Rush, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson. Seems like a fair trade, right? Along with the veterans, who Golden State had to move to make room for Andre Iguodala (who they received from Denver), the Jazz also received cash and a 2018 second-round pick from the Nuggets and a first-round pick in 2014 and 2017 and second-round picks in 2016 and 2017 from the Golden State Warriors. So, by not re-signing Millsap and Jefferson, Utah was able to essentially buy five picks, including two first-round picks, just for Randy Foye (someone who wasn’t going to be part of their rebuilding process) and the contracts (and I guess the talent of) Rush, Jefferson and Biedrins. Wow. The team also signed veteran point guard John Lucas III, while also signing undrafted rookie and Las Vegas Summer League MVP Ian Clark.
Who Are They Building Around? Despite popular belief, the Jazz are loaded with young talent to go along with their bevy of draft picks. Their starting lineup should (keyword here is should) look like this next year:
To go along with the young starting lineup, the Jazz also have rookie center Rudy Gobert and undrafted rookie shooting guard Ian Clark in the rotation. The aforementioned seven youngsters will be joined by Rush, Biedrins, Jefferson, Lucas, Marvin Williams and former Slam Dunk Contest champion Jeremy Evans. Hopefully, coach Tyrone Corbin won’t be close to losing his job and will be able to let the young guys play through what will be a loss-filled 2013-14 season. If Corbin feels like he’s about to get the axe, he’ll likely be forced to play his veterans more minutes, which will only hinder the development of their youngsters. Any of the youngsters could emerge as a top prospect next season, as all of them will see a spike in productivity due to their new roles. Unlike most rebuilding teams, the Jazz have young options at every position, and therefore will be able to play all their young talent together, which is perfect for a team in their position.
When Will They Be Relevant Again? With so many young guys on board, it’s hard to tell when the team will start to get it together. They has a leg up on most other young squads because Favors, Kanter, Burks and Hayward were all part of the 2011-12 team that made the playoffs, as well as last season’s team that was in the playoff hunt until the last day of the regular season. With so many young pieces and so many draft picks, the Jazz might look to package a couple players with some picks for a proven star or two, a la the 2007 Boston Celtics. Whichever direction they decide to go in, make no mistake about it, the Utah Jazz are built for a bright future in the Western Conference; it’s just going to take a few years for them to figure out exactly how they’re going to do it.
However, this season they’ll be an extremely fun team to watch. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks could all potentially win the Most Improved Player award, while Trey Burke looks ready to follow in Damian Lillard’s footsteps as a Rookie of the Year (I’d say he’s the favorite right now). Also, Gordon Haywood could improve his scoring numbers to 20 per game, which will make him a crowd favorite in Salt Lake City.
What Went Wrong? Dwight Howard. After the D12 fiasco, the Magic were left with a team that was tailor-made to play next to a dominant big man (lots of shooting, lack of independent shot-creators). They entered last season aiming to give Jameer Nelson, J.J Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis big minutes. Once the guys in their preseason rotation started dropping like flies, months before Hedo Turkoglu tested positive for steroids, the Magic turned to their youth. At some point, they must have realized that no matter how badly they wanted to say “Hey Dwight! Look at this! We’re winning without you!” that wasn’t an option anymore. So, they started giving minutes to rookies Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn and DeQuan Jones, and watched second-year center Nikola Vucevic, who they acquired in the Dwight Howard deal (via Philadelphia), assert himself as one of the league’s premier rebounders.
When the trade deadline came around, the Magic found themselves holding what turned out to be the best player moved, J.J Redick. Redick was going to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, which meant his value wasn’t as high because he was likely going to bolt come July 1. Miraculously, the Magic were able to pry away second-year forward Tobias Harris, rookie guard Doron Lamb, point guard Beno Udrih and cash (as if it wasn’t enough of a robbery, they needed to throw some cash in too), for Redick and seldom-used big man Gustavo Ayon and guard Ishmael Smith.
After starting the season out 12-13, the Magic stumbled into the street (lost 10 in a row), got run over by an 18-wheeler (lost 17 out of 18), then eaten by vultures (lost 16 out of final 18) for the rest of the season, going 8-49 from Dec. 21 on.
What Did They Do This Offseason? The Magic held the second overall pick in June’s 2013 NBA Draft. After watching Anthony Bennett, who Orlando probably never thought about drafting because of their crew of young forwards, go first overall, the Magic refrained from reaching for a point guard and drafted Victor Oladipo. Oladipo, a 6’4” 21-year-old shooting guard out of Indiana, was one of the safer picks in a draft that saw a lot of overhyped big men go early (believe me, a lot of Joe Alexanders this year). With the 51st pick, they selected forward Romero Osby out of Oklahoma.
The Magic have refrained from bringing in any high-priced free agents, although they did bring in Ronnie Price for some added point guard depth. They also waived veteran forward of Al Harrington and are currently trying to do the same with Hedo Turkoglu.
Who Are They Building Around? Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo make up the core of the Magic’s rebuilding process. All of them could emerge as starters in the near future and it will be interesting to see if Harkless and Harris can play together at the forward spots. Last season, Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn messed around with a lot of different lineups, but it was hard to tell exactly who fits in with who as bodies were flying in and out of the rotation.
Andrew Nicholson doesn’t seem to be at the same level as Harkless and Harris in terms of potential, but he can definitely be a serviceable player in this league. Already equipped with a semi-polished offensive game and a nose for putting the ball in the bucket, Nicholson’s potential as a third big man (in the mold of a Carl Landry) is undeniable. Nicholson’s defense and mental mistakes made him the most frequent member of Jacque Vaughn’s dog house, but he did average 7.8 points in less than 17 minutes per game, which speaks to his offensive abilities.
Aaron Afflalo, who the team also acquired in the Howard deal, is an interesting part of the team as he looks like an unvalued piece after the Magic drafted Oladipo. Afflalo’s 2012-13 season was a bit of a disappointment, although his 16.5 points per game doesn’t look too bad on paper. In Denver the year before, as a secondary scoring option, Afflalo scored a career-high 15.2 points per game, and many, including myself, thought Afflalo’s scoring numbers would go through the roof on a bad Orlando team. Afflalo is a wonderful defender and a solid starting shooting guard, but he would bring a lot more to a contender serving as a top wing defender and competent, secondary scorer. It’s a possibility that Afflalo emerges as a clear-cut part of Orlando’s rebuilding process, but with Oladipo, Harris, and Harkless, it might behoove Orlando to move him for young talent and/or draft picks.
Hopefully, Orlando does the right thing and stands behind their youth. They need to figure out where Harkless and Harris fit on the court, develop Andrew Nicholson, and find out exactly what Oladipo brings. Jameer Nelson is still going to be needed as a floor general and locker room leader (although he may not be able to keep a positive attitude for too long), but Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis shouldn’t see floor time because of the valuable experience needed for their younger counterparts.
When Will They Be Relevant Again? It’s going to be a while, Magic fans. Unlike Philadelphia and Utah, the Magic aren’t building around a crew of seasoned high draft picks. It remains to be seen what kind of players everyone outside of Vucevic and Oladipo (two sure things in my opinion) become, but we’ll have more answers with larger sample sizes for Harkless, Harris and Nicholson. For all we know, Harkless, Harris, and Nicholson could all top out as decent rotational options and Lamb, O’Quinn and Osby could all be fringe-NBA guys (two out of three is probably the safe bet). I wouldn’t expect much out of this team before the 2015-16 season, after the team has gathered more information on their young talent. Orlando really had to start from scratch, and therefore they will take longer to build their way back up. Patience is going to be needed from the coaching staff, front office and fan base, so that the team doesn’t start dealing for more proven players who will catapult Orlando from a 20-win team to a 35-win team. If the Magic stick with their guns, flip their vets for anything semi-useful and show patience, things will start looking up soon; they’ve already gone through the hardest part.
If you’re a fan of any of these teams, listen up. When you’re frustrated in the middle of December at your team’s lack of success, I want you to remember one thing: At least you’re not rooting for the Phoenix Suns.
Topics: Andrew Bynum, Andrew Nicholson, Brandon Jennings, Evan Turner, Gordon Hawyard, Jason Richardson, Josh Smith, Jrue Holiday, Nerlens Noel, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Ray Allen, Royce White, Thaddeus Young, Utah Jazz, Victor Oladipo