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How to Rebuild an NBA Team

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I love watching the NBA, even when my favorite teams have to rebuild for years on end.

The OKC thunder did a great job of rebuilding through the draft.

The OKC thunder did a great job of rebuilding through the draft.

Rebuilding NBA Teams

There comes a time when a team can no longer compete for a championship. That is when a rebuild is in order. There are a lot of reasons a team needs to do this: The team is getting too old, your star player is no longer in their prime, or the bankroll can no longer afford to keep the talent together. Now the team can no longer gather enough wins to remain competitive. How do you fix a team that had a 20-win season?

I’ll show you with this step-by-step guide on how to reconstruct an NBA team. The two main methods of gaining players are through the draft and free agency, which can be more expensive and riskier but quicker. This is what the Lakers consistently do. For this guide, I will occasionally bring up great moves from other teams in the past that restructured their roster.

Main Steps to Rebuilding a Team

1. Assess Coaches

2. Shed Salary Cap

3. Acquire Assets

4. Tank Hard

5. Get a Franchise Player

6. Add a Defensive Presence

7. Be Smart in Free Agency

8. Fill out the Roster

1. Assess the Coaches

A rebuild doesn't always revolve around the players. Sometimes a coach is just as much to blame for the team's lack of recent success as the players. Perhaps they are inefficient at managing games. Perhaps they run bad plays. Perhaps they do not push players enough during practice or practice the wrong thing.

A coach is an underrated asset, as a good one can work better with what they have. So, if it turns out that the coaching staff isn't doing its job correctly, then it might be time for new staff to be brought in. A team should look to take on a coach that knows what they are doing and can put together a series of plays that will work for the team. The team can either look within themselves to promote an assistant or call out to a number of free-agent coaches.

2. Shed Salary Cap

If a team is in need of a makeover, they first have to create financial flexibility. This is done by getting as far under the salary cap as possible. This provides a lot of options for the team moving forward. They can use the money in many ways, such as signing free agents or extending the contracts of their current players.

To shed a salary cap, a team has to get rid of their large salaries. Every contract in the NBA is fully guaranteed, so when a team signs a player, they can be signing a death sentence. While the objective is to get something good in return, the main focus is on shedding the salary cap.

Sometimes a team just needs to bite the bullet on the money and take what’s offered. That might mean trading that big contract player for someone that won’t be part of the long-term goal of a championship. Alternatively, that may be just a second-rounder. As long as a team is making that salary cap number as close to zero as possible, they’re doing a good job.

3. Acquire Assets

This brings up my next point of acquiring assets. While trading away all these contracts, the team should be getting something in return. This is what we call assets. They can either be draft picks or younger players that have the potential to be good later. A team looking to rebuild should make their returns work for them.

The main goal should be first-round draft picks. These will most likely get you players that you can build the team around. Other times it will be a younger player with potential. Winning teams want prime talent that can help push them over the championship brink. More often than not, they are willing to part ways with some of their talented younger players in return for established players. While in the short-term this can help them win a title, in the long-term those players could develop into All-Star-caliber talent for your team.

The Jazz traded away all their talent for a chance at the number 1 overall pick.

The Jazz traded away all their talent for a chance at the number 1 overall pick.

4. Tank Like You Would Not Believe

I know a lot of people don't like the idea of their favorite team hitting the dumpster, but let’s be real. There are three portions of the draft: the lottery, mid-round, and the late first round. A rebuilding team needs to get the earliest pick it can. If it doesn’t, it will end up like one of those teams that are constantly terrible because they only draft in the middle of the first round, unable to acquire a franchise-type player that is young enough to keep the team relevant for the next ten years (Hawks much?).

Would you rather be the eighth seed for five years or be the worst team who then goes on to win a championship in the next few seasons? Exactly. It’s all about speed with a rebuild. The worse the team is, the higher the pick, and the quicker the team can climb out of the dumpster and into the limelight. One cannot simply tell their players to do awful, though; that’s frowned upon. Instead, the GM needs to help the team out by trading any good players they have.

These two were building blocks for their team.

These two were building blocks for their team.

5. Get a Franchise Player or Two

By now, the team should have lots of money freed up and draft picks to use. Time to put those assets to use! An entire rebuild can be propelled forward or sent back five years, depending on the draft. The Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons wasted picks for years, which led to them being bad teams for so long. The Pacers expedited their rebuild by making smart draft picks even in the middle rounds.

A team cannot start effectively rebuilding without a franchise-type talent to build around. Had a team been restructuring in free agency, they would grab a player (LeBron James?) to build around. Drafting is a bit more complicated because there is potential for a pick to be a bust. However, once this talent is acquired, the rebuild can really go into effect.

Most winning teams have multiple franchise players, though. While only one is the true star, the other is right below them. Even if it requires multiple drafts, a team needs to find that second star to complement their first. They should also play off of each other's strengths. If one star is a really good scorer, the other should be a good passer.


6. Add a Defensive Presence

The expression that defense wins championships has merits behind it. Teams that rely solely on offense do not win. Think of the New York Knicks with Carmelo Anthony. All those points they scored didn't get them very many wins, even when they had a great player like Carmelo Anthony. He scored the ball, yet the defense was lacking. Whether it be through trade, draft, or free agency, a team should look to add a defender that can protect the basket from opposing teams scoring.

7. Be Smart in Free Agency

Just because the team is primarily building through the draft doesn’t mean they can’t spend money in free agency. Most high-profile free agents can be very expensive. A team should look to find good values. This can mean a third franchise star for a sum of about $15–$20 million. Or perhaps they should look for a player that is not a star but is pretty good and has potential; they can go for about $10 million.

Players that can fit a specific role should be looked at as well. This might be a three-point specialist that can’t play defense, a rebounder that can’t score, or a wing defender that can’t do anything besides defend the wing. These players are usually super cheap and can provide great value to the team. Contracts should be spaced out so that there will be cap space to resign the star players later on. The team can mix and match role players until they have the right sequence to win a championship.

8. Fill the Roster Out

By now you have shed the salary cap, drafted your future stars, and acquired some help along the way. This means that you can now look forward to a championship. All that is left is to fill out the roster.

Keep drafting smart and get those good bargains in free agency. The roster needs to be filled out with competent players that will assist in the coming years. This includes a lot of those specialists mentioned in the previous step. They will allow the starters to rest and help with their skills in a clutch situation. A good team has many role players that help them win with their special strengths.

Keeping financial flexibility is still key until the stars are locked up. The team shouldn't be afraid to splurge a bit in free agency. However, the team should conveniently have $15–$20 million dollars come off the books at about the same time that a young franchise player needs an extension. Time to win a title!

© 2014 MikeBig


gypsumgirl from Vail Valley, Colorado on February 25, 2014:

MikeBig, thanks for writing an insightful hub! Rebuilding an NBA team is not an easy task.

Paul, I agree that the Warriors have done a great job of rebuilding. They have certainly gone from the bottom of the Western Conference to one of the more consistently good teams.

I am still trying to decide whether having one or two superstars on the team who dominate play or having no superstars and everyone plays as a team. It seems to make a difference in the playoffs...maybe???

Thanks for a great read!

Paul Edmondson from Burlingame, CA on February 25, 2014:

I've been really impressed with how the Warriors have rebuilt. I think the big move they made was trading their leading scorer for Bogut (injured at the time). As they say, always trade little for big:)

Kevin W from Texas on February 24, 2014:

Interesting hub MikeBig, although I personally don't believe in tanking, there us no guarantee your going to get the 1st pick or a good pick for that matter. Perfect example, the flop of a #1 pick of the Cavs last season, Bennett. The San Antonio Spurs are an example of rebuilding a little at a time thru stellar late draft picks & no huge free agents. The have been a perennial contender for over 15 years. My beloved Bulls are also an example of rebuilding through the draft even with late draft picks.