Rebuilding. It’s one of the oddest and most diverse words in sports fandom. A wise man once said, “Nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative. It gets the people going.” No Chazz Michael Michaels wasn’t talking about rebuilding when he said that, but it is applicable. On the one hand, it is rough because it’s basically admitting defeat in the present, but on the other hand the idea is that your team is building for the future and setting itself up for success going forward. Here’s the rub though: all too often owners and general managers hide behind the term “rebuilding” and it’s a complete sham. Look at the Sixers. Today we’re going to take a look at three Western Conference teams in various stages of the dreaded “rebuild” and see just how close they may be to contention.
Phoenix Suns-Fading Away
It feels like the Suns have been rebuilding since Steve Nash left in 2012. This is season four of the post-Nash era Suns and it doesn’t feel like much progress is being made. After a surprise playoff push came up just short in 2013-14, the Suns went for it last season and failed miserably. They acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Kings and Eric Bledsoe from the Clippers assembling an odd three point guard rotation with Goran Dragic. Confession time: I was sucked in and firmly believed that this could work. It didn’t. Midway through last season Dragic was dealt to the Heat and Thomas to the Celtics. The Suns also acquired another point guard, Brandon Knight, at the time. Knight and Bledsoe have seemed to play ok together so far even with it being one of the smaller backcourts in the NBA.
However, things seem to be falling apart in Phoenix. Eric Bledsoe is going to miss the rest of the season after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Alex Len, the fifth pick in the 2013 draft, looks more like a decent rim protector than a two-way contributor, and the Suns owner Robert Sarver blames a whole generation for the shortcomings of the Suns third most talented player, Markieff Morris. Morris has been in the Suns’ doghouse due to his sulking after his brother being traded to Detroit, throwing a towel at coach Jeff Hornacek (which drew a two-game suspension), and just overall conduct detrimental to the team. Sarver was quoted by the media saying that milennials “have a tough time dealing with setbacks”.
This is a perfect example of just all-around dysfunction. Sarver is quietly one of the worst owners in the NBA and needs to shut his trap, but at the same token it isn’t entirely his fault that the franchise is such a mess. Poor draft picks, bad luck and a brutal conference are the biggest barriers that the Suns face. Alex Len and Devin Booker have both been fine and are more than adequate NBA role players, but neither are stars and both were lottery picks. Booker is a rookie, so maybe he will blossom and he is showing promise, but he isn’t there yet. There is also hope that Bledsoe can be a franchise player as a hybrid scoring guard, and he has shown flashes of that ability. Unfortunately, injuries have prevented us from getting a full season of seeing what he can do as a team’s number one option. Phoenix for us represents the team who is always stuck in the rebuilding quagmire. The whole “just wait ’til next year” mantra feels a little played out and the organization really just feels like it’s spinning its wheels in late lottery pick purgatory.
Sacramento Kings-Light at the End of the Tunnel
Sacramento has been a punching bag in the NBA for the last several years, but almost shockingly that has come to an abrupt halt. We have known for a while just how talented DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins is. We have also known how bizarre the organization, management, and team structure around him has been for his entire NBA career. Therefore, the acquisition of volatile personalities like Rajon Rondo and George Karl seemed like a nuclear meltdown waiting to happen, but we are passed Christmas and New Year’s and still waiting. Honestly, should we be disappointed or proud? This relationship seems like some kind of Heisenberg Blue Sky concoction where it’s either going to work and make everyone involved rich or it is going to just blow up and leave a huge mess in its wake.
With their win over the Lakers last night, the Kings are half a game out of 8th place in the Western Conference. Let’s just take a moment to consider how far Sacramento has come. Boogie Cousins was drafted with the 5th pick in the 2010 draft. Yeah we all know he comes with some attitude baggage, but he has also had to endure five head coaches and nine or ten different point guards in his six year NBA career. That’s pretty unfair. And yet, it feels like there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel for this franchise with him as the cornerstone. Sure they could trade him tomorrow and just become the Kings we’ve all come to know and laugh at again, but this time it feels different. Ben McLemore has been disappointing so far, but he has NBA talent. Rajon Rondo has been a real pain in the rear for the league office, but he has been rejuvenated on the court. Marco Bellinelli has been a serviceable shooter off the bench. Things are shockingly pointing upward for Sactown and honestly I have to admit that I’m pulling for a Kings playoff run for the first time since I was doing it just to thwart Shaq and Kobe.
Portland Trail Blazers- The Respectable Rebuild
Nobody could have faulted the Trail Blazers for being awful this season. They lost their biggest star since the turn of the century, the player with the most threes in the league since 2011 not named Steph Curry, and another starter all in the same offseason. Everyone knows LaMarcus Aldridge signed with San Antonio, and most know that Nic Batum was traded to Charlotte for Noah Vonleh, who is looking like he just might not be an NBA starter, but is also only 20 years old. Wes Matthews, the guy second only to Steph in threes, signed with Dallas in the offseason after an Achilles’ injury cut his 2014-15 season short. In all honesty, I thought Portland was a dark horse in the West before Matthews’ injury last season.
Fast forward to this year’s team. Are they great? No. Will they win a playoff series? No. Will they even make the playoffs? Potentially, but probably unlikely. Still they seem to have a stable nucleus, despite the flux and turmoil of the offseason. Nothing made that clearer then when their current star, Damian Lillard, missed some time recently. The most telling thing about the Blazers culture is that the guys who stepped up and got their opportunity to shine in his absence, especially C.J. McCollum, couldn’t wait for him to return. What does that mean? That means that this is a team and organization that is fostering a culture of winning over individual glory. This means that Terry Stotts and Neil Olshey deserve a ton of credit for coaching and assembling, respectively, a team that gets it.
In Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball , he recounts meeting Isiah Thomas in Las Vegas and asking him about “The Secret” of basketball, which was in reference to an Isiah press conference from one of Detroit’s Finals championship seasons. I won’t spoil the secret for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but Portland seems like an organization that understands and values it. If you are a fan who has to endure a rebuild you want to be pulling for a team doing it Portland’s way. Sacramento is finally starting to get it, maybe; but Portland has had it and they are in year one of their rebuild, not year ten. Every franchise can’t be a San Antonio, for the rest of you, look to Portland in those non-contention years and see how you set yourself up for future success the right way.