On Tuesday night, Kobe Bryant played his final game before his hometown crowd in Philadelphia. A rare sellout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center got everything it could’ve hoped for: a flurry of early threes from Bryant that touched off off a hard-fought game and ended in a standing ovation and a rare 76ers victory.
The Philadelphia faithful – who had booed Bryant in many past visits – continued to chant “Ko-Be!” after the final buzzer sounded, praising him for a career of a single-minded commitment to one thing – winning. Bryant lingered around the court, congratulating the young Sixers players on their first win of the season and holding up his hands in appreciation of the fans before finally departing through the tunnel. Everyone went home happy.
Everyone that is, except for maybe Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie.
For NBA GMs, it is never too early to start looking toward the offseason. In their effort to turn losing franchises into winners, GMs employ a variety of strategies to rebuild through the draft and free agency.
With that, we present the first Rebuilding Rankings on Sheridan Hoops, where teams aren’t judged by their record but by execution of their strategy and the level of optimism surrounding the team.
Philadelphia 76ers (1-19): Hinkie has put the 76ers all in on tanking, and despite their horrific 37-141 record under his watch, everything is not going to plan. The franchise taking the biggest gamble in all of professional sports has been beset by injuries, underperformance and outright frustration.
Even coach Brett Brown admitted that losing has had a negative impact on blue chip prospect Jahlil Okafor, who is a relative babe in the woods even on this roster but in his short time in the NBA has made news off the court than on it. In Hinkie’s effort the game the draft lottery, the only things being gamed are the Sixers players and the Philly faithful.
Hinkie will have an opportunity to begin the slow march back toward respectability this summer, when the Sixers could have as many as four first-round picks and $50 million in cap space. Hinkie will likely swing for the fences on draft night and strike out with any free agent. Eventually, Hinkie will have to start cashing in. The question is whether he can pull the franchise out of this tailspin before it crashes and burns.
Los Angeles Lakers (3-15): The Lakers’ outlook is nearly as bleak because they appear to be losing entirely by accident. Fans appreciate every chance to see Bryant’s farewell tour, but with over 31 minutes and 18 shots per game, it is simply untenable. That is not in the best interest of developing the Lakers’ young players, which even Bryant has said.
Despite his star shooting just 31 percent from the field, coach Byron Scott defended Bryant’s inefficient brand of isolation basketball. “From a coaching standpoint, I want Kobe to be Kobe,” he said. “Other guys haven’t earned that right yet.”
Worse still, earlier this season Scott said of the team’s young players, “I’m not always thinking about necessarily developing them. I’m always thinking about how to win.”
The Lakers are the second-worst defensive team in the league, in part because rookie D’Angelo Russell and de facto rookie Julius Randle have played particularly poorly on the less glamorous end. GM Mitch Kupchak currently has only $26 million on the books for next season, but if the Lakers don’t receive one of the top three picks in the draft lottery, their pick goes to the 76ers.
Denver Nuggets (7-13): After finishing 30-52 last season and receiving the seventh overall pick, Nuggets GM Tim Connelly said before the start of the season that he “fully expect[s] to be better than last year.” With new coach Mike Malone on the sidelines, he just might be right.
Malone has seen production and development from young players such as Gary Harris, Will Barton, Nikola Jokic and Joffrey Lauvergne. Jusuf Nurkic, last season’s standout rookie center, figures to join his teammates on the court around Christmas.
But the best reason for optimism in Denver has been the flashes of brilliance by rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay has shown an ability to score and facilitate (11.4 ppg, 6.1 apg) against some of the best point men in the league, but like many 19-year-olds, he is trunover-prone and his shot selection needs work.
It is still unclear if the Nuggets have assembled enough young talent to eventually compete in the Western Conference. With over $38 million tied to Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler next season, the Nuggets will have limited options in free agency. However, they could have as many as four first-round picks in the draft.
Portland Trail Blazers (8-12): In an interview during Tuesday’s game, NBA commissioner Adam Silver appropriately praised Blazers owner Paul Allen for “rebuilding in a way where they’re not bottoming out.” After losing 80 percent of the starting lineup of a 50-win team in the offseason, Blazers GM Neil Olshey began the rebuilding process and became the third youngest team in the league.
But the Blazers were able to get off to a fast start this season because they have something no other team on this list does: an established young superstar in Damian Lillard. The goal now is building a team on the same career arc as Lillard that can compete for a championship in a couple of years.
Olshey doesn’t have the multiple draft picks that other reebuilding teams have. But he does have cap space and a track record. Remember, he engineered the Clippers’ resurgence, and there’s no reason to think it can’t happen here, too.
Lillard is already signed to five-year, $120 million extension, and he appears to have a long-term backcourt partner in legitimate Most Improved Player candidate C.J. McCollum. Youngsters Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis have been surprisingly productive and are signed to team-friendly contracts that decline over the next two years. The range of options may also include a midseason trade of veterans Chris Kaman or Gerald Henderson.
Boston Celtics (11-8): GM Danny Ainge has already done a masterful job of parlaying the 2008 championship core of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo into a wealth of assets with only one season out of the playoffs. With one of the deepest teams in the NBA, Brad Stevens has proven he can coach the Celtics to become greater than the sum of their parts.
The Celtics have shown that players can be developed both internally and through free agency. First-round picks Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger have shown improvement every season and offseason acquisitions Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas are playing better than many thought possible.
Boston will have as many as four first-round picks and two second-round picks in the upcoming draft, plus plenty of cap room. Ainge has shown he’s willing to make a “Godfather” offer similar to what he offered Charlotte during last year’s draft in an effort to grab Justise Winslow. The only thing that is left is the blockbuster trade that could vault the Celtics back into championship contention.
New York Knicks (9-10): Last season was the first under new president Phil Jackson, and many in and around the franchise were vocal about their playoff aspirations. Instead, a nightmare season kicked off a full rebuild that included selling off J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert for spare parts.
The Knicks slid to fourth in the draft and supposedly compounded matters by selecting Kristaps Porzingis, whom many felt wasn’t ready to play in the NBA. Jackson was unable to lure any of the top-flight free agents, and the tabloids questioned whether he would ever be able to lead the Knicks back to respectability.
That was before “Godzingis” invaded New York.
The outlook has changed dramatically with the emergence of the 7-3 Latvian. The East’s Rookie of the Month for November already has a highlight reel that oozes with superstar potential. Seventh in the NBA in double-doubles, Porzingas projects as a force on both ends of the floor. Jackson has even described his development as “magical.”
Now the franchise has two superstars and a cast of complementary players of every age. But any upgrades to the roster will need to be made through trade or free agency, because the Knicks don’t own their 2016 first-round pick.
Realistic reservations persist about using the triangle offense in a pace and space league – the Knicks shoot the most mid-range jumpers of any team – and Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony still need to figure out what their optimal positions are. But New York appears to be back on track to becoming one of the premier free agent destinations in the NBA.
Minnesota Timberwolves (8-10): After more than a decade without a playoff appearance, the Timberwolves are going about the last stage of rebuilding the right way. The Wolves are treating Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine as franchise cornerstones, surrounding them with veteran leadership and young talent that can grow with them. The franchise isn’t caught up in a win-now or lose-now mentality; GM Milt Newton’s focus is just teaching three special players the right way to do things.
The offseason signings of aging veterans Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince provided great mentors whose lessons will undoubtedly outlast their contracts. The passing of president and coach Flip Saunders was a great loss, but his vision for the franchise is closer to becoming a reality.
Wiggins, Towns and LaVine have impressed people around the league with their commitment to improvement. Even after a historic start, KAT has been asked to sit in the fourth quarter of recent games due to poor pick-and-roll defense. When asked about his playing time, Towns said he was “just making sure that every time I can maybe see something that can help them or help us win.”
Minnesota’s first-round pick goes to Boston if it falls outside the top 12, and it should be looking for a taker for oft-injured center Nikola Pekovic. But it is becoming clearer that the only thing this group of players needs to become a championship contender is time.