Rebuild. It’s a word that every GM dreads to utter and every fan hates to hear. It’s an admission that the current roster is going nowhere, that there are hard times to come, that there’s no guarantees of future success and most of all, that the team is bad. There’s a negative stigma around rebuilding, and rightfully so. Beyond what was just mentioned, perhaps the most discouraging part of going into a rebuild is that history has shown for every successful rebuild that leads to championship contention, there are many more that accomplish nothing more than a brief rise to mediocrity and then a sudden drop back into rebuilding. However, when a team does have a successful rebuild they usually work through five stages (sometimes four if they get out ahead of it early) and for the most part, each of the five stages takes at least a year to complete.
Stage 1 - Bottoming out and acceptance
As was stated, nobody likes a rebuild. Not the front office, not the coaches (if they are lucky enough to keep their jobs), not the fans. This is why the first stage of a rebuild can be overlooked, because often times, whether its because of stubbornness or just ignorance, teams don’t know they are in a rebuild until they are well, in it. The first stage of rebuilding is hitting rock bottom, is watching the roster that was carefully constructed become wholly ineffective and plunge the team into a high lottery position. For the Denver Nuggets, this was the final year of Brian Shaw’s tenure. The roster was headlined by the often troubled Ty Lawson and when he essentially quit on the coach and succumbed to his demons the rest of the roster followed, at least for the quitting on the coach part. The Nuggets won a measly 30 games and jettisoned both their coach and their top player before the next season began.
While it’s painful to go through, this is a vital part of the process. A team has to bottom out and obtain a high draft pick to build around if they are going to go full rebuild. The Nuggets were lucky to still keep around enough strong vets to not put up a putrid win total like the days of the late nineties yet were unlucky because the veteran talent on the team prevented them from getting a top five draft pick. Sometimes you get lucky, a la the Golden State Warriors when they snagged Stephen Curry at #7 or the Seattle Supersonics when they cashed in on an 8.8% chance in 2007 to get the #2 pick and draft Kevin Durant. More often than not though, without bottoming out completely teams get stuck in stage two of the rebuild process (see: Brooklyn Nets...who bottom out plenty but have no top picks because they traded them all).
Stage 2 - Taking lumps with the youth
Whether it was the Warriors with Curry, the Sonics with Durant, the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James or even the Nuggets with Emmanuel Mudiay, time and again what is seen is after a team gains its prized draft pick they still struggle to miss games and struggle to sniff the playoffs. In many cases they actually lose MORE games than they did the previous year when they were bottoming out. The Philadelphia 76ers, whether it be intentional or or just bad luck, seem to be perpetually stuck in this stage, and the Sonics/Oklahoma City Thunder spent several years in this stage before breaking through. While it’s often painful to watch basketball and painful financial numbers in terms of attendance and viewership, it’s stage two where championship contenders are made. Making the right draft picks and developing them correctly is crucial to the rebuilding process, just as it is equally as crucial to keep building the proper culture around a young core that’s going to go through some struggles. The Nuggets are hoping to have worked through this stage last season, though early returns on the current season suggest this may still be where they are at instead of stage three.
Stage 3 - A return to relevancy
Stages one and two happen somewhat naturally. A team’s roster construction no longer works so they start fresh which almost always is done through a youth infusion. Getting to stage three is more difficult however, it takes what was discussed in stage two: proper drafting and proper development. If it is done correctly though it should result in reaching stage three, which has an end game of a playoff birth or near playoff birth. A perfect example of a team in this stage is the Utah Jazz, who bounced back and forth between stages two and three ever since they hit stage one back in 2011. It’s not uncommon for teams to bounce back and forth between these two stages. The New Orleans Pelicans two years ago cracked into the playoffs behind a youthful Anthony Davis but last season regressed due to injuries. It’s also very difficult to get to stage four. The Thunder successfully navigated stage three in one season, and the Warriors did it in two but what is a common occurrence for teams who can’t get to stage four is to make a coaching change. This was true in both the Thunder’s case (firing P.J. Carleismo and hiring Scott Brooks) and the Warriors’ (firing Mark Jackson and hiring Steve Kerr).
Stage 4 - Perennial playoff contender
In stage three whether or not a team makes it to the playoffs is a question, in stage four it is not. At this point many would consider the rebuild to be complete. After all the team is expected to make the playoffs ever year, by most accounts that’s a successful and competitive roster. However, there’s a distinction to be made in-between perennial playoff contender and perennial championship contender (stage 5). There are ample examples of rebuilds stalling in stage 4 and ultimately leading to new rebuilds. The Carmelo Anthony Nuggets are a prime example of this, they were consistently considered a lock to make the playoffs, but never considered a true championship contender. Ultimately, Melo got tired of waiting and left thus starting a new rebuild process for the Nuggets (they tried the “fast rebuild” to stay in stage 4 and ended up firing their coach hoping that was the answer to getting to stage 5...didn’t work). The Los Angeles Clippers are stuck in this stage, as are the Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile the Portland Trail Blazers have newly found themselves in this stage and are searching for a way to move past it. The tough thing is, as these teams are finding out, if you can’t get through stage four with the roster you created with your rebuild, it’s going to be tough to push the team over the top without first taking a massive step back. The Miami Heat were able to do it when they added James and Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wade in 2010, but that’s more of an anomaly. Indeed, stage five is incredibly difficult to reach, and many many teams top out in stage four, falling short of the ultimate goal.
Stage 5 - Championship contender
The ultimate prize. It would be silly to rule out teams like the Thunder (pre-Durant departure) or the Dwight Howard Orlando Magic from this stage because they didn’t end up cashing in and winning it all. There’s so much luck and circumstance that goes into making it all the way through the playoffs that stage five has to include the teams that nearly got there and won it all. It’s also rare to find teams that reach this stage almost exclusively through the draft. The Thunder and the Warriors (also the San Antonio Spurs who have enjoyed over a decade’s worth of time in stage 5) once again are examples of doing it that way, but the Kobe Bryant Lakers, the Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, the Paul Pierce Celtics and the aforementioned Heat teams all got to this stage by adding vital pieces to their roster via free agency and trades. Once again though, it’s not a given that even that method will be successful. Sometimes you find the perfect combo of Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to add to your drafted star player to get you over the top. Other times you add Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Allen Iverson and never make any headway out of stage four. It just goes to show that each stage past stage two is very difficult to obtain, and there’s no set formula for doing it.
Will the Nuggets find the successful formula to get out of stage two and one day ascend all the way to stage five? It’s possible, and they’ve built an excellent base of talented youth to do it. However, as we saw last night against the Blazers, they appear to still be taking their lumps and look to be in jeopardy of spending another season in stage two. There’s still a chance they push their way back into competing for a playoff spot of course, given that the season is still so young. However, as has been shown over the history of the NBA, each step in the process moving forward is increasingly difficult to achieve, and for Denver to do it they likely will need more than just development of their youth.