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How long should NBA teams be allowed to rebuild?

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The 76ers are the extreme example of an NBA team pursuing a long-term rebuilding project, but how long is too long?

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Quick fixes and overnight rehab projects are all the rage in the NBA these days. So, how long does it take to rebuild these days? Tom Ziller and Paul Flannery discuss the new timetable for overhauling a franchise.

ZILLER: One of the facets of the much-improved East you wrote about this week in the Shootaround is that some of the teams in question have had rather quick turnarounds. That follows logically from the reduction of contract length in the last two collective bargaining agreements. There's much less dead wood on the books these days.

But an overlooked aspect is how it completely changes the calculus on how to rebuild in the NBA.

FLANNERY: Look at the Hornets, Magic and Pacers. Charlotte traded away a young prospect for veteran help and picked up bargain free agents on the margin. Indiana let go of two long-time stalwarts and didn't do all that much to replace them. The Magic just needed a stronger hand on the sidelines, apparently. That's three completely different offseasons resulting in positive results. We've talked for years about how there's no real blueprint for building a team and that each successful organization is different and unique in its way, but this year is showing us that there's value in competing.

So, what's an acceptable length of time in your mind: two to three years or shorter?


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ZILLER: My favorite team has been out of the playoffs for 10 years. So less than that.

I actually think in a perfect world one-year rebuilds would be the norm. This is one area the NFL has it right in their quest for parity: it's rare that a team is forced to be bad for multiple years due to one contract going sour. Of course, the way the NFL gets there is quite unattractive with low levels of guaranteed money for the vast majority of players.

But I do think the NBA is trending toward shorter rebuilds in smart, sensible ways. Parity isn't quite the right word, though. See: Golden State. Perhaps that provides a clue as to why the draft still has such a hold over the rebuild conversation. You get a stud first-rounder and you basically have him locked up for seven or eight years. That's the nut the NBA hasn't cracked, and I'm not sure they want to.

FLANNERY: Why would they? If the goal is to distribute talent all over the league, then a draft is the best way to accomplish it. We both believe that the NBA landscape has flattened out in recent years, but I don't think it will ever be truly equal. The Lakers will be a free agent destination again if/when they get their act together. I'll be curious to see if the Knicks can capitalize on their momentum with young free agents. Not every team can think that way. Greg Monroe signing with the Bucks may have been a revelation or it may have an aberration. I don't think we know yet.

As you say, smart drafting is still the optimal way to rebuild because you get younger players for better contracts. To do that, you usually have to be bad at least once, if not two or three times. I'm reminded of what our colleague Bill Connelly calls "Year Zero" for new college football coaches in rebuilding situations. The first season often produces a painful, but necessary correction for the new guy to recruit players for his system. Then the clock starts ticking for real.

I'll bring this back to the Magic because I'm kind of obsessed with them at the moment. They traded Dwight Howard in the summer of 2012 but didn't have a high lottery pick. That was their Year Zero. Then came the lottery picks (Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja) and young players via trades (Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris). Considering they also landed Nikola Vucecic in the Howard deal, that's a pretty good haul from Rob Hennigan, but it took an awful lot of time to come together. That's three seasons in real time and two years in rebuilding years following Year Zero, and that's just about the limit.

The Celtics timetable has been quicker, but it wasn't until the second year when things started to click and they also made some savvy trades for players as well as picks. Of course, not every rebuilding team has the stars to try and get a Godfather offer. So I think we need to differentiate between the full-scale rebuild and the quick-fix.

ZILLER: And the full-scale blockbuster rebuild takes time to play out thanks to the Stepien Rule: the actual assets themselves are phased in, and then you have to develop those picks into players. For a quick-fix rebuild, you either aren't waiting for picks to convey or you're willing to convert them into a more ready asset. A key difference though is that ready assets are more attainable on the market, both trade and free agent. Portland was willing to trade Nicolas Batum because he was just a year from free agency anyway.

Orlando is interesting because it was a classic long rebuild that didn't intend to be: Hennigan wanted to win last year. But these things take time, sometimes. The Knicks' story fascinates me because you have a young prize, an aging star and a bunch of veterans trying to make it work. To what end? Who cares! This is fun for New York, a relief for Melo and a nice formative experience for Porzingis. Because they didn't hold a fire sale, they were ready to capitalize as soon as they found out Porzingis was ready to contribute on Day 1. It's a story that should inspire us all.

I know for a fact YOU don't want to talk about Philly. But we have to, don't we? I think we have to.

FLANNERY: I was ready to declare this conversation a Philly-free zone, but here we are again. Honestly, the Sixers are such an anomaly that I'm not sure they belong in the discussion anymore. No one else can do what they're doing and no one else even wants to try. For the record, I do think Sam Hinkie is good at his job. He's 'won' every trade he's made, often by lopsided margins. His long game has just been longer than everyone else's.

Here's what I do think is interesting. All the teams we're talking about are from the East. It's not like there's been this huge influx of drafted franchise players coming its way either. Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis all went to the West. Perhaps that's caused those teams to be a little more proactive and creative.

There's been a mandate to retain the status quo among the top Western teams and why not? Until this season, most of them were still among the elite. Now, we'll see which direction Portland takes, but there are a number of others who are due for a shakeup. Memphis comes to mind, New Orleans for sure and maybe Houston too. All of those teams have a star player to build around, so that helps. Which one of those three blinks first and reboots their process?

ZILLER: Never count out Robert Pera to fire everyone and start over. Daryl Morey isn't going anywhere, though, which means New Orleans is a really strong candidate for a mass retooling as Dell Demps is replaceable (sorry, that's cold, but true) and a bunch of guys are on expiring deals. New Orleans has its own pick. This could end up as a quick reboot around Brow with a much different cast. Alas, that Omer Asik contract ...

Philly could have been competitive this year if Joel Embiid wasn't broken, if Dario Saric came over (or Hinkie took a domestic player in that spot) and if the Sixers had swapped MCW for Brandon Knight instead of that Lakers pick that now might not convey until 2017! As you say, Hinkie won all those trades. The winnings don't just add up to anything right now.

With the announcement that Jerry Colangelo is being hired to consult, perhaps Hinkie should have taken one of those offramps.

FLANNERY: Jerry Colangelo! (Future historians will note this was announced while we were in mid conversation.)

Well now, this is a stunner. I think we have to reevaluate just about everything we thought we knew about the 76ers. Turns out there is a limit to Josh Harris' patience. So the Sixers will have to start acting like a real NBA franchise again?

ZILLER: Good news for them: it's easy to get back on the horse quickly in today's NBA!

While I don't think the Sixers will do anything drastic (what's done is done) this could change next summer dramatically. (That Kings pick swap is a bit more frightening!) If the Sixers DO exit the Hinkie Highway by going after players, it might be the nail in the coffin of the purposeful long rebuild. Here lies tanking?

FLANNERY: As long as there's a draft, especially a draft with protected picks, there will be incentive to tank and it's absolutely the right play when your time is up. It's the teams that don't want to tank that often find themselves caught in the middle. Now, there are more outs. I think the baseline has been established: Two years and it's time to show something. Anything.

ZILLER: Thank you, Philadelphia: you have explored the depths of what even the most patient franchisees will tolerate. Now we know.

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