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Cavs and Thunder can follow the path the Grizzlies and Pelicans set

Sometimes a rebuild seems eerily similar and that’s the case with a couple of this season’s fun, young teams

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t a set path to become a contender in the NBA. Some teams believe in the draft-and-develop model, while others prefer to build through free agency. Others believe in savvy trades being the way to build your roster. In reality most teams are cobbled together in a combination of drafting players, trading for others, and signing a key free agent or two.

But every once in a while, a team or two comes along and you start to think they feel an awful lot like something you’ve already seen before. This season the teams that fit those bills are the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Cavs have a very Memphis Grizzlies air about them, while the Thunder share a lot of similarities with last year’s Pelicans.

In Cleveland, they’ve set themselves up to be the NBA’s next great team. There’s a good chance when they get there, the Cavaliers will find the Grizzlies already waiting for them.

The Cavs are built around two terrific guards, a mobile power forward who is a defensive menace, and a big who does all the dirty work. Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell will be competing for All-Star spots together for however long they play in Cleveland. Evan Mobley is everything you could want in a young four. And Jarrett Allen exists to complement everything those guys do by owning the space around the rim on both ends of the floor.

Sound familiar? If so, it’s probably because that’s exactly how the Grizzlies are built. Their guard duo is Ja Morant and Desmond Bane. Jaren Jackson Jr. is their athletic, defensive prototype up front. And Steven Adams is more than happy to do all the screen setting, boxing out and offensive rebounding you could ever ask for.

No, the comps aren’t perfect. Mitchell is obviously ahead of Bane, while Allen is younger and more athletic than Adams. On the flip side, Morant is a super-duper star, who is one tier up from Garland and Jackson is a bit more refined than Mobley.

But if you go a little further, you’ll find even more ways they are alike. Both teams feature a shoot-first wing with irrational confidence that can both win you games or shoot you out of them in Caris LeVert and Dillon Brooks. Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones are way up near the top of the list of best backup points guards in the NBA. Isaac Okoro and Ziaire Williams are “I just wish they shot it a little better” wings. Even Kevin Love is a more highly evolved version of what Brandon Clarke is off the Memphis bench.

Beyond the players, let’s take a look at some timeline stuff.

After years of being a solid playoff team, age caught up to the Grizzlies and they crumbled from 2018 to 2019. Then, they landed Morant a year after getting Jackson. What followed was an unexpected run in the bubble and a loss in the first-ever play-in game.

The next year, the Grizzlies made playoffs. Two years later, Memphis gave Golden State everything they could have asked for in the second round of the 2022 playoffs.

For the Cavs, they’re a couple of years behind, but they’re following a similar path. Age didn’t catch up to Cleveland as much as LeBron James leaving town did. But it was a similar fall to the one the Grizzlies had from playoffs every year to the lottery.

One draft brought Garland to town, while another saw Mobley join the fray. Last season was the step-forward year, followed by a loss in the Play-In Tournament. This year, the Cavaliers aren’t messing around in the postseason. They’ll go straight to the playoffs, and who knows where they’ll go from there.

Beyond that, the team building moments are eerily similar. Both teams drafted their point guards and mobile, defensive aces up front. Both teams added their centers via trades. Bane was a draft- day addition via trade, while Cleveland cashed in significant draft capital to get Mitchell. But those shoot-first wings in Brooks and LeVert are in town after similarly goofy situations. For LeVert it was the whole “Why didn’t Cleveland just take him in the original trade?” and Brooks is forever immortalized in the “Which Brooks?” fiasco.

It’s not perfect, but two small-market franchises have built rosters in similar fashion. And both seem built to last.

Swinging south, we have the New Orleans Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s not quite as tight as the Cavs and Grizzlies comps, but there are some odd similarities and some weird mirroring of their growth paths too.

The Pelicans built the foundation of their team through a massive return from the Los Angeles Lakers for Anthony Davis. Brandon Ingram might be the last guy standing, but he’s a pretty good last guy standing. And the draft pick story is far from told with that deal either.

New Orleans then went on to draft a potential superstar big man in Zion Williamson. When he’s been able to play, Williamson has been special.

With the scorer and the big in place, the Pelicans went about rounding out their roster. They flipped Josh Hart in a deal to get C.J. McCollum. New Orleans also has used the draft to fill out their rotation with solid youngsters like Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels. And they mined the undrafted market to initially get Jose Alvarado on a Two-Way contract. The now beloved Larry Nance Jr. came over in the McCollum trade, as much more than a throw-in, but not the key piece in the trade.

Oklahoma City started their process by trading away a star in Paul George to the other Los Angeles team, the LA Clippers. That haul returned Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a boatload of draft picks. Much like the Davis trade for the Pelicans, the draft pick story is far from being written for the Thunder.

In a separate deal, they added Chris Paul. When it was clear OKC was moving in a different direction, they flipped Paul for a package that returned some veterans to rebalance the cap sheet. This was similar to Pelicans helping facilitate a sign-and-trade that sent Lonzo Ball to the Bulls.

As for the rest of the roster, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams (the guard from Santa Clara), Tre Mann and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl have been added through the draft. The Thunder did their work on the undrafted and Two-Way market to find Lu Dort. And Kenrich Williams was added as a throw-in to make a deal work, and he’s now beloved in Oklahoma City.

And, up front, much like the Pelicans had to wait a while for Zion Williamson, the Thunder are having to wait for Chet Holmgren.

Again, even if the player comps aren’t exactly perfect, we can look at the progression path to see similarities. The Pelicans spent a couple of years building things up before breaking through into the Play-In Tournament last year. Once there, they pushed the Phoenix Suns harder than anyone could have expected in the first round.

The Thunder have had a couple of years of building things back up. Now, they’re right in the mix of making the Play-In Tournament. We obviously don’t know if that will happen, never mind if they’ll push a top seed, but it would be a mistake to count out that hard-playing group in OKC.

Slithery scorers in Ingram and Gilgeous-Alexander, waiting on bigs brimming with potential, a roster full of homegrown players who work hard and finding great players through the Two-Way process. Looks pretty similar, right?

While there might not be a single defined path to success in the NBA, there are certainly copycats and similarities all over the place. The San Antonio Spurs of the 2000s to 2010s stressed pace-and-space and all of a sudden everyone was doing it. The Boston Celtics started downsizing late in games with Kevin Garnett, followed by the Miami Heat doing it with Chris Bosh, followed by the Golden State Warriors repeating the process with Draymond Green. Stretch bigs became a thing and everyone had to have one. A point guard who can both score and pass became en vogue, and now every roster features a player like that.

The Memphis Grizzlies built a team around a dynamic playmaker at point, a defensive dynamo at the four, an off-guard who can score from anywhere and a center willing to do everything else. Now, the Cleveland Cavaliers are doing the exact same thing.

The small-market Pelicans and small-market Thunder snagged massive returns when trading superstar players, including stars who are growing into replacing the guys they were traded for. They both have a considerable chunk of their hopes pinned on big men battling injuries early in their careers. They’ve both built heavily through the draft, with even more draft picks to come.

Winning on the edges of the NBA, in places like Cleveland, Memphis, New Orleans and Oklahoma City takes skill, smart risk-taking, drafting-and-developing and some luck. But it also doesn’t hurt to have someone to model off of who is a year or two ahead on the same path you find yourself walking down.