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NBA Daily: Has Retooling Usurped Rebuilding?

The new craze of successful teams retooling their rosters instead of rebuilding them may cause others to do the same, writes Matt John.

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When DeAndre Jordan left Los Angeles for Dallas, the one question remaining for the Clippers was: Where they would go from there?

Rebuilding seemed like the obvious choice. After all the trades they had made in the past year, the Clippers no longer had anyone on the roster that possessed the talent of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul or DeAndre. Usually, that signals a rebuild. In the Clippers’ case, there were still enough quality players in their projected rotation to see what they had.

Since the team had announced that they had just extended Doc Rivers, who previously left Boston for LA because he did not want to be part of a rebuild, there was some intrigue regarding what was to come for the other LA basketball team.

As it turned out, the Clips stayed the course. They were by no means a contender, but they formed one of the most fun teams in the league to root for. Even after trading Tobias Harris, arguably their best player, the team managed to both make the playoffs and give the Warriors a good fight in the first round.

A fun season indeed, but the goal behind it all was making a pitch in hopes of acquiring Kawhi Leonard. Failing to add him wouldn’t have been the worst fate in the world, but the benefits to having him around are pretty self-explanatory. Now as you know, all their dreams came true and then some.

Their offseason success came from keeping the team together last year and forming a winning culture. Instead of rebuilding in the wake of “Lob City” disbanding, they retooled and it worked out.

One of the biggest appeals of retooling is that it gives teams a solid chance to establish a good culture. The Clippers built this winning culture because they managed to form a competitive team without a star. Establishing a winning environment like that makes teams look all the more appealing to star free agents, because it makes the available stars wonder what a team with a starless winning culture could do with him on the team.

Devil’s advocate would say that Kawhi being a Los Angeles native had a lot to do with why he deserted the team he just won a championship with for the Clippers. There’s some truth to that, but consider this: Would Kawhi have joined the team if it had just blown it all up?

Also, let’s compare the Clippers to the Lakers over the past half-decade. The Lakers have had a pretty awful stretch and have not shown much stability despite getting their hands on LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the last two years. The Clippers have comparably had more success in that time and have shown competence even while having to shake the core of its roster up. The Lakers may have the more storied history, but the Clippers’ advantage sturdiness-wise in recent years can make them more attractive.

Successfully retooling isn’t something that only big market teams can pull off. The Utah Jazz, who will be among the Clippers’ stiffest competition for the Western Conference crown, have done the same thing. The tough-as-nails team that they have been able to form stemmed from the retooling they’ve done since the departure of Gordon Hayward.

After the Jazz were left hanging by Gordon, they struggled at first to land on their feet. At one point they were 19-28. Right then and there, they could have gotten rid of some of the veterans on the team and build around Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio probably could have fetched something, but they held on.

With the additions of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, the Jazz formed a winning culture despite all that was working against them. Just a mere two years after Hayward left, the Jazz have Mitchell/Gobert as cornerstones and have now added Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis to only make what they are building stronger.

That’s not as strong of a haul as Leonard/George, but with the hand that they were dealt, the Jazz’s winning ways have made them a better team on paper than it ever was with Hayward leading the way. Since smaller markets usually don’t attract star free agents, usually they rely on rebuilding when they lose their best players. What the Jazz have done is pretty different and pretty rare.

Both the Clippers’ and the Jazz’ success stories may inspire other teams to follow in their footsteps. Especially since they aren’t the only ones to do this in the past couple of years. Indiana rebounded nicely after trading Paul George for Victor Oladipo. San Antonio didn’t stumble too hard when it traded Kawhi Leonard for Demar DeRozan.

It’s not just how strongly they’ve been able to rebound following what they’ve lost. It’s how swiftly they’ve done it too.

With all of this praise towards these teams who have expertly built themselves by opting to retool, does that mean rebuilding is a bad idea? No. It’s just that relying on the lottery, especially now, is not fool-proof and it can take a while.

Before making the playoffs this season, the Magic had been in the lottery every year since trading Dwight Howard. In that time, the only lottery picks that contributed to their playoff team were Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac (Mo Bamba was hurt). After the fallout from the Carmelo Anthony era, New York still hasn’t been able to pick up the pieces.

That does not mean you can’t form a winning culture in a rebuild. That’s basically what the Nets did. After what they went through what can only be described as an apocalyptic period from 2015-2018, the Nets did what they could to both rebuild its image and create a good environment.

That all came to a head this season when their culture helped D’Angelo Russell rise to stardom, Spencer Dinwiddie turned into a valuable two-way guard and Caris Levert, Jarrett Allen and Rodion Kurucs became pillars of a strong youth movement. Jared Dudley, Ed Davis and Demarre Carroll all had a veteran influence in that locker room. The Nets had put themselves back on the map.

It may have only led to one playoff win, but that was enough to convince Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. However, much like Orlando and New York, that took a while to do. Rebuilding can definitely bring as much success as retooling. It just takes longer for that success to come.

With all of this in mind, it’s now time to wonder what Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s previous teams are going to do next with them gone. Both Toronto and Oklahoma City have taken a step back after what they’ve lost, but much like the Clippers last year, their rosters aren’t in the worst possible shape.

What they have to ask themselves is which way should try to rise to the top again and how long will they have to take to get there.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.

LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.

According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.

Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”

Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.

This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).

Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.

Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.

Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.

In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.

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It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.

Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.

Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.

Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.

Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.

Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.

Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.

As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.

The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.

As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.

The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.

Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.

There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.

Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.

While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.

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