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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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