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The “Blow It Up” Index

Sometimes in the NBA, the way up starts by going down. Trading your best player for assets can hurt, but these days it’s the only way to get lottery talent without tanking. Which NBA teams should consider lighting the fuse?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“Blow it up!” has become a catchphrase on The Ringer NBA Show used whenever host Chris Vernon or listeners want to tease me about how often I suggest a team rebuild. But the reality is that blowing it up isn’t easy to do. When I say a team should “blow it up,” what I really mean is: “Blow it up, if a long list of prerequisites are met.” That doesn’t have the same ring to it, though. Plus, the list of teams that I think should blow it up is actually really, really short.

If I say a team should blow it up, I’m suggesting it should gut its roster, dealing away its aging franchise players, keeping only younger assets with high upsides, in an attempt to get a future top-10 NBA talent, usually through the draft. This is easier said than done. Star players aren’t easy to find, and they are almost as hard to get rid of. Just look at Carmelo Anthony’s New York purgatory, or the debate surrounding Blake Griffin in Los Angeles. Deals don’t happen at the click of the button like they do on the Trade Machine or in NBA 2K. There are a lot of factors that come into play.

Ownership usually considers different metrics when it comes to roster construction. Yeah, plus-minus matters, but so do ticket and merchandise sales. You also have to think about where an owner is getting his information. One NBA executive told me a few years ago that he’s heard of owners lurking on RealGM and Reddit to take the temperature of their fan bases before finalizing trades. It makes sense. The opinion of the most passionate and smartest fans live online.

The relationship between owner and front office might be the most important one in a franchise. Everyone might be on the same page at the start — let’s rebuild, get a young star, create a new identity — but losing has a way of making rich people impatient and costing executives their jobs. The return on value when trading a star also needs to be appropriate. Even if there’s alignment on the direction of the team, there’s no guarantee a potential trade partner is willing or able to give what it takes for a reset to make sense. The climate must be perfect. Blowing it up is one thing; putting it back together takes time.

So why do it? Why not plug away and hope for the best with the good-to-great players on hand? To quote the philosopher Ricky Bobby, if you ain’t first, you’re last. The goal should be the Larry O’Brien Trophy, not a division banner.

The ecstasy of winning a NBA championship has been experienced by only 11 fan bases since 1980, and the Spurs have had the pleasure five times. San Antonio is routinely called the NBA’s model organization for a reason. At the most recent Sloan Conference, Warriors general manager Bob Myers said, “They have one thing they care about. That is winning. That’s it. It’s not ego, not statistics, not recognition, not ticket sales. It’s winning. That’s it.”

The past 20 years of San Antonio’s success wouldn’t have happened without some lottery luck leading to Tim Duncan. “I would argue you need to have a top-10 player in the league,” Myers said at Sloan, when asked if a team needs a superstar to win a title, later adding, “or even top five.” You can look throughout NBA history, and it’s hard to find a championship team that doesn’t have either a top-50 all-time player, or a modern player deserving of being on the list. About the only team that didn’t was the 2003–04 Pistons. Detroit had an all-time defense, but even Chauncey Billups admits they were outliers. “What we did will never happen again,” Billups said in 2016 on The Vertical Podcast. “We didn’t have one guy making the max. It was just an anomaly.”

A championship team needs an MVP-caliber player. Those players can come from all corners, but more often than not they come from the lottery — even those Pistons champions had three top-seven picks in their starting five. It might seem like I’m spinning a wheel and shouting trade your best player, but I say that only if that “star” isn’t one of the league’s top-level talents. I view second-tier or third-tier stars as the spark to light the blow-it-up fuse. The thought of trading them might be painful, but to have a real chance at championship glory, the goal needs to be finding a top-five- or top-10-caliber player at all costs.

Drafting is the easiest way to do it. I’m willing to bet the next three drafts will include a few players who define the next era of basketball. The Old LeBron Era will be another transition phase for the league, like when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird got old before Michael Jordan hit his prime, or when Shaq and Kobe broke up and LeBron was still learning the game. The 2018 and 2019 drafts are arguably stronger than this year’s class. Teams in position to select players like Michael Porter, Luka Doncic, and Marvin Bagley could set themselves up for a decade of championship contention.

You might take a look at the last three seasons of the NBA and figure every team not located in Cleveland or Oakland should blow it up. But that’s not the case. Take the Rockets, for example. They likely can’t beat the Warriors — they might not beat the Spurs — but they have one of the league’s best players in James Harden, who is just 27, and they have forecastable financial flexibility with young assets that could net them an impact player in return. They’re built for sustainable success. So are the Celtics, with their mound of draft picks and cap space on top of an already-high-level roster. Other teams already have their cornerstone, like the Timberwolves and Karl-Anthony Towns and the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Sixers have one in Joel Embiid, if he stays healthy, and maybe another with Ben Simmons — and they could add another depending on what happens in the draft. The Spurs have theirs in Kawhi Leonard.

The teams that should blow it up are stuck in limbo. They have talent, but that talent has a ceiling. They’re happy most of the year, but every April or May, they end up disappointed. If the team suddenly decided to blow it all up, it could theoretically cash in its core players for a significant return and set itself up for greater success later.

This long view is the genesis of blow it up, but it doesn’t really apply to many teams. Here’s The Ringer’s first Blow It Up Index:

Get the TNT Ready: Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers

The Bulls and Pacers are stuck in the middle with no avenue to get better. Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson admitted as much during his exit interview with the media last week. “The thing with Jimmy [Butler] is all of us would love to go out and get another a superstar player to go along with him,” Paxson said. “But right now, the situation we’re in with the salaries we have, that type of thing, that’s a difficult thing for us to manage.”

Most NBA teams would love to have Jimmy Butler. Hell, the Bulls love Jimmy Butler. There’s a clock ticking down until his free agency in 2019. The Bulls could wait it out, hope they strike gold with one of their mid-high teens lottery picks, and pray Butler re-signs. Seems like a lot to ask. Butler is the best player on the team, but he’s also their most valuable trade asset. No one else on the Bulls roster can fetch the return Butler can. It’s not romantic, but it’s the truth, and if the Bulls want to get back to their ’90s heights, they need to make drastic moves.

The same is true for the Pacers and Paul George’s approaching 2018 free agency. Indiana may have an even harder time finding a viable suitor with reports George is “hell-bent” on joining the Lakers. The Sixers could theoretically throw their picks at the Pacers, but they would want assurances that George would re-sign. The Lakers could, too. But why commit the same mistake the Knicks did when they gave up everything they had for Carmelo Anthony when they could have just waited for free agency.

An effort at least needs to be made to find a trade. The Kings were knocked for dealing DeMarcus Cousins for just Buddy Hield and the Pelicans’ 2017 first-round pick, but you gotta give Sacramento credit for an assets-based return, rather than salvaging veterans. The Pacers and Bulls should look for future-focused packages this summer, with assets and young players.

I reported previously that on draft night 2016, Chicago and Boston were in talks over a Butler trade that they hoped would bring Jae Crowder, the no. 3 pick, another starter-level player, and another pick (likely one of the Nets’ picks) in return. I didn’t like the package for either team. The Bulls need to think more like the Kings (yup, I said it). “We decided a year ago we were gonna try to remain competitive while getting younger,” Paxson said. “We knew there’d be a lot of bumps in the road and pains along the way.”

Hopefully for Chicago fans, the team is taking a more forward-thinking look this time around, with more potential viable trade candidates on the market. If a team rebuilds now, the goal needs to be grabbing one or two of the top prospects over the next few years.

“We have those discussions all the time. But the opportunity has to be right,” Paxson said when asked about blowing it up and starting new. “But to say just blow it up when you don’t have some certainty that this is really you taking a major step positively in terms of young players you have, that’s a tough one to do. It’s easy to say it. It’s tough to do it.”

True, but there may not be a better summer to maximize return value, and the Bulls should at least consider seeking a package focused on all future assets, and not a mixture. Teams would have to worry about re-signing George in one year, but they’ll have until 2019 before Butler hits the open market.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A rebuild for Chicago or Indiana doesn’t have to be a long-term project. The Bulls play in a big market and if they suddenly resemble an upstart team and have some cap space, they’ll appeal to the next wave of unrestricted free agents. By 2023 we could be talking about a Jabari Parker homecoming to Chicago as the final piece to their championship puzzle. The Pacers already have one young stud in Myles Turner. Adding a lottery selection and other assets for George, in addition to owning all their own future picks, would allow them to build a youth movement.

Feel Out the Market: Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors

What got this whole blow it up shabang started was my article on the Raptors’ future, posted on March 27, as the Raptors were amid a stretch in which they won 11 of 16 games. I argued the Raptors were good, but to be great they might need to take a step back. The piece was shared on RealGM, and fans weren’t happy. “Bizarre timing for this article,” wrote Dr. Positivity. “He brings up that East teams have a LeBron problem and we could end up like the Pacers. But we aren’t facing apex Lebron, we’re facing slowly declining one.” LeBron and the Cavs swept the Raptors with ease. Sorry, Dr. Positivity, LeBron will get old eventually, but he’s still the Eastern Conference gatekeeper until at least the new decade.

If the Raptors wait too long to pull the plug, their second- or third-tier stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, will have diminishing value, whereas now they could theoretically bring a significant return. But I don’t know if the Raptors can blow it up. Since the article published, I’ve asked around and a few front-office executives told me they don’t think there’s that much interest in DeRozan. He’s a vintage player, and his 41.1 effective field goal percentage in the playoffs is alarmingly bad. DeRozan will need to extend his shooting range to 3 for his playoff production to improve. Lowry has a player option for next season but has said he will decline it and become a free agent this summer, so to get any return on his departure, they’d need to be make a sign-and-trade deal. Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker will be on the free-agent market, too. They’ll be locked into their roster if they bring everyone back — and after four consecutive postseasons, we’ve seen this roster’s ceiling.

The Grizzlies serve as an example of what the Raptors could be if they end up re-signing everyone and keeping them. Memphis has had six straight playoff losses, with four first-round exits since 2012 and one Western Conference finals appearance in 2013. When you see the connection between the team and its fan base, you understand why it’s so hard to move on from beloved players. It’s been fun. Chris Vernon will tell you as much. But I worry what the next 10 years will look like.

Marc Gasol is 32 and suffered a major foot injury just one year ago. Tony Allen and Zach Randolph are 35, and both are free agents this summer. Vince Carter is a 40-year-old free agent. Chandler Parsons still has three years left on his deal. Their best young player, JaMychal Green, is a restricted free agent. If they bring everyone back, they’ll be soaring into the luxury tax, with no realistic way of getting better. Praying your draft pick in the 20s blossoms into a star is like buying one scratch ticket a year. And the Grizzlies don’t have their first-round picks in 2017 or 2019, anyway.

I feel dirty even saying this, but I wonder what the Grizzlies could get for Mike Conley, whose value couldn’t be higher. He is in the first year of his five-year contract extension, and is coming off his best season at age 29. Maybe they should think about it. Whatever comes next as their core ages might not be pretty.

It’s Too Late: Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks

A lot of readers and podcast listeners have tweeted at me recently that the Clippers and Hawks should blow it up after their playoff defeats. The problem is it’s (probably) too late. For Atlanta, Paul Millsap hits free agency this summer, and he’s 32 years old. The Hawks’ blow-it-up window was prior to the 2016 deadline, when they still had Al Horford and Jeff Teague. They missed it. But they’ve done a nice job complementing their veterans with nice prospects. Dennis Schröder is young. Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry have bright futures. The same can’t be said for the Clippers.

Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will be free agents this summer. Griffin just got hurt for seemingly the 69th time. Unless the Spurs create cap space for Paul, it’s hard to find a better situation than L.A. But if you’re Paul and you desire an L.A. return, wouldn’t you demand a no-trade clause? Doc Rivers doesn’t strike me as the rebuilding type — he compared the Clippers to the Karl Malone and John Stockton Jazz teams — but maybe the next general manager would be — if Doc ever leaves. If I’m CP3, I want a NTC.

That’s it. Those are the six teams — Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Grizzlies, Clippers, and Hawks — that I think should or should’ve thought about going V for Vendetta on their organizations. You’ll notice that they’re all stationary playoff teams without a generational player (except the Clippers), and they’re effectively locked into their not-good-enough rosters if they re-sign their free agents this summer. They’re stuck in a loop.

You might be asking, “Why isn’t so and so team on the list?” Let’s go through the remaining teams.

Searching: Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns

These teams have a mixture of cap flexibility, assets, and young talent. Doesn’t it feel good to read that, Kings fans? Sacramento will likely have two top-10 picks in this year’s draft. It lacks its centerpiece, but the team is giving itself a chance to find one. Devin Booker (Suns), Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks), and Nikola Jokic (Nuggets) are close to being franchise players, but I wouldn’t yet put them in that category. Booker scored 70 points in one game and is just one of five players in NBA history to average more than 22 points per game before turning age 21, per Basketball-Reference. Porzingis is a beast, but he’s been hurt a lot and he’s sending out cryptic tweets now. What’s going on there? The Lakers have Brandon Ingram, but it remains to be seen what level he will reach.

Nothing to Blow Up: Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets

Aaron Gordon and Brook Lopez are the best assets on the Magic and Nets, respectively. Tearing it down now would be like trading in a 1993 Honda Accord. You’re not getting anything back. Just keep it up and keep saving elsewhere until you can get something with a working AC.

The Mavericks have a fading star in Dirk Nowitzki, who still entertains and amazes us even at age 38. But the rest of the roster is pretty bare. They had eight undrafted free agents on their roster to close the season, and four of them were rookies. They need some lottery luck to accelerate their rebuild.

Stuck in the Middle: Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons

The Heat had the NBA’s best record (23–5) from January 17 through March 17. They were 12–30 before that, and 8–6 after, not enough to make the playoffs. Even if they had snuck in, would a first-round loss to the Celtics or Cavs really have been worth it? It depends on your perspective. The journey was fun, and Dion Waiters became everyone’s favorite player in basketball.

But they now have the 14th pick instead of a top-five-ish pick. Pat Riley told Bleacher Report in 2015 “For me, it’s not through the draft, because lottery picks are living a life of misery. That season is miserable. And if you do three or four years in a row to get lottery picks, then I’m in an insane asylum. And the fans will be, too. So who wants to do that?” Fair. But having a higher pick would’ve put them in a better position for the quick rebuild he has in mind. Had Miami bottomed out, the team could’ve shopped its pick for George or Butler and still had cap space to sign another star.

The situations for Detroit and Charlotte are a bit different, but they’re every bit as in the middle. The Hornets have a point guard in Kemba Walker who keeps getting better each season, but the rest of the roster isn’t following suit. The Pistons were reportedly open to trade talks for Andre Drummond and restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Stan Van Gundy might be open to rebuilding, but as is the case for other teams, it’s not always easy to find a suitor.

Tradeamus: Pelicans and Thunder

I’m stoked for a full season of Boogie and Brow. Anthony Davis can be the centerpiece of a championship contender, and now he has his partner in DeMarcus Cousins. It’s exciting times in New Orleans. I want this to work more than anything else. But there’s a chance it implodes. Cousins’s ball-dominant style might clash with Davis, or maybe they won’t be able to defend effectively with two Twin Towers on the floor.

Maybe it works well on the court, but Cousins leaves when he becomes a free agent, anyway. (All I know is John Wall said Boogie told him he’d go to Washington, and the Wizards can create max cap space in 2018 depending on what they do this summer.) There’s a universe where this goes horribly wrong, and if it does, Brow’s free agency will be here fast. In 2021, Davis will be unrestricted if he declines his $28.7 million player option for 2020, which he likely will. There probably isn’t a single trade for Davis that appears optically fair, but I’d at least hear teams out if there’s any sense Brow might walk. Just imagine the potential return for Davis if he’s available in 2018, with two years left on his deal.

The same can be said for Russell Westbrook. But Brow and Brodie are exactly the type of players championship-hopeful teams seek out in the draft. They are top-50 all-time talents. It’d be silly to pull the plug. New Orleans and Oklahoma City aren’t exactly hotbeds for pro basketball, and neither franchise may survive the exit of another franchise player.

They need to do everything in their power to hang onto them by finding the right surrounding pieces. But the threat of a player leaving in free agency probably never goes away until they sign on the dotted line.

Tweaks: Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, and Washington Wizards

These teams are in three very different situations, but could soon all find themselves in the same boat. The thread that links them now is they all have two stars in or entering their prime. The Wiz have John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Blazers have Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and the Jazz have Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward, the latter of whom Utah is hoping re-signs this offseason. Some of these guys have upside to be in that top-10 conversation. But they’re not quite there yet.

I wondered earlier this month if the Wizards should bring Otto Porter Jr. back. I’m thinking no. I’m not convinced the benefit of re-signing Porter for roughly $20 million, which he’ll likely get, outweighs the promise of adding a star free agent in 2018. They can create max space by moving just one salary that year, and if you’re an elite player on the market, it would be hard not to look at the Wizards and feel like you’re the final piece to their championship puzzle.

If they re-sign Porter, the Wizards could lock themselves into a Blazers-like roster. Portland already has $130 million in committed salaries next season, though they do have a lot of picks though, as discussed earlier this month.

Utah is in the best situation of this group, if it re-signs Hayward. The Jazz have two firsts in 2017 (their own and Golden State’s) and 2018 (their own and a top-14 protected from Oklahoma City). None of them will be lottery picks, but they have a young, rising roster. They have time to figure things out while other teams are at watching the clock tick. Depending on who they re-sign this summer, they, like the Wizards, could also have significant cap space in 2018 and 2019. According to the Warriors, Utah is boring. But winning is fun. I could see the Jazz as a destination if they retain cap flexibility.

The Favorites: Cavaliers and Warriors

Enjoy the Trilogy.