Eighty-two percent of recently bad teams have some tough news to share with Jazz fans: getting off the lottery hamster wheel is tough work.
It’s easy for teams to get stuck on the treadmill of multiple losing seasons. The experience other teams have had trying to get out of the NBA’s basement can certainly inform our expectations for a Jazz team that keeps adding young talent but ultimately wants to begin its ascent back to relevance.
The last 15 NBA seasons[ref]’98-99 through ’12-13, since ’13-14 doesn’t have a “next season” to analyze yet.[/ref] have included exactly 100 teams to win 30 or fewer games[ref]Lockout-adjusted where applicable.[/ref], which makes for tidy math. Here’s what we can learn from the previous 100 teams to traverse these waters.
The main lesson: winning doesn’t happen overnight. Here are some stark data points from those 100 teams and the seasons they had after dipping down to ≤30 levels (or .366 in a lockout year).
The next logical question is: did those 18 successful teams follow a template that is remotely applicable to the Jazz? As we analyze the Jazz’s chances in 2014-15, do the moves that rapidly rebuilt those teams seem congruous to what the Jazz are doing, or will Utah’s road be a longer one?
To begin to answer those questions, let’s look at the teams who went straight from 30-minus to contender. For the sake of argument, we’ll call “contender” the 50-win level. There were five teams in the last 15 years to do that just one year removed from the basement.
2007-08 Celtics: From 24 wins to 66. This team also won the championship.
From basement to banner. This story, though, has the least to do with the Jazz’s rebuild. The Celtics did the opposite of the Jazz, flipping all of their future assets to compile a just-add-water contender. They didn’t build through the draft, actually trading their pick and some nice young players[ref]Eventual Jazz center Al Jefferson among them.[/ref] to land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They surrounded those two and Paul Pierce with filler free agents in support the win-now model, not with youth.
2004-05 Suns: From 29 wins to 62. Went to the Western Conference Finals.
Like the Celtics, the Suns did the opposite of what the Jazz are doing… mostly. They traded their pick and otherwise dumped salary so they could pursue free agent Steve Nash, who would quickly become MVP material. Those cap-clearing moves[ref]Jahidi White, Tom Gugliotta.[/ref] cost them future pieces as well, including the pick that would later become Gordon Hayward. Also, Amar’e Stoudemire blew up that year. Probably largely due to the Nash signing, Stoudemire went from being a 4.4 WS player (role player levels) to an elite breakout year. He his a 26.2 PER and 14.6 WS, both elite levels[ref]That WS would be third this past year, behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James.[/ref].
2001-02 Nets: 26 wins to 52. Went to the NBA Finals.
This team’s boldest move en route to doubling the win total was trading its best player to land Jason Kidd. Kidd was a 9-10 WS player at that point, which is All-star level, and better than what they were getting from Stephon Marbury. They did add a draft pick, but it wasn’t exactly a tank-your-way-to-a-star approach. They actually traded backwards to land Richard Jefferson along with role players Brandon Armstrong and Jason Collins. Then they added more veteran role players.
2003-04 Grizzlies: 28 wins to 50. Went to the playoffs but lost in the first round.
Here’s another team that quickly retooled without the help of the draft. They actually traded both picks away that summer for bench help[ref]Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones; might have been better off keeping Kendrick Perkins and Marcus Banks[/ref]. Other than that, they really just added decent players via trades (Bo Outlaw, Jake Tsakalidis) and signings (James Posey). They also got Mike Miller back from injury, which helped modestly (3.9 WS). Even Pau Gasol didn’t have a breakout year, scoring, rebounding and playing slightly less than the year before. Honestly, Memphis’ 22-win turnaround is a bit of a head scratcher on paper. They made minor tweaks and were a well-coached[ref]So well, in fact, that COY voters looked past a masterpiece by Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and awarded the trophy to Hubie Brown.[/ref], but really their biggest addition was Posey.
2009-10 Thunder: 23 wins to 50. Also lost in the first round.
The Thunder’s improvement had something to do with the draft, but this was actually the end of a sustained, youth-focused rebuild, so it would be tough to say that drafting James Harden accounted for 27 wins. Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green also stayed at roughly the same level, and they added only supporting pieces. The story of this turn-around is all about a transcendental player cracking the code. Kevin Durant exploded from the fringe All-star level (7.9 WS in 2008-09) to an elite superstar (16.1 WS and ridiculous scoring efficiency).
These five teams’ roadmaps don’t offer much to the Jazz. Let’s assume, then, that 50 is out of the question. Let’s see, in shorter form, if the other 13 teams who went from 30-minus to 42-49 wins can proffer some models. In this group, we do see some teams who got instantly better at least in part because of an instant contribution from a high draft pick and/or a well-timed coaching change.
Four of these teams got back to winning records largely because of a marquee trade.
For two, the main ingredient was getting good players back healthy (Curry, Wade).
For one, it chiefly had to do with an impact free agent (and, importantly, a new system).
Those seven probably don’t have much to offer the Jazz in the way of applicable rebuilding advice, because the Jazz probably aren’t making marquee trades or adding impact free agents[ref]So few are left.[/ref], and we don’t have a star-level player to bring off the injured list. The other six, though, might represent templates Utah could follow: they added more young talent to developing rosters, and signed the right veterans.
The teams of Wade, Melo, Yao, Bargs and Gordon/Deng got enough immediate juice from those guys, and added the right supporting pieces around them. There’s no telling yet if Exum can have that type of first-year impact, though.
I also like the approach of this past year’s Wizards, something of a hybrid. Their best player made another step forward, they drafted a player who was solid-but-not-yet-great as a rookie, Beal continued to progress modestly, and the addition of Gortat gave them an identity inside along with Nene. If Gordon Hayward is ready for his next step, Exum produces something like 4(ish) WS[ref]Which isn’t asking too much; that would only make him one of the best 200 rookies or so of the modern era. Not like we’re asking him to be LeBron.[/ref], Favors provides the interior scoring and D, and the other youngs continue their forward progress at even a modest pace, the Jazz could start the climb just like the Wizards did.
But if this exercise shows us anything, it’s that even if the Jazz take steps forward, there’s a strong historical precedent suggesting they might not make it back above .500 next year.