Often, discussions about improving teams are based on hypotheticals or quick fixes. But I also think it's instructive to figure out how past franchises have turned themselves around. So here's the basic premise: find the teams in the post-no-hand-check era (starting in '04-05 season) that had a two-season stretch of fewer than 45 wins combined and revisit the decisions they made to return to a positive SRS (the statistical measure from basketball-reference.com where 0 indicates an average team).
2004-06 Atlanta Hawks
First year back with a positive SRS: 08-09 (team made playoffs w/losing record in 07-08)
Player with team entire time: Josh Smith
Coaching changes: None (04-05 was Mike Woodson's first season)
Rotation players added via trade: Joe Johnson (sign-and-trade in which Hawks gave up Boris Diaw and 3 first-rounders), Mike Bibby (Hawks traded former first-rounder Shelden Williams and expiring contracts)
Rotation players added via free agency: Flip Murray, Mo Evans
Analysis: The catalyst was obviously Johnson's desire to leave Phoenix, an unusual decision many players wouldn't make and haven't made. Horford and Smith's development and average veteran role players allowed the team to establish a pecking order with the youth at the top, and the starting unit's size/strength gave them an athletic advantage over many opponents. Keeping Woodson as coach and the early contributions of Smith helped the team build a (mediocre) foundation that's been good enough to make the playoffs in the East and win 3 series.
2004-06 Charlotte Bobcats
First year with a positive SRS: 2009-10 (only playoff series)
Player with team entire time: Gerald Wallace
Coaching changes: 2 (Sam Vincent, Larry Brown)
Rotation players added via trade: Stephen Jackson (acquired for expiring contracts), Boris Diaw (acquired in order to dump Jason Richardson's contract), Tyson Chandler (acquired to dump Emeka Okafor's contract), Tyrus Thomas (acquired for a future first and expirings), Nazr Mohammed (acquired for expirings)
Rotation players added via free agency: Larry Hughes
Analysis: This a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul; the Bobcats' inability to build through the draft stuck them with albatross deals that were able to come together for one season with a Hall of Fame coach. If anyone wants to repeat this track for the Wolves, please comment with your reasons why.
2006-08 Memphis Grizzlies
First year with a positive SRS: 2010-11
Players with team entire time: Rudy Gay
Rotation players added via trade: Marc Gasol (acquired with expirings and late 1st-rounders for Pau Gasol), Zach Randolph (acquired for expiring deal), Shane Battier (acquired for 1st rounder and Hasheem Thabeet)
Rotation players added via free agency: Tony Allen
Analysis: The catalysts seemed to be hiring Hollins and trading for Randolph; both moves established a direction for Grizz, and the role players added around them fit what they wanted to do. An important but underrated aspect is the team's success with late first-rounders and second-rounders; getting 3 rotation players in 3 years is a good haul. It's unclear if their success is sustainable, but there is a definite identity to the team, and they weren't afraid to change coaches when one wasn't getting results.
2007-09 OKC Thunder
First year with a positive SRS: 2009-10
Coaching changes: 1 (Scott Brooks)
Rotation players added via free agency: Nenad Krstic
Analysis: Lottery luck in the form of Durant was an important first step, but so was picking Westbrook 4th when it was considered a reach at the time and picking Harden 3rd when Ricky Rubio was the hot name at the time. Changing coaches when a recent hire wasn't working out was definitely important, as was having the cap space to take on players that came with young talent like Ibaka and Maynor.
What I derive from this analysis:
- Always hold onto athletic players and work around them. I don't think it's a coincidence that Smith, Wallace, and Gay were the lone holdovers for their team, and drafting Harden instead of Rubio or Curry allowed Westbrook to develop faster as a lead guard.
- Don't be afraid to fire a coach when they're not working out. An argument could be made that the Hawks would've been better off firing Woodson early, but his team also doubled their win total in his second season. It's clear, though, that Hollins and Brooks have been important in their franchises' resurgences.
- Draft well in the later first round and the early second round. The Wolves currently have a few Eurostashes, and Malcolm Lee was just drafted, but the jury's out on whether Hayward or Ellington can contribute at the same level as even Young and Vasquez did last year.
- Don't overpay for mediocre veterans or take on their long-term deals. That's the main difference between the Bobcats and these other teams. It's usually a better strategy to overpay your own young players than overpay new free agents, but ideally, the young players should be prominently featured and learn on the job.
- Even mismanaged franchises can eventually win if they don't continually overturn the roster. The Hawks haven't been managed well at all (even the Johnson deal almost didn't go through because of an ownership squabble), yet they kept Smith, Johnson, and Williams (despite Williams being a moderate bust), added Horford, and were able to eventually return to the playoffs despite an unconventional lineup where their 2 was the primary ballhandler, they played 2 small-ball 4s as their starting forwards, and they played Horford out of position at the 5. The key: they played their best young players regardless of position and tried to manage roster imbalances with cheaper free agents.
- Free agents/vets added in trades must maximize the production of the young players. Zaza Pachulia allows Horford to slide to the 4 at times and gives the team a bit of a tough streak; Bibby was a good complement as a spot-up shooter who could handle the ball. Nick Collison does the dirty work; Krstic was, um, there (though maybe that's hope for those worried about Darko and Pek), and Sefolosha covered the opponent's top wing scorer. Allen brought defense and intensity, while Battier didn't make mistakes while rebounding/playing tough D/making big shots.