What a summer for Jazz Nation.
The sudden Rudy trade and endless Donovan trade buzz gave fans a lot of time to consider their feelings on a rebuild but it never truly came full circle until last week. Now the franchise faces a stark reality of what the future holds.
Between the two star trades, the Utah Jazz acquired 6 unprotected future 1st round picks, a single protected future 1st, 3 pick swaps spanning two seasons, two recent draftees, and numerous vets and intriguing young pieces.
Take a look visually at the pick hoard facing the Jazz currently (including their own picks) while recognizing deals for Bogdanovic, Conley, Beasley, and Clarkson have the potential to add thereupon.
Talk about kicking off the tank.
With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, the NBA is signaled to ramp up! Players will begin flocking to their markets and training staffs will zero in on priorities for training camp. All focus will begin to orient around accentuating the Utah Jazz new direction.
As we dive head-on into a “tank”, it’d be wise to learn from those recently completed and ongoing tanks across the league. The team’s ability to execute a rebuild correctly will determine how enjoyable the process and result can be.
Let’s be clear on what exactly is a tank. A “tank” is a team executing a plan for multi-season losing that ensures as competitive and successful drafting of future franchise players as possible.
Now, let’s curate our pool of teams with recent tanks from which to draw lessons.
Recent NBA tanks
This exercise is subjective. Your list of recent tanks is likely different from ours, and that’s okay. Given the above definition, let’s also settle on the definition of “recent” being in the last decade.
Such definition eliminates the following teams are excluded from the list of teams we’re learning from their tank:
SAS, IND, POR, CHA, WAS, LAC, DAL, MIN, GSW, TOR, NYK, CHI, MIA
For some, the tank is just beginning (SAS, IND). For others, they’re always working to stay relevant, some more successfully than others (NYK, WAS, LAC, CHI, DAL, MIA). We’ve also seen mini and accidental tanks that don’t really apply (POR, CHA, TOR, GSW).
While there’s certainly lessons to be learned from each of these teams about how to-/not-to operate a franchise, they lack the relevance for this discussion.
We therefore have our final list in 3 categories:
“Active” (already kickstarted the tank) | OKC, ORL, DET, HOU
“Emerging” (ascending from the tank) | CLE, MEM, NOP, MIN
“Complete” (finished product tank) | PHI, BOS, BKN, DEN, UTA, LAL, MIL, ATL, PHX, SAC
Let’s examine lessons learned from these tanks the Utah Jazz should embrace.
Prey off desperation
To kick off their 2021 offseason, the Utah Jazz executed a trade to send Derrick Favors to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Utah received some cash and a 2nd round pick in 2027 while Oklahoma City was compensated with a conditional 1st round pick in 2024.
Fast forward just one year and we can see the results.
The Thunder preyed off of the Jazz desperation to shed salary and bring a new style to the team. They tied up Utah’s future flexibility and hedged against their success.
This is an avenue consistent with rebuilding teams, particularly those who do it well. Fortunately Danny Ainge is somewhat experienced in such tactics.
During the 2013 offseason, the Brooklyn Nets mortgaged their future to land Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In 2017 the Cleveland Cavaliers sent Kyrie Irving to Boston for the remains of Isaiah Thomas and change. Desperation got the better of both while Boston profited.
Rebuilds require you to win a lot of the deals you make. Doesn’t mean others can’t as well but often those opportunities with the highest ceiling come about due to a pressure cooker environment.
Find the opportunity and be ready to capitalize thereupon. Utah’s already proven capable with this lesson but should employ a healthy dose as the rebuild continues.
Find the franchise player
The ultimate goal, the crowning achievement of every NBA teams is hoisting that Larry O’Brien trophy. Winning a championship takes elite players and those don’t drop in your lap every season.
Particularly for small markets, finding the franchise player to carry your club to the Finals is all but exclusively possible via the draft—lucking into the right player at the right time.
“The Tank” is all about increasing one’s likelihood at getting lucky by securing your spot with the best odds and multiple opportunities.
The Sacramento Kings have been tanking, trying to win but ultimately losing, for decades. Despite all their efforts, they’ve never landed that franchise piece. As fine players as were DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, as solid as De’Aron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton are, none were THAT guy and it’s kept them in the doldrums all this time.
The Philadelphia 76ers, on the other hand, tanked and tanked until they were convinced of a franchise player: Joel Embiid. Despite early career injuries, distractions of other top picks, and front office turmoil, Philly was able to get their star and have enjoyed multiple seasons of championship contention.
A rebuild’s success is predicated on finding THAT guy. Contention thereafter requires further execution of lessons detailed below, but it all hinges on the franchise piece. Utah must do well to tank until they’re sure of the bird in hand.
Excel in the margins
In addition to winning deals and coming out with a better hand than one was dealt, rebuilds reach their heights by winning the margins. We’re talking late round draft picks, “throw-in” pieces of a trade, value rebuild projects, and sneaky signings.
Often times winning the margins is more difficult than lucking into an obvious top pick turned superstar. Utah has seen fine success historically in this area, most recently with Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale.
The Orlando Magic kicked off a serious rebuild last trade deadline by moving Nikola Vucevic to the Chicago Bulls. The headlined package: 2 future first round picks. The margin: Wendell Carter Jr. It took less than a season for the label to turn from “The Nikola Vucevic deal” to “The Wendell Carter Jr. deal”.
The Memphis Grizzlies selected Desmond Bane (30th pick in 2020 draft) who quickly proved to be that third crucial piece. The Phoenix Suns selected Cameron Johnson (11th pick in 2019 draft) in controversial fashion but were confident in his future.
Setting up a winning club and ultimately a championship contending team is only possible with a star, but prolonging that window and reaching one’s ceiling is facilitated by winning in the margins.
With as many opportunities as will be afforded the Jazz with picks and development focus, they must hit on rotation and starter level players in these endeavors.
The author or poster boy for tanking and “the process” of building a championship team was Sam Hinkie. Famous for his blatant and unapologetic approach to deploying the worst possible team, he was committed to getting a handful of bites at top 3 picks without deviation.
What we’ve seen, however, is that well position teams who secure that franchise guy can suddenly pivot to transitioning out of the full out tank and embrace the greatness of the player like a tide raising all boats.
The Detroit Pistons drafted Killion Hayes who quickly proved to lack the star power needed to signal the franchise to deviate course. But upon deploying Cade Cunningham last season, it became clear he was that guy and surrounding him with the requisite young talent to let that star shine in its due time was the right way to go.
The Cleveland Cavaliers drafted and acquired several fascinating pieces in Colin Sexton, Darius Garland, Lauri Markkanen, and Jarrett Allen. A hodgepodge of young talent suddenly made sense by drafting Evan Mobley, kicking off an official exit of the rebuild with all the heavens for a ceiling.
The Utah Jazz have to pivot away from a tank early if it’s signaled by their young core. It’s not enough to stockpile talent if the franchise player isn’t setup for success and fulfillment when opportunities arise to move on.
Land the right veteran
Many of successful teams in the “complete” category secured the right veteran to finish off their rebuild. Having a scalable foundation on which to secure a “win-now” piece is the end goal.
The LA Lakers nabbed Anthony Davis having already secured LeBron James. The Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo pried Jrue Holiday away from the Pelicans. The Phoenix Suns got Chris Paul to pair with Devin Booker. The Brooklyn Nets dropped James Harden onto a team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Some of these were more successful than others but all of them vaulted their respective teams into the serious championship contender category.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers are following suit by nabbing Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell while having terrific foundations already in place on their respective teams.
The Utah Jazz tried that avenue with Mike Conley who turned out to be an excellent veteran, but not the “right” one.
Utah would do well to move heaven and earth when the time comes, when the foundation is secure and the future bright, to land the “right” veteran. Fortunately, the Jazz are setup well with prized picks in 2027, 2028, and 2029 draft years to power a moved just like that.
There’s no exhaustive list of lessons one should learn about how to rebuild. In any event, the future will play out a unique permutation of events that even the most successful rebuilds can pattern a recipe for.
What’s clear is that Utah must take the tank seriously. They’ve sent a strong signal to the league and the fanbase that they are doing just that by moving on from who’re arguably the wrong players on the wrong timeline.
Hopefully the stars align to nab the right players at the right time. Fortunately, the team couldn’t be better set up for such an outcome.