The recent NBA-rocking blockbuster Kevin Love trade offered several swaps; one of the least talked about was the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers traded away arguably their best player, Thaddeus Young, as part of the deal. To review: Young was traded to the Timberwolves, along with the Cavs' Andrew Wiggins and Andrew Bennett. In return, Philadelphia received Miami’s 2015 first-round pick from the Cavaliers, as well as two players from Minnesota, guard Alexey Shved and forward Luc Mbah a Moute.
Most observers took this latest trade as another indication that the Sixers continue to pursue a "tanking" strategy. This operational model first rose to our collective consciousness in August of 2012, when the 76ers traded their best player, Andre Iguodala, for the oft-injured Andrew Bynum, who never played a minute for Philadelphia. The following summer, the 76ers traded away Jrue Holiday for draft rights to Nerlens Noel, a big man who would not play a single game of his rookie season due to injury.
Then, at the trade deadline last season, Philadelphia swapped 2010 second overall pick Evan Turner for the oft-injured Danny Granger, who they would eventually waive. Prior to the trade deadline, they dispensed with their leader in rebounds and blocks, Spencer Hawes, trading him to the Cavaliers for Henry Sims and aging veteran Earl Clark (who, like Granger, was waived). Lastly, during this summer’s draft, the 76ers picked up Joel Embiid, who was found to be injured just five days before the selection, thus giving them another injured player on the squad.
The Sixers want to win big. They have no interest in being the late-2000s Hawks. They know the easiest avenue to win big is to find a superstar. Jrue Holiday is a nice two-way player, but he’s not going to be superstar. Maybe Nerlens Noel will be. Everyone seems to agree that Joel Embiid represents this draft’s best chance at a superstar, and so the Sixers, happy to embrace the risk of foot injuries and disastrously bad big men playing disastrously bad basketball for them next season, plucked Embiid right up.
They also get that the NBA’s draft lottery is...an uncertain bet....But that doesn’t mean playing the lottery is dumb, especially if your only goal is to maximize your odds at nabbing a star. If your owners are cool with playing the lottery two or even three times, and really playing it, you only maximize those odds.
In short, the best way to rebuild quickly is to really stink up the joint for a couple of years. The alternative, as the 76ers saw in the decade since Iverson bid adieu, is the endless cycle of mediocrity that results from never getting access to blue-chip, franchise-caliber players - the superstars to whom the above quote refers.
To switch leagues: this cycle of mediocrity is precisely what the Astros' new management wanted to avoid in their own rebuilding effort. In Ben Reiter's Sports Illustrated cover story on the Astros' rebuild, Jeff Luhnow, the Astros GM, told Reiter, "You look at how other organizations have done it, they've tried to maintain a .500 level as they prepare to be good in the future. That path is probably necessary in some markets. But it takes 10 years." The Astros, Houston director of amateur scouting Mike Ellias added, "didn't want to be mediocre for a decade. We wanted to be really good as soon as possible."
As a result, Reiter writes, the 'Stros braintrust decided they would eschew all "cosmetic" decisions, such as ponying up for a free agent or hanging on to a veteran who might instead be converted into future assets, in an effort to "keep up appearances." In other words, they were going to behave much like the Sixers have, purposely trading away all salable current assets to gain greater future advantage.
Like Philly's NBA team, Houston has been accused of violating the most basic element of a franchise social contract with its fanbase: that it tries its best to win every game. While this is certainly a reasonable assessment for both teams, by deploying such a strategy, both have put themselves in terrific position to acquire the blue-chip superstar talent necessary to kickstart a major revitalization project.
To wit: the Astros became the first team to have the very first pick in three consecutive amateur drafts (2012-14). Over that same time span, the Sixers have drafted 15th, 11th and 3rd, and picked up 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and two potentially dominant big men. The Sixers have consciously placed them in position to get that rarest of NBA commodities: a legitimate superstar. That's the plan, frankly. For the Astros, having three consecutive number one picks was never a goal; instead, it was a convenient by-product of their long-term plan.
Which leads me to the Cowboys. In a recent press conference, Jason Garrett opined on his team-building vision:
The thing that we decided on three years ago was we were going to try to do it the right way. We weren't going to make ad hoc, short-term decisions that didn't make any sense. We were going to try to build a program, with the right kind of guys, and think about it now, but also think about it for the long term. And build the right kind of team: a team that we can all be proud of.
Fair enough, but I think the Philadelphia and Houston cases reveal an internal contradiction in Garrett's statement, one that has had serious consequences for his coaching tenure and threatens to derail his career in Dallas.
Recall that the Astros' Luhnow remarked on teams that "maintain a .500 level as they prepare to be good in the future," and that the Astros didn't want to follow that pathway, because it took far longer, as much as ten years. When Garrett announces that the Cowboys want to build a program that thinks "about it now," he's not maximizing his other consideration, "the long term" - at least not in the way the Sixers and 'Stros are (and, if you look closer, the 49ers and Seahawks recently did).
In other words, the Cowboys constant desire to "win now" (manifest principally in their desire to hold on too long to aging vets) has compromised their ability to rebuild quickly - to engage in what I'll call a "radical rebuild." Bo Porter, the Astros 41-year-old sabermetrics-friendly manager, claims that the "biggest mistake organizations can make is the misevaluation of their own players. Had we not gone through what we went through last year," he adds, "we wouldn't be where we're at today, because we'd still be trying to figure out who can we move forward with, who do we need to cut ties with."
In short, it's very difficult to balance future and now. In the Astros case, they circumvented this problem, as Reiter notes, by crafting a long-term decision tree:
...with that 56-win  team at its roots and a sustainable championship club at its tip. Their only goal...was to reach the top as quickly as they could. That meant every decision they made, no matter how painful, would be based upon the probability that it would be helpful in the long term.
Using this decision-making rubric, the Astros are heading in the right direction; they have already won more games in 2014 than in any season since 2010, and a once moribund farm system was recently rated by Baseball America as one of the league's very best.
And what of our Beloved 'Boys? Let's engage in a thought experiment: what might have happened had the Cowboys had the gumption for a radical rebuild once Garrett assumed the coaching reins in 2011? Not only would they have jettisoned several aging offensive linemen, but they may well have engaged in other profitable long-view behaviors: declining to sign veterans to contracts that would pay guaranteed money after the age of 29; refusing to restructure their aging stars' larger deals; only signing free-agent deals with young players off of first contracts. And, finally, trading whatever remaining assets they did have - Romo, Witten, Miles Austin, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff - for draft picks, even if it meant getting pennies on the dollar.
Such behavior almost surely would have resulted in a run of sub-par seasons. But consider: a poor 2011 would have put the Cowboys in position to acquire Mo Claiborne (or, a better possibility still, a franchise QB) in the 2012 draft without trading up and would have brought in a talented second-rounder as well (probably one of the o-linemen that went at the top of round two). Another sub-par campaign would have put them in position in the 2013 draft for another blue-chip talent (how would Jonathan Cooper, Chance Warmack, or Barkevious Mingo suit you) or an even better trade-back draft haul than the one they received.
How about 2014? Remember that Dallas spent the draft chasing weakside defensive ends. If they had gone all-in on their rebuilding effort instead of trying to piece together another 8-8 season, a target like Anthony Barr or Aaron Donald would have been a very real possibility. As a result, the Cowboys needn't have traded away a valuable third rounder to get the RDE they, in "win now" mode, felt they so desperately needed.
Here's the kicker, in the form of a question: what kind of rebuilding team trades away second- and third-round draft picks in a three-year span? The unpalatable answer: one that is also trying to win now. And, as the Sixers and Astros cases suggest, "future" and "now" are either mutually incompatible categories or "now" extends the rebuilding project ("future") several years.
And here's the problem: unless something miraculous happens, "several years" is longer than Jason Garrett has in Big D.
Next up: why did the Cowboys choose to wait until 2014 to start their radical rebuild?