The Art of the Rebuild

For every professional sports team just accepting the fact you need to rebuild is a tough task. Nobody wants to abandon long-time players or cut ties with superstars, but in some cases, it must be done. The rebuild is one of, if not, the most important role for a professional team’s front office. Refusing to give in to the rebuild can result in stagnating as a middle of the road team, or wasting a star players best years on a bad team. Before every team’s championship season there exists a rebuild that got them there. Here are some recent rebuilds that resulted in championships.

2018-19 Toronto Raptors

Rebuild Type: The Upgrade

In 2013 the Raptors signed Masai Ujiri to be their general manager, and from the 2013-14 season all the way to the 2017-18 season the Raptors were a regular season powerhouse. They had all-star level players in DeMar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry. They had a solid supporting cast in Jonas Valancuinus and DeMare Carroll. They brought in an all-star level player in Serge Ibaka. They were consistently one of the best teams in the East, but that’s where their problems began. LeBron James ruled the East and no matter how great a season they had, LeBron dismantled anything they could throw at him. After finishing the 2017-18 season with the best record in the NBA, only to get singlehandedly swept by Lebron. Ujiri decided something big needed to change.

First, Ujiri fired their coach of the year winner, Dwyane Casey, and hired assistant coach Nick Nurse to be head coach. Then in what is now considered one of the best trades in NBA history, he traded away the face of the franchise, Demar DeRozan, for Kawhi Leonard. For the Raptors this was a huge risk considering Kawhi just sat out the previous season because he didn’t like the team he was playing for. DeRozan was the Raptors best player and they already knew he fit in their system, he was also best friends with their other star player, Kyle Lowry. Although, on paper Kawhi was an immediate upgrade, and that’s exactly what he was. He came in and was immediately the superstar Toronto needed. Ujiri wasn’t finished though, at the trade deadline he traded another longtime Raptor, Jonas Valancunis, for all-star Marc Gasol. Now with upgrades in Kawhi and Gasol, and the added bonus of Pascal Siakam flourishing into an all-star the Raptors went on to beat the Golden State Warriors in six games to win their first championship in franchise history.

It was a one-year deal and Kawhi is in Los Angeles now, but Ujiri took the risk to rebuild an already great team, and it resulted in one of the greatest front office moves in NBA history.

2014-15 Golden State Warriors

Rebuild Type: Make Every Move Count

The Warriors went about a rebuild in the most convenient way possible. No top five picks and no big-name free agent signings. All they did was use what they were given, and used it to the best of their ability. They rebuilt with hitting on draft picks, scoring valuable free agents, and trading for the right players that fit their system. In 2009 the Warriors took Steph Curry at seventh overall. Curry would go on to be one of the greatest shooters of all time. In 2010 they signed all-star David Lee, who will go on to be the veteran leader of this team. In 2011, new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber hired Jerry West as an executive for the Warriors front office. West drafted Klay Thompson with the seventh pick, and hired commentator Mark Jackson to be head coach. Thompson went on to be one of the most dangerous shooters in the NBA, and a lockdown defender. In the 2012 draft the Warriors selected Harrison Barnes, and in the second round snagged Big Ten player of the year Draymond Green. Barnes turned himself into a solid wing and his style of play complemented Curry and Thompson’s long ball basketball. Green was passed by every team due to not being big enough or skilled enough to play his position, but the Warriors knew better.

Green went on to be one of the premier defensive players in the NBA and has been invaluable to the Warriors as the team’s outspoken leader. After a miserable lockout season in 2011-12, West traded team leader Monta Ellis, 2010 sixth overall pick Epke Udoh, and Kwame Brown for Andrew Bogut. Bogut would provide the size and defensive presence a perimeter focused team as the Warriors needed. This move opened the door for Steph Curry and David Lee to become co-captains and usher in a new era of Warriors basketball. In 2013 they signed Andre Iguodala which would complete their roster rebuild, but the Warriors had one more move to complete their rebuild and become champions. Even though Mark Jackson was doing a great job coaching this team, and helped them become one of the best offensive teams in NBA history, West was not satisfied.

Going into the 2014-15 season West fired Jackson and hired Steve Kerr to his first-ever head coaching job. That season the Warriors went on to achieve a 67-15 record and defeated LeBron James and the Cavs for the NBA championship. They drafted four of their five starters, with Bogut being traded for with another one of their picks. The Warriors did nothing flashy and only signed one all-star in free agency (David Lee), but used efficient scouting to become the powerhouse they are today. As the Warriors went forward, they continued to dominate, set the record for most wins in an NBA regular season, sign Kevin Durant, win two more championships, and become one of the greatest NBA teams of all time.

2016 Chicago Cubs

Rebuild Type: The Tank (Diamonds in the Rough)

From 1908-2015 the Cubs had won zero World Series. That’s 107 years of failure and that’s the exact strategy the Cubs used to become champions. In 2010 and 2011 the Cubs were bad just because they were a bad team. They were able to get a ninth overall pick and take Javier Beaz, but this wasn’t strategy it was just regular Cubs baseball. Then in 2011, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be their president of baseball operations. Epstein was coming off of turning another historically doomed team, the Boston Red Sox, into champions. Epstein saw what the Cubs were doing and said screw it lets just keep losing. While behind the scenes Epstein was making moves acquiring talent with future potential. In 2012 he traded Andrew Cashner for one of the faces of the Cubs franchise, Anthony Rizzo. Then a few months later he traded Ryan Dempster for, at the time an unknown, Kyle Hendricks. The Cubs lost 101 games in 2012, but this was all part of the plan. It resulted in them receiving the second overall pick which they used to take current superstar Kris Bryant. During free agency, Epstein signed Scott Feldman who put up a solid first half in 2013, but Epstein leveraged this hot start into trading for an underachieving Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. At this point it’s obvious Epstein has an eye for players with untapped potential.

After another miserable season in 2013, the Cubs got the fourth overall pick and selected Kyle Schwarber. Once again Epstein signs a valuable pitcher in the offseason, Jason Hammel, and decides to leverage his current success into trading for a player with future value, Addison Russell. Epstein uses free agency to get Jason Hammel back, so they basically only gave up Jeff Samardzija for Russell. The 2014 season ends, the Cubs lost 89 games, and now Epstein decides it’s time to stop losing and turn on the win switch. Epstein fires Rick Renteria and hires Joe Maddon to be their new manager. Epstein with his foot firmly on the gas, decides it’s time to throw some money around. He signs Jon Lester to be their ace going into the 2015 season. He also trades for Dexter Fowler using players that he got as throw in pieces in previous trades. The Cubs don’t just make the playoffs, but the NLCS for the first time since 2003. Thanks in large part to Jake Arrietta becoming a Cy Young level pitcher, Anthony Rizzo being an MVP candidate, and Kris Bryant being Rookie of the Year.

With more money to spend, because most of their best players were on smaller contracts due to being former underachievers or on rookie contracts, Epstein goes out and signs Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. The Cubs are one of the favorites to be World Series winners, but Epstein wants to make sure there is no doubt. At the deadline, Epstein trades four players for all-star closer Aroldis Chapman. Now with seven current all-stars, two Cy Young candidates (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks), and the 2016 NL MVP (Kris Bryant), the Cubs go on to defeat the Cleveland Indians in seven games for their first World Series in 108 years.

All this because the Cubs decided to be terrible for four straight years giving them the opportunity and time to let young players develop and struggling players flourish without the stress of being competitive. Theo Epstein was probably already a Hall of Fame executive when he left for the Chicago, but after what he did for the Cubs he has already cemented himself as one of the greatest baseball executives of all time.

2017 Houston Astros

Rebuild Type: The Tank (Loaded Potential)

While the Cubs were off strategically losing the Houston Astros were taking the same approach, but to the extreme. They weren’t making moves for underachieving guys with high upside, instead, they were focused more on building a farm system of valuable high potential prospects. In 2011, the Astro’s hired Jeff Luhnow to be their General Manager. They specifically wanted Luhnow because of his success at player development and scouting. From 2005 to 2007 Luhnow drafted 24 future major league players many of which contributed to his Cardinals World Series win in 2011. Luhnow’s strategy was to build through the draft, which is something much harder to accomplish in baseball compared to basketball or football, due to the player development needed to make a draft pick MLB ready. Luhnow was dumping anyone of value in order to be bottom feeders and stockpile high draft picks.

From 2011 to 2015 the Astros had three first overall picks, a second overall pick, a fifth overall pick, and an eleventh overall pick. Of those six players, three have become all-stars (George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman). A common theme with a tank, once all your young players are hitting their stride that’s when you go out and spend some money on proven veteran talent. Midway through the 2016 season, Luhnow made it clear the Astros were ready when he decided to spend some big money on Cuban superstar Yuli Gurriel. During that offseason he signed Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, Charlie Morton, and Carlos Beltran. All four stepped into starting roles, and along with the Astros young core of emerging stars, they were World Series favorites going into the 2017 season. Just like Epstein and the Cubs, Luhnow wanted to make sure there was no doubt and traded for one of the most dominant pitchers of all time, Justin Verlander. Now with a young core, veteran leadership, and MVP caliber players, the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games to win their first World Series in franchise history.

What makes Luhnow’s rebuild so remarkable is that he acquired 37 players of their 40-man roster. The only three players he chose not to get rid of since his arrival were Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel. Now the Astros are one of the best teams in baseball and are favorites to win the 2019 World Series.

2018-19 St. Louis Blues

Rebuild Type: Worst to First

Since the Blues entered the NHL in the 1967 expansion, they have only missed the playoffs nine times in 52 seasons, including three Stanley Cup Finals appearances in their first three seasons of existence. That’s the most playoff appearances for any non-original six team. Although, despite their regular-season success they were never able to actually win the Stanley Cup. The rebuild started in 2008 when they hired Doug Armstrong to be their director of player personnel. As the former general manager of the Dallas Stars, Armstrong had proven his ability at finding quality talent through the draft, which he immediately demonstrated drafting future Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.

In 2010 the Blues promoted Armstrong to be their general manager, and he proceeded to acquire a number of important players through the draft. In 2010 he drafted Jaden Schwartz at 14th overall then trades for the 16th pick and takes Vladamir Tarasenko. In 2011 he drafts Joel Edmunson, and one of the most important players to their 2019 roster, goalie Jordan Binnington. In 2012 he gets defenseman Colton Parayko, and in 2013 traded their first-round pick for veteran Jay Bouwmeester. In 2014 Armstrong drafted multiple contributors to the 2019 team in Robby Fabbri, Ivan Barbashev, and got a steal with Samuel Blais in the sixth round. From 2015 to 2018 Armstrong drafted two more players that contributed to the 2019 team: Vince Dunn in 2015, and Robert Thomas in 2017. Going into 2019 the Blues were coming off of missing the playoffs in 2018 after making it the six previous seasons and taking a major step back from their conference finals run in 2017. They had a new coach in Mike Yeo after firing Ken Hitchcock during the 2017 season. Armstrong kept bringing in talents, such as Brayden Schenn and Oskar Sundqvist, refusing to let this team fail. At the start of the 2019 season, Armstrong brought in former Blues wing David Perron coming off the best season of his career in Vegas. He brought in center Tyler Bozak and traded for center Ryan O’Reily. Lastly, he signed Pat Maroon to a one-year contract who took a pay cut because he wanted to play for his hometown team.

The Blues were a team that was considered a playoff contender, but not really in the talks for Stanley Cup contention. After a terrible start to the 2019 season, Armstrong fired Mike Yeo, and the Blues were sitting at 30th in the NHL standings. The Blues named assistant coach Craig Berube to interim head coach while Armstrong went out searching for the ideal candidate to take over next season. Once January rolled around the Blues looked awful, they were dead last in the NHL, Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sanford fought each other at practice, and the Blues were looking like a most dysfunctional team in the league. Something needed to change, and that change came in the form of fourth-string goalie Jordan Binnington. In early December, the Blues dumped backup goalie Chad Johnson on waivers and called up Binnington from the AHL. After two relief appearances, Binnington got his first start on January 7th. He recorded a shutout, and from here on out the Blues were a different team. Binnington stepped in as the starting goaltender for the underachieving Jake Allen and proceeded to go 24-5-1, with five shutouts (6th in NHL), 1.89 goals against (1st in NHL), and a .927 save percentage (4th in NHL). The Blues went 30-10-5 to finish the season, which included a franchise-record 11 game win streak and finished 3rd in the Central Division with 99 points. In the playoffs, the Blues had to win two game sevens including one in the second round against Armstrong’s former team the Dallas Stars. Thanks to Binnington setting the rookie goalie record for most wins in the playoffs (16), game seven heroics from St. Louis native Pat Maroon against Dallas and Ryan O’Reily being every bit the star they traded for; the Blues went on to defeat the Boston Bruins in seven games to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

After spending years building through the draft, and going out and getting veteran talent, Doug Armstrong put together a competitive team that did everything but compete. Until a fourth-string goalie and former third-round pick stepped in with nothing to lose and reignited a championship-caliber team. Binnington is now a St. Louis legend, and Craig Berube has dropped the interim tag going into the 2019-20 season.

2017-18 Washington Capitals

Rebuild Type: Build Around Your Star

Compared to all the rebuilds on this list this one took by far the longest to come to fruition. This rebuild starts all the way in 2004 at the NHL draft lottery. The Washington Capitals finished third to last in the NHL and won the draft lottery for the first overall pick. With this pick, they selected what was considered a potential generational talent Alexander Ovechkin. That’s exactly what they got, and from then on out the Capitals knew if they were going to win a Stanley Cup it was going to be with Ovechkin.

After a lockout delayed Ovechkin’s debut, the 2005-06 season started and Ovechkin was everything as advertised. He immediately became a superstar winning the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) and coming in sixth for the Hart Trophy (MVP). In 2008, after two and a half years of being carried by Ovechkin, but having zero playoff appearances general manager George McPhee fired head coach Glen Hanlon and hired Hershey Bear’s head coach Bruce Boudreau. They also signed Ovechkin to a 13-year contract effectively creating the window for their Stanley Cup aspirations. This would jump-start a run of four straight playoff appearances by Boudreau including two Hart Trophies for Ovechkin, and a President’s Trophy (Best regular season team) in 2010. Despite the team’s success, they couldn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs. During the 2011-12 season, Mcphee fires Bourdeau for Capitals legend Dale Hunter only to make another second-round exit and Ovechkin recording the worst season of his career. Hunter resigns as head coach following the 2011-12 season, and Mcphee hires Adam Oates to be the head coach. Going into the 2012-13 lockout season the Capitals had three former draft picks that have turned into key pieces to support Ovechkin: an all-star in his own right, center Nikolas Backstrom, defenseman John Carlson, and goalie Braden Holtby, both of which would go on to be all-stars.

Despite Ovechkin winning another Hart Trophy in 2013 and two more Richard Trophies (Leading goal scorer) in 2013 and 2014, the Capitals began to decline, and in 2014 missed their first playoffs in seven seasons. George McPhee was fired as general manager and the Capitals hired assistant GM, and 13-year veteran of the Capitals front office, Brian MacLellan. Adam Oates was also fired and replaced by former Nashville Predators’ head coach Barry Trotz. As of now, the Capitals have added four important pieces to their future championship team: center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and defensemen Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Niskanen. Over the next three years the Capitals win two more President’s trophies, Ovechkin wins two more Richard trophies, but the Caps lose in the second round of the playoffs three times in a row. Over this time the Capitals sign two more important players in wing T.J. Oshie and center Lars Eller. Now it’s the 2017-18 season and the Capitals have been one of the most dominant teams of the past five years, they only have one obstacle that they haven’t overcome, 2005 first overall pick Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby and the Penguins had knocked the Caps out of the playoffs three times (2009, 2016, 2017) going into their 2018 playoff meeting. It took six games, but for the first time in 24 years, the Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series to send themselves to the conference finals. They beat Tampa Bay in seven games to win their first conference finals since 1998, only to meet the Las Vegas Golden Knights whose general manager is none other than George McPhee the man who drafted Ovechkin and helped build this team.

The Capitals defeat the Knights in five games to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and Ovechkin is awarded the Conn Smythe trophy (Finals MVP). It took 13 years, five head coaches, and two general managers, but the Capitals finally built a championship team around their star.

2013 Seattle Seahawks

Rebuild Type: Handing over the Reigns

In 2010 the Seahawks made one of the riskiest moves in professional sports. They hired a college coach to be their head coach and general manager. Pete Carroll was coming off of nine seasons as head coach of the USC Trojans, where he won two consecutive national championships in 2003 and 2004. Carroll came in with a plan, seeing as the NFL was becoming more and more dependent on the passing game, he was going to build a team around stopping the pass. His first draft in 2010 he took three defensive backs: Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmond, and Kam Chancellor. During the 2010 season, Carroll made two big trades, he traded for linebacker Chris Clemons and running back Marshawn Lynch.

The Seahawks would go on to have a losing record that year, at 7-9, but in a division of losers, they actually made the playoffs. The Seahawks would win their first game against the previous Super Bowl champions, the New Orleans Saints, thanks in large part to one of the greatest runs in NFL history, by Marshawn Lynch. Following a run that caused a stadium to cheer so loud they caused an earthquake, the Seahawks would lose to the Bears in the second round, but it was obvious Carroll was creating something special in Seattle. By now the Seahawks defense was one of the worst in the NFL (27th in yards and 25th in scoring). Prior to the 2011 season, Carroll added three more defensive backs: he signed Brandon Browner and drafted Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. He also snagged two linebackers in the draft with K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith. Carroll was building his defense on speed and power. He was determined to make sure no one could score on his Seahawks. The Seahawks missed the playoffs in 2011 with a record of 7-9, but the league could tell something special was happening. The Seahawks now had a nearly top ten defense ranking 11th in passing, 15th in running and seventh in scoring. This was all thanks to the emergence of the “Legion of Boom.” The “Legion of Boom” consisted of the Seahawks physical and demanding secondary play. The Seahawks were seventh in the league at forcing turnovers, and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor had turned into the most feared safety duo in the league. Carroll still wasn’t satisfied with his defense, and in 2012 he drafted two more linebackers in Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner. Then Carroll made the draft pick that changed everything. He took Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.

Wilson won out the starting job in 2012, earned himself a pro bowl trip, and the Seahawks went on to have their first winning season since 2007 at 11-5, which included an undefeated record at home. The Legion of Boom had now flourished into one of the most dominant defenses in the league: finishing sixth in passing yards, tenth in rushing years and first in scoring. Unfortunately, all this resulted in was a second-round exit against the Atlanta Falcons. Carroll needed to just a bit more to bring him over the top, and he went out and signed defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Going into the 2013 season, the Seahawks were considered Super Bowl favorites and they did not disappoint. They finished 13-3, and blew out Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos for their first Super Bowl in franchise history. They finished the season ranked first in pass defense, scoring defense, and turnovers, being the first team to do so since the 1985 Chicago Bears.

By the end of the season, only four players on the roster weren’t acquired by Pete Carroll: Max Unger, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, and Jon Ryan. Pete Carroll stepped in and in just four short years completely rebuilt the team into a champion. This Seahawks defense is now considered one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, and it’s all due to Pete Carroll sticking to the theme of defense wins championships.

2018 Philadelphia Eagles

Rebuild Type: One Man’s Trash

From 2010-2014 Howie Roseman was general manager of the Eagles, and the youngest GM in NFL history. Roseman immediately showed his ability to build a winning team, and in his first year he built a team that won the NFC East,. He built his team on youth and taking chances on high value high-risk players such as Michael Vick. Although Roseman was the general manager in the title he was more of an advisory role to head coach and executive of football operations Andy Reid. Although in 2012 Roseman was given the power to draft the players he wanted and took Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry, and Nick Foles, all of whom played prominent roles on their future Super Bowl team. Then by the end of 2012, the Eagles had their first losing season since 2005 and Andy Reid was fired. Roseman was still the general manager, but that remained a title only as the Eagles hired Chip Kelly to the same position that Andy Reid held.

Kelly immediately turned the team around, but that was only temporary. Kelly started making big moves that would all backfire including: trading their starting quarterback (Nick Foles) and running back (LeSean McCoy), releasing starting receiver DeSean Jackson, letting another receiver (Jeremy Maclin) walk in free agency, and giving big money to a running back (Demarco Murray) that didn’t fit his system. In 2015 Roseman was named the executive vice president of football operations which was just a promotion in title and not responsibilities, but after a 6-9 record, Kelly was fired.

Going into 2016 this was now Roseman’s team as he stepped into the general manager role, and hired Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to be the Eagles, new head coach. In just three short days Chip Kelly spent 105 mil to acquire Demarco Murray, Byron Maxwell, and Kiko Alonso. In the span of three hours, Roseman had traded all of them away opening up cap space and giving Roseman freedom to build his team. He used this freedom to acquire receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Jay Ajayi and traded up in the 2016 draft to acquire quarterback Carson Wentz. He also went out and signed former Eagles quarterback Nick Foles to back up Wentz. Roseman’s plan to build a champion was to build dominant offensive and defensive lines. He also decided to invest in players who were drafted high, but not panning out on the teams that drafted them. He did this by signing players to short term low risk contracts, and over the next two years, Roseman acquired 11 starters through free agency and trades.

By the start of the 2017 season, six of the nine starters on the Eagles starting offensive and defensive lines were drafted in the first or second round. In 2017 these lines would help the Eagles achieve the third-best rush offense in the NFL and the number one rush defense. Even though starting quarterback Carson Wentz went down for the season in week 14, the Eagles were still able to win the NFC East and on the back of their linemen and backup quarterback Nick Foles, the Eagles were able to defeat the New England Patriots for their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

Howie Roseman took a struggling team with too many overpaid veterans, and in two years turned them into a champion. During Roseman’s tenure as GM, he’s made more trades than any other team in the NFL and was able to build his team on other teams unwanted players just showing that any player can succeed given the right environment.

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