Lottery Tuesday: When ‘rebuilding’ leans so heavily on fate, it’s no wonder why Troy Weaver prefers ‘restoring’

(Editor’s note: The most important NBA draft lottery draw for the Pistons since 1994 will take place two weeks from today, June 22. We’ll take a look at different aspects of the lottery each Tuesday from now until then, continuing with today’s look at how other teams with recent lottery appearances have fared in their aftermath.)

Troy Weaver’s explanation for why he chose “restoration” over “rebuilding” to describe the process he’s overseeing as Pistons general manager was at once quaint and uniquely appropriate for Detroit.

“My dad, he used to collect older cars and he had a ’66 Monte Carlo he was restoring and before he passed I would go out there and talk with him,” Weaver said in March when asked about his choice of words. “He said you can only restore something that’s great. That stuck with me. There’s been greatness here in Detroit – three championships. That’s why I use restoring.”

If restoring didn’t fit so neatly in the Motor City, chances are Weaver would have found another word – anything other than rebuilding. That word has been forever tarnished by what transpired in Philadelphia in the middle of the last decade when the 76ers went as far down the rabbit hole as a professional league can tolerate, deliberately engineering rosters to accumulate the most losses possible in pursuit of the most lottery combinations conceivable.

Recall Weaver’s words upon his hiring a year ago: “Traditional rebuilds are pretty much a thing of the past – the two- or three-year rebuild and see what you have in two or three years. My philosophy is one-year rebuild every year. Try to be open-minded, go to the drawing board without mortgaging the future and try to put the best team on the floor.”

So if Weaver is grinding his teeth especially tightly on June 22 when the lottery countdown starts at 14, it’s because the stakes are higher when you don’t plan on being back in the lottery next year and the year after that. There is evidence to support wherever one comes down on the merits of tanking, but Weaver’s competitive motor runs too hot to endure another season or two of 82-game grinds that all boil down to the whims of tumbling ping-pong balls in spring.

And especially since the NBA altered the formula to flatten lottery odds. Even after a 20-52 record in the truncated 2020-21 schedule to earn the most favorable odds possible, it’s still basically a coin flip – 52-48 – that the Pistons will wind up with a top-four pick. Their single most likely statistical outcome, a 27.8 percent chance, is picking fifth.

Here’s a look at six teams – three from each conference – that have undergone one or two rebuilding efforts in the last decade alone. The track record should show why Weaver is skeptical of the wisdom of the commonly understood meaning of rebuilding.

  • Philadelphia – The 76ers won 19, 18 and 10 games over a three-year stretch from 2013-16. The lottery gave them the third pick in 2014 (Joel Embiid), third pick in 2015 (Jahlil Okafor), first in 2016 (Ben Simmons) and third in 2017. In the 2017 lottery, when the Sixers improved to 28-54 with Embiid finally making his NBA debut after sitting out his first two seasons, Philadelphia wound up exercising a pick swap with Sacramento to go from fifth to third and then traded up from third with Boston to take Markelle Fultz No. 1 and leave the Celtics to grab Jayson Tatum after Lonzo Ball went to the Lakers at No. 2. The 76ers have advanced to the second round of the playoffs three times – including their current matchup with Atlanta – but have yet to reach the conference finals. And that’s with absorbing years of misery, having better than average luck in the lottery and whiffing on two of their four premium picks.

  • Cleveland – The Cavaliers are on their second rebuilding phase, the first culminating in the 2016 NBA championship. It’s tough to put Cleveland in the “rebuilding” category because its fortunes swung on LeBron James’ decision to return after a four-year hiatus on South Beach yielded two NBA titles for the Miami Heat. Yet that only tells part of the story in and of itself. Because only some incredible lottery luck – cashing in on a 2.8 percent chance to leap from No. 8 to No. 1 with a pick from the Clippers in 2011 to take Kyrie Irving and on 1.7 percent odds to go from No. 9 to No. 1 in 2014 to take Andrew Wiggins – made Cleveland a viable option for James when the Miami experiment dissolved. Wiggins was used to land Kevin Love from Minnesota, giving the Cavs a Love-Irving support system around James. It could have been even better if the Cavs had done something other than taking Anthony Bennett at No. 1 in 2013 after capitalizing on 15.6 percent odds to go from No. 3 to No. 1. Landing three No. 1 picks in a four-year lottery span – two on miniscule odds – is unprecedented lottery charm and yet it took the return of LeBron James to make it all pay off.

    In Phase II, Cleveland has landed three top-eight lottery picks – staying at No. 8 to take Collin Sexton in 2018, dropping three spots to add Darius Garland in 2019 and dropping three spots again in taking Isaac Okoro in 2020 – and finds itself coming off a 22-50 season and going into the June 22 lottery in the No. 5 position with an 11.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick and a 45 percent shot at a top-four pick.

    So if you can count on winning the lottery three times in four years and have a LeBron James who grew up in your backyard and joined your team on another occasion when your franchise won the lottery, rebuilding is a sure-fire way to win one NBA championship, it seems.

  • Atlanta – The Hawks won 60 games in 2014-15 and got to the Eastern Conference finals, but were swept by Cleveland in the first year of LeBron James’ second go-around with the Cavs. The Hawks had a stable roster and ran it back to win 48 games the next season and 43 the year after that, but began tearing it down in earnest. They won 24, 29 and 20 games in the next three seasons and moved up one spot, to third, in a strong 2018 draft to put in motion a sequence that led to landing Trae Young, the centerpiece of the current roster that has advanced to the second round of the playoffs after a 41-31 season. The Hawks pushed a lot of chips to the middle of the table last off-season to spend on Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic in free agency. To be determined how this one turns out.

  • Minnesota – Like Cleveland, the Timberwolves are on a second rebuild this decade and, like the Cavs, they’ve been blessed with some unusual lottery luck. The T-wolves have won the lottery both in 2015 – taking Karl-Anthony Towns on 25 percent odds of getting the No. 1 pick – and in 2020, rising two spots on 14 percent odds to pick Anthony Edwards at No. 1. They also were the landing spot for 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, trading Kevin Love to Cleveland to get him. So a lot of talent has come through the door in Minneapolis – before and after Jimmy Butler’s turbulent 69-game stay – and the Timberwolves will go into the June 22 lottery in the No. 6 position off a 23-49 record that gives them a 9 percent chance at the No. 1 overall pick and a 36.2 percent shot at a top-four pick.

  • Dallas – The Dallas rebuilding has been about as painless as these things get, the 2016-17 Mavs going 33-49 with an aging roster built around Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams that went 24-58 the next season and wound up No. 5 in the 2018 lottery. Luka Doncic looks like a future MVP and for as wonderful as Trae Young is and what he’s meant to Atlanta, it’s pretty easy to say the Mavericks made the right move to trade up to No. 3 and cede their 2019 first-rounder to the Hawks. There’s work to do around Doncic, though, as was evident in Sunday’s Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

  • Memphis – The Grizzlies didn’t decide to tank so much as had the decision made for them with injuries to franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley bringing the Grind City era to a close. The same terrific 2018 draft that saw Phoenix take De’Andre Ayton No. 1 and Doncic and Young go third and fifth saw Memphis take Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. with the fourth pick. A year later, after going 33-49 and rising four spots in the lottery on a 6 percent chance to get the No. 2 pick, the Grizzlies added dynamic point guard Ja Morant. Morant and Jackson give Memphis a promising base to build on and the Grizzlies are coming off a first-round playoff exit, losing in five games to Utah after a 38-34 record and a stirring play-in tournament upset win at Golden State to earn the No. 8 seed in the West.