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"Slash-and-burn" team rebuilding is tanking, but long-term improvement is the bigger goal

Blowing up a team is tanking. But there is a bigger goal to a rebuild than just tanking.

The Washington Mystics' acquisition of Bria Hartley is an example of a "slash-and-burn" roster move. I'd like to say that she's doing just fine in D.C.
The Washington Mystics' acquisition of Bria Hartley is an example of a "slash-and-burn" roster move. I'd like to say that she's doing just fine in D.C.
Photo courtesy of Stewart W. Small

In professional basketball, there comes a time when core groups run their course, and it's time to start over from scratch. When teams decide to rebuild their foundations in a "slash-and-burn" fashion, they are accepting the risk that they will be losing for some period of time before getting back into contention.

The purpose of a "slash-and-burn" foundational rebuild is to purge a veteran group of players for a newer, younger group which should have a higher ceiling long term. The Ten Point Team Rebuilding Plan is a framework on how a team can do just that.

In the NBA, some teams went through such types of rebuilds in order to improve later on. In recent years, the Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder and the Washington Wizards made such moves to move on from previous eras to become playoff caliber teams with a window to contend for years to come. Currently, the Philadelphia 76ers are also in the middle of executing such a plan, which they have sold very publicly to say the least.

But in the WNBA, is there a team that has slashed and burned its roster in recent memory? Yes! The Washington Mystics are in the middle of such a process, where only one player from a 5-29 team in the 2012 remained in 2014.

One example of the Mystics "purging" a player was their acquisition of rookie guard Bria Hartley and sophomore forward Tianna Hawkins from the Seattle Storm in exchange for Crystal Langhorne during the 2014 WNBA Draft. Langhorne was the de-facto marquee player of the Mystics franchise for several years before she was dealt, given that she made the 2011 and 2013 All-Star teams while in D.C.

We fully endorsed this move, at least from the Mystics' side. But many, if not most other WNBA sites at the time viewed this as a bad move because the Mystics appeared to be worse on paper after the deal. For example, other WNBA writers, like Richard Cohen of WNBAlien gave the Storm an A-, and the Mystics a C for the deal. ESPN writer Kevin Pelton was surprised that the move happened altogether:

Now, is this specific move an example of the Mystics tanking their roster at the time? Yes it is.

The intent of this move was to bring in young players who were better potential long-term fits for the Mystics, most notably Hartley, in exchange for a veteran player who was not a fit in Langhorne. Even I will acknowledge that the move in and of itself made the Mystics worse on paper, perhaps considerably if Hartley didn't work out at all. Given that the trade is made without hindsight and the team got worse on paper short-term, it is tanking from a general manager sense.

But the bigger question about a "slash-and-burn" rebuild -- and the types of moves to do it -- is whether the new younger players will fit in better with their teams than the older players who were dealt. The answer to that question is also yes.

After one season with the Mystics, Hartley quickly became a contributing starter and helped the Mystics get to a 16-18 record and a 2014 playoff berth averaging 9.7 points and 3.1 assists a game. Her performance during the 2014 season was partly due to an outstanding job by head coach Mike Thibault, who also is the team's the General Manager, and made the trade to get her. In short, Hartley worked out for the Mystics better than most anticipated, even given her faults as a rookie. Hopefully, she will improve on those numbers in 2015 and beyond.

In the WNBA, where many head coaches including Thibault, are also GM's, they also have a balancing act that they have to do when they are rebuilding a team. When they put their GM hat on, they could very well make these kinds of trades, like Sam Hinkie of the Sixers. But when they have their head coach hat on, they also cannot have their roster develop losing habits, even when they get worse on paper in the short-term.

Ultimately, we need to judge "slash-and-burn" rebuilds based on how these teams perform long term. Will they make a long playoff run at some point, and can they do better than the previous group before the rebuild? Hopefully the teams that decide to turn over their rosters will come out ahead in the end, even if they have to tank in the short term.