Why rebuilding can work in NBA

League's cyclical nature shows cellar-dwellers make big leap within five years

Updated: March 19, 2014, 11:05 AM ET
By Kevin Pelton | ESPN Insider

Duncan-PopovichNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Spurs are the rare exception. Winning in the NBA is cyclical, not constant.

The 2008 Western Conference finals were billed as a clash of teams heading in opposite directions. The San Antonio Spurs, winners of three championships in the previous five seasons, had fought their way back to the conference finals in what looked like the last hurrah for an aging core. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers were on the ascent, en route to the NBA Finals for the first of three consecutive trips that would produce a pair of titles.

Six years later, the situation has improbably reversed. Last season's San Antonio sweep in the opening round, followed by Dwight Howard's departure, heralded the beginning of a rebuilding process of indeterminate length for the lottery-bound Lakers. Somehow the Spurs have extended their run, which came within a single shot of producing another championship last June. This season, San Antonio again has the league's best record and a chance at another Finals appearance.

Looking at the 2007-08 standings, the Spurs are the exception and the Lakers the rule. Of the 14 teams who would be in the lottery if the season ended Wednesday, 10 made the playoffs in 2008. At the same time, all of this season's championship contenders -- save San Antonio -- were either in the lottery six years ago or have made a trip there at some point in between.

Consider the past six years an extreme example of the cyclical nature of the NBA.