Middling teams of professional sports have a place in their respective leagues. Not dominant, but competitive. Low ceiling, high floor. First-round exit, but make the playoffs. From the NBA to Major League Baseball to the National Football League, these teams exist. There is enough parity in these sports to keep things interesting.
The Philadelphia Eagles were able to overcome the loss of their MVP-caliber quarterback in Carson Wentz to win a Super Bowl. The Houston Astros went from a zero a few years ago to hero in the winning of the most recent World Series. Go back further with the Kansas City Royals winning a ring in 2015, or the Baltimore Ravens getting the hardware in 2013 with Joe Flacco.
Surprises happen. Average teams are able to go on runs that propel them to the promised land. Franchises find a diamond in the rough, a superstar who drags a team deep into the playoffs. Sometimes there are just really well-put-together teams like baseball’s San Francisco Giants, who were one of the quietest dynasties ever.
So why does this feel impossible in the NBA?
There is a glass ceiling in the NBA. Superstars rule the land and teams without one tend to be lambs for slaughter. It is a vicious reality that teams like the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks are recent subjects. Toronto was unable to get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the past three seasons. On paper, the Raptors were certainly a more well-organized and deeper team. Atlanta stormed out in front of the Eastern Conference in 2014-15, winning 60-plus games. Truthfully, no superstars on the team. They got bounced in a sweep at the hands of the Cavs without Kevin Love and a hobbled Kyrie Irving. Perhaps that is a testament to LeBron being the greatest of player of this generation.
I have made tiers to the number of games won and how it correlates to a team’s outlook. Fewer than 24 wins is a REALLY bad team. Think Baron Davis-led Cleveland in the early 2010’s or pre-Process Philadelphia 76ers. 25-30 wins is a bad team, one that is inherently flawed for probably numerous reasons. Think the Orlando Magic who has pieces that make you think they’re decent, but end up falling flat.
Then there is a wide chasm that many, many teams fall in. That dreaded 31-45 range.
The Pistons, Wizards, Clippers, Cavaliers, amongst others, fall into this range. Their upside? A second-round playoff exit. Barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, that is the ceiling. All of these teams have salary allocated to the present when the present is the equivalent to 70 degrees and cloudy. Nothing more than an unenthusiastic “sigh”.
(The Clippers have a little more room than the other teams, fine.)
Detroit? They have bet the farm on Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, and Reggie Jackson. Two of those players have a history of knee and ankleankle issues. But when healthy they can be something “special”, like a competitive second-round exit. Nothing wrong with that.
Cleveland? Signed themselves away to Kevin Love as their new centerpiece player. Many people feel it was a gross overpay for a guy who was on the trade block seemingly every year since he arrived in Cleveland. Owner Dan Gilbert, who could easily tank and keep his first round pick next year (top-10 protected, otherwise it goes to Atlanta), is opting to try and make the playoffs. Nothing wrong with that.
Washington? John Wall and Bradley Beal make up one of the more dynamic backcourt duos in the NBA. But given the rising teams in the Eastern Conference, the Wizards look more and more like the team that gets the short end of the stick. People have been questioning Wall’s leadership skills for a while and the chemistry of the team makes me wish there was an NBA-version of HBO’s “Hard Knocks”.
Clippers? They tore down “Lob City” with the trades of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and let DeAndre Jordan walk to Dallas. In its place is a rag-tag band of misfit toys like scoring aficionado Lou Williams, defensive-minded Patrick Beverly, the oft-injured yet still talented Danilo Gallinari, and greatly-underrated Tobias Harris. They also possess Mr. Five O’Clock shadow Milos Teodosic and Frankenstein’s monster in Boban Marjonovic. Sure, they may have some cap space next summer to make a run for Kawhi Leonard, but as of now they too look like a competitive (but not TOO competitive) team.
Anything above 46 wins is a team that has the potential to make some noise if things fall into place. The Milwaukee Bucks are clinging to this category because of Giannis Antetokounmpo, though another first-round playoff exit would likely put them in the dreaded mediocre zone. The Western Conference teams are too close to call, but it is hard to see anyone getting past Golden State.
So why are teams subjecting themselves to this level of average-ness? In many instances, it is a combination of hope, ego, and money. The Cavaliers are trying to stay relevant (hope), Dan Gilbert wants to prove he does not need a roster with LeBron James to make the playoffs (ego) and he wants to keep butts in the seats at the soon-to-be-renovated Quicken Loans Arena (money). The Pistons have a brand new arena that fails to attract anybody, but perhaps (hope) a competitive roster would interest people (money). The Clippers and sweaty/loud owner Steve Ballmer want to be competitive in a massive money-making market (the trifecta in one sentence). The Wizards added a coach in Scott Brooks to help bring the team to the promised land (hope). Sticking with their talented, but flawed roster that thinks it’s better than it is (ego) and, well, they’re financially strapped to Wall and Beal (money).
Would a fan rather have his team be in the position of the Clippers, or Phoenix Suns? How about four years ago: who would have said they would rather be in the position of the Philadelphia 76ers instead of the Wizards? Aside from Philly fans, very few. Same goes for Hawks and Sixers fans even three years ago. This begs the question: should teams simply tank if the championship window is open less than an inch? Certainly, there is merit to winning more than 25 games, but at what cost?
Being average in the NBA is a brutal business to be in. In baseball and football, it takes time to build up and become a dynasty. Very rarely does a team overhaul themselves in one offseason and become a juggernaut. In the NBA, teams can flip a switch and acquire a superstar that shifts the balance. Teams in purgatory one year may be relegated to the basement the next and vice versa. And while it is hard to climb back to relevancy, should a team come up as soon as they think they can, or wait until at full strength?
(Featured image by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)