Mediocrity is a place that NBA teams want to avoid at all costs. Mediocrity means not a winner but also competitive enough to separate itself from the bottom of the pack. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. It wouldn’t mathematically make sense for teams not to be average. When it starts becoming a pattern, however, that is when a franchise has something to be concerned about. For whatever reason (team culture, market, personnel), it isn’t all that uncommon a pattern for certain teams.
If we take a look at the standings for instance:
The Western Conference has 11 legitimate, playoff-worthy teams. That includes a LeBron James-fueled Lakers team and a young and upcoming Sacramento team. Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves are also on the outside looking in. Consider how much better these teams would be in the Eastern Conference – let’s swap them for, say, Detroit, Brooklyn and Miami. The Kings are not to be overlooked any longer given their accomplishments regardless of postseason status. This team is not scratching its head over mediocrity since it’s headed in the right direction.
The Eastern Conference teams currently seeded sixth through 10th (Detroit, Brooklyn, Miami, Orlando and Charlotte) are marginally talented – decent enough to hang around .500 but not exactly a threat to make noise as contenders that could reach the conference finals. The Pacers aren’t even included in that because they’ve managed to stay on track without a healthy Victor Oladipo. Especially with the new lottery structure, the final four teams (Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland and New York) will have an opportunity to add major talent through the upcoming draft.
A little off-topic but speaking of the NBA draft: there is almost always at least one team that steals an eventual star-caliber player in the middle of the first round. Some examples include: John Collins picked 19th in 2017, Devin Booker picked 13th in 2015, and Giannis Antetokounmpo picked 15th in 2013. That being said, teams cannot count on that happening as if any given prospect could fall in their lap.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of teams that have fared well but struggled to get over the hump through recent years:
Atlanta: The Hawks had a winning record in eight of nine seasons starting in 2008-09 and ending in 2016-17. They won 50-plus games in two of those seasons. Both times, however, they were unable to advance past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. That includes their 60-win campaign in 2014-15 in which they sent four players (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague) to the All-Star game. The problem is while that they’ve had a highly competitive group of players, the Hawks haven’t had a superstar since Dominique Wilkins in the early 90’s.
Portland: If we’re counting this year, the Trail Blazers have only finished under .500 in two of the last 12 seasons and they sport about a 56 winning percentage over that span. Rip City’s regular season success has been orchestrated by the likes of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Portland is one of those deep west territories that’s typically a lively basketball atmosphere. While the Blazers have certainly been a step above mediocre, they’ve also consistently been a step below the dons of the Western Conference (such as LAL, SAS, DAL and GSW).
The league’s current collective bargaining agreement, which was agreed to by players and owners in 2017, doesn’t help matters. The salary cap continues to increase each year, which means teams have to be careful about carelessly spending money. That’s evidently much easier said than done as pretty much every team ends up regretful about contracts they granted. Not only does that give an organization limited flexibility but it can also completely destroy any hopes of steering clear of that mediocrity level.
Washington, for example, has fallen victim to this:
Ernie Grunfeld can breathe a half-sigh of relief as he managed to clear the max contract he gave Otto Porter a couple summers ago. The Wizards have a lot more work to do though. Bradley Beal, set to earn $56 million over the next two years, has gained notoriety as a proven All-Star guard. Combining him with the likes of John Wall, who will get paid over $170 million the next four years (not counting this year), Ian Mahinmi, and company, is where the team’s financial situation gets hectic.
Big players in free agency, such as LeBron James to Miami, L.A. and back to Cleveland, change the entire structure of the NBA. Upcoming free agents in 2019 such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard could have the same type of effect. Many of the small-market teams will be unaffected or even a little bit harmed by this – because they never have a chance to sign those marquee-type players. That’s why building through the draft is absolutely crucial no matter who you are. At some point in time, every organization has to bring down the house or move in another direction.
It’s almost as if an organization’s goal should be ducking mediocrity. Sometimes it’s like a maze that’s impossible to find your way out of. Once you get sucked in, it can be overwhelmingly difficult to get out of. And you know what happens next? Coaching and front office staff start to get fired until a brand new chapter begins. Then it’s time to run away from mediocrity once again.