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The Middle of Nowhere

Is being good good enough? Being stuck in the NBA’s middle class may be more challenging than ever.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, AndreDrummond, Goran Dragic, and John Wall Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

When Kevin Durant and the Warriors united to supercharge an already-super team, there was a lot of bellyaching in and around the NBA about talent stacking and competitive balance. Not to mention that the Pollyanna crowd cried about Durant’s perceived lack of allegiance to Oklahoma City. (Spoiler: There isn’t any loyalty in sports, and there never was.)

Despite all that, it at least felt like the Warriors were done assimilating superstars into their basketball Borg. After all, adding KD made them as close to unbeatable in a seven-game playoff series as any organization has ever been. And so almost no one stopped to ask one simple but terrifying question: What if an already-rich team wanted to get richer?

Last weekend, Tim Kawakami wrote a piece for The Athletic wondering that very thing. In it, he floated the idea of the Warriors potentially targeting Anthony Davis, which is the sort of thing that will give the other 29 teams and their fans nightmares, or make them vomit, or both. It’s unlikely — the Warriors would probably have to dangle Klay Thompson and Draymond Green just to get the Pelicans to pick up the phone, then they’d have to get creative to keep New Orleans on the line — and Kawakami conceded that moving pieces that big around the board wouldn’t be easy. It’s also not the first time there have been whispers about the Warriors wanting another killer for their team of assassins; in July, Kawakami speculated that they “surely want to pursue Paul George [in the 2018 offseason], even though that acquisition is unlikely.” The overarching point is that GM Bob Myers and Golden State might be mapping out a dynasty that could last even longer than the one everyone has already forecasted.

Any possibility, however remote, of the Warriors becoming an even more dominant superpower should have the rest of the league shook. Indeed, those kinds of what-if war games have likely helped escalate the already-lopsided NBA arms race. Chris Paul and James Harden combined forces in Houston. OKC melded Paul George and Carmelo Anthony with Russell Westbrook. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward had an arranged marriage in Boston. It’s all designed to challenge Golden State’s supremacy.

So is tanking. At the other end of the talent-hoarding spectrum, you have franchises that know the smartest and probably only way to improve is through the draft over a protracted period. If they’re realistic and honest with themselves, teams like the Hawks, Magic, Bulls, Nets, Lakers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, and Kings understand that their best chance to win tomorrow is by stockpiling picks today.

The glaring gap between the top-tier teams and the bottom-feeders feels like it’s never been bigger, and it’s hard to imagine the system of haves and have-nots changing anytime soon. All of which leaves the league with a familiar socioeconomic question: Is there still room for the middle class?

The first All-Star ballot returns revealed that Giannis Antetokounmpo had received the most fan votes in the league to that point. Asked about the development, Giannis said that — setting his teammates aside for diplomacy purposes — he’d take LeBron James with the first pick for his team. (Top vote-getters in each conference are designated captains and will choose their squads under this year’s revised All-Star format.) It was a savvy thing to say, and not simply because LeBron’s individual superiority remains unchallenged.

“The best player in the world,” Antetokounmpo said with a smirk. “We can have a good relationship in free agency — you never know, he might come play here.”

Giannis just turned 23. He’s a monster having the best season of his young career, a one-name wonder who was a fashionable early-season MVP candidate. He is not just the future of the league, but very much part of its present. And yet, like everyone else, he seems to understand that Milwaukee needs more. Eric Bledsoe was a nice addition, and Jabari Parker’s return should further buoy the Bucks. But without another superstar to stand physically and figuratively shoulder-to-shoulder with him, Giannis isn’t winning anything of value anytime soon. Hence the LeBron dream, as tongue-in-cheek as it may have been. (But, holy shit, what a dream it was; a Giannis-and-LeBron team-up would be the buddy-cop blockbuster of our time.)

Of course, you could pick pretty much any team in the middle of the NBA pecking order and apply the same thinking. The Pacers, Pistons, Wizards, Nuggets, and Blazers would all be elevated to the top of the league’s hierarchy if only they could land LeBron. Which they won’t. Which brings us back to the original question about whether there’s any value in constructing a team that projects as a mid-to-low-level playoff participant.

“It gets at the heart of almost every discussion we have,” Ben Falk, who was previously the Sixers’ vice president of basketball strategy and now runs Cleaning the Glass, said via email. “What is a franchise’s goal? If the owner wants the team to be consistently competitive, then of course it’s OK to build a team that is optimized for that goal: one with a lower ceiling than other teams but a much higher floor. In the abstract, it’s reasonable to say that a goal of being in the playoffs every season and always giving your fans a reason to follow the team is a worthy one.”

The Heat and Pistons are two case studies on that front. After a slow start, the Heat have played better lately. They squeaked out victories over the Raptors and Pacers this week to win six in a row, and they’re 8–2 over their past 10. Their 24–17 record puts them fourth in the Eastern Conference. Still, they have a slightly upside-down minus-1 point differential, and they’re 20th in net rating. Overall, the Heat are … fine.

But fine has led to a debate about whether it was wise for Miami to write all those fat checks the past few years. This past offseason, James Johnson signed a four-year deal worth $60 million, Dion Waiters got four years and $52 million, and Kelly Olynyk received four years and $50 million. Josh Richardson also got a four-year extension for $42 million. Two offseasons prior, the Heat gave Tyler Johnson a four-year deal at $50 million. Miami also has Goran Dragic (five years, $85 million) and Hassan Whiteside (four years, $98 million) on the books for big money. That’s an awful lot of their financial future to commit to end up in the middle of the pack, and it’s fair to wonder what kind of return on that investment Pat Riley expects.

You could ask the same questions about Detroit’s approach, though the Pistons aren’t tethered to nearly as many bloated contracts. Following this season, Reggie Jackson has two more years left on the five-year, $80 million deal he signed with Detroit in 2015. Meanwhile, Andre Drummond is in the second season of a five-year contract that will pay him $127 million. After that, the Pistons have some slightly less expensive pieces like Tobias Harris, and they’ll have to figure out what to do about Avery Bradley, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Like the Heat, the Pistons are also … fine.

If the ultimate goal is to win a championship, how do franchises like the Heat and Pistons make that happen? In a post-Process world, my reflexive position is that teams plotted near the NBA equator should pack up and relocate to the north or south poles. Either get all in or all out; the mediocre middle is to be avoided at all costs. That makes sense to me as a thought experiment, but the more I talked to people around the league, the more I was reminded that the theory is hard to implement in practice.

As one longtime league executive pointed out, if Miami wanted to be as bad as Atlanta (which it doesn’t) and completely reboot, that wouldn’t require one or two moves but something closer to six or seven. “You could argue the same thing about Detroit,” he said, “and Stan [Van Gundy] would probably have to be one of the guys you unwind.”

That’s not happening anytime soon. The Heat committed to that grab bag of players just as the Pistons committed to Van Gundy. As a result, it’s unlikely that those franchises will drastically alter their realities in either direction over the next few years. But even if they could snap their fingers right now and hit a hard reset — for our purposes, we’ll momentarily imagine that burning it all down and starting over is somehow easier to accomplish than landing a superstar or two or three to become instant contenders, which, by the way, the Heat already did a few years ago — would they even want to?

Earlier this season, I asked two executives for surefire lottery teams how the rebuilds were going. Their respective replies amounted to the equivalent of nervous laughter. “Who wants to start over? It’s not easy. It’s not fun,” one of them told me. The other openly wondered if he’d be around to see the new plan to its conclusion — or even its midpoint.

As an NBA writer and fan who spends a lot of time talking to other NBA writers and fans, that is something we too often forget about or fail to lend the proper weight to. We frequently treat these topics like abstract concepts — should Team X blow it all up? — without considering real-world, human concerns. As one executive put it to me, ask every coach in the league if they want to go through a rebuild and you’re likely to get the same answer for the same reason: No thanks. That sounds like it would suck.

The same is likely true for front-office staffers and owners leaguewide. Especially owners. These are people who have won at life. They are wildly rich and successful, and there’s an ego component that goes with securing an NBA franchise, of which there are only 30 in the world. “They didn’t do it to be ridiculed and unpopular,” a longtime league exec said. “Why would any of them want to blow it up and hit bottom? They want to sit courtside and dap Steph [Curry].”

In fairness, that sounds a lot more enjoyable. Easier, too. Not to mention that, from a product standpoint, there’s something to be said for good (not great) basketball teams as solely a source of entertainment. I will be forever in favor of tanking as a means to reach the top, but my worldview is admittedly skewed by what happened with the Sixers. Watching Evan Turner, Thad Young, and Jrue Holiday struggle to reach 40 wins wasn’t enjoyable and didn’t represent much of a sacrifice. But I’d probably feel differently if I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and got to watch Damian Lillard cross up overmatched defenders. Or if I lived in Denver and felt invested in Nikola Jokic. Or even if I were an otherwise disgruntled Pelicans fan who could at least cling to three or four Anthony Davis games a week. In those scenarios, I’m not sure how quickly I’d sign up to hit CTRL+ALT+DEL.

The problem with that, as ever, is how long you can watch that kind of product before getting bored or frustrated or both. Eventually, the novelty of the midtier team wears off regardless of interesting individual performers and their League Pass appeal. As Falk said, “That’s part of the human condition. We’re wired to need progress. Combine that with playing in a league where everyone (from players to coaches to management to ownership) is extremely competitive, and staying in the middle doesn’t sit well for long.”

For that reason, it will be fascinating to see what happens with franchises like Miami. It’s a professional organization. The Heat should make the playoffs. Perhaps they’ll win a round. If everything breaks exactly right, perhaps they’ll even win two. But that’s unlikely, and it represents the best-case scenario. With their current roster, that’s all they can hope for — now and for the foreseeable future. They aren’t the Warriors or Cavs or Rockets. They’re not the Celtics or Raptors or Spurs, either. The Heat aren’t great. They’re good — which is good enough only if you tilt your head and squint.