Every year, there’s a mad dash to the extremes of the NBA. Good teams try to become great, bad teams try to become terrible, and the Atlanta Hawks look frantically between both sides without deciding and then get cartoonishly squished by a stone wall in their first round matchup. No one wants to be mediocre. That’s the theory, anyway. And this season seems to be turning that theory on its head.
The 2014 NBA draft is supposed to be some absurd 2003-level stuff. Andrew Wiggins is the best prospect since LeBron, and Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, and Julius Randle are all very highly regarded. But it seems like this draft class, which should have a pretty large gravitational pull on the weaker teams in the NBA, isn’t really motivating their behavior all that much.
By my count, there are only five teams that actively got worse over the summer: Utah, Denver, Phoenix, Boston, and Philadelphia. Of those, Boston and Denver didn’t even go all in. Denver let Andre Iguodala walk and plans to give major developmental minutes to JaVale McGee and the rest of their young guys, but they still might be a borderline playoff contender. Boston could have traded Rajon Rondo, but they didn’t, and some observers think they might end up being too good for a proper tank job (personally, I think they’ll be pretty awful).
I can’t say why teams have collectively decided not to chase the best players in the best draft class in decades. Each case is different. The Lakers, after losing the D12 sweepstakes and with Kobe coming back from a major injury, could have phoned in the year. Instead they picked up Chris Kaman and Nick Young. I can’t stand Kaman’s game, but those aren’t the moves of a tanking team. Why? Probably because they’re the Lakers and they know they only need to wait a few months for like, Paul George to drop in their laps for absolutely free. (Sorry, sorry! Noble franchise, true winners, etc.)
Other teams, like Sacramento and Charlotte, have been miserable for so long that they felt they had to improve. So the Bobnets signed Al Jefferson and the Kings traded for Greivis Vasquez. The Pelicans and the Cavs already had superstars-in-the-making and saw the opportunities to truncate their rebuilds. Minnesota thought they had a playoff team last year, and Kevin Love is already mad at them for…getting screwed by injuries? Seems unfair.
The league hasn’t made one decision not to tank, but several independent ones. But if there’s one insight to be found here, it’s probably that teams are realizing that the old paradigm was driving fans away, didn’t work too often, and could be avoided. The league’s more poisonous franchises–looking at you, Kings–are in a perpetual rebuilding state, and most of the league’s model teams, like the Rockets, Spurs, and Heat, as a general rule, don’t tank (I might have included Dallas, but I’m still giggling about the Monta Ellis contract).
So what does this mean for the Blazers?
Every team in the Western Conference thinks they can make the playoffs except for the Jazz, Kings, and Suns. It’s very possible that the Nuggets have internally come to the conclusion that this team is bad enough to sink to the bottom of the conference. The Lakers will probably be bad regardless of what they think they’re doing. But other than that, every team is a playoff contender. Only eight of them can make it.
In the short term, this makes it really difficult for the Blazers. It’s possible that the 9 through 11 seeds in the west will be the equivalent of the 6-8 seeds in the east.
Ever since Moneyball, there’s been a running joke in baseball circles about anything and everything being the “new market inefficiency”. Well right now sucking is the new market inefficiency in the NBA. The rung of western playoff bubble teams are looking at all that space below them and thinking “Well, we could fill that”. Dallas, Portland, Denver, New Orleans, and Minnesota all know that if their season doesn’t go well, the cellar looks awful nice. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the teams who disappoint early.
The Blazers, Pellies, and Wolves are all on their way up. If they don’t make the playoffs, they’ll probably stick with it. But if Denver and Dallas see teams passing them, don’t be surprised if either or both blow things up. Dirk on the market, Gallo on the market, Jose Calderon traded again. I’m predicting that 4/5 of the west trying to make the playoffs is unsustainable. This conference is too good. Someone will have to give up. The Blazers are fighting to not be that team because it would be a disaster.
In the long term, this trend probably improves the east. Odds are Wiggins goes to the Sixers or the Bobcats or the Magic. The east is much, much worse than the west (last year’s Mavericks are a comfortable 8-seed in the east). I expect that this trend tends to reverse itself over the next half-decade or so through the draft. It’s already started, in fact–The top four picks in the 2013 draft went to teams in the east. It’s possible that the west by and large refusing to suck will provide a way to even out the conferences. I really hope so–the Blazers would be a lock for the playoffs in the east.