Three Random Thoughts on the NBA, 3/31

Treadmill to Success

The past four seasons for the Toronto Raptors has followed a seemingly identical trajectory. First, they would start the season fast, and and raise hopes that this could be their year. Then, they would slip up a little bit and start to struggle. Come playoff time, Toronto could occasionally outplay a clearly inferior team, but consistently struggled and would eventually get knocked out.

In 2013-14, Toronto took a 3-2 series lead over the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets, but failed to close out. The Raptors even had a shot to win Game 7, but Paul Pierce denied Kyle Lowry’s attempt. Pierce once again played the role of villain for the Washington Wizards the following season, as Washington swept Toronto 4-0, despite coming it as the lower seeded team. It was an especially tough series for Lowry, who averaged only 12.3 points per game on 31% shooting from the field. The next year, the team struggled through back-to-back seven-game series despite winning 56 games during the regular season. They were promptly knocked out by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in what can only be described as the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history. Last year they outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks in a series that most fans don’t remember. This time the Cavaliers did in reality what they had done in spirit the past season, wiping out Toronto is four games.

Increasingly, after each disappointing exit, the offseason would be filled with intrigue. The Raptors were stuck on the so-called ‘treadmill of mediocrity’ unable to push past the league’s elite, but also unable to properly retool the roster because they had quality players on big contracts and consistently low draft picks. Should they blow it all up? Trade Lowry or DeMar Derozan? Fire Head Coach Dwane Casey?

Instead, Toronto preached strategic patience. They kept much of the core intact, but made moves to improve their depth and add complementary pieces like Serge Ibaka and CJ Miles. They drafted a bunch of smart, athletic players and let them develop together.  They continued to tinker with the supporting cast around their backcourt and center Jonas Valanciunas.

This year, they might have struck gold. In fact, the advantage of this year’s version of the Raptors is not the strength of their stars, but rather that of their bench. All eleven of the guys solidly in Casey’s rotation average over 5.5 points per game. The bench ranks within the NBA’s top five in bench scoring, rebounding, and assists. They are the only playoff team who can say that and one of the three who are top five in any. The unit ranks a comfortable first in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  

The five man squad consisting of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl plays basketball the right way, moving the ball, moving without it, and locking down on defense. That unit has a great mix of shooting (VanVleet, Miles), athleticism (Siakam, Wright) and post offense (Poeltl). All five guys can play good defense, and since none of them are particularly skilled at creating their own shot, ball movement is the name of their offensive game.

Toronto’s starters are no slouches, either. Kyle Lowry’s scoring numbers are down, but so is his load. He was never fully suited to carry an offense despite his impressive output, and he has thrived this season while holding the ball less often. Same goes for DeMar Derozan, who is shooting almost three shots less per game, but is still putting together an MVP-worthy season by increasing his three-point shooting and his assists. Jonas Valanciunas is producing at a similar level to the past four seasons, and is a nice third option. Ibaka has rebounded from a slow start to become a solid catch-and-shoot option who serves as the rim-protector over the less nimble Valanciunas. Rookie OG Anunoby has gone the opposite way, especially with his shooting, but his defensive ability will always be valued in a lineup with four other guys who can handle the scoring load.

Casey’s deserves a boat load of credit, too. Toronto had developed a reputation as an iso and mid-range heavy offense that was low on ball movement. In other words, they represented the antithesis of the modern NBA. That has more than shifted this year. Toronto has jumped from 22nd to fifth in three pointers attempted this season, and from dead last to sixth in assists.

Toronto is currently in first place in the East, sitting pretty at 55-20, which is unchartered waters for the Raptors. The franchise has never finished first in their conference, and, barring a collapse, will breaking the franchise record of 56 wins this season.

In the past two seasons, Toronto has looked completely outmatched against the Cavaliers. Although Toronto has surely not played up to their potential in those series, the truth is that those teams were simply not even close to as good as their opponents.

This year, that part might not be true anymore. Toronto has constructed a roster that top-to-bottom is stronger than the roster that Koby Altman put together on the fly at the trade deadline. They are more cohesive and are far more deep. Still Toronto has to contend with both its history of coming up short in the postseason and some guy named LeBron James, who is the great equalizer in almost any series he plays in.

I fully expect the Raptors to handle any team it comes up against in the East outside of Cleveland. Even if Toronto is only the second-best team in the East, and even if they once again fall short against the Cavaliers, they have built a team with realistic NBA Finals aspirations, and have demonstrated that there is something to say for calculated aggression when chasing success in the NBA.

Where do we go from here?

There are very few teams in the league who should view this as a completely wasted season, meaning that not many franchises in the NBA are firmly stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. In fact, the only team that will reach the postseason for a fifth season or more in a row and is not a realistic title contender is the San Antonio Spurs, and they are dealing with an injury to one of the league’s ten best players and are in the midst of one of the most impressive streaks of consistency in NBA history. They will never have a reason to blow up a roster so long as Gregg Popovich is around.

The rest of the teams in the playoff picture either harbor realistic aspirations for a title,to varying degrees, (Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers Raptors, Celtics, Thunder), have a young core reaching the postseason together for the first time (Timberwolves, 76ers), have shown marked improvement from past seasons (Trail Blazers, Pelicans) or have greatly exceeded preseason expectations (Heat, Pacers, Jazz). That leaves the Bucks and Wizards, who will be both be mid to low seeds for the second consecutive season with almost identical corps to 2016-17. However, neither team seems ready to blow it up and both will leave this season feeling as if they could have performed far better. There is an argument to be made that with one more big move, both franchises could contend for an Eastern Conference crown.

So, the teams that are really in a pickle are the ones who are neither currently in the playoff picture nor one of the many that are currently tanking for a high draft pick. There are an unusually small number of teams in that predicament, with only the Pistons, Hornets, Clippers, and Nuggets holding that distinction. Whether they swing for the fences and make a big move, trade away their best players for future assets, or stand pat and run it back next year is the question that all four of these teams will have to answer.

The Hornets were probably a long-shot to make the postseason since the opening game of the season, but Kemba Walker’s presence on the roster made it impossible for the team to tank. Over the course of the point guard’s career, Michael Jordan and the rest of Charlotte’s front office have proven wholly unable to construct an adequate roster around him. Trade rumors were swirling around Charlotte in February, and they are unlikely to cease come summer. Walker will likely be one of the bigger names available via trade. He is only under contract for one more season, and has expressed frustration at his team’s inability to play deep into the season. Charlotte is the team most likely to look to rebuild and restart this offseason.

The Clippers have already embarked on a quasi-rebuild, unloading former franchise cornerstones Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for a bevy of solid complementary pieces over the past few months. Despite these moves and a long list of injuries, the Clippers have remained surprisingly competitive. Trading away Griffin’s monster contract was likely partially aimed at opening up cap space to chase a big name this summer. Of course, if Jerry West can land Paul George or another all-star, he already has a solid base in place next to him. If however, no one can be lured to LA, it would make more sense for the Clippers to let DeAndre Jordan and start over from scratch.

The Pistons already took their swing for the fences and connected with nothing but air. The trade for Griffin did not move Detroit up in the standings, and now Stan van Gundy may be facing unemployment this summer. The Griffin-Drummond experiment is an interesting one, and, especially in a more or less open Eastern Conference, breaking it up after half a season seems a little rash. The guard and wing play on Detroit’s roster is not good enough; it was unrealistic to expect too much from such a thin roster this season. Either van Gundy or a new executive will have to fill out the roster around the frontcourt duo and see what they can accomplish with a offseason together under their belts.

The most disappointed team on this list has to be the Nuggets. They entered the season after closing out 2016-17 on a nice run, and added versatile four Paul Millsap to the equation. Nikola Jokic is a ideal big to run an offense through, and he surrounded by a bunch of guys who know how to get a bucket, including Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Wilson Chandler. At times, they offense flows so seamlessly that it looks like they could be a scary playoff opponent for any high seed. However, they struggle mightily to get stops, and have hit a rough patch at the worst imaginable time. If Mike Malone cannot this roster to the postseason, he is probably on his way out. Denver has all the required pieces, and with many of the centerpieces still being young, it is unlikely that Nuggets make any major changes outside of the coaching department.

In Defense of Tanking

The small number of teams that could consider this season an abject failure means that a large number of teams were content to pile up losses this season in order to chase a high pick in what looks to be a stacked draft class.

Many, notably the league office, have publicly come out against the tanking epidemic, going so far as to calling out the Chicago Bulls for resting healthy veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday. Still, a number of teams have made no secret out of the fact that they have no interest in playing their best players or winning any games.

There have been many proposals aimed at curbing this trend, including a minor fix that will begin next season, in which the team with the worst record will no longer have the best odds at the first pick. Instead, the three worst teams in the league will share the odds of landing the top choice. Instead of trying to fix what is clearly a flawed process, I will attempt to present a defense of tanking.

The lottery, and, by extension, the draft, is often the only way for a team to escape from the depths of the league standings. For teams like Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta, and Chicago, who were recently playoff mainstays but didn’t have any shot at winning the title, the fact was that their act was growing stale and only a top-tier star could change that equation. Outside of Chicago, those other teams have a tough time luring big names. The draft presents that opportunity.

Those teams are obviously putting out a sub-par product right now, but the alternative is not all that much better. The optics on a team sitting their best players down the stretch in a close game are ugly. However, Dallas is not accomplishing anything of note for their franchise by giving Wesley Matthews significant minutes. Tanking allows them to develop their young talent without hampering their ability to add more young talent in the near future.

Although their version was extreme, the 76ers has shown the path forward for a tanking team. Former General Manager Sam Hinkie, now a folk hero in Philadelphia, outlined his belief that in order to win in today’s league you need multiple superstars. The only way to acquire multiple superstars is by having multiple high draft picks. Sixers fans suffered through injuries and a number of misses in the draft, but they ended up with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two of the brightest young stars in today’s league.

The Minnesota Timberwolves also landed one cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns, turned their one star into another number one pick, and then, once those two developed, added an established star by flipping two other young assets. Those two teams have demonstrated a blueprint for how tanking can create a solid winning foundation.

Of course, a number of teams, like the Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, and Phoenix Suns have tried this strategy and have swung and missed on a number of draft picks. They have taken very few steps forward in the past few seasons.

Tanking is not a foolproof method. It takes good scouting and good development of young players, which many teams have proven inadequate at doing. The 76ers success, though, has made fanbases more open to tanking. In fact, nothing frustrates a fanbase more than an inability to make any progress. Losing and drafting players with high potential keeps those fans engaged and hopeful.

Teams rarely tank blatantly early in the season. They may not construct a great roster, but they will play their best lineups and see what they have. It is usually not until after the all-star break, when a team realizes that they have no shot at reaching the postseason, that they begin to go into all-out intentional losing mode. It might even be better for the league if team’s keep their fan bases intrigued by playing young guys and drafting potential studs. Tanking is not perfect. Neither is mediocre basketball with a number of teams who have no shot at winning, but are instead stuck in the mud. A front office’s ultimate goal is to contend for and eventually win championships. Losing for a few years and eventually landing a star might be the best recipe for succeeding in this way.

 

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