The NBA is in a state of transition.
LeBron James is now 31-years-old and beginning to show his age, the Golden State Warriors seem prepped for a decade of dominance in the Western Conference, and the timer has officially been set on Kobe Bryant’s career. For the first time since King James broke into the league in 2003, the NBA is set for a new set of stars to take over.
Gone are the days when you could just write LeBron into the Finals at the beginning of the season. With the Cleveland Cavaliers showing plenty of problems, the door is open for a team like the Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics to take over the East in the next few years. Meanwhile out West, the San Antonio Spurs aren’t getting any younger while Steph Curry and the Warriors are making their case for being the best NBA team ever.
Not that of the teams and players I just mentioned, they are all viewed as serious contenders, or at least have the potential to be contenders in the coming years. For once, I don’t want to talk about them.
Obviously, teams like the Cavs, Spurs, and Warriors dictate what the rest of the league is talking about and will undoubtedly be there come playoff time. Instead though, I’d like to talk about the teams that aren’t moving.
In all reality, an NBA team can be in one of three positions.
First, we have the real contenders, much like the teams mentioned above. Teams that fans can truly see winning a championship within the near future if they catch the right breaks and stay healthy. Obviously, this is where you want to be. You strive to have the relative stability of organizations like San Antonio and Golden State, where you can pretty much bet the house on being in the championship conversation barring any crazy injuries.
Then, we have the losers. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers that simply don’t have the pieces today to win games and make a playoff run. BUT, the NBA rewards that futility to some extent. Obviously there’s no guarantees due to the Draft Lottery, but the worst teams in the league generally get to select first in the draft and after maybe two or three seasons of embarrassing basketball, will generally be set up for future success.
Finally, we come to the worst position to find your team in — the in-between zone.
The simple truth here is that a lot of these teams are good. Some are even really good. But in todays NBA, how good is good enough?
For instance, let’s take the Memphis Grizzlies.
Coming into this season, the Grizz had won 50+ games for three consecutive years led by the unspectacular but steady grouping of Zack Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley. The team was never a legitimate title contender, making it to the Western Conference Finals only once (2012-13), but was always at least interesting to watch and despite the relatively small basketball market of Memphis, currently sit at 14th in the league in attendance!
Many fans would take that resumé over a three year period. Win a bunch of games, sit near the top of your conference, get by the first round of the playoffs a couple times, and have a nice base to rely on night in and night out. Yet, they never won the big one.
Now, with an aging Randolph and Gasol, the Grizzlies are beginning to collapse. Mike Conley, the best young player on the team, is considering leaving this summer in free agency, the teams defensive rating of 106.1 is its worst since Lionel Hollins took over as head coach in 2009, and the current head coach David Joerger may be on the hot seat.
So with their era of physical, brutal defense coming to an end, how do we view this Grizzlies team? Sure, they won 40+ games in six consecutive seasons, including three straight 50+ win years. Yup, they routinely had a couple All-Stars in the rotation. Heck, they even won a few playoff series.
But they will be forgotten by anyone not a direct fan of Memphis.
In a league dominated by stars, the only way for a team to gain any historical traction is to win a title and Memphis, like so many teams, simply wasn’t ever good enough. Oddly enough, there isn’t anything wrong with that.
I have been a lifelong fan of the New York Knicks, yet have never experienced them win anything. Even seeing them win a regular season game feels like a blessing at this point. I can honestly say that I’d give a few fingers and toes for a winning Knicks team, and not even a championship winning team.
There are plenty of franchises exactly like the Grizzlies. A smaller market, but a solid base of players and a good coach, yet no championship.The Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks have found themselves in similar positions over the past few seasons. It is hard to find guys like Steph Curry or LeBron James that can instantly make you a title contender and so for many teams, they settle.
Unwilling to completely pull the plug and hope for a good ping pong ball like the 76ers and unable to lure a top-tier free agent like the Cavs, these teams are essentially in purgatory. At best, they can maybe head into the postseason as a one seed. At worst? You’re stuck taking the 10th overall pick in the draft, hoping to find a sleeper that can wake up and be your Steph Curry.
For every fanbase, the answer will be different to how good is good enough. Some will argue that it’s championship or bust, others will simply pray for a playoff series. But with the exposure of the league only growing in recent years, we’ve seen more and more answers to the question leaning towards the ladder.
We’ve never seen coaches be given this short of a leash from owners and front offices. Simply being in the conversation for a championship isn’t enough anymore, in fact making it all the way to the Finals isn’t enough. We’ve seen Scott Brooks get the boot from Oklahoma City despite having a career record of 338-207, Tom Thibodeau get tossed in Chicago after seven consecutive playoff appearances, and David Blatt catch the axe in Cleveland just one season removed from making the NBA Finals.
The simple fact of the matter is that it’s no longer acceptable to be good in the NBA. It’s barely passable to be very good. The bar has been raised thanks to super teams such as the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat. Now, teams have to make the adjustments necessary to compete.
Somehow, it’s no longer good to just be good.