NBA's growing middle class will force teams to pull off tricky balancing act
Every year there are teams well outside the grounds of contention that have too much working in their favor—too much talent, too much experience, too much verve—to drop deep into the lottery. They post win totals in the 30s and fade away come April, neither terribly relevant to the playoff proceedings nor the lottery draw. This is the NBA’s middle class, and at this stage in the preseason, it appears to have grown so full it may burst.
The reconstructive cycles of teams around the league seem to have synced. Philadelphia aside, most every NBA franchise has designs on being competitive. Some arrived at that conclusion organically through patient rebuilds that have paid off. Other teams will fight due largely to a lack of alternatives; draft pick debts—some accrued from deals made nearly a half-decade ago—have removed the incentive to play things slow. Three teams finished the 2014–15 season with fewer than 20 wins. It’s possible that none will do so this season, broadening the ranks of the competent.
Raising the floor, however, also changes the parameters of what could be considered tanking. The Sixers are a world apart in the brazenness and resolve of their current plan. Yet the fact that even an unabashed tank mission like theirs can be expected to return 20 wins or more brings so many other teams within range of prime draft position. We saw last season that pursuit of a playoff spot or a top-10 pick were not mutually exclusive for Eastern Conference teams. Miami finished one game behind eighth-seeded Boston and still able to land Justise Winslow with the No. 10 pick.
The West isn’t quite so accommodating, but even the worst teams in the conference lack the disaster potential of a traditional skunk. Portland is set for a hard fall after rebooting its roster but looks athletic and feisty enough to win its share. Denver and Sacramento won around 30 games last season while in complete disorder and have aimed to address those problems since. The Lakers will bear little resemblance to the team that won 21 games last season, even if they’re by no means comparable to a playoff squad, either. Even Minnesota—winners of just 16 games last year—has much rosier prospects after returning key players from injury and adding to its trove of young talent.
Add in the crowd of Eastern Conference also-rans and the league would seem to overflow with teams capable of passable play. History says there isn’t room for it; beyond the zero-sum proposition that demands corresponding losses for all of this projected marginal improvement, the incentive structure in the NBA brings an even greater focus on in-season breaking points. Being a game or three removed from the playoff cusp matters less when a handful of competitors can say the same. What will ultimately separate many of those mid-tier teams isn’t talent or ability. It’s health. It’s chemistry. It’s those fickle, unknowable factors that come to shape every NBA season and will come to test these intermediate clubs in particular.
The looming mystery of this coming NBA season, then, is not which teams will be great but which might deem to take a dive as the opportunity presents itself. We know this season’s contenders and just how much rotten luck it would take to knock them off of a competitive course. What we don’t know is which of the NBA’s many middle-class teams will be unsettled by circumstance to the point of steering into the skid. It will be tempting for some so-so team that suffers a significant injury in February to reconsider its course. As nice as it is to post a decent record, to look down in the standings and see such lax competition for a high lottery pick has its own allure.
Consider last season’s Knicks. Most projections from last October put New York on the bubble, squarely in the mix for a playoff spot in the East. Instead, the Knicks began their season on a 2–8 skid, had trouble filling in for injured players (Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon, in particular), and wound up going 5–29 through the end of the calendar year. That early trip led to the trades of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, the release of Amar'e Stoudemire, and the shutting down of Anthony. All New York needed to go into freefall was the nudge of initial struggle exaggerated by inopportune injury.
The scale and timing of that kind of turn will change from year to year, but some unknown team—even one that had previously considered itself to be viable for the eighth seed—could take on a similar trajectory. At the top of the NBA is an arms race. Toward the bottom is a pressure cooker, in which around half the league will bubble and churn until some eventually pop. How teams respond to or even anticipate that pop will help shape the landscape of the league, no matter their separation from the title chase.