The NBA’s Fascinating And Frustrating Dilemma

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Friday July 14th, 2017

Pay attention to the Pelicans. Whether you want to talk about solutions for the Warriors, problems with the salary cap, potential superteams, small–market struggles, or the massive imbalance between the East and West, it's all there. The answers, or at least the most interesting questions, all come back to New Orleans.

Start with the Warriors. At some point Golden State will look mortal again. It probably won't be next year, and maybe not even the year after. But whether it's injuries, age, or gradual roster attrition in the face of astounding luxury tax projections, the Warriors won't own the league forever. So on that note: where will Anthony Davis be in three years? 

Obviously, there have already been plenty of non-hypothetical moves that Western Conference teams have made to answer the Warriors this summer. Those were interesting enough. But whether it's CP3 in Houston or Paul George in OKC, the biggest moves this summer felt like shuffling deck chairs in the face of the KD iceberg. Davis is a landmark of his own, or he could be if he had more help. 

Granted, a Brow departure isn't imminent. It might be even further away than people realize. He's signed through 2021. If the current New Orleans management team is fired at the end of this season, a new regime could give it another year with Davis before they even answer the phone on any trade offers. But if that's the case, the realistic timeline for a possible move—and the peak of his career—lines up pretty nicely with a potential decline in Golden State. 

The AD watch isn't all that different than what's reportedly taking shape with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. As Adrian Wojnarowski told ESPN's Ryen Russillo early last week, "Everybody in the league is trying to figure out how they are going to get [Anetokuonmpo] out of there." None of this should be surprising to anyone who's followed the past few years of the NBA. These multi-year subplots are becoming hard-wired into how we watch basketball in the modern era. 

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Even if you want to give the Bucks the benefit of the doubt and wait a year on the Giannis Watch, Brow intrigue is already well underway. The Celtics are not-so-secretly angling for him down the road, and I'm sure other candidates will emerge over the next 18 months. This speculation would feel premature and unfair, but the Pelicans have looked lost for years, and next to the murderous West, they still don't have a clear path to relevance, let alone contending. 

Speaking of which, conference imbalance. It's hard to call the current state of affairs a crisis, but only because the league has been operating this way for a good 20 years. The optics are worse than ever, but the status quo remains about the same. Which is to say, teams like New Orleans have been fighting an uphill battle all along. 

The Pelicans have made plenty of mistakes, but that's not the point. A young team has to be patient, lucky, clever, and basically flawless to build a contender in the West, and sometimes even that's not enough. Look at the Jazz. 

If you have to win to keep superstars, but you also have to win to attract superstars, and you're playing in a conference where every other good team has an infrastructure with at least two superstars... What can you even do?

Then there's Boogie Cousins. While Davis may have a few more years before he moves on, Cousins is a free agent next summer. The Pelicans will have to win and win early in order to stave off trade rumors and keep the Boogie/Brow experiment going. And even then: How realistic is it that Boogie makes the playoffs on a disjointed No. 7 seed, and then decides he wants to stay in New Orleans? 

In that case, he becomes a good answer to: "How does the league get another superteam?" He comes with all the same red flags he had in Sacramento—maybe more, now that the Kings look so functional without him—but he's talented enough to make good teams gamble. He could be a missing piece in Houston if Daryl Morey works his salary–cap sorcery to make it possible. He could play for the Wizards. He could be a Laker next summer. The Pelicans could trade him to the Clippers for DeAndre Jordan, and I think I'd like both rosters better. 

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There's a wide spectrum of possibilities with Cousins, and yes, I completely understand if you're rolling your eyes at the idea of Cousins solidifying a new contender. But it's just as crazy to think that a player that gifted could go an entire career without ever turning the corner even just for a few years. 

Obviously, New Orleans still thinks he'll turn the corner next to Davis and Jrue Holliday. That brings us to Holiday. He's the third star who gives them a chance at the playoffs this season, but his five–year, $126 million deal might be the contract that limits their long–term ceiling.. He is Bourbon Street Otto Porter. He's a perfectly good player, and they had no choice but to pay him. But as of this summer he's making about the same money as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook next year, and $3 million more than Chris Paul. How does a team contend when it has to pay the same money to a starter who's half-as-dominat as his All-Star peers? And again, if the Pelicans can't go any higher than the middle of the West, where does that leave Anthony Davis? And in a small market that still seems lukewarm on basketball, where does that leave franchise itself? 

I'm not trying to pick on the Pelicans, and I'm not rooting for them to relocate. Next year's team isn't hopeless by any stretch. There's a real chance that they can surprise all the people who are already writing them off in the West. But in the summer of 2017, they are the perfect microcosm of everything that's frustrating and fascinating about the NBA.

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The system isn't working very well for teams like the Pelicans, and we all know it, and it feels like this is a problem. But I'm also powerless to resist putting Boogie Cousins on eight different teams, and at least once a week I wonder who will make the Anthony Davis trade. It speaks to a dynamic that could be tricky for the league to resolve. 

The conversation around the off–season and team–building is more addictive than it's ever been, and it continues for at least 11 months a year. The sport has never been more relevant, and there are more stars in today's NBA than the league has ever seen. At the same time, life has never been more treacherous for the actual NBA teams, in actual NBA markets. Whether it's New Orleans, Portland, Utah, Memphis, Washington, Oklahoma City or Toronto, there's no clear path to contending, and it's becoming very expensive to be decent. And every team that's merely decent is at risk of losing the star that keeps them relevant. But the league is probably a better product with Gordon Hayward in Boston, and Anthony Davis on a great team in three years, and regardless, the NBA can't really control what superstars do—Russell Westbrook still hasn't signed his supermax extension in OKC. 

I wonder where we go from here. Maybe all this means that a generation of basketball fans will grow up loving the league itself more than any particular team. Maybe it means certain teams will relocate, or there will be more turnover among owners. Or maybe we'll look back and realize that none of this was ever that unhealthy. Superstar movement will become even more common every summer, and teams will survive. It won't necessarily signal an existential crisis every time a star leaves town. Whatever the answers are over the next few years, they're still taking shape. For all the biggest questions, the Pelicans are a good place to start.

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