The National Basketball Association (NBA) is a complex landscape of business and sport. In recent years the Golden State Warriors have been the face of the NBA. The Oakland based team is studded with five all-star calibre players this season, the talent of which has brought the warriors three championships in the past four years.
Getting to the stage where you can win a championship is the aim of most NBA teams. In order to get there, they must abide by the rules of the NBA draft (the yearly process which allows players to join the NBA), the NBA cap salary (the maximum amount of money a team can spend on its players), and the ability to beat the unmovable wall known as the Warriors.
Reaching the Golden State Warriors’ level of quality is something every side in the NBA aspires for, but time after time we see teams get lost in the sea of mediocrity. This Golden State era gives us a perfect case study of how teams are trying to traverse the difficult road to NBA glory.
To start we must look at teams who have flat out given up on competing. The Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and Atlanta Hawks have all gone back to the chalk board and started tanking (essentially, intentionally losing). The Knicks are by far the worse perpetrators this season; however, they do this so they can get higher draft picks in the NBA draft and choose the better players entering the league.
This is not a bad technique: Wait for the Warriors to age, and come in to steal their glory. The Hawks drafted Trae Young and Kevin Huerter in the 2018 draft; a pair of players who resemble Steph Curry and Klay Thompson from the Warriors. That being said, the chances of these players turning into similar levels of superstars is unlikely.
The issue with this method of achieving greatness is it can be very hit or miss. The Suns have been in the top 15 picks since 2011 and still have not improved. This method doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality players, and can lead to a losing culture which could be dangerous for young players. It also makes your team a less favourable destination for free agents (players whose contracts have expired).
The sea of mediocrity, the most dangerous place in the NBA. This can be the equivalent of the sunken place for some teams — being good, but not quite good enough and blocked from getting better due to multiple factors. Some teams are happy to just be good enough to make playoffs because their fans are happy to support the group of players they have and thus fill their stadium.
A prime example of this is the Memphis Grizzlies. They have managed to make the playoffs every season from 2011 to 2017 but have never progressed past the semi-finals of their conference. More examples from this season are the Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans though are in a slightly different situation as they are most likely heading for a rebuild after key player Anthony Davis requested a trade.
These teams need to fill seats, making tanking a dangerous business decision, but their cap space for wages and where they are located prevents them from getting better players. They’re stuck in the middle: they aren’t quite good enough to survive in the playoffs and their draft picks aren’t high enough to get the best players from the NBA draft.
This isn’t a bad place for all teams though, for example, the Sacramento Kings and the Brooklyn Nets are two young teams that have surprised the league this season. These two teams are performing better than the Pelicans and Pistons, have cap space, and a stock of talented young players.
These teams may shoot past the sea of mediocrity and become elite teams. Brooklyn is especially interesting as they rebuilt without high draft picks due to one of the worst trades ever to occur in the NBA. This trade, in essence, involved two ageing all-stars in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnet being traded to the Nets for four first-round picks.
First round picks are one of the most valued assets in the NBA. Pierce and Garnet’s statistics began to fall the season before they were traded and collapsed once they reached Brooklyn. Neither averaged over 15 points in their first season Brooklyn and they didn’t stay with the team for very long.
The Nets made the playoffs for two seasons then flat-lined to one of the worst teams in the whole NBA. This trade was one factor in leading the NBA to ban trading picks in consecutive years, to keep the league competitive.
These two teams have completely changed their culture and are going in a positive direction. Brooklyn has drafted and developed players well over the last few years. The development of Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie and the trade for D’angelo Russel were key in turning around the franchise.
The Nets have a unique mix of a great city, cap space, and exciting young players make them a great team for free agents. With Kevin Durant being rumoured to be looking towards a move to New York, things could be getting quite exciting for the nets.
Sacramento came out of nowhere this season. Many thought that trading Demarcus Cousin (one of the best centres in the NBA) would send this franchise down into despair, but they have rebuilt surprisingly quickly since 2017.
Buddy Hield (the main return from the Cousins trade) has been amazing this season, averaging just over 20 points and the development of De’Aaron Fox’s jump shot has really helped the Kings to battle to be a playoff contenders.
If they continue at this pace they may claim the last spot in the Western conference playoffs (often considered the harder conference). Making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 will create a great morale and buzz on a team which has a lot of young developing players. The development of Marvin Bagley (3rd pick in the 2018 draft) and other young players will be key to seeing if this team can become elite.
The final tier are the elite teams in the NBA who are trying to reach the heights of the Golden State Warriors. These teams include the Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics. They have cracked the code on how to succeed in the NBA and have the pieces to be elite.
These teams, however, have not shown to be capable of beating the Warriors. They are plagued by similar issues to mediocre teams. Having good players comes at a cost, trying to keep a good group of players together for a price which also makes your team flexible is very hard.
This is a failure of the Portland Trailblazers, making it unlikely they can compete with the current Warriors team.
These teams will also have low draft picks, which means they don’t get the best young talent to reinforce their roster. It is worth noting, however, that not all good players come early in the draft.
There have been many late picks which have gone on to be stars, such as Jimmy Butler who currently plays for the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers are the closest to the Warriors in terms of rosters – filled with all-star calibre players, this playoff season will be the test of their competitiveness against the Warriors.
The real reason most of these elite teams cannot beat the Warriors is due to them drowning in the Warriors’ three-point efficiency. No team can quite understand how to defend against the champions due to how well they space the ball.
All rebuilding teams want to follow the Warriors’ three-point footprint — a skill which they generally lack. The elite teams have found ways to win most games, but when it comes down to facing the Warriors, their their-point shooting can’t keep up with the Golden State’s shooters.