5 NBA Teams That Are Stuck in the Middle with No Clear Direction

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2013

5 NBA Teams That Are Stuck in the Middle with No Clear Direction

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    The worst place to be in the NBA is that nether region between having a chance to win a title and having a chance to win the lottery.

    The NBA is a talent-driven league. If you’re a team that is a true contender, you already have the elite players that can push you to a championship.

    If you’re bad enough, you can win the NBA lottery. Sure, there needs to be a little luck and patience involved, but at least you have a chance.

    But middling teams get middling free agents and middling lottery picks. The best way to stay average in this league is to be content to be average. If you’re average, get better or get worse, just don’t stay the same.

    Some teams, due to a variety of reasons, are bound to mediocrity over the next few seasons. They either think they’re better than they are or they don’t have the means to improve.

    These are teams that are locks to rank between the 11th- and 20th- “best” teams in the NBA over the next five years. They won’t win the lottery, and they won’t make it past the first round of the playoffs.

    They are ranked according to the certainty they won’t stray out of that range.

5. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks were once hailed as a Mecca-Team for free agents. Mark Cuban was considered the most awesome owner in sports. He wears tee-shirts and cheers from the stands! Who wouldn’t want to go play there?

    Lately, that myth has been dispelled. The Mavericks have been struggling to land elite free agents the last couple of years.

    Oh sure, they get players like O.J. Mayo, Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Vince Carter, but they aren’t landing elite players. They’re getting next-tier players who haven’t been as highly coveted.

    They’ve struck out on the big names like Deron Williams and Dwight Howard they chased after, and there’s a reason why.

    Elite players looking to change teams are looking to win titles in the near future, and the Mavericks' biggest star, Dirk Nowitzki is going to be 35 next year. Players looking to win now aren’t eyeing players on the wrong end of their careers, and who showed up so out of shape last season that they had to take time off during the season to get in shape.

    The Mavericks do have one hope. Mark Cuban has always been flexible, and he may pull off the unexpected trade somewhere along the line. It’s just hard to see what that might be.

4. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks are not a great team, but they’ve been competitive for the last several years.

    They are essentially the same team now that they’ve been for the last half-decade. Some of the players have changed, but the team is the same. They’ve turned Josh Smith into Paul Millsap and Joe Johnson into Louis Williams. Both moves are lateral moves at best, and downgrades at worst.

    The fundamental problem they have is that Al Horford is now, and for the next few years will continue to be, the best player on the team. He is a nice player, and an underrated one at that. He is not, however, a top-10 player in the league.

    In order to win a title, you legitimately need an elite player. In order to make the playoffs, you don’t. So the Hawks will continue to get into the postseason as the No. 6 seed or No. 7 seed, but they won’t be getting past the second round.

    Nor do they have much to build with. While they do have their first-round picks, they aren’t likely to be impactful picks.

3. Boston Celtics

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    The Boston Celtics have officially made the turn to a new direction for the future, handing the reigns over to Rajon Rondo.

    Rondo has proven to be an elite facilitator over the last three years. His 11.3 assists per game is the best among all NBA players.

    But here’s the problem. In order to be a facilitator you need to have someone to facilitate to, and the Celtics don’t really have the shooters they used to have.

    Kevin Garnett (six) and Paul Pierce (38) were two of the best jump shooters in the league in long twos. Jason Terry was 78th. Boston now has only one shooter who was in the top 100 last year, Brandon Bass.

    Jeff Green is touted as a player who is going to “break out,” but at 27 years old and seven years into his career (not counting the year off for his heart surgery), a break out isn’t likely to happen. He’s never averaged more than 16.5 points per game for a season.

    In fact, no current player on the Celtics has ever averaged a 20-point season. Gerald Wallace came the closest, at 19.4 points per game, and that was in 2008. Last year, he averaged 7.7.

    With Rondo and Avery Bradley, Boston has two of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Jeff Green is also a decent defender, as is Gerald Wallace. That will keep Boston in enough games to stay out of the basement, but the Celtics don’t have enough offense to win a playoff series.

    They aren’t going anywhere soon.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    It is a bizarre world when the Los Angeles Clippers are the basketball future of Los Angeles, but if there are any banners that will be hung in the Staples Center over the next half-decade, it will be them, and not the Lakers hanging them.

    Let’s face some cold, hard truths.

    Kobe Bryant is going to be a 35-year-old player, coming off a torn Achilles. There have only been 17 times in NBA history where a player over 35 scored 20 points per game. On only one of those occasions, with the 37-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, did the player in question also win the NBA title—and that was with Magic Johnson being the best player on the 1985 Los Angeles Lakers.

    In terms of talent, this team is not as good as last year’s team. Chris Kaman is a downgrade from Dwight Howard. This is not even debatable.

    Nick Young was acquired, but he is an inefficient scorer. It also lost one of its defensive leaders in Metta World Peace.

    And it’s a team that barely made the postseason last year.

    At best, the Lakers will claw their way into the playoffs for a first-round exit again. More realistically, they’ll win in the mid-30s.

    Regardless, Bryant’s not going to be getting any younger or any less competitive. As long as he’s on the team, he’s going to be the player taking the most shots. He’s going to want to stick around long enough to at least pass Jordan on the all-time scoring list. That’s going to be enough to help the Lakers win enough games to not be terrible.

    The Lakers aren’t good enough to compete genuinely right now, and they won’t be getting much better. They have only two first-round picks coming to them in the next four years. Two draft picks in the teens aren’t likely to turn the franchise around.

    Most importantly, the banners they’ve won in the past and the chance to play with Bryant not only aren’t attracting elite free agents, they seem to be chasing them away. So while they have some free-agency money to spend next season, it’s not likely to land them LeBron James or another elite player.

1. New York Knicks

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    The New York Knicks have taken the “star approach” to winning an NBA title, building a team around Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. There are two problems with this philosophy.

    First, Stoudemire is never going to play a healthy season again. He just doesn’t have the knees for it. I wish I could tell you that this was unforeseeable, but it was obvious.  

    Second, Anthony is not as good as LeBron James. He never has been and never will be. That means, in order for the Knicks to be a true contender, they’d have to have a better supporting cast around Anthony than James has around him in Miami.

    The problem there is that James agreed to play for less money, and so did Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. So the Heat have more money for the rest of their roster.

    Additionally, players are more likely to want to join with a player who has a reputation for being a passer, like James, than one who has a reputation for being a black hole, like Anthony.

    Get angry if you want, but look at the last few years. Who has had better luck signing free agents?

    The Knicks are trying to do what Miami did with lesser, more injury-prone and pricier talent. That’s not going to work.

    They finished second in the Eastern Conference last year, but even that was fool’s gold for several reasons.

    First, it was exposed during the postseason (and not for the first time) that, “live by the three, die by the three” means you end up dying by it when you face a serious defense.

    Second, the Chicago Bulls were without Derrick Rose, and with him back, the Knicks wouldn’t have finished second anyway. The Pacers will probably finish with a better regular-season record than New York, as well, this year.

    Third, other teams are getting better. The Brooklyn Nets have added Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Cleveland Cavaliers have added Andrew Bynum and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. The Washington Wizards have been improving and could make a push into the sixth spot.

    Yes, the Knicks added Andrea Bargnani, but that’s not a great selling point.

    Even if the Knicks finish better than Cleveland and Washington this year, they are moving in a different direction than the younger teams are. In the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs are all decidedly better than the Knicks.

    The Knicks are not a top-10 team right now, and they aren’t going to get any better. They will stay committed to their philosophy, anyway, guaranteeing that they won’t win a title in the foreseeable future.