The more things change, the more they stay the same...unless they actually do change. Such are the fortunes of some iconic NBA franchises which have fallen on hard times over the last few years.
These teams were once perennial contenders, and now they’re ranging from also-rans to not-even-rans to in the running for the most lottery balls.
For some of them, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t far off. For others, they could very well be in the lottery five years from now.
Here are the teams, ranked according to how far the mighty have fallen. Where they started, where they are now, and how far they have to go to regain past glory all factored in.
It’s been a few years since the Sacramento Kings were a relevant team in the NBA, but as recently as 2006 they were an annual playoff team.
For a brief time, led by the likes of Mike Bibby and Chris Webber, they were one of the most dominant teams in the NBA.
They were also one of the toughest tickets to get. No one would have believed then that in just a half-decade, Kings fans would be fighting just to keep their team in Sacramento.
According to ESPN, since 2002 (as far as they go back in their tracking), the Kings sold 100 percent of their tickets every season until 2007. No other team could make that claim. For that span, literally no team had more hometown support.
Then a series of inept decisions, bad luck, retirements and bad drafting all led to the dethroning of the Kings, and the subjects stopped coming to the games.
That was followed up by the Maloof family (with brothers, Joe and Gavin, being the most involved), threatening to sell the team to Seattle ownership because no one was coming to buy their bad product.
The city was blackmailed into building a new arena, and then the Maloofs tried to royally screw the community by moving the team to Seattle anyway, because Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson wasn’t willing to rework the deal the Maloofs had previously agreed to.
The move was blocked, and the sour siblings sold the team to a local group headed up by Vivek Ranadive.
Hopefully the new ownership will bring things back to the era when men were men and the Kings were kings, but it will take some time to rebuild the franchise.
The Phoenix Suns were regulars in the Western Conference Finals not very long ago. From 2005 to 2010, they made it that far three times in six years.
Of course, that was when they had a couple of guys named Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Watching the Suns at their peak was always enjoyable. The fast-paced pick-and-roll run by Steve Nash, as well as his less-than-stellar defense, assured you that every game they played would feature two of the top point guards in the league.
Stoudemire’s finishes at the rim were thoroughly entertaining. Win or lose, the Suns were enjoyable to watch.
While Stoudemire was allowed to walk in free agency (technically he was traded for a protected second-round pick, which the Suns didn’t receive, but that’s semantics), it was probably a good thing. Stoudemire’s career has been in steady decline since he inked his new deal, and the Knicks are proud owners of arguably the worst contract in the NBA right now.
The Suns averted that crisis.
With Nash, the Suns got what was at the time considered to be relatively worthless first-round picks from the Lakers, who most thought would be highly competitive. But those picks suddenly look valuable.
They had two first-round picks this year. They have as many as three next year, potentially getting Indiana’s and Minnesota’s (both protected if they’re lottery picks this year), as well as their own.
They also get the Lakers' first-round pick in 2015.
Best of all, they get all this owing nothing.
That means they have seven first-round picks in three years. Additionally, they recently added a young and rising star in Eric Bledsoe, who is a quality player.
The young talent they already have, coupled with the draft picks they have accumulated, means that while the Suns may have set, the dawn of a new age is not that far off.
Just 18 months ago, the Philadelphia 76ers were in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Having said that, the City of Brotherly Love owns one of the more historic franchises in NBA history. They’ve won three titles, and they’ve been to the finals six more times.
All-time greats such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Hal Greer, Charles Barkley and Dolph Schayes have all played for the team.
Now they’re arguably the worst team in the NBA. And that’s getting pretty free and loose with the word “arguably.” It’s hard to consider who else is in the conversation. Their best player is probably Thaddeus Young.
Say that without laughing.
Young is a nice player, but as the best player on your team? Of course Evan Turner is “going to’ break out...again.
Bear in mind though, the Sixers aren’t just in decline; they’re in a willful descent. They jumped out of the flying plane when they traded their best young player and leading scorer, Jrue Holiday, to the New Orleans Pelicans during the draft this summer.
Their hope is plain. They are “riggin’ for Wiggins,” hoping to draft Andrew Wiggins, who is expected to be the next superstar in the NBA.
Being last assures lottery balls, not getting to pick first, though. The Sixers' future depends on how high up they select and how well those picks perform.
Even if they get Wiggins, he could be in a John Wall/Kyrie Irving type of situation, where the supporting cast around him is so weak it will take time to develop something around him.
The Boston Celtics have the most banners hanging from their rafters of any team in NBA history with 17, but that can be a bit deceptive. Only one of those has been hung since 1986.
That doesn’t mean the Celtics weren’t at an elite level recently. From 2008 to 2012, they were among the best teams in the league, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals three times in five years and the NBA Finals twice.
It was an era highlighted by the Boston Three Party of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and coached by Doc Rivers. Now, all four are gone and pointing fingers at each other in games of “Who’s the biggest hypocrite?”
Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo is left to try and build something from the rubble that surrounds him. He has a very nice defender on his side in Avery Bradley, but it’s hard to see where the scoring is going to come from.
Currently only one Celtic is averaging in double figures during the preseason: Jared Sullinger. Granted it is just the preseason, but normally, “it’s just preseason” arguments apply to either a player who is having an unusually prodigious preseason or a player who is having an abnormally insignificant preseason.
Anthony Davis isn’t likely to notch 24.5 points per game this season, and LeBron James will score more than 12.0. But players who haven’t normally been great scorers not scoring in the preseason is an indication of the status quo.
On the bright side, a go-to scorer is all the Celtics are missing. They’ve got a supporting cast in place that just needs the superstar. They’re the beef stew without the beef.
They have a chance to land a star in free agency next year, or if they can land an elite player with a lottery pick, which they are likely to have.
And they have Rondo, who has one of the best contracts in the NBA. The right team would be happy to send back a good return for him.
Finally, the Brooklyn picks might be worth more than people expect if the Nets' used-to-be-stars experiment goes the way of the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers.
In sum, the Celtics aren’t going to be very good this year, but the rebuild might not take very long at all.
I recall having a conversation once with a Lakers fan who had ranked all the fanbases in the NBA. He had the Lakers first, and his reasoning was that the Lakers fans stick with their team through thick and thin.
I don’t want to go into the whole thing, but it was just so...Lakers fan. Their idea of suffering isn’t very realistic.
The Lakers have been incredibly successful over the course of their time in Los Angeles, playing in the NBA Finals, on average, nearly once every two years.
So when Lakers fans say “thin,” it sounds like the millionaire who has to take the super-premium-elite trim package on his new yacht instead of the super-duper-premium-elite trim package.
The Los Angeles Lakers are about to hit the roughest patch of their history. They may go the next five years without seeing the postseason.
Kobe Bryant is 35 and coming off a torn Achilles tendon, one of the toughest injuries to come back from. He’s not just going to play at an elite level in perpetuity. Pau Gasol, their second-best player, is in the final year of his untradeable contract.
Both will be free agents next year, and while Bryant will remain a Laker, he’ll take a too-large chunk of the cap space the Lakers want to spend, because his ego demands it.
The Lakers don’t have young players to attract veterans, unlike other teams like the Clippers (Blake Griffin was incentive for Chris Paul to stay) or the Rockets (James Harden was joined by Dwight Howard).
Players in their primes aren’t looking to join players past their primes for the next four years; they’re looking to connect with players who have their best years ahead of them.
Free agency isn’t going to be the boon Lakers fans expect it to be. They aren’t going to get much in the draft, either.
This year will be the best they have of the next three or four years. Bryant will be in decline, but he’ll still be Bryant, and that alone is enough to keep them from being horrible. But the rest of the talent is average or worse.
They’ll be good enough to either just miss or just make the playoffs. Either way, it won’t make their draft pick a valuable enough one.
The following season, they don’t get one. Phoenix has it. It’s protected to a degree (top-five in 2015, top-three in 2016 and 2017) but if they need to exercise that, it means they’ve fallen pretty far off.
The Lakers will be average at best this year, and down the road it’s hard to see when and how they are going to get the players who are going to bring them back to the pinnacle of the NBA, where they have always been.
Welcome to where the other half lives, Lakers fans. Pull up a chair. You’re going to be here for a while.