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6 NBA Teams Stuck in No Man's Land

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2014

6 NBA Teams Stuck in No Man's Land

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    Not all NBA teams are on the cusp of something.

    Each of the Association's squads typically sell its fanbase on something. Anything. But some can't; some are floating almost aimlessly. 

    Concrete No-Man's Land definitions are scant. Team states can be purely subjective. Depending on the franchise, its future and whatever crowd you run with, interpretations are going to differ.

    For our purposes, we're going to assign guidelines.

    Organizations stuck in No Man's Land are those that aren't openly tanking, have tried to tank but unexpectedly failed or are lacking future direction. In some instances—Eastern Conference peeps know what I'm talking about—they could be potential playoff teams.

    Mostly, they're just teams who aren't all-in on something. They are left in the lurch.

    These six teams are stranded between good and awful, able and powerless, and hopeful and hapless.

     

    Note: All stats used courtesy of Basketball Reference, and all salary information obtained via ShamSports unless otherwise indicated.

Notable Exclusions

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Because people are bound to question the logic here despite the previous description, here are a few notable causes that missed the cut.

    (P.S. That's a good thing.)

     

    Nice Try, Guys

    Atlanta Hawks

    Trust me, they have a direction. 

    Al Horford's absence is killer, but Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague will still help this team clinch a playoff berth. Atlanta also has some nice draft selections coming its way (thanks, Brooklyn), and there's this Lucas Nogueira guy you should familiarize yourself with, too.

     

    Brooklyn Nets

    I get it; they're bad. They're also all-in on this season, and while they're fleeced of future assets and Brook Lopez is done for the year, they still have enough talent to contend in the woeful Eastern Conference. 

    Doesn't mean they will, but you get the point.

     

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Two words: Luol Deng.

    Three more words: Goodbye, LeBron James.

     

    Detroit Pistons

    Josh Smith infuriates me as much as anyone, but Andre Drummond is the business.

     

    New York Knicks

    James Dolan may not have valuable first-round draft picks or any sense of how to run an NBA team, but the Knicks can still compete in this league.

    Also, dreaming of 2015 counts as a plan. Unfortunately.

     

    Recent Graduates

    Dallas Mavericks

    Not that they're in a particularly good situation, but they do have cap space coming their way and are fighting for a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference.

    Also, building around Monta Ellis is an actual thing now.

     

    Milwaukee Bucks

    Finally. No-Man's Land used to be their stomping ground. Now, they're thankfully tanking. 

    It's about damn time.

     

    Phoenix Suns

    They most definitely tried to tank but failed. Don't listen to anyone who says otherwise. But they're also in a unique situation where they can play for the present while planning for the future. 

    Big things are coming Phoenix's way. Big, big things.

Sacramento Kings

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    I admittedly waffled on the Sacramento Kings.

    It ultimately came down to their confusing direction. Things are looking up compared to last year, but that's not saying much.

    DeMarcus Cousins is the best center in the NBA right now—believe it, because it's true—and it's not a bad idea to build around him. But this Rudy Gay and Derrick Williams business puts them in an awkward situation.

    Sacramento isn't good enough to contend in a top-heavy Western Conference, yet it's better than many of the Eastern Conference teams and has enough talent, which makes it impossible to tank. And according to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, the Kings are aggressively pursuing Andre Miller, because they apparently have an affinity for disgruntled floor generals.

    They could also find themselves well over the salary cap next season if Gay exercises his $19.3 million player option, at which point they'll be in a similar situation to that of this year: stuck in No Man's Land once again.

Chicago Bulls

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    The Chicago Bulls are precariously dangling between a rock and hard place and above a tract of rusty metal spikes.

    Trading Luol Deng to the Cavs, in wake of contract-extension talks gone awry, and waiving Andrew Bynum, were Steps 1 and 2 in Chicago's not-so-subtle tanking plan, but the Bulls have yet to fully commit.

    Even without Derrick Rose and Deng, they're not bad enough. Not in the Eastern Conference, where bad teams make the playoffs, mediocre outfits are Gods, and great factions are sparse. 

    "The moves made today will put us in a better position to make the entire roster stronger for the future and to compete for a championship," general manager Gar Forman said in a team statement released following Deng's departure.

    Not quite. Almost, but not quite.

    The Bulls must take this one step further. Waiting to amnesty Carlos Boozer this summer won't be enough if they wish to maximize the value of their first-rounder. More players—be they Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and/or Taj Gibsonmust go. And soon.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    To paraphrase Blink 182: "Say it ain't so."

    Gritty basketball was supposed to pay off for the Memphis Grizzlies. Again. Riding the coattails of a stingy defense would give them at least one more year of contender status.

    So much for that.

    Marc Gasol's absence has killed the Grizzlies, whose once-impregnable defense is now permeated by anyone with two legs, a ball and a propensity for dribbling. Acquiring Courtney Lee won't suddenly suddenly save their season, and the crusade is quickly fading into oblivion.

    Memphis is 4.5 games off the West's final playoff spot, and its bread, butter, meat, potatoes and gravy—defense—ranks 20th in efficiency after checking in at second last year.

    Gasol's return won't even cure this disease. The Grizzlies need more. 

    Or less.

    Trading Zach Randolph, who has a player option worth more than $19.9 million for next season, remains a possibility, and a distinct one at that. Memphis will have close to $70 million on its books for 2014-15 if he returns, which will leave the team unable to improve and incapable of contending—thereby inhabiting No Man's Land for a second straight year.

Toronto Raptors

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    This was another difficult decision.

    Including a division leader is always tough, but (1) the Atlantic Division has approached new levels of despicable and (2) the Toronto Raptors are still trying to sort out their goals.

    At season's inception, Toronto was a fringe playoff contender. The team was projected to make some noise in the wide-open East but was still well short of legitimate championship aspirations. Then came the Gay trade—a salary dump of epic proportionsleaving no doubt general manager Masai Ujiri was prepared to tank.

    But then Dwane Casey's crew went nuts. The Raptors are 10-5 since dealing Gay and are comfortably perched atop their division, 3.5 games ahead of the nearest challenger, Brooklyn.

    Amid all this winning, meanwhile, ESPN's Marc Stein wrote that no one on Toronto's roster was untouchable. The New York Post's Tim Bontemps backed the exact notion just after the New Year.

    So, now what? Well, either the Raptors win their division en route to a first- or second-round playoff exit, they miss the postseason while trying to make it, or they tank as planned. We don't know. 

    Neither does Toronto, and that's the problem.

Boston Celtics

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry were first, and Lee was second. Rajon Rondo must be third.

    Losers of five straight, the Boston Celtics look like a tanker. On paper, they even sound like a tanker. But they're not tankers—they're a fringe playoff team. And that's without Rondo.

    What's to become of them upon his return? More likely than not, they'll get better, perhaps only slightly. Or maybe much better. And the Celtics shouldn't want to be "much better." 

    They're not winning any championships this season, but they are playing their way toward a top-10 or 14 draft selection, when they should be angling for top seven or better.

    Until they make their roster worse—Eastern Conference bottom-feeder worse—they're being disingenuous to their future. That will likely entail dealing Rondo in hopes of attaching him to unsavory contracts, but if there's another way, be my guest.

    Hoards of first-round draft picks can only help the Celtics so much if they're inhabiting the middle. Additional measures must be taken, lest Boston remain in No Man's Land into the summer and beyond.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Life, as the Los Angeles Lakers are now finding out, isn't always fair.

    Healthy point guards have become figments of Mike D'Antoni's imagination. Steve Nash's career is pretty much over, Kobe Bryant is (unfortunately) human, and Pau Gasol is careening between dormant and defeated and slightly encouraging.

    Put all that together, along with various other injuries and Nick Young's emotional roller coaster, and you have the 2013-14 Lakers. They are six games outside the playoffs while hesitating to make the one move we all know they should: trading Gasol.

    They flirted with dealing him to Cleveland in exchange for Bynum but balked because the Cavs wouldn't meet their demands. Not to say this should surprise you, because it shouldn't. The Lakers have "almost" traded Gasol more times since 2011 than Swaggy P has taken shots, and it's always the same story with an identical ending.

    Only now it's time to flip the script.

    The Lakers are playoff long shots. Instead of feigning effort, they should be tanking. Kobe is going to come back at some point, and when he does, he and Gasol will play the Lakers deeper and deeper, and deeper still, into No Man's Land. 

    Padding the loss column will leave Mamba shell-shocked, but it's imperative the Lakers put themselves in a position of drafting power. They need to unearth options besides unprecedented and unlikely free-agency coups.

     

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