Forget about "who wants it more." There are a handful of NBA teams on the fringes of playoff contention who flat-out need a playoff berth this year.
Jobs are at stake, reputations hang in the balance and fanbases are perched on the railings of listing ships, ready to leap overboard if the postseason doesn't appear on the horizon. In other words, there's a lot riding on the last couple of available playoff spots in each conference.
Unfortunately, the "tanking discussion" has taken over this year, which makes it seem like any team with the choice of bottoming out or clawing its way into the playoffs should opt for the former course over the latter. The prevailing wisdom seems to agree that the middle is the worst place for an NBA team to be.
But that's not always true. Sometimes, the middle isn't so bad.
Especially in situations that fall into one of the following categories.
Since Mikhail Prokhorov bought them in 2010, the Brooklyn Nets haven't had much interest in managing expectations. The Russian billionaire promised a championship within five years of his purchase and has followed it up by green-lighting massive expenditures on splashy free agents.
As usual, Brooklyn swung for the fences this past offseason, bringing in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce at the cost of the franchise's ability to participate meaningfully in upcoming drafts. And, predictably, the luxury tax remains little more than a speed bump to Prokhorov's organization.
In other words, the Nets have a lot to live up to.
Jason Kidd was named Coach of the Month in the Eastern Conference for his leadership in January, and the team seems to have come together after an atrocious start. For all that, though, the Nets are still just 21-25 and haven't performed like anything resembling the championship contender they were billed as heading into this year.
The New York Knicks are in a similar situation. They're capped out beyond belief, have dealt away future flexibility for short-term help (How'd that Andrea Bargnani deal work out, anyway?) and have generally pretended to believe they're a team with aspirations to contend for years now.
Things are much worse for the Knicks at the moment, as they're currently out of the playoff picture. But for both clubs in New York, a postseason berth will be absolutely necessary to avoid serious embarrassment.
You can't spend big, talk big and trade big without seeing some results.
Changing the Culture
The Cleveland Cavaliers need to make the playoffs, if only because the organization and fanbase need to see some sign—any sign—of hope in the post-LeBron era.
Things have been pretty dark in Cleveland since LBJ took his talents to South Beach, complete with tons of losing and a string of lottery picks that have largely failed to pan out. That hasn't stopped owner Dan Gilbert from making blustery proclamations about his team's future, as he did after last year's draft and just before the 2013-14 season began.
ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) wrote this just three weeks into the season:
Gilbert set down the playoffs-or-bust mandate before the season, touting the team's culture and chemistry before opening night. Three weeks into the season, things haven't gone particularly well on or off the court, and many GMs in the league believe Grant might be the first executive to lose his job this season.
Little has changed since Ford's report. If anything, things have gotten worse.
Instead of changing the culture in Cleveland, bad chemistry and poor front-office decisions have caused the losing attitude that has afflicted the Cavaliers to fester.
The trade for Luol Deng revealed Cleveland's desperation, and we'll probably see more short-sighted moves before the trade deadline passes.
The Cavs are a team that will do anything for a postseason ticket. Falling short could allow a losing culture to set in permanently.
We should probably also include the Charlotte Bobcats in this category, too. Currently in possession of the No. 8 seed in the East, Michael Jordan's Kitties are operating under a mandate similar to the one Gilbert gave the Cavs.
There was no overt playoffs-or-bust decree, but by signing Al Jefferson and hiring Steve Clifford to bring some professionalism into the organization, the 'Cats made their intentions clear. Missing out on yet another postseason would sting a little extra for Charlotte this year.
Clinging to Stars
Kevin Love's desire to pursue his free-agent options is the worst-kept secret in the NBA.
And if the Minnesota Timberwolves don't make the playoffs this year, Love might not even be willing to wait until after the 2014-15 season to exercise his player option. Instead, he might demand a trade as soon as this summer.
Losing Love would be a devastating blow. He's the best player the organization has had since Kevin Garnett, which makes him the second-biggest star in franchise history. If he were to force his way out, Minnesota's reputation as a losing franchise would grow exponentially.
The good news is that the Wolves have the sixth-best per-game differential in the West. So even though they're four games away from the No. 8 seed, there are signs they might soon climb the standings.
Of course, we can't leave this section without including the Cavaliers, as their situation with Kyrie Irving is somewhat similar to the one the Timberwolves share with Love.
According to ESPN's Chad Ford (via Fear the Sword): "Kyrie Irving has been telling people privately he wants out. Cleveland can't afford to lose him and LeBron. They know the urgency. I expect them to be major players at the deadline."
The point guard denied those rumors, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
Do I privately want out when my contract is up? I’m still in my rookie contract and I’m happy to be here. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to be here for a long time. I’m not saying anything to tell the future, but I’m pretty sure the relationship I have with Dan Gilbert and management extends off the court. I enjoy being here.
Irving can make all the reassurances he wants. Missing the playoffs for the third year in a row will make him think long and hard about life with another team.
In both Minnesota and Cleveland, the pressure's on.
General managers who live in fear of losing their jobs are uniquely desperate to secure a playoff spot. In many cases, that desperation leads to dubious moves and short-term thinking.
Who can blame them, though? The prospect of unemployment is a pretty good way to force shrewd, long-term planning out of the picture.
Joe Dumars is in exactly this position with the Detroit Pistons.
He spent big on Josh Smith this past summer, assuming the Pistons could utilize an exciting front line to waltz into the postseason. But nothing has gone right since that move.
Maurice Cheeks (also in serious danger of getting the axe) hasn't figured out how to formulate a sensible rotation, the team's interior defense is a joke and there still isn't enough shooting to space the floor. Making the playoffs might not totally redeem Dumars and Cheeks, but it could buy them enough time to fix their mistakes in coming years.
Oh, and guess what: The Cavs fit into this category, too.
Both Mike Brown and Chris Grant are on the hot seat in Cleveland. If the Cavaliers don't correct their course soon, they won't make the playoffs. It won't take long for Brown and Grant to hit the unemployment line after that.
We might as well call this the "Dirk Nowitzki Category."
The Dallas Mavericks haven't done a very good job of surrounding the Diggler with elite talent since blowing up the team that won a title three years ago, which could mean Nowitzki's recent resurgence will go to waste.
The 35-year-old is in the midst of a vintage season right now, but the Mavs are just barely clinging to the final spot out West because of a shaky defense and inconsistent support from role players. There's really no danger of Nowitzki skipping town like Irving or Love, but it'd be a real shame to see such a terrific late-career performance squandered.
Dirk deserves a postseason shot, especially if this year will be the last chance he'll ever get.
It's got to be Cleveland, right?
You could make the case the Cavs belong in all of the preceding categories. They talked about big expectations in the preseason, which means missing out on the playoffs would constitute something of an embarrassment.
They desperately need the culture change a postseason slot could bring, they're in danger of losing Irving and everybody in the front office and on the coaching staff could be on the chopping block if the organization returns to the lottery.
Gilbert has looked the fool many times since watching James walk away, so he's probably not keen on the idea of adding yet another lowlight to his reel.
The stakes are extremely high for the Cavaliers. Nobody needs to make the playoffs more than they do.