Road Maps for Teams Stuck in NBA Purgatory
It's fine to win 35 games and miss the NBA playoffs...if it's part of a plan.
But being stuck in the middle—rudderless and uncommitted to either abject failure or the pursuit of a championship—that's limbo. That's the dreaded mediocrity treadmill. That's purgatory, where franchises set themselves back for years, often resorting to short-term fixes and haphazard swings just to shuffle desperately toward relevance.
The teams we'll hit here are mired in situations like this. They're not young, terrible and clearly ticketed for the top of the lottery. Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls; you're safe. And they're not certain to make a leap, merely stopping for a season in the middle before climbing higher.
That means you won't see the Minnesota Timberwolves or Philadelphia 76ers either.
Every such situation is different, but all of them need plans. We'll get these wheel-spinners unstuck with easy three-step road maps. And while some of them are going to feature painful advice, the tough love will be worth it.
Because nothing hurts more than bumbling around in no-man's land for another several seasons.
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The Detroit Pistons have misspent money in ways large and small, locking themselves into Andre Drummond for a guaranteed $76.3 million through 2020 (plus a player option for $28.8 million the following season) and inexplicably determining Jon Leuer was worth $42 million in 2016.
After winning 32 or fewer games for six straight years, the Pistons clocked in with 44 victories in 2015-16 and 37 last year.
They are mediocrity personified.
Step 1: Demote Stan Van Gundy
This is the toughest part of all, but it has to happen before anything else gets done.
The bad contracts on this team belong to Stan Van Gundy, one of just two remaining coaches who also run the personnel side as team president. For the umpteenth time, we've watched as the dual demands result in poor performance.
Both jobs are hard enough on their own. Virtually no one handles both effectively.
Van Gundy needs to be relieved of his duties as president so he can focus on coaching—and not do things like pay Langston Galloway $21 million on a three-year deal.
Step 2: Give the core one last chance
The truth gets one more chance to come out in 2017-18. Van Gundy needs to know if Drummond and Reggie Jackson (the latter is owed an average of $17 million per season through 2020) can be the cornerstones of a good team.
It looked like that might be possible two years ago, but both were net negatives on the floor last season, and it's increasingly likely Drummond's old-school skill set (and dreadful free-throw woes, which render him unusable late in games) simply can't compete when it matters in the modern NBA.
So let those two prove themselves. And, while that's happening, give Stanley Johnson, the eighth pick in 2015, a shot to show he's better than the guy whose scoring average dipped from 8.1 points as a rookie to 4.4 last season.
Detroit is stuck with this roster for now. If the guys currently on it can't exceed those 44 wins from two years ago in a depleted East, it's full-on blow-up time.
Step 3: Find your wings
The Pistons have spent biggest at point guard and center while failing to secure Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (gone to the Lakers) or any other long-term answer at the 2 or 3. Which is bad because the NBA is a wings' league now, and Detroit missed the memo.
Maybe Avery Bradley will play well enough to justify the investment KCP should have commanded. And perhaps Johnson will prove worthy of an extension next summer.
If both are merely adequate, it'll be time to move on. The Pistons need to secure these spots with star-level talent. That's the way forward.
"I never felt (we had to) totally strip away everything and start over," Indiana Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard told Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star. "I thought that getting Sabonis and getting Victor sort of pushes you up to the next level. Where that level is, only they’ll be able to tell us, and then we’ll make adjustments next summer."
That level is the middle—at best. Congratulations, Pacers, you're stuck.
Step 1: Find that second star in the draft
Unlike the Pistons with Drummond, Indiana has its foundational big man. Myles Turner, who also doesn't have an albatross of a $100 million contract yet, can run, shoot, move and switch. He's a player worth building around, and the Pacers must actually build.
That means trading away veteran additions Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic for future assets at the earliest opportunity, playing young talent and bottoming out. Indy needs a second star alongside Turner, preferably a wing. With spotty success in free agency, the best bet is finding that next piece in the draft.
Indy has to get realistic about where it is, and where it should be. Forever resistant to tanking, the Pacers need to get into the lottery to find Turner's running mate.
Step 2: Clear eyes
Indy can't let the botched Paul George trade do any more damage than it already has.
Pritchard mustn't get stuck overvaluing Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis just because they constituted the piddly return for George. The Pacers got fleeced, perhaps because they grossly overvalued Oladipo, an Indiana kid. Going forward, they must be objective about the assets they got, which means recognizing them as, perhaps, the fifth- and eighth-best players on a good team.
They aren't cornerstones, and the sooner Indiana disabuses itself of any notions that they are, the better.
Step 3: Commit to small and fast
The Pacers must get started on their identity. With Turner, hardly a bruiser in the middle, that'll mean smaller, quicker, transition-hungry units that can space and run.
Turner can be a new-age defensive focal point, despite his slender frame. Indiana was 3.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense with him on the court last season, and he blocked a ton of shots. His 172 rejections were the fourth-most ever by a 20-year-old.
Midway through last season, Turner was already focused on all the right things, particularly communicating with purpose as a back-line anchor, telling Marc Montieth of Pacers.com: "I'm always talking, but your words have to mean something. I feel like my communication has gotten better. I've always been able to talk and let my voice be heard. It's a matter of knowing what to say."
The Pacers of the future should be a speedy, slithery group that flips the floor and punishes opponents in transition after Turner engineers stops. Speed, speed and more speed.
The Orlando Magic are our third consecutive representative from the East. So if you're ever wondering why the conference power imbalance seems to tilt further West every season, it's because mismanagement isn't spread equally.
Step 1: Decide on Aaron Gordon
Is he a key figure or not? A future star? A modern, play-making stretch 4 with the athleticism to defend guards?
Or is Gordon a run-and-jump dynamo whose skills aren't refined enough to belong in a starting lineup?
Orlando needs an answer on the closest thing it has to a franchise talent, and it'll need it soon. Gordon is extension eligible right now, and he'll be a restricted free agent next summer if he doesn't sign a new deal before the season.
Though Gordon looked better playing power forward after the All-Star break last year, he'll need to do more. That means hitting threes, improving his ball-handling and grabbing more than 5.1 rebounds per game with all that ridiculous athleticism. Falling short should mean falling out of Orlando's long-term plans.
Step 2: Forget the Past
General manager John Hammond replaced the departed Rob Hennigan, who spent the last five years transacting as if his job were in danger. Which, incidentally, is the best way to endanger your job.
The Magic failed to win more than 35 games in any of the previous five seasons, and you'd think a team with so many losing seasons would have lotteried itself into the assets and young talent necessary to take off right around now.
But it was the hasty pursuit of leaps that scuttled Orlando. Hennigan sought short-term fixes when his draft picks didn't pan out, and that resulted in the Magic trading for Serge Ibaka and shuffling through several veteran point guards to play behind/with/ahead of Elfrid Payton.
Hammond shouldn't even acknowledge what happened during Hennigan's tenure. If he does, he might be tempted to get the Magic back to respectability too soon, which is basically pulling a Hennigan all over again.
Step 3: Salvation is not promised
This ties to Gordon a bit, but it also applies to rookie Jonathan Isaac and anyone else on the roster young enough to be confused for an organizational pillar.
Plainly, the Magic do not have their franchise player yet.
That means they should spend the season determining which members of the team profile as quality role-fillers while searching high and low for an alpha. Probably too good to hit the lottery, the Magic should clear as much space as possible or get aggressive in the trade market.
Every team thinks its best young player can be a savior. Orlando can't fall into that trap.
New Orleans Pelicans
How can a team with Anthony Davis be stuck in the middle?
Half-committed ownership and repeatedly botched roster builds. That's how.
Step 1: Confront reality
It may already be too late. Davis, having seen the shortsightedness of traded picks and overpaid backup centers since the beginning, may already be planning to ditch the New Orleans Pelicans. They need to come to terms with that.
This roster, which is basically just Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday (overpaid because the Pels couldn't replace him), is woefully thin. Solomon Hill was the closest thing to a quality role-player, even if he was ticketed for duty at a suboptimal position. But now he's torn his hamstring, thinning what was already the worst wing rotation in the NBA.
Davis, Cousins and Holiday aren't good enough to do this on their own. As the losses mount, AD will be thinking about how much more time he wants to commit to a franchise that has failed him so often.
The Pels may need to get clearance from AD that he's comfortable with a long-term build. No more fits and starts. If he's not on board, New Orleans should consider trading him before he hits free agency in 2021, or worse, he makes a demand to be moved long before that.
Step 2: Cut bait with Cousins
The Pelicans got Cousins for a song, and that should make it easier for them to move him when necessary.
Boogie and Davis are long on talent, but it's a poor allocation of resources having the team's two best players occupy the same spot. That's to say nothing of how a twin tower setup is outdated in the modern NBA.
Cousins' free agency looms, and though the Pels might be reluctant to flip the best asset they've ever traded for, the risk of him leaving for nothing is real. Committing to him on a new deal might be even worse, though. Cousins has never made the playoffs and has a spotty track record as a leader. Will he reform in half a season?
The best bet is to simply move Cousins when an offer presents itself. If the Pelicans can get an unprotected first-rounder and a young player, it'll be worth it. Better that than either spending big to keep Cousins or losing him for zilch.
Step 3: Sell the franchise and move
But look, the Pelicans have been in the bottom 10 in attendance for a half-decade, they split their front-office employees with the New Orleans Saints and there's a long legacy of NBA teams ditching the Crescent City for a reason. Basketball just may not work there.
Owner Tom Benson hasn't equipped the team with the decision-making personnel necessary for success, and it feels like that's simply never going to be a priority.
Here's Scott Kushner of the New Orleans Advocate: "A perception lingers that the Pelicans are merely a stepbrother to the Saints, whom Benson has owned since 1985 and are an indisputable cultural tentpole in New Orleans."
Why stick around and be the city's (and owner's) second-class concern? Especially when Seattle is so lovely...
This has been rough, so we end on a hopeful note with the Denver Nuggets, who have the best chance to escape the middle. Following these steps should assure the end of a four-season run with win totals ranging from 30 to 40.
Step 1: Be what you are
There's no mystery about Denver's focal point, but it's important for the organization to avoid going too far in its efforts to mask Nikola Jokic's one key flaw. The guy isn't any good on defense, and it might be a mistake for the Nugs to spend too many resources shoring up that end of the floor—particularly if it takes weapons away from the most complete offensive center in the NBA.
Jokic needs cutters and shooters and finishers. Maximizing his incredible scoring and playmaking skills must remain the prioirty. And if finding and developing offensive studs to complement Jokic means defense takes a back seat, fine.
Denver should outfit itself with players Jokic can captain to the league's best offense. Maybe a little tinkering with rotation roles and minutes (cutting out Kenneth Faried might be a start) results in a defensive ranking of, say, 20th this year. And maybe more experience gets that ranking up to something like 12th in a season or two.
That's all it'll take for Denver to win 60 games eventually.
Step 2: Commit to Jamal Murray
We've counseled finding a second star for a couple of teams already, but in this instance, we're tabbing a young one and suggesting the Nuggets trust him.
Jamal Murray shot just 40.4 percent from the field last year as a rookie, but he's the guy, the one who fits so perfectly alongside Jokic as a secondary star. Sure, Paul Millsap's signing added major talent to the roster. But the vet forward is only in Denver on a three-year deal, and he'll turn 33 around the All-Star break.
He's not the second star of the future. Murray is.
The flow, creativity and feel were all obvious in Murray's rookie season. And the stroke is too sound to keep resulting in misses. Effectively a combo guard with a preference for getting buckets, Murray can be a backup playmaker in an offense centered on Jokic.
The Nuggets have to give Murray ample time to prove he's ready. That means starting him at the point and not panicking if he doesn't light it up immediately.
Step 3: Consolidate wisely
Denver always comes up in trade talks because, for years, the roster has lent itself to speculation. There are too many talented players on reasonable contracts and too few minutes for the Nuggets to maximize them all. Naturally, they keep showing up in everyone's speculative three-way deals.
And while it's true the Nuggets could stand to move Faried's contract (two more years and $26.7 million guaranteed), we've actually moved past the point at which it makes sense for the Nugs to pursue deals aggressively.
Should they listen if suitors come calling for Wilson Chandler, who'll make $12 million in 2017-18 and has a player option the following season? Sure.
But Denver's books get otherwise clean after this season with Paul Millsap and Faried being the only Nuggets locked into sizable deals. Jokic will need an extension, and Gary Harris will be due for a pay bump, but the Nugs can pay them and happily go on writing rookie-scale checks to their other important players.
We've espoused big moves, trades and teardowns for other teams. But the Nuggets are different. They should embrace this group, save money to pay key pieces already on the roster and look skeptically at dealing.