Oct. 25, 2016
Welcome To The New NBA, Where Everyone Tries To Win
In the immortal words of Reese Bobby, "If you ain't first, you're last."
No matter what your parents told you when you were a kid, sports are not about having fun. They are about winning. You don't play a sport to enjoy yourself, you can achieve that feeling without expelling copious amounts of sweat. Sports has always and will always be about winning. It will never not be about the indescribable feeling you get after becoming victorious or that emotional wave you receive when We Are The Champions is blasted throughout your home arena. The element of competition is what separates sport from everything else in life.
The NBA is yet to fully grasp this concept. Players clearly understand this, all you have to look at is Kevin Durant's betrayal. NBA teams on the other hand, don't always feel the same motivation to win. Every season, around a third of the league's 30 teams decide to rid their roster of established talent and acquire young, unproven pieces who allow these teams to rebuild, bottom out and tank.
Since the birth of superteams around the league, kicked off by the 'big 3' in Boston, tanking has grown from a tiny problem to an epidemic. NBA superteams have created the largest levels of parity in any major sports league around the world. Instead of having a league where it is possible for any team to win the title in any given season, you have to own a squad that boasts multiple all-stars to get even the slightest of sniffs at the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Obviously, not every team can have a super squad, there simply isn't enough upper echelon talent to go around. What this sad fact does, is provide non-superteams with two options. Option A is to try and win games anyway, even though there is little to no point in doing this since winning a championship without top tier talent is now basically impossible. Option B is to tank, bottom out and attempt to build a championship caliber roster with studs from the high draft picks acquired as a result of being absolutely awful.
The first option provides less pain for a fan base and allows for a team to stay relevant, but option B is clearly the more attractive option. The goal for any sports franchise should be to win a championship and even though tanking can become tiresome and exhausting, outside of finding a way to sign or trade superstars, it is the only way to build a contender in the superteam era.
Option A will only get you so far. Most of the time, a team that takes this route will just end up being not good enough to contend for a title, but too good to gain high draft picks to improve the team. This option could make a team wind up riding the treadmill of mediocrity for years, one only has to look at the Memphis Grizzlies as the prime example of this.
In a nutshell, this is why in a league predicated on competition, success and championships, so much of the association decides that winning just isn't a priority.
So you would assume that entering the 2016-17 NBA season, these team building philosophies would stay more or less the same. Especially since Golden State and Cleveland have become so dominant that no other team in the league has a chance at the title. Unless something unforeseen happens, the Warriors and Cavaliers will be meeting in July for the third straight year, something that has never happened in NBA history. Logically, it makes more sense this season than any other to tank and forgo winning.
Funnily enough, NBA teams have decided against this. For the first time in years, basically every team in the league seemingly wants to win. Which is not only strange because of the Cavs/Dubs factor, but also because only 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs. This means that a whole bunch of teams who entered this season intending to win as many games as possible, are just going to wind up being a major disappointment.
The lack of teams tanking, means the fruitless middle is going to be extremely clogged. A lot of teams are kidding themselves thinking they are any good and are just going to end up being stuck in a logjam for the lower playoff seeds, a place that will get them nowhere in the long term.
This sudden change in team building philosophies can largely be seen as a result of the massive cap spike. The monumental rise of the salary cap has also caused the salary cap floor to rise (to around $84 million), which has made it harder for teams to take the tanking route. Some teams have spent up to the floor just to avoid punishment and even if they didn't want to, have improved as a result of their free agent signings, just look at the Sixers who signed up Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless, something they probably wouldn't have done if the salary floor remained the same. The fresh influx of money to other teams was just too tempting not to spend on upgrading their roster, I'm looking at you Phil Jackson.
The salary cap rise is just one reason why more teams than usual are now choosing to try and win games. Another key one is that the teams that tanked in 2014 -- which was pretty much the whole league -- to get their hands on some of the highly touted talent in that draft class have all improved drastically since then. All those teams who wanted an Andrew Wiggins or a Jabari Parker have all either developed the young talent that they drafted, or managed to acquire more established pieces to expedite the rebuilding process.
If you don't believe me, then just look at the teams who picked in the top 5 of that draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who picked (traded for) Andrew Wiggins are now considered by many as a playoff team. The Bucks, who selected Jabari Parker, are quickly rising up the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Philadelphia, who owned the third pick have got a whole heap of young, exciting blue chip prospects ready to make moves up the standings. Orlando, who picked Aaron Gordon at four, spent a crap ton of money in the offseason to improve their roster. Meanwhile, the team who picked fifth, the Utah Jazz, are looking like a top four seed in the West.
It's hard to see that any NBA team is going to outright tank this year. In the wake of Ben Simmons' injury, the Sixers will probably end up 'settling' for another top 3 pick. The Nets would love to tank, but there's no incentive thanks to that time Billy King mortgaged the future of his franchise to my Celtics (Thanks Billy King!). The Lakers could use another young stud to add to their collection, but then again, they are paying Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson a combined $46.5 million for this upcoming this season. Phoenix don't look like they have a chance of landing a playoff spot, but there's enough talent on that squad to at least give it a crack. Vivek Ranadive's Kings should tank, rebuild and tear the whole franchise down, but they'll never do that because they're a bunch of delusional half-wits.
At the moment, no one is in outright tank mode, which while awesome for the competitive state of the NBA, is also going to make for a very messy season. A lot of teams will begin to realize that they have no chance of making the playoffs due to the crowded bunch of slightly above average teams in both conferences, and will begin a late-season tank-fest. Smart teams -- like Pat Riley's Miami Heat -- will realize that the path to a high draft pick has never been easier and deal away a couple of their better players to ensure they reach the bottom.
For the teams that do throw away this season in an effort to tank, their prize will be worth it. The 2017 draft class is absolutely loaded. Surefire superstars can be found throughout, ranging from Duke's diversely talented number 1 recruit, Harry Giles, to Washington's electric guard, Markelle Fultz. The reward for tanking may never be higher and yet, delusional teams across the NBA are choosing instead to go on a fruitless quest for a first round exit.
The NBA is finally going back to a time where everyone tries to win. This is fantastic for fans across the world, nightly competition is back! However, it's quite obviously not so fantastic for teams across the league.
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