With about 20 games remaining for most of the NBA teams, the end of 2014 is well within sight. For some, that means a whole different monster in it of itself: the playoffs. 16 teams will compete for the chance to feel confetti fall, hear fans cheer, and raise the Larry O’Brien trophy 7+ feet in the air.
For the other 14 teams? The rotten crops, expired milk, and redheaded step children?
Take the Philadelphia 76ers for example. They start off the season with impressive wins over Miami and Brooklyn en-route to a sparkling 5-4 record. Experts across the sports landscape start proclaiming Michael Carter-Williams as the next Magic Johnson and the 76ers as the Cinderella team of the year.
Well, clearly General Manager Sam Hinke was not going to add fuel to the fire. A roster that consisted of 5 legitimate NBA players at the beginning of the season (Williams, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen) now has just 2 (Williams and Young).
That, my friends, is the very definition of self sabotage. Hinke traded away his best players in order to make his team worse, thus adding a few more ping pong balls that will hopefully bounce their way come draft lottery time.
Let’s look at the big picture plan here… Say Philly ends up with the number 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft (where they are slated now) and they pick Andrew Wiggins (after Joel Embiid goes first). Now look at the 76ers roster all of a sudden: Michael Carter-Williams, Andrew Wiggins, and a healthy Nerlens Noel (who was on the shelf all of this season). That big three looks a lot similar to what Oklahoma City did with their current trio of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka. Certainly it will take time to develop this young core and put pieces around them in order to succeed, but Hinke sure has a plan. Blow it all up and start from scratch. Calculated risk.
What about perennial championship contenders like the Celtics and Lakers?
For Boston, it all started last summer when GM Danny Ainge pulled off the greatest heist in recent memory.
Nets get: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry
Celtics get: Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks, 3 future unprotected 1st round picks (2014, ’16, ’18), the right to swap picks in 2017, and the worse pick between Brooklyn and Atlanta in 2014.
From the Nets perspective, this trade allows them to hover around .500 most of the year and most likely squeak into the playoffs, only to be eliminated in the first round. For the Celtics, they get 3 first round picks (one this year, the deepest draft in 30 years, and the 2016 and 2018 picks coming at a time when Brooklyn will be hamstrung by the cap and in a total free fall) as well as the right to swap picks in 2017. Moreover, getting rid of Pierce and KG allow the C’s to employ a similar self sabotage move. It makes them worse in the short team (and improving their own 2014 pick) while keeping their long term options open. Calculated risk.
Likewise, the Lakers are using a similar strategy. With Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant’s contracts the only ones of real significance on the books next year, Los Angeles has money to play with. They can go after Carmelo this summer (not likely), Kevin Love next summer (extremely likely), or even Kevin Durant the summer after that (long shot at best). Meanwhile, because of injuries and general ineffectiveness, the Lakers are losing games left and right in order to secure the best chance at a high draft pick as possible for the upcoming draft. A top 5 pick is immensely valuable, and if the Lakers can pair the likes of Dante Exum with Kevin Love and then possibly use their magnificent city to lure another high profile free agent (Durant?) to town, we might soon be hearing about Los Angeles back in title contention before you think. Calculated risk.
For many teams that don’t follow this model, they wallow in obscurity for far too long.
When was the last time the Atlanta Hawks did anything of true significance? 5th place in the Eastern Conference for 3 straight seasons while only advancing past the first round once. While playoff berths are unquestionably a positive, there’s a fine line between when to keep adding pieces and when to blow it all up. For the Hawks, that line was crossed this season, and there’s no changing course. The team is destined for the number 8 seed this season, once again losing in the first round and once again missing out on the lottery.
The mark of a truly successful franchise is to know its limits. If they tried their hardest (meaning management, not the players), the 76ers, Celtics, and Lakers could have all at least competed for a playoff spot this season. Maybe Hinke doesn’t trade away all his proven veterans, maybe Danny Ainge never makes that trade with Brooklyn, and maybe the Lakers are more active in free agency and the trade market in order to field a more competitive team. But these franchises know better than that. Swallow the pill, take the lumps, eat the vegetables, and the grass will be greener on the other side. Calculated risk.